First Reformed

As I keep saying, I try to avoid movie trailers, reviews, and interviews—at least before seeing the movie—which I'm afraid leads to me missing a lot of movies—but, oh well. I accidentally heard Terry Gross interviewing the lead actor in First Reformed (2017), Ethan Hawke, and its writer and director, Paul Schrader, and before I knew it, I was interested and too informed. A couple of things, however, led me to wanting to see it, and one was something about Schrader's direction of Ethan Hawke, and his willingness to work against that “good guy” quality (which I guess is kind of that “Tom Cruise” quality [that Kubrick wasn't able to beat out of Tom Cruise, but Paul Thomas Anderson found a way to exploit]). Anyway, Ethan Hawke manages, I think, in this movie, to be both a movie star and the monumental face of buried pain. The other thing is that his character, a Protestant minister, keeps a journal, and we hear that in voiceover. That is exciting to me because of my obsession with journal writing, lately, and also, I was thinking about how much I like the use of voiceover in some movies. I once made this kind of ridiculous cinema manifesto (similar to the Dogme 95 [which now seems as dated as Y2K fear]) which included: “No Voiceover.” But it seems like there is less and less voiceover used in movies, generally, and when I think about it, some of my favorite movies ever use heavy voiceover. Instead of it being a lazy thing, a crutch, it can be very powerful if the writing is good.

I once had the idea for a film series comprised of my favorite religious movies, though I think it was actually a list of movies about Catholic priests—though now I can't remember what was on that list besides Buñuel's Nazarín (which I haven't seen in awhile) and Robert Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest (which this movie directly references). But before I go any further, I want to highly recommend that anyone reading this review see this movie. I will not use the silly “spoiler alert” warning, because it's ridiculous for me to believe, first, that anyone is reading this, and second, that anyone who has read this far will just stop, see the movie, then resume reading. Also, if you are looking for a woman's point of view, this movie may frustrate you, as one woman in the movie is more of a catalyst (or “muse,” so to speak), and the other more of a mirror (or “punching bag,” so to speak), to the main character, a man. Not unlike Taxi Driver, in a lot of ways, to which there are many similarities. I wouldn't exactly recommend this as a date movie, either, unless your idea of a date is a heated discussion after the movie—in which case it might be the perfect date movie.

But that's all I'm going to say. I do not find any joy in summarizing plot points, anyway, and I'd rather work somewhere brushing scone-crumbs off the wealthy's meeting room chairs than write those kinds of movie reviews for a living (as if). (And that's the way it is.) What I will say, however, is that after seeing this movie I got on a bus, almost mindlessly, and rode it to the end of the line, and then spent a couple of hours walking through empty parking lots, sidewalk-less grassy expanses, and suburban neighborhoods with absolutely no signs of life. The temperature was in the 90s, I guess, so not even the dogs were out. I eventually saw an elderly woman out walking, like I was, and we said hi to each other.

I noticed that on the screen this film looked almost square, so I looked later and read that it's 1.37 : 1, or “Academy ratio,” but sitting close, like I do, it looked almost taller than wide, which immediately gave me the feeling of looking up at an awe-inspiring church, or as a child looking up at a powerful adult. The opening shots, of the old “First Reformed” church, managed to freak me out somehow, and I guess that has to do with, when you focus on nearly anything, even a shrubbery, it looks weird. But what freaked me out more was the modern, “Abundant Life” church (the other church in the movie), which is a stand-in for the new mega churches that have risen in most American communities, from urban to rural, that I'm sure are filled with good people, but aesthetically (and certainly unfairly) give me the cult-alert heebie-jeebies. And then pretty much every exterior in the movie did the same; that bleak, American semi-rural landscape that sells more mood altering substances than movies sell popcorn. Even the temporary relief of an inspiring family restaurant exterior is followed by its bleak, woefully remodeled interior, with all warmth removed. This movie is like a catalog of fear, and so it immediately and continuously reminded me of that force which shapes my life: environmental concerns, uncertain political future, powerful assholes, the body failing, having children, the inability to protect those you love. Of course, isn't all religion about the fear of the unknown?—but not just the fear of death, but men's fear of women's power, due to the accident of our biology? And the difficult one for me to admit, the fear of children; not just the fear of not being able to care for and protect them, but also the fear of my own past.

