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2 Stars Movies

De Diro and Pacino dunk their scrapple in Guinness in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman

Why am I reluctant to publicly pan one of the year’s most acclaimed films? What am I afraid of — being labelled a cinema rat, and getting whacked by a couple of film geeks?

It took me years and years of being a film buff, through film school and beyond, for me to realize that I’m just not into Scorsese. He made one of my personal all-time favorites: The Last Temptation of Christ, which led me to Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel and Peter Gabriel’s score, all of which gave my teenage self a lot to think about. But beyond that: yes, I appreciate how groundbreaking and influential works like Mean Streets, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas are, and the filmmaking craft is often outstanding, but I would rather not watch them again for personal edification. He’s one of those filmmakers I keep up with out of obligation to the canon, not out of any personal interest. I wouldn’t call it a blind spot; more of an immunity.

There’s close to zero new ground broken in The Irishman, and I just don’t understand the praise. A psychopath rationalizing his crimes as being in defense of his family? That’s the entire premise of The Sopranos. A mobster torn between loyalty or betrayal of an unstable friend? That’s 9 out of 10 mob movies ever made (I’m specifically reminded of Donnie Brasco, which boasts a much more soulful performance by Pacino). A peek into the day-to-day operation of the mafia? I guess if you liked the money laundering sequence in Casino, and get off on montages of tough guys collecting fat envelopes, there’s plenty more of that business for you here.

And there’s a limit to how intimidating I find movie-mob dialog (you gotta do that thing, you know the thing we talked about, no not that thing, the other thing, to that guy, no not that guy, the other guy, send him to Australia, no not that Australia, the other Australia, etc). Today, it seems pitifully quaint with reality-TV-money-laundering-compromised-wannabe-gangster Donald Fucking Trump issuing the same kind of insinuating orders to his underlings and soliciting bribes every day from the goddamn White House.

Even more frustrating, Scorsese remains blind to the women in his fictional worlds. I managed to recognize Aleksa Palladino at one point despite the camera practically ignoring her. I don’t want to hear about how pivotal Anna Paquin’s role was; she had about 1 minute of screen time, and maybe five words of dialogue (and that’s out of about 10 from all female characters, period). We know more about the countless male supporting characters all graced with freeze-frame epitaphs. So she recognizes her father’s criminality — so what? So did I, and I didn’t need an onscreen avatar or moral compass to do so. Yes, the mafia as an organization may be a man’s world, and men like Frank are the type to set aside the women in his life, but that doesn’t mean every gangster film has to.

Another thing that drove me nuts: I’m half-Irish and half-German, like Hoffa, and from the Philly area, like Frank, so I couldn’t suspend my disbelief for one second to imagine De Niro and Pacino dunking scrapple in their Guinness.

The most interesting part of the movie for me was when I recognized Jeff Beck playing over the end credits. I can’t find his name cited anywhere in relation to this film, but it had to be him; no one else plays guitar like that.

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2 Stars Movies

Toys buy happiness in the cloying The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

Cloying, saccharine, and worst of all, painfully obvious.

Mike Mitchell’s The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part emblematizes my biggest gripe with most contemporary animated features: that perhaps the purest form of cinema is so often overwritten to the point of death. With animation, everything must be literally created from nothing, and anything is possible. There are virtually no limits to the visuals or sound. But The Lego Movie 2 is yet another animated feature heavily weighed towards the written word — a betrayal of the form.

No doubt a direct result of the extreme budget and time investments required to produce one of these monstrosities, there are business reasons for these projects to exist on paper for too long. Perhaps the financiers could not be wooed by dazzling pre-visualizations and concept art, and instead were convinced by a celebrity-heavy table read of a thick, verbose script, dumbed down a few levels below the basement of its all-ages audience. And so here we have yet another animated disappointment, drowning in oceans of dialog that repeatedly spell out didactic themes, with its biggest claim to visual spectacle probably being something like advancements in a computer algorithm to calculate the glint of magic-hour sunlight upon tiny pieces of Danish plastic.

