Sunday, August 14, 2022

CANON OF FILM: "THE GREAT DICTATOR"

THE GREAT DICTATOR (1940)
 
Director/Screenplay: Charles Chaplin 

  

Somehow, I always felt like of all of Chaplin's films, this would be the one that would age the worst. Well, maybe not age the worst, but definitely seem the most of it's time. You'd think I would've gotten to this one sooner considering how wrong I've been on this one in particular the last few years, but..., anyway, "That damn ballet dancer", as W.C. Fields used to refer to him, was, once again, more right than we realized. 

Thirteen years into the age of talking pictures, Charlie Chaplin finally made his first talkie, and it spoke loudly. Before that, he had made what are probably his two best features, “City Lights,” (1931) and “Modern Times,” (1936), with the latter marking the last appearance of his “The Little Tramp,” character, although he does play a variation here, a character known only as “A Barber,” along with him playing Dictator Hynkel. “The Great Dictator,” first started being made in 1938, at a time when opinion on Adolf Hitler, was actually fairly mixed in America. Nothing happens in a vacuum, and there were fascists in America then as their are fascists now, and to claim that they simply went away and came back is a gross misnomer. Many anti-semantic groups secretly condoned Hitler's then rumored practice of eradicating the Jews, and the country as a whole had not taken a side one way or another in regards to Hitler. 

By 1940, when the movie was released, that had changed, and Chaplin’s daring satire on Hitler, dictatorship, and Nazism became his highest grossing film ever, and earned five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. Saying that however, it is still fair to say that “The Great Dictator,” is actually one of Chaplin's weakest films now, although it's still quite powerful; this would be his most pre-"Limelight" overuse of sentimentality, and more importantly is his his infamous five minute long speech at the end of the film, where The Barber, at this moment confused for Hynkel, stating Chaplin's own personal views on dictatorship and Nazi practices. It spoke loudly at the time, by the one man who up 'til then, had never spoken at all, but the speech stops the movie dead in its tracks. Yet, the speech is probably the entire reason Chaplin made the movie. (And it's trended several times over in recent years I might add. But who's surprised Chaplin would go viral, really?)  

The movie would eventually lead to him actually being deported from America over a decade later, under the veil of being supposedly a Communist, which he wasn’t. He wasn’t Jewish either, which was another rumor at the time. "The Great Dictator" was banned in much of Europe at the time,  in some parts for decades.  The movie begins with the character of the Barber, after being a WWI hero, and some of the battle scenes in the film are not only incredible for realism at that time, but some are incredibly funny, including the entire sequence about the dud tank bullet which starts off with just a funny bit where the bullet limps out of the shot cannon, but Chaplin continues the joke by investigating the bullet, and leading the joke to it’s natural hilarious conclusion. (If you can find it, there's some great very rare behind-the-scenes footage, shot in color, of Chaplin preparing this sequence, and it might be some of the Earliest color footage of Chaplin.) 

 The Barber, injured in the war, in a coma, and suffering from amnesia, wakes up twenty years later to find Dictator Hynkel in charge, and he has to now rebuild his life in the ghetto. It's basically a subversion of Rip Van Winkle that seems so obvious, it's kinda stunning nobody had done it before, or really for that matter much since. He meets a nice girl from the family next door (Paulette Goddard, Chaplin’s then wife) who helps him from being taken away by storm troopers, one of them being a guy who’s life he saved back in the war. The other famous sequences from the film include Chaplin’s choreographed dance sequence that he has as Hynkel with an inflated globe, that eventually bursts right in his face. As well as a wonderful sequence with Oscar-nominee Jack Oakie, obviously meant to reference Mussolini, where both dictators attempt to one-up each other by sitting in higher chairs than the other, until they’re both near the ceiling and unable to get down. It's stunning how much it seems being a corrupt and murderous dictator essentially involves this diluted belief that they somehow always have to be better than everyone else. 

It’s certainly a landmark film, just for being one of a literal handful of films to criticize the Nazi regime before the war, or any kind of dictatorial practices. Chaplin was of course, one of the very few people in Hollywood who even could do that though, but it's not like anybody had to twist his hand on it. "The Great Dictator" is Chaplin’s is by far his most pointed and important satire; I'd be hard-pressed to call it his most personal and emotional film, I think that goes to "Limelight", but I think it's fair to say that it was the one that he was the most proud of having made.

Tuesday, August 2, 2022

SOME THOUGHTS ON "SIGHT AND SOUND"'s UPCOMING POLL RESULTS OF THEIR DECENNIAL GREATEST FILMS OF ALL-TIME POLL! And yeah, fine, I'll do a list of my own again.

 

Every ten years, the famed British publication "Sight and Sound", an offshoot periodical from the BFI, or the British Film Institute conducts polls of all the world's most respected, accomplished and acclaimed film critics and filmmakers and simply gives them the one question, and that's to list what they consider the Top Ten Greatest Films of All-Time. There's no other qualifiers, they can use any/all arbitrary definitions of whatever the person chooses the words "Greatest" means. There's quite few other qualifiers; you can't put a bunch of movies together if they weren't originally supposed to be viewed together or were made separately from each other, so like, unlike past years, you can't list "The Godfather" and "The Godfather Part II" as a single film, but other than that, there isn't much else in regards to standards and qualifier, you just have to pick ten, and only ten. Their goal is simple, just to find what is considered by the greatest film of all-time, and doing so by asking the most qualified experts in the field, worldwide. 

Obviously, since they still haven't asked me to participate, they clearly have failed in this objective, again, but y'know, par for the course. BFI and Sight and Sound aren't that great or prestigious anyway.

(Regrettable sigh) 

Anyway, I talked about this annual poll ten years ago, when despite being continuous ignored by the group even then, I put out my own list anyway. I'm not alone a lot of people do, and they've been doing it lately. Honestly I wasn't going to this year, until everybody else started doing it. I mean, I feel like I do too many lists as it is on this blog, and honestly, as much as I do love lists, we all do, eh, my main concern is that, essentially, you can only really tell so much from them. This list is the most popular in the film world because of how it's been used as a guide, not for what the best film is necessarily but for how the world of film looks at the cinema of the past. In 1952, the first year of the list, the best film was Vittorio Di Sica's "The Bicycle Thief", or "Bicycle Thieves" if you prefer the more correct translation of the Italian title. It had only been released four years earlier when it won that poll. "Citizen Kane" famously won the poll the next five times, they held the poll, and "The Bicycle Thief" hasn't been in the Top Ten since 1962. Orson Welles's "Citizen Kane" came out earlier of course, it released in 1941, but it wasn't as fresh in peoples' minds; it hadn't been seen since it's original release and only after the passing of William Randolph Hearst, who basically had it covered up, did the film finally reemerge and it's importance, greatness and most notably it's influence, became abundantly clear. 

In 2012 however, for whatever reason, that streak ended when Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo" overtook "Citizen Kane" bumping it off the top. There's a lot of theories as to why this happened. The fact that despite the attempts of "Sight & Sound" the fact that they are a British/European publication means that it's more predominantly bias towards European sentiments and influences, and "Vertigo" is particularly influential in Europe. It also had gained influence in America too, like how it raised over fifty slots on AFI's similar 100 Films Poll from 61 in 1998's poll to 9th in their 2008 poll. Also, I think there was just general rebellious backlash to the notion of ranking "Citizen Kane" number one, and it just happened to be the film that was chosen to overtake it. While I think it's incredibly difficult to argue that the film is not the most important film and influential film ever made, I can definitely understand people who say, don't think it's particularly entertaining or fun or whatever. I know plenty of people who hate the film, including a lot of film people;  I get it. I didn't rank it number one last time, either. I was just as rebellious and said, "Fuck it, I'm picking the movie I like the most for number one," and clearly I wasn't the only one.

And honestly beyond all that, there's something weird about this list and it's process in general. For one, as any true film person will tell you, narrowing this kind of process down to ten, is just cruel and unusual punishment for us. As of this writing, I've seen, well over 5,000 feature films, and that's not counting short films, and hell, you technically could count television programs for this list now; last time "The Wire" got two votes. It also kinda zeroes on just, the films that somebody out there might consider the absolute greatest and it actually a lot of other amazing and generally highly-regarded great films that, just don't make lists like these because we generally wouldn't rank them in our Top Tens. A movie like Sidney Lumet's "Network" comes to my mind, make a top 100 list, it'll show up almost every time, it's widely considered one of the most prescient and ahead-of-it's-time films out there but narrow it to ten, and it falls way down. Or "Rocky" for instance shares a similar fate, among many others. To go back to those AFI's list for example, even though those lists were limited to American movies, #17 on that list in '98, and #65 in 2008 was John Huston's "The African Queen", a movie that on BFI's list, did not get two votes from anybody. Does that mean it's not a great film, that AFI's list is just weirder for including it? (Shrugs) ehhh-i'on'tno? Maybe? I mean, I never think of it as among Bogart's or Hepburn's or John Huston's best films, but I would've thought some people would've put it in there, right? There's plenty of others. Bob Rafelson just died, I know if maybe they asked for a Top 100 list, "Five Easy Pieces" would probably be higher ranked on these lists, but for a top ten, do you really have room to put it on a Top Ten? Or how about any of his other films? Only "Five Easy Pieces" and "The Postman Always Rings Twice" got multiple votes. 

