The independent student newspaper of Goucher College

Author

Sam Stashower

Sam Stashower has 3 articles published.

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

by

(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

by
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

by
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.

Go to Top