This third entry in what has somehow become a franchise exposes how derivative of Pixar the premise is: from Toy Story comes the device of children imbuing their toys with life through play, and from Inside Out the conceit that these embodiments represent dueling facets of personalities that adapt with age. But this is to give too much credit to the sub-sitcom characterization of the parents: Will Ferrell literally phones in a voice cameo as a “honey have you seen my socks” type of husband, and Maya Rudolph is a zero-fun helicopter mom whose nuclear option punishment strategy is to take toys away.

The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

It’s right there in the title that The Lego Movie is based on a toy line, but it’s just plain insulting that the happy ending is two kids maturing and working out their psychological issues through thousands of dollars worth of Lego product, under the gleaming smile of the parent that paid for it all. Even the subtitle is so irritatingly dumb that it barely qualifies as a pun.

Chris Pratt and Elizabeth Banks can’t dig themselves out of the reams of dialog, but the brightest aspect of the film is the rest of the cast: Tiffany Haddish challenges the animators to keep up with her sheer force of personality, Will Arnett’s material amusingly pierces the aura of self-seriousness around Batman, and I wouldn’t want anybody else to play the pivotal role of the cat than Alison Brie.

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2 Stars Movies

Netflix’s Triple Frontier is aggro, macho horseshit

Triple Frontier

J.C. Chandor’s Triple Frontier, Netflix’s latest high-profile exclusive, aspires to be a serious Expendables. It draws surface-level inspiration from the likes of Heat and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but forgets that you need more than square jaws and gun porn.

There’s some dramatic potential in the premise of a heist orchestrated by veterans left behind by their country, fancying themselves a band of Robin Hoods robbing from criminals. Certainly none of them are Merry Men, and it fails to seriously grapple with what should have been interestingly conflicting motivations: moral duty vs. financial need vs. greed vs. vengeance. It instead becomes yet another macho gun movie where grim white dudes growl at each other and shoot Central Americans in the head for two hours.

Aggro, macho horseshit.

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2 Stars Movies

Noomi Rapace shoots ’em up in the Netflix exclusive Close

Noomi Rapace was seemingly set for big things after The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo films, but was shortly thereafter cruelly written out of her starring role in Ridley Scott’s Alien prequels. I can only imagine how it must hurt for an actor to “appear” in a sequel only as a corpse, as she did in Alien: Covenant. Add to that the additional betrayal of the franchise’s thematic dependence on female protagonists, replacing the iconic Ripley and Shaw with Michael Fasbender’s mopey and boring male-presenting robots.

She’s since been racking up quite the filmography with Netflix exclusive movies. She was especially great in seven different roles in What Happened to Monday, but she was also unfortunately in the inexplicably awful Bright (which was pretty racist for a movie that was supposed to be about racism). Considering her action prowess, I wonder if she was considered for the Tomb Raider reboot that went to Alicia Vikander? Anyway, rooting for you, Noomi.

But Vicky Jewson’s Close doesn’t seem to be the way forward. For starters, how do you pronounce it? Since I watched this in the Netflix app, I actually forgot what it was called, and more than once mistook “Close” for a call-to-action to close the Netflix app.

Since the action thriller genre depends more on tight plotting than anything else, Close is oddly structured and non-dramatic. A good chunk of the story is spent escaping a dangerous place, only for the characters to later decide to return, which is so easy that they literally just drive up to it. A key plot twist is fleetingly communicated through shouted dialogue during a shootout, denying what should have been the most significant realization (spoiler: Indira Varma’s villain was not really the villain, and instead just some generic evil corporation that barely mentioned prior). Two sequences are set in a luxe fortress-like safehouse in exotic Morocco, but the space is not taken advantage of in the way that, say, David Fincher mapped out the claustrophobic space of Panic Room.

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2 Stars TV

Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome fracks it up

Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome

“You get an E for effort and an F for fracking it up”.

