Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ category

The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot

January 13, 2019

the-man-who-killed-hitler-and-then-the-bigfoot“It’s the Bigfoot, Ed. They want me to kill it.” That’s ol’ Calvin Barr (Sam Elliott) talking to his brother (Larry Miller) over a cup of powdered cocoa and mini-marshmallows. Some forty-odd years prior, Calvin also pulled the trigger on Hitler himself, hence the title The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot. Like Bubba Ho-Tep, that title promises something different from what the movie delivers. A feature debut by Robert D. Krzykowski (who co-produced Lucky McKee’s The Woman), Hitler/Bigfoot has unexpected pathos and gravitas, and the titular killings are anti-climactic, almost beside the point. Calvin lost what was really important in the war — his innocence (a killer is something you can never un-become) and the love of his life.

Why did Calvin never track down his stateside sweetie, schoolteacher Maxine (Caitlin FitzGerald)? Probably because he felt stained by killing a man, even if that man was Hitler. As Calvin explains to the two government suits who recruit him to deal with Bigfoot, killing Hitler didn’t matter because his words survived him; like the deadly virus that the Bigfoot carries (which is why it urgently needs killing), Hitler’s hateful ideas radiated outward from his corpse and infected millions. Hitler and the Bigfoot both turn out to be smaller and less impressive in the flesh, and more easily killable. Killing them doesn’t make Calvin any happier or even more heroic. As he says, he just did what he was told.

That Hitler/Bigfoot is more subdued, humanistic and poignant than the title indicates doesn’t mean it’s a cult classic like Bubba Ho-Tep, though. It’s a little underdone, with an elaborate flashback structure that sometimes confuses us — we’re watching Calvin (played as a young man by Aidan Turner) during the war, then as a nail-tough codger in the ‘80s, then as a young man again before heading off to war. I suppose this structure is justified by being a tall tale about a man looking back on an eventful life. Krzykowski, though, either neglects or forgets about narrative beats we’re expecting. What happened to Maxine? Why does Calvin fake his own death if he’s just going to be seen publicly with Ed later on? And what’s that in his shoe that bothers him for the whole movie? A tracking device, I’m guessing — how the government keeps tabs on him. (It’s also implied there’s a painting in his parlor that’s bugged.) But Krzykowski has Calvin dump it out of his shoe in a medium shot, and we never get a good close look at the thing. For all we know, it’s the ring he never got a chance to give Maxine.

Still, if you enjoy Sam Elliott and his rich baritone, there are worse ways to spend your evening. Calvin is the sort of flawlessly ethical American who finds a $100 scratch ticket on the sidewalk but refuses to collect the winnings himself; who lives modestly with his trusty ol’ dawg and kills brain cells at a bar, saying he’s thinking about giving up the booze but knowing he won’t. Elliott puts all of this across effortlessly — he’s an iconic presence playing an iconic man who would rather just be obscure. “This is not the comic-book story you want it to be,” he tells the somewhat starry-eyed younger agents who pull him back in. The unemphatic directorial style promises that much, but it’s Elliott — his sad, measured voice the sound of a bruised soul who has seen more blood than you — who really delivers on the promise.

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Bird Box

January 6, 2019

birdbox The news informs me that, having watched the new Netflix film Bird Box, people nationwide are taking the “Bird Box challenge.” This involves wandering around wearing a blindfold, copying the characters in the film. Sadly, it does not involve aping the film’s other following behaviors: carrying birds around, listening to upbeat Dionne Warwick oldies, or taking pity on refugees escaping from terrifying hazards. It would be nice if more of us took that last Bird Box challenge in the weeks to come. Anyway, if you don’t expect it to make literal sense on a scene-by-scene basis, Bird Box is a fairly tense metaphorical thriller, though with a fatal structural flaw.

