Thursday, January 16, 2020

Contrast in motivation


We had a bit of a hiatus over the holidays, so I actually wrote the review for Uncut Gems before I did one for Dark Waters, which we saw before Christmas. The problem I ran into was that I didn't feel like there was much to say about Dark Waters. It's a good film. It will make you angry, since it's the same sordid tale of corporate greed and the suffering of everyone around them (employees, local residents, investigators trying to uncover their crimes to the detriment of their lives and relationships) when it's finally uncovered and admitted to. In fact, part of my low motivation to write about it is that it's quite similar to another film about the same, damn thing: A Civil Action.


In the latter film, it's the story of a successful personal injury lawyer who gets sucked into a massive case of multiple companies poisoning the drinking water of a small Massachusetts town. It's kind of a lesson in what really matters in life, as the lawyer in question, Jan Schlichtmann, went on to become something of an environmental activist, pursuing that type of case around the country. In Dark Waters, the lawyer in question, Robert Bilott, is actually part of a firm that defends chemical companies from precisely the type of lawsuit that he ends up bringing against DuPont. So, it's a different "man comes into the light" type of tale, but not really that different. It's a good film. It's an entertaining film. But there was nothing in it that left me thinking about the story or the way it was shot or Mark Ruffalo's performance or basically any aspect of it. Maybe it's because I've been too close to those stories in my life or read about too many of them, but I didn't find myself with much that was compelling, in the end. Thus, the limp recounting here.


Strangely enough, I had the same trouble with the film we saw this week, which was 1917. I'm not particularly motivated by war films these days. I know too much about why they're started and why they're stupid to derive much entertainment from tales of heroism based in or around them. World War I is perhaps the stupidest of modern wars, based almost solely on two things: 1) Europe having gone a few decades without a large combat and 2) as Jack Reed (Warren Beatty) notes in Reds: Profits. (Aren't they all?) Now, there are differences from Dark Waters, in that I think some of the technical aspects of the film were fascinating. They attempted to show it as one continuous take; a technique that showed up most prominently in recent times in the fourth episode of True Detective (there is only one season, trust me) when an action sequence was shot in one almost seven minute take. They actually shot the sequence three or four times, but when it was finally "printed", it was done all at once. Sam Mendes, the director of 1917, tried a similar approach with this entire film, in an effort to try to include the audience in the immediacy of the action, the urgency of the plot, and the desperation and emotion of its main characters. If you pay attention, you can see the transitions where they smoothed over separate takes with CGI, but unless you're a technical nerd like I am, you likely won't notice them because the action, in truth, is compelling.

While the framework is simple (average trooper must save others in the midst of pointless violence), the delivery is excellent. You can feel the despair at the nature of the zero sum game that they're all engaged in; where men give their lives for yards of territory, only to lose it back to the enemy days later. In a way, bringing the audience past that despair with the constant nature of the production and action is probably the best way to deliver a story about World War I, without falling back to the naiveté of 1914, when everyone's heroes marched off to win a little squabble that would last six weeks. You can combine the dolor of the people involved, fully aware that their lives were irrelevant to the high command and knowing that virtually nothing would be improved for them if they emerged victorious, with the compulsion to perhaps make it so a few hundred more lives weren't senselessly wasted, at least for today. George MacKay was excellent as the lead, adding thoughtfulness to a role that required a lot of desperate panic and emotion. It was also nice to see Mark Strong show up in a small role, as well as Richard Madden for the first time that I've seen him since his performance as Robb Stark in Game of Thrones.


I also enjoyed the detail that Mendes indulged in for the trench scenes and the realities of warfare over a century in the past. While I thought, at one point, that the trenches might be a little too clean and/or dry than the reality, the truth is that region of France doesn't particularly have a "rainy season", so it was as likely to be dry as not. There was enough dirt present to make the audience aware of what a struggle it was to live in the ground, without having to deal with mud. In at least one respect, both films were about determination in the face of daunting odds; one told rapidly and the other slowly, but both with the intent of showing some degree of hope at the end, even if challenges remained. What that says about my lack of motivation to write about either of them is beyond me, at the moment.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Rough stones


