Archive

4 stars

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).   

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.

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.

The Last Duel | 20th Century Studios

Ridley Scott makes damn fun pictures, and his historical films are some of his most enjoyable. However, when he gets too wrapped up in the visuals, he often loses the thread of story, as with Robin Hood and Kingdom of Heaven, sumptuous, beautiful, and utterly uninvolving period pieces.

Of course, his triumph is Gladiator, a CGI-infused, sweaty swashbuckling Roman sausage fest, and to answer Russell Crowe, yes, we were entertained.

I declare that I have been entertained yet again. The Last Duel is stunning to look at, standard for Scott (it almost feels like a Rick Steves French castle fantasy tour), but also involving, adroitly tiptoeing the line of serious and playful.

The story is simple. We are in France, Normandy, in the Middle Ages. Two knights (stolid, humorless and blunt Matt Damon and dashing, conniving Lothario Adam Driver) spend a great deal of those Ages bringing heavy swords down on the heads of their enemies, intriguing at court, and eventually, becoming bitter enemies over property disputes and Driver’s influence with a more powerful knight (Ben Affleck). Their enmity reaches boiling point when Driver is accused of raping Damon’s wife (Jodie Comer). The story, based on a non-fiction book, is told through three vantage points: that of Damon, Driver, and Comer.

You may want to stop reading here, as this has just recently been released on HBO, and spoilers will follow.

We live every scene through the eyes of each protagonist. Sometimes, they match up, sometimes there are minor variations, and other times, the recollections are night and day. But the devil is in the details, and some of the differences are quite revealing. The play and import of comparison is one of the niftier aspects of the film.

The picture also has a notable feminist bent, not surprising, given the subservient nature of women at the time and the #MeToo influence during its making. But screenwriters Nicole Holofcener (Enough Said, Can You Ever Forgive Me), Damon and Affleck, if not always subtle, are not heavy-handed and avoid the dour and instructive. In fact, the societal inquiry as to whether Comer could become pregnant via unpleasurable sex/rape is an intriguing line (if memory serves me, not too long ago, a Missouri Senate candidate torpedoed his own bid because he suggested that a woman could not become pregnant through rape).

The entire endeavor is thrilling, nail-biting, and then, because Ridley Scott is Ridley Scott, muscular, bloody and satisfactory.

Damon, who I have raved about for years as the industry’s most underrated actor (criminally ignored in The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Departed, and Contagion), again delivers. After his performance in Stillwater, when, oh when, will he be properly rewarded for his performances? Driver is commanding, and as he showed in Marriage Story, there is a dark pit just underneath his easy bonhomie. Comer is often beautifully vulnerable and you feel for her right off.

But, and hear me out, Affleck near steals the picture as Driver’s sybarite patron, a man who enjoys needling Damon no end, almost as much as his wine and his orgies. Seriousness is tedium to him, and while you are supposed to sympathize with Damon, Affleck is so delicious that at times, you are swayed by his pinpoint cruelty (“He’s no fucking fun!” he kvetches to Driver). But it’s more than a foppish turn; Affleck’s prince knows the kind of harm Damon, with his unyielding sense of honor, can pose to Driver, and he does his best to ward him off.

After a little too long for my taste, the film ends in a brutal battle to the death, gripping and by no means telegraphed in terms of the victor. And while, given its feminist inclinations, it could’ve ended with some kind of solemn tut tut message for all of us (the “Medieval Epic About Believing All Women” reviews were as plentiful as predictable), instead, Scott gives us a weepy and happy Huzzah!

The Tragedy of Macbeth' Apple TV+ Review: Stream It or Skip It?

Joel Coen’s stark, bleak, black-and-white world of Scotland is discomfiting, eerie and arresting, immediately drawing your eye to it. As the characters emerge from the shadows, their agendas become apparent, that of Macbeth (Denzel Washington) and his wife (Frances McDormand) being the foulest. Washington is capable, and as his descent into suspicion and madness progresses, he fully occupies the role. When revenge comes for him, he is lost and distracted, fending off portents and omens and a clever and novel rendition of one witch as three (a terrifying, freakishly limber Kathryn Hunter). Yet, he is still ferocious. I very much enjoyed how Washington played Macbeth, tortured and brooding but still lethal, even as his conversation becomes one largely with himself.

