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
Friday, April 1, 2022
MOVIE REVIEWS #193: "DUNE (Villeneuve)", "THE WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD", "ASCENSION", "THE MIDNIGHT SKY", "CANDYMAN (DaCosta)", "SHIVA BABY", "WET SEASON", "THE SHADOW OF VIOLENCE (aka CALM WITH HORSES)" and "ORDINARY LOVE"!
I feel like, before I get to the reviews, I should give some final thoughts on the Oscars, and more specifically, the "incident" that everyone's talking about. Despite posting my Oscars Post-Mortem blog, I feel like I've said less about it then anybody and yet, I don't feel like there's much more to say. I mean, I do have things to say, but is it my place to say any of it? Everybody's given an opinion of some kind, some more elaborate and eloquent than others. If I have to narrow down to one so far, I'd say that my favorite is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's thoughtful and sobering take. Yet,... I don't know, I don't think I have to add to the conversation.
I mean, basically all the takes, including the good ones are basically just, "It happened; it shouldn't have", and frankly there isn't much else that needs to be said in that regard. What's left to talk about is the whys and hows of how it went down, and what could've been done better and what to do about such an incidents in the future.
And, I guess, what to do about Will Smith, 'cause, yeah, there's gonna have to be some repercussions for him specifically, and frankly if this latest story about him refusing to leave after being told to is true, which, I'm going to be blunt here, I'm not entirely buying that it is; I fear that that could be the Academy trying to cover their ass, and doing it badly, and yes, last checked, there is disputing stories on this point in particular, but let's say that that's the case and it's confirmed and he was in fact asked to leave and then he didn't, like, this is going to be bad. I mean, relatively speaking, but still, it's going to be bad.
I mean, relatively bad. I mean, there's isn't much they can actually do. Chris Rock doesn't want to file a police report and I can't particularly blame the L.A. Prosecutors' Office for not going out on their own without one. I mean, hypothetically they could and Will Smith could possibly spend up to six months in jail and/or pay a fine up to $1,000, and frankly, considering all the media circus and bs that would entail for potentially, just a 1,000 fine, yeah, I get why the Prosecutors are not in a rush on this one.
Also, it is only a slap, and while that may be an embarrassment and a black eye on the Academy, trust me, there's a lot worst. Like, if this is the thing that gets leads to somebody's behavior getting their Oscar taken away from them, then the Academy will lose what, if any, credibility it has left, 'cause trust me, while some of you might have the more obvious names that the Academy has honored on the tips of your tongues that have behaviors that some might consider inexcusable, the Polanskis, the Allens, the Weinsteins, etc., ummm, yeah, that's a lot of other names that might not be so well-known that are just as bad if not worst in many cases. (My favorite would be Joseph Brooks, who won an Oscar for writing the song "You Light Up My Life", which, well, that fact already probably means he should immediately sent to Hell, but-eh, yeah, I dare you to look him up one day and then tell me with a straight face that it's Will Smith is the one that needs to be stripped of his Oscar for bad behavior.)
So, what would the Academy do? There's not much they can do, but let's say, consider this a recommendation to them; I'd probably strip him of his membership temporarily, say three years, and probably not have him allowed to be at the Oscars for a five years, minimum. He loses voting power and influence within the organization, and he also would be banned from the proceedings for awhile, but with good behavior and meeting the appropriate conditions, he'd be allowed back in, I'm sure, under a zero tolerance, or close to it, policy on behavior. There'd also be a long talk about, a lot about the show in whole honestly, as well as, just what they failed to do to allow for something like that to happen as easily as it did, 'cause I would say that the Academy also had a lot of screwups of their own in this, and they need to be open and honest to themselves of what they could've and should've done better, and frankly that can be part of a larger talk about the whole show itself, which, yeah, could've definitely been better....
That's just the Academy though. They're a group; a who's who collection of people in Hollywood, there's not really a lot they can actually do. SAG, on the other hand, a union organization, where they also have some interesting bylaws with the potential for more substantive punishments, I would recommend that his membership be suspended for at least a year, which means, among other things, that he wouldn't be allowed to work on any SAG-approved projects, which are basically, all of his projects, and also, I would either suspend/block any residuals that he's owed, or would've otherwise gotten for the next three years, either that, or have that residuals money for his past/current projects for the next three years, be donated to whatever is considered an appropriate charity. This would be projects he's currently working on, as well as all his past projects, and I suspect other union like PGA that he might also be apart of, take similar actions.
This will not bankrupt Will, obviously but it's a punishment that will definitely not be light on him and hopefully it's substantial enough to indicate just how bad his actions actually were, while also won't be so severe that people who want to use those Polanski, Weinstein, Spacey, etc. etc. etc. names that the Academy have honored and rightfully should be admonished for condoning their abhorrent behaviors, they're not complaining about going too hard on Will, or too soft on those others,... yada, yada, yada,.... I don't think he should be banished from either group, I don't think he should have his awards taken away, I don't think he should be in jail, so, to me, this feels like an proportionate and appropriate deterrence.
This will not bankrupt Will, obviously but it's a punishment that will definitely not be light on him and hopefully it's substantial enough to indicate just how bad his actions actually were, while also won't be so severe that people who want to use those Polanski, Weinstein, Spacey, etc. etc. etc. names that the Academy have honored and rightfully should be admonished for condoning their abhorrent behaviors, they're not complaining about going too hard on Will, or too soft on those others,... yada, yada, yada,.... I don't think he should be banished from either group, I don't think he should have his awards taken away, I don't think he should be in jail, so, to me, this feels like an proportionate and appropriate deterrence.
