Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Please join me at Substack


Hi everyone, especially long-time followers of this blog. When I started it in 2008, I had no idea that 13 years later I would still be posting here. Not many web-based endeavors last that long.

However, after much consideration, I've decided to stop posting new movie reviews here. After the Film Yap was started in 2009, that really became the primary "home" for my film writing. And now we're transitioning to Substack as our main platform. 

You've probably noticed that I've only been publishing preview versions of my reviews here lately with a link to the Substack. The idea was to nudge you that way. Now, continuing to post here seems redundant.

Please join me on FilmYap.Substack.com to continue reading my film work. It's a great new platform combining new and old ideas, so you can read new articles on the site or have them emailed straight to your inbox the minute they're published.

You can sign up for free, and if you like what you're reading by myself and nearly a dozen other contributors, please consider supporting our work with a modest subscription. filmyap.substack.com/subscribe

I appreciate your eyeballs and attention all these years. This blog isn't going to go away, as I now have an archive of thousands of articles, so they'll remain as long as Google lets me. And I may still use it for occasional personal essays and updates.

Until then...

Monday, September 6, 2021

Reeling Backward: "The Plainsman" (1936)


By any fair reckoning, "The Plainsman" is a pretty anachronistic example of Golden Age Hollywood filmmaking.

It's a rousing Western adventure movie that, other than accurately using the names of Wild Bill Hickock, Calamity Jane and Buffalo Bill Body, is pretty much a complete sham of the historical record, even by the mythological standards of Old West lore. Pretty much the only piece that seems to ring true is the death of Hickock, played by Gary Cooper, shot in the back by a gambler while holding the "Dead Man's Hand," aces and eights, that his last poker game would make legend.

And it's got a fairly typical attitude toward the depiction of American Indians for that time, showing them as murderous savages who must be conquered so the frontier can be, in the words of the film's ersatz Abraham Lincoln, "made safe" for the white man. And yes, most of the Indians are played by Caucasian actors in dusky makeup.

Still, it shows Hickock, a canny scout and sometimes-lawman, as having a sympathetic attitude toward at least one Indian chief, Yellow Hand (Paul Harvey), an old friend he used to hunt buffalo with. When Yellow Hand justifies his war by pointing out the white man broke his promise not to take their land, Bill acknowledges the truth of this. He doesn't even seem to hold a grudge that this campaign may include his own death by ritual burning.

But when you put it all together, "The Plainsman" still has a great deal of entertainment value and exciting gunplay, along with not a little glamor from Cooper and co-star Jean Arthur as Jane. 

Besides, as regular readers of this column know, I find the practice of discarding cultural artifacts because they don't accommodate modern sensibilities to be an unworthy endeavor. You cannot learn from history, even the cinematic kind, by dismissing it.

As a Cecil B. DeMille production, "The Plainsman" was not going to be a rough-and-tumble depiction of these characters like we would get decades later with the doggedly grimy show "Deadwood," or even the largely forgotten 1966 remake.

It's got top-notch production values and everybody's hair is always neatly combed into place. Calamity Jane wears pants and is shown to be a capable horse rider and coach driver, though we never see shoot anybody, relying on her handy whip when she wants to get her point across more forcefully.

And she's hopelessly in love with Wild Bill, impulsively kissing him a number of times and complaining when he rubs the back of his hand across his lips after. "You ain't wipin' it off -- you're rubbin' it in!" she teases.

Buffalo Bill, played by James Ellison, is relegated to third wheel here, disappearing for large stretches of the picture. As the story opens (screenplay by Waldemar Young, Harold Lamb and Lynn Riggs), Buffalo Bill has mustered out of the Union Army after the Civil War and promptly got himself hitched to a genteel lady from back East (Helen Burgess), while Wild Bill is determined to stay free of any yoke, be it military or womenfolk.

Of course, they soon find themselves roped into the coming Indian war, in which a number of tribes join forces against the U.S. government. The highlight is a battle where a few dozen soldiers bringing ammunition to beleaguered forts are themselves pinned down under sustained assault for six days. By the end the handful of survivors are nearly incoherent with PTSD except for the cool and collected Wild Bill, Coop displaying his usual taciturn, slow-spoken grit.

A 20-year-old Anthony Quinn makes one of his earliest screen appearances playing a rather fetching Cheyenne warrior who is captured by the Bills, Wild and Buffalo, and provides an enthusiastic description of Custer's Last Stand. Quinn was of Mexican, Irish and Indian (NOT American Indian) ancestry, and played virtually every ethnicity at some point in his varied career. 

The main villain is a fictitious gun dealer named John Lattimer (Charles Bickford) who is selling the advanced new repeating rifles to the Indians. An early scene shows the money-grubbing executives of some unnamed arms company conniving to use the new rules allowing for civilian oversight of the native tribes to choose profits over people. (Ever was it so...)

The first two-thirds of the picture are more or less taken up with the Indian wars, with the romance between Wild Bill and Calamity Jane fitting into the pauses, and the last act is the build-up and outcome of the confrontation with Lattimer. The rifle peddler proves to be wily and cowardly, recruiting a trio of army deserters to go after Bill, knowing that he will probably kill them but be labeled an outlaw himself as a result.

Indeed, this is just what happens, and Buffalo Bill is sent to bring him in, dead or alive. It appears they're angling toward a confrontation, sharing a campfire meal of coffee and jerky while eyeing their weapons, though it seems doubtful the old comrades would actually draw arms on each other. 

Wild Bill's final gunfight with Lattimer is rather abrupt and anticlimactic, Bill easily outgunning Lattimer and then, for some reason, taking his henchmen hostage and forcing them to play poker until the army arrives to arrest them. This gives an opening for Jack McCall (Porter Hall), a nervous little twerp who is usually seen smoking one of the effete new "cig-a-reets" from back East, to do Bill in.

This is, of course, not how Wild Bill died, or at least not the reason. The day before he'd offered charity to McCall after he lost badly at poker, and the man apparently took offense. The real McCall was actually found not guilty in his initial trial -- in a semi-formal "miners' court" -- but bragged so much about being the man who killed Wild Bill that he invited a second trial leading to his conviction and hanging.  

I didn't expect to like "The Plainsman." It's a very outmoded way of making movies, and certainly the mores of the time don't line up with ours. But DeMille & Co. knew exactly what audiences of that era liked, and kept them reliably fed with tasty fare. 

Eighty-five years on, it's still a satisfying cinematic meal.


Thursday, September 2, 2021

Review: "Who You Think I Am"


"There is no greater rival than the one that does not exist."

"Who You Think I Am" is a good movie, but also an interesting one. Don't laugh; they're rarer than you think. A few films are interesting but not very good, while many others are good yet the experience is like buying your favorite drive-through meal: you know what you're going to get. (Many more just aren't very good.)

This French drama starring Juliette Binoche presents us with a compelling character and story, but then layers in deeper meanings and gives us uncomfortable questions to contemplate. Instead of fast food, this film is like an eclectic meal of seemingly different tastes that don't seem like they would go together, but offer some intriguing combinations and contrasts.

Binoche plays Claire, a 50-year-old divorced high school teacher of French literature who, after being dumped by her much-younger boyfriend, creates a fake Facebook profile of a 24-year-old beauty. She then lures the ex's roommate into a virtual relationship that provides her with countless thrills, but leads down some very dark pathways.

