Thursday, September 23, 2021
MOVIE REVIEWS #187: "THE WORLD TO COME", "THE WAY BACK (O'Connor)", "THE LAST TREE", "REBUILDING PARADISE", "SOME KIND OF HEAVEN", "FAST COLOR", "ATHLETE A", "GREENER GRASS", and "AVENGEMENT"!
I promised I wouldn't do a full post-mortem on the Emmys this year, and it's definitely relaxing to not have to worry about it. My Gold Derby ballot, was, eh, well, I was in the top 50% this year, but barely. I was happy I called Julianne Nicholson winning, that was sweet. I'm pissed I gave up on Stephen Colbert after first predicting him for Special on FB and then switching when I posted here. Dammit, that was dumb. Cedric the Entertainer was pretty good as host; I particularly enjoyed the opening rap tribute to Biz Markie. I actually also enjoyed the In Memoriam segment, as well; I normally am a traditionalist and I don't like special performances for this segment, but it helped with the setting having the wraparound screen showcasing very touchingly all those who passed. They didn't include everybody, Michael Constantine who won Supporting Actor for "Room 222" among several other amazing performances and accomplishments feels like a particularly rough omission, but the Academy did put up a very touching database on their website of all those who've passed this past and yeah, I'm not gonna blame them for not including a few names, 'cause there was a lot... It's actually quite sad, there's six pages of profiles just or 2021 alone, and they had to include people from last year too remember.... The link for that is here if you're interested in reading more about Frank Bonner or Tanya Roberts or whomever, and I recommend you do check it out sometimes. It's been around for awhile, so you can go back ten years on this, so it's a wonderful little piece to go back to.
That said, if there's anything I really took away from this year's show, and I'm sorry if I feel like a broken record from this, but they gotta get rid of this voting system. Last year, "Schitt's Creek" a show that, the Academy didn't seem to know was on the air two years earlier won literally every category on the main show and this year, "The Crown" in it's fourth season did the exact same on the drama side. All the acting awards, directing and writing and of course Series. Now, "Schitt's Creek" I never really loved, but I actually do like "The Crown" a lot, not this season as much as everyone else admittedly, but this is ridiculous. I'm sure if "Ted Lasso" had a female lead, they might've done the same thing, and it's all because this system takes away from tapes and panels and basically leads people to nominating the shows they regularly watch and like and that's why like three shows are getting all the acting nominees in these categories and it's tiring. And I'm not saying I loved surprise winners from shows I hated in the past; like I remember being annoyed that Tyne Daly would win for "Judging Amy" when nobody was watching it, and it wasn't a particularly great show, but knowing everybody saw the episodes helped alleviate that, and I think it helped give credence to rare shows that were in fact so good that they deserved to win everything and get nominated for everything. Nowadays, with so much more great television then ever, it feels so much more disingenuous when there's just one show winning per category every damn year and it's always the most popular and biggest show on television that second. Like, I know on some level all award shows are just a popularity contest, but it should never feel like a popularity contest, and lately it's feeling too much like it is.
Other then that, I guess I don't have any huge issues with any of the winners or speeches or anything. Nice to see Conan acting the fool that he is on what I'm sure he fears is the last time he'll ever be invited to this thing, which I'm sure it won't be, but you know, it's nice to see him having fun at a swan song. Overall, I like these Emmys. It's a nice subdued but fun ceremony, and I like the outdoor/indoor setting with the television screens surrounding the guests; it felt like the first the Emmys got the show in the round thing done correctly, so kudos.
Let's hope next year it gets back to a more normal broadcast. Anyway, as to me, not too much else going on. I finally watch "La Chana", which is a documentary about the legendary Gypsy flamenco dancer. I bring that one up, because it's been at the top of my Netflix queue for what seems like a couple years now, and I was only recently able to find it streaming on Hoopla Digital. It's,... okay. Yeah, not a lot to talk about regarding it, honestly, but it's a nice documentary. Anyway, let's get to this latest batch of reviews.
THE WORLD TO COME (2021) Director: Mona Fastvold
Thomas Laffly of rogerebert.com uses a good word in his review of "The World to Come", lifelessness. I was struggling trying to figure out why this movie doesn't work, but that's the key, 'cause not only is the movie itself lifeless, but it's also kinda about lifelessness itself.
