Reminiscence + The Protégé

These films both held a lot of promise but ultimately illustrate the idea that sometimes the sum of a film is not greater than its parts. If you had a recipe like: one part Hugh Jackman, one part Steampunk art direction, one part underwater fight scene — instant hit, that’s what you’d get. It’s not lost on me that a film called reminiscence, which includes all these ingredients, will soon be forgotten. 

Reminiscence, which features spectacular special effects of a not-too-distant future where cities are half-submerged in water, lags due to the self-indulgent and confused tone of the story. It’s a dystopian action/comedy/romance/thriller/sci-fi — and none of these. It also needed to be at least 30 minutes shorter. I held in check the urge to walk out. And I’m the type of person who would enjoy watching a film where grass grows. It pushed my patience as the director followed up every loose strand and tacked on egregious monologues regarding Greek mythology. Not necessary. As was the constant voice over narration by Jackman. It became an almost instant parody unfolding in real time before me. A disappointing experience. 

The Protégé at least had some interesting fun and games involving the incomparable Michael Keaton and the talented Maggie Q.  Though at some point in this film it becomes apparent that the story hinges on an absurd fantasy that Maggie Q’s character, the take-no-prisoners fighter and intellectual Anna, would be interested in Keaton’s Rembrandt, who seems to be wearing an ascot. That’s when you realize it’s a story tailored for old guys though ostensibly featuring a strong female lead. The fight scenes with Keaton and whoever his stunt double is were ridiculous. On the other hand, the Maggie Q action sequences where on par with Die Hard and fun to watch. The film goes off the rails with a shark jump to rival the original shark jump of Arthur Herbert Fonzarelli’s. And Act III becomes predictable, preachy, involves gratuitous violence and is irrelevant. The filmmakers let this one slip through their hands and there was nothing that the great acting of Samuel L. Jackson could do to save it. Another bummer. 

In this latest batch of releases I would recommend Free Guy for a fun action film. For a strong drama, look to Stillwater, where I think Matt Damon deserves to be nominated for an Academy Award.

The Iron Lady & The Two Popes Walk Into a Bar: Thoughts on the Biopic

LnD not so recently experimented with the Netflix Party Chrome screen sharing extension. This really didn’t go anywhere as there was no one there in person to poke D awake, like there is in real life.

Since then I’ve learned that Netflix Party Chrome extension is most popular as a hack that kids use to thwart parental controls — cool! 

Once we got past the need to use an emphasis in the word biopic (/ˈbīōˌpik/) I was off to the races on my review. These two films include some high powered talent but only one hit the mark for me.

In The Two Popes, Jonathan Pryce as Cardinal Bergoglio the future Pope Francis and Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict leave you with the feeling that they were both born to play these roles. 

But this is not your Dad’s Pope movie. And it’s not a simple good Pope vs. bad Pope story. The one major standout element of this film, besides the uncanny acting, is the scope and originality of the cinematography. 

If you’re settling in for a film where two dudes sit on a bench and have a theological conversation for two hours you are going to be sadly disappointed. Two Popes moves, even wide angle shots track, overhead shots go right through helicopter rotors and the torture scene will stand your hair up at attention. It’s not a movie about romanticizing the past but examining the current situation through it. 

On the other hand, The Iron Lady is a film where you never get away from the fact that this is Meryl Streep playing Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The camera lingers on her. You start to wonder, who was the Director? Was Streep the Director? (No. No she wasn’t. (Phyllida Lloyd.) This isn’t some vanity piece. And Streep who no doubt uses an Oscar statuette as a toothbrush holder has got more chops than Chopin at an Austin BBQ. In fact, she slays in another Netflix film with Antonio Banderas and Gary Oldman, directed by Soderbergh, The Laundromat. But here, she never gets lost in the character and so we can never transcend her being her fabulous self. We can never really understand the complexities of the times and the struggles she may have had with her choices. (Yes, Streep won her, yawn, third Academy Award for this role).