Read the rest on Substack!

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Review: "Worth"


A movie that's basically a two-hour exploration of actuarial tables and intricate legal compensation rules may not sound very compelling. But "Worth," the new Netflix feature starring Michael Keaton as the man in charge of determining compensation for the victims of 9/11, is just that.

In this based-on-true tale, Keaton plays Ken Feinberg, a bigwig attorney focusing on a very specialized area: victim compensation funds. This is where an entity sets up a pile of money to give to victims and their families after a catastrophic event in exchange for not suing. It's a form of mediation, with the carrot of getting a hassle-free check right away and the stick that you might spend years, even decades, litigating in court and lose anyway.

Cantankerous and old-school, Feinberg's mantra is there is no such thing as fair or making people happy; he's trying to make them just happy enough to walk away.

When the Sept. 11 attacks happen and it becomes clear that mass lawsuits against the airlines and others could wreak havoc on the entire economy, Congress passes a compensation fund and gives broad latitude to the attorney, called a special master, in charge of coming up with a formula to distribute the dough. Feinberg enthusiastically volunteers and fights for the job, even though he's literally the only guy in the country who wants the gig.

Read the rest on Substack!



Review: "We Need to Do Something"


The idea for "We Need to Do Something" is better than the movie they made. This tense horror/psychological thriller has a family trapped in their bathroom while sheltering from a massive storm. They can't get out and their emotional fault lines, already amazingly fractured, grow to yawning chasms. 

Blood starts to flow and fears spike to the redline, especially as it becomes apparent there are supernatural forces at play.

With just five people, a movie needs distinctive, sharply drawn characters who we can relate to. But the family falls into fairly typical horror stereotypes -- the odd teen girl, the abusive dad, the innocent younger sibling, the harried mom who is fiercely protective of her kids. 

They behave more like puppets in a street show, performing the same old tropes and tricks we're used to.

Read the rest on Substack!


Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Review: "Flag Day"


What a small, lovely and exquisitely human film.

Most people will go into "Flag Day" knowing that it was directed by Sean Penn, who stars alongside his own kid, Dylan Penn, as they play a real-life father and daughter with a fraught relationship. Penn's son, Hopper, also appears in a smaller role playing the son. You don't often see parent-child acting combinations in movies, but when you do ("On Golden Pond") they tend to be indelible. 

This one certainly is.

When I say the movie is small, that is not meant as diminishment. Little movies can often have the biggest impacts. By small I mean it doesn't look or feel like a big Hollywooded-up production. 

Read the rest on Substack!

Review: "Together"


At first, "Together" has an undeniably sitcom-y feel. James McAvoy and Sharon Horgan play a couple who experience the COVID pandemic over the course of a year, addressing the camera directly a la Ferris Bueller.

The first interlude, days after the March 2020 shutdown, is ferocious and funny. They talk, laughingly but seriously, about how much they hate each other. They're PO'd that the coronavirus has pushed back their plans to split up. I was thinking, are director Stephen Daldry ("Billy Elliott") and screenwriter Dennis Kelly really going to use the worldwide devastation of COVID for snickering laughs?

But, no. The film soon grows deeper, more serious and richer. 

We visit them again in late spring, then summer, then winter, finally arriving full circle in March of this year. Things change, outwardly and inwardly. His hair grows longer and a bit grayer, finally ending up in a manbun. She cycles through waves of emotion, actually reaching a place of calmness and relative happiness before anger rolls in like an inevitable tide.

Read the rest on Substack!

Monday, August 23, 2021

Reeling Backward: "A Place in the Sun" (1951)


"A Place in the Sun" was a sensation when it came out in 1951, though its place among the cinematic greats has faded considerably. This, despite the fact it won the first Golden Globe for best picture. And it took six Oscars including director, screenplay, cinematography, editing and musical score, beating out "A Streetcar Named Desire" in all five categories.

I think most modern observers would call those prizes sorely misplaced.

It stars a powerhouse cast of Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor and Shelley Winters in a tragic love triangle based on Hoosier author Theodore Dreiser's book, "An American Tragedy" (unread by me), later turned into a play and then this movie, script by Michael Wilson and Harry Brown. Clift plays the poor nephew of a women's clothing magnate who is invited into a world of privilege, falls for a wealthy socialite but is conflicted after impregnating a female coworker.

There is very much a "The Great Gatsby" feel to the story, and the indeed this novel came out a few months after F. Scott Fitzgerald's in 1925. Though the film is set in contemporaneous times instead of the Roaring Twenties, much is made about the contrast between the wealthy and the poor, the perceived nobility of the privileged and the venality of the common folk. 

Read the rest on Substack!

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Review: "Cryptozoo"


"Cryptozoo" feels like a throwback to the late 1970s or early '80s -- an animated movie that is very much adult in tone and content, presenting a story that is both fanciful and cutting. There's lots of violence and nudity, though leavened with an environmental/moral message, making the whole enterprise seem like a more enlightened version of "Heavy Metal."

The story, set in the late 1960s, is about the world hiding multitudes of cryptids, or mythological creatures, that various factions of humanity want to exploit or help. Some of the cryptids are dangerous and beastly, others very human-like and intelligent. They're constantly in danger of being discovered, captured and sold into servitude.

There are mammoth scorpions, tiny imp-like critters, a South American snake as big as a skyscraper, figures with no head but a face on their torso, unicorns, pegasi, dragons and cryptids that are just dancing balls of light.

The film features voices by some name actors including Lake Bell, Michael Cera, Zoe Kazan and Peter Stormare. Written and directed by Dash Shaw, it features an animation team led by Jane Samborski. At first glance, the animation (largely hand-drawn, I believe) may seem to lack the sharpness and polish of what we've become used to, possibly even bordering an amateurish.

Read the rest on Substack!

Review: "Searching for Mr. Rugoff"


They say you have to be at least a little bit crazy to go into showbiz, and that's just for the people who appear on camera or on the stage. The background business of producers, agents, dealers and executives has its own special flavor of loony. But as with the talent, sometimes there is genius in extreme personalities and odd-thinkers, as explored in the terrific new documentary, "Searching for Mr. Rugoff."

No doubt you haven't heard of Donald Rugoff; I certainly hadn't. He was the son of movie theater chain owner who inherited the biz when he was just 26, including a bunch of prime spots on Manhattan's Upper East Side. He got into the distribution side so he could fill his screens with movies nobody could see anywhere else, especially foreign films, edgy indie flicks and documentaries.

Rugoff traveled the globe, meeting with directors like Ingmar Bergman, Francois Truffaut and Lina Wertmüller, championing their work and helping usher in the mainstreaming of non-Hollywood fare in the 1960s and '70s. It's fair to say he changed the course of cinema, or at least the way it is experienced in America.

Today he's virtually anonymous, without even a Wikipedia entry to his name. One of his employees, Ira Deutchman, who worked in the marketing and distributing of movies himself before becoming a producer, directs his first film at age 68 to tell the story of his former boss, with the search for Rugoff's forgotten grave as his root quest.

The documentary is part paean, part indictment of the man himself, but mostly an appreciation of eclectic filmmaking and the behind-the-scenes people like Don Rugoff who made it viable.

Read the rest on Substack!


