Tuesday, February 25, 2020

MOVIE REVIEWS #166: "PARASITE", "TOY STORY 4", "THE IRISHMAN", "PAIN AND GLORY", "THE LIGHTHOUSE", "THE FAREWELL", "SHAZAM!", "WILD ROSE", "JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3-PARABELLUM", "LUCE", "ROJO", and "WHERE IS KYRA?"!

Hey Everyone,

Sorry I've been delayed so much, it's been a little longer then I wanted. Honestly, I wish I had a better excuse, but I've just been overloaded too much with work personally, and I've delaying an upcoming post because of the subject matter....- you'll know what I'm talking about when I post it, but-eh,... it's not a subject I want to talk about, but in the meantime... um, not too much else to discuss. I'm reviewing a lot and catching up quickly, so let's just get to the reviews today. Starting with the big surprise winner at the Oscars this year, "Parasite"! I'm gonna catch up on this year before the end of next year, if it's the last thing I do!!!! Maybe....

Enough stalling, here's the reviews!


PARASITE (2019) Director: BONG Joon-ho

★★★★★



So, this is the film that pulled it off. The first foreign language feature to win the Best Picture Oscar.

Even a week or so after it happened, I'm still somewhat in amazement at what happened and how it managed to pull this off. Not only that a foreign language film won, but a South Korean film at that! The Oscars had previously garnered a bit of a reputation for having inexiplicably ignored much of the country's great films outputs they've had over the last couple decades or so. When the movie won an Oscar, it technically became the first South Korean film to win any Oscar, and it was also the first South Korean film to win Best Foreign Language Oscar. and the first film from South Korea nominated for anything, which, honestly is bizarre. I don't know how exactly the Academy flubbed this one so oddly, 'cause the Korean New Wave of cinema over the last twenty years has arguably become one of the most influential film movements worldwide in the last forty years, and it's seeped into Hollywood. Maybe not as prolifcally as say, the Nuevo Cine Mexicano movement of the '90s has infiltrated and controlled Hollywood for the last decade and a half or so, but Korean New Wave outside of the Oscars has not gone unnoticed. BONG Joon-ho in particular has made one English-language film, "Snowpiercer", even if that wasn't a Hollywood production, it was 80% in English and had lots of English-language stars and so does his previous, "Okja". In fact, I remember being surprised by the Scott Wilson cameo in "The Host", is acclaim monster movie from well over a decade ago. The the one big advantage that BONG perhaps had over some of his other contemporaries, he always had a global outlook on cinema and his movie reflected that, while others like PARK Chan-wook or KIM Ki-Duk have always seemed more introspective, for good and for bad, and that includes BONG, 'cause I actually didn't care much for "Snowpiercer" or "The Host". Up 'til now, I though "Mother" was his best film, and while that movie is universal in it's narrative, it's probably got the least to say on a global scale.

That said, I'm still kinda surprised this was the one that broke through. When you think back on the history of the Academy, other then the obvious questions of "How did this take so long?" there's the other question of "How did it take so long?" and "Really, this one pulled it off?" I can think of several foreign films over the years, but some incredibly acclaimed filmmakers, many that the Oscars did in fact honor, that I would've guessed as being much more likely to have won long before "Parasite" did. Movies that are a lot more Oscar-friendly in the most traditional of senses. Seeing something like "Parasite" win, especially winning a year after one of the most undescript and inconceivable, blatant pieces of Oscar bait in "Green Book" winning last year,- well, I guess everybody in the Academy just fell for it.

I can't blame them, I fell for "Parasite" as well. Trying to decipher the movie and figure out how or why the Academy decided to narrow in on this one foreign film in particular is about as much of a useless exercise as, well some would say The Oscars.

So, what about the movie, what about "Parasite". Well, it has a lot to say. A lot, it has a lot to say. In this political climate, "Parasite" feels very much like a left-wing political parable, the kind you'd expect from Lina Wertmuller in the '70s, only without the sexual politics she would include. I'm not pulling this out of my ass either, BONG has said as much, and the movie basically gives us no other interpretation; the main theme of the movie is very literally, modern class warfare. The main family are the Kims, a struggling family of hustlers and con artists who live in what can charitably be described as a basement apartment. They literally live underground, below the street, where they struggle to steal wi-fi on their cell phones in order to try to hustle to get any menial job they can.

The son Ki-Woo (Woo Sik CHOI) gets a job substitute tudoring for a friend at a rich family's estate, the Parks and for their teenage daughter Da-Hye (Ji-So JUNG). He's not much of a tudor, but he's smart and knowledgable enough to fake it, at least enough for Da-Hye's mother (CHO Yeo-Jeung) to be convinced to keep him on. After that, each of the Kims begin manuevering their way into working for the family, firstly by Ki-Woo getting his sister Ki-Jeong (PARK So Dam) on as an art therapist for the Park's rambunctious young son, Da-Song (Hyun-yun JUNG), they get their father Ki-Taek (Kang-ho SONG) hired on as the driver for the Park's father, Nathan (LEE Sun-Kyun) and inevitably, their mother Chung-Sook (JANG Hye-Kim) finds a way to get hired as they figure out a way to convince the Parks to fire they're beloved housekeeper Moon-Gwang (Myeong-Hoon PARK). Eventually, the entire family, unknown to the Parks is hired by them.

If I'm just looking at the characters and the narrative, I would just say that the Kims are basically, the family from the TV show "Shameless". (Well, the American version at least, which is the one that I know best.) I mean, it's not that outrageous and Ki-Taek is not the caricature that William H. Macy's character is, but essentially, they're a poor family that's hustling at every angle to get by, and in this situation they just happent to find the perfect marks, or Parks in this case, a sweet-but-gullible family who has a lot of money. They certainly have a nice house, which they begin infesting even before the family goes on a camping excursion.

That's the first half of the movie, the second half of the movie; I'm not even certain I can talk about. Not just because of the twist though, I mean obviously, these best laid planned are doomed to go astray, that part is predictable, what's not predictable is how and why one unexpected bug inevitally dooms them, and more then that, it's what that bug means. I said this movie says a lot, and there is some deep symbolism throughout the entire second act. This is the kind of movie that's going inspire several essays trying to explain what everything means and how it means it for years; that's already started, and it ain't gonna stop anytime soon. Needless to say, the title is particularly apt, in many more ways then one, but I think the main instruction of the movie is to look inward at ourselves, and our society and observe what we have created. A lot of people have noted that this movie might take place in South Korea, but that some form of this story can take place nearly anywhere. That's true, in fact there's already an American TV adaptation in the works, the second one inspired by a BONG Joon-Ho film after "Snowpiercer" another movie that was also about the struggles for the poor to get up to the higher classes. Hell, I already compared it to one TV show that was already adapted from a source in a foreign country, so yeah, this is adaptable and across several different lines, I can easily see this movie done with different races or ethnicities between the families, but honestly, adding those elements might be more pointless then we realize 'cause the movie should be specifically about class, and the ways and hows our society is built for one class to dominate, leach and control the other.

The end of the movie could be misconstrued as being a pro-capitalist message, it even includes a main character who explicitly insists that money is the key to the happiness of the characters. until you realize that the situation the Kims are in, makes that dream, simply that, a dream that this family, simply will not capable of achieving. One last step back to see that the problem that, the real problem isn't their lack of money, it's that their lack of money shouldn't be the problem to begin with.

It's a story of the rich and the poor, and it's all metaphor, it is, until you realize way too late, that it painfully isn't.


TOY STORY 4
(2019) Director: Josh Cooley

★★★★

Image result for Toy Story 4

Every time I find myself watching a "Toy Story" film, I find myself instinctly feeling emotional about toys. The toys in the movie, as well as the toys that I own or owned while growing up. In hindsight, I wish I treated them better, 'cause most of them, they're not around anymore. One of my prized possessions is still my Roger Rabbit doll that I still sleep with. (Yeah, doll. I like plush toys; never liked action figures, you can't do anything with them 'cause the break too easily, and plastic doesn't bend right, plush dolls all the way. [Also, that's why I was never into Barbie either.]) I know these days, it's almost cliche to see adults still have this much affection for the toys of their youths, but I do get it. That said, I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that, having my autistic brother around, it was sometimes painful to him with toys. He played with a lot, but sometimes too much and definitely not the way that most kids would imagine and play with them. He also would play so much and so loudly that we couldn't take it, and there's only so many toy pianos you can give a kid who only knows to bang on them to make noise... eventually they get destroyed their wear and use or the batteries run out and we just don't bother replacing them....

(Teary sigh)

I think a lot of it has to do with being an introvert as well. If you didn't like other kids or wanted to play with them, toys became the important things in your life. I think that's why, my generation are all gamers, and I had some video games and systems growing up, but I really remember is my old little basketball hoops. I had several, the hang on the door ones, and whatnot, but my favorite was a little one that was a preschool one that my brother was supposed to play with, but I ended up using more often. I still remember the many games that I used to play, even after I lost the small plastic balls, I would use some small plush one to play with.

