Liam Neeson has a rough ride in The Commuter

The Commuter

I’m still laughing about the running joke of the Metro North running up the 4/5/6 line in Manhattan. Best comedy of 2018! If you find yourself on the Metro North Hudson Line, Make a quick stop in Beacon for a burger at Meyer’s Old Dutch Food & Such, honestly one of the best I’ve ever had.

Speaking of New York City verisimilitude, most Columbia students dress like J. Crew or Banana Republic catalogs. Gwen clearly goes to NYU, and Mike should have been instantly suspicious.

Between this and Source Code, has Vera Farmiga been typecast as Manipulative Conspiracy Lady on a Train?

I play a little guitar, and it might take me a moment to realize I’m looking at a left-handed guitar (it would be like looking in a mirror). Wouldn’t it have made more narrative sense for Mike to realize its purported owner is left-handed, but has a “normal” guitar? Nah, because plenty of lefties play right-handed, not the least being Jimi Hendrix. Never mind, it’s not worth worrying about this plot point, because it’s all worth it for setting up a pretty great fight scene.

Kinda dumb, but directed, shot, and edited with real visual flair. Exactly what I needed on a Friday night. The fragmented, time-hopping opening sequence deserves extra credit for overachieving within the genre.

Nicolas Cage descends into hell in Panos Cosmatos’s Mandy

Mandy movie poster

Panos Cosmatos’s Mandy is what you would get if you crossed Straw Dogs with Hellraiser, co-directed by Tarkovsky & Jodorowsky. Do you think Clive Barker saw this and said “hey, that’s my thing”?

It’s also the rare movie where Nicolas Cage’s customarily crazed mania is juuuuuust right for the material. Whereas his… performative performance (shall we say) was hilariously incongruous for Neil LaBute’s 2006 Wicker Man remake, here he is uniquely perfect for the part of a haunted recluse who loses his hard-won love and descends deeper and deeper into a phantasmagoric hell to enact his vengeance.

Thought experiment: at which point in the plot was calling 911 no longer a viable option? Don’t do drugs, kids.

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.

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

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

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 Bogost (https://kottke.org/18/10/mister-rogers-look-for-the-helpers-was-not-meant-for-adults), 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”.

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

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.

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

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.

The treasures of FilmStruck include the Trainspotting commentary track

Trainspotting is a lifelong personal favorite film. Essential.

FilmStruck subscribers should be sure to catch it one more time before before WarnerMedia and AT&T cruelly shut it down on November 29. FilmStruck is full of more invaluable treasures than anyone could watch in two weeks, but I must single out Trainspotting as a particular treat, as the commentary track, deleted scenes, and more from the 1996 Criterion Collection laserdisc are included.

One of many interesting details to be gleaned: Director Danny Boyle and producer Andrew Macdonald declined a higher budget in order to have the artistic freedom to depict the death of an infant. Yes, it is almost unbearable to watch, but it would have been a lesser movie without it.

Screenwriter John Hodge notes that novelist Irving Welsh regretted his dominant focus on the male characters, and made a point of highlighting female characters in subsequent novels. Great, but this only highlights the biggest shortcoming of its belated sequel T2 Trainspotting (2017), which made exactly the same mistake. It’s a cinematic crime to have Kelly Macdonald and Shirley Henderson in your movie but give them little to no material. Perhaps not on a par with WarnerMedia and AT&T’s philistine, craven axing of FilmStruck, but still pretty bad.

Further reading:

The spirit of FilmStruck will live on in The Criterion Collection’s own Criterion Channel streaming service, to launch in Spring 2019. According to the press release, some or all of its programming will also be available on a separate WarnerMedia streaming service, but as history has shown that such partnerships have not lasted, I will personally be subscribing directly from Criterion.

The 1996 Trainspotting commentary audio file is also available from The Director’s Commentary blog.

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