Better, Coen never lets the language become turgid in the mouths of the actors nor an obstacle to the story. You are carried along with genuine feeling for the fates of the protagonists, even though you know them in advance.

However, there are issues, the primary one being pace. Coen is almost too expeditious and the film zips along at 1:45 minutes. As my daughter rightly pointed out, more time should have been devoted to the persuasion and seduction of Macbeth. As it is, his objections feel perfunctory, and it is here Washington is weakest. Similarly, I thought Lady Macbeth’s descent into guilt-ridden madness was also rushed.  She is the progenitor of the conspiracy, and her frustrations at Macbeth’s missteps and then mental breakdown still reflect a woman who is totally in command, or at least, strategically keeping it together for her increasingly unstable husband. And then, next time we see her, she’s a total wackadoodle. Given Coen’s nifty expansion of Ross (Alex Hassell) from mere messenger to sociopathic near-puppet master, there is no reason he could not have given us more of Macbeth cajoled and Lady Macbeth degenerating.

Also, while I liked Stephen Root’s brief scene as Porter, it’s one of those Shakespeare adaptation conceits where someone cameos and really lets us have it, which is discordant.

Very good. Currently streaming on Apple.

Tick, Tick...Boom | Official Website | November 19 2021

Let’s first start with Jonathan Larson’s Rent, which was at its very best, catchy and urgent, and at its worst, cheezy, inbred, bombastic and cloying.  Its’ influence, the greater rock/popification of Broadway, is undeniable, if not universally acclaimed.  But it is what it is, and I always found it to be meh.  

As did the South Park guys.

tick tick  . . . BOOM! is Larson’s solo work just before Rent, as directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, and tells Larson’s story as he tries to get a musical off-the-ground.

The picture is a love letter to theater and theater kids. It is populated by scads of Broadway regulars and icons, in what comes off as a tribute to Larson, who tragically passed away from an aortic aneurysm before his triumph Rent opened.  

The film’s exuberance is near-irresistible. As Larson, Andrew Garfield is so winning, so all-encompassing in his love and enthusiasm for the character and the numbers, that even without Miranda’s clever and engaging staging, he would have carried this thing on his back and across the goal line.      

Of greater moment is the dawning that his one-man musical before Rent was better, in total. The numbers are strong, less gloppy and a little more introspective, and Larson has a better handle on communicating his own artistic struggle than in conveying the plight of the East Village bohemians. For example, this clever, Sondheim-esque ditty is better than most of Rent.

The film suffers from some of the same moral simplicity and noxious casualness that Rent evinced at its worst (who can stand La Vie Boheme when all the self-satisfied, insular riff-raff take up an entire table and “never buy” – Fuck you, waiter! We’re artists!) but it is brief and unobtrusive. In tick tick . . . BOOM!, Larson writes a funny, fantasy piece about escaping the miseries of the City and all of its indignities. In Rent, he has a bunch of pretty, smug faces ennoble the crud.

Great fun. On Netflix.

The Power of the Dog - The Rough Cut

Jane Campion’s The Piano was released 28 years ago and it put her on the map, garnering her an Oscar nomination for Best Picture and Director and a statuette for screenplay. It was beautiful but I found it sluggish and, given the stagey performances of Holly Hunter and Harvey Keitel, even a little tiresome. It screamed gothic arty.

Still, there was no denying Campion’s eye. For the last 12 years, she has directed exactly one project, the television series Top of the Lake. But now she is back, and again, she has produced a film breathtaking in its visual scope. But she has also remedied some of the infirmity of The Piano. Her latest is intensely personal and after perhaps too methodical of a start, weaves a stunning tale of abandonment and devotion.

Two brothers (Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemmons) run a Montana ranch in the 1920s. The former is a sadistic bully plagued by his own demons and the latter, a sweet, formal character who finally goes his own way to marry a local widow (Kirsten Dunst). In the marrying, he announces his independence from his insecure, brutalizing sibling. But Cumberbatch is not done, because Dunst and her effeminate and quirky son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) are soon ensconced in the family manor. Cumberbatch’s domineering brings each to different breaking points. 

