Thursday, January 30, 2020

Review: Oscar-nominated live action short films


25 minutes

This powerful drama set in Tunisia looks at a traditional family of sheepherders torn asunder by international strife. The eldest son, Malek, returns home after disappearing for a year to help fight in Syria. The stern father, Mohamed, suspects that he has joined ISIS or similar Muslim extremist groups, and also is upset about the appearance of a mysterious wife covered head-to-toe in traditional garb. His wife is defensive of the son, and the bickering turns into ugly confrontations and haste choices. A headline subject translated to the family unit with grace and humanity.

A Sister

16 minutes

Absolutely riveting Belgian drama about an emergency operator receiving a call from a woman who’s been kidnapped and is being driven somewhere by her captor. The worker and the victim must negotiate a delicate conversation in which they do not talk directly about getting her urgent help, since the man is sitting next to her and can hear one side of the conversation. The operator has to impersonate the sister, Lulu, and they form a bond in just a few fraught moments. Adding to the tension, we can barely make out anything inside the darkened car. Taut and telling work by Delphine Girard.

The Neighbor's Window

21 minutes

The always-terrific Maria Dizzia is wonderful in this drama that's about sexuality, family, voyeurism and community. She plays a mother living in New York City with her husband (Greg Keller). They are bordering on middle age and hectored with two children and another on the way. A young, attractive couple moves into an apartment across the way and has frequent, athletic sex with the blinds open. They begin watcing them, at first annoyed and then a little obsessed. The youth and vitality they see reminds them of what's behind them; the contrasted reality of their own relationship, which exists in only the little snippets between constant childcare, results in conflict. Then the story becomes even deeper and richer. Marvelous storytelling from writer/director Marshall Curry; if it were possible to get an Oscar nomination for a short film, Dizzia deserves one.

NEFTA Football Club

17 minutes

An amusing little comedy with some social commentary on top. A pair of brothers, perhaps ages 7 and 13, are traveling across the Tunisian mountains on a motorcycle. They’re obsessed with football and arguing about who the best striker is. On a stop the little one encounters a strange sight: a lost donkey wearing headphones. The older brother is annoyed, until he peaks into the animal’s baskets and discovers something unexpected.


22 minutes

A harrowing tale based on the true story of a tragedy at a Guatemalan orphanage that’s more like a prison for children. Saria lives there with her slightly older sister after their mother was killed. The guards wander the halls with clanking keys at their built and a baton at the ready. Children are made to work all day when they’re not in class. Saria dreams of escaping to America, which they hear is a land of tres laches cake every day. Her sister is more concerned with the cute boy in a green shirt. A well-told tale of tragedy.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Review: Oscar-nominated short films


8 minutes

“Sister” is an autobiographical stop-motion film by Siqi Song that looks at his relationship with his sister in 1990s China. The figures have a soft-and-fuzzy look, almost like stuffed animals. He is annoyed by his baby sister who monopolizes his parents’ time and steals his things. In some fanciful sequences, he pulls her belly button out, releasing the air with one, or pulls the same trick on her nose. He loses a tooth and together they plant it in a pot, growing a beautiful tooth tree. A little predictable and flat.

Hair Love

7 minutes

A little girl wakes up and tackles her kinky mane of hair, to disastrous results. Her dad tries to help, ineptly, and they bond over the experience. A little help arrives in the form of some tutorial videos from her (absent) mother, and bonding and fanciful life-lessons ensue. I liked the high-end, imaginative CGI and fantasy sequences where dad takes on the hair in a boxing ring. A heartwarmer by Matthew A. Cherry and Karen Rupert Toliver.


9 minutes

This one's a keeper. Lovely animation from writer/director Rosana Sullivan and her team, a mix of deceptively simple-looking CG in the background with hazy pastels in the background. A ratty black street cat lives in a pile of junk behind a house. One day the owner brings in a large, angry-looking pitbull to live in a cage in the backyard. The cat's all hackles and defensive posturing, but then a plastic bottle cap helps break the ice. This is the perfect use of the short film form.

Dcera (Daughter)

15 minutes

I loved this animation style. At first we think we’re looking at crude papier-mâché figures with splotchy skin and barely discernible features. Then, the eyes blink. The head moves, they turn and walk, and we realize this is not stop-motion but some other form of animation from writer/director Daria Kashcheeva and her team. The story is very simple and still: a woman visits with her father in the hospital. A bird smashes through the window, dead. This recalls a childhood incident with another injured bird. The daughter brought the injured animal to her parent and was ignored, prompting her to create a bird mask and imagine herself as the forlorn creature. There are no words spoken, just quiet contemplation.


12 minutes

This trippy little surrealist fantasia tells the story of a French painter, Louis, and his wife, Michelle. He’s very amiable but insists the year is 1965 to therapist. Is he suffering from dementia? Or is this just a boundless jaunt through the imagination? The stop-motion animation looks like built-up layers of paint that from one painting style to another, leading to some exquisite scenes, many of them inspired by famous paintings like Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night.” Imaginative and sad.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Reeling Backward: "Thunderbolt and Lightfoot"

Clint Eastwood planned to direct "Thunderbolt and Lightfoot" himself, but then he met Michael Cimino, the young screenwriter who had written the script for "Magnum Force," the second Dirty Harry movie and a big hit.

Road pictures and Eastwood were both hot commodities in the early 1970s, and Cimino had been commissioned by agent Stan Kamen to do a script on spec with the squinty star in mind.

Eastwood, who'd already directed three movies himself by then, decided to let Cimino have his shot, leading to his first feature film as a director. His second movie behind the camera was "The Deer Hunter," winning him a pair of Oscars by the age of 40. His next was "Heaven's Gate," which ended his brief tenure as an A-list filmmaker. He made four more movies, none of them consequential.

I'd been meaning to see this buddy crime caper for years, and came away a teeny bit disappointed. It's now out in a handsome Blu-ray edition that's well worth a look.

It's a fine movie, and the screen relationship between Eastwood and Jeff Bridges is just as lovely and spirited as I'd hoped. Or at least it starts out promising.

Eastwood is Thunderbolt, an expert in breaking into banks vaults using a 20mm cannon, hence the nickname. As the story opens he's been hiding out as a preacher in a tiny unnamed town in Big Sky country.

Bridges is Lightfoot, a young hotshot car thief/rapscallion, who wandered off on his own as a youth and never stopped moving. He's repeatedly referred to as a hippie, though his clothing and hair is actually closer to Tony Manero from "Saturday Night Fever." He steals, has a good time with women and booze until the money runs out, then repeats the cycle.

Somehow these opposing personalities just click. Thunderbolt is an aging Korean War vet whose body is crisscrossed with scars, including a badly burned foot that requires a walking brace. He keeps to himself and speaks only when necessary, won't run from a fight but doesn't seek one out, either. Lightfoot is a gadly and gadabout who loves to laugh and avoid conflict whenever possible.

