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Sam Stashower

Sam Stashower has 8 articles published.

In spite of its title, Tel Aviv on Fire is as un-incendiary as they come

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Considering how potentially incendiary the title of Tel Aviv on Fire is, I was surprised at how slight, well-intentioned, and wholesomely funny this movie turned out to be. The film’s plot directly grapples with heavy topics – the Israel/Palestine conflict being front and center – but in terms of actual execution, the whole thing comes off more like a breezy comedy of errors.

Kais Nashif stars as Salam, a thirty-year-old, slightly meek Palestinian who lives in Jerusalem, but has to cross the border each morning to get to his job. He works on a Ramallah-produced soap opera called “Tel Aviv on Fire,” a melodramatic romance about a Palestinian spy who seduces an Israeli general in service of her people’s cause. Salam serves as the show’s Hebrew consultant. One day, when passing through the checkpoint, he asks one of the officers about whether or not one of the phrases in the script is actually accurate, and is promptly dragged in front of the Israeli commander, Assi, on suspicion of being a spy. Salam quickly manages to prove he’s actually in the entertainment business, and to boost is cred, he plays himself up as the main screenwriter. Unfortunately, this backfires, as the commander’s actually seen the show (his wife is an enormous fan), and…he’s got notes.

A premise like that evokes Munich and Misery in equal measure. Yet Tel Aviv on Fire commits to its silly, good-natured take on what could’ve been a serious morality play. There are no bad guys in the movie, not really; Assi abuses his power, but he does so in order to become Salam’s writing partner so he can do something nice for his wife. Meanwhile, Salam’s new ideas for the show (as provided by the commander) get him promoted to a top screenwriting position, which puts him in a tricky spot; Assi wants the show to end with a wedding, whereas the Palestinian backers want the show to end with an assassination. On top of all that, the show’s two leads have egos that need to be assuaged, Salam wants to springboard his newfound success into a chance with Mariam, a girl he likes, and as it turns out, writing scripts is hard.

That’s a lot of stuff, and I’d be lying if I said Tel Aviv on Fire balanced it all. There’s frequently several subplots happening at once, and while it is praiseworthy how the film balances its Israeli/Palestine material, it must be said that it’s less successful at balancing much else. Mariam keeps disappearing from the movie, for one thing, and a late-movie plot complication – the lead actress of “Tel Aviv on Fire” seeming to develop feelings for Salam, and then attempting to throw a wrench into his relationship with Mariam – comes up in one scene, and then has no bearing on the rest of the film. The conflict with the show’s unseen backers similarly goes nowhere particularly interesting.

Still, what it lacks in narrative grace, it gains in a winning heart and a genuine sense of authenticity to its subject. This is a movie with a refreshingly warm heart, one which manages the great feat of being sincere without ever resorting to sappiness. In a world where it’s all too easy to get caught up in an “Everything’s getting worse!” mindset, here’s a movie that offers some actual, honest-to-goodness hope. That it does so with a healthy dose of satirical humor doesn’t hurt.

 

Avengers: Endgame Review

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Avengers: Endgame is a wild, ungainly, imperfect mess of a movie. It’s a film that, in all likelihood, will be picked apart in the days and weeks to come. It’s way too long, for one thing, and there are certain plot points that are rushed and characters that are shafted and mistakes that were made.

But I don’t care, because I loved that beautiful mess. It made me feel. It made me gasp. It made me cry. It made me laugh, out loud, and often, and at full volume. It set out to do something, and by God, it actually mostly managed to accomplish just that. More than that, though, Avengers: Endgame was something I kind of wasn’t expecting: an ENDING. This is a movie that actually earns its title by clearly and definitively closing the chapter on a number of things that we’ve been watching for 11 years.

Actually, let’s start there, because that’s kind of this film’s greatest strength and its most glaring weakness. Because instead of spending its entire runtime teasing the future (as a few of these movies have been guilty of), the film spends most of its time celebrating the past. This is understandable, and at times, joyous (not to reveal anything, but the way this film uses older footage is downright inspired on a Forrest Gumpian level). However, it does mean that the film never truly eeks out its own identity, and at times can feel like a 3 hour exercise in, “Hey, remember this thing?” Now don’t get me wrong; it WORKS. I was having an absolute blast sitting there and going, “Why yes, I DO remember that thing!” And saying it could’ve or should’ve been more than what it is feels…ungrateful, somehow. But it could’ve/should’ve? Maybe?

