Friday, August 16, 2019

'Manhattan' is a fascinating, sometimes cringe-inducing re-watch

1979's Manhattan was always one of my favorite Woody Allen movies, but now in the wake of resurrected allegations about the writer-director-actor's personal life and his track record of coveting much, much younger women have rendered the movie 'problematic' at best and unwatchable at worst.

Curiously, although its a meandering, largely plotless black and white film focused exclusively on a very isolated, financially and intellectually elite sliver of New York City, it's one of Allen's most commercially successful films, even if the director himself has said he disliked it so much he practically lobbied the studio (United Artists) to not stop its release.

Forty years after its release, it is a fascinating re-watch. Clearly the most jarring element -- a plot involving a then 42-year-old Allen dating a 17-year-old (Mariel Hemingway in a very believable, moving performance) -- is the most unnerving thing about this comedy, but upon re-watch while cringe-inducing at times, it's a revealing element of what can be read as one of Allen's most meta films.

Allen has always remained coy or downright defensive about questions concerning how autobiographical his films are. But the evidence is right there on the screen, especially in films where he scripts a leading role for himself. His Issac is another one of his disgruntled TV writers (Allen never seems to have gotten over the success of shows like Saturday Night Live and has nothing but contempt for the medium) and he's meaner and more arrogant than the comparatively lovable Alvy Singer in Annie Hall,

If he's not flattering himself, he's lashing out -- at his ex-wife (a stunning Meryl Streep) who's writing a tell-all about their marriage, at his self-centered best friend Yale (Michael Murphy delivering another one of his great asshole characters) and even Tracy, the aspiring actress and high school student who is inexplicably attracted to him.

It's clear that the characters in the film and Allen the writer-director feel ambiguous about this relationship. While no one outright condemns it, Allen's character spends much of the film nervously grappling with it. He insists the relationship could and should go nowhere because of their age difference. He constantly urges Tracy to move on and see other people who are more appropriate for her age and he constantly makes jokes to undermine her (including calling out her unmistakably childlike voice).

Throughout the movie Allen calls out himself too. In perhaps my favorite scene -- because it's Allen at his most self-deprecating -- the other characters (including his main love interest, Diane Keaton) read excerpts from Streep's book about Allen and eventually the camera lingers on him while the narration unloads of fuselage of on-the-nose critiques about his narcissism.



It's a powerful moment, one that I believe underscores Allen's genius as a filmmaker while in no way absolving him as an off-screen human being.

It's also the scene that, for me, elevates Manhattan above being just a gorgeous-looking trifle. This is Allen literally in the middle of his life reckoning with who he is and who he is about to become, for better or worse. And I emphasize worse, because the film's uncharacteristically romantic finale plays very differently now than when I first saw it as an adolescent.

Allen's last minute decision to try to win Tracy back without any respect for her time or feelings, is an act of a desperate, troubled man -- stuck in a kind of immature closed loop. I kept thinking of the real life Allen's infamous defense of his affair with a teenage Soon-Yi Previn, "the heart wants what it wants."

There's an inherent absorption and selfishness in this man, and in this character. He knows it's 'wrong' to love this teenager, but the hell with it, he's going to love her anyway. That might be a romantic notion in 1979 -- it isn't now.

I can still enjoy this movie, even if its flaws stick out more and its pretentiousness is on its sleeve. It's a brisk 96 minutes and it has some genuinely laugh out loud funny lines and beats (I especially love the reveal of diminutive actor Wallace Shawn as the sexual dynamo ex that Keaton has been name-checking throughout the film).

But like all of Woody Allen's work it will and should be viewed through a very different lens in light of contentious child molestation allegations against him and continued skepticism about the nature of his decades long relationship with Soon-Yi, which reads as creepily paternalistic to a lot of people.

I totally respect people who want nothing to with this man or his work  But I grew up with, always loved and am now challenging myself to reckon with it in a brave new world. It's not always going to be pretty but it will be interesting.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood' even better the second time

When I first saw Quentin Tarantino's latest opus Once Upon a Time in Hollywood I found myself enjoying it so much I just knew I'd want to see it again. I had that feeling with  this year with Us. I had it last year with Black Panther, too. Like those blockbuster genre movies, this one really is even more rewarding on a second viewing.