They meet when Thunderbolt literally jumps into the hot rod Lightfoot has just stolen while being shot at by a former member of his bank robbing gang. They pulled off a big job at the Montana Armory a couple of years earlier, and events transpired that the others mistakenly think Thunderbolt kept all the loot for himself.

(They never seem to question why 1) if Thunderbolt had the money he'd pretend to be a poor podunk pastor instead of living the high life behind guarded walls, and 2) they should just just kill him instead of trying to get the money back.)

Lightfoot almost immediately suggests they become friends and pull off some jobs together. Thunderbolt enjoys the younger man's innocence and pep. It's the start of a great Butch/Sundance type of partnership, and I looked forward to accompanying them on their bromance journey.

Unfortunately, the duo becomes a quartet and the movie morphs into a fairly straightforward heist flick, as they plan the job and then watch everything blow up in their faces.

I'm sort of astonished that "Thunderbolt and Lightfoot" is often described as a comedy. Certainly there are hijinx and laugh-out-loud moments. But it's also a movie with sadness and anger at its core.

The latter is personified in Red Leary, a thoroughly nasty piece of work played by George Kennedy. He's the one who wants to assassinate Thunderbolt for pure sake of revenge. They were friends from back in Korea, and each man claims the other saved his life.

At one point Red is asked why he's willing to sacrifice everything instead of just letting go and living his own life, and he responds that because he was (he thought) betrayed by a friend, no other choice was possible. If a stranger did him wrong, he'd probably let it slide if there was no benefit in pursuing retribution.

Red and Thunderbolt hash out their differences in a fistfight, then resolve to rejoin forces along with Goody (Geoffrey Lewis), their submissive wheel man. Lightfoot replaces Dunlop (Roy Jensen), the electronics expert who tried to kill Thunderbolt in the opening sequence and got busted up for his trouble.

It seems the one-room schoolhouse where Thunderbolt and the deceased gang leader stashed the loot was torn down and replaced with a modern building, meaning they have nothing to show for the biggest score of their lives. It's Lightfoot who suggests they pull the same job all over again using the same M.O.

Red takes an instant dislike to Lightfoot, egged on by the latter's teasing and devil-may-care attitude, and threatens repeatedly to do him in when the job is over.

At this point the movie wandered away from me, as the men take jobs in town so they can build a stake while planning the robbery. A few notable actors make appearances here including Gary Busey, Vic Tayback, Jack Dodson, Dub Taylor and "dem teef" background player Burton Gilliam. Catherine Bach turns up as a romantic fling for Lightfoot in a pre-"Dukes of Hazzard" role.

The fatal flaw that trips up the execution of the heist is sneaking into a drive-in movie theater near the armory with Goody and Red hiding in the trunk. The manager spots Red's shirttail hanging out the back and thinks extra people are sneaking in without tickets, setting off the commotion that puts the cops on their tail.

For veteran cons you'd think they'd instead try to get away from the scene of the crime as fast as they can. Or just have Goody and Red sit up front and buy two more tickets. But maybe it worked last time, so they're slaves to the tried-and-true.

"Thunderbolt and Lightfoot" is a notable car movie. Lightfoot repeatedly "acquires" new vehicles to throw people off their trail, so the movie has a hefty listing on the Internet Movie Cars Database. Dunlop rolls up in a black 1959 Cadillac, a model I'm well acquainted with, and things go from there.

At various points the boys drive a '73 Buick Riviera as well as a Pontiac Firebird and a Cadillac Fleetwood Eldorado, both of the same year.

In the film's looniest sequence, the pair are hitchhiking and get picked up by a madman driving a 1973 Plymouth Fury that has been jacked up with racing tires, who immediately careens around the road like a stuntman and intentionally rolls the car over. He then springs the trunk revealing that it is filled to the brim with white rabbits. He's played by Bill McKinney, forever the "squeal like a pig" hillbilly from "Deliverance."

It's a fun bit, but it's bizarreness for its own sake.

The most memorable car of the story is Goody's slate gray 1951 Mercury Coupe, which we suspect has been souped up by the way it keeps up with all the modern cars. It gets put through all sorts of paces, including jumps off cliffs and smashing into multiple police cars during the last desperate chase scene.

The film ends on a major downer note, with everyone in the gang dead but Thunderbolt. Red made good on his promise, repeatedly kicking Lightfoot in the head to cause fatal brain damage. Goody gets shot through the trunk lid and Red is mauled by a guard dog at the store he crashes into, ironically the same place he'd been working as a janitor for his cover job.

The injured Lightfoot and Thunderbolt muddle along for awhile, with the young man growing increasingly dizzy and his speech slurred. They stumble upon the one-room schoolhouse, which had been moved to an interstate rest stop historical display, and recover the half-million from the first heist.

Thunderbolt rides off into the sunset, his friend and partner dead and all the threats against him dissolved. What sort of life lies before him? The movie offers only stubborn ambiguity and the obligatory sad ballad for the soundtrack.

"You know something? I don't think of us as criminals, you know? I feel we accomplished something. A good job. I feel proud of myself, man. I feel like a hero," Lightfoot opines, right before slumping over dead.

"Thunderbolt and Lightfoot" accomplished less than it could. There's a great movie in there, one where Red is a peripheral villain and the duo arrives at their denouement all on their own, having passed through the fire and come out changed men.

Nothing ruins a good buddy movie like interlopers.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Video review: "Harriet"

“Harriet” hasn’t been in the awards spotlight as much as it deserves. For me, there was no more powerful emotional journey in a movie this year than the story of Aramintra Ross, better known as Harriet Tubman, an icon of the Underground Railroad.

Tubman guided dozens of slaves to freedom, as she herself had made the harrowing journey as a young woman. She’s become such a mythical figure that the real woman behind the history text has been somewhat lost. Director Kasi Lemmons, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Gregory Allen Howard, breathes life into the legend.

Cynthia Erivo is amazing as Tubman, who gradually transforms from a timid, passive woman to a tough, no-nonsense leader of men.

Many people will be astonished to learn that Tubman was actually married at the time of her escape, to a freed black man no less (Zackary Momoh). But she remained a slave, having already seen her three older sisters sold like cattle and lost forever.

Joe Alwyn plays Gideon Brodess, the eldest son of the family that owns her. They grew up together as childhood friends, and it becomes clear as he becomes the patriarch of the clan that Gideon harbors a twisted obsession with Harriet. Sensing what is to come, she escapes to Philadelphia and falls in with the abolitionist movement.

During her missions to retrieve more slaves, Harriet wears men’s clothing and sings out to them in a resonant voice, old hymns about the slaves throwing off the yoke of the Egyptian pharaohs. Soon there is a large reward on the head of “Moses,” as the slave hunters come to call her.

