Friday, December 31, 2021

Sing 2


Studios continue to look for reasons to put pop music into movies. The obvious motivator is that those songs provide a presold audience for the film. Many films nowadays are simply an excuse to raid the catalogue available to them through their corporate ownership. I am not tracking down all the tunes used in this film to see if they are part of Universal's acquisitions, but it would not surprise me. The first film in this series came out five years ago and clearly did well enough to justify another dip into the waters.

The story is set up as if the audience will remember all the characters from the previous film, which may be a safe bet for kids and their parents who have replayed this incessantly over the last five years but that was not me. I saw "Sing" when it originally arrived in theaters and I have not revisited it since. It took a few moments for me to remember or understand who was who in this menagerie of  singing pigs, gorillas, dogs, cats and elephants. Musical performances remind us a little bit of what happened in the first movie, but that history is mostly irrelevant now.

Like Kermit the Frog in "Muppets Take Manhattan" , Buster Moon wants to take his successful local theater production to the big time, a thinly veiled, animated version of Las Vegas. Cirque de Sol has nothing to worry about, because the staging of this extravaganza is even over the top for Vegas. So, the movie is a tale of the little guys trying to prove themselves in the big time while fighting minor tyrants, nepotism, and a reluctant former star who has sunk into his own sorrow so deeply that he has abandoned the music that once brought him to life.

There is no point in getting too technical about the story qualities. It is a simple structure designed to hang musical sequence on and it largely works. The look of the film is top notch with crisp character design and elaborate set production. The actors largely sing themselves [it helps when you just hire singers to do the voice work, but some of the actors who are not recording artists are solid as well]. When there are emotional moments in the film, it is usually a result of the song rather than the drama. There are plenty of funny bits with odd chases and crazy characters going wild, and those will amuse the little children in the audience.

It is the fact that it is a children's film that I want to finish on. The music and setting help keep this from being cloying, but it is still clearly designed to entertain families with small children. As the credits were rolling and the music was playing out, I saw several little girls, dancing in the aisles in this sold out theater. I was happy about two things: first, a movie theater was full, that is good news, second, the kids dancing reminded me of a couple of parents who took their kids to the movies thirty years ago and could not restrain  them from dancing at the front of the theater when a movie was over. How could a movie that accomplish this be something to complain about?

The King's Man


A few months ago, I was a guest on "The Popcorn Auteur" podcast, and we discussed director Matthew Vaughn. While we all agreed that his style and visual flare are distinctive enough to call him an auteur, not every one of his films was a hit with the hosts. I on the other hand, can safely say I have not been let down by a Matthew Vaughn film yet, and that winning streak continues with this third entry into the "Kingsman" cinema universe. On the Sunday podcast, my colleague James Wilson was not particularly forthcoming with his dislike of the film, maybe to spare my feelings, but I was not worried because I have faith in Vaughn and this time he did something else that pleased me, he surprised me. 

"The King's Man" does have some of the outlandish action scenes that Vaughn is noted for, we will discuss those in a moment. Although ostensibly the genesis of the Kingsmen franchise, this film has several elements that are clearly different from the other films. To begin with, it focuses on a real conflict, not something invented by the authors. Vaugh and his collaborators do graft on a subplot that suggests that WWI was the result of manipulation by a secret cabal, much like SPECTRE, but masterminded by a shadowy figure referred to by acolytes as "The Shepard". Historic figures like Mata Hari and Rasputin are then crossbred with the group to accomplish the machinations of the organization and bring the powers of Russia, Germany and Great Britain into conflict with one another. This retconning of history is fun because actual historical incidents and events are mixed with the fantasy of the film to create an interesting story. I hope that young people don't fall for the idea that Woodrow Wilson was blackmailed as a reason for delaying U.S. entry into the war, that would be too easy an excuse for his behaviors.

Another way that the film feels different is the war context itself. The fight wit Rasputin is entertaining nonsense, but the realities of the battlefield in WWI make this film sometimes feel like an outtake from "1917" and that switch in tone is maybe the hardest element of the film to reconcile. As a drama segment it works well on it's own but it does feel like a betrayal of the fun the film is trying to have with the outlandish premise that they have created. Tarantino was able to get away with this because the whole plot of "Inglorious Basterds" was at odds with reality.  I will say with a slight warning of a **spoiler**, there is a plot twist that is wholly consistent with the first movie and it changes the direction of the story in a striking moment. 

