Sunday, June 26, 2022

MOVIE REVIEWS #195: "BELFAST", "LICORICE PIZZA", "SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME", "SPENCER", "I'M YOUR WOMAN", "BIRDS OF PREY AND THE FANTABULOUS EMANCIPATION OF ONE HARLEY QUINN", "BOYS STATE", "FOURTEEN" and "TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH (Kurosawa)"!

I never know what to write here anymore. It seems like all these opening paragraphs are just me apologizing for being so busy to see the movies I want to see, and a brief discussion about how the world is a little worst off now. 

(Sigh)

By the way, for all who care, here in Nevada, the right to an abortion is codified in the state constitution and can only be overturned by a majority vote on a state ballot and it's not going on the ballot anytime soon, for anyone who might be interested in that information.

But yeah, I've been busy, and I haven't been able to watch/write/publish/review at the rates I've wanted to. I don't know if it'll change any time soon either, it seems like we all have a real lot of work to do in the near future, but anyway, we're getting to a bunch of films this week. I did see one movie I didn't review, an Irish film called "Float Like a Butterfly" about a rural Irish nomad girl who dreams of being a fighter. It's okay. Not much to say on it from my end, but I had a lot more to say about a lot of these films. I'm definitely getting a few responses from this batch of reviews, but, eh, whatever, let's get to it. 


BELFAST (2021) Director: Kenneth Branagh

⭐⭐⭐⭐1/2

 

I know,  that basically every religious war there's ever been, has been stupid, but the conflicts in Northern Ireland over the decades, have got to be high up there as among the very stupidest. At least, that's how it must've seemed to Buddy (Jude Hill), and many other young kids growing up during the turbulent time of "The Troubles" as it's known colloquially over in Northern Ireland. I know there was more at stake, political and civil rights at hand and whatnot, but yeah, from the ground level, it did seem, like most such conflicts, they're simply tools for those who are otherwise disturbed people to act out their more primal and violent desires, under some guise of morality or legality.

Branagh grew up in the beginning of that era, in "Belfast." I don't know how Branagh's regarded in the Isles honestly; from an American perspective, he's basically been, my generation's ideal Shakespearean actor. Very much similar to one of his idols, Lawrence Olivier, who he himself famously played in "My Week with Marilyn", I'm always half-amazed when Branagh does anything outside of Shakespeare, which is really unfair, but that's just what I think of him. He was the director and actor in four of the biggest Shakespeare adaptations of my youth, and two of those, "Henry V" and "Hamlet", I consider among the very best filmed adaptations of his work. I'm also seen him other places of course, but he's one of those performers who I just think of as this Shakespearean actor for our times. Even the negative traits I associate with him, like some of his more over-the-top hamminess in his acting, I feel like that's, a great theater actor transitioning awkwardly to the screen. But he does do other material, including some mainstream; he directed "Thor" for instance, which is still one of the very best Marvel movies. I'm actually surprised how much he has directed, I tend to think of him more as an actor who director as opposed to a director who acts, but that's probably not true. I haven't seen most of his newer films, including what seems like his very odd-looking Agatha Christie adaptations, but...- let's just say that, if you asked me what Oscar category would he finally win for last year, I think I would've guessed Best Sound before I came up with Best Original Screenplay. 

Sure enough, I get why he won. "Belfast" is probably the kind of movie, structurally that would annoy most people, if it wasn't autobiographical, or took place, literally anywhere else. There's plenty of stories about a young kid having to move from his home, but I bought into it here. "Belfast", tells Buddy's story, coming from a Protestant home where Ma (Caitriona Balfe) is always at home, and Pa (Jamie Dornan) is always out-of-town struggling for work, and while the constant threat of violence from the ever-growing Protestant militants as they bully their way into trying to decry, or in their words, cleanse, the neighborhood of Christian households, he basically just, goes about living his life.

Buddy's story and goals are fairly simple. He wants to watch movies and shows, he wants to get better at school to impress a girl he likes, Catherine (Olive Tennant), who always sits near the front of the class since that's where the teacher puts the best graded kids, which...- personally I would've switched that, have the kids with the worst grades up front, and the best kids in the back, who clearly don't need to be near the front, but that's me.... He sometimes, plays with his older cousin Moira (Lara McDonnell) who seems to try to be caught up in Belfast's gang culture, as Buddy struggles to pull off simple shoplifting and other minor crimes. He also likes to hang out with his beloved grandfather and grandmother, Pop and Granny (Oscar nominees Ciaran Hinds and Judi Dench). These two are lovely together by the way, they're an old married couple, but they're a loving couple and they love to dote on their grandson and on each other too. Honestly, in hindsight in these kinds of movies, you don't normally see, happy couples as influences on the youth, and here, we actually have two. Buddy's parents are at an impasse, but you never get the sense that they themselves are troubled. Pa has to work in England and they're struggling to pay back an extensive backtax that he owes, but you know, except for the fact that he can't be with them as much as he'd want, they're a good, loving couple too. 

The big conflict is whether or not they're moving out of Belfast, if, and how. Pa recognizes that the Troubles are gonna to make the place too dangerous, but there's limited options. They have some relatives in Canada and Australian, but they're pretty distant, and they're not quite well-off enough to take such a risky journey. And besides, neither Ma, nor Buddy, for that matter, really want to leave; "Belfast" is their home after all, and why can't you be safe in your home...? Movies like these, usually benefit from being through the child's perspective, my favorite in recent years is the underrated "What Maisie Knew" about a parents divorce and the switch divergent paths both parents and therefore, their daughter takes. The movie doesn't quite stay a 100% from the child's perspective, but while the movie drifts a bit from that, especially to focus a bit more attention on Granny & Pop, it doesn't unpleasantly so. We're seeing the world, essentially as Buddy sees it, and remember. The Van Morrison soundtrack definitely helps as well; this movie harkens back to an idyllic Irish youth, but still shows an unfortunate world that's painted in black and white, while everybody struggles to exist in the shades of gray they're comfortable with, Buddy can't help but see the colorful worlds of the stage and screen, and eventually realize that there's a better, more interesting world that he's missing out on. And of course, as things get worst, Ma and Pa, just eventually realize that they gotta get out. 

I came in more skeptical, hearing a lot of criticism about the pathos of the movie making it seem more sappy and contrived; I strongly disagree with this. I like how it isn't conventional at all. I've seen this story where, the parents join the fight, and the kids are caught in the middle, or where the trouble surrounding the youth's world is counteracted with the troubles at home, or how the kid, get caught up in the violence himself because there's not enough ability or love from his parents to keep an eye on him at home. I've even seen the tale about how the school system fails these kids so they end up as the street thugs that parade around controlling everybody else. It doesn't even have a scene of an old loved one dying come to think of it. This movie actually evades a lot of those cliches and still gives an emotional heart and center. I prefer this, it's more uplifting and full of life. Yeah, maybe it's too nostalgic, but it's not undermining the horrors that happened, quite the contrary, it's putting them into a more personal context. 

Maybe I wouldn't care for it this much, if I didn't suspect a personal truth in the person telling it, sure, but since it does feel personal and inspirational, it works. It's not the story I ever thought Branagh would tell, or the one I most wanted to see from him necessarily, but it's the one that I'm most glad he's told us. 