I do wonder how much of that is a matter of introvertedness vs. extrovertedness effect, the more introverted and solitary you are, I imagine you have much more effection for things like your toys then others might, as well as gender differences as well. I know quite a few girls and women who like the "Toy Story" films, but they told me that they don't understand this deep emotional connection that I think people like me have for it, or for are own toys for that matter. Come to think of it, all those old toy collectors that you see around, you rarely see female toy collectors, it's mostly a guy thing, which is why I think this next generation of "Toy Story" stories, involves the toys being owned by a young girl, Bonnie (Madeline McGraw) is a good idea that could and should lead to other different and newer adventures. I know, some might consider this film somewhat blasphomous after the previous "Toy Story" felt like a proper end to an epic trilogy, as we saw Andy grow up and hand over his toys to the next generation, but I don't think it's that weird or wrong for their to be new experiences for these toys to go through. I think I would've preferred it continue, maybe on a lower scale, for instance, I've typically enjoyed many of the short films and TV specials that "Toy Story" had been producing, shortly after "Toy Story 3", like "Hawaiian Vacation" and "Small Fry". Honestly, I'm kinda surprised that, considering how good Pixar is with shorts that they don't take more advantage fo the short film format with them, especially with "Toy Story".

Also in hindsight, I kinda think "Toy Story 3" was a little too dark. Like, when the toys are inside a trash compactor heading for a jaws of life incinerator, that-, yeah that was weird in hindsight. Good, but "Toy Story 3" was the weakest of the films, and definitely the most emotionally manipulative.

I guess that's a long way of saying that to me, I though "Toy Story 4" would be something a little lighter and more fun, which, it was, but it also proved once again that it knows exactly how to hit at your heartstrings. Yeah, this is-, hmm, so there's a saying in writing called "Killing your babies". It basically means that, you got put your characters through the ultimate test; you can't just have characters, especially your main characters, just come in and solve everything; the characters have to suffer and have to lose something of themselves through their journey; they have to change. I bring this up because I had a playwrighting teacher that talked about a pupil that he had who struggled with this idea in a play she was writing, and then, at some point during her multiple drafts, she had her main character, literally chop her own hand off!!!!! Seriously! That's a bit extreme, but it apparently worked, and I fear that "Toy Story 4" did that a bit. Not literally-, well, actually, for a second, Bo Peep (Annie Potts) does lose her arm, but it's taped back together, but that's not what I was talking about.

This time around, Woody is struggling with being Bonnie's toy. He's not being played with as much, in fact Jessie (Joan Cusack) often gets played with more then him and he often struggles no longer being the leader of the toys, having his authority constantly undermined by Dolly (Bonnie Hunt) who is the leader of Bonnie's older toys, and both of them have struggled with their co-leadership roles. On Bonnie's first day of Kindergarten, Woody sneaks into her backpack and helps out Bonnie by giving her arts and crafts tool that were tossed away in the trash, and Bonnie ends up creating her own toy. Out of a-eh, spork, she makes Forky (Tony Hale) and he isn't sure he wants to be a toy. Actually, he's really sure that he doesn't as Woody, has to constantly keep saving Forky from trying to to literally throw himself into the trash. Apparently, in this world, once your built and played with trash, and since he's a spork, he believes that's where he should be.

This alone should be much more nightmarish to everyone, especially Woody after the last movie when they also almost became trash, but either way, he's currently Bonnie's favorite toy and they need him to be around, so Woody takes it upon himself to make sure that he doesn't get, literally thrown away. Eventually, this leads him on the side of the road and then, stuck in an antiques shop, which is where he suspects Bo Peep might be. She had been donated by Molly years earlier and Woody has always regretted losing her. He does eventually find her, but not in the antique shop, out on a playground near a carnival, where she and her sheep have, basically become, for lack-of-a-better-term eh, ownerless toys? Woody calls them "lost toys," which is a wonderful recall to the first movie, but they're kinda, toys not beholden to specific kids. Unlike school toys, they tend to be outdoor toys, toys left in playgrounds, or toys that can kinda go anywhere. Bo Peep even has a buggie disguised as a skunk in order to travel through crowds, especially near the local carnival where they run into some carnival toys, most notably Bunny and Ducky (Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key).

Inside the vintage shop is the closest thing to a villain in the movie, Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) an old '50s doll that has never had a kid because she had a broken voicebox, and she's now after Woody because he still has his pullstring voicebox. She also has a small army of very disturbing ventriliguist dummies called the Bensons which look like demented Charlie McCarthys. There's also some friendlier toys that Bo Peep has rounded up over the years, most notably Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves) which is a Canadian defective version of an old Evil Knievel toy, so basically a cute wink at SuperDave. These are all discarded toys who've found a new life for themselves without the burden and responsibilities of being owned by a kid, something that Woody just isn't able to fully understand at first, and yet he finds himself conflicted with how his new role within Bonnie's toys are, and feels he needs a new purpose.

There's a couple things I'm not crazy about here, for one, while I do like how it progresses Woody's story, I'm just ambivalent about how it played out, especially since this change can really alter where I would've imagined "Toy Story" going from here. There's some other things holding me back a bit, for instance how Buzz (Tim Allen) seems to be getting a little dumber then he was in other movies. Here, he has trouble understanding the idea of a conscience voice in own's head, and I'm not entirely sure why he has difficulty with that. In fact, it's kinda surprising just how little importance Buzz has become in this franchise over-the-years; I guess part of that is understandable, but there is room for him to grown still and he mostly hasn't.

Then again, considering where Woody has ended up, maybe it's okay that he's fairly limited. And despite everything, I still like this dynamic of the toys having a little girl for their kid now and even the idea of her making her own toys and how that dynamic between homemade tos and the bought-and-sold toys plays out.

There's a lot of room left for more "Toy Story" stories, and I guess I do hope I see them, but it will be different from here on out and I don't know how much I'm gonna like that overall.


THE IRISHMAN (2019) Director: Martin Scorsese

★★★★

Image result for The Irishman

It is often said that no good movie is too long, and no bad movie is too short. That's true enough. I can think of some short movies that last way too long, and hell, some of my favorite movies are actually twice as long as "The Irishman". But yeah, clocking in at well over three hours, "The Irishman" is long. Probably too long; but more then that, there's a slow, paceful approach to the film, that...- well, it works in certain circumstance, but doesn't work in others. The other joke is that, since most people, myself included watched Scorsese's latest passion project on Netflix, and yes, it is a Netflix film and they're the one who distributed it, that the movie feels more like a limited series or a season of a TV show then a feature film, and-eh, well, they're not entirely wrong.

In fact, I think you can argue that this movie, perhaps should've been a miniseries instead of a feature film. Honestly, in that respect, perhaps I may hypothesize that, the movie is too short...! Yeah, not long enough to say what it wants to say. This movie is pure Scorsese; all his trademarks, the greatest of Italian actors, including several of his most favorite ones to work with; the ones he's synonymous with. De Niro, Pesci, Keitel, Pacin-, actually has he worked with Pacino before? No? (IMDB search) Huh; I would've thought they had before now; I guess not. But you get the idea, and it's about the Mafia and gangsters, one of Pacino's greatest subjects. And a historical piece about the Mafia at that, a la, "Goodfellas" and "Casino". In fact, as an Italian who's family is from the Philly/South Jersey area, I couldn't help but to recognize right away that some of these names, rang a notable, especially the first time I hear Pesci's charater's name Russell Bufalino. Right away, I have a decent, and correct guess about what mobster story is about to be told.

The Bufalino Crime Family were the main mob family in Philadelphia and Russell in particular was close to, and probably involve in the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). The movie is based on the Charlest Brandt book about mafia hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) however, nicknamed "The Irishman" although he fits in with the Italians fine; he even speaks the language as he mentions four years in Italy during some of the bloodiest battles of World War II, which included some of the more grizzlier war crimes. He's a teamster driver at the moment, deliver prime meat to whomever can afford it, and when some meat ends up missing, he ends up befriending Russell and becoming apart of his crew after a chance meeting years earlier on the roads.

Like some of these other Scorsese gangster movies, and actually most Scorsese movies come to think about it, the narrative is episodic, so explaining everything that happens and with who and involving them when is little too complicated for a review. I mean Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel) who was the head of the Philadelphia mafia for a while, only has a couple scenes, and his main plotline involves a misunderstanding when Frank was asked to torch a laundry service that unknowingly happened to be owned partially by Keitel, and was set up by one of the laundry's rivals, a guy named Whispers (Paul Herman), but not that Whispers, the other Whispers. (There's also a prerequisite joke where Hoffa doesn't know which Tony supposed is annoyed with him; it is actually funny.)