Also, to quote Oscar host Amy Schumer, "There's a genocide going on in Ukraine and women are losing all of their rights... and trans people." So-eh, maybe this is the last time I, or any of us, focus on and talk about one multi-millionaire hitting another multi-millionaire over a stupid joke.
Anyway, let's talk about movies now, a much more artistic and fulfilling distraction from the horrors of real life we should otherwise be focusing our prime energy on. We got some big reviews, including some Oscars winners and nominees, this time, so let's get to those.
DUNE (2021) Director: Denis Villeneuve
I've spent a couple days trying to figure out what angle to take on this latest adaptation of Frank Herbert's "Dune". "Dune" has seemed to be something of a white whale for many filmmakers. Famously, the surrealist Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky tried to take a shot at it, but his epic production faltered from a lack of funds, although the documentary, "Jodorowsky's Dune" that detailed the pre-production process of the film is one of the best documentaries of the last decade. David Lynch took the first feature film adaptation of it, and that version has been derided, basically since it's original release. There's been some miniseries in the past that have tried to dive into the franchise as well since then, but this version, from Denis Villeneuve is the latest and by for the most successful and beloved theatrical adaptation so far. The thing is though, as beloved and important as "Dune" is, I-eh, I don't really think I get it.
Now, don't go, "Well, you have to read the books," which, no, I haven't, and all...- look, I've had "Dune" explained to me before, and several times in fact by people who actually do know what they're talking about, and I do understand why it's important, and why it is an important and influential piece of literature. And yes, there's a lot of meaning and symbolism in this series of stories, and I think I've got a decent hold on most of it, at least the important parts of the early books, and yeah, from a philosophical and analytical perspective, and even from a storytelling perspectives, in terms of the books, yeah, I get why it's so highly regarded.
Story-wise though, I don't really get it, as a movie....
That's always been the issue with the franchise, it's one of those stories that everybody kinda regarded in the past as not really filmable, which on the one hand is really bizarre, because in terms of the actual story and series of events, it's really not that a bizarre story at all; the story, at least for this first book in the franchise, is a straightforward superhero's origin journey essentially. Not only has many aspects of "Dune" been co-opted into other seminal cinematic science-fiction pieces, but "Dune" itself, one of it's several layers, was how much it was a very critical critique of much of the classic storytelling formulas in fantasy and science-fiction, especially the chosen one narrative, which, honestly, yeah, it can work occasionally when done well, but generally I hate that narrative, and "Dune", in particular the second book, is an amazing depiction of just how horrific and fascist that idea can really be.
Yet, how do you tell that story effectively, in a couple hours visually, without, just literally telling that story, and then, like bait-and-switching? How many people would even get it? Like, are there movies that pull off that genre pull of the rug? Eh, I guess there's a few movies, "The French Connection" did that with the cop movie, but that's also a less complicated film-based genre; "Dune" only works when you understand the full complexities of it, and even then, it's more about those complexities then that twists? That's the thing that's just troubled filmmakers, and frankly, I think it would've stayed troubled if it wasn't so seminal to the literary sci-fi canon and there was just so many people hoping and insisting on there inevitably being a good "Dune" movie?
Well, I guess, we'll have multiple movies, which, ughhh, already this film's on my bad side since, like it's predecessor, it insisted on sequels without the first one being a hit yet, (Yeah, the original Lynch version was intended to be the first of a franchise, with several sequels planned..., that seems so bizarre when you say it out loud now....) but, since "Dune" basically doesn't exist unless it's in volumes, I'm letting that slide. But, that begs another question of getting the tone of the story correct. I don't have that frame of reference necessarily, but apparently this one, is at least, close enough efficient for those who do have the reference. It's earned a bunch of Oscar nominations, including Best picture and people were pissed the Denis Villeneuve was snubbed for Director. Personally, I kinda get why he snubbed. He's certainly not a bad director here, in fact I'd be hard-pressed to say he's ever actually made a technically bad movie.
Villeneuve's been a weird director for me, right when all the Nolan fanboys were suddenly turning into Villeneuve fanboys, was about the time when I was getting bored with him. Well, except for "Arrival", that's his absolute masterpiece. That was also a sci-fi film from him, and that was a fascinating movie about language barriers between alien species as they struggled to figure out how to communicate with each other. It's kinda the sci-fi film that people who hate sci-fi would like, so naturally I loved it, but it's also pretty realistic and true-to-life. We're more multicultural and multilingual now then ever, but you know, we're still struggling to cross that Babel-sized bridge between language and cultures in many ways.
It's also a great example why, after I thought about this for a few days, I realize a simple fact that, Villeneuve is just a terrible choice of director for "Dune". Hear me out...!
