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a dynamic rush of rock & roll, pulp comic book filmmaking, but..., 27 May 2016

How do I describe this movie? It's kind of like Walter Hill made his own Sin City in the early/mid 80's, but also as a rock and roll (semi) musical with throwbacks to the 1950's while at the same time still being very, very 80's. Those throwbacks are in the music somewhat too via a score by Ry Cooder (and keep in mind this was the same year he also scored Paris, Texas, just think about the versatility for that), and of course with the biker imagery and rockabilly aesthetic. And the movie has quite the cast - Diane Lane as a Pat Benatar-ish singer in one of her early roles; Rick Moranis as the jerkish manager (and Lane's character's boyfriend, for reasons); Willem Dafoe as... hell, it's Williem Dafoe as a villain in the 80's, isn't it a full price ticket already?

I think the strongest thing about this is Hill's vision as a director. This is clearly a personal movie for him, though it also acts as like the B-side to the A-side of The Warriors: that movie was better put together and more cohesive (the mission at the core was something to follow easier as it was over a night), but they both come from the same wild comic book look and feel. The locations this is set in (somewhat in Chicago and somewhat in Los Angeles) are designed to be in the past and the future, but it's to the point where you can't distinguish one from the other. That's good, and it makes it into this wonderful alternate reality where pop culture tropes, from the diner to the rock club to the down and dirty biker bar with the Zoot-Suit-Riot type of dance to the way everyone dresses, it makes for a visually unique spectacle. Oh, and Hill is solid here at directing action and violence, which you'd expect coming from the 79 movie and others he's done.

Even the star, Michael Pare as Tom Cody(and don't worry you won't forget that name the number of times its said, first and last name), feels like he's ripped from the pages not from comics of the 80's (though maybe there's some Frank Miller scraped off on him unintentionally) but from a pulp comic from the *50's*. So when he has Pare act the way he does here - often with stoic looks and without really doing much in the way of, you know, anything but declarative statements and orders - I kind of like it because it fits the feel of the whole place. Is it the *best* actor that could've been in the role? No, but he does the best with it that he can.

Where it falters is in portions of the script. The first half has a clear trajectory because it involves Tom Cody getting a message from his sister to come back to save his ex-girlfriend (Lane's Ellen Aim) from the clutches of the biker Dafoe and his gang to his hometown (he's been away at the army following, I suppose in this world, juvenile delinquency). This part is fun and engaging, albeit with Moranis committing to a role that's obnoxious, and I'm not sure if it's his performance or the character. But once this mission is done the movie kind of flounders on what we can expect to happen: the Dafoe biker will come back to get the girl (and Dafoe is maybe the best part of the movie to be fair so any screen time he gets is welcome), and that Pare and Lane will bicker back and forth with Moranis in the middle. Indeed a lot of the dialog the characters get to say, even Amy Madigan in a well acted tough guy role given to a woman (a nice decision on Hill's part), is rather nasty and just full of mean spirit.

Does that make the movie bad? Not all of it, but Streets of Fire is an experience that ends up waxing and waning for me, to the point where in the second half I wondered if it was a *good* movie or more of a guilty pleasure trip into a Hollywood director's headspace where he practically had carte-blanche (post 48 Hours). And along with the flaws in the story there's a reliance on ridiculously fast editing to the point where you realize this is what critics meant at the time when they went after movies with "MTV style editing". And Hill and his editor have a lot of good decisions here, but the montages make it dated in such a way that I was reminded of Purple Rain from the same year, only FASTER!

With all this said, I did have fun with Streets of Fire, from Cooder's fantastic score to the performances that worked to the emotional finale that just reaches out and doesn't give a flying f*** about what you think of it going into camp. The logical part of my brain can pick it apart till the cows come home, but as far as it being an experience to soak in all of the full on CINEMATIC tropes it works.

an irreverent, uproariously funny marvel - as important for 80's black cinema as She's Gotta Have It, 26 May 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Strange as it may seem, even more than now when we get maybe a handful of really amazing black filmmakers who stay true to the experience of being black in America - off the top of my head aside from the obvious top guy (Spike Lee) there's Ryan Coogler, Ava DuVernay, Rick Famuyiwa, Steve McQueen (the latter even though he's British it counts) - in the 1980's there were few independent films coming out about what it meant to be black, and not solely about some experience as white America saw it (i.e. drug dealers, pimps, slaves, etc). This is a key component to what Hollywood Shuffle is about, though it's also about the freedom that comes with bringing comedy into the mix. Lee did that with She's Gotta Have it in 1986, though in the scope of a more serious take on relationships, while Townsend's film is about images and representation in entertainment.

