Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

29 October 2015

Murder, Inc.

This is bad. Peter Falk is great, and the star, Stuart Whitman, is excellent. But this faux-documentary is poorly directed, badly shot, shoddily edited, and hastily scripted with a silly bit of moralizing at the end and an absurd narrator device that isn't introduced until midway through the picture. Shot in Cinemascope, you'd think it would be more interested in its photography, and it seems occasionally to be so, but mostly this picture is just getting by. It felt like a rush job more than anything else: a total mess.


Jauja is an entrancing dream of a film. It is a kind of combination of Tsai Ming-Liang and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, which is to say that it is definitely not for everyone. But I was into it.

27 October 2015

Generic Title (Bridge of Spies)

A (sober) conversation with my friends Chris and Walter about Spielberg's new movie Bridge of Spies. This does contain spoilers, so be forewarned. Still, none of us recommends this movie, so you can probably just keep reading and then skip the film.

Walt: Ok fellas, I'm off to see Bridge of Spies. Wish me luck.
Chris: Stay strong.
Walt: Let me just say that I am the youngest one here.
Chris: Off to a good start.
Aaron: I just got out of the movie.
Chris: Initial thoughts?
Aaron: It was boring.
Chris: Agreed.

Aaron: What was this movie about? America and stuff, right? Principles? Doing the right thing? I don't mind a movie about all of those things, really, but I think what bugged me about this movie was something I kept puzzling over the whole time it was going on. What kind of movie is this? Is Bridge of Spies supposed to be a character study? It certainly isn't one; we know nothing of the main character except that he is a kind of symbol for "American values" and "giving a guy fair shake" and that sort of thing. We literally get only one little flash that there might be something else to his character in that little moment when he says that the Yale kid is the same age as someone else (no one follows up on this little red herring, but it is some indication of this character's humanity). But then if the movie isn't about this character, then it is a movie about plot, which means this is supposed to be a kind of suspense movie! If it is, then why is it so slow? There are all of these ponderous scenes where characters philosophize about the right thing to do, but where is the suspense??

Chris: So this is basically a heroic tale of human compassion, right? Mark Rylance has this line in the holding cell where asks for a pen and paper to sketch with. Hanks denies him and Rylance responds with something to the extent of "You would want your man to be treated just the same over there, right?" – cut to soft-focus close up of Hanks trying his best.

Walt: It was a parable or something. Or something.

Chris: The trailer wants us to think it's a thriller and at the very top (the opening sequence with Rylance being pursued) I was totally on board with that. But then this goes away and I wasn't sure what was left in its place. The plane sequence was pretty great; wish there was more of that. Something that my buddy Joey brought up was that we never get a chance to really care about the Hanks/Rylance relationship, because we spend so little time with them together. This caused the final bridge scene to fall flat since it was hard to care about them as much as the movie wanted us to. 

Hanks is feeling a little bloated
Walt: I think I just watched three different movies (or maybe I’m just responding to the three endings). At some point we’re in the one of the Berlins and I’m like “this is the same movie? But I thought Alan Alda…” Ugh, it was so bloated. I feel like Spielberg used to be so tight and now he’s become so much more ponderous. A year or two after The Color Purple, he called the it “the most grown up film I’ve made”. And if I think about it, all of his grown up films are bloated. So maybe it's not about where he is in his career so much as it is that he think grown up films should be bloated. Really, though, the movie kind of wanders. I remember watching an interview with him in the '90s talking about how he has this group that he screens his films with (I’m guessing Scorsese, Coppola, yadda yadda yadda). What the hell kind of notes are they giving him, anyway?

Aaron: And I wonder about the novel, actually, because there are really three plotlines – this had to have been cleaner in the novel, and it certainly could've been written more cleanly for the screenplay.

Walt: I didn't know that it was originally a novel. That makes sense. I don't think the adaptation is very strong. This thing should’ve been an hour on the history channel, not a Hollywood film. Seriously, why did anyone make this movie? What do we need it for right now? Spielberg reminds me of my dad in a way: he still thinks we should hate the Russians and that Castro is public enemy #1. This movie hated Russians. And Amy Ryan. They must hate her, to give such a great actress such an impossible and ultimately meaningless role. All she does is complain, right to end, when he doesn’t bring back that sweet sweet British marmalade. Imagine Odysseus returns home, saves Penelope from all the suitors and she just complains about how he didn’t bring back one of those amazing Trojan rugs! Also, what’s with Tom Hank’s son? Why is there even one scene with him? And what about the humor? All those jokes stood out like a sore thumb.