Well, since you asked so nicely: When a narrative has fancy flashback architecture — if it goes back and forth between what we understand as “now” and what we’re told was “five years ago” — it’s very hard for any of the flashbacks to pack any suspense. We begin with our emotionally prickly artist heroine, Malorie (Sandra Bullock), preparing two children we assume are hers for a dangerous rowboat trip down a river. We then go back to five years earlier, when the apocalypse comes in the form of creatures who drive their victims suicidally insane if looked upon. Malorie, who is pregnant, makes her way through the chaos to a house holding several other survivors. Right off the bat, we figure Malorie had to survive whatever threatens her in the flashbacks we see, and we figure she lives to have at least one kid, too. But wait, one of her fellow survivors is also pregnant. So either Malorie ends up having twins, or this second pregnant woman is destined for the dirt and Malorie has to adopt her kid, and…

Well, like I said, it’s metaphorical. Bird Box was directed by Susanne Bier, who has made several acclaimed, even Oscar-nominated dramas in her native Denmark and elsewhere. If Netflix is to be believed, Bird Box has been watched 45 million times, which, even if we buy only a third of that number, represents millions more eyes than have been on any of Bier’s previous features. Bier isn’t really interested in the monsters, or in survival either; she seems more intrigued by how people in extremis treat one another. To that end, we get a fair number of scenes dealing with the tension, or relative lack thereof, between the survivors in the flashbacks. This has the unfortunate effect of making the few characters all seem to be symbolizing something or other — John Malkovich’s unhospitable character, for instance, reps callous paranoia — and there’s a potentially distasteful element wherein the mentally ill, immune for some reason to the monsters’ influence, become violent predators who want the unafflicted to look at the monsters and die. Then again, that may be part of a subtler point that we must empathize with the mentally ill or suffer accordingly.

Anyway, the film continues to flip back and forth, without many surprises. Since kids are involved, we have a hunch there’s a limit to how dark the story can get, and we are correct. Bird Box has been around in a variety of forms for decades. The most we can do is look under the hood of this year’s model, kick the tires, and see how it runs. The characters are basically delivery systems for the film’s metaphors, and the actors can’t access much beyond the basics — fear, love — in the moment. I most enjoyed the sequence dealing with the crisis finally arriving in America, which provides a cascading chill of mores and taboos exploding everywhere we look. But even here, we get Sarah Paulson as Bullock’s acerbically pro-social sister — for all of five minutes. I would cheerfully have swapped a few of the gray, cold, repetitive rowboat scenes for a few more minutes with Paulson.

The Year in Review

December 24, 2018

wakanda Setting aside 2018’s global turbulence, what did the year mean for movies? I suppose African-American film fans have more reason to be of good cheer than they might have had a year ago. Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther finished domestically with $700 million, far and away 2018’s top grosser. Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time got mixed notices and just barely made back its cost worldwide, but it was still the first film directed by an African-American woman to hit a $100 million domestic gross (and was definitely the first movie so directed to boast a nine-digit budget). Spike Lee had his biggest hit in years with BlacKkKlansman, whose domestic earnings tripled its cost. Other success stories include Charles Stone III’s Uncle Drew ($42m gross against $18m cost), Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You (cost $3 mil, grossed $17 mil), and Malcolm D. Lee’s Night School (made back four times its budget globally).

Add in some wins for Asian-Americans (Jon Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians and James Wan’s Aquaman) and gays (Bohemian Rhapsody is the top-grossing movie about an LGBTQ+ person in history despite its attempts to straightwash Freddie Mercury) and you have a better-than-middling year for diversity. What you don’t have, for the tenth year running, is cinema for grownups. 2008 gave us a sea of blockbusters pointed mainly at teens, and it’s been the same story every year since. Now, some movies aiming higher on the age spectrum finished just outside this year’s top ten: A Star Is Born, say, and the aforementioned Crazy Rich Asians. But even the triumphant Black Panther, despite its sky-high level of craft and imagination all around, is finally just another brick in the Marvel/Disney wall, and I can imagine Paul Mooney chortling ironically at the fact that the big-deal black superhero got finger-snapped into nonexistence just one movie later, in Avengers: Infinity War.