Friday, August 13, 2021

Review: "Queen of the Beach"



"Queen of the Beach" is the story of Shilpa Poojar, a poor girl who peddles her trinkets, clothes and other wares at Anjuna Beach, an out-of-the-way tourist locale on the west coast of India. The documentary follows her progress over the course of nearly a decade, starting at age 8, though she has worked there since she was 5. 

There are millions of child laborers just like her. Though we talk about India as a growing economic powerhouse (or polluter), the truth is much of it still exists as a third-world country. At Shilpa's home village there is only intermittent electricity and they fetch water from the central fountain.

If Shilpa were a Golden Age Hollywood starlet, a producer would describe her as having "presence." Even meeting her as a skinny tyke, she is a bouncing ball of energy and charisma. She speaks English quite well -- along with smatterings of Russian, German, Japanese and other languages used by her customers. She has never been to school, and dreams of learning to read and write.

Over the years we watch her accomplishments and setbacks, see how she is held down by having to support her family -- even as her father and brother (the only child who was schooled) do not work. Her dream of an education seems to fly further and further away. 

Read the rest on Substack!

QUEEN OF THE BEACH | TRAILER 1 from Cleetche on Vimeo.

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Review: "Curiosa"


I don’t mind saying that I prefer American films to those from overseas. Saying this risks one being labeled a philistine, but the truth is that you can appreciate foreign cinema while syncing most closely with films that originate from your own culture.

But I’m also not afraid to say that there are certain things other nations’ filmmakers seem to be better at than us. The British do period costume dramas best. Ditto for martial arts films from Japan, Korea and China. And nobody consistently makes such unabashedly erotic movies as France.

(Though the Spaniards have spent the last quarter-century trying to catch up.)

“Curiosa” seems almost an oddity in our increasingly repressed age. Though it’s told from a feminine perspective, and directed and co-written by a woman, Lou Jeunet, it takes unapologetic pleasure in gazing at beautiful female bodies (with not a little male parts too). It’s a story about love and sex, how they intertwine and how they sometimes do not, and the pain and enjoy that derive from them.

Read the rest on Substack!


Monday, August 9, 2021

Reeling Backward: "Cul-de-sac" (1966)


"Cul-de-sac" was Roman Polanski's third feature film after the international attention of "Knife in the Water" and "Repulsion," both centering on twisted depictions of sexual desire and identity -- themes that would come to mark his entire career (and personal life). So of course he returned to familiar ground with this sun-drenched tale about an encounter between criminals and an effete British man and his libertine French wife.

This film has been sometimes described as a comedy, which I guess would fit if you add the "pitch black" descriptor. Absurdist might be more apt, as it's a look at two polar opposites of manhood with a sexually powerful woman in the middle of the sandwich. 

Languid and indulgent, it's drenched in irony and pathos, earnestness and parody. Narratively and thematically it's so similar to "Straw Dogs" that I wonder if it, or at least the 1969 novel it was based on, was copped from Polanski's picture.

Coming at a time when foreign art films were taken more seriously than American mainstream ones, people usually approach movies like this primarily with the impetus of interpretation -- aka, "what does it all mean?" I'm not sure how intently Polanski or any filmmaker thinks about how their work will be written about in film journals and academic circles years down the road. 

I tend to eschew this sort of film criticism because it is so spectacularly subjective. The writer doesn't want to talk to you about the movie, they want to talk about themselves -- and, frankly, most critics (me included) aren't really interesting enough to do that past barest brevity.

The story is rather simple and straightforward. Two criminals wounded from some unspecified heist gone wrong stumble across a retired English chap and his much younger wife living in a tidal island castle. Cut off from land by the rising waters, there is a standoff that grows increasingly intense while the beefy gangster physically and emotionally intimidates the couple until violence inevitably erupts.

Using a more squarish aspect ratio in rich black-and-white, Polanski repeatedly frames the actors to accentuate the difference in physique between George, the husband played by Donald Pleasence, and Lionel Stander's hulking Dickie. 

Pleasence, usually remembered for a rather stout appearance, is shriveled down to almost nothing. With his shaved head and spectacles, George rather resembles a puny bird freshly hatched from the egg, all awkward limbs and big, pleading eyes. Dickie towers over him with wild, mangy hair and wears a sport coat with no shirt on underneath, looking like a lamed gorilla with his right hand tied up in an ad hoc sling.

How he got this wound is never revealed. We first meet him pushing a broken-down stolen car along the beachside causeway with his partner, Albie (Jack MacGowran), laid up in the front seat all shot up in the belly. We intuitively grasp that Dickie is the muscle and Albie is the brains of the outfit. There's actually a strong resemblance between Albie and George, so perhaps Dickie's later antagonism is tied to seeing them as little twerps who boss guys like him around.

Dickie leaves Albie in the car to go get help, not realizing the rising tide will flood the causeway and cut them off from the mainland. Along the way to the castle, the only structure around, he spies George's lithesome blonde wife, Teresa (Françoise Dorléa), cavorting on the beach semi-nude with a young neighbor, Christopher (Iain Quarrier), presumably after a bout of lovemaking.

Dickie hides out in the barn, slurping raw eggs from Teresa's astonishingly large flock of chickens, until Christopher and his parents leave by boat. That night he sneaks into the house and calls his boss, Katelbach, to send help to pick them up. 

The film was shot at Lindisfarne Castle in Northumberland, a real place that is named in the movie, though it is given a fictional backstory as the place where Sir Walter Scott wrote "Rob Roy."

It's interesting how casual Dickie is about his invasion. He just sort of shows up in their kitchen, assuming that George and Teresa will follow his orders after vague threats of violence, which is exactly what they do. 

Throughout the next night and day, Teresa constantly berates George for not standing up to Dickie -- even when she claims, falsely, that he made sexual advances on her. For his part Dickie seems repulsed by women in general and Teresa in particular, even though she flaunts her nude body to him on several occasions.

Part of George's emasculation is quite literal. Right before they came downstairs and found Dickie, Teresa was playfully dressing George up in one of her nightgowns when he couldn't find his pajama shirt, followed by crudely drawing on eye makeup and lipstick, plus a wig. In his haste at hearing a noise downstairs he doesn't remove these accoutrements, so Dickie and Albie, eventually rescued from the nearly flooded car, assume he is "queer."

His initial embarrassment is understandable, though as time went on I found his cowardice in the face of Dickie straining credulity. We learn that George was an officer in WWII, though he later apologetically qualifies that he was "in tanks" -- as if somehow tank officers don't go through basic training including hand-to-hand combat.

Plus, other than his size Dickie is really not that impressive a physical specimen. Stander was nearly 60 years old when the movie was made, and moves about with all the physical grace of a paunchy man of late middle years whose diet consists of beer and sausages. Plus, Dickie only has the one good meathook.

Albie, for his part, is completely immobilized and soon dies. So it seems any sort of improvised weapon, even the large skillet George uses to make omelettes, could have won the day. Though Dickie is later revealed to have a revolver in his coat pocket and has a Tommy gun in the back seat of his car.

The following morning brings unexpected guests to the castle, an old war compatriot of George's, blowsy Philip (Robert Dorning) and his wife, Marion (Marie Kean), along with their little brat of a son. They also have another couple with them, a somewhat younger man named Cecil (William Franklyn), who Teresa soon sets about furiously flirting with, along with his companion (wife?), who never says a word but is played by Jacqueline Bisset in her first credited screen role.