I don’t know. But, for whatever else, this is it, and they DID it. There are callbacks ahoy, and almost every character who’s ever been in any of these damn movies pops up at one point or another (and I really do mean almost everyone; it has to be at least double the cast of Infinity War, which itself was stuffed to the brim), but miraculously enough, the film finds that balance that Thanos was so desperate for. Everyone feels like they get their moment to shine. More than that, the film frequently lets itself slow down, something Infinity War occasionally struggled with. There are quiet, contemplative scenes in this film, real character driven moments that have genuine heart to them. I can honestly say that certain things choked me up.

And the film is so damn fun. The quips are at their best: mostly non-distracting and hella funny. The situations are inventive and unpredictable, mostly. The visuals are frequently stunning (PLEAAAASE do not ruin this film by seeing it in 3D. It’s dark enough already, and 3D is generally awful. Trust me, the spectacle doesn’t need it). Not since Return of the King have we had a 3 hour film this shockingly economical. It’s genuinely tough to imagine when a good time for a bathroom break would be.

It’s been 11 years. 22 movies, the worst of which was “meh.” We are at the end of one of the grandest cinematic experiments of all time, the success of which has yet to be matched (weirdly, the only “cinematic universe” that’s come close is the Conjuring-verse, and even that’s pretty hit-or-miss). Maybe I’ll sour on this film, though I hope I don’t. Because right now, I’m very happy with where we are.

We’ll be back in the MCU soon enough. But for now, we can rest. It’s over. And it worked. I can’t believe it worked.

Captain Marvel Review

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Picture Source: refinery29.com

I’m still in awe of what Marvel has managed to do over the last decade. When I was little, I used to ask my parents what it was like watching Star Wars for the first time, living through that historic moment in film. And now, I can say I’m living through something like that; a point after which everything will be different. This level of interconnected storytelling, while commonplace in comic books, is still an extraordinary novelty in movies. It shouldn’t have worked. That it did is a miracle.

Still, they can’t all be winners. Every once in a while, you’re going to slip up. Even so, I was very excited for Captain Marvel for a number of reasons. Marvel had gotten Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, the team behind the wonderful Half Nelson and Sugar, to helm the project. They’d gotten an all-star cast, led by Oscar-winner Brie Larson. Old favorites Samuel L. Jackson and Clark Gregg were returning! There was gonna be a war between two interstellar races from the comics! Shape shifting aliens! It was gonna be set in the 90s! What could go wrong?

Already, there are articles appearing comparing this film to its closest apparent DCEU counterpart, Wonder Woman. It’s a cheap and easy comparison to make (take the two recent female-led superhero movies and pit them against each other!), but a quick point that I think highlights my issues with Captain Marvel is this: Wonder Woman was a focused movie. It knew exactly what it wanted to say narratively and it did so. It used its period-piece trappings to make a broader, empathetic point about gender struggles both then and now. But, above all else, the main character was extraordinary: a complex, multi-dimensional person who was an absolute joy to spend time with for two hours. I believed in Wonder Woman because I believed in Wonder Woman.

Captain Marvel, on the other hand, is all over the fucking place. It’s a space opera-turned 90s throwback movie-turned buddy cop romp-turned immigrant parable-turned CGI slugfest. To be clear, there are good movies that have incorporated all of these elements before. This is not one of them. There’s no clear narrative through line whatsoever. These scenes never cohese into a whole, and as such, it feels like they’re actively working against each other.

Part of this is the almost overwhelming lack of visual style. Remember how in Thor: Ragnarok, or the Captain America movies, or the first two Avengers, or Black Panther, you could just tell instantly who was directing the films? That immediate, clear authorial voice? That is completely absent here, and it’s a damn shame. One of Marvel’s most admirable qualities is their willingness to hire indie directors and let them do their thing. Ragnarok’s Taika Waititi is the obvious example, but even Avengers’ Joss Whedon, in spite of him creating three of the greatest television shows ever made (also Dollhouse), had only helmed one feature film before Avengers — the good-but-unprofitable Serenity. Like I said, Half Nelson was wonderful, but it was very low-budget. It’s useless to speculate, but it feels like Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck were chewed up and spat out by the “Marvel machine”; for how blandly competent it was, I was half convinced they’d ditched Boden and Fleck about halfway through and brought in the guy who made Thor: The Dark World. This is a product made by an assembly line. In that way, it more closely resembles the directorless, hacked-to-pieces disaster Justice League, and I truly can think of no worse insult.

