Archive for March, 2020

Film Log #7 – 3.2020

Monday, March 23rd, 2020

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 rundown of the films I’ve recently experienced (because, you know, there aren’t already enough people recreationally writing about movies).

This is a case of the trailer being much, much better than the actual film. Though there were some comedic moments, and even with the knowledge that it is a dark comedy, this movie fell flat.

Even with the film flat-lining, I did appreciate Alessandro Nivola‘s performance. Nivola has delivered meaningful contributions to American Hustle and Face/Off among others, but his role in The Art of Self-Defense appears to be his largest role to date.
I certainly hope the actor continues to be given more advanced roles.

Even with some pretty good performances, I don’t recommend this one.
It’s not completely terrible, but it is below-average, and I won’t be seeing it again.
Whether or not I will make an effort to re-watch the film is my baseline of whether or not I will recommend.

Nicholas Winding Refn‘s films to date make me curious. On one hand, he drove a project that I believe succeeded on nearly every level in Drive (yeah, I bet it’s predictable that I would like that film). On the other hand, he seems to make films that are lost when he’s left on his own to create the narrative (Drive was adapted from a novel).

I haven’t seen Only God Forgives (Refn’s second collaboration with Ryan Gosling) based in part to the mostly poor reviews paired with the fact that the lead, played by Gosling, has a grand total of 17 lines. I’m no stranger to silent films, but even some of the more complex silent films have text cards to help with the exposition and story of those films. Refn instead opts to showcase his vision and not be all that concerned with crafting a story or narrative.

I always bring up the point that before an audience can care for a character, we have to at least know the character (at least a little bit). Unveiling who the characters are can easily be botched. There are no certain rules for how to do it well. Most of the time, if you hit the audience over the head with a sledgehammer in regards to character, it won’t work. In The Neon Demon‘s case, we simply don’t know anything more that’s not surface level (maybe that’s part of the point?).
When character is thoughtfully revealed and the audience is able to ascertain concrete truths about the character (or, at minimum, pique our curiosity), that’s when I’ll actually be invested in what actions or plot points take place.

I think back to 2004 when I came across the worst example of a film simply using shocking images to manipulate an audience to care about on-screen happenings and/or characters. This particular film, The Butterfly Effect opens with children beating, torturing, and eventually killing animals.
Before the audience is aware of any character’s name or what the setting is, we’re simply subjected to shocking behavior.

Why do I bring this up? Though The Neon Demon does take its time to deliver some shocking images in the third act, we still don’t truly know anything relevant or below the surface about these characters.

Refn definitely has a vision. That’s his strength. I rented this film based on some stills I came across (I should really stop doing that):

The Neon Demon is problematic for many reasons– I speculate that one of the reasons he made his first film from a women’s perspective is because he simply never had before, and, perhaps, he took some criticism because of that. What’s unfortunately insulting is that when he finally makes a woman-centered film, he makes one about models and the only real, and I mean truly meaty dialogue that takes place is still between two men.

Enter the previously mentioned Alessandro Nivola:

Nivola excels at playing Roberto Sarno (peculiarly uncredited– the man has more lines than nearly ever other male in the production and is, for some reason, uncredited– that’s very rare), a pompous fashion designer. Three models sit alongside Sarno when the main character Jesse (played by Elle Fanning) and her male friend Dean arrive.
A discussion about beauty bubbles up. Everyone of course defers to Sarno. Dean attempts to say that there is more than skin-deep beauty in Jesse, which prompts Sarno to respond with, “Well, if she wasn’t beautiful, you wouldn’t have even stopped to look.”
This takes place in the middle of the second act.

The film’s first act does provide a women’s restroom conversation that does have weight, but any goodwill the film earned by having that insider glimpse into the catty and competitive world of attractive women is quickly squandered.