In fact, another issue with this poll, is how it can be bias towards films/filmmakers who are generally considered to have one single movie be considered their absolute masterpiece. I'm not saying it is their masterpiece, or their only good film or only good to be worthy of being on such a list, I'm saying that percention-wise, the film is considered their masterpiece. Filmmakers for whom, the debate on what their best film actually is, tend to struggle in these polls, even great filmmakers. If you go on Mubi.com, where they have a page that lovingly ranks all the films that got at least two votes in the last poll, they rank them together, but if you go through that list, you'll notice that there are quite a few instance of filmmakers who have multiple films, literally right next to or near each other in the rankings. It's easier to single out a director's single great film as oppose to looking at a giant collection of their work, and if that fil is beloved, they would do better than directors who everybody disagrees on their best film, so their votes get spread over multiple films of theirs. 

It's not a negative per se, but it is a quirk. There's a lot of quirks with all polls, and this one in particular, being ranked periodically ever decade, and limited to ten films, means that, I don't really think of these lists as entirely accurate readings of greatness, but rather as looks at ourselves. A reading of the modern zeitgeist of the time and what that says about ourselves, both in terms of the overall lists results, and in turn, with our own individual choices. The films aren't so much a standing for our definite picks for what we believe to be the best, but rather, a small representation of who we are at the moment we do them. 

In that respect, I really don't like my list from 2012 anymore. If you clicked on that earlier link to my blog, you'll know how I got to the Top Ten, 'cause I wrote the post in a manner that made it seem like I was literally trying to figure out the list as I was writing it (Which is because, that was exactly how I actually came up with it.); I'm not doing that this year, I already know what my list is going to be going into this blog, but still, I don't like my old list. 

MY 2012 LIST: 
1. Casablanca (Michael Curtiz)
2. The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola)
3. Citizen Kane (Orson Welles)
4. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick)
5. Wings of Desire (Wim Wenders)
6. The Maltese Falcon (John Huston)
7. Metropolis (Fritz Lang)
8. Rashomon (Akira KUROSAWA)
9. Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino)
10. Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola)

It's not that these aren't great movies, or don't deserve to be on a list like list, in fact most of my list, isn't gonna change, but eh, I don't really know why I picked some of these, and I don't like how I picked some of them. I basically through in "Pulp Fiction" just out of some half-baked notion that it was somehow, "his time", or whatever. (Blows raspberries) Eh, I was still out of college and while I do still love Tarantino, I was also clearly still in that phase. Post-film school grad,- phase where Tarantino was just the coolest, or whatever. There's actually a lot of this list I don't love though. I don't love how American it is, there's only three foreign films and one of them is silent on here. Almost all white men, and one white woman. Perhaps I put films on here more out of obligation as opposed to what I genuinely thought was the best. 

"The Godfather" now feels weird on this list to me. It'll always be one of my core films, I'm Italian-American after all, I grew up on the movie; it's basically a part of my cultural identity, and it's still a great, one of my all-time favorite films, I've probably watched it more than any other film on this list except for "Casablanca", but eh, do I need it to be on here? Or any Francis Ford Coppola film? Considering how much I've watched and talked about his films, especially his absolute best films from the '70s, it's kinda surprising to me how little I think about him as a great filmmaker, and frankly, how much I find myself looking for films outside "The Godfather" these days as standards of greatness to compare. 

Why did I somehow think I needed a Coppola film, and didn't need a Hitchcock film? No, the rest of the world was right on that one. Hitchcock's the greater more important and more influential filmmaker, but I'm not putting "Vertigo" on here. Sorry, I know people who love "Vertigo", and while I don't think it's unworthy of being number one, and I have some great arguments for why it deserved the spot, I have always had issues with and never thought of it as his best film. I think "Psycho"'s is his real masterpiece. I think it's influence is not only greater, more important, more positively influential than much of the movies that were far more inspired by "Vertigo" and if I have to narrow it down to one Hitchcock that everybody should see, I'm gonna pick "Psycho". 

There's some other things, I put "Casablanca", my favorite movie of all-time, ahead of "Citizen Kane", which, eh, you know, I usually do make the favorite exception only for "Casablanca", but it also feels wrong to put it ahead of "Citizen Kane" now. I'm restoring "...Kane" to number one. What can I say, I will prefer the critical best over the personal best. I mean, I could personally chose some other Orson Welles film too, "The Stranger" is a favorite of mine, so is "F for Fake", I know a lot of people have come to the conclusion that that's secretly his best film, and I can definitely see that argument. But I'm still going with "Citizen Kane" at number one. Call me a traditionalist, call me a film snob, whatever, the history of cinema doesn't make sense if you take out "Citizen Kane", I'm making sure it stays in.

Also, last time, I put Wim Wenders's "Wings of Desire" on the list, mainly as sort of a secondary pick over Krzyzstof Kieslowski's "The Decalogue". Mainly because I didn't think I could pick "The Decalogue". That rule I talked about earlier, about how you couldn't lump two films together, "The Decalogue" is weird because it's actually ten films, each about an hour long each one of them about the Ten Commandments. They aired originally as a miniseries in Poland, but made it to theaters eventually in America, not that that distinction matters much anymore in a post-Covid world, but that did mean that they weren't eligible as an entirety in the past. I've double-check though, and while I can't put the Godfather films together still, the rule is that, I can pick something like this, if they were meant to be watch together in their entirety. So, in other words, I can pick "The Decalogue", the same way I could say pick, other longer-than-average multipart features, like Fassbinder's "Berlin Alexanderplatz" or perhaps more recently David Lynch's "Twin Peaks" reboot that the Cahier du Cinema people seem to love so much. So, "The Decalogue" goes back on. I don't necessarily think that should mean that "Wings of Desire" goes off though; they're different films, and truly great in different ways, but hmm, they are similar enough..., perhaps too similar for this list, at least for me, at least this year....

I do want to try be as inclusive and varied on this list as possible, but it's hard. People do relate to stimuli that's more familiar to them then stuff that might seem more foreign. I am a cis white male, so as much as I'd love to see more foreign filmmakers on here, I'm probably going to understand, appreciate and relate to films made by cis white male filmmakers more often than others. So, should I just sacrifice films I think are better for films by filmmakers that I think should be more recognized, especially minority filmmakers? No, that's the same thinking that led to me to putting "Pulp Fiction" on there when I shouldn't have. 

No, Tarantino didn't belong on there, and while I wish I could say that instead I'm putting on Spike Lee, or Satyajit Ray or Ousmane Sembane or Luis Bunuel, or Sergei Eisenstein or Fernando Meirelles or Hector Babenco, or..., if there's a director I most feel passionate that I feel should be on my list, and should've been on there before, it was Billy Wilder. Especially if we're talking movies, films about making films, even tangentially should be represented, and for me, "Sunset Blvd", is really his best. I can argue for "Some Like It Hot" or "The Apartment" or "Double Indemnity" as well, but man, those are great films but I don't any of them are as good, or have as much good influence out there. So, "Sunset Blvd" gets the spot that it should've had all along.

Does that mean that I should just ignore recent films entirely? The only film from the 2000s that made my list last time was "Lost in Translation", and there's some stuff about that film and including the perspective of the filmmaker that you can regard as questionable now. I lost one Coppola, can I lose two? And is there something modern I could replace it with? I thought about Barry Jenkins's "Moonlight", I thought about BONG Joon-Ho's "Parasite", I thought about Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life", I even came close to putting "Hamilton" on here. All films that I think deserve to be on lists like these but I did feel like I needed to have at least one female director on here. No, I can't adequately explain why it feels more wrong to me to not have a female director than it does an African, African-American, Latino, or other nationality or group of directors that isn't represented, but it just does.

