Friday, July 24, 2020

Palm Springs (Max Barbakow, 2020)

Cute Groundhog Day xerox (talk about eternal returns!). The one-day-forever gimmick is introduced more subtly here. You wonder why Andy Samberg is the only character wearing beach attire at the opening wedding reception. And the new twist on the concept involves moving back in time to discover how the principals arrived in their respective situations. But eventually, the narrative explains the concept in far greater detail than in Groundhog Day, positing an origin in a psychedelic desert cave that could beckon anyone. It results in a more conventional film and replicates the shortcomings of its predecessor. Samberg and Cristin Milioti are as unripened as Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell last time. And here we have two (2) characters who must learn to become Good People before the requisite formation of the heterosexual couple can happen. Still, I'm always down for some light-Resnais narrative play. And I appreciate the blitheness with which Samberg discusses being anally penetrated. Added bonus: a long shot of Samberg's butt.
Grade: B+

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Dolemite Is My Name (Craig Brewer, 2019)

Lots of fun. It has the utopian feel of one of those Mickey and Judy "let's put on a show" vehicles. More than a dash of Burton's Ed Wood too. Also included: a welcome primer on four-wall distribution and Eddie Murphy pricing 8-track cassettes. Solid stuff.
Grade: B+

Knives Out (Rian Johnson, 2019)

I can forgive this for being too story-driven since the murder mystery genre requires it. But too damn long is less forgivable. A good 20 minutes could have been charitably cut. And those Poirot/Marple-style crime solutions are dizzying and silly. Even the welcome undocumented immigrant angle was wasted on a trite ending. Still, it's heartening to learn that a non-franchise film can clean up at the box office although this will probably just start another venal franchise. Fun but forgettable.
Grade: B

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Lou Reed: Metal Machine Music (RCA Victor, 1975)

Happy 45th birthday to Lou Reed: Metal Machine Music (RCA Victor, 1975)! I'm old enough to be baffled when I first saw this noise joke show up on CD in the early 1990s (although it's equally baffling that the thing was released on 8-track!). Then again, I never thought I'd see Jandek on CD and look where we are now with the man. Today, the "scandal" of Metal Machine Music has been smoothed over by the noise of the internet. And after decades of all manner of horrible skronk, it actually sounds quite soothing, even reassuring in its constancy. Lester Bangs reported that Reed made this a double album to symbolize "two tits" and I believe it - its trebly wingspan could use more bottom. But with all the honesty I can muster, I legit find Metal Machine Music more listenable than the Reed-Metallica horror Lulu, quite possibly the worst album ever released by an artist of substance, to quote Xgau out of context.
Grade: B

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Friday, July 17, 2020

Anatomy of a Murder (Otto Preminger, 1959)

I slated Seconds (John Frankenheimer, 1966) and Reflections in a Golden Eye (John Huston, 1967) in a genre I called Feel That New Hollywood Train Comin'. But you can sense Preminger barreling toward it with this 1959 classic. There's an exciting disconnect watching old-guard actors like James Stewart (as "humble" country attorney Biegler, a virtuosic performance that's quite possibly his greatest ever) and Eve Arden exist in a world where words like "rape" and even "bitch" (!) are uttered (not to mention going toe-to-toe with such Methody new-guard actors as Ben Gazzara, Lee Remick [in a role abandoned by Lana Turner!], and George C. Scott). 

Not that 1959 (or any era) had the corner on modernity. Anatomy of a Murder recalls prior milestones in sophistication, exhibiting a bit of the Lubitsch touch in its ending. Trouble in Paradise (Ernst Lubitsch, 1932) comes to a close, for instance, when Mariette (Kay Francis) allows Gaston (Herbert Marshall) and Lily (Miriam Hopkins) to steal 100,000 and a string of pearls from her. Her tone is bittersweet rather than enraged or screaming for vengeance. She may be in a funk for a day or so. But soon, she'll struggle to remember Gaston's name. Similarly, Biegler and his colleague McCarthy [sic] (Arthur O'Connell) shrug off the fact that Manion (Gazzara) has left town without paying them, a mindset perhaps absorbed from Biegler's secretary Maida (Arden) who never seems overly concerned that she hasn't received a paycheck in a while. Biegler isn't even bittersweet here. He's probably just eager to get back out on the lake to fish. Both endings still startle and even confuse today for how they flout expectations of rage and depression.