That last description makes it sound heavy, like it might be work to watch this movie. But the joy and awesomeness of 'Shuffle' is that it's so funny, and it uses a framing device that, of all things and of all people, reminded me of what Weird Al Yankovic would do with UHF: what goes on in a mind that has been flooded by images showing particular images and pop culture through a whole generation (not to mention the current tropes). But where Yankovic was concerned with nothing but being silly (which is fine and good for Weird Al), Townsend goes a step further: when he has parodies of pop culture, they really hit the mark every time. The highlights involve a satire of Siskel & Ebert - "critics" who "sneak in to s***" and review Amadeus (they don't like it because they can't pronounce the title) and a pimp-attacking-hookers thriller but as if the pimps are zombies, and they praise the direction despite the stereotypes(!)

Townsend's character logically has these exaggerated, wild fantasies going on because he's a struggling actor, working part time as a hot-dog vendor, and the framing for these sketches - also including a spectacular, almost show-stopping detective spoof with "Sam Ace" and featuring Keenan Ivory Wayans in full Jheri Curl (that's his character's name, and seeing when the villain finally breaks down over spilt Curl juice is about as funny as anything, ever) - while he goes for a big role in a movie. The catch is that the role is for a "jive-talking" guy, where the white director and producers want more "street", more "Eddie Murphy" as they say (I'd say I'd guess this was a thing in the 80's but I don't have to guess, this *was* a thing then, don't forget how HUGE Murphy was then and pervaded culture, coincidentally Townsend directed Murphy's Raw, but I digress).

How will his grandma look at him, or his little brother? I think there could be a potential criticism that the movie has a split personality: on one side there's savagely satirical and mostly silly skits - it's interesting to see Paul Mooney at one point as this is clearly one of the forefathers of the Chapelle Show, or, considering the Wayans presence and co-writing credit, In Living Colour - and on the other is a sometimes amusing but really sad take on how black actors get pigeonholed as this or that kind of "character" when it's not exactly a fair representation (or at the least when that's *only* what is available).

Like in Lee's work, there's anger and fiery 'this is BS' simmering under the surface and when it comes up it's startling; the part that sticks out the most is how the other actors around Bobby, not the director, react, like "You're making us look bad by acting out." But if he doesn't, who will?

Are there certain little rough-around-the-edges bits? Sure. Is the movie a little, you know, dated? Well, let me put it this way, there's a moment where a cover of Superfly is played and it's an 80 synth version. But across the board from the cast - people like the Wayans brothers but also John Witherspoon - make the movie substantive, while never losing its grip on making things out of proportion, especially in this wildly funny sketches, which are on point in mocking clichés of movies (Indiana Jones, Dirty Harry, Superman). Even the movie itself that Bobby is filming with the "Jive" is exaggerated, or... maybe it isn't(?) It doesn't shy away from being black and PROUD of it in a way that sticks out as something significant.

Man-Thing (2005)
"Maybe the swamp is in him... maybe he is in the swamp." No., 26 May 2016

In case you ever find yourself in that position, or you hear someone else, thinking that the Marvel Cinematic Universe films are weak or under-par or just simply *bad*, I encourage you to check out Man-Thing. Actually I don't because this would almost come across as a recommendation, and it's not that. It's about perspective: you can watch things like Thor 2 or one of the Amazing Spider-Man movies (and yes, Spider-Man 3 if you don't care for it), and realize 'yeah, well, at least it's not Man-Thing.' This is such a waste of time, and more than that a waste of potential - yes, potential - that it's barely on-par for the sludge that passes for Syfy channel movies of the week.