That just about sums it up. I was a big fan of the mid-2000s Battlestar Galactica reboot and its sister series Caprica, but had somehow overlooked this pilot for a second prequel spinoff. Belatedly seeing it now, the plot seems too slight and insubstantial to possibly set the stage for an ongoing series.

Not only were BSG and Caprica thematically complex (grappling with war, terror, fanaticism, politics, ethics, artificial intelligence, etc.), it was also blessed with a knockout cast (especially the volcanic Edward James Olmos), but everyone in Blood & Chrome is as flat and affectless as the greenscreen virtual sets and digital lens flare.

Worse, Blood & Chrome is near-devoid of the big ideas that drove Caprica, which was probably too smart for its own good. The pop culture hill I will die on: Caprica was a smarter show than the similarly-themed Westworld will ever be. Discuss.

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2 Stars Movies Music

The genesis of Genesis in the documentary Together and Apart

This feature-length BBC documentary on the band Genesis comes with more asterisks than a typical rockumentary. First is the lack of occasion — there being no significant milestone in 2014, unless the band’s 47th-ish anniversary means something to somebody. Only further confusing things, the doc was released in different regions as “Together and Apart” or “Sum of the Parts”, accompanied by the hits compilation “R-Kive”, a trifecta of inexplicably terrible names.

Unlike previous reunion projects in 1983 (a one-off live performance), 1998-99 (a Behind the Music documentary and re-recordings of “The Carpet Crawlers” and “It”), and 2007-08 (individual interviews for a complete catalogue reissue), the only new material on offer here is a new on-camera simultaneous interview with core members Tony Banks, Phil Collins, Peter Gabriel, Steve Hackett, and Mike Rutherford.

Genesis 1974
The classic Genesis quintet lineup circa 1974: Tony Banks, Mike Rutherford, Peter Gabriel, Steve Hackett, and Phil Collins

The other main selling point is a smattering of rare or apparently unseen live footage, including at least one new to me: a tantalizing glimpse of the very young band live at The Atomic Sunrise Festival, at the groovy London venue The Roundhouse in 1970, where they shared a bill with David Bowie. Much of the rest the live footage will probably be familiar to any fan with access to YouTube. Looking back at all this vintage footage now, how much do you think Collins wishes he could have told his younger self to sit up straight while playing, considering his later back and nerve damage?

The only footage released so far from The Atomic Sunrise Festival, at London’s Roundhouse in 1970, featuring Genesis, David Bowie, and others

Compared to many of their infamously dysfunctional peers, Genesis has a relatively boring back story, with no salacious deaths, lawsuits, or arrests to whip up an exciting narrative. Well, with the exception of — trigger warning — self-aggrandizing original manager (and convicted sex offender) Jonathan King, granted a minute or two here to inflate his role in the band’s first recordings.

The story of a few driven young men who form a band, work hard, succeed, then retire, isn’t in and of itself very thrilling. This documentary plays up the drama by emphasizing the comings and goings of members as more earth-shattering than even they themselves seem to think. That said, the new group interview does reveal some lingering bad vibes and resentment. Banks speaks with warmth towards original guitarist Anthony Phillips, but still reacts with real negativity to the topic of Gabriel and Hackett attempting to assert themselves within Genesis in the mid-70s. In Banks’ defense, it must have been difficult to accept his school friend Gabriel simultaneously seizing the creative reins while also retreating into family life around the time of the ambitious The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway album and tour.

But Banks’ attitude towards Hackett seems out of proportion to the situation. Long story short, it seems Hackett had been writing a lot of music that the band vetoed, so he used it on a solo album. Shortly thereafter, when the other members didn’t have enough material to shape into a new Genesis album, they were pissed that he didn’t have anything. From the outside perspective of a fan, it sounds to me like Hackett was wronged. Especially so, as he is the one currently carrying the torch for classic Genesis material while still creating new music on his own.