That's the first part of the film, Sheeran's introduction and acceptance into the crime family. The second part is the story of Jimmy Hoffa through Sheeran's eyes. On his deathbed, Sheeran is noted for saying that he was the one who killed Jimmy Hoffa and how he claims and why is portrayed in the film. The movie uses two strange flashback narrative devices, one is a long road trip to a wedding between the Sheerans and the Bufalinos going from Philly to Detroit, and the other is Sheeran as an old man who, is apparently articulating his story to..., well somebody. Maybe he's just narrating, the way you expect Scorsese characters to just narrative or talk to us through the screen, but then, there's the last part of the movie....

The film, is slowly paced; I want to blame the editing and yes, the movie can benefit from a from some cuts, but upon closer inspection, I think the writing is the issue. Steven Zaillian is a good writer, but he does have a tendency to believe that the narrative out makes it greater automatically, and sometimes it works, the guy's some of my favorite feature films, "A Civil Action" uses this well, "Schindler's List" of course, but sometimes, it just doesn't. To me, the most notable example is "Moneyball" where the film was cobbled together between two scripts, his and Aaron Sorkin's and you can tell who wrote which parts of that movie, and his parts usually weren't as good as Sorkin's part to me, and that's not just the dialogue, he tended to like long sweeping scenes and moments instead of just telling the story simply. I'm not at all surprised that he's the writer of a movie, where a major character, a female character at that, Frank's daughter Peggy (Anna Paquin) is getting heavily criticized for having an Oscar-winning actress say less then two lines of dialogue through the whole movie.

Yet, there are moments when this pacing works. Particularly in the long setup to the moments when Hoffa is killed; this is great classic Hitchcockian tension-building, it's a long-time building. We know the bomb's gonna go off, but we don't know how and we don't know when, and a lot of the littlest details, like the glasses first, then the plane..., those things make this movie worth the attention and acclaim.

Then we get a long ending sequence, the third part of the film, where we see Frank Sheeran at old age. Years in jail where he and Russell would break bread and grape juice instead of steak and wine and long after everyone else is dead and gone. He walks with a cane or two now, he struggles taking his pills, and his daughter Peggy, she won't talk to him. She's barely talked at all.

Now, in regards to her, first of all, Anna Paquin is a great actress and she doesn't need to say more then she does, we always know exactly what she's thinking. Secondly, I kinda like that we don't see him talking to her, or any of his family really. We meet his wife, Irene (Stephanie Kurtzuba), his second wife I might add, and that stuff given so little importance that you could've skipped over that as well, briefly on the road trip, and we even learn about Russell's wife Carrie (Kathrine Narducci) but, we don't know much more about them. We don't have stories of him talking to his daughters or loving his kids. Taking care of them, sure that's why he decided to rise up in the Mafia, the money, but now, late in life, when no one else is left, literally he's the last of the old mobsters and all his friends, he's saddened that he someone can barely get a word or two out of his daughters. Of course it's cliche that the Mafia is a man's world, and the women are always just, things to take care, but I think, instead, the movie ponders, what exactly does that mean.

Now, I've lived in Vegas enough, where I've occasionally run into some of these old-time mobsters at the twilight of their lives; I even wrote about it once, a long-ass time ago...

https://davidbaruffi.blogspot.com/2012/07/my-mafia-interviews-days-1-2-at-las.html

And, I can tell you that, this movie feels like it does sorta get the ennui feeling of some of these old-timers. Even moreso, I think if you look at this movie through the prism of Scorsese's gangster films, we have the life of a young street gangster in "Mean Streets", we have the successful mobster in "Goodfellas" and "Casino" we have the maneuvering expert craftsman in being both in "The Departed" and now, we have the era of old age. The time has passed by, and instead of the young men we all were at the beginning, we're the last of a dying breed. We can do everything we used to and better, but we made need some help with some special effects to make look the way we used to. And instead of the big screen experience, we're gonna be streaming on this thing called a website, as we now have only to talk to us, a Priest (Jonathan Morris) to, maybe confess our sins to, if we can even understand that we have them, and a Nurse (Dascha Polanco) who takes our blood pressure, and only barely kinda knows who Jimmy Hoffa is.

I think that's what appealling to me about "The Irishman", these late-in-life scene of Sheeran trying to infiltrate a world that he barely able to contemplate much, other then buying his casket and burial plot, as the days slip by in an assisted living society. I feel like these are the moments that Scorsese really wanted to capture, that most represent the way he feels within the modern world of cinema. Everything else is good-but-standard, standard for Scorsese, these felt more like something I'd expect in a Bergman movie, one of his later ones like "Saraband"; where he's reflecting on a time period that's not just over, but is itself, slowly slipping away from consciousness. That's the appeal of "The Irishman" to me and why it's ultimately worth a watch.

And perhaps that's why it is only three and a half hours, he needed to tell enough about Frank to let sympathize with that state of agedness Scorsese wanted to showcase, but he needed enough of it, so that, he could get to it right away. The movie's 3 1/2 hours, because 3 wouldn't be enough, and six hours wouldn't make it a feature film anymore; not for a Netflix audience anyway.


PAIN AND GLORY (2019) Director: Pedro Almodovar

★★★★

Image result for Pain and Glory

Hmm.... I'm looking through a lot of reviews that have already been written about "Pain and Glory". I do that for most films I review, if for no other reason then to get a sense of others thoughts, occasionally seek out critics I respect or admire and see what they think, occasionally perhaps to look into something or another that perhaps I missed in a movie on a first screening; 'cause I'm not perfect, sometimes something goes way over my head, or sometimes I just want to make sure that I'm not entirely crazy and that perhaps something I thought or observed was in fact as good or bad as I thought, but-eh, I'm looking through more reviews then normal for this one. I don't know why; I guess I'm looking for some kind of approach to "Pain and Glory" that feels like the correct approach to the latest from the great Pedro Almodovar.

I've actually been much more ambivalent towards his work then most people might think; I do think quite highly of his films, especially "All About My Mother", and "Volver" but he's just as often been distressingly difficult to get a grasp on. "Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!" for instance, is a film that I tend to have a very negative reaction towards, and even some of his indisputably great films, have some troubling and disturbing subtects to them; "Talk to Her", might be his absolute best film, and I might write about it, and other films of his in my Canon of Film one day, but holy god, that movie is literally about a guy raping a coma victim, and he's presented as the film's sympathic hero!!! Like, I can shut off my mind for that one, 'cause it legitimately is too good a movie to dismiss entirely, but Jesus Christ, Pedro, what the hell!?!?

(Annoyed sigh)

Anyway, after thinking back through his filmography and reading through some reviews of this film, I think I know what's tripped me up on this one. Almodovar has quite a few themes and motifs in his works, familial relationships, particularly ones between parents and children, um, gorgeous, sexy women who take on the more masculine role or traits in their personal and worklife, that's a big one, Almodovar is one of the biggest openly gay filmmakers out there, and his work deals with that subject matter in several different ways, from the personal and romantic to the over-the-top androgyny and camp, also movies in general, he's very much a student of classic cinema stories and tropes and will often take several new twists and approaches to some very classical narratives, "The Skin I Live In", which is his take on a Frankenstein film might be my favorite version of that.... That said, there is a common thread to his films, that is perhaps why I'm stumbling through this one, and that's, passion. No matter he does, all he films are essentially about passion, whether it's his personal passions, his characters passion for something or someone,... sometimes that leads to obsession but passion is arguably the biggest motif of all in Almodovar's work, and "Pain and Glory", is about a character who's struggling to find that passion, and perhaps has lost it completely.

Yeah, this is why this film hits a weirder note for me then others, "Pain and Glory" is his first film that really takes a psychoanalytical look at Almodovar's biggest fear, what would happen if suddenly, he no longer feels the passion to...- well, to do anything. Make movies, live, etc. etc., or worst, what if he manages to still have it, but is perhaps unable to pursue it, because health, age, life gets in his way?

Almodovar's self-insert in this case, is Salvador Mallo (Oscar-nominee Antonio Banderas), an aging director who's suddenly stopped directing late in his career after several troubling setbacks. He's sick to begin with, and he's recently recovering from a severe back surgery. This is based on Almodovar real-life back surgery and apparently he wrote the movie while recovering from it. The movie even begins with a shot of the surgical scar on Salvador as he sits motionless in a pool, one of several striking images we're bombarded with early on. There's even a hallucinatory note to the opening credits, and sure enough, drugs comes into play. He's already taking pain relievers, but he also begins freebasing heroin after reconnecting with Alberto (Asler Etxeandia) an actor who starred in one of his early films, "Sabor", which means, "Flavor". They've been invited to a revival screening of an updated cut and neither of them are interested at first, but they agree anyway. There's baggage between them as well as they fought constantly on the set of the movie and haven't worked with each other since, but Alberto also finds a short story that Salvador wrote, and inevitably, after the disastrous comic-tragedy fiasco of the screening, he gives Alberto the rights to turn the short into a one-man play.

