Archive for the ‘sequel’ category

The Matrix Resurrections

December 25, 2021

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There’s a whole bunch of plot jibber-jabber in The Matrix Resurrections, as there was in the previous three films in the series, but at least this one is a bit more emotionally readable. Lana Wachowski, one-half of the Wachowskis who engineered the Matrix franchise, has said that her impetus for going back to the Matrix well was the deaths of her parents. She wanted them back, and she put that yearning into a story in which everyone moves heaven and earth to get Neo (Keanu Reeves) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), the heroes of the earlier movies, back together and in charge of the resistance against those who would misuse the Matrix.

I have very little understanding or recall of what happens scene for scene in The Matrix Resurrections, but the elation of having these two back cuts through the murk like a foghorn. Even if, like me, you were never sold on the brilliance of The Matrix, some part of you may respond to the characters’, and Wachowski’s, gratitude that Neo and Trinity are still up for a fight, though this movie takes a while to re-acquaint Neo and then Trinity with reality outside the Matrix. In the matrix, Neo, or Thomas Anderson, is a rich and betrophied videogame designer, whose game The Matrix was a big hit. Thomas happens across Trinity in a coffee shop, except she’s now Tiffany, married with kids.

There’s a fair amount of meta snark here. Thomas faces doing a belated sequel to his original Matrix game trilogy, because if he doesn’t, Warner Brothers will find someone who will. There’s some talk about how originality is dead and entertainment rehashes the same stories endlessly. Wachowski is on thin ice here, but the strong thread of feeling — which we’re told here affects people more than facts — carries us through. Wachowski talks about the dangers of submitting to a comforting fiction (the Matrix, with its taste of steak) while submitting to a comforting fiction; this isn’t hypocrisy, it’s an honest assessment of what we often want and need from art. If the first Matrix films were really about the trans experience (although the sequels kind of got bogged down in set pieces), this one is about making a self out of one’s own, or others’, creations.

The pertinent question here might be, How is it as a Matrix film? I doubt it’s possible to go back to the relative simplicity of the first movie and disregard the convolutions larded on by its sequels (the way, say, David Gordon Green’s Halloween sequel did), and Wachowski acknowledges that on some level. A lot of clutter has to be thrown in the path of Neo and his new band of acolytes before Trinity figures things out and re-assumes her role; it’s significant that it’s a choice she must make for herself, a subtext unlikely to win the movie fans among conservatives. (As much as she must have wanted to, Wachowski doesn’t have time here to include scuzzy incels appropriating her red-pill-blue-pill metaphor. There is, however, chit-chat about binary ways of thought and living, and how those are truer to a machine’s view of humanity than to the reality of it.)

Back in 1999, The Matrix felt like a brutal-cool riff on the old themes of individuality vs. oppression (we didn’t yet know the story had deeper meanings for Lana and Lilly Wachowski; Lilly chose to sit out this film). I wasn’t terribly wowed at the time, but in hindsight it emerges as one of an accidental run of movies in that year grappling with reality and our role in it. It makes more sense in its 1999 context as a sharp, sickly-green pre-millennium vision than as the start of an increasingly bloated franchise. The Matrix Resurrections ultimately can’t go home again, and Wachowski knows it; there’s a streak of melancholy running through the film, but intertwined with a streak of hope that the elders of cool, Neo and Trinity in their black-on-black get-ups, still have something to teach us, and that there are younger warriors willing to go to the brink to rescue their wisdom. And if you’re looking for a review that tells you how the new Morpheus is, or how bad-ass the fights are, you took the wrong pill.

Halloween Kills

October 17, 2021

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It’s difficult to judge Halloween Kills, since it’s the middle film in what’s going to be a trilogy (the capper, Halloween Ends, starts filming in January for release next October). What’s more, this trilogy, under the stewardship of director David Gordon Green and his writing-producing partner Danny McBride, looks as if it’s going to be all about fear and its destructive or self-destructive variations. Green and McBride (joined on the script here by Scott Teems) are devoted to this idea, often to the point of straining credulity. People in the movie act stupidly all the time, but not because they’re stupid — they’re afraid. The problem is, they’re still doing dumb-ass stuff and we’re still going “Oh, come on.” It doesn’t matter why characters do stupid things; they’re going to read to us as stupid people, and we’re going to wonder why we’re spending time with them, unless it’s a farce, which, despite some ridiculous moments, Halloween Kills is not.

