I started watching Michael Mann’s Tokyo Vice on HBO Max, which is excellent, and then I noticed that his big screen directorial debut was on Amazon Prime for free (Mann also wrote the picture).

I remember Thief primarily because the bad guy was Robert Prosky, a then-legend in D.C. theater (I went to high school with two of his sons, both theater kids). As a seemingly civilized crime boss branching out into legitimate investment, Prosky does not disappoint. He’s a sharp mix of warmly urbane and brutal and is at his best when wooing the uber-independent professional thief Frank (James Caan) to join up with his outfit. Prosky offers Caan all the tools necessary for big heists – including the materials, targets and dental – all the while “respecting” Caan’s ability to opt out of the game at his whim.  Simultaneously, Caan is wooing diner hostess Tuesday Weld, dreaming of that last score and getting out.       

Mann’s stylish sequences make great use of a perpetually wet, gray and grimy 1980 Chicago, and the industrial score by Tangerine Dream (an edgier Vangelis, who just died) adds to the noir-ish moodiness.

Sure, it is a little dated. The slo-mo shootout at the end, in particular, does not travel well. But the heist scenes are exciting, and there is a real chemistry between Caan and the several-times-around-the block Weld (their momentous date over coffee, which becomes a lifelong bond, is credible, no mean feat). Caan is riveting as a distrustful loner frantically trying to wrap it all up and get free. He plays Frank at a slow simmer, a man for whom control is so seminal, it devours him.        

Willie Nelson has a very strong turn – one scene – as a desperate convict, and you can also spot Chicago regulars Dennis Farina and William Peterson in small roles (and Jim Belushi in a larger one).   

I regularly monitor the streaming services for late 60s and 70s flicks. I may have seen them on regular rotation growing up on the 4 o’clock movie. Or my father may have taken me to the theater on his semi-regular weekend visits. Some are solid pictures, enhanced by my own nostalgia. Some are complete and utter poop. Mr. Majestyk is in the latter camp.

Charles Bronson, who squinted through an inordinate amount of theses paychecks through the 70s (Telefon, Breakout, Love and Bullets), plays a Vietnam Vet who just wants to be left alone to chisel the hourly wage down for his immigrant work force and pick watermelons. Alas, local Colorado thugs who want the work for white bums (so they can take a portion of their wages) intercede, Bronson messes them up, and soon, he’s in jail, where he meets and elicits the ire of a hitman (The Godfather‘s own Virgil Solozzo, Al Lettieri, who overacts inversely proportional to Bronson’s napping). Leaden car chases, nonsensical shootouts and wooden dialogue (penned by Elmore Leonard, no less) ensue.

The picture is clearly influenced by Billy Jack, the independent film made a few years prior on a shoestring which racked up a surprisingly healthy box office. Billy Jack is also not very good, but at least it had some camp value and the virtue of originality.

Charles Bernstein’s score is an elongated intro for a Mannix or Banacek. Maybe a McCloud. Gruesome horn, spinet and wah wah guitar. I suppose its is fitting because there is not an episode of one of those shows that is as dumb and listless as this picture.

Though if machine-gunning watermelons is your thing, this one is for you.

Five things about The Batman

1. I get that Batman is supposed to be spare and mysterious. Here, however, Robert Pattinson plays him whispery, dreary and not only entirely humorless, but dull. Also, whenever Batman enters a room, is it necessary to have him looking down, and then, raising his head dramatically to face … the foyer? 

2. Except for Paul Dano, the villains are forgettable.  And what a waste of Colin Farrell. He might as well have been Michael Chiklis under all that padding and putty, and Chiklis would have been cheaper.

3. The end is laughably schmaltzy “I have met the enemy and he is me” blather. Batman is no longer vengeance. He is Moses, guiding his people through a parted Red Sea on the floor of the Garden. And he wants your vote!!

4. The film is no fun. Beautifully appointed, but zero fun. The Burton Batmans were super fun, the Nolan Batmans were heavy but also had some fun.  This is a mostly unsuccessful meld of Batman and SE7EN.  In fact, Pattinson would have been better served during his face-to-face with Dano by pleading, “What’s in the box!!!” rather than just pounding angrily on the glass. Not that all films have to be fun.  But certainly, films where an adult runs around dressed as a bat should be a little fun.

5.  I get the canon that Batman does not kill people, opting instead to maim, stun, paralyze or concuss them.  But now is the time to take a hard look at how many people have died because of his outmoded reticence.  In the climactic scene, he takes out a slew of snipers with punches and judo chops, kicks and roundhouses, all the while allowing the baddies to shoot significantly more quarry.  And without the intercession of Catwoman, he would have been toast, and Gotham would have suffered grievously.  Hubris, I say.

On HBO MAX.

In 2016, Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women seemed wildly overlooked, even though he was nominated for an Oscar for best original screenplay. Here, his follow up has indeed been wildly overlooked. It’s one of the best films of the year.