An interesting dynamic ensues. Teresa pretends that Dickie is their gardener/servant, and takes great delight in ordering him about to tote and cook. Dickie goes along, griping constantly and complaining about his bum arm, and we get a glimpse of what his life was probably like when Albie was alive and ambulatory.

George, who seems to have turned a blind eye to Teresa's sexual proclivities, is annoyed by her attention to another man. He becomes increasingly frustrated with the visitors, finally instigating a row that sends them off in a huff. Notably, he never takes advantage of the opportunity that there are now three able-bodied men to overpower Dickie.

We also learn a little more about George, including that he was a well-to-do factory owner who pitched everything in his old life, including his former wife Agnes, to marry a hot young French lass and live "the life of Riley," puttering around and painting beach portraits. 

Underneath, though, is a wave of pent-up regret and lassitude about his meaningless existence.

When Dickie learns that Katelbach is not coming, he becomes morose and his pent-up hostility toward George and Teresa rises to a boil. Even though they have been completely subservient to him, he resents their snobbery and "not being straight" with him, as he has been with them. 

In Dickie's neanderthal mind, being honest about hurting the couple if they don't obey him is more "straight" than using distraction and deception to escape his clutches.

Teresa, having begged for a display of violence between the two men, cowers and flees when it finally occurs. The woman-as-temptress is a common theme in Polanski's filmography, and it often seems to be mixed with his signature blending of desire and repulsion. We are continually invited to gaze upon Teresa, and she simultaneously harbors enjoyment of this act with contempt for those who partake.

The story ends with Dickie dead, Teresa run off with Cecil, George's car blown up and him perching on a rock over the flooded causeway like a stranded seagull, lamenting for his ex-wife, Agnes. It seems this timid little fellow took too literally the creed that his home is his castle, and found himself unmanned.

Like Polanski's other films, even when it's not that good it's always interesting... if in a twisty, bendy, itches-under-your skin sort of way.


Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Review: "Annette"

“Annette” is going to be one of those movies that people ardently love and hate… or more likely stubbornly ignore. Sometimes you can just spot ‘em.

Try this description on for size: Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard are a world-famous standup comedian and soprano singer, respectively, who fall in love and have a daughter, who is a puppet. Later one of them dies under suspicious circumstances, and the kid is blessed (or cursed) with magical powers. It’s two hours and 20 minutes long, contains some pretty explicit sex, and is directed by a French guy (Leos Carax) you probably haven’t heard of.

Oh, and it’s a musical, with nearly every line of dialogue sung courtesy of tunes from the 70-something brothers who form the eclectic pop band Sparks, Ron and Russell Mael, who are also listed as the screenwriters. (They also briefly appear and sing in the film for the “before the show” number, “So May We Start.”)

At this point, you’re either intrigued or have run out the door. I’ll confine the rest of this review for the former group.

Read the rest on Substack!

Review: "Vivo"


Somehow I've gotten this far without being exposed to much of Lin-Manuel Miranda's songwriting. I'm the last person in America who hasn't seen "Hamilton." I had a conflict and reviewed something else than "In the Heights." I don't listen to a lot of radio other than my local NPR station, watch much TV (movies are my game) or pay attention to Broadway.

So "Vivo," the new animated film from Sony debuting on Netflix, is pretty much my first serious exposure to the EGOT-chasing Miranda's musical creations. And, I have to say, I'm not impressed.

I know, I know. Blasphemous. He's a modern master, they say, combining hip-hop rhythms and rap-patter delivery of lyrics with traditional Broadway melodies. 

Maybe "Vivo" is just an off outing for him. Maybe I'm tin-eared. (I am, admittedly, partially deaf, though I can just turn up the volume and think I can judge what I do hear just fine.) But musicals pretty much live or die by the catchiness of the songs, and I only counted one or two that got my toe to briefly tapping. 

Read the rest on Substack! 


Friday, July 30, 2021

Review: "The Green Knight"


If you're a buff of the Arthurian legends -- what, you mean every 9-year-old wasn't checking out "Le Morte d'Arthur" from the public library? -- the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is well known to you. It's a parable about bravery and honesty, as one of the most steadfast knights is faced with a strange challenge and finds himself lacking.

"The Green Knight" is far from what most people expect of a King Arthur movie. One of my all-time favorite films is "Excalibur," one of the first R-rated movies I ever got to see, and this movie from writer/director David Lowery is decidedly not that.

It's a moody, existential exercise that has very little action or traditional narrative. It's written and directed by David Lowery, who has made mainstream fare like "Pete's Dragon" but also "A Ghost Story" and "Ain't Them Bodies Saints," dreamy films that are almost experimental in their eschewing of usual forms of storytelling.

It's visually resplendent, dark, deliberately hard to decipher. You will occasionally have trouble understanding what people are saying or what is going on. It's not so much the kind of movie that you watch and enjoy as an experience that slowly absorbs into your skin.

Imagine if Terrence Malick made a Knights of the Round Table movie -- that's the best description I can give.

Read the rest on Substack!

Monday, July 26, 2021

Reeling Backward: "Some Kind of Wonderful" (1987)


"This is 1987. Did you know a girl can be whatever she wants to be?"
"I know. My mom's a plumber."

It has been claimed that John Hughes wrote "Some Kind of Wonderful," which is in many ways a remake of "Pretty in Pink," strictly so he could finally have the ending he always wanted where the two misfits wind up together instead of Blane winning out over Duckie. If so, he brings some interesting notes to the fore despite the film not being nearly as engaging or enduring.

Hughes again turned over the director's chair to Howard Deutch, who had previously helmed "Pink" as his first feature film in that role. Actually, he fired Deutch after he disagreed about the casting, only to be rehired when his replacement, Martha Coolidge, was herself canned. 

Hughes, who could be prickly and demanding of loyalty, also parted ways with his personal muse, Molly Ringwald, after she turned down a role in "Wonderful" because she was ready to be done with teen roles.

(Alas, audiences felt the same way about her once she graduated, cinematically speaking, from high school.)

I would've thought that Hughes wanted Ringwald for the role of Amanda, the popular, perfect girl who was eventually played by Lea Thompson. No, he actually wanted her for the part of gruff, drum-playing tomboy Watts, which instead went to Mary Stuart Masterson. I loved Masterson in that role, especially the mix of toughness and vulnerability she brought to the screen. But I can't help imagining what Ringwald would've done with it.

Hughes, who wrote from the heart but was still a Hollywood opportunist, actually did a ton of music chair-pulling for this film. 

It was about to go into production when "Pretty in Pink" came out and became a huge hit, and Hughes found himself with newfound clout. He fired Kim Delaney, who was to play Amanda, and got Thompson, who initially turned down the part but agreed after her first starring role, "Howard the Duck," was a tremendous flop

Also canned was Kyle MacLachlan as Keith Nelson, the drippy boy leg of this love triangle. They tried to get Michael J. Fox, but got the hand after the smash hit of "Back to the Future," which Thompson co-starred in, and settled on Eric Stoltz instead, who himself had been fired from "Future" for not having the proper comedic touch. 

He was better known for dramatic roles like "Mask," and after a rewrite of the script morphed "Wonderful" from a straight teen comedy to something moodier like "Pink," Stoltz seemed a good fit.

I'm not so sure.