The film is an experience -- lengthy, yes -- but also immersive if you're willing to give into it. It's elegiac, both a tribute and a kiss-off to an era of Hollywood that Tarantino clearly romanticizes. But I also think it's being misread as a conservative anti-'hippie' screed.

It's true that the heroes seem to have a deep-seated resentment towards hippies -- but that's them, they're old guys of an old age. The young actress who schools DiCaprio's character on method acting -- she represents the idyllic future, the coming 1970s cinema, where method acting and more sophisticated storytelling became the norm (at least for a while).

As with all Tarantino movies there are multiple backlashes to it -- it's too slow, too long, it disrespects women, it disrespects Bruce Lee. But on second viewing a lot of those quibbles are pretty easily debunked.

I can't speak to the length bothering people, there's so much movie to feast on here I can't imagine anyone being bored by it, plus almost every Tarantino movie is long. If lengthy movies aren't your bag, then you're not going to appreciate this one.

The Bruce Lee thing, in my opinion, is getting wildly overhyped. There are shots of him genially training Sharon Tate and Jay Sebring which undercut this notion that the movie portrays him as a callous jerk. He comes across as cocky -- that's it and that's all. It doesn't have to be everyone's cup of tea, but I don't find it the least bit disrespectful. Bruce Lee has become as iconic as Elvis -- he so mythic I think it's fair to play around with his myth.

The violence in this movie is intense -- although there's not all that much of it in the movie.

SPOILER ALERT - in the big climatic showdown between Brad Pitt and murderous members of the Manson family, most of the violence inflicted is done by a dog, and the murder of Tex, the one male in their crew is arguably just as gruesome as the women's. 

Yes, Pitt smashing the red head's face on seemingly every corner he can find is an over the top gore fest, Tex gets his face stomped in and his genitals ripped off. I'm just saying. It's  also not just Pitt and DiCaprio inflicted the violence, DiCaprio's Italian bride gets in on the action too.

And while I too, like a lot of audiences, struggled at first with Margot Robbie being more a symbol as Sharon Tate as opposed to a fully fledged character. But I found her enchanting this time and there's something so moving about her voice on the other end of the telecom saying 'hello neighbor' to DiCaprio's comeback kid Rick Dalton.

Also, a word on DiCaprio. He really has matured into one of the great actors -- not just a phenomenal movie star. I've missed him from the movies in the four years since The Revenant and here he gives the funniest, loosest performance he's ever given. Especially in the central section of the film, he delivers a real tour de force.

I hope he's in the Best Actor race at the end of the year. And hopefully Pitt will pop up in supporting, too. Of course, if the movie continues to generate as much controversy as it has, I fear that it won't get the awards love it deserves.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Austin Powers re-watch: Yeah, baby these movies don't age well

This Friday, I decided to binge watch all three Austin Powers films for -- what comedian Mike Myers' iconic spy character likes to say -- "shits and giggles."

I own the first film (International Man of Mystery), have always felt it was the strongest one. But I'd wanted to watch all three just to get some perspective on this series that was once the most popular big screen comedy franchise running.

I think a charitable read on these movies is that they became a victim of their own success. If they're remembered at all nowadays it's largely because the catchphrases it spawned became so ubiquitous as to become annoying -- and its mass popularity made it seem like a more bloated alternative to the more grounded comedies of its era, like Rushmore.

It hasn't helped that Myers has pulled one of the great disappearing acts in recent Hollywood history. He was never prolific to begin with, but for much of the past two decades he's largely only lent his talents to small cameos roles and multiple voice performances as Shrek in animated movies.

In his absence an image of Myers has emerged as a bit of tone deaf perfectionist who is allegedly difficult and demanding to work with. Still, it was hard to argue with his track record. With Wayne's World and Austin Powers, he had created wholly original, strangely specific comedic characters -- who could have been a one-note sketch idea but instead are given depth and idiosyncrasies.