Banks also snipes at Collins’ ubiquity in the mid-80s, but in this case he does seem to be joking (to paraphrase, he laughingly says something like “he was our friend and we wanted him to succeed, but not too much”). Gabriel seems the most diplomatic and positive, and the most relaxed and jocular during the group interview. Perhaps for him this is all ancient history after his rich and varied solo career, whereas Genesis was more of a lifelong investment for the others.

Genesis 2014
Genesis reconvened in 2014 for the documentary Together and Apart (aka Sum of the Parts): Phil Collins, Steve Hackett, Tony Banks, Mike Rutherford, and Peter Gabriel

As a longtime fan, I have certain strongly held opinions that don’t seem to completely align with fan consensus or the bands’ own self-estimation. Genesis is long-misunderstood and due for a reevaluation, but I’m not sure this was the right documentary at the right time. It pushes Hackett to the edges (sometimes literally cropping him out of frame), and leaves other significant members like Ray Wilson totally unmentioned. I also think it does a disservice by not placing the band in context; some influences are mentioned (particularly Gabriel’s love of Otis Redding and Collins’ appreciation of Grandmaster Flash), but it would have helped illustrate Genesis’ significance by showing how they fused the nascent progressive rock movement (I suspect The Moody Blues and King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King loomed large in their minds when working on the Trespass album) with a real pop sensibility. Their aptitude for concise hit singles in the 80s is treated as an unexpected metamorphosis, when to my ears it’s the natural culmination of everything they were building towards since their earliest 1967 pop songs.

2.5 out of 5 stars

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2 Stars Movies

Winnie-the-Pooh is a labor reformer in Disney’s Christopher Robin

Christopher Robin

Given its sluggish pace, depressive tone, and dramatization of the origin of Paid Time Off for postwar UK laborers, whom exactly was the intended audience for this movie? Kids with premature midlife crises and uncommonly long attention spans? Adults with low vocabularies and an acceptance of brain-bending metaphysics? Think about it too hard, and it’s the stuff of nightmares as Christopher Robin’s acid-flashbacks to his childhood fantasias come to life, not just for him but for the entire world.

There are no better models for the all-ages family film than Paddington and Paddington 2, full stop. It is possible to illuminate kids about immigration and judicial reform AND yet still indulge in tasty pastries and runaway trains.

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2 Stars Movies

Teenagers shall inherit the world in Wes Ball’s Maze Runner: The Death Cure

While definitely not in the target audience, and without expressly setting out to do so, I’ve still somehow managed to see all three Maze Runners. Their easy availability on streaming services is just too tempting for my chronic addiction to escapist sci-fi.

It’s interesting to see how young adult fiction contrives such scenarios where adults are absent, subservient, or villains. Like Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Hunger Games, the Maze Runner movies are constructed upon the trope of there being one single girl or boy born with the inherent destiny of rescuing a world that the older generation has squandered. I’m sure kids are not blind to how the genre panders to them, but that doesn’t mean it’s not cathartic for them to imagine themselves bearing cataclysmic responsibilities in life-or-death, world-ending situations.

While none of the Maze Runner films are very good, I did appreciate the first’s relatively straightforward Lord of the Flies pastiche (with the caveat that the premise allowed for only one female character — inexcusable in this day and age). As the original title helpfully elucidated, the hero’s journey was to simply escape a maze, which of course came equipped with a minotaur. But the original quest is accomplished, the title becomes essentially meaningless in later installments. To be fair, their subtitles “Scorch Trials” and “Death Cure” are also silly, so I guess cool-sounding nonsense is part of the whole package.

Wes Ball’s The Death Cure is a bloodless PG-13 zombie war movie for kids, and almost preposterously long at almost 2 1/2 hours. But it does boast some exciting action sequences, however wildly illogical and coincidence-dependent. The opening rescue of captives from a caravan is an effective emulation of Mad Max for kiddos, and the aerial ensnare of an entire bus near the end is impressive.