LICORICE PIZZA (2021) Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

⭐⭐⭐


I had a friend on Facebook whose opinion I respect, say that he was disappointed in Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film, "Licorice Pizza", stating that, and I'm gonna quote him here, "...Jane Campion made the best PTA film last year...". Well, that's an attention-grabbing statement. And I kinda get what he means, 'cause I can definitely see a world where PTA might've made a film like "The Power of the Dog", and that is ultimately a better movie. On the other hand, as to that film, being more of a PTA film than "Licorice Pizza"...? Uh, that one, I can't agree with, 'cause this might be the most PTA film I've seen yet. 

In fact, that's probably the biggest problem with the film; it's a little too much of his most insular inspirations and influences. Los Angeles, check. Something directly or tangentially related to the entertainment industry, check. 1970s, check. Kind of a elaborate but plotless narrative that stumbles to a wild finish, yeah, definite check. Hell, it's even got the strange acerbic title that you have to look up the reference to. Yeah, I didn't recognize it either, but the title has two sources, the main one being, the name of a famous small-chain record So-Cal record store back in the '70s. They took that name as a reference to an old Abbott & Costello sketch, one so old that I have a difficult time even finding video of it, but basically, they fail at selling records and one of them suggests putting corn starch on the bottom and calling them "licorice pizzas", which sounds exactly like a scheme that I'm sure Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who was one of PTA's frequent collaborators until his passing) would've started if he had thought to come up with it. 

Gary is a teenage actor, who's gotten some notable success and is a good albeit, eccentric performer, but he's much more of a business hustler than an actor. He's kind of a realistic Zach Morris, more than anything. He starts a friendship with Alana (Alana Haim), a a fellow actress and fellow free spirit who he meets at picture day at school. She looks like she could be a teenager when standing around them, but she's in her early-to-mid '20s and is still bouncing around from job-to-job trying to find herself. He then gets her wrangled into several of his side businesses, the first being as a waterbed salesman, and then later, after pinball becomes legal in California (Yes, this was a thing, it was illegal until the '70s), he opens a pinball arcade. All within the same year, and all the while he's trying to get with Alana, and Alana's trying not to get with him. 

Yeah, this movie's romance plot, is kinda irksome,.... I mean, it's not like she likes these high school boys because she keeps getting older and they stay the same age or anything like that, and frankly he seems much more the adult to begin with. Even he helps get her the occasional gigs she does get most of the time. These gigs lead to their own little misadventures, like a strange surreal trip to a golf course where a movie star, Jack Holden (Sean Penn) who she almost jumps over a flaming bunker on a motorcycle with, at the drunken behest of Tom Waits, of all cameos. The most famous cameo involves Bradley Cooper as he goes nuts during a waterbed delivery that suddenly gets more and more out-of-hand and surreal. Also, this ends up involving the 1974 mayoral candidacy of Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie) after Alana ends up becoming a key part of his campaign.... 

You might be wondering what exactly all these things have in common...?
 
Honestly, not much. In fact, despite the fact that the movie never actually takes place in a record store, I get why he named it after a record store, 'cause this movie feels like we're perusing a record store and picking out many different albums and sounds out of all the sections and maybe listening into a track or two in a booth of a bunch of old records. The soundtrack of the film is amazing by the way, but the point of the movie is the randomness. It's not unusual with PTA, but usually when he does this, he has some kind of real arching theme or idea or idea at play. The easiest comparison here is "Boogie Nights", on paper, that movie does just as much jumping around to random events, characters, bullshit as this film does, and like this film, many of the events in that movie are based on real events and real people, but placing the film in the setting of the adult film world of the late '70s and early '80s, makes them all seem like they're apart of the same narrative thread.

Even "Inherent Vice" a movie based on a Thomas Pynchon novel of all things, somehow feels more cohesive than "Licorice Pizza" because of how it's got it's film noir aesthetic all the way through and the Chandleresque narrative always seems like it's going somewhere. "Licorice Pizza", is about the San Fernando Valley in 1974, a couple years earlier, but not too far removed from the late '70s, Los Angeles of "Boogie Nights", except there isn't a clear narrative or a clear through line, it's just the randomness of these two main characters and the experiences they have running into and being in a world with the random characters they run into in this time and place. I can see how some could argue how and why that makes "Licorice Pizza" better or even equal to some of PTA's best, but I'm gonna take the other limb and say that it's one of his very weakest films. I think he tried to make "Punch-Drunk Love 2" and ended up shoving in some unused discarded segments from "Magnolia"

There's still a lot to be impressed by. The filmmaking's great, the casting is special, even if it's just a bunch of people that PTA has known for years now, but it's focus is too just weirdly insular and narrow a focus that it ultimately makes it difficult to truly feel emotional about, and something I rarely find with PTA; even the films of his I like the least, I usually have strong feelings on, and this is one of the first times I just don't. Perhaps, this is the first time he just made something that was way too personal to him for us to truly get traction into it. I know, I had to look up a lot to fully understand this movie and get a real sense of all the characters in the film, the real people they represent and even the actors playing them have significance to this film and to PTA specifically, and yeah, that's just way too specific ultimately. I never needed to do that with any of his previous films, and it wasn't because I was familiar with all the events he was re-telling or re-imagining or any of the stories that he was adapting before. I understood them all fine without needing the extra context to feel like I had a fulfilling cinematic experience. I guess it's ultimately worth a watch, so I'll just barely recommend it, for everything good in it, and clearly the work was put in, and perhaps those who lived through this era in and around the time it took place, might relate to it more, but for me, it's just too distant. 


SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME (2021) Director: Jon Watts

⭐1/2


Yes, I finally watched "No Way Home".

Sorry to start with that, but I've been inundated by some, you know who you are, who couldn't believe that I wouldn't immediately just jump to see the latest "Spider-Man" movie the second it was released to theaters. I mean, I know apparently everybody else did, it's the movie that basically saved the theaters during the last few months of the Covid pandemic's most severe state. Pretty much nobody went to see anything else. I didn't go see anything else either, but I certainly wasn't going to see "No Way Home" if I was gonna see anything, 'cause I have never liked Spider-Man, in any form. Well, that's not entirely true, I've liked a couple of the movies here and there, but, no, there's really no scenario where I put "Spider-Man" anything, on or near the top of-, anything. I've been criticized many times for not liking many different "Spider-Man..." movies. I've been criticized for it, basically since the first Sam Raimi "Spider-Man" film. I never liked any of the cartoon series of his, or movies, I certainly never cared about the comics.... I always thought he just registered to me at best as "uninteresting" or "childish", especially the deeper you dive into Stan Lee's early stuff, it really is mind-numbing how simple a lot of it was. Even this movie makes a little fun of it sometimes, Doctor Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina) really is a funny name. 

Childish, yeah, I'll stand by that one, but "uninteresting,"...? Well, I certainly don't think he's as compelling as other superheroes; I don't think he holds a candle to Batman or Superman, but I don't know, I can't really say he's uninteresting, can I? I mean, obviously, if we're talking about if Spider-Man is interesting, the first question is, "Well, which one?"