Like Andrew McCarthy's creepy Blane in "Pink," Keith is strangely under-developed as a character -- despite being the ostensible protagonist. Stoltz play him with a sort of moony, fatalistic charm as the poor kid who aspires to the hand of the prettiest girl in school. He soon learns that Amanda's slithery ex-boyfriend, Hardy Jenns (Craig Sheffer), is looking to set him up for a beating and mistakenly thinks she's in on the plot.

At this point the movie takes a strange swerve, as Keith is determined to continue the date despite it all being one big joke. He even goes so far as to withdraw all the money he's been saving for college working in a gas station to buy expensive diamond earrings for Amanda, which he will present to her as a token of his determination not to back down from... life, or something.

I'm reminded of Matthew Modine's role in "Vision Quest," in which he is resolved to drop two weight classes to take on the best wrestler in the state, just to prove that he has the fortitude to tackle such an undertaking. 

Stoltz' Keith is too passive and unassuming to seem capable of such a move, though. He plays the movie with a lot of shy smiles and high-pitched line deliveries, his voice actually above that of his two leading ladies. 

A side story about Keith having a quiet contest of wills with his father (John Ashton) about picking a college seems shoehorned in without much thought. Keith has good grades and is an aspiring artist, so why wouldn't he want to go to college? His dad is angling toward a business school, but a state college would surely have some creative courses he could explore. 

For his part the dad just wants his son to go to university because he couldn't, and wants him to become the first member of the family who 'doesn't have to wash his hands at the end of a work day.'

I was glad the movie made an effort to explore Amanda, a character who usually gets buttonholed in films like this. She has certain negative qualities, like using her beauty to get what she wants and enjoying going with Hardy, just because he's rich and popular. But she herself is not part of the upper-crust crowd, seeing her relationship with Hardy as the means to go through a door otherwise barred to her. She eventually dumps him after his serial cheating becomes too much to take.

She accepts the date with Keith basically just as a way to get out with Hardy, and truly seems to have no interest in him. But she comes to grow and accept that Hardy and her erstwhile friends (Holly Hagan chiefly) aren't worth the corrupting effect they have on her soul. 

The most interesting character, of course, is Watts. Masterson gets a short, vaguely punk haircut and androgynous clothes to wear -- including, famously, boys' boxer shorts that she gets teased about in the girls' locker room. Watts (I'm guessing that's her last name; we never hear any other) watches Amanda from across the changing room, admiring her feminine curves and rubbing her hands over her own body in a regretful way. Very female gaze-y.

(Interesting aside: in their few scenes together, the camera takes pains to make Watts seem bigger and more intimating than Amanda, though both actresses are the same height.)

Watts is a classic screen rebel, rejecting all the tropes and conventions of those around her while secretly pining to fit in and share the comfort of convention. We get the sense that she and Keith are only fairly recent friends, and that she has had feelings for him the whole time without ever expressing them. She loves a boy, but still waits passively -- albeit with a lot of dropped hints -- for him to act.

This being a 1980s popular film, "Wonderful" edges around some LGBT questions without ever directly addressing them. Watts is called a lesbian one time, and doesn't seem particularly bothered by it, and often mimics her oppressors by repeating the claim that she's not 'really a girl.' She's just enough of a feminist to cherish her individualism and right to make choices but not enough to tell Keith to go stuff it, which is what a truly self-assured young woman would do.

Elias Koteas turns up as Duncan, a skinhead antagonist of Keith's who winds up becoming his guardian after they bond during detention. He seems significantly older than the rest of the cast, though he, Thompson and Stoltz were all 26 when the movie came out. Masterson was the kid at 21.

I was struck during the movie by how compliant the school officials are with the kids' behavior. Hardy invades the girls' locker room while carrying on an argument with Amanda, calls the coach a bitch and just gets detention for it. Keith deliberately sets off the fire alarm and receives similar punishment. Despite having a knife, Duncan never gets suspended. Amanda sweet-talks her way out of detention by flirting with the driver's ed coach.

"Some Kind of Wonderful" was a modest hit, but has faded into the grayish zone of '80s teen movies, which is probably where it belongs. It feels less like a fully-formed film in of itself than borrowed leftovers from John Hughes' oeuvre. At least we get to see the boy as the object of affection, instead of only being the pursuer.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Review: "Val"


Celebrity can be a blessing, a curse and a drug -- often all, and for the same person.

Consider the lifespan of movie stardom. Maybe one out of 10,000 young film actors breaks out of the pack, and even then their heyday usually lasts a few years at most. You can be one of the most famous people in the world, and just a few beats of a lifetime later you're largely forgotten.

"Val," the new biographical documentary about (and largely by) Val Kilmer is a testament to the fleeting, fickle nature of celebrity. It's essentially one actor's cinematic diary, shot by himself using handheld video cameras dating back to his childhood when they first became available to the general public, and he and his brothers made all sorts of movies.

He looks back on his life and movies with the sort of clear-eyed honesty you don't get from a Hollywood celebrity, even a washed-up one.

Read the rest on Substack!


Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Review: "Broken Diamonds"


I'm a big fan of Lola Kirke, a young actress whose name you probably don't know. She's worked  in indies and smaller films over the past few years, building a solid resume without ever breaking into stardom. 

I'm not sure if that's something she'll ever achieve, mostly because she doesn't seem to want it. 

Kirke has what the old Hollywood moguls called "presence" -- when she's onscreen, she's always the one you're watching. She's comfortable in her own skin and isn't afraid to show her characters' flaws, inside or out.

She's got an interesting mix of vulnerability and stubbornness, often playing young women who aren't very sure of themselves but find a reason to trust their own authenticity. Check out "Mistress America," in which Kirke was terrific opposite Greta Gerwig.

I was less enthralled with her newest turn, "Broken Diamonds," out this week on VOD. She plays Cindy, a woman with serious mental illness, in her case schizophrenia. But the movie's not really about her, instead focusing on Cindy's brother Scott, played by Ben Platte.

Read the rest on Substack!

Review: "Joe Bell"

“Joe Bell” has its heart in the right place. It’s also one of those movies that very much wants you to know it has its heart in the right place, and insists you feel good about the rightful placement of said heart.

Based on the true journey of the titular character, Mark Wahlberg plays a man walking across America to raise awareness after his gay son is mercilessly bullied. The film has a lot of admirable qualities, but also feels like it’s trying too hard. It seems less like storytelling and more cinematic virtue-signaling.

Bearded, creased and scraggly, Wahlberg gives a solid performance that nonetheless contains no surprises. I knew every step of this guy’s journey, both geographically and emotionally, before each heel hit the asphalt.

Read the rest on Substack!


Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Review: "6:45"


When "Palm Springs" came along last year to do a serio-comedy using the same time loop idea as "Groundhog Day," I thought just enough time had passed -- 27 years -- for audiences to be ready for another crack at the material without it seeming like a total copycat. 

A few months later came "6:45," this time with a trippy horror/thriller tilt. The big difference is that involves a couple on an idyllic vacation who keep experiencing the same day that always ends in their gruesome murder. 

The divergence with "Palm Springs" is that only one of them is aware of the time trap they're in.

Read the rest on Substack!

Review: "The Boys in Red Hats"


How often I lament the low state of documentary film these days. There are more of them than ever, many of them on political topics, usually taking a particular point of view if not outright advocating for a cause. Last year saw a swath of documentaries leading up to the fall election that were little more than thinly disguised propaganda made for no other reason than to sway voters.

Some were so egregious they should’ve been required to be listed on FEC forms as campaign contributions.

