Floridian Inferno

Zola is a conundrum of sorts. In parts Midsommar and in others Spring Breakers, it’s an uncomfortable experience. The characters are two dimensional at best and even simple cut outs like a “fan” at a COVID era MLB game. It’s not totally surprising that the original screenplay inspiration was a tweetstorm. 

What I found refreshing and interesting about Zola was that the representations were flipped. If you’re sick and tired of the male gaze in film, welcome to the female gaze. There is more full-frontal dudity in this film than I can remember at the cinema…including one montage that featured an eye-brow raising well placed on-screen heart emoji graphic. The other element that Zola has going for it is suspense. Which way will this Floridian Dante’s Inferno break? Is it a social satire, a comedy, a horror nightmare, exploitation — somehow all and none of these at the same time?

I particularly enjoyed the brief POV driving musical interludes. Those segues kept establishing that music can set the emotional tone of a film, every time. One danger though in telling Zola’s story in such a minimalistic way is that the story of Derrek, played brilliantly by Nicholas Braun, who also shined in the powerful HBO series Succession, at times took over. Derrek was the one character played with real emotion. He was the fuck up, the hero, the only person who was in the story for something other than a good time and/or making a buck. And that’s odd for a film that is supposed to be telling the story of a strong female protagonist, which there was and which it does. But I’m left to wonder, did it inadvertently tell the story of Derrek even better? Like Dante in Inferno, Zola is an observer, traveling through these circles of misery, though it seems like a missed opportunity to find out more about her. She asks Derrek pointedly during one dramatic scene, “What do you see when you see me?” As an audience, we can only answer that in a superficial way. 

I do want to give a shout out to my old friend, Mike L. Germaine, who I worked on a few films with in the Bahamas back in the day. He’s a fantastic Key Grip and did a solid job here as usual, helping the cinematographer, Ari Wegner pull off strong visuals. And I’d be remiss not to note a stand out acting performance by Jason Mitchell, who also shined in Netfilx’s Mudbound

Ultimately, Zola ended for me just as the story seemed to be taking off or at least morphing into something else. There’s no neat ending here so the experience leaves you more with the impression that this was a filmic sketch based off an epic tweetstorm. You’ll have to manufacture your own ending but maybe that’s okay too. Ultimately, I did enjoy a movie with a different perspective than your typical megaplex offering.  

Rafiki

This is a great film, originally banned in Kenya and only released after my UCLA Film School friend, and Director of this film, Wanuri Kahiu sued the Kenyan government. According to Wikipedia, “On 21 September 2018, the Kenyan High Court lifted the ban on the film.” I was able to check this out at my local library here in Appleton, Wisconsin. It’s also available on Amazon Prime, Hulu and Showtime. It’s a great story, with Capulet and Montague overtones and a scene reminiscent of a film that recently blew me away, David Lean’s, Ryan’s Daughter. There is a truly indelible, good natured human spirit that runs through this film and I highly recommend it to you.

The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard

What makes a terrible movie terrible? Gratuitous violence? Maybe. One dimensional characters? Yes. Absurd situations like…the escape boat at the end of a dock? Again? …And again? Umm humm. Bulgaria? Check. Knockoff 007 storyline? Certainly doesn’t help. A Director who doesn’t know the actor can’t pronounce Fugazi? Likely. Great actors cashing checks for skating by?

The saddest part, feeding the movie making machine when it would be more interesting to just hear what those same great actors would have to say if you were having dinner with them at a restaurant? The truth from D. …I think perhaps it’s the sum of these with apologies to Bulgaria. I’m sure it’s a lovely place. Oh and I laughed a lot but maybe it was a laugh to keep from crying type of laugh. Or maybe the movies, like most of us at this moment, are just rusty in so many ways?

In any case, I’m looking forward to a real movie by Reynolds, Hayek, Jackson &/or Banderas in the near future. This one will be utterly forgotten. However, there were a couple of references to Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell’s “minor masterpiece,” Overboard (1987), which I’d like to check out.  Even a terrible movie, like a broken clock, is right twice a day. 

Operatic Pulp

I don’t doubt that Jason Statham can dramatically act but it’s unlikely we will ever find out. He can however do action and in Wrath of Man he does it well. There are several things I like about this picture starting with the language. It’s a sort of flowery almost screwball comedy prose. A cross between Shakespearean iambic pentameter and a dirty limerick you’ve heard a thousand times. Similarly, we have all seen this movie plot many times before. I know D however missed the usual Ritchie humor. Though maybe Guy Ritchie felt like there was nothing to laugh about when he directed this film, based on another film, Le Convoyeur (2004). Yes, Wrath of Man is a remake.

Once again, the action is done well. There are enough characters and drama to keep you going. And even though there are various plot flaws, inconsistencies and minor characters that are crowbarred into the narrative, I still commend Director Guy Ritchie for at least trying to prop up action with some character development and dimension. It’s easy enough to suspend disbelief when you need to.

