News of the World

News of the World *** This is a potentially interesting movie wherein America’s dad (Tom Hanks) plays a retired Confederate officer in postbellum Texas. Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd now pays the bills reading the news aloud on the Texas circuit amidst the Yankee troops and assorted miscreants (including L&D fave, Michael Angelo Covino). The opening of the film shows that Captain Kidd picked up some scars in the conflict, but those scars run much, much deeper, of course. In his travels, he happens upon a butchered family with an adolescent, non-English speaking girl as the sole survivor. Postbellum Texas isn’t the friendliest place for a child separated from her parents, so Kidd takes it upon himself to take her to the next of kin.

The metaphors are thick in this one.

Overall, worth a look. I really liked some of the visuals, particularly the shots coming into town. Hanks is super, of course, as is Helena Zengel as the child. Lots of nice inside-outside comparisons with light and mood (testy crowds seem to be everywhere).

Everything about the movie is completely believable except for the hour in the middle. If it’s Trump-era metaphors you are looking for, this one’s a winner.

Promising Young Woman

Promising Young Woman is an interesting and frustrating movie. If you’ve seen the trailers, you know that one of the principal plot elements is that Cassie (Carey Mulligan) spends her free time pretending to be outrageously drunk and allows men to take her home. What happens after that doesn’t appear in the trailers, so I’ll leave it out, but the root cause is due to a horrible incident that happened to her best friend some years ago.

The movie is much better than the trailer promised, a bit predictable in spots (plenty of foreshadowing), but not really for the long game. My frustration is that Cassie’s approach to the problem doesn’t seem particularly healthy, the people who have “moved on” seem a bit too dismissive of the underlying problem, and Cassie’s response to those people is rather glib, often snarky, and ultimately unsatisfying. We’re all in a box, nobody gets absolved. In this context, the resolution of the film seems logical enough, but hardly a satisfying outcome.

In the minus column, we hit a stretch just past midway in the movie around the Dean and her daughter that I could have done without. I am not sure if the script was poor of if the plot-line was unwriteable from the outset. Possibly both.

In the mixed column, the pop culture references were quite thick herein. I was aware that I was being bombarded with allusions to things, but I am too old and too square to know what they are. I am certainly not the target audience and I’m not sure quite how the target audience would respond to this. But the first 40 minutes it’s pretty thick. I did like a lot of the sets, including a living room scene where I was the only one in the theater laughing out loud at the décor, suggesting that maybe perhaps there was something for everyone.

In the plus column, Clancy Brown did a nice job as Cassie’s dad and L&D favorite Bo Burnum is outstanding and often hilarious as the tall doctor guy. Almost hilarious enough to recommend this movie straight up. And Mulligan is mostly very good in a rather challenging role.

This was by far the most crowded we’ve seen the theaters, possibly because they quit showing the late films on Tuesday. But, weirdly, it seemed like a lonely crowd. I am looking forward to the end of the pandemic and the reunion of L&D for movie nights.

Vanguard

VANGUARD - Chinese teaser #4 (2020) Jackie Chan Action Movie - YouTube

What can you reasonably expect going into a Jackie Chan vanity project with a Metacritic rating in the 30s? A big bucket of popcorn, a few laughs, a lot of stuff blowing up, and some hand-to-hand fisticuffs?

I guess we got that, but, boy was this one tough to sit through. The story was stupefying. The CGI was objectionable. The car chases were worse. The movie kept trotting out a series of unconvincing villains. The jingoism was omnipresent. And the action wasn’t really that good.

There were some high points. There was one guy who made a funny face when he got knocked out and zapped with a cattle prod (we thought it would be a running gag, but it wasn’t). The man pictured above had a really hilariously large gun. There was a not bad kitchen scene where the good guy kept besting the bad guys with various dimensions of culinary splendor. And the end credits were actually quite a bit more entertaining than the rest of the movie.

