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4/10
Day Brightens Dull Biopic
26 February 2021
The costumes and overall historical production design looks good, and Andra Day is great playing Billie Holiday, but otherwise "The United States vs. Billie Holiday" is a meandering, poorly-constructed biopic. That despite the reflexive framing of the story as a recorded interview that should've focused the narrative besides reflecting the audial sensation of Holiday's singing.

Instead, we get a plot that often doesn't seem to be going anywhere besides from scene to scene of shooting up heroin, from concert to concert and abuse or sex scenes from man to man, with a hint of bisexuality. A wallowing, hot-mess portrait of Lady Day. All the while, cut occasionally to narcs planting evidence or saying something racist and inevitably being told off to presumed audience cheering. Even if the remembered scenes of Holiday's past as the black FBI agent follows her from a lynching through her upbringing in a brothel is almost effective, the montage covering again the aforementioned sort of scenes we've already seen several times in slight variations, plus some fight between two guys, certainly isn't. And to top it off there's that atonal, fourth-wall-breaking mid-credits scene after the requisite biopic text at the end to give us the Wikipedia headlines of what happened to the characters after the movie.

Yet, Day is great, an actual singer who sings the part and in the imitated style of the character she's performing. Her reported weight loss and picking up of smoking and drinking for the part is some impressive dedication, too, even if she wisely didn't go to Nick Nolte levels of method acting in using heroin as he did for "The Good Thief" (2002). Day deserved better direction, the social commentary on civil rights deserved more than simplistic tropes, "Strange Fruit" better than "Tigress and Tweed," and Holiday a more focused biographical picture.

I'll have to check out "Lady Sings the Blues" (1972), which stars Diana Ross and also received awards attention, someday for comparison.
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Monte Cristo (1922)
6/10
From the Spectacular Page, the Wordy Film
26 February 2021
It's ironic that for an adaptation of the novel "The Count of Monte Cristo" by Alexandre Dumas that shortens the title to just "Monte Cristo" and that is silent that the film is actually verbose--filled as it is with too many loquacious title cards. Also seemingly contradictory is that the picture renders the spectacle of the novel, well, spectacularly when it's attempted, but the filmmakers also on several occasions falter in their visual transmutation of the text by telling instead of showing action. A title card informs us that Dantès is rescued by smugglers, for instance, and that he gains their confidence; we don't see it. This leads to the Count's staged rescue of Ferdinand, which also isn't visually depicted. Indeed, these bandits from the book don't appear until near the end with the capture of one of the targets of the Count's revenge. Adapted more so from stage versions than the original prose, too, the film features some peculiar deviations from what Dumas wrote, but, overall, it's rather faithful when compared to other such films, including the 1934 "The Count of Monte Cristo."

We're fortunate, however, to be able to see "Monte Cristo" at all anymore. Fox releases during the silent era in particular have an atrocious survival record; 136 of their feature films exist in some form today, according to David Pierce (see "The Survival of American Silent Feature Films: 1912-1929"), while 683 of them are lost. Consequently, almost entire careers have largely vanished, like Fox's star vamp Theda Bara, or the acclaimed works of director Herbert Brenon, or most of the Westerns of cowboy Tom Mix. As with a good many Hollywood movies it seems, "Monte Cristo" only remains because of the preservation of a foreign cut at the Czech archive. "A single worn and choppy print," as the Flicker Alley DVD puts it. Moreover, that prints of Hollywood productions issued for foreign release tended to consist essentially of B-roll footage may explain some of the awkward moments in this adaptation, as may, perhaps, some missing parts from scenes in what appears to be a duplicated print. I don't know whether it helps explain an over-fondness in the picture for extreme long-view establishing shots, either, or if that was merely a choice to exhibit the production's admittedly opulent sets and lovely landscapes.

Maybe John Gilbert in the eponymous role wasn't as unremarkable in the domestic negative, although this was before he became a huge star at MGM--this film being re-issued in 1927 to capitalize after that fact--and his transformations of appearance as guileless sailor Edmond Dantès, as heavily-bearded prisoner of the Château d'If, under the disguise of priest Abbé Busoni, and as the avenging and fabulously rich Count of Monte Cristo are effective. I couldn't help but wonder while watching the film, however, what would've been made of the role by the "man of a thousand faces," Lon Chaney. Oh well. An impressive job is also done in making the Count's adversaries here look dastardly, especially Villefort, with his twirled mustache and a patch of hair on his labiomental groove. It doesn't take a lot of cinematic training for one look at this character to inform a spectator that he's the baddie. Early on, at least, he also has that desk toy that he manages to play with in a seemingly nefarious manner.

Yet, what they did to the story's female characters tends to be, let's say, unfortunate. Speaking of those verbose title cards, one of them goes taking from another play in Shakespeare's "Hamlet" for, "frailty they name is woman." Here, that refers to Mercedes marrying someone else after Edmond has been gone for a year or so and pronounced dead behind bars. Years later, she's still proclaimed "faithless." This considerably reduces any charm from the rewritten romantic ending, as does the newly-concocted romantic partnership for Haidee, the central figure of the book and the film's Orientalism, as well as the Count's slave (or "ward," as they say in the movie), which seems haphazardly thrown in for this adaptation.

Fidelity isn't a priority for me in adaptations, but it'd be nice if the alterations at least made logical sense within the reformatted narrative. Edmond's supposed to be innocent of the crime he's accused of, but unlike in the book he knows he's supporting the Bonapartist cause in delivering his captain's letter; in fact, he hand delivers it to Napoleon himself. It doesn't seem worth it to me to undermine the main predicament of the protagonist just so you can dress up a diminutive actor as the Emperor for a couple minutes of the two-hour movie. Later, one of the Count's nemeses is convicted by a "Chamber of Peers" on hearsay, and another demands proof in the courtroom, but seems to reside to the fact without being provided any. The latter might be due to missing footage, though, as I aforementioned suspect. Similarly, we don't see Dantès switch the bodies for the prison escape. But, then again, the filmmakers don't even seem to understand how duels work--the business of only one loaded gun, at least, is something I've never heard of, including from reading the book.

On the other hand, there remains a good deal of spectacle and even a duplicate and worn nitrate film looks pretty good when restored and presented well enough. We see Gilbert struggle free underwater (the other silent versions lack such submerged photography) and proclaim "the world is mine" against crashing waves. There's the requisite sword fight--this time with Villefort. The sets demonstrate the high production values. There's some nice lighting, including low-key and silhouettes, and tinting. Double-exposure visions are plentiful. Before the picture seems to overly rely on those establishing shots in the second part, the scene dissection is decent for the era, too. And even the adaptation is appreciable for how it retains some scenes that other versions don't, such as, say, the "ghost story" of the buried infant. Actually, there is some good use of flashbacks scattered about here, which makes the textual ellipses instead of visual depiction in other parts the more perplexing. The film is a mixed bag, but it's a happy ending that the film survives at all for us to see it today.
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7/10
Serialized Silent Reading, Serialized Silent Viewing
25 February 2021
This was an interesting experience, as this was the longest film, at nearly three hours, I've yet seen without subtitles in my native language. At school, I studied at one time or another both French and Spanish, the languages that the title cards in this silent film appear in the available surviving print available online, but that doesn't mean I retained much of any of it. This was truly a silent-film experience, too, as no score was provided. It was an active and quiet endeavor not unlike when I read the novel "The Count of Monte Cristo" by Alexandre Dumas, from which this film was adapted. And, it's a good thing I remembered the book; since the film is relatively faithful, it was easy enough to follow the plot and characters even if my memories of French and Spanish eluded me. In another sense, however, it's the opposite of reading, where one would imagine from the prose a visual picture in the mind's eye. Here, by contrast, I viewed the visual narrative presented to me while I imagined what the words meant.

Although I have no plans to beat this personal near-three-hours record--I already found subtitles for the nearly-four-hours-long 1929 French version of "Monte Cristo" next on my watchlist--I did rather enjoy the experience. It's also a reminder of how universal the art form was during the silent era. Even with a picture such as this one where there is a normal amount of titling, as opposed to, say, the nearly-wordless "The Last Laugh" (1924), it's far easier for illiterates in whatever language such as me to comprehend the picture. Of course, it helps that I'm familiar with the original text, as well as other cinematic adaptations, but silent films generally rely on an entire system of visual codes that were abandoned when talkies took over. With the emergence of some classical continuity editing, such that is evident here, the broad gesticulation invented for the distant spectator of the stage was also replaced by subtler movements and expressions.

