I often wish that I'd be able to spend more time with them, both when we were younger and now, as they've grown up into adults themselves. The day before George passed, I saw them talking about "Spirited Away" online and how much they both love that film, which was a movie that I showed them years ago when they stayed over at our place once; that's why I suddenly decided to write a Canon post on it. I'm just glad that's something they associate with me that's connected so deeply for them. It's not a George memory who I remember hanging out with mostly when I myself was young. Who I remember for being able to spend literally all day at a buffet and for a card trick that he never did teach exactly me how he did it. He had a rough life as well on his side of the family and after dealing with my aunt it's easy to see how much grace he had. George Magas is gonna be missed, and he was very loved mostly I'm hoping the kids are okay. They will be, but for now their in my hearts and minds. RIP George Magas.
(Sniffs, wipes away tear.)
Well, I know it's a tough time for all of us recently, tougher for me then I hoped, but to soldier on and to get use throw all our trevails, one thing we do and done a lot of lately, is find things like movies to entertain us, if for just a little bit of escape, or as some of coping mechanism or even as to act as our own grief counselor during our darkest times. So, with heavy hearts around; let's get to it.
Here's my latest batch of movie reviews!!!
JOJO RABBIT (2019) Director: Taika Waititi
Well, what the hell do I do with this one?
I mean, I've seen quite a few absurdist, sardonic satires children's fractured fairy tale movies about Nazi Germany with invisible Hitlers around before,...-, wait, no I haven't. None at all, until now, in fact.
I can see a lot of people just, bygoing this movie on premise. I mean, especially these days, is there any truly funny about Nazis anymore?!
Oh, there's plenty funny about them, and fuck them, they're Nazis, we should making more jokes about them then we are. To quote Mel Brooks, we should be continuing in his tradition to making sure that the world laughs at Adolf Hitler. And while we're at it, I don't think we make enough jokes about Trump either. And, by that, I mean real jokes. Real satire, 'cause our satire in America, even at it's very best, is fucking weak. I'm iffy on the "How far is too far," line on what comedy should be, but if you like watch, Israel's version of "Saturday Night Live", they don't exactly have filters like, death and destruction, or anything that really remotely be offensive and controversial, 'cause that's a country, or two countries if you want to say that, that's dealt with death and bloodshed on the streets, in their home and regularly for centuries now, so they don't have any qualms about really going after the establishments, for their corruption, abuses, and in some cases, terrorists. Compared to that, a kid's imaginary friend being an outlandish, buffoon caricature of Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi), well, why the hell not? We already have a country full of people who apparently see a different Trump and based on Clint Eastwood little GOP Convention speech in 2012, a completely different Obama then the one every normal person on Earth saw. Fascism should be shown as the perverted joke to reality that it is.
Still though, this is an odd way of going about it. Trying to set any kids story in the time/world of Nazi Germany is already kind of a tough thing to do. "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" is probably the most manipulative version of this idea ever, and I still kinda like that movie, and like that film, this one is also based on a novel. A novel by a New Zealand-born Belgian novelist. It's also directed by a Kiwi, Taiki Waititi, and I think he's where I have to begin because I've had a hard time figuring out quite what to make of Waititi over the years. I keep being told that he's the next cool thing, and he's good in a couple Marvel, and he kinda came to prominence around the time Flight of the Conchords invaded America.
He's okay, I guess; I don't know. My first exposure to him was "Eagle vs. Shark", which I thought of as one of those trying-way-too-hard-to-be-cool-and-weird indy films that frankly failed enough for me that he's always left a sour taste in my mouth. Ironically, I haven't seen his big breakthrough "What We Do in the Shadows" yet; that's one of those movies that I can never seem to be able to find a decent copy of, so it's kinda stuck on my Netflix queue, but it's apparently the vampire satire comedy that every vampire fan loves. I've seen enough clips to know I'll probably like it once I get to it, but then he did, "Hunt for the Wilderpeople", which like his other film "Boy", which actually has a lot in common with "Jojo Rabbit" actually, I-eh, (Shrugs) it was okay. I know people who love it, but I'm kinda just, indifferent to him.
I-, I think there's a decent chance that I just don't get him.
Maybe it's a culture thing; I've had similar issues with Australian comedies which often have a weird theme of every character wanting to supposedly be themselves from a shockingly grotesque and pressuring group of peers, at least the ones I see, but New Zealand comedy I know even less about. I know Waititi, is also a mix of New Zealander and European, more specifically he's Maori, which has it's own deep history and background of oppresion to deal with, and his mother's side of the family has Russian, Jewish and Irish decent in him, so he's probably always stood out and struggled to quite figure out what to make of this world. So, I'm not surprised comedy is his strength, but that's an eclectic background of influences, and I feel like I can only grab onto a couple of them at a time.
The guy's never been untalented, but he's yet to do anything I've seen that's this ambitious before, and probably this personal. Yeah, weird, the movie where he plays Hitler is his most personal film, but I suspect with that background he has, he probably has an emotional hold on a lot of history of his people being singled out, and written off while trying and ultimately failing at fitting in, so yeah, he probably is making the right move by portraying the ultimate symbol of the atrocities that come when somebody tries to segregate themselves from the rest of the world.
So, the story takes place, I presume near the end of the War, although the movie begins and ends with songs by The Beatles and David Bowie, both of which are in German, so we're clearly in some form of anachronistic version of World War II, one that I think is a little difficult to take too seriously, which is something that you can get mad at the film for. Jojo (Roman Griffith Davis) is a member of the Hitler Youth which are depicted here as a bumbling group of Nazis that seem like they came from a universe where Wes Anderson created "Hogan's Heroes", they're led by Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) and by his trust assistant Fraulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson) both of whom are very lovingly Sam Rockwelling and Rebel Wilsoning all over the Nazis, and there's something very delightful about that.
Jojo gets injured during a particularly bizarre and dumb incident at the Hitler Youth, and ends up with scars on his face and is temporarily a cripple. He still gets work from the Nazis, mostly putting up posters and collecting metal for the force, especially after his mother Rosie's (Oscar-nominee Scarlet Johansson) influence, especially after the injury. He's devoted to the cause, even if he only kinda knows what exactly a Jew even is. His father apparently was enlisted but has, for two years been been MIA, something that he's made fun of. He's also, despite his faux-intimatidating mimicking of the most vicious Nazis he knows, both real and imagined, is personally quite weak and unthreatening when it comes to any form of real confrontation. Part of this might just be he's so young, but still....
He then finds out that his mother is hiding a young woman, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in the walls of the house. He hid her from her zealot son, but she scares him enough to not talk about it. She also promises to teach him all about Jews, which he still confuses for some kind of mythological creature. I'm not entirely how much that was a thing, I mean, even most of his young friend and fellow Nazis don't seem to find his writings and drawings as much more then imaginative.
As I said, I'm just not sure what to make of the movie. I guess the ultimate test of how much tolerance of this kind of Holocaust comedy is "Life is Beautiful", Roberto Benigni's Oscar-winning masterpiece where a Jewish waiter protects his kid from the horrors of the evils of World War II. Ultimately, it's about humanity, in the form of one man's best talent, comedy and storytelling, used to help protect and keep alive others. I know a lot of people who can't stand that film, and I kinda get their reasoning but I tend to be apologetic towards it because it's about the war so much as it is about a father who loves his son. (Also, it just makes me cry) It's a little harder to make that claim with "Jojo Rabbit". which I think more uses WWII as a fable about preconceptions and hatred of others. I mean, on that basis, it's simple, but sometimes it is the simple message that needs to be shown and told, especially since, sometimes our leaders just don't know some things that little kids should know. Also, sometimes geography sucks too. If Rosie and Jojo weren't in Germany, perhaps they wouldn't be in war. Perhaps his father wouldn't have been drafted, perhaps he wouldn't have been surrounded by Nazis and Rosie wouldn't have to be forced to pose as a Nazi while hiding Jews from both the real Nazis as well as her son who doesn't fully understand just how wrong he is, but Rosie isn't really capable, or in a situation yet, where she can explain or teach why he's so wrong about other people. Despite all that, Rosie manages to be both a good mother and a better person in a situation that not conducive to either. She is the one "hero" of the movie, per se. You could also argue that Sam Rockwell's actions at the end ultimately redeem him, I probably wouldn't though; that's more of a finding humanity when all hope is lost kinda revelation, so it rings hollow, but it is a parallel to Rosie's arc.