This is ultimately a haunted house film, with its secrets strewn about the surrounding property, Cumberbatch the malevolent force of the manor. But Campion is interested in more, and at the moment of the greatest dread, we learn of Cumberbatch’s past pain and longing, which is surprisingly resurrected by Smit-McPhee. The villain is humanized, and redemption seems possible.

I can’t rave enough about the performances. Cumberbatch simmers with frustration as his world is shattered by the disaffection of his brother. Plemmons is poignant in his utter joy at getting out from under Cumberbatch, and his simple resolve to love is almost aching in its insistence. Dunst is affecting as she is worn down, and her feeble attempts to strike back are studies in anguish. And the performance of Smit-McPhee is a revelation. He is the embodiment of sweet sensitivity but it masks a courage and cunning that you don’t quite suspect but then realize was always there.

As for the look, New Zealand is Montana and it matters not a whit. Campion is every bit as accomplished in the dark crevices of the great house, where Cumberbatch is always waiting to deliver psychological punishment, and outdoors in the vistas and valleys of the ranch and mountains.

One of the best of the year. On Netflix.

West Side Story' Is Not for Puerto Ricans Like Me

Steven Spielberg‘s vibrant, fluid update subtly modernizes but stays traditional to the original in all the right places.  The “daddy-o” is largely excised but the film still feels like a night at the most expansive Broadway theater.

To be fair, it’s hard to miss the mark too wide with such rich source material. Unlike most musicals, in West Side Story, no number is unmemorable. There isn’t even one that is weak.

The dance at the gym and “America” are particularly good. In the first, Tony and Maria do not melt into the frantic gyrations of the Jets and Sharks, but rather are drawn beneath the bleachers, where, smitten, they have a charming conversation. Before the scene becomes too standard, a snap of Maria’s fingers beautifully cements their attraction and we are returned to the fantasy of dance. In the latter, the call and refrain of the Sharks as to the merits and drawbacks of their new home starts small in an apartment and blossoms in a wondrous, joyful romp culminating in the intersection of a city street.

Screenwriter Tony Kushner (Angels in America) makes several changes to the original, placing the gangs in the peril of urban renewal, beefing up the role of Chino, humanizing Officer Krupke, and providing a critical backstory for Tony which tempers his infatuation with an internal struggle that explodes at the rumble. While more talky, none of the updating is balky or detracts from the music and choreography, which remains front and center.

Three nits. First, Tony (Ansel Elgort) takes a while to imprint. His first number (“Something’s Coming”) doesn’t help. It is geographically limited, stuck as he is in the basement of the drugstore, and Tony just feels a bit muted. It is only until he meets Maria that he starts to connect with the audience.

Second, Spielberg gives us a sparse “Cool”, and moves the song back to before the rumble. It feels like a missed opportunity.  The 1961 film placed the number after the killings, smartly delaying it from the stage play so the Jets could exercise their frustration and hate after the murders in a bravura ensemble dance. Here, the song is a little bit lackluster, and you pine for the highly stylized original, Worse, it’s Tony and Riff, a couple of Jets relegated to onlookers, gymnastically squaring off over a gun. 

Finally, the placement of “I Feel Pretty” is awkward, falling right after the rumble. It’s a delicate, ingenious number, but you are jarred to be placed into such a moment of hope and beauty given where Spielberg has taken you tonally just seconds before. 

Everyone is good and despite my fears, Rita Moreno as Doc’s widow never nears gimmick (she’s a lock for best supporting actress ). The picture is perhaps not doing as well as it would with a marquee name (Elgort is the best known of the young troupe and that ain’t saying much). But one can hope it makes stars, in particular, Rachel Zegler as Maria and Ariana DeBose as Anita. It is difficult to take your eyes off of either. Zegler was selected from over 30,000 applicants for the role and invests Maria’s innocence with a blossoming independence and steel that pays off ten-fold in “A Boy Like That.” DeBose is never less than commanding. And, unlike the original, they, like all the actors, expertly do their own singing.

