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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The lure of Steve McQueen is a steely resolve that doesn’t need a lot of explanation. McQueen is the Cooler King, driven by an unarticulated obsession with escape. Or Frank Bullitt, even-tempered yet resolute as he doggedly figures out a conspiracy while courting Jackie Bissett (who, of course, wants to know what’s ticking . . . . up there). The Sand Pebbles, Papillon, The Getaway, The Magnificent Seven, Nevada Smith . . . all pretty much the same guy, with some slight moderation on the irony-to-darkness meter. Always something hidden, a mix of detached bemusement, determination and code.
In The Cincinnati Kid, that’s who we are promised, but the film is so bare bones and uninvolving, it only succeeds in exhibiting how skeletal McQueen can actually be.
He’s a hot shit stud poker player who gets his chance at the top man (Edward G. Robinson) and there is a little skullduggery afoot before and during their epic showdown on the felt. Some of it is business (Rip Torn and Karl Malden vie for his loyalty), some of the heart (child-like Tuesday Weld offers love, voluptuous Ann Margret her vixen’s hips), and none of it is interesting. The Weld-McQueen union is hollow, the Margret-McQueen coupling inexplicable (she oozes, McQueen snoozes), and the shenanigans between Torn and Malden are pedestrian.
Only Robinson, as an aging card player tiring of every young buck who wants to take him on, offers some shading and intellect.
Paul Schrader’s second screenplay, Taxi Driver, was his masterpiece. Robert DeNiro’s ticking time bomb Vietnam vet then gave way to William Devane’s ticking time bomb Vietnam vet in the underrated Rolling Thunder. Spare, steely scripts followed, including Blue Collar, Hardcore, Raging Bull, The Mosquito Coast, The Last Temptation of Christ, Affliction and Bringing Out the Dead, good quality, but all sharing the same character – loners, tortured souls, beleaguered by their pasts and/or alienation in their presents. If you put Schrader at the helm, even of material he didn’t write (Autofocus, The Comfort of Strangers) still bears his solitary strain.
Though I really can’t explain this one:
Regardless, The Card Counter is very subpar Schrader. Oscar Isaac is an Iraq War veteran who has a deep dark secret. Upon his release from military prison, he becomes a card counter and poker player, traveling from casino to casino. He is confronted with an opportunity for redemption (offered by the listless Tye Sheridan) and love (in the form of Tiffany Haddish, who seems a little confused as to what she is doing here), and it all goes rather poorly.
Isaac is the best thing about this pretentious, pointless, somnolent, uneven mess, but he is given the near-impossible task of voicing over such pearls as the essence of card counting:
It was in prison I learned to count cards . . . The count is based on a high low system. High cards, ten, jack, queen, king have a value of minus one. If they are depleted, player’s advantage goes down. The low cards, two, three, four, five, six have a value of plus one. The seven, eight and nine have no count value. The player keeps track of every card and calculates the running count. Then the player arrives at the true count, which is the running count divided by the decks remaining. For example, if the running count is plus nine and there are four and a half decks remaining, nine over four and a half gives you a true count of plus two. As true count increases, the player’s advantage increases. The idea is to bet little when you don’t have the advantage and proportionately more when you do.
Thank God Schrader didn’t have Isaac work on carburetors in prison.
The end makes no sense, but if you make it there, you won’t be better for it.
Hardworking scout and would-be NBA assistant coach Adam Sandler (Stanley Sugarman) finds himself on the outs with his employer, the Philadelphia 76ers, after the owner (Robert Duvall) dies and Sugarman becomes enamored with an unknown street hoops player in Spain. Duvall’s son, Ben Foster, who always resented Sugarman’s relationship with his Pop, revokes Sugarman’s elevation to assistant coach and shuns the unicorn Spaniard (real NBA player Juancho Hernangomez) Sugarman has discovered.
What follows is an unoriginal but entertaining sports drama. Nothing trailblazing, but filled with enough good things to elevate the material, such as–.
1. Scads of NBA stars, with speaking and/or playing cameos. If you’re an NBA fan, this is right in your wheelhouse.
3. An acceptance of sports tropes that borders on reverential immersion. Stanley has a deep dark secret about his playing days, Hernangomez needs a daddy, and daddy gets his hijo in shape with consistent runs up a Philly hill (to be fair, they do reference Rocky, but still) and the longest workout montage in film history (it practically has an intermission). Damned if it doesn’t work.
