John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate, Ronin) handles this thriller with crisp professionalism. Proof? My wife, who loathes 70s films, came in for the last 25 minutes and was riveted. I even had to pause to get her up to speed on who was who and what was going on.

Granted, Frankenheimer has some pretty ingenious material to work with – Palestinian terrorists intend to fly the Goodyear blimp into the Super Bowl where they will detonate a massive bomb that will disperse shards of metal for maximum carnage (the film is adapted from Thomas Harris’ only non-Hannibal Lecter book).

The driven mastermind is Martha Keller (so driven because the Israelis have destroyed her entire family) and the psychologically impaired stooge is Bruce Dern (a former POW flyer in Vietnam, stripped of rank for “breaking”, now working for Goodyear flying the blimp). Robert Shaw is the relentless Mossad agent hot on their heels, guilt-ridden because he had a shot at Keller but let emotions engender mercy.

There is a little too much Dern and Keller relationship stuff, and in particular, Dern and his mental breakdowns/quirks, and the film could’ve been cut easily by 20 minutes.  But there is much to like here, and in particular, Frankenheimer does the madness of public violence great justice.  His insistence in showing just how many innocent people actually get killed if criminals and cops decide they’re gonna’ shoot it out in the streets is welcome, as evidenced by a thrilling Miami Beach sequence.

But the coolest facet is the fact that the NFL let them film the movie at the actual 1977 Super Bowl between the Dallas Cowboys and the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the Goodyear people let them use the actual blimps, almost otherworldly in these days of image consciousness, risk-aversion, and fear of offense. Frankenheimer may have had Goodyear over a barrell. In one of his biographies, Frankenheimer recounted that he helped persuade Goodyear to let him use its blimps because if not, the production would rent a large blimp, paint it silver-and-black, and people would think it was the Goodyear blimp anyway.

The impact truly heightens the tension when we see Shaw and FBI Man Fritz Weaver running around the Orange Bowl past Tom Landry, Franco Harris and even this guy…

Okay, not the real Jimmy Carter, but this is the only shot of him in the film, and though it’s very quick, it is a testament to Frankenheimer’s desire for verisimilitude.

Solid. On a subset of Prime, MGM+.

There is no rhyme or reason to William Friedken’s (The French Connection, The Exorcist) serial killer flick, which plays clumsily with both timeline and identity. While the killings are unique, in that gay men in New York City’s S&M scene are the prey, Friedken’s execution is non-existent and the picture is a tiresome. muddled mess. 

The year is 1980. Foot patrolman Al Pacino, who we know absolutely nothing about, is brought in by Police Captain Edelson (Paul Sorvino) to go undercover and smoke out a serial killer plaguing the BDSM community in the Meatpacking District. Pacino is chosen solely because he bears a physical  resemblance to other victims. That’s it, and when he’s told where he’ll be working, he shows little reticence. You see, he’s bucking for detective. 

Pacino is clearly too long in the tooth for the role.  In 1980, he was 40, not a very convincing ambitious beat cop. Hell, Pacino was pushing it a bit in 1973, when he was a 33-year-old rookie in Serpico. Friedken would have done better with Richard Gere, his first choice and 10 years younger.  

After his perfunctory selection and acceptance, Pacino just goes from club to club, bar to bar, pick up spot to pick up spot, cruising. Pacino is less acting the role of a man than being a worm on a hook. Not a lot of heavy lifting and given no motivation or backstory, Pacino seems particularly disinterested. It is clear the actor has no idea how to convey whatever is happening to him internally. 

With barely a story and zero character development, Friedken focuses on the grimy, fetishistic world of leather and sweat, so much so that when word of the picture got around, many in the gay community were outraged to the point of protest against what they thought was a demeaning and offensive portrait of their community. Indeed, the picture had to have its audio almost totally redubbed due to protestors on scene screaming to screw up the sound production.

They need not have worried so much. The movie is a bore and rather than being misled, most audiences likely shrugged.
Not that the bones of a good flick aren’t there. There’s a promising subplot of two police officers who are forcing hustlers to dole out sexual favors. Unexplored. There’s a nice friendship that a develops between Pacino and his gay neighbor. Dropped. And there is little done with the pressure on Pacino and girlfriend Karen Allen (the whole of it is that the more he becomes immersed in the lifestyle, if only as a voyeur, the less he wants to be intimate with her).