Meanwhile, he's also dealing with the recent death of his mother, Jacinta (Julieta Serrano) who he keeps having flashbacks about. In flashbacks (Penelope Cruz, at her most Fellini-esque flashback feeling) we see her, mostly as a struggling parent, raising her son. His father, Venancio (Raul Arevalo) is usually out, and she's mostly on her own, trying to make a literal cave their home despite not really completely getting her son's fascination with entertainment and movies, although she's like that he's teaching Eduardo (Cesar Vicente) a young laborer to read in exchange for helping to tile up the cave and finish some other households chores.

I've seen several people compare to the film to Federico Fellinii's "8 1/2", and I can obviously, he's clearly using that film's structure of a film director going through a personal analytical drama, he even names a character, Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia) a former lover of his who was an inspiration for that short story Alberto adapted, and has suddenly also appeared back in his life. I wonder if that's coincidental. Come to think of it, Fellini's first directorial feature, "Variety Lights" was co-directed by Alberto Lattuada, another famoous Italian director; he's haunted by ghosts of filmmaker's past essentially. Both one he had and shared a passionate time with. With Alberto, it was a rough, hard struggle to get a film made, with Federico, it was a brief, whirlwind romance that neither would go back to, despite each of them caring deeply for the other. I guess, you could read these two characters, as the two sides of filmmaking, as Truffaut would say, the joys and agony of filmmaking, or in this case, the "Pain and Glory" of it? That might be a stretch, but I do like one reluctant partnership opens up for another.

There's also another part of his sickness to deal with, a rare condition that causing Salvador to choke on the smallest of food samples and liquids that he needs a second surgery to recover from. I can't help but see the irony in that he's constantly choking while his big past film that everyone's talking about has a title that translates to "Flavor". I lost of a sense of taste that he once had?

And yet part of me thinks this kind of analyses almost takes away too much from "Pain and Glory". It's obviously purposeful to insinuate some of these references. This movie is about regaining one's passion, passion for, in this case, film. The movie also, doesn't feel right to talk about as an autobiographical piece; which even the movie toys with at the end by insinuating how even our own perceptions can be painted with one's own perceptions. The one review I finally did think made the best sense for this film was Michael O'Sullivan's from the Washington Post, who called the movie an "Impressionist Painting", one where from far away you see a full image, but if you look closely, you see how that image is more fuzzy and blurry, and can in some ways be anything if it's anything at all. That's what this movie feels like, a bunch of sequences and images that don't necessarily connect with each other neatly, but can create a complete image if you paint them, with the right strokes and look at it in a particular way. Is it autobiographical? It is about filmmaking? Is it another great filmmaker's attempt at "8 1/2"? Is it a completely made up film that's inspired by other films? Or other thoughts and memories and real experiences? Is Banderas's amazing performance just a stand-in for Almodovar? Is he saying something greater with this work, or with the names he uses, or the ironic comedic touches? Or how the hell did that painting end up in that doctor's office?

Does any of that matter at all? No, of course not; that's why we love movies to begin with, isn't it?


THE LIGHTHOUSE (2019) Director: Robert Eggers

★★★★1/2

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Watching "The Lighthouse" is like staring into a black and white lava lamp until you begin imagining yourself inside the lava lamp trying to get out. That's not a criticism, it's the feeling the movie's trying to evoke and boy does it evoke. The movie earned a somewhat surprising Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography and the movie is definitely visually striking. It's shot in 35mm black and white and in a 1:19:1 screen format to exentuate the claustrophobic nature of the story, and increase the intensity between the two main characters, who for all I know could just be two sides of the same mind. Yeah, it's one of those movies but it's a pretty good one. 

I'm not surprised either. This is the second feature film from Robert Eggers, the man behind another historical-fiction horror film, "The Witch" or "The VVitch" as it was written. That movie I appreciated more then I liked. That movie took place in New England, around the time of the Salem Witch Trials, more then that, it felt like it existed in the 1690s. The guy's background is in production design, so he has this strange effection for recreated time periods with such exactness that even the most minute details seem to transport us; with "The Lighthouse", the movie denotes having been heavily inspired by writings of the time of seamens of the day, and other, and this includes the personal writings of Herman Melville in an attempt to recreate the kinds of dialogue you'd expect from the era. It's startling to see such detail to historical accuracy 

The movie involves two people who have a 4-week assignment to oversee the titular lighthouse. The new guy to the lighthouse is Ephraim (Robert Pattinson) who begins working with the salty old crusty worker, Wake (Willem Dafoe). Wake is the veteran boss who insists early on breaking protocol, insisting that instead of alternative shifts, that he be the one who cares for the light and that Ephraim deal with everything else. Eventually the two get to talking and confronting each other constantly, all the while the hidden terrors, both in reality, and in the mind, or both, or neither, or whatever the hell start to infiltrate one or both of their minds. Trying to explain the events that occur in "The Lighthouse" is a pointless exercise in detailing minutia. It's a cabin fever story, only the cabin is replaced with a lighthouse on an island. There's a storm that's raging because it's the kind of island that always gets the brunt and days away from society and weeks away are equally mind-numbing and disorienting to the brain, especially that's already getting used to a new life, and to possibly one that's longago gotten used to it. 

We eventually learn Ephraim's past and why and how he reacts to strange seagulls that seem to be attacking and the most notorious of oceanic mirage, a Mermaid (Valeriia Karaman) but we don't learn as much about Wake, but I can reasonably guess that whatever his past might've been is probably just as brutal and sudden and that he's long forgotten much of it. Nobody takes jobs like these without trying to escape their nefarious ways. 

"The Lighthouse" is a dark, haunting, cryptic nightmare; a haunting that's hammers into your brain from the outside in and then from the inside out. The fact that Robert and Max Eggers, who co-writes his filsm with him have chosen horror for their genre to obsess with historical detail makes them stand out more then others. They're creating the ghost stories that we generally only hear about in other horror movies as the explanations for what haunts modern-day idiot teenagers, the who will inevitably try to do something stupid like spend a camping weekend at an abandoned island with some old-timey lighthouse on it, while they bitch about being their smartphones energies dying. These films harken back to a time when most of our entertainment was already consumed with out own internal thoughts and dreams and that is what makes his movies so much more powerful; we have to trust our mind in these situations and at every instant we can't trust our own, or anybody else's to guide us. I must admit now that "The Witch" probably deserves a rewatch from me as I was way too dismissive towards it originally. That said, "The Lighthouse", still feels like a newer, fresher idea, one that creates and invites more unique and newer hauntings and creeps and chills. I know it's cliche to talk about horror movie and discuss how it's subject made us scared to ever go near anything like the subject of the movie, but I'll say this, I ain't going near an abandoned lighthouse anytime soon.


THE FAREWELL (2019) Director: Lulu Wang

★★★★1/2

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I haven't brought it up yet, 'cause I'm still behind on my Yearly movie lists and I got a few films I still need to watch, but I thought "Crazy Rich Asians" was one of the best films on 2018. It's a little too early for me to say there will be one, or even two films in my Top Ten in consecutive years where Asian-Americans travel to Asia in order to attend a wedding, but "The Farewell" is a lovely movie that might be one of the best of the year. It's mostly gotten listed as a comedy, which is true enough; it's a comedy of manners, but I generally found the story more poignant and touching then funny. Perhaps that's just me, though. Even though the movie is apparently based on Director Lulu Wang's own family, I found myself drawn in on the more emotional levels.

The movie begins in New York where Billi (Awkwafina) is a struggling writer in New York, who can't pay her rent and has just lost the scholarship she was banking on. At home, she finds out that her Grandmother Nai Nai (Shuzhen ZHAN) is dying, stage 4 stomach cancer. She said nothing when she was just talking on the phone with her, but that's because Nai Nai doesn't know. I guess if you're not familiar with this custom, it is a bit weird to the West, but yeah this is that's traditional in many Eastern cultures, they don't tell the patient that they're dying, believing that it's somehow better for them to not know and their lives as they do, as well as also, allow for the family's to carry the burden of their grief for their family members. It's the second movie I've this plot used, the first is one of my favorite Asian movies of all-time, Akira Kurosawa's masterpiece "Ikiru". Ironically though, that movie is actually about what happens when somebody actually does find out they're about to die, "The Farewell" is about, essentially everyone else.

The family decides to construct a visit to see Nai Nai in Chagnchun, under the guise of Billi's cousin Hao Hao (Han Chen) getting married to his latest fling. At first, Billi is told to stay in America and continue her personal passion and work, and also because she's the emotional one most likely to reveal the truth to Nai Nai, but she eventually flies over anyway. She doesn't reveal the diagnosis, but she does clash with the rest of her family. For one, she was the last one born in China, and moved to America when she was young, so her Mandarin isn't as good as the rest of her family, but she can get by. Awkwafina played the comic-relief best friend character in "Crazy Rich Asians" the year before this and now she's one of the biggest Asian-American stars around, and even has her own sitcom now, and this performance won her a Golden Globe, and it's a really powerful, conflicted performance. She's trying to both get closer to her Grandmother and her roots, all the while fighting with her family, many of whom barely manage to keep their own grief at bay until the most wrong possible moments. It's kinda like that episode of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" where Mary doesn't laugh at Chuckles the Clown's death until the funeral, only everybody seems to start crying and confessing at the wedding that Nai Nai has been planning the whole time. Billi though considers and tries to get her family to allow her to stay and look after her Grandmother.

