Saturday, August 31, 2019

MOVIE REVIEWS #160: "THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD", "APOLLO 11", "MARY POPPINS RETURNS", "COLD WAR", "NEVER LOOK AWAY", "CHRISTOPHER ROBIN", "MIRAI", "THE OLD MAN & THE GUN", "DIVIDE AND CONQUER: THE STORY OF ROGER AILES", "A PRIVATE WAR", "MANDY", "SAY HER NAME: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF SANDRA BLAND", "WE THE ANIMALS", "THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER", "T2: TRAINSPOTTING", "THE INCREDIBLE JESSICA JAMES", and "DAVE MADE A MAZE"!

Well, it looks like I'm actually going to finish this reviews post, somewhat on time for once, especially impressive during this stretch. Unfortunately, I still don't have the time or ability to review everything although in this case, this wasn't because of time delays or a computer error, just an error on my part for not realizing something was more recent than it was. I watched on "American Masters" a few months ago a biodocumentary about Sammy Davis Jr. called "I've Gotta Be Me." I presumed that this was an older episode, mainly I couldn't believe that "American Masters" hadn't made an episode on Sammy Davis, Jr. until 2017!!! Like, I wouldn't thought that was like the first episode or something 'cause it's goddamn Sammy Davis, Jr.! He's the greatest entertainer of all-time. Anyway, it's a great documentary, if you get a chance, find it.

Anyway, I've got plans for some blogs coming up and I am finally catching up on some things I'm behind on currently, and if planned well, those will be posted soon enough and on a somewhat regular schedule as well. Let's get through the reviews this week though!


THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD (2019) Director: Peter Jackson

★★★★1/2

Image result for They Shall Not Grow Old

I hate to speak ill of those who have since passed and many of my friends and classmates have a much different perspective on him, but I hated Mr. Maestas's 10th Grade World History Class. He was a great guy and I love World History btw, I won my Graduating Class Award for Outstanding Achievement in Social Studies, but without going into too many details, I hated how he taught the class; by the end of the year, we had a month of school left and we were still in like, Ancient Rome or The Renaissance or something we should’ve finished months earlier than we did, and I even complained about it to him at one point. (Yes, I’m the kid in class who literally complained to the teacher that we weren’t learning enough. I’m sure this piece of information explains a lot about me.) However, eventually he did skip ahead and in the last weeks of the school year, he showed this wonderful History Channel documentary series about World War II. The big thing with this particular one, and I have to look up the name of it, was that, the footage was all original color footage of the Nazis and the War, which was pretty unique actually. (It's called "World War II in Colour" for those curious.) Color film was generally still a rarity at that point in history, and seeing Hitler and, well-, the graphic depictions and the frankly surprisingly vibrant looks of Germany and Europe around that time was really striking. In fact, I think secretly it’s one of the reasons I consider Wim Wenders’s “Wings of Desire” to be one of my all-time favorite movies; the way that film depicts a pre-Wall going down Berlin in black and white and then slides into color to really show just how beautiful and colorful the city was/is; a reminder of what the real Germany actually looks like, and not simply the black and white depictions of the footage that we mostly recall that war looking like.

I bring this up because “They Shall Not Grow Old” is trying to do something that’s perhaps twice as difficult, and that’s essentially give us those images and reinvent visually, World War I. Not only was colorized footage not around to the extent it is, even twenty years later, film itself was still a new and difficult to find medium still and much of that footage is likely difficult if not impossible to find now. They do manage to find footage though; the movie begins with black and white footage of the buildup to the War and voiceover footage describing the war and events that continues on throughout the film. I thought that perhaps this might’ve been really good actors giving voiceover performances of the soldier’s words, reminiscent of Bill Couterie’s great documentary “Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam”, but actually, they are previously recorded accounts from dozens of the actual soldiers who were there. Basically he’s editing the footage around their words and that alone would admittedly make a compelling and interesting documentary.

Then the movie, switch formats, from the 4:3 square format, to a more traditional 2:35:1 widescreen and the previous black and white footage is not colorized. I’m not normally in favor of most colorization of films and footage, and I’m especially not big on changing the screen size of the original footage, this is basically extending the size of the screen of what was originally shot in most cases, but this is one of those rare examples where this idea actually works. He’s transferring and digitally taking the images of war, and essentially bringing them to life the best we can through these modern re-editing techniques. It’s actually quite a spectacular achievement. We’ve all seen depictions of the trench warfare of World War I several times over, but this is one of those rare times where we getting a really visually get down into the nitty-gritty details of the war. Everything from the kinds of cigarettes and rations they ate, to of course, the death and destruction, to the guns and bullets, to the disturbing images of gangrene and frostbite many of the soldiers suffered from.

Among being a truly dumb war to begin with that came about through a political assassination through a terrorist that got out of hand through a series of secret and convoluted treaties between heads of countries that no one previously had known about, the soldiers were not given the greatest conditioning, training or equipment to fight this war, at least on the British side, which is the one that’s predominantly told here. I like details like how the Army insisted that buttons on the fatigues be clean, yet they never gave out anything to clean buttons with. Or how water for the steam guns would come in gasoline cans which still smelled of gasoline, that the troops still tried to make tea with.

The director of “They Shall Not Go Home” interestingly enough was Peter Jackson, a man who I’m made no bones about not particularly liking most of his movies over the years, and yes, I consider this by far his best film, but he does actually make a strange bit of sense as a director. He’s somebody who’s always been on the cutting edge and experimental with his use of testing the boundaries of cinema traditions and acceptances. He got a lot of criticism from his “Hobbit” movies for some of these ideas, shooting in a different frame format and digital characters that looked somewhat noticeably unreal, even to me as someone who genuinely doesn’t find much to hit my so-called uncanny valley point, but at least he trying and being different and experimental and with a major blockbuster series as well, and to be fair, it was the second time he did that. This is him testing those boundaries on footage, not to create new ideas but to bring the old back to life in a new way; an attempt to document what happened in a way that the time period couldn’t before. Much credit to the editing team of “They Shall Not Grow Old”, this had to be a very time-consuming and complex passion project, and it was for Peter Jackson. While, yes, New Zealand actually was apart of World War I, some might be surprised to find that out, (Myself included) but Jackson’s grandfather was apart of one of the Welsh infantries as well.

2019 makes the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, and nobody is alive now who lived through it to document it like this, and this film is about as close as we might ever get anymore. “They Shall Not Grow Old” is quite an amazing cinematic accomplishment in that regard, a rare singularly unique document that I hope somehow doesn’t remain that way. Perhaps somebody can do tell this story this same way using more footage in the future, perhaps from some other’s country’s perspective that was irrevocably and inevitably altered from its participation.


APOLLO 11 (2019) Director: Todd Douglas Miller

★★★★


Image result for Apollo 11 film

This past January was the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 11 landing on the Moon. It is undoubtably the greatest achievement of humans in the 20th Century, and I will hear no bullshit about it being staged or some other nutjob conspiracy claim some idiots want to make. I hate that I feel I have to bring that up every time something like this documentary comes out but, it’s amazing what crap seeps peoples’ minds and stays there sometimes. Besides “Apollo 11”, should be enough convincing evidence for any so-called skeptic. The movie documents the entire from the perspective of NASA, edited together from newly-found 65mm footage and audio recording, the movie takes us from Cape Canaveral to the launch, to the Mission Control in Houston, and even inside the spaceship as the astronauts themselves record and document the journey, at times recording some of the most spectacular views of our Moon, or Solar System, of them and of us on Earth ever imagined, and eventually, all the way back to Earth.

It is a treasure trove of detail and footage that we really should stand back in awe at that we’ve so detailed this journey as much and as well as we did. It’s the equivalent of being on board the Santa Maria with Columbus, or with Lewis & Clark documenting North America. It’s actually startling to see Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, this young and boyish looking, getting placed in their suits. In my mind, they’re old men now, heroes of a bygone era, like how Wyatt Earp was for the Wild West in the beginning of the 20th Century after the West was ultimately tamed. But they were all so young; the young, the best, the brightest, the fittest that we needed to be to accomplish this goal. I particularly was amazed and starstruck at the actual landing process, taken from the camera that’s clearly position on the Landing Module itself and cut with the intense recordings of the events as they try to manually bring the ship into a safe space to land while simultaneously slowing down just enough to land safely. It really is startling to see this footage and from the amazing angles we’re seeing it from. In fact, it’s amazing to think had enough sense to document everything. Maybe that part’s just me as I’m somebody who struggles to even understand how to load video into a computer still, despite my chosen field. (Oh, BTW, this is unrelated but did everybody know that you could put a CD into your computer and copy on burn the songs onto your flashdrive and they’re there as long as the flashdrive works!? I just figured out how to do that; I’m definitely gonna start borrowing CDs from the library again!)

Anyway, “Apollo 11” is appropriately awe-inspiring. It’s smart enough to mostly let the footage and recordings do the talking, with only occasional cuts to diagrams of the mission and occasionally editing flourishes like several split screens to get every angle from everybody. This feels appropriate since, when I think of split screens from this time period, I think of “Woodstock”, the other landmark event of Americans heading off to a multi-day adventure into an unknown, untamed land. More than that, it’s a beautiful and critical document of NASA during it’s most amazing accomplishment. Nowadays, it’s weird to think that we’re far away from even going back to the Moon, much less to Mars or much beyond the space station anymore and NASA is as much a TV network now as it is an exploration body. (Perhaps they were more ahead of their time than I realize with their recording of all their missions.) Hopefully one day, when the major problems with Earth are at a minimum again, we can devote more to it, or perhaps some private space exploration outfit will take over. Either way, “Apollo 11” along with other reminders in both documentary and traditional form in recent years, like “First Man” or “Voyager from Space…” are once again, reminders of just how awe-inspiring space is, and how it’s still out there for us to seek out and touch its heavens like we did once before, and if willing, we can do again.


MARY POPPINS RETURNS (2018) Director: Rob Marshall

★★★★


Image result for Mary Poppins Returns

(Sigh) Well, I never thought this particular one would come up, but here we go: Welcome to another episode of “David Explains Why He Didn’t Like Something Wildly Popular and Beloved That Now Has a Sequel, Remake or Re-Imagining”. I know, the title needs work, and yes, I seem to be writing a lot of reviews like this lately, and I hate that this is another one, but, I never really got the appeal “Mary Poppins” that much. Like, even as a kid; I knew I felt like I was supposed to like it and appreciate it, and how important it is. It was the only feature film that earned Walt Disney a Best Picture nomination; it infamously won the Best Actress Oscar for Julie Andrews after she had been rejected for Eliza Dolittle in “My Fair Lady”, the role she originated on Broadway and was replaced by Audrey Hepburn who didn’t even get nominated for her performance. And it was a legendary film, an accomplishment for mixed media as it combined animation with live-action as seamlessly as had ever been done before, and as a musical I always loved the songs and dance numbers from the film. “A Spoonful of Sugar” and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” in particularly held a great part of my childhood, a part that’s often stuck with me in my subconscious over the years.

Yet, when it came to the movie, I rarely liked watching it. Honestly, I kinda found it frustrating and annoying. I never outright hated it or anything, but I never went out of my way for it either the way I would watch “The Wizard of Oz” or “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” on repeat all the time. It actually confused me; Mary Poppins was kinda two-faced to me, she was just as stern and rigid towards the kids as the father was at times, even when he wasn’t around when that would make sense. And then, she’d be taking the kids on a flying wild fun amazing dance number with animated penguins and cockney Dick Van Dyke ride? I always kinda watched it wanting to frustratingly yell at the screen, “Dammit Bitch, are you a magical nanny or not, make up your fucking mind!?”

For years, I kinda just thought I must’ve been mistaken or too young to understand or there was some kind of generational misunderstanding or, as an American trying to comprehend a very British fairy tale, a geographical misunderstanding that was precluding my ability to comprehend the film-, I also thought perhaps that there something wrong my memory of the film and I was recalling it wrong, but no, I think my memory of the movie was fine; my interpretation of the material was off though, and in all honesty, it wasn’t until I saw “Saving Mr. Banks” about the behind the scenes of the making of “Mary Poppins” and Disney’s frustrations with P.L. Travers did I finally actually understand the original movie. Now that I understand the places of inspiration that Disney, and in particular Travers was coming from, now it makes some sort of sense how a character can be this juxtaposed and disconnected with herself. I remember always wondering, “Were the fun sequences a dream, an alternate reality,..-, but she had the torn letter though, and Mr. Banks saw it…?”, it always confused me more than I thought it should’ve, but now that I do kinda get how I’m supposed to read it, those scenes that always more-or-less frustrated and confused the hell out of me; I’m not gonna I like them now, but they make a lot more sense to me than they used to. 