Is he gay? Is he curious? Shockingly, you don’t care, and neither does the director.  Friedken just wants to get to the next dank cellar where the testosterone-soaked steam is rising.

Sure, there is some obligatory, “I’m in too deep” dialogue. But nothing more. Fleshing out the relationship between Pacino and the gay neighbor would have been the smart way to explore whatever was happening internally, allowing Pacino to search and inquire, maybe even to test.

No dice.

The film is also hobbled by a pretty elemental impediment. Pacino is, seemingly, straight.  So, it seems less and less possible that he’s ever gonna’ get close to the killer, who murders all of his victims in the process of or after sex. 

The whole thing is draggy and confused and more than a little gutless. 

If you sally forth, look for a very a young James Remar, Ed O’Neill, and Powers Boothe. 

On HBOMax.

The least sentimental coming of age film I’ve ever seen, James Gray’s (Ad Astra) autobiographical reflection of a middle-class Queens family at the advent of Reagan is evocative, unstinting and spare. Paul (Repeta Banks) is an artistic, unfocused, silly, and obnoxious sixth grader, doted on by his mother Esther (Anne Hathaway), cherished by his wise grandfather Aaron (Anthony Hopkins) and in terror of his father Irving (Jeremy Strong), who can be silly too, but who also sports a volcanic temper.

Paul is a dreamer. He falls in with rebellious black kid Johnny (Jaylin Webb) at the public-school they attend and soon, he is in with this wrong crowd of one. Paul’s rebellion runs smack dab into the instincts and hopes of his extended family, which include elderly immigrant grandparents and an uncle and an aunt. 

This is a film about many things, but family is paramount.  When Irving beats Paul for getting in trouble at school, the scene is disturbing, but when Paul mutters, “I hate you… [I] hate this family…”, Irving returns and in Strong’s face, registers that there is no greater calumny (I thought for a split second an already brutal strapping was going to escalate). The family is the vehicle for all success and support.  They changed their distinct name of “Greizerstein” to “Graff,” and they want Paul out of public school, Esther being the last resistance. Per the aunt, “The class sizes are out of control, and the kids that they have coming in from the neighborhoods from all over.  The Blacks, coming in…” eliciting a gasp and rebuke from Esther.  These are, after all, traditional liberals (early on, Irving watches Reagan being interviewed, and comments “Sounds like a Class-A schmuck” and the film near-closes with the glum family watching Reagan’s victory and predicting nuclear war). But the facial response to Esther’s objection is a weary capitulation, an “it is what it is.”

They reminisce about their familial, generational struggles and focus on their shared goal of success. Sure, art is great, but an “artist”?

Paul’s behavior lands him in the private school attended by his older brother. The school’s most influential patron is none other than Fred Trump, and soon, Paul is in a new world.  When Johnny visits, he is on the other side of the playground fence, as we see Paul awkwardly shying away from his former partner in crime.

Went I went to private Catholic school in ’78, I came with a crew of over a dozen boys from grade school, every one of them white, into a feeder for Catholic parishes all over D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. Until that time, the black kids I knew were the children of diplomats, literally and figuratively, from another country.  All of a sudden, there were a lot of black compatriots, kids probably just as scared as I was, but seemingly, not.  And in those years, there was casual racism where I (and many others, I am sure) was Paul, keeping my head low, negotiating the moment with assuredly too much regard for my own skin, smirking an endorsement or pretending I didn’t hear.  For every decent moment or objection, there were three of cowardice.

Gray does a wonderful job of depicting just how mundane and routinized these negotiations really are. As Irving tells Paul, “When you get older you can change the world.  Right now, you just need to get past this and become a mensch. Your friend got the shaft, you feel bad.  I understand that.” Modern dramatizations take such vignettes and make them seminal, even momentous. As Gray shows, they are more often than not pedestrian and disposable (“You just need to get past this”) or, in Gray’s most optimistic declaration, per Aaron:

GRANDPA AARON RABINOWITZ

It’s hard to fight.  Isn’t it.

PAUL GRAFF (beat)

I tried.

GRANDPA AARON RABINOWITZ

How do you think you did?