The camera loves Amy Ryan but this movie doesn't.
Aaron: I love your note that it is three different movies. But for me this is both a screenplay problem and a direction problem. There are so many little jokes. Spielberg can't help himself with these little bits of silliness. It baffles me. I'm thinking of that chief prosecutor in the GDR picking up the wrong telephone. Ha ha. And the little trick that Hanks plays on the assistant who is dating his daughter. What a prankster! And when that little joke comes back to bite him when the assistant spills the truth to Amy Ryan I actually laughed out loud. I thought this was quite a comical sequence. But this has nothing to do with the rest of the film in either its plot or its tone. It is very early in the film, and is, I presumed, designed to set the tone for what we're watching, but it's so comic that the tone it set confused the rest of the movie.

Chris: Oh yeah, that assistant... what happened to his plot line/why was he in the movie? For the joke?

Aaron: You are so right about the stuff with Hanks' son. Who cares. Maybe it is supposed to contrast with that final moment on the train? "American kids used to live in terror and sleep with their bathtubs full, but now they happily scamper over the fences of their neighbors so that they can more quickly get to the orange juice in Mrs. Thompson's icebox."

Walt: I don’t see a strong enough connection between the kid in the bathtub and the kids jumping the fence, but I had other things on my mind when that was happening. Yeah, his kid meant nothing.  When he’s deciding on whether to handle the negotiation and who does the pilot remind him of?  Some older kid that works for him that he’s not even related to!

* * *

Walt: But anyway, it’s about the power of the everyman or something. A guy realizes how awesome his life is or how awesome it could be, maybe. Like Joe vs. the Volcano, except the volcano is just a bunch of shitty people he has to wade through. Tom Hanks had a cold in that one, too, except he got better as the movie went on. Maybe that’s the difference between comedy and drama? The cold gets worse in drama. Oh my god. He had a cold. I kept wondering about that in the movie, but it just hit me. Cold. Cold War? Oh my god, I bet that’s it. Like they read a Syd Field screenplay book and got to the section where they suggest you give the character a physical marker à la Jack Nicholson in Chinatown (Jake is nosey so his nose gets cut) and thought “oooh, we should do that for Tom, too! I mean, it’s the Cold War, amiright, Stevie?”

Chris: Worst bit: That old woman on the train. She notices Hanks and scowls at him (you know, because he's defending a traitor). Then weeks later she happens to be on the same train car with him, but this time smiles because he did good job. Steven, we get it.

Walt: Oh my god, that woman on the train. She smiles for an awfully long while, doesn’t she? That’s bad train etiquette, even in an age where you didn’t have to lock your doors at night. Also, what about when Tom Hanks is looking out the subway window down onto the Brooklyn streets and is most likely thinking "god, I’m glad we’re not Russian"?

Aaron: Can we talk a little about Tom Hanks's acting in this? I kept looking at him in this picture and I just don't get it. What is he doing?

Tom Hanks is a little lost.
Walt: I don’t know what to say about Tom Hanks. I love him. I miss him, actually, but not enough that I want him back yet. He should hang out for a while. Thanks to TBS, he’ll never really go away, anyway. They basically just alternate screenings of Big and You’ve Got Mail. I mean, he was fine, he really was. But just because he’s our Jimmy Stewart doesn’t mean he has to take roles that they can’t offer Jimmy Stewart anymore. 

Chris: Hanks was not bad, but forgettable. I thought he was fantastic in that Captain Phillips movie and had high hopes for this. I will say he was a great casting choice, as was everyone. Rylance was fantastic but we didn't get enough!

Aaron: I thought Mark Rylance was great, and I also really liked Peter McRobbie (who plays some sort of higher-up dude in the CIA), and I also thought Sebastian Koch was perfectly cast and he was probably my favorite thing in the whole film. He was so good.

Walt: I enjoyed Mark Rylance. I’ve seen some clips of him doing Shakespeare and one of his funny Tony acceptance speeches, but that’s about it. I found him a bit too adorable, though. Wasn’t there something about him that was just kind cute? With that “would it help?” catchphrase? What a darling. I loved the KGB guy (Mikhail Gorevoy) and Sebastian Koch as well. In a movie that tried so hard to make everything look so dangerous, the danger he presented felt authentic to me.

* * *

Chris: Positive thoughts: Cinematically, it was everything we've come to expect from Spielberg. Just beautiful to watch with great attention to detail. Really lovely.

Walt: You’re right: it was beautifully shot. Spielberg is a master at conventional visual storytelling. That shot of Hanks on the bridge in the 1st ending was breathtaking. I thought the film should’ve ended there.

Aaron: Yeah, it surprises me that you guys thought it was well shot. The whole thing looked simultaneously washed out and milky to me. All of that bright, hazy sun pouring through the windows (this was especially annoying when we were in the chief prosecutor's office at the GDR). I don't understand Kaminski's style anymore. What is the point of bleaching all of the color out of every shot? 