Everything is stock here, everything. Stock opening with the horny teens having sex in the swamp and one of them getting killed (lots of blood, to be sure, but not a single f*** given to suspense); stock villain with his 'you Yankee Sheriff don't understand get outta my way' twang; stock lead who barely makes a different facial expression except constipated consternation; stock friend deputy who we know may not last long; stock backwoods "good ol' boy" yokels where the closest thing to a joke involves taking a s*** in the swamp at night (and then, ::GASP:: one of them falls in to what looks like other s***); laughably stock Indian guide who patiently exclaims over a montage about how the "Man Thing" came to be due to corporate man's interference with oil rigs and who knows what; and stock love interest who really becomes a love interest because it's about that time for the hero man to kiss the hero girl and for them to almost have sex at an importune time.

Did I mention this movie is quite poor, because it is. And I think that it could have had potential as a) if it embraced it's dumbass B-movie roots and went for broader, or at least were more sincere in some other way, like with a script that went for crazier ideas or stakes, or b) if, I assume, they stuck closer to what Man-Thing actually is in the comics (I'd assume from what I've read from others reactions, I haven't yet read it though it comes from Steve Gerber who created Howard the Duck, that it's not close at all). Or maybe a stronger director with a better grasp on horror or comedy or horror-comedy. The best that Brett Leonard is able to muster for anything 'creative' or out of the box comes in super-fastly-whiplash-style editing to transition from, uh, one scene to another whenever it's time to get EDGY in that way that is terribly dated a decade on (though it was likely dated in 2005).

The acting is equally stock as the actors, though as one thing to give the movie credit the actor playing the bat-s*** photographer who keeps popping up in the 'Dark Water' of the swamp was fairly entertaining. But aside from that no one is memorable, certainly no one who can inject some madness or life into the thing. It's trying to play it too straight and be too serious-minded, but it the director and crew don't have the skills (or budget) to give anything close to some actual terror or properly mounting suspense. It's all a lot of people wandering in dark swamps and then BOOM then comes the CGI 'Man-Thing'. Indeed the best thing about the movie is the title, which I'm sure at the time Marvel patted itself on the back and handed out giant cigars for the whole staff for the fact that they got a comic called Man-Thing.

And it's not like I went into this wanting to hate it, at least not to this point (I suspected, given it was never released to theaters, to lower my expectations, but not to the point of bottom of the barrel). I want more raw, hard-R rated flicks from the likes of Marvel - the first two Blades and Punisher: War Zone embraced their B-movie roots and had good-to-decent directors behind them - but there needs to be a strong vision or something new to the table. Practically everything in Man-Thing, from the Indian environmental "messages" that feel somewhat coopted from *Swamp Thing* (and I'm sure with the comic that was intentional) to the small-town folk who are given the blandest, most generic 'Southern-good-ol'-f***-yeah' dialog, is telegraphed, rote, like things picked up off the dirty, un-vacuumed-for-15-years floor of a hack screen writing pig-pen floor. Even when we see the Man-Thing itself it feels disappointing, with the only thrill coming when it does something especially gory but that too isn't unexpected.

Only for the most die-hard horror-gore-comic-book fans. Or if you want to get that perspective I mentioned earlier. Or if you like a villain with the last name "Schist". Get it? It sounded like it's called s***!

1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
"Oh, a Haberdashery, it's a joke.", 24 May 2016

I had the suspicion watching this again that this could become like another JACKIE BROWN for Tarantino - a film that is somewhat (not altogether but somewhat) under-appreciated and will gain in following and status over time. It's a difficult film to embrace, and yet watching it again I don't know if I can call it completely 'nihilistic'. That's the belief that everything is meaningless, in nothing. I think that these characters, or some of them, want to believe in *something* - hell, even Daisy has a family, right, that has some meaning to it - but it's really about the *FAILING* of meaning, how meaning is screwed up by the promises and hopes of the American dream.

The Lincoln letter, the leaders of the confederacy and the "Renegade Army" and of course what slavery did and continues to do, so that even those who are "free" like Marquis Warren are never really free, not in their own life time (and if you read in-between the lines this is much more of an ex-slave getting revenge than Django, who was ready to go on his merry way once he got his bride), these are all things that poison and distort the truth of things.