David Gordon Green is going to take his moment in the Halloween franchise’s history to instruct us (literally, the theme is spelled out near the end) on fear and its sociopolitically deranging aspects. As such, Halloween Kills will be more interesting for horror academics to nosh on than for humble horror fans who just want a good scare. (Which, as original director John Carpenter assured us forty-three Halloweens ago, we’re all entitled to.) The academics will find great meaning, for instance, in two couples here — an interracial couple and a gay couple — who are butchered by series superslasher Michael Myers. Do they die for their “sins”? I’m going to guess not. Michael, you see, represents fear, and fear in the form of violent bigotry kills such couples. If Green didn’t actually intend that, I’ll be annoyed. But also relieved.

There was a psychiatrist in Green’s previous Halloween movie whose baffling actions worked better as subtext than as text. As subtext, we could see why Green wanted to go there. As text, it made no sense. And Halloween Kills is loaded with stuff like that. I guarantee you someone with a hearty appetite for symbology will read all sorts of jolly things into the movie, which prove it’s really about [insert grand concept here]. But if you’re just hanging out and being told this story, there’s way too much stuff that makes you go “Wait a minute.” 

A big chunk of the film has to do with an enraged mob, led by original 1978 near-victim Tommy Doyle (Anthony Michael Hall, credible as a muscleheaded twerp), which eventually drives an innocent person to their death. For a reel or so, suddenly we’re in bargain-bin Ibsen or Arthur Miller. Now, I can nod coolly and claim to find all kinds of subtextual merit in this sub-subplot — Michael/fear turns people into killers — but my honest response while watching was “This is fucking stupid.” Is there going to be a whole third movie of things like this? Halloween Kills picks up the minute Halloween 2018 left off, so franchise heroine Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is sidelined due to injuries incurred last time. Having read the script, Laurie knows exactly what Michael is and why he (fear) must be Faced and Defeated. She talks about this frequently, when she’s supposed to be concentrating on not bleeding out from the stitches she’s ripped. 

Almost as frequent are the gory deaths; every so often, Green snaps awake and brings someone into Michael’s path so that he can end them brutally. Corpses are always being happened upon, causing fear and grief. The mob rises, carried by the simplistic slogan/chant “Evil dies tonight!” Laurie convalesces with Deputy Hawkins (Will Patton), who gets a couple of flashbacks detailing his mishaps with Michael on that night in 1978 and the cop who offers to cover it up — suddenly we’re in small-town Sidney Lumet. Green stops the narrative dead so the cop can lay out what their official story is going to be. Again, this is yet another illustration of PTSD persisting for decades — the deputy is still miserable about his brush with Fear forty years later — but it feels dangerously like a sidetrack.

Halloween Kills is so obsessed with fear that it defines the actions and fate of everyone onscreen; how ironic that the movie packs so few scares. Green’s Halloween films may be the only movies ever made that concern an unstoppable killer butchering people but aren’t really horror movies. His first attempt worked because his concept was fresher then, but now it isn’t, and he has his work cut out for him on the next one. Halloween Kills isn’t hackwork by any means; the craft is high, the violence blunt and punishing, some of the performances believably rattled. (MVP for me: Robert Longstreet as the grown former bully Lonnie, who has a beer-scented, stubbly authenticity about him; he seems to have stepped out of a late-‘70s Stephen King book.) I can even respect what Green is trying to do with these films in theory. But in practice … oof. Green meditates on fear; John Carpenter inspired it.

A Quiet Place Part II

August 1, 2021

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John Krasinski, we might imagine, sat in his office chortling at all the headaches he put the characters through while writing A Quiet Place Part II. On the set, directing all the chaos, he may have chuckled even more. Krasinski had more fun, I hope, than we do watching the film — it’s grim and stressful and relentless, but comes off even more hollow than the first film (which Krasinski also directed and co-wrote). What is the deeper point of the story? Is there even more story to tell? Once again, we have the gnarly, chittering alien creatures, whose tracking of prey is based on sound. Again, too, we have Evelyn (Emily Blunt), her daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds), her son Marcus (Noah Jupe), and her baby son. They hide and retreat from the critters, and Regan, who is deaf, figures out someone is sending a signal to any survivors.

Those Krasinski set pieces, including the genuinely frightening first reel that shows us glimpses of the ghastly first day of the creatures’ invasion, have a charge of sadistic cleverness. Krasinski likes to set several crises off at once, so he can cross-cut and bludgeon us into a motor response. A Quiet Place Part II is full of wince-provoking moments with people trying like hell not to make noise, but that only goes so far — maybe only as far as the first movie. We’re briefed on a major new weakness of the creatures, which apparently only a relative few people know about, or we’d be seeing a lot more folks availing themselves of that Achilles heel. As it is, human nature ruined the efficacy of any strategy based on that weakness, and a new character, Emmett (Cillian Murphy), has presumably seen hell out there — the few survivors have devolved into people “not worth saving,” he growls. 