You don’t have to agree with someone in order to find them interesting. Often, it’s quite the contrary. But The Iron Lady seems stuck in a debilitated present, that lacks movement, that lacks a living history—and motivation. If a film doesn’t offer the audience transcendence, even on a visceral level, the most basic level that cinema can give, then the audience will also never get perspective on either the historical figure as real person or their own lives in relation to that figure. 

In terms of biopic, it’s really a challenge to make a sweeping historical film meaningful. There are so many possible storytelling detours and dead ends. It’s easier and I’d argue more effective to take a situation, like in the 2018 Ruth Bader Ginsburg film, “On the Basis of Sex” and turn your narrative around that. That film was about the late great Notorious RBG’s first time arguing a case in court as an attorney. And by concentrating on those specific events, the story speaks to universal truths. However, this is not to say a sweeping biopic can’t hit you hard or inspire you, because it’s achieved with aplomb and passion in The Two Popes

Ready or Not and Midsommar


L&D opted to watch the Bears flame out against the Packers this past Thursday night, hence skipping the week’s somewhat slim cinematic offerings.  But that doesn’t mean we haven’t been out and about.  Indeed, over the past couple weeks we managed to see a couple of movies that we were initially reluctant to see, movies that were seemingly as different as night and day…

On the night side we saw Ready or Not, and if you’ve seen the trailer for this one, you pretty much know the gist of how it plays out. Grace (Samara Weaving) is a beautiful young family-less woman who is slated to marry into an eccentric family, heirs to a board game fortune.  As part of the spousal initiation, she must draw a card from the family heirloom box that selects a game to play with the family, something mundane like checkers or Jenga. But once every generation or so, the game is hide-and-seek, the kind where the incumbents have until dawn to track down the spouse and sacrifice him/her to the cause, with the cause being another generation of familial fortune.  So, by definition this one is mostly an overnight affair, mostly played out in the confines of a spooky old house, with mostly comedic-style violence, and an ending that is mostly never quite in doubt.

You have to give the filmmakers some credit here:  they gave away the broad strokes of the plot from wire-to-wire up front and they were still able to make thing reasonably compelling. That’s a pretty good trick, isn’t it?  I went in with low expectations and this one soared over the $5 bar.



That brings us to the day side, where L&D finally got brave enough to take in Midsommar (Ari Aster’s extended director’s cut, no less), where the sun shines deep into the northern Swedish night, and the idiosyncrasies of IKEAesque paganism are out in the open for all to see, at least in principle.

The movie doesn’t start off that way, however, instead setting us up stateside in the dark, dark snowy days of winter, where we see snapshots of the fractured relationship between Dani (Florence Pugh) and her idiot boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor).  The opening salvo of a murder-suicide in Dani’s family is troubling enough that Christian decides not to pull the trigger on the breakup, and instead somehow bungles his way into inviting her to tag along with him and his grad student anthro buddies for the Midsommar festival hosted by the commune of his buddy, Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren).

So that gets us to Sweden, and after a few Shining-esque overheads, director Aster literally turns the world upside-down on us as the kids make their way into the sun-drenched village of Harga; the movie is not light on symbolism. I’m guessing an aggressive Google search would turn up a few hours of reading of the myriad meanings of the white frocks, the various shapes, and the character archetypes trotted out — the intellectual, the opportunist, the skeptic, and, of course, “the fool” (remarkably similar to the anthro buddies I had in college, I might add).

On top of the over-the-top symbolism, the movie isn’t terribly shy about foreshadowing, either.  In good Chekov fashion, if you see a picture on the wall of a woman trimming her nether regions and baking the clippings into a cake in the first act, expect to be pulling that hair out of your teeth before things wrap up, okay?

Between the visuals and the music and the director’s patience with scenes and the hyper-deliberate pace of the plot-lines, the movie does a spectacular job of inducing dread. It wasn’t terribly scary scary, but it was unnerving and more disturbing than your average bear.  The violence has a visceral quality about it that doesn’t show up in most comedic or antiseptic violence that characterizes much of what comes through the theater these days.  It’s a provocative movie.  Indeed, I am still thinking about the face plant and the “blood eagle” all these days later.