So in a way it's actually an extremely moral film - well, EXTREME and MORAL as a film put together when you think about it - and that it's all acted by the gathered performers without a missed note (seeing it again the depth to which Madsen gives Joe Gage sticks out a little more, the image of the "Cowpoke" who is a twisted nightmarish killer), and while I don't think Tarantino is an overtly political filmmaker he's certainly seen his rather large fair share of spaghetti westerns and many of those were very political, plus he is not untouched by the world around him so in a way this reflects the country we're in far more than anything else I can think of in the past couple of years.

Not to mention the direction, seeing as this is all shot on gigantic 70mm cameras and there's no space for things like hand-held shots or zooms like on other films, he has to shoot much of this straight on. We can't look away from these mother****ers, QT may be saying, and with the way he frames shots it makes a stark, delicious contrast: often exquisite cinematography (not only the shots of the bitterly cold wilderness, an ideal backdrop for this story where nothing green or natural grows, but those details in the confining Haberdashery), and the subjects themselves are mostly rotten (except for Warren who is my favorite character, bar none, and Jackson makes him vivid and awe-inspiring and yet very human and vulnerable by the last act ).

Also, it does have a lot of stuff Tarantino's done before - theatrical "acting" to win over other characters' trust, verbiage that almost goes on too long but hey, hell with it, he can do it better than anyone and every word feels like it should be there (cut out one and it might start to unravel), and some gruesome violence (though on repeat viewing it's not THAT gruesome - I'd say it's about on par with Pulp Fiction on the scale, so much less than the Kill Bills or Django or Basterds, so if there are a lot of bodies that hit the floor and blood that flows in the 2nd half, it stands out because of how we've come to this.... okay, the throwing up of blood is still sick, but hilarious) - but when it's Tarantino and I love his stuff, I can't complain.

good times, QT salad.

featuring Jack g-ddamn Palance!, 23 May 2016

This was Jack Palance's debut in films as an actor (or should I say "Walter" Jack Palance, for some reason that's there in the credits), and he eats up every second of film he has. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, and in a way it helps to lift up a character who has little dimension. He doesn't need it, you could argue: he's a thug who wants his money, that's it, and will do anything he can to get it (this may include killing, of course, which we see very early on as the thing that kicks off much of the story). He is imposing too physically, with that chiseled face and tall frame - at one point he talks to someone who is quite short and the difference between the two is like night and day - and he also is believable to the point where you realize why Zero Mostel (also very good as the talky-kinda-dumb lackey) is so subservient.

Not much depth, no, but who needs depth when Palance can kick your ass any way to Sunday? In this story it's a film-noir but unique in that it's focus is not about a man-hunt only for the killer, but because of a plague (not the Bubonic plague, the other one the Numonic plague or other, the one that you just need to know is around now), and Richard Widmark plays the stalwart, headstrong doctor who will get his job done to catch the people infected (or even those, especially those, who may not be yet) into quarantine and given shots and so on. He's up against cops (including a sometimes-sympathetic-sometimes-not Paul Douglas), and a bevvy of other cops and reporters.

Some of the early scenes with Widmark's family is pretty standard - he has a nice and loving and family, OK, that's fine - but once that's out of the way the story kicks in and it has a natural momentum to it. An outbreak or contagion-type of story is intrinsically dramatic because it brings people together - or, on the flip-side, it drives people apart and shows what self-interested idiots people can be some/most of the time. I don't know if Kazan meant for this to have deeper sociological meaning like On the Waterfront. Maybe the hunt for the people who've come in contact with the infected is a euphemism for Communism, or maybe not, it doesn't seem as cut and dry to me as in the latter film.

In any case Panic in the Streets is engaging and enjoyable as a no-frills thriller, a picture that uses human nature and the lack of speaking up about something grave and dangerous as a way of forward momentum - who will speak up first, who won't - and if you want a simple cops and criminals chase story you get that also. I think it holds up most of all due to the performances though, even including the story, since Widmark, Panace, Mostel et al beef up the material with the kind of emotion that I'm sure Kazan was great at coaxing out of his actors (whether it was making them relaxed enough or getting them into the 'method' of it in the case of Palance I don't know).

a major director making an better than "disastrous" film-noir romance mystery in his prime, 23 May 2016

Sometimes you can't please the public no matter what you do - but then again, making something that is so directly a psychological twisty-turny melodramatic thriller (with direct shades of Rebecca as it's about a man bringing home a new wife and the, uh, complications that arise in the general comparison sense) will confront people. But apparently this was a debacle when it came out, or at least that's how it's purported in history: an over-budget, over-scheduled shoot where producer-director Fritz Lang clashed with star Joan Bennett, who later used the Heaven's Gate critique - "an unqualified disaster".