Lemmons and Erivo go beyond mere biography to delve into the soul of a woman who felt a calling, and claimed to commune with God. “Harriet” takes a two-dimensional legend and gives her breadth and depth.

Video bonus features are not expansive but are quite nice. There is a feature-length commentary track by Lemmons; deleted scenes: “Her Story,” about the three women filmmakers who were key to bringing this story to the screen; and “Becoming Harriet,” an in-depth look at how Erivo built this character.



Sunday, January 19, 2020

Video review: "The Addams Family"

File “The Addams Family” under “Reboots We Didn’t Need, But Aren’t Terrible.” At least they’re going in the opposite direction as Disney, which seems determined to do a live-action remake of every animated hit they’ve ever had -- even the crappy ones. (*Cough* *cough* “Mulan” *cough* *cough*.)

Here the 1990s comedies starring Raul Julia (may he rest in pieces) and Anjelica Huston, preceded by the 1960s television show, are revived as a kiddie cartoon flick.

It’s a good fit, since the premise is as cartoonish as it gets. A family of death-loving weirdos take up residence in the mansion on the hill, creeping out the neighbors with their 24/7/365 celebration of Halloween-esque themes.

Gomez (Oscar Isaac) is the smooth patriarch, though we get the sense his wife, austere Morticia (Charlize Theron), really runs the show. Son Pugsley (Finn Wolfhard) is an awkward people-pleaser, while dour daughter Wednesday (Chloe Grace Moretz) has a studied, detached air to her. Nick Kroll does the voice of bald, super-creepy Uncle Fester.

It’s a nice voice cast, though Moretz stands out for her slightly formal line readings. I chuckled every time Wednesday spoke.

The plot is some contrived claptrap about getting the entire Addams clan to gather from all over the globe for Pugsley’s coming-of-age ceremony. (Which involves deadly sharp sabers, of course.) Allison Janney provides the voice of their nemesis, television home improvement host Margaux, marshaling the forces of shiplap and bright hues.

There’s a lot of emphasis on boingy action and throwaway jokes, some of which work and some that deserved to be thrown away.

I mildly enjoyed “The Addams Family,” though my kids loved it and yours probably will, too -- unless they’re weirdos who like ponies and rainbows and life-affirming stories.

It’s coming out with some nice bonus features. My favorite is “Charades with Thing,” an interactive game in which the bodyless hand invites you to guess what he’s miming. There are also deleted and extended scenes, a storyboard-to-final evolution of a scene, a rogues gallery of character profiles featuring each voice actor, two music videos and a throwback feature to the previous film and TV versions.



Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Review: "Troop Zero"

“Y’all will find life gets much easier if you don’t want so much.”
                    --Principal Massey

As a sucker for warmhearted, Southern-fried dramedies I wanted to like “Troop Zero” a lot more than I did.

It practically vibrates with authenticity, capturing life in 1977 Georgia in the fictional hamlet of Wiggly. It’s the sort of homespun place with one restaurant, Butte’s Chicken, where everybody knows everybody and nobody much has any money. Blacks and whites lived side-by-side long before integration because nobody here can understand that sort of foolishness and, again, there isn’t enough coin to have two of everything.

The bored librarian wears neon-blue eye shadow, children are pretty well left to their own devices and the town lawyer is a jolly cracker who can’t find his pants and keeps a toothbrush tucked behind one ear.

That would be Boss Man, daddy to the Boss, aka Christmas Flint, played by McKenna Grace. She was terrific in “Gifted” from a couple years ago playing a young genius, and here she’s playing a girl who’s not especially bright and a whole lot awkward.

Christmas lost her mom a year ago and is like a leftover puzzle piece, trying to figure out where she fits in the world.

She spends her evenings staring up at the stars, yearning to connect with life from outer space. On Earth, things are pretty glum, but Christmas has naïve innocence about her, all pigtails and goofy smiles.

Boss Man (Jim Gaffigan) is on the phone a lot or away helping clients who tend not to pay him, so Miss Rayleen (Viola Davis) ends up as her de facto guardian. She’s her dad’s secretary, but once harbored ambitions of her own toward going to law school and getting out of Wiggly.

Rayleen has a stern way about her, smoking and cussing, but we suspect there’s a lot of heart underneath. Mike Epps is Dwayne, the good-hearted neighbor/buddy/ex-con.

The story (screenplay by Lucy Alibar) gets kicked off by a visiting NASA scientist who is recording voices on a Golden Record that will be sent into space via satellite. The winners of the regional Birdie (think Girl) Scouts talent competition will get to be one of the voices, and obviously since Christmas is an alien nut it immediately becomes her quest.

This means getting past the school principal, “Nasty” Miss Massey (Allison Janney), who also doubles as the troop mother of the local Birdie troop, led by certified mean girl Piper (Ashley Brooke). So Christmas and Rayleen set about recruiting the dreggiest of dregs from the local kid populace. They include:
  • “Hell-No” Price (Milan Ray), the local bully who believes firmly in collecting “taxes” from other students.
  • Joseph (Charlie Shotwell), Christmas’ only true friend, who’s drawn more to musicals and costumes than football, and thus is nearly as much an outcast as her.
  • Smash (Johanna Colón), who likes to do what her name implies and, as Christmas narrates, “is like the universe -- full of gas and mystery.”
  • Anne-Claire (Bella Higginbotham), a wallflower who asks Jesus to help her decide everything, and wears a huge bandage on half of her glasses because of a missing eye.
Things fall into a fairly typical scrappy-underdogs-surprise-everyone type of plot, as Miss Massey and her troop of nasties throw up obstacles, while Troop Zero -- which they’re labeled because there are “no numbers left” -- overcome adversity and form unlikely friendships.

The movie is directed by director duo Amber Finlayson and Katie Ellwood (who go by Bert & Bertie, in an apparent bid to unseat McG for the title of Silliest Filmmaker Nickname). They seem to have the heart for this material but not a good notion what to do with it.

The kids’ interactions, which are the center of the movie, are a bit stilted and contrived. Davis and Janney are their usual magnificent selves, but the Oscar winners have one-note characters to work with.

“Troop Zero” is a little bit “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a little bit “Meatballs,” and not a little “Fried Green Tomatoes.” I love the ingredients but didn’t fall in love with the way they were put together. It needed some more time in the deep fryer to finish cooking through.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Oscars nominations and Critics Choice reaction

My first reaction is that I don't really have a strong one. There aren't really any huge surprises with this morning's Oscar nominations, given how the awards cycle has gone so far.

In general this seems like a pretty solid list, a good representation of the best in 2019 cinema but perhaps lacking in any notable bold choices.

