Archive for September 2018

Solo: A Star Wars Story

September 30, 2018

solo_edited The best performance in Solo: A Star Wars Story, as is often the case in these things, comes courtesy of someone playing a droid — Phoebe Waller-Bridge as the voice of L3-37, who navigates the Millennium Falcon for its pilot, Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover). L3-37, who has a clever ambigrammatic name, has a revolutionary spirit — she’s always agitating for the freedom of any droid she happens across. She’s passionate about her cause in a way that nobody else in this overlong movie is — mostly everyone’s out for themselves.

Which might seem like the proper tone for a spin-off movie about the smuggler and scoundrel Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich), but it seems like a regression coming after the rather more complex view of heroism over in the current sequel trilogy, where Luke Skywalker just brushes the saga’s Joseph Campbell worship right off his shoulder. And we know Han will grow and deepen as a character, so Solo can’t help coming off like “Come see Han before he became interesting!” Ehrenreich doesn’t ring many bells as Han — he neither looks nor sounds much like Harrison Ford, the character’s previous steward — and the grinning lightness of his performance makes us think he’s trying to ape not Ford but rather George W. Bush trying to play Jack Nicholson.

God help Lucasfilm if they try a young Indiana Jones movie and miscast it this badly while missing the appeal of the character so wildly. To be fair, some of the side casting works. Donald Glover is as charismatic as you’ve heard as Lando, and has a better grief-stricken scene than does Woody Harrelson as Beckett, a thief Han falls in with, when someone close to Beckett dies. The loss of that person also means the loss of one of the movie’s better actors before the film is a half hour old, but what are you gonna do? The movie, which was started by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (The Lego Movie) and then given the directorial equivalent of a page-one rewrite by Ron Howard, moves fast (for a while, before bogging down somewhere in the second hour) and is “plotty” in a hectic, meaningless way I don’t enjoy. Ultimately, I couldn’t see how a movie like this could have been any better, either.

Like many prequels, Solo often seems more like a checklist than a movie. We gotta have the Kessel run in there somewhere, so let’s make that front and center instead of leaving it to the fans’ imaginations. And we know Han wins Lando’s ship in a card game, so let’s do that, too, but leave it till last, so the audience waits the whole damn film for something they know has to happen. These supposed stand-alone Star Wars movies (Rogue One was the first) are still chained to the larger narrative and events of the core Star Wars films. I think Lucasfilm, which apparently wants to take the movies in another direction away from Luke and anyone he knew, is going to find to its dismay that nobody outside the fandom cares all that much about stories that veer too far from Luke, Han, Leia and so forth. And, judging from this movie’s embarrassing status as the first bona fide Star Wars flop, they don’t even care about Han that much unless Harrison Ford is playing him.

Ron Howard does his usual proficient, zero-personality job of work. There are at least four in-jokes in the casting as it pertains to Howard’s past as a director — you start looking for Henry Winkler in there somewhere. It makes Solo play more like an Arrested Development episode than like a Star Wars movie. Han Solo has always been a hero in spite of himself, someone who could just as easily have been bullshitting the whole “made the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs” thing. George Lucas even originally saw Han’s boast as a blatant lie meant to impress Luke and Ben Kenobi. What if the Kessel run had actually been a complete shambolic comedy of errors? Not in this movie, it isn’t — so it turns out Han’s claim is legit and not some bullshit meant to get Han a gig he needs. Solo doesn’t just make the young Han boring; it reaches back and retrospectively makes the older Han more boring, too. That’s some trick.

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Mandy

September 23, 2018

Mandy-1-Nicolas-cage-1200x520 Roger Ebert’s most enduring maxim, perhaps, is this: “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.” Jesus fuckin’ Christ, is Mandy ever not about what it’s about. It is full-metal, full-throttle how it is about it. The story is one we’ve seen a million times — a lone man avenges his lost love. But what director-cowriter Panos Cosmatos does with it makes all the difference. The movie is not of this earth; almost every frame of it could be painted on the side of a van, or appear on a death-metal band’s double live album cover. The story is tragic and pauses to take proper measure of what has been lost and what might be lost, but more than once I still cackled at the demonic-purple Heavy Metal aesthetic, presided over by Nicolas Cage with his Dwight-Frye-meets-Timothy-Carey efflorescence dialed up past 11.