I guess I'd rather be on the side of defending "Jojo Rabbit" then bashing it, if for no other reason then that I think this is the first movie where I finally feel like I'm starting to understand where Taiki Waititi comes from. I'm still on the fence with him overall, but this feels like I finally get what makes his vision so unique that it has to be heard. Also, any movie that makes me think this deeply about so many different aspects of literary objectivism must be worth seeing, if for no other reason then the discussion and debate afterwards. It's one of those, just because I wouldn't do it, doesn't mean nobody should issues and especially when it's done this well. Scarlett Johansson got an Oscar nomination for this as well as for her work in "Marriage Story" last year, which to some was just a makeup for every other time they forgot to nominate her, but I did really think both Davis and McKenzie gave really incredible performances especially for child actors. Everybody was actually quite good here.
I will say this, there is one death scene reveal that, a lot of people seemed to really like in this movie, and without going into too many details, I didn't. It's one of the things the times where I think the clash between the whimsy of the fairy tale and the horrors of WWII kinda don't work, and it's not the only one, but I seem to be in the minority on that one, so....
JUDY (2019) Director: Rupert Goold
Oh, Judy Garland (Oscar-winner Renee Zellweger), you poor dear. One of Hollywood's biggest sins. Honestly, I'm actually amazed her name doesn't get mentioned more often in terms of the great tragic narratives of fame. She's always been one of the saddest, and yet there's also just been equal amounts of visceral anger and contempt towards her over-the-years. Not even just from insiders who worked with her, or even from some fans over-the-years; my mother has actually never liked Judy Garland, although I think most of that anger comes from her not liking "The Wizard of Oz", but she wasn't alone. Rumors of her behavior had been notorious and spoken of in scorn terms for years. Hell, the Neely O'Hara character in "Valley of the Dolls" was purportedly based on her. When they made a film adaptation, Patty Duke's portrayal of that character basically ended her movie career for being so over-the-top and ridiculous. Was it though? I know that movie's kinda become a camp classic and I can't disagree but, I've always thought that was actually a pretty good performance, and an unironically great film, even with some of the film's obvious problems.
"Judy" on the other hand, seems like it's far more horrific, especially in the flashback sequences where we see Young Judy (Darci Shaw) although sadly, they worried she was too old at that time, 'cause of course the Louis Meyer's (Richard Cordrey) did, just desperate to stay off the weight medication or to try to find a sad connection on a photo-op date with Mickey Rooney (Gus Barry). Yet, it still feels like it's only giving us a small glimpse into the troubled starlet. We mostly follow her late-in-life, as she has to leave home and head to London to perform a regular stage. Her third marriage to Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell) has fallen apart, well, so has her fourth marriage at this point, but she had the youngest kids with Sid as he wants full custody when she's out working.
During this time, she meets and marries her last husband, Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock) who struggles to help take over some of the managing and financial duties that Sid usually dealt with. (Luft was her manager for much fo her career, even after their divorce.) Her demons though start coming back on her, as always.
Her drinking and pills history begin to hurt her performances and in turn gave her a bit of a reputation. At this point, she's also had a tracheotomy that's effected her voice but it seems like they're lucky they can even get her onstage to perform. One of the more notable scenes involves her protectorate in England, Rosalyn Wilder (Jessie Buckley) unlocking Judy's bathroom door to find her barely aware that she's about 90 minutes for her show. At one point, she manages to get her to go on by implying that her bandleader Lonnie Donergan (John Dagleish) can perform instead. It's actually really bizarre behavior in hindsight. Like, normally the "Okay, they'll perform for you trope," is- it's normal, it's "All About Eve", it's not unusual in these films, but the way she reacts...- Like, just the mention of it, and immediately she breaks out in a jealous rage enough to go out and perform. Donergan was a big performer of the pre-Beatles era in Britian, he was big in the skiffle scene, but he's clearly not replacing her, and neither is he even remotely thinking of trying, but she freaks out anyway and starts blaming him. It's not that it's not understandable, but it's such a weird learned behavior.
That's what's really tragic about Garland in particular. There's a lot of accounts of all the positive things she did and tried to do, but the system really put her through a ringer, and it's not like she had much of a choice. Yes, she had a great voice, but she was a child performer who just had all the wrong influences around her. She honestly reminds me a lot of Lindsay Lohan and her long stretch of elaborate pitfalls and troubles that's gotten her blackballed in America and now she's barely able to manage to get work in Australia right now. I mean, she's not as talented as Garland obviously, but they were both surrounded by pretty lousy people who used her up and spit her out. The movie switches back and forth a lot between these early scenes of Garland and these later sequences where her run of fame is quickly coming towards an end.
The movie is based off of a play and I have a feeling this would work better on the stage, 'cause the film is pretty clunky, I must say. It's trying to both profile and conceptualize Garland using these multiple time periods in her life and Zellweger is good enough to pull off that emotional range, but the film is a bit of a tricky sit-through. I mean, it's inevitable, it's Judy Garland, there's nothing easy to work with, but there's ways to make this narrative not be about just how hard her life has been. Off the top of my head, "My Week with Marilyn" found a way to tell a great story about a similarly troubled movie star in a way that was much more full of excitement. There is part of that, with her relationship with Mickey, but not enough. Maybe this story needs to be told from an outside perspective, perhaps more from the Jessie Buckley character's point of view?
These two sides from her youth and her later days; I can see how this would be more effective on a stage, along with the musical sequences, 'cause they're recreating her Talk of the Town performances for much of the movie, but on film, a lof of this comes off as awkward. The director is Robert Goold, who I know from directing one of my favorite versions of "MacBeth" for the Royal Shakespeare company, this is the one with Patrick Stewart playing MacBeth and the Ghost. That was a decent transition from stage to screen, but I haven't seen much of his other work since and this doesn't feel like a great adaptation. In fact, looking at the highlights of the play I can find online, this play looks way more interesting and fun then this movie does. In fact the play, only has four characters in it and there's no flashbacks to her youth at all!
Yeah, this play was expanded upon and, the flashback in particular were a bad idea. The movie focuses so much on the tragedy of Judy's life, that it completely misses why her life is so tragic. It's not just that she was an incredible talent, she was vibrant, ehuberant, she can walk into a room and onto the stage and she would just light up the world. The reason that long after somebody should've put Garland into a rehab for like five years and slowly take her out of Hollywood and stardom was because of what she can do on screen and on the stage when she got it right. This feels like the most morose perspective you can take on her, not her life, her. I don't blame Zellweger, she's performing fine, and apparently the Academy really wanted to make up for the fact that yes, they screwed Garland over hard over the years, but this is a badly directed film. It's also a bad adaptation...- Now that I think about it, how do you make Judy Garland's life so painful to watch?
Yeah, you know what, I started writing this review giving the movie a pass, but I don't think it deserves it. The movie wanted to expand on Garland from the play, fine, but they went so many wrong ways about it that I think they completely lost the heart of both the original material and it's subject matter. I, and we, will still remember Judy, for many reasons; she is a life and a person worth remembering, but this is not a good representation of it. No wonder I'm so sad watching this. I mean, yeah as she says in the film, for an hour or so onstage she's Judy Garland, but she was also Judy Garland offstage and that came with a lot of good and bad things and this movie doesn't get enough of the good to make us feel sad about the bad. "Judy" just makes me feel sad, period, and that's just not a good reason to watch.