I would say the best part of the movie is thinking about where you draw the line on stupidity. The entire project is so bafflingly stupid that any specific complaints probably reveal something about the element of the complainer. My companion, Dr. B., was particularly annoyed at the young woman who cuddled lions in the wild like kitty cats, and at the guy who was dead for 10 minutes (spoiler alert) and then was miraculously revived. I thought a car falling 100 feet and landing intact was a bit of stretch and two cars was a bit stretchier. But, in fairness, they were Volvos!

So if you want a chance to enjoy a movie in the comfort of your own theater (who in their right mind would go see this?) this is the movie for you. But let’s just say that 35 Metacritic rating is at least 10 points too high.

The Last Vermeer

The major questions of The Last Vermeer are (1) Why isn’t there more Guy Pearce? (2) Why isn’t there more Vicky Krieps? (3) Who cares about the Claes Bang character? And, (4) who wrote this, anyway?

I had only a vague idea of the movie’s subject matter as I walked in, so it took a while to figure out what the big reveal is. But after reading a few reviews, perhaps the big reveal is known to most going in? If that’s the case, this is a big, big strike against the movie.

Leading with the positives: Pearce, especially early in the film, has a very intriguing, relaxed manner about him in the role of Han van Meegeren, the sketchy Dutch artist wheeler dealer. He sports some spectacular eyebrows and an impeccable wardrobe to go along with his splendid household and liquor collection. Yet, his character never gets fully fleshed out, so it’s never clear exactly what to make of him. Or perhaps it is? Good, but underutilized.

We are also treated to August Diehl and his quasi-comedic portrayal of a Dutch law enforcement bureaucrat, clad in what appears to be the bad-guy costume from Raiders of the Lost Ark. His hat with the flat brim is spectacular. I’m not sure what to make of this, but I laughed and you will too. Winner.

On a less positive note, Vicky Krieps is pretty much wasted. She plays an assistant to Captain Joe Pillar in his investigation of some untoward art dealings, but we don’t get very much of her on screen, and we don’t learn too much about her. Her character development and acting was so splendid in The Phantom Thread that I was waiting for a wooden shoe to drop in this one, but it never did. Her character isn’t important to the story in any way that I can remember, and that’s a problem.

I guess the bigger problem is that the story revolves around the Captain in the first place. Big mistake.

And so that’s it. The more I think about this movie, the less I like it. Technically it was fine to good — someone spent some money here. There were a few striking images of post-war Dutch cities, but far behind, say, Jojo Rabbit. There is also a bit of an art history lesson making its way through despite the awkward script. I enjoyed watching Guy Pearce mix the paints and discuss the art world, though the characterizations of the Big Art establishment play out as caricatures.

Mostly, though, it’s hard to get around the odd focus on the forgettable main character and the obviously contrived courtroom “drama” that unfolds. Remember the Brady Bunch episode where Mike Brady drops the briefcase behind the whiplash claimant? That strikes me as more plausible than what transpires here.

This seems destined for your Netflix queue purgatory, something that you imagine you would like to see, but you never get around to actually seeing. Then one day it’s gone and you aren’t that sorry you missed it. I did enjoy seeing the big art on the big screen, so if you are hitting the theaters regularly, this isn’t a terrible option. But that says more about what’s available in theaters these days than what this movie has to offer.

The Climb

The Climb » : mon ami, ma chance, mon boulet

The Climb is a fantastic movie. It has the trappings of a buddy movie, but it also seems to be something of an anti-buddy movie. Right from the get go there is tension and conflict and violence, and that continues for the duration through a series of emotional set pieces.

The main characters are Mike (Michael Angelo Covino) and Kyle (Kyle Marvin), and that they both take their own first names as characters probably says a lot. Mike is extremely convincing in his role and is cast pretty much perfectly. The script is constantly telling us things about Kyle that we can’t quite see otherwise, which is really my only real complaint with the film.