The milky glow of sunlight beatifying our star
Walt: I agree with you that the lighting exposure in a lot of the film didn’t really work, but I’ll still defend the visual storytelling.  Little things, really, like the reveal of all the policeman in front of Tom Hanks' house. A lot of other directors would have shown all those police cars at the beginning of the scene to establish the tension, but Spielberg holds that off and waits until after he’s confronted by the single policeman to reveal what looks to be the entire precinct out there. Before that reveal Hanks and the policeman are on equal ground, but after, we see that Hanks’ character is all alone in this. I’ll also stand behind that beautiful shot of Hanks on the bridge in the first ending. However, I will not stand behind the several shots of using window panes as a literal framing device.

Chris: To be fair, the dismal/it's really cold look with the saturated color scheme was effective. Russia looked terrible and I wanted to put on another coat. Then we get a nice sepia tone for the pilot plot because we're going back in time. Haha.

Walt: Oh man, and what about how the Supreme Court glowed like Superman’s Fortress of Solitude? Spielberg really loves the America. And the 50s. I didn’t mean to write the “the” in “the America”, but it actually seems right somehow. 

Aaron: But I don't think it is fair to say that Spielberg loves the 1950s any more than any of the cohort that he came of age with - Lucas and Barry Levinson and Zemeckis and Coppola all love the 1950s. It was an important time for them. "When men were men" or maybe "when ethical questions meant something" or something like that. The movie does try to deal with those things. As much as Spielberg loves the U.S. – and that absurd shot at the end where Hanks is glad he's not a Soviet is evidence of that – the  movie can't help but notice that the Americans themselves are just as bad as the Soviets and the East Germans at several points. Note Hanks' crack about his East German prison cell being no better than his digs in West Germany. And then there was that crusty old judge and his total railroading of American justice, and the CIA's attempts to get Hanks to violate attorney-client privilege. The movie can't help but show us that Americans are no more a just group of people than the East Berliners or the Soviets. For all its highmindedness about the Constitution and liberty and all of that, the soldiers at the end are still dishonorable assholes to that kid who got shot down over Soviet territory and managed not to talk even though he was tortured. Bridge of Spies believes that the American people are, in truth, just as bad as Soviets and East Germans; we just have better laws over here.

Mark Rylance being adorable.
Walt: Oh man, I totally kept cracking to myself “when men were men” during this movie.  And you’re right too, that the movie includes Americans in the shitty people/volcano that Tom Hanks has to fight (I thought of Lionel Barrymore a lot when watching that cranky judge. Doesn’t that judge belong in a holiday movie about a guy who doesn’t believe reindeer can fly or something?). Perhaps Spielberg is wrestling with the idea that while he was having his American Graffiti moment there were all kinds of assholes pulling strings at the highest level. But do we need this movie for that? Or this story?

 * * *

Walt: Was anyone else struck by Tom Hank’s color palette at the end of the film?  He’s passed out on the bed wearing a charcoal gray suit with a dark red sweater poking out the sleeve.  Does he come back from East Berlin a lil’ bit Communist?  Does it signify Mark Rylance’s last impact on him?

Aaron: I didn't notice a change in his color palette when he returned. Perhaps that was further evidence of that never-ending cold??

Walt: Also, why go through the bit at the end where Rylance mentions that if the Russians don’t embrace him upon his release at the end it will signify his death only to tell us in the credits that nope, never mind, he didn’t die actually?

Aaron: That Mark-Rylance-doesn't-die bit was so Steven Spielberg - a habit he has that is just as marked as his multiple endings. Create tension and make something seem really scary, and then show us that we had nothing to be worried about after all. It happened when the CIA guy followed him in act one, as well. That guy seemed really dangerous, but turns out he was able to be defeated simply by a few snide remarks about American values and some nonchalant snacking on an almond or two. I kept hoping Rylance would get shot on the bridge itself by those snipers. I know that's terrible, but this movie needed some actual stakes, and then all of that tension would have actually had a payoff.

Walt: I fully expected him to get shot. Otherwise, oooooo snipers.  Better watch out, cause, y’know, they might… let you know if someone’s coming or something.

Chris: This was a true event right? So there's boundaries.  I assume Rylance's character didn't get shot on the bridge - then again maybe that whole scene didn't actually happen on a bridge. I don't know.