And so we come to Brie Larson. Now, Larson is an incredible actress. I feel like this is a given. While the Academy Awards have a very well-deserved reputation for being wrong on an alarmingly consistent basis (hi, Crash, Green Book, etc.), Larson’s Oscar for Room was one of those rare instances where the Academy got it absolutely right, both for the actress and the role. She brought a level of nuance and passion to that film that blew me (and seemingly everyone else) away. But there’s just something wrong here. She feels disconnected from everything, like the movie’s happening around her and she’s just observing it. Captain Marvel is a multi-layered character, but it really felt like Larson got stuck on the “stoic, dispassionate soldier” layer and no one knew what to do about it.

Also, the action scenes just generally suck. Part of this is again Larson, who never really seems to be in any danger. Even the early fight where her powers are greatly restrained, she plows through henchmen with about as much ease as ever, and always with that one stoic facial expression. But mostly, it’s the camera work, and the return of the dreaded shaky-cam quick-cut combo. There’s a chase scene, where Nick Fury and Phil Coulson are trying to catch up to a moving train on which Captain Marvel is dueling a Kree, and it plays like The French Connection but shitty. The chase takes place in broad daylight, but it’s practically impossible to tell where anyone or anything is in relation to each other.

Speaking of fights, there’s one where Captain Marvel has to go up against her former comrades in arms. These people, we’re meant to understand, have been fighting alongside each other for six years, having each other’s backs, looking out for the other. A unit. And now they have to battle for the fate of their civilizations. This should be some grand, Shakespearean shit, but it’s all just brushed aside for an empty, dispassionate, poorly choreographed fight set to a really bad tune.

This isn’t a completely bad movie. There’s the occasional moment of real charm, the most obvious being Stan Lee’s very sweet cameo. Talking of Nick Fury and Phil Coulson, the de-aging special effects are genuinely awe-inspiring. Sam Jackson looks exactly like he did in The Negotiator, and after about a minute I forgot I was looking at a special effect. Jackson and Larson have good interplay, as they do with Ben Mendelsohn’s character. His Telos felt very well fleshed out, and he gets some of the best lines. And the cat was cute.

But at the end of the day, the film is a disappointment. The lack of worldbuilding cripples any sense of reality the other planets might’ve had, the overall message is confused and unclear, and there’s a real sense that the main character just isn’t interested in anything happening around her. I don’t know if it’s an actor thing or a director thing, but somewhere something went wrong. I’m still excited for Endgame — of course I am — but this could’ve been so much more.

 

Us review

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Photo Source: www.vanityfair.com

If there were any lingering doubts as to Jordan Peele’s skill behind the camera, the opening minutes to Us puts them firmly to bed. Set in 1986 Santa Cruz, we follow a young girl on vacation with her parents, wandering through a an amusement park-illuminated boardwalk. Said girl is separated from her parents, whereupon she wanders into a hall of mirrors, where she finds…let’s call her a bad reflection. As you may have seen in the trailer, she grows up, marries, has two children, and goes back to that same beach, where they are all menaced by a whole family of bad reflections.

But back to the carnival; that first sequence is masterful. The movement of the camera both accentuates the size and unfamiliarity of the girl’s surroundings, and pushes in, giving the place a tight, almost claustrophobic feel. The sound design is perfect, expertly capturing the disorienting nature of all amusement parks everywhere. We are right there with the girl, being pulled into that awful funhouse of mirrors, and like her, we don’t like what we see. But we can’t turn away.

For his sophomore feature, Jordan Peele creeps along, the film at times seeming to move at a deliberate snail’s pace, forcing us to wait for the fireworks factory. Whereas Get Out was a perfect slow-burn thriller (its screenplay win at the Oscars was very well deserved), Us occasionally feels scattershot, jumping around in fits and starts all while displaying a mastery of the craft. While the pacing isn’t always up to snuff, the individual scenes are never less than wonderful; anyone who saw the masterful 2015 psychological horror The Gift will remember how that film expertly took advantage of both the foreground and background, using little details to mine extra tension. Us does this brilliantly as well, crafting scenes with such skill that you’d swear he’s been making films forever.

