petrelet

IMDb member since November 2005
    Lifetime Total
    50+
    Lifetime Plot
    5+
    Lifetime Trivia
    1+
    IMDb Member
    15 years

Reviews

The Escape
(2017)

Very good, for most of the movie
This movie is said to be about an "ordinary woman" who makes an "extraordinary decision" that "changes her life forever", but I don't think that captures it. I would say that this movie does an excellent job depicting an ordinary woman in a bleak imprisoning life, who instinctively breaks free of it for a moment, but then .. what? Is her life changed forever? Does the movie deliver on this promise? (SPOILER ALERT) Not really at all.

But let's start off talking about what the movie does well. I think it is at its best in the pre-prison break portion, which is over half of the movie I believe, in which we see the wrenching despair of this woman (Tara, whose name we don't learn for ages) who is serving an eighteen-year sentence for the crimes of being a woman, in the wrong society, and having married the wrong guy for her, and having kids under the wrong circumstances.

Now, it's true that in many ways her life is better than a lot of women's. Her husband doesn't beat her yet (though I think he is working his way up to it), he has a decent job, she doesn't *have* to work outside the home, and she actually has day care for her two little kids. On the other hand, Mark clearly believes that doing any household chores is outside his job description, the sex is great and fast in his view but unrewarding in hers, he doesn't listen even when he thinks he is listening and insists on having "conversations" in which he explains that things are just fine as they are if she would stop acting like this. And she doesn't love her kids any more. To be honest, that little boy is a real pain.

I suppose anyone who wants to can go "actually, she didn't explore the following sensible ideas for improving her life, like marriage counseling, Netflix, and so on.") Netflix (or Prime) might be an idea, but is there a lot of affordable marriage counseling on offer under the Tory government, and would Mark really commit to it, and anyway that isn't the point! The point is that she is in a situation which she finds intolerable. The movie makes us understand her despair and hunger for escape, and so when she is pushed that one last inch ...

Well, that was the good part of the movie. After that, it is all downhill. Not just because a train ticket, even to Paris, doesn't really have magical powers to fix a serious life dilemma rooted in the whole social structure. No, it's mainly because it seems that writer/director Dominic Savage created such a deep and believable dilemma that he wrote himself into a corner from which he couldn't find an ending that would be palatable and honest all at once. So you have fragments of clichés and even a déesse ex machina at one point, who rescues Tara from the streets and provides a few sentences of wise advice that she could have gotten from the Internet for much less money, and at the end of the day we don't know how it works out. THE END.

Now, I grant that this is easier on the eyes than the naturalistic ending in which she would have been tracked down by the police, and become a "Monster Mum" scandal in the Mirror, and maybe thrown in a mental institution for some kind of supposed disorder, because what sane woman would ever act in such a manner. Maybe in fact .. possibly .. it is supposed to provoke this exact kind of reaction where we go "Oh, pshaw, it really should have ended like .. well, there really isn't a good way out is there" and then we try for a few seconds to think where we have gone wrong as a civilization. Maybe it is.

Vox Lux
(2018)

"Vox Lux" is actually a parody, but seemingly nobody but the writer/director realizes it
I am actually pretty convinced of this.

You can call this a conspiracy theory if you want, but I think it's the explanation that makes the most sense. It's a send-up of a movie about a pop star, just like, say, "Talladega Nights" is a send-up of a movie about an auto racer. The stuff that's over the top, or weird, or flat, or badly written - it's all that way deliberately.

If I'm write, it's a pretty impressive feat. It's the first (? OR IS IT?) "gnostic comedy" - a comedy whose comedic nature is understood only by writer-director Corbet and a few others of the "initiated". But was that the plan from the beginning? Is Corbet laughing now because of how well his private prank has fooled everyone? Or is he bitterly frustrated because what he hoped would be a successful comedy has been misunderstood by everyone as a controversial or quirky or just unsuccessful drama?

Well, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, so excuse me while I go through some of the parts that (after a couple hours' mulling) gave me some confidence in my theory.

(1.) First and foremost, there is the weird narration voiced by Willem Dafoe which starts at the beginning of the movie and continues through the end. It is so badly written, so pretentious and so determined to use the wrong words, and so consistently off-key, that it literally must have been written that way on purpose. It's like an Onion editorial. Early on I thought that "okay, this movie is about the price of fame, so part of the price of fame is having this kind of laughably rubbish narration used in your biopic." But eventually I concluded that this is the real magic key to the movie. Corbet is giving us narration that can't possibly be taken seriously, and this is his way of telling us how to watch the rest of the movie.

(2) The school shooting and its aftermath just have too many over-the-top elements, some of which are clearly "samples" from notable real-world horrors. The shooter is named "Cullen Active". Who the hell is named that? I just this second realized that this is because he's an ACTIVE SHOOTER. I mean, case closed right there!!

(3) The song which Celeste writes for the memorial service is just a weird song, addressed to .. God? ... and full of bondage fantasy. Nevertheless, Dafoe assures us that this became the "anthem for a nation."

(4) The Twin Towers make an early appearance in the film, clearly because this is the kind of pretentious thing that a bad writer-director of a bad millennial biopic would do, accompanied by a lot of images of Manhattan buildings and dark chords. Later on, the new One World Trade Center shows up the same way.

(5) Cutting ahead 20 years, we see that present-day Celeste is just horrible. We are made to see that she is horrible in every way; she's a big drug user now, she stashes her kid Albertine with her sister Ellie all the time, then viciously berates Ellie, repeatedly using the R-word ("ret**d"). It's so bad that it's a parody.

(6) In the course of a press conference, she frustrates her team by throwing out remarks about how these other random terrorists should become atheists and worship her instead. This is also a "sample", this time of remarks by John Lennon.

(7) The climactic performance is not good. The music isn't good, and the dancing basically consists of the same dance step Celeste learned at the beginning of the movie. Nevertheless, the crowd cheers uproariously, it is a great triumph, and Ellie and Albertine, in the audience, are transported. It has all been worth it!! Meanwhile, Dafoe tells us some bizarre anecdote about how the Devil let her return from death so that she could make history or some such. This only makes sense in my parody theory.

So, just to be clear, I am not giving this movie bad marks and sarcastically saying that only a parody could be this bad. I am literally saying that Corbet deliberately wrote, directed, and presented this movie to us as a parody. The funny thing is that the word "parody" appears in a lot of reviews - the movie descends almost to parody here, her accent is a parody there - but I haven't yet seen anyone who went all in on the concept that it really IS a parody, but I think it's really true. I mean, he's an ACTIVE SHOOTER.

I am curious to know how many people are going "Well, you are late to the party, my dude, everyone in the world knows this."

So, given this perspective, how successful is it? My opinion of this movie has gone up a couple of stars just while writing this. If I had seen this movie described as a parody before watching it, I probably would have enjoyed it more. Certainly the acting can't be faulted, and the production values that seem spotty when you think it's a drama become much better when you know it's a parody. Not everyone will like it that a parody treats massacres ironically, but it's not the first. Anyway, that's my take.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
(2014)

A great film with a vampire character in it
This won't be everybody's favorite movie, but I don't see any flaws in it. It clearly does exactly what Ana Lily Amanpour wants it to do, and the combination of elements is really impressive, something I won't forget.

So, the one thing that everyone is going to know going into this film is that it's a vampire movie. But is it really? One of the characters is indeed a vampire, I guess, but the film is not about any of the mechanics of being a vampire, or how you would kill one, or what happens if the sun shines on them, or how the thing with the cat works, or how the vampire became a vampire or any of that. It is not a movie which focuses on the vampire as a monster, but also it is certainly not a movie where the vampire uses their talents to help society like in about a dozen TV shows I can think of ("Vampire Prosecutor" from South Korea comes to mind). In fact just about the entire plot would work if "The Girl" were not a vampire but just someone kind of quiet and quirky and dangerous. But it wouldn't be as cool, of course.

Some of the things we see are along the lines of "Vampires - They're Just Like Us!" "They go around on skateboards!" "They drop by and check out your CD collection!" "They like a practical joke!" No, she's not a commonplace person and really not benign. But in the shabby industrial/urban cityscape of this film, there are a lot of dangers and dangerous people.

Arash who makes up the other half of this odd couple trope has a lot more problems in his life than just a vampire. His father is a coke addict; he's in debt to the neighborhood pusher/pimp (all you really need to know about this guy is that he has the English word "SEX" tattooed on his throat); said lowlife then takes Arash's prized old car on account of the debt. When Arash's fortunes take a better turn, at least on the surface, his father is still a problem and his acquaintances are trying to drug him up. He could use a friend. Or companion. Or someone to hang out with. At this point the movie starts to resemble a very peculiar variant on the rom-com genre.

Being in a relationship is a dangerous and unpredictable thing anyway - particularly for human women, as we know - and a lot of people are going to watch this and be reminded of their own relationships, not the brightest and chattiest ones, but things that they actually experienced with humans. Turning back to the rom-com theme, you know how at the end of some of them you have a couple going off together, maybe sort of looking at each other like "Looks like we're doing this, is this really the best idea?? but *shruggies*" - "The Graduate" and "Choose Me" are exemplars of this. Amanpour's variation on this is priceless and memorable, with the big difference that here we have Masuka the cat!! And the vampire part, of course.