That's rather harsh for a movie that is simply trying to entertain with the tools of the film-noir mood enhancer. That almost sounds like some kind of special app or machine that can create film-noir movies, but I mean this as a compliment to Fritz Lang and especially to cinematographer Stanley Cortez (often Welles' DP). This is a film that has a lot of the tropes that made these movies in the late 40's and early 50's so remarkable, such as the intense utilization of darkness, shadows and (going back to Expressionism perhaps) fog and smoke, and the narration that slips into a stream-of-consciousness feel even as we're still being lead around certain plot details (it's more descriptive and more emotional, the way Bennett's narration works).

I also don't know what her problem would be with her performance which is convincing and has the range of someone who does fall in love - look at her in that scene at the Mexican cafe when she falls for Michael Redgrave, it's a directed-acted-written moment that doesn't miss a beat for emotional impact - and then as soon as her husband shows off his, ahem, 'rooms' (that display murders that have happened, not in that house just, you know, *elsewhere* right?) And Redgrave, though given a character we mostly have figured out from the start, is solid as an uptight widower (or is he??)

Perhaps people back then expected a story that was more psychologically... grounded in a certain way. This doesn't do that and, not unlike certain Hitchcock thrillers, it attempts to get the audience to keep thinking about which is what and why such a detail is on such a mantelpiece (Lang's close-ups are never trivial, and every little shot is a possible clue, or something that will get our attention for the moment and enhances the dread and turmoil buried in the characters). And so much is enhanced by the direction and how the camera moves, how it sees these people, namely Clair the Joan Bennett protagonist, going through the hallways at night as the music swells, and then when she seems to be running for her life and goes outside into what could just as well be a graveyard with all the fog on the ground.

Is it overtly stylized? Oh, hell yes. But that's what I love about Lang's films, that he does back away and tries to use his cinematic skills to get us deeper into what is an otherwise decent though not terribly original thriller. And while the ending is problematic in the sense that it has to play it, for lack of a better term, safe (it was the Hays era - also see Woman in the Window for a Lang near-masterpiece that has a flawed ending), it's far better than what audiences or its own cast thought of it at the time. It actually gains more power as it goes along, more intrigue, more devilish possibilities with the "is he or isn't he a murderer and will he kill his wife" question and in large part due to the execution of the material. I bought into it, and certain passages are intense enough and potent psychologically speaking (how it uses the darks and lights to get under your skin) to recommend.

In Russia, One-Unbroken-Take shoots you!, 22 May 2016

There come times when I am seeing a film that announces and declares itself as a piece of magnificent, magnifonic, exceptional and daring work of art that I have to reckon with the objective vs the subjective perspectives: it's one thing to recognize how brilliantly a film is executed as opposed to how I felt about the content, or, in the old Ebert philosophy, not what it's about but how it's about it. Because objectively speaking, I'd find it hard to argue or hear a persuasive argument to the contrary that this is the highest orchestral arrangement of cinema that is possible.

By that statement I mean that you can't watch this and not be impressed on some level - this is one of a small handful of feature films (which originated with Hitchcock's Rope and became Oscar fodder in the best possible way with Birdman) that are shot in one long, unbroken take, and because it was shot in digital format and not film the director and cinematographer, Alexander Sokurov and Tilman Büttner respectively, could arrange it so there were no cuts (unlike that pussy-footin' Birdman, psshaw, having seamless edits, the nerve!) And it's not simply in the cinematographic prowess, it's much in the way that a director of live TV has balls of steel: orchestrating and conducting everyone, like a symphony, to be on just the right marks at just the right beats - and this is a cast that features hundreds, if not over a thousand, people - and it goes through different lighting set-ups and costume changes and the lead actor Sergey Dreyden (kind of a Russian Peter Cushing with his black attire and hard cheeks and nose) has to carry it in large part emotionally speaking, or at least on some intellectual level.