He's not a bad choice, 'cause he's a great director, but "Dune"...- Okay, I haven't talked that much of the story of the film yet, mostly because it's not that different from the Lynch film. It's still the story of Paul (Timothee Chalamet), the heir of the House of Aetreides, it's still the distant future, there's this Game of Thrones-ian family space battle for the ruler of the spice planet,- it even has the worms.... honestly I still kinda have trouble getting interested in it, but basically, it's just a much more straightforward and grounded depiction of it, then the much campier and absurb Lynch film, which for the record is a boring and unwatchable disaster, but I kinda get where he was coming from more. Even keeping this dialogue and saying it as believably as realistically as possibly, like, c'mon, am I the only that doesn't laugh at how it's "Spice" that drives this thing?! But that's not why Villeneuve's wrong for it, it's because he is too down-to-Earth and too realist of a filmmaker. His best films, "Incendies", "Arrival", "Prisoners", they're great stories told cinematically incredibly well, but they live firstly in the unlikely plausible universe. Even his more sci-fi films, and those that do play around with more sweeping dreamy tones, like "Blade Runner 2049" and "Enemy", they're not that out there for their genres. "Dune" was published in the mid-60s and does have a lot of themes that represent that time, the Cold War paranoia, imperialist exploitation, fossil fuels shortages, the horrors of a prophet-based hierarchal leadership,... and a lot of that stuff is still today, but it's also really surrealistic. There's a lot of strange stuff that pops up, and they occur here as well, but most of them, are just treated as other integral parts of the universe, but it's much more Conradian then that. The "spice" that, yes, will probably never not be hilarious to me, but that said, the spice, which is a byproduct of those giant sandworms, is both used as the fuel that's needed for interplanetary space travel, but it's also a narcotic that has effected the entire universe because of how it's become so constantly used, and it effects the tone and mood of the journey. So, yeah, this was definitely made in the '60s, when Timothy Leary types confused acid and marijuana highs for greater journeys into the subconscious, and the story reflects that.
Now, I don't think that aspects the story works visually, certainly not with Villeneuve, 'cause like, when you're going down into the deepest darkest parts of Africa or into this great vast unknown away from civilization, it actually feels like a journey, and here it just feels like you're being pushed around a world that you don't know. I mean, it's better then Lynch, who is a surrealist which made sense on paper, but all his best films, really do take place in dreamworld and logic, what's appealing about this kind of tale is coming across and finding out all the unexpected and crazy stuff along the way. That's why film's best Conrad hero is still Capt. Willard from "Apocalypse Now", but that kind of self-insert character, doesn't exist in "Dune", it's just a world that's under the influence of this hallucinogenic spice, and it's not even your perspective on this hallucinatory world.
Man, this is why Jodorowsky should've been the guy who made "Dune", all his films are bizarre, surreal mindfucks, but they're about that strange shit that pops up and you see on these journeys. By comparison Villeneuve is competent, and yet, I think he's not right for this material. I don't know if it could ever be great on film, but Villeneuve is not it. And that's a shame, 'cause this film is impressive. He worked hard on this. The filmmaking is amazing. I love the sequence where they're flying over the vast sand desert and they spot an approaching and aggressive sandworm and they're trying to get the Fremon workers safe, it's compelling in it's own right, at times, but it's not as compelling an adventure as it could be. That's probably my ultimately regret with "Dune", both theatrical versions.
Maybe I'll like Part Two better, when it comes out, supposedly in a couple years, but for this movie, for it's part, this movie only did get through, like half the story of the first book, ending with Paul's embrace of the Fremon's culture and religion in his fight against the House Harkonnen, but I'm much more, ambivalent then anything else, and ultimately that's a bad place to be for any film.
THE WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD (2021) Director: Joachim Trier
I gotta admit that I haven't exactly kept up with Joachim Trier in recent years, but I have managed to see all of what's now being called his "Oslo Trilogy", which..., (Shrugs) I don't know, kinda sounds a bit like picking three Woody Allen movies at random and calling them his "New York Trilogy", but ehhh, whatever. The first of these was his big international breakthrough, "Reprise" a tale of the ups and downs of two young Oslo writers trying to break onto the literary scene. I thought it was, okay, but I didn't exactly think much about it afterwards, other then I thought it felt autobiographical. I could definitely imagine him and his co-writer Eskil Vogt being self-inspired somewhat with it. The second, in the trilogy, was "Oslo August 31", followed a full day and night out for a recovering heroin addict who has a day pass from rehab for a job interview and decides to revisit and possibly tie up any loose ends. I saw that movie on several Best of the Year Lists, and I even had a close friend of mine who ranked it number one that year. I don't know too many people who've talked about it since though. I remember talking to my friend who did rank it so high back then about it years later and he had forgotten that he had placed it that high (Shrugs) I think in hindsight, I underrated it myself, and in hindsight seems like it's rare straightforwardness and bare bones is more of an appeal to me then some of Trier's more original and dreamlike aberrations in his storytelling and editing that sometimes overtook much of the appreciation I had for "Reprise".
There's some interesting aberrations in "The Worst Person in the World" too, a movie that I've seen a lot of reviews not really explain it well, but talk in vague generalities about how "real" it seems, and/or some weird variant on how the movie explores that, without actually about the plot or the story. To be honest, I wasn't getting the appeal when I looked into the movie. After watching it, I get it now. I don't know if I love it the way some people do, but I get it.
Dumb title aside, and yeah, I don't like this title for the film, the movie is about Julie (Renata Reinsve), and the film, basically follows her around for a few years, her late twenties-to early thirties. In some way, I do get how this film connects the other two movies, they're all about Oslo of course, but like "Oslo, August 31", it basically just follows a single character on their strange, surreal, meandering path through life and on the other hand, like "Reprise", that path is basically filled with life emotional turmoils and pitfalls. For Julie,...- well, I've seen her compared to other such film heroines who seem to constantly be going from one career path to another, one man to another, one aberration to another even, Noah Baumbach's "Frances Ha" has been pointed to a few times, which I think I need to rewatch, 'cause I was in the minority on that film and think it's one of his weaker ones.
However, going back to Woody Allen, and I actually think he is a good comparison to Trier believe it or not, two of my favorite characters of his seem to fit Julie well to me. One, on a more literal level is Dianne Weist's Holly from "Hannah and Her Sisters", who is that rich family's messed up relative that always seems to be on the wrong path on her own. Except for the cigarettes and the occasional acid trip involving a cartoon cat's butthole though, Julie isn't a recovering addict, but it fits her. The better comparison though, is Scarlett Johansson's character of Christina in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" though, a character who constantly explores and then tires out of every situation she finds herself in and surrounded by, and eventually, as the film's narrators observed, that she would always "...continue searching, certain of what she didn't want."