So, is there a film by a female director that I'd rather have on this list or I think more deserves the spot? Well, I'm partial to Lina Wertmuller's "Swept Away By an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August", (And she's generally a filmmaker who also got screwed on the last list, not one film of hers got two votes!) I like Jane Campion, and I think "The Piano" is great. I've been a huge Lisa Cholodenko fan since "High Art" and "Laurel Canyon". Marielle Heller and Lynne Ramsay have blown me away. Celine Sciamma's movies have really been inspiring to me, as have Catherine Breillat's. Somehow though, I can't seem to shake how rare and beautiful the emotional ennui of "Lost in Translation" is, and for that, how much more difficult I think it is to get that effect with a movie. That's the one that's always stuck with me and remains sticking to me. Yeah, I just credit that more than I do the accomplishments of other films. 

So here we go, this is how I'm ranking my Top Ten Films, now: 

MY 2022 TOP TEN LIST
1. Citizen Kane (Orson Welles)
2. Casablanca (Michael Curtiz)
3. The Decalogue (Krzyzstof Kieslowski)
4. Sunset Blvd (Billy Wilder)
5. Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock)
6. Metropolis (Fritz Lang)
7. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick)
8. Ikiru (Akira KUROSAWA)
9. Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola)
10. The Maltese Falcon (John Huston)

"Citizen Kane" goes back up top. A couple other minor and trivial changes to the order of the films. "The Decalogue" does replace "Wings of Desire", which is basically my number one of the several number elevens I have. I replace the Tarantino with the Wilder, I replace the Coppola with the Hitchcock. Oh, and I did switch KUROSAWA films, from "Rashomon" and "Ikiru". I don't have a real deep reason on this one, they're both basically tied for me, and I decided that, as long as I feel like I need a Kurosawa film on here, which, I do, that I would just keep switching between them every ten years. I had "Rashomon" last time, so this time, I'm putting "Ikiru" in there. Anyway, it feels right. Admittedly, I probably thought it felt right the last time I did this list and ten years from now I'll probably regret how I made this list.  

As to what I expect/predict from Sight & Sound's actual results this year? I think there'll be a lot of the same and a lot different, and a lot of intrigue. They usually release all the results of everybody who voted and personally I find those more interesting than the overall results. If I am making predictions, than I'll say that "Citizen Kane" regains the top spot on at least the critics poll. I'll say "The Searchers" will fall out of the Top Ten. Despite my taking it off my list, I think "Pulp Fiction" will break into the Top 100. And I think, overall, more female films and filmmakers will be represented, especially the likes of Agnes Varda and Chantal Akerman I suspect. As for modern films, "Parasite", "Moonlight", "Portrait of a Lady on Fire", a few others that I suspect will have surprisingly good showings. 

(Shrugs) 

Yeah, I'm not interested in making too many calls. I'm frankly more interested in seeing what's gonna be on there and frankly, hopefully find films that I haven't seen and seek them out. See the movies that others think are the greatest, the movies that have inspired other artists and critics. I hope to expand my cinematic knowledge and vocabulary, which I think should always be our goal, whether as filmmakers, as critics, or even just as fans. Seeing what others consider greats and important enough to preserve, especially when only given space to preserve ten, says a lot about them, and for that matter us. What does it say about me, that I chose these ten? 

I don't know, I'll let others decide that. In the meantime, if you haven't seen any of these films, watch them, see what you think. 

Monday, July 25, 2022

MOVIE REVIEWS #196: "KING RICHARD", "NO TIME TO DIE", "COMING 2 AMERICA", "LUNANA: A YAK IN THE CLASSROOM", "HILLBILLY ELEGY", "ROCKS" , "PAW PATROL: THE MOVIE", and "MLK/FBI"!

Um, there's not much really to talk about here. I've been busy lately, and I fear that I'm gonna be busy for awhile still, so sorry if I'm not posting as regularly as I'd like to. Honestly, I think I'm preferring these more sporadic commentary posts, it makes me focus on things I actually want to say and dive more into subjects instead of trying to find things I care about to talk about, which in terms of the film industry has been much more fewer and farther between in recent years. I did get my usual commentor who thinks he's being cool and talked on my Emmys blog about how award shows were about millionaires honors millionaires. (Ugh) I wonder how actually thinks the makeup people actually make.... Like, Jesus, I went after the Emmys hard this year for the actual problems but no, it's that hypocritical argument. Like, seriously, you watch all the shows made by the people who are indeed the millionaire voting on the other millionaires, but you don't think they should honor the best in their field? I don't get it, you watch the great art they create but you can't trust their opinion when it comes to the actual art medium you watch? I genuinely will never get that opinion. 

Anyway, I'm glad it was only one lone strangler comment I could ignore this time. Other then that, not much going on. Movie world's getting excited for the upcoming BFI Sight & Sound's annual Greatest movie lists. Last time they did one, I decided to do a similar poll for television, and that took awhile, and frankly I don't think I'll do that this time. I still do think television in particular needs to be put on a more equal pedestal to film in general, but I hope somebody with more time and resources would take up that mantle instead. I look up my list when I did one back in 2012, I would change a few things now, but personally, I'm mostly hoping that "Citizen Kane" just regains the top spot. Sorry, "Vertigo" fans. 

Anyway, let's get to this latest batch of reviews! 


KING RICHARD (2021) Director; Reinaldo Marcus Green

⭐⭐⭐


I don't remember what class this was, but at some point in-, I think it was middle school, I distinctly the teacher bringing up this argument about nature vs. nurture. It was sometime in the late '90s, and right around the time that Tiger Woods and Venus & Serena Williams (Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton) were breaking onto the national sports landscape, as well as their parents. Tiger's father Earl Woods was a constant presence on tour with Tiger, and the Williams Sisters' father Richard (Oscar-winner Will Smith) was often the focal point of conversations regarding them, and basically the discussion was, whether or not these athletes would've been the great athletes they were, at the sports they were athletes at, if not for the pressure and persistence of their father's insistence on it. I don't think race was initially brought up out loud in this discussion, but the undercurrent was there. For whatever reason, I argued that Tiger was a more natural phenom and it wouldn't have mattered as much the environment he grew up in while the Williams' had the extreme pressure from their father meant that they were more nurtured to the sport than natural phenoms. I don't remember why exactly I decided to take that argument, although I think it was because I had remembered seeing clips of a very young Tiger Woods, at around three years old on "The Mike Douglas Show" already a master putter, and I just couldn't imagine a three-year-old being that taken by golf to become that good that young unless there was something ingrained in him to take to it naturally, but in hindsight, I totally would not make that argument now. Of course, the answer to any nature vs. nurture question is always always a little bit of each, but yeah, in both their cases, I have to believe the parents' had more to do with their success now, for whatever that's worth, than their own ingrained natural talent, if for no other reason than the fact than it was parents' ability and determination to provide them with the golf clubs and public golf courses in Tiger's cases, and the public tennis courts and the rackets and balls in the case of the Williams. (For all I know, I could've been the greatest cricketer of all-time, but it wasn't a sport I had access to, and you're more likely to be good at a sport that you're constantly around and able to play than one you're not.) 

Tennis, in paricular, is a sport that's kinda weird. On the one hand, it's a very posh sport traditionally, guarded by the same kind of private exclusive club barriers as other older lawn sports like golf and croquet, but on the other hand, it really shouldn't be, 'cause it's remarkably one of the cheapest of these sports. One that, with two rackets, a ball, a net, and maybe some chalk, basically anybody could play tennis. And traditionally, while tennis has been perpetuated by a lot of white, upper class athletes, they often are, personality-wise, they're kinda the rogue black sheep types from those groups. Not always, obviously, nowadays the sports actually been fairly boring in terms of personalities for years, (Although it's starting to get better, especially on the women's side) especially from America, but back then, tennis was filled with some fringe personalities that made the game fun to watch. And it does say something when Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn), the Williams' first professional coach tells Richard that he's the most stubborn person he's ever met, and he coached McEnroe. 

Actually, I was amazed how much that got brought up, especially at a certain point when Richard is concerned about Venus turning pro because of Jennifer Capriatti's sudden fall into addiction and arrest, but I had totally forgotten just how much of the top up-and-coming female tennis players of that time were complete fuck-ups. (After I watched this movie, I looked up the infamous French Open Finals in '99, between Martina Hingis and Steffi Graf, if you watched this match, you know this match, it was the exact moment that Martina Hingis, who was the youngest number one in the world at that time, became a total heel, spoiled brat fuck-up, and supposed over-the-hill Steffi, who Martina insulted for being old earlier, just wiped the fricking court with her. and Martina never got good again after that! And then, like, the next year, Venus was queen of the court, until Serena came of age.) 

That's the thing though, this movie, first of all, it was produced by the Williams Sisters, so they're telling their own story here essentially, and the story of their father, and his-eh, very much persistent approach to making them tennis superstars.
He worked nights after coaching them on local courts, often populated by Compton gangsters. There's one time where he apparently almost tries to take out a bully who constantly went after him, only to witness somebody else take him out.