My Christmas Prince
(2017)

Most insipid movie EVER? *smile emoji*
It won't surprise you that this movie (not to be confused with "A Christmas Prince" or "A Prince for Christmas") is not good. When I turned it on, I actually was looking for a completely undemanding and formulaic movie - just the thing to watch while still not de-jetlagged after a full day of travel! And it didn't disappoint!

But in fact, it *did* surprise me in the lengths to which the screenplay went to completely dissipate any conflict and give prizes to everybody.* We expect Samantha to get her prince and the prince to get his Samantha, but then it is as if Oprah comes out of the wings and says that "EVERYBODY gets a prince!* You get a prince! You get a princess!" It is the kind of movie where if there are two people and one cookie, it will turn out that one of the people doesn't like cookies, and also the cookie is happy to be eaten by the other one.

The cast are better than the screenplay - they would just about have to be :-)

That's really about all there is to say.

*except the Black Roommate

Generation Wealth
(2018)

Imagery and personal stories are strong but sort of all over the map
People are going to disagree about this movie. How you rate or value it is going to depend a lot on your own sense of aesthetics. You can call it complex, or murky; multi-layered, or muddled. It pulls from the projects of filmmaker Greenfield's whole life, which is certainly ambitious - many will say that it's too ambitious, and that the film completely loses focus. Others will say that focus is overrated.

Greenfield presents images and stories of excess - mania for wealth - mania for commodities - desire to shape oneself as a commodity. This content combines in several narratives or patterns:

(A) At times we are told (on several occasions by leftish moralist Chris Hedges) that this is a uniquely bad time in the history of our global civilization. We are told that crescendos of hedonism and greed inevitably mark the imminent deaths of empires and ways of life. This sense of the coming apocalypse is sometimes accentuated by musical and visual elements as in Koyaanisqatsi, say, which however did it better and more single-mindedly. I should say that I find Hedges' interventions to be kind of irritating, not because they're anti-capitalist, which I would take as a plus, but because I don't think they're particularly well grounded in theory.

(B) Mingled with this, we see that for some individuals in the work the crash has already come, pointedly in the collapse of 2008. A hedge fund millionaire became a wanted fugitive; an Icelandic fisherman who became a bank employee had to go back to his boat; other persons experienced other kinds of bubble-bursting. But some of them have actually survived and accepted their new lives.

(C) Another pattern one sees is that some of the people just grew out of it. Early in the film we see teenagers who, back in the 1990's when she first photographed them, were given to all sorts of unhealthy excesses. Then, today, 20 years or more later, they have gotten over it and became kind of okay people. This is a hopeful note, by the way. The excessive kids you are panicking about today may be a lot different after they have had a few years to mature.

(D) But also on some level the film is really about Greenfield's own life - her experiences with her mother, whom she saw as obsessed with work, and with her own kids, who have seen her as obsessed with work. I should point out here that the farther the film progresses, the more it takes the position that "wealth" encompasses just about any thing that someone is overly obsessed with, such as work, one's body, having a child, and so on. You will hear that Greenfield "has always been photographing and reporting on wealth", but someone else can say "well, sure, once you have decided to define 'wealth' as just about anything, of course she has." Apparently this film is just one facet of her opus of oeuvre compilation, which we see has also produced a coffee-table book for people with very sturdy coffee tables.

My own bottom line is that I am happy to have seen it, but then I'm pretty tolerant of ambiguity and of filmmakers pursuing their own visions even if they aren't exactly clear and don't have what you would call "a point" exactly. This may help you decide whether you will like it or not.

Indigènes
(2006)

Powerful, poignant, and oh-so-relevant to the US, 70 years ago and today
This movie may make you cry for the characters, or for the real-life soldiers whose experience is summarized here. But it also calls out the experience of all those of the oppressed, on any continent, who have been summoned up to fight, supposedly for liberty, and who have then tried to get that liberty and have either not gotten it or have had to fight a new war for it. The English title "Days of Glory" is a call-out to the line in the "Marseillaise" that says "Le jour de gloire est arrivée." We get to see how that "glory" works out in practice for the Muslim Arab recruits for De Gaulle's African detachments.

This film is a project, not by liberal sympathizers, but coming out of the nationalities themselves that faced this challenge. I was impressed by the way it explored the complex choices that the soldiers from Algeria and Morocco have to make among different strategies. (And, by the way, it's not a negative criticism to note that the Black troops from Senegal and elsewhere in Africa will probably need their own movie.) One wants to demonstrate his competence and valor, and to prove that his brothers deserve equality. Another wants to attach himself to the sergeant best able to protect him. The sergeant in question advocates for his men behind the scenes, but savagely protects the secret that his mother was Arab herself. Another wants to collect as much loot as possible and doesn't see the value of dying for France. The oppressed are always facing this kind of debate.

I should say that this is not just a movie about race relations, but a war movie as well, full of suspense. I won't spoil it further.

When we in the United States see this film, it looks all too familiar to us. We are of course aware that the U.S. forces in World War II were even more racist and more segregated than the Free French forces depicted here, as was U.S. society itself more violently racist and segregated than what we see of France in this film. Our films don't depict the realities of these choices enough, though. ("A Soldier's Story" comes to mind, but it's not enough.)

There was a lot of discussion in the 1940's and 1950's about how World War II would be a proving ground for Black Americans, or at any rate preliminary to a struggle for justice in the South and elsewhere. I have seen it argued that in fact the victories of the Civil Rights movement were made possible by the blood that African-American soldiers shed in Europe and the Pacific, but we could use a few long epics exploring this topic.

The viewer is encouraged to check the Wikipedia article on this film and read up on some related issues, like the whitewashing of the liberation of Paris at the behest of the U.S., and the suspension of the pensions of the soldiers from Africa in revenge for their countries' independence.

Meanwhile, I suppose that 60 years from now somebody will make a movie about how the U.S. recruited immigrants to "fight terror" and then deported them.

Cromwell
(1970)

Inflammatory fake history
Roger Ebert said that this movie's history was as good as one could expect, but otherwise it was pretty bad. I revere Ebert, but he was way off about the history part.

The movie is very much concerned that you properly appreciate Cromwell. To this end, it fills the sound track with orchestral flourishes and fanfares and strident Protestant chorales from the first moment Cromwell appears to the last. Not content with this, it shamelessly reworks history in order to put Cromwell in places and roles which the historical Cromwell did not occupy, and to show him performing wonders that he did not perform, in the hope that the viewer will not know enough history to notice, or will just figure that such lies are the necessary means of sanctifying Cromwell.

For example, it makes Cromwell one of the five members of parliament accused of treason by Strafford, although he was not. It makes Cromwell a participant in the battle of Edgehill, although he wasn't there. Movie-Cromwell commanded the revolutionaries at the critical battle of Naseby, starkly outnumbered by Charles but routing his forces through brilliant strategy and just plain awesomeness. The historical Cromwell was at least present at Naseby, but Fairfax was in command, and his forces had the edge in numbers. At every point Movie-Cromwell is shown to be the sole unaided leader and savior of the Revolution, whereas the real Cromwell was often a subordinate or part of a larger committee. In short, the movie perjures itself from beginning to end.

Now, you could say that there are plenty of history films that get the history way wrong, but are at least fun to watch or produce memorable moments and so on. You might even point out that Shakespeare's histories are bad history but memorable art. Well, Hughes is not Shakespeare, and his Cromwell is not Prince Hal either. Sixty percent of what he does throughout the movie presents a variation on the following: (a) Cromwell asserts a conventional and lofty principle ("I will hear no treason against the king!") (b) He immediately runs up against a harsh reality (One of his men has his ears cut off) (c) He declares that God wants him to throw aside the original principle ("God damn this king!").

There are lot of movies about people who have started off with good intentions and made themselves dictators, convincing themselves that it's necessary for the greater good because all the others in government are traitors and thieves, and because democracy (or republicanism, to be more precise than the movie ever is) is just inadequate to the needs of the day. You can argue about whether this is an adequate and fair summary of the career of the historical Cromwell (I don't think so), but it is an exact synopsis of Movie-Cromwell's career. As if to convince you that he has really gone over the edge, movie-Cromwell punctuates his seizure of total power with a long ahistorical populist rant about how he will make England a center of learning where every man can earn his bread.

As I say, there are a lot of movies about ranting dictators, but there are not so many where a narrator comes along at the end and assures you that the dictator was perfectly justified by history in all his actions and ambitions! But here, after the above-mentioned rant, supposedly taking place in 1653, (SPOILER) the movie comes to an abrupt end - we never see a frame about Cromwell's service as Lord Protector - we only get the voice of an uncredited narrator telling us that during those five years Cromwell made England a great and respected nation!