Emmett will see the light, though, as sure as there’s Mom and apple pie. Regan, once again well-played by the deaf actress Millicent Simmonds, was a realistically flawed kid in the first film, but has blossomed into a genius who’s pure of heart in the sequel. She’s supposed to represent hope in the face of annihilation, an unfair burden for any character. Late in the film, we meet some of those people Emmett talked about, and they are indeed a scurvy, grotesque bunch — for a few minutes we seem to have wandered into a Rob Zombie movie about the Firefly family, except these psychos don’t swear (or talk). So, according to Krasinski, some survivors are smart and good, and some are little better than sociopathic animals. Since A Quiet Place Part II was in the can by summer 2019, well before the current slow-motion apocalypse, I can’t claim it’s saying anything about some of the dumber, louder conflicts of today. Krasinski does, in hindsight, seem overly optimistic that, presented with a solution to a lethal problem, most Americans would embrace that solution instead of many of them being absolute selfish oblivious dumbasses.

Anyway, a political read of either of these films does no good for the films or for us. They’re meant as mechanical nail-biters working off a cunning premise, though the more pared-down a story is, the harder our brains work to fill the silence with interpretation. Krasinski’s attempt at world-expanding here raises more questions than it answers; as the four refugees in the mall in George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead found out, you do have to worry a little about the monsters you’re sharing your oasis with, but you have to worry a lot about the itinerant human dregs who stumble on your bunker and want what you have. Maybe that’ll be the premise of Part III, and Krasinski can throw in a bit about someone developing a vaccine against the creatures and half the population refusing to take it.

Godzilla Vs. Kong

June 13, 2021

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The cartoonist Sergio Aragonés once pointed out something in an interview that has stuck with me for some thirty years. He said that when Superman in the comic books was rendered less realistically and more cartoonishly, he could pick up a tall building by its corner and we could believe it. In later years, Aragonés said, when Superman and his surroundings were depicted with more physical realism and you could see all his veins and muscles, all the bricks in the building, we could no longer believe in such a feat — we would assume the building would just crumble apart. Aragonés’ insight applies as well to movies, which can depict the unreal with surface realism — you can see all the details — but lose something in the realm of fantasy and imagination.

Who ever wanted to see a realistic King Kong or Godzilla? Kong as realized by Willis O’Brien in the 1933 film has a rough-hewn magic that inspires glee and fear, sometimes both at once. The Godzilla, or Gojira, of some of the goofier Toho films was clearly a man in a suit, and accordingly had a human vibe. He was the kind of monster we felt close to, sorry for. All of that is lost in Godzilla Vs. Kong, in which the title opponents are of course created in computers. And boy, you can see all the details. Nothing is left to the imagination — at least as it applies to the damage the titans do to each other. Humans, on the other hand, die as afterthoughts, as gnats in what they thought was their narrative, but which instead belongs to the bestial and gigantic. And when the titans clash in the middle of Hong Kong, buildings are atomized, blown apart into coffee-cake crumbs, scattered like drops of mist. 

We’re told the city has already been evacuated, but that hardly matters. What we’re seeing is vast destruction, and the assurance that there’s no human toll is the sheerest hypocrisy. The fact is that we didn’t care fifty or sixty years ago if there were people in the buildings Godzilla wrecked, and we don’t care now. The problem is that even the buildings are rendered here with the utmost realism. So this sort of narrative handwaving is less convincing now than when the buildings were obvious cardboard. These are made to look like real creatures in real space destroying real objects. The cartoonish quality of a vintage Toho monster mash is gone. The fun, for me, is gone.

Does the story really matter? Demian Bechir plays an arrogant tech moneybags who believes the Titans — Kong, Godzilla, and the critters Godzilla fought in 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters — threaten humanity’s status as the planet’s alpha, its apex predator. So he has built Mechagodzilla to kill them. Godzilla and Kong don’t get along at first, but ultimately they join forces against Mechagodzilla, and truly when you distill this thing down to a brutal synopsis it sounds like something you’d see on a 22-minute episode of the ‘70s Hanna-Barbera Godzilla cartoon. And it would have been more entertaining there. Instead, Godzilla is charmlessly ugly, and Kong is always unhappy and riled up, and Mechagodzilla is this clangorous mess of steel, and there’s no exhilaration in it except for one moment when Kong and Godzilla roar at each other.

Godzilla Vs. Kong made money against all odds, so there will be more movies in this “MonsterVerse” franchise (which also includes 2014’s Godzilla and 2017’s Kong: Skull Island, the latter of which I missed). This might be the time for me to tap out of this series, though. The look of most of them is grim, gray, drizzly. (Kong’s milieu, though, is naturally sunnier and more colorful — the bits I’ve seen of Kong: Skull Island seem to bear that out.) Everything is drab now — the Bond films, superhero films, and giant-monster films. They’re depressing to look at and to spend any length of time in. So I’ll stick with the old monsters. Even the black-and-white monster films have a sharper visual pop than the dishwater dregs of Godzilla Vs. Kong. 