I don't know why we've been so insistent over the years on Spider-Man getting the multiverse treatment. I always suspected that Peter Parker was too boring in of himself so they had to keep coming up with new Spider-Mans and new ways to bring in new Spider-Mans, and the multiple universe theory has become a convenient way for writers, especially comic book writers to explain off such drastic changes and shifts, without just saying, "I wanted to do something different than the crap we were doing." Frankly, I don't think it's actually that interesting a writing device most of the time, especially the way that it's constantly and commonly used in superhero narratives. I can think of times I do like it, like "Star Trek" I think usually uses it well, but you know, it makes more sense there since they're already literally out in literal space, looking for new universes, they'd naturally occasionally run into one or two literally. However, in the universe of Marvel, universes are just infinite for the purposes of....- um...,-...- lazy writing, and they're not founded through a scientific-based approach to exploring other worlds, they come about because, there's a warlock who has the ability to cast interdimensional spells. (You know, I used to like Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) but now I'm rethinking why he's here, other than to just, be the plothole guy. [Sigh]) But, since there are so many Spider-uh-men? Man? Spider-Men?- so many Spideys, it's kinda hard to imagine that all of them are uninteresting. And, yeah, I liked Miles Morales in "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse" a lot; I hated that movie, but it wasn't because of him, he was a good character with an interesting backstory, and had different and interesting reasons to be Spider-Man. Different than Peter Parker (Tom Holland). 

Parker's backstory has constantly remained similar enough in these movies. He's either a teenager, or at most a very young adult, who loses both parents and grows up with his aunt and uncle, until his Uncle Ben passes away, leaving him to be raised during his most formative years by his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei). He mostly an introverted, smart, shy student until he attains these special spidey powers, usually against his will, and becomes more confident afterwards. He gets a girl, in this case, it's MJ (Zendaya), and occasionally a close confidant, this one's Ned (Jacob Batalon) who may or may not eventually turn against him and may or may not eventually find or develop his own unique special abilities in the future. Also, for some reason, he ends up getting portrayed as public enemy number one by "The Daily Bugle" editor J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons), portrayed in this world, as some kind of right-wing fringe media caricature a la, Bill O'Reilly and especially Alex Jones, which, yeah, that's- he probably would've always been that if they were invented beforehand. It's,- I guess this base origin is not terrible in of itself, variations of a theme aside; I can kinda see how being a secret teenage superhero can be just as much of a burden, if not moreso than being a secret adult superhero.... I mean, just on paper, I like it better than I like any attempts to portray Superman's teenage perils... (Yes, that includes "Smallville"; why did people like that thing? Take the worst part of Superman's origin story and stretch it for a decade! UGH!) 

However, "No Way Home" for me anyway, is going to be the movie where I went from general indifference and befuddlement to Spider-Man, to where I genuinely started to really despise this character. And it ironically begins and ends with the most famous, and probably the best thing that's come out of "Spider-Man" in any/all forms. It's that one great line they have, "With great power comes great responsibility." I do like that line, a lot. I think it makes sense, both within "Spider-Man" and outside of it. To achieve great power, literal or figurative is one thing, but with it comes the burden of acting responsibly with that power. If you don't, then, pretty literally, you are then just, another supervillain. Spider-Man it particularly makes sense for, because for the most part, all of Spider-Man's most famous villains, The Green Goblin (Daniel Dafoe), Dr. Octupus, Sandman, (Thomas Haden Church), Elctro (Jamie Foxx), they all, like Peter, gained powers through inadvertent and unexpected means, and they all died, at the hands of Peter Parker's Spider-Man, because he is the one who uses his power most responsibly.

(Sigh) 

Except he doesn't! And the more I think about it, it pisses me off that he doesn't! 

Spider-Man doesn't treat that saying, the way it's intended; he really morphs it, both in this movie, and many times, in the comics themselves. (I know enough to know that, "One More Day" for instance, is particularly infamous in this regard, and that that's not the only example.) In fact, now that I think about it, I think that's is ultimately the real main reason why I've never been able to grab onto this character, 'cause, he seems to be under this impression, that that statement, of great power and great responsibility, isn't so much a guideline, as it is, a mantra to live by, in order to defend his own selfishness. 

Or worst than that, I think he's under the impression that those extremes always have to be in great conflict with each other...? You see, you can have great responsibility, without having great power, and unless there's something about the science in this world that I'm not aware of, logically, you wouldn't lose it by gaining a power. He acts like responsibility is a burden or challenge, but they're not, just be responsible for your actions, whether they help or hurt people, right?! You don't even have to be a superhero, the friendly neighborhood "Spider-Man" always out watching over the streets of New York City...-; that's another thing about most of his origin stories that I don't like, he becomes obsessed with the notion that he must always be out there being the savior/spokesman for the public good, when you know, it's not like you have to keep having police chatter on the CB radio on all the time. If you're in the area, fine, help the person, but you know, like, if you're not, like you don't have to keep running around saving everybody; even Superman can't be everywhere all the time. 

Instead of that though,...- like, the big plotpoint in this film is that, Jameson has revealed his identity after the villain of the last film, Mysterio, left a dying message that was full of lies about him to make him seem like the hero. This causes his life to be uprooted, as well as the lives of everyone around him. He's become a pariah at school, where he's constantly followed by cameras as well as protestors. His friends are now ostracized, and all of them, himself included, rejected from M.I.T., their first choice school, because of their association with him. So, he goes to Dr. Strange, in order to cast a spell to have everybody he knows, forget that he's Spider-Man. I don't know how this will lead to erasing the videotape footage of him being revealed as Spider-Man; you'd think, even after it happens, eventually Jameson will discover his old news reports on his Youtube channel, but nevermind.... The spell, ultimately fails, but it causes a wormhole to the multiverse and all the aforementioned villains inevitably come out of them, and create havoc..., as well as eventually, a couple other Peter Parker's (Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield). Before that, this was such a stupid plan that, Dr. Strange pointed out all the obvious holes in it, and pointed out Peter's particular naiveness in not going to the head of the school to plead his case, which... (Sigh) yeah... I-eh,...tsk... 

(Sigh) 

You know, I always hated "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer" as well, for several reasons, but one of them that, was easy to point out for a joke, but it still does legitimately irk me about the concept of that show, is, simply, "Why does this vampire killing bitch, still care about the stupid and other bullshit school stupid, when she can just take over the damn thing whenever she wants?", and um, Holland's "Spider-Man" anyway, is getting really close to being that annoying in this movie. Like, forget that you're Spider-Man for a second, and just mention that Tony Stark endorsed you; that should get you into M.I.T. pretty easily, and then bring up Spider-Man to bring your friends in! I mean, Happy (Jon Favreau) was still dating your aunt, even without Tony, that should be enough corroboration for them? Or just, skip M.I.T., I think these three are good enough engineers to go out on your own already! 

But no, instead of taking responsibility for his vanity and actions, he's go to literal, world-reversing, time-changing, magic, as an unnecessary last resort, to get things to be the way they were, when he thought everything was good?! Which, I might add, was shortly after, in this universe, half the frickin' planet was dead and missing for five years, because some asshole snapped his finger! So, not only does this guy have a bad system restore saved points, but he doesn't listen to his own mantra, he confuses his powers for being the source of all ills, and tries to take shortcuts to salvage them. And it doesn't frickin' work, and you end up killing your universe's best character because of it..., again, I might add, 'cause this isn't the first time this has happened to Spider-Man either! It's this idiotic common theme where he keeps having to chose between power and responsibility as though those two things are so separate that you can only do one or the other, and trying to balance between is just a tightrope that's waiting for him to slip off of. I think most people let him get away with it, because he's just a kid, but, frankly, I don't think young kids are being given enough credit here; I knew plenty of kids in his age range through all these universes of movies that would've handled the powers and the responsibilities better. And by the end of "No Way Home" he has not only sacrificed more than he ever should've, he's too chickenshit at the end to keep his promise, and just like, the end of "Endgame" everything's gone back and we've started back to where we were again....