To some degree this is a horror movie, though hopefully not marketed as one (as with The VVich from a couple of years ago, which wasn't a horror movie, really). I suppose it's being marketed as a “thriller” (but I guess the reality is you have to market a movie somehow, and saying that it's “art” just won't cut it). I did think of Kubrick's The Shining, at one point, just for the odd, hard to describe style that puts you off balance. With Kubrick, you remember the overplayed, iconic moments and think, “what was the big deal?”—but when you go back and watch carefully you realize it's the weird approach to recreating reality that is between the iconic moments that give the movie its power—and that is true with this one. I thought about Lars von Trier (talking about fear), and Polanski, too, and if I was more well-versed in Ozu, Dreyer, etc., I'd probably be able to cite other influences. (There's even an American Job moment, for fans of deep cuts.) When you look at Paul Schrader's credits, even if you're fairly familiar with them, it's often shocking, the varying, mostly excellent, often overlooked, and always pretty out there stuff he's been writer and/or director of (very briefly: Blue Collar, Light of Day, Mosquito Coast). I think history will remember him much more favorably than many of his contemporaries on the always shifting reverence to criticism scale. To the extent that I was freaked out after this movie, even traumatized, to some degree—after a few hours on the bus, walking, and writing in my journal, I felt a particular kind of euphoria—the only thing that ultimately keeps me going—and that's the fragile, fleeting, but powerful feeling of hope brought on by art.

Randy Russell 6.18.18

Solo: A Star Wars Story

One of my earliest entertainment memories is watching The Andy Griffith Show on TV, early 1960s black and white episodes, that still hold up today with the best television comedies. What I didn't realize is that one thing that made it so good was that it was both comedy and drama, a tricky balance held together by impeccable, effortless actors, including Ron Howard playing the part of Opie Taylor. One episode I particularly remember, because my dad liked it so much, was when Opie was being bullied by some kid, and his dad, Andy, told him that he just needed to stand up to the bully, who was probably a coward. It worked, and Opie learned a valuable lesson. Then, another bully, and Opie stood up to him, and this time the bully kicked the shit out of him. Opie came to his dad and said, “What the fuck?” (in so many words), to which Andy responded, “Opie... it doesn't work every time.”

My dad loved that, and I always remembered that as a valuable lesson, too, about how you can't count on something that worked once, when repeated, to yield the same results. I bring that up because my dad also said, “See that kid, Opie? When he grows up he's going to be a movie director, and in 2018 you'll go see a movie he directed, sit in a theater seat with power adjustments like a Buick, it'll cost you about ten bucks, and you'll find the whole enterprise quite enjoyable.” My dad didn't really say that, nor did he talk like that, but if he had really seen the future I don't know what I'd have found harder to swallow—not that Opie wasn't real, but an actor, Ron Howard, a total pro, who would grow up to be a movie director?—no, the future I wouldn't have imagined was that this particular movie cost 250 million dollars, for what's essentially a spin-off, like Joanie Loves Chachi. But the most baffling thing of all is the title (not to be confused with Salò: Pasolini's 120 Days of Sodom—especially if you're taking the kids!), because the title has a colon (:) in it! Never mind that two movies firmly in my top ten of all time have punctuation in their titles (that would be Ali and Aguirre—but those are made by crazy Germans)—colons are for the world of academia, and never, ever popular movies—it's not like you need to announce it as a story—it's not like someone's going to confuse it with a documentary (Solo: The Journey of a Disposable Cup). All that title is going to do is bum out the potential audience and make them think of Tony Roma's: A Place for Ribs.

I had heard that the original director(s) of this movie were fired/quit, which is a disastrous turn of events on a project this enormous, which was maybe the thinking in calling in Ron Howard, since he was the director of Apollo 13 (1995), about a real life outer space disaster (unless you believe the conspiracy theorists who say Stanley Kubrick directed the “original,” in which case it would technically be a remake). It also means, for Solo, that there's some great “making of” footage out there, and possibly a hilarious documentary coming soon. There is also already news about it being a box-office disaster, which just means that it didn't make the most money in the history of the world on the opening weekend. The movie is fine. It's a fun sci-fi action adventure; I was able to follow the story of multiple betrayals, intergalactic politics, power struggles and alliances, and outrageous capers and shit no one should ever try. More important, I warmed up to all the characters and the actors playing them immediately. Of course, you're always going to hear about someone having some problems with the story, because the Star Wars universe has entered the realm of mythology, and there are hundreds, maybe billions of geeks out there who are never going to be happy with the version of this made up world, how it ends up on the screen and differs from their extended internal mental fantasy version. And that's the way it's going to be until the movies evolve so that each and every dweeb can craft his personal, custom version like you're “building your own omelette” (which will happen soon enough—wait it's happening now?)