Hanks on the eponymous bridge
Walt: It had to happen on a bridge, otherwise no title. The bridge was so inconsequential to the film though. What’s the bridge of spies? Is it East Berlin? Tom Hanks? The actual bridge? It works on many levels, but so little is made of the actual bridge that there’s nothing concrete to tie it to. I’m just generally confused. About why the movie was made and what we’re supposed to get from it. I’m sure Spielberg’s great uncle loved it. It felt like a movie that a great uncle would tell his filmmaker nephew that he should make. “Now THAT would be real story.  None of this treasure-hunting crap. You wanna talk about danger?  When I was in Berlin…” 

Aaron: I am not actually sure how I stayed awake.

Chris: So why are people giving so much love to this movie? Is it palpable to today's attitudes towards war?  The paranoia factor? Are people just suckers for Spielberg? The shot that rings most true for me was the Germans getting shot down climbing the wall: that demonstrated the terror of the entire situation for me. That "oh shit" moment. Then Steven screwed it up by having American kids climbing over a fence at the end.

 * * *

Aaron: I am not really a Spielberg fan or a Hanks fan, so I don't have the same kind of affection or emotional attachment to these Hollywood icons that the two of you do, but to me this kind of "prestige picture"/Oscar-bait garbage that Spielberg makes is completely uninteresting. It reminds me of the sort of old-school Clifford Odets-style of writing: a kind of writing that makes itself look very important but actually doesn't say anything at all; it simply pretends to be serious. I think Spielberg should stick to genre pictures.

Walt:  I love Spielberg and I love Hanks, but I’m over their being paired together. I’ve heard that Spielberg thinks Hollywood is broken, though he and his “cohorts” as you called them, namely Lucas, were really behind the breaking. Now he’s trying to make up for it by being a grown-up, except it feels like a 14-year-old’s version of what being a grown-up is. Not that “being grown up” really means anything anyway, but Spielberg seems to think it does, and who better to cast in a grown up movie than Tom “American Dad” Hanks. I don’t know. I don’t know what to do about either of them as a fan of theirs.  I just want them both to go away. Like Star Wars. Just go away so that I can be glad to see them again. 

Chris: If I had to rate this movie with a facial expression, it would be the one that old lady made on the train. Mildly disapproving with a touch of confusion. 

23 October 2015


There were, oddly enough, two Yves Saint Laurent movies released in France in 2014. One, entitled Yves Saint Laurent, directed by Jalil Lespert and starring Pierre Niney, was released in the U.S. last June. This year, the film Saint Laurent, directed by Bertrand Bonello and starring Gaspard Ulliel was released on May 8; the second of these films was submitted by France as its Foreign Language entry to the Academy Awards last year, and is (technically) eligible in all categories except that one this year (though I don't see it getting any nominations).

Well, two films about a legendary gay fashion designer? I obviously needed to watch both of them. Mostly, though, I just couldn't believe that this happened. How is it that two films could be made about the same man, the same set of events, released in the same year, and then nominated for a total of 17 César awards? And at the Césars both Pierre Niney and Gaspard Ulliel were nominated (for playing the same famous person) and both Jérémie Renier and Guillaume Gallienne were nominated (for playing the same famous person's famous lover). Niney won, for the record; no one else did.

There's a reason Niney won and Ulliel and Renier did not. Yves Saint Laurent is a standard biopic film, following YSL as a very young man becoming the head designer at Dior, getting fired, starting his own fashion house, and then becoming enormously famous, enormously bored, enormously drug-addicted, etc. Yves follows this story as best it can, highlighting especially the love affair between Yves and his partner Pierre Bergé. Yves is a likable film with a very gay sensibility and an aim at understanding who the man was, what his ups and downs were, and why he did what he did. It's also a story of triumph over adversity, a sort of complicated queer hagiography, that sees YSL as worth exploring because he was a celebrity and a gay man who conquered surprising odds and made something of himself. But I finished the film wondering why they bothered. I mean, why tell the story of this man at all except to celebrate the life of this gay icon? I mean, where's the thesis? What does this film have to say about the man that the newspapers haven't already said?

Saint Laurent is something else altogether. Saint Laurent is a filmmaker's film. It is not a movie that is interested in story or in making sure we understand YSL's rise to fame. In fact, Saint Laurent begins its narrative in the late 1960s, long after YSL and Bergé became lovers, long after the house of YSL was founded, even after YSL's famous Mondrian collection in 1965. Saint Laurent explores, instead, what it means to be an artist, the demands we make on the geniuses among us. And the movie spends time trying to understand, not YSL's decision-making processes or his artistic genius, but what he went through as a talented person who was beset on all sides by people demanding that he create.

Saint Laurent is a gorgeous film, brilliantly edited and shot, and judiciously but cleverly using split-screen techniques: early on in the movie, YSL's collections are juxtaposed with the upheaval in the world during the late 1960s, and late in act three there is a fabulous split-screen Mondrian sequence. Saint Laurent claims that YSL's designs were Proustian, as opposed to Lagerfeld and other people's pop-culture designs. And Saint Laurent itself aims for the Proustian, allowing the film to play about in memory. There are flashes of the past and even of the future throughout Saint Laurent. What do we remember and when do we remember it? And what does it mean to be in the present when the present is so pregnant with what (we think) is past?