Coming 2 America

March 5, 2021

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Coming 2 America may as well be titled Coming 2 Zamunda, since the movie spends most of its time in that fictional African country. Zamunda, of course, is home to Prince Akeem (Eddie Murphy), the hero of the hit comedy Coming to America. Rewatching that John Landis film for the first time since 1988, I was struck by how logy and static it was, even for an ‘80s comedy. It’s hard to argue that Coming 2 America is a “better” movie, but I liked it more; it’s warmer, its direction (by Craig Brewer, who made Murphy’s Dolemite Is My Name) more dynamic, its aesthetic much more fluid and colorful (costume designer Ruth E. Carter can take a bow for that). And it’s actually about something: choosing between the elders we love and the future where the elders may no longer have a place.

Akeem soon becomes king, and is preoccupied with his throne and who will fill it when he’s gone. There’s some truth, of course, in Eddie Murphy playing a prince turned king — it mirrors his real-life arc. Coming to America gave Murphy his first taste of doing accents and multiple characters in the same film, and he reprises them all here, as does Arsenio Hall, playing Akeem’s right-hand man Semmi as well as several other roles. But now that Murphy is a king, to whom does he pass his crown? The amiably antic Jermaine Fowler as Akeem’s illegitimate American son Lavelle. The story is structured so that Lavelle can take over, but Murphy is too powerful a presence for that to happen, and Fowler just isn’t up to it.

Instead, Murphy lets apparent new BFF Wesley Snipes steal a few scenes as General Izzi, who wants Lavelle to marry his meek, boring daughter. Izzi insinuates himself into scenes with a low stroll, echoed by his gun-toting minions behind him; the effect is funky and weird, and Snipes, in these Murphy films, is having more fun than I’ve seen from him in years. In general, Coming 2 America just seems gladder to see all its stars of color than the original film did. Leslie Jones grabs as much of the frame as she can as Lavelle’s THOT mama, accompanied by Tracy Morgan as her brother, grumbling his usual huffy nonsense. Craig Brewer is a white director who clearly feels comfortable in the Black milieu (his other films include Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan). He approaches the sequel as a loving fan of the original; John Landis did little to show any warmth towards his original at all. Landis needed a hit, and Murphy threw it to him like a life preserver. If people think fondly of the 1988 film, it’s due to Murphy and Hall and John Amos and James Earl Jones and all those other wonderful performers filling out a nearly all-Black cast in a major-studio summer comedy. It’s not because Coming to America was particularly good.

Coming 2 America has some of the same problems, plus some new ones. As I said, most of it unfolds not in Queens (though we do check in back there and hang out at the barbershop again) but in Zamunda. If the first film was about questioning authority, the second is about being authority. Age has agreed with Murphy, who has filled out a bit and added some stillness and gravitas to his portfolio (he turns 60 next month, if you’re ready for that). He carries himself like a king, and he gives Akeem a kind of newfound rigidity born of realizing the world isn’t as simple as we’d like it to be. Certain traditions are there because they work; others must change with the times or be discarded. Lavelle in Zamunda is a callback in reverse to the fish-out-of-water comedy of Akeem in Queens, but the rhyming storyline never takes hold, and Akeem himself is largely passive, always trying to convince others to do things or not.

There’s really only so much a get-the-band-back-together nostalgia piece like Coming 2 America can do. Like Bill & Ted Face the Music, it works by being comfort food, and the original Coming to America wasn’t very edgy to begin with, so Coming 2 America isn’t a betrayal of anything other than those who’ll miss the nudity in the R-rated first film. (It was really pretty gratuitous, and as unfeeling a use of women’s bodies as anything in Hustler.) I don’t anticipate ever watching either film again, but Coming 2 America passed the time pleasantly. I don’t understand its disappointed reception, as though Landis’ inert film were an inviolable masterpiece marred by a mere sequel. Coming 2 America shows what this material can be in the hands of a director who’s not just taking it as a gig, who believes in it and loves the cast.

Wonder Woman 1984

December 27, 2020

ww84Kristen Wiig is raring to give a classic large-scale performance in Wonder Woman 1984. Her character, the terminally awkward gemologist Barbara Minerva, sits with rage born of neglect. Barbara gets a chance at real power, and it turns her into a monster, literally: she further elaborates that she wishes she were an apex predator, and she becomes Cheetah, a cat-like villain. But why a cheetah? At least in Batman Returns, Catwoman had a cat and was saved by a bunch more. Barbara likes leopard print, so … okay, we’ll go with it. Anyway, Wiig would have an easier time of it in a movie that foregrounded her more, but the script brushes Barbara off as much as her colleagues do. She doesn’t even get a decent final scene, just a protracted fight that turns Wiig and star Gal Gadot into clashing CG figures.