My problem with this movie is exactly the same as with all the action/adventure movies I see (and I'm guessing, the ones I don't see) and that is, I find the following (in order!) to be the most boring things in the world: 1. Hand to hand combat. 2. Sword fights. 3. Gunfights. 4. Large scale, multiple participant (and casualty) battles. 5. Car chases (and that includes flying cars and spaceships). 6. The “ticking clock” action plot. 7. Reading about box-office statistics. But maybe the most frustrating thing about this movie is that I don't see myself in there anywhere—a self-doubting, neurotic, excessive perspirer who crumbles under pressure. It's like every character in this movie, from delinquents to hustlers to Wookiees, are able to, while being shot at, expertly pilot unfamiliar craft, handle unfamiliar weapons, even do some version of desktop nuclear fusion while someone's yelling, “Five, four, three... now!” I guess a real man will confidently get under the hood of anything, even if he has no experience with fuel-injection, and if a fire starts somewhere down the road, hey. What this movie ultimately made me think about was how, at my job, which is in an office where I've learned quite a few procedures that I don't use every day, if ever, I often struggle with even typing my user name(s) correctly. And if someone if hovering over me, forget it. You forget to click that box, or forget to hit enter, or hit enter too soon, and your'e screwed! I can't remember the letters in a lifeless three letter abbreviation like WBS code, so how am I going to handle an IED or stand up to an SBD? For me, that next email might bring on the cold sweats. God help us if we ever go forward with arming school teachers. Hell. Hell.

Randy Russell 6.6.18

Let the Sunshine In

I normally avoid reading movie reviews before going to a movie, but my computer thought it important to suggest I read the review of this one by Richard Brody in the online version of the New Yorker, and since he is one of the only movie critics I read anything by anymore, before I knew what was happening I was halfway through his article and my head was swimming and I said out loud, “What the fuck are you talking about, Brody?” I may go back and read it after I write this; maybe it isn't actually as weird as I thought. I do love that guy, though, and after watching this movie I have entirely new levels of affection for Juliette Binoche and Claire Denis. You can use the internet to remind yourself of all the movies Juliette Binoche has been in; it's like an A to Z survey of legendary art movie directors. Yet, I never had that much sense of being amazed by her, so much (to be fair, I've seen only a fraction of what she's been in), so it was nice to see her in something (this) in which I'm really impressed by her. And I had to look up Claire Denis (first to see if she was a she—the French always confuse me with their names, among other things), and realized I had seen a couple of her films—very different than this one, though. I'm not sure what this movie reminded me of—it's kind of bugging me, I should be able to come up with an apt comparison—but maybe some other review will fulfill that. Anyway, I really liked it, and maybe it's better to just think of it as a unique oddity.

If it wasn't for my helpful computer suggestion and Brody's article, I might have missed this movie altogether, because that title kind of says to me: “Randy, skip this piece of shit.” But when I realized it was French and about relationships, the first thing that came to mind was the beautiful young woman and crusty old guy thing I've seen a million times. And the first scene is this woman, Isabelle (Binoche), and a guy Brody describes as “corpulent” having sex (I wanted to mention that, because corpulent is a word I'd never use, and it cracks me up). Juliette Binoche is now in her 50s, but still, it's almost like this is an allusion the “French movies.” And all men over the age of 14 are corpulent, except for maybe American movie stars who know they're going to be doing one of these fake sex scenes, and thus have a trainer. I don't know why these fake sex scenes exist in so many movies and TV shows—I hate them. All they do is make you think about how you're watching a movie fake sex scene, because if it was pornography it would be pornography, and better “acted” in some regards, more true to the action. And if it was a “real” scene we were looking in on (as with every other scene in the movie), to not avert your eyes wouldn't just make you an eavesdropper, but a pervert. These fake sex scenes aren't fun for anyone; though maybe for some actors, at least, it's a day at work that's about as far from writing reports and creating spreadsheets as possible.