Also way over the $5 bar.  L&D approve of this extended message.


Succession s

Although these two films are cut from different cloth, they each explore a central question of the day:  how insular groups treat outsiders (with the protagonist(s) being the outsiders in both cases).  Where you want to take this metaphor  — capitalist v. collectivist societies, the upcoming U.S. presidential election — is up to you.

The Ready or Not clan absorbs outsiders subject to a few caveats.  First, these outsiders are selected by a member of the family (i.e., prospective spouses).   Second, the new prospective member must play this game business, which tacitly makes entrance to the family renouncing any previous allegiances. The bride is an orphan and any of her family or friends that were around for the wedding were certainly not around for the wedding night (This is almost certainly done for expositional simplicity, but a reasonable person can connect a few dots).  Then the million billion dollar question is whether the family actually has to adhere to the commitments of its forefathers or not — what are the consequences of reneging on a deal from the past?  This question is somewhat latent through most of the movie, but shows up spectacularly down the stretch.

Here is the thesis of the movie:  the really wealthy really are mostly indifferent toward you. They are ruthless, possibly incompetent, certainly deluded, and they get to make most (but not all) of the rules up as they go along.  If you’ve been watching HBO’s brilliant Succession, this theme should resonate with you.  They don’t necessarily have much in common with one another, other than a mercenary intensity in maintaining their lives in the lap of luxury.  At least you know where they stand, right?

Although the community in Midsommar is also pretty selective about who gets to come in, the community here is a true socialist paradise.  They eat together, sleep together, pray together, and do a lot of other things together that you might not immediately think of as community activities. That’s true at least in terms of what is out in the open and bathed in the sunshine.  Who knows what’s going behind closed doors?  Although there is a titular head who is ostensibly in charge, it is pretty clear that that’s not who is actually in charge.  Of course, the community rules are the community rules, but there is more than a hint that these rules are subject to selective interpretation of the higher ups. As a result, the treatment of outsiders is pretty much on a case-by-case basis and by the end here you can probably make the case that there wasn’t much of a doubt about how this one was going to play out.  

Although the movie is ostensibly about a break up, it is much better as a meditation on the pursuit of the collective good, whatever that happens to be.  Pro tip: be careful when someone tells you that your sacrifice for the cause is going to be painless.

Ultimately, I would argue that each of these films explores how we think about and how we treat those outside of our immediate circles, however defined.  More pointedly, each explores the danger and limits of extremism (are there limits of extremism?), whether the source is a self-interested patriarchy or the socialist matriarchy.  The upshot is that maybe night and day have more in common than we are willing to admit.  And, it is possibly instructive to think about which of these worlds is more resilient and durable.

Or maybe that’s just how it is in the movies.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? & Green Book


There are a lot of commonalities in Can You Ever Forgive Me? and Green Book, though it may not be apparent on the surface. For starters both are period pieces, early 1990s and 1950s respectively, at least in part both are New York stories, both depict the real life of an LGBT person without their sexual identity being the focal point of the story and they are buddy movies about artists. 

Another aspect these films share is that the trailers are absolutely useless. Even the great zingers in these films build up over time. The writing is fantastic and the laughs are meaningful, not forced from an armlock. YOU’RE LAUGHING, RIGHT? 

Performance-wise Melissa McCarthy shows off an impeccable range. It’s a devastating, funny and realistic performance. You don’t doubt her portrayal of author and literary forger Lee Israel for a single moment. 

Mahershala Ali’s performance is spot on as sophisticated piano virtuoso, Dr. Don Shirley and his Odd Couple routine with ever impressive Viggo Mortensen brings out the real humanity and depth of both of these characters. “I understand that life can be complicated” says Mortensen’s Tony Lip, a man otherwise known more for his knuckles than his compassion. Their adventures on a music tour in the segregated deep south of not so very long ago America brings our history to light in a truthful and in between the laughs, heartbreaking way. 