So for arranging everything and getting it to move together seamlessly it's a real *achievement*. But is it a great movie aside from that, or even a good one? In some part it is wonderful, in large parts, but (and I have to put the 'but' in there), it's hard to sometimes be completely engaged with material that is so experimental. For me I actually discovered not too long into the film I was locked in more with the audio side than even the visual side. Not that large parts of this aren't visually arresting - it can't not be at certain times if only because of the paintings on display (it's a lot like being on a class trip, so if you don't enjoy going to a museum, frankly you may not enjoy chunks of this picture very much) - but it's how the filmmakers uses audio, and remember this IS an audio-visual medium, that gives Russian Ark its fullest impact.

What is the focus of the film for example? Is this a documentary? A dream? A schizophrenic time travel trip that's like if you took Tarkovsky and mixed him with Doctor Who (all in Russia, of course)? Well, let's look at the 'voice' behind the camera, the man who seems to be following our "Stranger" in black who wanders through the hallways and the rooms full of paintings and the corridors and then... finds himself in an opera, a giant ballroom with hundreds dancing in unison and soldiers marching and then Catherine the Great pops up. And all the while this voice that accompanies this man, is it a person there, or is it a ghost? I found it difficult to parse at times if there was a figure actually there - not just the main character but others who pop up from time to time - acknowledge 'his' presence. But is he or 'it' there? Maybe it doesn't matter in the way that the ambiguity adds to the mystery of it all.

The whole experience, as the director's attempt to go for the Orson Welles quote to the max - "A film is never really good unless the camera is an eye in the head of a poet" - has the feeling of a dream-documentary, if that makes sense, like we're wandering around some Hyper-Intellectual who has doused himself in the kerosene of Russian art and history (or also European history, note the mentions of German artists and composers and others) and is wandering around the halls and ballrooms and devastation and joy of centuries of work. While it's not really *all* the history (not enough Kossack blood or Bolsheviks me thinks), it's an engaging look at many of the key portions of how iconography, both in style and in artistic expression, come to the foray.

Or... something like that. It could all be an extravagant d***-waving measure, like "look at what *I* can do with my digital camera and a whole army of people to command!" - but then isn't that what most cinema is all about? There are stretches that, even at 99 minutes, start to drag, but this may also be a first-timer reaction. I'd like to revisit this in a few years or so, or perhaps sooner, and see how, not unlike if I saw a series of paintings as I traipsed around a museum, my reaction would change.

1 out of 5 people found the following review useful:
hashtagFeminism, 22 May 2016

In Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising (the latter part sounds like an unintentional Kenneth Anger reference maybe, but nevermind), we get the "girl" version that sounds like a cynical cash grab when you first see the trailer: now that Efron and Franco are out of the house, now it's time for the girls, right? It's more complicated than that, believe it or not, as this movie has a somewhat (not totally, just somewhat) serious context underneath: feminism, sexism, and equality between those who like to PARTY! (in caps)

So you get Chloe Grace Moretz as the perennial just-wanna-smoke-weed-and-dance-et-al party girl who won't be in a regular sorority since it's against the rules to be partying down - there's the *fraternities* for that for the sorority girls, and they're populated by all the terrible (but probably true mostly) stereotypes of misogynistic party animals. So she and a few girls on the outside of things make up their own sorority - Kappa Nu - at the same house right next door to Rogen and Byrne as they're trying to sell their house. Good luck with all of that!

In some ways this is very similar to the last Neighbors but not at the same time. In this movie what makes it stand out a little is that it's a combination of feminist message movie - which gets obscured, and for this kind of movie not unexpectedly so, by the rampant partying and revenge-hijinks that ensue between Kappa Nu and the Rogen/Byrne/etc group of "old people - and the Man-Child-Has-to-Grow-Up dynamic. That's not exactly new when looking at Rogen and companies films, but I liked that this time by having it focus on a guy who was on top before and that we've seen be in control of his party-animal element (Efron's character), it adds some resonance to what it means to have to move on from that while still being true to oneself. Efron sells it all the way too in a performance that's a winning combination of comedy and, dare I say, pathos. Party on, existential quandaries!