Coupled with the Critics Choice awards last night given out by the broadcast critics association, of which I'm a voting number, we've gone from an Academy Awards outlook that seemed very hazy to one that has quickly come into focus with some clear frontrunners.

Renee Zellweger and Joaquin Phoenix are now strong favorites for Best Actress and Actor, respectively, after securing wins at both the Golden Globes and Critics Choice. Ditto for Laura Dern and Brad Pitt in the supporting categories.

If these four also sweep the Screen Actors Guild Awards this Sunday, I think we can go ahead and pencil them in as locks for the Oscars.

Cynthia Erivo getting a Best Actress nod for "Harriet" puts me over the moon. I still can't understand why others haven't embraced that film, which I put number two on my Top 10 list. Hopefully this will be a big boost to her career.

Antonio Banderas snuck into Best Actor for "Pain and Glory," which also pleases. A very layered, sensitive performance for an actor known for broadcasting maximum machismo.

I guess the big "snub" everyone will be talking about is Greta Gerwig not getting a director nod, mostly in the context of once again having an all-male lineup. My thoughts on the good-not-great "Little Women" are well known, so I'll not belabor them.

I find it interesting that Jordan Peele also did not receive a directing nod, after both he and Gerwig did for their debut films in 2017, and no one seems to be complaining about that. Personally I thought Peele made a better and bolder film the second time around with "Us," while Gerwig fell back on a very safe and conventional choice to make the 8th film iteration of a 150-year-old novel.

Interesting to see the tie for director at the Critics Choice Award. So it appears to be a two-way race for the Oscar, with Bong Joon Ho having a slight edge over Sam Mendes. (The CCs did nominate Gerwig in this category, since we don't stick to a hard cap of five nominees.)

The Academy stuck with nine nominees for Best Picture, with "Uncut Gems" being the likely shut-out. Adam Sandler was shut out, as was the entire film with zero nods. I'm fine with that, as I found the movie interminable.

Both Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins made the cut for Best Actor and supporting, respectively, which likely startled a lot of people. Both wonderful performances in the sort of movie about religious faith that Hollywood usually eschews. Also got a surprise screenwriting nod in the Adapted category.

So Tom Hanks is officially a supporting actor for "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood." I believe it's the first time he's been nominated for a non-lead role. It's the right call, of course, especially given all the rampant category-hopping in recent years.

But I'm still gobsmacked by the idea that someone would make a Fred Rogers movie in which he's a supporting character. I think others felt this way too, reflected in the lack of any other nominations and the film's relatively lackluster box office.

A very good year for Netflix, though it doesn't appear either "Marriage Story" or "The Irishman" will be serious contenders to rack up a lot of wins. It'll be another year for Adam Driver. Would've liked to see "Dolemite Is My Name" get some love, if not for Eddie Murphy then at least in costumes or other "tech" categories.

"Parasite" appears to have the International Feature Film category, as it's now called, all wrapped up. Doesn't seem to have a shot at being the first foreign language film to win Best Picture, as many people were hyping just a couple of weeks ago. Though I'd say Ho has a very good shot to win.

As I've previously noted, nine out of the last 10 Oscar winners for director have either been women, POC or non-American. Despite not racking up as many nominations as they're due, this has been a great category for diversity with the Academy Awards.

My favorite foreign film, "Portrait of a Lady on Fire," was shut out due to arcane Academy rules about each country only having one "official" submission. Silly.

Another weak year for animated feature, with the virtually unseen "Klaus" being this year's sneak-in. Given the weakness of the Disney/Pixar lineup for 2019, it might be time for the "How to Train Your Dragon" franchise to finally notch an Oscar.

After trading Best Picture wins at the Globes and Critics Choice, "1917" and "Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood" appear to be in a two-way contest for the Oscars. In addition to the SAG awards, the Producers Guild of America awards next weekend, and the Director's Guild of America the following weekend, things should solidify very soon.

Reeling Backward: "Breathless" (1960)

My French New Wave education somehow never included "Breathless," one of the most seminal in the movement of critics-turned-moviemakers and the first feature by Jean-Luc Godard. Alas, I found it as underwhelming as "The 400 Blows" was amazing and transportive. Solid good-not-great category.

"I'll take Truffaut; you can keep Godard" has been my semi-comedic quip about the two most iconic figures of the New Wave, and I found that held true here as well.

My take is Truffaut told stories, while Godard is a master of mood and moments. He seems ensorceled by his own shots, lingering over a face in profile as cigarette smoke wafts across the cheeks. Godard is closer to Terrence Malick in this regard -- more visual stylist than storyteller -- and my reservations about him are well-known.

I'm sure "Breathless" seemed very fresh and daring in 1960, but today it's an artifact of rebellion.

Jean-Paul Belmondo juts out his jaw and and tips his hat low over his eyes in a studied pose of nonchalance. A street hood who idolizes Humphrey Bogart, Michel Poiccard (based on a real car thief), is a self-styled loverboy who treats women like disposable garbage.

He professes to love Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg) despite having only met her last month and slept with her once. We quickly sense that she is simply the most readily accessible girl to help him escape from the law and underscore his self-image. Bogie always had a looker on his arm, so he must, too. Michel keeps insisting his love to her so much that he comes to believe it himself.

Michel is very much a liar in the George Costanza tradition: he so believes his own lies that they eventually become his truth.

Early on he shoots a motorcycle policeman chasing him in one of his many stolen cars, and spends the rest of the movie making plans to run away to Italy. (It's unclear why Italy; I'm sure the two countries had extradition for murder in 1960. My guess is he figures it'll be easier for him to disappear there.)

But two things hold up his plans: a friend, Antonio (Henri-Jacques Huet), who owes him a substantial amount of money; and Patricia, who he wants to run away with him. She's a 20-year-old privileged American who's quickly climbing the ladder as a journalist, and thus has very little reason to take Michel up on his offer.

She dallies and dithers while ostensibly accompanying him as he waits for his money. He has a check from Antonio but needs cash, and the friend seems to be ducking him. (One wonders why the transaction couldn't be done by mail safely from Genoa or wherever.)

Godard and Truffaut tended to make very male-dominated movies, at least when they were starting out, so it's clear Godard invested most of his screenwriting energy into Michel. (Truffaut and Claude Chabrol contributed the story.) They saw him as a charismatic cad, a playful man/boy who rejected traditional masculine roles like family, career, fatherhood. He is the opposite of stability.

But honestly I found him rather dull as a protagonist. We figure out his shtick pretty quickly and then wait to see how far he'll take it.

Patricia is the much more interesting character, a woman who conveys submissive feminine sensibilities while always remaining steadfastly independent in her attitudes and choices.

Michel steals the key to her appointment and moves into her home, and her bed, without asking permission. However, nothing happens, between the sheets or elsewhere, without her initiative.

