Monday, May 16, 2022
MOVIE REVIEWS #194: "THE POWER OF THE DOG", "WEST SIDE STORY (Spielberg)", "QUO VADIS, AIDA?", "THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN", "RED ROCKET", "BARB AND STAR GO TO VISTA DEL MAR", "SUMMER OF 85", "ZAPPA" and "SHITHOUSE (aka S#!%HOUSE)"!
Sorry it's been awhile....
I didn't actually intend to take so long between blogposts; in fact I really didn't intend to do two movie review blogposts in a row, but a few things have happened to me. The main one is that, I got a screenwriting gig. It took up a few weeks of my time, and I literally put every project that I could put on hold, on hold to focus on it. Unlike other gigs, I'm not under any NDA on it, and if you want to look me up on IMDB, you'll find the project in pre-production and my name's attached, which-, I was just happy to be script doctoring again, so that alone makes me happier then most of the other projects that I've had some work on before. Certainly much better then all the projects that I have in development hell on my IMDBPro account, most of those I actually do have NDAs on and I can't talk about, but whatever.... I've been looking to get back into writing scripts more and I'm grateful for this opportunity. Hopefully this movie turns out good, and if anybody asks/wants me to help work on their script, it'll now cost you more then I previously charged. (You'll still probably get me for less then anybody else worth a damn, but yeah, let's say I'm charging based on what I'll report that I got for this gig, and not what I actually got for the gig....)
After that, I started working on another blogpost, one that I will be posting, hopefully sooner than later, but it ended up taking more time then I intended. Ironically, it's not directly about film or television this time around, (Well, I have an end-around, 'cause there is a yearly TV special that's related to it, but..., without giving anything immediately away, it's more about music for a change, then film/TV) so it will probably get kicked out of many of the groups I post in, but it's on my mind, and the research and the writing actually got a lot more intense and thorough then I anticipated. That's not a bad thing, and I kept meaning to post on Twitter about it, but I kept putting it off, hoping in vain that I could get it finished at some appropriate time period, and that deadline long came-and-went. (In fact, after I'm done posting this, I have to go back and change a lot of it, 'cause some events happened after I started writing, so I gotta change some of the tenses to reflect the current situation.)
Anyway, I will be posting that soon, so keep an eye out for that. Perhaps follow me on Twitter, or Facebook to make sure you see that post. I've got other projects, personal and professional in the works as well that I'm also, just not getting back into the swing of, so if I'm still more absent then I should be in the immediate future, I'm working on them. In the meantime, I finally got around to watching more movies, so, while I didn't plan on a reviews post now, well, I've gone enough movies to do one, so let's get to it.
THE POWER OF THE DOG (2021) Director: Jane Campion
There's a lot going on in Jane Campion's "The Power of the Dog"; a lot of it is so subtle that it's almost subliminal, but I'll tell you what I got out of it.... As somebody who, does often find himself, repressing certain instinctual emotions and desires, anybody, or anything that manages to, even minimally, let out those repressions, we basically, will covet and cherish that person in deep personal ways, forever. I know I do; I know that in the many ways that I myself am reserved personally, and I frequently hold close, sometimes to close, to those who helped spur those emotions and feelings out of me. I think I'm not alone either; my theory is that I suspect that's why writers of romances, bad and good ones, to keep falling into the "manic pixie dream girl" trope... (or it's several variants); well, that might just be my issue..., but I definitely think that same track of emotion is apart of "The Power of the Dog".
And I also suspect that the movie is heavily warning us about this, which, yeah, seems like that's the current trend, and especially so with this period piece. It's an interesting period too; I can think of plenty of neo and modern-day westerns, but you don't normally see them takes place during the 1920s-ish era. That transitional time between where the Wild West of the outlaws of the past has long been replaced with folklore and traveling rodeo shows, and yet, the jobs of the cowboys and ranchers continues on in places like the Big Sky of Montana, even as horses are getting replaced by automobiles and trains. It's here we meet our two brothers, Phil (Oscar-nominee Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Oscar-nominee Jesse Plemons), who are doing pretty well from their ranching industry. Phil is the more outspoken, an old-style exhibit of the toxic masculinity of the Old West, the kind that probably led to way too many John Wayne films. His brother meets and later marries a widowed inn owner, Rose (Oscar-nominee Kirsten Dunst), and he begins drifting away from the day-to-day grind of ranching and moreover begins embracing a slightly more sophisticated lifestyle, that ironically both him and Phil originally grew up in. Phil even has an Ivy League education, but ended up ranching cows.
Why? Well, it has something to do with Bronco Henry, a long-passed mentor of his who he keeps the candle burning for, and perhaps much more burning for him. He also expressing some concern at the apparent feminine qualities of her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) an aspiring surgeon, who can create paper flowers, and occasionally dissects some rabbits for practice. A little creepy, on both counts, but still, definitely Phil transferring his own insecurities towards him moreso then really getting under his skin, per se, but eventually, after they begin taking an interest in each other, Peter and Phil begins their own kind of mentor/mentee relationship. This frustrates his mother, who at this point, has sunk into alcoholism.
From here, there's a lot going on, at the odd edges of the screen, and I'll say that the movie didn't really have an effect on me, until the ending. Even then, I wasn't entirely sure what was going on, or why exactly, but while the movie might, by period status be a modern-day western, but in terms of narrative, it's more of a tale of, subtle manipulation. Like, some characters are playing checkers, some are playing chess, and some are playing poker, and you're not entirely sure who's playing what and who's got what, until the end, and maybe not entirely even then. It's based on a beloved novel by Western author Thomas Savage, but I actually think it felt more like a play at points, especially in it's narrative at how characters change, react and are manipulating each other. Actually a really unusual comparison I might make to this film is "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?". It's a very different kind of story between four main characters, but basically, it's characters and how they're constantly trying to establish dominance over each other. (Or how those characters might or might not think those characters are trying to do that.) They use the skills and tools they have available, and yet, each have differing ways of gaining power in the situations they're in. Phil has a more upfront, confrontational, masculine approach, George is more loving and empathetic, and he tries to approach uncomfortable subjects he has to bring up in those terms. The mother is also emotional, but is grief-filled, and is more keen to act frantically and sacrifice her own health, wellbeing and possibly sanity to get her point across, and Peter, well, he used his own soft-spoken approach to confront those, not with words or threats, but subtle manipulations of those around him; in a way finding the best of both George and Rose's approaches, as a way to penetrate and get closer to Phil, his ultimate target.