Honestly, I think both sides of this argument are pretty reasonable, and I like how personal and traditional this debate is done; Billi's parents, Haiyan and Lu Juan (Tzi Ma and Diana Lin) are used to keeping family secrets themselves, and having some kept from them in return, but for Billi she feels like she's both missing apart of her culture and understanding, and trying to reconcile it with her own American perspectives. It's hard to describe this movie in simple terms. To me, I think of it as a tonal poem, a movie of reflection, a reflection of oneself, on others, on all our lives and all the things that make our lives come about. All the moments that matter, the memories and of course, family, and everything that means and entails. For instance, the fact that this is a big family drama and yet, Billi has only one cousin, and that's because her parents, her father in particular, has only one sibling. That probably means nothing in the grand scheme of Wang's story; it's just the realities of life, but then you reflect upon China's one-child policy and now it feels like a remnant of something that effected her life more then even Billi realizes. It's those little details like that, or the scene at the wedding where some of Nai Nai's friends from the Army, yes, she was in the military, are talking about their old adventures and revealing how they had a crush on her, and because of certain events, she didn't end up with them. Sounds trivial, but this whole thing wouldn't have happened if those events didn't happen the way they ended up going. Billi wouldn't be there, or anywhere for that matter.

That's the ultimate appeal of "The Farewell" and it succeeds beautifully. It's a lovely personal tale that most everyone can relate to on some level. It's a beautiful little movie that soars through our emotional wall like a rainbow arching through the sky. One more reminder that farewell, doesn't have to mean goodbye, if you don't want it to be.


SHAZAM! (2019) Director: David F. Sandberg

★1/2

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Oh-kay, um... "Shazam!".... "Shazam!" is the-eh, um, latest-um,... um..., what the hell am I watching?

(Sigh, picks up DVD. Reads back cover, again. Stares at front cover again. Flips back and forth between front and back cover, confused. Opens up DVD box.)

What the...- there's a Special Features disc for this thing?

(Sigh)

Okay, um, I know I'm normally out of my depths a little bit when it comes to a lot of comic book stuff; I didn't grow up with this, it's not my subgenre,... yada, yada, yada, I'm generally just not a fan, but I have never heard of "Shazam!" before now. I genuinely kinda thought, based on the box cover art, and the lack of details and the fact that "Shazam!" is just an all-around stupid-ass name for a comic book superhero, that this had to be, like a comic parody of the genre, like "Super" or "Special" were.

That this couldn't like, be a real thing, especially since I've just never heard of this guy. Apparently, he's not a new character either, his origins date back to the thirties! He had a TV Show in the seventies! And it lasted three seasons!? Okay, it's not the first time I've been caught offguard by a superhero film with a main character here I've never heard of,- I didn't know who the hell the Guardians of the Galaxy were for instance, but I also got the sense that they were an obscure group with a larger group of Avengers, and I wasn't overly familiar with every member of the Avengers eithers, but the ones that got their own movie I at least knew who most of them were; usually most of the biggest names, I've at least heard of. But "Shazam!" what the fuck... wait...-

(Wikipedia page) 
Captain Marvel, also known as Shazam (/ʃəˈzæm/), is a fictional superhero appearing in American comics originally published by Fawcett Comics, and currently published by DC Comics. Artist C. C. Beck and writer Bill Parker created the character in 1939. Captain Marvel first appeared in Whiz Comics #2 (cover-dated Feb. 1940), published by Fawcett Comics. He is the alter ego of Billy Batson, a boy who, by speaking the magic word "SHAZAM!" (acronym of six "immortal elders": SolomonHerculesAtlasZeusAchilles, and Mercury), can transform himself into a costumed adult with the powers of superhuman strength, speed, flight and other abilities. The character battles an extensive rogues' gallery, primarily archenemies Doctor SivanaBlack Adam, and Mister Mind....

Captain Marvel? I thought the...- wait...? Oh Christ, I'm gonna have to look this shit up, aren't I? Goddammit, now I gotta do more comic book history research... Fuck me!

(Forty-five minutes later)

Okay, so... basically, there's multiple Captain Marvels. I'm not gonna go  through the entire history of this, 'cause this is a long convuluted thing that I'm sure somebody who cares can sort through better then me. So, yeah, this is DC's variation on their original character Captain Marvel, but their Captain Marvel is now an Avengers character name, and there's also several different Captain Marvels, and...- I don't know...- Anyway, instead of Captain Marvel, he got Shazam!, for some reason.... It's not even his name, it's his, like, Go-Go Gadget phrase,...-

Whatever. So, I guess I'm not supposed to take this one as a play on a superhero film. Even if it's a little bit too weird and stupid to take seriously, I have to consider it seriously....

(Sigh)

You know, DC, when I gave a little more slack to "Suicide Squad" then I probably shouldn't have, a lot of it had to do with the fact that, despite everything, I still found some of those villain characters fascinating; I'm not sure you can do that with a guy named after the cheesiest of all magic words that magicians wouldn't even use now if they wanted to..... Couldn't he be called "Alacazam" or "Abracadabra" at least? Was "Bippity-Boppity Boo" copywritten?

Alright, I know there's comedy superhero films in the Marvel Universe, it's logical for there to be some in the DC Universe, even if, most of the DC Universe even at it's campiest has been pretty damn serious-in-tone up 'til now, at least... (Although I haven't gotten to "Aquaman" yet, so maybe not. I still can't believe that's a superhero film; that used to just be a joke on "Entourage".) and I say that, as a positive, I might add. The Marvel Universe has always seemed a little too over-the-top and campy for it's own good; I like a darker world where superheroes are more needed.

(Sigh)

But goddamnit, this guy...? Actually that's problem A, he's not even a guy. Shazam! (Zachary Levi) is actually Billy Batson (Asher Angel) a teenage foster kid known for being a runaway. His backstory...- ugh, is pretty stupid. Look, I'm trying to give this movie a little benefit of the doubt, but like, this is a really dumb backstory, how he became a foster kid. I don't think it's completely unrealistic but, parts of this story feel like it was written in a much earlier age. Even the group home he ends up at....- He's been kicked out several homes after running away in a constant search for his birth mother (Caroline Palmer) who may or may not have abandoned him as a kid. This time around he's in Philadelphia, and after stealing a cop's Geno's, which, okay, nice touch there, he ends up at, Victor and Rosa Vasquez's (Cooper Andrews and Marta Milans) home, where he's suddenly bombarded with love from several new foster siblings, most notably a crippled teenager his same age named Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer) who has a superhero obsession.

Shortly thereafter, a Wizard (Djimon Hounsou) contacts Billy, and gives him superpowers because he's good-at-heart, apparantly. So, he's a chosen one, superhero and he now has to defeat Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong) a man who became a supervillain after he gained control of the Seven Deadly Sins, which in this world are some kind of gargoyle-like ghost monsters that live in his eye.

There's a few problems here. I did say that him being a kid is a problem, it's not really, "Kick-Ass" worked for me, for instance, despite some flaws in that movie too, so kid superheroes can work in the right context, but this kid and this story does not. For one thing, this feels much older then a movie like this should be. I'm not surprised this film had a long and difficult pre-production; apparently this movie was being conceived for so long, William Goldman once wrote an early draft of this. This thing was bouncing around since the early 2000s, but this backstory feels like it came from an old "Three Stooges" short to me.

That's another big issue with this movie for me, Shazam's whole narrative, is that, he's a foster child, who's searching for his family, and that eventually he realizes that his family is there all along, and I guess, him becoming a literal superhero is part of that transition too, but we don't actually get to know much about this foster family of his. I mean, I get why he's reluctant to embrace them as a family, the guy's been through several foster families for like almost a decade or so, through six counties, and sure, not all foster families are good, but they couldn't have all been terrible. Even still though, we don't really learn enough about this group to really be enticed to care about them. We learn about Freddy, and frankly he seems obnoxious. We learn like one or two things about everyone else, and they're all nice and friendly and all, but we don't enough about them to care, and it's kinda hard to believe that Billy does suddenly care so much, especially after being such a lone wolf for so long.