Nobody seriously believes any of those superheroes won’t be brought back next April in Avengers: Just Messin’ With You, We Ain’t Killing Off a Dude Who Made Us $1 Billion Worldwide. Disney isn’t exactly hurting (it can brag about 2018’s top three grossers, tossing in The Incredibles 2), but it got stung a little with the relatively weak grosses of A Wrinkle in Time and also Solo: A Star Wars Story, the first movie in its historically lucrative franchise to come out in the red column domestically (even though it wound up at #9 on the top ten). Warner’s Fantastic Beasts sequel is showing some Potterverse fatigue (or maybe newfound audience wariness about Johnny Depp). Universal has Jurassic World, The Grinch and Halloween to dry its tears over Skyscraper, Pacific Rim Uprising, and the one-time Oscar hopeful Green Book, a meant-to-be-heartwarming road-trip drama much criticized for its retro approach to race relations, which stalled badly in theaters.

Yes, I said Halloween. Finishing at #17 on the year-end list, the reboot/sequel opened huge and ended up the biggest-grossing film in the history of its franchise; even adjusted for inflation, it only came in about $20 million behind the 1978 original. A sequel to this sequel is already planned, though I wish they wouldn’t go ahead with it — people came out for this one because it promised closure and brought back Jamie Lee Curtis, and a follow-up would just be more of the night he came home … again. In general, horror remains strong as a genre; A Quiet Place (#12) was this year’s Get Out in terms of word-of-mouth success (no pun intended), if not in terms of social relevance. Threats to the nuclear family, whether visually challenged monsters or disgruntled white males, were the main boogeymen in 2018’s films; the year’s “Look out! Brown people!” movies, Sicario 2 (#53) and Peppermint (#75), performed barely above their costs and will not likely be asked back for a third or second dance.

It can be instructive to look at what scares moviegoers, but it’s just as useful to consider what makes us laugh (Deadpool 2, at #5, is essentially a meta-superhero comedy, perhaps bespeaking the first rustles of superhero fatigue) and what makes it dusty in the room (A Star Is Born remains stubbornly effective tearjerker material after eight decades). The popular myths of the day tell us where our heads and hearts are at. Of course, the big breadwinner of twenty years ago was Saving Private Ryan; of thirty years ago, Rain Man. It has been a while (fifteen years, in fact) since a #1 grosser, like Rain Man, was also crowned Best Picture at the Oscars (for those playing at home, it was The Return of the King). Will Black Panther break the streak and join the ranks of Titanic and Forrest Gump? We’ll see in February, I guess.

Bohemian Rhapsody

December 9, 2018

Bohemian-Rhapsody If we agree that movies — even documentaries — are not the first place to look for the unalloyed truth, the question then becomes, What story are we being told? To what ends are the facts being bent? The answer may explain why a movie is a runaway success, like Bohemian Rhapsody, the most lucrative musical biopic of all time, which takes the thorny persona of Freddie Mercury and gentles him into what he says, in the film, he doesn’t want to be: a cautionary tale. Better to say that Mercury, safely dead for the better part of three decades, is now ripe for autopsy and a moviemaker can try to divine by his entrails.

The narrative being pushed here is one of a boy, Farrokh Bulsara (Rami Malek), who as the movie begins has already Americanized his name to Freddie. After a while he will legally change his last name to Mercury, cutting himself off from his Farsi roots. Freddie is bisexual but falls in love with one woman, Mary (Lucy Boynton). Despite his later life consisting of a blur of male partners, Mary remains his one great love. With his band Queen, Freddie reaches the stars but emotionally wallows in the gutter, until his AIDS diagnosis humbles him. He grovels his way back to the band (with their hetero lives, their wives and children), and the movie ends on the sweeping up note of Queen’s triumph at 1985’s Live Aid concert.

Never mind that the real Mercury wasn’t diagnosed until 1987; that would just end things on a bummer, and bummers don’t make almost $600 million worldwide. Bohemian Rhapsody certainly doesn’t take aesthetic risks comparable to those of its namesake single; it’s a bog-standard rise-and-fall-and-rise music biopic, and whatever affection has attached to it is pretty much the work of Rami Malek, whose resemblance to Mercury is passable — the actual Mercury had a kind of Christopher Reeve butch handsomeness interrupted by the extra teeth crowding his mouth. The way Malek’s syllables undertake the perilous journey around the fake choppers he wears is a little distracting, but a quick check of video of Mercury himself reveals that’s pretty much how he talked, right down to the frequent sucking on the front teeth.

