Archive

1 star

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.

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.

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.     

James Bond: No Time To Die - Profile Poster | All posters in one place |  3+1 FREE

There seemed to be some concern that the new Bond movie would be overly feminized, what with the introduction of screenplay writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Fleabag) and two female agents, one of whom actually replaced 007 after his retirement, which is where we find Daniel Craig at the beginning of the film. Bond is in a doomed committed relationship again and this time, he’s ready to share his feelings about the love of his life Vesper and let go for his next chapter. Oh James, to open up and trust.

He’s the most feminine thing in the movie, which should have been titled “Eat Pray Blofeld.”  The female agents (Lashana Lynch and Ana de Armas) kick ass and take names and manage to be adept, vibrant and sexy in the process. But Bond has become introspective, gooey and even uncomfortably corny, throwing off a few puns that would make both Roger Moore and Mike Myers wince.

Worse, Bond’s love, Lea Seydoux, is dull as dishwater. There is not an ounce of chemistry between her and Craig, and when he stands at the crypt of Vesper to say his final goodbye, you conclude that poor Bond has settled. So vacant and unmemorable is Seydoux, I forgot she was in the last Bond flick.

To the extent Waller-Bridge has made the franchise more women-centric, it is not necessarily feminist in approach. Lynch is essentially window-dressing, her entire persona more catty neighbor than licensed to kill.

Nor am I stuck in the past. One expects Bond to undergo updating. Hell, Craig’s entry mercifully ended the silly Vidal Sassoon era of Pierce Brosnan and the merciless lampooning of Austin Powers in one fell swoop. But the feel here is much more sitcomish, which is not an easy fit. Am I supposed to take Lynch seriously when she kvetches over the loss of her 007 identification? Where is the female equivalent of:

The picture is also interminably and unforgivably long, almost 3 hours, and the primary villain, Rami Malek, is underdeveloped to the point where his grand design of destruction is an afterthought. He doesn’t seem that into it. As you are watching Malek and Bond verbally joust, you will juxtapose the wonderful back-and-forth between Craig and Javier Bardem in Skyfall with the philosophical exchange here and pine for the days of sharp, malicious repartee. Malek and Craig are in a titanic struggle to out-bore each other, and sadly, it’s a draw.

Speaking of boring, the title song by Billie Eilish is the most forgettable in the series. It sounds as if someone is trying to get you sexually aroused with a Gregorian chant.

There is also a Russian Larry, Moe or Curly, I can’t decide, a dastardly genetic engineer who bumbles through the entire picture unintelligibly. When you can understand him, you realize that he is aping the comic stylings of Yaakov Smirnov.

Finally, the end is laughably self important and schmaltzy, Bond as Christ.

On the plus side of the ledger, Craig is still winning in moments, the locales are fresh and lush, and a few of the action sequences (two car chases) are expertly filmed by Cary Joji Fukunaga (True Detective).  But even in the shoot ups, the film falters. No Time to Die continues the mistake of the last installment, Spectre, where there is no bullet fired from Bond at the furthest vantage point that will not immediately hit his target, Bond as John Wick.

A sad end to the Craig era.

From 'Basic Instinct' to 'Showgirls': The rise and fall of the erotic  thriller

We were sitting down last night to eat Chinese, ready to watch the finale of The Alienist on HBO Max, when this popped on.  As I looked at my kung pao, and then at my wife, none too proud of myself, I asked, “Can we keep watching this until we see Sharon Stone’s genitalia?”

She acquiesced.

Sadly, that scene had passed, but we did watch the rest of the picture.  A few thoughts:

1) This is a “pre-proliferation of-internet pornography” picture, and even without the glimpse of Stone’s privates, I was impressed by the ample nudity (a lot of Stone, her girlfriend, and tons of Michael Douglas butt) and the extended sex scenes.

2) The film has aspirations to Hitchcock, but it is weak and often, hilariously mannered, and it essentially phones in any real suspense, substituting beautiful, inconvenient San Francisco locales for people to meet.

3) It is also rife with tropes, like the drunken buddy cop partner (George Dzundza), the sex so good your back gets scratched by fingernails, the hard-bitten cop who doesn’t need pencil-pushing headshrinkers messing with gut street instincts, and various versions of, “You’re way over the line, mister!”

4) It tries for a Suspicion-like ending but fails, with unintended comic results (how many times can Sharon Stone have an orgasm and at its peak, throw her hands down towards Douglas as if she were going to stab him with an ice pick?)

5) Michael Douglas has to be the most successful dick of a leading man in history,  Granted, he got his Oscar as Gordon Gekko, a true villain, but by leading man, I mean someone who is supposed to engender a smidgeon of empathy.  Sure, you felt bad for him in Fatal Attraction, but not really bad, even though a woman boiled his pet rabbit, kidnapped his child and tried to murder his family. He’s always at least half a dick.

6) The film has innumerable lazy turns, but my favorite is how no one ever takes Douglas “off the case” (sure, he is suspended, but he’s really up in the investigation all the way to his naked butt), despite sleeping with the suspect; killing her girlfriend (and providing a wildly implausible lie about how that happened); sleeping with his psychological counselor who works for the police; and beating up a colleague who later that night is found with a bullet in his temple.

Yet, the one time he is sidelined by his partner (“hey man, you can’t come up there with me, you’re suspended”), Douglas agrees and the partner gets fileted.

Plus, apparently, Douglas has “history” – 5 shootings in 6 years, two of which were tourists “caught in the crossfire.”

That’s one helluva a police union.

Anyway, the movie is bad, guilty pleasure watchable, and, as noted, overly dependent on Sharon Stone’s vagina.