Cage is Red, a lumberjack who lives in a secluded house (that seems to be made largely out of windows) with his love Mandy (Andrea Riseborough, creating a complexly vulnerable character in her pittance of screen time). Mandy catches the eye of diabolical cult leader Jeremiah (Linus Roache), who sends his band of eye-rolling numbfuck sadists to kidnap her. Mandy displeases Jeremiah, and is extinguished in front of Red’s tormented eyes. After a while, he goes after the “crazy evil.” On the face of it, this seems like a fine example of what female comics fans snarkily refer to as “fridging” — killing a woman to kick the male lead into vicious, self-righteous, vengeful action. But again, it’s about how it’s about it, and the very retro style (the movie is set in 1983, when Reagan is on the radio and women can unironically wear Mötley Crüe baseball shirts) seems to comment on how dusty the trope is. For instance, Mandy is no conventional fridged prettyface but a literally and figuratively scarred woman who we often see reading for pleasure. You might laugh and say showing a woman (or anyone) reading for pleasure in a pop entertainment isn’t so uncommon as to merit comment. You’d be mistaken.

Cosmatos, son of the late schlock director George P. Cosmatos (Rambo, among others), uses the basic plot to throw in anything he finds cool and/or interesting. Mandy is such a specific woman you just know she’s based on someone Cosmatos values in real life. Red, on the other hand, is a standard-issue stoic hero that Cage riffs on in his customary manic-expressionist manner. I do have to say, however, that Mandy is deliberate bordering on poky for at least its first hour. Scenes and shots go on far longer than necessary — to establish a mood, though, not to convey information. The prolonged shots, wedded to the trippy colors and aggressive soundtrack, start to come across as hypnotic. We are steering into a point of no return, past which — courtesy of a bathroom meltdown that will stand among many others in Cage’s greatest-hits reel — the movie becomes dark and grimy, faster-paced, a rock opera about revenge.

I mention Mandy’s slow first half because, first, I want to acknowledge that my patience was tested and yours might be too, and second, to emphasize that once the film turns on a dime into a pop apocalypse that might have been illustrated by Richard Corben at his most feral, the first half comes to seem like an oasis whose relative calm we failed, like Red and Mandy, to appreciate at the time. (Although on repeat viewings, going into it knowing its initial tempo, we might occupy the film’s open spaces more willingly.) Mandy becomes about grief and its deranging aspects; the movie’s garish, psychotronic vibe is a combustible and original filter through which to view loss and guilt. The growing legion of folks who love Mandy are responding to something deeper in it than its badass violence, Cage camp, or retro-irony. It sinks its emotional hooks into us while we’re not looking, while we’re distracted by the beauty and art of this hellscape and its mythic denizens, the surrealism of a TV commercial featuring “Cheddar Goblin” (the fans have already sung Cheddar Goblin’s fervent praises; next comes the Funko Pop Cheddar Goblin, no doubt), the phallic hilarity of an opponent wielding the longest chainsaw you’ve ever seen. This midnight movie, this spiritual bastard child of a thousand drive-in flicks, ultimately takes its place in the halls of art. It’s purple and inflamed, like a fireworks show or an abscess.

Fahrenheit 11/9

September 16, 2018

fahrenheit119Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 11/9 is a sloppy but affecting essay about American crisis. Like all of his movies, it’s not only about what it seems to be about — Bowling for Columbine, for instance, wasn’t only about guns, Sicko wasn’t only about the health-care system, and God knows Fahrenheit 11/9 isn’t only about Donald Trump. In fact, I’d guess there are fewer minutes of Trump footage in the movie than there are of, say, the furiously eloquent Parkland shooting survivor Emma González, or the fresh, charismatic Congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or the fiery West Virginia State Senator Robert Ojeda. This is no accident — Moore is saying that these are the kinds of people we’d better listen to. They may be left but they’re nowhere near establishment Democrat.

Perhaps understandably — after his 2016 concert film Michael Moore in Trumpland whiffed in its attempt to shake America’s 100 million non-voters out of their indifference — Moore isn’t feeling very comedic these days. Fahrenheit 11/9 is the least funny movie he has ever made, and I’ve seen Canadian Bacon. The mood here is sickened and uncomprehending — “How the fuck did we get here?” Moore asks at the top of the film. He still makes his jokes, pulls his stunts (like one involving a truck full of poisoned Flint, Michigan water), but ultimately the goal seems to be to give us the creeps. (A weird montage of Trump acting skeevy towards his daughter goes on a little longer than it needs to.) At times the movie gets rather doomy and macabre, reflecting the current American mood.