Unlike in a movie like Drive, which promises action but just lays the beauty shots on you. Wrath does deliver the action — and with some feeling. Downtown LA plays a major role in the film. Of course it’s darker than a Raymond Chandler fever dream but, again, without the relief of Chandleresque zingers. Can a place running amok in YSL knockoff handbags really be that bad?

The white text on a black screen chapter titles may be the most intriguing part of the movie. Along with a score that includes Wagner and Johnny Cash. 

Ultimately if you’d like to watch a good heist or action film on the big screen, this one will work for you. On the other hand, this film will be streaming for a reasonable price, if not become a free offering on Amazon Prime, soon enough. 

Cruella

Did you hear L&D are back?!?

Well, you might be the first to hear, because the Marcus Theater employees didn’t recognize us, and they didn’t hold the movie for us, either. Our preferred theater generally runs 20 minutes worth of preliminaries, so the movie starts roughly 21 minutes after the posted time as L&D are settling in; but in this post-Covid world, evidently, they sometimes cut the trailers short for the late movies so the staff can get out a few minutes early. So we missed the previews and whatever would-be hilarity Greg Marcus is bringing these days, and also missed the opening opening of the movie.

That said, we probably missed a lot of other stuff, too. This movie is sensory overload, for sure, in a good way. Early in the movie they were doing this blur tactic on moving camera shots that I couldn’t quite get accustomed to. By mid-movie I was thinking we were sitting too close to the screen because it was hard to keep track of everything going on. There was explosive color, lots of colors, lots of colors moving across the screen in every direction, more pixels than your brain could ever hope to handle.

And a lot of black and white, too, of course. The most colorful black and white you are ever likely to see.

Although it’s a lot of work watching this, the audio helps a lot. The selections set or match the mood of the scenes pretty well, and when old vinyl doesn’t suffice, it does a nice job of making its own. My conjecture is that the music complements the visuals, allowing your brain to make sense of all that’s up on screen. I did turn on the soundtrack afterwards, as L told you I would, but I think that unlike Rushmore or Pulp Fiction or Baby Driver, this one doesn’t seem to keep my interest without the film rolling. Possibly because unlike those other movies, this is more of a (really) fun-to-watch-at-the-theater movie for me, and not a serious candidate for my attention going forward. Who knows?

Certainly I didn’t know much about this moving going in,* just that it’s Disney and it’s the backstory for Cruella, sure. Even so, it is clear that the primary challenge for the writers is that Emma Stone is so awesome that you just have to love her, and she’s sure easy to love as Estella, but they can’t quite figure out how to turn her into pure evil. Or, more likely, they just can’t bring themselves to do it. I don’t know the actual 101 Dalmatians story, but I am guessing the original Cruella isn’t a sympathetic, misunderstood genius; in this origin story, Cruella is the heroine, that much is for sure.

At any rate, Disney movies don’t get too much better than this. The soundtrack keeps things moving along. The set pieces are generally fun, sort of like if Wes Andersen had a $100 zillion dollar budget and ordered up costumes and materials for three or four movies, and then Disney kicked him out and put in its own people. That’s not quite accurate, but certainly a starting point for discussion. The supporting actors were very good, dogs watching footy made me lol, the heist scenes were generally solid (if a bit overdone), the plot was mostly non-obvious, good fun all around. And after 60 hours of productions featuring lions mauling and being mauled, superheroes killing and being killed, Jedis behaving badly, and full-scale intergalactic warfare, Disney finally got around to showing blood in one of its films.

And what a great punchline that was!

So, see Cruella, you will like it. And, if not, at least you will like the soundtrack.

Also, watch this space for potential curling and National Rugby League updates. L&D is back in business.

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*Taco Bell appeared to be closed on the way by, so the usually reliable TBI was not available. On the way back it still appeared to be closed, though there was a pretty good queue at the drive thru window. It’s a great big world.

Cruella Duella

As the Assistant Directors like to say after lunch on set: “We’re Baaaack!, We’re Baaaack!, We’re Baaaack!” 

But hopefully you’re happier to hear that than the crew. …We are. 

Cruella stars Emma Stone who we’ve seen convincingly blast zombies, work her way up the royal hierarchy and dance on LA freeways. In this role she kicks ass and takes no prisoners (sans three Dalmatians). One of the best things I can say about this movie is that it almost —almost!— doesn’t feel like a an overproduced Disney picture. To give you an idea, the budget on this production is larger than the GDP of several nations. Yes, they are all small Pacific island nations but nations with a seat at the UN nevertheless. At one point, a great daybreak shot with Cruella jetting on a scooter she just jacked, the film almost takes on the flavor of the DC Comics universe (which is owned by Time-Warner who is owned by AT&T, not Disney). And Emma Stone is so good (I refuse to gush about her like I always do). She simply elevates any film she is in. She brings it. I truly wonder what role she would love to play if given the opportunity. Maybe it will be the next movie she produces.  

