It’s well-made, well-executed goofy ass action premised on a ridiculous concept. This is pretty much the highest praise one can have for a film like this. It doesn’t aspire to be anything other than an entertainingly dumb action flick, where people jump out of airplanes and beat each other up in nightclubs in increasingly insane ways. And on that count, it succeeds. Though it was perhaps a tad on the long side.
The Darkest Hour was 2017’s Green Book. Possibly worse, although I can’t say for sure because I couldn’t finish it. Does the thought of seeing Gary Oldman in a fat-suit doing a weird Winston Churchill chortle excite you? Then congratulations, you are the target audience of this film. If, like a normal person, that sounds terrible then take a pass on this obvious Oscar-baiting turd.
Have you ever wondered what would happen if Crocodile Dundee was actually a mass-murderer who lured British tourists into his lair and then killed them? If the answer is yes, you will like this movie! If not, better steer clear!
Let’s get the obvious out of the way first. Warner Bros. new film, Joker, is an amazing achievement of cinema. It looks great. Joaquin Phoenix is outstanding. It slots very cleverly into the wider DC Universe they were creating, without being of it. And it holds up a mirror to American society, forcing us to think about and confront things we might rather not.
I do not understand, at all, where reviewers are coming from when they call this film bad or boring or poorly made. Slate, that bastion of liberal socialism, was particularly hard on the film and I think that merely reveals the reviewers’ discomfort with the subject matter. This movie looks great. There is only one performance that matters, that of Joaquin Phoenix, and it is truly one of those electrifying, charismatic turns that glues you to the screen. Like Brando in Streetcar, or Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood - you can’t turn away from him. This character he has created, deeply troubled, both sympathetic and repulsive, is utterly fascinating. You might, justifiably, feel that director Todd Phillips is a bag of crap, morbidly fascinated by people who do bad things. But even so, he has made here a most excellent feature film.
Is it derivative? Yes, of course. It very, very consciously makes us aware that it is the narrative, stylistic and thematic successor of The King of Comedy, Taxi Driver and Network. I mean, the stunt casting of Robert De Niro and Scorsese’s involvement make that connective tissue pretty obvious. You might reasonably believe that those films do the same material better, but I don’t think that discounts what Joker is doing because the idea of society’s failures giving birth to vigilante revenge fantasies is obviously highly resonant in America, then as now.
Then there are all the nervous little birds coming out of the woodwork to argue that this movie is somehow dangerous because it glorifies and endorses the depiction of a pathetic, marginalized man finding catharsis by killing people. Some people have found this, in their idiot brains, to be an endorsement of incel culture, and there’s been a bunch of nonsense about how the film might inspire violent copy cats. As if that it the film’s fault, and not the fault of a deeply violent society that makes it easy for mentally disturbed people to get guns. That kind of criticism merely reveals what a wounded, fucked up and overly sensitive nation we are, unable to appreciate the art of a controversial depiction of darkness without worrying that insane people might try and live it out.
To the extent that this film creates a sympathetic, nuanced portrayal of Joker’s sociopathy is really a testament to Joaquin Phoenix’s performance. He is an obvious raving lunatic in this movie and you are not meant to identify with him; but you are meant to understand where his murderous apathy is coming from, how he is the victim of a society that doesn’t care about its most vulnerable members, and it takes a truly skillful production to pull that trick off. The film succeeds in showing us that the failure of society at large has driven this tragic, demented figure to do what he does. But if you are sitting there thinking the film is an endorsement of that kind of behavior, I think that says more about you than about the film.
Joker is also really interesting from a franchise perspective. Warner Bros. has absolutely mangled their DC Universe, ever since they let Zack Snyder take over from Christopher Nolan. This film hits reset on that mess. Unlike Snyder, Phillips is able to take the dark themes and imagery from Nolan’s Batman trilogy but give them a unique and interesting spin that doesn’t suck, and which stands on its own. The gritty 1980s feel, the beautiful compositions, the spurts of sudden hyper-violence, the oddly touching tragedy of watching a lanky weirdo run around in slow motion. This film has a visual style all its own, but it also does justice to the tone set by Nolan, something Zack Snyder was never, ever able to pull off. And it gives Warner Bros. a path forward, doing stand-alone films that are loosely attached to the larger mythology, but that don’t require them to bury themselves in failure trying to ape the success of Marvel.
Ultimately, I walked out of this movie deeply impressed with it. It is such a powerful acting performance, gorgeously staged and shot and scored. It conveys a visceral sense of a society in decay, and creates this deeply intriguing foil to examine the ways in which a hyper-violent society like ours might deal with that kind of rot. I think the Joker movie is a fantastic film, and also troubling - for what it says about society, and also for the way some elements in society reacted to it. I don’t yet know everything that this film says about our society, but I do know whatever it is saying is deeply fucked up.
Man does this film hold up. It takes some very well-traveled tropes – the young detective on the job paired with the about-to-retire veteran, and other typical hard-boiled noir and detective elements – and then uses them to tell a truly original story that is darkly fascinating and utterly compelling. This is David Fincher we are talking about, so of course the film is aesthetically terrific to look at, leaning into some very dark imagery and making great use of traditional cinematic language of noir like rain and shadows. There are certain scenes in this film (you know the ones) that are staged so effectively, the impression of having seen a nightmare will stay with you for a long time.
Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman are good. Pitt works mainly as an unremarkable young dumb guy – he’s meant to be the audience stand-in. Freeman is the film’s elder statesmen, the Wise Old Man and the moral compass, a symbol of a fading system of values in a world awash with sin and avarice. But Spacey is of course given the most scenery to chew, and he relishes it. In real-life is he a sex-crazed pervert asshole? Yes, apparently. But this role, when he was in the throes of his mid-1990s apotheosis, is a classic and he is such a good embodiment of detached, sociopathic evil. It’s great casting, and a great performance.
What’s so satisfying about this film, of course, is that the visual style and the acting all work in service of an insanely diabolical and shocking plot. This film is very carefully and intricately structured, from a script by Andrew Kevin Walker who I had ever heard of but is apparently a very active script doctor. He doesn’t have too many big credits to his name, but if this one is anything to go by he might be responsible for polishing quite a few turds behind the scenes.
Famously, of course, the threads of the film all come together in the end in such a way as to genuinely blow your mind in the most fucked up way possible. “What’s in the box!” has entered the pop culture lexicon for a good reason – because it’s part of a really great ending, and endings are hard. But that pay-off would be nothing if the script hadn’t carefully done the work of building up to it, taking us step-by-step through the monstrous would of this film and the escalating acts of depravity tied together by the thinnest of theological strings that even so might be faintly resonant with an audience that agrees the world is coming apart at the seams.
It’s just a great film, part of a raft of them that kind of surged up during the middle of the Clinton presidency for some reason, before we knew that Kevin Spacey was a creep. A simpler time, for a fucking great and fucked up piece of cinema.
It is my belief that Field of Dreams is a perfect movie. Released in 1989, it was the progenitor of a wave of earnestly sentimental 90s films steeped in Americana that could never be made today. The concept is wildly strange but also strangely intimate, Kevin Costner was in the full bloom of his career before the coming avalanche of boondoggles like the Postman would pull him back to Earth, and James Earl Jones narrates a lot of it. Also, it’s about baseball. And farming. And dads. What could possibly be more American?
I cannot watch this movie’s finale, in which a son engages in a simple game of catch with his dad, without bawling. That is how powerfully effective its premise is. It takes a very simple idea of what America is - farming, baseball, family - and distills it into this mildly supernatural fable that strikes at the heart of every middle-class white American man like a viper. When Trump supporters pine for an imagined past, this is it. This is what they are imagining, a world where yesteryear’s baseball heroes emerge from a cornfield to help an every-man reconcile with his father through the mystical power of the astral plane. And look, here’s the thing. It works. It works so well, and then some.
Part of that is in the skill with which it’s executed. Drawn from the very strange mind of moderately commercially successful writer W. P. Kinsella, it unfolds gradually in stages that tease out the mystery of what is happening without ever trying to explain it. From a purely technical standpoint the narrative moves in perfectly measured steps. I don’t want to describe the plot, but it’s immaculately structured with an all-time great hook (“If you build it, he will come”) and each act adding new and fascinating dimensions to what came before, culminating in a gut-punch of unresolved father issues set against the backdrop of a beautiful baseball field in the middle of nowhere that basically represents everything America stands for.
Now, clearly this is a fable made by and for white Americans. And you know what? That’s OK. It is still a beautiful fable. And it does capture some of that fleeting essence of where America was in 1989, the memories of Vietnam still echoing in the consciousness of the Baby Boomers, this idea that America was changed in some fundamental way after the 1960s and 70s and here was a film serving up a tailor-made fantasy that let them go back again. And it did it all through the halcyon prism of baseball, that most American of sports, at once boring but also deeply intertwined with our national narrative.
It’s beautifully filmed, wonderfully acted, the narrative structure is unimpeachable, and it does capture in some ephemeral and unexplainable way the essence of what white people imagine America has been and always will be. And that game of ghost dad catch gets me every time. A perfect movie.
The Wreck-It Ralph franchise set the bar very high for itself with the first film, a terrifically creative fantasy about sentient video games living in an arcade. It’s a fantasy-land, but the creative team really put the leg work into thinking it through and coming up with rules for that fantasy which is why it held together so well. The world is consistent, and so everything the characters do within the dream logic of that world makes sense. And the animation was of course fantastic.
This should come as no surprise. The original film was helmed by Rich Moore and Jim Reardon, two Simpsons veterans who understand and respect the fundamental logic of first plotting a coherent, well-structured narrative that is deserving of the great animation that will follow. Because animation is expensive, the bones of the story better be right before it goes into production. This is something that pretty much everyone from the early days of the Simpsons has internalized and it shows in the work they do, like WALL-E and Wreck-It Ralph.
Of course, the success of that first film naturally led to a sequel which basically does what every sequel does. It takes what worked the first time, and does it again. But bigger. This time instead of being confined to the arcade, Ralph gets out onto the internet. From a practical standpoint, this was the logical route to take because it opens up a lot of new areas and worlds to explore, set pieces to design, ideas to hammer.
But I don’t know, I felt like the magic of the first one had kind of worn out by the time Ralph is bopping around the information superhighway getting tangled up in memes. Also, the idea that Penelope is ultimately kind of a hostage to Ralph’s emotional neediness didn’t strike me as a great note to go out on. Sure, the bubblegum message here is not to forget your friends, but in this case if Penelope wants to go out and explore the world and she doesn’t check in enough with Ralph to assuage his all-consuming loneliness he will freak out. Not the greatest of messages.