Sometimes the film seems like Moore’s debate with Trump; he answers “Make America great again” with “When was America ever great?” It’s great for some people, for sure. Maybe not so great for people of color, or women, or its original people, or the otherwise marginalized. A historian in the film corrects Moore’s “200 years of democracy” — two hundred years of democracy for white males, sure. How about zero years of democracy? Rule by the people? We’re still not quite there yet. But Moore isn’t all that interested in being inflammatory this time, which is why I don’t think Fahrenheit 11/9 will make the splash that his peak-popularity films did — Bowling, Fahrenheit 9/11, and Sicko. Moore seems to know this, and to know he and documentaries are on the way out. They can’t change the world any more; a tweet or a Facebook post can.

After an opening act that points scorn at the big orange target, Moore spends what feels like a quarter or maybe even a third of the film on the water crisis in Flint. He talks to whistle-blowers, families, doctors; not coincidentally, many are people of color, and Moore characterizes the poisoning of Flint’s water as “a slow-motion ethnic cleansing.” Then he goes to West Virginia, where he visits with teachers who are going on strike. Then he sits down with some Parkland kids, including David Hogg. It seems like the first hour of Fahrenheit 11/9 is darkness, and the second half is light, represented by the growing number of young political hopefuls, agitators, and kids sick of growing up in a post-Columbine reality of shooter drills in their schools. These kids, Moore suggests, can save us and rescue America’s true destiny as a “leftist nation.”

So the movie feels like a loose anthology on the theme of American decline and, perhaps, rise, if enough people want it. I’m a Moore booster but thought Fahrenheit 9/11 was a bit too much of a glib slam-dunk on George W. Bush. It felt like agitprop after the wounded, searching quality of Bowling for Columbine. But Fahrenheit 11/9 is something else, something deeper and thornier and oddly personal. It’s as if Moore made the movie in order to convince himself and the like-minded not to eat a gun. Moore rejects bromidic words like “hope” (and boy, does Obama come in for a withering pan of his drinking-Flint-water stunt), but he likes words like action and revolution and together. He wants to see this divided, hemorrhaging country united. But he doesn’t know how to do it, and he wonders if a new generation might. By the end, Trump almost seems beside the point. The country that produced him is the bigger fish to fry.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

September 9, 2018

neighborcover.0Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a lovely film about a lovely man, Fred McFeely Rogers, known to generations of children as Mr. Rogers. This gentle and loving spirit, who was ordained as a Presbyterian minister, exemplified everything Christianity should be but too often is not. Rogers used his show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, to reassure children that there was nothing the matter with them — that they were fine exactly the way they were. Many children heard this sort of thing for the first time watching the show; they didn’t get it from their teachers or even their parents. Even François Clemmons, who played Officer Clemmons on the show from 1968 to 1993, and who was a grown man of 23 when he started working with Rogers, tells us that ultimately he came to see Rogers as a surrogate father.

Rogers, who died in 2003, had a soft and lilting voice and a genuine, eager smile. (The perfect person to play him in terms of how he looks and sounds is Jim Parsons, though Tom Hanks was announced in the role last January, playing a later-life Rogers around the time that Tom Junod famously profiled him for Esquire in 1998.) What the movie, unobtrusively assembled by director Morgan Neville, shows us again and again is that Rogers’ soothing yet no-nonsense demeanor was no act. The show handled tough topics — death, divorce, assassination — and refused to talk down to its young audience. Rogers strove to use language that would best and most healthily resonate with children, and he used the same plain-spoken voice with everyone regardless of age or position in life. I’ve seen a photo of him sitting with the Dalai Lama; they are both wearing expressions of perfect pure childlike happiness. At times, Rogers seemed to represent the best of every faith, every belief system.

That same childlike happiness is partly what has choked up millions who’ve seen Neighbor, including me, and I completely missed the whole Mr. Rogers thing (and Sesame Street) since our analog antenna didn’t pull in PBS during my formative years. In my teens, like every other asshole teen, I razzed the too-wholesome-seeming Rogers and laughed at the many parodies — the parodies became who he was, to me. Later in life, starting with that Tom Junod profile (he’s in the film, too), I began to appreciate who Rogers was and what he stood for — and against. His basic message spoke of the importance of self-esteem, and he must have sensed, back there in the late ‘60s when the country’s waters were starting to churn, that such a message was about to be needed. If you didn’t love yourself, he reasoned, you couldn’t love others, and that was what this life was — was supposed to be — all about. “We are here to help each other get through this thing,” Mark Vonnegut once said to his father Kurt, “whatever it is.”