This is not a good movie, and it’s not a bad movie. Wonder Woman 1984 is enormously ambitious, overlong, sincere, sloppy, trying to do something profound with somewhat silly ingredients. I much enjoyed 2017’s Wonder Woman (which like WW84 was directed by Patty Jenkins), but I think I feel a fondness for the sequel that I don’t for the original. The earlier film had the purity and sharpness of a drillbit; the new one, to put it outrageously mildly, does not. It has large things on its mind, some of which are accidentally relevant to the current moment; its message is that we should wish for the common good. An ancient stone comes across Barbara’s desk care of the FBI; it turns out to have the power to grant people’s wishes. Everyone wishes for self-serving things; even Wonder Woman uses her wish to bring back her long-dead soulmate Steve Trevor (Chris Pine). Eventually Cheetah draws blood, Wonder Woman’s powers are ebbing, and nuclear bombs dot the sky.

That’s a lot of balls to keep in the air; Jenkins drops more than a few of them, but not the ones that mattered to me, the emotional beats. There is another villain here, the bull-slinging television personality Max Lord (Pedro Pascal), who gets ahold of the wish-giving stone and absorbs it into himself. Sometimes WW84 wants to be about geopolitics, and sometimes it wants to be about relationships, and sometimes it wants to be about this magic stone that does weird things to people. It refuses to decide to be about one particular thing, and I grew to like that — indeed, WW84 is a terrifically likable movie. It doesn’t hate anyone, not even the skunky Max, who goes around granting wishes in exchange for power. But something has to give, and when we don’t get certain connective scenes featuring Barbara/Cheetah to give us more of a grounding in the process of her descent to villainy, some of the emotions the movie triggers in us get short-circuited. The narrative bumpiness can read as indifference to Barbara, and to us.

Then again, there’s a scene early on where Wonder Woman (in her day-to-day persona Diana — the name Wonder Woman is never spoken here, though, as in the first film) goes out to lunch with Barbara and they talk about love and loss and loneliness, just like two grown-ups in a film for grown-ups. Jenkins handles stuff like this with aplomb, and is equally good at the action insofar as the special effects allow. It’s the story beats that a superhero movie seems to require that get muffled or half-assed, as though Jenkins weren’t interested in them; we’re not particularly either, but every so often a chunk or bit of orphaned story will bob, chewed and dead, to the surface, and it’s disconcerting. Some people will come away from WW84 confounded and hostile, seeing it as the latest example of big-movie big-money assault on coherence.

I understand that response, and the movie doesn’t make it easy to get on board if you’re not on right at the start. But the Young Diana Chronicles prologue hooked me (I’m not sure it has a thematic link to what follows, but it sure is fun), and soon after came a goofball heist right out of comics and movies of the ‘80s, and I was in love. I always wanted more, not less. A four-hour cut of this thing sounds fine to me. As it is, it feels like they shot a six-episode Wonder Woman series and then hacked it down to feature length. Like I said, Cheetah suffers the most from what I presume were some pretty heavy cuts, although there’s a subtle detail that leaves the door open for Cheetah and, more importantly, Wiig to come back. It’s not as though Wonder Woman ever had many big recurring villains aside from Cheetah, anyway. But — and this question goes to the movie, not to the comics, which answered it — why a cheetah?

The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone

December 13, 2020

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The movie formerly known as The Godfather Part III (1990) has always been substantially different from its two classic predecessors. Unlike them, it is informed by the deepest pain; it asks what you do after your child dies. And it has no answer, then and now, under its new title The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone. As has been his wont the last few years, director Francis Ford Coppola has tinkered with the film, moving some scenes and trimming others; it’s shorter but doesn’t feel shorter — the pacing is still a bit stiff, the dialogue often stilted. Ironically, the subtitle is not literal; Coppola fades to black on the ruined face of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), sparing us his unintentionally comical literal downfall. What we see now is more like the death of Michael’s light, his soul.

I kind of miss the sad way the movie used to start — leaves blowing around the old, desolate Corleone compound. We now kick off with Michael pursuing a deal with the head of the Vatican bank, which gets us onto the narrative on-ramp faster and makes what follows — a ceremony in which Michael is awarded a papal bauble — seem like more of a sly quid-pro-quo event. Michael wants to buy respectability for himself and his family; he wants to leave a clean legacy for his children, especially his daughter Mary (Sofia Coppola). It was fashionable in 1990 to bash Sofia, the director’s daughter and untrained as an actress, for ruining her father’s movie. But to me she comes across as authentic, unguarded, and finally poignant. Sofia later made great strides as a director herself, but there’s no shame in what she does here.