But when his long developed new character -- The Love Guru -- bellyflopped hard. It seems as though he never fully recovered. And that's a shame, because he's clearly capable of being a one of kind dynamic performer.


His fastball is one fine display in the first Austin Powers, which was just a small little minor hit when it first came out in 1997. I remember seeing it in a mostly empty theater with my dad and howling with laughter at it. I didn't get all the deep cut references to British spy capers of the '60s and that didn't matter -- there was just never a character like that in a movie. And the film itself was so unabashedly silly and childish that it was sort of irresistible.

And then somehow in two short years everyone caught onto it. And the second Powers film, The Spy Who Shagged Me, managed to make $200 million dollars. I vividly remember seeing that one in theaters too, with a broad consensus among my high school friends at the time that it was probably the funniest movie any of has ever seen.

There are some very funny, satisfying bits in The Spy Who Shagged Me (I love the joke about the previous heroine of a Powers film -- Elizabeth Hurley -- was a 'fembot' all along, "Sadly, we knew all along," his supervisor, played by Michael York says.

But a lot of it doesn't work. You can see the sweatiness of this entry almost from the start with some very off putting product placement and elaborate song and dance numbers replacing actual jokes. The humor also take a hard turn to the potty -- with the Fat Bastard character truly being more repugnant than funny and the Mini Me stuff seeming unnecessary.

That said, Dr. Evil was and is a very hilarious creature -- with his Lorne Michaels voice and droll asides. Some of the crazier stuff works (a well staged Jerry Springer show scene) and a lot of it gets repetitive and tiresome. And Heather Graham gives an embarrassingly wooden performance that only underlines how woefully weak the women characters are in all of these films.

Still, if the series has stopped there I think it would have been mostly remembered fondly, but with Austin Powers: Goldmember just three years later it truly jumped the shark. First off the title tells you all you need to know. Myers was leaning really hard yet again on gross out and sexual humor. There are even more totally random dance numbers and even more lazy rehashes of bits from the previous two movies. And its new Myers creation -- a leisure suit wearing Dutchman who eats his own flaky skin -- barely has a chance to register amid the dumb gags.

But the worst sin of all is Goldmember's cavalcade of celebrity cameos. I mean this is some of the most indulgent nonsense I've ever seen. It's as if Myers was cashing in on his newfound A-list status by getting a ton of major stars to do useless walk-ons (a Kevin Spacey one is especially strange to see now given the fallout of his career). There's Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Gwenyth Paltrow, Danny DeVito and Britney Spears just to name a few. None a one of their scenes is funny and they add nothing new to the flavor of the franchise.

Meanwhile, Beyonce is hopeless lost as the 'love' interest and I put love in quotes because there isn't even an ounce of chemistry between her Foxy Brown homage (who inexplicably calls out her own name as if to remind the audience of who she is) and Myers. Sure, I get we're supposed to buy into the conceit that woman are somehow supposed to find this goofball attractive, but least in the first Powers film he was lovable. Here, he spends a bunch of the running time freaking out about a mole on someone's face.

The saving grace of this movie is Michael Caine, who is very funny here and whose presence reminded me of everything I liked about the first film. Ironically, this film is the most financially successful of all the Powers movies, but it doesn't feel like anyone was clamoring for more.

Oddly eneough, there have long been rumors that Myers wants to resurrect that character for a fourth film. For someone who has been a long fan of his and some of these movies, I hope he doesn't. This is a phenomenon best left behind and enjoyed for the curio it is.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

'Luce' is a tantalizing movie that will infuriate some people

I remember how intrigued I was by the trailer for the new film Luce. It had the stylization and pacing of a thriller but also promised to explore some thorny issues of race and stereotypes, in other words it'd likely be a movie very much of the moment.

But the movie itself is not quite what was promised. It's hard to define what genre it is -- the score suggests a tension-filled suspense film -- but it's not. It's a drama, but not one that in any way is looking to move people emotionally, it's more of a button-pusher.