Saint Laurent as a film is far, far superior to Yves Saint Laurent. It is a pleasure to watch from start to finish, filled with mysterious images, flashes of memory, and far less judgment than the other film. Saint Laurent, too, focuses on the labor that goes into creating the dresses themselves. We spend a great deal of time in the shop itself, watching the women labor over cutting out patterns and attempting to get things just right. It is a kind of filmic materialist analysis of the house of YSL. And if Saint Laurent is far less interested than its predecessor in making sure we understand what happened in YSL's life, it is much more interested in making sure we understand how such a life might have worked, the true cost, confusion, and frivolity of being a genius.

20 October 2015

The Martian

I won't say I disliked Ridley Scott's new film, exactly. I didn't. I rather liked it.

I mean, The Martian is so milquetoast, so contrived, so thematically conservative, so filled with A-listers, so diverse, so generic, so outright plucky, that it would be difficult to dislike it with any real fervor. Instead one feels as though one got exactly what one bargained for. Yes, this is how a big Hollywood movie that takes place in space is supposed to work, this is what is supposed to happen, this is where Twentieth Century Fox's big dollars went, listen to the disco music, sit back, and enjoy yourself. And try to stay awake.

But, as I say, I didn't really dislike it. The Martian is enjoyable enough, and at any given moment during the movie there's usually something fairly cool to look at. The performances, too, are just fine: my favorites were Donald Glover, Benedict Wong, Chiwetel Ejiofor (always good) and Sean Bean, each of whom looked like he spent time thinking about who his character was before he got started. Michael Peña was good, too.

The problems with The Martian, to my mind, all stem from its self-satisfied quality. The movie is just so sure of itself, so shallow, so obviously doing its Hollywood thing, telling jokes that it just "knows" audiences are going to eat up – "space pirate" and "science the shit out of this" indeed – that its smugness started to wear on me.

For real though: Is anyone watching this movie ever actually concerned as to whether or not Matt Damon will be able to be rescued and returned to Earth safely? The characters in the movie seem occasionally concerned with this, but I couldn't muster any identification with the emotions I was seeing onscreen; Damon's rescue, his success, his total triumph over the implacable, uncaring powers of the universe, seemed a foregone conclusion before his team ever even left him on the red planet. And who can identify with Jessica Chastain's guilt over having left him there when a) we already know he's alright and b) everyone else in the film has already told us that it isn't her fault at all? I just couldn't get into these people with their phony feelings. Are you guys scientists or characters in a nineteenth-century melodrama? (Maybe this was why I liked Benedict Wong and Donald Glover; they play their characters like big giant nerds who don't actually know how to act around regular people.)

I want to say a couple more things that I thought about while watching this movie. Two years ago, when Captain Phillips came out, I got really stuck on all the money that I was seeing up there on the screen. Within the plot of Phillips it is perfectly logical to spend millions of dollars to rescue a single guy who has been kidnapped by pirates. This happens in The Martian, too, and it is a little more justified in The Martian's case, because its main character is actually an employee of the U.S. government and is on an interplanetary mission for that government, but watching NASA expend this enormous amount of effort to rescue this dude (and it really is a completely extraordinary amount of time and money), started to irk me after a while. This annoyance moved into overdrive for me when Damon dismantles a spacecraft in act three and just tosses the very expensive equipment into the Martian dust like so much detritus. This is, of course, a fictional story, but, then again, this is precisely what governments do. Certainly spending all of this money to save this one guy is sentimental and clearly politically advantageous (the film stresses this last point), but I can't help thinking about the lives that don't matter in this world, particularly in the U.S. So, save the martian, by all means, but why this guy? What is it about this guy's life that is so worth saving when there are so many lives we don't value at all, when we in fact spend time passing laws so that their lives are destroyed?

I have one more criticism, and this one, too, is a criticism of the film's politics. During the denouement of The Martian, Damon gives this speech about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, making things work, solving problems, and depending on your ingenuity. Now, I don't completely object to ingenuity or solving problems – in fact anyone who knows me will tell you that my chief priority in life is to make myself smarter and to work at improving myself – but the idea that this Martian did all of this stuff "by himself" is patently absurd. Although the film seems to want to stress that the NASA scientists were a bunch of interlopers, giving Damon bad advice about his potato-growing techniques and only being able to come up with the idea of punching a hole in the roof of his Rover, the movie still makes it quite obvious that this character could not have figured out how to get to the Sciaparelli Crater without talking to the guys at JPL. In fact, the Martian has literally hundreds of people working to help him, and even within this film's individualist narrative, the U.S. team would also never have been able to do what they did without the help of Chinese funds and ingenuity, as well. Even the stuff that Damon figures out on Mars when he is by himself is only possible because the writer has given our protagonist (like the eponymous hero of Robinson Crusoe) everything he needs to be able to survive all of the reversals the writer plans to throw at him. Individualism in this movie is a total myth, a myth that the movie seems to believe in, but not a position that is even remotely tenable.