The film does cover a lot of ground, mostly with a single scene or series of scenes within a short time period where the action and dialogue fill in what has happened in the interim. Indeed, there are a lot of elements that just go unexplained and it’s just as well (what were they doing in France?!?). The film offers a lot to think about, particularly about friends and family and relationships and loyalty and obligations and, ultimately, the capacity for forgiveness. It’s really great.

I was struck by the many recurring symmetric plot elements and settings sprinkled throughout the film. The characters get to engage with similar circumstances on multiple occasions, and the movie challenges the viewers to think about action and motive and why people do things for their friends and family, or do things that hurt their friends and family. The film has a surprising amount of physicality, often violent, occasionally touching and intimate (though not that hip thing intimate), not quite predictable.

(There is also a considerable amount of heavy drinking (Jägermeister shots, of all things. Smooth), so if that’s a trigger for you, perhaps you should avoid this one.)

Along with that, we are treated to several set-piece interludes, including an African-American cemetery crew, a Ukrainian three piece featuring some wicked accordion, and some middle-aged synchronized skiing! Perhaps visceral is a better word than physical.

Once again Dr. B was riding shotgun on this one, and once again we had the theater to ourselves, so far over the $5 I can’t even tell you. If you are immune to Covid, you should definitely make The Climb.

Let Him Go

Lesley Manville joins Let Him Go, a thriller film

Let Him Go is in the theaters and L&D sent off representatives to investigate. It’s a Diane Lane, Kevin Costner vehicle, spanning the great Rocky Mountains of Montana to whatever you call those crazy rock formations in North Dakota. The film delivers intrigue, tension, and more than its share of nauseating moments, but ultimately it feels like one of those **- movies you come across on FXM at 2 a.m.

The main attraction of the film is that it is dramatic, spine tingling, dread inducing, just generally a tense affair. About 15 minutes in I was asking Dr. B whether we maybe should have picked another movie. That it wasn’t entirely predictable really helped keep me curled up in my seat.

The major downside, and there are many, is that this is a genre film that hasn’t figured out what its genre is: The writing is all over the place. The two most developed characters are Ladd as the Type-A mother, and L&D fave Leslie Manville as the mater familias, and a doozy at that. Ladd was good in her role and Manville very good, but I still never really cared that much one way or another.

The big loser here, I think, is Kevin Costner, whose character isn’t really even one dimensional. A former lawman, grieving father (?), inept husband, excellent driver (!), what exactly is going on here? We learn a bit about his glory days and some vagaries about the heroics of his past life, but not enough to drive the car or to make sense of this mess of a script.

I suppose this is another modern Western, with an abundance of wide angle shots of the mountains and landscape and far off places. The film is putatively set in the 1960s and I’m not sure how much the crew actually had to do to transform rural Montana and South Dakota back to that age? But the film makers did do a very good job of ensconcing western remoteness and vulnerability into our consciousnesses.

What does Let Him Go ultimately mean? Dr. B and I ran through a number of candidates as the movie plodded along, but lost interest almost as soon as we exited the theater.

So if you are stir crazy and temporarily immune to CoVid (and you haven’t seen The Climb), you could do worse.

But you could also do better.

The Nest

The Nest Trailer: Carrie Coon and Jude Law Unravel | IndieWire

Does she know how to smoke a cigarette? How about some wine?

L&D headed off to Marcus Valley, sans L, to see The Nest, a new drama thriller starring Jude Law, Carrie Coon, and a dark horse named Thunder. The movie starts with an extended shot of Law and Coon’s fine dwelling, presumably in the greater New York metropolitan era. Given the movie title, one might be excused for thinking this is the nest, because it is a pretty fabulous house. Law serves the tea, takes the kid to school, and imagines a new world from his home office. Coon likes to sleep late and she trains horses. They have two children, one who calls Law “Rory,” suggesting that perhaps she is not his offspring. The other is unfortunately named “Beanie.”