And even at that, I can think of at least six or seven Preminger films that cut it (Angel Face, Fallen Angel, The Human Factor, Bunny Lake is Missing, Bonjour Tristesse, maybe Daisy Kenyon if I can sift out my Joan Crawford idolatry, etc.) and many more that are its equal. After Sirk, he's my favorite classical Hollywood director.
Grade: A

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Thursday, July 16, 2020

Booksmart (Olivia Wilde, 2019)

Not quite up to the level of such inexhaustible female-friendship classics as Ghost World or Romy & Michele's High School Reunion - the dénouement feels a bit too forced and corny. But damn close! This is a writers' film (and I do mean that in the plural - four hands signed it) with sampler-worthy one-liners stuffed in every crevice. As such, it invites obsession. The second it's over, you just want to watch it over and over again and commit all that staircase wit to memory.

One example of dozens: George (Noah Galvin) reluctantly allows Molly (Beanie Feldstein, perfect) to play the "hideous, barren orthodontist" at his murder-mystery party. But when she reads over her character packet, she discovers that "This just says 'orthodontist.'" This is the kind of committee writing that an incorrigible auteurist such as myself should disdain. But as a long time Simpsons freak (and one who believes it stayed fresh well past season 10), I approve. In fact, I think I'll put it on as I wind down tonight.

Grade: A-minus

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (John Carl Buechler, 1988)

Not much to say about this one. It's better than Part VIII, the "Manhattan" one (aka Jason Takes a Nap) whatever that could possibly mean. I thought there would be some feminist angle given Tina's (Lar Park Lincoln, what a name!) ability to whup Jason's ass and keep him down (at least for the duration of this installment). But Jason cannot die so her telekinetic prowess is for naught. Still, it gave me a great idea for an alternative career - fire pointer outer!
P. S. Starring Kevin Blair (aka Kevin Spirtas), an openly gay actor who plays love interest Nick.
Grade: D

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Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (Rob Hedden, 1989)

This was a godawful movie, precious little of which takes place in Manhattan and I bet most of the Manhattan scenes were filmed in Vancouver. The rest takes places on an extremely confusing high school graduation party ship-not-boat. As with Freddy, what the hell does Jason want at this point?? It's a question that becomes even more baffling when he gets to Manhattan. He chases the principals through several subway cars but ignores the dozens of people on board. Huh? BUT. The film gets points for one shot alone. Jason breaks through the wall of a diner and one woman looks more pissed than scared as if she's perturbed that he interrupted her anecdote. A classic NYC moment!
Grade: D-minus

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Monday, July 06, 2020

The Goldfinch (John Crowley, 2019)

I had no hopes for The Goldfinch. The only reason I put it on was to fall asleep to visions of Ansel Elgort. And hells no, I didn't read Donna Tartt's 2013 Pulitzer Prize winner although I did start and abandon it five years ago. But it held me until 3:30 a.m., my affection only slightly diminished as its 149 minutes came to a close.

I suspect the critical savaging it received had a lot to do with the deep connection readers form with an 800-page behemoth. Shorn of that albatross, I was free to marvel at the most moving portrait of grief in a mainstream American film since Rabbit Hole (John Cameron Mitchell, 2010). These are not films I normally fall for - middlebrow, well-meaning, Oscar-bound, director-effacing. But when they work, they do so less by a masterful gestalt than via indelibly etched moments. So I don't much care that The Goldfinch suffers from structural elephantiasis. Sure, the thing prattles on and on, especially with a ridiculous international espionage subplot meant to juice all the heavy-handedness out of the goldfinch symbol. And Tartt wields death as a hyperbolic story device rather than an unavoidable fact of life. She kills off more characters than Leatherface.

But always the bloat detumesces for a quiet trill that adds more emotional heft than forward progression to the narrative. The third-act reckoning between Pippa (Ashleigh Cumming) and the adult Theo (Elgort). Hobie (Jeffrey Wright) welcoming back young Theo (Oakes Fegley). Young Boris (Aneurin Barnard) holding Theo in bed after a nightmare. The legs of Theo and Andy Barbour (Ryan Foust) dangling off a bed mere hours after the central tragedy. Mrs. Barbour (Nicole Kidman) saying goodbye to Theo, her Park-Avenue resolve ever so slightly thawed. Both The Goldfinch and Rabbit Hole share a major asset in Kidman, my vote for the finest actress of our generation. Her sense of underplaying lends the scenes between Mrs. Barbour and young Theo an unbearable delicacy, revealing a woman on the precipice of discovering a new wrinkle in motherhood.

Even the bloat serves a crucial thematic function - to delineate a community of care that transcends the family. Life is grimly unfair in The Goldfinch. But it's also a film of havens, of moments when we can finally exhale.
Grade: A-minus