Coppola has left two major sequences alone, to these eyes — Michael’s halting confession to a cardinal who will be the next Pope, and the climax crosscutting between various murders with Cavalleria Rusticana as its voluptuous backdrop. In the latter, Coppola drops his guilt and grief and revels in the sheer play of being a filmmaker. Vengeance, rage, sorrow, broken faith — Coppola brings it all together. The movie-movieness of it all can seem a bit much, but the Godfather films were always opera, never life. To my knowledge, Coppola never ordered his own brother killed, but he did (and still does) contend with the accidental death, in 1986, of his son Gian-Carlo. This Godfather is more personal and vulnerable than the first two; it feels like an open wound, and I’d prefer not to rub salt in it. Godfather, Coda is not perfect by any means, and doesn’t share the cool intelligence of I and II, but it’s time to stop punishing it. It is its own movie. Cosmetically it resembles the first two, but its core is jagged and despairing. 

Even Michael seems like a completely different man than the frigid, calculating chessmaster of the other films. Pacino gives him more warmth; age and illness (Michael has diabetes) have made Michael more fragile, more nakedly lunging towards the acceptance and love of his family — his ex-wife Kay (Diane Keaton), his loyal sister Connie (Talia Shire, putting some dark steel into her line readings; “Maybe they should fear you,” Michael tells Connie in one of the film’s funnier exchanges). The unstated horror of the third film is that everyone seems to know how Fredo died and is more or less all right with it — even Connie keeps up the pretense that Fredo drowned so that Michael can pretend Connie doesn’t know. It wasn’t personal; it was strictly business. But Godfather, Coda is strictly personal. It’s about how you live with being a monster — a monster whose very existence imperils the innocence that manages to flower around you.

Coppola hasn’t fixed some of the stuff that still makes me cringe. Joe Mantegna has been terrific elsewhere, but as media darling Joey Zasa, a crude gangster who styles himself a dapper don, he’s pretty awful (to be fair, he gets handed the worst lines: “If anyone would say such a thing, they would not be a friend. They would be a dog”). The ease with which Zasa goes out of the film proves he adds little to it; Michael’s real adversary is elsewhere. Coppola has taken out some of Michael’s coffinside mourning for his father’s old friend Don Tommasino, whose presence in the first two films never struck me as large enough to justify stopping the film to note his passing. (In Godfather I he let Michael stay with his uncle in Sicily; in II he helped Vito get revenge on an ancient enemy.) Originally Michael wondered aloud why people loved Tommasino but fear Michael; now he just promises to be good, and we lose some of the spidery, dread-filled score that accompanied most of his monologue. 

Kay points out that, now that Michael is fixated on redemption, he’s more dangerous than ever — more desperate. He leaves the family in the hands of his illegitimate nephew, Vincent Mancini (Andy Garcia), a hothead who, from what we see, doesn’t have the screen time to develop into a plausible new Don Corleone. Some critics took that as a flaw, but I suspect it’s intentional. Michael is so hung up on retiring from ordering hits on people that he’ll hand everything off to a violent mook. Garcia has flash and presence to burn, but as Vincent is supposed to mature, Garcia is left with less to work with. It’s not his movie, anyway, and it never becomes his movie. Godfather, Coda stays with Michael’s emptiness, which he attempts to fill with family and religion, apparently unaware he has irrevocably blasphemed against both. This third movie doesn’t tell us much we couldn’t have guessed from the end of Part II, but as a coda, now, it emphasizes that Michael was damned the minute he came out of that restaurant bathroom with the stashed gun. 

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

October 23, 2020

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“I was tucking in my shirt” might just be the movie critique of the year. Then again, look at the year. In Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, Sacha Baron Cohen brings his big-hit satirical character Borat Sagdiyev out of retirement, and the result is sporadically explosive, with more obviously staged sequences than I remember the original 2006 Borat having. Here, Borat is apparently too recognizable to Americans from his previous film, so he puts on a fake fat suit, a beard, and a wig that all make him look like an Amish elder who’s gotten into too much butter. There are some scenes where Baron Cohen, in one disguise or another, interacts with people who don’t seem in on the prank, and many others where Borat hangs out with characters clearly played by actors — a couple of QAnon hicks, a black woman Borat hires to look after his 15-year-old daughter.