These films are Oscar worthy in various artistic and technical categories. If you are looking for funny, deep, thought provoking, well-crafted, historical and yet personal films to watch, I recommend Can You Ever Forgive Me? and Green Book to you. 

The Happytime Murders and Searching

                                      It’s happy time, Mr. Cho

After a ‘string’ of good to great movies, L&D ventured off to see The Happytime Murders and Searching in this, the last official week of the summer in the greater Wisconsinland area, with the results about as satisfying as cold churros from a Taco Bell $5 box.   It’s not that we didn’t like them; it’s just that they could have been so much more.

Both movies are built around a gimmick.  Happytime features salacious, foul-mouthed, NC17-rated Muppets (though they aren’t really Muppets, 😉), whereas Searching is a seen entirely as an on-line experience, with the entire story unfolding as if the audience is taking different perspectives from a first-person computer interface.   Although both movies have their strengths, neither is a strong movie.

Beginning with Happytime, although this is ostensibly a Melissa McCarthy vehicle, Melissa McCarthy isn’t funny in the movie.   Instead, we follow around a rumpled Phillip Marlowe of a a Muppet, Phil Phillips (voiced very compellingly by someone named Bill Barretta, who also handles a number of other voices).   The Phillips detective has a oddly empathetic charisma about him, despite the clumsy backstory of his going from decorated cop to down-and-out private dick.   McCarthy was his former partner and they had a falling out, but now they are reunited to investigate a murderous rampage on the Happytime gang that starred in a hit show from yesteryear. Whatever.

L laughed throughout and seemed to enjoy it.    I laughed intermittently and was pretty bored otherwise.

Those of you who saw the trailer know that the movie features some sordid Muppet-on-Muppet back-room action, culminating in an extended silly string money shot.   I counted off an initial 15-second spree, with a 15-second follow up.

If you don’t walk out, stick around for the credits, which feature shots of how the puppets were integrated into the film and how some of the green screens, etc, etc… were set up.   That, coupled with the relief that the movie was finally over, served as a great three or four minutes of cinema.

The movie also features acquaintance of the L&D (or the L, at least), Maya Rudolph.   I kind of liked her here, though she didn’t get a lot in the way of lines.

As for Searching, this is another matter entirely.  This is a much higher-quality piece of work.  The movie features John Cho as a father trying to track down his missing daughter (played by Sarah Sohn) seen entirely through the prism of internet searches and online content.  What secrets does your computer hold about you?

The innovation here has a compelling, if slightly irritating, element to it.   I sit at a computer for a good chunk of the day, so once I figured out how the movie was going to play out, I wondered if they could sustain it for the full running time.   The answer was no for two reasons.  First, there were certain parts, mostly during the back end, where the medium was a mismatch for more effective narration.  As a result, the story suffered and I sat and wondered how they might have done it differently than paying too close attention to the story itself.   Second, and more problematic, is that the story just sort of unravels.   Boomp, boomp, ba doomp, just like that, it goes from a really compelling thriller to a disappointment in the span of a few minutes.

Overall, most of the movie is seen from the father’s perspective, and these worked the best.  There were a couple integrations of other perspectives to pull the movie together, but these weren’t integrated throughout, and I think that was really problematic.   In either case, I suspect there is something to annoy you in this movie enough that you won’t find it to be the favorite thing you see this summer.  All that said, John Cho is really, really good, and, as L says, great acting goes a long way.

We continue to rack up Fandango VIP points, so Happytime definitely over the $2 bar and Searching over the $3 bar.   Happytime can definitely be seen as a Netflix or Redbox on the home screen, and I suspect that is the best place to see Searching as well.

From the Trailers:  We are both gaga for Gaga, with A Star is Born coming in October.  Let us know if you want to attend the Marcus premiere with us.   L has informed me that we will not be seeing The (Nine Unch) Nun.   Guest reviewers welcome for that one.