In that sense, I wonder if the movie itself is as deep and profound as others have made it seem. I can see why some were kinda confused by it. It uses the visuals of the classic western, but the storytelling techniques of emotional melodrama, but I also think it kinda kept the shallow aspects of that genre as well, including some of the early aspects of that genre that involved homosexual behavior, and not in progressive or necessarily positive ways. I mean, I guess it's fitting that, considering the fate of most gay characters in modern literature from the time, that the story does indeed conclude at the end of a rope, but on the other hand, it's also another story about a gay character that ends with a rope....
Not gonna lie, another movie I thought of with this film was "The Children's Hour".... I'm more conflicted on "The Power of the Dog" overall; I might appreciate it more on later viewings, but I can't help thinking that while the technical and emotional aspects of the film worked, the narrative kinda stumbled and relied too much on the subtlety of the tragedy of the moment and the time period, and I kinda wish it didn't. I know I shouldn't judge a movie on what it isn't but, I don't know, I'm not sure there's enough there for me to fully embrace or appreciate it for what it there. I know Campion tends to go more for the emotional truth and strength in her films, and sometimes, like with "The Piano" it works to amazing effect, but she can be capable of some missteps. This clearly isn't one of them; in fact, it's one of her better films, but even aiming for emotion over plot, means that the emotions themselves also have to be deep, and personally, I don't know if she fully succeeded on that level. Still, this is a very compelling film, one that does make you think long after you watch it, and I can understand why it was so compelling.
WEST SIDE STORY (2021) Director: Steven Spielberg
The story of Steven Spielberg's "West Side Story", in the eye of the media's attention span has seemed to be one of the most perplexing since the beginning.
Spielberg, is of course a classic cinema nerd buff, so I'm not surprised that he's remaking a film from his youth of course, but, "West Side Story"?! Like, I thought I knew all of Spielberg's motifs, but musical is not one I think about, but I guess if you think about it, it is there. There's the musical dance number that opens "...Temple of Doom", there's a lot of music in "The Color Purple", and of course, John Williams music has been his ever-constant companion, so I guess it's not inconceivable that he would inevitably make a musical, and for that to be a remake, but still, why "West Side Story"?! I mean, I guess I understand him having a connection to that movie, like "Schindler's List" and others in his filmography deal with discrimination and prejudice, so-eh, okay, we're getting there. It wouldn't have been my first thought, but the musical has never died out, it's constantly getting revived and some of the latest versions have probably made it better; most notably, the 2009 Broadway revival where Arthur Laurents himself, the musical original book writer, oversaw a bilingual production, dialogue and music, which I frankly felt was definitely an improvement. Spielberg I suspect thought that too, and decided to adapt it into this version, so, the potential is certainly there. It's the greatest director in Hollywood, doing a rare remake of a classic, beloved film, and arguably improving on it, and critics and most audiences who saw it, loved it.
So, why was everything about how the movie was a financial bomb?!
Well, there's a lot of issues here, first of all, the pandemic has still made going to a theater, not quite a thing of the past, but certainly not the be-all-and-end-all of movie-viewing experiences that it once was. More then that, apparently Spider-Man is the only thing that will get people, well, people other-then-me at least, to spend way-too-much money for a ticket to a big screen spectacle, and frankly I don't blame Spielberg for that. Well, not entirely...- Spielberg was definitely one of the last bastions of the theater screening over movies just being released on streaming platforms with limited theatrical runs, so he's a little to blame. Still though, like musicals are not exactly the most common or beloved genre on the screen anymore, and even under the best of circumstances, they're not guaranteed blockbusters, and it's not like Spielberg's ever really been a musical guy before.
Also, "West Side Story", is that a movie that's...-, well,- it's a bit hard to say here, but has that film actually held up over the years?! It's kinda forgotten now, since the legend of lore of the original movie's been well-written into cinema lore, but "West Side Story", despite all the Oscars and accolades, and how it's taught alongside "Romeo & Juliet" in high school English classes (I've seriously seen books that just had both play side-by-side for comparison), but it wasn't actually universally beloved even at the time. Pauline Kael's review of the movie in particular has gone down as infamous for how much she goes after the film. Roger Ebert's great movie, review even notes how out-of-vogue the movie had been becoming, how it dropped severely on AFI's Revised Greatest Films Lists, how it's too often forgotten, even among great movie musicals of the time. The music, admittedly, has never really left us; I've definitely had "America" and "When You're a Jet" randomly spewing through my mind over the years, but the movie has issues, and I'd bet that if AFI did that list today, even before Spielberg, after years of rumor and production put his finger to the reboot, I think most of the public had been putting "West Side Story", in the more, admittedly important and at times very good, but not necessarily great tier of American movie musicals.
So, this was always a weird mix to begin with, so, for me, I wasn't shocked that people kinda took to it, with mostly ambivalence, even if you took out the "Spider-Man" factor.