The daughter, Tutar, is very much the movie’s saving throw, and the 24-year-old Bulgarian actress who plays her, Maria Bakalova, swipes the movie right out from under Baron Cohen’s thick mustache. He lets her run with it, knowing what she brings to the party. Tutar is intended as a gift to Mike Pence on behalf of Borat’s mother country Kazakhstan, but her babysitter points her towards feminist awakening and rejection of the fearful sexism Borat teaches her. Loudly and crassly, at fancy events for shocked rich white people, Tutar embraces the feminine. Some of the movie’s more screamingly funny moments (it’s too bad we can’t see this in a packed and roaring theater as it deserves) don’t involve Borat at all; it’s all Tutar, and Bakalova jumps into each fresh outrage with both feet, hungry for life and pleasure. 

The shirt-tucking moment has gotten all the press, but really it doesn’t tell us much we don’t already know, which is to say — to quote All the President’s Men — “these aren’t very bright guys, and things got out of hand.” So to speak. It’s a good gotcha moment, but in truth, the subject’s predatory leers beforehand tell a more disturbing story. Maria Bakalova deserves hazard pay, not only for the “sex attack” she may have narrowly sidestepped but for sitting within feet of America’s mayor as he coughs and hacks into his hands. Much of the movie was shot as the COVID crisis unfolded, and I’m sure the production observed strict protocols, but it’s still a chilling moment. This is a man so monstrously privileged and delusional he just figures your space is his space. He moves in a world where he gets to accompany a very young-looking girl to a bedroom, lie down, and stick his hand down his pants. Or he gets to cough at her.

This Borat sequel has nine writing credits (the original had five), and there are stretches where you can feel the chaos being wrested into a narrative, an arc wherein Borat learns to love and respect his daughter. It’s a far different movie than the first Borat was; it feels like a transitional film from Borat’s punk-brat origins to something with more heart, albeit Hollywood heart. Baron Cohen, himself Jewish, apparently continues to think anti-semitism is smashingly funny, or at least allows for dark satirical doodling. Some will no doubt chafe at the scene in which Baron Cohen brings out Holocaust survivor Judith Dim Evans to inform Borat that, yes, the Holocaust did happen. I think, for Baron Cohen, anti-semitism represents all other forms of idiotic hate, and as always, the sharpest scenes come when Baron Cohen can get random folks on camera heartily agreeing with Borat’s blinkered, almost childlike racism. Stick around for the end credits — no mid-credits scene, but an absolute stomper of a cover of “Everybody Dance Now” by the Russian punk band Little Big.

Bill & Ted Face the Music

August 30, 2020

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Before watching Bill & Ted Face the Music, I was assured I didn’t have to rewatch Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) and Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) — it’s true, you don’t — which was good, because I didn’t especially feel like rewatching them. (I last saw them both in ’91.) Having now seen the third installment, I do feel like going back and revisiting the younger Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves). B&TFTM has the effect of making us look fondly anew on these two doofus besties, who grew up to be pretty decent men — not perfect, not successful, but decent. The new movie is as good-natured as the prior two — maybe even moreso, because Bill and Ted no longer do that “we’re alive, let’s hug” bit and then back off each other saying “Fag.” They’ve grown into men who just hug.

In the intervening 25 years since Bogus Journey (which unfolded in 1995, so we’re told), the titular duo’s band Wyld Stallyns has plummeted off the charts and into wedding-party oblivion. They still dig making music, though, and they’re alive to the spirit of experimentation — at that wedding party, Ted breaks out a theremin and Bill commences Tuvan throat singing. The wonder of this is that Bill and Ted never come across as pathetic, not even in other timelines when they’re pretending to be rich, famous musicians or when they’re muscleheaded convicts. The pair’s happy acceptance of life remains a pure constant across the decades. But the movie, it turns out, isn’t really even about them.

Bill and Ted have married the medieval princesses they met in Excellent Adventure, and each union has produced a daughter named after each father’s BFF. So Ted’s daughter (Brigette Lundy-Paine, who precisely nails the ol’ Ted vibe) is named Billie; Bill’s blonde, easily amazed daughter (Samara Weaving) goes by Thea. Bill and Ted are tasked to save reality, which has become temporally shambolic, by writing a song that will unite the world. As Bill and Ted bounce back and forth in time, trying to steal the song from various future Bills and Teds, Billie and Thea go off on their own trying to piece together an epic band to deliver the song — Louis Armstrong, Jimi Hendrix, Mozart, Ling Lun, and a percussionist cavewoman named Grom (played by Patty Anne Miller, who has drummed for Beyoncé). Ultimately, the music that must be faced here is that Bill and Ted have to complete the process of being good husbands, fathers, and stewards of music that rocks. They have to step aside. They’re not the band, they play back-up now. This is a bittersweet message for Generation X, who now pass the baton (did we ever really have it?) to millennials and zoomers. The young and hungry and energetic can take over.