The first two acts of the film lead one to believe that the film is going to drive home some idea about beauty and ambition being a prison of sorts (especially for those in the fashion and modeling industry).
That’s at least what I was hoping for… and then the damn wheels fall completely off in the third act.
It went totally bonkers, and might as well have been children torturing animals. Cannibalism, models taking blood-soaked showers, and necrophilia all turn a relatively slow-paced psychological thriller into a barn burner of insanity and senselessness.

This is a very easy recommendation that you pass hard on The Neon Demon as well as a very easy recommendation to watch Drive if you haven’t already.

Let’s return to sanity.
Paris Blues is not for everyone. If you’re looking to take a trip back to an over-the-top and romantic view of 1961 Paris with Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong providing the soundtrack and Sidney Poitier, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, and Diahann Carroll providing the romance, well– then this is your film.

As a tremendous fan of Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Paul Newman, I felt like I absolutely had to see this film. That said, I wasn’t knocked out by it. It had its moments and it told a very good story. But in the end, the film didn’t sit or resonate with me.

It was simply a mostly pleasant look at jazz, Paris, and short-term romance.

The film was adapted from a book by the same name. The book, however, told a story of two interracial couples. It being 1961 and such, the studios adjusted (much to the chagrin of the film’s stars). The picture still ended being just fine, though it obviously would’ve been more groundbreaking had the project been a more accurate interpretation of the book.

This is a take it or leave it recommendation. I might see it again, but I’m not hustling out to add it to my collection or anything like that. There are better films from the 1960s and as I watch more jazz-centric films, I hope to find better jazz movies.

Chopper is good enough, but not great. Why I’m chomping at the bit to write about it is because of its director– Andrew Dominik.

Back to Chopper, Eric Bana plays a hard-ass Australian convict/career criminal. The film has a better-than-average story, a pretty good pace, a lil bit of humor and a lil bit of violence. That sounds like a good recipe for a film and the end product is just that.

Perhaps it was the pre-9/11 production or maybe because I saw this director’s other films prior, but this film ended up simply being “pretty good” whereas his other two American-made features (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford & Killing Them Softly) are outstanding.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a criminally overlooked film. The cast selection and their performances are perfect. The crafting and shooting (by DoP Roger Deakins no less) is impeccable. If there is a film to recommend, it’s this one.

I can go round and round about how often I feel like I should simply give this film another screening as opposed to trying something new. Clearly, it’s an old standby of mine.

The depth and subject matter continues to resonate.
The eclectic cast (Brad Pitt, Mary-Louise Parker, Casey Affleck, Jeremy Renner, Sam Rockwell, Paul Schneider, and Sam Shepard) and their dynamic performances hit me every time.

The film does not have a track-star pace. Instead, it’s a slow cooking pot roast that produces a savory and worthwhile flavor every time. We see Brad Pitt as Jesse James wrestle with his mortality, the skeletons hanging over him, as well as the toll that hiding from the government is taking. We also see Casey Affleck as Robert Ford portray a man who has never received an iota of respect in his entire life and is clearly envious and desperate to make a name any way he can.
This is truly a fascinating and beautiful film. It’s a damn shame that Pitt and the project as a whole didn’t get as much critical acclaim as they should have.

Onto Killing Them Softly.

Brad Pitt plays an assassin in this film that brilliantly weaves modern-day politics into the sordid business of killing people for profit. Whether it’s addressing that even the mafia has fallen victim to an HR mentality or that the streets are simply more kinder and gentler than they used to be, this film is definitely smart and entertaining.

Once again, it’s expertly cast– Pitt, James Gandolfini, Scoot McNairy, Ray Liotta, Richard Jenkins, and Ben Mendelsohn.
And again, the story provides a great mix of humor, violence, and the pace is perfect for my taste.

All of this is to say that Andrew Dominik is an outstanding filmmaker. Those are his three full-length features, but he’s also been a huge part of the Netflix series Mindhunter (which I do have some criticisms about, though I mostly enjoyed), as well as the music documentary One More Time with Feeling about Nick Cave (a film I’ll be seeing soon).