So was it an enjoyable way to pass an afternoon at the movies? Yeah sure, it’s good clever fun for what it is. But of course, it doesn’t live up to the original.
When Steve McQueen is directing, you know his art-house sensibilities mean he is going to do at least one thing that you don’t expect – like show Michael Fassbender’s penis, or shoot Michael Fassbender sitting at a table smoking cigarettes and talking for 15 minutes without cutting away. In this film, that thing happens right away by setting up four male co-stars getting ready to embark on a heist, and then immediately killing all of them in a fiery explosion. Drawing on the Drew Barrymore in Scream school of thought, he doesn’t hold back from wasting the big-name male talent, like Liam Neeson and John Bernthal, right up front.
This sets the stage for our female leads, with their own big-names like Viola Davis and Michelle Rodriguez, to usurp genre convention, take over the film and pull off their own heist. It doesn’t go exactly as planned, but neither does this movie. I’m not sure what this film is supposed to be – a feminist revenge fantasy? A kind of parochial interpretation of structural racism and corruption in big city politics? A fun excuse for Tom Hagen to play a cranky old man? A clever narrative reshuffling?
I guess it tries to be all of those things, and it hits the mark to varying degrees. It wants to be a social commentary heist film with inverted gender roles, but it’s not the greatest heist film and the social commentary is pretty shallow. Inverting the gender roles and killing off all your male leads in the opening act is gutsy, and I think it works well. But I do kind of wish the heist element had been executed a bit more sharply.
McQueen tries to paint a realistic portrait of the anguish and the obstacles his female leads are struggling under which means they never become fully formed badass heroes in the typical mold. I’m pretty sure that was the point – this film, after all, is about subverting conventions – but there is something to be said for the sheer escapist pleasure of watching a good heist film, where the robbers pull off an entertainingly convoluted robbery. Had it leaned more fully into a full-throated revenge fantasy, rather than giving us medium-sized but more realistic triumphs, it might have landed better for me.
As far as Robert Duvall as a cranky old racist? Nailed it.
I literally hated everything about this movie. I was hoping that James Wan, a deeply talented filmmaker when he’s involved in other properties, would be able to pull free from the black hole that is Warner Bros absolute mangling of its DC universe. But it turns out, gravity will get you every time.
The look of the movie was not good, but I won’t even waste time on that because the bottom line is that the script was trash, and I don’t think any budget our amount of visual trickery in the world could have covered for it. This movie is literally wall-to-wall exposition. They obviously learned nothing – literally nothing – from their past failures which is that throwing everything and the kitchen sink at a movie because you have a raging case of Marvel envy is a recipe for an over-stuffed, under-developed mess. And that was exactly this film’s problem.
Clocking in at 2 ½ hours, it races from the get-go to bring you up to speed on an expansive and ridiculous underwater mythology. Now, there are ways, of course, to do some of this elegantly and efficiently, though the ambition of this film’s orgy of storylines may have precluded any non-amphibious mortal from finding a natural way of explaining what was going on.
But because they wanted to pack so much into the film they simply went for the path of least resistance which is to have characters spout exposition almost non-stop. The scene where Patrick Wilson rides a giant seahorse around telling a group of underwater kings why they have come to a meeting and who everybody is was a masterclass in how not to make a movie. I mean, they came to this meeting – don’t they already know why they are there and who everybody is? Could you not have put a little more thought into this?
By the time giant crustaceans started fighting mythical octopuses I was well checked out, counting the seconds until the thing was over. And look, I like a ridiculous super hero flick as much as the next person – but you undercut everything you are trying to do with that kind of lazy, almost insulting writing and by trying to overwhelm your audience with a wall-to-wall cacophony of stuff. Really that’s the best way I can describe what happened in this film. It was just totally, and utterly full of stuff. And not the right stuff.
Had they trimmed it down a bit, eliminated a few villains, explored the world and its characters with some depth and attention instead of racing about to tick the next box in the “world-building” checklist, the movie might have worked. Jason Momoa is certainly a pretty good leading man for this kind of schlock. And look at Wonder Woman, which told a pretty simple, straightforward tale with time for the relationship between Gal Gadot and Chris Pine to breathe a little – that was a much better movie.
Aquaman still did over $1.1 billion at the box office and has a 66% on rotten tomatoes. So if nothing else this film confirms what we already knew – that on the whole the world is a depressing place populated by people with questionable taste who will continue to underwrite the making of shit blockbusters until the Earth becomes a wasteland littered with the remains of a creatively bankrupt society wondering where it all went wrong.
Ad Astra is a new existential space epic about the nature of humanity, the meaning of knowledge and the relationships we forge with ourselves and those around us. It is a deeply meditative film that strives for exacting verisimilitude in depicting the vastness of space and realistic near-future technology. But perhaps first and foremost it is a movie that has given birth to non-stop Ed Asner jokes on Twitter.
If you are remotely familiar with the work of art-house director James Gray, you know that he likes to make films about weighty philosophical issues. His previous film, The Lost City of Z, was based on the real-life expeditions of early 20th century explorer Percy Fawcett and his attempts to uncover some deep human mysteries in the Amazon. Starring Charlie Hunnam and also produced by Brad Pitt’s Plan B It was a good, languid film that dove into very complex issues of knowledge, existence and the human compulsion to discover unknown things even at the cost of one’s own life.