One day Rory wakes his wife up with the news that he wants to move back to London so he can re-fill the depleted coffers. I think it is about this point that an unsettling rolling thunder sound makes its appearance, and the movie is pretty much a slow burn from here on out. Rory sets up the fam on a regal farmhouse in Surrey and, well, the story unfolds and the characters’ backstories bleed out from there.

The acting in this movie is excellent all around. The scene where Coon orders dinner and demonstrates the proper wine-tasting technique is a big highlight, capped off with a bemused smile from Law that may well have been genuine. I laughed, too. On top of that, the story is not predictable, not in the least. And the house is both spectacular and unsettling. In fact, it was unsettling enough that I didn’t have time to take apart how the house was being filmed — it definitely had a Shiningesque quality about it and reminded me more than a little of the shotmaking in The Favourite. After the first hour I was checking my pulse to make sure I wasn’t having a heart attack. And, by the end I admit I was curled up in a little ball waiting for the proverbial boot to drop. Not the most exciting movie you will ever see, but well crafted and a lot to appreciate.

Or, perhaps not. My companion, Dr. B, and I were both a little perplexed on how it played out, not disappointed, but maybe surprised. There were also a few guns on the mantle in the introduction that may or may not have gone off. I have neither read nor seen anything else about this movie, so the answers might be found in the text of previews or reviews.

But I would still say it’s worth your $5 if you are CoVid-proof, worth your two hours if you would prefer to catch it on the tele. That’s what they call it on the other side of the pond, mum.

Joker

joker-movie-trailer-breakdown-analysis-diner

We were expecting more.

We were also expecting less.   As we arrived at the Marcus Cineplex, the parking lot was cordoned off in a peculiar way, diverting traffic from its usual stream.   We were also greeted by Appleton PD as we had our tickets punched on our way to the concessions — a sign of the times, I guess, but unfortunate nonetheless.

The movie really asks and answers one question — can a Joaquin Phoenix Joker bring something to the table that we haven’t seen from Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger, among others?  The answer is pretty clearly yes, and he carries what I would characterize as an extended improv performance in an extraordinary fashion.  The man has some moves, the trudge up the stairs and the iconic dance down the stairs is possibly worth the price of admission in and of itself.  And so what does that get us?

Well, it doesn’t get us the most interesting character imaginable, that’s for sure.  As a character, it’s tough to beat the Joker from The Dark Knight.   That Joker is a criminal mastermind who meticulously plans everything, down to the timing of a parade of school buses through Gotham.  The question is, who is this guy?  His gang doesn’t know, though he’s clearly persuaded them to play along.   The cops don’t know, his clothes are custom, no tags.  What he tells about his backstory is disturbing but probably not terribly trustworthy.  This is all in the writing and Heath Ledger’s brilliance makes it all the better.

The Joker writers don’t give us a terribly interesting intellectual payoff, either.   Again, the big reveal in The Dark Knight offers a stark example:  Alfred tells us that “some men just want to watch the world burn.”  A terrifying thought that begs for an answer that never comes.  Instead, to stifle the threat, The Batman has to take the bat fall himself “because he’s the hero Gotham deserves but not the one it needs right now. So [they]’ll hunt him, because he can take it. Because he’s not our hero, he’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector. . . a Dark Knight.”

In contrast, Arthur Fleck is an open book.  We know exactly who he is and what he’s all about.  What’s the big reveal in this one?   I think it is supposed to take place when he visits the Arkham Asylum, but what is revealed there isn’t terribly surprising.  I walked out thinking it was lazy, connect-the-dots writing.  Presumably the two hours of plodding along is supposed to allow us to wallow in his pain and see where this is coming from, but what we get does not add up to any Joker I’m aware of.  And this Joker, while certainly insane, does not have the makings of a criminal mastermind.  The mayhem he brings is a combination of his own spontaneous reactions to being bullied, and a confluence of societal anger that the film is too lazy to develop.  I thought that as the film plunges him into insanity we would see his intense solitude morph into the obsessiveness and attention to detail that we’ve come to associate with Joker characters.  Nope, he’s just mad that you are bullying him.  And by the end he’s just plain mad.