AMERICAN FACTORY (2019) Director: Steven Bognar & Julia Reichert
So-um, I'm sure some of you have heard this-eh, anecdote before, but it is true, that when translated to Chinese, the term that we would call "Human Rights" became "Human Power". It's one of those things that's...-, like, if actually dissect it, you can see just how this happened, words and their multiple meanings often have several alternative meanings that if you don't fully understand the context, sometimes a simple slip can literally mean life or death. If you ever watched "Arrival" that's essentially what that movie is about. It's not a perversion of the language or the intended meaning, it's just a cultural and historical misunderstanding, but those are the things that confuse both sides. The things that we focus on and historically care about are so foreign to what, the other, focuses on and cares about, can be so vast that, in an increasingly globalized world, things are going to get lost in translation, in understanding, in culture, and in interpretation.
That's the first big takeaway I was getting from "American Factory", the Oscar-winning documentary that shows this discordance in painful action, on a modern small scale. In this case, a factory in Dayton, Ohio. It used to be a GM plant that fell during the '08 Recession. Seven years later, it was bought by Fuyao, a Chinese company that practically owns a monopoly on car glass as they produce 70% of the market and sell to most of the other car manufacturers. At the beginnning, most of the town and the workers were just excited to get back to work again naturally, but even at the beginning, you see a few cracks in their constant promoting of trying to combine Chinese and American as apart of one single culture. Some of it's more simplistic, like not remembering to put the word, "the" in the motto they're laminating onto the walls.
Some of it also pretty equally Chinese and American, like when the owner of the company, while touring his new factory, just suddenly and randomly insists that a garage door they just put in, be moved to the other side of the building. It's an order, and it's an order that cost $35,000, and there's no explanation of why. That's something interesting too, the Chinese seem to be confused about how the American workers are as productive supposedly, and then the Americans complain abot why they're never told why they do the things they're told to do. You'd think this would be simple, but to them, they're complaining and to us, we're just asking a question and trying to make sure what they're doing is worth the time.
Worth the time is another thing. Naturally, Fuyao in the beginning is a non-union company and that's one aspect they don't fully appreciate about the American workforce. Another is that, they don't fully get the rules of what a company is allowed to do. Everything looks okay if you just from a glance, but the closer you look, you can see all the issues with safety regulations not being followed.
I feel for the Chinese guys too. There's a lot of managers who've moved to Dayton to work for the company and we follow a lot of them. They're just as confused, they're preconceptions of America are often confounded. One of them is even amazed that Americans often get the chance to work two jobs, one here and one on the side, and laments that he wishes he had that opportunity. That's a truly bizarre thought to us, but if you've only worked on job and that's all you do, yeah, that can get annoying. That's why it doesn't work here, where even in a factory, they make you switch jobs every time period or so. That's why it's called an assembly line and even the workers are interchangeable.
Both countries are at a giant crossroads, economically, socially..., both know they have to work together in order to continue on, but it's clear that neither knows exactly how they're going to be able to do that in the future. All this talk about trying to combine the two for this factory, and then they fire the most loyal of employees because supposedly, they couldn't get something up on the computer fast enough.
"American Factory" is a frustrating movie. It is a predictable one too. One that, essentially could be happening anywhere in America these days, and frankly the sad thing isn't simply how far apart these countries are from each other, culturally and otherwise, but how far away they are from themselves, and the world of factories being the new showcases of these changes. Hell, even the union battles isn't even the worst thing; the worst thing at the end is how automation is replacing all the jobs. One forklift rider relents about how her job used to be a two-person job and now it's one. She was complaining about how that makes it more dangerous, 'cause now one person has to do twice the work and more susceptible to injury. Well, I guess one robot can be just as susceptible to breaking down.
I guess the thing is that; I'm not certain how this story would be told the other way. I mean American companies have been manufacturing overseas for years, and in far, worst terrible conditions, but perhaps their cultures and beliefs have just, somehow accepted those dangers as apart of a larger plan what us in our countries just haven't. The pitfalls and plight of a changing globalizational economy are ones that we are still ironing out and as simple a tale this actually is, it's more compelling and tragic synecdoche as it's going be the same story told across the country. This is probably what's gonna stick with the movie for many audiences, it's too heartbreaking and too familiar; as the old saying goes, nobody wants to watch a movie or tv show that's too reminiscent of their real life.
The film was directed by Steven Bognar & Julia Reichert, both of them, especially Reichert have been around forever making indy documentaries, and this is essentially the second half their short film from 2009, "The Closing of a GM Plant". Perhaps we can look at this film as hoepful in that regard, the world isn't dying, the economy is adjusting to a new normal and still to day, there are 2,200 people working at this plant, most of them American. It's not the jobs that were available when the factory made automobiles, but it's something. Perhaps also these two worlds will eventually begin to coalesce and hopefully the best aspects of both will combine, but I have a hard time seeing it that way to be honest.
Especially when Fuyao brings in the companies that just scare workers into voting against unions. Like, even if they have a point or two, that's a business should just not only not be so prevalent, but just, should not exist. And all this time, we thought the Chinese were Communists, you know? Maybe in their party, but they're just as capitalist as we are, probably more viciously so as well.
Is that the kind of thing they learned from us, was that something ingrained the Chinese culture this whole time? The term "Human Rights," translated to Chinese became "Human Power". Maybe this is one babel that we're just never gonna get over.
THE TWO POPES (2019) Director: Fernando Meirelles
I think I've said this before, maybe here, maybe elsewhere, but we really, really, reallllllllll-ly, need to constantly be way more amazed that we lived during a time when we saw a fucking pope, RESIGN!!!
Seriously, I know we've seen some shit most of us, but a Pope resigned! To this day, I can't believe we're not walking around in a dazed-zombified state, just utterly befuddled and shocked that this happened. I still feel like I was the only one who was and still is appropriately freaked out by this; even at the time, we were all like, "Oh, the Pope resigned," and then we kinda just went along with our life, like it was not that unusual. I'm not even that Catholic but fuck me, how did we just kinda brush that off, that should've blown everybodies minds.
The last time that happened, it was two centuries before we found out there were more then three CONTINENTS!!!!! Just think about that for a minute, the continent that our current Pope, Pope Francis (Oscar-nominee Johnathan Pryce) is from, just wasn't a thing when Celestine V last resigned. (Not counting Gregory XII, who was forced to resign to end the Western Schism, and that's a whole other thing) Yet, that's what Pope Benedict XVI (Oscar-nominee Anthony Hopkins) did one day. He was under scrutiny, some of his closest advisors were sent to prison, and of course, he oversaw a lot of the worst aspects of the modern Roman Catholic church, especially the-eh corruption regarding the protection of the pedophile priests. Honestly, and I didn't even realize I did this until I started writing this review, but I don't even call him Pope Benedict. When I think of him, in my mind he so illegitimate as a Pope, I refer to him as Ratzinger. I don't do that for any other Pope. Perhaps part of me hasn't entirely outgrown my old Roman Catholic upbringing, something that might very well be shocking to a lot of you.
So, I'm definitely partially attracted to "The Two Popes" just based on the idea of it. Purportedly it's inspired by true events, when then-Cardinal Bergoglio was actually trying to get the Pope to allow him to retire, which is something that requires the Pope's signature and blessing believe it or not, and instead Benedict brought him to his Summer home for some analytical and politcal discussion. Now, as much as I admire Pope Francis; I mean, he is easily the best Pope in my lifetime, I do think we do overrate just how liberal and progressive he actually is, however that said, for a Pope, he is very different and very progressively liberal in comparison to others, and him and Pope Benedict are really different people with really different views and approaches to Catholism, is both theory and practice. Benedict is a scholar who studied books, a literal paper pusher who climbed up the Vatican reigns mostly in the background who learned to play politician, and was very conservative. It's hard to pinpoint a lot of alterations or changes that he made to the church in positive ways that you probably pinpoint to John Paul II or even an earlier predecessor. He also appears far more aloof then Francis. He likes and plays classical piano, but isn't knowledgeable enough of The Beatles to appreciate recording an album at Abbey Road Studios. And while Pope Francis is an ardent futbol fan, Benedict apparently likes an Austrian show called "Kommissar Rex", which believe it or not, yes I had heard of, and it's- it's basically "Turner & Hooch" as a drama series, but the Pope loves it. You do get the sense that he's always struggled a bit to be social and perhaps prefers the artiface and more elaborate and regal aaspects of the Papacy.