Now on the issue of religion. We know that the English Civil War had a strong religious element. We don't expect Cromwell and his Puritans to be presented as models of tolerance and ecumenicism. Of course they were opposed not just to the Catholics who back the monarchy but to Catholicism itself. But in fact it looks very much as if Hughes himself is opposed to Catholicism, which is exemplified in the film by Charles' French wife, Henrietta Maria, one of his many evil counselors (and who, out of perhaps 100 words spoken in the film by women, has the plurality), and by a conniving Italian archbishop who attempts to extort all sorts of treasonable favors out of Charles in return for his support.

All this in a film released in 1970, during the Troubles! I have no independent knowledge of Hughes' sympathies in religion or Irish politics. We are informed that this biopic was a "dream project" for Hughes, the product of ten years of research. We do know that Cromwell was a particular hero to the Orange Order. We can see that Hughes wrote and directed a film dedicated to the particular virtues of Cromwell during the time when Catholics in Northern Island were launching a civil rights movement (1964) and loyalists were responding by creating paramilitary forces (1966). The film is full of fake history - did he compose the lies himself, or just uncritically trust some dodgy source? Hughes actually filmed scenes of Cromwell putting down Catholics in Ireland, which were ultimately cut from the final film as just too inflammatory.

And even if one ignores the whole Irish context, the message that national revival can best be handled by a single man who says "I alone can fix it" - no, that was someone else, Movie-Cromwell says "I must do it all alone" - doesn't play well in 2018. To me, anyway.

Salvatore Giuliano
(1962)

Not so much a review as notes that might help the prospective viewer
In order to really evaluate this film, I would have to be a knowledgeable Italian leftist. I'm not. I knew who Giuliano was, but the structure of the film still kind of threw me for a while. But I think I can say a couple things which might help the next person who is thinking of seeing it.

First: it helps a lot if you know something about Giuliano and about the political situation in Italy and in Sicily at the end of World War II before seeing the movie. Francesco Rosi made this movie a few short years after Giuliano's killing and the subsequent trials. His audience had heard a lot about Giuliano and didn't have to be given the whole backstory about him and about the last 15 years of Italian politics. The viewer today, however, particularly outside Italy, could use some of it. Check out the Wikipedia article at least.

Second: if you expect a movie about a charismatic bandit setting traps for the law, you'll be surprised, because the movie really doesn't focus on his career as a leader of a bandit gang / separatist guerrilla force at all. It starts with Giuliano's body lying in a courtyard, and officials telling reporters a story about how he died. During the first half of the film we jump back some to some incidents, and then about halfway through we leave all that behind and go forward into the investigations and trials of accused members of his band after Giuliano's death.

Furthermore, Rosi rather veils his views about Giuliano. We learn that secessionist politicians saw him as sort of a desperate hope, that the people of his town mostly liked him and that the big cheeses mostly hated him, but Rosi keeps his distance. The key incident from the point of view of the succeeding criminal trials is the massacre at Portella della Ginestra of peaceful persons attending a May Day rally. We see Giuliano's band moving out to "shoot at some Communists"; later, as the crowd listens to talk about getting land and education for their children, there are a couple volleys of bullets, and then a third one, from the arid distance, which cuts down a score of completely innocent people. The camera does not minimize this crime, but Rosi is vague about whether he thinks Giuliano intended this result, or that it was unintended by him or even a frame-up by other parties.

Third: while Rosi keeps Giuliano at a distance, he makes it very clear what he thinks of the Italian state. We see that their promises of amnesty to the separatists were worthless. We see carabinieri raiding a village and carting men away pretty much indiscriminately. We see that their stories about how they heroically shot Giuliano in a fire fight are lies. We see that legal procedure silences competing stories and takes the place of a true investigation of Giuliano's life and death. We hear stories of a secret alliance between the state and the Mafia. Giuliano is dead, his forces are in jail or dead or disbanded, but all these horrible people and sinister forces in and around the state apparatus are alive and the real focus of Rosi's agitation.

All this makes perfect sense to me if I try (of course with no hope of getting it exactly right) to put myself in the position of a leftist agitator (anyone who thinks I intend to belittle Rosi by thinking of the film in this way doesn't grasp how I view leftist agitation) in 1961, trying to deal with the tales and memories of Giuliano and sorting out the lessons I do and don't want people to remember. On the one hand, Giuliano took on the Italian state and was seen as a Robin Hood character. On the other hand, he was quite anti-communist even if you give him the benefit of all the doubt there is regarding Portella della Ginestra; he hung out with monarchists and wanted to get Sicily annexed by the Truman administration!

So if you are Rosi, you are not at all interested in trying to revive Giulianism or revere Giuliano. You are interested in starting with the fact that your audience maybe has fond feelings about him and understands where he came from, but in moving on from there into a present-day critique of the police, the military, and the Mafia. And for me this answers a lot of questions about why this film is organized the way it is. Rosi wants people to remember, for example, the heroic black-clad village women, trying to take on the carabinieri in a hand-to-hand fight to get their men released. There are more people in that fight than in Giuliano's whole band at its highest point.

Those are some notes that will perhaps (who knows) be useful for a non-Italian viewer trying to get into this film. As for a full review of the film, I don't claim to be competent to do it. I'm glad I got around to seeing it, though.

Phantom Thread
(2017)

Male dominance fable with untimely lessons
This is an unusual film (not to say "weird", but some will). It is not a naturalistic account; while apparently set in 1950's London, with non-magical human characters, it is nevertheless a fantasy of a kind. The acting, sets, and costumes are of the highest level. It took me a while to decide how to view this film, and longer to decide how to evaluate it.

Alma is working as a waitress in a hotel pub. An elderly and powerful man descends on the place for breakfast, and, noticing her beauty, tests her by seeing how if she can remember his complex breakfast order. She passes his test, and he invites her to dinner, and then back to his house. He strips her to her slip and an elderly woman whom he refers to as "Old So-and-so" arrives and records her measurements as he wields the tape. "You have no breasts," he observes. "I know. I'm sorry." "I can give you breasts," he responds. "If I choose." At the end of this session, he takes her to a room and says "This will be your room. It is next to mine."

Stripped (as it were) to the essentials, this encounter just about mirrors the kind of male dominance fantasy we find in the opening chapter of a pornographic novel like "Belinda Blinked".* The parallels don't end there. The man - Reynolds Woodcock, fashion designer to the rich and royal - in fact presides over a houseful of women, assisted by his sister, Cyril. Wealthy women come to him, and he has the power to make them beautiful, if they will do as he demands. The difference between this and ordinary porn (or magical fantasy porn) is that Woodcock is physically celibate, as far as we ever determine; his servants are seamstresses, his clients are buying dresses, and his demands on his clients consist of fittings and customer loyalty; but he is as self-centered and intolerant of women's independent existences as any male BDSM protagonist in the tradition of the Marquis de Sade. It is all dominance. Woodcock's whims are law. Salaries and benefits are never discussed with Alma, and she does not care. She only wants to be needed and loved by this powerful man. But he does not need her and does not want to - that's the basic conflict.

Reviewers of this film often refer to Alma** as Woodcock's "muse". I believe that this is a mistake, whether you use the word in the mythological sense or in the most watered-down modern sense of a male artist's girlfriend who sort of inspires him. I believe Alma would very much like to be Woodcock's muse, but he doesn't want one. In reality she is sort of like an impulsively purchased pet. Beyond living in the room next to his and eating breakfast quietly with him, it's not clear that Woodcock really has plans for what she should do. He sends her in as one of his models at one point to a fashion show being held in his own house, and she enjoys herself, displaying his creations with a joyous and flirtatious flair. But this contrasts with the dour and robotic mien of his other models, and I believe this is why we never see him use her this way again. After that, she is largely relegated to appearing before clients with the rest of his women, all in pretty much identical white lab coat things. "I live here," she insists on telling a Belgian princess on one such occasion. It is an unheard scream.

Alma wants Woodcock to notice her, but he just wants to have her at hand. Beyond this mismatch of goals, Alma also has her own thoughts and judgments, not to mention a desire to butter her toast even though it scrapes on Woodcock's hypersensitive auditory nerve, and these are like sand in the gears of the machine of his life. Trying to break through his ice, Alma proposes to surprise him by sending all the other servants away, making his dinner, and having him to herself. Cyril warns her that this will go badly, and it does. She needs another solution.

Now, let me pause for a second here.

It ought not to be lost on anyone that this is a film, and that the whole issue of women determining how to address the dominance fantasies of powerful men is precisely relevant to the film industry (not to mention every other aspect of the world) at this time of #TimesUp. This film is a not a naturalistic account. It is a fantastic fable, the rules of which have been laid down not by life but by writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, real-life heavyweight in that industry and creator of the Woodcock universe. This means that he is morally responsible for the lessons that this fable teaches. So, what are they?

I don't want to recap and spoil too much, but basically we learn that within the male dom is a male sub longing to be a helpless baby in his mother's arms. (I don't think this is actually evidence-based.) "Everything (you) want to know is in books"!*** (I endorse this one. In general.)

