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4 Stars Movies

Like a pizza in the rain: Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild

You know you’ve graduated from Movie Buff into Old Movie Buff when you start saying “they don’t make movies like this any more”… but what if they really don’t make movies like this any more?

Catching up on Jonathan Demme’s filmography with Something Wild and Married to the Mob has really brought home the realization that midbudget romantic comedies/dramas have disappeared, especially any suffused with this much personality and quirk.

“Like a pizza in the rain, nobody wants to take you home”

David Byrne & Celia Cruz

Something interesting is happening in the background of every shot, and every supporting & background actor is an eccentric. A simple shot of Jeff Daniels making a phone call has a fascinating person simply standing in the background, a quick scene of buying a used car features John Waters, a New York City diner and a Virginia gas station are staffed by eccentric personalities, and a quick shot of Daniels and Melanie Griffith leaving a motel includes some background action of a family unloading a car that looks wacky enough to be its own National Lampoon Vacation movie. When today’s streaming/A24/Blumhouse financing model strictly limits the cast and locations of movies, a movie like Something Wild may not even be possible any more.

And of course Demme dipped into his deep rolodex of music buddies for an amazing soundtrack lineup, including: David Byrne, John Cale, Laurie Anderson, The Feelies, Sister Carol, and more.

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4 Stars Movies

Sit on my interface: Hackers is a 90s treasure

I can’t believe I haven’t had the pleasure until now. Energetic, funny, quotable, and scattered with fantastic montage sequences. The moment when Johnny Lee Miller sees Angelina Jolie for the first time is choice. And check the surreal imagery and avant-garde editing of its characters’ erotic nightmares — seriously; more than one!

It’s all laughably preposterous, but in a good way. And I’m not even talking about its hilariously fantastical vision of internet technology — I’m talking about: Miller’s accent, Lorraine Bracco’s horny sexbomb lawyer, Fisher Steven’s hair, the floppy discs tucked in trousers, the animated cityscapes of cyberspace, the rollerblades. Most of the actors playing high school kids are too old, and most of the actors playing grownups are too young. I could go on. A delight.

“Eww… hard copy.”

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4 Stars Movies

What are men, compared to rocks and mountains: Pride & Prejudice

Who doesn’t have great affection for the beloved 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice? But: I daresay Joe Wright’s 2005 feature film adaptation (the one with the ampersand) is my P&P. It may be less faithful to the text, but that’s fine; it’s its own thing. It’s delicious and I adore it.

It’s close to perfect, in fact, perhaps only suffering from omitting too much of the Wickham material. The cast was selected with laser-guided missile accuracy, and the necessarily highly condensed screenplay makes some welcome adjustments:

  • Mrs. Bennett is less broad, and less oblivious to Mr. Bennett’s teasing, which is tweaked to be more loving than cruel.
  • Lady Catherine is less of a cartoon villain and is instead truly imposing and powerful. She may be wrong, but you can understand where she’s coming from.
  • Lydia is more naive than an out-of-control wild child.
  • And one other adjustment that I quite like: this Caroline Bingley has a begrudging respect for Lizzie, recognizing her wit and formidability, as opposed to her all-encompassing contempt in the 1995 version.

Rewatching the 1995 and 2005 adaptations in quick succession, an important (and in retrospect, obvious) point struck me for the first time, despite having also read the novel some years ago. Charles and Caroline Bingsley inherited their fortune from their late father, a tradesman. In other words, they are nouveau riche, not landed gentry like the Darcys and the Bennets. That they look down on tradesman like Lizzie’s uncle Mr. Gardiner, a lawyer, is nakedly hypocritical. Jane Austin bringing the socioeconomic critique!

For those interested in further exploring Austen’s extensive Hollywood career, please consult her official Letterboxd page.

(We watched this on old-fashioned DVD, and it was a very stressful experience: the previews were non-anamorphic, but thankfully the feature was anamorphic. My heart!)

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4 Stars Movies TV

Modern America is born out of lawlessness and chaos in David Milch’s Deadwood: The Movie

What an improbable treat, in an age of unasked-for sequels, that one of pop culture’s most notorious cliffhangers would receive resolution.

The HBO series Deadwood is not only one of their most acclaimed productions, but also the most lamentably unfinished. Its abrupt cancellation in 2006 was followed by persistent but vague promises of one or more movies. But as year after year passed, and practically the entire cast went on to higher asking prices, the practical matters of financing and scheduling a remount passed through the realm of the unlikely into the impossible. And yet, here it is, and we are all obligated to make some variation of a “crack open a can of peaches, hoopleheads” joke as we sit down to watch Deadwood: The Movie.