Us is way more of a horror film that Get Out, which was itself more of a thriller (though genres are, obviously, stupid and reductive). Us is also probably less of a social commentary than Get Out, at least in terms of having a clear, easily-digestible message. I feel like I need to see it a second time in order to parse out what it all means. Also, I really, really want to see it a second time just anyways. This is a film made with such a passion for horror, someone with a deep love for the genre.

If Us isn’t quite as clear and groundbreaking as Get Out, it’s always entertaining in the moment. I’m very curious to see what others think the film “means”; I’ll confess that it’s not quite as clear to me as Get Out was, the meaning of which hit me like a punch in the gut. Here, it could be any number of things things, and it occurs to me that it might actually be more vague on purpose; while the film certainly offers up a couple of potential underlying themes (the title itself might be a big clue), I imagine that this is something that will be argued about and debated indefinitely. That’s not a bad thing.

As much as the directing stands out, this is definitely an actor’s movie. Lupita Nyong’o won the Oscar for 12 Years a Slave and provided the moral compass for Black Panther (lowkey, she’s the smartest person in that movie), and I was hyped beyond belief to see her tear up a horror flick. She does not disappoint. So good is she, in fact, that I feel comfortable in predicting that the Oscars will completely ignore her (it happened to Toni Collette, probably the best all-around performance in a movie last year). Winston Duke, her Black Panther co-star, captivates the screen with his charisma, creating the kind of dad I feel like we’ve all met. His comic timing is perfectly delivered and deployed. Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex play their children, and they are both wonderful; one of the best scenes in the entire film has the four of them arguing at a dinner table, and through the dialogue and direction we are shown glimpses into their minds, their insecurities, their strengths.

There is some unforgettable imagery in this movie. As can be expected in a story about doppelgängers, the idea of doubles and mirrors is quite prevalent. Near the beginning of the film, we see a doomsday prophet with a cardboard sign with a quote from Jeremiah 11:11, Later, our attention is drawn to a digital clock where the time is 11:11. Soon after, the dad watches sports on TV, where the score is 11 to 11. When the Wilsons go to the beach, they meet up with another family, and it’s interesting to see them as even more of a broken mirror image than the doppelgängers. And I’ll just say this: there was a “Hands Across America” flyer in my old kindergarten classroom, the one where everyone’s holding hands and circling the globe. I will NEVER look at that the same way again.

I can definitely see being underwhelmed by Us. It’s an imperfect, confounding, at times frustrating film to get a handle on. But I really got into it, appreciating the crazy wavelength it operated on, as well as how Jordan Peele was taking deliberate steps to expand from his previous film. Whatever else, it’s a film I’ll be puzzling over for a long time coming.

The 2019 Oscars: or, An Exercise in Cinematic Cowardice

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(Photo credit: https://www.okayplayer.com/culture/green-book-wikipedia-page-sabotaged-after-oscars-win.html)

The Oscars getting it wrong – hilariously, spectacularly, unfathomably wrong – is nothing new. Hell, it’s practically a tradition in of itself. Much as I love Rocky, I’ll be the first to admit that it beating out Taxi Driver was ridiculous. Dances With Wolves was great, yes, but better than Goodfellas? For all of Forrest Gump’s charm, was it really better than Pulp Fiction or The Shawshank Redemption? And Driving Miss Daisy beating out Do The Right Thing? Well-

Actually, let’s stop there, because that kind of ties into the 2019 Oscars kind of perfectly. Scarily perfectly, in fact. In 1989, the Academy had a choice; a safe, cushy movie that kind of-sort of-didn’t really make them confront the ugly realities of the world we live in, or one of the most vital, incendiary, confrontational movies, one that shoved your face into the world and said, “This is you.”

Naturally, they chose Driving Miss Daisy. And now, exactly 30 years later, they have learned nothing.

And I had high hopes, too. I feel like every movie lover has that moment when they realize just how bullshit the Oscars are (mine was seeing Crash, and then a little later catching Brokeback Mountain and leaning that Crash had beaten it out), but all the same, I hoped. I really did. Not one year ago, Moonlight had crushed what had been considered to be the safest of all Oscar bets, the loving ode to Hollywood and musicals, La La Land. That the Academy had done this implied that maybe, maybe, they had finally grown some balls.

Nope. Here we are again, with BlacKKKlansman and Black Panther both in the running, and what won? Green Book.