Ad Astra picks right up on those same themes, but extends them from the Amazon and into space. It also swaps out Charlie Hunnam for his older American uncle, Brad Pitt. The film is going for the kind of big, immersive space imagery of Gravity mixed with the heady philosophical questions of Terrence Malick. Do Gray and Pitt succeed in their grand ambition? I have no idea, because I was pretty wasted when I watched it.
Let me the set scene, briefly. It was 2 PM on a Saturday afternoon here in Bali, and my mother-in-law and I were meeting with a chicken supplier. In an attempt to get a lower price on chicken, we got a few big bottles of Bintang beer and started drinking together. Did we get a better price on chicken? I don’t know, but we got a good price on beers and drank a lot of them! Before I knew it, the old man who dropped his teeth in the drain at the gym the other week was in the shop along with some bottle-men who took away all the empty bottles for 800 rupiah a pop. It was at this point that my wife suggested we see Ad Astra and I enthusiastically agreed, for is there any better time to contemplate the bigness of life and the universe than after you have consumed 3 liters of beer?
We settled in to our seats, and I watched as little space-man Brad Pitt bounced around the screen and thought to myself, this looks OK. Then the film jarringly jumped forward in time and suddenly Tommy Lee Jones was in it dressed in space pajamas and there was, like, a big fire. I turned to my wife to ask what she thought about this time jump, and found that she was staring at me in what I would describe as a very hostile manner. It was at this point that she explained to me that I had been asleep for most of the film and apparently started snoring quite loudly. She was not terribly pleased.
So did this film succeed in underlining big themes of human exploration, the quest for knowledge and the way our relationships shape our lives? I have no idea. But it certainly shaped the way one man’s wife saw him in a movie theater in Bali while he snored loudly through most of it.
Bumblebee showed us that Transformer films can be good, if you focus on meaningful character relationships, spend time putting in the work to develop your computer generated robot and replace Michael Bay as the director. It wasn’t anything Earth-shattering but it was at least enjoyable, which should definitely be considered progress when it comes to this franchise. Hailee Steinfeld is pretty great, too.
Green Book, starring Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen in a Freaky Friday’d Driving Miss Daisy, was easily one of last year’s worst Oscar contenders. I have not seen Vice or A Star is Born so I can’t say for sure, but even a cursory glance at the synopsis could tell you this movie wasn’t fit to hold the jockstrap of The Favourite or First Man. A buddy road trip movie where a black man and a white man overcome their differences and learn to get along because, hey man, we are all human beings right, is the kind of broad, ridiculous Social Message movie that right from the get-go you know is gonna suck. So I fully expected Green Book to be bad. But my God, I was utterly shocked at just how awful this film was.
First of all, I would be remiss if I did not point out that the movie is directed by Peter Farrlley, one half of the brain trust behind such films as Dumb and Dumber, and Dumb and Dumberer To. Now, we should not necessarily judge a director based only on his past films as history is no guarantor of the future, but in this case… yes we can. Then you have the fact that the real-life son of Tony Lip, the character played by Viggo Mortensen, has a screenplay credit and it begins to dawn on you that this film had an almost impossibly steep hill to climb from the outset.
The opening thirty minutes of this film are some of the worst filmmaking I think I have ever seen. The goal of this section is to set up the stakes – we have a tough as nails Italian wiseguy who works as a bouncer at the Copa in 1960s New York – Tony Lip. He’s bigoted and can be violent, but only when necessary; he’s generally a hard-working family man and has a moral compass. He then gets a job working for an effete, upper-class black piano prodigy, Doctor Shirley and together they begin a tour of the Southern United States where they encounter racism and prejudice and learn to overcome their differences and, ultimately, develop a bond that blurs the line between employee and friend.
The idea that racism can be overcome by taking a road trip with a black person is the kind of absurd white person delusion about race in America that got us stuck with Donald Trump in the first place. But I mean, that’s already obvious from the title card. This is a weirdly backward-looking social issues movie with skin-deep commentary, like the kind you might have found in the 1980s or 90s. Why it’s making a resurgence right now, after the lie of a post-racial America has already been fully exposed, is a fucking mystery to me.
But OK, sometimes sentimental tripe can still work if it’s well-made. But this movie is so obvious, so broad, so clumsy that it almost – almost – works as unintentional comedy or as a parody of an Important Social Message picture. The first act of the film is literally drowning in Italian stereotypes like…. olive oil on a hot pizza pie! [imagine this being said in your most comically over-the-top goombah accent] There would be virtually no way for me to accurately describe just how ridiculous this part of the movie is, except as a Bizarro Godfather.
At one point Tony Lip takes an entire pizza, folds it in half, and starts eating it while sitting in bed and I can’t remember if this is before or after the hot dog eating contest where he downs 28 wieners. It is wall-to-wall funhouse accents and stereotypes that are so comically absurd you could easily be watching an SNL skit. It would be funny, except I don’t think it’s meant to be funny. I think it’s actually meant to establish real stakes, so that by the time Tony embraces diversity we can see the arc he has traveled and understand how he has changed.