Time has found some characters grown stronger, such as a thriving Sofia (Lily Keene) and Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie) become a successful businessman and landowner. But many are stagnating: Jane (Robin Weigert) may be a minor celebrity but still an alcoholic wreck, and Joanie (Kim Dickens) remains trapped in the Bella Union. Others are greatly diminished: Harry (Brent Sexton) is corrupted, and Al’s (Ian McShane) health is rapidly declining. As Al loses his faculties and Charlie’s lifelong righteous sense of justice blossoms to a quiet but heroic act of resistance, it’s easy to see that this is clearly deeply personal for writer/creator David Milch — the movie is all the more poignant now that he is ailing, and this may be his final work.

Timothy Olyphant and Ian McShane in Deadwood: The Movie

There are a few instances of outright fan service (flashbacks remind us of a key moments, Garret Dillahunt has a fleeting cameo as his third character, and it’s very satisfying to see Dan & Jewel bicker over canned peaches one last time), but the movie thankfully does not wallow in nostalgia. The Pinkertons are not mentioned once, and unless I’m mistaken, nobody calls anybody a hooplehead. Milch’s characteristically convoluted diction truly deserves the modifier “Shakespearean”, and is something to savor.

The original TV series was always a little — shall we say — loosely plotted, which worked mostly to its benefit. Whereas later HBO efforts like Game of Thrones were predominantly plot-driven (who lives, who dies, one battle more spectacular than the next), Deadwood was always about character and dialog, and the greater theme of modern America being born out of lawlessness and chaos. But it would be fair to criticize Milch for frequently abandoning promising storylines if he got bored or distracted. The third season in particular has numerous threads that go nowhere: the character of Joanie suffers from a lack of material, and everything involving the traveling theater troupe is superfluous, despite how delightful Brian Cox’s performance is.

The concise two-hour movie format has the benefit of focusing Milch’s attention, but there is still room for a little narrative meandering. One such seemingly extraneous subplot that at first seems to be going nowhere in Milch-ean fashion is that of a young woman coming to town with the aim of working in a brothel, turning a few heads but failing to land a job. We’ve seen her story before, from the very first episode: Deadwood was a hard place, populated by hard people. You could group its denizens into roughly two categories: those desperate to escape something (Al: wanted for murder; the Garrets: escaping bankruptcy and sexual abuse; Seth: arguably running from his own violent nature), and those there unwillingly (mostly women, as Trixie and Joanie were both sold into indentured servitude).

The girl attracts the notice of the latter, who always struck me as one of the show’s most tragic characters: Trixie (Paula Malcomson) grew into adulthood with a deep sense of self-loathing, unable to accept that she might deserve love or kindness. Even when Al, her abusive pimp, tried to push her into a legitimate free life in society (such as it was in Deadwood at the time), she rejected it. The original series ended with Trixie still caught in this conundrum, and as we see her 10 years later, she still feels unworthy, compelled to sneak around through backdoors, and resisting Sol’s (John Hawkes) unconditional love. Thankfully, the movie finally grants her a breakthrough: she accepts Sol and receives a gift from Al, and finds herself with a trade and a place in society.

When Trixie recognizes the psychology of the broken girl who came to Deadwood as a last resort, she is equipped to show her a bit of kindness, and laments that she should believe that this is all she deserves. It’s not only a breakthrough for Trixie, but a crack in the lawless, dead-end history of Deadwood: now no longer only a place for the criminal or the desperate, but now with opportunities for people to better themselves.

One other touching moment of resolution I want to highlight, conveyed perfectly without exposition. The other great dangling thread of the series was that Alma (Molly Parker) and Seth (Timothy Olyphant) never closed the door on their love affair. As they smolder one last time, face to face at Trixie and Sol’s wedding, they are interrupted by one of Seth’s children. He scoops her up, beaming with pride and love, and rejoins the party. Like Trixie, they are both also finally freed.

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4 Stars Movies

Mr. Rogers consoles the country in Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

It’s a sad state of affairs when a documentary about one of the most simply good people to have ever lived must dedicate screentime to Trump, Brexit, and Fox News, but such is the world that conservatives have made. Even if no mention had been made of current affairs, Won’t You Be My Neighbor would have been a political statement. Much is said of Fred Rogers’ values as a Christian and lifelong Republican, but how many of today’s Christians and Republicans would recognize him?

Rogers’ famous message in times of crisis was to “look for the helpers”, but as noted by Jason Kottke and Ian Boost, this was intended to console children. After 9/11, he also had a call to action for adults: our duty is to be tikkun olam, “repairers of creation”.

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4 Stars Movies

Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!” earns its exclamation point

Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!” is an allegory so undisguised that it barely qualifies as one. It’s more like a cinematic smoothie: blend one (1) King James Bible, the Big Bang / Big Crunch Wikipedia article, a heavy splash of Lars Von Trier-esque literal-as-metaphorical torture of a beautiful woman, season to taste with climate change studies, and suffer through it.