While this "The Count of Monte Cristo" was originally a serial, of 15 episodes according to IMDb trivia, which I suppose would equal out to one chapter per reel of film, it wasn't a serial of the classic cliffhanger variety and so in the print that's available today where the entire series is of one piece with few to no obvious chapter indications, it plays like a normal, albeit long, feature-length film. This neatly reflects the history of the publication of Dumas's book, which in a common practice of yore, first began printing in serialized form of eighteen parts in a newspaper (and over three years, from 1844 to 1846, as was this film, reportedly, from 1917 to 1919) before it became renowned in the novel form we know today, although, of course, it still contains chapters. As for the film's print available on the web today, its presentation unfortunately contains a watermark in the upper right corner. The print has also faded to the point of being noticeably too dark at times--especially evident as there is more early use of low-key lighting here than in some contemporary films. There's also some bleeding whites of the picture.

Even at three hours, this adaptation still required considerable condensing of the mammoth and intricate text. As with many movies, it's evidently more an adaptation of stage versions than it is of the book. Hence, Napoleon himself makes an appearance even though it undermines claims of innocence in the letter affair by the protagonist, Edmond Dantès, and, as the Count, he receives his own sword fight. The biggest alteration is probably the dropping of the entire subplot involving Villefort's family: his father's Bonapartism, his daughter's romance with Morrel's son, and all of the poisoning stuff. Indeed, most adaptations make significant changes or completely nix these details. Unfortunately, in this case, it results in a surprisingly abrupt ending, especially for such a long film. Often, movies add a Hollywood romantic ending to resolve such discrepancies, but this one doesn't even end with the Count in the scene.

We do see more of Edmond's aliases, though, besides the Count, including him in disguise as Englishman Lord Wilmore and as priest Abbé Busoni. Although it's, probably unintentionally, hilarious, Dantès even wears a fake mustache as the Count, which is appreciable as a specifically-visual adaptation. Instead of revealing his true identity through long speeches, as per the prose, he merely tears off the mustache while inquiring whether the subjects of his revenge remember him. I could do without the many close-ups of the Count's constipated looks in one direction or another to reflect his thinking in scenes, too, but I like that the filmmakers were intent on visually adapting the text (especially since the title cards are in French and Spanish), and it's demonstrative of the somewhat subtler, less theatrical acting here than in many prior, more stage-bound films.

The film, overall, is interesting as a reflection of cinema at a time of transition from a tableau style to one of classical continuity editing. Perhaps, the tradition dating back to the early cinema of Georges Méliès, who introduced dissolves as transitions between every shot-scene in many of his ostentatiously-theatrical films, helps explain the technique's inconsistent appearance in this film, with shots being intermittently divided by either dissolves or direct cuts with no apparent rhyme or reason. Similarly, some scenes feature decent scene dissection, as well as (unlike the 1922 Hollywood "Monte Cristo") some camera pans and other movement, cutting between different angles and from longer to closer views of character interactions and with inserted close-ups or medium shots, while compositions also tend to retain a deep-staging aesthetic typical of early 1910s cinema where mise-en-scène was valued over montage. There's a good amount of background-to-foreground blocking and figure movement in this one. There also seems to be a bit of an odd mix between cutting on action and scene abbreviation (e.g. when the bodies are switched in prison) beside other scenes that play out in the dated fashion of the operational aesthetic, where scenes play cover and are played out until every action is completed (such as the series of X's marking the spot to lead him to the treasure).

My favorite shot occurs shortly after the two-hour mark, when Mercédès meets Dantès in his Count disguise for the first time. We first see her enter the scene behind a window or frame from the background, while the Count and the others occupy the foreground action. The scene also employs two aspects we don't sense, with sound, as Mercédès hears the familiar voice, and space outside the frame, as she momentarily exits the frame before re-entering it in the foreground space. The beauty of this composition is that it frames her, first, as a sort of mise-en-abyme (I know, more French words), separating the past of Edmond and Mercédès as lovers before reuniting them in the front of the present, him the avenging Count and her a mother married to one of his betrayers.

I've also read how the "The Cheat" (1915), with its studio-built "Rembrandt lighting" was especially influential on French filmmaking. Such may be reflected in this "Count of Monte Cristo." Even in the faded print, it's evident that there's a considerable amount of low-key lighting effects--maybe even too much. Sometimes this includes use of seemingly diegetic lighting, such as an alley view of Fernand with his face highlighted by a street lamp, or a lamp illuminating Villefort's office in another scene. Even though it makes me wonder why they didn't try an escape route that way, the barred windows in the prison scenes are reflected by sunlight onto the cell walls. A few years before "Nosferatu" (1922), although perhaps not as well staged as that film's famous shadowy cinematography, there's a scene where the Count's hand casts a shadow on the three seated targets of his revenge, as though his silhouette were attempting to choke them.

I'm not big on writing articulate conclusions, either, so in the spirit of the film's abrupt ending, I'll just say it was worth the effort in my quest to see a bunch of filmic transmutations since reading the book to put in the effort to view this early and relatively obscure adaptation.
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3/10
The Years Have Not Been Kind to Monte Cristo
25 February 2021
That this take on the novel "The Count of Monte Cristo" by Alexandre Dumas updates the tale is a mixed blessing. Although the Thanhouser company that produced it had a reputation for literary adaptations, it was a minor studio that lacked the resources to make the sort of spectacle usually expected of the popular story or to translate the complex and hefty text cinematically. Plus, the last two times it had been adapted to screen, it was the subject of a lawsuit between studios that probably hurt both of their bottom lines (see the history of the 1913 "The Count of Monte Cristo" and, by extension, that of the 1912 production). On the other hand, Thanhouser's modern retelling is very bad, with plot holes abounding, action sequences at sea without the budget apparently to produce them, and a creepy relationship between a girl and her "doctor-man." On the surviving print, even the title is partly misspelled in a partly Anglicized fashion as "A Modern Monte Christo" (surviving promotional material and newspaper accounts spell "Cristo" correctly, though).

Yet, its failure cannot be entirely blamed on studio finances, as Thanhouser did a fine job of modernizing Oscar Wilde's novel, "The Picture of Dorian Gray" (1915). Their prior short "The Evidence of the Film" (1913) is fully deserving of its inclusion on the National Film Registry. The best thing about "A Modern Monte Cristo," however, may be that it's so poorly written and constructed that it's kind of amusing. Jennifer L. Jenkins ("The Spectacle of Monte Cristo," printed in "French Literature on Screen") calls it, "A fast-paced gallimaufry of The Adventures of Dolly, The Tempest, and Robinson Crusoe, with a pearl-rich oysterbed and a Wright Brothers-era airplane." While I rather agree with that summary, it does flatter the sloppy mess that's all over the place within its under-an-hour runtime.

In this one, the Count is replaced by a Dr. Emerson, who assumed the identity of a General Fonsca of Brazil after he's betrayed by his friend and romantic competition, William Deane, who plays a combination of the parts of Fernand and Danglers, as well as some of Villefort, from the book. The doctor is arrested for a crime he didn't commit. The next scene reveals via a newspaper that--somehow--the doctor faked his suicide sometime after the arrest and that, a year later, his fiancée has married his rival, Deane. We never see the woman these men have fought over, though, as we're informed she died at some point. Just as suddenly, it appears that Deane is a single father with a child of obviously more than one year of age.

While dad somehow makes money from sinking ships, the little girl wanders off in "Adventures of Dolly" routine--eventually knocking herself unconscious aboard one of those doomed sea vessels. Through another inexplicable case of poor storytelling, the doctor is now a sailor on his enemy's ship and so ends up saving the girl's life. But, wait, a storm lands the girl and her "doctor-man" on a deserted island. He discovers the pearls, which I guess must've been worth a lot more back then, because their extraction supposedly will make him the richest man in Brazil. After a biplane discovers the two on the island, he sends the test pilots off with her and a note to her father, Deane, that he will exact his revenge through her. How does he plan to exact this revenge exactly? How does he even get off the island when rescuers who come back for him can't find him? Who knows.