I love that description, and yes, it describes Julie incredibly well. She's constantly switching college majors, switching careers, and either switching boyfriends, or thinking about it while she's trying to move in with her current one, as she's basically only certain of that which she doesn't want, whatever that may be. She first ends up with an underground cartoonist, Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie) but ends up flirting, and then leaving him later on for Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), a guy she met after she crashed a wedding and then reconnect with later after a random encounter years later, and then, I think in a "Vanilla Sky"-level world-stopping flashback through the streets, in her mind...- I'm being snippy, because I usually hate these things from Trier, but it actually does work here more then it misses, and yeah, I can see why some people could really relate and love this film, as some emotional document to a transitional time period in one's young life. I can also see why some people could hate this film because of how it's a plotless, meandering, naval-gazing meandering on transitional from young adulthood to, slightly more mature, older adulthood that's equally just as meandering, plotless and naval-gazing.
Julie's isn't necessarily likeable on the page either but Renate Reinsve's performance really shines through the glossy veneer and makes us interested in seeing, not necessarily whether or not she succeeds, 'cause I'm not sure what exactly success would even be for her, but more-or-less, what happens to her. I can definitely think of some close friends of mine that she reminds me of, and in a way, I wonder if that's really the inspiration behind this "Oslo Trilogy", I think they're mostly just three stories about the characters that are the kinds of people that Joaquim knows or grew up with or hung around, or perhaps just passengers they run into along the way and found interesting to follow what happened to them. Some of them had particularly frustrating journeys to the fame they wanted, others got caught up in their own demons and couldn't get out of them and straighten their lives out, and some, like, Julie, while not the worst person in the world, is that mess of a person who you could easily be tertiary friends with at parties and such, and also I imagine, you have times where you just want to just get away from her for how annoying she can frickin' be. She's at times really selfish, at times a liar who bends the truth, more emotional and instinctual then she is thoughtful, I know I was hating her when she kept switching majors from medicine to psychology to just becoming a photographer. Especially med school, that space is limited, and they mention how she's well-off enough that she can just keep finding a new career. Hell, technically, you could argue that this movie is about a girl who wrote one sex article that went viral. (And technically I hate her for that 'cause that means that she's had one more successful article then I do.)
Maybe the title is right after all, and she is "The Worst Person in the World", just have to look closely enough to see it. Still don't want to look too closely though, as least she's a likeable enough person to be so terrible.
ASCENSION (2021) Director: Jessica Kingdon
"Ascension" is one of those kind of tonal poem documentaries that are always a little hard to tell how to criticize for me. Sometimes these kinds of movies can blow me away and amaze and inspire me, the films of Ron Fricke, especially "Samsara" for instance, which I still tend to think of as the best of these films, to sometimes outright hating and being angered and pissed at some of them, like the films of Jennifer Baichwal which constantly make my Worst of the Year lists and that I seem to be the only person in the world who has a real genuine opinion of any kind on her. "Ascension" isn't quite in the upper sphere, but it's still quite good.
The film, the first feature-length directorial effort from producer Jessica Kingdon is a quiet and observant look at modern China. It's promoted as being a look at "The Chinese Dream", and the title is how the country is heading towards it's modern industrial world. It's also just, a look at the day life of people working and living in such a world, but China's place is very much in transition, and much of their modernity still feels like serving the rest of the world. I can't help but think of all the industry workers, especially those working on the assembly line for the sex doll shops, that's gonna be the most eye-popping of the images, although I also found it intriguing just how precise they were being taught the ways people served at a dinner, and how to eat at a fancy Western restaurant.
The subtext is basically how capitalism is finding it's way and making it's mark in this modern, still technically Communist China, and showing this strange contrasting of tradition and behaviors. It's weird, you'd think the natural recourse would be to take capitalism and bring it more towards their more typical and traditional teachings, but instead China has become a willing master and serving the rest of the world. It's basically a look at how one culture learns and becomes a master at another, and this goes from all the way to the top to the bottom. I don't know how much we're learning or are meant to learn, but the longer the movie went on, the more I felt like I was caught up in this world.
The best of these kinds of movies strive to give you a greater overall sense of the world by combining so many of these images. Like the graduation ceremony at the vast waterpark where you can really see just how many people there are. Young people, about to enter this vast adult world, all expecting to be better then before, and who knows what this generation is gonna end up doing or changing about the future, or how many are also gonna end up, wiping clean a plastic dolls breast before they put the head on. Or in the sweatshops making "Make America Great Again" merchandise.
"Ascension" sees how capitalism effects and changes, basically everything and everyone. It's basically showing how the modern Chinese Dream is basically them creating the American Dream for us, and trying to emulate it for themselves. It makes for a unusual and questionable "Ascension" to, whatever this form of a greater power in the world is. It makes me feel as though there's so much of the world that's out of our control and hands, and that trying to take a hold of it, can lead to us, just getting sprayed with water coming from above. The American Dream has often been compared to somebody pissing on you and telling you that it's raining. Never really thought that the people pissing on you would be trying to change themselves to impress and fit in with the rest of the world too. I think the movie tries to give you the absurd ennui feeling of living in this world, and it succeeds even if the "Ascension" may only be one of the mind or of propaganda.