(Shrugs) 

I have no idea if this is true or not, it's believable enough, I guess... 

(Shrugs) 

I guess the implication is that, Richard almost lost his dream, for his daughters, by almost killing a guy, but got lucky that someone got their first...? It's dramatic in the moment, but weird if you think about it for more than a minute.

That's kinda what makes "King Richard" somewhat fascinating, it's essentially a movie that gives Richard Williams's nurturing, for whatever it was worth, all the credit for the Williams Sisters. He's the one that started them on tennis at age 4, and he began by writing out an, 85-page plan for their continued progress in the sport, which...- (Sighs) okay, that's just, weird. And kinda fucked up. (Like writing down your goals, that's one thing, writing down your kids goal, eh, questionable, but not concerning, 85 pages at ages 4, on being teenage tennis phenoms? Like, you couldn't do it in like, fifty pages?)

It's also strange in that, after he convinced Cohen to take them on, Venus for free but being paid to teach Serena at first, Richard hated taking the girls to Juniors, which is usually where the younger up-and-coming tennis prospects start up. Venus and Serena were great when they did play, but he mentions hating seeing all the tennis parents there and how much pressure they seemed to put on their kids. I mean, I guess it's a little pot calling the kettle black, but maybe he had a point too, but y'know, that's the thing that makes something like this crazy. Most prospects in any sports don't end up becoming pro and winning grand slams all the time, and even if it the kid's who venture into that sporting direction at first, it's stressful for them, and for their parents who are taking an interest in their future career, that might not happen. You can be training and expertly crafting your game for just as long, and be as great and skilled as you possibly could, and then, you run into Venus, and you get your dreams and future killed. The movie technically climaxes with Venus losing in her first pro tournament, and losing fairly early to Arantxa Sanchez Vicario (A woman who herself started tennis young and had some very dubious parents that's led her adult life after tennis to become a complete mess; last I heard she was potentially facing years in jail for tax evasion and fraud). I'm sure there were other contemporaries of the Williams Sisters who turned out fine; I think Kim Clijsters is still playing into her forties like Serena is now, but yeah, it is kinda coincidental and curious how every other tennis great in this story seems to be struggling either handling their successful pro career or are damaged afterwards by their successful pro careers.... Again, tennis is a young sport full of the rebellious black sheeps of upper crust types, but it's still kinda interesting how those are the other names that get thrown around. (Could've been the times too, tennis and sports in general in the '90s, was fucking insane! Remember when Monica Seles got stabbed by a crazed fan in the middle a match? It's shocking how little that gets brought up, but that's how bizarre sports in the '90s was!") 

Still though, like, I guess it worked for the Williams Sisters, skipping over Juniors and not playing competitive tennis for years before turning pro. I know it didn't work for Michelle Wie years years later.... 

I don't know, I'm very conflicted on just the idea of this movie, and that's before we even get into all the subliminal stuff regarding Will Smith and his recent actions. It is not hard to think that Will Smith finally winning that Oscar that we all know he's wanted for years, and he's playing a over-protective helicopter parent father over his future celebrity kids. Yeah, I think he sees a lot of himself in Richard Williams at this point. And like Richard Williams, he may occasionally make an ass of himself at major events like these. (They didn't show Richard Williams jumping over the NBC desk in celebration of Venus winning Wimbledon in the film, but they definitely could've.)  He also kinda smug and obnoxious like he's capable of slapping a comic in the middle of an award show.

I don't know, I guess Will Smith is good here, and besides for all he's done for Hollywood, he probably did deserve that Oscar inevitably. Honestly, I'm surprised the film is actually as good as it is; I credit that to the filmmaking, particularly director Reinaldo Marcus Green, the talented young filmmaker who was behind the multi-narrative "Monsters and Men" film about three different perspectives surrounding an incident where police killed an unarmed black man. I wondered if that debut was more essay than film, but still appreciated it a lot. In that sense, I guess technically "King Richard" is a better movie, but I also have a hard time thinking of this as Green's film. This feels more like a job-for-hire to paint Richard Williams in as positive a light as possible. They don't shy away from his faults, but they often do only show his wife Brandy (Oscar-nominee Aunjanue Ellis) when she is in disagreement with him, but only usually after he makes decisions for the family and the girls. And then there's a scene where she basically outlines all his faults, well, what the movie thinks of as his faults, mostly his other kids. He's had a couple marriages and apparently kids out of wedlock, it's implied that they seem to be doing well-enough, the ones they bring up. While he seemed to do everything for Venus and Serena, arguably maybe had a little too much control over them, he also left his first family of four kids before when the oldest was eight. 

I guess you expect embellishments and negative things left out with all biopics, but even still this is such a weird one to rate. I'm trying to think of a comparable film about a story about a parent being "responsible" for their kids achievements, particularly their athletic achievements like this..., and the parents' influence are shown to be just as extreme but also positively..., I guess "Searching for Bobby Fischer" is kinda close, but even then, that's like, the fourth most interesting plot-thread in that film. Honestly, there's a lot more "Fear Strikes Out" than their are "King Richard"'s. Like, imagine if Venus and Serena's story did turn out negatively after all this; I mean, that could've really screwed up their minds. It'd be like, watching a movie about The Beach Boys that's about how the Wilsons' father was the one most responsible for their success and accomplishments? Like, that's kinda how absurd that would be. 

Yeah, that's the biggest issue with this film, the framing is all wrong; the interesting perspective is Venus and Serena's not Richard's. I mean, he's certainly an important character, but they're the one's on the hero's journey, the father is just a guide for them. But Venus and Serena don't think that and wanted this story to be about him instead, so-, (Shrugs) I don't know, if they think he's this important than who am I to judge them? He's the one who nurtured them, and things certainly turned out alright for them overall, and on that level, I guess it's worth recommending since it's about as decent movie with this premise could be. 

As for this being the film that Will Smith cashed in his Faustian bargain in order to win his Oscar,... (Shrugs) well, we'll see in the future if it was worth it for him. For me, it's a weird, albeit well-made, but ultimately average and forgettable sports biopic, and I guess he was fine in a role that suits him very well. I just wish it was a supporting role instead of a lead; I might've thought higher of performance honestly if that was the case.


NO TIME TO DIE (2021) Director: Cary Joji Fukanaga

⭐⭐⭐⭐

  

So-eh, I-eh,- that ending. I-, I did not see that coming....

Hmm.... Okay. Let's talk about "Casino Royale", for a moment. 

I don't think it was totally understood at the time, but in hindsight I put "Casino Royale" up there with any James Bond film. I tend to be one of those people who only thinks "Goldfinger" is the only true essential Bond movie, and usually the best, but if "Goldfinger" is one, than "Casino Royale" is 1A. It's not entirely the quality of the film, a lot of it is also just how different it was than every other James Bond film. As good as the movies could be, and I'd argue even had been; (I seem to be the only one who no doesn't outright hate "Die Another Day"; I don't really get why that's so much more ridiculous, than, I don't know, "Moonraker", so of the other ridiculous films in this franchise) but the franchise, had long gotten, pretty stale. Despite a few bumps of relevance since it's '60s heyday, the truth is that, the franchise never really set itself out to reinvent itself much, and the formula had gotten cliche, outdated and fairly boring. If you grew up watching the Bond movies from the '60s, you pretty much could rather easily keep up and see the same movie from the '90s James Bond, or the '70s, or the '80s for that matter. But, "Casino Royale" was not different in it's tone and approach to those Bond movies, it was a literal reboot of the franchise, beginning with before Bond earned his double 0 status and it circumvented or mocked much of the traditional tropes of the franchise. Bond didn't particular care how his martini was a prepared, nor was there even a Q character introduced yet, so the high-tech gadgetry was at a minimum, it wasn't his Aston-Martin he was driving, he didn't understand why he had to wear a tuxedo, he was blond and gruff, much more akin to the Bond in the Ian Fleming novel, which, "Casino Royale", was the first of the Bond novels, and also one that somehow had never been officially adapted to the screen before. It was so powerful, that five movies on, when we meet James Bond here, in "No Time to Die" and he's visiting the grave of Vesper Lynn, we know exactly who it is and why he's there, something that, frankly I don't think I could see happening with any other so-called Bond girls. In fact, this reboot is actually shockingly light on Bond girls and their importance and relevance to the tangential story, and that's the other big thing that "Casino Royale" marked, the Daniel Craig Bond movies, were going to have a continuing storyline. 