I guess, I could've give the movie a little slack, and then the movie really fucked up and gave me, not one, but two post-credits scenes, so whatever sympathy I had for some of the comedy and some of the undermining of the superhero tropes was getting really soured by the end. I also, wasn't entirely, no pun intended, "Big", on the conceit of the teenager turning into an adult version of himself when he turns into the superhero. I mean, that's some really goofy, like kid's TV shows shit. Like, literally, I'm fairly certain the Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers tried that and even it's biggest fans turned on the series after that. (Actually, come to think of it, I think that character was named Billy too. Why does this keep happening to Billys?) I haven't been keeping up with the DC movies as much as the MCU movies, partly because they mostly get far less positive reviews and acclaim overall as their rival counterparts, so I've had more time to be pissed and angry at them for sucking, (Or existing at all) and I guess I would if any of their movies ever actually made me care. "Shazam!" so far is the worst though. It's tone contrasts too vehemently to the world, it's main emotional narrative is underdeveloped, the whole Wizard and magic world,- basically the things that give these guys their superpowers is so underdeveloped I have to look it up to even understand it, and even then it's too stupid to need to be developed, but, basically, one day they don't have magic, the next day they do, the emotional narrative is not only underdeveloped, even if it was fully developed enough for me to care or believe what happens afterwards, it would still be so outdated and goofy that I wouldn't be able to remotely take it seriously enough...- like really, the movie feels like the flimsy, outdated, cynical version of everything; like this movie was plucked from the Golden Age of comics and yet we're just supposed to accept it for today, on it's own, and within a greater much more modern and darker superhero universe? As I see it, the outlook for "Shazam!" is not so good.


WILD ROSE (2019) Director: Tom Harper

★★1/2

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I gotta be honest here, I'm struggling a bit to figure out what to say about "Wild Rose". I-eh, hmmm. Well, I'll say this Jessie Buckley is a star. That was by far, the biggest thing I got out of from the film. Which is strange, because this is a pretty beloved movie, and it definitely stands out; it's unique. I can't think of a better movie about a Scottish single mother struggling to become a successful country singer in Nashville. At the same time though, this is a pretty standard narrative. The unknown, underdog with talent and a dream, wants to be a star. Insert your own examples here, the aesthetics are different and contrasting but does the movie have anything else to add to that? 

Well, it's got a pretty killer soundtrack combining both classic and country girl badasses going on all through the movie. Most people I think know the movie from the song "Glasgow (No Place Like Home)" which is very good song that, yes was snubbed of a deserved Oscar nomination and Jessie Buckley, like she does with all the movie, sings it out of the park. She plays Rose-Lynn, the recently released convict who's trying to restart her potential singing career, if she doesn't end up tossing it aside herself. She returns home to the scorn and appreciation of her mother Marion (Julie Walters) a longtime baker who's been watching over her two kids, the talkative young Lyly (Adam Mitchell) and the quietly judging Wynnona (Daisy Littlefield). She tries to regain her job as the singer of the house band at the "Grand Olde Opry" in Glasgow, which is basically, just a bar with a stage and a dance floor that plays some country and western music, but it's the closest she gets, and naturally, she's immediately banned from the place, before she pushes and forces her way back in by singing her ass off.

In the meantime, she begins to get some regular work cleaning the house of Susannah (Sophie Okonedo) and eventually Susannah begins helping her get her career out there, and once she gets her motion detected anklet off, she makes a way to London for a BBC interview and begins to get noticed by some bigwigs. Susannah then sets up a concert for her, but she begins to feel more conflicted when she has to push her kids onto an erratic collection of random friends and neighbors while she has to go and get rehersals in. 

(Sigh)

Honestly, I'm not sure what to make of "Wild Rose". I think in general, I look towards these kinda of narratives based on, how inspirational they are to me. Think of a film like, "Hustle & Flow", that movie made everything seem really difficult to just even the simplest recording done, and it is hard to get recordings done. It requires a lot of expensive equipment, the space, people who know what the hell they're doing, and then yeah, you have to have the talent to pull it off; and that's why it's so devasting when things don't pan out for him. Or, look at something like "Once" which probably is closest cinematic comparison, the movie isn't just about getting a record contract or a recording, it's about the relationship, musical and personal, between the two artists and how both of them struggle not just to work together, but also whether or not they want that goal at all. It was inspiring for other reasons, more dynamics at play. "Wild Rose"'s main conflict is just, herself, we're watching to see whether or not she doesn't fuck up her next chance, or how she will fuck it up. She's already talented enough, we know that; she has to learn to write her own songs, but there's not much there. Her big conflict is understanding that she has more then her to care about, and that's something for a single mother who's already had stints in jail and is generally unreliable and erratic as a person. I mean, it's not bad, but everything just comes to easy for her, even for a trainwreck. 

There's even a scene, where suddenly a major character changes her mind about her and helps her out, and it's completely out of nowhere and inconsistent with her character until then. I don't know, I think part of me looks at this movie as just the formula done, pretty well; there's one scene where I thought it would go into one bad trope of these movies and it instead went into a different trope of this kind of movie, which worked a little better then what I thought would happen. I don't know, I'm on the fence on this one. 

I think the movie that this film actually most reminds me of most is "Jolene", which wasn't this kind of story, but it basically was a showcase reel for it's star, Jessica Chastain. It's not as obvious a reel as "Jolene" was, which literally put the same character through several different female archetype roles, but this is a reel of Jessie Buckley; she can show this movie to anybody and will probably get any part she wants right now. She really is killing it in this movie too; she's a force of nature that bursts through the screen and she basically shows off how much she can do, but more important shows us that she can do anything. She is the only reason to watch this movie and I'm debating with myself about whether or not that's enough to recommend the film. 

I want to recommend it, but I think I gotta say no, 'cause I think other movies have done this better; they might not have birth an actual star the way this one did, but other movies have done this story better. The twist of the contrasting worlds of a Scottish girl wanting to become a country music star and Jessie Buckley's amazing breakout performance; it just wasn't enough for me. I feel like the movie needed, just like, one more layer of conflict or one extra obstacle for her to get over in order to fully work. 


JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3-PARABELLUM (2019) Director: Chad Stahelski

★★★

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I've been anxious to review the latest in the "John Wick" saga. Frankly, I don't get it. I don't get the appeal of this franchise, or why it's supposedly so great. I even wrote a blurb on FB and Twitter about it, and the appeal of the franchise actually helped convince me to write a Canon of Film post on Luc Besson's "La Femme Nikita", a movie, that frankly I never thought much of before, but boy, the more I thought about how innocuous and average these John Wick films are as hitmen movies go, I did a big re-evaluation of Luc Besson's work after milieu, in particular, his hitmen material after that.

However I did get a few people who were trying to defend it; one close friend of mine mentioned that he thought the film was comparable to "The Raid" movies movies, and just how great the action was and choreography was, that it overtook all the storytelling deficiencies of the films. I guess that's true, the action sequences in these movies are quite impressive, and the choreography and fight are done better then most movies I can think of, and I felt the same way with "The Raid" movies, so I can see a correlation there. 

I also thought both "The Raid: Redemption" and "The Raid 2" sucked though. I know that's an unpopular opinion, but I stand by it, they're boring as fuck, and great action does not a movie make; those were video games disguised as films, and I wasn't able to play or control them; they're great action reel for the choreographer and stunt people, but they're not good movies, at all. I felt like I was repeatedly kicked in the head, until I was in a painful, unconscious slumber. But it does lead to an interesting question though, are the "John Wick" movies, just video games? 

Ummmm, well, I can kinda see how this third one is. 

For one thing, it's a direct continuation of the last film, which like the previous movie, I have totally forgotten the entire story of them, but there's not much to know, there's a worldwide underground criminal organization called "The Table", and they have listed John Wick (Keanu Reeves) as excommunicado, and have put a bounty on his head, so he has to get through several obstacles and levels that take place all around the world, in order to, get one last shot at removing his excommunicado status and take out all those at the Table who've put him in bad standing. I mean, there's the city level, then there's the Russian underground level, where he has to give a certain item to The Director (Anjelica Huston) in order to escape, there's the Morocco level, where he's in a, fairly-interesting portrayal of Casablanca, where he also, has to give a different shiny important object to another head crime lord Sofia (Halle Ber-, really? [Depressed sigh]  God, we need to find better roles for you.) who then comes along on his next mission, along with her dogs to this Berrada (Jerome Flynn) who's there to tell John where he should go next, and to be the next boss to kill at the end of the mission,... 

So, yeah, I- I can definitely see this as a movie that follows a video game plot. Kinda.... Well, I can definitely see this movie, as a video game, but then again, I didn't see that similarity in the first movies; they felt more like, traditional hitmen movies to me, at least, plotwise, and they were done well. I didn't love them the way everyone else did, but I didn't hate them either; that was my bigger complaint about their popularity, it's not that they weren't good, it's that I couldn't figure out how anybody felt any particular amount of passion towards them at all. I mean, it's even joked about in this movie, how all this, was literally over a dog. Of course, it's not just over a dog, although it is, but it's also what the dog represents, and it doesn't really matter that it's over a dog, it's over whatever it is that made John Wick come out of hiding/retirement to try to kill every motherfucker out there that he can. So, I don't know, I think this in particular feels like a case of video games being influenced by movies, and then perhaps video games taking a little inspiration narrative-wise from films, which I am okay with. It's when the movie is trying to be a video game that bothers me, and I get that from "The Raid" movies, but not here. 