Joaquin Phoenix is a chronicler of children’s stories, working on a project where he interviews kids in different US cities about their hopes and dreams and fears, the kind of endeavor that would likely end up on NPR. His work is interrupted by a crisis. His sister (Gabby Hoffman) has to take care of her bipolar husband (Scoot McNairy), who is off his meds and spiraling, so Phoenix shows up in LA to watch their 9 year old boy (Woody Norman). Phoenix’s duty extends beyond the few days, and soon he is taking the boy with him to various cities for his project. A crash course in parenting, with all its trial and error, misstep and occasional triumph, ensues. Phoenix and Norman establish a relationship from near-scratch, sometimes terrifying, often insightful and ultimately enduring (it is piercing when Norman asks Phoenix if he is going to be like his father), and the bond never comes close to cloying or sentimental. Their union is authentic and fraught with peril. You simultaneously feel for Phoenix, who you can envision just shaking the boy in utter frustration, and Norman, who has his own demons to confront and is forced to confront them away from the natural comfort of his mother, home and routine.

Interspersed in the story are Phoenix’s interviews with the children, snippets of which range from heartbreaking to hopeful, and his phone calls and texts with Hoffman, with whom we quickly realize he has a difficult relationship, stemming from both the death of their mother and his rigid stance on the wisdom of her relationship with McNairy.

But the film is primarily about Phoenix and the boy. 

As with most children, there is exhaustion and exasperation, doubly so here given Norman’s issues, and Mills starkly portrays how much fun children are and how much fun they are not. We live in a society that idolizes children. As presented to us, they are mirrors to our better selves, somehow wiser, nearly always charming or charmed, almost as if America has at times become enraptured by tiny Svengalis who made “but what about the children?” our inner Gregorian chant. Listen to an adult speak to their child at the grocery store when they sense you may be in earshot. It often borders on performance, like C.O.P.S. when the fuzz know the camera is running. The parent knows they are being judged via their child and interaction with same and they have put on their best act for the judging.

Mills knows the kid is more than a handful, particularly given the precarious genetic hand given to him, and he allows for the moments where Phoenix, like you, can’t stand Norman because he is a kid. An unformed, insistent, repetitive child.

Our parents knew what the hell they were doing when they sent us to bed at the inception of the party and out of their hair to roam the streets for 12 hour stretches, and you can see Phoenix wordlessly pine for these simpler times only to analyze his reaction in a monologue to his tape recorder.

Mills also makes Norman’s self-awareness a curse and a blessing. A good friend nailed it in a text exchange. “His performance was actually great, and I like that he didn’t try to kill with cuteness. More of a personal reaction…just can’t imagine caring for a kid so annoyingly fluent in therapeutic language.”

The film is graceful, multi-faceted and subtly moving and the performances are adept and grounded across the board. In particular, Hoffman and Phoenix establish a patter that any sibling will recognize as true.

Put the phone down and really take it in.  Easy top 5 for 2021 and currently streaming for less than $5.

A pointless and excruciatingly long (2.5 hours) noir. All of the characters are thinly drawn and given second banana positioning to impossibly stylized visuals.  Before you can say “del Toro”, you’ll realize you’re in for a weak facsimile of Body Heat, minus the body and the heat, where the sex is supplanted by impeccable pre-World War II interior design. If you love art deco hallways and hotel rooms, this movie is for you!

The caper, such as it is, is laughably transparent and slapdash, having virtually no chance of success, and if you don’t have the end sussed out, you were probably justifiably looking at your phone. Cate Blanchett practically purrs with insincerity and threat, so the fact that she has any chance of getting over on grifter Bradley Cooper relegates him to super dummy status. As the love interest, Rooney Mara is dull. As the corporate titan meanie, Richard Jenkins is wasted.

I suppose it’s okay to look at, though I found the film visually just shy of the vulgar and lurid Sin City movies.

Free on HBO, which should have but did not help.     

Beautifully acted and well-executed, it is nice to see “little” films like this make a big splash for awards season, but CODA‘s inclusion also points up the dilution of the value of a best picture nomination. When you can have 10 nominees, you not only get crap (Don’t Look Up) but perfectly good films that are not extraordinary (Belfast, King Richard and this).

A high school girl (Amelia Jones) who wants to sing is hemmed in by her situation; she is the only speaking member of an all deaf family and she’s also forced to be their interpreter, diplomat, business manager, and even inspiration.  She suffers the indignity of peer mocking, familial over-reliance, and shyness, all the while guided and supported by her music teacher, who sees something in her . . . something special.

So, there’s nothing new here. But what is delivered, however familiar, is heartfelt, never overwrought (Jones infuses an attractive resignation and world-weariness into her character), and only occasionally cloying. The picture’s major misstep lies with the hip deaf parents – Troy Kotsur and Marlee Matlin – who are sometimes crudely overdrawn. For example, they flaunt their sexuality even as their poor daughter is enlisted to interpret their doctor’s advice that they refrain from coitus (because of jock itch), and their “birds and bees” discussion with her in front of a high school crush is excruciating in its falsity and manipulation of the audience. These are cringeworthy scenes meant to point up Jones’s burden, but they are also cartoonish and cheap.