(Sigh)

To be honest, I don't want to be this mean to this film. As I watched it- and I find this with most "Spider-Man" movies, at least the recent ones, I usually enjoy them in the moments, but once I start thinking about them, the worst and worst they get. I know some of you will say something like, "Well, stop thinking about them, movies like these aren't for great deep analyses of plot and commentaries about the the culture at large and the future of the cinema and Hollywood as we know it and whatnot, they're there to let you escape for a few hours into a different, fun world. I mean, these are movies about a kid that was bite by a radioactive spider who prances around New York City in spandex shooting webs from his arms, these films don't need to be taken so seriously!?" I see the point, I really do, I want to see that point of view with this film, 'cause while I am bashing a lot of it, there were some great action scenes, some amazing special effects, and I laughed a good deal, and I especially loved a lot of the performances. Daniel Dafoe was the best thing from all three of the Raimi "Spider-Man" films, it's great to see him, and to see them stay true to his and Doc Ock's characters too. This movie, if it does anything well, it treats these previous films and characters, and for those who care about "Spider-Man" the most, with a lot of respect. 

But, I just can't get there entirely. 

Movies like these, they need to make me stop thinking; it shouldn't be my burden, and maybe it was because I don't like so much of this story for this film, or because I don't care much at all about Spider-Man, or previous "Spider-Man" films, but you know, the burden shouldn't be on me to turn my brain off, the movie should just make me turn my head off. The best movies like these are ten times as ridiculous and impossible and I don't care at the end 'cause the movie made me not care about that and made me care about the film instead. This movie, mostly made me think about it.

And even then, I was still gonna be generous, but then there was another stupid Marvel post-credits scene, and then, even stupider, amazingly, a post-credits trailer, that I checked, was apart of the running time of the movie!!!!!! NO! Not accepting that either, I promised to knock off a half-star for every bad post-credits scene, and there's two of them, so that's a whole star in my book. As for everything else, look the movie might be technically be successful in doing in what it was trying to do, but I don't like Spider-Man, or care about these Spider-Man films, and the movie, basically doesn't remotely work if you don't have that response to those movies. 

(Shrugs)

I don't know what to tell people here, I don't have those responses from those movies, and I don't really get why others do. I guess I'm happy if other finds more in this film than I do for them, but...-, you know, I didn't particularly care about any of the "Mad Max" movies either, and then "Fury Road" told me to shut up, sit down and love this thing, and it worked. I outright hated every "Batman" movie until Christopher Nolan told me the same thing with his films. I'm not saying it isn't hard, those are exceptional example but it can be done. I really was hopeful this would've been the one that did it for me with Spider-Man; I think this movie more than any other "Spider-Man" wanted me so much to look at this franchise(s) and character(s) that way, but, nope. It had to make me, and it just didn't.


SPENCER (2021) Director: Pablo Larrain

⭐⭐⭐1/2


It was shortly after 6:30pm or so on a Saturday. Me and my mother had gone through the McDonald's drive-thru and we were returning home with food. For reasons that now escape me, my Aunt Patty was with us on that weekend. I forget where my Grandmother was, but I remember arriving home to hear the reports from my Aunt that just came in about the car accident that Princess Diana had been in. We watched the special reports news for the next few hours before I got bored and tired and wanted to watch something else. This was either around the time or after my big television had stopped working, so in order to watch something that I wanted to watch, I had to go to my Grandma's bedroom to watch television. Her television was older than the one I had that constantly burned out after a few hours, if it worked at all, and it was a smaller TV, maybe 4-6 inch black and white, big rabbit ears TV, that only played local channels. It would play diagonal snow on the screen for a little while before the whole picture of what you were watching would come in. So, while I wasn't watching "Hangin' with Mr. Cooper" I was hearing it when I turned it on. I also heard, the special report come in, not see, but heard, the report of her passing and I came out and told everyone else. My Aunt took it really hard, she idolized Princess Di. 

And that's my Princess Diana death story, and you can ask pretty much everybody my age of when/where they were when they heard the news and you'll definitely get an answer. It might seem more trivial in hindsight but trust me, it was a big deal. If you ask people older than me, they'll probably tell you where they were when they watched Princess Di's wedding, which I don't think is something that everybody will immediately know with Pippi Middleton and Prince William's wedding or for that matter Megan Markle and Prince Harry's. It's hard to explain to those who didn't live through it, just how important and major it Diana was, which I imagine is one reason why we have spent a lot of time recently trying to, especially through film and television, much to my chagrin and annoyance quite frankly, 'cause having lived through all this for most of my life, I really don't like living through it again. 

We've been making film, documentaries, and TV series about everything surrounding Diana for years now, but the explosion recently. There's been, this movie, Pablo Larrain's "Spencer" which is the best of the bunch, there's "Diana: The Musical", a Netflix documentary of a performance of the Broadway musical "Diana", which, let's count that as two entries, 'cause the broadway show is enough, and while I generally will applaud Netflix for adding more Broadway stuff, it's also clear that they made a weird first pick to capitalize on Disney+'s success with "Hamilton" with that one, and probably the most frustrating one for me, has been the last season of Netflix's series "The Crown", which goes through different eras of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II and finally won it's Best Drama Series Emmy on the season with Diana.... A season I thought was clearly the worst and most unwatchable of the series so far..., not just because I had to get retold Diana's story, once again, but it didn't help. (Also, fuck the Emmys! Go back to panel voting you populous trend-chasing hacks!) But those are just some of the many titles involving her. Some of them are good, even "The Crown" probably technically is a good telling of part of her story, and some of them are worth looking up, but it's-, it's just been a lot.

So, when one of the bigger controversies this award season was that Kristen Stewart kept missing out on nominations for her performance in "Spencer", up until she got in at the Oscars, my thought was, "Well, yeah, we're sick of Diana!" (Also, people don't like Kristen Stewart still, some of them...- I hate those people, 'cause all they think of her is "Twilight", which is grossly insipid and unfair and was at the time, and I couldn't believe I had to keep defending her from idiot film trolls all that time.) I know, I was long sick of Princess Diana; I get why she's is fascinating, I understood it then, and I understand now why her story is still worth telling, but it is so hard to listen to it over and over again. Her story, is more complicated than it is on the surface, and we are still learning just how bad it actually was for her; I don't think that gets talked about enough. The most interesting recent story involving Diana to me, involves the controversy behind the Martin Bashir interview she gave in '95, and a lot of that just came down recently, and the more you really look into how fucked up that was.... Yikes. 

"Spencer" isn't about that moment in Diana's life, it takes place a few years earlier, at the Norfolk Sandringham Estate near where she grew up, in the Christmas of 1991. The movie admits that the film is a fictional made-up account of what could've happened there; what is known as general knowledge is that this was around the time when Diana decided to divorce Charles. The movie mostly tries to showcase what we suspects was inside her mind during this time. This, is a difficult thing to do. Like, we do know, the details of her life and her struggles and everybody can kinda get that, artificially anyway. We know that Diana suffered from bulimia for instance, but we don't just see her throw up in a toilet. We see her mentally breaking down over a bowl of soup at the table. We see her literally clutching a string of pearls that Charles (Jack Farthing) until she imagines them simply breaking off her, and trying to devour them in her soup. We see her sneaking into the kitchen after hours to gorge on the leftover desserts that chef Darren (Sean Harris) has lead his crew in the kitchen to prepare for the family's several-day Christmas excursion. We know she had issues with self-harm, we don't just see her cutting herself, we see that she's frustrated with having to wear so many outfits during the day, and through the routine that's being pressured on her by all sides of the family, but usually represented by the staff that's thrust upon her, usually Major Gregory (Timothy Spall), especially after they sent away her most trusted dresser Maggie (Sally Hawkins), all before cutting the curtains open that she was warned to close before, after photographers and other groundspeople had seen her changing. We know that she was tabloid fodder and that the press was overwhelming and all-consuming upon her for basically half her life, and that she and the family did indeed despise most of the paparazzi, although she occasionally did use the press and her image to her advantage, often for provocation. 