And that a woman can get what she want if she is willing to play the dominance game as ruthlessly as a man. At this point something awakens in me and says, "Really?" Is this really a lesson we want to promote in the world of Harvey Weinstein? That's the way to go - just playing the game harder and more skillfully - not changing the rules, or escaping and finding a better place, or realizing that it's a bad game, or writing an anonymous article?

I wouldn't be as sensitive to this if it were not for the fact that the questions of "what women should do and are entitled to do" are being intensely debated right now. And I'm not saying that the denouement is bad in the terms of the Woodcock universe. It may even be satisfying there. But I do feel that there are certain moments in history, when particular things and particular solutions are being struggled over in the real world, that make it jarring at least, or inappropriate and counterproductive, for fantastic solutions in fantasy universes to soak up the publicity that ought to go to real solutions in our own universe.

"So, you are giving this movie a bad rating out of political correctness?" Call it what you like. The principle that the reviewer is addressing only the technical and artistic skill of the producers, and not the social effects of the product, is not universally accepted.

* subject of the podcast "My Father Wrote a Porno"

** inequality of naming is endemic to the film. I believe we only hear Alma's last name (Elson) once in the film, and it doesn't appear in the credits (the same is true of other female characters)

*** Lincoln

Kate Plays Christine
(2016)

Powerful and challenging in execution, though somewhat unclear in nature
There is some real controversy (among people who care about categories) about whether "Kate Plays Christine" is a documentary or not. It doesn't -seem- to be entirely scripted, and writer/director Robert Greene strenuously denies that it is merely scripted drama. But maybe it's in the same general category as "Survivor" or "The Bachelor", an "unscripted reality movie" or something.

The blurbs tell you that it's about actress Kate Lyn Sheil's preparation to play the role of Christine Chubbuck, a Sarasota, FL journalist who took her own life on the air in 1974. Well, that's incomplete. I guess the following is a big SPOILER, possibly the biggest one: there is no other movie. This will save you some work if you are like me. Early on I paused the DVD and started checking up on what movie the other movie was that Kate was going to play that role in. There was a different movie in the same year about Chubbuck ("Christine"), but Sheil was not in it, was never going to be in it, and it turns out (so far as I know) that these were entirely independent and uncoordinated projects.

Greene was never going to direct, and Sheil was never going to act in, a feature-length biopic about Chubbuck, which explains why you never see the kind of organization behind her that you would need for such a film, and answers questions like "why is Kate going around Sarasota herself talking with old journalists and checking out the gun store? Didn't the author of the screenplay do this stuff?" No, the subject matter of the film is Kate trying to alter her appearance and reactions to get into the role of Chubbuck, but the sum total of the scripted scenes with Sheil playing the Chubbuck role, along with some local actors, comes to twenty minutes at most, and that was always Greene's plan. I guess maybe this is supposed to actually dawn on you in the course of the film, but if that's what Greene intended I think that's unnecessary mystification, and he could have spelled out his intentions ahead of time.

(By the way, this is one of the few cases in which I have actually troubled to go to the DVD features and play back parts of the film with the director's commentary before writing a review. Generally I think the movie should stand on its own without the viewer having to do additional digging. This is another reason why I think there should have been more transparency up front.)

If you approach this movie with the idea that you are going to learn the real story about Chubbuck and why she killed herself, this movie is going to disappoint you. One of the early takeaways is that very few people in Sarasota remember her at all. There is no more information about her and her motives than the snippets that mostly came out at the time. Was her suicide really mainly about her not having found love, or a protest against her employer's supposed "blood-and-guts"-oriented editorial practices, or was it "just" a product of clinical depression, or maybe some other mental disorder(s) or states, and not (mostly) "about" any real-world stuff at all? Would it really have not happened if this guy hadn't rejected her, or if the videotape machine hadn't jammed that morning? Obviously no such answers can be found.

More worthy of study, perhaps, is the question of anyone (notably Greene, as he is aware) devotes any time to depict or dramatize Chubbuck's suicide, much less persist in hunting for the videotape of the actual suicide, as some do. And what of us, the viewers of "Kate Plays Christine"? Are we better than consumers of "blood and guts" ourselves? It's not just me asking this question, by the way.

Kate's physical transformation into Christine seems unlikely at first, as the two women are pretty dissimilar physically, but as she acquires a wig and colored contacts and studies Christine's mannerisms it becomes surprisingly effective. But even more uncanny is Kate's work at adopting what seems to be Christine's personality. I was struck by a scene in which Kate angrily berates herself for supposedly screwing up a scene, echoing what we think we know about Christine's ragefulness and detestation of failure. (How spontaneous was that rant by Sheil? Was it at all scripted? I didn't play back Greene's commentary for that, so I don't know for certain.) (I am assuming Greene is reliable in his commentary, but this is a judgment.)

As the denouement approaches, Kate has obtained a revolver and has learned exactly where Christine put it to the base of her brain, but repeatedly says she doesn't think she can actually re-enact the shooting itself. The question of whether she can and will becomes invested with progressively more dramatic tension, and extends well beyond squeamishness or taste, well into the territory of morality: ought she to pull the trigger? What do we want her to do, and why? Ultimately Kate seems to be imbued with all of Christine's darkest emotions as she brings the film to a close. Greene assures us on the commentary track that this part of the film was not scripted, by him at any rate, and was Kate's own work, unexpected and unguided. As to whether the emotions she displays really have her in their grip, or whether she is deploying them in the service of the film, I could be convinced either way.

While the credits roll, Kate removes her Christine-makeup, briefly flashing a smile which prompts Greene to insist on the commentary track that "she's all right." There is no Kate Lyn Sheil commentary track to confirm this with.

A fost sau n-a fost?
(2006)

A very gentle successful satire
If you insist on something actually happening in a movie - on the characters developing as people, or engaging as conflict that produces some decision - this movie isn't for you. Of course, one of the points of satire is that people don't develop and issues don't get decided. But what indeed is being satirized here? I have my own opinions, but yours may differ.

But I am pretty confident that writer/director Porumboiu made exactly the movie he intended to make and that it produces very much the effect he intends to get. In the course of a December day in a nameless small burg which culminates (if that is the word) in a "talking heads" TV broadcast on the 16th anniversary of the overthrow of Ceausescu, we learn something about the host and his two guests. We come to learn some weaknesses and strengths of each that we hadn't suspected at first. We smile a lot and laugh a few times. We are left feeling that "revolutions" are not always very effective, but that people are perhaps not a failed experiment.

Take Jderescu, the host and ostensible protagonist. He starts off in the morning struggling to get the guests he wants, but after some unanswered calls he ends up settling for an old guy (Mr. Piscoci) whom he knows nothing about except that he remembers him playing Santa Claus when he was in school. It's rough work these days for a dedicated public affairs journalist! - if that's what he is, but by the end his image has frayed a bit.

On the other hand, there is Manescu, the high school teacher who is a scheduled guest. He is no great example of teaching; he spends all his money on booze and has borrowed from everyone; he now has to borrow money from the Chinese store owner whom he plastered with racist insults when he was drunk the previous night. As the show opens, he claims to have been in the town square with three colleagues, now all dead or emigrated, staging a brave and lonely protest against Communism and being beaten by the Securitate before word came of the overthrow in Bucharest. But callers challenge this story and claim he wasn't there at all. But, a bit deflated but unbeaten, he sticks with the story. Whatever he did in 1989, in 2005 he holds out courageously.

Piscoci, who is on the show pretty much by accident, makes hilariously deadpan and eccentric observations when he isn't folding origami boats out of boredom. Ultimately he is asked what he did on December 22, 1989, and it turns into a completely irrelevant but also very touching anecdote.

The Romanian title translates as "Was there a revolution or not?" Jderescu turns this into a question of whether anyone fought the Securitate in this burg or whether they just celebrated the overthrow after word came from the capital. But here is what I think I think it really means, and what the movie is really satirizing. We see a shabby little city, where the school system is a joke, public affairs broadcasting is incompetent, and people who speak up (Manescu) are told to be quiet and threatened. (In this case, we are speaking of threats of libel suits from a now-rich-and-respectable Securitate man.) What does this remind you of? Isn't this exactly what you might have seen in a satire of bureaucratic Eastern Europe in the pre-1989 years? Does it look as if there has been much of a revolution at all in Romania, much less in this little city? Isn't everyone playing out much the same role now in 2005 that they were playing in 1989? That might seem as a very despairing observation, but it is handled with such a light and humorous and human touch here that it doesn't make you despair. Me, anyway. I'm very glad to have seen this movie.

Murder in Coweta County
(1983)

Competent True-Crime Comfort Food
This movie does not have -everything-. The characters are not complex. Team John (Wallace (Andy Griffith)) is composed of one devil and his hirelings and cowed servants. Team Lamar (Potts (Johnny Cash)) are the forces of good. Also, there is no real suspense. The narrator tells you one minute in that this is the story of the man who "brought (Wallace) down." The screenplay is competent but not stellar, and contains unintentional laugh lines, for instance from Wallace who keeps telling his hirelings to "shut up, you fool!" in front of Potts.