Anyway, I’m not sure I’m ever gonna appreciate it the way most do, but I guess I’m more open now to this 60+ years too late sequel than I probably would’ve been, say ten years ago. So, that’s how I come into “Mary Poppins Returns” a sequel to a movie that I never really thought much of, but have a great appreciation for in hindsight. And…, well, I kinda have those similar feelings as did to the original, but I just kinda accept them now, perhaps because the kids are grown up and might secretly expect or understand the irreverent twist of Mary Poppins soon. There’s no mystery as to who Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) is like there was for the original film, so the rules are of the universe are a little bit more clear. However now, it’s a good thirty or so years later and the two kids are now all grown up. Michael (Ben Whishaw) is a struggling painter who has now taken a teller job at the very same bank that his father used to work at. His sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) is an activist for the poor and Labor, but she’s hanging around the house after Michael’s wife befell to DMDS, Disney Mother Death Syndrome, and now he’s taking care of three young kids of his own, Annabel, (Pixie Davies)  John (Nathaneal Saleh) and Georgie (Joel Dawson). Annabel and John in particular have become very helpful around the house and quite grown up in their own right. Little Georgie too, but he still has that childlike curiosity strain and has a tendency to run on the grass or go after an escaped kite occasionally.

Our chorus-like introduction character this time is Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) who is not a chimney sweep, but a cheery and cleaner lamplighter, a leery who goes around town at the morning or night turning on or off the gas streetlights that now surround and populate the foggy London sky. I really like this change for some reason. It’s a nice time shift motif. It means the same narrator character who represent the beacon of light that he himself supplies, but he’s more updated for the time, and I particularly love the striking images of the lamplighters lighting the dark streetlights in the movie’s coolest musical number, “Trip a Little Light Fantastic”.

Almost the songs, like in the original movie, are quite great here, including the Oscar-nominated, “The Place Where Lost Things Go”. I also greatly loved “A Cover Is Not the Book”, a song that seems so familiar that I almost swore it was in the original film, but Marc Shaiman and Scott Whittman did indeed do all the songs for the film. The only one I didn’t outright love was “Turning Turtle”, a strange aberration of a song performed by a Meryl Streep, who plays Topsy, Mary Poppins “cousin”, which-, I don’t remember if she had relatives in the original movie, but I do have some questions now. This magical nanny ex machima now has a family apparently? Not that she ever explains anything.

There is a villain here though; Wilkins (Colin Firth) the nephew of Mr. Dawes, Jr. (Dick Van Dyke, and it’s always great to see him.), who’s out to drive up the bank’s profits and he’s now relentlessly calling in all loans against houses the bank’s taken in that are overdue for payments, including Mr. Banks, despite his status as a bank teller for them now. Colin Firth seems to be having fun playing this heinous villain as serious and Colin Firth-like as he can.

It’s around this time when the loan is called in that naturally, Mary Poppins suddenly, pops into the Bank’s lives again and-, and-, Mary- Mary pops in, Mary Pop-pins,-, oh my God, I just now got that. (Hand to forehead, shaking head in shame, sighs)

Anyway, I still have mixed feelings on “Mary Poppins”, and I have mixed feelings about “Mary Poppins Returns”. I accept is a bit more as a children’s character that only children, or those with the child’s eye for wonder can appreciate and see, but I still am kinda unsure how that mixes with such an astute nanny character that seems just as stern about things like having a bath and not letting kids whisper amongst themselves and keeping the house clean like she does. (Frankly, I’m always skeptical of extreme cleanliness to begin with; so that part could just be me.) I do like how, in this version, the kids are more astute and adult-minded themselves though, and it’s through Mary Poppins that they seem to break out their more childlike side. I always thought it was strange in the other version how the Banks got a nanny originally to be more stern with the kids who Mr. Banks thought was acting a little too much like children and wanted a Nanny to instill more discipline into them. I guess the drawback to having it this way instead is that now it’s not as startling when grown-up Michael inevitably reacquaints himself with that childlike wonder that he had as a kid, whereas the original film’s secret was that it was about how Mr. Banks was so intent on saving his money and his devotion to the bank above else that he couldn’t appreciate his kids on their level anymore, but I still think I prefer it this way. Maybe it’s a little more traditional Disney, and I’m sure some people will come up with commentaries on their own related to the portrayals of banking institutions as personal failures instead of societal ones, or whatever, but I always felt like the best part of Mary Poppins was letting children in their wildest dreams and fantasies, and it always seemed like a bit of betrayal when she would take that away. That’s why I could never outright hate the original and now I have a better appreciation for it, I appreciate this loving sequel just as much, if not more. My apprehension is always gonna hold me back a little on this, but there’s a lot of fun in “Mary Poppins” that I can’t really hate. The performances are wonderful, I didn’t even mention Julie Walters, having a nice little role, and I’m always happy when Rob Marshall returns to doing musicals. I tend to not care when he’s doing something else, so it’s a nice sequel, tribute and continuation of the original and there’s also enough where I can appreciate it as its own thing. “Mary Poppins Returns” will make me smile more than ponder, and that alone get a big recommendation from me.

Well, hopefully, if nothing else, this means that there won’t be anymore new movies that’ll make me have to explain why I never loved older movie it’s a sequel or remake of in the future, especially by Disney, ‘cause-, whew! Boy, those would be some troubling landmines I’d have to walk through, that’s a like a Critic’s Worst Nightmare scenario, ain’t it, for the one major company that everybody loves and has a deep personal connection with from their youth to suddenly just start remaking all their worst-but-popular movies, and then having to explain why they were never that great to begin. Ha! Ha! Ha! I mean, thank God, this was just “Mary Poppins”, one that I was always sorta confused by and not really so critical over it, and not one of the really big ones that I don’t think much of, you know?  Let’s hope this is the last of those, am I right, for a long, long, long time!? (Mock loud uproarious laughter) Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, (laughter depressing fades into quiet whiny pouty sighing breath). 


COLD WAR (2018) Director: Pawel Pawlikowska

★★★1/2


Image result for Cold War movie

I seem to be the last holdover who has chosen not to jump onto the Pawel Pawlikowski bandwagon. It’s not the first time, and certainly not the last I suspect I'll be against the crowd, but-eh, I just-,  I just don’t get this guy. Even this movie, “Cold War” which is easily my favorite of his films, it leaves me cold at times as it tells a tale of star-crossed musicians who are irrevocably cursed by circumstance and geography. This makes sense, Pawlikowski is Polish by way of France and England, and well-, of all Poland has been cursed by it’s location. This time, he looks not just at Poland, but of Europe in general from the late ‘40s to the mid ‘60s. In her positive review of the movie, Manohla Dargis makes an observation that I think spells out my issue with him. She writes: “Pawlikowska has idea he wants you to chew over but at times, his narrative brevity can make the story feel as it’s stopping before it’s begun.”

Yep, that’s exactly what it is. “Cold War” is only a brisk 88 minutes or so, and it’s a beautiful movie. Shot in black and white and playing with aspect ratio to resemble movies of the ‘50s, but it doesn’t feel like any movie from that era I know. Sadly, the director he most reminds me of is actually the French filmmaker Claude Chabrol, another guy who’s films I can rarely get around to liking, because all he seems to want to do is get to a point of interest for us and then, go off drifting on his own and never getting back around to the interesting characters and story he was telling. Pawlikowski is overall better than him, but I have struggled with his movies. I gave “My Summer of Love” and “Ida”, the latter of which was wildly popular and earned him an Oscar for Best Foreign Language film multiple viewings and I could only really must a half-hearted appreciation at best. He is clearly talented, but there’s a way to do this drifting episodic narrative well. The greatest Polish director of all-time, Krzyzstof Kieslowski, could do it well, and his stories, while also dwelling on the political turmoil underneath were also filled with magic, coincidence and chance that always made those driftings into new avenues feel like strangely natural musings his characters would find themselves into. Pawlikowski, doesn’t have that sense of wonder, granted he doesn’t have to have to it, but it does bug me that he never seems to be going anywhere even when he is.

“Cold War” actually has a secret little trick written into it that makes it far more tolerable and dare I say, inviting then all his other efforts. It’s a musical. His two on-again off-again lovers are constantly bumping into each other through different parts of a geopolitically-everchanging Europe because they’re struggling musicians. The first time Wiktor (Thomas Kot) meets Zula (Joanna Kulig), she’s auditioning for his work, commissioned by the government for traditional rural folk songs. They fall in love almost instantly, even though they’re quite different people both musically and personality wise. They periodically have new flings with each other hopscotching over locations and time periods as their lives constantly change based on circumstances. He tries to get her out of Poland, she marries an Italian, he stays, then she goes back, they meet up in Yugoslavia and Paris occasionally, they’re two people who love each other who can’t seem to ever find the right time to be in each other’s lives.

I said this was a musical above everything else, and it is in the most classical Bob Fosse version of a cinematic diegetic musical. We constantly find ourselves cutting to song, usually their either performing or recording, sometimes together, other times apart. There are other characters too, most of them are obviously metaphorical stand-ins for their troubles. For the most part, I like these two. I wish it was a little bit of a deeper exploration of them, but for a Cold War version of “A Star is Born”, essentially, I’m okay with the way this was, even if I had no real idea what they were singing about most of the time, even with the subtitled lyrics. The music varies drastically in style throughout the movie as well; this film must’ve been a trip to music supervise. By my count, there’s at least half a dozen genres that spread over two or three continents of influence. It’s rare to see a movie where rock’n’roll seems to come into characters lives around this time before jazz, but I can imagining that happening here.

I guess overall, Pawlikowski continues to make me more and more impressed with each film, but I’m still waiting to be blown away by him narratively the way everybody else is. The cinematography by Lukasz Zal is utterly superb at times; and I bought the world and the romance between these two. I’m told the story is loosely inspired by his parents, and their travels during his youth. He spent time all other Europe and has several interests. Arguably, filmmaking isn’t even his main artistic pursuit. I suppose he is going to continue to get better in my eyes the more films of his I see; that said, despite my praise of “Cold War”, I’m ultimately underwhelmed, at least based on how everyone else seems to be praising him.


NEVER LOOK AWAY (2018) Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

★★★★★



I guess it was inevitable that Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck would inevitably make a World War II movie, and that it was also inevitable that his, would be a little bit different from others. Henckel von Donnersmarck is the great director behind “The Lives of Others”, the movie that won the Foreign Language Oscar about the horrors of living in East Germany during the ‘70s and ‘80s. It’s been twelve years between German films for the native of the country, with only a minor forgettable American film entry, “The Tourist” to his credit since. He’s actually quite a Western-style filmmaker in approach, and a classic one at that; I was actually surprised he didn’t pan out in America. He was educated in England and he easily could’ve fit in here if he wanted to. That said, I think the secret to his work might be not in what his influences are, but in what he studied at Oxford. While it’s easy to make jokes about philosophy majors, it’s the one major Liberal Arts people like me have a slight edge on, credibility-wise, but I do think he finds interesting stories to tell because of this slant. “The Lives of Others” was all about a man whose philosophy and morals were being challenged as he was listening in on conversations of people who he was told were subversives to the regime, but found much more inspiration in their lives than his.

Now, World War II, especially from a German perspective, is filled with several layers of philosophical and moral conundrums, but that’s too easy for him.

No, instead he concocts a peculiar sweeping epic narrative that includes several different philosophical and moral dilemmas, many of which are only, at first glance tertiarily-connected to the War. For one thing, the movie mostly takes place after the war, but the movie does begin in the middle of it.

It’s gonna hard to talk about this movie’s plot entirely, for several reasons. It’s a pretty episodic and sprawling narrative epic; I can see this being a David Lean movie in another alternative universe, but let’s begin with Kurt (Tom Schilling), he’s a young ambitious painter, a son of reluctant Nazis, the kind who joined, basically because they were out-of-work if they didn’t and were betting on them winning the war. We don’t meet them first, instead, we meet his Aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) who takes her nephew to see a display of deviant art, basically any modern art that Hitler didn’t like, which was all modern art. The first thing to note is that Saskia Rosendahl gives the first of many great performances in the film, but she doesn’t survive the war and Kurt’s family, especially his professor father, Johann (Jorg Schuttauf) who after the war can only get a job painting steps at the sign-painting job that Kurt gets.

Kurt eventually gets into art school in the GDR where he is taught socialist realism painting, as the USSR’s influence has now superseded everything else in the aftermath. Kurt’s a good painter, so he’s constantly finding work even if it’s in art that he’s not particularly fond of. He then meets Ellie (Paula Beer), a fashion student and the two hit it off. It’s a whirlwind romance that comes with complications and angles from Ellie’s parents. Her mother Martha (Ina Seeband) is more knowing than she lets on, but it’s the father Carl (Sebastian Koch) that’s the big trouble.

How do I describe her father? Hmmm. Remember the Alec Baldwin character from “Malice”? He’s kinda like that, only a Nazi. And evil. I know that should go without saying, but he’s evil, even for a Nazi. If you’ve ever seen “Labyrinth of Lies”, or occasionally read a story or two about how they’re still catching and finding Nazis across the world, you’d know that not every one of them, even in Germany were sent away, but Carl is the best and most high-profile gynecologist in the country and through some maneuvering, he manages to keep himself protected for awhile and stay in a high position of power and authority. He’s against the relationship from the start, and takes some serious actions in order to prevent and halt it; he’s planning these actions even before Ellie and Kurt announce that they’re actually together.