One thing that's kinda different here, is how she finds herself taken in by the ghosts of the past royals. In the beginning, a book about Anne Boleyn is placed on her bed, she's not sure why or by who, but there's a lot of talk about her legacy, as she was beheaded after asking King Henry VIII for a divorce, but there's other talks about royal legacies at times. She even starts imaging Anne Boleyn (Amy Manson) at times, haunting over her thoughts and fears. That's actually interesting 'cause Diana, more than most royals seemed to be very much aware of the moment she was in, as opposed to dwelling on the past, but it must've haunted her as well, especially as her mind continued to go. We rarely see her talking with any of the Royal family outside of playing with William and Harry (Jack Neilen and Freddie Spry), and occasionally to Charles. She has one strained moment with the Queen (Stella Gonet) where she talks about a dress she wore that wasn't recommended to her. 

One thing the movie does that's kinda interesting as well is show the Royal family as concerning for Diana, but the way it comes off is troubling, since all their advice seems to come from a place of acceptance of the condition that they were mostly born into. Even she admits that none of them are actually all bad in of themselves. You know, I do think they were often frustrated with Diana, but that's probably true enough; I but that they felt sorry for her because she clearly didn't belong with them, but then again, she just clearly didn't belong with them, and that was always gonna be a bridge too far for certain members of the Royals. I like that, and it gives more credence to why this one is titled "Spencer" after her maiden name and family. 

A lot was also made of Jonny Greenwood's score for the movie. I don't know if the score itself is good or not, but the movie couldn't have worked at all without the score. This is one of those movies that's so insular, and often includes shots and sequences where you're barely sure they're really happening or made up figments of the protagonist's imagined experiences that we needed the music to help tell this story. The biggest comparison film I've seen is for Pablo Larrain's other similar-styled biopic, "Jackie" which in some cases literally followed Jackie Kennedy the days after JFK was killed. "Jackie" made my ten best list that year, and I think I could talk myself into conceding that on a technical level "Spencer" probably deserves such an honor itself. I like it more than I thought I would considering how tired I've become of being reminded of the poor girl, and instantly reliving, literally everything about her life that I followed basically from my birth to her passing, but admittedly, a lot of this just feels like a bridge too far from my end. Larrain is a wonderful filmmaker, who has a couple sides to her personality, especially with stuff that's more regional to his Chilean homeland, but he does like to find subjects about people's struggles with their mind, especially in situations where it's pushed to it's outermost limit. "Spencer" on the surface, ends happily, she's left the house, with her kids, and they go out and enjoy some fast food, assure in the decision that she knows she's ultimately leaving the royal family for good, a decision based on her own free will. However, Diana also spends the entire movie, trying to find her way home. Not just metaphorically either, as she often visits and remains fascinated by her nearby childhood home, first by a huge scarecrow that guards it that becomes a running motif, but also, literally, the house literally decaying under her feet once she does manage to find her way back there. 
Is it too obvious that she can never go home again? Perhaps, there's a few too obvious metaphors that get repeated here actually. 

Mostly, I just came out of the film, fascinated by Diana, but confused as I was not entirely sure why they wanted to give us this portrayal of her. Like, it's definitely not trying for a realistic docudrama of what happened, but I'm not sure why I needed to get this inside her head,- or this imagining of what was inside her head. That's why "Jackie" is a lot better, to compare the two, not that I needed to know that either, but a lot of that movie was based on Jackie Kennedy's own interviews and accounts of what happened, hers and others, and the greatness in Natalie Portman's performance was being able to see her come undone and recalibrate herself to still seem altogether while the world around her was completely changing. This is a completely imaginary tale of Diana's mind unraveling while mostly everything around her, doesn't change or get altered that much. It's harder to do, and it's especially difficult with somebody this famous. I can think of movies where they try this, to get you to empathize and to feel like somebody else does while their mind is going, "Still Alice" comes to my mind right away, but a better comparison might be something like "Black Swan" , and I think it does it better, because in "Black Swan", it is a made-up character we can more appropriately put ourselves into that role in the unbelievable situations surrounding that character. As much as I do feel empathy for Princess Diana, I think it's very difficult for us to fully get into her like that. I think we'd be better off if we could, don't get me wrong, but it feels like one layered separation too many. It's a fictional depiction of a real person that we're supposed to understand from the inside out...? Honestly, I give Larrain credit for making the film work as well as it does, as well as Stewart's performance which really is extraordinary, but yeah, it works technically much more than it does emotionally, at least for somebody who has dwelled on her inner thoughts for as long as I have. 


I'M YOUR WOMAN (2020) Director: Julia Hart

⭐⭐⭐1/2


I've only seen one previous Julia Hart film, but it was recent. I gave her film "Fast Color" a negative review, mainly because I didn't really know what to do with it. I kinda wanna give the same negative panning to "I'm Your Woman", also mainly because I don't really know what to do with it. These movies aren't bad, they're just not particularly special. They're both also, kinda similar, they're both about young women on the run, trying to escape from an ever-coming but vague threat that's after them. In "Fast Color", the main female protagonist had some magic powers that led her to getting chased down by some vague, violent and sinister government force. In "I'm Your Woman", the main female protagonist, is being chased down by some vague violent and sinister criminal enterprise. Well, the main protagonist, and her new baby.

I do actually remember Rachel Brosnahan originally from "House of Cards" where she got an Emmy nomination for playing a prostitute, so I think subconsciously I knew she was capable of a really dramatic performance like this, but after watching four seasons of "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel", the best show on television, it's hard to imagine that this woman is the same late-in-life whipsmart stand-up comic who I wish way more real than half the comics from today and  half-century ago. Instead, she's just a struggling housewife named Jean who's husband Eddie (Bill Heck) surprises her by bringing home a kid one day. He doesn't explain where the baby comes from, but they take little Harry (Jameson and Justin Charles) in. 

Then, Eddie is out on a job, when soon, Jean is informed that she and her kid, also now have to be on the run. Why? Well, something went down. Jean knew Eddie was a thief of some kind, but like most mob wives, they tend to be in the dark on their husbands most specific criminal enterprises. Even after their escapades get them in trouble, and apparently their life in danger. At first, she's taken eventually by Cal (Arinze Kene), to a supposed safehouse, but eventually she gets spotted and saved, just in time. Essentially, the movie becomes kind of a heart of darkness journey into the depths of her husband's alternate life. She doesn't quite get everything right away, and we don't either. In fact, I'm not sure we ever actually get everything, we just we're know we're in trouble, and we're being hunted and chased. 