Also, trigger warning: Wallace uses the N-word enough to accentuate how bad he is, although you don't hear it as much from everyone else as you probably would have from the real white people in 1948 Georgia.

Having said that, though, there are virtues. It -seems-, judging from what I read in Wikipedia, to track the historical facts pretty well. You will think that movie-Wallace had a hell of a lot of chutzpah to just commit his crimes in front of people and leave the evidence lying around, but it seems the real Wallace did just that. June Carter Cash appears, to do a turn as a weird fortune-teller; the weird part is that this was apparently a real person who actually testified at the trial.

Following the criminal, procedural and legal trail is interesting enough. My chief unanswered question is whether it's really true that nobody in Georgia knew what a "corpus delicti" really is and thought that if you destroy the body you get away with murder, but Wallace might certainly have thought so. The acting is certainly good enough to put over the characters the movie is putting over. I found the end pretty satisfying (spoiler/trigger warning: it involves an execution).

I read yesterday something going back to Goethe that said that the three questions about a drama are: What were the authors trying to do? Did they do it? Was it worth it? I think they were trying to give us a relatively satisfying piece of true-crime comfort food, they did it, and as to whether it was worth it to show an arrogant rich guy who thought himself above the law brought down by a guy personifying the law, on a cold day in January 2018 it seems worth it to me.

At one point near the end, Wallace feeds Potts the "you're just like me" line that sociopaths always kind of believe, saying that "you're a powerful man who wouldn't like it taken from you." They never understand the difference between the kind of power you get from terrorizing and bribing people and the kind you get from inspiring and influencing people. Potts doesn't give a poetic riposte, though he could have, having earlier gotten seemingly half of Coweta county out to search for the body, not because they feared him or wanted money from him, but because they were believers. I don't always believe in the rule of law, but it's nice sometimes to curl up with a movie that does.

Elephant
(2003)

Generally very strong naturalistic picture of America's commonplace horror
Many U.S. school massacres have gone by since 2003, and they haven't made this film seem dated or less relevant.

This film is a very bold achievement. It is filmed in a real school building with a cast mostly composed of real non-professional teenagers. We can't help but react to them emotionally. Some are irritating, some are pitiable, some are admirable for one or another reason. We follow them on long walks around the long corridors of this well-equipped school, we observe some of the minutiae of their day. The timelines of the characters are presented non-linearly; they loop over each other like a spool of film that has been allowed to unreel in a pile. And then some of them die, because there are school shootings in this country.

The title "Elephant" was borrowed from a British short film by Alan Clarke, which concentrated on assassinations and terror killings in Ireland during the 1980's. There are some stylistic similarities - a lot of long walks, a lot of steadicam work - but the two films are actually very different works in tone and focus. The Clarke film is ALL assassinations. Clarke deliberately refuses to give any of his many shootings a political context or rationale, but he also declines to provide any matrix of ordinary life. In contrast, Van Sant's "Elephant" is very much about that ordinary life, and about how terrible it is that it gets abruptly cut off.

People ask why students take guns and go out and kill lots of people. Some of the blurbs I have seen for "Elephant" unconsciously, and incautiously, adopt the "bullied teen" narrative. Some bullied teens may sometimes take violent revenge, either on their agemates or on the system, but that's not we actually see in Van Sant's film, and in fact I believe he deliberately undercuts this kind of facile explanation. There is only one instance of bullying on screen of one of the killers - some glop is thrown at him. The other killer accuses the principal of having mistreated him, but we didn't see it ourselves.

Meanwhile, other kids whom we see in the course of the day actually deal with injustice and neglect and bullying with much more resilience. And a lot of things are going on in the killers' lives that don't involve bullying. Eric is into gun culture. Alex is frustrated that he can't get that piano piece right. Probably there are a lot of frustrated kids around the world, but in our country they can get guns awfully easily. (At this point someone will call it a "goof" that they apparently order guns by mail or package delivery, but this is a technicality.) And - bottom line - Alex really just seems to like killing and terrifying people.

Van Sant, who not only wrote and directed this picture but also gets editing honors, gets full auteur credit for the enterprise, but there are a couple of places where I think he could have used a second opinion. Let's just say it - I think the "Benny" episode was odd. I don't mean that it's odd that it blows up movie conventions, that was good. (Ebert singled this out as a memorable point.) But I think it stands out, maybe more than in 2003, that this African-American student, the only one with a named segment, got no lines or personal background. Also I think the way the film ends on Alex's sadistic little gaming was a false note. Not that Alex wouldn't have wanted to act that way, but that kind of lady-or-tiger-or-both ending has been done a lot. But still, on the whole, this is a pretty amazing work.

Alice's Restaurant
(1969)

Unexpectedly sombre, harsh, apolitical view of "hippie" life
I can almost reproduce the "Alice's Restaurant Massacree" from memory, but I never saw this film back in the day or since. I just watched it, and it was quite a surprise. It has a tone which is quite alien to Arlo's own tone as a performer at the time. Arlo sang back then as a cheerful, confident comic voice with a political subtext a millimeter below the surface, rallying the movement. The film is dark and depressing in many spots, and in the other spots it is really a scathing portrait of Arlo and (male) hippiedom as selfish privileged irrelevant sexist jerks (truthfully there was a lot of this), isolated in a land of violent intolerant yahoos.

(Which means, I suppose, that most people in America in 2017 will find it relevant, since they can enjoy the negative caricatures of their enemies as long as they are willing to ignore the negative caricatures of themselves. This continued relevance is part of why I rated it as high as I did!)

Jarred by all this, I looked up the film afterwards on Wikipedia and discovered that Arlo had nothing to do with the script, which was basically Arthur Penn's work. (On the other hand, he decided to act in it!) There are more parallels with "Bonnie and Clyde", considering both as crime movies, than you would think! There are a lot of notable editorial decisions, such as:

  • So far as we can tell, the movie Arlo has few political beliefs, and wants to get out of the draft by any possible means just because he doesn't want to go.


  • The movie starts off with Arlo fighting the draft by trying to make the Black clerk's day miserable with his snarky answers.


  • The whole movie is framed within the months of Woody Guthrie's dying of Huntington's chorea (displaced in time, btw).


  • To bring down the tone further, Shelly, a heroin-addicted friend of Arlo's, is invented and treated as pitiable and doomed.


  • Ray Brock is portrayed as sexist, verbally abusive toward Alice, and verbally and physically abusive toward Shelley. (Women in general have little to say or do in this movie except sleep with the male characters. Alice is portrayed as basically reacting ineffectually to the chaos around her.)


  • Although the title song was sung by the real-life Arlo as a rallying cry for anti-war and anti-draft mass action, none of this comes into the film at all.


As an illustration of how this comes together, let's look at the key scene where Arlo and company, having found that the town dump is closed on Thanksgiving and they can't dump their microbusful of garbage there, find a bridge over a garbage-strewn streambed and throw all their garbage down there. Is it just age, or the passage of years, that makes me say, "Where do you guys get off throwing your crap in that stream?!" We then see that a comic yokel woman driving by witnesses this, is horrified, and calls the local police. Who does Penn want us to sympathize with here? Possibly we are supposed to just feel superior to everyone. Frankly I think the police chief had the last laugh in portraying himself in this movie, possibly realizing that most people, left and right, are glad he found out who illegally disposed of that rubbish.

The movie ends with the newly-married Alice standing all alone in her wedding dress for an extended take, possibly just reflecting on the miserable world she lives in and the miserable people in it. I don't think the sixties were that hopeless a period, but Penn possibly wasn't the guy to find out where the hope was.

Dracula
(1958)

A horrible "Dracula"
This is really not a very good movie.

It is nowhere near the quality of the 1931 film and at times it is so confused that it approaches Ed Wood levels; and Wood's characters were seldom as lacking in energy and intention as the characters here.

The one thing I will give it credit for is the frank sexual aspect that it gives to the vampiric relationship between Christopher Lee's Dracula and his female victims, and I have given it an extra star or two on that account. Although that makes the movie pretty much a celebration of rape fantasies: the tall virile man dominates his prey! The woman is ashamed and fearful, but she thinks only of his coming to her bed! etc.

In order to claim that this movie is of higher quality than I've indicated, some process other than normal evaluation must be in play. Perhaps one feels that because this movie played an important part in the history of the Hammer studio and its Dracula franchise, it deserves to be uprated just because of its historical significance? I don't think that's how it works.

The story is nowhere near as well thought out as the Abbott and Costello monster movies always were. I will rant about geography for a few sentences just to make my point.

The Stoker novel begins in Transylvania; the Count voyages to London; then it ends up in Transylvania again. This is a lot of unnecessary traveling, so the 1931 movie (based on an earlier play) starts in Transylvania and then just has all of the conflict take place in London.

The Hammer film decides to save on travel even more, by putting all the action into a sort of tiny space-warped Europe-themed park, at one end of which is Klausenburg (the capital of Transylvania) and at the other of which is Karlstadt, a German city populated by English people, which is 800 miles from Transylvania on the map of Europe but only about 20 miles away in this movie, a brief carriage ride away.