This movie would only work for absolute fucking imbeciles. It is made and designed in the broadest, most obvious way possible so that you would have to be probably the stupidest person on earth not to get the message they are trying to drill into your skull. And honestly, if you need to be spoon-fed these kind of broad ideas about Why Racism is Bad, then you are already part of the problem and this movie isn’t going to change anything. Just to give you an example of the kind of movie this is – at one point the car breaks down. Guess where it breaks down. Right in front of a field full of black workers, who stop hoeing the grown to gaze accusingly at Mahershala Ali. That is the kind of movie this is. If it were any more obvious, they would have named the film Gay Piano Genius Uncle Tom.
Is there any saving grace to this film? Well, miraculously they got two really, really good actors to star in this piece of shit somehow. So, despite the material, despite everything that the script is forcing them to say in service of some shallow nonsense about racism, in scenes that just feature the two of them they actually inject a little life into them. And somehow Viggo manages to kind of make his character’s arc work, just because, you know, he’s that good of an actor.
But papering over all the other terrible aspects of this movie with excellent acting is not gonna save you. The best way I can describe Green Book is like the anti-Moonlight. It has the most conventional narrative possible featuring broadly drawn caricatures who spend the entire film pointing a flashing neon sign to the most obvious, shallowest messages about race and prejudice imaginable. I expected it to be bad. But I was surprised at just how truly awful this movie was.
As with most things Quentin Tarantino-related, this film has been the source of much frenzied controversy. First of all, it brings us one step closer to his self-imposed career limit of 10 films which, depending on your taste in cinema and tolerance of abrasive personalities, could register as either a good or a bad thing. The film’s plot was controversial from the beginning, applying Tarantino’s stylized lens to the story of Sharon Tate’s brutal murder, something that many doubted he would be able to do tastefully (spoiler: he was able to). And then of course it marks Tarantino’s first break with the Weinstein Company, as circumstances forced him to seek a production deal elsewhere, with studios more than happy to throw money at him and indulge his demands for final cut.
So after all that hullabaloo, was the flash worthy of the sizzle? To me it feels like much ado about nothing. This film, by Quentin Tarantino’s standards, if very toned down, relaxed, one might even say unfocused or wandering. It turns out Tarantino pulled an old switcheroo on us, as Sharon Tate and the Manson murders only putz around on the fringes of the film. This is actually a hang-out buddy film, featuring Leonardo DiCaprio as a former Western TV star struggling to make the jump to movies, and his long-time stunt double Brad Pitt who, well, sort of takes care of him because like most actors he’s a mess. It’s this relationship, a mutually dependent bromance, which forms the core of the movie.
The film is set in 1969, a pretty pivotal year in Hollywood history. The old studio system was undergoing massive changes, as were public tastes. The Hays Code, a set of standards that had governed film content since the 1930s, stopped being used in 1968. This meant filmmakers were suddenly freed up to explore controversial subject matter that had previously been forbidden, and it (along with other factors) ignited a creative revolution in the industry. A wave of auteur filmmakers came smashing onto the scene in the late 60s, and in many cases they were eager to attack and subvert traditional Hollywood genres like crime stories or musicals. It was clear by 1969 that the old rules of Hollywood no longer applied.
This period saw a number of revisionist Westerns from directors like Arthur Penn and Sam Peckinpah who jumped on the symbols of Old Hollywood and reinterpreted them through a more brutal and cynical lens, puncturing the myth of the cowboy as the heroic symbol of America’s Manifest Destiny and rebranding him as a crude, desperate and often immoral figure of exploitation and meaningless violence. This is the Hollywood of Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time, and it provides an important backdrop for the character of Rick Dalton (DiCaprio).
Dalton was a famous (fictitious) TV cowboy during the late 50s and early 60s, when television serials were pumping out cowboy fluff to feed the public appetite for Westerns. He tries to make the jump to film, but washes out as audience tastes had changed a lot by the end of the 60s, and that’s when we meet him in the film. He’s a struggling, self-loathing, self-doubting alcoholic whose best friend and closest companion is also his paid bagman – in other words, he’s a typical screwed-up actor. The movie basically just lazily follows these two guys as they bounce around Hollywood taking meetings, going to sets, indulging in some flashbacks now and again. That’s it – well, until the end when there’s a bit of a twist involving Sharon Tate, Rick Dalton, the Manson family and some historical fiction. But that’s not really the meat of the story.
This film is impressionistic, a kind of indulgent and sensory slice-of-life set in late 1960s Hollywood featuring a series of immaculately structured set pieces. By Tarantino’s standards, where it often feels like the screenplay is constantly trying to outsmart itself, the dialogue in Once Upon a Time is less obsessed with being clever or sharp. It’s just content to… wander in the past and enjoy itself. And for me it was a mostly enjoyable time. But then again, this movie is pitched to viewers like me who have a pretty good handle on Hollywood history and why it would be significant for Dalton to start starring in 2nd tier spaghetti Westerns, which were yet another new and surprisingly resonant re-imagining of old Western tropes. For people who aren’t particularly geeky film nerds or steeped in the history of cinema, the film’s 2 ½ hour run time might well begin to drag.
I watched it in Bali, and after the lights came up an American girl seated behind me loudly declared: “Well, that was disappointing.” I can’t blame her for the opinion, though in typical American fashion she was certainly confident that the rest of the theater wanted to hear it. My sister-in-law and her friend who came to watch the movie with us were both bored too. And honestly, not a lot happens in this film. It is a movie that is going to go over a lot of peoples’ heads, and it lacks the obvious rock star rhythm and breakneck pace of most of Tarantino’s previous films.