Honestly, I think that's the main appeal of Julia Hart's more adult films right now. She has this Disney side-series of movies called "Stargirl" as well; I haven't seen any of them and am kinda just going on the quick loglines I can find, but if she's not doing these intense hunted female thrillers she seems to mostly tell sell stories about high school girls and how they react to the new stimuli around them and their adventures. Again, I haven't see any of these films, including her directorial debut "Miss Stevens", so I don't have a good gauge on which set of movies that's more her sweet spot, but as to these films, they're..., they're technically proficient, but not remotely interesting. She's a very talented filmmakers, but she's one of those storytellers, who just, to paraphrase a Charlie Kaufman character, she's just really damn good at structure, but there's very little unique character to her work. 

Like, I haven't thought about "Fast Color" since I saw it, and yet, on paper, there's a lot of things about that movie that are intriguing. The African American cast, the magical realism elements, the symbolic threats from the government going after a woman with special skills, and how the world around her is also against her, and has to keep her talents secrets because of it. There's a lot there, but it doesn't recall like that. I ended up comparing that film to the TV show "ALF" of all things, and that isn't really fair, but it really was something that felt more likes part of other films and formulas brought back together, and done so well, but without much else in the way of emotional resonance. "I'm Your Woman", might even be more stringent on the three-act structure narrative, and it tells it's story well too, arguably better. It reveals things at the right time in mostly the right ways, we get all the parts we technically need, but we don't really get anything else. Trying to think of things I could compare this to, to show why it lacks a little, Sam Mendes "Road to Perdition" comes to my mind. That's just a story of a parent and child evading the criminal underworld that are after them as well, but there's a lot more emotional resonance and heft in the filmmaking of it; it feels bigger. "I'm Your Woman", feels really small in comparison. 

Like, it takes place in the '70s, which is a choice, and I guess it kinda matches the retro aesthetic of the movie; I could easily see this film being, an early New Hollywood movie, like, something Bob Rafelsen might've made back then, but other than that, eh, I don't really know why this film takes place in the '70s. I mean, other than mainly to give an excuse to not have the audience yelling at the characters to not stare at cellphones, and for their to be a scene at a disco at one point, but, other than that...,  this is what I mean, on paper, details like the time period, or the style of filmmaking, or the location choices, it looks like there should be more to it. Without giving too much away, there's actually a lot of intertwining backstories between these characters and as it gets revealed the more intense the relationships get, but, it still feels hollow, because ultimately, we're not sure who to trust and why and we're still just going from one unknown to another unknown as we go. The effect of the reveals aren't fulfilling as say, well, to think of a more recent film that got all this way more right, the reveals in Debra Granik's "Winter's Bone" is for instance. 

Yeah, all I ever find myself thinking with Julia Hart's films so far is what else these films remind me of and they're almost always either better films or more interesting films.

I still want to recommend "I'm Your Woman" ultimately, despite my questioning of the inspiration for the film. It's still technically good, and perhaps I'm just not seeing Ms. Hart's more personal work. There's great acting here, and the movie does have enough intense twists for me. It just feels intense in the moment and inconsequential afterwards. Perhaps I'm just waiting for the Hart film that really grabs me and matches her own talent in terms of narrative and inspiration, but in the meantime, I find myself feeling like I'm watching a really talented artist who's doing something that she might entirely want to do. I hope my feeling is wrong in that assessment, but even if it isn't, I hope I get to see the great film in her soul someday soon. She knows how to put these things together to make a good story; I'm just waiting for her to make more than just a good story.


BIRDS OF PREY AND THE FANTABULOUS EMANCIPATION OF ONE HARLEY QUINN (2020) Director: Cathy Yan

⭐⭐⭐


Harley fucking Quinn... (Margot Robbie). What exactly is there to do with you?

Actually what are you, really? Like, I know who you are. I was young in the '90s, I remember the original "Batman: The Animated Series" and was as befuddled, amazed and intrigued that Joker, or all people, had a girlfriend too. She's actually kinda distinctive, because unlike most characters in these superhero universes that the big studios keep expanding upon, for whatever reason, she actually, does not originate in comics; she was a rare DC character that was specifically created for the TV show, and then eventually was moved to comics. I do get it, she's way too interesting a character to simply limit her, and she's also quite a dark character. There's plenty of variants and evolutions of her around, but no matter how you kinda parce her, she's really a disturbing and dark character, arguably, more dark and disturbing than the darkest of Joker characters, (Well, the "Joker" characters that matter; I don't count Joaquin Phoenix) because, while it's definitely one thing to be the Joker, it's a totally 'nother thing to be in madly, sadistically, and submissively in love with the Joker. She is, for all-intensive purposes, a victim of an abusive relationship. She may not see it that way, but you know, how many actual victim do realize it, especially while they're in it. This also makes her, in any interpretation, a survivor of abuse, whether that's surviving by staying in the abusive relationship, or escaping it. 

She's incredibly complicated and interesting, and yet, I think a major question has to be, well, yeah, but what do you do with her? Like, what exactly is she, despite everything, is there more to her. I mean, if you keep her backstory, which involves her jumping/pushed into that same chemical vat that created the Joker, which...- honestly I don't love, 'cause I never did like that origin story of the Joker, (To be fair, I don't like any origin story of the Joker; I think he's far more frightening when you can't believe and/or don't know his origin) but...- (Sigh) it's hard to explain her problem, but I've gotten the sense that because she's such a malleable blank slate that she's more interesting as a concept than as a character. 

Conceptually, she's interesting. In practice, I think most find her more interesting as a Halloween costume than anything else, and that itself is also a major problem with her. While she is fascinating as a complex character, I think that's a very minor part of why she's popular; the most major factor in her popularity is because of just how many fetish boxes she checks. Sexy, yes. Crazy, yes. Submissive, yes. Female version of a male, (Sigh) well, I mean, it's only that one male, but yes. Depending on the interpretation, bisexual/bi-curious, yes. Hell, she's got a psych degree, that checks off intelligence. (And if you knew the psych majors I knew in college, it also checks off crazy) I'm sure I'm missing like, ten others, but y'know, seriously, there hasn't been a mainstream comic/animated character this designed to basically be a wack-off material since..., I don't know, Jessica Rabbit, maybe. 
 
In terms of the DCU, she was introduced to us in "Suicide Squad" a movie that is admittedly bad, but I liked anyway, way more than the other "The Suicide Squad" movie, for which she was one of the few characters who came back to do, which was much more acclaimed, and oddly enough I actually thought was, much more bleh then everybody else did. In between those films, we got "Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn". This, is actually kind of a bad sign to me, that maybe Harley Quinn isn't as complex for her own movie as we think, because while she is a compelling character, this movie, apparently, in order to create a feature-length feature around her, needed to bring in a bunch of other famous Batman female characters, who aren't villains, necessarily. Basically a bunch of characters I've randomly and sporadically heard of but I'd have to go through a shit-ton of comic book folklore to actually know about all these characters, but I'm sure their names have more meaning to others. 

I'll try to narrow it down in describing the story..., basically, after Harley's been kicked out by the Joker, and she's decided to finally stand up for herself and commit herself to be her own woman, free from him, she begins having to duck, basically everybody who's got a gripe against her. It's a long list.... In the meantime, she ends up finding herself protecting a teenage pickpocket named Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) who's stolen a powerful diamond that a nightclub owner and mob boss Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) wants to get his hand on. In the meantime, and there's a lot of meantimes in this narrative, but anyway, a nightclub singer named Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollet) takes a job as one of Roman's bodyguards, but she's a double agent who turning info over to a police woman named Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez). She's basically every cop movie cliche rolled into one, and she's also after Cassandra. Meanwhile, Roman is being hunted by Helena Bertinelli (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), because of an old familial grudge she holds. 