"The World to Come" is the latest in this recent new trend of telling historical tales of gay and lesbian relationships. I generally like this trend; there's been some truly great movies made out of this lately, Todd Haynes "Carol", Yorgos Lanthimos "The Favourite" and of course, the movie that "The World to Come" probably most seems to falter in comparison to, Celina Sciamma's masterful "Portrait of a Lady on Fire". Sciamma's film in particular is one of the most powerful and important romances in recent years and is one of the best romantic films out there, and it's clearly sparked the biggest increase in these more classical historical romances involving lesbian lovers. And frankly, I'm okay with that. There's two trains of thoughts on these kinds of pieces, one being that they don't reflect accurately the behaviors of people of the times, and also that since gays and lesbians and others were disenfranchised for most of the past, they should get the opportunity to tell those stories, both realistically and fantastically. I kinda understand both sides of this, except that the idea that homosexual behavior didn't exist and/or occur as often in the past, that lie of omission needs to be written back into our history texts. And yeah, in the past, life was duller then it is now for most people and that goes double for women. So, I get it, a story of rejuvenating and love being a cure for endless monotony of the passing of time, and finding true passion and meaning in a coarse world full of beaten down lives on a struggling farm, where survival for oneself and each other is the main objective in life, yeah, that can make a true life-changing romance have more meaning.
You see, you kinda also have to make that lifelessness aspect, have some life to it as well. I know that sounds weird, but there's a way to do that and this movie doesn't do it well. Make the world compelling while being dull, is still a thing. What "The World to Come" seems to do is just dwell incessantly on it, long after it's point was made. It almost felt Bret Easton Ellis-like, except instead of following a young rich twat who naval-gazes about the emptiness of life, we get a couple of farmer couples constantly obsessed with the details of farming. The main couple are Abigail and Dyer (Katherine Waterston and Casey Affleck), a struggle frontier couple who suffer through their struggles. They're not particularly in love in the same ways that we would think of love today; he seems to constantly be obsessed with the farm and trying to stay above water and avoid the potential pitfalls that surround the times. And it's understandable, especially after they lose their only child to illness.
The second couple are renters Tallie and Finney (Vanessa Kirby and Christopher Abbott) who work on a nearby farm. Tallie and Finney begin connecting in their spare time and they start to become intimate in their shared struggles of being unloved wives in the way of their husband's shared doldrum obsessiveness. Also, Finney seems like a bit more prickish towards Tallie, which comes into play eventually. In the meantime, it's a slow build discovering their romance.
I guess the big thing that screws this up for me, is the writing. Particularly, this bizarre use of a voiceover narration, which is genuinely one of the worst I've seen in recent years. I guess they were trying to give this story a more literary tone; it certainly feels more like this should be a book. I think I would tolerate the more one-note male characters talking almost strictly about work and occasional foreshadowing in a novel, but this wasn't an adaptation. The screenplay was written by two guys and the director, Mona Fastvold is more known as an actress. The other films I've previous mentioned were made by much more interesting and established filmmakers, and the best of them, Sciamma, is not only a female writer/director, but she's been really good at telling wonderful stories about young women for years now. Also, think about "Brokeback Mountain" another period piece romance between about a secret homosexual affair between married people, there's so much more interest and tension in that film despite those characters, not really doing much different then these characters. It's a little more modern a setting but the main antagonist is really the setting and the societal expectations of their lives and it never feels like it isn't compelling. Maybe if there was more chemistry between Waterston and Kirby; I've seen that note in a few reviews, although I thought their chemistry was fine, but the excitement of the love and romance doesn't outway the dreariness of the rest of their lives and that's a problem with the script and perhaps even the filmmaking.
I think there's a good film in here, but they put this together so wrong and awkwardly, that I kept drifting off into thinking about what other movies have done this better and why they succeeded when "The World to Come" just doesn't. Maybe in a less saturated market I could be more forgiving; I kinda always thought Donna Deitch's seminal lesbian romance "Desert Hearts" kinda got that kind of critical appreciation for instance, beloved mainly because there wasn't much else out there at the time, but today, there's just too much better to let this one get by.
THE WAY BACK (2020) Director: Gavin O'Connor
A few years ago, I had an argument with someone on Facebook who really liked director Gavin O'Connor. We were arguing about his film "Warrior" which I thought was good, was then, and still am ultimately completely baffled by the fact that Nick Nolte got an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for it. Anyway, he was arguing for him and talked about how he saw O'Connor's work on par with that of Eugene O'Neill in terms of his specialty of familial melodrama. I guess I can kinda see it when you dig deep into his filmography what he's talking about, but mostly I kinda think I'm losing my mind when I see that kind of praise he's getting, 'cause mostly I kinda see him as a good genre filmmaker. Like, not a name that everybody's gonna appreciate in an auteur matter but a he's still one of those director that certain film theorists are gonna have a Howard Hawks-like appreciation for them. Like, he's a man's man's of a filmmaker's filmmaker. Or, perhaps on a more modern comparison, a Bill Forsythe type. He reminds me a lot of him, not necessarily in the family/personal dilemma/demons sense, Forsyth's movies were more about character struggling to survive or understand their setting, but otherwise I feel like they have similar followings, only Forsythe's movies I always thought were a lot deeper below the surface. O'Connor's films, they're good, sometimes really good, but I just don't see them as truly great.