So I did not hold high hopes for “The Boys in Red Hats,” a doc about the now-infamous incident on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 2019 when, it seemed, a group of MAGA-wearing young hooligans surrounded and taunted an elderly Native American man beating a drum.

Read the rest on Substack!

Review: "Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain"

I had mixed, and mostly ambivalent feelings about Anthony Bourdain while he was alive.

The chef-turned-author-turned-television personality made shows that didn’t really interest me where he traveled around the globe, sampling food and conversation as sort of a full-time cultural gourmand. He seemed more interesting and engaging in talk show or stage Q&A appearances, and I appreciated his non-fussy approach to food, something that often puts me at odds with dining professionals.

It’s hard not to like a guy who could crank out complicated gourmet recipes from memory, but also proudly expressed his admiration for a greasy In-N-Out burger.

The new documentary, “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain,” is a revelation. Not since “Amy” made me completely rethink my perceptions of doomed singer Amy Winehouse has a non-fiction film delved as deeply and authentically into the life of a troubled famous person -- someone others looked upon with awe and envy but who (mostly) silently suffered a long, dark journey of the soul.

Read the rest on Substack!

Monday, July 12, 2021

Reeling Backward: "Last Train from Gun Hill" (1959)


There's a surprising amount of flesh and steel in "Last Train from Gun Hill," a largely forgotten Western that builds up to a real-time bloodletting in the mold of "High Noon" and "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral." The latter was also directed by John Sturges and starred Kirk Douglas, and even much of the crew and background cast tagged along again.

There is not one but two scenes featuring topless women, albeit carefully obscured for Production Code compliance, including one offscreen rape. They actually use the word "rape" in the movie, which is in itself pretty astonishing for 1959.

Douglas' character, Marshal Matt Morgan, is notably hard-bitten and cunning, essentially taking a young man hostage and threatening to murder him. Though Morgan professes to never have killed an unarmed man, he certainly seems prepared to do just that, holding a double-barreled shotgun under his quarry's chin as he marches the lad down the titular town's dusty streets in the film's signature penultimate sequence.

It's now out in a splendid remastered Blu-ray from Paramount that's well worth checking out. The VistaVision colors are achingly vibrant and the screen image is as crisp as the day it hit theaters. A first-class restoration.

Morgan's best friend is Craig Belden, played by the immeasurable Anthony Quinn. It's suggested they rode together on the wrong side of the law back in the day. Now, in the fading years of the Wild West when things have become much calmer and gunplay unfamiliar, they find themselves become aging relics: one the upstanding lawman, the other the uncompromising cattle baron who essentially owns the town.

In a by-then familiar switcheroo on cinematic tropes, it is Morgan who wears the black hat and coat, while Belden is outfitted in an unassuming blue shirt, tan leather vest and white Stetson. If you knew nothing of the movie and saw photos of their get-ups, you'd assume their roles were opposite.

It's interesting that the script by James Poe, based on a story by Les Crutchfield, takes pains not to portray Belden as a maniacal dictator or Morgan as a pure-hearted do-gooder. Each in their own way is hidebound by their ethos as self-made individualists, and their inability to bend to changing times sets up their inevitable confrontation.

The story is set into motion when Morgan's wife, a Cherokee woman (played, sigh, by Israeli-Amerian actress Ziva Rodann), is brutally murdered by a pair of drunken cowboys while she is driving her 9-year-old son, Petey (Lars Henderson) home to their quiet town of Pauley. She manages to lay open one of her attacker's cheeks with the whip. The boy takes the killer's horse and rides back to tell all to his pa, the marshal.

The saddle is a handsome black-and-silver job with the CB brand Morgan recognizes as his friend's. Assuming the horse was stolen, he takes the train to Gun Hill with a pair of John Doe warrants in his pocket. He goes to see Belden, and their reuniting is both bittersweet and genuinely heartwarming, old range riders now widowers -- one recent and raw, the other long ago.

Both men quickly surmise, though, that the culprit with the cheek scar is Belden's own son, Rick (Earl Holliman), a disappointing offspring who the rich man clings to with a domineering sort of love-shame hybrid. Belden offers to let Morgan have the other man, Lee Smithers (Brian Hutton), but forbids him to arrest Rick.

Now, if Belden & Son had half a brain between them, they'd quickly decide it best for the young scallywag to hole up at their ranch, with the solitary Morgan having no chance to plow through Belden's several dozen gunmen to apprehend him. But then we wouldn't have a movie, so of course he traipses off to Gun Hill to gamble and drink, where he is quickly knocked out and taken captive by Morgan. He handcuffs Rick to the bed of a hotel room, awaiting the 9 o'clock late train back to Pauley.

At this point, the movie settles into a slow-burn affair with Belden and his toughs staking out Morgan in the hotel, alternating between exchanges of dialogue and bullets. 

There seems no possible way Morgan can get Rick to the train, with literally the entire town against him. The local lawman, Bartlett (Walter Sande), not only refuses to assist Morgan, he actually goes so far as to refuse to wear a badge or acknowledge he is the sheriff, arguing for a "long view" of the law that doesn't encompass crossing Belden.

The actual mechanics of the standoff aren't terribly interesting. What is is that neither man ever for a second considers backing away one inch from his position. Morgan is clearly motivated as much by a sense of personal revenge as duty to the law, even at one point musing that he'll leave Lee behind if he has to in order to see Rick to the hangman.

Belden, for his part, seems plainly confused and hurt that his best friend -- the only man in the territory he considers his equal -- would try to take his son away from him. The life of an Indian woman doesn't tip the scales one iota against the blood of his only child. Belden doesn't want to kill Morgan, but sees no other way if he continues on his stubborn path.

The confounding variable is Carolyn Jones as Linda, Belden's saloon worker (prostitute?) turned estranged mistress. She bumps into Morgan on the train ride back to Gun Hill and instantly takes a shine to him. It turns out she's just returned from an extended hospital stay resulting from Belden's latest beating, apparently after Rick was spreading lies about her nocturnal activities.

I knew I recognized Jones from somewhere, with her impossibly big eyes and narrow waist, and finally learned she played Morticia Addams in the original "The Addams Family" show that debuted five years later.

The attraction between Linda and Morgan is palpable, so it's no surprise when she helps him by acting as go-between with Belden, and even sneaks him the shotgun previously mentioned. She also clearly still has conflicting feelings for Belden, so it's something of a low-wattage love triangle.

(Again with my literalist quibbles: Morgan asks her for a shotgun, saying he needs one for what he has to do. But why wouldn't the same scenario of him force-marching Rick to the train station work if it was a six-shooter snugged up under his jaw instead of a double-barrel? The unsatisfying answer: because then we wouldn't get that great visual, or have something to drive the Morgan-Belden-Linda dynamic.)

Aside from the cowardly sheriff, there aren't a ton of notable supporting characters. Val Avery plays Steve, bartender at one of Belden's saloons, friend to Linda and someone sensible enough to acknowledge that the cattleman's rule is unjust but he isn't the one to oppose it. Beero (Brad Dexter) is Belden's cigar-chomping right-hand man, performing whatever duties required including besting Rick in a fistfight at his boss' behest.

Holliman as Rick isn't give a lot to do but bellyache and beg. He isn't necessarily an evil kid, just a weak soul spoiled and bullied by his father. We're not sad to see him go, the victim of a stray bullet from Lee, though his death prompts Belden to demand a quick-draw duel with Morgan, who seems positively weary at the prospect.