The fight sequences are the things that distinguish Vaughn's films from others of his ilk. They are manically choregraphed and filmed in creative ways. The perspective in the battle with Rasputin for instance, changes on the moment of contact and then momentum. The fighters look like ballet dancers twisting in the air but with sudden changes in orientation that alter their strategic advantage moment to moment. In the sword fight at the climax of the film. the villain is revealed and a battle with our main hero takes place. There is an amazing shot of the crossed swords that is technically complicated and extremely beautiful, it lasts just a second but it also reflects the care that goes in to composing the fight scenes in a Vaughn film.  

Ralph Fiennes as Lord Orlando Oxford, adds dignity to the whole enterprise while also showing how he might have been a good choice for Bond back when Daniel Craig took over. His aristocratic air may have handicapped him in that choice but works perfectly in this context. Rhys Ifans plays Rasputin in a role that is really an extended cameo rather than a starring part, but he takes full advantage of the weird combination of mystic and barbarian, to outlandish effect. He has a couple of moments with Fiennes that are truly odd and hilarious at the same time. I am sure that his fighting skills are a combination of stunt work and CGI, but he nevertheless is the face of the character and one of the memorable things about the film. Daniel Brühl appears in a standard villain role as a parallel to Rasputin only in Germany. He is poised to come back if ever there is a continuation of the story as suggested by a mid-closing credits scene. Gemma Arterton, Djimon Hounsou, Matthew Goode and Charles Dance all do their parts to fill out the cast of the Kingsmen Service in one fashion or another. Tom Hollander gets to play multiple parts and that is fun for reasons that you will see when you watch the film.

I suppose I can understand why some are not enthusiastic about the film. It is highly stylized and the tonal changes are often not very smooth. On the other hand, the clever twisting of history to tie into the conceit of the story is just delicious and you get the signature action scenes that Vaughn is noted for, so I feel no need to apologize for my opinion, it was a great time at the movies. 

Thursday, December 30, 2021

Licorice Pizza


I don't want to say I was disappointed in this movie, because I am not, but I will say that my expectations were so high that it was unlikely to be satisfied with whatever ended up being on screen, and that became my reality. The first time I saw the trailer, I was wondering if Director Paul Thomas Anderson was doing an Inception number on my head. The schools, the clothes the haircuts and the attitudes were right out of my memory. I didn't live in the valley but at one time I had a girlfriend who did. The next girlfriend I had, (who I eventually married) did not live in the Valley, but the character of Alana reminded me so much of her at times I had to remind myself that Encino was not my stomping grounds. I was set to love this film, and I only liked it a lot.

The strengths of the movie are  largely the result of Anderson being able to evoke the period so well. The houses and production design are easy tipoffs as to the era. Gary, the male lead, is a young actor, aging out of kids parts and moving into other enterprise because he is basically a go-getter. Not yet 16, he has drive, self confidence, and just enough money from his career up to that point that he can invest in the next thing, be it arcades, waterbeds or Alana. Alana Haim, plays a twenty five year old woman who has not grown up and who has not had her ambitions in life stirred up yet. A decade older than Gary, she nonetheless becomes the object of his fixation, and frankly, he intrigues her enough despite their age difference, that she mostly ignores that decade.  The characters are the heart of the film, they complement one another very well. She grounds Gary's ambitions and helps channel his boundless energy. She also provides an outlet for his maturity that would not be satisficed by a relationship with kids his own age.   Alana get inspired by Gary. She can see possibilities that she either ignored before or was blind to. Even though she is older, Gary offers her a maturity that she has not had in her family life or profession, such as it is.