We have started a new tradition at home when all four of us are present. One of us gets to pick the movie and the other three have no veto power. I was first up and showed this gem, primarily to discomfort my wife and daughter, but also because Sean Connery had just passed and the movie always had a soft spot in my heart. In the first minutes, Connery did not disappoint: he pulled off a woman’s bikini top and strangled her with it until she gave up information on how to find his nemesis Blofeld. He also popped another woman in the mouth. Not to get too far off track, but while I can see that James Bond is certainly no paragon of modernity, the fact that he smacks women around for information always struck me as one of his more proto-feminist qualities. He does not discriminate.  Blofeld first. Chivalry second.

I loved this movie when I was a kid because when my brother and I went to Puerto Rico, and we started to fight with each other, my abuela took him for the day, and my abeulo took me. I am certain that I got the better of the deal, because I had lunch at a restaurant in San Juan where my hamburger was brought to me on an electric train. Then we went to see a double feature: this second run flick was the opener to the first run feature about a killer octopus, Tenacles. We drank up Bond and left during the fish movie. 

My love for the film grew a little more because I married a doppelgänger to Jill St. John. Of course, one would never marry a woman based on the firm imprint of a beautiful Bond girl during adolescence. But it doesn’t hurt. 

To the film. It’s pretty awful. You can see that this entry of the series was the one most heavily relied upon by Mike Myers in his Austin Powers send ups. Bond is dead-to-rights on four separate occasions, and on each, rather than shoot him dead, the villains consign him to some elaborate end which he foils. 

Worse, contrary to almost every other Bond film, the picture is ugly. The closest we get to an exotic locale is Amsterdam, where we see a dead body pulled out of one of the canals. Other than that, it’s gruesome 1970 Las Vegas, a desert, some kind of hidden missile base, and a finale on a grubby oil rig. The interior decoration seems to be Playboy-meets-The Poconos. When your most picturesque locale in a Bond film is the 1979 Circus Circus casino, oof. 

The movie also makes absolutely no sense and attempts to rely on the comic to the exclusion of any intelligible plot.  Sometimes, it borders on an episode of The Monkees. Almost every other movie in the early series entries are better.  A dog, but near and dear to my heart.

The Way Back (2020 film) - Wikipedia

Look.  I’m not complaining.  I knew what I was getting into when I saw the previews.  Ben Affleck, down and out, drinking beers in the shower, stumbling home from the bar, and then, redemption by way of the call from the old school, “Hey, man, we need a hoops coach.”  All the signs of schmaltz-fest, for which I was totally down.  Also, this movie received an 84% on Rottentomatoes.

While it penetrated the outer-lining of the heart once or twice (though that may have been indigestion), for the most part, this is a bad movie.  Let me count the ways.

*Affleck takes a 1-9 woefully undersized team with no apparent talent and makes them a playoff contender on 1) the pre-existing “motion” offense (he just screams “move” and “set picks”); 2) profanity/appeals to their manhood; 3) a full game, full court press. Come on.

*He has dark secrets that have brought him to rock bottom. We learn about them later, but nowhere near enough.  He just seems like his quiet character in The Town, but he’s not planning a heist.

*His wife, who shares his tragedy, is played by someone who must have said, “Okay, Ben is playing this low-key. I will not be out low-keyed.   I will trump his low-key simmer by being catatonic.”  She succeeds.  Their scenes together are master classes in boredom and diffidence.

*The film is ostensibly about relationships, but not one is established. You have no idea how Affleck ended up with his dead-eyed ex-wife.  The actor who plays his sister could not have been more unlike him.  He establishes one relationship with a player, to whom he says “lead” and ”shoot” and then inexplicably, visits the player’s father, who, straight out of the cliché jar, hates basketball because when he was a star, it did not work out for him.   That scene takes 41 seconds, whereupon Affleck shrugs.

*Affleck does connect a little bit with his algebra teaching assistant coach, who ends up being the worst kind of rat fink, and in the process, reveals the school as heartless and joyless.

*Is the filmic sign of being really down and out drinking beer in the shower? Affleck drinks loads of beer in the shower.  While I’m at it, is beer really the choice of bottom-of-the barrel alcoholics?  It seems like a lot of work.

*The piano music in this picture is as intrusive as a tornado warning. Plink, plink . . . be moved! Be moved!

*His players don’t seem modern. Affleck makes a reference to The White Shadow, which is funny, but it is telling.  These players act as if they came to the court straight from The Disney Channel.

Lastly, and critically, Affleck plays a former high school hoops star yet he in no way, shape or form looks like he ever played hoops, much less was an All-American.  I’m 56 in October and until the pandemic, was still playing hoops every week.  I know what older men in all shapes and sizes who play hoops look like, even if they are not playing basketball but rather, just moving a little and dribbling.  When Affleck gets on the court, he just kind of walks around.  He holds the ball like a cantaloupe.  I do not believe.

 

706EF438-72D0-404C-BAAC-6231955D5684
Technologically impressive, emotionally uninvolving, and bordering on rote. Two British soldiers are despatched on a suicide mission and thereafter play the role of cinematic pinballs.   If they succeed, they will save the lives of 1600 men, so, they only sent two?  Ah well.

The film desperately tries to be surreal and portentous. It ends up being silly or worse, tedious, and all of the bombast of the score can’t put enough lipstick on this stinker.

The picture’s chief attribute – the longest of long takes, with no cuts – ends up boring the viewer. “Do I have to watch them walk all the way over there?”, you ask. Indeed, you do, but sometimes they run, or jump, or scurry as bombs and planes and snipers harass them. Just like Wreck It Ralph.

It’s pretty. That’s it.