I thought about that a lot with "The Way Back", a movie that's eh, not a bad movie by any means, but it's basically kinda just, if "The Mighty Ducks" was a serious drama on alcoholism. Well, actually it's deeper then that, but not much deeper. It's a sports drama where the main guy, Jack (Ben Affleck) is a former high school basketball star who's wasted away most of his post-high school years at the bottom of a bottle. He's out-of-nowhere given an opportunity to coach at his alma mater, a struggling religious high school that hasn't been good since he left. At first, he doesn't want to do it, even monologues to himself at his kitchen table between trips to the freezer to pull out another beer, but he takes the job since there's not much else for him to do.
He's a bit abrasive at first, this isn't a team of winners. His assistant coach, Dan (Al Magridal) came up after him and now basically coaches as his second job from being an algebra teacher. He's also berated by the team's chaplain, Father Whelan (Jeremy Radin) for his language. Below the surface though, is his drinking, which he seems to start to curb, if not control, and soon enough, he's in coaching mode and gets the team to start winning games despite their lack of depth and talent.
This is what I mean when I think about O'Connor, it's not that he's ever doing anything new, but he usually does it well. "Warrior" isn't particularly special on the surface, but I get why people like it a lot; there's enough of the serial numbers edged off of it to make the story seem more unique and original then it actually is. He's good at first taking from the genre picture but then he's good at twisting the conventions just enough to find a compelling different narrative in them, usually from other genre pictures, but he knows how to do it. This isn't even his first film about coaching, that's arguably his best film, "Miracle", the Disney film about Herb Brooks and the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team. This movie isn't about the championship run though, the main focus is the character study of this downtrodden and demon-filled coach.
Ben Affleck got quite a bit of praise for his acting in this role, some reviews barely mention anybody else in the film, and he talked a lot about how the film itself was therapeutic for him after his long-detailed struggles he's had with alcohol abuse and addiction. That's nice and all, and Affleck is really good here, but I don't know. I can't help with O'Connor's films no matter how good they are technically to see the structure underneath. I get that, that's his thing, he takes the genres we know and peels enough of it to tell more human stories, but sometimes when you peel back too much, you don't really end up with as much in the middle as you'd think. I'm still recommending it, mainly I guess because it's good enough for O'Connor, but I still think the script itself could've used a few rewrites so that the movie didn't just entirely hinge on Affleck's performance, and even then, that performance might only work because of our shared background knowledge of the actor who's cast.
THE LAST TREE (2020) Director: Shola Amoo
You know, from an American perspective, it's been surprisingly strange and weird to think about all the stories we've gotten in recent years about immigrants living in England. The United Kingdom is simply, not a land of immigrants in our mind. That's of course ridiculous; it's actually weird to think of most any country anymore as being a place so homogenous that literally the only people who live there are the people who are ethnically identified as being from there. People move around to different places all the time now, some for their own joy, others because it's their only real option, but it's not just places like America or Canada that are specifically, historically designed as nations of immigrants that have culturally diverse populations. Still though, we've had some wonderful movies from England about the immigrant experience there, and many of them made by immigrants themselves.
This latest one "The Last Tree" by Nigerian-born British filmmaker Shola Amoo is quite a touching autobiographical look at several years of cultural clashing and struggles. The film focuses on Femi (Tai Golding) a young boy who spends much of his early childhood is foster care, especially with a white country woman named Mary (Denise Black). Eventually though, his mother Yinka (Gbemisola Ikumelo) eventually is well-enough, supposedly, to claim him and take him back and he begins living with her in the inner-city. It's a bit awkward that he was so peaceful in the less-integrated countryside as a kid, but has deeper struggles in a more mixed system in the city. Although that said, Yinka, might not have been completely well-enough to take care of him at the time, either. Honestly, at first, the story that the film was reminding me of in the beginning was, believe it or not, "Heidi" but suddenly, it felt like it was bordering on "Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire" for a little bit.