THE MIDNIGHT SKY (2020) Director: George Clooney
George Clooney, let's be blunt, has not made a good movie in a while. Directing, acting... I mean, I haven't seen "Suburbicon" yet, or his latest "The Tender Bar" which does seem to be getting good reviews, but just in general, it's been a long while. It's not that I don't think he's been properly inspired necessarily, or that he's been letting things go since there's little for him to actually gain from him doing anything. We all know he's got the riches, the lovely saintly wife, the Italian villa that he's been at.... I wouldn't blame him, if say he were to just go headlong into the Burt Reynolds faze into his career, where he just doesn't care at a certain point. but I don't think that's it. Like "The Monuments Men" was an interesting subject, but it wasn't an interesting movie. So was "Leatherheads", another interesting subject, but not a compelling or memorable film. It's so weird, 'cause his first two outings as a director led to some really compelling films and both happened to be about a subject he knew very well, television. "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" and "Good Night, and Good Luck." are completely different films, but they're both about television, something that's been ingrained as an interest to Clooney since his youngest days. Ever since then, it's not that I don't get his inspirations for his projects, but I feel like they've just, not been good inspirations for movies. And especially when it comes to science-fiction films lately,..., well, on that genre he's not the only one.
There's been a few good filmmakers lately who've been making sci-fi movies lately, especially movies about characters traveling in space that have just been bizarre bad films. Recently, James Gray's "Ad Astra" made my worst list from 2019, but there's been others. Claire Denis's "High Life" had more intriguing elements to it, but is a sci-fi film what you really expect from her? Although even directors that you would've thought would've gotten it right have gotten it wrong, like Christopher Nolan's "Interstellar". All these films, as well as "The Midnight Sky" seemed to be trying to get to the same kind of thing though, that being the long distant loneliness between traveling through space and how much that kind of severe isolation. That ennui of loneliness being a metaphor for several things. Grief, anger, pain, regret. And weirdly, Clooney's film is actually accurately timed, 'cause "The Midnight Sky" is about a post-apocalyptic Earth that's been taken down by some mysterious thing that's taken out the majority of the population. It's specifically not a pandemic, but I can't imagine that idea not coming to those who caught the film late. So, there's another layer to this as Clooney himself plays Augustine a scientist stationed in the Arctic Circle, one of the last places that hasn't completely been taken down by the unnamed thing that's caused the apocalypse, and is trying to contact the Aether an interplanetary spaceship that have been out on a mission to find habitable planets to expand. He's the last one who's remained on the science station, well, almost, as a little girl named Iris (Caoilinn Springall) also was left behind when others were evacuating. Not sure where they evacuated, probably underground somewhere, if they were able to even do that.
That's the main conflict for me, there's some minor conflict as we get on board the Aether. There's a great all-star cast of a crew, and apparently some flashback scenes which shows that Augustine has a connection with the ship's communication director Sully (Felicity Jones), but honestly, one of the problems is that, on the screen, most of this feels like naval-gazing, all these reflections on life and the journey home, and the struggles of being alone both on Earth and in space.
Is there a way to do this well? There has to be right? Yeah, I can think of one, Tarkovsky's "Solaris". Which was remade by Steven Soderbergh once, and that film starred George Clooney, in a similar role to the one he's got here. I could easily see this film as some sort of pseudo-sequel to that film; even the fact that there's the little girl with him, and how she shows up in the film, feels like something that could've been a mirror reflection of a similar arc that involved his character in that film.
Apparently, this film is based on a novel, and I can see how this film would probably work better in that medium. That's another issue with some of these really over-symbolic-based sci-fi films, the medium is just often wrong. Some things that seem amazing in books and have greater emotional meaning there, don't really have that much power on screen. For instance, there's a character played by Tiffany Boone, one of the members of the crew of the ship, that ends up dying on the voyage. Sorry for the spoiler, I was a little more upset that even in this movie, the African-American actor is the one that dies, but her death doesn't have the ultimate weight it should since, while we do get a little look into her life beforehand, and we haven't gotten enough info to care about her, it's still a very tertiary character, and we're dealing with people who we know are going to a home that isn't there, but they don't. It's good when you can really get inside those characters one at a time, paced, like a novel, but doing this on screen can be difficult, and it can be particularly tough when this is done with science-fiction where things that could seem important and powerful in a novel can come off as silly.
As for "The Midnight Sky", I can see why Clooney would be attracted to this material but I don't think it's a great inspiration for him and it's ultimately a pretty uninteresting movie. Perhaps all filmmakers want this one sci-fi experiment out of their system, but at least lately, I haven't found a reason to really care or appreciate them.
CANDYMAN (2021) Director: Nia DaCosta
Forgive me, older horror/slasher are one of the few blindspots I have in my film purview. I've seen what most would generally consider the most important films and prescient films in the genre, but it's a genre that I haven't dug too deep into, which I need to get 'cause it's also a genre that's constantly getting re-evaluated. the more recent re-evaluations of the genre typically now involve analysis of race, especially African-Americans places in the genre. Most of this is obviously being sprung by the success of Jordan Peele's work as a director and producer in recent years giving new life to the genre as a whole, but there's definitely a lot to evaluate and analyze in terms of African-Americans places in the genre.
Before I watched the new "Candyman" film that's produced by Peele, I decided I should probably watch the first "Candyman" film at the very least, 'cause I just don't know much about this franchise, or this character. So, for a brief couple sentence thoughts on the first film, I thought A. we need a lot more Virginia Madsen in, like everything, then we do, but also, it was a decent horror. There's a couple things that are interesting about it; I like the subtle commentary about housing projects that are repurposed for more well-off and white renters while the less kept ones still are populated by both African-American cliches and those trying to just live out their everyday lives. Also, um, why is that stupid remake of "The Wicker Man", the movie with the bees meme, when this movie exists, 'cause holy god, BEES! WTF!? Somebody should've warned me about that! Bees are fucking scary-, that's why that meme never worked btw, it's legitimate torture.