That reminder of happiness, of goodwill towards all, makes us wistful and unhappy now, in this least neighborly of eras. Where have you gone, Nancy Rogers’ son? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you. The viewer leans toward the screen in yearning for this avatar of decency. The spiritual leader America may have needed in the sunset of the 20th century was not in a political office or beseeching us for funds on PTL; he was off to the side on a kid’s show on public television. Rogers’ great gift was empathy so keen that he couldn’t bear to treat anyone any differently than he would wish to be treated — not even Koko the gorilla, with whom Rogers sat and communicated as best he could, and who returned his love with hers. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? doesn’t let us get too down about Rogers’ physical absence during our current turbulence; he would have been at odds with our culture now, but then he was always at odds with it.

rogersdalai

Hereditary

September 3, 2018

hereditaryA strange bird, Hereditary is. This shrill and unhappy supernatural drama starts off as a sort of psychological character study and ends up in the wild hinterland of sulfur and vile spirits. Much the same, I suppose, could be said of The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby, to which Hereditary has duly been likened, but the more useful comparison might be to Darren Aronofsky’s genre-smashing, audience-polarizing mother! I deeply admired that film’s art and intensity while admitting I didn’t have a great time at it — not all art is meant to be entertaining. Is Hereditary another case of a wooly bully of cinematic expression, destined to dazzle the elites while displeasing the mundanes?

In this case, I have to stand with the mundanes. Director Ari Aster, making his feature debut, wants to bowl us over with Hereditary. He reaches into a big dusty box and hauls out every trick he can find — there’s one embarrassingly “look, Ma, I’m a director” shot that puts a character upside down in the frame as she runs, and then the camera follows her and rights itself. It’s a disorienting shot, and it calls attention to itself needlessly, as so much else does in the film. I could go spelunking thematically and justify the narrative quirks, but I don’t want to. It’s an effectively made bad movie. It plays fast and loose with logical expectations, but not in a way that especially illuminates anything other than its own facile twists.

For the longest time, the movie seems to be about Annie Graham (Toni Collette), an artist whose mother has recently died. Annie had and has a fraught, complicated relationship with her mother, and she’s well on her way to raising two neurotic kids, the brooding stoner Peter (Alex Wolff) and the morbid Charlie (Milly Shapiro), even though her husband and their father Steve (Gabriel Byrne) is usually a soothing source of calm. The movie starts to seem as though it’s concerned with the derangement of grief and trauma, especially when Annie meets a fellow in bereavement, Joanie (Ann Dowd), who teaches her how to contact the dead.

There’s more than a hint of “The Monkey’s Paw” here, and Pet Sematary and all the other spooky pop culture that advises us not to mess with the occult: “Sometimes dead is better.” Eventually, as the omens and freaky scares add up, it becomes clear that this is all the movie is going to be about; and yet it touches on annihilating despair, and asks its cast (particularly Collette, but also young Alex Wolff) to lower themselves into an emotional meat grinder in a way that the film, I say, does not earn. I did not need to see a sad body part seething with ants on the side of a godforsaken road in the morning light, and I came to resent Hereditary and Ari Aster for making me look at it for no reason other than effect. Speaking of effects, there are a few scenes featuring the fakest-looking swarm of flies I’ve ever seen in a movie. Another scene involving a screaming character engulfed in flames is just high-pitched stupidity, as is another scene in which someone flips out in a classroom.

I called Hereditary effective, which it is; an incident at about the half-hour mark pulled a loud gasp out of me, and not only because the hopes we’d placed in an intriguing character were suddenly cut off. Ari Aster has some chops, but he uses them to make us feel, well, bad — on edge, more irritated than frightened. At two hours and seven minutes, the movie dawdles at a few points, including an early shot that tracks into one of Annie’s impossibly detailed miniature houses until it comes to a stop in Peter’s bedroom — his real bedroom. Is Annie’s art relevant to the movie thematically or narratively? No, it’s meaningless, and so is she. Pretty much anything we came close to caring about in the film is thrown away for the insipid climax, during which a character opens her mouth and cheese falls out — “Give us your knowledge of all secret things. Bring us honor, wealth, and good familiars.” At which point the viewer is either rapturous at having been so bamboozled or heading for the sweet release of the exit. Some will love Hereditary. I understand why, but I don’t understand them.