If you can't tell; I've literally never been good at first impressions, but that's my issue, and if I ever do feel like reliving that, I will, but frankly it was such a small blip in an otherwise rough last few weeks that frankly, I'd rather just spend my time in this limbo just trying to improve and better myself the best I can before the next storm falls on my head. In that respect, I think I'm actually started to do that for the first time in years and I think I've gotten some positive results from it. That means, I haven't been watching or writing on as many movies, I hope to change that, but-eh, we'll see. Actually a lot of the movies I have been watching have been older movies lately. I won't go through the entire list here as I usually, there's a lot, trust me, and they date from the silent era to today. I do want to talk a bit about "Lost and Beautiful" however, which technically I should be reviewing since that film's American release was in 2016, but I honestly didn't feel right reviewing it. Just to shorthand, I didn't care for it, it felt like one of those movies that people like to mock as being Malick-esque as an insult and was just too all over the place. If I was able to pay more attention and not be so distracted at the time, I might've followed it better and perhaps appreciated it or be more able to articulate why I didn't, however I'm not sure I would've liked it anyway. Maybe I'll get to it again at some other time, but-eh, I'm still way behind and my sudden desire to indulge in classic cinema is not gonna to do me any favors, so that won't happen for awhile.
I did get to these movies and hope that my mind wasn't too distracted to review them properly, so let's get to them. Here's this, long-delayed and surprisingly brief, for me anyway, edition of our Movie Reviews!
MOLLY'S GAME (2017) Director: Aaron Sorkin
I must confess to coming into "Molly's Game" a bit blind. I think I had of course heard of the book and this notorious game that the movie's based on, and of course, I knew that the movie was written and in this rare case, directed by Aaron Sorkin, but other than that, I hadn't honestly looked too deeply into the film or it's inspiration. So, I was caught a little offguard originally going into the film, especially when I realized that Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) was the sister of Jeremy Bloom, the great Olympic Moduls skier who played in the NFL for a bit, and a member of that family, I was caught offguard. Among everything else, "Molly's Game" is mostly an analytical look at Molly Bloom, a young girl who was a neck injury away from being an Olympian, and how she ended up running the biggest private poker game on both coasts.
I've heard of games like this; I do live in Vegas, and yes I do play and follow poker, although it's something that I've in recent years only occasionally had trouble following the way I used to. There's a few reasons for that, but I caught up quickly. I have a few ideas on who some of the mysterious former world champions are in this room who these high rollers play, correctly as a fish. And I can fairly easily, or guess who Player X (Michael Cera) was. In the movie she apparently doesn't name names in her book, although enough to get arrested because of her relation to some of members of the underworld who also played in some of these high-level secret poker games that only the richest of the rich participate in.
She did do something illegal at a certain point, and that was to take a rake of a pot, which officially turns something from a purportedly friendly card game into a unlicensed gaming establishment. Raking a pot means you're taking a % of the pot, which is what casinos do and how they make money at holding poker games. I mean, I know this world a bit and I certainly know of them, and the movie gets that right. Mostly, it works best as a character analysis of Molly Brown and how she ended up in this position; a lot of which is inspired by a stern-but-tough dad/coach Larry (Kevin Costner) and much of the film is told in flashback as she talks to an attorney, Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) who's defending her in the raqueteering charges.
Of course, as a screenplay, it's probably way better than it should; this narrative isn't much, the big action scene is literally just ahand movement to some extent. I'm a little surprised Sorkin ever decided to direct, but he's capable if not special. He's always said that he specializes in writing scenes of people talking in rooms and in some cases the movie just feels like that. That's not a negative, he's a playwright first, I suspect a better place for Sorkin to try directing is the stage, but it works enough here. He does get amazing performances, especially from Chastain who seems to never give a bad performance, although Costner has an amazing scene as well and there's some great one-off cameos throughout the film, including memorable ones from Brian D'Arcy James, Justin Kirk and Graham Greene. It's a good first film as a director from somebody who's proper craft is creating on the page. The page and performances is still great though, even if it doesn't have the heft of the some of Sorkin's other works. Although if winning and losing millions of dollars on the flip of a few cards is his lighter more fun material....
LOVELESS (2017) Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev
"Loveless", "Narcissitic", "Nihilistic", I can think of a few other titles for the film, but yeah, "Loveless" is probably the most accurate one. (The actual Russian title of the film, "Nelyubov" is quite difficult to translate into other languages, I guess "Dislike" would be the closest technically, but it's a much more harsher term than that implies.) Many "Scenes from a Loveless Marriage", but that might be a little too on the nose.In fact, it was originally Director Andrey Zvyagintsev's original intent, to make a Russia remake of that Bergman classic, but no, this bares little resemblance to that film; that film was about two people who loved each other, even when they were at each other's throats. The couple in "Loveless", and basically the whole worldview of Russia in the film, (And Zvyagintsev's other films now that I think about it) is cold, heartless, and yes, without love. Not just love for each other, they seem to be completely without each the concept of it and only recognize it as an emotion that they're supposed to emulate that they have and feel, but I'm not entirely sure they actually know.