I say that I’d recommend The Assassination of Jesse James first, then Killing Them Softly, and if you like both of those, I see no reason why you wouldn’t go ahead and watch Chopper.

There was a ten-year period of my life (roughly from 1998-2008) when I’d simply purchase used films that I’d never seen before based on the price + critical reception of the film. Sideways was one such film.
I must have purchased this movie for about $6.99 in lieu of renting it for $3.99 or thereabouts.

Anyhow, I recently revisited it and it was just as good as I remembered. It’s a fantastic look at male self-destruction and self-loathing as well as an attempt to find honesty and romance in a world that can sometimes seem as though it’s constructed by shit bricks on a foundation of deceit.
There’s also a quality blend of romance and comedy; it’s simply an entertaining and thoughtful film.

And, of course, there are tremendous moments of heart that are spurred on by wine as well as an abundance of amazing views.

I obviously recommend it if you haven’t seen it.

Film Log #6 – 3.2020

Friday, March 20th, 2020

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 rundown of the films I’ve recently experienced (because, you know, there aren’t already enough people recreationally writing about movies).

As a child, I was initially introduced to William Powell by Warner Bros. cartoons (Merrie Melodies & Looney Tunes – see below).

For some reason, these caricatures resonated with me and, early on, I had made it a point to be in on the joke as well as understand why these actors were regarded as they were. William Powell’s name popped up many times in the film texts I read, but, honestly, I generally hadn’t gone out of my way to watch comedies a whole lot; even if they were classics.

However, on a recent trip to Alamo Drafthouse, they were promoting a special screening of 1936’s My Man Godfrey. The trailer looked very entertaining and the subject matter was definitely in my sweet spot.
Powell plays Godfrey, a quick-thinking, fast-talking “forgotten man” (euphemism for “homeless”) living near a bridge on the East River in Manhattan who is attempted to be picked up by a rude debutante looking for a “forgotten man” to complete her scavenger hunt.

Godfrey complies only after choosing to help a kinder debutante, Irene, instead of Irene’s insulting sister, Cornelia. Upon helping Irene win the scavenger hunt, Godfrey is asked to address the crowd. He responds with, “My purpose in coming here tonight was two-fold: firstly, I wanted to aid this young lady. Secondly, I was curious to see how a bunch of empty-headed nitwits conducted themselves. My curiosity is satisfied. I assure you it’ll be a pleasure to go back to a society of really important people.”
The “society of really important people” being his community of “forgotten men” living in shanties.

His appearance at the scavenger hunt ends with job offer. He was hired to “buttle” for the very affluent Bullocks. The film then makes its obvious progression and I can’t help but enjoy most of it. It plays out more like a terrific theatrical performance than a cinematic achievement, and that’s understandable given its era.

When interviewed about Dr. Strangelove, William H. Macy said, “When making a comedy, if you’re not careful, the actors will start ‘being funny,’ and what any good director knows is that it’s not an actor’s job to be funny; that’s the writer’s job. The script is funny or it’s not funny. It’s the actor’s job to be truthful, and then the humor will come out.”

As I previously wrote, most comedies are concepts without a legitimate script. They start as an idea, such as, “what if these guys were ice skaters” or “on an ABA basketball team” and so forth. The project continues and eventually they have a few pages and plot points, but the hope is that they assemble a few funny people in a room, play off one another, and after a few takes, someone says something like “I love lamp” and no one during the filming is sure which ad-libbed lines are going to resonate with the audience until the film hits theaters/streaming services/cable broadcasts.

But My Man Godfrey feels and resonates like an Oscar Wilde piece. It’s critical of the affluent day-to-day lifestyle and social events on more than a superficial level. And because I’m terribly hard on films that are so entirely far-fetched and unbelievable, I’ll easily admit that this one is too. The pass that I’m giving it is based on historical significance, intelligence, criticisms of class/status, and a few other reasons.
Whenever I grow weary with contemporary films that seem as though every aspect and situation of the film is frankly unbelievable, those films compound that be feeling by coming off, in the words of Godfrey, as “empty-headed.”