House of Gucci Release Date: All You Need To Know

Ridley Scott would not seem to be the first choice to helm this story of an Italian fashion family’s tragica fine, but he does quite nicely, even without a canvas that would more naturally fit his visual talents. The Gucci empire, such as it is introduced to us, is a lucrative endeavor, but held in check by the natural infirmities of family and conservative stewardship. Enter the middle-class ambition of Lady Gaga, who marries Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver) and then systematically steers him into fratricidal maneuvering. She opens the doors for massive expansion and wealth while also inviting the germ that will ensure no one in the family, including her, shares in it. It’s sad, sometimes very funny and black, and well-acted.

On the “well-acted” part, there may be some pushback, primarily because 1) none of the characters are Italian and 2) all of them give an Italian accent that sometimes nears Chef Boyardee (or, in the case of Jeremy Irons, lapses into Downton Abbey). Eh, it’s fine, and often, hilarious; there’s not a moment Jared Leto is butchering his accent that you aren’t transfixed (his comic turn nearly steals the film).

Apparently, Lady Gaga worked with a dialect coach to help her perfect the Northern Italian accent, which is ridiculous, because for the most part, she’s not speaking Italian, but rather, English with an Italian flair. No matter. She has advanced leaps and bounds beyond her energetic yet balky performance in A Star is Born. She’s the heart of this picture and as Lady Macbeth of the fashion industry, she’s ferocious and indelible.

You don’t have to rush to the theater for this one. There are no sweeping Scott battles, sea voyages or other vistas that must be viewed on the big screen. The film is made for streaming release and take-out pasta.

Amazon.com: The Sand Pebbles [DVD] [1966]: Movies & TV

They really don’t make these kinds of films anymore. The broad, historical sweeping epics which found fashion in the 80s were for the most part not very good and none had any of the leisurely quiet moments or ambiguity of this picture. They blared big budget bloat and were neither smart or interesting. If you don’t believe me, give Gandhi, The Last Emperor, A Passage to India, The Mission, or Out of Africa another whirl without getting heavy-lidded. And if you want to venture into the 90s, three words of warning: Oliver Stone’s Alexander.  Or, Braveheart, The Patriot, Gangs of New York, Rob Roy, all blood and volume and ghastly excess. Titanic, beautifully photographed, with a script written for the mind of a chipmunk. Dances with Wolves? Lush, dull and uninvolving.

The 2000s? They remade Ben Hur into Grand Theft Chariot.

There are outliers. The Last of the Mohicans is very good and Master and Commander stellar. Gladiator is fun, but the fights and the CGI are what you remember.  

That’s about it.

The decline of the historical saga makes sense. The universality of social media and technology supplanted the novelty of on-site location in foreign, exotic locales, and today,  perhaps the quickest way to shut down a pitch meeting would be to explain that your film opens in/with “China 1926” and is 3 hours long.

The story revolves around the American naval presence in China in the 1920s and the travails of one particular vessel, the San Pablo (think hard to an old history course and see if you can dredge up “gunboat diplomacy”). Steve McQueen is the quiet, unsophisticated engineer, a grit-under-your-fingernails loner who has a good heart. An impossibly young Candice Bergen is an American missionary schoolteacher who takes a liking to him. Their relationship is interrupted by her missionary father, who believes the  American presence is creating havoc and, naively, that they are immune to the brutalities of war, and McQueen’s captain (Richard Crenna), a by-the-book leader losing his grip on the men with a vainglorious streak that proves lethal. Then, there are the tensions amongst the crew (which includes Richard Attenborough, Simon Oakland and the just recently deceased Gavin MaCleod), as some settle on McQueen as their own bad juju Jonah.

The visuals are stunning, the drama authentic, even in the show-ier style of the time. There’s also great but subtle cynicism in the picture, which quietly indicts American imperialism and cultural bigotry while reinforcing its values, and it has a decided championing of the little guy, be he Chinese or American.

But what really struck me were the visuals and the leisurely pace.  To watch a movie on the big screen where the grandeur and beauty of a foreign land was a star equal to the actors and 3 hours at the movies was just ducky must have been quite something in 1966.

An aside; when I was was a kid, I’d come from grade school and religiously watch the 4 o’clock movie, which included this picture. To be precise, it included parts of this picture, because you had to fit it into 2 hours, with commercials.

The movie, directed by Robert Wise, was nominated for best picture, cementing McQueen as a star (he was nominated for best actor his one and only time here).

On Amazon Prime. Turn the phone off, order Chinese and give it a go.