TEARS FORM in PAUL’S EYES.  He starts to shake his head.

GRANDPA AARON RABINOWITZ (CONT’D)

You’ll have a lot more chances.  And it will happen, again and again.  It won’t be easy.

It’s hard to overstate Gray’s deftness and restraint (another reviewer nailed it with, “At its most muted, it leaves a respectful distance for the audience to think”).  An example.  In the hands of a lesser writer, Paul’s matriculation at the Trump school would have been an ordeal through and through.  And it is not without its blots.  The casually racist kid, the strictures, the cliques.  But there is also attention to Paul, the kind that money brings, that every parent wants for their child, the kind where a troublesome kid isn’t immediately discarded as “slow” (the determination of Paul’s public-school principal). At public school, Paul’s “art” is doodling, dummy stuff. At his new private school, it is encouraged, even celebrated.  

And the Trumps, in the form of Fred (John Diehl) and Maryanne (cameo by Jessica Chastain), could have been lampooned.  In Gray’s hands, they are utilized. Both characters, in talks to the students, revere America in the vein of a zealot. As Fred Trump tells the kids, “Because we have a new president, a new beginning, a return to America’s rightful place in the world. I know speaking for myself personally I couldn’t have more hope than I do at this very moment in our future. So. When I look out, and I see all these beautiful, handsome kids, clean-cut… You’re ready to face the world–you’re being taught all the right things. And you’ll be the leaders. Leaders in business, finance, politics, all aiming to keep our country good and strong.”

Take the reference to “Class-A schmuck” Reagan out, and you can see Paul’s family nodding in reverential assent.

Similarly, Hopkins, as Paul’s soulmate, exhibits the lessons of his past, lovingly supporting Paul’s artistic ambitions while shocking Paul by admitting he was the key vote for the school change (“Because the game is rigged.  And we have to do everything we can for you and your brother”).

The rigging of the game and the fate of Johnny coalesce to end the picture, and like everything that came before, there’s no easy lesson or dawning.

The performances are pitch perfect. As Irving, Strong is noteworthy, a man who doesn’t really have control of his house or the respect he thinks he should be afforded, alternating between explosion and understanding.  The child actors are natural and Webb in particular evinces an affecting blend of the cynical, the world-weary, and the aspirational.

One of the best of the year.                              

All the visual gifts in the world, and those of director Robert Eggars (The Witch) are prodigious, can’t make this Viking tale of filial vengeance any less stupid. There are a few joys - massive overacting (well played, Ethan Hawke, but Nicole Kidman wins by a nose), a few impressive scenes of sackings, the beautiful Northern Ireland topography standing in for Iceland - but boredom wins out, and by the end, it isn’t much of a fight. 

High and mindless, the picture could have used Game of Thrones’ intelligence or the John Boorman Excalibur’s fun. Instead, we get gory drug trips and silly moments when the film feels closer to RenFest than Valhalla. More hamburger than Hamlet. 

I do like how many of the actors try to do Norse and come off Transylvanian. 

“Well, that was quite a thing” – my wife, at the end of the movie. Spoiler. Animals die.

About my wife. When that occurs, consider all your slack given.

It is indeed, however, quite a film, one that works as a fable, a meditation, and a beautiful, conflicted, messy tale of the shackles, joys and miseries of isolation, friendship and love.

I have a deep frustration with people who have the kind of depression that blots out the sun and cripples those who love them so much that they become collateral damage. The narcissism. The “I don’t take drugs because they change the essence of meeeeeeeeeeee!” The voracious appetite for the steadfastness of the simpletons who take the kicks and keep coming back for more. Blech. I’m not always proud of it but it is genuine and fixed in my marrow.

Here, a depressed, artistic man in despair (Brendan Gleeson) cuts off his simple, dull pal (Colin Farrell) even though they are lifelong friends on a barren Irish Island. The disassociation is brutal and final and nothing less than an assault from the intellectually superior and more sophisticated of the union. Every instinct I had was to decry Gleeson and champion Farrell, even as I grudgingly respected Gleeson’s stand, cruel and self-abasing as it was. I’m more gravitated to the simple and the banal, the loyal, Particularly when the artist’s excesses, in all their Van Gogh glory, start taking hostages. Taken at face value, it was no contest.