I have never been an Adam Sandler fan. His kind of loud, screeching, sophomoric humor is just not my thing; even in a "It's funny to see someone else make a fool of themselves" kinda way. So, now that's he's doing dramas in the same kind of loud, screeching, sophomoric manner... Yeah, it's still not my thing. I was about 30 minutes into Uncut Gems and was thinking: "This is really tedious."; mostly because they were doing the New York Brofus culture, non-stop, where everyone is constantly loud and constantly shouting over each other in an attempt to win an argument by making the other person realize that no one is communicating and shutting up first. This was basically the entire film. It was like a New York version of La La Land, where the latter was an insipid presentation of acting culture in LA and this was an Iphone recording of the right field seats in Yankee Stadium with better production values.

The divide on Rotten Tomatoes over this one is significant, with 92% of critics favoring it and only 53% of moviegoers. The normal thought process is that regular audiences aren't cinema freaks who can't really understand the deeper meanings or hidden subtexts of the critics' favorites or choose to ignore those things in favor of being entertained. But I suspect that this is more like the difference between an insider's world and the actual world, where critics are tossing Sandler a bone because he's "paid his dues" on the comedy circuit and is now trying serious drama, and the audience is objecting to being shouted at for two hours. And, of course, drama still needs to be entertaining in some fashion and this film simply wasn't. I'm all about the main character being an asshole. I'm totally down with the "anti-hero" concept and stories about people that are generally difficult to live with. What I'm less enthused about is when every, single person on the screen is an asshole, which is what we had here. You couldn't feel sympathetic toward any of these people. Not even the kids. Even Kevin Garnett was presented as a callous prick and I've read enough interviews with the guy to know that he's actually a pretty decent human being.


And perhaps that was the point? If you show all of these people at their worst, it makes it into kind of a freakshow, where the audience just laughs and shakes their heads in wonder at the idiotic situations that all of these characters end up in. That's a fairly good summation of the bulk of Sandler's comedy, so I guess it can't be a surprise that that's how he ends up doing dramatic roles. What's surprising is that so many critics seem to find that acceptable or in any way original or worthwhile. Again, if that was the point and I'm simply missing it... OK. Again, it's just not my style. Sandler has many fans and many people loved him on SNL and in his various films. I'm clearly not his target audience.

To Sandler's credit, he does well with the role. If he weren't so loud and stupid, he'd be a genuinely sympathetic character, as he constantly thinks that he's found the next big thing that will send him on his way, whether it be because he's the only one who thought about obtaining opals from Beta Israel or because he's the one who "feels" that the Celtics will win tonight ("And no one else feels what we feel!") The problem is that we never see Howard actually fail. We see his schemes get interrupted or delayed or him run into various mishaps of his own devising. But the usual sad sack story of the born loser who finally thinks he's hit it big? That's not this story. Howard runs a jewelry business in the diamond district and can drop five figures on a sports bet. That's not a 'born loser' story. That's a gambling addict story, but it's one with very little heart because, again, everyone is loud and conceited and stupid. If you want to see a good, introspective film about a gambling addict, go see Mississippi Grind. I have to say that I was also impressed by Eric Bogosian, as Arnold, Howard's brother-in-law and the world's most reluctant loan shark. He did really excellent work conveying just how troubling it was to be dealing with his business inside the family.


So, the film doesn't entirely lack high points. They were just largely drowned out by the unending torrent of screeching low points. And, of course, a lot of Sandler's pals were dropped in, like Mike Francesa as his bookie, The Weekend, John Amos, Trinidad James, and so on. Again, La La Land, but in New York, talking about how wonderful it is to be an incredibly wealthy, loud, obnoxious New Yorker. If that's what you're into, then this is the film for you. Myself, I'll stick to things that don't make me want to lower the volume.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Same and Story


Once again, I'm doing two films in this review, largely because of the nature of them, i.e. directors doing the same thing means I don't really have that much to say. It's an interesting side note to Hollywood's obsession with IP, where everything is a sequel to something that came before (Frozen 2!), rather than an original idea/setting/character.