My biggest fear of this, when that realization started to become apparent was that the films would transition too much from this "Casino Royale" Bond origin story, and eventually go too far and turn Craig and the movies, into, well, more typical and traditional James Bond films. I didn't want that, and, there were times where they slipped a little too far into that. Maybe this is me, but I've never cared much for Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) as a Bond villain. There's no 1A after Goldfinger on my list of Bond villains, let's put it that way, and to be fair, not all the Craig Bonds were great, and I think "Quantum of Solace" was just outright boring and a straight up bad film, but none of them are disposable or unnecessary. They started at the beginning of Bond for a reboot, and they kept telling and we did grow into the characters. They even made one movie that's mostly about M (Ralph Fiennes in this film) just so we can tell a more overall story of Bond. 

And now that Daniel Craig is leaving the franchise, for arguably the first time in the franchise, we get a true conclusion. Don't worry, they'll make Bond movies longer than they'll make Spider-Man movies I assure you, (Or at least they better) but, we get a real ending here, and I won't give it away, but it's truly satisfying. We meet up with a retired Craig as he gets swung back into work after meeting Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) his longtime CIA co-hort who's also been around since "Casino Royale". He's broken up with Madeleine (Lea Seydoux), the girl who, at the end of "Spectre" he believed was his true love, but came to distrust her after another co-ordinated attack on his life, and suspects her as being a traitor to Blofeld. Instead, he's wrapped up in a secret MI-5 program, Heracles, which, apparently was some kind of blood-transmission DNA manipulator who's facility was broken into, not by Blofeld, but by Safin (Rami Malek), a terrorist who actually is out to get Spectre, in vengeance for them killing his family years ago, and with whom, Madeleine, who was a scientist for Spectre, and who's father was also a scientist for Spectre. 

Safin's a motivated villain, and one of the more traditional Bond ones in theory, he's even got his own hideout on an island where the majority of the movie's climax is. Honestly, I found most of the details involving the actual MaGuffin and why he's after it confusing, but basically it was a biological weapon that was supposed to be used for good, and a scientist that was turned developed it to use it for more widespread genocide, and blah, blah, blah, now everybody's pissed at England for their secrets and now Bond has to confront a captured Blofeld, who still was controlling his organization despite seeming like he was going insane, and then get to Safir, who's got Madeleine, and Madeleine's daughter (Lisa Dorah-Sonnet).

As a Bond movie, it's probably in the good-to-very good range moreso than great. In fact, it's downright dreary for much of the ending, albeit it's also intense, and this movie is in fact close to having too little of the old Bond movie influence narratively. Thank goodness for a wonderful shootout sequence involving Craig and a newer-esque CIA agent, Paloma, played by Ana De Armas, who both is a great person who absolutely should have a credit as a Bond girl, and also makes this a delightful "Knives Out" reunion. ("Knives Out" is amazing btw!) As an end to Bond, at least, Craig's Bond, and it's a wonderfully satisfying conclusion, one that takes a character that felt iconic and made him seem more real than ever. "No Time to Die"'s legacy will be that it made all five of the Daniel Craig Bond movies more special, and when you realize just how few of all the James Bond movies, really are special, that's saying something. Kudos to Craig, Barbara Broccoli, director Cary Fuji Fukunaga, and for everybody involved over the years of these five films, for being some of the interesting and compelling over the run of the franchise. 


COMING 2 AMERICA (2021) Director: Craig Brewer

⭐⭐⭐1/2


Welcome, once again, to my least loved recurring feature on this blog; yep, it's that time again! It's another edition of "David Has to Review a Sequel to a Movie He Hasn't Watched To Begin With Yet, Because He Didn't Think It Was Important Enough to Get To Originally, and Now, People Think The Sequel's Good Enough That He Has to Watch Both Now!" 

Ugh, man, I hate this segment. But no, I skipped the original "Coming to America", until now. Apparently, that was a mistake, because it's- what is it, July, now, like 33 YEARS LATER, they decide that movie was good and important to make a sequel, and reportedly there was enough people about the sequel that it grabbed my attention. 

(Sigh)

So, why did I never get to "Coming to America" 'til now?! 

(Shrugs)

Honestly, I kinda always thought people considered it second-tier Eddie Murphy at best, to be honest. Granted I'm a little behind on Eddie to begin with, I'm already fearing that there'll be another "Beverly Hills Cop" movie for a later edition of this, but I don't know, I thought the essentials were "Trading Places", "The Nutty Professor", "Bowfinger", "Shrek", eh, "48 Hours", sure, the parts of "Dreamgirls" that don't suck, and-eh, yeah, I'll catch up "Beverly Hills Cop" eventually, and if you want to count them, "Raw" and "Delirious". I always heard "Coming to America" was just kinda ehh. I'm already partially in the minority on "48 Hours", which I don't think is nearly as interesting as people did at the time, but I always grew up in the early '90s, and that was not a good time film-wise for Eddie Murphy. I remember even Gene Siskel interviewing him once asking him about his string of bad movies; I mean that's notable for two reasons, one, Siskel & Ebert rarely did interviews on their show, but also, Eddie Murphy is actually pretty hard, in general, to interview. He doesn't do a lot of talk shows, when he does it's a delight, but he's fairly seclusive for a major Hollywood star, at least when it comes to the public. "The Nutty Professor" was considered a major comeback of his back then, and he had a few other good films after that too. There was a brief point in the '90s where he was almost as big as he was in the eighties. His career overall though, has had some severe ups and downs, in general. Right now, he's in a good peak it seems. 

However, I did have to quickly watch the original "Coming to America" before getting to this, and-eh, honestly I kinda didn't like it. It's got a good joke or two, there's some wonderful little cameos and whatnot and of course Eddie Murphy's talents are on display, but I found it boring. I found it confusing too. I don't think it's aged that well. There's something very weird and off-putting about a foreign country leader, who's so secluded in his own world where he's literally bathed by naked female servants, just feels weird. It's also, very slow, the jokes are very far apart to me. 

Honestly, you know what the movie really needed? Well, a sequel, 'cause I actually liked "Coming 2 America" much more than the original. The multiple layers of conflict help. In the original, the only real conflict was Akeem (Murphy) going to America and how he reacts to their strange ways, it's a weird fish-out-of-water narrative that I don't think is particularly set up well. In "Coming 2 America" we get a lot more of Zamunda. He's still out-of-touch as a Prince of this African nation, but it's a little more modern and realistically so, even if it is over-the-top. I know, I'm always willing to accept anybody who gets Salt-N-Pepa to perform for their anniversary party. But, the main thing I liked was how it expanded and built upon the world of Zamunda. 

We barely saw much of the land of Nexdoria in the first movie; it was so little, I didn't realize how Marx Brothers that joke was, but I was happy to see that the daughter was still hopping on one foot and barking like a dog for Prince Akeem. Anyway, their land is poor, and while the King (James Earl Jones, loving to ham it up) is dying, Akeem and his wife Lisa (Shari Headley) have been ruling Zumanda for years, and have produced three girls, led by the oldest Meeka (Kiki Layne), who is getting prepared to lead and possibly marry a Prince from the neighboring Nexdoria. Instead, we find out that Akeem, has a bastard son in Queens from his trip back at the previous movie. Zamunda law is still old-fashioned enough that he needs a male heir, whether through birth or marriage to take over, and the leader of Nexdoria, General Izzi (Wesley Snipes) is preparing to assassinate him and start a war if Akeem is unable to produce a male heir.

Akeem goes back to America and finds his son Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler) eventually taking him and his mother Mary (Leslie Jones) and an Uncle Reem (Tracy Morgan) back to Zamunda where he will get acquainted with his princely duties. There's also some tests to pass, and he ends up falling in love with his groomer Mirembe (Nonzano Mbathe) and there's some typical well-set schtick based around Akeem's now being King and not living up to his promise to change the ways, and now it's his son Lavelle who's backing out of the arranged marriage to pursue true love...- I'm being blase, but I actually like how manic this is when you describe it. Plot-wise, this feels like an older comedy, something the Marx Brothers, or Bob Hope or Bing Crosby would've fallen themselves into, and those films, at their best were just nutty. That's something that I didn't get with the original; it was just too thin. Here, there's a lot all going on, and it's not all sensical, and it's not all PC either, but this movie, should just be as manic as possible. More random dancing girls in obnoxious stereotypical, "outfits", if you can call them that. More soldiers, more Eddie Murphy in makeup. Maybe it has a little too many callbacks to the previous film; I didn't think the McDowell's joke would keep going, but I like that I got to see Louie Anderson one last time. 

Yeah, I'm still not convinced that this is peak, essential Eddie Murphy with either of these films but I definitely enjoyed "Coming 2 America" more, and probably did enjoy it more knowing the first film. It didn't change my opinion on the first, but you really did get the sense that Eddie Murphy really liked that first film, and that he really liked this idea of bringing everybody back and telling a better, richer story than the original film. I can appreciate that he can appreciate it, and that's enough for me. 