It doesn't stay there, thankfully, but things don't get a lot better as he gets older (Samuel Adewunmi). It does get a little "Moonlight"-ish, especially when he's dealing with more traditional inner-city criminal elements, but the real struggle is of Femi trying to find himself. He's caught between he's British self and his African self, between his old life as a kid and his new one with a mother who wasn't around until suddenly she was. Eventually He meets his father and get a little bit of a bigger picture on him, but there's a lot kept from him as well for many years, and a lot of contrasting influences that come in and out of his life.
It's probably a bit too much honestly; I think the movie's trying to jam a lot more then needed, probably ambition. Amoo has only previously made one other movie and clearly this is his most personal, so he's trying to get a little bit of everything in there. Some of this turns into cliche, especially both the street criminal aspects, and even the singular male outsider trying to help him get through it, in this case a teacher played by Nicholas Pinnock.
Still though, "The Last Tree" is very compelling. It's a very personal film that effectively creates a coming-of-age story full of unease, frustration and confusion. Sometimes coming-of-age and growing up is just that, and messy as Hell as well. Pulled in a bunch of different directions, none of them seeming right, and looking for answers, emotions and explanations from those who either can't or won't give them to you when you need them. Few films capture this kind of confusion in both the world surrounding a character, especially a teenager character, and the mindset of them and "The Last Tree" does nail both. I hope Shola Amoo didn't say everything with this film, 'cause I want to hear more from him after this.
REBUILDING PARADISE (2020) Director: Ron Howard
It's actually somewhat amazing just how many mainstream Hollywood filmmakers, will at some point, decide to begin working in documentary features. It's not a new development by any means, but it's always a curious one. Part of it, I think is just that they're filmmakers who've said enough and are fine enough with their cultural presence already that they feel no repercussions diving into projects that are more personal to them. Part of it is that I think they're looking for new challenges in the medium; occasionally there's filmmakers like Ava DuVernay, Spike Lee and Jonathan Demme who will bounce back-and-forth between documentaries and more traditional features and think of them as apart of a greater vision of what they want to say in general, but I do tend to like it when say, Peter Jackson, Martin Scorsese or even James Cameron decide to drift their attention away from mega-blockbusters and tell some more intimate, smaller documentaries for stuff that they're more passionate about. Ron Howard, is one director who I wouldn't have expected offhand to have started making this transition, but I get why he would.
I remember that when he was younger, him telling a story about a short film he tried to make about the Great Depression; I remember hearing him talk about interviewing people about the depression for the special feature for "Cinderella Man" I believe. Yet, he's been quietly and slowly drifting into this direction since "Jay-Z: Made In America" a concert documentary he directed in 2013. I haven't seen that one, but I did see "The Beatles: Eight Days a Week--The Touring Years", which was mostly a historical documentary in the sense that it's mostly editing earlier footage together. That's not a criticism, some of the greatest documentaries are just that, but this time, Howard's actually taking his camera out to the field and trying to capture something close to his heart.
Paradise, California, is/was a northern California town about 85 miles northeast of Sacromento, technically apart of the Chico greater metropolitan area, although those words are kinda iffy 'cause Chico, is only barely 100,000 people itself. Paradise is/was much smaller at only about 26,000, but then the Camp Fire of 2018 happened. It's one of the deadliest and most disruptive of American wildfires, ever. 86 died either from the fire or trying to get out and getting inundated with smoke that seemed to cover the sky and whatever was left of the forest. Only five percent of the town remained standing after all was said and done and over 90% of the population was displaced.
Howard, actually knew family from the area, and at certain points in his life had spent time there. He's also a longtime Californian who is well aware of the area's issue with wildfires. The area was heavily forrested for timber after the initial population boom from the Gold Rush and it wasn't replanted 'til later. The droughts that have come recently have also led the area more susceptible to fires; this isn't alone entirely uncommon, especially for the western-U.S., which is a combination of dying forest and desert, both of which are mostly drought-ridden and have been for decades now. [Global Warming is real, and it sucks]
Anyway, Howard decided to start filming after the fire, and the movie follows several of the time's residents. The Mayor for instance, for instance, who was once the town drunk before he got rehabilitated. Now, they're just trying to rebuild. It took months for people to even remove enough debris to even be able to go in and investigate what's left and even then.... There's delays in even getting back, there's issues with the water now after the fire burned plastic that seeped into the water system, that's gonna take forever to fix, meanwhile PG&E, Pacific Gas & Electric, are responsible for the fire, so they're trying to get anything out of them. PG&E is the company that Erin Brockovich famously was the lead activist against, and this tragedy, in a long line of tragedies and travesties that they've caused over the years might've actually done them in, as shortly after this, and in the middle of everything else, they filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
If there is a main struggle or narrative, it's basically this idea from the Senior Class from what was the local high school to actually have their graduation on the football field, which is a lot harder then it sounds. Most of the families that have tried to hang around eventually get some temporary trailers. There's a brief clip of Trump's one visit to the area after the desire, where he kept insisting on calling the town "Pleasant" instead of "Paradise", thankfully we didn't get the part about how he thought raking the forest better would've prevented wildfires.