So it feels like a pretty grown-up film, for a kids film. The production value is absolutely off the charts. And an army of people did amazing work on this technically flawless show. 

There are a few cool story twists. One in particular that I won’t name involves things that fly. And there is also a great supporting acting. In particular the performance of Paul Walter Hauser who also shined in Clint Eastwood’s “Richard Jewell”. Emma Thompson held her own as Cruella’s foil. The casting and performances were top-notch across-the-board.

The soundtrack was amazing. I think it may be the best soundtrack I’ve ever heard in a movie, with plenty of deep tracks from the likes of Queen, Nina Simone and Tina Turner. At least the best since Baby Driver or Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2.  D turned to me and said he would be playing the soundtrack at work tomorrow.

Ultimately this film is all about style, StYlE. STYLE!!! —And it does that well. The plot is absurd and predictable but there are also enough cool twists to keep you interested. Overall, Cruella was an entertaining, check your brain at the door movie and a lot of fun. 

Minari

Minari is being touted as the next great Korean film, a story of a Korean family coming to America in Reagan-era Arkansas. There are big things and small things going on here, and it’s the small things that make this add up to a far greater movie than the basic storyline would suggest.

So here we go — what are you expecting from a movie about Korean immigrants in rural Arkansas? Go through your mental checklist and consider what you think will be in here. Whether you want to do this or not, you will consult this checklist with the introduction of each new character, each new setting, each new plot development. As Chekov says, if there is a gun on the mantle in the opening scene, that gun needs to go off by the end of the story. Watching this movie is like walking into a armory.

For the American in me, I see a movie about existential uncertainty, a meditation on the various roles that family, friends, and society play in insulating us from life’s inevitable agonies and traumas (as well as the emergent excesses of American agribusiness). It takes a little bit of work, but what does the father, Jacob, see here? What is he doing in rural Arkansas? What are all these other Korean immigrants doing? What exactly does America promise these folks? Does it deliver?

Does it ever!

What a great experience. It is both completely unpredictable throughout, but not all that surprising once it ends. Clear your schedule and dedicate some time to watching this one carefully.

Thanks to Dr. and Mrs. B for their generosity in providing food and libations and, of course, the stream!

The Investigation

The Investigation is a six-part, roughly four hour, Danish drama that has aired on HBO over the past few weeks. The subject matter, of course, is the investigation into a grisly death of a female journalist and the attempts to piece together her macabre demise. The result is a meditation on the fallibility of prioritization, the limits of human knowledge, the vastness of oceans, and the wonderment of dogs.

It is visually breathtaking in spots, and it is visually suffocating in others. It is hard to believe the capabilities of human ingenuity and modern technology, and yet there are still limits on what is knowable. What is certainly remarkable is where The Investigation runs up against this boundary.

And, finally, I do wish that these extraordinary productions didn’t focus so disproportionately on the ghastly murders of young women.

With that proviso, still recommended.

Fatale

Fatale *½ Early on in Fatale, just for a brief moment, the movie showed a flash of promise, potential greatness.

Well, maybe not greatness, but enough to sit up in your seat and say, hey now, that was something. Hillary Swank is a great actress and so there is always hope.

But it was not to be. The plot unraveled and began an extended free fall that didn’t end until the credits rolled.

I am guessing that the things I was intrigued by were probably revealed in the trailers, so if I had seen the trailers, this one would have been even worse. On the other hand, if I had seen the trailers, maybe I would have stayed out in the lobby and watched basketball instead.

Perhaps L will give us an essay on the trailer menace one of these days. Until then, avoid this one. And avoid it after, as well.

The Marksman

The Marksman *½ This is an uninteresting movie wherein America’s lugubrious and potentially unhinged uncle (Liam Neeson) plays a retired USMC soldier in Trump-era Texas. Jim Hanson now (mostly) pays the bills herding undernourished cattle while assorted would-be immigrants make their way across his land and on into the States. The opening of the film shows Hanson in all his beleagueredness, a master class in American dismay cliché, when he happens upon a tense border-crossing. The conflict involves two immigrant innocents and the ruthless Cartel thugs that want them butchered, with a non-English speaking boy insinuating his way into Hanson’s consciousness. Trump-era Texas isn’t the friendliest place for an only child on the run from The Cartel, so Hansen takes it upon himself to take him to the next of kin.

The metaphors (and the parallels between this movie and News of the World) are thick in this one.

Early in the movie there are many interesting shots of the landscape, where you can see almost as far across Texas as you can see into the plot of this one.

Well, I know it’s hard to make a film, so let’s accentuate some positives. I did sort of enjoy Neeson in the anti-Taken role as the bumbling idiot of a savior. And I did smile at the film’s nod to the 80s classic, Witness, though I have to wonder where that farmer went. The bit about Chicago hot dogs not having any ketchup was right on target. And an extra half star for the dog.

So that’s a wrap. Time to get on a bus and take a nap.