Malek obliges the movie’s preferred narrative by enacting young, hungry Freddie, then success-sodden, druggy-orgy Freddie, then humbled Freddie ready for greatness, having suffered and renounced the catting around. He does all of this with sufficient facility, but Bohemian Rhapsody is probably better suited for people who haven’t seen this basic story a hundred times. The difference is the music, and I wonder if part of what accounts for the strong box office is that people are using the movie to see “Queen” in concert. The singing is Mercury’s, as is the band’s playing, taken, I assume, from live tapes of the era, so people might also want to hear the music in movie theaters with reasonably good sound systems as a communal event, framed by biographical re-enactments with the guy from Mr. Robot.

I’d hate to think it’s the message that’s driving repeat business. And that message? If you’re from an immigrant family, and on the queer spectrum, you can have it all, but don’t get too far above yourself. Show respect for your ma and pa (both followers of Zoroastrianism, which teaches that to be gay is to be demonic), tell your one-time white hetero female lover that she’s the love of your life (to hell with you, Jim Hutton, the lover who nursed Mercury until his death), and basically reject whatever sweaty, glittery, outlaw energy made people want to make a movie about you in the first place. Oh, and the press — enemy of the people! — is a mob of barking, salacious freaks who just want to know who you’re fucking, and gays around you will sell you out to them. “I’m not going to be anybody’s victim, AIDS poster boy or cautionary tale,” says Freddie, blithely unaware of the movie he’s in and what it turns him into.

The Christmas Chronicles

November 25, 2018

santakurtNetflix’s The Christmas Chronicles lasts, with credits, one hour and forty-four minutes, of which fifty-three minutes are worthwhile. You’re way ahead of me: those are the minutes featuring Kurt Russell as Santa Claus (he prefers “Saint Nick”), a robust, not quite jolly old elf who oddly seems to fit right in with Russell’s recent run of hirsute cowboys and rough workers with a surplus of chin and/or lip fur. (Not to mention the global twinning of Russell now having played bearded heroes of the North and South Poles.) Russell plays Santa with absolute integrity, which in this context means he plays Santa as Kurt Russell playing Santa, which is the only reason most people of legal age would want to watch this. And he delivers.

Sadly, Russell shares the movie with two irritating kids, chipper believer Kate (Darby Camp) and her sullen teenage older brother Teddy (Judah Lewis). They’re bummed because their firefighter dad died on duty, this is their first Christmas without him, and their mom (Kimberly Williams-Paisley in an utterly thankless role) just wants them to get along. Because Teddy no longer has a father figure, he’s drifting towards crime (he and his buddies literally steal a car for a joyride at one point). Teddy needs to be bitter and cynical so that, of course, he can relearn Christmas Spirit over the course of the movie, but that could have been accomplished without all the grand-theft-auto stuff that can’t help implying that single women can’t raise boys without disaster.

On Christmas Eve, these kids, led by Kate, find themselves in Santa’s sleigh, where they startle him and he lands them somewhere in Chicago without his reindeer or his magic hat. If he doesn’t get these items back soon, there will be no Christmas cheer, by which the movie means no presents. I kept waiting for the film to break out the old platitude that Christmas is about more than presents, but nope. It’s about presents and also about the other dude of the day — at one quiet moment in the adventure, Kate and Teddy pause outside a church and sadly reflect that they haven’t been since their dad died. Which, I guess, means their mother hasn’t brought them? So we’ll blame her for her kids being godless, too!

It’s probably useless to come at The Christmas Chronicles with politics, though there is that odd moment where Santa, denying that he actually says “Ho ho ho,” grumps “It’s just a myth. Fake news.” That’ll date the movie in a bad way, not that Netflix cares, nor its uninspired director Clay Kaytis (an animation guy who graduated to jodhpurs and megaphone with the Angry Birds movie). A good deal of the film is an excuse for elaborate CG effects, which have no magic; even a long look inside Santa’s toy bag is a multilevelled vision of card catalogs and conveyor belts of gifts — it’s like Terry Gilliam without a brain. At least Sofia Coppola’s A Very Murray Christmas had some soul (and Bill Murray).