You can find My Man Godfrey streaming on youtube here.
I do recommend it, but you’ll have to prepare yourself. Going directly from watching 2020 comedies to something made in 1936 will be a little jarring, but it is certainly well worth it.
Anyhow, I enjoyed it. I’ll most likely watch it again down the road.

That french line included on the above poster translates to “A formidable thriller in line of Heat.” Perhaps it’s never a good idea to include any mention of any other film on the promotional materials for a new movie because every time one resorts to conjuring up another title, they’re essentially saying that this is a “poor man’s version” of the other title.

But even that would be a stretch. I saw this film 10 years ago when it originally came out. I may have had a few drinks while watching it the first time 10 years ago or I may have been itching to see some kind of “shoot’em up” and simply forgot how dull the film is.

I like Jeremy Renner when he’s not playing scuzzy trash, tolerate Ben Affleck when he’s not playing a hopeless romantic, and look forward to a future when Jon Hamm will be able to play something other than a federal agent. Unfortunately, this film includes all of those things.

The romantic interest between Affleck and Rebecca Hall is particularly bunk. If there ever were a case of men being “allowed” to have three-dimensional characters while women are always pushed to the sidelines and simply play flat nobodies without a shred of dynamism, this would be quite the example.
That’s not to say that the men’s characters are particularly well-shaped and formed, but hell, they’re certainly more developed than the two female leads.

Yeah, I know, “it’s a bank robbery film” and arguably, to call back to Heat (one of my favorite bank robbery/caper films), the worst scenes in that film all include Val Kilmer’s love interest– Ashley Judd, and if I were to be extremely critical of that film, the scenes including De Niro’s love interest also were not good. It would, however, be a failure to not also point out that some of Heat‘s best scenes include Pacino with his love interest played by Diane Venora (pictured below).

With it being acknowledged that it can be difficult to squeeze in a meaningful love story into a robbery/caper film, how is it that The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and so many other film noirs were able to do so?
I think that’s what my film study ends up pointing out– cinema used to have a lot more heart. Or maybe I’m just a sap?

In any event, this film, The Town, that I had hoped was going to be a quality shoot’em up, was simply barely tolerable and, if you’re jonesing to see men dressed up as nuns shooting at cops, I propose you stream this one and fast-forward through the failed attempts at story crafting.

Note: there are many benefits to film study. One is, as previously mentioned while talking about the cartoons portraying William Powell, to always be in on the jokes, homages, nods, repurposing, etc.
I noticed The Town paid quite a few tributes to The Friends of Eddie Coyle.
M.G. McIntyre of Film School Rejects writes:

The Town, Ben Affleck’s 2010 ode to Boston and bank robbery, bears more than just a passing resemblance to Yates’ film, despite being based on a different book. Slicker, faster, more overwrought perhaps, yet there are several scenes taken wholesale directly from  Eddie Coyle. The bank hostage forced to walk, blindfolded, toward the shores of the Mystic River, in a wide panorama. The unsettling vacancy of rubber-masked eyes. The penultimate scenes take place at a Boston sports stadium. Affleck’s film takes its cues more from action films, but a straight line can be drawn from  Eddie Coyle  to the modern reinvention of Boston as a crime film location ripe for new stories.

Anyhow, even though I didn’t love either of these films (The Town + Eddie Coyle), it’s interesting to note the connections they share.
I recommend you either pass on this film or speed through it (if you’re looking for a quality action scene or two).

Due to SXSW’s cancellation, Vulcan Video made an early call to host an outdoor screening for any interested filmmakers that had planned to screen at the festival. The team that made The Mystery of the Pink Flamingo took up Vulcan’s offer.