Right from the start, I will admit to not being much of a Pedro Almodóvar fan. I like his films because they're always well-crafted and his storytelling technique is a solid one. His characters are human, they react in very human ways, and there's always a solid foundation to build from. My detachment comes from the fact that it very often seems to be the same story, despite variations in setting and characters. Pain and Glory, his latest, is no different.


All artists draw from themselves and their own experiences. Given the semi-autobiographical nature of Pain and Glory, it probably shouldn't be that surprising that it seems like a rehash of themes that Almodóvar has used before. And, again, that doesn't mean it's bad because the final product is a good one. It's an interesting film and the story moves well and there's the usual passion from the characters that are, again, emblematic of his films. But it's also largely like the films he's done before. You know how the story is going to proceed and even the little meta twist at the end isn't anything that's particularly memorable. This is Antonia Banderas and Penélope Cruz and, especially, Asier Etxeandia doing really well with their parts and creating believable people with genuine emotion attached. Those performances alone make it a good film. But the story is still regular Almodóvar and if you've seen one you've, unfortunately, seen most of them. If you're a fan, it's definitely worth seeing. If not, it's an Amazon or Netflix choice.


Speaking of Netflix, we come to Scorsese's latest, The Irishman, which suffers from exactly the same circumstances, except worse and longer. The film is based on Frank "The Irishman" Sheeran's book, I Heard You Paint Houses. I read it years ago, around the time of its release, on someone's recommendation for an insight into "actual" mob doings. It's a good book. Unfortunately, the film is also basically a note-for-note retelling that often saps the life from the story. Sheeran wasn't trying to craft a story when he wrote it. He was just offering up an experience that he'd lived and allowing people to draw from that what they might, including the details on the Hoffa situation. Scorsese chose to highlight that moment with Hoffa by using two framing devices when telling the story: one from Sheeran's perspective waiting to die in a nursing home and one from his perspective while taking a drive to Michigan a couple days before Hoffa was sitting outside the Machus Red Fox in 1975. That turns what could have been a tight two-and-a-half hour film into an occasionally tedious three-and-a-half hour film. Scenes of the drive were repeatedly presented to try to drive home the "mob life" point that we'd already gotten and the emotional impact that Sheeran was suffering because of the nature of the task before him, which we'd also largely already gotten. That meant that they felt like filler.

What's worse is that this is the same ground that Scorsese has trod many times and with the same actors. DeNiro? Pacino? Pesci? Romano? The gang is all here and you can throw in Harvey Keitel along with them. There comes a time when a director has used an actor in the same type of role so often that all you can do when seeing the new film is be reminded of the old ones. Witness anything Clint Eastwood has done directing himself in the past 20+ years. This is what happens here, when all we think about through most of the film is how similar it is to Goodfellas or Casino. This is a Scorsese gangster film! Anyone excited?


Like Pain and Glory, the performances are somewhere between solid and excellent, although Pacino's booming voice is a marked deviation from Hoffa's which was a real problem when trying to look at him as anyone but Al Pacino. It was interesting to see the CGI effects that made them appear to be 40-year-old versions of themselves, rather than attempting a ridiculous amount of makeup. Problem is, making someone look like they're 40 doesn't affect the fact that most of them still move around the set like they're 80, because they are. So even 40-year-old Frank Sheeran made you feel like you were just seeing the same scenes that you'd watched before. And this is the root of the problem: We've all been here before. This film gives us nothing new. It's just more "mob life" stuff. They even include dates and methods of death for a lot of the minor characters, most of which had absolutely nothing to do with Sheeran's life in general or the Hoffa situation in specific, but were actually connected to the Philly mob war in the early 80s. What does that detail offer us, except "This is another Scorsese mob film"?

In a film industry that is obsessed with mining the familiar in order to guarantee ticket sales from those who seemingly never seem to tire of watching the same stuff, over and over, like sitcom reruns, these two films, despite not following that trend of "IP first, story second", actually end up doing so, anyway. It sounds incredibly ageist to suggest that these two masters of the craft should probably rest on their laurels and open up space for others if Almodóvar and Scorsese still want to work and others still want to work with them. But I'm pretty much done with the experience that they're offering and I'd much rather see something else by someone like Bong Joon-ho, if only because it won't distract me by reminding me of everything he's done before.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Watching Watchmen


I've had a number of people ask me if I'm planning on watching HBO's Watchmen series and, presumably, writing about it. The short answer is: No. I'm not planning on it.