Now, I’ve given a very brief outline of about half of the movie until now, and there’s already a lot here believe it or not. The second half of the movie, mostly takes place in the West, as both couples have managed to get out of the GDR, and Kurt, now married to Ellie, enrolls in an avant-garde art school program in Dusseldorf and studies under the tutelage of Antonius van Verten (Oliver Masucci). Masucci also gives an amazing supporting performance here as a eclectic and mysterious artist who sees in Kurt a vague “Truth” that he knows he needs to be able to pull out of him. Another one of Henckel von Donnersmarck’s themes in these films has been art and there’s artistic philosophy and debate in his movies as well. The Socialist Realists believe that art is for the public, the people and should represent that, and look at people who went into art to express their own personal inner thoughts as egotistical and selfish, while the avant-garde are of course, not concerned with receiving continuous monetary work, but are also feel that art itself is only the seeking out of one’s personal truth and expressing it as the only really powerful image; finding out what it is that makes you, the artist, unique and expressing it through their art.

Honestly, I kinda understand both sides of this argument; I’ve been on both sides. I’ll say this though, the one time I tried to write something that was specifically intended to be made to appeal to a great public, that was by far my worst piece of writing. I don’t know if anybody else would think that, but I know I would, and as Antonius says, only the artist knows for certain if the work is indeed any good.

Eventually, Kurt and Carl’s unknown shared past, their present and their futures collide in a stunning display of artistic greatness and expression. It admittedly takes a while to get there, but the same was true with “The Lives of Others” but it was worth it, and this time it’s more than just building up to final last freeze frame close-up, after the power of artistic expression has moved us to emotions we couldn’t imagine, although it ends that way too. “The Lives of Others” and “Never Look Away” are really two striking bookends to very complex yet similar tales about self-discovery of old secrets that transcend, the personal, the historic, time and place, life and death, and the world of art, and he could give us all this in a much simpler narrative and it would be still be powerful, but Henckel von Donnersmarck takes him time, gives us a very slow and deliberate tales that aren’t simple. They’re complex choices made in everchanging complex worlds that mean life and death sometimes, but sometimes much more than both of them. The movie received two Oscar nomination, including a really shocking nomination for the movie’s cinematography, which the movie absolutely deserved. Frankly, I think it got short-changed, this is one of the best movies of the year. I can see why he took so long to get to this movie, ‘cause he’s trying to encapture seemingly everything that he wants to express in this movie, very much like Tom Schilling’s main character; this movie isn’t just about the struggles of a young man turning into a great artist, it’s by a young filmmaker and he’s doing an incredible job in exactly how to detail those struggles and he just pushes it all on the screen. And normally, when you see a movie like that, it’s a pretentious disaster, that at best only critics are gonna love and even then; he makes this way more palatable than this story ever should be. And this is a complex story, not just in the visual style of how it’s told, it’s a sprawling family epic essentially, filled with war and romance and melodrama; it’s goddamn “Gone With the Wind”, or-, well, it’s WWII, so “Doctor Zhivago” if you just describe the events and the narrative, kinda nonchalantly, but there is so much else and so much more than that, than just, no pun intended, the broad strokes of the paintbrush, it’s those details that take this movie and add give it so much more and even in the best writer/directors, you don’t see filmmakers who trust their audience this much to justify this kind of story and trust us that he knows what he’s doing and it’s going to turn out special, and at least when he’s working in his home country it does.

I still feel bad for him about “The Tourist”, which, is mostly only remembered by being liked by the Golden Globes voters who were bribed to like it, and I still think he could be an effective Hollywood director, but, you know, if Werner Herzog wasn’t still alive, he’d be Germany’s most compelling and fascinating filmmaker, but everybody's second in compelling to him.


CHRISTOPHER ROBIN (2018) Director: Marc Forster

★★★


Image result for Christopher Robin


“…Back to the house at Pooh Corner by one.
You’d be surprised, there’s so much to be done.
Count all the bees in the hive
Chase all the clouds from the sky…”- UGH!!!!

As long as this movie’s been on my radar, that damn “Back to the Days of Pooh” song by Kenny Loggins of all fucking people by the way, has been stuck in my head! Every time I scan my Netflix queue and spot the movie, every time I’ve checked it’s hold status at my library, and now that I’ve got a DVD of it, and it’s been waiting patiently for me to watch it, it’s just been…,

“...Back to the days of Christopher Robin and Pooh...

Don’t get me wrong, I actually love that song; it holds a powerful memory for me from a being a kid and hearing it on the radio, all the fucking time. Seriously, it only hit #53 on the charts, but I don't believe that. I heard it way more often then that, which I was delighted with, but always puzzled by. Like, this was a hit song? A song about Winnie-the-Pooh? I mean, sure it was clearly on the soft rock side of adult alternative, but I like that genre, and as much as I’m sick of it being stuck in my head,  I always liked this song, and I love “Winnie-the-Pooh”.

Well, actually, I hated “Winnie-the-Pooh”. The movie with that title; I should say. I’m actually a huge Pooh fan elsewise, but that was the last time I ran into A.A. Milne’s beloved Hundred Acres Woods, and I despised that movie so much that I actually ranked it as my Worst Film of that year. I felt betrayed by that film; it was insincere, contrived, and frankly felt like it was an insult to what I thought of as Winnie-the-Pooh. That said, I may have been a little hard on it and let selective memory cloud my judgment. One of my big criticisms was a ridiculous musical number where Winnie-the-Pooh has what I described as an orgasmic montage to honey. I still say that’s true, but a few people noted that I had forgotten about a similar song in my favorite Pooh movie, “The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh”, and that the film wasn’t actually all that different from other Winnie-the-Pooh titles…. Yeah, I guess that’s true. Frankly, I did forget that there was a similar song and dance number in that film, and I never liked that song either, but everything else in that movie is so natural, episodic, iconic, and quintessential Winnie-the-Pooh, that frankly I overlooked it. Everything else felt like Winnie-the-pooh to me while “Winnie-the-Pooh”, with a narrative about the whole of the Woods being afraid of a Backson Monster having kidnapped “Christopher Robin”, did not. It felt a very bad TV episode of one of the Winnie-the-Pooh TV shows stretch to barely cover feature film length, and I still stand by how bad that movie actually is.

Anyway, what’s this new, “Christopher Robin” (Ewan McGregor) movie about anyway? (Reads back of DVD cover)  Oh crap; he’s a grown-up?! One of those movies?! Didn’t I just watch “Mary Poppins Returns”? Where did this weird idea that we want our childhood child characters, especially famously Disney animated characters to be real and grown up and revisit the magical world of their-, it was “Hook” wasn’t it. (Sighs) Alright, just don’t make me feel like I’m watching a bastardized version of Winnie-the-Pooh? I mean, this movie’s got a good director and really good writers, so, we should be okay….

(2 HOURS LATER)

Well, it’s not the last “Winnie-the-Pooh” movie, so that’s a big positive for it so far. I’m not terribly crazy about live-action “Winnie-the-Pooh”, but I guess the Visual Effects are pretty damn good here, other than the fact that Rabbit (Peter Capaldi), looks a little too much like,- well, a real Rabbit, I’m fairly okay with it. The Production Design I think was particularly amazing I might add. Still though, I’m wondering if this is truly the best use of Winnie-the-Pooh. (Jim Cummings) Or for that matter, the best use of “Christopher Robin.” Was anybody clamoring for this? Did anybody ever once read or watch a “Winnie-the-Pooh” book/movie/tv show and thought, “I wonder what happens when Christopher Robin grows up?” Seriously, did anybody want Christopher Robin to go off to boarding school, to go meet his wife, Evelyn (Hayley Atwell) to have a kid of own, Madeline, (Bronte Carmichael)  to, go off and fight in World War II-, what the…- (Sigh) Really? And now, to go and work all day for a failing briefcase company?

Okay, let’s go back to “Hook” for a second. Now, I liked that film as a kid, and admittedly I still think it holds up fairly well, but I don’t think it’s a great movie and the more I think about it, I don’t think anybody wanted to see Peter Pan grown up, but that said, it works. Partly cause it’s Robin Williams, and everybody read him as a big kid anyway based on his public image, so for him, we gave leeway, but also because the idea and motif of not growing up is written into the original mythology of “Peter Pan”, and therefore seeing a scenario where he’d, somehow, had now grown up and become an adult with kids of his own and had to recapture and remember that youth of his life as the Kid Who Never Grew Up, was an interesting new wrinkle and feature into the original narrative;  it was a bit of a weave into it, but at least it made sense to explore it. Now, let’s look at Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” for a second, ‘cause it kinda works there too but for a different reason. For one, Alice isn’t entirely grown up, she’s still fairly young, at least in the first one-, we’re going to pretend “Alice Through the Looking Doesn’t Glass” doesn’t exist, which is probably a good idea anyway, but also the original story is so out there and the fictional world of Wonderland was intentionally written to have a lot of creative flexibility to begin with and had been re-imagined and reconceived several times over at that point that it’s really natural to play with any or all of the elements that exist with it; so why not Alice revisiting it years later? And also, back to “Mary Poppins Returns”, well, Mary Poppins wasn’t just a standalone story to begin with; there’s actually several Mary Poppins books, and that story was always about adults rediscovering their youth through their kids’ whimsical nanny, so again, it’s built into the narrative pretty easily to have this kind of story.

“Winnie-the-Pooh”, doesn’t really have that though. The Hundred Acre Wood, always just existed- that’s one of the reasons I’m not always big on blatantly revealing the major conceit about the characters being childhood toys of Christopher Robin to begin with, I always thought it was better to allude to that, without bludgeoning us with that fact, and yeah, “Christopher Robin” does that here, although it found a cute way of getting away it, but also Christopher Robin was always Christopher Robin; there’s nothing about him growing up or anything in the stories or narratives, he’s just the boy that lives in his treehouse in the middle of the woods and occasionally he comes out to play and hang out with his friends. There’s no greater exploration of Christopher Robin outside of this world that I’m too aware of, and it’s also not really a natural part of the narrative of the story. Like, all the other versions of this narrative I’ve mentioned, I get the appeal or why somebody would think of it as an idea worth exploring. I’m kinda befuddled as to why Christopher Robin is getting this treatment though.

Also, what the hell; he becomes such a stick in the mud that he reads British history books to his kid and repeats his boss’s stubborn views on dreams not being free? Read her a goddamn fairy tale you dumbfuck; Jesus, what exactly did the war do to you?! Or was it the boarding school that brainwashed you this badly? UGH!

So why am I recommending this, despite several issues I have with it? Well, it gets the world of Pooh right. I mean, he does pop into the real world after waking up to find the Hundred Acre Wood unusually foggy and empty, so he goes to see Christopher Robin, who naturally is going crazy. I mean, you can have a bear walking around in London,- well, not a talking stuffed bear anyway, it has to be a spectacled bear from Darkest Peru,...- anyway, so despite, supposed to be working for the weekend, he goes up to Essex to his family cottage and reluctantly reenters the hundred Acre Wood. And, you know what, I’m there. This feels like a story I recognize and told the way I recognize it happening, and sure there’s an adult Christopher Robin trying to recapture his joyous essence that he had as a kid, at least he’s returning to a world that I recognize and one that feels quintessentially like Pooh. Jim Cummings is a perfect Winnie-the-Pooh and it’s wonderful to hear him guiding Christopher Robin back to this world; I’ve never been as big on him as a voice actor that others have, but this is truly some of his best work and it’s helped by some amazing CGI effects. This should look way worst than it really is; I was really frightened to see a live-action Hundred Acre Woods with these beloved plush animals seeming a little too plush for me, but while I thought that last “Winnie-the-Pooh”, felt lazy and rushed, this one, you can clearly tell they took a great deal of time with it. And you know, Ewan McGregor is really giving a tough performance here. Think about it, he’s kinda in the Bob Hoskins role in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” where he has to work with a bunch of talking animals that aren’t there for most of the film. I still question the concept of the film, and this Christopher Robin character, but he does give a really good performance though.

I’m a sucker for Winnie-the-Pooh, and when I see it done well, I feel transported like Christopher Robin does here, and usually all the other times.

I know, I shouldn’t let this so off-the-hook, this cash-in rehash of deconstructionist material that’s been told better and in movies/stories that are better-suited for it, but I can’t help myself. It got Winnie-the-Pooh right and, I’m a sucker for Winnie-the-Pooh. (Shrugs)

“… Back to the days of Christopher Robin
(Back to the days)
Back to the days of Pooh”
(Continues humming the song…)


MIRAI (2018) Director: Momoru Hosoda

★★★★


Image result for Mirai

So, for a while as I was watching “Mirai” I didn’t know how to react to it.

I kept finding myself questioning the film, and myself. I felt like I should be able to relate to this movie, but I wasn’t sure if I was. I mean, I was a young kid like Kun who had a little sibling pop into this world about the time he did, and before that I was the first born and only one around beforehand, so I got all the attention, but I don’t really remember being particularly parse or bratty against my younger brother, or being angry or frustrated at my Mother for not being able to play with me or take care of me as much…. I do remember holding a lot of temper tantrums and crying a lot as a kid; a very lot, I was a crier, but most of that was at school where I had to be with other kids and they were the ones who I felt frustrated by way more than my younger brother. Then again, I also was waiting for him to turn three years old, which is when I remembered having been able to talk and was conscious of who I was, and I presumed that would be when he would start being able to communicate and me and him would evolve into have a real friendship.