The filmmakers created a funny and interesting way to present a documentary. They crafted a narrative that allowed them to interview these outlandish and eccentric characters all sharing an affinity for kitsch and the outrageous, but did it under the guise of a curious party, Rigo, searching for the answer to the question, “What makes the pink flamingo such a unique, interesting, and beautiful bird?”

That leads Rigo to interview an assortment of folks in both Europe and the U.S., most notably Baltimore-based director John Waters, to get many thoughts on topics such as individuality, style, flamboyance, and, of course, flamingos.
What was so darn refreshing was the entertaining narrative woven around a film that is essentially 90+ minutes of 7+ interviews. Through the many documentaries I’ve watched, I’ve often thought that whether or not I cared for the subject matter, the presentation was flat and not particularly engaging. In The Mystery of the Pink Flamingo, I cared more about the presentation and style than I did the subject matter.

Though I most likely won’t ever see it again, the film was highly entertaining and I do recommend it.

Film Log #5 – 3.2020

Thursday, March 19th, 2020

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 rundown of the films I’ve recently experienced (because, you know, there aren’t already enough people recreationally writing about movies).

Jojo Rabbit – In order to speak critically about a film that uses the backdrop of World War II to illustrate how senseless fascism, war, and, hatred are, I have to address the concern that this specific era continues to be recycled.

I suspect that storytellers turn to this particular war because the story is already told for us. Very little explanation is required. A human sees a swastika and emotions are immediately triggered. This war eliminates the necessity of world building and stage setting. The chess (or checkers) pieces are easily laid out on the board and the game need not be explained.

This is what I find problematic– what used to be a touchstone of award-winning cinema was how films managed to tackle challenging storytelling and complex subject matter. Whenever I give contemporary cinema a chance, I’m finding weaker stories created by artists who are about as subtle as our politicians with unfortunately increasing frequency.

To return to the film at hand, simply put, I watched this film for Sam Rockwell, Scarlet Johansson, and the kid who plays Yorki (Archie Yates). Those three actors and their characters did not disappoint. They each took turns delivering the film’s best lines as well as its most satisfying moments while the lead did his best to pull us through his journey.

The lead, Roman Griffin Davis, doesn’t perform poorly, but his character certainly is overshadowed by everyone around him. I’m finding it tough to remember a time where I enjoyed a film whose main character was the fourth or fifth best character.

Final point: period pieces that are scored by anachronistic pop music torture me. Jojo Rabbit included The Beatles “I Want to Hold Your Hand” (1964), the Tom Waits original “I Don’t Want to Grow Up” (1992), Bowie’s “Heroes” (1977), and Love’s “Everybody’s Gotta Live” (1974).
Rarely do modern scores made specifically to accompany the setting and the era of the project work for me, but using a Tupac song in the middle of an industrial revolution film would be jarring and if you believe that’s ridiculous, then you haven’t seen classic rock used as the soundtrack to A Knight’s Tale.

After considering the lazy music choices, reliance on history to propel the narrative, and the lack of interest in the main character, I wouldn’t watch it again.

Without attempting to provide much context on the “big picture” motivations of why all these characters found themselves in the grotesque trench warfare of World War I, 1917 quickly enlists the audience on a dangerous mission. In a certain light, it felt similar to how some video games begin. Normally when I weave an aspect from a video game into a film criticism, that’d usually be grounds for an insult, but Sam Mendes and DoP Roger Deakins stunningly pull this off.

Speaking of Roger Deakins, I’ve already mentioned his work before. The man is arguably the best at his craft. All his films are impeccably shot and it doesn’t take long to realize you’re watching a project that he’s had his hands on.

As mentioned, the film plays out by following two young soldiers who have just been ordered to attempt a dangerous mission. Again, this might seem a little on the “ho-hum” side, but I assure you, this film is meaningful and adept at setting up a scene and delivering.
Also refreshing was the lack of history lessons between each act. This expository curse plagues too many history-driven or action-packed films and, yet, this film barely has any scenes featuring dialogue that feels more for the audience than any character actually in the picture.