A male filmmaker portraying a male artist as god, simultaneously elevating and exploiting the woman that supports him is, in a word, problematic. When I couldn’t willfully look past those misogynistic aspects, it brought to mind the risible Lady in the Water. At least the circumstances aren’t so grim that there’s room for a little comedy, as in portraying Adam and Eve (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer) as the worst houseguests ever.

But… but… but. Wow. Just, wow. I fully respect and understand many of the negative reviews, but I have to admit I found its punk rock spirit flat-out astonishing. What audacity to make something so deliberately confrontational, rude even. I quite literally watched most of the film with my jaw hanging open. If nothing else, you can’t deny “mother!” earned its exclamation point.

Two other random thoughts:
1. I’ve previously been ambivalent about Jennifer Lawrence as an actor, but she is superb here.
2. Anyone else catch a whiff of Lindsay Anderson’s “if…”, another over-the-top allegorical phantasmagoria? But admittedly I am probably by distracted by the punctation.

four out of five stars

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4 Stars Movies

Why can’t Star Trek always be as good as The Undiscovered Country?

“Please let me know if there’s another way we can screw up tonight.”

Not only is Nicholas Meyer’s The Undiscovered Country my personal favorite Star Trek movie, I may go far as to argue that it is the best. It truly ticks every box of what makes Star Trek Star Trek, and comes the closest to getting everything just right.

Watching it back-to-back with its immediate predecessor is especially informative. Director William Shatner’s The Final Frontier is not quite the unmitigated fiasco its reputation would have it, but the biggest and most tragic of its many flaws is its deep lack of dignity. There was no escaping the increasing ages of its beloved cast, but it’s just plain preposterous to open with Kirk free-climbing a mountainside, and then end with him embarrassingly huffing and puffing up a tiny hill. And poor Uhura is treated even worse, in what must be one of the most sexist scenes in Trek’s entire history.

Classic Star Trek was in the process of being eclipsed by the Next Generation TV series, midway through its 1987-1994 run at the time, just hitting its stride in quality and popularity. It would have been heartbreaking for the low point of The Final Frontier to have been the last adventure for the classic Enterprise crew. Thing could have gone so wrong. Thankfully, The Undiscovered Country reclaims everything that The Final Frontier squandered, and allows the full original cast to go out on a high note.

Far from ignoring the cast’s age, The Undiscovered Country instead embraces it. Our former space cowboy heroes have all aged into diplomatic and strategic roles in Starfleet, and their frontier mindsets chafe at the transition. We’re no longer asked to believe William Shatner is possessed of ageless physical prowess. Kirk wins a fight largely through a lucky sucker punch, and when he’s smooched by the much younger Iman, the moment is immediately undercut… twice.

The stakes are high enough to be serious, but not so low that the movie resembles a feature-length television episode, the excuse often made by fandom to apologize for the too-frequent mediocrity of the feature films. The previously thinly-drawn foes the Klingons are here reimagined as canny equals, on the opposing side of an interstellar cold war. Christopher Plummer is superb as a canny political operator — today, we would recognize his paper-thin charm and propensity for brazen assassinations as very Putin-like. The metaphor for US/Russian relations may be unsubtle but it packs a punch, particularly as Kirk struggles to overcome a lifetime of prejudice.

Meyer & Denny Martin Flinn’s screenplay is a thing of beauty, with an airtight plot, crackling dialog, and just the right balance of humor and gravitas; it’s somehow the funniest and the most serious Trek movie. The at-the-time cutting edge CGI special effects are used efficiently and for story purposes instead of mere flash and sizzle (globules of alien blood floating in zero-gravity not only looks neat, but is a significant plot detail). The entire cast is on point, and everyone gets a moment to shine. As if to make up for The Final Frontier, Nichelle Nichols has several standout scenes (including my favorite among many classic Trek facepalms).

It begs the question: why can’t Star Trek always be this good?

four out of five stars

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4 Stars Movies

Love is having someone to embrace at the end, on Miracle Mile

The buzz is true; the under-the-radar cult gem Miracle Mile is surprisingly great. Harry (Anthony Edwards) and Julie’s (Mare Winningham) hellacious night on Los Angeles’ titular Miracle Mile suggests Before Sunrise crossed with Children of Men crossed with After Hours, but without the reprieve of a hopeful ending. Unless you consider life on a geologic scale, in which everything we are becomes oil and diamonds.

Director Steve de Jarnatt’s Miracle Mile is simultaneously an emotionally affecting love story and a gripping thriller, but its most extraordinary achievement is its patience to allow grand events to slowly unfold, from the personal (boy accidentally sleeps through date with girl) to the cataclysmic (the literal end of the world).

