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Drama

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.

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.

This is a sleepy rip-off of The Hustler.             

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.

On HBO.

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.

2. Sandler, who, when he is not yukking it up in mostly awful comedies with his pals, can surprise you with a raw vulnerability (Uncut Gems, Funny People, Punch Drunk Love, The Meyerowitz Stories).

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).

Ha!  Not in this NBA.

It should have been an attempted murder.

Of his father! 

I’ve done much worse with just under 2 hours.  On Netflix.

The Mona Lisa of Stupid, a film so generic and irrepressibly cliche’ the never-fail motor of Tom Cruise almost fails to drive it.

Almost.

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.”

Hmmm. Connelly plays a bar owner.

I ask, who is more bar owner-ish?

 Alas.


Per usual, Olivia Coleman is transfixing, and the film is almost a master class on how to construct a psychological thriller. It is hard to believe it is Maggie Gyllenhaal’s first feature.  

Sadly, the film is not a psychological thriller. Rather, it’s a psychological character study of a middle aged woman and the choices she made as a young mother and professional. Coleman is a college professor on holiday in Greece, and during her stay, we cover the source of her disaffection from her two adult daughters, her kinship with a young woman (Dakota Johnson) who is clearly in maternal and familial crisis, and her inner turmoil at her own pathological selfishness and insecurity. It is the latter issue upon which the film turns. It is also its undoing, for while each flashback gives us greater insight as to her personality and her current state, it does not quite articulate why she does a particularly loony thing, a looniness made loonier by how she resolves the lunacy. Spoilers follow. 

In her twenties, Coleman was driven mad by her own demanding daughters, so much so she abandoned them for several years, for the arms of an adoring colleague and a passionate affair. She eventually returned, but the coldness in her manner and guilt over her actions is evident years later, on holiday, when she encounters Johnson in similar conflict.

Gyllenhaal stacks the deck. The entirety of what we see of Coleman’s children in flashback and Johnson’s daughter in the present is wildly unflattering. The girls are not only obnoxious, but incessant, obtrusive and maddening. I may be having a generational problem here, because I cannot imagine such behavior being countenanced for a second, either growing up or when my daughter was that age, but perhaps Gyllenhaal was making a statement on the tyranny of children. 

Regardless, Coleman becomes a confidante to Johnson but she also rather cruelly forces her into kinship by hiding the child’s beloved doll. In doing so, she takes a demanding child, who is already on the last nerve of the harried Johnson, and makes her a devil. Coleman can see this and either she wants to punish the child or she is leveraging the heightened distress of the brat to wheedle her way into Johnson’s trust. Either way, loony tunes. 

The film pretty much ends with Coleman admitting to the crime, and Johnson, naturally, looking past any connection the two had established to conclude that Coleman is, indeed, a kook. 

Which is undeniable and renders the layered and patient build-up pointless, a shame, because the film was meticulously crafted to go somewhere better. 

This is one of those pictures where the 98% Rottentomatoes.com score from the critics and the 48% score from the audience makes great sense. Fix me in the latter camp. I kept waiting for the murder to happen. 

Which reminds me of when I saw Monster’s Ball in the theater and an unimpressed man behind me was getting get shushed by his wife until finally, he declared he was leaving “unless there was motherfuckin’ monsters coming soon.” Then Billy Bob Thornton and Halle Berry had their steamy love scene and he was temporarily assuaged.

On Netflix.

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.

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.    

Nicholas Braun as Derrek, Riley Keough as Stefani, Taylour Paige as Zola and Colman Domingo as X in director Janicza Bravo’s “Zola.” Cr: Anna Kooris/A24

In 2016, Janicza Bravo wrote and directed one of the better entries for the TV series Atlanta, where the two black protagonists must negotiate their fraught relationship while enduring a bizarre Juneteenth party thrown by a wealthy couple, he, white and cluelessly solicitous, she black and protective of her status.

The party is unsurprisingly surreal.

The episode is bitterly funny and arch, but Bravo is hemmed in by the room, one that gets more claustrophobic as the tenuous couple try to hold it together.

With Zola, Bravo is unrestrained, and the result is a dizzying, frenetic, trippy After Hours-esque black comedy nightmare, one based on a real life 148-tweet thread about a trip a Detroit stripper took to Florida with another stripper named Jessica.

Opening line” “Y’all wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out? It’s kind of long but full of suspense.”

The film is about feel, specifically, the texture of an ill-advised road trip that has gone horribly wrong.  The characters are hilarious, but they are as much pinballs as people (one of the few weaknesses; it’s easier not to care about their plight). In Bravo’s hands, the curves and jolts just keep coming, though she occasionally slows the action so the main stripper and poorest of the decision makers (Taylour Paige) can almost get her bearings. Bravo is so technically adept, these parts of the film play exactly like the part of a rollercoaster where the car deaccelerates on a curve, and then, zoom. You’re off again.

The film sports an innovative montage sequence, strange local rituals (her Florida is the land of “Florida Man” without even mentioning him), and the cellphone as arteries, veins and lungs to modern dimwits. I feel like I missed half of it and want to take the ride again. But what I saw was totally engrossing and I often laughed out loud for as long as I had time.

Bravo’s talent is undeniable and will likely be expended on the next Marvel franchise, Dr. WeirdButt of the Multiverse.

On Hulu.