That solitudeness probably is also what also led to his choice to resign the papacy too.
Essentially, this is Benedict XIV's pre-interview. While I remember that Bergoglio being a surprise pick, those in the know were aware that he had gotten several votes when Ratzinger got elected, and probably suspected that he might've been the one who takes over afterwards, and that why he's ducking the resignation letter.
The movie is essentially a two-hander better Pryce and Hopkins, but they do show flashbacks to both earlier events in their lives that brought them together, but also they showcase Francis's journey, as Young Bergoglio (Minujin) a former chemist finds his calling to the Jesuit order. There's also a brief note about his actions during the Dirty War, which were both helpful and heroic, and also a bit controversial. I don't know how much or whether or not he actually still has personal conflicts about that time period, but it's good storytelling. Two old men, a German and an Argentinean are eating pizza and Fanta are both trying desperately to convince the other that they should be Pope. It sounds like a joke, one that Francis would tell and that Benedict would probably not get.
The movie was directed by Fernando Meirelles, the great Brazilian director most know for his masterpiece "City of God"; you can make an argument that he's the best South American filmmaker working today, but this is his first feature since "360", an interesting, globe-hopping remake of "La Ronde" that, I enjoyed but was mostly forgettable, eight years ago. He's been busy with some television work as well as producing the Opening and Closing Ceremonies for the 2016 Rio Olympics. I don't really know had to grasp Meirelles as a filmmaker; he's had a fascinating and varied career, but I definitely think he's a global filmmaker, and he definitely would be a first choice to make a movie about the most famous South American alive right now, and I actually think this is probably the best approach to Pope Francis. It tells and shows enough about his past, but it's what he's done as Pope, and continues to do that's honestly just as fascinating as how he got there, if not moreso.
Mostly, I just like the idea of the philosophical debate and discussion between "The Two Popes". How often do you ever get to see a possibility like this in reality? Kudos to Anthony McCarten as this is his best script yet. I'm surprised a bit that this an adaptation, this could've easily made for a great play, if anything I think the weaker parts of the movie are the flashback sequences with Young Bergoglio, but it's good to see Meirelles back at the top of his game. He's been missed in the film world and I hope he finds some more interesting feature film projects soon.
FROZEN II (2019) Directors: Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee
The original is a masterpiece, and I'm not gonna pretend the arguments against it are remotely relevant. For reasons that I don't follow at all, "Frozen" more then any other Disney movie in my lifetime has divided more fans and cinephiles then anyone. A good majority of them complain that it's a ripoff of "Tangled" for instance, and I refuse that argument 'cause "Tangled", is one of Disney's weakest movies that's just barely good enough to not be a straight-to-DVD feature and despite some memorable scene and sequences is truly one of their most forgettable films and I can only imagine that the people who defend it vigorously must've watched it all the time as kids the same way there's a lot of things that were mediocre-to-bad that, as kids we enjoyed but didn't quite realize how mediocre they were until we grew up. (I especially take offense by people who claim the music in "Tangled" is better, 'cause those people make me wonder if they've actually heard other music before. Not that it's bad, but how,- how in the hell can anybody remember the music from "Tangled"?!?!?!?! There's not a single memorable note of that movie's music, and to say "Let It Go", or "Love is An Open Door" or "Do You Want to Build a Snowman" doesn't conjur up some striking tones and imagery, is just blasphemous.) I'm sorry to jump in on this nonsense, but I know I'm gonna hear it, and I want to jump on it now. "Tangled" not as good, not as memorable, and frankly I don't see much other comparisons, other then their both fairy tales that are so difficult to adapt to the screen that even Disney took forever to do them. I don't even hate "Tangled" it's actually about as good a version of Rapunzel that could be done, but it's still near the bottom for Disney. If Blue Sky did it, it'd be their masterpiece, sure, but I have a different standard here.
Now, there are those who don't like "Frozen" regardless of comparing it to "Tangled" and those arguments I can find more tolerable, 'cause "Frozen" isn't perfect. Back when it first came out, I let those imperfections influence me too much and I left the film off my Top Ten List back then. That, was a mistake. "Frozen" does so much more then just reinterpreting "The Snow Queen", it better-then-any Disney project completely subverts and reimagines the classic fairy tale tropes that they invented, it takes a story that really is only about two sisters and gives it such emotional complexity that and emotions; there's a surprise villain, but think about how the film's villain song is about how someone turns into a villain, and is ironically sung by the hero, one of Disney greatest and most complex characters, and in many ways, you can argue that she's entirely justified, even though you can also argue that their fractured relationship that began with questionable parenting is what led up to these actions too. I just love that a Disney film is about sisterly love, family who go to the ends of the Earth for each other, especially considering Disney's history with families, "Frozen" was a revelation, and for me a far more powerful one then most of their other films that are mainly about finding love and romance. Even more then all that, I just love how much it's Broadway influence reigned over the movie. Musicals have always been a Disney trope as well, but rarely did I feel like they were more influenced and inspired by Broadway tropes, if anything, I kinda thought they were usually more inspired by other musical movies, but this was the first time I thought the Broadway structure went through the Disney filter and it got the absolutely best parts of both mediums. Honestly, I think we're gonna look back years later after all this internet hullabaloo and bias has died decades from now and we're gonna realize that "Frozen" is not only one of the best films Disney ever produced, but as one of the best movies of the decade.
I wasn't expecting "Frozen II" to catch that kind of magic again, and it doesn't..., but it caught a different strain of magic though. One of the biggest strengths of "Frozen" is that it's a fairy tale that's mostly about, well, our emotions within. The one villain in "Frozen" came from outside the world of Arendelle, and compared to other Disney villains, while he's evil as a character, as a presence, he was fairly easy to discard on the whole. Everything else in the movie, is in one way or another about emotional truths and the difficult and complex search required to discover them. More then any other Disney animated classic, "Frozen" was about characters defeating their inner struggles. Searching for themselves within themselves, not overcoming outside obstacles that were seemingly placed there for them to overcome. Nobody's enslaved by their stepmother, or has to break a spell some witch created, or even overcome the conditions of their societal status or parental expectations even, all the main character are struggling with their inner feelings and the conflicts come about because inner struggles aren't the same for everybody and desperately trying to decipher other's people perspective is not easy.
I'm saying, Disney, could've abandoned that pretty easily. "Frozen II" could just be about some new other conflict, or it could've been about Queen Elsa (Idina Menzel) falling in love herself and all the struggles that would cause, or add some stipulation like she had to marry before a certain time period or something, and nobody would've been that distraught by that I think, but "Frozen II" not only decided not to take that easy way out, they doubled down on the inner search for self, and I think that was more ingenious.
It's years after the events of "Frozen", Elsa's gotten enough control of her powers that she doesn't even wear her gloves anymore when handling objects or even holding her sister Anna's (Kristen Bell) hand. She's still dating Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and Olaf (Josh Gad), who, I guess is still a kid, is constantly worried about things changing and how things that seem confusing and difficult to understand as a kid, he'll appreciate when he grows older. (I think this is a subtle jab at those who didn't like "Frozen" the first time, and frankly, good on them for making it.) And yet, Elsa's suddenly hearing a faroff voice in the distance, one that only she seems to be able to hear, and is literally calling her out. At first, she doesn't tell anybody, 'cause, well, she's naturally frightful considering everything her powers have been known to do, but it keeps nagging, and eventually, she begins pursuing that distant voice, and like last time, Arendelle gets attacked, but by the spirit of earth, air, wind and water, essentially stop working and close the city. They get everybody out before the Earth engulfs them, but the town is abandoned and in danger.