The couple in "Loveless" is Zhenya and Boris (Maryana Spivak and Aleksey Rozin); they've been married for over a decade and now they're in the middle of a vicious divorce. Their kid Alyosha (Matvey Novikov) thinks it's his fault and that his parents don't love him. He's not wrong or delusional, he actually overhears them fight over who should have him; neither parent wants him. Both are having affairs with others that they both want to pursue, Zhenya with Anton (Andris Keyshs) a rich older man who's got a grown-up daughter himself and Boris with Masha (Marina Vasileva) a young woman who's pregnant with Boris's own kid. Both of the parents basically spend their time and the next time with their own new partners. There's a lot of sex and nudity in the movie I should add, but don't confuse that with eroticism. It's something that's realistically portrayed, but it's also somewhat portrayed with a weird sense of opulance. There's a scene where there's a female character dressed in a slinky red dress enters a restaurant and offscreen, she gets asked and gives a number to some guy from who's point of view we're looking at. It's such a strange nonseuqitor scene that I went over the film multiple times to see if there was more to it than I thought, but nope, it has nothing to do with anything other than just being a part of the setting and to contrast tones with a previous scene where the husband was eating and talking at a workplace cafeteria while his wife is eating at a fancy restaurant where you can get a girl's name and number just by asking and apparently nothing else.
The next day, they realize their kid's been missing. The police initially suspect they probably killed him and then made up the story about him being missing the next day; I've seen a lot of critics take note of this as this film saying something about how dreary it is that even the Police are this cold-hearted, although I've lived through Susan Smith so maybe that's just an observation that mainly only applies to recent activity in Zvyagintsev's home country. He's probably the best Russian director working today and his previous film, "Leviathan" also said some pretty controversial things about Russian corruption at the highest level, but I'm not as sold that that's what's going on here. Not entirely anyway. There is some hope when there's volunteers who search out for the kid. They seems to be the only characters in the film for whom there's any sort of positive emotions, or any kind of emotions that aren't downtrodden-at-best or superficial-at-worst.
I'm making "Loveless" sound like work, the kind of great movie that critics will love but will depress the audience. I guess there's a chance that it might read that way to some, but this is a sad, horrific film about horrible people in a lousy situation, and it's incredibly well-made. A lot of people have struggled to read into the film commentaries about Russia and it's government, perhaps it's a commentary on the people and what they've become in Zvyagintsev's eyes, but maybe we're overthinking it. Perhaps it simply is a movie that's about these particular characters and how they act and behave. The movie that the film reminded me the most of in that sense was Michel Haneke's "Cache" which was also about a couple struggling while outside forces that challenge their emotions or perhaps reveal how and who they really are. "Cache" by comparison, is as bright and cheery as an episode of "Happy Days" compared to "Loveless", of course,....
Perhaps I am prone to liking this kind of narrative 'cause it's one I've thought about before, the idea that people can go through the motions and behaviors of love, or pretend to like marriage and having kids but not actually having the emotional connections to actually appreciate and feel love for others. It's cynical, but I can understand and it does fascinate me. I once heard a story about a kid that my Uncle, when he was in high school, brought home for dinner one night; I forget his name, but anyway, the kid turned eighteen and came home from school to find that his parents had left. They packed up their belongings and apparently moved to Florida, no warning, no notice, he was eighteen and technically an adult, so they felt that they legally didn't need to take care of him anymore, and they left, and he spent the rest of that school year eating at staying at others' homes. He died on the street, homeless, a couple years later, apparently he was trying to get to his parents in Florida.
So, yeah, perhaps it isn't that unbelievable for me to believe that when asked about her now-teenage kid by a random salon worker, that she would first talk about all the pain he caused her when giving birth before she says anything positive, 'cause that's the most she probably thinks of him. The darker undercurrent of the movie isn't that the kid ran away and is missing, the really dark thought isn't that he's perhaps dead in the woods or murdered or whatever, but what if, wherever he is now, it's actually better off than he would've been if he stayed with his parents? Maybe he right to leave before they left him alone?
SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017) Director: Jon Watts
Okay, they finally made a Spider-Man movie that I actually liked. Spider-Man's still stupid although I do like that in this version, he's still basically second to Iron Man though. Maybe it's just been my perception, but I've always understood it to be that the big three Superheroes were Superman, Batman and Spider-Man, and occasionally if they remembered to bring her up, Wonder Woman, and the thing is, I never understood why Spider-Man was so highly regarded. He's a kid, who's lucky to have his powers, he's such a wimpy pushover half the time, he doesn't sound real. I always imagine Spider-Man being the name a 4-year-old boy thinks up as his superhero names while jumping from the bed onto a pillow on the ground. Here, he's basically Tony Stark's weirdly patriarchal side project, which itself is a bit weird and out-of-character for him, but I'll ignore that. But, oddly part of it's brilliance is that, Spider-Man is firmly placed in the minor superhero category, even among the Avengers.
Peter Parker (Tom Holland) was revealed to be a superhero in "Civil War" and now, he's, well, kinda unsure of what exactly to do with that info. Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) keeps an eye on him from a distance, sometimes through Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) as he stumbles his way through some local vigilante crime stopping while he struggles with keeping up with his school and his incredibly under-prepared trivia bowl team that for some reason uses bells instead of shelling out a couple hundred bucks for a set of buzzers, (Seriously, it's a couple hundred bucks, most high school and junior high school teams have some set; and bells are absolutely useless. You'd need to wire them up to a buzzer system anyway, or else it's just sound like a bunch bells and nobody knows who rang in first.[FULL DISCLOSURE: I might still hold Varsity Quiz records at my High School and Junior High School]), stumbling through his first mini-crush Michelle (Zendaya) while personally hoping to become more involved as apart of the main Avengers team. Meanwhile, a group of scrap metal collectors, led by Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) who's begun trading and scrapping foreign metals that were left over from one of the times the Avengers' battle causes worldwide destruction to form their own weapons and metals.
The thing that separates this "Spider-Man" for me, isn't that it's a better Spider-Man; I genuinely don't think this character can ever be good, but he can be put in a good situation, and this is a decent situation. He's not quite up to par with everyone else in the superhero universe, and yet, there's enough of an interesting story and group of characters around him to keep him compelling, even as a whiny high school student who Stark correctly recognizes as being way in over his head, even though he can hold his own when he needs to. It actually makes the idea of a lesser superhero in a world of superheroes compelling on it's own. I'm constantly annoyed by this superhero universes, especially Marvel, as to why all these superheroes aren't always grouped together for every emergency thing, and it still bothers me, but at least here, there's a clear hierarchy established and we get a look at the life of a character that's on the bottom rung. This is why it's so good to have him paired with Iron Man, we get one guy born with a silver spoon in his mouth and every advantage mentoring a young kid who's had a rough life and still lives on the edges in a Queens apartment.
Also, I like that they appropriately decided just to completely pass over an origin story, thank God 'cause those Spider-Man origin stories have all just sucked. That, and Marisa Tomei as Aunt May. This, is simply brilliant and hilarious, for so many weird reasons. She was one of the only good parts about "Civil War" and she's great here. It's so weirdly-perfect casting-against-type that you have to stand back in awe at it, especially literally every other version of the story cast her, basically as a pseudo-Grandparent that raises Peter Parker, and instead, we get America's answer to Isabelle Huppert. (What, she is. She's gonna be playing the sexiest 45-year-old in the room for the next fifteen years, so yes, that's the apt comparison!) This adds a dynamic to Spider-Man that has been desperately needed, one that's both fun, funny, and provides a new, fascinating level of embarrass for young Peter Parker, that he needs. Both the other Spider-Man franchises had a Peter Parker that was way too stoic and determined, there was too much of an emotional wall to him, he was never emotional multi-dimensional enough, and part of that is that Aunt May isn't multi-dimensional either, but here,- well, I don't want to give away the great ending,- (The first ending; I am still knocking off points for stupid post-credits endings btw here; seriously kill this goddamn trend) but we don't get that here. If I'm gonna sit down and watch a Spider-Man movie a second time, it'll definitely be this one.
BEACH RATS (2017) Director: Eliza Hittman
Two films in, and Eliza Hittman's one of the most distinctive and fascinating filmmakers working today. I greatly admired her debut feature, "It Felt Like Love" a movie about a sexually confused teenage girl who decides to go through some-um, let's just say some,- well, degrading and humilating extremes in order to experience sex. It was a rough film to watch, but in many ways it was an amazing slice of life indy that totally grabbed me. "Beach Rats" is actually not that different, except instead of a young sexually-troubled young woman hanging around a bunch of imateur young guys, it's a sexually-confused young man who hangs out with a bunch of imateur young guys.