The first part of the doctor-turned-general's plans, it seems, involve waiting for the girl to grow up, get into a meet-cute with a guy whose dog steals their clothes while her and her friend are skinny dipping, and then to have that guy kidnapped and trapped upon one of Deane's sinking ships so that the girl ends up marrying her "doctor-man." Yeah, I don't get it, either, but it seems disturbingly elaborate. To be fair, so did the Count of Monte Cristo's plans. Difference is, though, that Dumas had the care to follow through on his intricate plot. These filmmakers, on the other hand, skip over integral parts of the story--and with too many iris openings and closings as transitions--and, yet, still include a flashback to that skinny-dipping scene in the very scene that follows it. That's just a careless lack of craft.
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3/10
Static Adventure
24 February 2021
The history of the production and release of this early feature-length version of the much-adapted novel by Alexandre Dumas, "The Count of Monte Cristo," is more interesting than actually viewing the film itself. Besides still being a relatively lengthy picture for its day and especially in the United States at five reels, it was also the first production of Adolph Zukor's Famous Players Film Company, which spearheaded feature-length films in the states beginning with their distribution of the French "Queen Elizabeth" (1912) and which would become Paramount Pictures, the biggest, for a time, of Hollywood's major studios. On top of this, it was also the reason for a lawsuit. While Zukor had secured the rights to the 1844 book, William Nicholas Selig's company, which had made the earliest adaptation that I'm aware with a one-reeler in 1908 (and which exists but I've been unable to find), undercut his production with a three-reel remake in 1912. Zukor won the case and prints of Selig's 1912 feature were ordered to be withdrawn from release, as well as destroyed, which seems to have been effective given that the 1912 film is now considered lost. Too bad, because it would be nice to compare this 1913 iteration to Selig's prior two efforts. Another result of the twin films was that the release of this one was delayed until late 1913.

As for viewing the film itself, I've had to make do with what appears to be maybe an 8mm reduction print that seems to have been transferred to VHS tape before making its way to Grapevine's DVD. Indeed, the picture quality is poor, with light tones, such as of the actors' faces, tending to be bleached, to the point that the illegibility of letters undermines that motif, and darker tones sometimes looking like spilled ink. The film is also preserved as part of the Library of Congress paper print collection, so perhaps a better restoration could be done. Regardless, it's abundantly clear that the picture wasn't worth much to look at in the first place and is nowhere near high on my wish list for making available restored silent films.

I was looking over some of my old reviews and notes of early feature-length films from 1912-1913 in preparation of this viewing, and while I tended to be curt regarding the staginess of some of them, if they're similar to this "Count of Monte Cristo," I stand by what I said. Most of the picture is in the tableau style of title cards announcing proceeding shot-scenes of little to no scene dissection and a camera largely nailed to the proscenium arch. Notable exceptions include one insert close-up of some pin that Edmond puts on Mercédès--a technique that co-director Edwin S. Porter learned way back in 1903. Another scene includes a superimposed vision--a trick Porter learned in 1902. There also appears to be a lighting change in one bedroom scene, and the footage at sea is the main reason I don't rate this as low as some other filmed plays of the day. Decent work is also done to cut back and forth between prison scenes and those of the other characters back on the mainland. When not in the waters, or at least outdoors, however, we're tormented with painted backdrops and flimsy sets so blatantly fake that this obviousness survives any deterioration or reduction in the film print. The acting is in the broad theatrical style, including by the "famous player" in this "famous play," James O'Neill, father of playwright Eugene O'Neill and who had been playing the eponymous role on stage since the 1870s, but who also clearly didn't know a lick about screen acting.

That this is so much a product of the stage, it rather defies analyzing it as a cinematic transmutation of the text. But, having recently read the book, that's the reason I came to this film Even at five reels, a lot of condensing was required, but I'm nonetheless not a fan of remaking Mercédès's son Albert also the son of of Edmond, as it seems overly melodramatic. They also skip the education required for Edmond to become the Count, although not the fortune even though it, too, doesn't really factor in to his tale of revenge in this truncated case. Villefort's father-in-law is confusingly made into his half or step brother, which compensates for the unfortunate removal of the double wedding from the novel, and Napoleon even makes an appearance--completely undermining any semblance of Edmond's claim to ignorance of aiding the Bonapartist cause. Actually, this alteration makes him entirely guilty of the crime he's imprisoned for and undermining his case of revenge. Admittedly, however, all the bowdlerizing does make for a kind of funny mad dash to the finish as this Count kills off each of his three enemies, including a swashbuckling sword fight before he raises three fingers in victory.

The main exception to this being a theatrical adaptation are the scenes at sea. It seems this was more a matter of cinematic borrowing from the first, 1908 Selig film. Avoiding the law again (this time to escape the Edison Trust), Selig's waterborne episodes were among the first filming to take place in California. Reportedly, it also appears to be where such a silhouetted scene as Dantès climbing onto seaside rocks to declare, "The World is mine!," which is not from the book, originated.
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Naked (I) (2017)
3/10
Time-Loop Scenario Stripped of Interest
24 February 2021
"Naked" is a lazy rip-off a time-loop movie, not only of "Groundhog Day" (1993), the gold standard of the genre, but it's also an English-language remake of the Swedish version "Naken" (2000), which I haven't seen but also doesn't appear to be held in high regard. "Source Code" (2011), "Edge of Tomorrow" (2014), "Happy Death Day" (2017), the "Russian Doll" series, and "Palm Springs" (2020) have all done interesting things with this specific time-travel concept, including doing better than "Naked" the whodunnit of a crime ("Source Code" and "Happy Death Day") and an improved rom-com ("Groundhog Day" and "Palm Springs," heck even "The Map of Tiny Perfect Things" (2021)). So, what's supposed to be special about this one? Not that its comedy relies on a man's butt, as it's a remake of that, but that it specifically relies on the supposed humor of the backside and crotch-holding front of Marlon Wayans. The extent to which his repeatedly waking up undressed in an elevator is amusing is very slight.

Yet, even that's preferable to the latter half of the picture that turns to the sentimental garbage of him trying to become a better husband-to-be as he races to get dressed and prepared, hour-upon-the-same-hour, for his wedding. The cosmic punishment of it doesn't even fit as well as it did Bill Murray's Phil Connors, who although he may've been amusing to view from the outside would likely be an unpleasant egocentric to be near. Wayans's Rob, however, is a nice guy who is the victim of a crime. Maybe he's unreliable and has a problem with purchasing lottery tickets, but big whoop--is the moral here really that one must get a full-time job and perform a supposedly-perfect wedding. I just reviewed the latest déjà vu burger "The Map of Tiny Perfect Things," too, where I complained that it lacked any of the manifold compelling manifestations of the concept, including cinematic and video-game reflexivity, intriguing genre twists and philosophical musings. "Naked" is even worse.

At least the newer movie features the characters taking some time from their infinite supply of it to more-fully explore their surroundings and have some fun and maybe even learn maths, and at least it's relatively consistent in its repetition. I mean, where does that third security guard at the hotel come from? Why wasn't he in prior naked landings? Is this reverse "Russian Doll" where the world is becoming more complete the more it's repeated? Why are all the interactions with the maid of honor with the groom? Does the bride not have friends? Is she a character or merely a goal for the hero's quest? What happened to the pigeons flying into the church? Maybe if "Naked" were consistently funny, none of this would much matter, but it isn't.
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4/10
Kiss of Death
24 February 2021
There comes a time, I suppose, when all popular and good ideas are ruined by the replacement with teenage characters or the transference to so-called young adult fiction. Romance, of course, apocalyptic and political thrillers, sci-fi, vampires and werewolves, even socially-conscious message movies and time-travel scenarios, or both ("See You Yesterday" (2019)). As opposed to the "Back to the Future" (1985) variety of manipulating the space time continuum, "The Map of Tiny Perfect Things" deals in the "Groundhog Day" (1993) style of the time loop. How timely, I guess, given that we've already had "12 Dates of Christmas" (2011), "Edge of Tomorrow" (2014), part of "Doctor Strange" (2016), "Naked" (2017), "Happy Death Day" (2017) and its sequel, the "Russian Doll" series, "Palm Springs" (2020) and the upcoming "Boss Level" (2021), etc. Live, die, repeat, indeed.

Oh, I'm not complaining so much about the repetitiveness of the time-loop genre, which I think is loaded with, if not necessarily infinite, manifold interesting possibilities. "Groundhog Day" is an all-time great film, and "Edge of Tomorrow," "Happy Death Day," "Russian Doll" and "Palm Springs," at least, each do some different and neat things with the similar scenario. Apart from cinematic and video-game reflexivity, genre twists and philosophical musings, the loop is a wonderful fantasy. The rules vary, but like in this one, it offers immortality. Even if one fancies themselves too good to go god-mode Grand Theft Auto on their no-consequences repeated surroundings, you have the potential for unlimited acquirement of skills and knowledge and for self-betterment. Why would I not want to spend at least a very, very long time in that.