Mostly though, I felt it was, basically what I always presumed it was on the surface, a decent horror movie that I could see being a fun rental on a horror movie night back in the early '90s, but I can also see how the film could be something that probably could use a reinterpretation. And the original franchise as a whole looks compelling. The sequel, "Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh" is a prequel that I suspect might even be better then this film. It's got an origin story for the titular Candyman, and the film was directed by Bill Condon, who actually has become a pretty damn good filmmaker over the years. The third, was a straight-to-video film, "Candyman: Day of the Dead", that looks a little schlocky to me. It's trailer promotes that it starred, Donna D'Errico...? Whoa, that name sounds like a flashback, why do I know that name? (IMDB search) Married to Nikki Sixx,- oh yeah, Baywatch babe, right? Yeah, I remember now, Playboy Playmate, back when that mattered. I forgot how much, like the eighties, was still like, all around, in the '90s, and...- eh, anyway, commentary for another time with that.
Now, to this new "Candyman" film, which is technically a sequel, it's definitely a more complete film. The movie takes much of the mythology of the original and then basically goes about reinventing it. Hell, the movie is even about how art is changed and reinvented. The main character is Anthony (Yahya Abdul Mateen II), a young Chicago artist who becomes inspired by the urban legend of Candyman (Tony Todd, reprising his iconic role) and uses it as inspiration for his next gallery show. He even begins looking into the original movie's mythology by visiting the now-gentrified Cabrini-Green projects where he gets stung by a bee, and runs into resident and local laundromat owner William Burke (Colman Domingo) who relays the original myth, as well as tell of his own encounter with the Candyman as a child.
The exhibit is originally a success, but then, of course, two people, the gallery owner Clive and his way-too-young-to-be-his-assistant-or-his-girlfriend assistant/girlfriend, Jerrica (Brian King and Miriam Moss) naturally tempt fate and pay the price right at the gallery and in front of his mirror exhibit piece entitled, "Say My Name". As he gets more popular and Anthony's girlfriend Brianna (Teyonah Parris) begins helping him climb up the artistic ranks, which have their own layered commentary on white art vs. black art, as well as the hierarchy of art exhibitions and publicity..., but that bee sting keeps expanding and things keep getting worst. And more people start ending up dead. Mostly white girls though, 'cause apparently stupid white girls playing stupid white girl games and getting killed is just a thing in these movies. (Admittedly I get the appeal, but ehhh....) Eventually, Anthony finds out through his mother Anne-Marie (Vanessa Williams, reprising her role from the original film too [And no, not that Vanessa Williams, there's another one out there.]), that Anthony indeed has a secret past both with the original projects, and with the Candyman.
From there, I'm not sure I want to give away too much. The movie was co-written by Peele, but this is the second directorial effort from Nia DaCosta, the filmmaker behind "Little Woods" a few years ago. I didn't get around to that movie until recently, so I didn't get a chance to properly review it, but I personally preferred that film. It was a tale of two struggling sisters, as they both to have to deal with their pasts as they have to begin deal in Oxycontin along the Canada-U.S. border to get out of several layers of poverty. This movie, has certain depths as well, and I think most of what it says is worth saying, but it almost feels like it's just laying in the commentary. Not in a bad way, but I almost feel like the movie is too much circling upon itself, almost like it's merely existing as a commentary on what the original film/franchise meant, or could mean, or meant to some.... It's almost the opposite of that, "Ask me what it means" meme that I think Nostalgia Critic started bringing up with Shaymalan movies, it's just, "Let me tell you what it means!", and I just don't think that makes it as interesting as it could be.
It could also just be that, while symbolically the Candyman has some deeper significance and meanings, as an actual horror movie villain, he's not exactly that interesting. I mean, his name is interesting, and they make some reference to why he is called "Candyman" despite how most every other interpretation of him and his origins seems to have nothing to do with candy, (and also, to kill one urban myth, but the story about razorblades being hidden in Halloween candy, that's not a thing that ever happened and is a long-disproven myth.) the story is, kinda just not compelling. Him showing up through conveniently placed giant holes in the walls of buildings, only being seen in reflections when you say his name multiple times, and only in front of a mirror...? (Shrugs) Like, even the hook for hand thing; I mean, I guess it's convenient for when you absolutely positively have to disemboweled somebody really fucking quick, but it's not exactly the most menacing presence or the most haunting. Honestly, the best scene in the movie for me, was kinda the best scene in the original film for me, when somebody uses a conveniently placed mirror in order to summon Candyman as a way to get him to kill everybody around him, knowing that he'll, for one reason or another, will help them.
Still, while I feel "Candyman" is kind of a second-rate horror villain in terms of entertainment, but I'm still recommending the movie. There's enough here to talk about, but I've seen better from the people behind this, and I hope to see more of that later.
SHIVA BABY (2021) Director: Emma Seligman
Crinnnnnnnge. So much cringe in "Shiva Baby".
Apparently that word is out of vogue at the moment, at least it seems that way in how every other reviewer and/or critic, especially the streaming ones have try to shy away from using that word. I'm not sure exactly why; I'm sure it's been meme'd-to-death now, but I think it's a good word to describe it, since I spent basically the whole runtime of the 77 minute film, pausing the DVD player a few moments at a time while the movie ends up placing it's main character in one awkward situation after another. And there ain't much more awkward in American comedy then a Jewish girl lying to her family, and then turning the "Oh shit!" up all the way to eleven.