So, how is the movie? (Shrugs) Well, it definitely starts better then the original. I'm not talking about the prologue number in the beginning, although, yes, I like that better here, but I actually only got around to finally watching the original Wise and Robbins "West Side Story", in the last year or so, because, it starts with a- what seems like a ten-minute overture of the movie's score over this strange kaleidoscopic,- lines over- I don't know what modern art idea the image is, but it keeps changing colors, we get an overture, and-, I don't know it's this weird, bare, line drawings that eventually reveal itself to be Manhattan, but-...- I don't normally get upset at overture beginning movies; I know it's very outdated and apart of an earlier time, and normally I can kinda just let it go as a sign of an earlier time in filmmaking when theatre-based elements like those were more accepted and whatnot, but I- just hate this opening. It goes on way-too long, it's mostly pointless, and I'm staring at lines, that make me think somebody in the editing room was hanging around Andy Warhol way too much; I always hated it and it always made me stop watching before it really got going.
Anyway, after this opening in Spielberg's version, I was just zipped in. Robert Wise was a good director, but he was an editor first' Spielberg is a storyteller, and with a vastly better amount of talent and equipment around him, he manages to elevate this story to where I do get caught up more in the narrative then I ever did before. I like that a lot of the dialogue is in Spanish, and yes, that the cast is predominantly, cast according to their actual race. Tony Kushner's dialogue, overall, is vastly better than Arthur Laurents's original dialogue, which yes, admittedly faced some censorship in it's day, and yes, the modernization helps, a lot. A lot of the details give the story a lot more depth, and while the movie doesn't plug up every issue I had with the movie, I think it certainly improved a lot of them. Like, Tony (Ansel Elgort) being an ex-con who just got out of jail, being a major plotpoint; it explains a lot of his ambivalence to continue on fighting the stupid groundwar with the Sharks, and would much rather focus on trying to learn Spanish from Valentina (Rita Moreno), who replaces the Doc store owner character, and adds an extra layer of complexity making that previous Jewish character by making it an elder Puerto Rican woman that the community, including the Jets have associated with for their whole lives, really setting in the contradictions and irony in their xenophobic hatred that the Sharks are, "Not Like Us", that and the decrepit circumstances of their birth and life are basically their only real reasons for their hate. We rarely see parents, arguably the only "parental" figures are Bernardo and Anita (David Alvarez and Oscar-winner Anita DeBose), Maria's (Rachel Zegler) older brother and his girlfriend. Bernardo of course, doesn't want Maria dating a Jet.
The big difference for me, and why I prefer this version, is that it places the story, firmly in the echoes of the past. One of things that I think ultimately dates and troubles me about the original is that, it basically takes place in, what was then, modern-day Manhattan. 1950s were one of the first eras where juvenile crime and street gangs were becoming a major thing, and while the movie is somewhat tepid in accurately representing the era as accurately and realistically as possible, "Krup You", was not exactly what the original words of that song were supposed to be, one of the reason it's aged somewhat poorly is because it's an interpretation depicting it's own modern era. One of the most underrated aspects of "Romeo and Juliet", one that isn't talked about much, is that the story specifically takes place in the past; even Shakespeare clearly placed the film, at least a century before his time, and there's a reason for that; it's a simple heartbreaking story that's told best as a morality tale of what, when everybody does the wrong thing, could happen, how everybody can be hurt in the middle of a strikingly dumb conflict, including those who aren't involved in it at all, especially young loved ones. Spielberg updated, but he didn't modernize, "West Side Story" is still about '50s street gangs, and the foreboding fear of the land that they're fighting on and for, will be torn down, sooner-then-later and overtaking and turned over, perfectly putting "West Side Story" as a haunting tragic-fable that it should be. In a way, I think Spielberg got the Shakespearean parts of this story better then any other version; whenever I saw the original version, I always saw the superficial comparisons between the two stories, how one is clearly inspired by the other, I never felt the actual Shakespearean tragedy of the story itself, and Spielberg brings that home in spades, and especially Tony Kushner's script. You might prefer the immediacy of the original, and for many reasons, it probably couldn't dive into the systemic governmental issues that also plague the residents of the West Side, but I can only give it, so much slack for that, and personally I prefer Spielberg's interpretation. I won't claim it's perfect, but his elevation of the material makes me enjoy it more; makes me wanna watch it a second time instead of just putting on a soundtrack album of it.
Although I still hope "Birth to Earth, sperm to worm," doesn't catch on.
QUO VADIS, AIDA? (2020) Director: Jasmila Zbanic
Something that once-in-a-while occurs to me when looking through world history is that, periodically, at some point, and some place in the world, it seems that for whatever reason somebody or some people make a very conscious and deliberate decision, to, just, murder a bunch of people. Like, hundreds, thousands at a time, as much as they can, as quickly as they can. History is basically one genocide after another periodically interrupted with a few years or so, of, well, not peace, but just not genocide. I think we tend to like to think of these events as, something that's happened, long ago, or over there, somewhere in the ether whether nobody else actually is. I can go on, and pontificate about how and why any of these numerous events occurred and what situation led to such things, but you know, while those things are important, they're mostly important to people like me, amateur keyboard historians, who may indeed be the modern day Oracle of Delphi, that can see how one thing led to another, and how the circumstances would lead to the right conditions were evil and corrupt government systems and parties could take over and, blah, blah, blah, but, how much does any of that really matter to the people who are in the middle of it. On the front lines, who's life and those of their loved ones are in irreparable danger. Those who can't get out, those who are at the mercy of an incompetent UN peacekeeping force, or at the end of a soldier's gun?
"Quo Vadis, Aida?" details one of these recent periods of history, the Srebrennica Massacre. which, is admittedly one that, despite living through it, and definitely remembering America's involvement in the Bosnia conflict throughout the nineties, I didn't have a particular recall on. There's a lot of details of that Bosnia War that, looking up, I totally must've blanked out on, but this movie, takes place entirely within a day or two of that massacre, where General Mlodic (Boris Isakovic) led a group of Serbian army into a declared UN safe space, and murdered over 8,000 men and boys, most of whom, refugees who were desperately trying to find a way out and trust the UN workers to help them, even though they're trying. The movie is told through the perspective of Aida, (Jasna Duricic) a UN translator, who's got a front row seat to everything behind-the-scenes, every step and misstep that led to the tragic day, as well as outside, where her family is caught in the refugee crisis as she struggles to try to get them out. This involves trying to get them on lists, without making her life and everyone else's in more danger, trying to sneak them into other means of escape as stowaways, and several other back channels and front channels she's trying to manipulate, all the while being in the middle and on the front line of the foreboding horror and carnage.