In a flashback sequence, we hear a story about by their father King Agnarr (Alfred Molina) about an enchanted forest that he visited once years earlier, and after things were going well with the local villagers, called the Northundra, a battle began, that ended in his father, King Runeard's (Jeremy Sisto) life and everybody except for him and his wife Iduna (Evan Rachel Wood) couldn't get out, and the forest is now hidden from the world. Well, it's unsurprising that the gang eventually finds this world, but what they find is also interesting, and I don't want to give too much away. For one, those actual spirits are actual characters, the Wind Spirit is named Gale which, might sound obvious, although I can't help but feeling there's a double-meaning with that name, because there's another famous Gale that gets taken by the wind into a new fantasy land. Yeah, the look of the movie doesn't resemble it, but there's some strong "Wizard of Oz" vibes from this film too, just the sense of a strange collection on a daunting adventure. Most of the inspriation though is Nordic mythology and northern Scandinavia in particular, based on the amount of reindeer in this franchise. They run into both the Northundra people, led by Yelena (Martha Plimpton) a wise older woman who's been protecting her land for decages from the missing Arondelle soldiers, who are also still here and are led by Matthias (Sterling K. Brown), and both sides are shocked to find anybody enter the world that's been closed off for decades, and also amazed at Elsa's powers of nature.
Something else that I never realized until now is how great a fantasy story these "Frozen" movies are, and I mean that in the most classic sense. I think one of my issues with how fantasy handles relationship building is that, too much of it seems separate from the fantasy world they're building when it's usually stronger when they're interconnected and not in a cliche way. There's no searching for rings here to save the world, although a few things have to be done to save their worlds and Holy Christ does it become a lot, a dam lot I should say, but the journey isn't a search for a world, it's a search for an identity. This essential story could be told, outside of a fantasy universe. Sisters who've struggled to get along for years, finally come together and then they find out stuff about their parents and family that they didn't know beforehand and now they both have to work together and apart in order to both keep each other's bond together, but must also risk everything, including breaking that sisterly bond forever if things go wrong. This could easily be some kind of Bergmanesque drama that could fit right into his Absense of God Trilogy, or something of that sort, and we're seeing this kind of complexity in Disney. Psychoanalytically, these movies are so much more fascinating and complex then most so-called character study films and these two films do it better then it has even has any need to.
Also, the music for the most part is great. There's one or two songs that are kinda silly in how they're presented; they're not bad songs at all, they just oddly fit, but some of the songs like "All is Found," about the maguffin Attahollah River is a gorgeous haunting lullaby that you could play over the opening of "Stairway to Heaven" and barely notice it being weird, and of course, the Oscar-nominated "Into the Unknown" is a classic inspiration ballad as well.
I also just like picking out the influences of these films. This one isn't as much Broadway, but it does have the structure, but I think it takes more of it's inspiration from other classic fantasy self-discovery tales, and possibly other Disney films, but not in normal ways. There's some amazing "Fantasia"-like animation here, especially in the sequence in the sequence where Elsa fights a water spirit, which is a water horse that she ends up taming. I also love how the song sequence for 'Show Yourself" is basically the opposite of "Let It Go", as he sings that Ilsa sings while rebuilding a different ice fortress and for different reasons then before.
I kept waiting for me to be disappointed in "Frozen II', to find something that was lacking enough for me to overlooked how amazing the themes of the movie are, and instead I kept being surprised by something new, either in the story or the animation or both. It takes some simple ideas and transports them to the highest scales in the most beautiful ways, and it just surprising me, inspiring me in ways that works on so many levels deeper then most "Disney" films, certainly deeper then most of the Princess films.
Apparently most people and critics didn't see it that way, looking through the RT reviews, even the ones who liked it don't rank it as high as the first one. So, I guess it's up to me to take the bold stance here and say that "Frozen II" is equally as masterful as the original. It's in a totally different way, but it's also a far more complex then the original even. I can't think of a Disney, or many movies that live in this push-and-pull relationship of love being explored in all different ways as it's being done here, and familial love at that. How many movies about siblings or even family members do you ever actually believe that they actually truly love each other and would jump off cliffs and push the other off on because of how much they care for each other? If I can come up with a handful of movies, I'd be shocked, even the best ones, I usually just see really good actors doing really good acting. Maybe it's the animation, maybe it's the performances, but I actually believe that with Elsa and Anna, and that's what puts these movies over the top. They're trying to something so difficult that nobody does well under the easiest of circumstances, and they did it under the hardest, and they did it twice.
AD ASTRA (2019) Director: James Gray
Oh good god!
This is one of those pet peeves of mine, I'm gonna call it "Relative Overwriting". This is when, characters/plots/narratives are given unnecessary extra conflict by having a main character be related to someone famous-in-the-world and/or another character important to the story. Yes, following in a successful parent's footsteps is a difficult mental and physical challenge, it does add to the "Oh shit" and supposedly makes the emotional climax, more climatic. It's actually a note I find on a lot of screenplays, to make characters more connected. I've gotten it for some of my work, I've given that same note for others scripts. There are times when this is a decent idea, and it more beneficial to the narrative. However, if I'm being honest here, I often, often, two oftens, feel like this is something that is added arbitrarily to a lot of scripts that frankly do not need it, and boy, do we not need it here. You see, this is the kind of thing that can go bad one of two ways. Either it goes bad because it's underdone, like it's mentioned in the beginning a character's relative issue and then it never really gets added on or mentioned with any real significance again. When this happens, it's at minimum, minor character building, and at worst it fails at that. The other way is that it make the fact that the character is related to another character, too much apart of the story and that is way worst when it's not necessary, and boy oh boy, it is annoyingly not necessary here, 'cause "Ad Astra" just beats us over the head with this.
Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is the son of a legendary decorated astronaut, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) and he's followed in his father's footsteps. After an amazing sequence where an electric storm of unknown origin causes him to fall to the earth after an explosion at a space station, he then has to travel to Mars to contact his father, who disappeared over a decade ago around Neptune, as they believe that either he, or the remnants of what's left of his mission, called The Lima Project, might be the cause of these electrical storms that are causing death, chaos and disaster throughout the universe. Okay, on the surface, this is fine, and this is entertaining even. Lots of sci-fi world-building, but every other minute, not even, quicker then that, there's something brought up about his fucking dad, either by somebody else, or by him, himself, because it's all he ever fucking voice over's about.
See, this is also one of those movies where there's so little happening on screen, that we need a character's voice over to have him go over and explain his emotions to us. Sometimes he talks to a machine that's constantly testing whether or not he's sane enough to go through the shit he has to go through, but, Jesus Christ! It's all this movie seems to care about, that this is the son of this man, like it's a goddamn episode of "Bonanza"!
Now I can see some people making the argument that this is not the case, and that this is a story where it's relevant. It is intertwined heavily with the narrative, but it's not relevant. In fact, it's an annoyance, because this isn't a sci-fi story about parents, it's a long, meandering wallowing about a father, disguise as a sci-fi adventure. I mean, the story itself, isn't new, it's "Apocalypse Now". Roy goes through just as much random BS as Willard does searching for Kurtz, and that movie sure didn't need a father/son narrative on top of everything else, it wasn't necessary. And if you're thinking about sci-fi films about people lost/stuck in space who are overly concerned and reflective about their loved ones that are far away from them, and the idea of being stuck in the darkness and loneliness of outer space, well, we have Tarkovsky's "Solaris" for that. (For that matter, we also have Soderbergh's remake of "Solaris" too and plenty of others too, Duncan Jones's "Moon" feels like a more thoughtout version of this too, and that only has one actor in it.) We're talking about a narrative in which thousands of people are getting killed, and the main character has to go on a styx-like journey to the other side of the Cosmos in order to try and stop it, before the Solar System is inevitably destroyed?!?! Jesus Christ, and that's what you want to use for a story about a fractured family and this man's emotional turmoil on!