The long answer is: I'm not radically opposed to the concept. If people want to do that and if more people want to watch it, go nuts. I'm just not really enthused about it because I tend to agree with creators Alan Moore and Brian Bolland, who have been largely irritated and confused, respectively, about most of the projects that DC has engaged in (like the prequel limited series) that are taking advantage of the story they completed back in the 80s. Watchmen was a completed story in 1987. They said what they had to say and it was done. Fin. They both moved on. They had a different take on the later film version, because Moore had become alienated by Hollywood over the debacle that was the film version of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, while Bolland wasn't quite so embittered and was at least eager to see his work brought to life in another format.


But the TV series is something different. In essence, DC and HBO are saying that this is kind of a continuation of a completed story. You can all see the contradiction there, right? It's as if HBO is coming in with a continuation of Moby Dick: "Oh, but NOW we have the continuing adventures of Ishmael where he, like, finds someone obsessed with hunting down a giant SQUID! ... Yeah! ... 'Cuz that's, y'know... cool." Except that, no, it really isn't. It's just grafting. I haven't seen any of HBO's series but have had much of it explained to me and there's really no reason for it to be set in the world of the Watchmen except for brand recognition. You could do the same story in a whole new world and not be constrained by any of the easy segues or "Gotcha!" moments and, instead, have a whole tableau in front of you that was genuinely original (Please don't @ me with any of that "There's nothing new under the sun" nihilist bullshit.) But, instead, they've done the typical grafting routine that has been endemic to American TV since the 70s, where there'd be a hit and they'd decide to do a spinoff because they had an automatic audience from the previous show. The problem is that most of them were shit because they didn't do the actual creative work necessary to make them good or because the original story they told was, well, already told, just like this one. The lone exception was one of the first in the form of The Jeffersons and that may have been because they were, for once, giving actual insight into how Black people are just like White people, which was a novel concept back then and (sigh), for some people, remains so today.


So, Watchmen drew in viewers because it was WATCHMEN. Will it be good on its own? Who knows? Was it developed to be good on its own? I don't know that, either. I know that it reminds me of something Dave Sim, of Cerebus (and, unfortunately, rampant misogyny) fame used to tell people at comic conventions, back in the day. People would show him their artwork and complain about how they couldn't get noticed by Marvel and DC. Their artwork would usually be of the most popular books of the time. He'd tell them: "Look, you clearly have talent. But if you really want to do The X-Men, go ahead and do The X-Men and just call it something different." What he meant was for them not to tie their participation in the field or their sense of self-worth as artists to the two corporate behemoths of the time. If they wanted to be comic artists, they should go out and be comic artists. If they wanted to do superheroes, they should go out and do superheroes. Hell, John Byrne, as mainstream a comic artist as you could get, showed them how to do it by producing The Next Men for Dark Horse, which was always kind of an inside joke that the pronunciation made super obvious (and super ironical, since Byrne had once been the artist for X-Men...)


In other words, there's no harm in being original. HBO, of all producers, has enough clout to just say: "We're doing a superhero story. It's in the vein of Watchmen." People would have flocked to it because it's a new HBO series and they used a buzzword for comic fans (and fans of the film. If they exist.) I would have been interested and far more so if they'd said "like Watchmen, but not Watchmen" because, as noted, I agree with Moore and Bolland. Watchmen has been done. Tell me a new story. I don't really care what the omnipotent Dr. Manhattan is doing (kinda like Superman) or what fanatics inspired by Rorschach or The Comedian are doing. I can get that just by reading 4chan. You want to tell me something new about a superhero in our "real world"? I'm all about it. Just make it your own thing. This is why I'll always respect Neil Gaiman for getting DC to sign a contract with him that basically said he'd only keep working on (and eventually finish) The Sandman series, if they agreed that they'd never produce anything else with that character unless he was involved. That way, he'd ensure that whatever stories were told were within the confines of his vision and didn't become marketing crap. Moore and Bolland didn't get that chance. You'd like to hope that Melville would have.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Roundabout conclusions


I walked out of Jojo Rabbit last night with a similar impression to what I had after seeing Tel Aviv on Fire. Both were good films that I don't regret seeing. Both involve tendentious political/sociological situations that are sure to invite controversy. I went into both expecting some seriously sharp wit... and came out having seen a far sweeter story than I expected and feeling like something was missing.