It's a powerful and intense film. It's not entirely based on an actual person, but it's easy to see how such a story could've been biographical. Most of the comparisons in the reviews I've seen compare the film to Paul Greengrass's documentary-style work on some of his films like "Bloody Sunday" and "United 93". I'm not sure I see that, but that might be because I've seen some of director Jasmila Zbanic, especially her breakthrough debut feature "Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams", which actually seemed more autobiographical as it dealt with the postwar aftermath of living in Bosnia. Many of her other films also deal with the conflict between Muslims and Catholics, or just conflicts in general with the struggles of the area. She's able to do more then serious drama, her last feature, Love Island" was a romantic comedy, so I think she just approach and shot the material the best way the material needed. She's quite skilled and this is another good example of that. The film earned a surprised Oscar nomination for Best International Feature and I get why. Zbanic is one of the more observant and fascinating filmmakers coming out of the Balkans right now, certainly one of Bosnia's best filmmakers right now. "Quo vadis, Aida" definitely opened my eyes to a forgotten tragedy, at least a forgotten one in the West, and we really should be more ashamed of that, and shows just how people can be so helpless to stop it, even as everyone's trying their best to not let tragedies like this happen.
THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN (2020) Director: Thea Sharrock
Okay, I've gonna give a little personal backstory...- um, so when I went into finally watching this film, I hadn't watched anything in about a week,... I was on a script doctoring job and I was on a deadline, so every other project of mine was put on hold and that included watching a regular movie to review for awhile. So, I hadn't watched a film in like a week, before I finally had the time to take a look at my list, compose myself and watch whatever was next, and that turned out to be something I only knew about because the movie got an Oscar nomination for it's special effects called, "The One and Only Ivan". So, when the opening shot occurred, and it was a 4th-wall breaking close-up of a giant gorilla introducing himself to me..., let's just say, I had a reaction. I-eh, was not expecting that.
Oh-kay, so, what-the-hell is this? Um, well on first glance, it seems like Disney is trying desperately to finish off any of their animal projects that, might have some questionable implications involved in their narrative, and animals in any kind of circus is definitely not exactly kosher these days. I mean, they did remake "Dumbo" for no reason recently, which I haven't seen, but I gotta imagine, must've been at least, a little horrifying in hindsight. (That's probably why they haven't put old "Dumbo's Circus" reruns on Disney+ yet as well.) I mean, obviously, this is gonna be a story about how animals are going to leave a circus, although, no, this isn't exactly a circus that's gonna get raided by the Humane Society it seems, although it is a very low-end circus, one with a permanent, Big Top, inside a shopping mall, headlines by the aforementioned titular silverback gorilla, "The One and Only Ivan" (Sam Rockwell). It's an entire animal circus run by a very old-school carney ringmaster, Mack (Bryan Cranston), who fakes a British accent, wears the kind of rug you'd expect the father in "Malcolm in the Middle" to be wearing. He has a little poodle named Snickers (Helen Mirren) however, another dog, eventually named Bob (Danny DeVito) lives secretly with Ivan and roams around the backstage when Mack isn't around. The other most aged member of the circus is the African elephant Stella (Angelina Jolie), who only has to show up and get applause, back when elephants could just do that. (I remember once seeing Siegfried and Roy somehow make an elephant appear and do nothing, and yeah, that was amazingly impressive; to this day, I have no idea how they snuck that by me.)
Admittingly, the other acts don't seem to have to do too much else. Frankie, (Mike White, who wrote the screenplay) is just a seal that balances a ball on his nose, Henrietta (Chaka Khan, um, for some reason.... um, okay...? ) is a chicken that plays baseball, that's a little more complicated I guess, but still.... Murphy (Ron Funches) is a rabbit that rides in a toy firetruck. This is a really low-end circus, is the point, with, weird, bizarre casting.... (Did she a song for the movie? No?! Oh-, oh-kay.- I-eh,- whatever, I'm sure there's a reason...; I just can't figure it out....)
Anyway, after the show starts to struggle, a new baby elephant Ruby (Brooklynn Prince) joins the show, and becomes a star attraction. This does make Ivan nervous, but Stella's longtime injury on her foot begins to take it's toll, and Ruby needs to come in and start replacing her entirely. Stella's become like a mother to her, and to the rest of the animals as she has stories of being free. Something that Ivan, doesn't have much of, but he begins to remember after Ruby's arrival, and after he rediscovers his love of painting and drawing, he begins to make efforts to break free, and get Ruby, and ultimately himself, out into the wild, or at least, a very good facsimile in a zoo.
So, what's the appeal of this story? Well, it's based on the Newberry Award winning novel by Katherine Applegate, aka K.A. Applegate, most famous for the popular "Animorphs" book series, and also, this is based on a real-life thing. It's not full of talking elephants and all, but there was a family that adopted a gorilla named Ivan in the Pacific Northwest years ago, who ended up becoming an attraction at a local mall for 27 years before finally ending up at the Atlanta Zoo, where he was a known attraction until his passing in the early 2000s. Applegate took that narrative, and it makes sense why, she's always been fascinated with the contrast between the human and animal worlds, and I can see why it would be popular among kids and appeal to Disney's classic stories vault.
Is it any good as a movie? Ehh,- I don't know really.