Yeah, I don't buy that. This movie started with, them trying to tell a metaphorical tale about a son who lost his father and having to rediscover him, and have his psyche go through emotional hell, and then they made it a sci-fi futuristic tale. And this just, completely took me out of the movie every chance it gets. Maybe if the voice over wasn't there, and yeah, the voice over is another addition that needed to be gone. (Like, I know why it's there, but it doesn't work here, movie would've been hugely improved without it.)
And for the symbolistic value of the narrative, it wouldn't be so much, if the journey was good and frankly, it isn't. I mean, it tries to have some strange randomness, including a ship answering a meyday call with a science ship between Earth and Mars that is frickin' insane on so many levels that I'm not even gonna try to explain it. But mostly, every other character is just infatuated with Roy's father, whether it's because of what he may or may not be doing now, or whether it's because of what he did do, or because like one of Roy's temporary escorts Thomas (Donald Sutherland in a wasted cameo) because he was friends with him. There's one slight character that's interesting, and that's Ruth Negga character who's literally lived on the Mars station for the majority of her life and her motives are compelling, There's a lot of good actors in this thing at the edges of the screen and most of them are just completely wasted. Like, blink and you'll totally miss Natasha Lyonne's one pointless scene. Kimberly Elise, Lisa Gay Hamilton and Liv Tyler don't have much to do either. Liv Tyler in particular is just Roy's wife who he's divorced, I don't think she's given a line in the movie, except for a scene where she's on a Skype call.
This movie was terrible from concept. The film was co-written and directed by James Gray a director that I have been mixed about for years now. I didn't care for his breakout "Two Lovers" awhile ago, but I know a lot of people who do like it, and I thought his recent works, "The Immigrant" and "The Lost City of Z" were really strong period pieces that both took this idea of long journey and adventures and gave his main characters some satisfying emotional depth to them. They were also period pieces and history and the past has a lot of importance in his films in some way. He's always had characters that are either held back on by their past or are creating a history for others, or both, and in those genres, I think that approach stands out and works better. For this sci-fi world however, I felt nothing. It didn't seem like a struggle to reach out to the heavens to find the voice of God, it felt like an excruciatingly long protracted fart. Rage and fury signifying abandoned parent issues.
THE CAVE (2019) Director: Feyas Fayyad
I feel less and less sure of what to say when it comes to these Syrian documentaries. We've gotten quite a few in recent years; they're all good, they're all powerful, they're all documenting a horrific genocide that's still ongoing. These aren't necessarily films that are meant to be important must-see films now; I mean, they are, but I think most of these documentaries, are simply that, documentations of the events, kept and recorded for historical preservation. Meant for others to one day look up and find when they themselves search for accounts of what happened when.... The best one so far, well, so far from this year 2019 anyway, was "For Sama". this one is a continuation companion piece to Feras Fayyad's previous film, "Last Man in Aleppo". "The Cave" is the nickname given to the underground hospital in which he follows the characters of as they tend to the destruction happening above and below the street of Ghouta, one of the wartorn suburbs of Damascus. The hospital in some respects, actually resembles more-or-less, a regular hospital, but as you dive into the subterranean labyrinth, the more makeshift it feels.
The movie focuses on the crew of the hospital, mostly Dr. Amani Ballour, the leader of the hospital who deals with all of the carnage and trains and gets others doctors and other staff involved. There's a makeshift comraderie as well as they sort through all this. There's constant repeated bombing sounds that people eventually they barely even notice. Still though, the emotional wreckage of the locals as their loved ones are dragged into surgeries if they're lucky enough to not be crying over them.
The film even documents the results of the chemical warfare that enveloped the area at one point, and the results of it that both jeopardizes those who were armed as well as the hospital employees themselves.
There's a lot of doctors and nurses there, although anyone else that's around to cook or clean basically becomes drafted into medical caregiver as well. Trying to explain the details or emotions of the characters here might be easier for me on a later viewing, when I'm less inclined to just be horrified at depressed at the state of the world. It doesn't help that I'm watching the movie now, during the outbreak of the COVID-19, and my country's stupid-ass so-called political "leaders" seem to be trying to do as much wrong as they could, so I wouldn't be shocked if our regular hospitals start looking like "The Cave" sometime soon, hopefully with less chemical warfare but way too much airborne ignorance and stupidity. In better times, I might be able to appreciate the human aspects of these wonderful people who aren't trying to be heroic lifesavers, but are mostly trying to get through the day without breaking down into tears, and even if they end up doing, to have the strength to keep going and find a way to get a whiff of joy out of whatever free moment where the world's around them isn't on fire that second.
For me, I'm in awe that these films got made at all. The fact that they have to be made overshadowing even that fact as well. At this point, I'm just hoping one day I can watch something new from the nation of Syria that, just happens to be a little lighter, something that puts all these in the rear view window, something that's far enough into a much more glorious and generous future for their to be a rear-window view of the last few years of struggle for little more then survival In the meantime though, for Dr. Ballour and the others, it's back to work.
ATLANTICS (2019) Director: Mati Diop
Mati Diop became the first black female director to have a feature film to be in competition at Cannes with her debut feature, "Atlantics". Diop was born in Paris, but her uncle was Djibril Diop Mambety, who was one of the first great Senegalese directors. One of Diop's short films, "A Thousand Suns" is actually a tribute and homage to one of her uncles biggest films, "Journey of the Hyena". Another shorts film of hers, "Atlantiques" was the inspiration, for this, her debut feature, which was Senegal submission for the International Feature Oscar this year.
The movie is a moralistic ghost story, and a haunting one at that. A construction crew on a major, modern skyscraper is complaining about not getting paid. The crew decides to take some desperate action and they board and test the long travel to Europe. Now, if you know were Senegal is, you know that's a difficult journey.
There's been a lot of movies in recent years about African immigration to Europe and the struggles of just that refugee experience, but the journey itself is death-defying and harrowing, and Senegal, around the West Coast of Africa, hopefully for Spain, is-, well, that's-, let's just say that's not the journey I would take, but they hadn't been paid in weeks. One of the workers, Souleiman (Ibrahima Traore) and when the boat goes missing, his lover Ava (Mame Bineta Sane). Ava however, is engaged to Omar (Babacar Sylla), although it's an arranged marriage and she's more concerned about Ava. Then, Omar dies a sudden and strange death leads to an investigation. The detective, Issa (Amadou Mbow) suspects the death was murder, and confronts Ava.
Soonafter, strange things start happening with Ava and her friend Fanta (Amina Kane) and describing what happens next might be giving away too much. The film is as much a tonal piece as anything else. Several reviews i've read mentioned the music, and you know, since this is a ghost story, it's moody music does matter. The film is a mystery, but it's tone isn't investigatory, it's haunting. It's also quite striking. Claire Mathon is quickly becoming one of the best cinematographers in the world and Diop has come up with a striking look, especially the night scenes in the city. "Atlantics" works on a few different levels, and although it's story is simple, it's also profound. Diop's been working mostly as an actress until now, and this is a strong and haunting debut that indicates more promising work later on.
TONI MORRISON: THE PIECES I AM (2019) Director: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
As the stereotypical, prototypical white guy who doesn't read nearly as many of the classics, modern or otherwise, as I should Toni Morrison, to me, is one of those names that's floated around literary circles like a saint whose name I'm supposed to know without explanation and the I usually just nod my head in agreement with acknowledgement that yes, she is great even though I've never read anything by her. And frankly didn't know too much about her before this film. I knew she was African-American, a great novelist, I knew she was a Nobel Laureate, and I know Oprah liked a lot of her work. And that much of it dealt with, well, the African-American experience and,- (Sigh) well, say whatever you want, but yeah, white guilt will prevent me from a lot, and it doesn't take a lot for me to avoid reading books.