(Sigh)

For those who don’t know, my brother never did learn to talk and while I spend many/most of my days keeping an eye on him and caring about him, no, that disappointment that I would have a normal brother who I would talk to and relate wisdom to and be friends with the way I imagined, well that’s never came to be and frankly never will. So, perhaps, “Mirai”, just isn’t a movie I relate to so much after all. Or,…- maybe I do, in a different way?

The young new big brother is Kun, and once his mother and father come home with a new baby girl, soon to be named Mirai, his whole world changes. It changes in episodic ways that everybody would expect and I suspect a great many others, myself included, would understand and relate to. Much of it involves Kun getting frustrated at Mirai, at his parents, at the world,… When that would happen to me, I would usually either be forced to go to my room, or I would go and lock myself in it where I would cry my eyes out or punch a wall, throw my toys around, anything to even keep that feeling of frustration and angered at having my feelings dismissed, or I would try to escape it into my own mind. Usually, however, someone, my mother mostly, would eventually talk me to death until I stopped having those feelings. Honestly, I wish she hadn’t many of those times, though, especially when looking back, my anger was often justified and didn’t really want to be apologetic after not getting what I wanted. Sometimes I was in the wrong though but,…, the point I’m making is that, Kun, seems to have something different happen to him during those moments of frustration as an angry little kid, something that, really kinda confuses me.

Basically, he enters a fantasy world where he enters and he’s visited and helped to get over his frustration by members of his family. Some from the past, like his Great-Grandpa, mostly they’re differing versions of people from his family today. Mirai, for instance, visits Kun as a teenager, along with his mother around the time that he’s Kun’s age. Even his dog, is sometimes a human hobo-like character who claims he’s the Prince of the house in his, um, daydreams? Fantasties? I don’t know what to make of these. Oh, and there’s also talking bullets trains occasionally. Alright, that-, okay, if you are a kid who still likes trains, the Japanese bullet trains are the ones to like so I’ll let that go, but still….

I also pondered that maybe I was overthinking this and Director Momoru Hosoda is just using this little conceit as an excuse to come up with these little aberrational stories. I mean, this is the guy behind "The Girl Who Lept Through Time", clearly manipulation of the timelines is a major motif for him. Sure enough, eventually, he does end up making a larger point about how precious our lives are and how small little moments lead to the future, how all our lives could be different in instants if one or more things happened differently. That does freak me out a lot actually, so, yeah, I guess overall I relate to the themes and motifs of “Mirai”. I still wonder if it’s the absolute best way to explore that, but that said, “Mirai” holds up on it’s own, as a little tale of how a brother got to love both his sister, and gained a greater appreciation of all of his family, and himself. And, honestly, I make fun of the dog being human in his eyes of young Kun, but I actually like that. It reminds me of how in the TV show “Arthur”, D.W. has an imaginary friend and how her little sibling talks to all the animals and they have distinct adult personalities and quirks.

I think my trepidations while watching the film are mostly of my own doing. “Mirai” works beautifully for who it’s intended for and that’s little kids who are struggling to understand the world they’re now apart of and the emotions they can’t seem to fully understand or control. That’s a good message no matter the age, but I think “Mirai” will probably work best on really little kids and for some of them, they probably really needs this to be apart of their regular collection. I can easily see myself growing to adore and love this movie if it were in my regular rotation of movies that I would put on at all hours of the day the way the way some kids do now with streaming or the way I used to with all my VHS tapes as a kid. That said, eh, yeah, I don’t want to run into younger or older version of my family members, anytime soon. Like,-, no! 


THE OLD MAN & THE GUN (2018) Director: David Lowery

★★★★


Image result for The Old Man & The Gun

I guess I should confess something here that perhaps might be a little controversial to say, but I’ve actually been thinking about it lately, so here it goes…- I- I have never really understood why people considered Robert Redford attractive. That’s been his thing for so long that it’s basically written into the mythology about him; that he’s always been this young, extremely handsome young man and that’s in turn made certain it sometimes dismissive about his acting ability. I guess it’s not a particularly unusual thing for a straight man to not care or consider another straight man attractive, but I’ve seen a good deal of his early work, and…- he’s good-looking I guess. (Shrugs) I don’t know, I just don’t get the image that I’ve seen and heard about him being this great heartthrob. I tend to see him as an actor, and honestly there are times where I wonder if that’s not overrated too. I know, this is ridiculous naval-gazing of an unburdened mind, but in recent years it’s been somewhat notable that he often got cast in leading roles for actors that he was probably too old for, still living off his “incredible” good looks. Hell, I’ve been hearing that since he did “The Natural”, where famously they really had to adjust the lighting severely to make him look as young as he was in that movie’s early scenes where he played a teenager, and that movie was thirty years ago. I’m sure it’s just me, I just-, I don’t know, whenever I think of the great handsome actors of Hollywood’s bygone eras, Redford’s name never really pops up in my mind; yet, his looks overtake everything else about him, image-wise. Perhaps he was and still is this good-looking and I’m just looking backwards with younger eyes and I see the movies and roles instead. He has spent the majority of his career fighting this image of him, and I guess since there are people like me who only buys the great looks thing as necessary conjecture, then it must’ve worked; I guess.

Still, for a little while in “The Old Man & The Gun”, I wondered about this image of his. Perhaps the opposite effect happens now, now that I’ve overcome his fascination with his looks, does he still hold up as one of our great actors? Or was he actually that great to begin with? It’s worth noting that his only competitive Oscar win came, as a director, not an actor, and not even for a movie he starred in. And much of his image nowadays is of that stoic aged man who’s working his way through classic situation that you’d expect from and Eastwood or John Wayne type these days. Maybe he was always like this and not that young newlywed with Jane Fonda in "Barefoot in the Park" rattling off Neil Simon’s words at rapid fire speed, or a determined Bob Woodward trying to get to the bottom of the biggest political scandal of all-time. It somehow feels appropriate that The Sundance Kid finishes his career, at least according to some purported rumors in a movie called “The Old Man & The Gun”; which is a title and image that seems so iconically American, I’m surprised that Jean-Luc Godard didn’t add that as a post-script to “All you need for a movie is a girl and a gun” comment; “Unless, it’s an American film, then all you need is an old man and a gun.”

Anyway, all this aside, I stopped thinking about all this, perhaps twenty minutes into the film when I realize, “No, I’m just imagining things, Redford really is one of our greatest actors.” A lot of this thought process was also my ambivalence towards the film’s director, David Lowery. I know there’s some people who really love his work, but I had previously just been ambivalent towards him at best, and sometimes I’ve outright despised his work. I got I like his early breakout “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” fine, but I found his work less and less interesting and inspiring since. I particularly panned “A Ghost Story” a movie that made a lot of people’s Best of the Year Lists, but made my Worst List; I even saw one critic who I highly respect say in regards to that film, that “A Ghost Story” didn’t deserve any other Oscar nominations, but that Lowery should win for Best Directing for it.” I couldn’t disagree more; I stand by this one. It wasn’t a beautifully poetic meditation on life, death and life-after-death, it was cinematic naval gazing and not even the good kind, and I’d seen similar student films that were more interesting. That said, he is talented, and sometimes a movie I didn’t like of his wasn’t entirely his fault; I suspected “Pete’s Dragon” was never that good to begin with, and didn’t need a gothic Americana filmmaker to help it.

Actually, I’ve always compared him to some of the more Malick-esque southern gothic filmmakers like early David Gordon Green or Jeff Nichols, but now that I think about it, Lowery actually has a lot of Robert Redford, the director in him. Not that I want one, but if somebody wanted a remake of “A River Runs Through It”, I’d probably think of Lowery. He likes long nostalgic, elegiac takes on people, places and land. But, like Redford who’s inconsistent as a director, he proves he’s capable of something more streamlined and quick-paced narratively. (I always thought Redford’s best directorial work was “Quiz Show”.)

Anyway, Redford plays Forrest Tucker, the leader of the Over-the-Hill Gang, as the police, led by John Hunt (Casey Affleck) have come to call them. Based on a real gang, they’re three old veteran bank robbers who are known for carrying their AARP cards, and pulling off about a hundred or so bank robberies in quick succession and doing so, fairly quietly. Gentlemanly at times. So quietly, Hunt was actually in a bank when Forrest and his gang, Teddy (Danny Glover) and Waller (Tom Waits) struck and he didn’t notice until they were long gone. Forrest is no ordinary criminal; he’s been a thief since he’s been a teenager and although he’s been caught before in his youth, he has an uncanny way of being able to escape from prison, with sixteen different escapes to his name, including his most recent one a couple years earlier from San Quentin. (He escaped that by building a boat!)

He’s not slowing down, but he does find a girlfriend now, in Jewel (Sissy Spacek) a widow who’s got a large ranch with horses that she’s paying off the mortgage on. The movie does play a bit with Redford’s mystique here, like his character having a quirk of never having ridden on a horse, which we as the audience know is an inside joke. There’s a few of those in the film. “The Old & the Gun” is the first time I’ve really enjoyed a David Lowery movie; it’s almost like he’s responding to the critiques of his previous work with this, by far his most commercial film to date. (Strange, considering his last film was a Disney remake) That said, it’s still his film though. He’s more interested in character than plot and the movie does spend a great deal of time just letting our characters live. Like, how we get a lot of Lt. Hunt’s family, like his wife Maureen (Tika Sumpter), and we don’t get some of the normal scenes we’d expect. We do get a head-to-head between Forrest and John, but that’s all. He doesn’t even catch the guy. There is a strong cameo by Elisabeth Moss that’s worth noting as well. He picking and selecting well those cliché scenes he’s supposedly supposed to have along with a movie about cops and robbers, but he’s finding good uses of how to circumvent them. He cinematic tendencies that have frustrated me in other films, I don’t mind here, ‘cause they feel like they’re helping to advance the story here.

Now I’m looking forward to Lowery’s next film, and I’m also saddened that I won’t be expecting a new one from Redford. If this is his final film, it’s a strong one to go out on, one that showcases all his great skills and is a celebration of all the things we’ve loved about him to begin with.


DIVIDE AND CONQUER: THE STORY OF ROGER AILES (2018) Director: Alexis Bloom

★★★★1/2


Image result for divide and conquer the story of roger ailes

Well, here’s one film I’d been avoiding. My thought going into “Divide and Conquer…”, were mostly of dread. I mean, did I need a movie about Roger Ailes, absolutely not. There is literally nothing I can learn about him that I really don’t know already, and I, and I assume most of you, know quite a bit more about Ailes than we frankly ever should’ve. I was thinking about any other television network pioneer I could watch a movie about their life. Pat Weaver? Dick Ebersol? Hell, I’d watching a glowing tribute to Les Moonves than watch anything good or bad, about Ailes, and as the creator of Fox News, it’s all bad. But, I got startled by the first talking head I saw. “It’s easy to make somebody into a monster; it’s hard to see, that you’re on that path too,” one of the last people in the world I’d expect to make such a statement says as he leans intently into the camera.

For those not entirely aware of Ailes’s history, he was a Producer on “The Mike Douglas Show” before leaving the position to become Nixon’s media advisor; it’s also fair to say that Ailes efforts put Nixon, Reagan, arguably George W., and inevitably Trump into the White House. He also created Fox News, under Rupert Murdoch’s Newscorp Brand. I will admit to being struck by seeing Austin Pendleton, the great character actor being one of the first interviewers, as apparently they were classmates in Warren, Ohio; where Ailes, a hemophiliac, grew up with a violent father who is one of those self-hating Union men who believed the efforts of the Unions would drive companies out of town. I’ve met a few people like that over the years; he’s probably the only one who was actually smart.
Smart-but-cynical about the American public. One of the facts that I find truly fascinating was an idea found in the annals of the Nixon library about a proposed plan to have GOP Congressman skip over talking to the national news outlets and instead, spend money on creating video responses to send to local news outlets in all the GOP’s districts as a way to skip over what he perceived as the liberal media and bring the messages directly to the people. God, even then, everybody thought the media was liberal. The plan was never fully implemented, but it’s now recognized as the blueprint for Fox News. Just, continually push the agenda to the base market and not let the other outlets get in the way. There’s something truly cynical and eerie about the way he worked, and not just that he used the dirtiest tactics and was inspired by Leni Riefenstahl propaganda movies about Hitler, but it was how he essentially believed that, instead of using the-, there’s a reason he chose Fox, Fox never obliged by the airways standards that the other three networks have set; it’s a technicality-thing based on the kind of airwaves the transmission bases they have, but essentially it’s the reason that Fox, the main network, never had a national nightly news show, while on NBC, ABC, and CBS, every night at 5:30pm, there’s the news. I mean, I get the strategy, but it’s the cynicism that perplexes and frustrates me; to me, the idea of starting a new network is to put out there own’s own different and distinct vision, something new into to enter and float into the ether of the the television landscape and ecosystem, not as a vehicle to circumnavigate everything else.