But as the picture progressed, my sympathies for both men equalized. Somewhat. Against all of my internal instincts. And in the struggle, the picture opens up and draws you into a much deeper analysis.

Fecking hell.

Interspersed in this tug-of-war is Martin McDonagh’s (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths, Three Billboards) alternatively hilarious and mournful dialogue, deeply rooted in the Irish experience, with its strange and compelling fixation on conflict, routine, simplicity, and the Church.

A gem I wanted to hate.

On HBOMax.

Visually arresting, wonderfully acted, and almost unbearably bleak (as only a World War I trench drama can be), director Edward Berger has created the filmic equivalent of Erich Maria Lemarque’s language (“We are not youth any longer. We don’t want to take the world by storm. We are fleeing from ourselves, from our life. We were eighteen and had begun to love life and the world; and we had to shoot it to pieces”). The miserable existence of the characters is interspersed with moments of such great humanity – the joy at the theft and cooking of a shared goose and the circulated kerchief of a French girl for sniffing come to mind – the pointlessness of it all is underscored.

But there are problems.

First, the dramatization of a last-ditch attack before the official armistice is over-the-top.  In the book, Paul, our protagonist, dies on a peaceful day, which is in many ways more poignant.  Here, he and his comrades are felled after a foolhardy and hubristic final charge ordered by a madman. The plot change feels insecure. Similarly, the injection of peace negotiations allows for some clunky foreshadowing along the lines of, “If you dictate such harsh terms, Pierre, there’s gonna’ be schnitzel to pay!”                 

Second, Saving Private Ryan has placed such a premium on verisimilitude in war pictures that they seem to one-up each other in conveying both the horror and the disorientation.  Which is normally to the good, save for an overuse of technical wizardry that can often border on the distracting (I am wondering if the drone is the new CGI).  At some point, you feel a little dirty for being exposed to so many new and awful ways to depict death.

On Netflix.

Gritty New York City 70s films hold a special place in my heart because my father took me to the theater to see them when I was very, maybe too, young. He had a great way of asking what movie you wanted to see, and then when you picked something age-appropriate like Herbie The Love Bug, he would just say, “No. We’re going to see this.” And off to The Seven Ups or The Laughing Policeman you went. I suspect he just went through the motions of giving you a choice hoping he could get a twofer, seeing a movie he wanted to see and having you actually hit upon the same thing.

If nothing good was out, we watched a lot of these pictures at his apartment, sharing a bowl of candy corn.

I was never very disappointed to have a Disney film vetoed by my Dad.  I was nine or ten years old and I was drinking in the likes of Serpico, Death Wish, and The French Connection, which introduced me to the hellscape of New York City, so different from my own suburban enclave. Throw in some other New York City pictures that offered more complicated themes, like Klute, and the Big Apple seemed even more foreign and forbidding.

The experience could be disorienting. After all, I was watching Jane Fonda fake an orgasm but didn’t know what a call girl was or what exactly she was faking. But it was such a rush and a privilege, something we shared that really wasn’t transferable to anybody else. I mean, I couldn’t really tell kids in my fifth grade class about Dog Day Afternoon.

For me, the best and most accessible of these pictures was The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. I think my father agreed. From the beginning notes, a frenetic, jazzy David Shire score, the city translates musically as a haphazard mess of a place where anything can happen. In the space of 15 minutes, you’re introduced to four hijackers of, of all things, a New York City subway train, their hostages, and every sort of New York City bureaucrat, from the mayor all the way down to the weathered Transit Authority Inspector Garber (Walter Matthau). To a person, every politician, cop, administrator, dispatcher, and train driver is cynical, a little bit “Not my department” lazy, obnoxious, and yet, grudgingly heroic in their ability to work in such a fucked up place. They constantly deride, yell at, and ride each other, but there is a fundamental professionalism in their banter, and when they are put to the test by an exacting master criminal with a plan (Robert Shaw), there is something noble about their efforts. Unlike the feeble and mincing bureaucrats of Dirty Harry’s San Francisco, these folks are simply too harried and put-upon to bother with any kind of agenda, be it liberal, conservative, or something in between.  They’re just working stiffs doing the best they can and to a character, they are shockingly well fleshed out even with little dialogue. Add an entire subway car filled with all the denizens of New York City – the pimp, the prostitute, an old Jewish man, non-English speaking immigrants, a mother and her two bratty boys, early feminists, a drunk, a hippie – and the picture becomes a model in drawing characters both strongly and economically.