Sorry, I'm an exact audio-visual learner, I usually need to see it and hear it at the same time, and stories about slaves choosing to kill their child so that they don't grow up in slavery, umm, it's a powerful, great topic, but yeah, I don't really want to read it. But I'm willing to learn about it. I understand the importance of why those stories need to be told, but yeah....
Anyway, I enjoyed "Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am" for those reasons. It's a pretty straightforward documentary, the kind you'd see on "American Masters", but that's fine with me. It also marks one of the last documents of Morrison who still seems full of life and wisdom as she tells the story of her life. She passed away at age 88 early in 2019, shortly after the film debuted at Sundance. I was impressed with much of her life though. Similar to Maya Angelou, she also worked in theater as an actress in her youth, but she mostly stayed with writing. Even still, she did have some interesting other projects. She worked with Muhammad Ali on his autobiography. She published a collection of African-American history in "The Black Book", which I think represents a very good synechdoche of her work. She basically spent her life writing about as much of the African-American experience as she could think of. She even notes very intently about how she often instructs her students to not write what you know, and instead to think about a character she makes up randomly and tells them all to write about her.
I go back and forth on that one myself, but it actually is a good exercise, as much as there are some great writers who very often write what they know, yeah, it a tough skill to improvise and think about people from others perspectves and write about other people. She loved writing about a lot of different kinds of lives and people, that's probably the real reason why it's harder for me to get ahold of her. Especially these days when all the big authors I can think usually have franchises they write or very distinct brands at the least. It's not like doesn't have motifs but it does seem like you never know what you're gonna get with her work, other then it'll be amazing and very difficult for me to get through.
Anyway, as an intro and celebration of Ms. Morrison, "Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am" works well. It probably would work better if I know her work more intimately, but it's a good talking heads documentary.
THE MUSTANG (2019) Director: Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre
Well, first off, it's pronounced "Eel-ly", not, "E-Lie".
Secondly, I do know a little bit about the wild mustang population in America; it's actually a bit of a major issue in Nevada. Not so much down in Clark County admittedly, although I've occasionally seen wild horses up in the mountains or by Lake Mead, but Northern Nevada's outside of the Reno area is fairly underpopulated and had a population of wild mustangs that roam much of the mountain areas, and for that much of the rest of the western U.S. The damnedest thing is that we're not entirely sure what to do about them or how. The mustangs are actually quite beautiful and seeing them in the wild on the rare occasions in which I have is actually awe-inspiring. It's a stark reminder that we still in many ways a Wild West and that not all of nature is tame, and wild mustangs make quite an astonishing symbolic image of freedom.
It's a tricky thing, we don't want to get rid of them entirely, and we certainly don't want to treat them badly, which has also been a problem by some wranglers of them that have been hired. They are violent though, but I've also heard of people who have traveled the entire distance from Mexico to Canada, on wild mustang. They don't even necessarily tame them that much, but they're apparently great horses for long distances and if you can ride and you can somehow mount one, you can go along way.
So, there's a lot of things many states where this is a problem are trying, and one of the more successful ones strangely enough is, prisons. "The Mustang" is a pretty simple story that highlights the Inmate Mustang Prison Program.
Roman (Matthias Schoenhaerts) is a quiet, yet intimidating prisoner, who's soon to be released, but doesn't seem particularly thrilled with the idea. He's a stonefaced prisoner who keeps to himself and doesn't seem like anybody wants to be around him either. His daughter Martha (Gideon Adlon) occasionally visits him and even then, those meetings are tense and neither one of them seems to want to be there. It's after he's assigned to outside work does he get intrigued by a horse that's locked in it's own stable, separate from the others and he constantly hears him banging along the stable wall. The lead trainer, an old-timey cowpolk named Myles (Bruce Dern) who takes him under his wing, and challenges him to hlp tame the most troubled horse. He also makes a friend with the loudmouth Henry (Jason Mitchell) who has basically already moved on from angry prisoner to jovial cowboy.
Ironically, most of the horses they train go on to get sold at auctions that mostly the police buy, but the connection helps. In the beginnning of the movie, he says to his rehabilitation Psychoanalyst (Connie Britton) that he doesn't think he should be around people, and over the movie we eventually see him, through his connection and new horse training path, start to become more in tune with his personal emotions and compassions.
I feel like I'm being very literal and basic with the description of the plot here, and the movie is very straight-forward. I think the movie is more of a showcase of the program and as a diagram of how to rehabilitate prisons through consistent work that they can get into. I like the montage sequence were several prisoners talk about how instantaneous most of their crimes were in contrast to how much time they've ended up in prison for them. That's something that really is disturbing; most of the time when we right about the criminals in literature, it's usually, the people who are supercriminals and serial killer, people who really spend time orchestrating their crimes, but most of the time, especially those who end up in prison for long periods of time for violent acts, it's usually very sudden acts.
The movie was directed by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, a French actress, and the movie is actually insprired by a short film of hers called "Rabbit". For me, the obvious original inspiration is "Birdman of Alcatraz", when it comes to films about prisoners who rehabilitate themselves through their connection with animals, but this is a strong first feature that mostly is both a literal tale of a program that works and a moral tale about how we should treat our incapacitated population. Again, I feel like that's a sterile description but the movie is bare bones and the bones are strong.
BATHTUBS OVER BROADWAY (2018) Director: Dava Whisenant
I'm not sure whether showing "Bathtubs Over Broadway" to young performers with potential is a good idea or a bad idea. I feel like it's the kind of thing that could potentially haunt them and scare them off into different careers. Perhaps the kind of careers where they end watching the kind of shows that "Bathtubs Over Broadway" are highlighting. The other part of me thinks, "Well, you want to be an actor? A playwright? A musical composer; a theater director? Well, you gotta eat too, right?"
So, for those of you old enough to remember David Letterman used to do this bit called "Dave's Record Collection", and I have to admit here, I totally forgot about this until they brought it up, but man watching some clips brought back some memories. I ended up going on Youtube to find some old clips after I saw some. What they did, was basically, Jay Leno's old "Headlines" sketch, but they would find some of the worst records they could find and play a little bit, of say Leonard Nimoy singing "Proud Mary" or relics of Robert Mitchum's calypso phase,- just the strangest and most obscure of obscure albums they could find. Anyway, one of Letterman's longtime writer, Steve Young, who would go out to used record stores and thrift shops and garage sales and whatever to find these albums, he started finding rare albums of what were aparently "Industrial Musicals".
Okay, I gotta talk about Steve Young first, 'cause I love this guy. He is the perfect example of a longtime comedy writer, the exact kind who has been doing comedy so long that, literally nothing is funny to him. If you're weird like me and remember "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" and remember Mark McKinney's character from that show, Steve Young is basically that guy. He's innocuous-looking, seemingly to stingy, and yet he's the one responsible for writing and framing Letterman's jokes for decades, but nothing makes him laugh anymore. The movie is partially his story, and he's essentially our entryway into this, 'cause he'd keep finding these really obscure record performance of these industrial musicals, with markings like "Not Meant For Resale" or "For Internal Use Only", and some of them were just bizarre.
So, what were these? These were musicals that were written, for, commercial industries. They would be written, produced and performed at/for conventions of salesmen, or breadmakers or plumbers, or Burger King managers, whoever was paying for them. These still happen today, they're much rarer now, but from like the '50s 'til the late '80s, they were actually a really common work for people who were trying to make it in the theater world; you'd book a few of these a year, you'd get your rent paid, and then you'd head out onto the auditions for "A Chorus Line" or whatever the rest of the time. Occasionally, somebody would actually record the performances and print out albums of the performance for the company workers, and even more rare, sometimes they were actually filmed. This is kind of a weird thing about theater in general; we tend to really highbrow thoughts about theater of all kinds in general and even musical theater is something that might seem exclusive as Broadway can be, but a lot of working in the theater world, is usually more attuned to those productions you'd in high school or Junior high that you got out English class for. There's a lot of playing to very particular, and often-non paying audiences, although they're often more then you'd think for these performances, and industry musical are a huge part of this.