It is the random episodic nature of the events in the film that make it feel a little pointless at times. There is never a driving force that moves the characters through their lives and ultimately toward one another as more than friends. It may be an accurate depiction of how we really develop as people, but it is nit a satisfying story telling tool. Gary goes through several business opportunities and Alana pushes him away and clings to him simultaneously. Their brushes with random celebrities are interesting but do nothing to advance the story. I have seen "boogie Nights" and "Magnolia", so I am familiar with Anderson's style [Boogie Nights is one of my favorite films], but there is an energy in those films that propels the characters though to the resolution. The incidents here just feel random and they never develop much momentum, only the characters do that. 

Some criticism has been made of the age difference and the notion that if the genders were reversed it would certainly be seen as inappropriate. First of all, most of the film does not involve a direct romance between the characters. They are friends but they do develop longings that would go past mere friendship. Second, it is the younger character who has a more mature attitude about life. Alana is sympathetic but she need someone to give her a push to get her life started. This is almost a gender reversal of "Manhattan" , and I know the Woody Allen reference might undermine my argument, but the film does not. The younger character can see things that the older character can't. This is a story about how two people fill one another's needs in ways that are not romantic, and how that ultimately leads to romance. 

Telling a story set in Southern California seems to necessitate the inclusion of show business personalities. I am not sure why we get thinly veiled characterizations of Lucille Ball and William Holden, but Jon Peters and Joel Wachs are both portrayed as themselves. The person who steals the movie entirely is Bradley Cooper, who plays the narcissistic film producer Jon Peters. The few minutes he is on screen give the movie the electricity it needed in several other spots. Cooper shows us a manic, sex addict, social climber who demands perfection from everyone except himself. Aside from the young leads, who are making starring debuts, this is the performance that the movie will be remembered for. 

"Licorice Pizza" is a film with all the components of a great movie but somehow manages to only be very good. I suspect it will grow on me as it matures in my memory and I experience it again. I can't say that anyone praising this as the best film of the year is wrong, I can only say I don't see ot that way at the moment. 

Sunday, December 26, 2021

Nightmare Alley (2021)


I've been a big fan of the original "Nightmare Alley" from 1947 since I was a kid. The denouncement of that film is one of the great gut punches in movies. The lead character in that film is a charming heel, but he never seemed outright evil, rather just an opportunist. The Guillermo del Toro version makes Stanton Carlisle a much more malevolent figure and that makes the remakes payoff feel even more potent. The 47 version danced around the edge of crime but was not really a murder mystery. This updated version makes death a key component for all the characters, not just the pitiful mentalist who disappears pretty early in the story. 

The film is a slow burn that picks up speed rapidly in the last act. The set up of Carlisle and his assistant Molly is nice and completely believable. I like the fact that Molly takes things slowly and recognizes the dangers that Stanton is taking as he moves his mentalist act into "spook show" territory. The film may not resonate as much with contemporary audiences because the nature of technology and the media have rendered us cynical about all sorts of things, and we might wonder how anyone could be taken in by Carlisle's tricks. Although it seems that it is still true that Nigerian Princes requesting money still seem to get a response somewhere on the internet. The main reason I think this sort of thing can continue is that we are all like Stanton, we figure we are smarter than the other guy so no one can fool us. 

The two stories remain faithful up to a point, and then there is a break. I have not read the original novel so it is not clear to me if this is del Toro's addition or inclusion, but the character of Ezra Grindle played by Richard Jenkins is startlingly ominous, backed as he is by the thug-like but devoted presence of Holt McCallany as his strong right hand. This is not just a mark for the long con, but a potential land mine of a personality that could easily destroy the things Stanton and Molly have accomplished. Cate Blanchett is the seductive and treacherous psychologist who is both manipulated by and manipulating Stanton Carlisle. Her character presents another perspective on the need to be the smartest person in every room, and that motivation conflicts with Carlisle pretty effectively. It was not quite clear to me how she managed to create a chink in Stanton's armor, but there is a reason that the mentalist should not be drinking. 

The best thing this film has going for it is the production design. I may bot have been a big fan of "The Shape of Water", but I can't deny that it was an amazing looking movie. The carnival that is at the center of the opening act is almost as creepy as Willem Dafoe's character. The wagons and tents and the advertising flys all reek of authenticity and aging utility. The nightclub that Stanton and Molly appear in, is the epitome of the art deco entertainment venues that make me wish I could have lived in that era. Dr. Ritter's office has the wood inlay walls that scream power and success and there are little pieces of art, furniture and simple background that will draw you in like a magnet. There is a momentary shot of the Spidergirl attraction, and I like the fact that I was personally involved in building a few of those for carnivals and circus use back in the 1970s. 