You may think this is a picky point, but my real point is that any middle-school student would come up with a geographical approach that made more sense. The middle-school screenwriter would also have more of a sense of the do's and don'ts of vampire-hunting: for example, when you have only a few minutes before sunset to go and kill vampires, don't waste time writing about it in your miserable journal! (In fact it seems that Harker could have just dispatched Dracula in the first minute of this movie if he had had any gumption.)

The middle-school screenwriter might think that the male characters should devote more attention to actually preventing the female ones from being killed and converted to vampires, and to care more if they fail in it. But I can't blame that entirely on the screenplay; the blame for the characters' languid attitude has to be shared by the actors and director as well.

Much of the vampire-chasing action involves Dracula running out of rooms in order to come back in and make an entrance, taking no thought for the time of day or presence of windows (why does he even have windows in his castle, why hasn't he boarded them up in 600 years). Meanwhile his opponents act as if crucifixes and garlic cost their weight in diamonds, and decline to deploy them as they should. I could go on in this regard, but it isn't worth it.

Constantine
(2005)

Leaving the original aside - pretty enjoyable
Okay, I haven't seen the comics/graphic novels this is based on. I've seen the TV show with Matt Ryan and I've heard that it comes much close to presenting the true original Constantine than Keanu Reeves does.

That being said, when I got around to finally seeing this I was pleasantly surprised. Reeves does a competent job, but I think the movie is very much buoyed by Rachel Weisz playing the unwillingly psychic detective and her unfortunate sister and by other characters in the ensemble, notably Tilda Swinton playing a very "complex" and other- worldly Gabriel and Peter Stormare doing a bang-up job as Lucifer himself.

The movie has a lot of special effects and in my opinion they are all pretty good, and the action is varied enough and persistent enough that you neither get bored waiting for it nor get bored in the midst of it.

In the course of suspending your disbelief you have to accept that God is pretty much a stickler for rules (about suicides, e.g.) and yet is enough into dualism that he is willing to give the devil's side a sporting chance at winning the game if he plays his hand right. But this is far from the only movie with such conventions. I don't claim that this movie has tons of subtle character development or deep theological truths, but I found it enjoyable. More enjoyable than a lot I've seen.

A Dash of Love
(2017)

Bland and tasteless screenplay
This was a pretty bad movie, and it wasn't the fault of the cast. Jen Lilly seems quite talented. I was less impressed with Brendan Penny but that may be just me. Peri Gilpin is a talented actress, and when she gets decent writing she can run with it. The screenplay was just bad. I don't necessarily expect great dramatic writing from a Hallmark movie, but the story ought at least to make sense.

So, Lilly, who has great cooking talent, is jobless when Gus closes her diner, and is unable to find any actual cooking job because she doesn't have a culinary school degree despite the fact that (a) this is Chicago, city of ten thousand restaurants! (b) her parents sell food to restaurants, but apparently have no connections! (c) even a diner has Yelp reviews! This is just to put her in a fix.

Penny is the executive chef at Gilpin's restaurant. She was a great chef in her day but now is a candidate for Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares, shutting down Penny's every attempt to deviate from her aging bland recipes. (Although apparently she still has a great reputation because in Chicago no food critics ever re-review a restaurant and as mentioned before Yelp doesn't exist in Hallmark Chicago.) She doesn't even taste her cassoulet any more. When I saw this behavior I was sure that it would turn out she had some kind of dementia or neurological issue, which would have made sense, but there is no attempt to make it make sense.

After a meet-cute with Penny, involving both the dumping-coffee-on- him cliché and the cliché where she criticizes his food without knowing who he is, Lilley ends up with an office job in Gilpin's restaurant, although she never does anything office-y with it and it's just a way of getting her locked into the kitchen in the dead of night, where she cooks up something imaginative for herself. Gilpin shows up, tastes Lilley's cooking (more than she ever does for Penny!), and decides to let her cook every night and steal her recipes by video surveillance! So a few minutes ago she was unwilling to change her recipes at all, and now she is willing to create a whole new menu based on just ripping Lilley off! Why doesn't she just start letting her executive chef do his job? There's no sense to this!

The romance develops predictably except for things that appear out of nowhere to make the plot Hallmarky, like when they want Lilley and Penny to have a fight so they invent something incomprehensible about his relationship with his father. This is at the time when they want everything to go badly for Lilley, so Gilpin gets the big food critic (really the only one in Chicago apparently) to print a story about how Lilley stole Gilpin's recipes (without ever asking Lilley about it - Chicago papers care naught for libel laws). Then they turn everything around and it's the end of the movie. Blah.

I suppose there must have been some reason they put in the romance between Lilley's African-American coworkers, Kandyse McClure and Antonio Cayonne, who get just about as much screen time as they have in this review.

Honestly, I have nothing against facile romances, but is it really impossible to give some care to the story?

Viva Zapata!
(1952)

This Anglo mythologization hasn't aged well
Okay, I am not -entirely- going to pan this movie in the way it would certainly be universally panned today (to start with, you have to look real hard to find any actual Mexican@s in the cast - the only one I found in the named cast was Margo playing an unnamed "soldadera", though there are some others in the uncredited list).

Furthermore, I think it's worth seeing for some of the theatrical bits that have entered the collective consciousness, like where Zapata demonstrates to Madero that political power really does grow out of the barrel of a gun, as Mao would later point out. And you can look at it as a sort of useful Anglo-American children's intro to the fact that, yes, there has been revolutionary history in Mexico that is worth knowing about.

But still. Okay, you can look at this movie one of two ways. First, it is it really a biopic? No, it's nothing like that. Movie-Zapata is this naive, illiterate, pure son of the soil, too trusting, too honest, who shuns the corruption of real power, sort of like a movie version of Joan of Arc. The real Zapata had a merchant's education, composed the Plan of Ayala, and was an important military and political figure. Everyone else in the movie is a caricature of one kind or another also.

Another way to look at this movie is that it's a romantic portrayal, a movie version of a myth. Okay, that would be all right. But then you are responsible for the kind of myth you are propagating. If you are going to falsify history in the name of didactic storytelling, let's talk about the story and about who is telling it.

This is a myth about Mexican history told by Anglo-Californians Edgecumb Pinchon and John Steinbeck. I suggest that a lot of the magic-peasant-saint feel of the film is precisely due to that.

It came to the screen at a time when Steinbeck, Elia Kazan, and all of Hollywood were under great pressure from the government and the film biz to disassociate themselves from communism. And it's left its mark on the film, notably in the character of Fernando (Wiseman), who is supposed to be some kind of international communist agitator, always preaching violence and ending up in the camp of the murderous generals, because, as movie-Zapata says, "Your kind always does." Also, the United States is a land of freedom and democracy and you never hear about the occupation of Veracruz for example. And it also bears on the whole tenor of the film, which is all for peasants rising up against injustice, but which is very ambivalent on the issue of what the state should do and whether or how anyone should actually be in it.

Also, I can't help noting that movie-Zapata never pays any attention to anything women have to say about anything, which may or may not be historically based, but a movie which is telling a myth, not history, has to be judged for it. Furthermore movie-Zapata is offended that anyone would consider him an "Indian", and one never hears about Indians in the movie, whereas real-Zapata was reportedly fluent in Nahuatl and the actual revolt in Morelos (then as now) had serious indigenist elements.

There is a scene in the movie which is on the one hand really good and on the other hand really exasperating which illustrates some of these issues. Zapata has been taken prisoner and is being led from his village with a rope around his neck by mounted police, who intend to either jail him or shoot him. But, as they travel along, "the people", who have arranged themselves all along the road and through the hills in advance, get up from the ground or come down from the heights and wordlessly join the party, in groups of two or six or ten. Eventually the police catch on to the fact that they are traveling in the midst of a throng that completely outnumbers them. Finally their path is blocked by Zapata's mounted riders, and they release Zapata without a struggle.

On the one hand, who can be insensible to this picture of the power of the people? On the other hand, the aggravating part is the pure and mystical way this supposedly all happens, as if because of being in tune with the soil itself these people all arranged themselves in the right places without any actual discussion. Not even in Morelos does it go like this. If one wants a better and more informed picture of how struggle actually takes place, Steinbeck's "In Dubious Battle" is a decent candidate.

Anyway, I ultimately feel that the real Zapata deserves a better movie. Maybe the 1970 version is that movie - I intend to give it a look.

The Bling Ring
(2013)

This 90-minute film is a waste of an hour
This movie contains about one hour and fifteen minutes of repetitive burglaries and drug use plus fifteen minutes of aftermath. But the first part could have been boiled down to fifteen minutes without the loss of a shred of meaning. That would leave 30 minutes of footage, which could perhaps have been supplemented by some other footage about more interesting characters or more interesting issues. But that would have been a very different movie.

I always check the spoiler box, but I swear there is nothing to spoil. After the first five minutes you know exactly how the whole thing is going to go: (0001) young women and a young man with no real plans in their heads break in to celebs' homes and paw through their stuff and steal bling and money and drugs, then they get high, then GO TO 0001. There is no character development and very little to differentiate the young women from each other, with the exception of the Emma Watson character and her family who have the makings among them of a satiric Netflix comedy.