"Breathless" was seen as a very sexy movie when it came out, and it still is. Seberg and Belmondo were both compelling subjects for the camera, attractive in non-conventional ways.

She had close-cropped blonde hair and a thin, almost boyish figure, giving her an overtly androgynous presence. Belmondo was a bit horse-faced with one of those noses that doesn't seem that big until you see it from certain angles, and then it's ginormous. Naturally lean in the Brad Pitt mold, he had a six-pack before anyone had words for it.

There's no nudity to speak of, though some thrashing under the sheets leaves no doubt they're having sex, which was pretty risque, at least for American audiences of the time.

Michel has a repeated gesture -- which Patricia later copies -- where he draws the pad of his thumb across his lips in a very deliberate way, which appears to have no purpose other than as a sensual signature. He's also perpetually smoking, with fat unfiltered cigarettes protruding from a half-open mouth.

I'm sure the Freudians had a field day with the film's oral fixation.

Godard and cinematographer Raoul Coutard shot the movie cinema verite style with most handheld cameras and no lighting. It, along with jump-cut editing by Cecile Decugis, gives the film a restless, buoyant energy, like a juvenile puppy who just can't sit still.

Daniel Boulanger plays the police inspector hot on the trail of Michel, fat and imperious. Roger Hanin is Carl, an older journalist who is mentoring Patricia, giving her opportunities to interview a famous filmmaker (Jean-Pierre Melville), while also pressuring her into having sex. Michel follows them and is incensed with jealousy.

It may be this event, more than any actual emotions experienced, that prompt his obsessive behavior.

Belmondo and Seberg both became major international stars overnight as a result of "Breathless." The recent film "Seberg" follows her life later on when was dogged by the FBI for her sympathies with the Black Power movement, with Kristen Stewart portraying her as a woman of immense passion and naivete.

The ending of "Breathless" was deliberately ambiguous, with Michel dying in the streets after being shot in the back by police. With them and Patrician standing over him, he uses his last breaths -- "out of breath" is the literal translation of the title -- to spit insults at her while repeating some face-making expressions they had exchanged earlier in the movie.

She had just turned him into the police, mostly as a way to finally be rid of him, so it could be Michel is genuinely incensed at her. The impish mugging, though, suggest he's talking about the world in general and his own life, about which he seems to have little regard.

My guess is if I were an average filmgoer in 1960 I would have been amazed by "Breathless." It was a new type of cinema that was obsessed with youth and movement. The problem with being enamored with the young is that they don't stay that way, and today the movie feels old, trapped by conventions rather than subverting them.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Video review: "Maleficent: Mistress of Evil"

I’m not sure if we needed another “Maleficent” movie with Angelina Jolie dolled up in demoness makeup and ebony wings. But the truth is the sequel, undertitled as “Mistress of Evil,” is actually an improvement on the original from five years ago.

If you’ll recall they took the villainess from “Sleeping Beauty” and turned her into the star of the show. Here she’s a misunderstood figure, the queen of the Moors, the land where fairies and other oddball creatures live, protected from malevolent human hands by her magic. Aurora (Elle Fanning), aka Sleeping Beauty, is still here and no longer sleeping, and in fact as the story opens she’s about to marry some slack-jawed excuse of a prince.

That means meeting his parents, and it turns out the groom’s mother is Ingrith, queen of the neighboring kingdom of Ulstead. She’s got a major jones for fairy-hate, so pretty soon Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer) has managed to stoke inter-family resentments and started a war between their countries.

A side plot involves the discovery that Maleficent isn’t a unique creature, but part of a lost race called dark fey. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays their benevolent leader, while Ed Skrein is the young upstart with just as much bloodlust as the humans.

Despite the dour setting, there’s actually plenty of humor and light moments in “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil,” which leads to a more enjoyable picture. I don’t know if I’d call it magic, but sequels that surpass the originals is a rare trick indeed.

Bonus features are pretty decent. They include outtakes from the set, two extended scenes and a music video by Bebe Rexha, “You Can’t Stop The Girl.” There are also four making-of documentary shorts: “Origins of Fey,” “Aurora’s Wedding,” “If You Had Wings” and a visual effects reel.



Thursday, January 9, 2020

Review: "Like a Boss"

At first I thought "Like a Boss" was a semi-remake of "9 to 5" about women's struggles in the workplace, with a tyrannical female boss instead of a chauvinist male. Instead it's probably closer to "The Internship" or similar buddy comedies, in which professional challenges lead to two besties experiencing conflict.

It's a fun, frothy girl-power flick with a nice cast and good energy. It drags in the middle, but starts and ends well.

Tiffany Haddish has gobs of "presence," to use an old-fashioned Hollywood term. Whenever she's on screen, you're paying attention to her, no matter what anyone else is doing. She plays Mia, one half of a spirited duo of women who have been best friends since middle school.

Now in their mid-30s, Mia and Mel (Rose Byrne) have their own boutique cosmetics line. They're living the fun life, rooming together and partying with disposable boys while their friends are settling down and squirting out kids. Mel worries a little that they're missing out, but Mia has a "no regrets" mantra.

"We shouldn't feel bad about putting our careers first. It's what men do," she says.

Problem is, their company is a half-million in debt, which Mel -- the quieter, analytical one -- has hidden from Mia, the gregarious creative force. When they're approached by makeup tycoon Claire Luna (Salma Hayek) to invest in their business, it sows the seeds of an inevitable split between lifelong friends, followed by the ordained reuniting.

As a rule Hollywood movies don't focus a lot on the workplace because, well, most people's jobs are pretty boring. ("We need a spreadsheet montage to spice things up!") Even when they do, work is interrupted by a constant parade of lunches, dates, hangouts, errands, etc. Watching these movies you'd think people spend about three hours a week at the office.

Things follow a pretty predictable cycle as the pair work to ingratiate themselves into Luna's company, Ovieda. (Pronounced "Oh-vee-AY-da," not "Oh-VEE-do," the slightly redneck-y city near my Florida hometown.) Luna makes increasingly outlandish demands, then changes her mind, then drops them like a hot potato.

It's all part of her scheme to drive the friends apart and take controlling share of the company. Oddly, the partners are smart enough to insist on retaining 51 percent share of the company, but still let Luna dictate terms.

Hayek is done up in slathers of makeup and colored contacts, wearing tight-fitting clothes of flamboyant hue. She looks like a Barbie doll version of herself, a shoe-in for the "Obnoxiously Rich Housewives of Atlanta" cast.

The role is written as more reactionary than satirical, like a reptile eyeing its prey. It's funny for a bit, but just a bit.

Billy Porter and Jennifer Coolidge play Mel and Mia's employees, who are treated more like family. Karan Soni is Luna's toadying lickspittle in a one-joke role.