To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw or someone I haven't had time to thoroughly read, time travel is wasted on the young. All they do is play the same video game, watch only one film ("Time Bandits" (1981)), drive the same vehicles, see the same supposedly-magical "tiny perfect things," repeat playing Good Samaritans to slack-jawed amazement, and try to get a kiss. If that is all you're getting from life, yeah, maybe I see why they'd want to get on with it until its inevitable end. It's rather apt, though, how the mystery of the mystery girl plays into this kiss-of-death proposition. Yet, it's still the stupid lecturing to kids on how to deal with emotionally-difficult subjects (death in this case), and it's supposedly "her story" as predominantly told from his perspective. I doubt I'll give this one any repeat viewings, but let me know when the second "Edge of Tomorrow" or another "Happy Death Day" sequel is released.
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Hancock (2008)
4/10
Super-Stereotype: In Hollywood, Even a Black Superhero Gets a White Savior
24 February 2021
Warning: Spoilers
Oh, "Hancock" is an incongruous picture alright, but it's not merely the twist worthy of an M. Night Shyamalan movie that makes it so. This is a narrative underscored by the theme of "otherness," about difference and separation, and about the discrimination of the "other" by society. Hancock is a superman--possibly alien and maybe even divine, but decidedly not one of the ordinary people he lives amongst. He remembers nothing after a night that he had tickets for the film "Frankenstein" (1931), which is another picture about a creature treated as an outcast by society. He's since turned to alcohol and being belligerent and reckless even when trying to perform good deeds, which only further alienates him from the rest. Yet, nothing here is explicitly made of the fact that Hancock is by all appearances, as played by Will Smith, an African American. Obviously, acknowledgement of race would've further supported the othering theme, but any such references are curiously absent. Instead, this black superhero is stereotyped as an incompetently alcoholic and lazy bum whose spectacular natural abilities have cost millions of dollars in property damages.

He's only able to successfully harness his powers for good after being mentored by a middle-class white guy. How unfortunate for a narrative with such an unpredictable turn in one respect should be so predictable in its racial cowardice, including the white savior trope. It's also quite brazen and flippant for the filmmakers to begin the white savior's mentoring by sending the African American to prison. And the whole subplot about his trying to save the world by encouraging corporations to be generous goes nowhere--within the story and as a function of the plot.

More importantly, nothing is even made of the apartheid in the romantic link between a character played by a black man and another character played by a white South African, Charlize Theron. The silence here on race seems intentionally obtuse when we get to the scene where Theron's character explains to Smith's how, by their being together through history, they have been repeatedly attacked. "Hancock" is a movie that jokes about Atilla the Hun being cross-eyed, but doesn't dare mention that racists might act violently against an interracial couple and that that is what makes them vulnerable--and, by extension, why they must continue to be apart even in 21st-century Los Angeles. Indeed, the picture itself maintains their segregation and otherwise portrays their coupling as something cosmically tragic and transgressive, as something to be avoided. Hancock the character was never the coward here, as the white savior once accuses him; if there was cowardice, it was in the making of the movie "Hancock."
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8/10
Detective Noir
23 February 2021
One of my favorite classes I ever took was one on mystery fiction--just an easy-going summer reading and thinking about gentlemen (and women) sleuths and their "stupid friends," hardboiled detectives and femme fatales, the literary devices of the whodunnit and the emergence of film noir. My favorite read, with the possible exception of the unreliable narrator trick pulled off by Agatha Christie, was Walter Mosley's "Devil in a Blue Dress." So different was this working-to-middle-class African-American gumshoe, the language and milieu of his Los Angeles environs, and the part that race played in the narrative, it was a more striking departure from other texts where a Dupin or Holmes seemed to relatively unnoticeably evolve into a Marple or Poirot, a Spade into a Marlowe (the latter ever more so because I was thinking of Humphrey Bogart regardless). After dividing between the hard and soft-boiled varieties, they all seem cut from the same cloth. Not the case, decidedly hardboiled though he is, with Easy Rawlins.

I'm quite pleased, then, that the book was adapted by Carl Franklin into a film starring about the only actor of the day that I could imagine as the protagonist, Denzel Washington, that I finally got around to viewing it, and it was a success--not financially, but cinematically, as part of that nebulous subgenre of neo-noir. There's still the low-key lighting, but it's entirely fitting that there should also be great use of cinematographic color and not just for the titular blue dress--leaving the black-and-white screen behind for Bogart's Spade and Marlowe and their ilk. This is a world of both vibrant color and grimy, shadowy darkness. That plus the L.A. political corruption taking on a deep familial secret, I suppose "Devil in a Blue Dress" is most readily comparable to "Chinatown" (1974), even more than to "L.A. Confidential" and except that those politics take on a racial dimension here, including discrimination, policing, social mobility and "passing."

Moreover, becoming a detective isn't merely something Easy has already fallen into during alcoholic binges and in fog of cigarette smoke while batting away dames falling over him or trying to catch their cheating husbands around every corner. It's about economic independence, living the home-owner-with-a-lawn American Dream, not being held to the whims of a racially-discriminatory white boss paying for manual labor. And, it's about community--more than most literary detectives, Easy feels as though he's part of one and not some eccentric, cocaine-juiced scientific genius who only brings along his stupid friend to make him look good in the worshipful stories he'll write about him. No, Easy reaches out for leads from those he's known before he began solving a mystery, and he calls in Mouse for backup when the situation becomes increasingly dangerous.

I hate to say it and maybe I'm being too harsh, but the only major flaw I find with "Devil in a Blue Dress" is Jennifer Beals. Granted, she's better here than in the last film I remember seeing her in, "The Bride" (1985), and she has the mixed-race heritage appropriate for the part, but she's still a lackluster femme fatale or mystery woman. The picture, consequently, is missing a big part where the largely-sexual tension should be between Washington's Easy and her Daphne Monet. His scenes with Lisa Nicole Carson's Coretta work much better even before the sex.

As for Washington, I prefer him in this role over some of his more-celebrated performances that tend to call for some over-the-top histrionics, and that may include his other titles I've recently reviewed, "The Hurricane" (1999) and "Training Day" (2001), as well as something more overtly theatrical as "Fences" (2016). Easy is still a dignified character who defends himself against police brutality, stands up against racism and refuses to retrieve a drink for abusive mobsters, but he does it without the speechifying and yelling that seems as though it were a lecture for the audience or a way to cue in even the least attentive member in the audience as to what's going on in the scene. He's subtle and relatable here.

And, then, there's Mouse played by Don Cheadle. It's been a while, but I'm pretty sure that's not how I read the character, and that's fine. Cheadle is a wonderfully-amusing, gun-toting scene stealer in this one. Playing War Machine in the MCU over the past decade has done a disservice to his acting talents. I swear if I handed out the award nominations, Cheadle and Washington for "Devil in a Blue Dress." Several of the other minor characters are well done, too--the enigmatic tree cutter included.
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Mälarpirater (1923)
6/10
Man v Nature for Boys
23 February 2021
"Mälarpirater," as in pirates of Lake Malar (or Mälaren, the third largest lake in Sweden, near Stockholm), is an adaptation of Sigfrid Siwertz's novel, and I suppose it may be compared to juvenile-oriented fiction in the English language, such as the likewise aquatic boyish adventure Mark Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." It almost, or partly, works as a youthful, less dramatic variation on my favorite sort of Swedish silent films, of a battle between man and nature. Indeed, Gustaf Molander started in filmmaking writing screenplays for the two great practitioners of this Swedish genre, Victor Sjöström and Mauritz Stiller. These include great works such as "Terje Vigen" (1917) and "Sir Arne's Treasure" (1919). The cinematography here of the lake by Axel Lindblom is lovely, and there's a bit of stormy weather early on as well as more drama later over the boys' steering of their ship.

