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3 Stars Movies

Motherless Brooklyn is a civics lesson wrapped in an actorly exercise

I understand the generally negative reception that Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn encountered, but I didn’t dislike it for two very mundane reasons:

1. I happened to watch it in the middle of binging HBO’s Perry Mason miniseries (with which it coincidentally happens to have a great deal in common), and frankly, Motherless Brooklyn comes out on top. Perry Mason‘s unrelenting dour tone and gruesome violence could have used a dose of Motherless Brooklyn‘s lightness and humor.

2. I recognized at least one location as being just a few blocks from my apartment. Funny how a few simple props like a vintage phone booth and some old newspapers can zap a Brooklyn street decades into the past.

But yes, Motherless Brooklyn is not great in and of itself. Ed Norton’s performance is little more than an actorly exercise, and it’s bewildering how many other characters his character Lionel meets are so patient and understanding of his tics. Alec Baldwin’s growly performance is more The Simpsons‘ Mr. Burns than Glengarry Glen Ross. And for a movie about racist civic policies, it’s awkward for it to feature Michael K. Williams as the apparently unnamed “Trumpet Man”, a character dangerously close to magical black person cliche.

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2 Stars Movies

Brad Pitt works out his daddy issues in space, in Ad Astra

Maybe this isn’t fair, but I couldn’t help but associate Ad Astra with Joker. If Joker is a shallow remix of Taxi Driver and King of Comedy, Ad Astra is a bland smoothie of Solaris and Apocalypse Now, with a cavalcade of stars you may remember from Space Cowboys and Armageddon. I half expected Harrison Ford to appear, standing in a corner, creepily ordering Brad Pitt to “terminate, with extreme prejudice” — so it’s more Apocalypse Now than 2001: A Space Odyssey, which at least had the decency to have jokes.

But really, Ad Astra is merely the story of an emotionally repressed mope, working through his daddy issues by haphazardly murdering a bunch of people just like his dad did — as if they were mere bureaucratic red tape stopping the only person in the universe that can save the universe from saving the universe — and then, having saved the universe, finally becoming ready to open his heart to Liv Tyler. Anybody out there have any empathy for someone who can’t open their heart to Liv Tyler? Pure fiction!

And as for its pseudo-sciencey verisimilitude, somewhere, Kim Stanley Robinson is banging his head against his writing desk.

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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

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker smothers all hope and wonder

My brilliant wife had the following absolutely perfect appraisal of the first two entries in the new Star Wars trilogy, which I will paraphrase here:

“Most of the criticism of The Force Awakens was absolutely correct, but I loved it anyway. Most of the criticism of The Last Jedi was absolutely wrong, but I loved it anyway.”

In other words: yes, we acknowledge the consensus that J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens was a stealth remake of A New Hope, somewhat lacking in imagination, but wow was it thrilling. Then Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi faced an even fiercer backlash: mostly directed at its female characters, its rejection of Star Wars‘ royal lineage nonsense, and for directly addressing the military industrial complex issue that all previous films had ignored. These criticisms infuriated us; these aspects were exactly what made The Last Jedi one of, if not the best of the entire series. (sorry, Empire, I will always love you too)

But after seeing The Rise of Skywalker, this formulation is disrupted. With J.J. Abrams back in the director’s chair, the concluding chapter retreats from the progress made in the second film, and seems to have pulled off the impossible: disappointing everybody. If it’s not the worst Star Wars movie, it’s certainly the most disappointing. Instead of rating it out of five stars, I want to rate it with a countless number of exasperated sighs.

Even more than the unwanted spinoff product Rogue One and Solo, The Rise of Skywalker seems to have been designed by spreadsheet in an antiseptic Disney boardroom, in a misguided attempt to appease a fandom riven by the divisive The Last Jedi. Star Wars is not my personal sentimental favorite story (that would be Doctor Who), but my generation grew up with it and I can’t help but have an emotional attachment. I could enumerate The Rise of Skywalker‘s various plot deficiencies here, but it’s the smothering of wonder and spirit that really hurts.

My thoughts here are a kind of spoiler — not for revealing plot details, but for sending out bad vibes. Hopefully there are some viewers (especially kids) that don’t read complaints like this and get some joy from the movie. Here’s hoping that with time, The Last Jedi is retrospectively recognized as the height of the entire franchise.

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3 Stars Movies

Taika Waititi mocks the devil in Jojo Rabbit

Perhaps unfairly, a couple external factors negatively affected my experience of Jojo Rabbit:

The Brooklyn Alamo Drafthouse programmed the trailer for Terrence Malick’s forthcoming A Hidden Life before Jojo Rabbit, throwing a spotlight on the “good German” trope they both share. Of course, both quiet and loud German resistance to Nazi atrocities existed, and I’m not trying to argue that there shouldn’t be any more stories about it — after all, the ne plus ultra is required viewing for all: Schindler’s List. Jojo Rabbit‘s darkly satirical take is undoubtedly a fresh twist, but still: the trope threatens to mute the experiences of the victims. Taika Waititi is working here in the long and noble tradition of mocking the devil, and for that I applaud him. But the contemporaneous AMC TV show Preacher also had the nerve to directly depict and poke fun at Hitler, so it’s not exactly unique.