I liked Natasha Rothwell, Ari Graynor and Jessica St. Clair as Mia and Mel's other close friends, who love them dearly but are all on the mommy track. Despite the lighthearted nature of the movie, the five of them have some fairly authentic exchanges about the life/work balance challenges women face, and how those who choose independence end up feeling ostracized.

Also unexpected but appreciated is that the filmmakers (director Miguel Arteta, screenwriters Sam Pitman and Adam Cole-Kelly) don't try to shoehorn in obligatory love interests for Mia and Mel. Mia has a much younger boy-toy where they're both quite happy with frequent but non-committal hookups, and Mel brings some bro-dude home and then dismisses him like the help.

No, this is a movie about girl love: The kind of bonds women form over the years that might shift and crack but never shatter. It's not a terribly funny or ambitious movie, but file it under "I just liked spending time with these characters."

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Review: "Portrait of a Lady on Fire"

Do all lovers feel like they’re inventing something?
                                    -- Héloïse

I’m not generally inclined toward long, slow-burn period romances. I still recall the lavish praise for “Call Me By Your Name” from a couple of years ago with utter bafflement. I went into “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” with that fear in my mind, and came out entranced.

What an extraordinary achievement by writer/director Céline Sciamma (“Tomboy”). This is a film of haunting beauty and searing emotions.

On a remote island off the coast of France in the 18th century, an ambitious young painter, Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is hired to create a portrait of a wealthy widow’s daughter. Her father is a great portrait artist, and she yearns to follow in his footsteps while seeking a way to emerge from his shadow. Marianne hopes this commission will lead to more.

It turns out this is a nuptial portrait, which is how prominent families arranged marriages back in that era. A painting of the intended bride is sent to the groom to see if he will agree to wed her. It’s like Tinder for the 1700s, though it takes a lot more time and resources to swipe left.

Turns out Marianne is not the first painter hired. In her chambers she finds the portrait by her predecessor, a man, of a woman in an emerald green dress with the face left blank. It appears the subject, Héloïse, is refusing to pose as her way of rebelling against the forced marriage.

Marianne plies the young servant, Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), and learns more about the discontent. As the second daughter Héloïse enjoyed living in a convent. But her sister recently perished in a fall from the cliffs that remains mysterious. It now falls to the younger sibling to wed her sister’s would-be suitor.

Her mother (Valeria Golino) has come up with a plan: hire a female painter to pretend to be her companion. Since there were so few women artists in the day, Héloïse will not suspect. Marianne will study her by day and paint her at night.

The scene of their first encounter is quite a shocker. Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) wears a long blue dress and hooded cloak. She does not even look back at Marianne, but sprints for the cliffs overlooking the rocky beach. Then she stops suddenly, and turns her lovely, sullen face our way. A connection is made.

You can probably guess where all this is heading: the two women become infatuated with each other and commence a short, torrid affair. Marianne actually destroys her first completed painting as an excuse to extend the visit, but also because it didn’t reflect Héloïse’s uncaged spirit.

That’s something she will have to chase for herself.

Sciamma uses her camera to peer voyeuristically at the women, subverting the traditional male gaze as they stare at each other, and are stared upon.

At one point the women wander into a secret outdoor party of the local serving women -- an occasion to chatter, exchange goods and services and enjoy fellowship away from their daily toils. Suddenly a pair begin to hum, and then more begin to sing, and then the rest join in, some harmonic layers and other percussive pattering, adding textures of delicious aural joy.

This is a women’s tale, and men are virtually absent from it. When one finally appears in a scene after about 90 minutes of none, we’re momentarily shocked at the intrusion.

It’s not so much that men are unwanted in this story, it’s just that they’re… unnecessary. We do not miss their absence.

At the center are Merlant and Haenel, giving exquisite performances as two people who were not expecting to find love, but find they cannot turn away from it. This is one of the year’s great films.

Review: "Just Mercy"

“Just Mercy” is a fire-and-brimstone drama about the death penalty that brooks no disagreement. The hero is a crusading lawyer fighting to free a wrongfully convicted man from death row, and the villains are sneering cracker racists who refuse to admit when they’re wrong because it would somehow upset the entrenched Old South order of whites over blacks.

This is the sort of movie with multiple text rolls during the end credits that laud the virtuous while lamenting how much left there is to do (complete with debatable statistics).

Set in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, it’s very much a civil rights message in the spirit the 1960s, a la “Mississippi Burning” or “Malcolm X.”

I might quibble with the film’s politics but not with its artistic achievement. “Just Mercy” is a terrifically emotional drama that really gets your juices pumping. There are times where you identify so strongly with the main character, attorney Bryan Stevenson played by Michael B. Jordan, that you want to leap through the screen and strangle his antagonists.

Stevenson was a Harvard-trained lawyer -- I lost count of how many times folks in the movie make note of “Harvard” -- who decided to eschew the big law firms to start a legal defense fund for convicted murderers in Alabama called the Equal Justice Initiative. Before Stephenson arrived, no Alabama death row inmate had ever had his sentence set aside.

As the movie presents him, this isn’t really so much a character as a symbol. We leave the theater knowing little more about the real Bryan Stevenson than we did going in.

“Cute. Married?” an older black woman asks about Stevenson just of earshot. “Married to his work,” his colleague responds.

So it goes with his portrayal by screenwriters Andrew Lanham and Destin Daniel Cretton, based on Stevenson’s own memoir. Cretton, who made the wonderful “Short Term 12” that boosted the career of Brie Larson and launched that of Lakeith Stanfield, also directs.

Speaking of Larson, she shows up in a supporting role as Eva Ansley, Stevenson’s legal aid who went against her own community to fight for death row inmates. She starts out as a feisty figure, and then the movie forgets about her.

The two key supporting performers are Jamie Foxx and Tim Blake Nelson as, respectively, Walter “Johnnie D.” McMillian and Ralph Myers, both convicted murderers. The difference being that Myers, a white man, did his crime and pinned another on the black McMillian at the behest of the local sheriff (a chilling Michael Harding). Myers received a light sentence and McMillian got the death penalty, despite overwhelming evidence that he was somewhere else at the time an 18-year-old white pharmacy worker was gunned down.

These are two ravishingly good performances that will likely compete for an Oscar nomination in the supporting actor category, which tends to be very competitive. Foxx gives McMillian a sort of unsophisticated dignity beneath his seething anger -- shades of Morgan Freeman in “The Shawshank Redemption.” Nelson, wearing burn scar makeup and an assortment of tics, seems ready to shuck out of his own skin.

Two other actors of note: Rafe Spall plays Tommy Champan, the young public-defender-turned-DA who seems like he might be sympathetic but enforces justice with an inordinate emphasis on the blindness aspect.