Green Book.

Really.

It feels weird to say that I’m a huge Spike Lee fan when BlacKKKlansman is the first joint of his that I’ve seen on the big screen. I saw it in a packed house on a Thursday night, with many of my fellow theater-goers – at least, the ones in my immediate vicinity – of the elderly white persuasion. They were into the film, very vocally – they chuckled along with the jokes, they “ooohed” to Ron Stallworth standing up for himself, they audibly cringed and boo-ed when Trump was vaguely alluded to, and they cheered the end, when the racists get what’s coming to them, and everything is wrapped up in a nice, neat bow.

And then something very interesting happened. Because the film didn’t stop there, and I can honestly say that what we were treated to next was stunning. We cut to clips of Charlottesville. Trump speeches. Racism – modern day racism, something I genuinely don’t think any of Green Book’s writers think exist – and terrorism. Mass hysteria. No more fun and games.

The crowd was silent. Someone coughed. No one had turned against the movie, per say, but it was obvious they had been thrown for a loop. We had been promised a good time clowning at a few goofy racists, laughing at how incompetent and obviously evil they were back in the olden days, because obviously that’s where racism was, and only there. And sure, sometimes the movie would get serious, but not too serious. Right?

The ending changed all that. Spike Lee’s message rang out, loud and clear; we all had a good time here, he was saying, but don’t forget that for black people, this is reality. This is our everyday existence. You can go home, shrug all this off; we can’t.I was stunned. It was exactly as in-your-face confrontational as his previous masterpiece, Do The Right Thing. It was unapologetic and unafraid.

And then, as icing on the cake, they nominated Black Panther.

Love it, hate it, or feel underwhelmed by it, it’s impossible to deny how big a gamble Marvel took with Black Panther. Hiring Ryan Coogler, the master behind Fruitvale Station and Creed, Marvel was giving a multi-million dollar property to someone who’d never made a blockbuster. More than that, they were letting him make an unapologetically complex and nuanced movie – a genuine successor to Do The Right Thing in terms of racial understanding – all in the guise of a Marvel blockbuster. To say it paid off is obvious; to say it is easily the best MCU movie perhaps less so (though it’s by far the deepest and most emotionally wide-ranging). It was daring. It was ballsy. It was confrontational. It was everything we thought was a fluke in previous superhero films, and everything so many previous MCU movies just weren’t. And it was a Best Picture nomination.

And they went with Green Book.

Green Book, simply put, is a film for cowards, those lily-livered wimps who’d rather bury their heads in the sand and pretend racism was well and truly solved when one white guy gave one black guy fried chicken that one time. This film exists not only as the ultimate exercise in cinematic mediocrity but as the ultimate “but also” movie, the kind of film made for people who, when confronted with racism, randomly shout “BUT WHAT ABOUT BLACK-ON-BLACK VIOLENCE” out of nowhere. It’s a shallow, unfeeling movie with no interest in really diving into what drives these two people – how much of Don Shirley’s character is “part of his show”, or how long he spent cultivating his image, or whether or not Tony’s racism at the start is just ignorance, or something much deeper – this is all ignored in favor of a stupid, “They both need to change to get along” attitude. It is the last word in Oscar cowardice.

Consider the second Ancestral Plane visit in Black Panther. Killmonger has just usurped the throne from T’Challa and undergoes the same journey he previously did. Only, something’s wrong; whereas T’Challa was out in the open, here Killmonger is trapped inside the concrete walls he knew as a child, only able to see the vibrant sky from through a window. And whereas T’Challa was able to speak to his father man-to-man, as soon as Killmonger sees his Dad, he reverts – literally – to a little boy.

Meanwhile, Green Book has this scene where one guy feeds another guy fried chicken and this cures racism.

Sigh…

The really weird thing is, in some ways this was the best Oscars show in a while. Without a host, the thing moved along at a pretty brisk pace, and there were some fine speeches (petition to have every acceptance speech end with “LADY GAGA!” Bless you, Olivia Colman). I’ll never stop hoping the Oscars get it right. But they’ve been wrong – they’ve been cowards – so many times before.

Serenity (No, Not That One, The New One)

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(Photo credit: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt6476140/)

Baker Dill: “I need you to deliver me from temptation.”

Duke: “What temptation?”

Baker Dill: “You don’t need to know.”