On land, some horseback riding aside, the film is less compelling, and the entire plot of the runaway orphans is episodic. A bit of horror parody, the depiction of the romantic life of children and the caricaturized portrayal of adults all falls flat. But, when the boys are having an adventure and battling the elements, it's fun and a nice picture to look at.
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The Hurricane (1999)
6/10
Mistrial: Denzel Washington Fights Formulaic Fabrications
22 February 2021
I learned long ago not to expect historical accuracy from movies, but it's one thing to employ dramatic license to adapt a true story for a more interesting cinematic fiction and another thing to write in clichés or tropes for a more formulaic and simplistic account. "The Hurricane" does the latter, and if not for Denzel Washington's strong performance, as much as one might justifiably criticize it for some over-the-top speechifying, plus Bob Dylan's catchy song, it might've been a complete failure.

This is despite some promising material to work from here. Boxing has proved to be the most cinematic of sports, but the black-and-white matches here come across as a poor-man's "Raging Bull" (1980). Still, we have the symmetry of the boxer fighting in the ring against rather arbitrary opponents and outside the ring against the real enemy of injustice--even if that, too, in this case proves to be partly imaginary and added meta-symmetry aside of a fabricated story (the real injustice) within another fabricated story (the reel one). There's also the writer-as-character, as Rubin "Hurricane" Carter writes his autobiography, from which the film is based, thus the author-character is writing the movie that surrounds him. This is further reinforced by the letter motif that follows between him and Lesra Martin, the African-American teenager being educated by cohabitating white Canadians and who read Carter's book. Something interesting and more honest might've been possible with this on-screen surrogate writing by acknowledging the doubt and intersections between fact and fiction of the story's construction. The least interesting tract, but probably the one the picture most succeeds at leveraging, is the exploiting courtrooms as stages for theatrics. Good casting, though, of the judge with Rod Steiger, an Oscar winner from director Norman Jewison's earlier film on race, "In the Heat of the Night" (1967).

Instead, we get a saintly portrayal of a Carter who was only ever guilty of "attempted adultery" and maybe an understandably hot temper, whereas a more-factual depiction might've provided for more compelling ambiguity. I don't know whether the real Carter was guilty of the crime he was convicted for or not, and it's not only beyond this review to examine that, but it's also irrelevant to his ultimate release, even as depicted in the movie, due to his trials having appealed to racism rather than reason. This makes little sense, however, within the movie given that its focus was on the certain innocence of Carter, and that it entirely botches the depiction of the racism he faced as a black man in the United States.

It does so by resorting to counterfactual Hollywood clichés. The more minor one within the picture, if the more inexcusable in the real world, is the depiction of Carter's loss of the middleweight World Championship to Joey Giardello as a racist fix. Reportedly, the real Carter, on the other hand, even agreed that Giardello rightfully won. It doesn't have any effect on the story, either, except to lend a suspiciously-fabricated case of racism on top of the picture's main fabrication of such, but in the real world it did result in the film's producers settling a libel case out of court with the real Giardello and agreeing to make one of the statements on home-video (and, now, streaming) presentations that basically acknowledge the movie plays very loose with the facts for its based-on-a-true-story. Granted, it's still more defensible than what Ron Howard and company did to Max Baer in "Cinderella Man" (2005).

Worse from a cinematic perspective is the insertion of the fictional character of Della Pesca. Beyond the absurdity of a man so obsessed with Carter from Carter's childhood to old age because Carter supposedly attacked Pesca's pedophile friend in defense of another child and because Pesca is just that omnipotently racist to be thwarting Carter at every turn, Pesca also undermines the narrative of injustice from a racist system. Sure, depicting discrimination as widespread is hard, but making one character the entire system behind an elaborate conspiracy is so obviously fake as to undermine the believability of the picture, as well as its message. As a result, we also get the Canadians' crazy board of a conspiracy theory and a blown tire turned into an excuse for a dramatic exchange of suspicious looks and heightened musical scoring.

It's a tribute to Washington's acting and stature that he manages to rise above or lift this largely phony script at all. Whether to escape a wrongful conviction or to escape the scripted contrivances, the dignity he lends to Carter makes him an easy character to root for. Even the episode in solitary confinement of him talking to different versions of himself work. The sympathetic guard aside--as if the Canadians, the prison warden, the one judge, the lawyers and all the celebrities weren't already enough to indicate that the filmmakers are totally not saying that all white people are racist--the scenes of Washington in prison are effective, and his character undeniably goes through a compelling transformation. I tend to prefer Washington's performances that don't call for as much big, externalized acting, but he deserved the Oscar nomination, among other honors, he received for this. He is the highlight of the picture and offers a continuation in the spirit of Dylan's song of artistic depictions of "The Hurricane."
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Room 237 (I) (2012)
2/10
All Play and No Work Makes Jack a Dull Boy; or, 2 + 2 = Stupid
22 February 2021
I thought I had some stupid ideas about films, but these pseudo-intellectual internet cranks take the Calumet baking powder cake. Undisciplined thinking that one has discovered some secret, special knowledge is all fun and games until the dolts stop playing with their home-video copies of "The Shining" (1980) and start acting on more elaborate conspiracy theories. In a way, I understand sympathizing with some of this junk to a point, as mainstream professional entertainment criticism of movies tends to be dull, and there's the occasional interesting observation made here--the triangular match cut of one of the long dissolves, e.g., and the fairy-tale comparisons aren't entirely off--but the nonsense in "Room 237" is taking matters to another extreme. Including one narrator where they don't bother to record without his kid interrupting and jumbling the rest together, it's not even technically well made.

Right off the bat(ty), we get some asinine commentary about the Calumet baking powder as meaning that "The Shining" is about the genocide of Native Americans. There's Native-American stuff all over, he says excitedly. Well, yeah, it's said in the film, as it was in the book, that the Overlook Hotel was built on Indian burial grounds--it and a bunch of other horror-story construction. It's a trope that's been parodied in cartoons such as "The Simpsons" and "Family Guy." And while that cliché is certainly exploiting history for supernatural fluff, it's hardly a sophisticated commentary on anything, and neither is what is said in "Room 237."

In the documentary's other parts, other claims include: that a German typewriter means the film is about the Holocaust, equating an abusive character looking at adult pornography (the oddly placed issue of "Playgirl" in one scene) to pedophilia (although I guess Dick Hallorann gets away with the nude images adorning his bedroom), a Minotaur seen in a skiing poster if you squint and don't pay attention to the obvious (and truly never mind that mazes aren't exactly labyrinths, because the poster conflation is entirely unnecessary in the first place), and, worst of all--even before the numerology and forwards-backwards superimposition nonsense--the conspiracy theory that the Moon landing was faked and filmed by Stanley Kubrick. I might've accepted the rest of "Room 237" as amusingly incompetent, but I hate it for this insulting lunacy. The commentator, or one of them anyways, even goes off on an absurd paranoid rant about the government auditing or following him. All the while, the pastiche of "The Shining" score is obnoxiously present suggesting a profundity to the commentary that doesn't exist. It's a maze full of dead ends.
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Training Day (2001)
5/10
Denzel Washington Saves the Day
21 February 2021
A rather unremarkable cop-crime thriller in most respects, "Training Day" does benefit from a plot set within one day and from Denzel Washington playing against type. I might've been surprised, however, that he won an Oscar for it except that the field was relatively weak that year, and maybe Spike Lee and others have a point of it being a makeup award for his losing nominations for more usual Oscar-bait productions, whether for "The Hurricane" or, further back, "Malcolm X" (1992), the latter where Washington watched Al Pacino receive a more-obviously-makeup award, and, later, for "Fences" (2016). The Academy has been handing out competitive Oscars like they're Lifetime Achievement Awards since at least 1930 when they gave one to Mary Pickford for her embarrassing performance in "Coquette" (1929). Washington's "Training Day" performance does also fit the Academy criteria for over-the-top, capital-A Acting, and he's charismatic and dressed stylishly. To paraphrase, King Kong ain't got **** on him. Regardless, he's the main attraction here.

Ethan Hawke riding those coattails to a Supporting Actor nod for his less interesting role and performance for the first day on the job as Washington's partner--and despite being the protagonist and being on screen 13 more minutes than him--is more unaccountable. It's a fantasized, if not melodramatic, simplification of corruption by the police and justice system and the supposed depiction of a block of a hood, Terry Crews included, otherwise. The rest of director Antoine Fuqua and writer David Ayer's resumes are stuffed with such mediocrity and worse. Recording artists the likes of Snoop Dogg and Macy Gray make cameos, and Eva Mendes is merely there. The plot is brisk, although the narrative coincidences are a drag in the final act. Exaggerated though the performance may be, Washington carries this one.
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I Care a Lot (2020)
7/10
Puts the Con in Conservator
20 February 2021
Is there something sinister going on with conservatorship or guardianship in America? I viewed "I Care a Lot" the same day as "Framing Britney Spears" (2021), which is partly about the controversy over her conservatorship. I suppose if private practices and corporations, never mind relatives, are involved for profit, there probably is corruption. Regardless, we never get a very good look at any of the supposed victims of this practice in either movie. Dianne Wiest's Jennifer Peterson is rather capable of handling herself in her Kafkaesque nightmare. The other kidnapped old people here are but photographs on a wall. The result is to be allowed to revel in the immorality.