LUNANA: A YAK IN THE CLASSROOM (2021) Director: Pawo Choyning Dorji

⭐⭐⭐⭐


There's a couple things I found interesting about "Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom" before I watched the film. The first is that, it's a rare movie that got disqualified at the Oscars, and then re-eligible. In 2020 is was submitted for the Academy Awards International Feature category, but was disqualified because of a technicality. The nation of Bhutan didn't have an officially recognized Academy voting panel, so the next year, they got the recognition, submitted the same film, and it not only got accepted for eligibility, but it got a surprise nomination. The second thing, was the fact that it was a film from Bhutan. 

Obviously, from the fact that they needed Academy approval for eligibilITy, they're not a country known for their filmmaking; "Lunana..." is only the second film they've ever submitted to the Academy. It's got a bigger film industry than that number would suggest, but it's still in it's primordial stage. The small mountain Buddhist nation is known for being very insular and has only really recently started to take in and expand it's influences beyond they're more friendly neighboring countries, especially India, where much of their cinema was directly inspired by for years. (There's a lot of remakes of Bollywood films in older Bhutanese cinema.)

In fact, the movie is kinda about that struggle with the country right now. Ugyen (Sherab Dorji) is a government worker getting his teaching license, but he wants to move out to Australia and pursue a singing career. Bhutan is a monarchy and also being a Buddhist monarchy, government work is pretty admirable in the country, so not going after it can be somewhat disconcerting; it is to his family and he's looking for a way out. Then, he gets transferred from the city, to Lunana, a more mountainous village in the country that's heavily cut off from the major cities. 
He's not happy about it, but he eventually gets there and begins getting seduced by the area. There's not even a blackboard in the classroom, and he eventually begins adapting and teaching well, and begins liking it. Teachers are highly admired and prized in this remote area and the children love him. 

He also befriends a local, Saldon (Keldon Lhamo Gurung), the daughter of Asha (Kunzang Wangdi) who sings a folk song every day as an offering to the village. Ugyen is intrigued and asks her to teach it to him. Oh, and at some point, she gives him a yak, that eventually gets kept in the classroom with the kids. Honestly, it's not as important to the story as you'd think. 

The story itself is fairly basic, there's plenty of films out there about somebody going out to some obscure part of the world that they don't want to be apart and getting entranced by it and then regretful and forlorn about returning to their normal world, or the world they think they want to be apart of, but it's the setting and context that sell it. The movie has a more emotional resonance than that and could be read as a modern commentary on the country of Bhutan. It's also just an entrancing guide into the country and it's modern conflict within the country as they strive to figure out their place in the world. I don't know if it is that, it could just be a lovely little tale made that happened to be made in an obscure part of the world that makes me think it's more about the country than it is, but it feels that way. "Lunana..." is a delightful and powerful little story about a conflicting young man in a conflicted young country tied between the traditions of the past and the hopes of the future. There's a lot of ways this film could've been hokey or cliche, and while on paper it is, in practice, I appreciated the nuances in the storytelling that made it much more then that. 


HILLBILLY ELEGY (2020) Director: Ron Howard

⭐⭐


So, I was taught forks in ninth grade. I forget what the name of the class was, it was when I was at a magnet program that, honestly sucked, at the time, I hear it's run better now, but the class, kinda was an intro and a catch-all class for general knowledge and career path indicators; it's the class that you took those career tests in, those tests that determine your skillset and what kinds of possible future careers you'd be good for based on those results. Anyway, I do actually remember a lot from this class curiously and one of things we were taught was the rules about forks and spoons, and fancy dinners such as they were. Always go left to right from the outside in with your forks, always eat meat with a knife and fork, fish, you can eat with only a fork however, and if you're still not sure, always just use whatever utensil the head of the table is eating, because very often, whoever is actually in that seat, might be just as unknowing and unaware as you are, but he is the one that's big and powerful enough that nobody will tell him no. I'd make an obvious Trump joke here, but the person who wrote the book that "Hillbilly Elegy" is based on, JD Vance, is based on is currently a Republican Senatorial candidate who got Trump's endorsement, so apparently he eventually learned that one, and perhaps maybe we should abandon that rule. Anyway, that's one stressful opening on "Hillbilly Elegy" for our main character, JD (Gabriel Basso) as he's trying to get an interview out of Law School, hopefully a good-paying internship of some kind, learning from his girlfriend Usha (Frieda Pinto) over the phone, what fork to eat with, before returning to some, distressingly frustrating elitist questions from the table about his background. 

"Hillbilly Elegy" was described as one of the books that help explain how someone like Trump could've won in 2016.... (Shrugs) I can kinda see that, like, it is kinda embarrassing to think about how somebody can hear of someone being from Kentucky and immediately ask them if they worked on the coal mines. It's also annoying to hear an old Mamaw (Glenn Close) correct her grandson by saying, they're called "Indians, not Native Americans, like the Cleveland Indians," and yes, it took me so long to get to this movie that the Indians, did indeed change their names because of how racist and insensitive "Indians" was as a name. (And it was and is racist and derogatory, always was, you can look that one up.) The movie itself, well, it's been pretty heavily panned. Glenn Close, pulled off an extreme rare feat with this film, getting both an Oscar nomination, and a Razzie nomination for Best Supporting Actress and Worst Supporting Actress respectively, for the same performance. She lost both awards, but while the movie was heavily panned in general, it was polarizing. There are some who thought the movie, which is based on Vance's own youth, fell into some poverty tropes and stereotypes, some decried the film as "Poverty Porn" in fact, while some others were fairly effected by it, and found the movie quite inspiring and powerful, and a love letter to both his family history, but to an often-overlooked and shunned part of the country. 

Ehh, where am I standing on this? Well, I'm mostly caught in-between. I don't think the movie is "poverty porn" or anything, but I also don't think it's that good either. 

I haven't read the book to double-check what's been changed or altered and/or how, but director Ron Howard, who also got a Razzies nomination for the film, I imagine probably improved the material. It wouldn't be the first time, Ron Howard is a very underrated director, in general, and one of his better skills, is taking material that's not particularly of quality on the page and turning them into some surprisingly quality films. The big one that most will point to is "The Da Vinci Code" and it's subsequent sequels, which, yeah, is pretty cheesy to read, but I actually like the two of those movies I've seen, as absurd as they were. From what I can tell in this case, the main thing he added was a narrative, 'cause the book is far more anecdotal than this film is, with many of his personal stories being used as arguments to help defend or showcase his political views and give explanation for why much of the Rust Belt has shifted from recent years from Democrat to Republican. Some of these observances I think are interesting, if not valid, although I'd to love to argue some of them, but in terms of a narrative, the movie, kinda has to form one, and it's tricky. 

Basically, the whole film takes place with a ticking clock to an interview, and the rest is told in flashback to JD's youth (Owen Asztalos). In the current time, around 2011, he's gone back to his hometown of Middletown, Ohio to collect his mother Bev (Amy Adams) a heroin junkie who's fallen off the wagon again, after years of bad choices and usually bad men that primarily came about mostly after her grandfather Papaw (Bo Hopkins) died. His sister Lindsay has been married to her boyfriend, basically since high school, and has been struggling to deal with her life and kids, while also keeping an eye on their mother and JD's left, first for the Marines, and then for Law School at Yale. The movie jumps a lot in time and narrative, and keeping track of everything after this or within the timeline, basically becomes moot after a while. You do get to see all the major events, but we don't see them necessarily in a particular order, which I can't say is a terrible move here, believe it or not, but it's not really well setup.
 
That's the other thing, the movie sets us up with the geography of the area, how JD loves the Summers in the Kentucky Appalachia with his Grandma more than his homelife in- well, it's not really a big city, but if you prefer the Appalachia, than I guess it is. Eventually, he does move in with his grandmother, after Bev first begins to struggle and her addictions and messy relationship start really effecting their lives. Mamaw isn't particularly saintly either, we learn, but what really brings this down from somewhat compelling as a narrative to something less compelling is, oddly, how little the geography matters. 

The movie is elegiac about the Appalachia in a sense that the narrator says it's where he grew up and is therefore some place that's apart of him, but the area and his problems, actually have very little to do with each other. His mother's a junkie who goes from man-to-man, his grandparents are old nags who struggle in their old age, his sister's in love, and his father's absent,- honestly, what the hell does that have to do with the hillbilly culture that you couldn't find in the big cities? I know people in rural, urban and suburban environments with basically the same problems growing up; it's not even necessarily a class issue, or even a cultural issue with that area necessarily. His family's fucked up, I'll give him that, and I will admit that I think it's a bit of an accomplishment getting to be as successful as he has after growing up like that, but there's nothing particularly compelling about it that makes me convinced that it was that unique. Maybe it's supposed to not be unique, but-, no, I don't see too many grandmothers light their loved ones on fire for being drunk, so I don't think that's it. 