Last year, it seemed that the whole film world collectively got up and declared Gotti the worst film of the year upon release. And while it wasn’t –– that particular dishonor goes to Holmes and Watson –– it’s all too easy to see where critics were coming from. Gotti was a special kind of bad, a movie where ineptitude and poor decision making seemed to become a character in of itself. Though it only came out in June, it seemed primed to be the butt of the joke even as December came to a close.

And now, we’ve got another impossibly bad movie, another contender for the “surely, this is as bad as it gets, right?”, except we’re only in January. Holy shit. If this is any indication, we’re in for a bumpy ride. A hilarious, fascinating, often awe-inspiring ride, and one in which we see Matthew McConaughey’s “O” face and bare ass way too much (if such a thing were possible), but still…batten down the hatches. Here we go.

The crazy thing is, I was looking forward to this one. I’m a die-hard neo-noir fan, and according to the trailers, that’s exactly what this was, though in my defense, the trailers didn’t give any hint to how batshit insane this movie is. The movie initially seems to follow Matthew McConaughey as a washed up fisherman, completely obsessed with catching this one big fish. He really wants to catch this big fish, and everyone knows he wants to catch this big fish, and everyone is always talking about how obsessed he is with catching this big fish, until I’m like, “Alright, alright, enough with the big fish.” This was less than a third of the way through the movie.

I’m gonna describe the first scene of the film real quick. We open on an extreme close up of a little boy, before zooming into his right eye to reveal the wide ocean, where Matthew McConaughey is sunburnt and fish hunting. In order to supplement his income, he allows himself to be hired out by rich old dudes to fish on his boat. When Matthew McConaughey’s lure catches the big fish, one of the old dudes try to take his rod away. Remember, this is the service that this man has paid for. So, the old guy tries to take Matthew McConaughey’s rod away, saying, “I paid you $700 cash for this!” Matthew McConaughey responds in the only way he knows how: he unsheathes his knife and charges at the old guy, hissing and spitting like mad. The only reason he doesn’t skewer the guy right then and there is the timely intervention of his first mate Duke (Djimon Hounsou). That Duke knows just what to do here implies that this isn’t the first time Matthew McConaughey has attempted to murder the people hiring him. After a valiant struggle, the fish gets away, and the old guy who has already paid $700 says, “If you think I’m paying you one cent for this, you’re out of your mind.”

Hoo boy.

What makes this attempted murder even more bizarre is that the rest of the movie hinges on Matthew McConaughey’s unwillingness to commit murder, this time actually justifiable. Anne Hathaway, who is introduced into the movie with a fake sparkle on her ring and a truly bizarre camera spin, reenters Matthew McConaughey’s life with a startling proposal: take her new, deeply abusive husband out to sea, and kill him before he hurts her and their son any more. Jason Clarke plays the husband, and in an early scene we see him talking about a rumor he heard regarding the cheapness of hookers on the island. This scene climaxes with Clarke saying the line, “I gotta hit me up with some of that $10 ass,” and if you thought the theater I saw this in wasn’t laughing uproariously…well, they were.

The film is filled with lines like that. Matthew McConaughey (whose name is technically Baker Dill, but c’mon; it’s Matthew McConaughey) describes his backstory as such: “I went away to war. The war fucked me up. When I came back, she was with him…except I never really came back.” Duke, his shipmate, describes their fortunes as such: “Ever since your wife died, we ain’t caught jack shit.” Matthew McConaughey’s abused son has a photo of his old man that has the words, “ME AND DAD BACK THEN” on the back. I literally don’t have the space here to go into all the other weird shit this movie does, with the fish-based dream sequence, the frequently appearing Ominous Seagull of Foreshadowing and Doom, the bespeckled guy everyone just calls “the skinny guy” even though he’s really not all that skinny, and holy shit there’s just so much. It’s genuinely overwhelming.

How did this happen? Steven Knight has two films under his belt, the Jason Statham vehicle Hummingbird (released as Redemption in the US), which I haven’t seen, and the Tom Hardy vehicle Locke, which I did see, and thought was absolutely brilliant. Locke (which at time of writing is available on Netflix, and I urge you to check it out) takes place entirely in one car, yet it is never boring. It is a lesson in technical expertise and pitch-perfect directing. Serenity has actors, including the main ones, looking into camera by accident. It boggles the mind.