"Rebuilding Paradise" is precisely that, it's the first early steps towards rebuilding a town, and the struggles involved in that. There's a nice montage at the end where some of the townspeople reflect on how other disasters natural and otherwise occur how they seem to not only have more empathy for them and want to help out those in need. They don't need to, they're still helping themselves, still struggling. Disasters like these, they don't need to be the helpers, nobody would blame them for not diving in headfirst into similar disasters, kinda like how we wouldn't blame Ron Howard for not making a documentary about the survivors of the Camp Fire. But they do anyway.
SOME KIND OF HEAVEN (2020) Director: Lance Oppenheim
Retirement is not something that's ever really been on my mind much, thankfully, but I have always kinda wondered about it. I can't imagine anybody who's ever been young who has ever actually imagined themselves living at a retirement community; I don't think we want to imagine that no matter how glamorous or luxurious such a place would be. I can't think of too many positive portrayals of them in media, at best, there's some sort of twist along the lines of, "Well, it's nice to see them having fun, at their age".
Are they really having fun? Most of the time, I doubt it. I'm sure they enjoy not working anymore and all, but I doubt it. I think, if you're at all physically capable of anything, and have a good mind at work, then retirement, especially retirement to a place like this, isn't so much a natural progression to life as it's always seemed more like a way to escape from it.
"Some Kind of Heaven" documents "The Village", the biggest gated planned retirement community in the country. With over 130,000 people in Central Florida, developed by a Harold Schwartz a Michigan who was selling land in the 1960s, and like everybody else during that time, starting turning the swamps of Florida into, well, Florida what it is today. Mostly, the whole area is full of tall tales of it's so-called history though, local reimagined myths. Honestly, it is kinda like Disney if Disneyland was a gigantic neighborhood full of old people. So, it's Celebration, Florida, but full of old people.
We meet a few of the residents, including one guy who isn't quite a resident, but lives in his van trying to coarse his way into the beds of some of the women in town. He's Dennis, the most interesting character for much of the movie. We also meet Reggie and Anne, a couple who've been married well over forty years before moving into the neighborhood, and things have been going downhill for Reggie ever since, and not just normal downhill. Like, he's getting in trouble with the law, downhill....
Honestly, I kinda get it; you've spent the majority of your life living one way, and now you're not bound by your old lines and obligations, you suddenly get into some things. And Florida is full of some things....
We do get glimpses of the brochure images of this place, but I still think the movie, overall is mostly too slight for me. It's got some interesting characters to follow, but I feel like I don't learn much that I didn't already know and what I know is not much at all. I think documentary is actually a strange genre for this kind of story; I can think of several movies, most notably "Cocoon", that take place in retirement communities like these, and frankly it's a good setting for a film. I think I would've preferred that to this documentary oddly enough.
FAST COLOR (2019) Director: Julia Hart
So, Julia Hart is one of those up-and-coming directors that I'm only now, starting to catch up on. This is, according to IMDB, her second feature after a comedy called "Miss Stevens" which broke out a bit at SXSW. I haven't seen that film, or any of her recent films yet, although the Rachel Brosnahan Amazon feature "I'm Your Woman" is climbing up my Netflix queue, so I'll get to that sooner then later. She's also done a couple movies for Disney with the word "Stargirl" in the title. One's in post-production, and they both star Grace Vanderwaal and have a peculiar cast, and appear to be about this, uh, magic pixie dream girl...- looking at the trailer is weird; I don't know what I'm looking at, but yeah, I'm gonna say "magic" pixie dream girl, for lack of anything better to say. Also, based on "Fast Color" it makes the most sense, 'cause this movie is also about, magic girls....
Sidenote: Are we getting way too inspired by anime? Or is that just me?