It has enough plot and complex characterization to spawn several different movies -- but its central plot revolves around an exceptional dreamboat high school student who was a child soldier in Africa, adopted by a white couple (played by Tim Roth and Naomi Watts, in what feels like a nod to the even more subversive Funny Games) and who seems to perpetually provoke the ire of his stern government teacher, played by Octavia Spencer in one of her best roles to date.

Much of the film revolves around whether Luce is what he seems. Is he a misunderstood kid with the world on his shoulders, the burden of being a black kid who's universally perceived as "one of the good ones" or his is a Machiavellian manipulator with sociopathic tendencies?

For much of the movie's running time it doe an effective job of keeping you guessing and its a testament to newcomer Kelvin Harrison, Jr's performance that he can seems profoundly creepy and sincerely earnest from scene to scene.

As the film unfolds, there are probably a few too many subplots, but the relationships between Luce and his parents and Spencer's character are fascinating and nuanced.

The racial dynamics of this film could have been handled clumsily, but instead the movie delves into some territory that I've almost never seen in a movie.

Still, the movie lays out the table so effectively in terms of building tension that the film's final act will likely feel like more of a whimper than a bang. I myself am torn about the movie's climax. On the one hand, a more conventional (re: violent) conclusion might have been entertaining but out of whack with the tone of the movie.

On the other hand, the film tees up so many ideas -- about #MeToo and white liberals and black on black prejudice, I could go on and on -- that the relatively grounded conclusion is the only way this film could have ended.

I appreciate that the film is unafraid to wade into some very controversial topics and I like that it doesn't provide easy solutions. There is no mustache twirling villain here or a heroic paragon of virtue. It's messy -- and arguably so is the movie.

I suspect that audiences seeking a slick adult thriller -- something akin to Joel Edgerton's The Gift -- will possibly be let down by the relatively low stakes at play here. Still, I will always back movies like these that are driven by very real world human concerns with actors performing at the top of their games.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Why there's no ambiguity about violent movies or guns

As per usual, whenever there is tragic mass shooting in this country (and we've had two in just a week) -- which insanely has become routine now -- the right inevitably tries to turn violent movies and video games as a scapegoat so they don't have to do anything substantive on gun control.

Violent crime pre-dates Hollywood movies. I don't see films getting dramatically more violent in the last 10 years, a period during which the number of mass shootings has jarringly spiked. And of course, as many people smarter than me have pointed out, our films and video games get exposure all over the world and there's not even a remotely close second to us when it comes to these kinds of mass killings.

And yet, the industry and movie buffs like myself frequently are made to feel defensive for championing violent films like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood or popularizing movies with lots of gunplay like The Matrix or Heat. I used to be someone who felt ambiguous and self conscious about my consumption of fictional violence -- and then I grew up.

Shakespeare's writing is some of the most violent shit you will ever read in your life. How many of his plays end in stabbing orgies? And we really supposed to credibly believe that someone pre-disposed to massacring a bunch of people need only visual stimulus to carry out their crimes?

To me, violent films are like free speech, I don't like all of it, but I will fight tooth and nail to defend its right to exist. Here's the thing -- I've never been one for the torture porn genre in horror films. I don't consume but I get the sense that violence in them is well, pretty senseless.

But I also trust any age appropriate audience member's cognitive capability for separating the real world and their real world choices from what they see on screen. We are a long way from the first days of cinema, where naive audience members believed a train barreling towards the camera would run them over too.

I am not a parent yet but I want to be someone who expose my theoretical kid to as much cinema as possible. Why? Because I love it. Because I think it can be illuminating about the world. Because I think it can inspire creativity or conjure incredible emotions. But I'm also not insane. Some things are just not appropriate for some people.

But again, someone who is truly mentally ill might not be able to make these differentiations. The problem with the right's framing of this though ignores that in almost every one of these mass shooting cases, the killer knew exactly what they were doing, were pre-meditated and also knew that what they were doing was inherently wrong.

Now, these people may have been attracted to violent movies, music and video games -- but only because of how they made them feel not because they made them DO anything.