The film is also populated with some great actors who are doing the kind of work that we expect of them. Toni Collette is sexy but diffident as she ages, David Strathairn is terrific as the pickled former mentalist with the secret Stanton longs for and the wisdom that Carlisle ignores. Roony Mara is earnest as heck as Molly. Mary Steenburgen has two scenes, the first is sympathetic desperation and the second is bone chilling mania, she was great. I would strongly recommend the film as long as you are aware that atmosphere take priority over action in the story. It will be playing in Black and White next month, I plan on going back for that version as well. 

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

West Side Story (2021)

I've been waiting for Steven Spielberg to do a full fledged musical since I saw the opening of "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" back in 1984. I think his sensibility and eye are right for musical sequences and that he could stage  some pretty energetic numbers and make them look engaging and not static, well it turns out I was right. I'm not sure why he chose this material, but once he committed to it I think he did a solid job justifying a new version of the award winning classic. I think I still prefer the Robert Wise version of the movie, mostly because everything was fresh but Spielberg found some ways to fill out the story, rearrange to songs and change some of the characters delivering the songs, in a way that is satisfying. 

The screenplay by Tony Kushner, with whom Spielberg collaborated on with "Munich" and "Lincoln", adds some details to the backgrounds of our characters to flesh them out. Riff has a story that is spelled out rather than implied as it was before, Bernardo has been transformed into a professional boxer, and Tony is provided with some background that adds resonance to his character that maybe wasn't there before. In some ways, the transition for Bernardo's character is the most problematic, because he seems less sympathetic as a professional fighter, engaging in a street fight. The character of Chino is also built up and it provides some additional pathos to the final outcome of the plot. 

In moving around the order of the songs and changing the characters who perform them, Spielberg and Kushner help the character of Tony in one case and weaken him in the second. The decision to give the "Cool" number to Tony and Riff, works well giving Ansel Elgort and Mike Faist, an additional chance to show the gap between them, even as friends, and to make a stronger impact on the audience. While I appreciate the desire to include Rita Moreno more in the story, giving her the "Somewhere" moment robs Tony and Maria of a poignant moment that would make their tragedy more emotional at the end. 

So what else has changed? Well, the fight scenes are more brutal from the get go. Baby John doesn't just get beat up, he is mutilated by a piercing of his ear done with a nail. Bernardo and Tony fight and the punches Bernardo lands when Tony is trying to hold his temper and let things chill, are hard and to the face as well as the gut. You can almost feel them and they look more realistic than most fight scenes, even those you might see in a boxing film. Both groups of opponents are struggling with the idea of losing their territory, not to each other but to the progress of NYC itself. That fuels a bit of the anger so that it does not feel entirely based in ethnic hatred. 

Some people have complained that Spielberg has reimagined the story as a "woke" parable on immigration. There has also been some defensiveness on the part of traditionalists that all the Spanish dialogue in not subtitled. The immigration issue is not any more prevalent than it was in 1961, so that seems foolish to jump on. The Spanish issue is a non issue since almost all those important lines are repeated bak in some form in English, and even a non-Spanish speaker like me could understand most of what is said by context, tone and the few words of Spanish that I know. Maybe the strongest argument against calling this film "woke" is that Officer Krupke, goes from being an overt racist in the 1961 film, to a fairly sympathetic character in this one.   Lieutenant Schrank is also not taking sides in the conflict, but seems more interested in avoiding kids being killed. 
Two great visual moments that clearly show that Spielberg was thinking about how the movie could look different yet still be familiar, come in the Gang confrontation and in the "America" number. The long shadows approaching each other from opposite directions in the salt warehouse, builds the confrontation moment nicely and being shot from above makes it feel more ominous. The girls dancing down the street in the daylight, pursued by the boys, instead of remaining on the rooftop at night, keeps the excitement and cleverness of Sondheim's lyrics, but transposes it to a setting that feels even more joyful.