Somehow this all eventually comes together, and after thinking about it, I guess it ultimately works as a movie. I think it really depends on which narrative you care about more, Harley moving on from Joker and redefining herself as a person and as a villainess, or whether you care about the other girls characters and their independent evolutions, into eventually joining together. Personally; I didn't really care about any of the other characters. (Well, I mean I care about Renee, but that's mostly because it's Rosie Perez and she just naturally makes everything better.) Harley is by far the more interesting focus of the film, but eh, I don't know. I think perhaps if I had seen this film first I might've liked that new "Suicide Squad" film a little more because of her arc in it, but I still don't think I would've recommended it. Honestly, I'm kinda on the fence in regards to recommending this film. The one appeal the movie does have is that this film is essentially all told from Harley Quinn's perspective, so we do get inside her mind and we get to see how she sees the world while she tells her own story, and the other girls' stories. It's still just weird though; half the film is Harley trying to get over Joker after the relationship's done and still having to deal with all the bullshit that keeps bringing itself back up from said relationship, and the other half is like, what an interesting modern-day "Charlie's Angels" origin story should've been like (I mean, sans a Charlie character, but yeah, that's basically it.) 

I don't know, I guess if you like Margot Robbie's Harley Quinn enough then this'll do it for you, and if not, ehhh, maybe go on HBO Max and watch that "Harley Quinn" animated series, which is honestly a way-better post-Joker Harley tale. Harley Quinn is usually better animated anyway. 


BOYS STATE (2020) Directors: Amanda McBaine & Jesse Moss

⭐⭐⭐⭐1/2

  

If you ever wonder if seeing political rhetoric and governance, especially right-wing political governance, from kids would be any more annoying and painful to sit through then the current occupants of the governing system we have, especially when a good percentage of the kids are genuine edgelord idiot trolls, um, yeah, it is. In fact, it's actually quite worst, and in many ways very frightening. Especially since, "Boys State" decided to cover Texas's version of this, which...- ugh....- Let me start over, 'cause I've actually, heard of this, but I didn't participate in it. I was at the Las Vegas Sun Youth Forum, and that had some interesting political moments within it, but no, I never really had much interest in student government of any kind. Including this kind of mimicking of a real government, which does sound up my alley, but...- eh... It's run every year in most every state, the Boys run by the American Legion, and the Girls run by the American Legion Auxiliary, and I can understand the appeal for it on the surface. 

So, I guess I should mention that a long, long time ago, I almost went into Poli-Sci as a career path; I thought I'd be a speechwriter for Harry Reid or something-or-another, but the more you dived into politics, and the real, "game" of it, the more despondent you get. So, in that sense, I could totally see how, this class of Boys State, working in the shadow of a class that voted for succession, could be a hassle. Yes, teenage boys in Texas, presumably politically-savvy ones, vote to succeed from the union. I suspect that this movie feels a lot more horrifying after January 6th. 

In fact, it's actually really bizarre to hear kids talk about how Trump doing certain things helped him, and they begin invoking strategies around it, as though Trump ever, for one second, had any form of political savviness to, literally anything he ever did. Like, he was ever consciously able to think that many steps ahead of what he was doing.... Like, I just want to go through the screen and grab them by their shoulders and be like, "NO! That's NOT what he was doing?!" 

It also was just, bizarre once they started talking about abortion rights...- I probably picked the absolute worst time to watch this, but yeah, a bunch of teenage boys, trying to argue why abortion should be illegal in their party platforms. Also, one of the parties was called the Nationalists; like-, I know instinctively that that word isn't inherently negative connotatively, but, they really shouldn't use that word. 

(Sigh)

This movie does play on a lot of my instinctual fears of the nation and the youth, but there are bright spots. The main focus is on the Nationalists Party's election for Governor. There's several election positions, first within the parties and then for the whole, eh, "Boys State", here, just like regular America of course, my favorite of the ones they focus in is Rene Otero, who convincingly won the title of Party Chairman, and almost immediately faced impeachment, mostly from a minority contingent in his party that's clearly racist in it's intent, and it's quickly shot down, although his effeminate aggressiveness, and quick-wit knowledge will definitely get under peoples' skin. And arguably cost him in the end. He's by far my favorite character; he seems like one of the future George Stephanopoulos or James Carville, only probably twice as smart as either, if he can find a way to not rub people the wrong way,.... Although honestly, I hope he just rubs people the wrong way, all the way up the political ladder. He eventually gets into a fight with the competing Federalist Ben Feinstein, who literally is basically a Ben Shapiro-type, which-, well, if were blissful enough to not have to know who Ben Shapiro was until now, I'm sorry for making you look up that idiotic Conservative hack, but yeah, Otero does the correct thing by making a politician follow the agreed-upon rules, and Feinstein goes after him for being bias, which he clearly wasn't, but whatever.... Like I said, Otero, just rubs people the wrong way, especially white people I imagine and there was a lot of dumb white boys in this film.

One who isn't was Robert McDougall, a gubernatorial candidate, who I thought did a pretty good job convincing everyone that he was the total jock conservative type that fed into what would be the more expected crowd in this kind of group. So much so, that I was genuinely surprised when he started peeling back the curtain in the interviews afterwards, realizing that was actually far more moderate, and possibly liberal then he led on. He was a politician putting on a strategy, and he was popular at first. He eventually finds a competitor in Steven Garza, a Latino kid known in the group for being a leader on the March For Our Lives protests from before. Part of me was very skeptical of him, as he came up and talked about how he didn't have natural positions and wanted to see what all the other kids wanted and presented himself as a compromise candidate. His big stand actually was going against succession, which, yes, did come up again. His speech about respecting the military very much had the same earmarks about Obama's famous race speech about his then-pastor Rev. Wright, and for a moment, seemed just as powerful. I can very easily see him, someday running for major office as well, and succeeding, even though I suspect people might be questionable about what his real thoughts are. 

Perhaps it is just, the political left cynic in me that sees the negatives in these kids much more then the positives. There were times where, when I was young, I was able to convince a few people to switch sides and rethink their own political views, and it seems like, we become less and less interested in views outside our own. It's genuinely been a very long time since I'd had a truly stimulating intellectual debate with a Conservative, and this movie doesn't make me feel like I'm gonna have a good one real soon. 

I gotta say, while I did enjoy the movie a lot, and believe it gives us a lot of hope and definitely fear, about the future of our, well, country, however much longer it lasts, as well as get a really informative glimpse at our modern youths and what and how they're actually taking in from the culture at large, especially our political culture, I couldn't help but feel like I was only watching half a movie. I went to look up what, if anything, happened in the Girls State in Texas that year, but I came up short. Not that I think I wouldn't be just as scared off at the results and frustrations, but I gotta say, the movie felt a little too much like a replication of the regular politics that make this world so much more frustrating. That's why I really wish that they also got a crew together to film the Girls State as well. 