Unfortunately, I get that there's a pretty thin line you have to tread when writing (and directing) a movie about a Hitler Youth member whose secret friend just happens to be the organizational namesake, so you kind of have to be careful about when and how you take your shots. That said, I really wish that Taika Waititi had taken more of them. On the face of it, this is clearly what you'd call an absurdist fantasy, But the thing about absurdism is that you really need to be incisive to make it work. A classic example is Monty Python. A lot of their material is rooted in the classical educations that most of the troupe received at Oxford and Cambridge. Despite something like the Philosophers' Football Match sketch being absurd on a number of levels, the humor in it is actually pretty elevated once you get to the decision to actually put the ball in play (in a manner of speaking.) You don't need an actual philosophy degree to get it, but you have to have some awareness. My assumption is that anyone who goes to see Jojo Rabbit is going to be someone that has that level of awareness, so there would have been no problem with writing to that level.


Instead, he largely ducked the humor approach and instead went with a more emotional story about dispelled dreams and the wisdom gained from new circumstances; in Jojo's (Roman Griffin Davis) case, the discovery of a young Jewish girl hiding in his house whom he discovers to be as human as he is, plus the knowledge that his mother was the one who helped her get there and is now opposing the state religion that he believes he should be a part of. That's a decent story, albeit one that we've seen many times before, and certainly redolent of modern times in the US as we wait for Trump supporters to realize that that's probably not something they really want to be a part of, either. And that's valid reason enough to keep telling this kind of story, as we watch "Germany in the 1920s" mildly materialize around us. It's just not the type of story I went into the theater expecting to see. That doesn't make it bad. It just means that I went into the film kind of expecting to see more scenes like the Gestapo raid/Heil Hitler chorus, when much of the cast comes close to breaking the fourth wall as they engage in the idiocy that's layered over what is otherwise a very serious moment in the story. I suppose it might be the difference between the genuine political cynics among us (raises hand) and those who aren't when it comes to appreciating Waititi's approach here, in that I already assume that most humans are complete idiots that will let this happen again and don't need to be warned about the seriousness of it. (Waking up at 2 AM on election day three years ago and bursting out laughing would be a huge tell.)


To the film's credit, most of the performances were really excellent. Scarlett Johansson was the perfect, efficient German matron, always encouraging her uncertain offspring while working at cross purposes to him. (I had to wonder if the diehard Tom Waits fan encouraged Waititi to use him in the film's soundtrack.) Sam Rockwell continued his tour of excellence, contributing to some of that absurdity with subtle acknowledgments of the gallows humor of it all in the waning days of the Reich. And both Davis and new friend, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) appropriately provided some of the more heartfelt and genuine moments, while their worlds crumbled or were reborn around them. One highlight was Jojo's best friend, Yorki (Archie Yates) and his implacable levity ("I know! It seems I just can't die!") in the film's more serious moments. And it has to be acknowledged that Waititi chewing scenery as Hitler is open to question: Since Hitler himself made that kind of bombast a signature of his public performances, can we accuse Waititi of overdoing it? Or was he just playing to form? Or, in fact, playing to what a child's interpretation of his hero would have been? There are so many layers and they're so wonderfully open to interpretation in the same way that I appreciate his willingness to not shy away from treading that thin line and actually making this film.

So, even if I wanted him to go farther and wanted more mockery and more humor and somewhat less drama, I have to say that I think the film succeeded in what its visionary was trying to accomplish. Even if you don't know or care about Hegelian thought, I think this film is well worth it.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Crevices and layers, like a rock


Like a lot of modern filmmakers, Bong Joon-ho isn't deterred by the constraints of genre. You can go into a film thinking it's a comedy or a thriller or a sociological drama and come out of it thinking that it was very different than what you expected. The real talent is in making something that crosses multiple genre lines and still has a consistently told story. Parasite, Joon-ho's latest, takes those three listed approaches and effortlessly blends them into something greater. It's a multi-layered film, with several themes all competing for prominence at the same time, with characters weaving in and out of the story's varied angles and adding something more to it in every frame. It won the Palm d'Or at Cannes this year and I can easily see why.