Finally, let me return to one thing that I noted earlier: this film looks beautiful. In fact, whoever designed Mars for this movie did a spectacular job. I don't think the red planet has ever looked this gorgeous in a movie. The designs are at times deeply moving and occasionally even breathtaking. They top even the best of the images in the other big desert movie of the year, Mad Max: Fury Road.

But this is indicative of the film's chief priorities. The Martian is all about surfaces and not at all about substance. The Martian's tears are, in the end, only as real as his faux-dislike of disco music.

19 October 2015

The Scorch Trials

This movie is not about another test that the children go through, thankfully. So the "trials" in the title are not really trials at all. Thankfully. But this film, like the film before it, is filled with these sort of absurd peripities where we think we're watching something real and then it turns out that it is all being plotted by someone behind the curtain. This got extremely tiresome in the first Maze Runner, and it continues to be tiresome in The Scorch Trials.

This movie is fairly asinine, and I was annoyed through most of it. (This one, by the way, is about zombies, which replace the first movie's cool spider-robot-brain creatures. Oh well.)

In fact, there isn't much that can be said to redeem The Scorch Trials except that I was glad that Giancarlo Esposito had a nice meaty role that let him show off his abilities. Otherwise, this is utter silliness, although I continue to enjoy these films where twentysomethings playing teenagers run as quickly as they can from things that are chasing them. See: Insurgent.

18 October 2015

The Omen

I loved this. Terrifying with great performances, a love of the grotesque, and a great score by Jerry Goldsmith.

17 October 2015

One from the Heart

Francis Ford Coppola's romantic comedy/musical/drama picture is usually hanging around on Netflix Instant, although they take it off now and then just to put it back on (who can study the vagaries of why something is on Netflix Instant?). Anyway, I finally watched it recently, and...
It's one of the weirdest movies I've ever seen, made weirder by the fact that Coppola directed it. I don't have anything against the film's star Frederic Forrest, but although he was a jobbing actor in a couple of important movies throughout the seventies and eighties he never really became a star, so his presence in this curiosity feels odd. Teri Garr and Raul Julia, on the other hand, are super sexy in the movie, but One from the Heart is self-consciously theatrical and also depressing. There's a lot of yelling, a lot of fighting, and the entire thing – and this is probably its weirdest attribute – is shot on a sound stage. The whole thing is so odd. The main song, by Tom Waits (and sung by Waits and Crystal Gale) is actually really great, but it is strange too, especially because I find it gets stuck in my head now whenever I see the title of this movie. In any case, this is weird. I don't recommend it, per se, but it was an interesting early '80s filmic experiment.

14 October 2015

Viva la Libertà

This is charming and funny. It is perhaps a bit slight, but I ate it up. And of course Toni Servillo is excellent. Valeria Bruni Tedeschi is also great in a supporting, and Valerio Mastandrea is absolutely perfect in a role that is both comic and touching at once.

12 October 2015


I was sort of into Spring for most of its runtime. I started off just really excited to see my friend Shane Brady in one of the roles, and so I honestly spent the first 45 minutes of the movie being like But where's Shane??

Shane only shows up for a little bit, so then I had to let that go and really deal with what was in front of me. So, here's the deal with Spring:

First off, this is not a horror movie. I honestly do not understand why anyone is calling it that. Spring has its moments of grotesquerie, to be sure, but this film is, at its soft, sentimental heart, a romantic comedy, and it knows it. This is not a bad thing, and the grotesque elements in the movie make the romantically comic aspects of the movie interesting, and, at the very least, put a nice twist on the traditional boy-meets-girl plot.

Lou Taylor Pucci, the film's star, and his co-star, Nadia Hilker, are both extremely likable. I've loved Pucci since he was in the fabulous Thumbsucker back in 2005, and he has stayed energetic and interesting to watch. Hilker plays a character who we must believe is able to cause Pucci's character fall in love in a mere five days. And... I have to say that I believed it. The woman is completely, utterly lovable, and her manner and attitude are attractive in the extreme. This is due, partially, to the witty first two acts of the script, which contain loads of delightful banter and charming mystery.