And frankly, I didn't think his early memories of being a kid in Appalachia were that good either; he's reminiscing about how his family inspired him after he got bullied by neighborhood kids, like what-the-fuck, why is that a positive to you?! 
There is a good idea, somewhere here, in fact I think I do know where it is, and they missed a really sharp storytelling idea here; I won't give it away, but this could've easily been a road movie and that would've solved a lot of it's problems, for both the narrative interest, and for the characters themselves. The movie doesn't take that direction, I get the direction it did take, but it is short-sighted. The whole movie is kind of a short-sighted mess; it's a whole film about how great the area where this kid grew up is, and then the climax is, him leaving it...- that's not how these movies usually go. It's almost like he's trying to justify it to himself that this is where he belongs because this is where he came from..., and I just have severe doubts about this. I mean, there's another running theme of the movie where the kid is interested in politics, and that's from him constantly being thwarted in his attempts to watch the news, like "Meet the Press", which...- like, okay, I was a '90s kids, around the era as him, and I did watch the news very intensely more than most, especially at around that time, 'cause the late '90s, early 2000s, well, it's hard to remember now, but there a lot going on in Washington, but it never comes off as something he would have genuine interest in through any of other actions; it feels much more like something that might've been true, but I suspect he probably also watched "The Disney Afternoon" a lot, and that just didn't make it into the film. 

"Hillbilly Elegy" is well-acted, and probably does improve the material given, but I don't think it does it enough. It's more interesting to reflect on afterwards than it is to watch, and it can be irksome at times. I don't think it's terrible either, and- eh, I guess some of the makeup is kinda Award-worthy, and sure, Glenn Close and even Amy Adams, in an underwritten, tricky role is good, but it's a lot less passionate and inspirational than I believe it's filmmakers think it is. And while it does indeed, see a lot of the problems with the area and the ways of life, it doesn't look at them, and tries to come up with better solutions; it just looks at them with awe in how unfortunate and sad it really is. In many ways I could easily make an argument that I should really be much more frustrated with it than I am, but I guess I'm lenient 'cause I'm somewhat impressed that the movie isn't as bad as it could've been. It could've also been a lot better though. 


ROCKS (2021) Director: Sarah Gavron

⭐⭐⭐1/2


I don't think I've ever fully realized just how much Ken Loach's influence is in British cinema has. I guess that's partly because he's a neorealist and you don't usually think of them as being influential, especially in some of the more major filmmaking countries when you look upon their overall film landscape. Italy created Neorealism, but they didn't stick with neorealism. I don't necessarily think of England as a country that stuck with it either, but there's quite a lot of cinema from England that's clearly inspired by his work, or if his work necessarily, the influence of telling tales of some of the downtrodden characters in a post Thatcher society that's somewhat crumbling even today, and is full of fringe characters on the edge of society, often young characters, caught in some of our worst societal sins, economic and otherwise, that's when you do start to begin realizing that the influence is much more pronounced than it first seems. 

I don't how to rank "Rocks" on that scale; I'm not even really sure how much "Rocks" is influenced by Loach. It's the latest from Sarah Gavron, she was the director behind "Suffragette" as loose biopic about the fight for Women's right to vote in the UK. I didn't care for that film; I thought it was trying too much when it could've been sharper. Gavron's new attempt "Rocks" is more universal, and specific, but at the same time, I could see the argument that the story perhaps is too manipulative and generic. Rocks (Bukky Bakray) is the daughter of a Nigerian immigrant single mother who lives with her little brother Emmanuel (D'Angelo Osei Kissiedu), who she takes care of a lot since her mother is apparently busy all the time. We don't get to know how busy she is, because we find out that she's abandoned them one day. Rocks tries to get ahold of her, but to no avail. She was fired from her job a week ago, and we have suspicions, but eventually, things start to get bad. Money runs out, electricity runs out, but she doesn't seek out help.
Sometimes for good reason. a few of her friends thinks she's helping out by calling social services, including getting into an argument with Sumaya but that ends up separating them eventually when, after getting kicked out of a hotel she managed to talk herself into, her friend Agnes (Ruby Stokes) calls them, thinking it was the best idea.

Actually, compared to Loach, this movie, and a lot of other modern British-neorealist cinema, seem to be more inclined to focus on the struggles with the familial dynamics plaguing the country as opposed to just the governmental ones. They're both related of course, but...-, I think if anywhere, that's where "Rocks" really separates itself the most. It's a movie with few adult or parental characters, so we're mostly following these young adults, and the one thing I noticed most everybody agreeing on with this film is that, it's gets teenagers and their behavior, actions, motivations, etc., it gets all that right, which ultimately I think is a good thing. Well, not entirely, there's one hypocritical character, Roshe (Shaneigha-Monik Greyson) who commits fraud through her family's store, taking customer's credit cards, and when Rocks does the same to survive, she publicly out her. Rocks also defends another girl from bullies, causing a food fight in-, what I think was a Home Economics class. (I hate the term Home Economics; I'm glad I took Independent Living in school; except for the fact that my teacher at the end of the year, went back to her ex-husband. True story) And actually, the nice thing about the movie is how, when much of her inner friends circle realize how she's been on her own and ducking social services people, they try to help her out. Even combining their funds to get her to see her brother at his care foster school. It's actually hopeful for the future in my mind to see how good these kids are. They're mostly minority immigrants as well, but not all, and they are from different economic classes as well. 

I suspect that's why the film plays so well in England especially, where class has historically been a major cultural divider and not just an economic one. For me, "Rocks" is good, not great, and doesn't entirely show me stuff that I haven't seen before, but there's really good performances and a hopeful look at modern London youths and how they handle difficult problems, often on their own, and seeing them as being genuinely empathetic and helpful that puts it over the top. This is a weird movie where the only villain, supposedly, is the unseen mother character who abandons her children, but you know, and while that's terrible and there's a lot to be said about the perils of struggling to raise kids on your own in a society that punishes single parents, especially immigrant ones, especially black immigrant ones, the movie might be sad on the surface, but it's overall perspective on the world is hopeful. Don't confuse that for an easy watch, but considering the alternative endings to stories like these, this is not bad. 


PAW PATROL: THE MOVIE (2021) Director: Cal Brunker

⭐⭐⭐1/2


I remember reading a profile on Tony Macklin one day; I forget what periodical it was,- Tony Macklin is a famous freelance movie critic based in Las Vegas; he still reviews films and is generally well-respected critic. He's a regular participant in Sight & Sound's yearly poll for instance. Anyway,  I remember reading him back when he wrote for the Las Vegas Mercury, a now-defunct weekly alternative magazine in town, back then there were a few of them. The Mercury had some decent articles and writers in them, but he had some pretty negative things to say about them. One of the things he mentioned was how the editor would send him to review the "Pokemon" movie, which-, yeah, that was not something he should've been doing. I'm not saying that 'cause he's not qualified to have an opinion on it or anything, or that movie critics shouldn't have to be review everything and give them a fair shot, but when you're one of like, four film critics on a staff for a local alternative magazine that's cost, free, to pick up, and you're sending your most knowledgeable and experienced film critic to go see "Pokemon" and write a review of it, you're probably quite inadequate at being a magazine editor who doesn't use the resources he has correctly.  

Anyway, I saw "PAW Patrol: The Movie" this week.

(Shrugs)

Actually, if I being honest, I actually knew more about "PAW Patrol" going into this than I did "Coming to America". I had seen a few sporadic episodes out of curiosity when I had cable and was stuck in some random hotel rooms with cable and my internet not working. There's nothing on basic cable in the afternoon, so, why not keep something, light and educational on. "PAW Patrol" did get a little bit of news a few years ago when #DefundThePolice was trending, and the nuttiness of right-wingers pontificated that that meant that somehow those people wanted all police taken away, including the PAW Patrol. It got to the point where they had to tweet about it. Also, we really should defund the police, they're terrible and they don't protect us, blah, blah, blah....

However, that said, if the police acted a lot more like the PAW Patrol, I probably would want more of them around. The PAW Patrol are a team of, well, puppies, led by and brought together by Ryder (Will Brisban) a, kid, who, in Adventure Bay, apparently was placed in charged of the local police, fire, and all other emergency sectors and decided to hire puppies to run them. I-, I don't get it either, but apparently it works. They treat everyone equally, they seem to save those who are in trouble on a regular basis. They don't overstep their influence and power, and are mostly there to help others. Honestly, yeah, I'd rather have the PAW Patrol than the regular police. 