The bad news here is that the film has flamed out. It did not live up to expectations at the box office, and the critical hype , while strong, seems unlikely to sustain it for long in the onslaught of so many other films at the end of the year. I think it will mirror another great film that hid similar reviews and expectations but did no business. In 1983, "The Right Stuff" arrived with a thud at the box office. Oscar Nominations gave it a slight boost during awards season, but in the long run, it was passed by too often by too many people. I see the same pattern emerging here. I hope I am wrong and some holiday time results in more people seeing this worthy remake of a great musical. 

Monday, December 20, 2021

Spiderman: No Way Home


This weekend, we will be doing a Lookback Episode on the Spider-Man Films, which means in the last week, I have watched nine Spider-Man movies. That's a lot to take in, but it sure helped in watching the latest film, "No Way Home" because I was fresh on the storylines, the characters and especially the villains. We are entering a "Multiverse" here and I don't think it is a spoiler to say that there will be crossover elements in this film. You have seen Doc Ock in the trailer, and you know that Alfred Molina was in one of the Sony, Sam Rami Spider-Man movies, so clearly, all bets are off when it comes to who might show up. I have managed to avoid any spoilers myself before seeing the movie and I certainly don't plan on screwing it up for anyone else.

The animated "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse" got to these ideas first, but it set up a groundwork that allows everything this movie does to work more efficiently than might have otherwise been possible. The basic concept is easier to understand, and the device by which characters cross universe's is explained a little more in this movie than in the animated film, and it also fits in with the other stories that the MCU has been telling, so that's a plus. What it ends up meaning is that several plotlines and characters get an upgrade in this movie and the film repairs some of the weaknesses in the other films. Maybe we will never get goth Toby dancing down the street out of our heads, but there is other business to attend to and this film tries to take care of that business. As far as I was concerned, it succeeds.

Tom Holland's Spider-Man has largely been a creature nurtured by Ironman and the Avengers. This means that the villains he has faced are connected to the MCU Infinity War thread up to this point. He has had the aid of the Avengers or SHIELD remnants but this time, it looks like he is on his own, until he connects with Dr. Strange. For a bright kid, Peter Parker sometimes jumps to some weak conclusions on little more than a hunch. He turns to the magic of Dr. Strange, thinking maybe he can reverse time to the point were no one had discovered he was :Spider-Man". An improvised plan goes unsurprisingly wrong, and Peter/Spidey has to clean it up before it gets incontrollable. That's the set up, suffice it to say every solution has it's unintended consequences which produce more problems to deal with. While all of this is going on, Peter, his best friend Ned and his new love MJ, are also struggling with non-super criminal difficulties, like getting into college or having a little privacy. The two teen characters help keep the movie grounded to the situation that Peter finds himself in, and it also provides for some humor. The laughs and the gasps are the things this movie has going for it the most.

Holland's fresh faced enthusiasm was always a good counter part to Tony Stark's detached cynicism. The by play between their viewpoints is extend a bit with the Dr. Strange connection, but Holland manages to inject plenty of life into the other relationships in the film, particularly with the antagonists. Spider-Man has plenty of quips and there is a good deal of millennial ignorance to fuel it. The surprises that show up are where most of the audience will get sucked into rooting for the web slinger.   The collection of enemies that Peter has to wade through is ultimately matched by the allies he has, some of whom stand in his way like moral warning signs that he simply can't see. This Sider-Man has to learn some of the lessons his predecessors learned, and it is entertaining to watch the likes of Aunt May, Happy and others, try to impart them. The plot allows this film to do some credibility repair on the sometimes maligned "Amazing Spider-Man" films, and even the widely criticized but still successful "Spider-Man 3". Character threads get handled that had been left dangling, and the tonal quirks that plagued those earlier films are gently mocked and put into perspective. 
As usual, the action scenes are top notch in the film, and the technology does a better job than in has in the past of convincing us we are not watching a cartoon, even though we most certainly are in most of those action sequences. The Lambcast Episode is full of spoilers, so if you want to delve into my thoughts on this a bit more, go there. Here we remain spoiler free so I simply can't talk about all of the great moments in the film. When you see it, as it looks like everybody will, you will know more of what I am talking about.  