The casting of Sam Rockwell as a conflicted Nazi, which inadvertently (or not?) echoes his role as a tortured racist in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri. Again, it’s not like “bad” people don’t do “good” things, but in our present era, with white supremacy re-empowered around the world, I’m disinclined to entertain the notion of an even partially-redeemed Nazi. As a climactic moment in a fiction, this particular character’s act of mercy feels designed to make audiences feel better, rather than ponder the larger problem.

As a thought experiment: I’d rather watch a movie about the successful intervention in the life of a budding child fascist than the opposite. But I spent the entire movie distracted by these minefields rather than taking the movie on its own terms.

So as not to only complain: Jojo Rabbit an extremely funny and well-made film, with great acting all around — including one of Scarlet Johansson’s strongest-ever performances — so good that I wonder where she’s been all these years.

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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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3 Stars Movies

No escape from the tyranny of continuity, in Avengers: Endgame

There is no escape from the tyranny of continuity. Like daytime soaps, superhero comics exist in a quantum state of constant churn and perpetual stasis. Characters are introduced and die and un-die, relationships form and split and reform, villains are defeated and rally and are defeated again. Excelsior, and collect your pocket change to spend at the newsstand next month, true believer!

Avengers: Infinity War (2018) was the apotheosis of comics’ perpetually open-ended narrative, in movie form. It was a painful experience for any humanities student, or indeed anybody who loves novels and cinema. How quaint to expect a classical narrative, now that popular entertainment movies have become what Martin Scorsese has called a series of sequences. Avengers: Infinity War was 2+ hours of hors d’oeuvres before a long-promised fancy dinner. At about 18 movies into the Marvel Cinematic Universe series by that point, one began to wonder if we’d ever get to the main course, let alone dessert. It can’t be coincidental that the best episodes are the few that managed to wriggle free of the bonds of the larger umbrella story, particularly Black Panther, Ant-Man & The Wasp, and Thor: Ragnarok.

That Anthony & Joe Russo’s Endgame is so drastic an improvement over Infinity War that new corporate owners Disney must have issued a memo on Micky letterhead, reading “OK, good job, kids, but make sure the next one has a plot”. Its classical structure plot is so startlingly unfamiliar for anything with Captain America in it, that if anything, it’s almost too simple, like a video game. Our heroes discover they have to do five specific things to prepare for a confrontation; they do those five things; they have that confrontation; there’s a wound-licking denouement. Bingo: it’s a movie!

Avengers: Endgame
Like much of the movie, this is a striking image. Avengers: Endgame deserves credit for its relatively complex villain (relatively for the genre, I must stress). But I just can’t get over the invitation to take this stuff seriously.

I loved Marvel Comics as a kid, but was more of an X-Men, Fantastic Four, and Daredevil kind of guy. I always thought The Avengers were lame, and instinctually steered away from the likes of Captain America long before I ever learned the word jingoistic, from Iron Man before I learned the word asshole, and from Thor because — I mean, come on, seriously? So it’s been a struggle for adult-me to take the cinematic Avengers characters semi-seriously enough to enjoy in live-action form.

Of the six original movie Avengers, only one is female and all are white. We can place the original whitebread Marvel Comics in the context of the 1960s, but what’s the movies’ excuse? Even years later, when the franchise has finally cultivated a deeper bench of female characters, it insultingly limits most of them to a single contrived hero shot. And to get specific with one head-scratcher I just can’t get over: when Brainy Hulk and Rocket Raccoon go on a special mission to Norway to re-recruit an incapacitated Thor, is it A) sexist, B) moronic or C) both that they ignore the last living Valkyrie warrior? She may have, you know, been useful. I mean, at least two of the official Avengers don’t even have superpowers (unless you count being really good at archery as super).

Avengers: Endgame
The women of the Marvel Universe deserved more than a single hero shot, which plays as a contrived “insert girl power moment here” sticky note in the screenplay. Especially since one is the last surviving Valkyrie warrior (a god!) and another is the most powerful superhero of any gender.

Speaking of, can we talk for a moment about how Hawkeye is totally let off the hook for going around the world summarily executing bad guys, without due process? Black Widow literally just stands there and watches him behead somebody. These are supposed to be heroes, with an aspirational moral element. That there wasn’t even a tossed-off line like “we don’t do that anymore” makes me suspect that a chunk of Hawkeye’s story was cut out of the final film, or that the filmmakers lost control over the many character arcs they had to juggle, or most worryingly, that they just thought it was super cool.

Griping aside, I have serious praise for Robert Downey Jr. for delivering some of the finest acting yet in any Marvel movie. His portrayal of a broken Tony Stark early in the film is almost uncomfortably real.

Categories
2 Stars Movies

Netflix’s Triple Frontier is aggro, macho horseshit

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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