The most obvious themes are those of class differences and differing expectations. The Kim family have been struggling for some time, at least in part because the family patriarch, Ki-taek, doesn't have a clear plan as to how to move forward. Lacking that plan, he's imparted his own method of skirting the edges to both his wife and his children. They're all essentially grifters; feeding off the naiveté and obliviousness of Korea's upper crust who are only too happy to hire others to do the things that they don't want to dirty their hands with and are otherwise completely ignorant of the lives and mindsets of those they employ.


But that's where the parallels start. The wealthy Parks never consider that they might be completely taken advantage of by their hired help because of their unwillingness to take responsibility for the impact that their decisions have on those around them: their staff, their children, etc. They don't think ahead to where they're going. They simply subsist in the very comfortable stasis that they currently occupy. Similarly, when the Kims finally put another scheme into place, there's no thought about how to use that advantage to plan for the future. It's all about what they can get away with right now. This is clearly a group of highly intelligent people with great awareness of how society functions, but they don't look past the concept of feeding off what's left to them by the wealthier set. An easy contrast can be drawn between Ki-woo and the friend who found him his position with the Parks, Min-hyuk, who was playing tutor while attending university for a prospective career.

However, that's also an indication of difference in expectations. The Kims are jaded. They don't expect things to change for them and, thus, seek to survive on what's immediately available. At one point, a casual reference to "500 university graduates applying for a security guard position" is a good summation of why they think like they do and why their employment motivations are more centered around grifting than taking the presumed normal way out of their basement apartment. What finally pushes Ki-taek over the edge into a, uh, different approach is finally getting to hear his bosses in a situation that's not one manipulated by him. This is when the subtle bigotry about the "subway people", followed by the reality that what little they had has been washed away in a flood, makes him decide to leave society behind; perhaps in the hope that his family will do better off without him, as they might be forced to make a plan of their own, rather than following his absence of one.


Bong is aided in his effort by excellent work by his cast; the most notable of which is Park So-dam as Ki-taek's daughter, Ki-jeong. Her almost literally commanding performance as an art therapist is both intimidating and hilarious and it feels almost like there was more to be mined there that may have ended up dying in the edits. Jang Hye-jin, as Chung-sook, also had a wonderfully complex role that she breathes life into. While clearly a domineering personality and the one member of the family who has tasted the prospective "big time" as a silver medalist in the hammer throw, she provides the overall spine to the group, but still defers to Ki-taek when it comes to actual organization. It's a nice examination of cultural and family dynamics at work and she treads the middle line between officer and soldier quite well. That kind of water-treading nature also becomes evident when Park Dong-ik (Lee Sun-kyun) and his wife, Yeon-gyo (Cho Yeo-jeong), find themselves alone, with kids asleep or outside and, thus, presented with the opportunity for a sexual encounter which they resolve solely by masturbating each other through their clothes. They, too, are unable to break the roles that they've adopted, despite the seeming freedom to do otherwise.

Bong details this fairly complex sociological tale with a good dose of humor ("Why would you screw in my seat? Why cross the line like that?") and a willingness to enter the realm of what many American moviegoers would consider bizarre. The broadly humorous note is that these highly intelligent and canny people all believe that their change in fortune is driven by a rock that Min-hyuk handed off to them before he left for the States. It's a great example of how even the most hardwired operators can depend on nebulous concepts like luck in determining how their plans play out. I think the film overall was a good step forward from Snowpiercer; a film with similar and similarly complex themes which stuck too closely to the Western tradition of storytelling and, thus, didn't really deliver. Parasite, on the other hand, succeeded wildly.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Alexandria

Actually saw THREE movies this week: Dolemite is My Name, The Lighthouse, and Tel Aviv on Fire. (This is the reason for the odd title.) I can't say that I was particularly blown away by any of them, so I figured I'd just do a three-fer and include them all in one post. Normal service should resume next week. (Yes, I know the title only properly references two of them, but that's because I couldn't find a decent way of working Master Shake in there.)