I don't think the movie's terrible or anything, but I'd be hard-pressed to recommend it offhand either. The Visual Effects are-eh, well, they're good, I just, don't know if they're beneficial. I'm usually the last one who thinks animation or visual effects have swan-dived into the Uncanny Valley, but, I guess we're kinda stuck with them now, and this movie, eh, I guess it edges up to it for me; this was one of those first times I really couldn't help but notice that all the animals are digital, and no, I've found mostly that I don't like it when that happens. I get it, but I don't like it, even conceding the exceptional skill here. Like, there's two other ways to make this movie, just complete animation, either 2-D or computer generated, or real animals, which is far more off-the-table, and considering this story, I think that this was the right call, but I don't know if that makes it better. There's story beats here that, you know, are just kinda cringeworthy and are always gonna be cringey today; just the idea of an all-animal circus, even in a mall,- like, you never thought to hire a clown at least? There's also the little girl, who instantly can tell what the animals are feelings and Ivan feels based on his paintings, played by Ariana Greenblatt, like, it's one of those things, and I get that it's a kids Disney film, but I don't know. It doesn't feel great to me, and I think it comes off weird.
I've very torn on this one; I guess I'm gonna recommend it 'cause I can't think of something so wrong with it, that I can't recommend it, but I have a feeling this story might work better in book form. It is so strange and to some degree, very privileged that, for much of the last century or two, and probably a lot longer then that, we could be genuinely entertained by just, merely seeing an elephant or a silverback gorilla.
RED ROCKET (2021) Director: Simon Baker
I don't know what song I would've used for a-eh, hmm..., what's another word for a leitmotif, 'cause it's not exactly that..., uh, a-eh, recurring musical theme; I don't know exactly what song I would've used for a movie about-eh, a porn star returning to his home town, but, I will say, that I don't think I would've thought to use NSYNC's "Bye, Bye, Bye", like at all....
In four features, Sean Baker has become one of the most interesting and compelling independent filmmakers around, and he's clearly got a point of view and certain stories he wants to tell. He tells stories of fringe members of society, people on the lower class, people who are close to or are struggling for their own kind of fame and freedom, often conflating the two, and something that I never really realized before now, his characters are..., well, they're all, in some manner, in the sex industry. Now, for those who only know his breakthrough "The Florida Project", which I tend to agree as his best film, might miss this, I know, I forgot about it at first, but looking back,... His first feature, "Starlet", followed a young porn performer who befriends an older elderly woman after buying a vase from her at a yard sale that, unbeknownst to her, was filled with money, then "Tangerine", a film about a trans prostitutes as they strive for success in their personal endeavors, and to take out the pimp that hurt them, those are the easy ones, 'cause were from the perspective of people within the sex industry. However, "The Florida Project" was from the perspective of, the daughter of a sex worker, a fringe prostitute who advertises on Craigslist, back when you could do that, and turned tricks while her daughter was usually out getting into trouble, or taking a bath, in order to barely at the motels on the swampy outskirts of DisneyWorld. Sex, and the selling thereof, is as much apart of their survival and their world, as, well, fringe poverty usually is. It's not as prominent in "The Florida Project", so if you know that film only, then "Red Rocket" gonna seem like a really intriguing but bizarre leap for him. I mean, it kinda is that anyway, but no, it's consistent.
I'm not sure why it's called "Red Rocket," but the movie is about an aging porn actor who's returning, unwelcomed and down on his luck to his old Texas small town, of, um, Texas City.... (Yes, it's a real place, I'm just being a smartass.) Mikey (Simon Rex) kinda stumbles into town, conning and convinces his ex-wife and fellow former porn actress Lexi (Bree Elrod) to live with her and her mother Lil (Brenda Deiss) and begins promising to pay rent and begins searching for work. This is before it's completely clear what his job was, which doesn't finally come out until he's challenged by his resume's lack of work for the last two decades or so. It does seem like, at first, that he must've just come out of jail, or at least spent quite a while going from rogue illegal job to rogue illegal job, but no, he just, apparently got blackballed by Brazzers, and apparently burned all his other industry bridges, which,- well, I'd say that that's not really a thing in porn anymore, especially with all the OnlyFans-type sites out there, but that might not be entirely true...; I mean, I do remember all the ruckus at how they had to keep Ron Jeremy out of AVNs the one time I was-, well, not there, there, but ....(I live in Vegas, you hang around long enough eventually, you end up around porn; it kinda happens.) Naturally, the only real job he gets is as a drug dealer, but even then, he only manages to sell to people who his boss, Leondria (Judy Hill) specifically tells him not to sell to.... She, also, isn't particularly happy to see him again.
In fact, about the only character who seems remotely happy to see is Lonnie (Ethan Darbone), a young man who knew Mikey secondhand before he left, but is now the only impressed that he's back and tells his stories of the business, which, he can definitely wax,-, well, 'poetic' is probably not the right word when explaining the method-like preparation it takes it produce AVN-winning facefucking, but, he definitely does his best to, try to romanticize it. I'm sure Stanislavski would be proud of his commitment. He does eventually find a young love interest in a donut-shop worker named RayLee (Susanna Son), and, I do mean, young.... Young, in that, I kept waiting for the moment in the film where she does have that upcoming eighteenth birthday soon, and eh, well, it's definitely possible it happened offscreen, but they don't actually say out loud that it actually happened.... He immediately spots her for potential talent though; she even mentions that everybody already calls her Strawberry, which-, well, I guess they can't all be your first pet and the street you grew up on. It's hard to tell whether he's,- (Sigh) for lack of a better term, "grooming" her for porn,- well, he is doing that, you know, it's- like, clearly, she ain't exactly not into it, and, I think the real intention is that, somebody who's in that kind of industry, and for that long, probably has a better eye for the kinds of women who would be interesting, or even willing to jump at the chance to be in porn. Porn definitely is one of those businesses where, at least traditionally, people get into it because of somebody they know getting them in the door, (Although that door seems a lot more open then it did once upon a time.) but he's also, trying to use Strawberry as an easy access point back into the industry, possibly running his own porn studio, which, again, much easier to do now then it was back in the day, although it's nice to hear somebody talk about setting up an LLC.