That said, I did totally forget about “America’s Talking”, an all-talk show network from back when everybody claimed talk show’s infiltration of the TV landscape was Andy Warhol’s declaration of everybody getting their fifteen minutes of fame, that was essentially a progenitor to Fox News. A lot of it was more salacious then political, even Ailes’s own show was basically just an excuse for him to hang out with celebrities. Ironically, it eventually turned into MSNBC, which is when Ailes left and created Fox News, literally as revenge. His timing was perfect as they struck right when the Monica Lewinsky scandal hit. Not just because of his hatred for the Clintons, which is an anger that I genuinely have no idea where that comes from, especially from this aspect of the Right, who probably should like Clinton more than I do in some respects, but mainly because, he was thrilled with the salacious details of his affairs, and worst than that, he was annoyed that he got caught; which he didn’t respect.

The movie does something interesting time period-wise, where it constantly interjects the historical accounts of Roger’s life with period first-hand interview accounts of the women who’ve accused Ailes of some form of sexual assault or discrimination. A lot of them either worked for his network or were trying to work for it. The way it’s described here, if you didn’t curtail to his every sexual whim, then you in some cases, would be put on a no-hire list and tossed out of the industry. I’ve heard similar accounts of Harvey Weinstein. How do these people manage to mangle their way into being in charge? Their appetite for perversion and power seem to come hand-in-hand, and Ailes is in many ways worst than Weinstein. All he wanted to ever do with his power was make movies and win awards; Ailes wanted to “rile up the crazies” as one former Fox News Producer remembers. Ailes also went to back for his talent when they were accused, hiring a private eye who he had on his shows to dig up dirt on the woman who had recordings of Bill O’Reilly sexually harassing her.  

One thing that is fascinating about Roger Ailes is his state of mind over the years, especially as he seemed to be falling into depths of paranoia at Fox News; his prejudices getting in the way, partly of his promotion and selling of the Women of Fox News, those websites that I always thought were fan sites of sexualized screenshots of the hosts and anchors that were apparently part of the marketing. Carrying a gun on him at all times, having his office behind several layers of bulletproof steel walls, because a Middle Eastern accountant had to bring a document to him. The most Citizen Kane-like of his behavior was his ownership of a newspaper, the Putnam County Register. Yeah, Putnam County; his lived on a mansion on a hill there and immediately used the paper to grab at the Local Councilmen and tried to get them out of public office by running some handpicked candidates. It didn’t work, one of the few elections he did seem to genuinely lose, but his fascination with the small-town paper and local issues when he had the world is simply troubling and downright trivial, like he’s looking for some kind of idyllic red state life that never existed in the first place. The most famous story he tells about his youth, regarding his father telling him he’ll catch him from the bunk beds and then the father pulling back, his brother claims, never happened.

More disturbing is how he handled Gretchen Carlsen suing him for sexual harassment, trying to not settle and make an example of her, and insisting on every women he can find on the network to come out in support. Members of his own Legal P.R. team that were, not paid or hired, and are able to actually talk about it, actually come forward for the movie and discuss it, in a fairly distressing and sobering look at just how the power elite try to silence and get rid of their sins. In this case, it didn’t work, especially after Megan Kelly came forward to support Gretchen, and then the floodgates opened all the back to women from when he produced “The Mike Douglas Show”. Also, interestingly, how Murdoch’s sons hired their own P.I. to look into themselves, against their father’s wishes. I doubt they did that out of the goodness of their bleeding liberal hearts, but that is an interesting dynamic to keep a lookout for as Murdoch, who’s just as slimy and condescending if not moreso than dear old Ailes, if/when his time finally comes what will happen.

Alexis Bloom’s documentary is definitely fascinating and more entertaining then, perhaps I wish it were. Ailes’s influence isn’t dead yet and as long as Fox News is still shaped in his diluted image, I doubt it’ll ever go away completely. The movie gets a pretty decent amount of Fox news names and personalities to interview and give us insight into a darkened world that is probably still spewed towards the wretched. It was run by a smart and powerful man who was determined to defeat his enemies, even if he first had to create them. He was right about one thing, there isn’t much good that can be said about him.

Although that one person at the beginning, who said Ailes was on the path to being a monster did say that he was glad that, among everything else, he was happy that Conservative did have a voice in the media because of Roger Ailes, and told him so when he left Fox News. I think that’s a bit of an exaggeration, the liberal media was never exactly as liberal as everybody likes to pretend or claim it to be, but he’s not entirely untrue about Ailes’s giving it a bigger platform. And while I still don’t think much of Glenn Beck or most of his points of view, it is nice to see that he has tried to stop being the monster that Fox News created out of him now.


A PRIVATE WAR (2018) Director: Matthew Heineman

★★★

Image result for A Private War

Director Matthew Heineman is a war documentary filmmaker and a damn good one at that.. He’s made some important and amazing films over the years, most recently “City of Ghosts”. I guess that means it’s no surprise that his first non-documentary feature film would be about someone who’s in pretty much the same field, the famous war journalist the late Marie Colvin (Rosamund Pike), but boy do I wish it wasn’t. Not that it’s bad or anything, but man, for somebody who makes serious films, I really wish he would’ve taken the time to, when making his feature with actors, make something that was, I don’t know, a little lighter; something that’s not so heavy. I mean, it could still be about documenting war,- okay, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” kinda already took that comedy mantle for the subject matter, but (Sigh), I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.

There’s a short list of jobs/careers that I genuinely can’t believe people have, war journalist and/or war photographer, has got to be right near the top of that list. For the right money, it doesn’t surprise me that somebody would inseminate cows or pick up garbage or whatever else might show up on “Dirty Jobs” one day, and even then, some of those jobs might be passed down as just a larger part of a bigger job, like farmer or something, but there’s a certain type of moral aptitude meets eccentric rogue recklessness mixed in with a fair amount of crazy that even the most extreme of adrenaline junkies would be taken aback by that goes into making a war journalist. Hell, it takes a little bit of introverted quirkiness, frank candor and alcoholism just to become a journalist to begin with and then to be so brave and detached from the world that diving headfirst into the deadliest warzones on the planet is just out right normal for these people…- like, I legitimately think I understand being a soldier more than I do a war journalist. It’s an important job, don’t get me wrong, but no, I would not hustle and con my way into Fallujah to unbury one of Saddam Hussein’s mass graves, basically as a lark, find dozens of decomposed and broken bodies and skeletal remains, and then go home and try to fuck the horrors out of your system with some other random journalist they run into in a bar.

This is also, routine, and after Marie got her eye shot out in Sri Lanka and began wearing a signature eyepatch like Raoul Walsh. At some point, she ends up in a psychiatric hospital as she suffers from PTSD; which- I don’t know if PTSD in this job is distinguishable from her normal condition or behaviors, but apparently, they do get it too. At one point, her cameraman Paul (Jamie Dornan) tries to get to know her better and all she seems to be able to do is emotionally list off several contradictions about herself, which is basically all I can do myself. That is a great speech though and Rosamund Pike is definitely the star here. The movie basically is her performance.  

The problem is that the movie isn’t much else. Her life is a story worth telling but it’s difficult to put it into any form of a narrative. I mean, they try, they start with her already having been a long-time successful war journalist, and then they follow her into Sri Lanka, Iraq, Lybia, and inevitably Syria, but basically the movie just shows her life more than anything else. The movie touches on a couple of her romances, most memorably with Tony Shaw (Stanley Tucci) but it doesn’t get much deeper than that. It’s a harrowing film; it’s a harrowing life, going from warzone to warzone, atrocity to atrocity, genocide to genocide, deep in the heart of places no one else in the world knows about. I can see why Matthew Heineman would make Marie the subject of his first non-documentary feature film. I guess they deal with some of the private turmoils that haunted her, but I think even she knew that her little concerns, while they might drive her crazy in drunken rages in the privacy of her own living room, they at least were manageable and fit right in with the horrors of the world she covered. Yeah, that’s another thing about this profession, the people who do it, they probably have severe difficulties coping in what we would otherwise consider the normal world. I guess, that means the movie that “A Private War” most reminds me of is “The Hurt Locker”, at least in terms of a narrative, but that movie is more about the side effects of war than “A Private War” is about the side effects of war journalism.

“A Private War” is a tribute to it’s heroine, and a document of, not what happens to war journalists but documents the kind of lives that a war journalist has. I guess in that manor I’m recommending it, but again, I wish Matthew Heineman would’ve taken this opportunity to tell some other story. I’ll be happy if/when he makes his next documentary-, well, happy’s probably not the right word, but perhaps he’ll be back in his element. And if he makes some other traditional feature film in the future, I hope it’s of a different subject matter. I mean, as important as it is to cover the most horrific incidents of the world, you can’t do it all the time; you need a little levity. Perhaps if once in a while, Marie could find something else to get into, she’d be alive today…-, but then again, I doubt that would be the best use of her talents, in much the same way that I suspect Heineman believes that making something other than covering the atrocities happening all around the world, would be a waste of his.


MANDY (2018) Director: Panos Cosmatos

★★★★1/2


Image result for Mandy

Well, it’s a Friday night; I gotta a busy day tomorrow. I think I’m just gonna watch the next movie, write a quick review and then get some rest for the morning.

(2 ½ HOURS LATER)

What in the fucking hell did I just watch?!

Okay, I don’t even know where to begin with this one. I don’t know the director well enough to compare to something he did, although I can certainly catch his influences, but there’s a lot of them. Was there a point to this movie, something greater than all of it’s parts, was there symbolism here? Well, clearly there’s symbolism here, I mean,- everything is symbolic? Right? Right? Maybe not? I- I actually don’t think there’s more to this though. This feels like a cinematic exercise is excess. Violent, stylized crazed insane excess! Excess of ideas, excess of,- just, movie. This is a movie movie!

Okay, I gotta-, calm down from this hallucinogenic high here, ‘cause clearly, this film has-eh,…-

(Deep Breath)

Okay, “Mandy”. Well, the first thing of note is that the movie is the last film that was scored by the Oscar-winning Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson. Basically, the way it’s been explained to me is that when it comes to music from Iceland, there’s Bjork, this guy, and that’s about it. He was a great composer btw, and it is a sad lost, but the movie got some posthumous recognition for its score because of that. So, I was a bit startled when the first thing I heard from the movie was a King Crimson song! You don’t play King Crimson unless you got something really big planned.

And there is. There is. There’s a lot coming.

I don’t recognize the Director’s name, Panos Cosmatos, so I’m a little blind going in here, but I can tell some of his influences. Early David Lynch, that’s pretty obvious. This movie reminded me way too much of “Dune” in the way it was shot and paced, and normally that’d be a bad thing ‘cause that is Lynch’s worst movie, but I don’t mind it here. Still, I gotta do some research on this guy, he’s way too unique and different for me to skim over him just because I’m not familiar with his work, so give me a minute here….

(Five minutes later)

Okay, I remember hearing about this guy now. This is the first film of his I’ve seen but I definitely remember hearing about his first film, “Beyond the Black Rainbow”. I meant to get to that sooner, but I didn’t hear about it ‘til late, and it caught on mostly with the underground indy-horror circuit, so it barely scraped my radar and it did so, pretty late at that. It’s on my Netflix queue but I kept it at low priority ‘til now. I might be rethinking that though. He’s also heavily influenced by, phantasmagoria? Huh. Well, yeah, I guess there is this dream-horror carnival aspect to "Mandy", so yeah, okay that makes sense. And there’s definitely this ‘70s-‘80s horror movie vibes as well; this guy seems to be a little bit of everything; I can and will list things he’s probably influenced by, but I think it’s too simplistic to list them, he’s taking these ideas and genre motifs together and coming up with something very unique and creative.

The movie takes place in the early eighties and Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) and her husband Red (Nicolas Cage) are two of those kinds of metalhead hippies who’ve escaped the city into their own part of the woods. He works at cutting down trees and some occasional tool forging, she works at one of those local convenient stores that sell artisanal products and works the cashier in Black Sabbath t-shirts while reading Lenora Tor novels. They’re in that wonderful part of couples life where they’re happy just being quiet together and watching TV.

Then, they’re attacked and kidnapped by a derange Manson-like cult. That’s basically all I feel like describing at this point plotwise. Everything else, basically needs to be seen and told to you as you watch the film.  Well, most everything else. The cult is headed by a failed folk singer named Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache) who claims that he was better than the Carpenters but got screwed over by the industry. He takes Mandy and now Red is out for revenge against him, his band of loyal followers, which include Mother Marlene (Olwer Fouere) who looks like that Joan Allen character from “Off the Map” turned into the crazy grandma down the street, Brother Swan (Ned Dennehy) the Michael Parks-like loyal servant who can message the-, for lack of a better word, the more deformed tertiary protector members of this gang of LSD freaks gone Lucio Fulci insane and Sister Lucy (Line Pinnet) a quiet, pregnant little servant, who Jeremiah instructs to kneel down in front of him and Red and makes her show her devotion doing something that I wouldn't ask of somebody to do. (And no, don’t think, sexual here, think “The Deer Hunter”).