In this case, the lie for Danielle (Rachel Sennott)-, well, actually there's quite a few lies, but the big one is that she's been earning money as a-eh, um...,- you know, I just realized I don't actually know the word for this...- let's see if Google actually can help me here on this one.... (Google search typing) "What do you call someone who has a sugar daddy?" (Presses enter)
Ohhh! A "Sugar Baby"!?!? Ahhh, so that's why the title! Ah. I- I thought something completely different....
Well, anyway, yeah, while her parents, Joel and Debbie (Fred Melamed and Polly Draper) are paying for her college education where she's getting a degree in, eh...- well, they're kinda confused by what exactly it is too; it's supposed to be some kind of her own created major, something about feminism...- anyway, she's been, um, making her way on the slide, getting money from a sugar daddy, Max. (Danny Defarri) I-eh,...- I was looking up whether or not being a-eh, (sigh) "sugar baby," is technically a prostitute..., ehhh, it's-, it's actually a really muddled debate from what I can glance, I'm finding various answers here. I guess by most legal definitions, it's not, 'cause sex is not always traded for money, although, the first scene clearly shows that's not the case for Danielle, but...- god, even looking this shit up is cringe, and I haven't even gotten to half the plot of the movie yet.
Anyway, the sugar daddy, shows up at the shiva she's at. Also, his shiksa wife Kim (Dianne Argon), is there. Also, is their new baby, because she's a shiksa and she didn't know not to bring a kid to a shiva.
A shiva btw, is the Jewish mourning period, and, Danielle's stuck at her parent's friends-, I think-, I don't know remember who's shiva this actually is, and Danielle doesn't really know either, and she's stuck there, with her sugar daddy, who happens to be a son of a friend, of her father's, or something or another. Some distant relative that matters to everyone around her but she barely remembers. Everybody remembers her though, and all the things she's supposedly up to, and keep questioning her. Oh, including her ex, who's also there, Maya (Molly Gordon). She's around and asking questions and there's a whole thing there, and around every corner is more of this slow-moving, cringe-inducing farce just closing in on her, like the one uncomfortable passenger stuck in the middle seat of an ever crowding, overflowing minivan.
"Shiva, Baby" is pretty clever in it's gimmick and for that it's a recommend. It's the debut feature from Emma Seligman, based on her original short film, and Rachel Sennott is young and up-and-coming actress/stand-up who gives a strong and understated performance here. It's a cute and assured little indy that holds up pretty good for an extended short. It's very simple and yet very observant, and it's just total cringe for the sake of creating shoulder-rising, head-turning-away cringe. I wince and shrug my shoulders up to my cheeks just thinking about how cringe this film is.
WET SEASON (2021) Director: Anthony Chen
I remember liking the previous Anthony Chen film I saw, "Ilo Ilo", a lot. It was a touching tale about a relationship between a young upper class bratty ten-year-old and the maid that took care of him while his parents were unable to due to their schedules and getting caught up in modern worklife. Chen is one of the premiere filmmakers from a country we surprising don't hear that much about in the filmmaking world, Singapore.
You'd think we would, the country is a very beautiful and fascinating mix of several different cultures, and it's a pretty profitable part of the world, so you'd think filmmakers would be more common; I mean, it's about the size of Hong Kong and that country's got decades of influence onto the world cinema, and yet, only really recently, like, within the last 30 years or so, has Singaporean filmmaking really started to get it's film production engines together. Anthony Chen's second feature film "Wet Season," in that perspective, seems like a good film to look at as one that tries to see the cultural conflicts and multi-ethnic wonder of the city-state.
Taking place during the "Wet Season", a long, protracted time during the year where Singapore is caught up in the monsoon season and sunlight is basically a non-entity, we meet Ling (YEO Yann Yann). She's a Malaysian-born Chinese teacher who's in the middle of a fairly frustrating life. She's giving herself invitro shots while in traffic jams trying to conceive a child for a husband that's really if ever present. At home, she takes care of his sick and dying father-in-law (YANG Shi-Bin) who's unable to speak since his stroke. Her husband Andrew (Christopher LEE), is not only always away, for reason we'll find out later, but he's also kinda incompetent as a husband, so she's often the one who has to show up to events alone where he's supposed to be, and basically run the household for him.
In this swarm of depression, she inevitably befriends one of her students, Wei Lun (KOH Jia Ler), at first, helping him through an injury. He's a martial artist and we first see them connect at a doctor's office where he's recovering from a broken foot. Eventually, they start hanging out together as both of them seem to have some troubled lives.
Then things get even more complicated, and eventually and rather disturbingly, they begin an affair. This is difficult enough without realizing that they were the same two actors who were the leads in "Ilo Ilo", but this becomes way more complicated for all the obvious and regular reasons, as well as the more complicated ones. Chen has a way of getting to some complicated emotions, and these tales of May-December relationships are both nuanced and subtle up close yet complex and powerful from a distance. I think I prefer "Ilo Ilo" a little more, but Chen's coming up with an interesting vision. For me, he is modern Singaporean cinema, both in terms of tone of his films and inspiration for his subject matter. Perhaps that's a narrow view of him and/or of Singapore and it's cinema, but so far I've liked what I've got.