A legal con or heist picture turned gangster battle and consistently a dark comedy, it's surprising entertaining and well made--coming as it does from the director, J Blakeson, of the atrocious "The 5th Wave" (2016). Part of that is the excellent cast headed by Rosamund Pike and including Peter Dinklage as well as Wiest. Pike, already nominated for a Golden Globe, does the fourth-wall-breaking bookending narration and faux feminism well and plays a character we're meant to love-to-hate. Yes, the "Gone Girl" comparisons are apt. But the rest works, too, including some good scoring and an unpredictable plot. It's hardly a realistic movie, so any concerns with actual laws hardly apply to this scenario, where, besides for the opening case of the son not allowed to see his mother incarcerated in a nursing home, the action is to be enjoyed as battle between baddies. In that sense, we the audience do become what Pike's Marla Grayson advises: forgetting good and evil, looking out only for ourselves--in this case, from the safety of our enjoying a movie.
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2/10
Part of the Problem
20 February 2021
I regret watching this. "Framing Britney Spears" has been receiving enough buzz that even a non-fan (of celebrities in general) like me decided to check it out. Presented by the New York Times, of all venerable media, it's the same tabloid sensationalism that it criticizes. If not the sexist commentary, thankfully, which on that account this is partly credible in rebuking, it's nevertheless part of the tabloid sensationalism and ultimate questioning of the sanity of Spears. It makes me feel culpable in supporting the ugly business of celebrity gossip and harassment. If not just pay the paparazzi directly, I might as well have went out and purchased a copy of Us Weekly, National Enquirer, New York Post, or some such rag.

I never want to be famous. Rich, yes, but not famous. For all the conjecture here over the Spears conservatorship, her state of mind, the motives of her father and such, there is little to no questioning of the unhealthy obsession with the famous, from fans and all media, including the New York Times to podcasters and not just the paparazzi, that may drive someone mad. If the aim was to promote sympathy for Spears, I suppose it does it's job, but at the expense of chronicling her public abuse interspersed with uninformed interviews and speculation if it all made her crazy or whether the fans need to drag her back out to perform.

Michael Moore may make the best suggestion in the entire episode, to just leave her alone. Ridiculously, this occurs in a clip of Larry King and Anderson Cooper sheepishly nodding along to the suggestion as they plug CNN's upcoming coverage of Spears going to a hospital. Some of the interviews are as hypocritical for their lack of introspection. A tabloid photographer says he would've left Spears alone if that's what she wanted, and he says this after she tells him to do so and attacks his vehicle to drive the point through to no avail. One of the social-media activists says something similar after a post from Spears stating that she's taking some time for herself. One fan even questions the sanity of their obsession before rambling on about connecting the dots in the internet conspiracy theories, including looking for secret messages in the social-media posts of Spears, that conclude this so-called documentary.

I don't know about the validity or lack thereof of the conservatorship, or about the mental health of Spears, and this program certainly didn't help me learn one way or the other about either. Ultimately, though, it's none of my business.
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Nomadland (2020)
8/10
New and Past Landscapes
20 February 2021
What a congruous contradiction in terms is "Nomadland." It's a dramatic, fictional movie based on a non-fiction book. The expanses of the picture's scenic cinematography seem to demand being seen on the big screen, yet it's wide theatrical release is concurrent with its appearance on the home streaming channel Hulu. It's about hitting the open road and traveling the country when much of its audience remains quarantined at home. It's part of one of America's oldest, mythological genres, the Western, while also recalling pioneer days, but it's a "neo," realist one set in the recent, post-Great Recession era of the 21st century. The "nomads" are mostly elderly, near or in retirement age, most of their lives and much of their memories in the past, while they set out for new work, adventures and personal relationships. Home owners taking to living and moving in vans and other automobile transportation. Real people and characters, participants and observers. An economy of extracting raw materials and manufacturing turned to Amazon fulfillment centers. The great outdoors remain, though, even if they've since been charted along the way with tourist spots, restaurants, utility poles, rest stops, parking lots, storage facilities and ghost towns. Painterly and awe-inspiring and familiar as though we've already been there. Distant and intimate. Free and not. Dawn or Dusk.

I won't be surprised if this wins the Best Picture Oscar along with other honors. It also has enough and somewhat vague socio-political commentary or relevance that seems to be to the liking of professional entertainment critics and awards shows--even if in contrast to its geography, the mostly-happy campers are a rather homogeneous bunch with little to no sign of mental-health issues or dangers of the road. And she likes to work, but down with capitalism as presented by a subsidiary of Disney. With the reminder that I'm expecting a Prime delivery soon. Poverty depicted by millionaire producers, and two-time-possibly-going-on-three Academy Award winner Frances McDormand defecating in a bucket in a van. It's inside the mainstream enough to be viable, but so outside, including largely abandoning common narrative constraints in its meandering, open-road plotting, as to also be interesting.

It works even if and maybe because it doesn't always. I love that the relationship between McDormand's Fern and David Strathairn's David doesn't turn into a cliché movie romance, or that some families may become reunited and others not so much. Ditto abandoning the dog. I even like that she doesn't quit smoking and that other characters don't bother her much about it. The seeming lack of make-up and perfect hair styling. The monologues Fern listens to from reported real nomads playing some version of themselves make for some powerfully emotional scenes. And, again, to go along with Chloé Zhao's overall direction, the cinematography by Joshua James Richards is outstanding--recently, surely the best in merely recording nature, probably the most enjoyable to look at, and still up there conceptually with the daylight lighting and painterly compositions. It's the sort of road trip, manual labor and contemplative conversations that lend to rumination of various possible avenues. Big-picture topics no matter the limits of the frame and size of the screen for its vast horizons. Love and family or solitude and new acquaintances, wage slavery and job mobility, work and retirement, materialism and trash, remembering and moving on, life and death.
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2/10
Religious Poppycock
19 February 2021
"The Pilgrimage to Kevlaar" is a fine-looking film for the period, including editing based on looks, some nighttime photography and other lighting effects. The Swedish Film Institute did a great job with the digital restoration, including the tinting/toning. But, the plotting and subject matter are extremely dull. Maybe more than the technical merits of a production this is what separates a Victor Sjöström or Mauritz Stiller from the filmmakers of this evangelical drivel. Despite being only about an hour long, it's a slog to get through, which isn't helped any by my having seen it without a score--truly, a silent film.

The first part consists mostly of shots of the disabled and sign-holders walking the streets for the titular Catholic pilgrimage. A mother decides to drag her grief-stricken son out of bed to join in the parade. An unpleasant lot this devout bunch, when not somberly marching, they chastise playing children and remain defiantly uninterested in stage entertainments. It's not until they reach the miracle-granting Mary idol that they get excited about something. The usual magic of making the disabled walk again or play a violin once more ensues.

Before the son prays his grief over his dead girlfriend away, the picture includes an extended flashback of some of the most boring courtship ever filmed. The highlight is when he reads to her poetry ogling her body for its resemblance to animals and other things. Eyes resembling a dove's, hair like a herd of goats, teeth like sheared sheep recently bathed, a neck that's the tower of David with a thousand shields, and breasts like gazelle twins grazing by the lilies... y'know, that sort of thing.

The ending involving a superimposed Mary descending from her idol--crown, staff, crucifixes and carrying an obvious doll that one assumes is supposed to be the Christ child--to grant the son's prayer and the mom's dream and response to the wish fulfillment is even worse.
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6/10
Itinerant Storyteller
19 February 2021
As much as I enjoy Tom Hanks reading old-timey newspapers and contemplating the barren landscapes of a road trip, "News of the World" is lackluster for not much else going on for its two hours. The Western tale of a father-daughter relationship is uninspired. It hardly even echoes "The Searchers" (1956). And if Paul Greengrass and company were going for some sort of political commentary regarding the fake news of one town's so-called newspaper or the even blander historical admission of America's Civil War, lynching and genocide it fails. But, it's a nice-looking picture, and, yeah, I don't mind spending time listening to Hanks read. The man's a national--nay--world treasure.