An example: Shaw has asked for $1 million to be assembled in 60 minutes. He tells Matthau that for every minute he is late with the dough, he’ll kill a hostage. You watch the entire city machinery lurch into action to meet the deadline, including two cops who are tasked with driving the money from the bank to the subway station. They are given a few lines as they wait for the payoff funds, and yet, I became so interested in them, when they crashed their police car trying to make time, I fretted about their fate even though the story couldn’t allow for any resolution.

And as a caper film, you’re not gonna get much better than this. I remember gripping my seat, but I can’t remember whether we were in the theater or at home on the couch. Joseph Sargent, a workmanlike director who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, keeps everything moving while the picture remains funny yet taut, and then dizzying, almost as if patterned on the runaway subway train that closes the film. When you get comfortable, he snaps you back to attention with shocking violence and the expressed terror of the hostages. 

Opening credits here, featuring Shire’s unforgettable, commanding soundtrack.   

Currently on Showtime.  And if you’re seeing Denzel Washington and John Travolta, you’re watching the godawful remake. Bail out. 

You know you are getting old when you see a movie that you have reviewed but you forget you reviewed it and review it again. In 2016, I gave the picture 4 stars and wrote: Richard Linklater’s astute command of time and place is forever proven by his masterpiece, Dazed and Confused, which captured a Texas town’s high school circa 1976 in all its bell-bottomed, long-haired, keg-in-the-woods glory. Everybody Wants Some! ain’t Dazed and Confused. Focusing on a young college baseball player’s matriculation at a Texas college, Linklater appears to be satisfying an 80s-era checklist. Mud wrestling. Check. Disco. Check. Mechanical bull. Check.  “Get the Knack!” Check. And while Dazed and Confused gave you insight into the jocks, the stoners, the geeks, the parents, the coaches, the teachers and the townies, Everybody Wants Some! is limited to the hyper-male competitive environment of the baseball team, a group that parties hard, jumps on your Achilles at every opportunity, and challenges each other in all respects, when not dime-store philosophizing about winning, commitment, pot and “pussy.Yet, with all its flaws and limitations, I dug the movie. Linklater lovingly recreates the art of male bullshitting, which, granted, is not for everyone; the wonder of all the possibility of college; and the camaraderie of sports, all to an unabashedly “classic rock” soundtrack. it’s an acquired taste, and this is a very light film that at its best is merely charming, but I was smiling throughout.

I have apparently become more besotted. My review today:

The party band from Houston, Old 97s, have a couple of tunes off of Fight Songs – “19” and “Oppenheimer” – that are clean, crisp pop paeans to young love and the wonder that goes with it. Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some! is the filmic equivalent of those songs, where a college freshman baseball player (Jake, played by Blake Jenner) arrives at school in Texas (where else? This is Linklater) and is immediately immersed in the camaraderie of his carefree team, a welcoming party culture, and the early throes of young love with someone who is outside of his normal ambit, a theater major. There is nothing cynical or particularly challenging in the film. In fact, it is so conflict-averse and hellbent on nostalgic tomfoolery, it makes Linklater’s classic forerunner Dazed and Confused seem almost dour. And I loved every minute of it. All the silly machismo, the pranks, and the primal dance of young college kids.  All the 80s music.  All of the doggedly upbeat fun and the sweetness of the jocks.

When Jake goes over to the dorm room of the girl who has flirted with him on his first day (Zoey Deutch), and they introduce themselves, I was transported.

Some might find the picture maudlin, or pollyannish, or even retrograde. As one stinker predictably opined, “It’s as if Linklater is bound by a bro code that obliges him to present these guys in a basically uncritical light.”

But as they say, I laughed, and while I did not cry, I laughed some more and became a little wistful. Great time of a movie.

I don’t know a lot about Elvis Presley, but I’ve read enough to know that most of Baz Luhrmann’s film is distorted, if not outright fictional.  It doesn’t matter, because Elvis is a near-inconsequential figure, perhaps proven by the fact that this movie is more about Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks in a fat suit) than poor, boring Elvis. Maybe Luhrmann got bored as well. I can’t say I blame him.