FOURTEEN (2020) Director: Dan Sallitt

⭐⭐⭐


Hmmm, Hannah Gadsby has a comic routine about Vincent Van Gogh,- well, it's not actually about Van Gogh, it's about the myth of the tortured artist and about how men will often give unsolicited opinions to women, which, fair enough, and it's about how his painting "The Sunflowers" came about because he was taking an epilepsy medication that caused him to oversee the color yellow as a side effect. The guy was using it an example ironically of why artists shouldn't take medications, unaware of the source of the inspiration, actually being the medications that Van Gogh was taking, because, he was severely mentally ill. (Also, who the fuck's favorite Van Gogh painting is "The Sunflowers"! Seriously! Not any of his "Starry Nights", not any his self-portraits, "Cafe Terrace at Night", "The Church at Auvers", "Le Mousme", "The Potato Eaters", even his damn wheat fields, you picked "The Sunflowers"! [Sorry, that's-, that's something that's just bugged me ever since I heard that routine.]) I bring this up, because, it's always, slightly easier to depict and portray mental illness, from a perspective, other then the one who's actually suffering from it. 

I don't want it sound like I don't think a film like "Fourteen" is therefore, invalid, or underserving of being made, because it basically does portray mental illness from a perspective that is not, the person suffering from it, that's not true at all. Friends of mentally ill people, suffer as well, and many good films have been made based on that premise. In fact, I think this movie does a pretty good job of understanding how hard that actually is, but I couldn't help but to think about it. 
I also couldn't help thinking about people close to me, that I either knew suffered from a mental condition of some kind, or perhaps did and I didn't know it, or perhaps still don't know it. Maybe, they didn't know it. 

"Fourteen" is titled after the age Maya (Tallie Medel) and Jo (Norma Kuhling) became friends. When the movie begins they're now in their early twenties, both of them struggling with work and with their relationships. However, Jo, has a mental disorder; what is it? It's never actually spoken what the condition is, in fact, Jo seems to barely know what it is, if she does at all. What she knows is that, she has issues. Maya, for the most part, doesn't actually see most of these issues, but there's signs occasionally, like all the nightmare stories she hears, some of the uncomfortably abrupt conversations she would have in front of her, or how they'll be talking and walking down the street and how Jo will suddenly just pop into a store for a brownie without saying anything. Others talk to Maya about their strange friendship; like she's the one person who seems to be able to calm Maya down when she's in some kind of self-inflicted crisis. (Hmm. I knew at least one person who used to call me "Valium" based on how I was able to calm them down.) Actually, a lot of this has to do with how they were friends growing up. I think we do tend to seek out friends, especially when we're coming-of-age, who are, in some ways different than ourselves, often in many ways our opposites. I know I do/did, anyway. Not that there were too many people similar to me, but the fact that kids especially did hang out in groups, or cliques, I guess, always made me skeptical, like, "Really, they're able to find so many people, similar to them? That's kinda creepy, and even if I did shares interests or characteristics, that made me far more leery of hanging out or engaging with them than others; why would I want to be around similar people to me, when I can find some people who were different and could bring/teach/show me something new?

But then again, what we see in some when we're young as positive traits that we would want to be around, might in fact be, more troubling traits that can lead those friends down some dark paths. The key scenes in the movie, actually happen pretty late in the film, and the timeline, it's when Mara is talking to a daughter that we've seen her have throughout the movie, (The film tells it's story over years.) and Mara telling Lorelai (Lorelai Romani) about her friend when they first met and how they became friends, only for Lorelai to realize that she was talking about Jo, at the most heartbreaking possible time for both of them. It is powerful, if nothing else. 
"Fourteen" is the fourth feature from indy writer/director Dan Sallitt; I don't really know his work 'til now, so I can't really judge the film on those grounds. Mostly what I got out of it was trying to consider the mentally ill from numerous different perspectives, and trying to figure out if and/or how many times and people I've genuinely encountered with it, at least among those people I really knew. How much of that behavior I would've admired or praised in those people, how much I might've even been inspired by them and what tortures they might've gone through in their own minds. And hopefully, wonder how hope/know that they're doing well now. 


TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH (2020) Director: Kiyoshi KUROSAWA 

⭐⭐⭐⭐



I know a few people who've worked on some travel series over the years, especially locally here. Las Vegas is a popular place for travel shows to get made. I guess it's a little bit of of just, familiarity, but I always have a hard time imagining why people would photograph so much of, just,-, well, in this city, mostly buildings. I guess it makes sense in this town, considering how little regard we have to preserving many of our most famous landmarks, perhaps it's not a bad idea that we have pictures of the city the way it is now, but eh, then again, I think others have taken enough photographs for preservation. But travel shows aren't for preservation, they're for adventure. They're to give you an idea of what it's like to go to the wonderous places in the world, without having to actually go on the vacation; to make you the accidental tourist essentially. That's why they're often hosted these days by people who are, umm, not necessarily travel experts. I mean, there's occasionally travel series with more education bents to them; every time I fall asleep leaving Create on, I usually end up waking up to some old Rick Steves' travel series, usually one of his Europe ones, and while those can be endearing, they can be a little dry. That's why in recent years we've had travel and adventure series hosted by chefs, actors, authors, activists, comedians, journalists, entrepreneurs, filmmakers, and occasionally musicians. The latter is the category of travel guide that Yoko (Atsuko Maeda), a former idol singer who now has a Japanese travel show, where her bubbly, free-spirited personality makes her adventures infectious and enjoyable for viewers. 

Of course, travel shows are television shows and they're just as manipulative as any other shows out there, for instance, she's not bubbly or happy-go-lucky in real life. In "To the Ends of the Earth", we essentially got a stranger in a strange land tale, of a person who's very tired and very bored of being a stranger in a strange land. She's in the middle of Uzbekistan, of all places, which-, is kind of a funny joke to me. Uzbekistan is about as middle of nowhere you can get geographically; it's the largest country in the world that's doubly-landlocked, that means, not only is it landlocked, but it's bordered only by other countries that are landlocked, and here she is, trying to find some kind of Lock Ness-like monster in one of the nation's biggest manmade lakes. But mostly, she's trying to get the right vibe in the shot while she's up to her knees in water, over and over again.

It's not as bad as when she has to ride the same, what's looks like a fairly dangerous and unsafe roller coaster multiple times over in order to get B-roll of her enjoying the ride. The locals are honestly scared of her getting brain damage, and I can't disagree. I'll definitely think about that the next time I see an amusement park based travel series. 

When she's not filming some inane hosting cutaway where she has to pretend to enjoy an undercooked rice dish, or  accidentally sneaking into government land illegally, she's mostly just, alone. She occasionally tries to keep track of her life in Japan, especially a boyfriend she's worried about after a huge fire in Tokyo Bay hits the news; he's a fireman and there's an oil refinery fire. She does befriend her director Yoshioka (Shota SOMETANI), eventually. And she does find a few moments, whether in real life, or in some kind of fantasy sequence, revisit her passion for singing, even pulls out some Edith Piaf at one point. 

"To the Ends of the Earth" doesn't have a lot of anything particularly new regarding this kind of narrative, except for the conceit of it being for a travel series, so this behind-the-scenes of a reality show gimmick is kinda fun and interesting. I also like how the director, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, refuses to translate the Uzbek language that everyone else is speaking. Occasionally there's a translator, but for the most part, we really all felt as lost and misplaced as the characters are. This movie could've been another one of those travelogue meditation indies where he visit a character in a location of some exotic renown and just drift into the world, or sometimes just end up lost in your own translations, but I like that there's more than just how fake and staged travel reality shows are, we get a pretty interesting character in the middle who's life is way more interesting and complex than the role she's given to perform, and seeing her struggling to deal with it. It's a look at an artist's search for inspiration, when she's in the middle of a complete inspiration block, both literally and figuratively, and I found myself enamored and intrigued. Definitely recommending this one, it's a bit of a meditation, but it's a fascinating and lovely one.