Yeah, one movie in, and I don't know what to make of this director, but she seems to be interested in youth, particularly young women, coming-of-age narratives, and some kind of magical realism element, that makes you think somebody watched way too much "X-Men". (Note: It doesn't take much to have watched way too much "X-Men"). In "Fast Color", which seems like the most adult version she's made of this so far, involves Ruth (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a longtime drifter who travels from hotel-to-hotel seemingly evading, well, everybody and everything. It's a semi-futuristic desert landscape where a perpetual drought has lasted years and water is such a rare commodity that it costs extra with your hotel room. She also, has some magical powers that she can't control. This has led to the government out to get her.
Okay, um, I'm just- I know this is a common and probably believable trope of science-fiction and science-fantasy, the government's out to get somebody who's so different and can possibly, I don't know, be powerful enough to just, overtake the entire world because of their superhuman abilities, kinda thing, and I'm sure there's symbolism here, being that this is one of the rare times I'm seeing on film an African-American protagonist with that issue, but, I don't know, I'm just gonna say it, with this movie in particular, it kinda started to feel a bit like Raquel Ochmonak calling about ALF. I don't know, the way they did this, and the way they did portray the main government character, a weird nerdy scientist named Bill (Christopher Denham).
Anyway, the movie isn't about that battle, it's actually a story about the prodigal daughter returning home to her family. Her mother Bo (Lorraine Toussaint) had been living off the map for years in a forgotten town and she's been taking care of Ruth's now-teenage daughter Lila (Saniyya Sidney) who she left years earlier, partly because of her rare ability, but also because she was quite a mess-up herself. Because she couldn't control her ability to have cause earthquakes with seizures and turn objects into dust by looking them.
The movie, without the sci-fi elements, is a nice, well-acted little story of someone trying to make amends for their actions in the past while trying to return to a normal life, but gets caught up in her own issues. In this case, the issues are addiction, struggles with her family, and, the superpower stuff putting her on the run. Eventually there's a climax where everything comes together, including a touching performance from David Straitharn as the town Sheriff's that got reasons for protecting the family.
Still though, "Fast Color" feels more like parts of other movies kinda thrown together in a hope to make something new and magical. It's a strange conflation of genres and ideas that feels like it has a point of view I should be caring about, but ultimately, I don't know what to make of it. It kinda feels like a half-ass student short film made on a big budget. Julia Hart wrote the movie along with her producer partner Jordan Horowitz, who I mostly remember as being the Producer for "La La Land" that graciously handed over the Oscar to the producers of "Moonlight" after that disaster of an event. He's been producing a lot longer then Julia's been writing and directing; he started in 2010 with Lisa Cholodenko's wonderful "The Kids Are All Right" and one of my favorite little Indy gems, Keith Bearden's "Meet Monica Velour" but Julia seems to be the only person he writes with. I'm not sure what to make of that either. Maybe "Fast Color" will feel prescient once I look through their other works together, but right now, I find myself for, just, bemused at "Fast Color". I don't think it's a bad movie that I should stop people from watching; I just have a hard time seeing why I should be seeking it out.
ATHLETE A (2019) Directors: Bonni Cohen & Jon Shenk
Gymnastics is one of my favorite sports. No, seriously, I've been a huge fan for years. It helps that my fandom has correlated with the United States's slow but constant and continual rise to the absolute dominance of the sport in recent years. To this day, one of the most unbelievable sporting events I remember of my youth remains the '96 Olympics Women's Gymnastics Team Finals. Former gymnast Jennifer Sey recaps that story in the middle of "Athlete A", although Sey tells the story a little differently then I recall and have rewatched several times over, even recently; I actually have those finals saved on Youtube as well as several other gymnastic events that have amazed me over the years. It was a very big deal at the time, still recollected heavily. I could do a whole dissertation on it, and '96 in particular, but yeah, seeing Kerri Strug, gutting through a severe ankle injury to stick a vault that she just fell on, that minutes earlier Dominique Moceanu fell on twice, just to make sure that we don't have to rely on the Russians or Romanians coming back and winning our first Team Gold Medal, yeah, it never would've dawned on me, why should a barely-18-year-old girl be forced to compete on a possibly broken ankle. And why are the then-seven little girls, well, little girls.
Gymnastics wasn't a sport dominated previously by the very young until pretty recently, and even by the time they did dominate Elite, there was always extreme criticism of the Cold War tactics often implemented by the Karolyis and others; "Little Girls in Pretty Boxes" they were once famously referred to as, in regards to how they were cut off from the rest of life and how their coaches and ultimately USA Gymnastics would physically, for lack of a better word, abuse them.