Some reviewers have equated the film’s nostalgic pacing and sense of longing with Tarantino’s own anxieties about the creeping inertia of cinematic irrelevance. Who knows if that is where the film comes from. It does feel somehow less substantial and less daring than previous Tarantino movies, but also more personal, more languid and content to just exist in a little slice of time and movie history that is obviously deeply meaningful to the filmmaker. It is also, of course, executed with consummate skill so it’s never bad and it is fun to hang out with these characters in that time and place. It is just not what many people have been conditioned to expect from this filmmaker.
2016’s Hush is a film directed by Mike Flanagan. Flanagan has steadily built up a career by making solid, medium-scale horror content for Netflix and being married to Kate Siegel (who, as in most of his films, stars in Hush). It’s an interesting career arc because he spent the last few years developing technical, stylistic and story-telling skills and you can pretty clearly trace that progression from Oculus to Before I Wake to Hush, all of which were building toward the much larger, more ambitious and absolutely stellar (minus the last episode) Netflix version of the Haunting of Hill House.
Hush is an extremely stripped down bare-bones film: a deaf women in an isolated cabin is terrorized by a random stranger. She fights back. The end. As a self-contained feature, it is a bit hard to sustain such a premise for the full run time of a film. But as a technical exercise in staging set pieces, I thought the film was pretty good. It reminds me of Annabelle Comes Home, which was basically just a sandbox for Gary Dauberman to test out his directing chops on a series of set pieces in a relatively low-stakes way.
In isolation, this would be a minor and forgettable thing. But because Hush was an important building block in a grander vision - Flanagan is now developing Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw for Netflix, which I for one am geeked about - I think it’s an interesting display of how a director gets his feet under him by playing around creating suspenseful set pieces in a fairly stripped down film like Hush, before graduating to bigger and better things. I think it’s also a good lesson in the importance of methodical hard work and not rushing your career, stepping into the franchise shoes when you’re ready and not before.
Common sense, right? But it’s a lesson Warner Bros learned too late.
Polar, starring Mads Mikkelsen, dropped on Netflix a few months ago. It came with a bang, and vanished without a trace. Based on a comic book or graphic novel or something, it is hyper-violent, overly-sexualized, super-stylized and probably extremely offensive to most people. It’s about an unstoppable killer, and the film is just an excuse for Mikkelsen’s character to go around getting into gun fights and knife fights and fist fights with a variety of henchmen. If you like that kind of thing, you will will enjoy this movie. If not, it’s not for you.
I think the litmus test of whether you would enjoy this movie is the very opening scene. Ask yourself: Would I enjoy a movie where within the first 5 minutes we see Johnny Knoxville get shot in the head by a sniper while a comically large boner creates a tent-pole in his swimming trunks? If the answer to that is Yes, then this is definitely the movie for you. If not, well, The Last Czars is also streaming on Netflix.
Bumi Manusia (This Earth of Mankind) is probably the most famous novel in Indonesian literature. Authored by Pramoedya Ananta Toer, the backstory has itself attained the status of legend - he wrote the first book (of four) in the 1970s and 80s while imprisoned on Buru Island in Eastern Indonesia. In a burst of irony that is almost poetic in its rhythmicality, he composed the definitive Indonesian text on the legacy of colonialism and oppression in the archipelago, while himself being confined to prison by the authoritarian New Order on trumped up political charges.
Bumi Manusia tells the story of Indonesia’s birth as a nation. It begins around the turn of the century in Surabaya, and focuses on a young Javanese boy named Minke, the son of a bupati who is educated in the upper class European HBS school along with other high-born Javanese and the children of mixed European relationships. The book is about social class, race, colonial oppression and how these things melted together to spark a nationalist movement that eventually culminated in Indonesia’s independence.
Minke is based on real-life nationalist figure Tirto Adhi Soerjo, the founder of Medan Prijaji which is generally considered the first true Indonesian language publication. Part of what he was doing was using language, Bahasa Indonesia, to bring all the disparate parts of the archipelago together under a shared national identity. He was also one of the first to understand how knowledge and education could be leveraged to buck the grip of Dutch colonialism.
Around 1900 the Dutch began to admit pribumi (I guess you would translate this word as native or indigenous, but it’s loaded with deeper meaning) students to its schools and educate them in the Western style, including in the Dutch language. Governing their large and far-flung colonial empire was becoming unwieldy, and the goal was to gradually create a new generation of Western-educated local civil servants who could help support this large administrative apparatus - the priyayi.
What actually happened is they created an educated class of nationalist heroes who recognized the deep inequity and racism of Dutch colonial rule, and who could articulate their ideas and opposition to this structural racism and exploitation not only in Dutch-language publications but also in burgeoning Indonesian language publications. The Dutch, basically by accident, equipped them with the tools and the knowledge to begin crafting a national Indonesian identity, one with agency that was capable of pushing back against the abuses and the subjugation of the Dutch. Figures like Tirto and Tjokroaminoto developed and hardened these ideas, often linking them to nascent socialist workers movements, and passed them on to the future fathers of the revolution like Sukarno.