That said, "...Parabellum", is definitely, the strangest of the "John Wick". Like, I didn't remember the other two much, but I'm gonna remember this one'cause it's world-building is so damn absurd. Like, once John Wick is excommunicated, there's like a collective of office people and human operators, like in the "Mad Men" days of phone calling, there's this character known as the Abjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon) who goes around to everyone, including characters from the previous movie and, I guess is, like voice of "The Table", and she's the one in charge of just, follow through their orders, but there's this person who's apart of the Table named "The Elder" (Said Taghmaoul) who gives John his final command to get through or else he'll remain excommunicado through this bizarrely organized deep underworld...- I don't fucking know what the hell is going on! This is why, this feels like a video game, 'cause this franchise clearly does not take place in anything that even remotely resembles the real world anymore. Like I could pretend that Winston's (Ian McShane) hotel was a front for a lot of underworld activity and has secret with weapons and passages;- I mean, that's a lot of James Bond shit, sure, but it's in the realm of some form of the modern world, but the rest of it; I don't fucking have a clue. 

Like, we learn a little bit about John Wick's background as well, for instance, John Wick, is a moniker, he's actually Russian, with a Russian name, and that he was trained in this hitmen Academy/Russian ballet show...-? You're guess is as good as mine. This world makes no sense, and any attempt to try to explain it would just be insipid. I guess that's one way to make John Wick more interesting, to make the world around him more interesting, 'cause, at least I'm gonna remember how insane this movie is. 

So, is it good? Good enough to recommend? I don't know, maybe. It's a hitman movie; despite everything, it's still basically just a hitman movie. I mean, I don't know, I guess it's better then the last one 'cause it's actually trying to be way more then it probably should this time. (Shrugs) It's weird, I still don't feel like John Wick is nearly as compelling a character or a franchise as the populous seems to thing it is, but I guess this third one is so batshit insane, even for what is essentially just a hitmen movie that, I guess I'm recommending just because of how out there it is...? 


LUCE (2019) Director: Julius Onah

★★★★1/2

Image result for Luce

I've been taking notes and staring intently at a blank screen for a little while..., I'm trying to remember if there was anybody in my high school like "Luce". I don't mean, the specifics of Luce's (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) background, that's important to the movie, but taking those out for a moment, Luce, is incredibly intelligent, but also, more aware and manipulative then other high school students I can think of. Not only that, he's also, kinda involved in everything and everybody. If there's an issue, he's the one who everybody turns to for guidance or help, or, just to even talk with over some weed or something. For a lack of a better word, I guess you can call him the "Class Mediator"? I remember liking having that job in elementary school, when we each had a class job for the week, but, I was mostly liked it for being a smartass, and being, well, not to quote Bush but, "The Decider" of issues and arguments that came up. (Shrugs) Yeah, when I was nine or ten, I was still growing up and maturing, I wasn't driving us to illegal, but I didn't exactly have that title later on I don't think. By high school, I was a good listener, as many former high school classmates have told me, but I can't think of anybody offhand who had this kind of specific role in the school ecosystem, none that I was aware of anyway. 

That said, I might've been in my own world too much, or hung out with a crowd who didn't associate with a Luce-like character at school, or ever needed his/her help and guidance. It might also help that I didn't have a teacher like Miss Wilson (Octavia Spencer) though, or if I did, I didn't recognize it. 

No, strike that, I didn't have a teacher like her. Not one that would....  Like, I did know of certain kids, who would complain about how their teachers were against them in some way, eh, most of the time, I thought it was bullshit. Mostly it was the kids who, may have otherwise been troubled or had some undiagnosed learning disability, but often they just weren't really good enough for school in general. (Just being honest here, sorry.) That said though, I do know teachers like Miss Wilson exist. My family dealt with a teacher like her once before, apparently there was a teacher who one of my relatives said was against them, and no matter how hard they worked were always getting lesser grades, and then people started realizing that the kids who had an issue with this teacher all had last names that ended in vowels. 

Miss Wilson isn't racist, but she is prejudice, and she does seem to want order and control, and that bleeds into how she treats students, using any advantage she can in order to conform them to her expectations, and when they don't, things start to happen to those students. 

"Luce" is third feature directed by Julius Onah, I'm not too familiar with his other projects but he's actually a Nigerian-born director who was educated in America, along with his twin brother, Anthony are two of the biggest emerging young filmmakers right now. That said, "Luce" is based on a play by J.C. Lee, and I get the sense that much fo the story's power gets mitigated because of that. Luce is basically the school's prized pupil, a valedictorian-level student, a major athlete on the track team, and the captain of the team's debate team. And again, he's well-respected within his group of students, often standing up for those in the most need and befriends those at the top and the bottom of the adult's charts of the best. 

It's then that his parents, Amy and Edgar (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) get told about some disturbing incidents involving him. One involves a locker search Miss Wilson conducted, where illegal fireworks were found in his locker. (Actually, something that bothers me about this, that isn't brought up, are teachers even allowed to randomly search lockers? From my experience, locker searches, need at least the knowledge of somebody in the main office of the school, the Dean, one of the Principle or Vice Principle, etc. etc.) Also, he wrote a paper for a history/English...- Civics...? Actually, I don't know what Miss Wilson teaches, but the assignment was about writing a paper in the voice of a famous historical figure, and Luce chose to write a paper from the perspective of, eh-, hmm, Frantz Fanon.... 

(Pause)

Okay, Wikipedia, help me out....


(Fifteen minutes later) 

Okay..., um...- Actually,  hold on, I need a little more research.... 

(Fifteen more minutes later)

Alright, I think I have enough of a hold on this, Frantz Fanon, was a mid-20th Century psychiatrist and political philosopher who literally the wrote the books on the psyche of colonization, or to be precise, to being colonized, particularly in regards to most of, well, French Africa, the parts of Africa where France was colonized. Now, a lot of his work is widely influential in starting several National Liberations, everything from this he was more directly involved with, like the Algerian National Liberation Front, to the more indirect influences he had on things like the Black Power Movement in America. and many of his Sartre-influence Pan-Africanism, and Humanist-Marxism ideals have been heavily incorporated and studied on several different intellectual fronts. and the majority of this is fairly benign in most of our modern cultural sensabilities, but he was also in favor of genocidal violence against colonial aggressors. 

Okay, alone still, doesn't particularly make this weird, but Luce was adopted as an Eritrean refugee....

Eritrea....-

(Long thinking pause, annoyed sigh)

Goddammit, I need to refresh...- hold on, another research break....

(Ten minutes later)

So, the young nation of Eritrea is, basically kinda,...- it's complicated, but their government has gotten into wars with pretty much all it's neighbors and among other things have forced their citizens into certain levels of conscription services over time, that seem to never end, so there is a big population leaving that country. (Also, that's the big part of, what used to be Ethiopia that Italy invaded that one time...)

So, the idea of an African refugee student who was forced into early military service by a questionable government, that writes a paper from a perspective of a radical left-wing Marxist who believed in, a reverse ethnic cleansing to eradicate the sins and side-effects of imperialist colonialism, okay, I can kinda see how that would raise an alarm or two....

This sets into motion, a lot of decisions and conversations that makes everybody talking at cross-angles to each other, some passive-aggressive bullshit, and a lot of mystery involving, mostly Luce, but a few other characters as well, most notably, an ex-girlfriend of Luce named Stephanie (Andrea Bang) as well as DeShaun (Astro) a former teammate of Luce who was kicked off the track team after Miss Wilson found marijuana in his locker, and who Luce is trying to remain friends with, despite him seemingly falling to bad influences. You see, in hindsigh, I find some of these subplots odd. Some of them come back in weird ways, but others kinda just exist to make more philosophical points on race, and Luce is, at those points an audience avatar, or he's trying to be. I guess, that's also part of the point, expectations of being a young African-American, and him, in particular, raised by white parents with their own foreign accents, in one way making him less Black, and then being from Africa making him more Black.... There's the parents who raised him, but not from birth, so there's still some mistrust and possible regret, then there's also a look inside Miss Wilson's life, who has a mentally ill sister, Rosemary (Marsha Stephanie Blake) which, I guess is a way to humanize her, but she also gets a speech at the end, explaining her perspective....

I feel conflicted about "Luce" as a movie. Like I said, I think a lot of the speeches and nuances would play better on a stage then they do here, that said, the go-to work that I would compare this too is David Mamet's "The Cryptogram". For those not familiar, that's probably Mamet's most dense work, and that's a good thing, it's also arguably his best play, but it's written in this bizarre, layered way in which, nearly every line of dialogue could be interpreted a hundred different ways. I've read it several times and this time is so, malleable that you see this play performed hundreds of times over and never feel like you're seeing the same play done twice, just because of how many different ways the dialogue can be interpreted by the actors. Now, obviously isn't that pliable, but the dialogue is, especially Luce's. Kelvin Harrison, Jr.'s character bothers me in this way, where he can irk you with the ways that he can say these words that can either by genuine or passive-aggressive, or outright threatening, and the damnedest thing is how you can never truly tell what he's really thinking or what his intentions are, and it frustrates us as much as the other characters. That's of course the point though, and because of that, deceptibly, Kelvin Harrison, Jr. gives one of the very best performances of the year because of this.