"Athlete A" was Maggie Nichols, who was curiously left off the Final Five Olympic team back in 2016; she's the first one who came out publicly about Larry Nasser, the USA Gymnastics Team Doctor, and the one who you may notice is by Kerri Strug's side after her vault. Or, you've probably seen him during most any kind of horrific injury a Team USA gymnast has. Originally, the focus of the Indianapolis Star expose wasn't Nasser, but coaches throughout USA Gymnastics, and yes, this has been a fertile breeding ground for pedophiles and rapists, but then they immediately started getting calls and complaints about Nasser, and that's when the shit started hitting the fan.
I'm not gonna dive into everything, but "Athlete A" is a damn good documentary that does go into it pretty thoroughly, and even then, we're still not getting the whole story. I don't blame the movie for that, there's just too much. There's over 500 girls across USA Gymnastics as well as Michigan St. University where Nasser was also the doctor for their athletics programs, who have accused Nasser of sexual assault and rape. And he's in jail, thank God for now, and we do get Nichols, who's become a National Champion at College Gymnastics at Oklahoma, as well as former Olympian Jamie Dantzscher and in particular Rachael Denhollander, who was among the first in 2015 to file a report, as well as happened to grow up to be a lawyer and had apparently collected about as much info and corroboration on Nasser as the reporters had.
However, it's not just Nasser, it's the culture that led to people like Nasser to infiltrate and thrive within USA Gymnastics. I've been following and looking more and more into this case, and it's evolved continuously since the movie came out. The movie near the end mentions that McKayla Maroney for instance, signed and NDA agreement with USA Gymnastics at one point, that's new information to me, and I was already on a waitlist for her upcoming book after seeing her during these recent Olympics go on, I think it was Instagram Stories, she posted on, but I saw it on Youtube, but anyway, she went on a fifteen minute rant in light of Simone Biles's mental struggles during the Tokyo games, where she just did not give a shit anymore and talked about just how frickin' ridiculous and hard it is even being at the Olympics, and that's before you get into Nasser. (She performed in 2012 in London, on apparently, no joke, not being facetious, a broken foot! Keep that in mind next time you watch that commercial of hers and remember her vaults.)
That's just one link in this neverending chain of victims of the poisonous system that the Karolyis put in place and was protected by several of those incredibly high up, including how their President of USA Gymnastics Steve Penney didn't report sexual assault complaints and cases to the FBI, and apparently offered the officials a job when he did, way too late, and he was just the top of the chain of ignorance and corruption.
At the end of the 2016 NBC Olympics coverage, they showed a special documentary movie on the Karolyis that they produced; it was their "retirement" and Simone Biles and the Final Five team and they showcased a lot of the Karolyi ranch, which was tucked away in the remote secluded area outside Huntsville, Texas where every Elite gymnast, trained by the Karolyis or not would go and train with/for them in order to try to showcase whether they'll make the Olympic team. It was portrayed rather eloquently showcasing the legacy of champions they created from when the emigrated from Romania all the way to the current and next line of greats our country would produce. It was essentially a love letter to the dynasty of women's gymnastics that they produced, and for all-intensive purposes, they were indeed the catalysts for that. It reads a lot differently now that we know what else was going on at that retreat where they little girls would all be staying at without their parents around.
You know, Strug didn't need to do that second vault. We weren't 100% sure at the time, but we would've ultimately won the Team Gold without it, and the Russians, even at the time...; we won by eight tenths, it would've been tighter but the Russians would've had to be damn near perfect on the floor to catch us even without it. Maybe we didn't need all these medals either.
GREENER GRASS (2019) Director: Jocelyn Deboer & Dawn Luebbe
Well, toss this one up in the "What the hell did I just watch" pile.
Okay, I'm not even sure I want to go into what actually occurs in "Greener Grass", not that anything that happens would necessary offend or dissuade potential viewers, and despite my negative rating here, I'm not even sure this is actually a bad movie, per se, but I definitely did not respond well to it. There's a lot to take in with "Greener Grass" and trying to analyze it's quality is going to be a lot. I'm gonna start with,... improv.
"Greener Grass" is a very dark, sardonic comedy that feels like John Waters decided to try to be David Lynch, and fell into an ethereal void somewhere in the middle and never got out of it. The movie originally started as a short film by writer/directors Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe, who are two performers most notable for being apart of the Upright Citizens Brigade, the famed improv theater and sketch group notable for producing comedy greats like Amy Poehler, Donald Glover, Nicole Byer, Ellie Kemper, Adam McKay,... a bunch of others. Now, improv sketch comedy is weird; you can use it as a starting point for creating greater pieces of work and people have for years; even recently, stuff like the sitcom "Broad City" originated as a UCB sketch. I can't tell if this movie started there, but the movie definitely begins with sketch comedy.