Baker and his longtime co-writter Chris Bergoch apparently conceived of this character years ago, when they were doing research on "Starlet", when they found an archetype of certain male performers in the industry called "Suitcase Pimps", male performers who, essentially couch surf through their careers, and essentially living off female performers, who generally have a lot more power, and a lot more influence and money, in the industry. That's not always true of course, in fact, it seems like male performers tend to be around a lot longer then most female performers. Again, not like it used to be where, if a male performer can't perform and takes up too much time and money, they end not working much longer.
In terms of Baker's filmography, I tend to think of this as one of his weaker films, maybe his weakest overall. It definitely leans more towards his goal of getting us more intimately and knowing about people in the sex industry, but I suspect he created a character that, frankly I don't particularly find that likable in the industry. Simon Rex's performance is definitely the biggest standout; he's in most every scene and he's got a lot to do. If I didn't know better, I'd swear he was playing a version of himself, a la James Deen in "The Canyons" or Rocco Siffredi in those Catherine Breillat films they were in. Rex actually does have a little bit of a porn past, but most of his career is as a very competent go-to eccentric actor, and all his strengths are used here. He's seemed to be somebody who was lucky enough to be, well, blessed, to be in porn, 'cause he seems he'd be a nightmare to have landed in any other profession or way of life without it. He'd somewhere between Ratso from "Midnight Cowboy" and Dirk Diggler from "Boogie Nights" post-success, except, back then, people did care about the male actors in porn a little bit more then they do now. Still, I like the film and he was right to make it a comedy, but yeah, I felt a lot more for he previous characters then I did much for Mikey Sabre here, so for that, it's a more mild review for his film then normal.
Also, yeah, he really should stop claiming that he also gets an AVN award for Oral Sex scenes when he's not the one giving the oral sex, especially if he's not the only guy in the scene, like, c'mon, as much of a joke as adult industry awards are, even they know better then that.
BARB AND STAR GO TO VISTA DEL MAR (2021) Director: Josh Greenbaum
One of the under-the-radar little gems of the last year was a film called "Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar", which automatically gets in my good graces, 'cause movies with interesting and unique titles are easier to look up and we need more of them. (The next time I see a movie called "Revenge", I'm gonna find the people who made it and shove their head into a fryer of peanut oil. Memorable titles help people!!!!! #FilmCriticProblems) The movie itself, is also as freewheelin' and delightful absurd as it's title. It's the kind of movie where you could keep on in the background, catch a glimpse at some random scene, wonder aloud, "What the hell kinda crazy-ass shit is going on," and not really worry too much about, going back and rewinding to see if makes any sense, or see what you missed, 'cause you know it ultimately doesn't matter. Honestly, this is kinda the movie I wish "Mamma Mia" was, and for that matter, it should've been. (Either "Mamma Mia", now that I'm thinking about it.)
Barb & Star (Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo, the film's co-writers as well, reuniting for the first time since writing "Bridesmaids") are, well, basically doing their best versions of Amy Sedaris characters. Well, that's- actually kinda mean to both of them, and to Amy Sedaris, but these definitely feel like some extensions from some characters they've probably been working on since their sketch days.
They're two lifelong, middle age, Midwestern friends, who talk and talk and talk, and basically about nothing, but they're always talking to each other, and occasionally in their own little talking group they have. They recently get fired from their furniture store jobs, which was really, just an excuse for them to go hang out and talk at a display set. They decide to go Vista Del Mar, a Florida resort town that's specifically designed to appeal to those middle age culotte-wearing kinds of people. Honestly, it does look quite appealing.
Once there, they get caught up, first with Edgar (Jamie Dornan) after they had one wild night out with him, and then, inevitably, into a bizarre mosquito-based scheme to massacre the entire town that, it just, way to friggin' stupid to even bother trying to explain,- this might be the movie with the most ridiculous spy plots of all-time, also, but they commit to it. The movie, not remotely Barb & Star, they're devoted to their own world, and the movie is devoted to it's own absurdity. There's a big deal involving the town Shrimp Queen, there's a talking crab that seemed strangely has to have had Morgan Freeman's life and voice, there's several random cameos, credited and uncredited, there's even, a shocking double-performance from Wiig, who also plays the film's villain as though she's Cate Blanchett playing Rita Repulsa. I legit didn't realize it was her; it's actually a really good performance from her. Mumulo I haven't seen act that much until now, she's also quite good. This is a dumb, non-sequitur movie about how much these two like to work with each other, work off each other and just play with each other.
That last part came out weird, but yeah, these two just came up with a movie, that's whatever-the-hell they wanted, and I adore it for them. Yeah, it's not gonna be the universal film like "Bridesmaids" was, but I kinda appreciate the wackadoo zaniness and just pure id gall of "Barb & Star..." a little more. I was never the biggest Kristen Wiig fan in terms of her comedic instincts, despite some pretty good performances in a lot of comedy films, "Welcome to Me", and "The Skeleton Twins" come to my mind immediately, but in many ways, she's always been somebody who just kinda insisted on sticking with her comedic instincts over others, especially on "SNL", I thought some of her recurring characters seemed to just be too esoteric for me, and she stuck with them, and her own kinda glanced perspective on character-building comedy, and lately, I've come to admire her a lot more for that. Nobody, especially, no females comics especially will just commit to obnoxious absurdity better than her, and not I find myself appreciating it more then I previously had. "Barb & Star..." might just be a passion project from her and Mumolo to simply make each other laugh at their own jokes, but I can appreciate that kind of rebelliousness now. This movie, had they wanted to, could've been a much more traditional comedic narrative, and one that would still have their sense of humor and perspectives all through the film, and been as successful, maybe more successful even; they've shown they can do that, but I like that they don't here. It stands out better. I mean, I might prefer, say the more Apatow or Rogen/Goldberg approaches to modern Hollywood comedy, and their comedic films as a whole, but after a while, I find that they blur together and especially as more people talented and otherwise have copied them, those films have become far less distinctive from each other, to the point where I'm constantly trying to look up which film was which, but I'm not gonna confuse "Barb and Star..." with any other film, and that's the point of it. And I love that that's the point of it as well.