Russell tries his damnedest, though. In a sequence that will justify the movie for some, Santa jams in a prison cell with some surprise ringers whose identities I won’t spoil (a hint: if the movie had any wit it would’ve stranded Santa in Jersey). Russell himself takes the lead on “Santa Claus Is Back in Town,” and he’s in good voice, busting out his old E moves (Elvis, of course, first recorded the song sixty-one autumns ago). Now, having Kurt Russell get his Elvis on, as well as winking at some of his past roles (“Big trouble,” Santa intones), will tickle some of the audience, including yr. humble scribe. And I can’t feel sad for Russell being in a movie that’s unworthy of him in general, because he lifts all his scenes so effortlessly, bringing his own cool party with him and inviting us to join in.

I also liked the way Russell plays the many scenes in which Santa knows various folks’ childhood dreams and hopes. His Santa is a little irascible, given the circumstances, but also good-hearted. This isn’t one of Russell’s challenging performances, like those in the underrated Miracle or Dark Blue. Here, he reminded me of Jeff Goldblum, who can also get artsy and serious, but whose natural charisma is such that you can be content just watching Jeff having fun being Jeff. And the same is true of Kurt. For fifty-three minutes.

Papillon (2018)

November 11, 2018

papillonWhen I was eight or so, I had a brief fascination with the story of Henri Charrière, or “Papillon,” a French thief falsely accused of murder in 1931. Subjected to years of brutal and/or solitary imprisonment, Papillon kept escaping and being locked back up, until in 1941 he finally made it off of what was meant to be his final jail, the inescapable Devil’s Island. In all versions — Charrière’s bestselling memoirs, the 1973 film based on them, and now the remake — this material is intended to be the inspirational saga of one man who refused to let his soul be caged, and so forth. It’s a real “triumph of the human spirit” tale, with a repetitive freedom/capture/punishment, lather/rinse/repeat structure. What appealed to an eight-year-old about it? Maybe the guillotine. That was pretty cool.

The guillotine makes its appearance in the new Papillon, along with an upped quotient of bloodshed and nudity. The original film, with Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman, very nearly got an R rating for its brutality but won a PG on appeal. The new one was never going to get a PG, from the looks of it. I’m not sure why someone felt the time was right to retell this story, except maybe that Unbroken, which shares Papillon’s high regard for masochistic endurance, had some success four years ago. Despite the advances in technology, the guillotine’s work is less convincing here than it was in 1973. The earlier film, thanks to a jump cut, gave the illusion of a man going from alive and terrified to dead and decapitated instantly, with his head tumbling down towards the camera. In the remake it happens at a distance from the camera; it might as well be a mannequin getting beheaded.

Everything else seems to happen at a distance, too. Charlie Hunnam, the new Papillon, and flavor of the month Rami Malek, as Papillon’s forgery-artist friend Louis Dega, make kind of a lackluster team compared to McQueen and Hoffman — who wouldn’t? A decade-spanning adventure  needs outsize personalities, grand gestures. These two aren’t bad — they turn in human-scaled, naturalistic performances, which would be fine in another kind of movie. But it’s not enough to carry a movie for two hours and thirteen minutes or to engage us for that long. Our attention shifts to broader supporting actors like Roland Møller as a violent, desperate inmate who wants in on Papillon’s escape, or Yorick van Wageningen as the Javert-like warden at French Guyana, where Papillon is kept. Aside from Papillon’s girlfriend in the early Paris scenes and a Mother Superior who sells him out, the movie is also quite the sausage-fest, which I guess is a trap of the material.

I don’t imagine this Papillon will transfix any eight-year-olds, even ones as weird as I was. It’s too grim, too poky and dreary. Which may be another trap of the material, or the prison-escape genre. You have to spend a good long time establishing the prison as a place our hero must escape against all odds. We feel trapped right along with the hero, and when he finally leaves the prison, so can we. I can’t be the only one who feels the deep urge to walk out when we get the montage showing how long Papillon spends in solitary confinement. He doesn’t want to be there, why should we want to sit there with him? A movie like Brawl in Cell Block 99, with no hope of escape at the end but with plenty else to distinguish it, is far more engaging and even exhilarating than an old-school lockdown fable like Papillon. It’s ‘30s pulp elevated to wannabe-poignant Chicken Soup for the Soul fare. As for the 1973 film, much less the books, I haven’t wanted to revisit them. Better to let that memory stay gold.