Not that Keanu and Alex lack energy here. Keanu can still activate that carefree beam, but as Owen Gleiberman noted, he has a more somber resting face now — he actually always had it, going back to River’s Edge and Permanent Record. But the face he wears now is hard-earned; it has the dents and scrapes of experience and loss. He seems to be having fun here, and believe me, I’m the last person to begrudge Keanu a fun time. Neither he nor Alex Winter seem to be doing this for any reason other than hanging out, goofing around, rocking some tunes. (In that respect, Jay and Silent Bob filled the void Bill and Ted left.) Bill & Ted Face the Music is sweetly nostalgic, yet never looks back on its own past. Growth and progression seem to be the goals, which partly means raising daughters to be weird and quirky, and to be excellent to each other. There’s a blessed sanity to the warmth and kindness of Bill and Ted and pretty much everyone else in the film — even Death (William Sadler again), who just wants to lay down sick bass lines. I wouldn’t say, as some have, that Bill & Ted Face the Music is “the movie we need right now.” But I sympathize with those who do. There isn’t a whisper of meanness anywhere in it. Its soul is safe and soft. 

Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker

June 7, 2020

starwars9And so we return one final time to the Skywalker family. After Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker, we are told, there will be no more stories told about the spawn of Darth Vader and their various friends, spawn, and acolytes. With this, I officially lose interest in the Star Wars franchise; even back in 1983, when I thought Star Wars was over, I couldn’t find any hunger for the comics or the “expanded universe” novels or any of the other things Lucasfilm devised to keep the brand a going concern until George Lucas revisited the saga sixteen years later. So the multimedia Joseph Campbell rewrite will have to chug along without me.

This last go-round neither disappointed nor thrilled me; it just exists. There’s always something going on, and that’s part of the problem: there’s never not something going on, no pause for breath, no beauty or poetry. We ain’t got time for that now. The Final Order, a bunch of bad guys led by the Big Bad Guy, the resurgent Emperor Palpatine, plans to subjugate or destroy every planet everywhere. The Good Guys leap to the rescue — identity-crisis Jedi in training Rey (Daisy Ridley), rash pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac), former stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega). Meanwhile, good-bad guy Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) wants to save Rey from Palpatine. His deal is as tangled as ever.

Some thematic relevance could be teased out of the previous entries, The Force Awakens (2015) and The Last Jedi (2017). The latter, which I consider the best of the new trilogy, dripped some poison into the ears of the faithful. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), like Achilles, renounced the heroic code; he literally tossed his lightsaber over his shoulder in disgust. Well, we’ll have none of that now, not with non-entity J.J. Abrams (who made the first of the sequel trilogy) at the helm. Abrams’ insight seems to be that the fans want endless lightsaber duels and shoot-outs and spacecraft looping around. Some of the action has a shoot-the-works electricity, but the special effects are as hectic, busy, and essentially insecure as anything in Lucas’ prequel trilogy. Abrams strains so hard not to lose our attention that, through sheer narrative vehemence, he loses it anyway.

There are some pleasures. I felt it would be churlish to try to make out the seams in Carrie Fisher’s performance — cobbled together from unused footage — as General Leia. I was grateful for however much the moviemakers could give me of her. Billy Dee Williams, as the returning Lando Calrissian, comes through with a suave turn that helps to remind us that acting was once possible in these things. (Adam Driver just about sprains something trying to make something real out of Kylo Ren’s nightmares of conscience, but he did better under the tutelage of Rian Johnson, a real director, on The Last Jedi.) The young trinity of new stars sprint this way and that, hopping from world to world, in search of a McGuffin called “the wayfinder” that will lead them to the lair of Palpatine. This dark emperor is as boringly eeeeeevil as ever, and his connection to one of the heroes feels underdone, as if Abrams and his writers were wincing and hoping the parallels to a similar revelation in The Empire Strikes Back wouldn’t strike us as too blatant.

We’re frequently reminded of the stakes — this needs to happen or the bad guys will be very bad and everyone will die — yet the demands of fantasy on this budgetary level guarantee there are no real stakes. People die but come back one way or another; the total outcome is never in doubt. Here and there, a bit of business tugs at the old nostalgic feelings or packs a sidewise punch: Daisy Ridley’s teardrop falling on Carrie Fisher’s (or a double’s) shoulder; a droid, cowed by past abuse, who declines a human’s touch with a prim but slightly panicked “No, thank you.” Even old Luke returns as a force ghost, reassuring Rey and us that he was wrong and it’s important for good to stand up to evil. That point is made here in the most generic of ways; it doesn’t risk resonating with the world we live in, which even Lucas’ goofball prequels at least tried to do. That much-derided “deathstick” bit in Attack of the Clones, for instance, at least tried to engage with human frailty outside the franchise, albeit in a laughable dad way. Nothing like that here.