SUMMER OF 85 (2021) Director: Francois Ozon
Francois Ozon is one of modern cinema's most prolific and erratic directors. He's capable of some great films in several different genres, and makes and releases a new movie, about once a year or so. Even the pandemic didn't slow him down, arguably it sped him up. He's made three feature films this decade, already. And, for the most part, his movies have been pretty good..., for the most part. For every "Frantz", "The New Girlfriend" "Swimming Pool" and what I'd argue is his best film, "Under the Sand", there's a "Potiche" or an "8 Women" that are pretty-, umm, I won't say "bad" per se, but they're definitely divisive. Hell, even some of his best movies are divisive, "Ricky" is easily the most notable of that field, a movie about a newborn baby who turns into a literal angel. (Yes, that's one of his really good ones, but no, I do not blame anybody for hating it.) but there's also a lot of in-between there. Like, I know I've seen "Young and Beautiful" and "By the Grace of God" and I think I liked both those movies, but I wouldn't exactly pass a pop quiz on them if you challenged me, right this second them.
"Summer of 85" is probably one of those latter movies that's ultimately gonna get caught up in that, "Wait, which one was that?"-list. For a while, I wondered what the hell the movie was gonna become. The movie begins with a young man talking about his friend's death while being taken in by the police.
It's not nearly as salacious as that opening indicates, but the film, overall is still pretty good. It's a story of young first love, and-eh, there's a lot of eighties songs. Honestly, this movie really could just be another eighties teen romance; it's basically got all the plotpoints. Although, personally, the movie I was originally thinking of at first was, actually "Purple Noon". Yeah, that, French movie from the '60s, that was literally "The Talented Mr. Ripley" before "The Talented Mr. Ripley". That's a good movie, but yeah, that's only a film that's aesthetically related. The movie just has a luscious look and extravagant upper class characters who hang out and party at the beach and on yachts a lot. You still do feel like it's a Young Mr. Ripley story when you first seeing the meet cute of Alexis (Felix Lefebre) and David (Benjamin Voisin), where David saves Alexis from capsizing boat, but their relationship flourishes. It's one of those summer things, but it's a good one. David is the more stylized, world-weary, motorcycle-riding kid and Alexis is the young, emotional guy who's going through his first teenage love.
Alexis, being the kid taken by police in the beginning, means that we know it's David who dies, and it's admittedly a bit of a bait-and-switch when we do find out the reason the police have him, but eh, I guess I've seen worst.
I've definitely seen worst from Ozon, and for a director who can be so varied in quality, I guess I've learned to just take the average. And besides, most of the times, Ozon's basically just trying to re-imagine and recreate genres from the past, and this is his '80s teen romantic drama. It's not my favorite genre, but you know what, when it's done well, it's fine, and I guess we can use some more good LGBT stories with this genre.
It might just be the movie caught me in a good mood, or I just feel like being nicer to Ozon for not completely falling off a cliff. (Shrugs)
ZAPPA (2020) Director: Alex Winter
I wonder what Frank Zappa would think of this world today. I know, it's commonplace to think and say that about people who were ahead of their time in their medium or art, iconoclasts in their time, and whatnot, but honestly, think about it for a second; Zappa was only 53 when prostate cancer took him in 1993; like, he barely lived to see the Clinton administration. Can you imagine what he would've thought of streaming?! What he would've thought of the internet in general! He didn't live to see AOL, much less Spotify! The way music is made now, how it's distributed, how easy it actually is to be as independent as he was. At the time of his passing, he had released, 60 albums! 60 ALBUMS of original, new material. That's-, like an average of three a year! That was a ridiculous pace, even in an era where some of the busiest and biggest acts of the time did release albums every couple months or so, like-eh, Creedence Clearwater Revival did in their prime, for example, and he just kept going and doing this for decades, while doing a bunch of other stuff. Music scoring, making a movie, starting his own record label and finding artists and creating bands there.... Nowadays that sounds quaint when people like Drake release an LP or a seven-hour mixtape every month with an R in them, or whatever, but Zappa, was basically doing all that, on-, top of the line equipment at the time, but for our modern eyes; he might've well have been in the dark ages when he created his work.
There's been several documentaries and other media on and about Frank Zappa since his passing; a couple years ago, I gave 4 1/2 STARS to a documentary a few years ago on him callled, "Eat That Question...", and I think that movie is probably better. Partly because it was almost purely, edited together footage of newsreel and other captured footage of him, and tried to tell a chronological story of Frank Zappa. It also, didn't have authorization from the Zappa estate, which "Zappa" actually does have. And Frank Zappa, recording and preserved almost all of his footage. All his recordings, all his home and professional videos, and everything else in between. Performances with John and Yoko, performances in Czechslovakia after he became their Special Ambassador to the West for Trade, Culture and Tourism", and you know, most of the highlights. If anything, while there is a bit more focus on his, freak years; I call them freak years 'cause he would never associate himself specifically with the hippie movement, especially when he was caught up in some of the, well, sex and rock'n'roll of that movement. Not drugs; he might've taken some pot or acid here and there, but Zappa, you know, I'm sure his kids didn't love hearing about how blunt he was telling his wife about the crabs he'd come home with after the tour.