That is the background of Bumi Manusia. Minke, in navigating this highly stratified world, meets various people who occupy an ambiguous place in it. The most important is Nyai Ontosoroh, a Javanese woman who was sold off as a teenager to a Dutch businessman, Herman Mellema, but has since taken over managing his estate as he slips into drunken self-loathing. She is smart, capable and independent, but still limited by her social status. Along with constant abuse at the hands of the Dutch as well as some of his Dutch-Indonesian contemporaries who harbor their own resentments against the pribumi class, Nyai Ontosoroh inspires Minke to try to figure out how to slip those bonds and throw off the shackles of Dutch colonial oppression.
I think it is important that an Indonesian production company, Falcon Pictures, has taken on the task of adapting this seminal novel for the screen. It means they feel the domestic film market is ready for a big screen adaptation of a complicated national origin story that deals with heady themes of social equality and discrimination and identity. That the film’s release has coincided with highly publicized unrest in Papua that provoked a piece in the Jakarta Post headlined Today’s Minkes, merely underscores its enduring legacy and relevance. I think it’s also important that Indonesians make films like this, that tackle their struggles with colonialism and render them from an Indonesian perspective.
The first hour of the film is thoroughly enjoyable. It re-creates turn of the century Surabaya and East Java in an immersive way, especially given that film budgets in Indonesia are still quite modest. I loved the way language is employed to establish the hierarchical structure of society - it is a sign of class and privilege that Minke can speak Dutch, yet the Dutch often command him to speak in his own language. And the use of Javanese to establish a kind of special linguistic connection between certain characters was nice. The film, in its first hour, is very successful at capturing the complexity of society at that time, and portraying the obstacles that Minke struggles with.
Unfortunately, the movie can’t sustain that momentum. For one, it is three hours long. Yes, it is adapted from a novel so of course it is expansive and clunky, but someone along the way should have made better decisions about how to streamline the narrative, and cut some of the fat. It also has a tendency, as many Indonesian films do, to spill over into soapy melodrama.
This kind of exaggerated telegraphing of the film’s emotions (most glaringly obvious in the score, which plays like theme music to an amusement park ride) somewhat undercuts the complex themes it’s trying to get at. The production company, Falcon Pictures, has a history of making breezy popular films for mass consumption - like Si Doel or Dilan 1990 - so it was kind of inevitable I guess that that style filtered into this movie. Unfortunately, it’s not really the right style for a film that takes on such weighty issues.
Then there is star Iqbaal Ramadhan who plays Minke. This kid a bone fide teen heart throb. He propelled Dilan 1990 to big box office success with his boyish charm. In the first hour, when Minke is meant to be a charming teenage boy wooing his love interest, he nails it. He’s basically just playing Dilan but in a blangkon. However, on the back nine, when the film as a whole has already ground to a painful halt, he doesn’t quite have the acting chops or gravitas to embody Minke’s anguish, which is critical because that is ultimately what drives his emerging nationalist fervor. His tortured crying face is particularly… um, well, it maybe could have used another take.
I can’t say I enjoyed this film. It is just too long, and the final hour is not good purely as a piece of filmmaking. But I do think it’s an important film, and an important step for Indonesian cinema. I think it raises complex themes and issues that are obviously still relevant today - the roles have just shifted, from Javanese priyayi to other parts of the social spectrum and archipelago. I really liked the way it depicted the complexity of Indonesian society. It’s just a shame the film loses so much steam toward the end.
I think it’s actually smarter than some critics gave it credit for. How smart? Well, it earned nearly $90 million on a $3 million budget. And it does dig down into the strains of hatred and violence submerged in our culture, tethering them to the idea that in the United States authorities indulge the public’s bloodlust in the interest of maintaining order. We are already doing it every day; not in that people are allowed to be turned loose in the streets and shoot each other, but we love to watch people self-destruct on national television. We love it so much that a man ran for president who basically promised he would self-destruct not only himself but the entire nation. And 63 million people voted for him.
The movie also has something to say about class, about exploiting structural inequalities in society and creating conditions for the strong and the wealthy to prey upon the weak and the poor, and for the government to sanction it. It also has something to say about what will happen to a dad who doesn’t like his teenage daughter’s sex-crazed boyfriend, especially when said hornball sneaks inside your house on Purge night. Spoiler: he will shoot you.
This movie has become topical again, thanks to Universal cancelling The Hunt because it apparently was about liberal elites hunting Donald Trump supporters, which actually sounds more like a comedy, but given that it was written by Damon Lindelof, I am quite sure there was going to be more to the story, such as an unsolvable mystery having to do with Dr. Robotnik’s Evil Summertime Army being the true source of inequality in a neoliberal system.
This caused Grace Randolph, apparently a staunchly conservative film critic on Youtube, to declare on Twitter: “This is beyond politics, no movies about hunting ANYONE. And before you defend this movie, think if it was about hunting another group besides red-state people. Let’s not be hypocrites, HUNTING PEOPLE IS NOT APPROPRIATE ENTERTAINMENT which really shouldn’t have to be said.” She then went on to say that if you enjoyed watching people being hunted as entertainment, then you did not care about bettering society, which seems, I’ll be honest, like a bit of an overreaction.
It also conveniently ignores the fact that millions upon millions of people do enjoy that kind of stuff, as evidenced by The Hunger Games and about a hundred other movies about people being hunted for various reasons, which people on Twitter were quick to point out, even though it changed absolutely no one’s mind about anything and society is still awful. And it ignores The Purge. Which was, you know, not an endorsement of gun violence or anything, but rather a critique of the violent impulses we share as a society and which Donald Trump is happy to inflame and incite at all of his campaign rallies.