Granted, Adventure Bay, doesn't seem to be that populated an area, but in this movie, they take a rare detour outside, or apart, of their jurisdiction-, I actually don't know how the jurisdictional lines work here, but they're called to Adventure City, after a corrupt mayoral race lead to their old rival, Humdinger (Ron Pardo) becoming the new Mayor. They come, to help, because he is a really awful mayor. Yeah, I don't know if he was created in this series, before or after Trump, but yeah, whether on purpose or not, he is a major Trump caricature. He's so selfish and self-absorbed that basically all his idea are disastrous failures plans to show how great he is, that usually injure or hurt himself or everyone else around him. Also, he's more of a cat person. 

Among his disasters, he rushed a fireworks display for his inauguration party, which leads to the fireworks all going through the city instead of up in the sky, he tries to add a loop-de-loop to the subway, he forces the university science department use their weather machine to suck up all the clouds so he could have that fireworks display, and just have nice days everyday while he's in charge, he puts a giant tower on top of the tallest building in order to work at the top of the world's tallest building.... Like, yeah, he just causes havoc and chaos wherever he is. And then get annoyed when puppies have to come and, save everybody from his failures. There's truly many egomaniacal layers to this guy, but we gotta move on.

The major inner conflict in the show involves Chase (Iain Armitage), one of the PAW Patrol, who, in a previous life, had some bad experiences as a young pup in Adventure City. He tries to help on and keep going with the aiding the rescue missions, but while the missions remain successful, his strive for perfection is costing him to make potentially lethal mistakes and Ryder eventually benches him temporarily while they're in town. 

There's also a storyline involving a young female city pup Liberty (Marsai Martin), who is a bit of a fangirl of the PAW Patrol, but also, after she calls them in on the city's latest disaster, and begins helping them on their rescues and guiding them through Adventure City, almost seeming and acting like an Honorary Member of the Paw Patrol at times. At times, she reminded me of Cleo from "Clifford the Big Red Dog"; I was almost convinced Cree Summer was her voice actress before I looked into it. No word from whether or not Care Bear Cousins count as Care Bears right now, but apparently there is room for advancement in the PAW Patrol, and a willingness to recruit outside their base jurisdiction and room for potential expansion and that's good to know. 

Honestly, I rather enjoyed this film. I came in with little-to-no expectation, as was probably just gonna be nice if I thought the movie was good at killing 90 minutes of time, without killing a five-year-old's brain cells, but you know what, I totally get why PAW Patrol are popular and well-accepted in family homes. And the movie's pretty fun; in fact, it got pretty terrifying at the end. It didn't feel just like another episode of the show, but it didn't necessarily go too over-and-above what I'd expect from a preschool series being adapted to a theatrical feature length. It feels like the people involved cared about making this and making it good. I can see myself liking this show if I was a young kid now. I don't know if it's a favorite of mine, or anyway, but it's perfectly suitable, and hey, if in the future, people who grew up on "PAW Patrol" were to use the structure to create a more efficient and less awful actual police and emergency system in this country, one that comes when needed and prepared to help out the people who are the most in trouble on a regular basis, than perhaps this show could possibly do some good. Honestly, this is a movie that should be shown to cops. It shows how helpful they can be, and that it's good to arrest and jail corrupt politicians when they break the law and put the public's lives in danger! It's gotta be better than most of what they're teaching the police now. 


MLK/FBI (2021) Director: Sam Pollard

⭐⭐⭐⭐


I must say that it's genuinely weird to think about how many television appearances there are of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and how strange and surreal it is to see some of them. Where he's always stern and serious about the struggles of the negro and their ongoing fights for civil rights, and yet, still being somewhat looser and cordial, even joking and laughing at times and it's weird to think that, basically my entire life, we've had a national day devoted to him. There are people alive today who probably still take January 20th off with pay every year, that cheered when he was assassinated. Oh yeah, he was never beloved or admired, nationally in his life. We do like to think of the '60s as a more liberal and free flowing time, but while it was the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, the reality was that the leaders in charge were still very much ideologues that grew up in a time when then thought that African-American were to be kept in their place and shouldn't be so outspoken in general, much less about such liberal and communist ideas. 

Yeah, MLK wasn't a communist, don't let that get twisted, but J. Edgar Hoover definitely thought he was. It's- (Sigh)- look, it's-, it's not like the FBI is entirely legit or whatever right now, as an organization, naturally, some of their actions, supposed or otherwise are gonna have a little shade to and surrounding them, and the fact that they are a policing organization at all is always gonna make anything they do skeptical, but by any measurable standard, they're a helluva lot better now, than they used to be. Not all of that can be contributed to J. Edgar Hoover finally dying, but a lot of it can be. J. Edgar's place in the story of America is, on some level, always gonna just be this bizarre mindfuck of the history books to analyze. In hindsight, a lot of his behavior, well, it does sound very much like Trump. He was paranoid about subversion, and always making claims about certain liberal peoples who he thought of as threats. Hoover was good friends with Roy Cohn, who was one of Trump's mentors, but...- yeah, while you can point to successes of his, especially in his early career, he basically used the FBI that he created as his personal gestapo. And MLK was no different. 

King himself was skeptical of Hoover's full interest in him for awhile, but eventually, it became quite clear that they were wire-tapping him and everywhere King went, their were agents who followed. Even one of the major Civil Rights photographers turned out to secretly be an FBI spy. One of the weird weaknesses of the FBI is that it's basically able to be altered by the person in charge more than most U.S. Government organizations, arguably more than the White House even. He was known for supposedly finding salacious materials on all his enemies and probably several of his so-called friends, which is part of why he stayed in power for so long, arguably the most influential political figure in American history who never ran for elected office of any kind. 

What exactly did his G-men find searching on King? Well, there were definitely threats of his, and they definitely found out about his indiscretions. It's known that King did have affairs and apparently at some point, Hoover tried to use that to stop King, even sent several fake letters from supporters and even one of his tapes to him. King's camp seemed to laugh most of them off as Hoover had a distinct disadvantage in that, he really didn't quite have any good concept of African-American culture, and just how obviously out-of-place some of his attempts to fool him were.
 
"MLK/FBI" is a pretty good document on the FBI's involvement in King, as well as King himself and how he worked around and handled the threat. It also gives a pretty good breakdown of King over the years. While there's definitely, nuance to him personally, there was also some political nuance from King as well as some of this is showcased. While he worked with LBJ to get the Voting Rights Act passed for instance, Johnson was not particularly pleased with his stance against Vietnam, which was much more of a firestorm than is remembered; even much of the major Northern liberal press took issue with him at that time; this was '67, a year before his assassination, which, the FBI actually went to stunningly grave detail to seek out James Earl Ray and find, although, it is a bit troubling that they followed King for years and were there in the next room when he was shot and didn't do anything.... (Hoover did know how to up the actual investigations into crimes when you know, their reputation was genuinely at stake), but very much still when the Vietnam War, was popular in the country. The war didn't start becoming generally unpopular until after the Tet Offensive in '68, and even then.... We still don't know exactly what they found on King, the official records of the wiretapping won't be made public 'til 2027, and there are some of the more controversial speculations about King that some are kinda concerned about.

 Honestly, I thought one of the reasonable talking heads in the film, and he was mostly a disembodied voice from a recording, was from James Comey, the then-head of the FBI, saying that he suspected that most of what he suspects will be revealed will mainly be proof that King was more complex as a person, and probably more of Hoover's general obsession with the private sex lives of the people he investigated for subversion. Yes, it's weird how Hoover's sexuality, which, is highly discussed now personally for him, was such a key touchstone with him in terms of what he thought of as hypocrisy in general, and yeah, apparently with King, who was married and a minister of course. There is one brief note of the one known FBI note about King being present at a rape in Baltimore, that, based on the descriptions definitely has certain questions regarding it's legitimacy,- and again, the issue is that he was present, he wasn't necessarily involved or participatory, and even then, the account sounds odd.... You gotta remember, most of this wasn't videotaped and probably wasn't photographed, this was people listening to wiretaps and hearing things through walls, there's a decent chance that while a lot of King's transgressions will become more public in the future, that a lot of this might be imagination run amuck.

The big questioned posed with the movie isn't so much what the contents are in the FBI's vault on King, it's more to do with the historical purpose of them, and whether or not they should be used to tell his story. We're gonna learn quite a lot from them I'm sure, but legally and technically, we shouldn't really have them at all,  and what do we make of recordings of King? It's a question that's posed and considered but never answered, although I supposed the film's existence itself is a bit of an answer. Not a complete one, as this is essentially an incomplete film. There's more to the story of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the FBI, and perhaps one will get the complete story.