"Luce" is that kind of movie that raises a lot of questions and concerns, and it can be a chore to keep up with. I had to study and do some homework just to get a grasp of some of this myself, and I'm still entirely sure everything works here, but this is a complex movie that deserves to be watched and analyzed, and I mean that in the best of ways. It's a confident production and is a showcase for an incredible cast that constantly makes you think and consider everything that's going on and why and who's telling the truth, or who's telling their truth, who's manipulating who, who can you trust and how much can you trust them..., and also, who actually bought those damn fireworks and put them in Luce's locker in the first place...?


ROJO (2019) Director: Benjamin Naishtat

★★1/2

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I'm gonna preface this by saying that perhaps this is more of an incomplete review then a straight-up negative review. I say that, not because I think the movie is better then I'm rating it, but I do feel that there is a lot of interpretation that is simply just going over-my-uninformed American-head. "Rojo", or "Red", is an Argentinean film, the first one I've seen from director Benjamin Naishtat, this film noir thriller takes place shortly before the Argentinean army overthrew it's leader Isabel Peron, and that led to the Dirty War, which, well...- something that I do know about recent Argentina history is that, there was a lot of people who ended up missing over a short period of time, and there's several illusions to people who seem to go missing very suddenly in "Rojo". 

The movie opens with a strange incident between our protagonist, Claudio (Dario Grandinetti) and a stranger named Dieguito (Diego Cremonesi) where their confrontation at a restaurant leads to a scene, and then later, leads to Dieguito's death. This is all in the prologue of the movie which takes up a good twenty minutes of the film. The rest of the film is kinda hard to follow for me. Like there's certain things that I get, for instance, the strange fascination some leaders have with a visiting group of American rodeo cowboys; I don't know how many people have followed rodeo sports like bullriding in recent decades but that sports been overtaken by Latin America for awhile now. There is one, not-so-subtle piece of rodeo symbolism involving a calf that's roped up that,- well, they cut away before they showed what was, well, cut away, but the meaning way pretty obvious to me. 

Anyway, Claudio is a lawyer who's helping in on a scheme to purchase an abandoned house, which has been looted through. (Like I said, people end up missing.) There's a lot to kinda go through at this point, a dance routine that Claudio's daughter Paula (Laura Grandinetti) is performing in high school, and she's the subject of affection for young men..., there's the mother, Susanna (Andrea Frigerio) who has a nervous breakdown during an art exhibition that seems reminiscent of the Stranger's breakdown at the restaurant in hindsight. Then there's this famous Chilean detective Detective Sinclair (Alfredo Castro) who seems to have become on the trail for this Hippie/Stranger and find out what happened to him, and he's zeroed in, correctly on Claudio. He's kinda like the Columbo of this movie I guess. 

Like I said, I think the movie perhaps has more symbolic value then I am giving it credit for. For instance, the fact that the foreboding detective character is Chilean is important, they had their revolutionary coup before Argentina's a year or so earlier, so that has meaning to some. For me, I feel like the movie is a study of style at it's best, but a meandering mess at it's worst. It's trying to throw in as many influences, ideas, and influences as it can, and then it's meandering narrative I feel like it's trying to say too many things about...- well, I'm not sure what about, what it was like right before the Coup? Honestly, the movie it reminds me the most of is "The White Ribbon", Michael Haneke's black and white film that took place in a small German town after WWI and before WWII and seemed to be the symbolic indicators of what would become the growth of the Nazi party in the country. I had issues with that movie too in fact; I'm not sure creating some more symbolic narratives to be representative of the time periods, to indicate how the past occurred really works that well. I can't put my finger entirely on why not, but I think it just comes off as mental masturbation to me. Like, we know the real story which is fascinating in of itself, when you're just creating a historically-fiction story or narrative to stand-in or be at the side of what happened, it doesn't quite have the full effect that people think it does. 

Maybe I just prefer this done in more of a John Jakes way then I do in a pseodo Peckinpah-ish noir kind of way, or maybe I can accept it more with American history, but I still feel like there's a better way to say what's said in "Rojo" then it's said here. 


WHERE IS KYRA? (2018) Director: Andrew Dosunmu

★★1/2

Image result for Where is Kyra

Oh boy. Um..., hmmm.... what can I say about "Where is Kyra?" 

(Sighing pause) 

Seriously, what can I say? Um, it got a lot of good reviews. That's something. This isn't going to be one of them, because I just...- (Sigh) 

Well, actually if I'm being honest, I actually do I have a personal reason why this movie hits some irksome, cringy, unintentionally hilarious notes for me. Mainly, that I wrote something with a similar narrative once. Not, the aspects of-eh, criminality, well, not these aspects of criminality, but the story where an unemployed protagonist goes to extreme lengths just to survive, like, I wrote something in this vain once; I won't talk too much about it, 'cause the project never got off the ground and it was a project that I was hired to write, so it wasn't my own story, but this project was much more intentionally comedic. I guess there are elements of laughing through tears that it's director Andrew Dosunmu, the writer/director behind the indy, "Mother of George", intended, but "Where is Kyra?", this movie feels like he kinda reverse-engineered a story that was one of those "Straight from the headlines" stories, but not really, more like, the minor blurb headlines in the Living Section of the newspaper, where you find about the more "News of the Weird" kinda tales, like how a guy went on a hunger strike in 1999, 'cause he was upset at the O.J. verdict, which was like, five years earlier. I remember that one, 'cause I had to talk about a weekly newspaper article in a Speech class; "I wonder whatever happened to that guy;" said no one. 

This is like one of those articles, or one of those strange police blotter pieces you might remember from Jay Leno's "Headlines" segments. It's one of those pieces, but we're supposed to empathize and take it seriously, like the unfunny, tragic part of those stories that leads people to do those kinds of things. Like, when I wrote something comedic like this, I wrote it as a very dark comedy; almost a sardonic look at the unemployment crisis. I don't know whether or not my approach was better, or if it just fit the story I was trying to tell better, but I do know that I'm not entirely sure this works, the way it's being told here.

It's a realistic telling, arguably too realistic. Kyra (Michelle Pfeiffer) is the daughter who watches over her ailing mother Ruth (Suzanne Shepherd), she's given up most of her previous life to do this, and now she's somebody who's past her prime for any entry-level jobs and not qualified or experienced for anything else. So, after her mother passes away, she begins cashing her social security checks to keep up with the rent and live, both of which, honestly she can't even do. 

There's other obstacles in the way, and not much in help. She gets an occasional job handing out flyers that sometimes pays her, and she does have a boyfriend in Doug (Keifer Sutherland) a construction worker who lives down the hall. Eventually, after her wallet's stolen, she has to begin disguising herself as her sick mother in order to continue to survive. 

Like, I said, this feels like a story you hear about in a Living section or, perhaps from some bad old sitcom, (Am I only one remembers all the Smollet kids from "On Our Own"?) but I like I said, this is done, dramatically. And people like it. Michelle Pfieffer is praised to the high heavens for this performance, and yes, she is good in this. She's also amazing in general, and has usually just been seriously underacknowledged for all her great performances though. So, if that's why this doesn't rank as special to me, that might be it. It's also just, depressing. I guess it's in a Neorealist kind of approach, I'm supposed to feel for these characters the way I feel for, say Umberto D., eh, but, no I can't give it that. Those movies are going for extreme pathos, and Vittorio Di Sica was a director and actor known in Italy as much for his commercial comedy films as much as he was for his neorealism side projects that we revere him for now. Dosunmu is a decent director, I admired his previous film that was also about struggling New Yorkers as they matriculate their lives through poverty, but that was a film about Nigerian immigrants making their way through the new world, while reconcilizing their old ways, and it had other layers to it too. This is your typical first feature film that an indy filmmaker gets that happens to have big movie stars in it, because their previous films were so good. Some directors who deal mostly work with unknown or lesser-known actors beforehand can make this transition, Ramin Bahrani did it well when he made "At Any Price" and "99 Homes", even the Dardenne Brothers sorta pulled this off with "Two Days, One Night", but usually, it's just an uncomfortable fit. 

I think Andrew Dosunmu had better projects and films up ahead, and perhaps he'll make a solid film with bigger-named stars in the future, but as for "Where is Kyra?", I think I'm gonna recommend passing on this one. The contrast just doesn't really work for me, even if the performances are top notch. I'm not entirely certain this would've worked better with an unknown cast, but I think I could've taken it more seriously if it was, and I'd buy into the character's desperation more seriously, instead of just seeing a legendary actress trying to exercise and stretch her range out. Great performance by Pfieffer, but I'm be more amazed if she didn't give a great performance, 'cause that's a much rarer occurance to me.