The young cast is… fine, if a little bland except for an impassioned Thomas Brodie-Sangster (doomed to be known as him from Love Actually). Like Kate Winslet in Divergence, Ashley Judd in The Hunger Games, and every grownup in Harry Potter, a handful of respected respected veteran indie actors take up the slack: Patricia Clarkson and Aiden Gillen as baddies-with-actually-rather-complex-motivations, and the Giancarlo Esposito Drinking Game (take a swig every time he says “hermano”, and you’ll be on the floor long before the end).

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2 Stars Movies

Monty Python throws a farewell party for themselves in “Live (Mostly): One Down, Four to Go”

Like many misfit American kids of my generation, my brain was permanently rewired when I discovered the BBC series Monty Python’s Flying Circus on PBS in the 1980s. Monty Python, Doctor Who, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy formed a triumvirate of British pop culture that gave dorky anglophiles like us a pool of clubby shared references.

But I suppose my interest waned over the years, aside from catching Spamalot on Broadway in 2007, being happy to see Michael Palin pop up in The Death of Stalin, and of course periodic rewatches of Terry Gilliam’s masterpiece Brazil, still one of my all-time favorite movies. Even when the surviving members of Monty Python reunited in 2014 for a series of live shows at London’s O2, I wasn’t motivated to go see the global theatrical simulcast or rent the subsequent DVD. But no more excuses, now that Eric Idle and Aubrey Powell’s film Monty Python Live (Mostly): One Down, Four to Go has appeared a click away on Netflix.

I’m not sure if I’ve grown out of Monty Python, if Monty Python has grown out of Monty Python, or if this reunion show was just rubbish. I sat through the film mostly stonefaced, when not cringing (except during Terry Jones’ befuddlement in the “Nudge Nudge” sketch, which is still funny). Part of the appeal of their earliest work was that it was done on the cheap and on the fly. But Monty Python has long since become Monty Python Inc., and these shows’ high production values come across as insincere and inauthentic — in other words, professional. It’s a nostalgia trip, like a veteran classic rock band on a yet another greatest hits tour.

At over 2 hours, it’s also somehow simultaneously too much and not enough. I realize the Pythons are all over 70, and even youngsters would need time to change costumes between sketches anyway, but I wasn’t expecting so much filler. They rely heavily on excerpts from the Flying Circus TV series and some of the movies. A large troupe of young dancers and singers often take over from the stars for big production numbers like “Penis Song (Not the Noël Coward Song)” and “The Silly Walk Song”. This preponderance of musical numbers suggests the show was Eric Idle’s baby. Notably, I don’t think there’s any material at all from Monty Python and The Holy Grail, perhaps to avoid overlap with Idle’s Spamalot musical.

Watching Monty Python’s greatest hits now, in the cold light of adulthood, the makeup of their humor seems pretty easily broken down:

  • 5% university-educated wit (philosophy, religion, world history, etc.)
  • 15% bodily fluids & noises
  • 20% naked or scantily-clad ladies
  • 50% exaggerated regional accents
  • 10% gay men talking and walking funny

Which brings me to the difficult subject of how so much of Python’s material struck me as offensive. The cheeky insouciance of their original BBC TV series The Flying Circus was genuinely boundary breaking in the late 60s. But a surprising percentage of the same material lands with a dull thud in 2018. The lumberjack and barrister sketches are transphobic, the “I Like Chinese” song and Mao cartoons are racist, many sketches (including Gilliam’s mincing in the Michelangelo sketch) are homophobic, and the Doctor Who “RETARDIS” gag is not only cringeworthy but also simply a really lame pun. Only “Penis Song” is substantially updated to be inclusive, now expanded to include additional genitalia.

Perhaps I am hypersensitive after living the past few years under an ascendant sexist and racist ruling class — emblematized by Trump — and how movements like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter have further exposed the exploitation. All this has left me exhausted, making it hard to tell the difference between juvenile rudeness and expressions of greater societal ills, and predisposed to not laugh at any of this.