Even before the big twist, I had this movie pegged as a serious drama as filtered through the mind of a six year old. I had no idea how right I actually was. Serenity is a movie so bad, so incomprehensible, so fucking weird, that the frequent appearance of Matthew McConaughey’s bare ass barely warrants a mention.

Bumblebee: or, How They Finally Got It Right

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Picture source: straitstimes.com

The Transformers were kid toys; they were literally meant to be played by children. You wouldn’t know it, though, based on the previous decade of movies: long, ponderous, grim, unintelligible, and so, so boring. In recent years, the Michael Bay Transformers movies have become every cinema geek’s go-to punching bag and for good reason. They’re really, really fucking terrible. But beyond all the poor directing choices, bad acting, and everything else, the movies seemed to possess a fundamental misunderstanding of who exactly the movies were supposed to be for. This fundamental identity crisis is just one of the many things Travis Knight’s Bumblebee rectifies.

Set in loose continuity with the other movies (meaning thankfully that seeing the others before this one is not at all necessary), the movie opens on Cybertron for an opening battle that – gasp, shock – I could actually see. Already, this was a damn game changer for the Transformers franchise. From there, we move to 1987s California, where an escaping Bumblebee meets up with Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld), a teenager still smarting from the death of her father. Bumblebee has fled to Earth on orders from Optimus Prime, leader of the Autobot resistance, with a mission: protect the planet until further Transformer backup can arrive. Unfortunately, two Decepticon villains have traced his signal back to Earth and have teamed up with the military to take Bumblebee down. Further complicating matters, Bumblebee has lost both his memory and his voice. Will Charlie and Bumblebee be able to overcome their obstacles and save the world?

First off, this movie is fun. It is really, really fun in a way that Transformers movies haven’t been in a very long time. It’s a movie that completely understands that it’s about a robot that can turn into a car and shoot missiles. One of the Decepticons has a liquifier gun! A gun that liquifies! But the action isn’t centered around robot wars. For me, the best parts of the movie were the more low-key moments, when it became an Iron Giant-like story about a girl and her robot friend, just living their lives. This is a very low stakes movie for most of its running time, which was absolutely the right choice. Over the course of its 114 minutes, I got to know both Bumblebee and Charlie pretty well, which meant that by the time the fireworks factory opened its doors for the climax, I actually cared about what was happening.

Also, the action in this movie is very well done. Gone are the nausea-inducing clusterfucks of old, where you occasionally got a clear glimpse of Optimus Prime’s elbow (but really, it could be anyone’s). Travis Knight, in his second feature after Kubo and the Two Strings, knows exactly where to place the camera for maximum effect, getting everything into frame and making sure the punches have impact. The climax is legitimately thrilling, never descending into “two CGI things punch each other for 1,000 minutes”, but instead relying on both Charlie and Bumblebee to use their wits to defeat the menace.

For all that, the movie is not without fault. It’s a little too similar to The Iron Giant, for one thing, with shades of E.T. thrown in there for good measure, and this movie can’t help but pale in comparison to both. Some of the scenes are a little too rote, and while the movie is a deliberate throwback, that doesn’t stop it from occasionally feeling a tad too familiar. Love Simon’s Jorge Lendeborg Jr. gets too little to do as the love interest, Charlie’s family disappear from the movie for long stretches at a time, and John Cena’s character only has an emotional arc by virtue of John Cena giving it his all, performance wise. The script kind of leaves him out to dry.

But while watching Bumblebee, none of that occurred to me. I was hopeful a directing change would imbue new life into this franchise, and it’s always nice to be proven right.

 

The Mule and the Legacy of Clint Eastwood

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Picture source: irishfilmcritic.com

When looking at Wikipedia to research this review, I learned that Clint Eastwood is a big fan of jazz. It was one of those moments where, suddenly, a whole lot of things snapped into place. So much of Eastwood’s filmography, this film in particular, has a breezy, easy, almost lackadaisical quality. And like jazz, it’s best to just sit back and let the rhythm take you where it takes you.

The rhythm, in this case, takes us down the story of Earl Stone, the 90-year-old Korean war veteran turned horticulturist who has been all but rejected by his family. A lifetime of bad decisions and missed anniversaries has piled up, making him a pariah at most get-togethers. His twilight years are given new direction, however, when he stumbles into a new job: drug running. He’s now a “mule”, transporting bags full of cocaine through Illinois for a Mexican drug cartel, all while the DEA (led by Laurence Fishburne, Bradley Cooper, and Michael Peña) close in.