The frenzied breakdown of society over little more than a rumor seems inevitable when everyone has spent a lifetime under the chronic anxiety of nuclear meltdown and/or war — all the while externally carrying on with everyday small business: playing trombone in the park, catcalling in diners, stealing stereos, cheating on diets, and flirting in museums. The best anyone can hope for is to have someone to embrace at the end.

Four out of five stars

Further reading:

Miracle Mile: A Romance for the Doom-Burdened by Andrew Todd for Birth Movies Death, encouraged me to check this incredible movie out.

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4 Stars Movies

Trading Places: The prince’s nurture vs. the pauper’s nature

John Landis’ Trading Places is remarkably unafraid to take a cold hard look at racism, privilege, and inequality. It still retains the power to incite gasps and raise eyebrows, decades after release.

With two major caveats, Trading Places is one of my personal favorite comedies. Caveat one: for a movie with guts enough to deal so directly with such heated issues, it is oblivious to its own sexism. The only real female character is a sorely underwritten hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold stereotype (poor Jamie Lee Curtis). Caveat two: Dan Aykroyd’s blackface bit is excruciatingly cringeworthy, and nearly upends the film’s entire context of interrogating racism. For shame, everyone involved.

With these reservations out of the way: wow! Trading Places is as scathingly relevant now as in 1983. Rapacious investor siblings Randolph and Mortimer Duke (Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche) disagree over whether their elevated social status is due to nature or nurture. They stage a Mark Twain-esque scenario, pitting their Prince (golden boy Aykroyd) against a Pauper (small-time con artist Eddie Murphy). Needless to say, their little social experiment is just as rooted in race as it is in class. The Duke’ sole concession to equality is that they view both pawns with contempt.

The Duke brothers represent the worst of American capitalism: the breed of parasitic short-term opportunists leeching off the economy that Tom Wolfe would satirize as self-proclaimed “masters of the universe” in his decade-defining novel The Bonfire of the Vanities. Terrifyingly, Landis could count on contemporary audiences automatically intuiting them as villains, but the same isn’t true today. In 2016 and 2018, enough Americans voted for a new batch of overtly racist predatory capitalists to grant them the power of the White House and Senate.

Trading Places is indebted to the films of Preston Sturges, but it also brings to mind Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot. It has its own problematic aspects that haven’t aged well (such as dim-witted female characters with the sole aim of finding wealthy husbands), but is surprisingly progressive with its ambivalent attitudes on gender and sexuality. More obviously, Trading Places shares with Some Like it Hot a propensity to break the fourth wall. Eddie Murphy’s classic spit-take to the “bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich” line is, for my money, one of the funniest moments in movie history.

four out of five stars

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4 Stars Movies

The Notorious Ruth Bader Ginsberg champions intelligence and equality in the documentary ‘RBG’

One of the greatest living Americans. If anyone deserves to be lionized in a feature-length hagiography, it’s The Notorious Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

In these dark times, it’s heartening to see this unapologetic celebration of one woman’s lifelong championship of American values like fairness, justice, and equality. Glimpses of her personal life prove she also lived by these values, especially in how she plowed a pioneering course through formerly male-only spaces like Harvard law school, and how she and husband Marty modeled a successful marriage of equals.

But an obvious but unspoken dark subcurrent runs through Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s documentary: Ginsberg is not getting any younger, and it’s unbearably terrifying to contemplate American life without her. She was instrumental in many of the anti-discrimination rulings that protect Americans today, against the powerful so-called “conservative” forces that expressly believe that Americans are not equal, that women should be paid less than men and excluded from male spaces, and that non-white people should not vote. The film makes the point that she was not long ago considered a moderate, but the rise of far-right forces have recast her relatively straightforward moderation as leftism.

After West and Cohen’s film rests its case, the dissenting opinion is delivered by Professor Helen Alvaré of the Scalia Law School. Try not to puke as you sit through the staggering hypocrisy of someone associated with one of the most notorious right-wing ideologues in recent American history, voice the surface-level, rational-sounding criticism that a Supreme Court Justice should not voice personal political opinions.

In ordinary times, with ordinary politicians, I might agree that justices ought to tread lightly in the public forum. But these are not ordinary times, and Trump is not an ordinary politician. Alvaré’s argument boils down to: liberals should not enjoy the same freedom of speech as the rich and powerful. Today, with predatory nationalists and criminals sullying the White House and dominating Congress, I counterargue: anyone who does not have open antipathy for the Trump Administration is either ignorant or somehow profiting.

In a national climate that elevates uninformed opinion over knowledge and expertise, we need this celebration of raw, burning intelligence. The serious, reserved Ginsberg is now endearingly pleased to find herself a pop-culture icon and inspiration to young people, but especially to young women. More like her, please.

four out of five stars (four for the film, five million for Ginsberg)

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