Also, even in the first few minutes there are flash-forwarded snippets of the rationalizations the burglars will use when they are telling their stories after they get caught. Even without those, you would know that they are going to get caught because have no sense and boast to all their friends what they are doing and leave clues all over the Internet. So there is not even fake suspense - you are just waiting for the police to show up.

So, seriously, the whole burglary and drugs part is just boring. Now you could say that "these empty-headed people really were just like this", but that's not an excuse. You could say that it provokes thought about the ironies of it all: "they rob the homes of celebs, but then they become ephemeral D-list celebs themselves" or "but what did Paris Hilton do to earn all her money? Are they worse than she?" (Short answer - yes.) But then how about addressing the real social problems? How do people grow up with this little sense of how to live? What is it like to be their judge, their parole officers, or even the Vanity Fair writer whose article sparked this effort, who try to make sense of this? Nothing like that here, though.

There are some good lines at the end, voiced by the Watson character, which are a genuinely skillful send-up of the whole concept of people who have become celebs for nothing and demand, with general success, that you take them at face value as planet-saving humanitarians while they run their con game on you. (Lines with real relevance in the wake of the 2016 election.) But frankly, if you can find them in a YouTube clip, you have gotten the best part of the movie.

Heart of a Dog
(2015)

An artist's meditation on deaths, etc.
Well, I am pretty sure that Laurie Anderson created the movie she intended to.

That may sound like faint praise, but if you appreciate Anderson's work (as I do) it will make you want to see it. I will let you know up front, though, that despite the blurb not a very high percentage of the movie is really about her dog, so if you are looking for a dog movie per se this isn't really it.

It will not surprise anyone who knows Anderson's musical work that this work can't really be described as some kind of narrative or clearly spelled out philosophical message. It is more like a collage, if you will, including some stories or descriptive language about the dog, about episodes in Anderson's life, about deaths and instances of the danger of death, about New York after 9/11, about Tibetan Buddhism and its view of death. This all sounds rather grim, but it isn't. After death (in the Tibetan Buddhist view) there is a 49-day period or process called the "bardo" in which the soul prepares to enter a new form. It seems to involve a reprocessing and re-recognition of experiences somehow, and in fact the movie itself may be sort of a picture of the bardo. The collage is displayed on a background of images and sounds including Anderson's own creative work.

I really don't think I can say much else that would enable you to better predict whether you would like the film or not. I didn't watch it and have epiphanies and come away feeling that I understood my place in the universe much better, but I don't feel as if I wasted my time; Anderson is a brilliant and interesting person, and spending an hour and a half with her thoughts is well worth it - to me anyway.

Stardust: The Bette Davis Story
(2006)

Informative but jumbled
I learned a great deal about Ms. Davis from this movie. Certainly there was a lot to learn. This is a woman with a 50-year film career, with 2 Oscars and 9 other best actress Oscar nominations; with four marriages, three children, numerous affairs, and drama-packed relationships with nearly all her relatives and studio heads. There is enough material in this for several movies, or at least a serious mini-series. And here it is all jammed into 90 minutes! It's an ambitious project.

I'm glad to have seen it, but I can't pretend there are no flaws in it. First, as suggested above, there are a lot of events to cover and it's hard to do them all justice in this short a time, or even to present them in a logical sequence that the viewer can actually follow.

The movie's chief sources of informational footage are film of public appearances by Ms. Davis and her relatives and contemporaries during her lifetime, and more recent interviews with surviving relatives and acquaintances. But we are repeatedly told that these are not all reliable narrators. Indeed they can't be, as they often disagree with each other. As for public appearances by Ms. Davis, studio heads, and other film industry people, filmed from the 1930's into the 1960's, suffice it to say that they are necessarily full of diplomacy, promotional intent, and courtesies which might be completely sincere or completely the opposite. The movie opens with footage from a "This Is Your Life" episode honoring Bette's mother, Ruth Davis. You can imagine how much sincere exploration of their relationship came out on that occasion.

At this point it would be good to have a sense of what Mr. Jones, the auteur of this work, really thinks. But his presence is hard to discern. His words of course are being delivered by Susan Sarandon. He also may have been affected by the obligations he incurred in gaining access to Ms. Davis's papers and convincing her children, widows of ex-husbands, and other connections to sit for interviews. Anyway, it's hard to make out how he selected what to show and what not to, or who he thought was reliable and who he didn't. I got the feeling he was just dumping out a box of information on the tabletop in front of us and letting us make sense of it if we can.

Where he does provide words of interpretation, I'm not sure where they came from. As an example, he refers at one point to the warm support Ms. Davis's absent father gave to her movie successes. But all we have really seen of this is a few thrifty ten-word telegrams of congratulation, including his full name as three of the words.

Now, someone could of course say: "What do you expect? The narrative is jumbled because Ms. Davis's public and private lives were jumbled and full of contradictions. The witnesses disagree because their experiences were different at the time and because their recollections now after forty are fifty years are different. There's no real way to determine the 'real truth' about all these things, so the pile of information on the tabletop is the only way to go." That may all be true, but I would like to have heard it explained by Mr. Jones. At the end of the day it's worth seeing, of course.

The Pledge
(2001)

Warning: this is an existential parable, not a detective story
In fact the novella by the Swiss author Friedrich Duerrenmatt, to which this screenplay is pretty much true, I guess (I've only read the Wikipedia synopsis) is subtitled "Requiem for the Detective Novel," and moreover it has a framing device which clues in the reader right away that his/her expectations should be held on a tight leash. This movie lacks similar warning labels, a flaw for which I'm knocking off a star as it inevitably makes people mad and confused (see some other user reviews).

Furthermore not everyone wants to spend two hours on an existential parable. I wasn't really prepared for it myself, and when it was over I had a period where I thought Sean Penn had played an irritating prank on me, sort of like someone who tells you a long involved joke with a really stupid punch line. But when I had thought about it a few minutes I developed a better appreciation of the philosophical issues that the movie was raising.

To give you a sense of those issues: when Victor Frankl was in a Nazi death camp, he had written a philosophical manuscript, and another prisoner asked him what the point of this was, since they were probably all going to die there and the manuscript would be forgotten. Frankl replied, "What kind of value system would I have to have, if I let my actions depend on whether I was going to get killed by Nazis and whether anyone was going to read the manuscript?" I admit to being hazy on the details of this story, but I am confident that I am getting the general idea.

This movie follows detective-story conventions up to a point, and the point comes about ten minutes before the end of the movie. (Expect bigger and bigger spoilers as this review progresses.)

Jerry Black is on his last day as sheriff of Reno, Nevada, land of ice fishing, Norwegians and hockey fans (the screenplay was written for Minnesota) and is ready to retire and go down to Mexico and fish, when he sits in on the botched arrest and interrogation of a mentally challenged Indian charged with the murder of a little girl. His successor has gotten a confession and is happy with the result. Jerry, who has sworn on the cross to the girl's mother to catch the killer, doesn't get on his plane. He goes out and interviews some big stars in cameo roles, and works out that there is a serial pedophile murderer out there, and figures out pretty much where he must live and some other things about him.

Nobody else is willing to get on the trail, so Jerry devotes his life to the pursuit; he buys a live-in gas station / store and starts watching for suspects. He meets a woman (Lori, played by Robin Wright) with an abusive husband and a daughter in the predator's target zone; they move in with him, and he starts using the daughter as bait. There is a disturbing parallel between the way he grooms the daughter for her role and the way the predator himself must operate. It's not that he doesn't care for the daughter - he does - but he is taking clearly unethical risks with her, without cluing in the mother. In a usual movie, that would be enough of an issue. Also his obsession seems to be undermining his mental balance.

Finally, after some red herrings, we get to the point (it is now fifteen minutes before the end of the movie) where the predator (identity unknown to Jerry) is expected to come for the girl. Jerry brings in his skeptical sheriff buddy with a SWAT team to surround the area, they wait, and -

And the predator doesn't come. (Because, as we know, but nobody else in the movie realizes, he has had a fatal auto accident on the way there.) Jerry now loses everything. His cop friends write him off as a "drunk and a clown." Lori hates him and leaves. So far as he knows he has completely failed; the killer is still out there; his mind goes; he is left drinking and mumbling to himself in the ruins of his life. THE END.

You can see how existential this all is. You try to live your life, accomplish something, catch the killer, roll a rock up the hill like Sisyphus; you give everything; and then something absurd happens and everything gets taken away from you, leaving you without even the knowledge that you've accomplished anything (if you have). That's life. That's mortality. That's what Stoics would say we just have to accept. I actually pretty much appreciate the point. And it was all done very competently by the ensemble. So I'm very glad I saw it. But if I hadn't had a Wikipedia article on Duerrenmatt on hand, as well as some previous encounters with postwar existentialist European thought, boy, would I have been grumpy about the whole thing.

Twinsters
(2015)

This is how people really are
Okay, I am going to give away the whole movie in the next paragraph, so be warned!