The tradeoff between a high-quality script and Phoenix’s Oscar nomination is probably easiest seen in the garbage strike.  The movie opens with it and it seems like the societal disaffection is going to be built around it, as garbage piles up in Gotham and all that entails.  Instead, that plot line comes to an abrupt halt after Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro) uses it as a punchline on his talk show.  There are, indeed, a few scenes where we see garbage in alleys, but certainly not suggesting any crisis situation.  The gun is on the wall in the first act, so to speak, but we never find out what happens to it. 

A fundamental issue with the narrative is that the audience has no one to root for, there isn’t a single likable character.  The kids who steal Arthur’s sign in the opening scene are little thugs.  The Wall Street guys senselessly harass the women around them and evidently have a violent streak as well.  What we should take away from Arthur’s would-be love interest (Sophie Dumund) eventually becomes shrouded in a haze, but she isn’t terribly likable, either.  And even the Wayne family is rolled under, with Thomas Wayne making an appearance as an entitled, boorish lout, with disdain for those who live in the city around him.  This doesn’t seem to add up to a city that Bruce Wayne would be inclined to care about, or to a Wayne family name that he would feel obliged to live up to.

As for DeNiro, he seems miscast in his role as a talk show host.  In fairness, the movie has such heavy King of Comedy and Taxi Driver overtones that it is possible he is there just to remind us of the comedy stylings of Rupert Pupkin and the violent outbursts of Travis Bickle.*  Like his Pupkin character, DeNiro is not funny in this role — and funny is something this movie desperately needs.  His motives for grooming Arthur as a potential guest are hazy, is it just for ratings?  Murray Franklin perhaps just represents that even a banal personality becomes larger than life on the back of celebrity.  Arthur is intoxicated by the prospect of that celebrity, and perhaps that’s all there is to it.

As an aside, I think a much better choice for the role would have been Craig Kilbourn.  He’s physically imposing, he carries an aura of entitlement, he has the potential to be biting and smarmy at the expense of his guests, and he is actually funny. A critical point of the narrative is that Franklin is getting laughs at Arthur’s expense;  why not give the audience actual laughs at his expense?  That would have set up an even more uncomfortable establishment comeuppance.** 

On the plus side, I did enjoy the visual characterization of Gotham,  particularly the train shots into the city center and along the river.  I also thought there were some cool tight shots in the stair sequences (the dancing down the stairs is remarkable) and I appreciated the steely gray of the street scenes.  I might see it again to take it in now that the edge is off in terms of the plot.

But, we were expecting more.  A headline for The Economist review says that  Joker is neither perceptive nor politically sophisticated, and that pretty much sums it up for me.  Joaquin Phoenix delivers a performance Gotham’s Joker deserves, but the writers fail to deliver a backstory that anybody needs right now.  What makes a man just want to watch the world burn?  Two hours later and I’m no closer to an answer.

 

*  We also see further Scorsese influence from Raging Bull and After Hours (and probably others, too).   I was reminded of the Alex character in A Clockwork Orange, but he was charming and likable, making his character even more problematic than Phoenix’s Joker.

** Indeed, this is a movie that the audience in our theater erupted in laughter exactly once, and it was at the expense of a person of short stature precisely because he was short!  As far as metaphors go, I doubt this is a movie that will kickstart any social movements — its audience literally laughs at the misfortune of the little guy.

And that is probably the answer to my question: there are no laughs because this would put us at odds with the movement arising around the clown vigilante.  Presumably, the audience is somehow supposed to buy into that movement without necessarily embracing Arthur as a protagonist?

 

Brittany Runs a Marathon

Brittany Runs a Marathon focuses on a woman who has come to the realization that she isn’t happy with where she has found herself in life. Starting off at a posh ad agency in The City, Brittany had high hopes for herself and her career.  But, alas, we pick up the story and she is a 197-pound party girl with an iffy job and an iffier circle of friends.  During a visit to her local clinic to score some recreational prescription meds, her doctor gives her an earful about her sorry state of health. Brittany decides she needs to do something, and that something is to start running.