His wife Gail is also apart of the movie, as well a lot of other notable talking heads including other family members and musicians he's played with. I like seeing interviews with the likes of Alice Cooper and Captain Beefheart and some of the other artists he played with, and I like the lessons on Edgard Varese, a pioneer in avant-garde music and probably Zappa's most direct and influential musical inspiration, and even enjoyed his more roundabout approach to music, despite having a distinction for it, but the movie, is very much, a typical biodocumentary. I wouldn't go so far as to say that Frank himself might not have enjoyed it, but I can easily see him saying that. I don't know how much of this is remembered now, but it is curious how little his kids are actually in the movie; only Dweezil and Moon Unit are mentioned in archive footage and Ahmed and Diva doesn't even get that; which I kinda find curious because, well-, I don't know how many people outside of my age remember this, but there was a prolonged period in the '90s where there many strained attempts to- kinda have them be celebrities in their own right. Not as much Moon Unit oddly enough, who famously is the reason that Frank ever did get an actual pop hit song with "Valley Girl", but Dweezil & Ahmet in particular would periodically kinda show up in weird places sporadically over television, and it was actually through them that I first heard of Frank Zappa. The movie doesn't get into a lot of the bizarre Antigone-like aspects of the ownership of the Trust in their fathers name; I won't go through it all here, but if you look it, there's actually a lot of conflict between, all four kids; it's apparently resolved now, but it took years, and just in general, all four kids have all had some interesting and fascinating lives. Since their mother Gail passed in 2015, this project was clearly in the work for years, and I definitely suspect that they're hoping this begins to make money for their trust.
Like, I said it's not a bad movie, but I just don't know if it's a movie that Frank himself would've appreciated. The film was directed by Alex Winter, yes, Ted from "Bill & Ted..."; he's actually become well-known for his documentary filmmaking over-the-years and has had quite a bit of success on the indy and film festival circuits for his projects over the years. He's a good choice if all you want is a good, but straightforward biodoc of Frank Zappa, and that's fine and I like it for that, but yeah, when you all that footage and material that Frank himself left behind and provided for you, eh, I kinda think somebody like Frank would've wanted somebody to find some more inventive and creative ways to go through and sort it....?
Eh, I guess I'm being too picky; if I want to see a movie from a Zappa that feel reminiscent of his musical works, I guess I could just watch "200 Motels". "Zappa" is good for what it is, and while we do learn a little, it's sometimes good to just be reminded of the genius of Frank.
SHITHOUSE (aka S#!%HOUSE) (2020) Director: Cooper Raiff
Y'know, I would've thought that a movie called "Shithouse" would've at the very least, been more interesting at least. Not necessarily good, but interesting.
Don't be jarred by the movie's title, the title refers to a colloquial name of one of the frat houses in the college in the film, and even then, it's not like "Animal House" or anything like that. It's just a college romance story. It's not even like, a romance between like, a frat brother and a sorority chick or anything,- honestly, I think the title was just the most obvious one that would grab attention. The movie itself is apparently inspired by Cooper Raiff's student short film that got the attention of Jay Duplass of The Duplass Brothers, who helped him produce this longer extended version of that short, "Madeline and Cooper". I've seen the short, it's actually a way better look an college ennui romance and frustration then this film tries to be; it even has a cute insert from Richard Linklater's "Before Sunrise" to really get that mindset put into your mind, and more importantly, it actually focuses on both characters equally, and more poetically. Honestly, I'd rather be reviewing that film....
"Shithouse" stars Raiff as he reluctantly hooks up with his dorm's RA Maggie (Dylan Gelula) and the two of them have one of those "Before Sunrise"-type nights, assuming a star-filled romantic night around Vienna, and a drunken dorm excursion at the end of a drunken stumble around Occidental College are the same thing. Actually, is it a cute little romance, but or start of one, and it does kinda go somewhere later on, when they get into their argument at the end, after he believes the date meant something and she tries to play it off as a one-night thing that didn't mean anything, but honestly, I kept wondering, what exactly did this thing get to.
Basically, it boils down to, what exactly entails a "college experience" and how supposedly Cooper is still halfway in his mind, still at home with his family, which we see in phone calls he makes to his mother (Amy Landecker, who, other then a cameo by Duplass are the only real established stars in this films), and this is in conflict with Maggie who has been sleeping around, even on boyfriends since high school and has a bit of a troubled homelife. Arguably her best relationship is with her pet turtle, who just died.
Honestly, I think the movie, just wasn't a good adaptation to a feature film, 'cause frankly, I vastly preferred the original short film. I don't think it's a great short, but it's more narrow in focus, and I'm more willing to overlooked the parts that I don't care about, like the obnoxious drunk stand-up wannabe roommate Sam (Logan Miller). Instead, the movie keeps trying to find so much other stuff to put in to extend it's runtime that, ultimately I didn't care much for either of these two leads. It has that feeling of the post-mumblecore romance, but if you actually go back and watch those movies, they were way more complex in the nature of the romances they documented. The Duplass Brothers knew how to create characters and put them in conflicting situations that showed off the best and worst aspects of them, and by comparison, "Shithouse" is just way too typical and boring. It focuses too much on the Cooper character, not nearly showcasing the possible motivations and emotions in Maggie until the end, goes for the easy happy ending as well, but frankly, I'm just not rooting for them, like, at all. Like a lot of bad indies, it's a 40-minute concept that I like, that doesn't work with an extra hour and forty minutes added. The movie's been titled differently elsewhere, most notably, "Freshman Year" in the UK, but I don't think the title would help much here. "Shithouse" will grab your attention; it's probably one of the most attention-grabbing disappointing titles since "Dirty Dancing", but mostly it just felt like, and made me want to track old episodes of "Undeclared" which, honestly I don't even think I liked that cult show, but I'll bet 2-1 odds they probably have an episode that's just this, but done better.
I hope Cooper Raiff doesn't give up or anything, this is his debut student film and he's gotten the attention of Mark Duplass, who's definitely one of those people who's attention you want to grab, so hopefully his next project will be more feature-length and compelling, and he learns how to take a story and push it towards his strengths. This movie could've been better if he knew what to add on, and what to drop off, and knew what his strengths were as a filmmaker and focused on them. He clearly is talented, but this is a misstep first feature. To that I say, eh, welcome to the club, Cooper; you'll do better next time.
Posted by David Baruffi at 3:58 AM