Bernard & Huey

May 27, 2018

Screen Shot 2018-05-27 at 2.08.05 PMBernard & Huey is based on two characters who showed up in Jules Feiffer’s cartoons for The Village Voice and Playboy starting in 1957. The cable network Showtime commissioned, and then declined, a screenplay from Feiffer in 1986; with some semi-topical tweaks here and there (texting, phrases like “scene-adjacent”), that 30-year-old script is what has been filmed here. So it’s no wonder that the movie feels a tad … musty? Beside the point? And is this #MeToo era the worst or best atmosphere in which to release the satirically-styled musings of Huey, an alpha male who says things like “If I had any respect for chicks I’d never make out,” and Bernard, Huey’s beta friend, whose neuroses anticipated the early Woody Allen persona?

It doesn’t help that Feiffer, a playwright and novelist as well as cartoonist, more or less already wrote his Bernard and Huey movie — 1971’s Carnal Knowledge, directed by Mike Nichols and starring Jack Nicholson as Jonathan, the Hueyest Huey imaginable (Art Garfunkel brought up the rear as Bernard — I mean, Sandy). Carnal Knowledge is a bitter classic as well as a useful time capsule; Feiffer and Nichols were grappling sincerely with what it meant to be a man in the time of what was then called Women’s Lib. More recently, too, films like 1996’s Swingers gave us Vince Vaughn as a slickster neo-Huey and Jon Favreau as a befuddled Gen-X Bernard. Swingers even ended on a Feiffer-esque note of embarrassment for the unjustifiably self-confident Vaughn.

Bernard & Huey feels like a throwback in more ways than one; it’s another microbudgeted, Kickstarted indie film that might’ve had an easier time of it twenty or forty years ago. Now here it is, being tossed into an overflowing bucket of streaming content and somehow expected to stay afloat. It’s smoothly helmed, though, by indie vet (and Slamdance Film Festival co-founder) Dan Mirvish, who’s clearly an actor’s director. Not only does he find the perfect Bernard (Jim Rash) and Huey (David Koechner), he finds younger actors (Jay Renshaw and Jake O’Connor, respectively) who match up terrifically with their older counterparts. Mirvish also provides space for smart actresses — Sasha Alexander, Nancy Travis, Bellamy Young, Mae Whitman as Huey’s grown aspiring-cartoonist daughter — to interrogate the men’s antiquated notions.

The movie flashes back to Bernard and Huey’s college days in the ‘80s, which makes for some weird anachronisms; the era is supposedly post-punk, but the attitudes and even some of the dialogue (“I dig it, man”) are clearly ‘60s — when, of course, the flashbacks were originally set. Most of our time, though, is spent in the present day, when Bernard has become a ladies’ man and Huey, a divorced father, is at loose ends. After a 25-year hiatus, a drunk Huey finds himself at the door of Bernard’s spacious but sparse apartment, and soon the men revert back to their younger vibes, Huey sleeping with every woman in sight while Bernard slips into bed with Huey’s daughter Zelda, whose comics are puerile man-bashing until she meets a man who writes better material. On some level, Bernard & Huey still isn’t especially progressive.

Is it supposed to be, though? On another level, it’s a valentine to Feiffer, a near-nonagenarian who’s still going strong (his most recent graphic novel, Cousin Joseph, was published two summers ago) and who has been there for just about every social tremor, earthquake and tsunami that has shaped who we are now. In the philosophically and somatotypically opposed Bernard and Huey, Feiffer had his voices of bewilderment and resentment that both prefigured second-wave feminism and remain relevant in the era of the intersectional fourth wave. Neither Feiffer nor the film has any answers. That’s not for art to provide. We may have many questions, though, starting with this: Why, a full six decades later, are we still meeting the grandchildren of Bernard and Huey in the noxious form of incels and MRAs/PUAs? The OG B&H, here, are made to look sad, scrubby, essentially lonely (though everyone gets a Hollywood ending that almost reads parodically). Maybe that’s the point.