Wouldn’t it be easy to write off Clint Eastwood? Here’s a man coming up fast on his 90s and still directing and starring in movies. Shouldn’t he be content with his two Oscars? But to do so would risk overlooking the legacy of one of cinema’s all time masters, as well as ignoring just how weird most of his career has been. Yes, he’ll most likely always be known first and foremost as The Man With No Name, with Dirty Harry as a close second, but does anyone remember that his first ever directorial feature was the stalker thriller Play Misty For Me? Or that he soon followed that up with the hippie-positive Breezy? Or what about The Bridges of Madison County? Or Changeling? The point I’m trying to make here is that Clint Eastwood’s collection of movies is far more diverse and experimental than most people give him credit for or even realize.

So in a way it makes perfect sense that this be his swan song. Why not? It’s no less weird than the time he planned Gran Torino, the movie about an aging war veteran coming to terms with his bigotry as his final bow. It wasn’t, of course. In the 10 years since Gran Torino, we’ve had a whole slew of films from the movie-making machine that is Eastwood. And honestly, a part of me can’t help but wonder if we’d be at all more charitable towards Eastwood if Gran Torino really were his last picture. It’s easy to forget, but for a while there the man was a God-Mode directing streak of Spielbergian proportions. Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, one after the other, all magnificent. In the decade since Gran Torino, while we did get the wonderful Invictus, we also got the “just alright” Sully, the tepidly recurved J. Edgar and Hereafter (though I do quite like that one), and the downright awful Jersey Boys and The 15:17 to Paris. By comparison, it’s hard not to think how the mighty have fallen.

If it sounds like I’m reviewing Clint Eastwood’s entire filmography more than Clint Eastwood’s latest film, it’s probably because I kind of am. But it’s also because at 88 years old this really might be it for him. And this man’s been working since movies were black and white, and he’s still at it, and for that we owe him our due. As far as swan songs go, you could probably do better than The Mule, although it’s by no means bad (and although I’m saying “swan song” here, no one would be less surprised than me if 10 years or so down the line, Eastwood popped back up for a third cinematic farewell). It’s interesting, certainly. I’ll admit to spending more time in the movie thinking about what Eastwood was saying about his enduring legacy than I did getting invested in the character, which probably speaks to some kind of failure in the way the movie’s written, but weirdly it’s not a crippling one. Eastwood is good in the movie, very good in fact. He manages to be funny in ways that aren’t immediately obvious and affecting in ways that are never in-your-face about it. I always like it when he reminds people he’s more than just a scowl and a growl (though he does a lot of both here). For a lot of scenes, his character is downright jovial. The supporting cast is certainly game as well, with Bradley Cooper in particular getting two very good scenes with Eastwood, although I can’t help but notice that the ending hinges on a connection between Eastwood’s character and Cooper’s FBI agent chasing him…a connection the movie doesn’t quite sell.

It’s also very obviously an old man’s movie. One of the running gags is the previous generation and how obsessed they are with their newfangled cellular telephone devices, and wasn’t it so much better when people just lived their lives instead of staring at a screen day in and day out, don’t ya think (although I’d probably be less annoyed, I think, if the dumbass next to me didn’t go out of his way to validate the movie’s point by going on his phone during the movie several times. Screw you, dude). The relaxed pace of the movie certainly benefits someone of Eastwood’s age (and I’ll warn you now, this isn’t a film with a BANG BANG BANG ending), and reminds me once again of Gran Torino, which was actually written by the same guy (Nick Schenk). And it once again has Eastwood playing a prejudiced old man, although like Gran Torino, the movie very explicitly doesn’t condone or agree with his views (this, of course, hasn’t stopped a fair number of online clickbait articles to decry “Eastwood’s racism”; I especially love the articles written by people who get critical plot elements of the movie wrong, indicating that they haven’t even seen it).

This is a movie with immersive scenes, but it’s not a particularly immersive movie, at least not in the way Eastwood’s been previously. But if it’s never quite immersive, at least it’s always enjoyable. It’s jazz: there’s the odd missed note, but mostly it’s just got this wonderful flow that carries you away and leaves you smiling.

Incidentally, it also taught me that horticulturists have their own awards ceremony. There is an awards ceremony for people who work on flowers. Hey, the more you know.

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