Of more potential, though, was the notion of a traveling storyteller as the protagonist. A nation torn apart, put back together again through a grand narrative of stories selected by this itinerant exhibitor of the nation's newsprint. "News of the World" doesn't demonstrate that, though. This is a fractured and violent world that's depicted, and a capricious one that may strike people down otherwise with contagion (cholera in this case). Hanks adopting a kid hardly rectifies that. Not that I expected a connection to be made in the movie, but I also think it's worth noting that this is largely how movies began and as based, if not necessarily on the newspaper variety, of showmen circulating other entertainments and novelties. At the turn of the century afore, cinema was introduced to Americans and the rest of the world by exhibitors going from village to city, fairground to opera house, assembling pieces of footage from various filmmakers and studios from all over and often adding their own narration to produce an evening's entertainment.
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6/10
The Explanation Is the Killer
18 February 2021
The first "Happy Death Day" (2017) had its funny moments, too, I suppose, but "Happy Death Day 2U" is even more of a comedy, less slasher horror. Nothing new there; sequels frequently become parodies of their antecedents. The unfortunate thing is that in its explaining of the original movie, it largely removes what gave it meaning--slight though it may've been.

The template for these time-loop flicks is even more illustrative of my point. "Groundhog Day" (1993) has been interpreted in myriad ways: religious, philosophical, mythological, genre-related. I prefer a cinematically-reflexive reading myself. Point is, there's no explicit explanation for the time travel in that film. Its only meaning is what the viewer ascribes to it. Like life, perhaps, but that's another argument. Subsequent time-loop movies fail by comparison because they narrow rather than expand the field of meanings in explaining the reasons for the time traveling.

Look what happens here: a lot of time is spent explaining science-y stuff, to the point that the masked slasher mystery hardly matters. Indeed, most of the death and gore in this one isn't even murder. The first movie was a dud as far as a whodunnit, too, but it wasn't bad as an entry in the slasher genre. As in the template for that genre, "Halloween" (1978), it's about the struggle for the control of the cinematic gaze, with the spectator stuck in a loop between the hero-victim and the masked madman. The latter begins with the advantage of being unseen under the mask while stalking their victim--like the spectator outside of the picture rooting on the gory excess. The time loop gave the victim the opportunity to complete with this gaze--knowing more about the world on screen than anyone else except for maybe the spectator. She became "masked" in a sense with this knowledge, then, to the other characters, including the killer. This dynamic is missing for much of the sequel.

What besides the over-explaining and, perhaps, a bit more comedy do we get in return? Contrary to its own comparison, it's not much like "Back to the Future Part II" (1989), which was about returning to the past of the first film. Kind of like "Avengers: Endgame" (2019), for a more recent reference. The one addition I admire is the redoubling, which is also common in sequels--they inherently being doubles of the first films, after all. So, double the time travelers, universes, victims, killers, parents, etc. More banal is the choice between a boy and a mom that occupies much of the runtime. Neither character is developed enough to be interesting, so who cares about that. Plus, in the end, it's rather a false dilemma, anyways. There are few scraps, of time-loop amusement and slasher action, to grasp onto here, but what replaces much of that makes for a disappointing follow-up picture. Hopefully, they turn it around for the next sequel or sequels; otherwise, this may get repetitive in a bad way.
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7/10
"You Know What Your Little Scenario Reminds Me Of?"
18 February 2021
That's right, woodchuck-chuckers, it's "Groundhog Day" (1993)! Also, live, die, repeat, "Edge of Tomorrow" (2014) and other entries before and since in the emerging time-loop genre. Not much new is done with this iteration, "Happy Death Day," except to mix it with older, more-established genres. In this case, the slasher film and, to a lesser extent, a whodunnit murder mystery. The mystery is relatively poorly executed and none too interesting, but the construction works well enough as a violent horror flick. There's the usual, Michael Myers ripped-off masked madman, and the protagonist is the typical victim of a sexually-promiscuous sorority girl. Not quite the video game similarities of "Edge of Tomorrow," or the mirrored psychologizing of "Russian Doll," the shaggy-dog slacker ethos of "Palm Springs" (2020), let alone the cinematically-reflexive philosophical and religious musings offered by "Groundhog Day."

As in all them, though, we get the romantic coupling. In this case, it's not well fleshed out--mostly serving merely for the repeated "walk of shame." The boy is poorly developed. Is he a nerd trope? A "Scream" (1996) type side-character who helps negotiate the protagonist's and, thus, our understanding of the situation? Or just a vestigial non-entity there because the filmmakers think every movie needs romance? (Having since seen the sequel, I think it's the latter.) The aforementioned three movies all do better to make their coupling integral to their scenarios, and "Russian Doll" actually avoids the cliché.

Criticisms aside, I do enjoy even a half-baked time-travel plot, and it works well enough as coupled with the slasher genre. Much of the appeal of these movies, after all, is in the excess of the gore, both in the victimizing from the masked killer (who, as in the original "Halloween" (1978) represents the unseen film's spectator) and the victim's revenge against that unknown figure. Within and in its entirety, it's a formula repeated again and again with slight variations, with the spectator all the while being allowed to switch sides and get off scot-free.
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Making 'The Shining' (1980 TV Movie)
6/10
A Glimpse Behind the Screen
17 February 2021
One of the more-respected making-of documentaries, this film originally broadcast on the BBC and made by Vivian Kubrick, director Stanley Kubrick's daughter, has the benefit of appearing candid, as if it were just some random footage cobbled together by the director's daughter looking for something to do on set, which I suppose it rather was that. Thus avoiding the appearance of a corporate hack job from which one learns nothing that many of these subsequent studio advertisements became, "Making the Shining" is a tantalizing glimpse behind the screen, but only a glimpse--leaving one wanting much more.

We see Scatman Crothers crying in an interview over how he loved working with everyone, but we don't actually see him working with anyone. Only clips of the kitchen scenes from "The Shining," her father's film, are shown. In another interview, Shelley Duvall mentions how difficult the production and working with the director was, and we see her lying on the floor at one point in some distress, but we don't really see any of the reputed abuse or fights between the two--just a few brief and curt exchanges. And Jack Nicholson being charming, even while a teenager with a camera barges in on him ordering food and focuses on his crotch every time he's required to unzip his pants, may be the most unenlightening aspect here. On the other hand, it's cool to see Stanley Kubrick seemingly spontaneously hitting upon the idea of a low-angle shot of Nicholson locked in the pantry.
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The Shining (1980)
9/10
The Mad Author
16 February 2021
A classic example of a masterpiece initially underappreciated but subsequently celebrated, Stanley Kubrick's horror film, "The Shining," is a striking exploration of a maze of architectural space and a haunting portrayal of the creative process and extreme writer's block. Adapted from Stephen King's novel, the film is famously unfaithful--adding psychological ambiguity to the supernatural haunted house fluff (complete with being built on an Indian burial ground). In the film, it's indefinite whether the surrogate writer on screen is writing the horrors of the Overlook Hotel or if the building is writing his descent into madness and to what degree the son interferes. King's animosity for the adaptation aside, it's an apt cinematic transmutation of the reflexive textual basis of the author-character into the visual exegesis of cinema in moving through space and time and as embodied by the building's ghosts and the ESP "shining" of the characters.

There's a lot of visual doubling--a past and a present hotel caretaker and actually two present ones: one for winter and one for the other seasons, the twins, the maze of hedges outside and its miniature inside along with the labyrinth of hotel hallways down to the pattern on the carpet, the doubling of scenes through the superimpositions of the long dissolves--and shots through mirrors to reinforce the cinematic and literary reflexivity. Per usual of Kubrick's later oeuvre, the color design is impeccable. The wide-angle lenses add greatly to the apparent enormity of the sets. This was also one of the first, after more limited uses in films such as "Rocky" (1976), to extensively employ Garrett Brown's Steadicam. There are many memorable shots (and sound) here merely tracking characters walking down corridors and, especially, of Danny on his tricycle rolling along the hardwood and carpet floors. Add to that the helicopter shots outside and the transitions between the maze and its miniature as overlooked upon by Jack, and that the score is iconic. Another meticulously-crafted Kubrick film par excellence.