Thursday, December 9, 2021

House of Gucci


If the person who assembled the trailer above, was responsible for editing the movie, this would be a more positive evaluation. The trailer emphasizes the key ideas in the film, but does so more efficiently than the actual film does. So the trailer is more fun to watch and it moves with a sense of purpose, building to a withheld climax. The film, tells the story more completely, but it lingers over material that is not essential to the plot and the dynamics of the characters are a bit inconsistent. Director Ridley Scott seems to be aiming for an epic, when what he has is a melodrama with some goofy and off-putting characters.

The star of the show is Lady Gaga, portraying Patrizia Reggiani, a young woman who meets Maurizio Gucci, heir to a portion of the family business, and subsequently marries and manipulates him to become the head of the company, at the expense of other members of his family. She is not quite Lady Macbeth, but her ambitions are what fuels the narrative in the film, and her abilities to push in the right direction using her romantic relationship with Maurizio are the means by which she accomplishes her goal. Lady Gaga has established some creds as an actress and she acquits herself well in a role that she is properly cast in. She is youthful, sexy in a non conventional way and ambitious as hell, just as the character in the film she plays. Criticism of the accent is beside the point, the film is not looking for authenticity, the verisimilitude is provided by her smirk, eyes, and body. The dialogue occasionally contributes but the Italian Accented English is simply typical of films of this ilk. 

The cast of the film is impressive. Al Pacino and Jeremy Irons have a great scene together and the two aging lions play it more subtly than you might think. Irons is Rodolfo Gucci, father of Maurizio, and brother of Pacino's Aldo Gucci. Rodolfo Gucci is ill and aging in the film and Irons looks like he is going through the process himself, I hope it is mostly acting and makeup that accounts for his condition in the movie. His best scene is with Jared Leto, who plays his nephew Paolo Gucci. Both father and Uncle have distain for Paolo, for reasons that are comically depicted here. The verbal takedown of Paolo by Rodolfo is the most fun scene in the movie, and oddly it generates some sympathy for the craven Paolo who is the butt end of nearly every comic moment on the film. Leto is flamboyant in the part and unrecognizable in the make up and costuming he has been given. Obviously he has been portrayed this way as a counterpoint to the taciturn Maurizio, who is brought to life by current hot actor of the moment Adam Driver. The son of Aldo Gucci, Driver plays his character almost as somnambulant in the early part of the film, and he only exhibits occasional moments of  personality when he is with Patrizia. The character is a key element in the events that takes place but Driver is so passive in the first two thirds of the movie that when his character eventually tries to switch off his wife, it comes as something of a head turner, how did he become that character all of a sudden?

Similar turns in the characters are found in other places in the script as well. Aldo goes from doting to controlling on Maurizio, Paolo goes from sniveling to conniving to repentant, and not with much explanation. Gaga's character has the clearest path that explains the turn she makes, although to get there, she has to develop a relationship with a oddball psychic played by Selma Hayek. The climax of the film depends on the third act working, and there were some shortcuts taken that probably needed some explanation. The sudden appearance of a romantic rival, and the absence of any story concerning the developing love affair, makes the transition to the third act very jolting.  This was another opportunity to take the satiric route suggested by the trailer, instead of the epic path the film tries to follow. Scott and writers Becky Johnston, Roberto Bentivegna and book author Sara Gay Forden, insist on playing it straight when a mocking sarcastic tone would have helped make the movie come alive. 

The film looks marvelous with expensive locales and lush furnishings and artwork distributed throughout the interiors. The timeline for the story is suggested by title cards but there seem to be gaps in time that can cause confusion. The soundtrack of contemporary music used to set scenes or make transitions is fitting for the times although not necessary accurate as to when the music was released. That is a minor criticism, but those of us who lived through the era will probably be the only ones who notice it, and no one will or should care. Although based on real people, the film plays like a soap opera but does not quite embrace the high camp that can make a movie like this entertaining. This is the second Best Ridley Scott Movie of the year, but it is the one that is more successful. Sometimes it is the material rather than it's execution that matters.