So, should The Purge have been made?
I am viscerally opposed to Disney’s Great Remakening. The Lion King was straight trash. Dumbo provoked in me an existential crisis on the meaninglessness of life in a world of unending remakes. And I fully expected Aladdin to equal, if not surpass, these turds in terms of badness. After all, the pre-release images of Will Smith done up like a Smurf were hardly encouraging, and it seemed almost sacrilegious to re-cast Robin Williams’ iconic Genie.
But I will freely admit - Aladdin was actually, contrary to all the laws of human ingenuity, pretty fun! I have some thoughts on why this was so. The songs still hold up all these years later; they are fun and full of frenetic energy. And Guy Ritchie is particularly well-suited for shooting this king of whimsical stuff and there was an element of cheeky humor that surprisingly worked.
But most importantly, I think the production made a smart and necessary decision to kind of chart their own course, and not be too hostage to the original. This was by necessity, as it would have been impossible to recreate a Robin Williams performance. So Will Smith was given a lot of latitude to make this version of the Genie his own, and I think he did a remarkably good job of it. And the film itself re-imagines Aladdin as a colorful, fist-pumping homage that draws inspiration from the original, rather than a shot-for-shot remake. This gave it some room to breathe and be a bit more creative, even within the limited confines of the zombie IP it inhabits.
So, I am still virulently opposed to what Disney is doing with its massive library of old titles. But I have to give credit where credit is due, and this version of Aladdin was actually, shockingly, pretty fun and entertaining and not total garbage.
I was barnswoggled when, upon checking the release date of this film I learned that it had come out in the year 2011. That was 8 freakin years ago! If you had held a gun to my head and asked when it was released, I would have sworn it was just 2 or 3 years ago and that I vividly remember quite recently all the fevered discussion over Michelle Williams’ portrayal of Marilyn Monroe. But, alas, memory is merely a slave to the unkind passage of time and it has actually been almost a decade since this film toddled into our collective consciousness, in a younger, more innocent time before Barack Obama had even finished his first term in office.
It stars Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe, a turn as an icon that won her a Golden Globe. It also features Eddie Redmayne in an understated role playing the kind of part he is most suited for - a kind of wispy dweeb. He would later take a hard turn away from this type of role, plunging headlong into maniacal over-acting that really seemed like it was flirting with mental illness (review of Jupiter Ascending forthcoming). Kenneth Branagh is also delightful as Laurence Olivier because, well, it’s Kenneth Branagh so what else would you expect?
I enjoyed this film, on the whole. I especially love the bouncy opening act, which wastes no time setting up the world of 1950s Pinewood Studios and the stakes - a collab production produced and directed by English acting titan Laurence Olivier and starring American sexpot Marilyn Monroe, then just freshly into her marriage to Arthur Miller. The film they were making, a throwaway romantic comedy, was intended to maybe serve as a star vehicle for Olivier and maybe give Marilyn a shot at burnishing her acting cred by starring next to one of the all-time greats. Instead, no one remembers this film and Marilyn Monroe’s diva antics apparently made the production a hellish affair.
The movie is great in its breathless opening act at establishing the casual egotism and cut-throat nature of the movie biz, the way it chews people up and crushes them. This is pretty cleverly framed from the perspective of eager newb Colin Clark, a kid from a well-off upper class British family who wants to make it in the movie business so badly you can practically feel it dripping off of him. That desperation becomes a kind of pathetic liability as he falls hard for Marilyn, whose deep ocean of emotional and psychological trauma of course ends up wounding him in the end.
Although the relationship between the two of them is meant to be the heart of the story, for me it was the least interesting. The world the film created was so much more vibrant and interesting, and it told a more subtle and compelling story of the tragedy of Hollywood and the emotional and mental scars these famous, highly-paid basket cases all carried around with them. When the film tried to underscore Marilyn’s vulnerability, it was a bit too on the nose - like in one of the final scenes where after shooting wraps she declares to the assembled cast in a barely there whisper that she tried her best.
The film works much better when all of that is subtext, such as how Marilyn has employed a ridiculously expensive acting coach to guide her through the Method. This is ridiculous because a) Marilyn Monroe was not ever going to be taken seriously as an actress in Hollywood b) this film was a light romantic comedy, and therefore the application of Method acting to find her character’s motivation is patently absurd; and c) the fact that all anybody wanted was to exploit her natural sex appeal while leaving all the rest out of it is the obvious tragedy about her career and life and something as simple as all the dynamics in the production of this film working at cross purposes highlighted that tragedy beautifully and cleverly without the need to draw a line under it.
Michelle Williams is pretty great in the part. She’s not really doing an impression, but does a good job of showing the two sides of Marilyn - the vulnerable, insecure side, and the movie star persona. And Williams excels at showing us the real work that goes into turning that on and off, the shifting of the gears. Maybe it would be hard to do a Marilyn Monroe pic without flirting with melodrama, but I think most of the time - when the narrative isn’t being weighed down by Colin’s googly eyed teenage hard-on - it comes down on the right side of it.
Ultimately, it was a nice little trip down memory lane that does a great job of skewering Hollywood. And I guess the real giveaway that it was made in 2011 should have been that Carson from Downton Abbey had a bit part in it.