You were warned, so here goes: one adopted twin discovers the other adopted twin on the internet, and nothing bad happens in the whole movie. Everybody in the whole movie is sweet and nice and really happy. The American family and the French family are both cool with everything and everyone is overjoyed to have acquired additional family members. Some of the scenes are composed entirely of Sam and Anais just laughing.

At one point I said to myself, "OMG, they're 45 minutes in and they've set this all up and now something awful is going to happen, either one of the sisters or some family member will have a terrible emotional reaction, or someone will get hurt." That's what would happen in a scripted drama. But since this is real life with Sam having had the vision to just record everything, what happened is what often happens in real life, which was that nothing bad happened. Instead they went to an adoptees' conference in Korea and everyone was nice there too, including the President of Korea who appears in a video and including the women who were the twins' pre-adoption foster mothers 25 years ago. Sam and Anais are disappointed that their birth mother didn't want to contact them, but they deal with it just fine.

Basically there is less dramatic conflict in this movie than in any scripted drama that has ever been made. But how could one complain about this? Sometimes we need to be reminded that basically most people are good and loving people most of the time if circumstances and resources permit. This movie is sort of like a promotional video for the possibilities of humanity. You could argue perhaps, with justice, that we should spend more of our time watching documentaries about war and destitution which will motivate us to deal with the pressing problems of the world, but I don't think it would be legitimate to declare that the Bordier-Futterman intercontinental family can't make a movie about their actual lives, or that nobody else should ever watch it, or that their experiences aren't deep and meaningful.

Joy
(2015)

I loved this inspirational, quirky story, Ayn-Randish though it was
This movie has a lot of aspects that might drive someone up a wall. But not me, apparently.

First, there's no simple answer to the question of whether this is really a biopic about Joy Mangano. On the one hand, it's a movie about a woman about Joy (last name never stated) who invented the "Miracle Mop" and shares some other biographical details with Mangano, and Mangano has executive producer credit, so of course it is! On the other hand, there are noticeable differences between "Joy" and Mangano, and Writer/Director Russell says that Joy is a composite. But back on the first hand there are plenty of acknowledged biopics which have changed details to get a better story, and if you saw a movie about a guy from Virginia named "George" who became the first president of the US you wouldn't think hard about whether it was a biopic. You would very much like to find out what Mangano's relatives think about the portrayal of Joy's relatives in the movie, but it looks like you'll never find this out.

The movie looks a lot like it would look if it were an adaptation of a somewhat amateurish autohagiographical memoir by a woman who is very proud of herself, ready to settle scores with some people and gild her own lily some and certainly sell more mops and other fine consumer products. Was Joy's (the real Mangano or the fictional Joy, take your pick) struggle for entrepreneurial success really as exciting and rollercoasterish as in the movie? Were her relatives really that horrible? Did she really have to go to Lancaster and California and Texas and fight it out all those times to rescue her mop single-handedly the way it is on screen? Did she really have all those dreams and a supernatural experience? I wouldn't bet on it. So I might think this movie was cheap and brassy and manipulative. But in fact I suspect the movie is meant to look and feel pretty much exactly the way it does - like a truthy sales pitch sort of like you might see on QVC. For me it actually works.

It works for me even though my own politics and economics are pretty collectivist, and this movie can be read as a paean to American entrepreneurialism right out of an Ayn Rand novel. This includes the portrayals of her father, half-sister, and stepmother- equivalent/investor, superbly portrayed by Robert De Niro, Elisabeth Rohm, and Isabella Rossellini as the most toxic, selfish, grasping, and stupidly parasitic relatives in the history of all worlds, except (I don't think this is a coincidence) for Henry Rearden's horrible relatives in "Atlas Shrugged". They are about tied. (I really have to pause here to again applaud the performances of this ensemble, who, aided by the screenplay, make floods of attacks on Joy's abilities and character and self-worth seem like natural language.) As in "Atlas" they all live off Joy's self-sacrifice and genius, and yet they are ready to kill the goose and pilfer the eggs at any time. (Or this may be just the way "Joy" remembers it...)

So Joy works just as hard to make her mop as Henry Rearden did to make his new alloy, and launches herself (spoiler?) on her path to a position of wealth and power from which she can give the essential hand-up to other creative young women, just as the Bradley Cooper entrepreneur did for her. This is the un-nuanced myth which is so deceitful when it becomes the sole basis for real-life policy (in my view anyway). And yet it doesn't make me hate the movie. It at least comes across as very sincere (or "truthy" at least), and, hey, it is about an individual fighting against all obstacles from one end of the movie to the other. Sort of like "John Wick", except with Jennifer Lawrence, no guns, and a better variety of action.

Well, is it "predictable" that Joy will succeed and sell many mops? Yes, of course it is. It would be even if you didn't know that Joy was somehow related to noted successful mop-inventor and mop-seller Mangano! But so what, really? Hmm? Is it predictable that Katniss (to pull a heroine randomly out of the air) isn't just going to die in the first hour of "Hunger Games"? Yeah. And? This might be a good time to say that I approve of Jennifer Lawrence's Oscar nomination for this. And even though the idea of putting a single number up as an evaluation of the goodness of any work is pretty silly, still those are the rules of the game, and within that game I stand by my nine stars.

Angel Face
(1953)

Atypical semi-noir film has enough good stuff
After watching this I wasn't sure it was a film noir after all, so I looked up the term and found that there is no consensus on what a film noir is. Does it refer to pessimistic mood, or camera style, or details of plot, or smoking tobacco all the time (this is a point in Ebert's don't-miss Guide to Film Noir)? This film has pessimistic mood, and an all-night diner, and Robert Mitchum, so okay, but it has no gangsters or low-lifes, is largely set in a nice house, and really is the drama of the unfortunate Tremayne family into which an innocent bystander stumbles. Everyone involved went through the war and maybe this is a record of national PTSD somehow.

Once upon a time a successful novelist, Charles Tremayne, lived in London with his beloved wife and loving daughter Diane. Then a Nazi bomb killed the wife and emotionally shattered the husband, who hasn't written a word since. He has moved to Beverly Hills and has married a rich woman who apparently does her best to love him and Diane. But Diane spurns her as an intruder and blames her for the loss of the man her father once was. She plays moody tunes on the piano and plots her stepmother Catherine's death. She's not a sociopath, or a schemer motivated by greed or lust. She seems to be a ruthless twenty-one-year-old, emotionally still nine years old, intent on living with Daddy and having everything right again.

Enter Frank Jessup, who was himself "shot out of a tank", and now works an ambulance driver. He is sane, perceptive, and competent, but seems to be drifting through life; he has a girlfriend, Mary, but hasn't committed himself to her; he dreams of setting himself up as a mechanic for sports cars but hasn't made a serious move in that direction, seven years after the end of the war. Now Diane makes a play for him and pries him away from the woman who would really have been much better for him. What is her motive? It isn't lust. It seems to be partly desire for a .. playmate? Accomplice? Frank gets pried away without much resistance, but not because he has a wild passion for Diane. It's more that he's just pliable. When a pretty woman kisses him and offers more kisses, the inner will to induce him to break it off because he really intends to be elsewhere never manifests itself.

Diane gets Frank hired as her family's chauffeur, offering to have her stepmother set him up with a garage. But then she tries to convince Frank that Catherine has double-crossed him. This is supposed to make Frank hate Catherine, but it doesn't work. He is not a dope, either, and has caught on to Diane's intentions, and tries to talk her down from it. This doesn't work. Neither does her plan, though, on several levels.

After some very effective moments, the film (in my opinion) bogs down when Diane's high-paid lawyer comes up with the stunt of having Frank and Diane get married and portraying them to the jury as innocent young lovers. Maybe it's just that I can't for a second imagine a juror being impressed by this. On the other hand the trial sequence is not full of clichés.

In the aftermath, the mood of despair sets in. Frank tries to get back with Mary, who acts like a normal person instead of a movie character: she doesn't hate him, but she's moved on. Diane's last hope is that Frank will somehow be the new man in her life. He's smart enough not to go along with that. But he's still too willing to take innocent suggestions even from someone he knows he ought not to take them from. That turns out to be his tragic flaw: that when a pretty woman offers him a lift, as it were, his first and last impulse is to go along.

So this is not really a "typical film noir" if you think that means that the characters are all unchecked fountains of vice and melodrama. Nearly all of the characters in the film are laid-back and normal people doing their jobs, as it were. The detective and the D.A. are not crooked; the sharp lawyer is doing his job as he sees it; Mary and Frank and Charles and Catherine are all decent people. (I rather reject the idea that Frank is "amoral" in this film, although he should be more decisive.) Even Diane strikes me as being somewhat pitiable; she is definitely capable of remorse, doesn't want Frank blamed for her actions, and is not a "femme fatale" except in the literal sense, you know. Thinking about this, it might make the film's outlook particularly pessimistic: most people are pretty normal, but somehow it all works out badly anyway. Anyway, I think the relative absence of melodramatic tropes is refreshing.

See all reviews