The ground is also shifting in popular culture, as it grapples with its depictions of gender, race, and sexuality. The world’s increasing tolerance is being abused by conservatives that would like to silence comedians (such as the recent vilification of Kathy Griffin). So I want to be careful when I try to explain how I now find some of the Python’s classic material offensive. Perhaps comedy should never be polite, and is under no obligations to be gentle to anyone. But as contemporary comedians like Sarah Silverman and Mike Birbiglia have explored, the potential of comedy to offend is one of its biggest strengths, but also its biggest a minefield. This paradox is explored at length in Birbiglia’s one-man show “Thank God for Jokes” (also available on Netflix).

Blundering right through this minefield comes Monty Python’s original material, transplanted mostly intact from the late 60s to today. Even though this show was put together years before Trump and Brexit bulldozed through the world order, the show is disappointingly apolitical, aside from a dated Mao reference and quick jabs at Putin and the Daily Mail. But I suppose its fair to note that even in their heyday, the Pythons usually steered clear of politics, instead being more eager to skewer class and religion.

Sadly, these septuagenarians come across as dinosaurs clueless as to how the world has changed while they’ve been in semi-retirement.

But maybe if a bunch of legendary comedians want to throw a farewell party for themselves, and fool around on stage one last time, I should just relax. They seemed genuine in their fond ribbing of each other, their tributes to the late Graham Chapman, and spotlighting collaborator Carol Cleveland.

two out of five stars

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2 Stars Movies

Gorging on Nostalgia: Solo: A Star Wars Story

Like a big bowl of candy, Solo: A Star Wars Story certainly went down easy. But also like a big bowl of candy, generations raised on too much Star Wars are going to gorge themselves sick on nostalgia. Who filled that bowl, and why? When Disney acquired the Star Wars rights, and promised a new movie every year, I don’t think I was alone in imagining there would be more than enough room for original stories. But so far Disney has spent more time facing backwards than forwards.

To recap: The Force Awakens was in many ways a phantom remake of the original Star Wars, rationalized as rebooting the franchise with a new foundation for future stories. Rogue One and Solo are essentially neu-prequels, plastering in the gaps deliberately left in the original foundation. Solo is especially focussed on continuity and nostalgic callbacks, and teasing future nostalgic callbacks yet to come. It isn’t about anything other than itself. Four films in, The Last Jedi stands alone in striking out for new territory. It’s the first to really surprise.

Maybe I’m being overly cynical, but what is the point of the neu-prequels, if not mere fan service? Aren’t the missions to steal the Death Star plans and the Kessel Run better left to the imagination? Did anyone really wonder how Chewbacca came by his diminutive nickname? Do we feel we understand Han more now that we know where he got his surname? The one major new detail we learn about him — that he is an Empire deserter — loses its impact when even this idea is recycled: q.v. Finn in the mothership films.

The most egregious fan service in the film is of course the confounding cameo by Darth Maul — confounding, that is, only for those evidently undedicated Star Wars fans like myself that haven’t seen the spinoff animated series. My reaction was not “wow, Darth Maul survived being sliced in half!”, but rather “All this took place before The Phantom Menace? How old is Han Solo? Does Darth Maul always fire up his lightsaber before hanging up the phone?”

Alden Ehrenreich has caught some flak for his performance here, but he was given an impossible job: impersonate Harrison Ford and get criticized, or don’t impersonate Harrison Ford and get criticized. He either chose the latter or was not able to pull off the former. Whichever explanation, he looks bad opposite Donald Glover, who successfully channelled Billy Dee Williams while still doing his own thing.

By the standard set by the original trilogy and prequels, Solo’s three prominent female characters should count as progress. Or, it would have, had the film not quickly killed two of them off. The original Star Wars infamously included only one woman among its cast, but Carrie Fisher’s force of personality made her instantly iconic, and that’s lacking here.

Also, Paul Bettany was fine but Michael K. Williams got robbed.