I saw 1917 in the theater and it was well worth it. I’m up for watching it in a home theater, but I’ll definitely jump at an opportunity to see it in a large theater once again down the road. This is one to watch.

Have you ever caught yourself watching a show or film where you simply didn’t like any of the principle characters that you were choosing to watch for whatever reason? I imagine this happens when some people watch reality television (not sure, but it must? Right?).

I came across this scene on a film-centric Instagram account:

And, somehow, that’s all it took for me to rent Mike Leigh’s Naked.
That clip, surprisingly, was one of the more “pleasant” moments. This movie basically carried on as two hours and fifteen minutes of aggression, depression, and faux intellect.

It was simply terrible the whole way through. I didn’t believe the main character, Johnny, to be the misunderstood genius that he believed himself to be. There’s also a consummate prick – Jeremy – who is inexplicably injected into the movie to perhaps neutralize (or lessen the blows) any of Johnny’s social ills and out ‘n out shitty behavior, but instead turns the movie into a weird exhibition of how these two men terrorize these poor women who happen to live together (as well as whoever else’s paths they cross).

Sometimes cinephiles need a tough viewing. We’ll need a film that pushes our comfort levels and makes us reevaluate what exactly could be labeled as truly difficult to watch. Perhaps the film will later grow on me? I generally tend to enjoy art that prominently positions the British nihilistic streak found in a variety of art from the 1970s through the 1990s, but this film simply felt like watching two men destroy everything and everyone around them without any recourse.

It truly was difficult to watch.
I don’t believe that I’ll be interested to give it another shot. Ever.
I recommend you pass on this one unless you’re trying to really give your tastes a stretch.

A buddy of mine invited me to a screening of VHYES and I was happy to attend. For as difficult as it is to really enjoy full-length comedic features, I find sketch comedy to be a much more accessible method of enjoying comedy.

Most stand-up specials or comedy sets usually top out at about an hour. VHYES runs at 72 minutes.
I’m not sure why studios try to force some kind of narrative into all of these buddy-cop comedies or buddy-college guy comedies or ladies on a vacation comedies or dudes on a vacation comedies or funny guy dresses up like a lady comedies or funny guy dresses up like a whole family comedies or dudes magically go back in time comedies or mash two people from different cultures together comedies or culturally-specific comedies when it is so obvious that these films are generally built around two or three jokes.

If the folks that make full-length comedy features are happy about their two or three jokes and want to profit off them by unimaginatively constructing a film around those gags, I propose they do what the VHYES team did and simply find a creative way to make a sketch show and instead of serializing it and airing it on television, simply screen it at the theaters and stream it online.

That’s the way I prefer my comedy. The majority of films that attempt to be funny for 90+ minutes are generally terrible by most metrics. In defense of anyone’s proclivity towards full-length comedic features– yes, I have called the sheriff of the “fun police” before.

I enjoyed VHYES. I recommend it over watching 98% of full-length comedic features or re-watching two or three episodes of a comedy program you’ve seen a thousand times.
I’d gladly stream it if/when it’s available.

Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project is an interesting documentary about an intelligent but troubled woman who shut herself off to nearly everyone while she recorded and archived television for 30 years.

Marion Stokes made quite a few prescient decisions that grew her wealth and, at some point, this becomes a film about how wealth allows one to do pretty much whatever they want. Obviously, it’s more complicated than that, but only a wealthy person could use eight VCRs and TVs to record and document the media for 24 hours a day for over three decades.

As always, the most interesting question is why? That’s where this documentary shines.

Previously, I’ve pointed out that I’m rarely knocked out by documentaries, and that remains true here. This doc is perfectly fine and worthwhile, but what it boils down to is an 87 minute look at a peculiar and determined woman.

I’ll most likely never see it again and you can take it or leave it as my non-committal recommendation.