Film Log – 11.2019

In an effort to curtail my cycle of binge watching (and re-watching) programs available on streaming services, I’ve made a more concerted effort to support the local video store – Vulcan Video. Their mid-week 2-for-1 deal keeps me returning fairly regularly.
With that in mind, I figure I’d log a somewhat quick-hit rundown of the films I’ve recently experienced (because, you know, there aren’t already enough people recreationally writing about movies).

As an undergrad, I loved the Directors Label series. This series was released when I was a 20-year-old who had the highest regard for hyper stylized art. It was from this series that I was first introduced to Jonathan Glazer. His music videos were engaging and they, at minimum, did the music they were accompanying justice. In many cases, his visual product proved to be the stronger and more expertly executed half of the project.

Anyhow, I somehow stupidly lost track of Mr. Glazer and have only now decided to watch his filmography. It won’t take long, he’s only made three full-length features, Sexy Beast being the first and followed by Birth (2004) and Under the Skin (2013).

SB was outstanding. Glazer’s direction sets the tone with an opening that could double as a music video for the excellent song “Peaches” by The Stranglers. The lead is terrifically played by Ray Winstone; an actor I only recognized off hand from his portrayal of Mr. French in The Departed but has a long performance history. Winstone’s performance as Gal, however impressive it was, was certainly surpassed by Ben Kingsley. This isn’t just because Kingsley plays an intense maniac who sucks all of the air out of every scene, but I was reminded of the many quotes from respected theater professionals claiming that Morgan Freeman was the most terrifying performer they’d ever seen on stage.

As Don Logan, Kingsley uses every look, breath, movement, and mind game to maximize his intimidating nature. It’s important to note that he doesn’t implement calculated intimidation tactics, this man is simply intimidation incarnate. He’s a man who will not be said “no” to. The film succeeds in generating a very sincere and captivating fear in a scene featuring five people sitting around a living room and essentially making dinner plans.

Centered around a negotiation between Gal and Don (and the negotiation’s aftermath), the film is exceptional. It’s cool. It’s tense. It’s a cinematic rush. And I’m very much looking forward to catching up on Glazer’s other two films as soon as possible.

I would definitely recommend.
I will definitely revisit this film in the next couple of years.

I usually avoid biopics. They usually rely too much on blowing a single event of the main character’s life out of proportion and usually feel narratively wonky when trying to boil thirty or so years down to ninety minutes. That said, I’m a pretty big fan of both Ryan Gosling and Damien Chazelle so I had to give this a go.

While watching this film though, my fandom faded ever so slightly as I was happy to be watching the film, but not particularly pulled into the narrative/performances/production/etc. My favorite part was easily the petty rivalry between Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. I haven’t done research to confirm whether or not there was actually a substantial feud between the two NASA icons, and maybe my immaturity and taste for conflict and competition is showing here, but that’s the kind of film that I imagine would be captivating. Hollywood being Hollywood however would probably turn an eloquent, thoughtful, and dramatic screenplay about true-life discord amongst two titans of American space exploration and turn it into a Will Ferrell buddy comedy.

Anyhow, Chazelle still showcases moments of exceptional direction and Gosling still turns in a great performance (as does the entire cast), but the film simply falls flat for me. One interesting point is that at age 34, Chazelle provides one of the first instances that I can remember a considerably young artist making a reverential film about a landmark moment and pursuit by the Greatest and Silent Generations. I’m curious as to whether or not we’re going to see other films made in the same vein.

It’s a complicated recommendation:
I’m happy I saw it.
I don’t believe I’m going to go out of my way to see it again.
I wouldn’t necessarily say that you should avoid seeing it, but I wouldn’t encourage you to move this film to the top of your list.

Ever since 2011, Matthew McConaughey made the decision to pursue darker and more honest projects that many would believe would be tougher for large audiences to swallow than fluff pieces like How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days or Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. Those decisions have swapped out his stack of PG-13 rom-coms from the aughts and traded them for a collection of gritty, critically acclaimed films (Killer Joe, Mud, True Detective (Season 1), Dallas Buyers Club, Gold). Most of which have been good-to-great-to-exceptional, and that’s why I was excited about White Boy Rick.

I try to go through the thought process of what makes any actor, let alone an A-Lister who can have nearly any project they like, decide to pass or agree to get involved in any given production; especially if it’s a donkey of a film.

This is a donkey. The idea seems pretty good. Take a look at the film’s tagline on the above poster, “In 1980s Detroit, Rick Wershe Jr. was a street hustler, drug kingpin, and FBI informant all before he turned 16.”
That sounds pretty interesting; it also sounds too good to be true.

I’m guessing that McConaughey was lured into the film because of the above idea, but the script simply isn’t any good. It’s a drug film that falls in line with so many drug film tropes and cliches but only with a slightly different perspective. This movie found a way to turn guns, drugs, and 80s hip-hop into a blasé experience.

Though the soundtrack is cool, the on-screen conflict is lacking, and the actors try their best to prop up a non-cohesive screenplay that seems to throw the audience into weird, manufactured heartfelt situations crammed between the inevitable drama that on-screen criminals and cops always find themselves entangled in.

Last important note, Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie are sort of in the film, but could have been replaced by any actors over 70 and it wouldn’t have mattered. Why include them if they’re simply not going to get any screen time? Oh well.

Wish I would’ve passed on it.
I don’t recommend it.
I do not expect to see it again.