Eventually Red escapes and goes to a guy named Caruthers (Bill Duke) for weapons and exposition. Okay, first of all, that’s actually a bit clever, since Caruthers is clearly a reference to Scatman Caruthers’s character in “The Shining” which was also mostly exposition and Bill Duke looks quite a bit like old Scatman. Normally I don’t like references to actors in character names, but I’ll let that one slide. Mainly because this movie almost seems more like a parade of ideas and references then most other films. Who’ve I mentioned so far? Lynch, Kubrick, Fulci, there’s also Jodorowsky and of course, Polanski in here as well. It’s also a blood-soaked slasher with a witty hero in Cage, on a “Death Wish”-like mission, so, I guess throw in some early Raimi as well.

All this craziness, I haven’t even gotten to the fact that this is also a Nicolas Cage movie. I don’t bring this up much, but I consider Nicolas Cage to be the best actor working today. He’s usually, admittedly, in a bunch of terrible movies, so I don’t always end up watching his films, but I don’t think anybody can find fascinating and interesting interpretations of his characters on the page the way he does, and when you give you complete freedom in something crazy to begin with, he can really shine. It’s actually amazing watching him here and what he can do with so little. He actually has very little dialogue in this film, but he picks his words closely and finds a way to deliver primal screams and pains better than most would’ve. This is the rare instance where he’s the sane one in a crazy world around him, and despite the eccentricities of the story, plays the straight-man hero well here.

I’m always happy to see him in a good movie where his talents are being used properly, and this is a good one. Trying to dive into why it’s good, feels like a fool’s journey. I’m gonna stick with my original thesis that this movie, despite everything is little more than a cinematic exercise in style. Even with the odd modern flourish, like the animated dream sequence here and there, “Mandy” feels like a lost movie from the early eighties, one that’s inspired by look and style of films at that time. One that’s part exploitative, part artistic, made by a young filmmaker of that time who just tried to pour everything that he saw or loved visually into a first film to see what he did. I’m half-surprised it didn’t end with the main character killed by a gun-wielding hippie like “Electra Glide in Blue”, or something exploitative like that. The more you dive into the film, the more you realize that there is a lot of good filmmaking in this movie. The production design is subtle, yet really strong here, the cinematography is really done well, especially for movies that generally have this kind of redlight backlight flares and kaleidoscopic spotlights done much anymore and it’s just beautiful at times. The editing is reminiscent of certain filmmakers of that time; the movie feels like it edited to seem feel like I’m watching “Wild at Heart” or “Blue Velvet” with those slow dissolves and fades that dwell on nature. There’s some great special effects and makeup in this movie. There’s a tiger in this movie that's unexplained…- there’s a lot here, and if this was badly done, this movie would just be a complete joke. It’s definitely a midnight movie for sure, but it’s a damn good midnight movie. You can try to read more into it if you want to,- I didn’t even mention the character with the swordpenis, maybe there’s meaning to all this that I’m missing, but even if there is something deeper, I don’t think it matters, and I don’t want to think about whether it matters or not. Sometimes a swordpenis is just a swordpenis.


SAY HER NAME: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF SANDRA BLAND (2018) Directors: Kate Davis & David Hellbroner

★★★★1/2

Image result for say her name the life and death of sandra bland

A few weeks ago, video taken from Sandra Bland's cell phone of her arrest in Hempstead, Texas on July 10th, 2015, was finally released publicly. The timing of that being released and me watching the HBO documentary on her, “Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland” is purely coincidental; it happened to be next on my watchlist, but I couldn’t help but to think about it. For those who aren’t aware of the story, Bland was a vibrant African-American 28-year-old young woman who was traveling down to visit her family in Texas from Chicago, when she was arrested. Three days later, she was found dead of an apparent suicide in her jailcell. The death was immediately perceived as questionable and that was before bystander footage of her arrest, where she is heard screaming from underneath a male cop on the side of the road, complaining that her arm is hurt, she can’t move, and that he had slammed her head into the ground.

There’s a lot of footage, the dashcam footage in particular paints a picture of an out-of-control cop looking for a reason or excuse to go after her, including opening her car door, and smacking her in the face for not putting out a cigarette, which, no, he had no right to do. And she didn’t have to put out her cigarette. Of course, I’m sure in some perverse view of ancient police dogma, her refusal to do something is listed as probably cause for search and seizure, even if that was the case, it’s not enough for him to drag her forcibly out of her car. It’s important to go after these cops sure, but the system is such a failure that frankly, it’s cases like these that make me think we should just get rid of our current police force and for that matter our nation of laws and start over. Not get rid of the Constitution per se, I’m not advocating overthrowing of the government, but police are trained not to protect the citizens, but to attack them. They’re given the most significant amount of leeway and are taught to always be so on guard that often the simplest alteration, change or movement from someone can often lead to death and tragedy. Oh, and it doesn’t help that many of them are racist, or more precisely, much of the law is racist. Although yeah, don’t be fooled, many cops are probably racist, as are many people. That doesn’t mean that a good officer can overcome his/her racist tendencies and be a good cop despite their more inner emotions, but yeah, it doesn’t help when the system is design to keep down the lower class and minorities and protect those in power who are usually the ones the police should be investigating the most. We need a drastic retooling of the entire ways of the police in this country; it’s a change that needs to happen immediately and will unfortunately probably take generations to completely be turned over, and that’s only if it starts now.

(Long sigh)

Anyway, she was driving down to Texas for a few reasons, the main one was a job interview at her old alma mater, Prairie View A&M, a traditional HBCU that I’m most familiar with for having one of the longest consecutive college football losing streaks of all-time. (Seriously, they once lost 80 games in a row; they also had a notorious bad basketball team at one point too.) Of course, with HBCUs, as I’ve always been told, it’s not about the game, it’s about the battle of the bands at Halftime, and she was apart of the band at one point. She went back up to Chicago afterwards and struggled to find work. She clearly had a vibrant work ethic and her personality always shined through, but eventually she still had trouble finding and keeping work, so finding work close to family at her old university seemed like a positive step.

Of course, Prairie View is in the middle of Waller County, which has a deep-rooted history that dates back to the Civil War days. It’s also got some modern-times political corruption. Sandra actually marched there in 2008 after they tried to implicate laws and voting restrictions to make it more difficult for college kids to vote; notice the year of the Election, notice I said HBCU. The Sheriff in particular had been heavily scrutinized and brought up several times for racist treatments of people and practices but he was elected anyway. I’m a little surprised he actually was interviewed for this documentary. I mean, even if he didn’t have anything directly to do with Bland’s death, essentially it falls on him whatever foul play was involved, and it does seem like foul play.

Sandra was actually somewhat well-known on Facebook, for a popular “Sandy Speaks” video blog where she often talked about race relations and situations; one of her first entries was about how to behave around police. She was becoming a major civil rights activist. I don’t think the police in the Waller County Sheriff’s Department knew that. Did she kill herself or was there a coverup, or both? Honestly, it’s hard to tell. There’s conflicting reports and images about Bland. Supposedly, she had marihuana, spelled curiously with the rare “h” spelling that I haven’t seen since “Reefer Madness” on the County’s autopsy report, supposedly (although that autopsy seems particularly botched itself; how do you not get a body temperature, that determines time of death; I know that one from “Columbo”?!), although an independent study indicated that it was metabolized and too small or significant to do anything. She had been in jail before, for a longer period of time for possession and had a DWI, and she apparently tried to kill herself once before, despite most of the evidence of her tendencies and personalities indicating that she otherwise didn’t have many suicidal tendencies.

Yet, one thing is clear, whatever happened to her in that jail, she shouldn’t have been there to begin with. In a part of the jail that cameras weren’t capable of seeing, alone in a concrete cell that seems far more apt to fit at least half a dozen people instead of just her, along with a Barney Fife-like traditional jailcell right in front with multiple assailants being present, and with a trash can that had a plastic bag that she apparently used to make a noose, in a jail cell that was conveniently, not particularly well-preserved for evidence, as proof of a CNN report done from inside of it shortly after her death, and none of that even matters to the fact that simply, she shouldn’t have been in jail to begin with. I don’t know much about the conspiracy theory Youtube videos analyzing that footage for suspicious behavior and doctoring of the footage; I’ll need professional evidence to believe any of that side of the conspiracy discussion, but they were out there too. Those seem a little bit much for a small East Texas Sheriff’s department to have been able to pull off, but there is definitely a lot of things wrong with why they put her in jail and what they did to her while she was there. And how come when the gurney came out of the prison, was she not even on it? Or the police log checking in on those in custody, what a weird and frankly wrong way to fill it out.

The movie documents both sides of the case, and Bland’s life through interviews with her family and lawyers as well as the D.A., the Sheriff, several other involved with the department, noticeably absent is the arresting cop that slammed her to the ground, conveniently out-of-site of his dashboard camera. It’s clear that the police and attorney’s office are definitely holding Bland’s family at bay. They periodical release documents to the Press, but eventually the family has to sue to get those pieces of evidence released to them, while a Grand Jury is assembled. I always go back-and-forth regarding Grand Juries; they are a curious aspect to our legal system. Secretive, first off, they’re only for the D.A.’s office, there’s no defense case brought up, it’s only to supposedly see if a case has enough evidence to go to trial, and you never do find out what happens in them. I can why some of Sandra’s Family’s advocates are suspicious, although I can also see why they are needed, although I’d definitely be leery about any cases in front of them involving police misconduct; for all the intent of them trying to make sure they have enough to go forward, it sure seems like more often then not, they end up becoming the reason not to prosecute, at least when it comes to police.

There’s a powerful scene late in the movie where we do see scenes of the independent autopsy being done and her results being given to Bland’s family. I won’t reveal all of them here, but she does clearly rule out homicide. Not any other crime that could lead to a death though and there’s suspicious evidence that runs contrary to whichever other opinion one may have on what happened to her. Whatever happened, the investigation was botched, the procedures were not followed, and the arresting officer was charge…, with perjury from the Grand Jury, but nothing else, even though it seems clear and obvious that he should’ve at least been charged with assault and battery. I don’t know what you can charge the Department with; Criminally Negligent Incompetence is unfortunately not a crime no far as I know, but the case goes on, and the story goes on. Since Bland’s death hundreds more have died while in custody; I don’t know how many were in her situation or worst, or how many were avoidable or preventable by simply using appropriate police measures. I know the Department and their attorneys did everything to victim blame; it even blamed her and her family for her suicide in their court appeal; which…-, I mean,- this movie made me angry. Every detail of it makes me angry on so many different levels. How can anybody actually write that down in a legal brief without being laughed out of the courtroom, claiming they know why someone killed themselves without a shred of evidence!?

Of course, it’s supposed to make me angry, but I am; I am pissed. There was a Sandra Bland Act, one that removed Police De-escalation training from it, but it does some help regarding updating all Texas jails technology-wise, which basically means that we’ll make sure to catch them on camera the next time someone dies in their custody, I guess, maybe.

For a movie, a movement, and a young woman who seek to change the world through unity of the races, it feels like her death and the lack of justice for it only reveal that her death seems to be little more than a reminder that racism continues on. I hope there will be more of a message than that in the future that Sandra Bland’s death leaves.


WE THE ANIMALS (2018) Director: Jeremiah Zagar

★★★


Image result for We the Animals

I think I’m officially tired of these movies. This very particular kind of,- well, I presume Children’s Lit, since “We the Animals” is based on a novel, but maybe it’s not, but this form of narrative where the trouble young kids escape their real world troubles by seeping into their alternative or fantasy lives inside their own head. I mean, there’s versions of this that definitely work, but at this point, I’m starting to think that these personal fantasy worlds the kids escape into are just excuses to tell a really depressing and tragic story, but about/for kids. I mean, there’s a place for that, but- like look at “The Diary of a Teenage Girl”, first of all her fictional world is a comic book she’s creating, she also talks into a recorder, and her real world is definitely full of people she shouldn’t have in her life and all-in-all she’s got a pretty lousy upbringing and coming-of-age. Yet, somehow you never feel it. She’s active, maybe active doing stupid shit, but she’s trying to get out and escape in both her worlds and trying to manipulate them both to her advantage. It’s inspiring, despite everything that happens to her, and both worlds are intriguing to explore. 

Perhaps it helps that she’s a teenager and the main character in “We the Animals” is only ten. Well,- nine + one, as his mother explained to him on his birthday one day, which is a particularly bad day for her. Jonah (Evan Rosado) is the youngest of three brothers who live in upstate New York, sometime around,-, um, I’m gonna say, the late-‘80s, early ‘90s? The date’s never given, but I’m taking a shot around there based on some of the details of Jonah’s world, and his world isn’t much. His mother and fathers (Sheila Wand and Raul Castillo) are Puerto Rican, but she’s from the Bronx originally and left as a teenager to have a family with the Father, both of whom are credited as Ma and Pops. Pops, is-, well, he’s not a terrible guy, I guess, but these two should not be together. They’re constantly fighting each other and struggling to survive. They break up for awhile after he beats her up bad enough that he had to bring her to the dentist in the middle of the night. I, at first, thought the dentist excuse was a lie when Pops explained it, but it might be partially true.