And Rob Morgan is magnificent as Herbert Richardson, another death row inmate. Richardson is a Vietnam vet suffering from PSTD who bears heavy shame for setting the bomb that killed someone -- an act he does not deny in its effects, in contrast to his intent.

The Richardson sequence is powerful, so much so that at times it ends up detracting from McMillian’s story rather than underscoring it or acting as counterpoint. For a while it actually becomes his movie, and indeed it felt like his story could support its own entire film.

At a quarter-past the two-hour mark, “Justice Mercy” could have done with some judicious paring. But it’s hard to deny how compelling this movie is in a gut-punch way.

It won’t get any awards for subtlety, but when you’re dealing with the life-and-death reality of a justice system that has too often convicted African-Americans for crimes they didn’t commit, how much equivocation do we really need?

Review: "1917"

“Why do you care?” 
“Why do you not?”

“1917” is a film that you approach as a technical marvel and then are absorbed by its breathtaking humanity.

You probably have heard that this World War I drama from director Sam Mendes (“American Beauty”) is a “one shot” movie, with a single seemingly continuous take by a roving camera as it follows the soldiers around a vast, scarred battlefield. And at least for the first 15 minutes or so, I think that’s how you experience it.

“How did they do that?” is the question that comes urgently to mind. You imagine the staggering preparation and attention to detail that went into making sure a thousand different elements were in just the right place at just the right time. You wonder how many takes it required to get it just right – hundreds, it must be, right?

And yet, after that introductory period, I largely forgot about the form the movie took and experienced it at eye level. This is very much old-fashioned “you are there” existential storytelling, which has received something of a revival in recent films like “Gravity” and “Dunkirk.”

(For the record, I counted 10 cuts in the film to separate the pieces. One is fairly obvious, but the rest happen at times when the soldiers pass through a dark tunnel or behind an object in the foreground. Still, that means averaging 12 minutes for each take, which remains astonishing.)

Two British footsoldiers are selected for a prototypical Very Urgent Mission. They are Lance Corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay), two young everymen. As outlined by General Erinmore (Colin Firth), the Germans have set a trap by suddenly retreating several miles from their existing trenches to a new fortified line.

A headstrong colonel, Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch), is cut off from command and mistakenly believes he has the Germans on the run and the end of the war is in sight. He has planned an attack at dawn the next day in which 1,600 men will surely die unless Blake and Schofield can reach them on foot with a letter ordering a stand-down.

The twist is that Blake’s own brother (Richard Madden) is a lieutenant in Mackenzie’s unit. The general has, cruelly and/or brilliantly, given Blake an urgent incentive to carry out his orders.

We don’t learn a lot of specifics about Blake and Schofield during the course of the film – this is a journey story, not a character study. But a few details emerge to flesh them out.

The baby-faced Blake is headstrong and talkative while the tall, birdlike Schofield is a more passive follower. Blake’s family owns a cherry orchard back home and he was fondly looking forward to being there for picking season next month in May. Schofield went home once on leave and actually regrets it.

“It’s easier not to go back at all,” he says.

They also make a teasing game out of Blake’s resentfulness that Schofield has earned a medal and he has not. Blake would very much like to end the war a hero; Schofield is content just to see the end.

I cannot overstate the majesty and horror of the cinematography by Roger Deakins. Mendes, who co-wrote the script with Krysty Wilson-Cairns, and the production design team have literally created an entire world of grimy trenches and devastated buildings. On their errands the soldiers pass through pastoral beauty and cities that are reduced to just columns of stone, like indifferent Easter Island totems.

There is not very much actual fighting in the movie, though we see the results of it aplenty. The depiction of devastated bodies is haunting, often half-buried in rubble or mud. It’s as if they are being slowly consumed in layers of sediment, soon to be forgotten in the inexorable flow of epochs.

This movie will surely contend for big prizes during the awards season, and deserves to. Once you see the one-shot continuity as a tool rather than a gimmick, it becomes all the more impressive. War is hell, and “1917” is as dark and dire a descent into that perdition as we’ve seen.

Monday, January 6, 2020

What the Golden Globes mean for the Oscars

I don't watch the Golden Globes because the organization that hosts it is a complete joke and their picks are rarely adventurous and often ludicrous. However, it's become a staple of the movie awards season and all the big stars turn out for it.

It is, officially, an "event."

Receiving a GG is now considered second only to the Oscars in terms of a career boost, with probably a Screen Actors Guild award coming in third. So although the awards themselves are imho just this side of a joke, they undoubtedly have an influence on the Oscar race.

The Globes can solidify a film or performance that is already seen as a frontrunner. More notably, it can also shore up someone who's on the bubble and put them over the line of getting an Academy Award nomination.

Here's how I see the impact of this year's Globes:
  • A lot of people were surprised by "1917" winning best drama and Sam Mendes taking director, but I said right after I saw it that it would be a leading Best Picture contender. It has all the ingredients of a classic Oscar pedigree: period picture, wonderful production values, antiwar, previous winners on the creative team or cast, etc.
  • Renee Zellweger is now the frontrunner for Best Actress. It's a very competitive category with lots of terrific performances. But nostalgia for a Hollywood icon wins the day.
  • Ditto for Brad Pitt for best supporting actor. I disagree strongly with this win because I don't see his performance as much of a stretch for him. He's just playing himself: coolest mother-effer in the room.
  • I feel the same for Jennifer Lopez, who has been lobbying hard for awards. Laura Dern's wins looks like a career capper for her. A real pro who's been around a long time doing good work.
  • Joaquin Phoenix seems to have a solid lead in the Best Actor race. I don't see Taron Egerton, who won the award in the comedy/musical category, as a serious threat. (I would've rather seen that award go to Eddie Murphy.) Adam Driver is the main competition, though I think Christian Bale is the best of the lot.
  • Speaking of "Marriage Story," its failure to win a single award doesn't bode well. It even lost the original screenplay award to "Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood," which must be cringe-worthy to every screenwriter who can actually string scenes together. Its win in the best musical or comedy (a real stretch of the definition) means "Hollywood" is also among the frontrunners now for best pic.
  • REALLY surprised by the best animated film win for "Missing Link." I've been a big Laika fan but this was the weakest film they've produced. If this finally wins the Oscar for them after "Kubo and the Two Strings" failed to, it'll be like Martin Scorsese getting the Oscar for "The Color of Money."
  • I liked "The Farewell" even though it's not terribly ambitious. Awkwafina winning best actress in the comedy/musical race probably ensures her a spot on the Oscar nominees list. My girl Emma Thompson, who I think gave the best performance in any category this year, male or female, will probably be shut out.
  • There's been a lot of talk about "Parasite" becoming the first foreign language film to win the Best Picture Oscar, so I find it richly ironic that it couldn't even accomplish that in an awards given out by foreign journalists. (It wasn't even nominated, so maybe their rules are different.) Personally I think it's a fine film but nowhere near the best of the year, even among the foreign movies. Its win in the foreign language race would seem to seal its chances at the Oscars, though.
  • "The Irishman" is not going to be the awards juggernaut people thought a few months ago. Ditto for "Marriage Story." Netflix had a really good year this year -- "Dolemite Is My Name" is also quite swell-- but as the industry disruptor they're experiencing pushback from traditional Hollywood powers. Giving "Irishman" a BS theatrical run -- handful of big cities for a month, medium cities for a week -- ruffled feathers. Also, more people are recognizing it as an overlong rehash of Marty's 50 years of gangster flicks.
  • I did happen to flip on the TV just in time to see Tom Hank's speech, which was touching and nice. He's officially Hollywood's elder statesman now, protector of its mythology.
  • I read negative stuff about Ricky Gervais' scorched-earth monologue. Personally I'm all in favor of forcing showbiz types to be confronted with a mirror of their own arrogance. Now do D.C. 