Watching this picture, strangely, I was reminded of Ronald Reagan. He too was a mythic, iconic figure with worshipping acolytes. And as his career wound down and he lapsed into senility, a writer, Edmund Morris, sought to pen the definitive Reagan biography. Morris, however, was stymied by what he perceived as Reagan’s banality, his simplicity, and so, for the book, was forced to invent an American-born Edmund Morris, who as Reagan’s contemporary followed “Dutch” from his near-poverty childhood to Hollywood to the presidency. Here, it feels like Luhrmann realized that Elvis is a dud, so he re-created Parker as Elvis’ dark half, the grotesque sidekick who can provide insight into a wisp. It’s a game effort, but it fails.  

While the picture is admittedly visually arresting, you soon realize several things.

  1. It’s not so much a movie as a series of trailers stitched together. Eye-popping vignettes that, for a time, divert you from the tropes and the utter lack of any character development.
  2. The picture is about 45 minutes too long and repeats the same scene, over and over again. Elvis is an impossibly beautiful, mesmerizing near-wax doll with swiveling hips. He is wooed by wily carnival barker Parker. Elvis gets famous. Then Parker reminds Elvis that it’s all about the money.  Elvis occasionally strays out of his lane. Parker reminds him, again, that it’s all about the money. Elvis quickly gets back in line to keep the money flowing in. Then he strays again, modestly. Parker reminds him that it’s all about the money. And then Elvis does the financially sound thing, but soon, he’s bucking just a bit. Parker reels his boy back in, time after time, and when things are at their most dicey, the Colonel says, “we are the same, Elvis, you and I” (an actual awful line). And Elvis gets back to doing what he does best, making and spending fat stacks of cash.
  3. Luhrmann tries to sell Elvis as a tragic figure who was killed by his overwhelming love for his fans, rather than his affinity for the cash to keep him in deep fried hollowed out loaves of Italian bread stuffed with bananas, bacon and peanut butter.
  4. Just as Austin Powers buried the super-campy version of James Bond, I thought Dewey Cox buried this kind of hackneyed testament. Not so.

Biopics often fall into the same traps.  Hagiography, over-dramatization of mundane events, ridiculous suggestion of significant social impact.

But rarely do they present dullards as their subjects. Here, when you strip away all the glitz, all the quick cuts, all the visual tricks in Luhrmann’s bag, you’re left with the inescapable conclusion that Elvis Presley was a dummy, and that he was manipulated by no Svengali, but rather, someone just a little bit smarter than The King.

Pretty much terrible through and through. The best part of the film is the first 20 to 25 minutes, which focus on a macho friendship between professional contract killers Robert Duvall and James Caan. Caan is double-crossed, and then goes through an arduous rehabilitation after he is shot. After dogged sexual harassment of his nurse, he does garner a girlfriend/caretaker in the bargain, but soon, he is drawn back in by his corporate sponsor. Caan assembles a small team (Burt Young, Bo Hopkins) and takes on a contract to protect a would-be revolutionary (Mako) from an unknown Asian country. What follows is a blocky, ridiculous shoot ‘em up, marred by laughable cynical intrigue, schizophrenic tone, and mystical Eastern mumbo-jumbo.

Both Duvall and Caan were a few years off The Godfather, so perhaps the studio thought that would be enough, With Sam Peckinpah at the the helm, what could go wrong?

A lot. Peckinpah melds ninja warriors attacking men with guns, and ala’ The Wild Bunch, much of it is in slow motion. The result is a comic slaughter, one that seems only to be missing the Benny Hill soundtrack. At one point during one of these turkey shoots, Caan and Young are actually cracking up.

And as noted, there are Asians, so there is the obligatory honorable fight to the death with samurai swords.

The script is a mess, a mix of tough guy patter, platitudinous observations on “the Man” and the virtue of a cause, and verbal slapstick. Caan seems to be laughing through the entire endeavor, and it’s hard to blame him.

In the plus column, 70s San Francisco is a kick, and the final shootout is filmed in the Suisun Bay US Navy graveyard with hundreds of mothballed ships. The feel is spooky and the visual awe-inspiring.