We’ve seen versions of this movie before, of course, but this one has both some originality and plenty of audacity. L&D particularly liked Jillian Bell in the title role, and neither of us for a second believed that she was acting the part because she owned the part.  We agreed that her performance was both seamless and brilliant, even if we felt like scolding her throughout the film. I thought the rest of the characters were extremely well cast, even if I thought the story arcs were either incomplete or bungled for every single character aside from the title character. Even so, the film had some truly enjoyable personalities, especially Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar), who we loved, and Gretchen (Alice J), who we didn’t.

Thematically the movie is a not terribly subtle homage to the original Rocky film, with a loser in the title role who has an opportunity to transform herself into someone she’d rather be.  Brittany does a really good job of emphasizing that the transformation is both physical, virtually anyone can get their body in better shape (especially people who currently spend an inordinate amount of time boozing and smoking and doing drugs), as well as mental.  The emphasis on the difficulty in changing her own mentality about her identity is well done.  Indeed, this is expressed quite profoundly in a number of spots, including a remarkable scene where her super mean roommate tells her to keep her old clothes, because even if Brittany manages to keep the weight off, she’ll always be the “fat girl.”  Ouch.   It isn’t until Brittany realizes that it is about process and not outcomes that the transformation is complete.

Unlike Rocky, which dispenses of the character’s bitterness early on in the film, Brittany spends a good deal of time holding on to her anger and envy and insecurities, and dishes out her share of punishment throughout the film.  Indeed, my major objections to the film are not that the supporting characters’ are not sufficiently developed or that their story arcs are not resolved in a convincing fashion (they aren’t and they aren’t).  My beef is that the movie is extremely short on reconciliation.  Why do these folks continue to embrace her unconditionally?  She isn’t that funny.

Overall, we are enthusiastic about this one for a great leading role, some great supporting characters, and an enjoyable and thought-provoking storyline. In a year where we haven’t loved a lot of films, this one could creep onto our year-end list perhaps. See it before it’s gone, or catch it on Amazon Prime on the rebound.

 

 

Angel Has Fallen

Record

L&D might be in the market to transcribe our conversations, as it seems that we can’t keep up with our reviews.  We took in Angel Has Fallen on opening night approximately a month ago, and we are just getting around to it now.  The verdict is that it wasn’t half bad.  It stars Gerard Butler as a Secret Service agent, Morgan Freeman as the President who loves him, and Nick Nolte as the guy who pees in the hot tub.  Where the story is headed is not terribly mysterious, and it’s tough not to pat yourself on the back throughout for being able to see six steps ahead, who the traitors are, who is going to get killed, and who is going to be still standing when the considerable amount of dust settles.  But mystery is not really the point of Gerard Butler productions now, is it?

Indeed, this is the second time we’ve seen a Butler production in the past year from what appears to be the same production companies and crew.  I would pretty much throw this one in the same bin as Hunter Killer in terms of its male-centered sensibilities, high production values, solid acting, and overall adrenaline rushiness.  Although the movie isn’t terribly original — Butler’s character is sort of a mashup of Jack Ryan and Richard Kimble — it still allows Butler to show more range than with the more robotic caricature of a hardened submarine commander from the previous film.  This is possibly because this is the third in the Angel trilogy (who knew?!?) and this is just where the character has evolved.  Who knows?  I guess my only real observation is that given how it played out, when the antagonist says “Lions” in his dying breath, Butler should not have been so taciturn.  I think “**** ***, *******” would have been more appropriate.

Overall, L&D didn’t need to see (or even know about) the first two to enjoy the third one.  There are probably four or five thrilling scenes in the movie, including some innovative work with drone strikes.  Once DC is rebuilt, perhaps they’ll get around to making a fourth, but for now this one can provide you with way more than your fair share of explosive action if explosive action is your thing.