That aside, the film is stirring and heartwarming and ultimately, it delivers. Have a hankie nearby, especially when Kotsur asks to “hear” his daughter sing.

Another feather in its cap – Jones does her own singing, is British but plays American, and learned sign language for the role.

Streaming on Apple TV.

A series of feelgood vignettes, largely through the eyes of a child (Jude Hill) in 1969 Belfast during “the Troubles”, Kenneth Branagh’s film is at times charming, and at others, a bit wince-inducing.  There are beautiful, funny and tender moments, and then there are some scenes that are almost as head-scratching as the annoyingly off-kilter soundtrack (Van Morrison is meant for listening, not for accompanying a film; the songs – and there are 10 of them! –  jut into the narrative with all the subtlety of . . . well . . . Van Morrison).

The film falters because of tone – at one moment, we see a world so idyllic as to be fantastical, almost a Busch Gardens-meets-The Quiet Man version of Ireland – and then it is interrupted by religious and sectarian violence that in and of itself seems ridiculous in its staginess.  All well and good, if we accept that we are seeing this story through the eyes of child. Similarly, we can also accept the Sergio Leon-esque confrontation between street thug and father followed by that same father crooning to his wife in an MTV-esque episode.

But then we have to slog through Branagh’s more mundane and serious depiction of the family in crisis (should they stay in Belfast or go).  It’s almost as if you were confronted with a real discussion as to the atrocities of the Nazis in JoJo Rabbit (which some dunkelheads suggested should have been the case).

There is also a dissonance between the father (played by a very weak Jamie Dornan, more hair model than working class hero) and the mother (Caitriona Balfe), who acts rings around him.

Bottom line – what’s good is good, and Hill is winning, but it’s a bit of a mess.    

One of the best westerns I’ve seen, a medium cool, richly-layered drama that begs the question: where do old gun men go to die? The answer limits a lot of what I can say about this picture, but it is anchored by world-weary Tim Blake Nelson and sauced nicely by the ever-interesting Stephen Dorff (resurrected after True Detective, Season 3).  What starts as a simple matter of competing interests and moral codes morphs into an increasingly taut mystery interwoven with a solid shoot ‘em up, one of those clusterfucks where, given the terror and adrenaline of the moment as well as the limitations of the weaponry, most people miss.

This is not the kind of vehicle you expect from the writer-director of Super Zeroes (“Two loser brothers and their simpleton roommate’s lives are forever changed when a mysterious meteor strikes their house”), but Potsy Ponciroli delivers the goods in this tale of fear of the past, secrets and loyalty.

One of the best of the year.

At 98 minutes, a Godsend. Currently on Amazon Prime, Apple TV and Showtime.

Amazon.com: Nobody [DVD] : Various, Various: Movies & TV

“From the writer of John Wick . . .”

The film is John Wick, all the way down to its inexhaustible army of Russian pawns offered for slaughter. Instead of a laconic Keanu Reeves, we get a little less laconic and just a hair more put-upon Bob Odenkirk (the play against type is pretty cool). Still, while the film offers a massively high body count and is a little bloodier, it is pretty much the same as Wick minus the underworld mumbo-jumbo.

I’ve expended 2 hours in less fruitful pursuits. On HBO Max.

Prime Video: Shiva Baby

Writer-director Emma Seligman’s first feature is close to unbearably long, and it runs a mere 77 minutes. I can’t say the film isn’t good or well-acted (it is), or that Seligman does not have an assured hand and a bright future (she does). But this story of a college age girl forced to endure almost every imaginable humiliation while sitting shiva with parents and other family members who take their stereotypical Jewishness “to 11” will not be everyone’s cup of Manischewitz.

Danielle (Rachel Sennott), a destabilized Columbia college student who makes money on the side as a prostitute, hurriedly arrives from the bachelor pad of a trick to a post funeral gathering of a distant family member. There, she runs in to just about every person in her life capable of making her uncomfortable, with her mother the Torquemada of Brooklyn. unknowingly orchestrating her serial agonies.

Mostly cringe inducing, occasionally funny, the ingredients in Seligman’s film are off. It’s too unpleasant and abrasive, bordering on the sadistic (forget the indignities wrought by attendees, the house lacerates and nearly scalds Danielle, who spends a good portion of the film cleaning it or retreating to the bathroom). I suspect the gulf between critical acclaim and audience enjoyment is wide.

Sennott, however, is very adept at portraying young woman as leaf in the wind. We get to see Danielle in all of her insecure, self-destructive, harried glory. If that’s your thing.

On a lot “best of 2021” lists (it’s not, but it is promising). On HBO.