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Video review: "Joker"

Like a lot of movies centered around a singular great performance, “Joker” suffers somewhat from being so dominated by its central character. This is, of course, the madman villain from the Batman franchise, indelibly played by Heath Ledger and less so by Jared Leto.

Now Joaquin Phoenix tackles the role in a grim, R-rated psychological drama that seems barely tethered to the comic book world that spawned it. Like Phoenix’s other amazingly off-kilter performances of recent years -- “The Master,” “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot” -- he brings such singular, loopy energy to the role that you come away believing no other actor could’ve played the part.

You could argue “Joker” is a comedy, especially as it’s directed and co-written (with Scott Silver) by Todd Phillips, best known for gross-out comedies like “The Hangover” trilogy. Certainly there is a dark undercurrent of humor here, with Phoenix playing Arthur Fleck, a pitiable clown whose dream is to make the whole world laugh.

But there’s so much of a creepy vibe as we follow Arthur on his journey toward becoming the Joker that you’re more likely to grimace than chuckle.

He lives with his mother (Frances Conroy), a feeble-minded invalid, and yearns after his down-the-hall neighbor, Sophie (Zazie Beetz). Just as things start to look up for him, Arthur begins a long spiral into madness and mayhem.

Robert De Niro plays Murray Franklin, the TV talk show host Arthur idolizes. When video of Arthur bombing at stand-up comedy goes viral, Murray is among those to pile on.

I’ve heard the complaint that “Joker” somehow idolizes “incels,” a term first used to describe, then insult, men who are unable to have relationships with women. I learn this has become an online community where men embrace the term and project their negative emotions on others, often in misogynist ways.

These critics must have not seen the movie I did. The idea that “Joker” is a celebration of pathetic loser who feels squeezed out by society is pretty bonkers from where I sit. Examining how a person reaches a place of utter nihilism is an act of creative bravery, not indulgence.

But maybe “Joker” is the perfect reflection of our age, in which we are urged to shun that which we don’t understand rather than engage with it.

Video extras are a mite disappointing, consisting of just four documentary featurettes:
  • “Joker: Vision & Fury”
  • “Becoming Joker”
  • “Please Welcome… Joker!”
  • “Joker: A Chronicle of Chaos”


Saturday, January 4, 2020

Tips for the New Year's Resolutionaries

 Re-upping my semi-annual greeting and guidelines to the New Year's Resolutionaries, aka the folks who vowed to get in shape. All this is offered with love, respect and a strong dose of reality.
  • Hey, welcome. No, really. I'm glad you're here. You've made an admirable goal for yourself. Everyone you see here made a similar vow at some point in their lives.Yes, I may have groaned loudly when I walked into the weight room because it's suddenly filled with people and now there's more competition/wait time for machines. Don't worry, I'll deal. In the meantime, here are some best practices to help us both.
  •  Speaking of wait times, don't hog a single machine for 10+ minutes. Don't just sit there resting between sets. If you wait two minutes, six other people could've gotten sets in between yours. Get up, move around. Make a rotation of several machines; if one's busy, just go on to the next. There's no rule that says you have to do all your sets at a station in a row. I will sometimes start and end my workout with a particular exercise.
  • Carry a towel and wipe down a station anywhere your body touched it. It's just common courtesy. And some people are seriously stanky.
  • If you hear a guy (nearly always a guy) loudly grunting/exhaling/verbalizing with each rep, drawing attention to themselves and distracting everyone, make sure to focus all your negative psychic energy at him. He is the enemy of all this is good and true.
  •  Resist the urge to buy a bunch of brand-new workout gear as motivation. Wearing your old stuff is fine, unless it seriously doesn't fit anymore. If you want to buy an article of clothing that's like three sizes too small, wait until you actually reach that size and then buy it. It'll feel much better as a reward than a cautionary totem sitting in your closet, taunting you.
  •  If you're not sure how a station works, ask somebody. Most will be glad to show you. If you're a total newbie hiring a personal trainer for a few sessions is a good move. If some muscle-head bro-dude interrupts your workout to say "you're not doing it right," feel free to ignore him because he's probably the same guy who grunts while he lifts.
  • Don't be a muscle groupie. This is usually a woman, but sometimes also a young guy, who is smitten by muscles and feels compelled to compliment and ask questions of the bodybuilders. You can identify them because they're following the biggest person in the gym around like a puppy. If someone bigger walks in, they instantly migrate.
  • Most serious exercise adherents don't actually want to get big muscles. We think it's gross and unnatural. Plus we're probably older and wiser and have better things to do with our time. The correlation between strength and size is surprisingly weak. If you lift regularly you will get stronger but won't necessarily get a lot bigger. Bigger is literally not better. Perversely, the steps people undertake to get really big -- pills, extreme dieting, water binging/fasting -- often impact their health negatively. 
  •  For all that is good and holy, don't stand in front of the mirror flexing. Or even looking in the mirror a lot. You may need to do that when you're first learning an exercise, but once you've got the motion down it's kinda creepy.
  • Look, most of you are going to be done by Valentine's Day. I'm not trying to be discouraging, just realistic. The business model of gyms is built around getting a lot of people to sign up for monthly subscriptions they end up not using very much. If everyone who had a membership showed up regularly they wouldn't have enough space/equipment/people to handle it. It's not very different from airlines overbooking flights or those gift cards you may have given or received during the holidays. Americans waste up to $3 billion on gift card funds that go unused ever year.
  • Remember when I said in my first bullet point that I'll deal with the crowds? This is why. Because I know they will seriously thin very soon. This isn't a wish, just the reality I've witnessed year in and year out. I hope you're one of those who stays. Or tries again in six months or a year and this time it sticks. And then you can write the next one of these.