Living in Vegas, where were the convention capital of the world, I wouldn't be shocked if I actually knew some people who performed in these, but that said, I didn't know the actual depth of how constant and regular these were at one point. They weren't just like, Broadway-level productions, they were actually way more expensive then Broadway. There'd be multi-million dollar budget fror people to perform a show about working at General Motors or showcase all the uses of silicone to silicone salesman. Yet, written by the guy who wrote "Fiddler on the Roof".
Young didn't realize that at first, but these shows occasionally did get some really big names with them. Mostly he was in it for how strange and unintentionally hilarious some of these were. The big one for Steve that really got him into this, was a record called "The Bathrooms Are Coming" a musical about new bathroom accessories. Young eventually found some of the performers from that show, including Patti Stanton Gjonola, who performed a lovely ballad called "My Bathroom" for that show, which became her wedding song since she met her husband on the show. He was playing a caveman in it. He also meets several others, including some interviews with people who did get more famous after doing these shows like Martin Short who talks gleefully about working with Andrea Martin on a few of those industrials. It also includes one of the last interviews with Florence Henderson. Mostly though, Young is fascinated by some of the surviving composers of the shows, a lot of which were more parody productions but people like Michael Brown and Hank Bebee actually would composed hundreds of these original musicals over their career and they'd make a lot of money doing that.
Young's one of the few people who became fascinated with collecting these obscure ephemera, along with some other unusual names, like punk rockers like Jello Biafra and Don Bolles, musicians who collect every obscure and unknown albums that nobody else owns, which makes sense and Young kinda admits that he kinda fell into it working with Letterman and just not having any other interests or hobbies to fixate on in his spare time, so he ended up just collecting these industrial musicals, originally just for the laughs you get from songs like "22 Slices" about a loaf of bread, but eventually, he ended up documenting and collecting this rare, unknown and little-seen genre of theater, and he's even given a revival to it in recent years as companies have started producing these industrial musicals again for their conventions, which, considering all the other obscene and extravagant stuff that some companies spend on their conventions and shows they put on, I'm certain I'll see some of the craziest of these clips on future John Oliver essays soon enough, but also, he's given these rarely seen shows a new audience by preserving these rare recordings. Some nights, at little slivers of en vogue places that aren't doing midnight screenings of "The Room" that day, you might see some of these old performers, playing these old songs that they performed, previously, maybe once or twice decades ago, only now with an appreciative crowd that's not all John Deere employees.
"Bathtubs Over Broadway", is a cute little documentary, that's got that saved kind of hipster detachment mixed with emotional importance that you get with both a writer, director and subject that all came from the David Letterman writer's room. It's also a good historical document of a very forgotten aspect of modern Americana, back in those Mad Men days when we convinced ourselves that our jobs and products were indeed quite important parts of the American way of life, and we celebrated our jobs with pride and glee, and with, spending millions on outlandish productions about how great Coca-Cola is. Perhaps it's one of those too American.... (Shrugs) Oh well, anything that gets creative people working I guess.
CHARM CITY (2018) Director: Marilyn Ness
H.L. Mencken, once called Philadelphia, the world's most well-lit cemetery. My family's from Philly and he's not wrong. That's a very apt description of the town. It was once the cultural and politcal center of the country, but as the relics of that era remained and decayed the town morphed into the blue-collar underdog mecca that it currently is. It's strange though I can't find too many good quotes that he made about Baltimore, especially since the legendary newspaperman born, raised, worked and died mostly in Baltimore, and the only real notable I can find about the city itself from him is about the multitude of ways to prepare crab. Actually, while I was watching "Charm City", I tried to look up famous quotes about Baltimore that were as aptly descriptive and poetic, hell, just anything that described the city accurately enough. The best and most appropriate I could find was by modern-day author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, who simply said, "It's hard for me to view Baltimore outside the context of what Baltimore has always been in my mind: a violent place."
Nearly every other description I've ever heard from people who've lived there seem to be some variant on that. Since it's in my circles, a lot of those conversations often talk about "The Wire"; for those who don't know, I'm one of the few people who aren't as big on the show as everybody else seems to be, but everybody I know that's got a Baltimore connection seems to concede that my criticisms of the show from a storytelling perspective are instead mostlly accurate depictions of the lives of the people they show. I thought about that a lot while watching "Charm City", which is a documentary of the town and some of the players that focus intently on the city's violent nature. I guess every major city has a history of inner-city violence, but there's usually a deep and well-documented history that can more-or-less explain how the violence grew out of the town, and I think that's actually what's so bizarre and troubling to me about Baltimore in particular; how the hell did it get this way? That's the other weird thing, if you actually dig into the history of the town, it was apparently always a violent town, even to the days when it just a small tobacco port. On top of "Charm City" it was once nicknamed "Mob Town", back in the 1850s. Not that other American cities don't have legendary mob and gang roots, but unlike the Italian mobs of New York, Chicago, Philly or the Irish of Boston or the Bloods and Crips of L.A. or even the cocaine wars of Miami, it seems like very little of this town's violent history is even remotely romanticized. I once rode on a bus through Baltimore on my way to D.C. a couple years back, and it actually looked like really interesting and unique place, but was there ever a good era for Baltimore? It feels like there should be, but I couldn't pinpoint it for ya.
Based on "Charm City" it doesn't feel like there ever was. The documentary from Marilyn Ness takes a look at all sides of the struggle for the neighborhoods and how violence seems to always seep into the neighborhoods' culture and how drastically it effects their lives. This was shot over a period of three years in the wake of the Freddie Gray's death in police custody. The movie gives us a look at several major figures. Political leaders, police, neighborhood patriarchs that seem to look over the drug-riddled areas like a preacher. Alex Long is one of the violence interrupters, part of the local neighborhood peacekeepers group. Personally, I was more intrigued by the young councilman Brandon Scott, who tries to rebuild trust between the neighbors and police. The police, naturally are not that trusted, which...- (Sigh) boy that really does hurt both sides more then it helps. It reminded me of that plotpoint in "Menace II Society" where the cops are trying to find the guy who shot a convenient store clerk and meanwhile, everybody in the neighborhood had a VHS copy of the security footage 'cause the guy who killed him took the tape and showed everybody. Disturbing enough as that is, and I don't think anything like that happened during this film, (Although we did see violence effect some of the participants during the making the film) but it's that barrier that hurts the most. The police don't investigate like they should, but even if they do, since nobody trusts them to do things correctly, and in many ways, correctly so, they also have a much harder time doing their job anyway, 'cause nobody's willing to talk.
There's also frustration with the police themselves. After the Gray murder, the police were under more scrutiny and a lot of their search methods were overanalyzed. One guy talked about how he just kept arresting the same guy over and over again for holding an illegal gun, but because he was a kid and sometimes because the search was illegal in what are precarious circumstances, the kid just getting off. Yet, there's an attempt to make a stronger penalty for increasing the sentence for holding an illegal firearms, and the Councilman is against it, and he's not wrong either. What does increasing the sentencing for holding a weapon but send somebody to jail for a year; it doesn't make the neighborhood safer; that doesn't help convince him to not do it again. But it's also stupid that the cops have to going through the motions and never getting anything done.
Watching "Charm City", I found myself vexed by it. I was compelled by it; perplexed at how this town seems to be so centered around it's seemingly inherited history of violence. I found myself fascinated by Baltimore in general. Usually I see documentaries like these and I usually find myself either hopeful or rage-filled, but "Charm City" left me with more questions then answers, in a good way, mostly. Perhaps it's my naivete over how much drugs and violence can effect a neighborhood; I'll confess, having not been surrounded by either of them perhaps I still see those as personal ills instead of societal ones, but even still, the main thing I learned is that, even by societal ills standards, Baltimore is different somehow. I couldn't pinpoint exactly how or why, but it is very different and as I tried to find my way through the world and understand it, the less and less it seem to make sense. and I don't think I'm alone there.
A violent place indeed but how did you become so violent, Baltimore? How, and why?