For instance, Taxi Driver (which coincidentally happens to be one of my favorite movies ever), is often cited as the inspiration on the attack that nearly killed Ronald Reagan in 1981. But that shooter, John Hinckley, Jr., was more preoccupied with actress Jodie Foster than say, her character in the film. The film, which does have a subplot about a would be political assassination, clearly had a big  impact on Hinckley, but it certainly didn't pull the trigger.

Video games seem to be an even more removed form of entertainment. At least films can have a real emotional engagement with its characters and the movie stars who play them. Video games, to me at least, and I'm not a 'gamer' -- seem to be uniquely straightforward about how they are disembodied from our experiences in the real world.

These commercial products don't make you to desensitized to real world violence, they simply may desensitize you fictional/fantasy violence. Even these mass shooters had to know that killing dozens of people and potentially dying themselves brings a lot higher stakes than an evening of playing Grand Theft Auto or Red Dead Redemption.

We know what the problem really is -- the guns. Even if this straw man were true, and these -- mostly white and always male -- killers are just going ballistic after spending too much time watching carnage on a screen, that means we need to keep them away from the guns.

Without the guns and bullets you have no mass killing. Period. Full stop. Blame who you want to blame I suppose, although you don't have to be mentally ill to commit a crime like this, you can simply be very very angry and hateful.

As a fan of the movies I feel compelled to stick up for them because I've enjoyed all kinds -- including my favorite, which is a violent horror film -- and they have in no way made me the person who I am or changed how I developed as a human being. They only reflect my personal TASTE, just other people may have a jones for rom coms or nature documentaries, and we should all leave it at that.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

'Fast and Furious' spin-off 'Hobbs and Shaw' is big dumb fun

The new Fast and Furious spin-off Hobbs and Shaw gives you just what you want out of big summer blockbuster spectacle: It's funny, it has tons of action and its makes great use of its macho leading men -- Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and Jason Statham. In fact, it may be the most purely enjoyable film connected to the whole Fast and Furious franchise to date.

I think the magic trick is that Statham and The Rock are having a lot of fun here and its infectious, they don't take themselves to seriously.

In the background of one shot are posters for '80s action staples like Lethal Weapon 2 and Beverly Hills Cop. This movie is a throwback to those popcorn flicks. It's not 'about' anything and in fact whenever it tries to play a moment here or there for real drama it sinks like a stone.

And sure, some of the action scenes go on too long and become hard to follow, and yes, sometimes the toxic masculine bickering will wear you out. But, for much of its running time, this is a fast-paced, exciting and inventive little romp.

A lot of credit should go to Vanessa Kirby, who, following her turn here and in Mission Impossible: Fallout, deserves to be a full-fledged action star in her own right. She helps offset the lunkheaded rhythms of Johnson and Statham, who basically play overgrown children who can apparently beat up anyone anywhere.

The movie also benefits from a truly charismatic and compelling bad guy -- Idris Elba -- who is also giving something akin to a throwback '80s villain performance with his own cool spin. I love hearing him speak in his natural British accent, more of that please.

But of course the whole show here are the two leading men. Great pains are taken to establish the two as opposites, although they both basically are wisecracking cocky buffoons. But they are pretty damn lovable, so much so that you'll tolerate their standoffs because you know that they will inevitably, begrudgingly become friends in the end.

For both stars this feels like a culmination of everything they've done previously. They've been the best part of B-movies and blockbusters, and both have demonstrated an ability to play comedy effectively (in a way I'm sorry Vin Diesel never could).

They are aided by two (SPOILER ALERT) very disarming cameos from two A-list stars -- Ryan Reynolds and Kevin Hart. These are both actors I've never been enamored with as the public is and yet here I feel like they have never been funnier in a movie. Don't @ me.

Yes, the trailer of this film has spoiled some of its best moments -- but this isn't really a movie you go to so you can be surprised by narrative invention. This is a comfortable pair of shoes, this is the dessert after a big, already unhealthy meal.

The audience I saw it with laughed at it and with it -- there are several jaw droppingly silly lines -- but I have no doubt that we all had a ball. They don't make many summer movies like this anymore and I hope there's a lot more adventures with these two.