The key question to get to is this: is it *better* than the 1st film? No, not quite, and it starts to get a little exhausting in the last 15 minutes (you can only take so much of the machine-gun-fire improv everyone does). But the laughs you do get are so big, and the messages about equal rights for women (even if it IS about partying), and the usual but always potent and fun message for the guys about growing up, here Zac Efron is really the central character here, if there is one, make it a very fun ride.

All the Way (2016) (TV)
13 out of 26 people found the following review useful:
has a lot to say about its time, but ours also - a "prequel" to Selma, 21 May 2016

It's difficult to watch All the Way, especially near the end or in the last stretch of the film, and not think about the recent Ava DuVernay film Selma. That was all about the movement spearheaded by Dr. King to get the Voting Rights Act passed and the hurdles he had to get it done, not least of which was fully getting Lyndon Johnson to get it going faster than it was. I don't think All the Way, directed by Jay Roach (who is practically the go-to guy to helm movies, mostly for HBO, all about major political times and movements like Recount and Game Change and so on), may not be quite as powerful as Selma is - frankly I'm not sure Roach is as provocative and technically daring as DuVernay was in that film (but then again, who was compared to that film - but, and this is a big but, he does a lot with what he's given here. And the interesting thing with looking at both films is that the roles of Lyndon Johnson and King get reversed: King and Johnson were lead and supporting in Selma, so All the Way the former becomes the latter.

Now, it might seem like it's basic enough to plant this story and have it coast on the actors - not just Cranston, who is towering and commanding and yet wholly vulnerable and tender when he has his quiet moments, but also Melissa Leo, Anthony Mackie, Bradley Whitford, Stephen Root, and of course Frank Langella - and that could be enough. But anything that's really good and that can hopefully last for a while will have some resonance past its own historical and sociological interest. I think All the Way has that in spades, whether you're looking hard for it or not, as 1964 was simply a year that spoke to a lot of issues that affect a lot of people EVERY day.

It was hard for me to watch this and not think about things like the current horrors facing black people from whites in power (whether white cops or other discrimination across the country), and when congressmen and senators argue over Civil Rights their reasons seem not too far from those in North Carolina or other states when discussing bathroom laws. The themes run deep into what's been driving civil rights or equal rights or any rights in the US for decades. Even seeing how politicians bend or break or have to do this or that (even Dr. King with his compromises, which doesn't win him much love with his Freedom fighters at the DNC scenes which are tough to watch in a dramatically satisfying way) resonates today.

And with this material it has to be that way as the focus is about the politics of the Johnson in the White House, and Bryan Cranston has a character about as rich in depth as he'll ever get to play (and in case you're wondering that infamous "bunghole" bit with the tailor is shown but done early on enough so it can get out of the way in case you wonder when it'll come up, look it up if you don't know what I'm talking about, but I digress).

Johnson was a tough bastard to the people around him - indeed in this story of 1964 and the Civil Rights Act and the election against Barry Goldwater, often to people of his own party (though not on purpose, initially anyway) - and yet deep down, or plain in sight to those closest to him (a few key scenes that make an impact happen between the Johnsons, where you wonder how 'Bird' could put up with this guy for so long, in a good way), and had plenty of insecurities to wrestle with. He got the job by way of one of the major national tragedies of the century, and while he takes power it's initially uneasily held. Those insecurities also come from some of his background, where he was never really liked much by other party officials or other politicians. But when he has to, which is often, he'll make his presence known and won't back down. In other words, brutal and bull-headed, and yet a deeply committed liberal and man of conscience... until the foreign wars parts came in, anyway.