 (**Spoilers Below**)

But once we hit act three of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead's movie, Spring loses steam. Plot points are repeated twice and three times ("But what exactly is going to happen at sunrise on the vernal equinox?? Tell me again, just so that we are clear."), and the scary, mysterious elements of the picture are all jettisoned. The filmmakers move from making a creepy movie into telling a conventional love story.

Shane Brady
Even worse, the creepy, even disturbing images from earlier in Spring are transformed into punchlines. The film plays all of its mystery over again, but this time for laughs. First as tragedy, then as farce. This means, too, that all of the suspense is let out of the film, as well. The stakes, which were fairly high even at the film's beginning, before Pucci has met his dream-girl-monster, completely disappear. She's a monster, but although she tells her boyfriend and us that she doesn't know what could happen and that he should run as fast as he can when she starts to change, the film is having too much fun for that now, lingering on her monstrous appendages and prehensile tails like so many hilarious sight gags.

Which means that the big will she or won't she toward which we are headed is no longer a question of what is going to happen with her grotesque transformations, or whether or not she is going to kill Pucci (or someone else), or whether or not the strain of the whole thing might be too much and kill her. Instead, by the end of Spring the only thing the film is interested in having us wonder is whether or not the woman "really loves" the man. Is it true love or isn't it?

And to be honest, this question just isn't that interesting

This is particularly so because the film's investments in true love, in heterosexual love pairing, and in reproduction are so palpable. Both of these characters had parents who stayed together for their whole lives (no divorce here!), and each had one child for whom they sacrificed everything. Even Pucci's mentor at the Italian farm where he works still pines for his dead wife, and stands outside of churches with her picture in his hand crying. Zzzz.

What may strike one as even more odd is that although this is a film made by friends and filmmaking partners Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson, Spring thinks friends are not necessary at all. Once you've found the one you love, there's no need to get close to anyone else. Friends are not really worth much. Pucci's mom and dad have no family or friends – they only needed each other and their child because, like, they had true love – and Pucci's one friend, as much as he loves him, turns out to be not helpful at all. Ditto the friends he meets in Rome, who are both total assholes. As for the main female character, she appears to have accumulated exactly zero friends in her two thousand years of existence.

Spring, in fact, makes clear how heteronormative futurity actually works. The film's main thrust is not just true love, but true love and baby makes three. Even more, the movie says not just that the family is the most important thing in the world, but that it is the only important thing in the world. Anything else just gets in the way.

06 October 2015

Lost River

I got the DVD of Ryan Gosling's debut feature Lost River in June. (I still get the DVDs because I am old and they have a better selection). I was excited about Lost River. I like Ryan Gosling: I think he makes good choices, and although I haven't always enjoyed the movies that the directors whose muse he is (Derek Cianfrance and Nicolas Winding Refn) have made with him, I always think Gosling is interesting to watch in these films, even when the films don't work for me.

In any case, I was predisposed to like Lost River. And so I started watching it in early June.

I got about ten minutes in – a ten minutes that played like a riff on a David Gordon Green movie – and then the movie changed tone starkly. The film's star Christina Hendricks was now in a bank office populated by absolutely no one until Ben Mendelsohn enters doing a kind of bizarrely menacing David Lynch kind of thing. This section of the movie is a kind of absurd exposition sequence, in which the main character is introduced to us as in a complete financial bind because of her own ignorance, and (it is immediately obvious) will now be forced to do a series of things that she doesn't want to do but that the film will enjoy watching her do.

I took the DVD out and went to sleep instead. This was already too contrived for my taste.

And then I didn't put the DVD back into my player until last night, when I convinced myself – finally – simply to finish this movie so that I could move on with my movie-watching existence.

Well, I was right when I took it out the first time in June. Lost River is derivative of lots of other filmmakers, which is, I suppose, fine as far as it goes, but Lost River also can't decide which of these guys it likes best. David Lynch is an obvious influence, with his grotesquely vicious worlds and characters who behave without motivation of any kind, but the movie also insists on numerous shots lit by a single source of brightly saturated neon light (pink, red, sometimes green) just like Refn's (awful) Ryan Gosling movie Only God Forgives.

Let me just stop right here: Avoid this thing at all costs. It is slow and ponderous and absurdly self important. And it is insanely, almost sadistically boring. Eva Mendes is a charming bright spot in this dour universe, but there isn't much else of interest and there's no one to root for in Lost River. Stay away.

04 October 2015

Kumiko the Treasure Hunter

Kumiko the Treasure Hunter, the Zellner Brothers. movie, is based on a true story of a young Japanese woman who convinced herself that the Coen Brothers movie Fargo was a true story and that the treasure that Steve Buscemi buries next to a fence in a snow-covered field is a real treasure that she can go dig up.