At first, Jonah gets along well with his two older brothers, Joel and Manny (Josiah Gabriel and Isiaih Kristian) but as they grow older, they begin to leave Jonah behind emotionally, or at least it seems that way. The way I understand that I supposed to read this, is that, and forgive me, I’m not familiar with the book it’s based on, but the thing we’re support to get through the insinuation, is that while Jonah is still, emotionally nine, as his mother declared, and also more emotional and maternal, the two brothers begin developing the unpredictable and often volatile nature of their father.

(Shrugs)

Yeah, I guess; I guess there’s some truth to this notion. I can think of examples, some people grow up and into the people they were destined also by birth to be, but some people do stay behind, probably because they understand on some level that they don’t exactly fit in, or want to. Jonah, among everything else is gay; he discovers this at a friend’s house, Dustin (Giovanni Piccarelli), an older kid who feels like a Salinger character waiting for an adventure to run off to. Dustin shows the kids some bootleg porn VHS tapes that he has found, including some which show images of gay porn. Jonah draws some of those images in his notebooks, but he draws several others. These scenes are shown in this film as animation, and okay ones, but the only time you really get the sense of him living in this other world he creates is through a few scenes of him levitating above the world. One of them comes after his father, for some never-explained reason, dug a grave in the backyard.

There’s another scene with the father that annoyed me, when he tries to get his wife and Jonah to go swimming, and when he almost drowns, he yells at Ma. "How else is he supposed to learn!?" I personally never learned to swim either, but I have heard good things about lessons. Perhaps a class? Something other them, putting him deep into the river, you know? I mean just because somebody treated you like shit as a kid, doesn’t mean you should in turn do that to others.

That said, the Mother isn’t much better. There’s a long period of time during their breakup where she doesn’t get out of bed, long enough for the brothers to start trying to live on their own and steal food before they go hungry. There’s another powerful scene, one that I can’t really tell if it happens for real or not, where the brothers start attacking their parents, hitting them over and over again, after they refused to look for them. They were hiding and they realize they were gone, but didn’t go look for them, instead choosing to try to sneak in alone time for them.

(Frustrated scoff)

Honestly, I don’t know what to make of “We the Animals”. I feel I’m getting highlights and a bunch of scenes, some of which, in a vacuum are pretty good, but I also feel like I’m missing key pieces of information. You know, I happened to watch “Badlands” recently for the first time in years, and I was startled by how powerful and much more knowing that Sissy Spacek’s voiceover in the movie is. The movie doesn’t work without it, in fact, there might be too much of it, often seeming like it was a necessary add-on to make certain scenes make a little more sense, ‘cause they’d be a little unclear without it, and also, it’s not as naive a voiceover as we often remember it to be; I mean, it is, but it’s more observant as well. There’s a little bit of personal narration here, but mostly it’s the animation, the pictures, and the occasional magical realism daydream splice in, but I think a voiceover might’ve helped this film. Really get inside Jonah’s head, as we wonder what he’s thinking as he observes or reflects upon moments of his youth. Without these ideas being more connected, I feel like the movie is trying too hard for style over substance.

This is Writer/director Jeremiah Zagar’s first feature film since a documentary he did over a decade ago although he's made several shorts over the years, and it’s got a helluva look for a modern day movie. He clearly shot this on film and it looks like something that was found on an abandoned indy movie shelf at a blockbuster twenty years ago. The acting is good, especially from these three kids, all of whom are untrained first-time actors and are really good at times. I guess it’s a recommendation for me, ‘cause I feel like somebody will get inspired by this film and the subject matter, but it’s a mild recommendation at best for me. Whatever Zagar’s trying to do is just not getting conveyed to me the way I think he’s intending it to be, but I also suspect the material is just not something that works terribly great on film. I said a voiceover might’ve helped, but I also suspect that this is material that’s difficult to adapt to film well.


THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER (2017) Director: Yorgos Lanthimos

★★★★


Image result for The Killing of a Sacred Deer

My first thought is the “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” could be an alternative title for “Princess Mononoke”. (Shrugs) Alright, obscure joke aside, for some reason, I’m only now getting to Yorgos Lanthimos’s second English-language film, which he made after “The Lobster” and before his most recent masterpiece, “The Favourite”. His films are uniquely distinctive in their wry look inside their own very particular world, and his strange yet subversive approach to the little locked-in secret corners of those worlds that they encompass. His breakthough film “Dogtooth” saw a family that went to such extremes to block their children from the outside world, they created a disturbing little world of their own, with different rules, conventions, ideas, even attempts at creating their own language from the conventional outside world they were forbidden to see and lied to about what’s beyond their house. “The Lobster” took place in a sci-fi future where humans had to mate at a certain point, or they would be forced to turn into an animal of their choosing. Those two films said a great deal about their subliminal subjects, the horrors of extreme and forced introverted behavior, and there’s probably about dozens of other things in “Dogtooth” that I can barely follow, and “The Lobster” actually has a great deal to say about love, particular out most hidden and latent fears of it in our modern world; how it comes about, why, and what happens when it comes unexpectedly, how it’s often forced upon us in society and what happens when society interferes with it. Oddly, I think “The Favourite” as wonderful as it is, probably has the least amount to say, even though like those movies, it’s world is firmly set in the universe of the Royal Family, and talk about a forced, insular world where those in power can make, break and change the rules whenever the need or feeling arises. As much as I love, it’s almost so perfect as a historical satire of the Royals, that I almost feel like it’s too obvious for Lanthimos; a rare perfect combination of subject matter and filmmaker we hadn’t seen since Tim Burton directed “Sweeney Todd…”.

Despite all this though, I think it’s his lesser known movie, “Alps” that works as sort of a key here. Unlike the other movies, this one does take place, presumably, in a normal enough universe and follows a rhythmic gymnast who takes a secondary job, inside it’s own strange world, in this case, she is a death surrogate, who acts as a recently deceased loved one for those who are still struggling getting through the grieving process after the death of their loved ones. Oddly enough, it’s probably his most conventional film, because we don’t jump into a world we don’t know and have to catch up, we’re following a character, who herself jumps into a strange universe and has to maneuver herself through it.

“The Killing of a Sacred Deer”, it’s definitely distinct. Like “The Lobster”, it’s got a spare use of dialogue and an addicting tone of extreme underacting of it’s performers, who don’t seem to know or think they’re in some world that requires them to actually express emotion. It’s like everybody saw Gwenyth Paltrow’s performance in “The Royal Tenenbaums” and was told, “Just like that, but give me as little of it as possible.” That’s not a criticism by the way, I love the acting in this; it put you on edge as you’re trying to determine whether this indeed is one of those strange worlds of Lanthimos. His main two characters are a husband and wife doctor pair who seem to be so-, what’s-the-word, um, sterile. Like clean, hospital sterile. Nothing allows them to show or give off true emotion. Even their lovemaking, distressingly sterile, especially for a cardiovascular surgeon like Steven (Colin Farrell) who often spends much of his days performing surgery. His wife, Anna, (Nicole Kidman), an ophthalmologist, seems somewhat more maternal but is as accepting of Steven’s directness. Like how he, and his daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy), seem to talk a little too frankly about her getting her period, but Anna is more forgiving of their son Bob’s (Sunny Suljic) long hair, which Steven insists he cut soon. All things considered for a Lanthimos film, this is a fairly normal, middle-to-upper class family. Perhaps in the past Anna met Steven at one of those love retreats and really hit it off, but there’s no indication of that.

However, there is a protuberance into their world, a teenage boy named Martin (Barry Keoghan) who Steven has somewhat been mentoring on the side. Strangely, it’s not terribly unusual to have teens and kids in this world look fondly at wanting to be very specific kinds of doctors like cardiovascular surgeons and ophthalmologists, so even as he dotes on Martin with nice gifts and advice and meetings after and during work, it doesn’t really bat much of an eye to anyone. Even Anna is nice and welcoming towards Martin when he’s invited into their home by Steven. It’s explained that Martin is the son of one of Steven’s past patients who passed away a couple years earlier, and he’s essentially taken him under his wing, part-father, part big-brother role as Steven’s mother (Alicia Silverstone) finally starts to come out of her depressed state, one that she seems to hopes to include getting closer to Steven.

This is when the movie does take the inevitable turn into the truly surreal. I don’t think I’ll go into the exact details other than to say that a past discretion that Steven has caused to Martin now suddenly puts his entire family’s lives in jeopardy. I’m sure if I look into the religion symbolism, I’m find deeper meaning to the events that occur, or perhaps it’s the battle between faith and science that Lanthimos himself is exploiting here. Or perhaps it’s simply the bizarre and nonsensical inevitableness of life and destiny; the fact that no matter how clean or bloody one’s hands gets, even a doctors, they are powerless to stop death from coming, but that perhaps, it is with their own hands that they, and essentially all humans, in one way or another can cause death of one of their own.

Personally, I’m not entirely certain what he’s saying with this one, and I’m not sure I want to know. “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” is powerful and perhaps more meaningful than Lanthimos’s other films, and the performances are second-to-none, in particular Farrell and Kidman’s arguably giving two of the best performances they ever have, and yet I feel myself, unsure of this one in terms of it’s true quality. It’s too good and dynamic to ignore or pan, but this is probably the movie of his I enjoy the least, partly for a fairly trivial reason that might make the movie work metaphorically but makes both leads and every other doctor in this movie look like a complete idiot for not thinking of or even entertaining or investigating the possibility of occurring. That said, I came of the enigma that is “The Killing of the Sacred Deer” less certain that I wanted to explore it than I had his other movies, not so much because I don’t think he has something deeper to say, but moreso that I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear what he has to say, or to be more precise, that perhaps he sorta loss his way on what he was saying. Despite everything, his other movies always struck a more universal cord and feeling, one that, if nothing else worked for you, that you can jump in on and understand what the characters were going through. (Well, except for “The Favourite”, but in that case, the lack of universality of the characters and situation is a benefit.) In this case, I feel like he’s more maneuvering to tell a story. I kinda have a similar ambivalent feeling towards some of the Coen Brothers work, like, “A Serious Man” for instance, great movie, but one that if you look at it too seriously, you realize that it becomes nearly impossible to empathize. They can always get away with it, ‘cause they’re great at balancing the comedy with the tragic, but I think Lanthimos and his co-writer/wife Efthimos Filippou, despite a few absurdist chuckles, they kinda lost the humor in this one a bit.

This is high-level criticism though; the movie is strong enough and has enough of an impact that it insists an audience view it to make up their own minds. That means, I can easily see a lot of people hating this way more than I do, but I can’t say it won’t affect you in some powerful way.  


T2: TRAINSPOTTING (2017) Director; Danny Boyle

★★★1/2


Image result for T2: Trainspotting

It’s been 20 years since Danny Boyle broke onto the world scene with his ambitious debut “Trainspotting”. The film has become a cult classic in the waning years and Boyle has evolved into one of the biggest directors on both sides of the pond, inevitably winning an Oscar for his masterpiece, “Slumdog Millionaire” among other great and eclectic films that have fixed his resume. He’s one of the few great directors who seems willing to jump into nearly any genre and make it his own. He’s not immune to sequels, but this is still a weird choice for him, despite the film’s popularity and prestige, “Trainspotting” was very much of it’s time. Granted, there’ve been filmmakers ever since who’ve been struggling to copy it’s style and spirit but it’s characters of eccentric junkies and associates that form a makeshift family as they meander through their gangster circles around the underbelly of Edinburgh, Scotland, is still really of it’s time. That late ‘90s period of irony and rejection of the traditional, expected and of the authoritative society that was represented through their characters, is really a distinctive nineties era trait and frankly, while looking in on these characters twenty years later might be interesting in of it’s own right, I do worry about returning to rebellious frame of mind. Would that even be something that these characters could do now that they’re no longer teens and barely 20somethings, and are now a bunch of forty-year olds?

(Sigh)

Alright, I’ve bounced around this, but, I never really got why the original “Trainspotting” was supposed to be so great. Like, I always thought it was a good movie full of interesting cinematic ideas and had a different, if-not-clever episodic nature, but I’ve seen “Trainspotting” pop on a lot of lists of great movies of some kind of the years, and I just don’t see it as great. Like, other than those times it does pop up on those polls and lists, I literally never think of the original film. If anything, I tend to try not to, if for no other reason, then I just don’t want to relive that particularly surreal moment involving a character falling into a particularly disgusting toilet. Also, there were quite a few great movies about drug addiction and abuse around that time, and I’ve always struggled to put “Trainspotting” in that same category with “Requiem for a Dream” or “Traffic” among others. I guess you could argue “Trainspotting” is a more slice-of-life portrayal of addiction compared to those films, which were movies that were mostly trying to say something more important about drugs, but I don’t know. I do remember Lindsay Ellis’s old review of “Reality Bites” in which she compares similar themes and the collective group of 20-something n’er-do-wells to the “Trainspotting” core of twenty somethings and how they were a more realistic look at that quarterlifer area between college and getting your foot into the door of adulthood, and yeah, she totally right in that regard, “Reality Bites” is fucking awful, mostly because it was a Gen X movie made by people who were clearly not of that Gen X generation/era. (Yeah, I’m taking a shot at Ben Stiller there.) That said, “Trainspotting” was also, just a bunch of junkies. Junkies and criminals, not characters who I wanted to care about or cheer for. Despite the voiceover inner monologue about how phony the world is, they were a bunch of addicts; what made their lives so much better?! I’d argue they were just as useless, and while the “Reality Bites” cast of characters were idiots and morons, but they were at least relatable people you’d supposedly empathize with, and they were at trying to depict a whole multitudes of ‘90s 20something archetypes, many of which were at least somewhat relatable and likable on paper, and yeah, despite my thoughts on that film, I related to those idiots and addicts more that these idiots and addicts. I guess it helps that Mark (Ewen McGregor) got out in the end and for the better but I think I always preferred something like Gus Van Sant’s film “Drugstore Cowboy” as a counterpoint, where at least, the characters and seemed to try to make a life for themselves and one that involved caring for each other, while also exploring their addictions in great detail, both in their actions but also explored the mood and tone of addiction. Perhaps it’s the aggressiveness of “Trainspotting” that perhaps confuses people for a film that’s supposedly deeper than it is? Maybe that’s the point of it and I’m just missing it, but I’ve still baffled by how beloved and acclaimed it is. It’s another one of those that I consider “Good-not-great” movies that most everybody else seems to have chosen to praise to high heavens enough for there to be a sequel made of it. (Why do I keep running into these?)