Dolemite is My Name. On the face of it, it's a cute film. It's nice that Eddie Murphy is still around and still able to entertain and he does an excellent job portraying Blaxploitation legend, Rudy Ray Moore. Likewise, it's great to see people like Craig Robinson, Keegan-Michael Key, and especially Wesley Snipes, ham it up to the maximum possible degree. The problem is that Moore's story is as close to a boilerplate Hollywood script as you're going to get. He really was a self-made star and he really did succeed when everyone doubted him. That note-by-note storytelling really saps the film of any plot-driven energy and forces us to rely on the performances. That's great in stand-up and sketch comedy (not surprising, given the huge number of them among the cast), but doesn't do much else. Murphy recreating Moore's non-kung fu fight sequences would be great as a sketch, but here it's worth a couple laughs (most of them generated by Snipes' disgust with the whole sequence) and then we're back to the bog-standard story progression. On the one hand, it's weird to be denigrating what is essentially a true story. On the other hand, when sitting in a theater, you're usually expecting truth to be stranger than fiction, or at least more interesting, and this simply isn't. It's worth a watch on Netflix if you enjoy any of the actors and/or have a passion for 70s schlock film.


The Lighthouse. Continuing the train of mild disappointment, I have to say that this is a decent, psychological horror film, but has more than one stretch where it becomes kind of tedious. I thought Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson were great in their roles, even if Dafoe was a little trying. I think the decision to film it in black-and-white to emphasize the use of light and shadow, as well as the late 19th-century time period, was a great one. I think the use of the dream/delusion sequences was subtle enough to keep the audience just on the edge of knowing what was real and what wasn't and made good use of the kraken/squid imagery in what was a borderline Lovecraft-style tale of eerieness. But it was also rather slow and the characters spent a long time on camera doing not much of note. There were also some things clearly played for shock value. Pattinson jerking off to a mermaid statue that he'd found in his bunk isn't that much of a departure from some guy with a Victoria's Secret catalog if he's been stuck on an island with one weird, old guy for a few weeks and no one else. Is that interesting? Not really. Certainly the one thing that the film lacked was any sense of build-up to the atmosphere. They were dropped on the island and things immediately became strange because of Dafoe's character and his attachment to the light. There were very few quiet moments where any sense of danger or the unknowable emerged, since there weren't many quiet moments to begin with that weren't interrupted by the two leads shouting at one another. Put simply, I can certainly appreciate the craft that went into shooting the film and which the actors used to perform it, but overall, it just didn't give me what I'm usually hoping for in a horror film.


Tel Aviv on Fire. This is the film that everyone was most interested in seeing, partially because of the premise, but also because the trailer made it seem like it was going to be an intelligent farce. It comes in hard on the 'farce' part, but not quite as much on the 'intelligent'. I feel like if Salem (Kais Nashef) had been presented as an actual writer trying to deal with the hypocrisy and procedural stupidity of the occupation, that might have been a good deal funnier. But that would have been a different story. As it is, the rather normal love story, mixed with Salem's self-affirmation and newfound purpose, hampered by the checkpoint officer's (Yaniv Bitton) determination to make the world fit the vision that he, his family, and much of the Israeli public desperately cling to, is story enough to easily make this the best film of the week. While it was kind of boring to discover that Salem's character was to be the young fool who had passed up a good thing and was now faking it to make it, he and the rest of the cast had roles that were written well enough to go along for the ride. Bitton, as the officer determined to prove his importance to his wife by engaging the very soap opera that he once derided, is really the highlight of the film. The production crew's worldly cynicism about their circumstances in the territories and what risks they can take with their varied audiences becomes another high point, when their naiveté about Salem's presumed innocence in the real world allows the young fool to inadvertently walk all over them. Whether the show elevates itself to actual art is debatable and the same can be said for Tel Aviv on Fire. Much like Dolemite is My Name, this is a cute film, but one that's heartfelt enough and not so tied to obvious Hollywood tropes that it becomes something a bit more worthwhile.