In fact, the movie almost feels like it exists in a world that's just a long game of "Yes, and...". Imagine a world where you can put a soccer ball up your dress, and then claim that you're pregnant, and then, everybody just literally accepts it. And then, the soccer ball falls out after you slip off your dress and you now have a child, and that child is a soccer ball, but you and everyone else treats it like it's your new child. You see, that's something that would be funny and downright logical on an improv show. Somebody gives a prop, you start a scene, and suddenly, that prop is now a fetus, and then a kid. That's funny on stage, 'cause it's Improv comedy and everyone's playing along.
Most of the movie feels like it's imagining a world where the rules of improv are the rules of the universe, and that's why we're in a bizarre glossy white picket fence neighborhood. The film centers around Jill and Lisa (DeBoer and Luebbe) who are two struggling mothers in this insane candy-colored braces-filled neighborhood. They have kids who play soccer, and Jill is also struggling with her new baby, who she then gives to Lisa. Yeah, she just gives the baby to Lisa, and she becomes Lisa's baby, I guess figuring that she's got one and this one's not taking too much of a liking to her, maybe Lisa can have it? I guess she's also a people-pleaser and will go to extremes for everyone else, supposedly? I mean everything bad seems to happen to her when she does anything for herself like the time she goes and gets her hair done and her husband Nick (Beck Bennett) finds their other kid Julian (Julian Hillard) alone and naked in the house. Of course, by this point Julian's become a dog, so I don't think it's that weird but....-
I think the idea is that this is a skewering of suburbia, like how the school is taught by a teacher named Miss Human (D'Arcy Carden) who's family was like founders of the place, okay, that's kinda funny. There's some kind of murderer going around who takes over people's lives by breaking into homes and lives and just taking them over essentially, or at least trying to.
I guess it succeeds at its satire, but is it that interesting, or did I laugh a lot? (Shrugs) Kinda.... but not really. "Greener Grass" is well-made and compellingly interesting, I can already imagine this being a beloved twisted midnight cult movie in the near future, but I think this was just, mostly a few strained ideas from old sketches that they tried to keep extending and extending into something that resembles a real movie, but eh, I think sometimes you gotta give up on a scene and ask for a different suggestion from the audience.
AVENGEMENT (2019) Director: Jesse V. Johnson
I don't know much about Scott Adkins or director Jesse V. Johnson; apparently Adkins is a martial arts hero and Johnson is a former stuntman-turned-director, which normally I fear as a red flag, but they've been at this for awhile, literally. Johnson and Adkins have teamed up for several action movies up 'til now, and I'm not familiar with any of them until this one. I've never been against martial arts or just action films in general, but it's just never been a huge priority for me. I guess, I just never cared too much about martial arts movies, 'cause martial arts alone, doesn't get me into a theater normally. I like a good story, and if there's action and martial arts involved, I'm all there, but y'know, if the main appeal is the action, then I tune out. I can see great action, in many other places when I want to see it.
So, I didn't expect much from "Avengement", which, is gotta be the dumbest name I've ever heard for a revenge movie, ever, but that said, dumb name, good movie. Adkins play Cain Burgess, an escaped convict, who has held up an organized crime family at their local pub hangout, including killing a couple of them already. He's going after the whole gang, but most importantly, the leader Lincoln (Craig Fairbrass), his brother.
So, without giving too much away, basically the rest of the movie is flashbacks of what happened to Cain, and how he survived it, including several years in prison getting attacked and then having years added onto his sentence, for defending himself from these constant attacks. His face deformed, his teeth knocked out and replaced, he's been through a lot, and even the crime that he went down for, that he did only because his brother insisted on it instead of helping him out with a legitimate business,... like I said, it's a lot. I like it, mostly because it actually is a good story to center around these action sequences, and it also gives a rare intimate vibe and location to an action movie. Most action films, especially most martial arts films don't create tension with the limiting use of locations this well. And not just for fight scenes, there's a genuine conflict and tension here, not just choreography.
"Avengement" keep me interested in an otherwise fairly typical action movie narrative by finding a cool, different way of telling it, and that's basically all I really want out of these movies. So, definite recommendation for me; I'm informed that this is the best film of the duo of Johnson and Adkins, but either way, I'm definitely interested in seeing what else they've done now.
Posted by David Baruffi at 12:52 AM