This is regarded as one of the first (perhaps the first) important documentaries about insider politics and campaigns. Perhaps I’ve been desensitized to insider politics due to so much media (both fiction and non-fiction) about Washington-types doing everything they can to make sure that their ideas or mouthpiece gathers as many votes as they can encourage Americans to gift them, but I don’t see any particular type of exceptionalism or genius on screen that I was hoping to see.

It is easy to see how this documentary was groundbreaking for its time, but watching it today does nothing for me other than serve as a reminder as to how out of touch political types are.

I certainly watched it in hopes of gaining a perspective on a foundational political documentary as well as simply mixing up my film list, but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you had a massive appetite for political documentaries. If that’s the case, check out The Party’s Over if only for Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

There were many reasons I chose to watch this film: I actively root for Jon Hamm to find his way onto the Big Screen and create a role or acting identity outside of Don Draper, it’s supposed to be a stylized/hip/cool Thinking Man’s type of action film (just watch the trailer), and of course, Jeff Bridges.

Though during my first viewing, I felt like I had already seen the film and had already experienced the same exact “okay, here are all the introductions, and then there’s going to be a big showdown and yada, yada, yada” and I had. This movie felt very much like watching 2018’s version of Smoking Aces.

And you know what? That’s fine. There needs to be X amount of dialogue heavy, psuedo-suspenseful “Talk it Up and Shoot’em Up” type of films per year. I guess I was looking (or hoping) for something a little more substantive and not so excessively stylized.

The film showcases the ability to annoy its audience with scenarios such as why an accomplished man in the world of federal law enforcement would all-of-a-sudden behave so incompetently and why a panicky character would spend three-quarters of the film portraying a man who lacks any type of fortitude instantly transform into some kind of Rambo-esque superhero and there’d be no way to forget the over the top odd-ball Charles Manson-type cult figure played by Chris Hemsworth. I’m not the type to actually roll my eyes, but I’m pretty sure I did a few times.

Here’s my not-so ringing endorsement– as far as “smart-guy action flicks” go, sure, I guess it’s okay – but I’m not gonna see it again.

Yeah, alright, I went and saw the film that everyone had to see.
Depending on your definition of what a “spoiler” is, there might be one below.

Due to the many oft-repeated and much heralded reviews Joaquin Phoenix received for his portrayal of Arthur Fleck, I gladly revisited Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master to remind myself what I really, really liked about a strong Phoenix performance. There are certainly great solo performances out there (Nicholson’s many portraits come to mind), but it is truly something different when two formidable masters of craft are both sharing and building something so grand and layered as Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix did in The Master.

This particular picture doesn’t resonate at all like that. Todd Phillips’s Joker is getting many comparisons to Scorsese’s The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver, but this film felt more like Micheal Douglas’s Falling Down to me (that’s not a compliment). A down-on-his-luck (and down-on-his meds) chum who is continually getting kicked and beaten down by The System, or society, or his possible billionaire father, or possibly mentally-ill mother, or his own mind/psychosis can’t seem to catch a break and eventually violently spirals into madness.
I won’t go too deep into DC lore, but one thing I’ll note is how helpless and hapless Arthur Fleck is for 80% of the film. In the last act of the film he somewhat takes control (or in his deranged perspective he believes he’s taking control), but I’ll always know DC’s The Joker as a mastermind who can battle wits with Batman. At no point, would I imagine The Joker to previously be some guy who became The Joker because of a lack of societal compassion and our nation’s backwards health care system.
That’s a weird origin story– if only people were nicer and pharmaceuticals were more readily available, Gotham City wouldn’t have to worry about The Joker?

To continue with the political and societal takeaways, the film paints Bruce Wayne’s father as a Donald Trump-type figure and Fleck loses the only pseudo-supportive person in his life (other than his mother, who happens to experience a very odd conclusion) due to a lack of government funding. These forced scenes and manufactured layers to a hollow onion don’t come across as profound, groundbreaking, or meaningful. Instead of being invested in the evolution of Fleck, I was watching a film without a single endearing, worthwhile character. Save your Age of the Anti-Hero counterpoint because most of the so-called Anti-Heroes are multi-dimensional and generally aren’t unreliable narrators that require a Fight Club-esque flashback.

The film uses two Sinatra tunes to push along the narrative, “That’s Life” and “Send in the Clowns”, which is a bummer for me, because it’s going to be awhile before I hear either of those songs I truly enjoy without recalling the corresponding scenes.
The thought I had going into the film was, “The Hollywood hype machine has made it seem that ever since movie studios have simply become creators of serial comic book blockbusters, that this particular film is what high art and Academy Award films are now destined to become.”
While watching the film, all I could do was pout, beg, and hope that this isn’t where art films (or films worthy of high praise) are headed.
I don’t want to get into “moral responsibility” or any of that, but this film showcased a person unable to connect with society en masse and how he responds to that disconnection is the defining characteristic of the film. I happen to believe that there are a great many people who don’t feel at ease in society and some of our best artists have a way of capturing that feeling of disconnect and turning that feeling into something relatable and worthwhile.

Anyhow, once the movie concluded, I made a beeline straight to the men’s room. Playing softly from the speakers overhead was Radiohead’s “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” and the music lifted a cumbersome weight off me. For me to experience something from artists that are able to eloquently illustrate their deep frustrations with humanity and the disconnection they have with society en masse without going bonkers was a welcome departure from what I had just spent the previous two hours doing.

You’ve probably already seen it.
I wasn’t a fan.
I don’t believe that I’ll go out of my way to give it another screening.

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