I admired a lot of things about this film, and in fact was left wanting more. At just a hair over 90 minutes, the movie moves very quickly through its plot steps without a lot of Dosey Doeing around into deep character investigation. I would've loved to see some flashback sequences of the two rivals as younger men, including the incident referenced several times where Belden saved Morgan's life.

That could have signified the strength of their bond, rather than just alluding to it, and maybe also hinted at early indications of the potential for a fallout... perhaps around the time they parted ways.

"Last Train from Gun Hill" is still a solid Western, rather daring for its time, one that relies more on telling than showing its bitter, shadowy heart.


Thursday, July 8, 2021

Review: "Black Widow"

We’re in an interesting phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) right now, somewhat adrift -- but also open to fresh possibilities.

A decade of carefully interlocking movies culminated with “Avengers: Endgame,” with a number of pivotal characters definitively dying (not just “ashed” and then came back a la the Infinity Stones.) Now they’re turning up in Disney+ streaming shows like “WandaVision” and “Loki” and, with “Black Widow,” the first post-“Endgame” feature film.

(As you may recall, it was supposed to be released more than a year ago, so absent COVID it would have been out months before those shows.)

How does the movie get around the death of Natasha Romanoff, aka the former Russian superspy Black Widow? That’s easy enough: the story is set five years ago, in the in-between space after “Captain America: Civil War” and before “Infinity War,” when she was on the lam from her own government.

This film is essentially an origin story/reexamination of the character, with star Scarlett Johansson getting a chance to show more color and shadings for Natasha. We saw bits and pieces of them in the movies, but they had to be squeezed in between the big story pieces and male dominance of the MCU.

These are really the best parts of “Black Widow” -- learning about how Natasha morphed from abandoned kid to international heroine, dealing with lingering family schism (more on that in a minute) and exploring her journey from tragedy to redemption. This is a character who has outwardly expressed impervious confidence while hiding enough self-loathing to fill a Dostoevsky novel.

The action scenes are plentiful -- a little too much so, imho -- and can get repetitive, bordering on dull. Of course, we’re dealing with all normal, if exceptional, humans here with a paucity of super powers on display. There’s a self-conscious acknowledgement of this, with someone mentioning to Natasha that she previously enjoyed protection because people were afraid to come after her and risk retaliation from one of the “big Avengers.”

I’m not a big Avenger? she wryly challenges.

Australian director Cate Shortland (“Lore”) comes from an indie background, which probably explains why her character scenes are so compelling and the fighting stuff is a little jumbled. The screenplay by Eric Pearson, with story by Jac Schaeffer and Ned Benson, starts with Natasha as a disaffected preteen in 1995 living in Ohio as part of a family that’s just a spy op cover.

Rachel Weisz and David Harbour play their parents, and will turn up again in the more modern section. She was a brilliant scientist and he was the Red Guardian, a super-strong analogue to Captain America. Weisz does her woman-of-mystery thing to a T, and Harbour has fun playing a loud-mouthed blowhard always ready for fight, the guy who thinks he’s coaching the team when really he’s the mascot.

Florence Pugh is terrific as Yelena, Natasha’s long-lost kid sister, now an adept spy/badass herself. She harbors an ocean of resentment against her more famous sibling, and even coyly mocks the overplayed “superhero jump landing” thing (already dinged in the second “Deadpool”). She brings a jaded Gen Z cool to the table.

Of course, none of them are really related to each other, but they gradually come around to the idea that they’re the closest thing to a family any of them has.

The heavy is Ray Winstone as Dreykov, a Russian mastermind who has been building an army of all-female “Widows” assassins, for which Natasha set the mold. Back in her day they underwent psychological conditioning to break their will, but this new generation is chemically altered to obey. Olga Kurylenko turns up as an especially notable recruit.

I won’t argue that “Black Widow” is one of the best MCU movies. In fact, I’d put it toward the lower end of the pool with “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” It’s got a lot of elements that feel like retreads of earlier S.H.I.E.L.D. stuff, right up to a vertically enhanced headquarters called the Red Room.

But even if the blammo stuff is a little stale, Johansson gets a chance to flex thespian muscles in ways we hadn’t seen before for this character. Will there be another Black Widow movie, a la resurrection or more backstory stuff like this? We’ll see, but it was worth the wait for her to get a chance to shoulder her way past the boys to the front line.

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Review: Lillith


You really can't be a true horror fan if you don't also include schlocky horror among your passions, imho.

Scary movies have also often been cheap movies throughout the history of cinema. They were they original B-movies, low-budget flicks played on a double bill with the more expensive main feature. The Hammer horror films were famous for their low-end production values, putting all their dough into creature makeup and special effects. The great-granddaddy of the modern horror flick, "Night of the Living Dead," was shot on a shoestring.

Filmmakers having to work without a lot of the tools of their counterparts often had to rely more on their imaginations and inventiveness, resulting in a lot of truly cool, but also some truly awful, horror movies. People who grew up on horror of all spectrums like me learned to appreciate the schlocky stuff, even when it wasn't that good.

"Lillith" is a horror with a lot of comedy elements that definitely belongs in the schlock corner. It's about a college student who summons a killer vixen from hell to exact revenge on her cheating boyfriend, then has to deal with the torrent of bloodletting she's unleashed.

It doesn't have any fancy sets or costumes or lighting; it looks like they just shot it in some college dorm rooms with the actors wearing whatever they had on them. It doesn't star anybody you've ever heard of, and it's hitting VOD a couple of years after it was made.

Still, I liked plenty of things about it, especially the cast, even while I was realistic about the things that aren't good. They obviously sunk a lot of their budget into the creature effects for the titular character, a succubus played by Savannah Whitten, when she appears in her demon form. It's a horned, greenish-black deal where she's naked but all the naughty bits are covered up with prosthetics, a la Jennifer Lawrence in the X-Men movies.

For my money, Lillith is actually much scarier in her human form, with flaming red hair, a toothy smile and a glare that looks like she's trying to decide whether to feast on your entrails or throw you into bed. Occasionally her eyes glow red for a second, a subtle (and inexpensive) visual trick that keeps us unnerved.

She was summoned by Jenna (Nell Kessler), who was just dumped by her boyfriend of five years, Brad  (Michael Finnigan) after catching him cheating on her -- on their anniversary, to boot. She's a good girl type but is righteously motivated toward some bad feelings. So she recruits her Wiccan friend, Emma (Robin Carolyn Parent), to perform ritual using her own menstrual blood to summon a revenging succubus.

I really liked Parent in this role, who with her short brunette hair, freckles, sardonic expressions and unwavering gaze reminded me of a young Winona Ryder. I kept wondering why we needed the Jenna character and didn't just make Emma the main attraction.

Hanging around the fringes is Taylor Turner as Charlie, Jenna's geeky friend who secretly pines for her. It's a classic movie love trope, and I liked the way director Lee Esposito, who also co-wrote the script with Luke Stannard, takes us through the expected romantic story arc and then disposes of it in a way that's both funny and authentic.

Lillith's M.O. is to seduce men and then slay them, a lady mantis for whom sex and death are inextricably intertwined. It seems she's been away from earth for awhile and is a little flummoxed by the new prevalence of out gay people, though she quickly surmises that it just means her potential victim pool is doubled.