The kid is Frankie (Harris Dickinson) a Brooklyn young adult who should be trying to figure out what to do with his post high-school life, but instead, spends most of his time at parties or Coney Island hitting on girls with his buddies. Just, hitting on them though. He spends most of the rest of his time in online camrooms talking and masturbating with men, many of whom are local and he ends up setting up hookups with for some exploratory sexual experiences. It isn't groundbreaking necessarily, it's basically a young gay man struggling with that fact, there's dozens of movies about this subject, but Hittman is fascinated with the inner conflicts coming up against the outer conflicts of the expectations of their world. In "It Felt Like Love", the main conflict is with the main character acting out because her best friend has blossomed and gotten more sexually active and sexually desirable. Here, Frankie isn't just best friends with a bunch of meatheads idiots who also clearly don't seem too bothered with thoughts like what college they should be going to, but also general expectations of the area and family. He does date a couple girls occasionally, one of them, Simone (Madeleine Weinsten) talks about how she's made out with women occasionally because it's sexy, but then notes that two men making out with each other is just gay.
I know what she means and yes, there are people who think that, and women who've thought that, and it's totally a double-standard. Of course, on a more personal level, it's just as obnoxious and homophobic as guys who masturbate to lesbians but then gaybash men. Of course, for Frankie, it's just another thing that's telling him that he's wrong to be sexually-attracted to men. This leads to a really strange sequence where Frankie tries to combine both worlds, first by convincing one of the guys he trolls for sex out to somewhere public, and then to turn the encounter into a robbery by having him and his friends beat up the guy. They've been paying him for his services so he knows they're rich, but of course, this experiment is bound to fail one way or another, and it does.
"Beach Rats" is a fascinating film. Eliza Hittman's one of the few directors who genuinely fascinate me at the moment, she seems almost like an American Celine Sciamma, hell she did use a French cinematographer for this film, and btw, the cinematography is gorgeous. She's got this way of focusing in tight on these characters and actors in a way that makes us seem to fall into their lives, or worst, feel like we're distressingly intrusive voyeurs into those secret parts of lives of young people we don't want to see. She makes the kind of movies were you just want to jump into the screen and shake these characters, and tell them that things can be different and that they don't have to do that. I can't wait for her next one.
FIVE CAME BACK (2017) Director: Laurent Bouzereau
I have to admit that since I've been so distracted with real life issues lately that I fear that I've been too distracted at times to truly review some movies. Honestly, I may have, what's-the-word, eh, coasted on a few films. I probably coasted a bit on this one, although honestly, it's a docu-miniseries that, for some reason, was Oscar-eligible. (Don't explain how it was eligible, I know how) Plus it's a subject that I already knew a little about, probably enough about at least that I didn't think I had to pay that much attention, (Shrugs) I don't think I'm entirely wrong on that observation, but I still wish I paid a little closer attention anyway, 'cause this was a very good documentary. I mean, yeah, it's a bit of Hollywood kissing it's own ass, in almost all the ways that that insult is usually levied against the industry, but eh, what are you gonna do?
"Five Came Back" tells the story of five of our greatest filmmakers from the Golden Age of Cinema, John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra and George Stevens; learn these names if you don't know them already. On top of being the best directors of the Hollywood era, they all have something else in common; they all went to World War II, after they became famous, they joined the military. They're job, to film World War II, as it was happening. Sometimes for documentary purposes, all the time for propaganda purposes, but it effected each of them, and their movies later on. Essentially, "Five Came Back" is about this rarely-mentioned aspect of World War II, the documenting and selling of it, and how it effected both the nation, the world, these directors, and inevitably Hollywood itself.
The movie happens to have interviews with five major directors, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Lawrence Kasdan, Paul Greengrass and Guillermo Del Toro as they help tell the story of one of the directors and has Meryl Streep doing the narration. This is literally Hollywood of the present thanking and honoring the Hollywood of the past for their work in the military, and I'm okay with that. The film is very informative and entertaining. I think it does drag a bit, if you're more interested in some of the directors more than others than you might some of it slow; and as great as some of these docu-miniseries have been, I can say that, I that as movies I think some of them are more entertaining than others. It's not just the length either, sometimes trying to tell the whole story can be overwhelming, in this case they're telling five personal ones, all interesting and all connected admittedly, but this is still a tough needle to thread. Take "O.J.: Made in America" for comparison, that film has one character and five parts of his life and each section is separate and distinct, here, there's five main character, more going on, and three parts, and so you have to find two different and distinct similar stopping points and sections, that are all similar, for five different people twice! I mean, it's ambitious, and i"m not saying it couldn't or can't be done, but it's a drawback to the genre.
Still, these are minor, technical criticisms. "Five Came Back" is quite a strong documentary despite that and definitely worth the time and endurance to watch, especially for those who love or want to become more familiar with that era of Hollywood and the people behind many of the best films that America produced before, after and during the war.