There've been criticisms of Jack Nicholson's performance being over-the-top, and I hesitantly agree with that assessment towards the end of the picture. Much of the ambiguity as to who is in control of the narrative, Jack or the hotel, seems to be lost with Nicholson's mugging later on, as if wearing the face of the building's ghosts, whereas his "Kubrick stare" and more restrained ticks earlier on suggest his internalized struggle. Regardless, it's a big and memorable performance. The rest of the main cast is remarkable, too. Shelley Duvall's character is rather an abused milquetoast with nothing to do but react to others, but she plays terrified well. Scatman Crothers is also good, but unfortunately fits into King's pattern of what Spike Lee termed the "magical (African-American)" (as IMDb censors insist it be called) trope, seen in "The Stand," "The Green Mile" and elsewhere. It'd be easy to dismiss were this a one-off, but King, or at least the adaptations of his books, are repeat offenders. "Doctor Sleep" (adapted in 2019), the sequel to "The Shining," even regurgitates kidnapping gypsy stereotypes. Kubrick doesn't do any better, either, with the sexual posters adorning Dick Hallorann's bedroom, and the director ultimately resorting to another unfortunate trope from horror films.

The real highlight are the hotel and maze sets, though, and how they're filmed. Even if this weren't an effective piece of Gothic horror, which it is, or even if the "Room 237" (2012) conspiracy theories were nonsense, which are they are, "The Shining" would be worthwhile merely to overlook figures passing through the halls and the winding hedges. Regardless, too, of who or what ultimately controls the narrative, psychological or supernatural, past or present, note the final shot is photographic. The real timeless ghosts that haunt us are cinematic.
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Doctor Sleep (2019)
4/10
The Steaming
16 February 2021
There are three or four kinds of movies. Most of them either don't shine--they merely exist and are nothing special at all--or shine so little that they don't know it and so only leverage it haphazardly. The rarest, most special kind shine so brightly that they illuminate the world far and wide, leaving an afterlife of residual effects upon generations: they exhale steam. Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining" (1980) was such a film. The last kind is a cannibalistic byproduct of that shining, a residual effect; they run on, feed off of the steam. It's the most insidious, threatening to supersede the magic of the original and redefine it as something lesser: the steam instead of the shine. "Doctor Sleep" is this kind of movie.

I don't read Stephen King's novels, from which these pictures are based, but I've seen some of the adaptations, and I'm not very interested in starting on the reading. This is an author, after all, who is most notoriously dissatisfied with the most intelligent reworking of one of his books, "The Shining." Others have already suggested that "Doctor Sleep" and its inevitable adaptation as a reconciliation on King's part with Kubrick's classic. That's another bad indication, as "Doctor Sleep" takes a film that brilliantly imbued architecture with such character that it wrote its own story through the surrogate author, going mad behind his typewriter and caught up between a maze of the past, present, living and dead--the real shining of the film--and turns that into comic-book, superhero franchise installment (although the poor box office might put a hold on other adaptations) about competing magical powers. Banal detritus.

It's bad enough that so many King adaptations feature the "magical (African-American)" (as IMDb censors insist on me calling it) trope ("The Shining" included), this is a movie that obliviously recycles offensive stereotypes of nomadic gypsy kidnappers for their "True Knot" villains, cannibalistically feeding on children's souls and wearing funny hats.

Otherwise, "Doctor Sleep" only gets around to reliving the architecture of the Overlook Hotel for part of the picture, and the typewriter becomes a mere prop. Apparently, the father of Abra (as in abracadabra, which if that's not enough on the nose, it's pointed out how obvious it is during a magic act for the birthday sequence) is an author (uninterestingly, of a book about dance, I gather), but his character is a throwaway compared to the reflexive authorial construction in "The Shining" or another King adaptation such as "Misery" (1990).

It's the same thing with the many stylistic imitations of Kubrick's film in what is otherwise an unappealing photographed piece of digital cinema. The music, helicopter shots, the wide-angle hallway views, and dissolves are all ripped off at some point, but the sequel doesn't commit to imitating its predecessor's style fully or effectively. Ditto the look-alike impersonators of the actors of the prior film, which are mismatched further by glimpses of Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall from the 1980 film. So much of this windbag could've been cut out, too. I can't believe there's a director's cut that pushes the runtime to three hours but adds nothing of value. Who wants to see Abra play the piano downstairs from her upstairs bedroom when there's already the spoons at the birthday party to establish that her shining freaks her parents out? And, I suppose all the alcoholism stuff adds character depth and may've been therapeutic for King, but what about all the afterlife gibberish? I had enough of King's cafeteria Christianity in "The Stand" (1994), "The Green Mile" (1999) and elsewhere already. Is the doctor from AA really only there to get him a job that advances the plot zilch? That they use these scenes for a cat to know when people are about to die should've been reason enough to excise the subplot. It's enough to put one to sleep. And why is "Casablanca" (1942) the film-within-the-film? It's all such a pointless waste of time.

To be fair, it's not the most pathetic attempt to put on Kubrick airs. I've seen "Room 237" (2012), after all. Still, I'd rather rewatch Steven Spielberg Spielberg-ing of the Overlook Hotel in "Ready Player One" (2018). Speaking of more badly-remembered 80s nostalgia, it's like one of the gypsy stereotypes said, "There used to be more shine in the world.... There's less shine out there, and it's weaker, too. I don't know if it's their cell phones, or diets, or Netflix, or what." Tell me about it.
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The Hard Way (1991)
7/10
Fantasy and Reality as Both Depicted by Movies
15 February 2021
"The Hard Way" is a lightweight buddy cop comedy with a nominal serial killer plot, but it hits a sweet spot for me with one of the guys (as played by Michael J. Fox) being an actor studying for a role by observing the supposed real detective (James Woods). The ultimate gag is that this "real" action hero, as well as surely the gun-crazed parody of New York, is just as fake as the actor and his film-within-the-film--maybe more so, as the detective is unable to even share the truth of his life with his girlfriend. All of which comes to a head as the movies and supposed reality intersect, to the point that there's hardly any distinction made between them: at a cinema screening of one of the actor's films and atop an elaborate billboard advertisement for it.

Woods does his usual schtick, but I'm more impressed with Fox, who seemed to have a solid formula for his vehicles in the 1980s and early 1990s. As in the "Family Ties" TV sitcom, he's placed as a fish-out-of-water, a character the seems not to belong in a given situation, and probably intended to be accentuated by his boyish looks and diminutive size, whether the William Buckley type conservative to hippie parents, the 1980s rock-n-roll skateboarder sent back to the 1950s, or the Hollywood plastic surgeon trapped in the small-town South as in the other Fox movie I watched the same night, "Doc Hollywood" (1991). It worked well. This time, his character benefits from him, as an actor, trying to absorb and emulate his surroundings. One way or others more, gritty realism becomes movie fiction.
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Doc Hollywood (1991)
7/10
Plastic City
15 February 2021
John Lasseter and the Pixar team must've seen "Doc Hollywood" and wondered: what if it was the car that was sentenced to community service. It's all there--the corrupt city (D.C. and Hollywood in this case) vs. rural virtues, the rom-com, the curmudgeon mentor, the automobile carnage, even the film-within-the-film, which albeit is more amusing in "Cars" (2006), but at least this one has Buster Keaton in "The General" (1927), a far better film than either of these, mildly entertaining and rather innocent though they may be.

The most amusing aspect here methinks is that despite the characterization of Hollywood (the movie capital, along with the nation's capital of D.C.) as fake--the land of plastic surgery and plastic credit cards--the small South Carolina, "squash capital of the South," town, Grady, is actually entirely a fiction. It only exists in the movie. One may assume much the same is the case with the rural virtues and quirky behavior of the townsfolk. Moreover, the central romance is initially framed as a dream under the cover of a quilt said to show one who they're to marry. Despite the PG-13 rating, too, there's a prominent topless scene.

Michael J. Fox is a likable personality. His stardom was built on roles such as this, where he played a fish-out-of-water who clashed with a culture somehow at odds with his character, whether the conservative Republican son of hippies in "Family Ties," the 1980s teenager sent back to the 1950s in "Back to the Future" (1985), or a big-city doctor stuck in a hick town as in this one. The more-kiddie Pixar misses much of this besides, of course, the nudity, but also the foreshadowing of the rest of the narrative as the dream come true. An insubstantial film, but I enjoyed it.
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