That last part is something I wish had been expounded on a little more; history like the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which propelled the US into Vietnam, is explored but briefly, almost as an aside. I can see what the thinking was by the writer, on the other hand: this was such a crucial year for Johnson for his domestic policy and for the election in general (the losing-of-the-South becomes a big focal point), and meanwhile this 'other' incident going on in Southeast Asia becomes more of a political point for him than something to ponder over as a 'well, it *didn't* technically happen, did it?' thing. It speaks more to how strong the material is, the writing of it, the acting of it, Roach's blocking (how he gets Cranston moving around a room IS direction, let's not forget that even as the cinematography and editing is standard), and the multiple layers of meaning in scenes and character motivation, that I only wish it were longer. But, as we see, history rolls on...

the personal and business side of drama, 21 May 2016

Sometimes when I watch a film, I have practically no choice but to look at what is between the lines (or, as I sometimes tell my students in the English writing class I teach, *beyond* the lines). This is a case in point with Two Days, One Night, another film by the Dardenne brothers. If you've seen at least one film you might get a handle on how their style is, and don't mistake how "simple" (if that's even a word to use here) their approach to storytelling is for having a lack of style.

If as a filmmaker you're ostentatious or really out there it's often called 'stylish' direction (i.e. Wes Anderson, Brian De Palma), but the Dardennes' approach is to execute their own method as well, just as calculated as the filmmakers who dress their editing and camera-work to impress but in a different way; seeing L'Enfant I got that, and even more so with The Kid on a Bike (the former very good, the latter excellent), and what it comes out to is that they look head on at the human beings that make up this Earth. We know these people, and even if there's a Maron Cotillard on screen it doesn't mean we get that distance like if she was in Inception or Dark Knight Rises or something. Her character is us, or someone we know, and just as much are the other characters that she interacts with who, in reality, may be actors acting in a film but could as likely to be those same people: working class, trying to get by, thinking that if a $1,000 bonus is floated their way it's time to take it even if it means, well, a certain someone can't stay around on the job.

(On a side note, this film hit me on a personal level: a member of my close family had a situation almost exactly similar to the one that Sandra's is here, where severe depression, which is sometimes, though not always, is looked upon by society as a "eh, get over it" kind of deal, made it so that this family member could barely get out of bed much less go to work every day, and just as in the same way it put the family's job in jeopardy. I could see much of the same struggle, almost to the letter emotionally speaking, and even the moments where the film takes its biggest dramatic turns, one you'll know when you see it, felt familiar in that way that made the film staggering to experience - it treats it as a disease that can't be fought, only managed and as a thing to or not to succumb to).

So it's not some abstract concept that the Dardennes' are dealing with; in a very real way Two Days, One Night is a political film, and of all things I was reminded of Spielberg's Lincoln from a few years ago. If you recall in that story, Lincoln has to get his people to try and flip enough potential 'Yes' votes for the 13th amendment to pass and end slavery. Of course the stakes aren't quite so high, but on a micro level (if that's the thing to say as opposed to maco) it's still crucial, as people have to look inside themselves but also look at what's going on in their lives and how empathy plays in to it: can these men look past the bonus so she can stay, or will they vote with their immediate futures in mind (and as another note, and I don't think insignificant to see while watching as I'm sure Dardennes were clear in their casting, it's practically all men who work with Sandra at this company)?

As a slight nitpick to what is otherwise a powerhouse of a film experience, also with Cotillard who I'll expound further momentarily, it's one slight contrivance is that the last person that Sandra sees is black and it's clear, much more than the others, about his more tentative place at the company (and there's a decision to be made in the 2nd to last scene that will affect this character as well). I thought it might have been stronger had this come earlier in the story, that it wasn't this last minute piece of drama, and if anything if they had to make it this distinct as a point of ideological conflict and struggle (black man, white woman, both not seen as fully part of the system in a way, though I could be wrong not being in France).

But this is the smallest thing to pick a nit with; so much of this story is rich with problems that reach beyond what is shown in the film, and in that sense its remarkable that the directors cast a major star in the same way as Rossellini did with Bergman: the neo-realist aspect is still there (another thing that comes to mind as I write this review is Bicycle Thieves, this 'mission' narrative driving things forward as it's all down to survival). Its style is deceptively simple, and for all of the shots that last a long time and as few cuts as there are and as much as the filmmakers wait for actors to enter into the focus of the frame (the soccer coach is my favorite scene of the film with this technique), Cotillard sells every minute emotional detail and nuance, every breakdown, every time she has one of her pills in hand or is staring off seemingly into nothing.

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