Somehow Jenna thought that Lilly, as the succubus refers to herself, would just scare Brad back into her arms or something. But of course she makes a meal of him, and then their professor (Langston Fishburne), and then keeps on going, deciding she likes it away from Hell. So Jenna, Emma and Charlie take it upon themselves to go up against the demon.

I kept feeling like this movie wanted to pivot away from the scary and gruesome stuff and go straight into comedy, but never quite gets up the nerve. The last act in particular gets straight-up bloody/messy, and then when it remembers to find its funnybone again the audience doesn't have time enough to react to the shift. 

Is "Lillith" an excellent piece of horror? No, but if you are into schlock starring a solid cast clearly enjoying their roles, Whitten and Parent in particular, then it has enough entertainment value to justify a look. It's a little bit funny, a little bit scary and a smidge sexy.

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Review: "Summer of 85"


"Summer of 85" is a rapturously joyful and sad movie that gets right at the heart of what it's like to fall in love for the first time and be vulnerable, with the added twist of being gay. There's been a spate of terrific queer romance films over the last few years, and here's another one.

Directed by François Ozon, who also adapted the novel by Aidan Chambers, the story is set in a French coastal town in the middle of the greatest decade ever to grow up, and no, this is not subject to debate. Things don't look terribly different from their American cinematic counterparts of that time: feathered hair, stone-washed jeans, wearing a jacket when you go out on the town even though it's July.

(I admit, my inner copyeditor glanced at the title  and screamed silently, "Where's the apostrophe???" I'm glad I didn't leave it there, though, or I would've missed one of the best coming-of-age romances I've seen in a good while.)

Félix Lefebvre plays Alexis, a shy, intellectually bent 16-year-old on the verge of exploring life. He has to decide if he's going to stay in school to study literature at the behest of his teacher, Lefèvre (Melvil Poupaud), who thinks he holds promise as a writer, or get a job and consign himself to a life of drudgery like his dock worker father, (Laurent Fernandez). 

His mother (Isabelle Nanty) is vaguely supportive and wants Alexis -- he prefers Alex -- to do whatever makes him happy. Though as a working class woman who's never known anything outside of kitchen toil, she's often mystified by her son's modern, peculiar ways.

While borrowing a friend's sailboat, Alex capsizes as a storm approaches and is rescued by David (Benjamin Voisin), a free-spirited 18-year-old who seems afraid of nothing in this life. He brings the sopping Alex to his home, where his mother (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) undresses and bathes him. She lost her husband the year before, and she and David run a small marine shop in town, and instantly embraces Alexis as part of the family.

It's clear from the start that Alex and David are completely smitten with each other, though they take some time dancing through the steps of a typical straight friendship before taking to bed. They ride around on David's motorcycle, boat and swim, hit the carnival and get into a fight, go dancing and other stuff that wouldn't be out of place in an '80s teen comedy.

The film is sun-dappled and gorgeously shot (cinematography by Hichame Alaouié), especially our beautiful couple. The physical contrast between them is startling, and deliberately accentuated by Ozon. 

Alex is diminutive, lithe, with feathery blond waves and soft feminine features -- David and his mom take to calling him "little bunny." Whereas David is tall, strapping, with a slight snarl to his lip to go with his shark's tooth necklace and wavy dark locks. Together, they look like a rock star (I was reminded of Michael Paré in "Eddie and the Cruisers") dating the girl next door.

The story is told from Alex's perspective, so there's a feeling of being swept up and away by someone older and much more experienced than us. He's fumbling and awkward at emotional intimacy, protesting reticently at first but soon eager to leap into the fire.

David registers as a rebel but also an old soul, the sort of naturally gregarious person who can become friends with someone minutes after meeting them. He makes Alex promise that whoever dies first, the other will dance on their grave.

We know from the start that this tragedy will come to pass, as a framing story has Alex morose and barely able to rise from his bed after David's death. He is also being investigated by the authorities for unnamed crimes related to the death, and Alex is unable or incapable of defending himself. 

Eventually his teacher advises Alex to write out his and David's story as a sort of confession/catharsis, so the romance is colored by the act of remembrance. This is interesting in the context of Alex's later discussion with a mutual friend, a British au pair named Kate (Philippine Velge), that young love is often a deceptive illusion, in that we fall in love with the idea of being in love as much as the actual person. 

Was David really this way, or is it just how Alex saw him? It's a hypnotizing question to ponder, especially after their relationship starts to suffer inevitable bumps. Underlying all this is an undertone of fear of being exposed, at a time when being gay made you a target for ostracism, or worse.

"Summer of 85" is a wondrously beautiful movie, but also one that isn't afraid to stare at the ugly parts of what being in love is really like. The best onscreen portrait of two men in love I've seen since "Brokeback Mountain," this film feels both timeless and immediate.

Review: "The Boss Baby: Family Business"


I’ll give “The Boss Baby: Family Business” credit for not taking the most obvious route possible for a sequel to the 2017 animated hit.

That would have been to just bring back suit-wearing baby genius Ted Templeton (voice of Alec Baldwin) for another whacky adventure with his older brother Tim, the only one who knows he can talk and secretly is an agent for the shadowy BabyCorp company, which protects the interests of tykes. Last time they were taking on the onslaught of cute puppies, so this time it’d have been kittens or some other adorable.

Instead, they jump the story a few decades into the future in which Tim (James Marsden) is now a stay-at-home dad to two daughters while Ted is the ultra-rich CEO of a corporation who never stops working, sending “inappropriately generous” gifts in his stead, like a baby pony. Tim’s toddler, Tina (Amy Sedaris), is now a Boss Baby while his 7-year-old, Tabitha (Ariana Greenblatt), is attending a very fancy school for high-achieving kids.

True, Ted and Tim do get zapped back to their kiddie forms so they can infiltrate the school and investigate its oddball principal, Dr. Erwin Armstrong, voiced by the very odd (in a good way) Jeff Goldblum. But I liked that director Tom McGrath and screenwriter Michael McCullers keep the focus on Tim’s desire to be there for his girls, while the antagonism with his brother (mostly) takes a back seat.

There is a funny and somewhat pointed subtext about the way parents care too much about their offspring being overachievers instead of just… kids. Tabitha’s school, which is being replicated all over the country, looks like a cross between an Apple store and prep academy for 1-percenters.

Armstrong is a visionary, who looks like kooky curly-haired professor but thinks that competition between kids is always healthy. Tim is surprised to find that Tabitha, who had been pushing him away lately and eschewing “little kid” things like singing and hugs, is being bullied by some other students following Armstrong’s teachings a little too earnestly.

Of course, there’s a surprise in store with Armstrong’s ambitions extending much further than just making kids smarter, but using smartphone apps to ensorcel their parents into zombies so they don’t get in the way so much. He also isn’t all that he appears to be, or at least not most of him.

This a fast-moving, breakneck-paced movie filled with lots of action and color. There are baby ninjas and musical numbers and tunnel chases and double-crosses and so on. Ted’s gift pony turns out to be a hard-charging stallion that continually saves the day.

Frankly, it was a little too much for my middle-aged brain to take in all at once. It’s the perfect speed for kids, though, and my 7- and 10-year-olds were mightily entertained.

“Nine out of 10,” judgeth the eldest, though I’m sorry to tell DreamWorks that Rotten Tomatoes won’t let me add that in as a corollary rating.