The movie stars Rinko Kikuchi and is quirky and sad and more indebted to the Coen Brothers than I can even really begin to say. It has the same types of very funny salt-of-the-earth characters for which the Coens are known, and it shifts tone from incredibly bleak to totally absurd in the blink of an eye. It is, in fact, a kind of absurdist, existential film that works very, very well. The Coens, after all, are not bad masters to have, and if the movie owes much to them, the Zellners are certainly up front about their love for their predecessors and their debts to them. In any case, Kumiko is beautifully acted and thoroughly enjoyable, with a hopeful, whimsical strain to its tragic story.


A sicario is an assassin, a title card tells us at the beginning of Denis Villeneuve's new movie starring Emily Blunt.

Sicario begins with a raid on a house in Arizona that ostensibly is holding hostages – actually, we don't know anything about what's going on. We know that Emily Blunt and her partner Daniel Kaluuya are the people we are supposed to like, and we know that people are shooting at them. We also know that Blunt's character Kate is a badass: she wastes an assassin without any trouble at all, dodging his shotgun blast and blowing him away with a machine gun. In the house that they and their team raid we find upwards of 40 corpses, hidden in the walls. There is also a huge explosion that manages to kill a couple of local cops.

From here we stay in the dark.

In other words, from the movie's opening sequence we don't really know what's going on. Kate is brought along on a mission to El Paso led by a winking, glib Josh Brolin and accompanied by a taciturn Benicio Del Toro. But what we are doing and why we are doing it is never clear. The movie traffics in this kind of mystery. The movie is, in fact, almost totally made up of setpieces in the sense that nothing that's happening is ever linked to a larger storyline. We are in a single action sequence and we follow that action sequence, but Sicario's game is keeping us uninvested in characters, in why the action is happening, and in what this action is supposed to accomplish.

It's an odd way to go about making a movie that is "serious" about drugs in America or crime in America or the real-world problems that attend dealing with crime that is both "Mexican" crime and "U.S. crime". There is no analysis of the problem, no expository information given to us so that we can try to puzzle it out or think through different possibilities for dealing with the problem: we simply follow Brolin and Del Toro along as they do "what needs to be done".

From the opening.
I found this frustrating in the extreme – not least because this means that Emily Blunt is given almost nothing to do except look confused as she tries to do what she knows how to do even though she has no idea what the rules are. The rules, you will remember, have been deliberately hidden from both her and us.

The other reason this is frustrating is that the film is fundamentally invested in violence as the solution to all problems that it presents us. Sicario enjoys violence, enjoys, in fact, staging torture for the audience's enjoyment. Further, Sicario doesn't object in any way to this torture. This is "what needs to be done". Of course, the audience has no way to know if this is true or not because the audience is never being given the full story about anything: We're not going to tell you what's going on, but hey here's a scene where we are going to torture a guy that we're telling you is a bad guy. Enjoy yourself!

And we do! The torture scenes are the most enjoyable part. And when the sicario of the film's title appears and begins to assassinate everyone in his path, we're there to enjoy these scenes and feel the thrill of having killed a bunch of people. Why? Who cares. Is it just for revenge? Sounds good.

Jeffrey Donovan in Sicario
All of this is fine, to be sure... if we're in a James Bond movie or Quentin Tarantino movie (QT's violence is always much more complex and nuanced, in fact) or if we're in a revenge movie starring Liam Neeson or Jason Statham. Revenge for the sake of itself. Bloodshed for pleasure. Fine. But Sicario pretends to be something else. It purports to be some kind of serious movie about border crime and the realities of life in Ciudad Juárez. That, however, is simply the thin veneer laid over what is essentially a shoot-em-up assassin movie. Sicario is about illegal substances being transported into the U.S. and daily terrorism in Juárez the way that Bad Boys II is about the connections between Russian gangsters and megalomaniac Cuban drug lords.

With the exception of Brolin's phoned-in performance the acting is solid. It's always good to see jobbing actors like Jon Bernthal and Maximiliano Hernández (both particularly good) getting work. And Jeffrey Donovan, Raoul Trujillo, Bernardo P. Saracino, and Lora Martinez-Cunningham are all solid in good roles.

Roger Deakins shot Sicario – he was nominated for an Oscar for Villeneuve's Prisoners – and Sicario is very big on being beautiful to look at. There is even an extended sequence shot as black-and-white night-vision. I was bored with all of this, but it wouldn't surprise me if this pleased other audience members. For me, this first-person-shooter video-game look only makes the film's pleasure at sending bullets into the nameless, worthless bodies of Mexican "criminals" all the more apparent. This film is not about educating us about border crime. It is not even about presenting us with the problem. It is about killing people without consequence and enjoying it.