4. Hernangomez, who has some acting chops, and is surprisingly affecting as a young fish-out-of-water.
There are problems. Sugarman’s secret is insufficiently recapitulated, his family dynamic is too cute by half, and Hernangomez is tarnished and his stock devalued because he had an assault conviction in Spain (a fight with his daughter’s mother’s boyfriend).
I love Anthony Bourdain. And by that, I mean I love his books and shows, because it is the only way I knew the man. The essence of a successful food and travel host is not only to be a great guide but an entertaining, engaging companion, and Bourdain was that and more.
Roadrunner, naturally, offers to give greater insight and attempts to do so through the remembrances of his friends, loves and/or colleagues. But also, through the film of Bourdain himself, which I assume there is quite a lot of, given his long run on TV.
Too bad for him. In a lot of ways, the documentary offered the man behind the curtain, and for the most part, other than demonstrating a frenetic pace, a little benign soul-searching and some introspective gallows humor, the footage is of no real moment. Likewise, his friends confirmed he was fun, obsessive, controlling and a little dark at times.
Regardless, the entire endeavor was such an exercise in post-mortem narcissism, with laser-like focus on the why (did he kill himself?) and the who (was he really, deep inside?), they never got to the best part, the what (impact did he have on others and the world around him?) They have so much footage of Bourdain waxing introspectively just to pass the time, but it lacks verisimilitude and gravitas. And how much can anyone take of a man talking about himself, followed by friends who don’t so much talk about him but about his psyche and his end, in the manner of adults playing Clue?
I was surprised about how bored I became. This is a man whose legacy is what he did at all moments before his end and its impact, and yet, Roadrunner spends itself on why he did it, and the impact of that last impetuous act on the interviewees (newsflash – they were very sad). Lost is his life as a chef, his impact on others here and abroad (Where is his daughter? Who cares? Let’s devote more time to how confused, rootless and exhausted Bourdain was made by excessive travel!) and the joy he gave people. My God, there is one scene where an interviewee provides us the meanest thing Bourdain said to him and then starts bawling. So very, very small.
Three other problems. The documentarians did not interview his last girlfriend yet posited that his obsession with her was contributory if not dispositive to his undoing. She, Asia Argento, is a loon, but still, not quite cricket to condemn and then omit her. They also computer-generated Bourdain’s voice briefly, with the director saying his widow told him Bourdain would have been “cool” with it. She denies any such coolness and as brief as the gambit was, it is a stain. Finally, there are many references to Bourdain’s heroin addiction but little explanation as to how he overcame it or how it influenced or altered his existence. It’s like saying Patton was a veteran and leaving it that.
The Mona Lisa of Stupid, a film so generic and irrepressibly cliche’ the never-fail motor of Tom Cruise almost fails to drive it.
I liked it but I’m not proud of it. It is not the peak of genre nor does it defy it. It’s as insipid as elevator music, as banal as a modern country song, as predictable as pollen every spring.
I liked it because Tom Cruise willed it to be so.
I liked it in spite of the following
1) Bavaria appears to be the next potentially lethal nuclear power (again, homogenization and studied inoffensiveness to such a degree that the closest we get to “bad guys” live in Von Trapp territory)
2) The portrait at Val Kilmer at his funeral appears to have been made at Spencer Gifts
3) Every scene with Cruise and Jennifer Connelly is shot-for-shot a Kay Jeweler’s commercial.
4) The strafing run that serves as the centerpiece of the movie is the same strafing run in Star Wars and yes, a version of “the force” is used.
5) Cruise has many gifts. Chemistry with the opposite sex is not one of them. His post-coital moment with Connelly suggests they just engaged in a perfunctory bout of Wordle (K-I-S-S-Y).
Also, one might ask, if Val Kilmer, who cannot speak, was invited to reprise his role as Iceman, whither Kelly McGillis? She explains–
“I mean, I’m old and I’m fat, and I look age-appropriate for what my age is, and that is not what that whole scene is about.”