That said, I think it is kinda interesting to look back on these characters twenty years down the road and see what might’ve happened to them. You never know, criminals and junkies do recover sometimes and turn into pretty decent people and members of society sometimes and if not, it’d still be interesting to see exactly what happened to them? (Shrugs) Well, actually some of them do here seem better now. Mark did get an accounting job for a software developer in Amsterdam, but currently he’s getting a divorce and has decided to return home. Simon (Jonny Lee Miller) is still a junkie, this time mainly cocaine though, and he still runs schemes involving blackmail, this time he’s got an accomplice in Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova) and he’s currently working on a plan to open up a “Sauna” with her. Frank (Robert Carlyle) is in jail, but somehow manages to escape and is still a degenerate criminal and a fucking idiot. Spud (Ewen Bremner), eh, you feel sorry for him still. Actually, probably moreso now. He’s still an addict but after getting fired from a construction job he somehow managed to get, he fell off the wagon again, and that was the last straw for him and his wife Gail (Shirley Henderson, who is once again not given enough to do in a movie; why does that keep happening to her?!) and his son. Mark happens to bounce in on him as he was about to kill himself and saves him for one more run at sobriety.

Eventually circumstances and opportunities arise that bring the whole gang back together and back working with each other, or fighting each other, scheming each other, and scheming others. Although, somewhat legitimately this time, outside of robbing a bunch of William the Orange Protestant Loyalists, and the occasion blackmail that backfires. It’s a strange, paradoxical ramble through what’s essentially a nostalgic reminder of the past, looked through the lens of someone who’s in the middle of their future and hoping for one last opportunity to try and change it and make things right, if only they had the ability to do that. I think for that, “T2: Trainspotting” is worth watching; I honestly can’t think of too many films that did that that weren’t some kind of naval-gazing reunion or basically took place at some drugged-out party; usually when you think of stuff like that, you end up with “The Big Chill” at it’s best and, lord knows at its worst. The original “Trainspotting” is definitely a better movie, but that movie couldn’t be made again, it was made by and about brash young youths who hadn’t succeeded in life yet. “T2:…” was made by those youths but who had made a level of success. However, I don’t think you need to have seen the original to enjoy the sequel for what it is. They make sure to have enjoy callbacks and flashback to the original, not as a reminder of what it was, I suspect, but to give a sense of the shared history that the characters all have. Even without context, you can feel that history and shared world of these characters. The original movie was about was getting out of the world of drugs, violence and rock’n’roll, “T2…” is about accepting that fact about oneselves, that perhaps the others can slowly fade out of your lives, and that perhaps, without the drugs and violence, you can still have that lust for life to accept yourself, and still occasionally enjoy a little rock’n’roll. 


THE INCREDIBLE JESSICA JAMES (2017) Director: James C. Strouse

★★★★


Image result for The Incredible Jessica James

Trying to dissect “The Incredible Jessica James” is actually much more difficult than I ever expected. For one thing, I’m trying to even figure out if I’m even allowed to, or should dissect it. I’ve been a little touch-and-go and loose on the rules about streaming movies, movies that are released not in theaters but online an internet platform, are they actually feature films...? Like, this movie debuted at Sundance but then got picked up by Netflix, so I don’t know how to rank this one exactly. Last Movie Reviews blogpost, I wrote a review of “My Happy Family” a Georgian film that was a big hit overseas but it didn’t get an American theatrical release, but I thought that was too major to ignore. I also saw a movie that debuted on Netflix in the same year that I didn’t write a review on, “I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore”. Now, I didn’t hate that movie or anything, in fact I would’ve given it a nice 3 STARS review, but I had a hard time determining that it was a movie worth writing about, that I had to write about but that movie also had the same resume as "The Incredible Jessica James"; debuted at Sundance, got picked up by Netflix; it actually did better with awards than “...Jessica James”, picking up wins and acclaim from several film festivals while this movie basically only got attention from the Black Reel Awards. It is getting really difficult to determine whether or not a movie is a movie anymore.

Now, jealously, I would like to just use that excuse so as not to review the movie, ‘cause I don’t want the extra work. However, the movie did affect me a great deal and I do want to highlight it though. Mostly because it feels mean to see Jessica Williams’s breakthrough performance get ignored just because it’s technically a TV Movie? I mean, I guess Melanie Lynskey’s performance is getting ignored in “I Don’t Feel at Home…”, but she’s been giving great performances in about twenty years worth of movies and TV shows…- I don’t know. Honestly, everybody complained about how Netflix gave “Mudbound” and “Roma” long-enough theatrical runs in L.A. County to count as motion pictures, and whether or not they should do that, but frankly, I’m in favor of them doing it, because then I’d know for certain that it’s a theatrically-released motion now, so please, Netflix, Amazon, all you streaming services, KEEP DOING IT! I don’t care what the old-timers say, they can go fuck off, just follow the rules as they themselves wrote them out, so I can more easily and thoroughly do my job!

Anyway, I do love Jessica Williams here. You might remember her from “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart”, she was the youngest correspondent the show’s ever had and one of the most popular. I’ve enjoyed her stand-up but here, she nails a very particular character in this rom-com. She’s a playwright who’s right at that point where an artist is,- where she’s not successful, but still doesn’t entirely realize what success looks like. In Ohio, like everybody who wrangles their way to New York or L.A. she was the big thing and now instead of a wall of local playbills, she’s got a wall of rejection letters that she’s proud of, except on days when she’s not. This feels very familiar this tone where you’re higher and better than those who you perceive as popular and successful, but are still too pissy, arrogant and belligerent to appreciate the journey; and that’s bad enough for most art forms, and she’s trying to make it in theater!!! FUCK!!!

She is actually working in theater though. She teaches a theater class for kids and picks up occasional gigs catering from her acting friend Tasha (Noel Wells). She’s in the middle of a bad breakup with Damon (LaKeith Stanfield) and like many writers is often stuck trying to re-imagine and dream about new scenarios about confronting him. These are all hilarious, but she’s also caught in the middle of her own single life; meeting strangers and Tinder, getting hooked up with others that she doesn’t want to be with, but you’re in your twenties…. She eventually starts dating a divorcee Boone (Chris O’Dowd) who’s still out stalking his ex and of course, they’re not looking or trying to be together, but it’s a rom-com and the rules of rom-com logic apply.

This is such a perfect role for her, I just presumed Williams wrote the film, but actually the movie is the brainchild of the writer/director James Strouse. I haven’t seen anything he’s directed since his debut feature “Grace is Gone”, which is one of those sad indies that I should’ve hated more than I did. Him and Williams are working on another project together and I'm looking forward to it. This might seem cliché, but "The Incredible Jessica James" is a mature work; they're strange bedfellows but they go together very well. I think this is a strong combination that can lead to some even better work in the future. It’s a weird combo but if this is a creator/muse relationship brewing, I hope it leads to more like this. And hopefully stuff that gets more of a release than just being a quote-unquote “Netflix movie”, ‘cause this should’ve been released in theaters for a bit.

And that’s the standard btw, should be released and shouldn’t be released. I can’t promise I’m gonna review every Netflix film I see, even ones that I want to review and are by all accounts better than this film, by my/that standard, but I hope they start considering their movies through that lens if nothing else.


DAVE MADE A MAZE (2017) Director: Bill Watterson

★★★


Image result for Dave Made a Maze

So, this guy with the same first name as me, Dave (Nick Thune) builds an elaborate maze made out of cardboard and whatever else he finds around the house, in the middle of his living room. His girlfriend, Annie (Meera Rohit Kombani) comes home from to find him, lost inside the maze. Already, I have questions, beginning with, how in the fuck did this guy get a girlfriend? This adult who builds, well-, it says fort on the Netflix jacket, but it’s more like a labyrinth in the “Willy Wonka..” “Alice in Wonderland” and “Doctor Who” sense where things are bigger than they seem on the inside than they should be...-  Honestly, I never understood building a fort even as a kid? Who the hell wants a fort? And why? I understand building a separate little space for yourself but, a fort? Forts are like-, they’re like stops along a trail where come to trade items and buy food and ammo, and usually the army runs them-, it’s not even the right word. I get building a maze a little bit more, you can sell tickets for people to go through it, and it’s a good place to hide a dead Jack Nicholson if you have to, but still…. In his living room, he got trapped in a maze that he built out of cardboard, and he had a girlfriend!!!! And he’s an adult!!!!

And also, apparently, he made a lot of origami while doing this and it’s all over everywhere. And I mean, a lot of origami; this wasn’t no, “Blade Runner” origami,- imagine,- remember on “Fraggle Rock,” the Trashy’s home? Imagine, instead of all that trash being trash, that the trash, it’s all origami, including the two long-nosed rat things that introduce the Trashy, they’re origami. In fact, I’m fairly certain that’s one of the rooms in Dave’s maze. I mean, that’s creative, I guess, but-um,…

Okay, I’m apparently supposed to run with this. Eventually Annie calls on a few of his friends, most notably Gordon (Adam Busch) a bearded hipster type, and Harry (James Urbaniak), who is one of the worst fictional documentary filmmakers I’ve ever seen. He’s so bad, he reminds me of every bad sitcom kid character who thinks he’s a director for an episode or two ‘cause he has a camera, or in this case a camera, a Cameraman (Scott Narver) and a boom mike and Operator (Frank Caeti) that I almost wonder if this film started out as a fantastical kids movie and then somehow transformed into this indy comedy with a bunch of quarterlife adults stuck-in-life stasis, ‘cause he seems like that. That, or the Paul Reiser character from “Mad About You”, who was supposed to be a documentary filmmaker to, but was really bad at it if you check the scenes in the show he’s directing in it. Anyway, these guys and everybody else eventually ends up entering the maze or labyrinth looking for Dave, and they all get lost too looking for him. Or getting killed by getting caught up in the booby traps or by the Minotaur (John Hennigan). Why exactly did he build a maze with so many deadly traps and a minotaur…- well, it’s hard to explain. Even Dave isn’t susceptible to traps as he lost his hand do to a portal inside the maze that looks suspiciously like a-eh, let's say it looks like a Georgia O’Keefe painting, let’s say…-

Actually, while I am giving this movie a bit of shit, it is facetious shit for the most part; I do appreciate the ingenuity, and I do get the concept of the movie. You see, the way I read it is that, Dave, as a frustrated failed artist just decides that he’s had enough and he now just has to go and create something. It gets out of hand and it’s technically not finished yet, which is part of why he can’t find his way out of it..., it's a bit surreal and exaggerated, but I can’t say I don’t know the feeling or empathize. Hell, I’m pitching around a horror movie screenplay right now that kinda got written and grew out of those same exact emotions that he’s feeling, and I’m in the middle of writing a completely different script currently that also came from those thoughts of worthless feelings of being dejected by the world and trapped in your current situation, feeling like there isn’t a way out anytime soon, but you’re an artist and an artist creates no matter what. I prefer to read the movie as a metaphor for that feeling and the maze as a metaphor for trying to create art out of that emotion. We put all our thoughts, and dreams and ideas into it, and because we’re so desperate to create and to continue creating that sometimes you find that you’ve written yourself into a space that you can’t get out of. Every writer worth their weight in gold or blood has had this feeling several times over.

The film was co-written and directed by Bill Waterson, who's mostly known as a comic actor and the film took a few years to make from original conception, and I can believe it. The production design of the film is really quite impressive. You have to kinda stand back in awe at all the time and work it would’ve taken to create some of these set pieces. The movie does take on a few other notable labyrinthian tales and films. I’m surprised they held back on the reference to Terry Jones’s “Labyrinth”, but there is a skewered perspectives scene that could’ve been Lewis Carroll via M.C. Esche-inspired. I’ve seen some people rank this among the best movies of the year; I won’t go that far, but it’s a solid little indy twist of a film, despite it being a little too cute and too self-aware. There’s some strong performances here and I wouldn’t mind waiting to see what other ideas this director has in mind in the future.