They're not getting any younger -- but they're still operating at the peak of their movie star powers and when the two of them are together the results are pretty undeniably fantastic.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood' may be Tarantino's best

For the longest time I've been waiting for Quentin Tarantino to make a movie like this -- and I'm saying this as someone who loved his big popcorn movies Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds, and even came around to loving his more polarizing western The Hateful Eight. But this film, his most grounded since Jackie Brown might be hist most personal yet, which why it may age into being viewed as his best.

It's probably too early to make that definitive judgment, but if nothing else the movie is a culmination of all the skills he's honed since he first became a filmmaking superstar over 25 years ago. This film, Once Upon a Time In Hollywood, comes at a point where his off-screen image has taken a lot of hits, but rather than go the safe route he's made one of his most ambitious and provocative movies to date.

Make no mistake this film will have a lot of detractors. With one notable exception (and it's not Margot Robbie's Sharon Tate) the female characters are nor as well developed, the foot fetish thing -- omnipresent in his other films is the most egregiously indulgent here -- and the film is for and about people who have a little wistful nostalgia for an era of Hollywood that was undeniably cool but problematic by modern standards to say the least.

And yet, despite any caveats about its excess, I loved it. It almost felt like Tarantino's attempt at an Altman-esque character study. His heroes are rich, three-dimensional and meaty movie star roles for Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, both of whom give some of the best performances of their career.

DiCaprio has perhaps never had a chance to be funnier on screen as Rick Dalton, a washed up, insecure actor who is struggling to figure out where he fits in the new Hollywood landscape. This fictional character lives next to the very real Sharon Tate (who serves as more of a symbol of purity and innocence here than a fully realized person) and dreams of gaining access to her hip ascending crowd (which includes wunderkind director Roman Polanski).

And Pitt, who slyly steals this movie, is DiCaprio's right hand man, shoulder to cry on, driver, repair man and stunt guy -- Cliff Booth -- who's the epitome of cool under pressure.

Every Pitt line delivery feels note perfect, he somehow has never looked more handsome, and in his older age he's discovering so many new notes to play as an actor I'm excited to see where his career goes from here.

Much of the movie is an episodic day(s) in the life of these two characters as they navigate a stunningly realized 1969 L.A. Clearly, one of Tarantino's great strengths is evoking a world, he's made a credible WWII film, a slavery era epic, a kung fu thriller -- and this is his most immersive film yet. You can practically smell the mountain air, and while some may quibble with the length of his driving sequences here, I think they effectively transport you to the dream-like atmosphere of historical fiction you're having wash over you.

With the exception of the copious feet placement, this is Tarantino's smoothest, least pushy screenplay to date.There's less arch posturing and more honest discovery. As much as I love the florid monologues he gives Christoph Waltz in bis movies, he gets just as much mileage out of two leads who are pretty inarticulate and internal.

Hovering like a shadow over everything is the specter of the Manson family, which is well-rendered and scary in this film without being overplayed. And the movie does an incredible job of creating tense eerie scenes paired alongside some big laughs, mostly at DiCaprio's expense.

I can see the film not playing well with people who aren't as enamored with this era of Hollywood (with its influx of spaghetti westerns) as I am and Tarantino is. For audiences expecting a faster paced romp, they may start to feel the film's running time, but I felt like this was one of his most assured features yet, and it when it reveals what it really is -- which is a third part of what could be called  Tarantino's romantic historically revisionist period -- it's somehow elegant and poignant despite some heinously gory violence.

I appreciate that Tarantino makes films for adults, that he shoots on film, that he appreciates all cinema not just what's considered classy or cool. I always get my money's worth at one of his films -- from the music to the cinematography to the performances (there are so many good ones here I almost forgot about Al Pacino!) -- that I can just sit back and have a ball.

Of course, there will be plenty of people turned off by Tarantino's obsessions -- this is yet another film that features a lot of unapologetic violence inflicted on women -- but I am someone who is admittedly on board with them. This is now the third movie (following Us and Booksmart) that will likely be in my top 10, possibly top 5 this year.

It's a movie I Iike more and more as I think about it, and boy am I glad not to have had any of it spoiled for me. It just may be my new number one.