THE SHADOW OF VIOLENCE (aka CALM WITH HORSES) (2020) Director: Nick Rowland
I gotta admit, it does always surprise me a little when I hear about just how much, in some peoples' cases, violence, is genuinely just, apart of peoples lives growing up. I don't just mean, domestic violence, of course I am counting that, but just the fact that there is such a natural aspect from people to always be involved or be acquainted with violence, is kinda just foreign to me. I'm not saying there wasn't violence around, but it wasn't something that I would think of as common or something that was just apart of my life or upbringing; it wasn't something that came up naturally and when it did happen, it was usually regrettable on almost all counts afterwards. It kinda also just surprises me, in terms of just, logic, if somebody or some people are genuine that violent, how are they always around in civilized society, much less, in your house?! I know I sure as hell wouldn't be; somebody would've likely turned me in and I'd end up in prison or some kind of asylum or whatever, if I don't end up dead. I guess that's the thing that I find so bizarre, that essentially, violence in places like these, I'm thinking of the lower class areas of places like Baltimore, where everybody I've ever heard about from there, except maybe for John Waters, talks about how violent the city is, or in this case, rural Ireland, violence is just something that's protected and accepted by and with the community within. Maybe I'm just such a loner from the outside world that I always imagine myself being in the lone apartment or house that no one knows and is not effected by the outside stuff like this, the guy who doesn't bother anybody and nobody bothers me, kinda guy, that when I see world's like these, I always wonder exactly how everybody just becomes so intricately involved in this cycle of violence.
Also found under the title "Calm with Horses", British filmmaker Nick Rowland's debut feature "The Shadow of Violence" is a brooding, and haunting look into this world. You're dropped right into it immediately, and then brought into a situation that, one can reasonably say, is a situation that could probably end in violence. That job belongs to Arm (Cosmo Jarvis) the enforcer of the local family clan that runs the town, the Devers. The patriarch Paudi (Ned Dennehy) asks for Arn and his handler Dympna (Barry Keoghan) to deal with Fannigan (Liam Carney), one of the members of the "family" that's overstepped his bounds in some pretty unspeakable ways. Although, not necessarily non-familial ways. Arm basically considers the Devers his family, and they supposed consider him and others as such. "Blood only means that you're related," they say, "Loyalty" is what matters, 'cause of course it is.
Anyway, despite his appearance, and his history, Arm surprisingly doesn't seem able to ""deal" with Paudi properly. Arm's conflicted with struggling to connect with his young son, who his ex-wife June (Simone Kirby) wants to get enrolled in a special school for him. It's not said, but he's clearly autistic. Arm's not autistic, but he always seems to have trouble connecting to others, on top of connecting to his son, but yeah, he's clearly an outsider who's still curse by his past as a boxer that gets mentioned occasionally. Mostly, it's another one of those films where the guy realizes way too late that he's really in the most trustworthy of groups, but can't break out of the lifestyle. It's a pretty damn good one though, and I like how it goes about it by creating this character that actually is compelling the more you think about him. Arm is slow, and basically built to be a bruiser, and has had no problem being an on-call enforcer for most of his adult life after his boxing career hit the skids, but he also finds out, that he isn't comfortable being a killer, which is bad for him, since he's surrounded by killers, but even though he's slow, he's able to be creative and try to outthink and outmaneuver the family when they're coming after him, at least for a little while.
He grew up in a violent world and as he struggles to stop, he also has to come to terms with the fact that it's also the only world he knows and knows how to move about in it. It's a fascinating world, and a fascinating character and in some ways that's all that's needed for these kinds of gritty gangster films. I've seen a lot of these, especially ones from the Isles, I tend to find them more forgettable and less distinctive then some, even good films. "The Shadow of Violence" actually manages to get you thinking and caring long after you watch it, and that's a skill I can appreciate.
ORDINARY LOVE (2020) Directors: Lisa Barros D'Sa & Greg Leyburn
Most of the critics seem to like "Ordinary Love" quite a bit. Those who don't seem to really hate it. Truly, some of the more vicious reviews I've read for a movie that's generally liked, I've read come from this movie. Mike LaSalle's of the San Francisco Chronicle seems to spew venom on the page for this film. I suspect he's one of those people for whom there's a very thin line between minimalist and manipulative.
As for me... (Shrugs), right as I was getting into the movie and not just using it as background noise, was about when the movie ended, so I backed up and started over, and basically ended up at the same point afterwards. It's not-too-special, yet not that great either. Basically, I looked at the film as two of our best actors, performing, and that's basically what I got. As to the story, it's about a middle-aged husband and wife, Tom and Joan (Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville) who are still in love, and then, she finds a lump on her breast and we see them as they go through the chemotherapy. Well, she goes through chemotherapy, and they talk and struggle. Mostly to each other, sometimes to others going through similar struggles. They occasionally mention their daughter who's passed away, and some of the grief they have through that, and some of the rituals they've formed in light of her passing.
Other then that though, the movie, plotwise is pretty non-existent. I can see people getting upset that this is just a movie about a couple in love in the twilight of their days and feel like, even the struggles with cancer are arbitrary. I can also see people really touched by this. They might be tired of traditional romances that think love ends in marriage or that the phrase, "For better or worse", doesn't mean that the movies should ever show those worst parts, or have their worst parts shown, but not actually see like, the destruction or end of a marriage, or a deep divide and reconciliation to keep it going. There isn't husband vs. wife conflict, it's two against the world, and that's fine in some cases when we feel like we're emotionally involved with the couple. I can see the argument either way, we only get introduced to these two, and suddenly we get cancer and not much else; I get why people would be angry with that. On the same token, yeah, but these are two great performances, and that's enough for me to care about them.
Plus, it is sometimes to just see a good story about an older couple in love. That's all I want sometimes, a nice, lovely tale about two people who seem real and believable. It might not be much more then a park bench play on paper, but that's good enough for me. It's a lovely little film, and when I'm in the mood for it, I can definitely get caught up in the emotions of it. It's "Ordinary Love" and that's what it gives us, and in the right mood, I can find that extraordinary.
Posted by David Baruffi at 5:45 AM