There might have been a time when it was enticing to see naked actors, but I grew up in the Seventies when it was more unusual to see someone with their clothes on. What really turned me on, very early in this movie, was that blue lamp, and that whole room, really, and just everything visually, which became a struggle to keep up with while reading the subtitles, because these people could talk. Of course, talking in French, which sounds so crazy to me, and as usual is a reminder of my regret at never learning another language, which I could have done in the time I spent incapacitated by hangovers. I probably need to see this movie again because of how much I missed—especially this scene when some of the characters were suddenly out in the country—this beautiful image of bare trees and broken fences—and what were they talking about? Because my parallel mind path had me asking why am I struggling to communicate when I should be meditating in the woods. Maybe someday I'll get there, but probably not, actually.

I made a note of the cinematographer, Agnès Godard, watching the credits, as I've seen her name a lot. She has shot most or all of Claire Denis' movies—impressive, because collaborations like that are kind of rare, if just because of the difficulty of scheduling—you really have to make a point of it. Also, it was kind of bizarre to see Gérard Depardieu, since there was a time when I went to a lot of film festivals and it was kind of a ritual to make a note of how many of the movies he was appearing in at each one. But I haven't seen him in awhile—it's a weird part here, and kind of like putting Orson Welles in your movie—but I liked it. It made me think someone should make a movie about an aging internationally famous rock band on their last reunion tour of the USA with Gérard Depardieu as the lead singer who spends lots of time philosophizing over coffee in late-night Denny's. It's called Godzilla vs. the Rest of Us, and hey, that idea is up for grabs, just give me a shoutout.

This movie, then, is a series of encounters of Isabelle with a series of characters, some of them professional, some men, some lovers, but there isn't a traditional narrative that I can remember and recount, and I wouldn't anyway, if there was. It's more like a movie stripped down to what I find most interesting, including the language, which may not mean anything, and the faces, that always mean something, but what? I am left with the sensation of having gotten to know some people—I mean, real people—and since there is no bigger mystery than people, it's like I've been introduced to a mystery, or many, really, with no answer. Of course, maybe there was something I'm missing. No, actually, I know there is a lot I'm missing, and that's not only okay, it's exciting. I feel like I'd like to see this movie again. I feel like I've been saying that a lot lately—either I'm getting feeble-minded or I'm picking movies well. It makes me think of how with the good Cassavetes films, the first time you see each one you're pretty much only confused. Maybe that is seeming especially important lately, when everything is overly explained, analyzed, and discussed, while the world gets, paradoxically, more confusing.

Randy Russell 5.31.18

Isle of Dogs

People who know me are generally annoyed at how much I dislike animation, and they're probably baffled at how I claim to hate cartoons, while I read lots of comics and children's books. I make those grand statements about what I love and hate, as we all do, but I think I give things a fair chance, case by case. I went to see Isle of Dogs (2018) expecting to like it, as it's a Wes Anderson movie, for one thing, and I read or heard that it's stop-motion animation, which I believe is a technique I've been pretty fond of in the past. It has a very low-tech look, the feeling of real objects, with a kind of dripping patina of imperfection and decay. Stop-motion in general, and this film in particular, is night and day removed from the look and feel of much of the contemporary computer animation (which I've seen so little of I have trouble thinking of examples of) that is what comprises most of the kid's movies being made. I don't know why really, but that stuff just really annoys me at best, and more often, just totally creeps me out—but that's a subject for another time, because there's none of that here.

I liked everything about how this movie looked. It's on one hand really nostalgic, and made me think about the cartoons and animated shows I watched growing up, in particular, Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964), which I've watched every year for over 50 years (in spite of some major problems I have with it). There are also images that brought back deep memories of various children's books where I was often misinterpreting images, perhaps, but they accessed a deep part of the psyche. But also, there's stuff here I've never seen, and that's really the most interesting. I like this movie so much visually, that I'd like to watch it again immediately. I'll probably hold off, however, until I can watch it at home and maybe pause on, and repeat some things—but most significantly I might watch it with the sound off—and that, for me, might be indicative of my problem with this movie, which has to do with the story, the dialogue, and the relationship of the characters with their voices. While I'd miss the sound design, which naturally enhances the images, I'm wondering if it might be a better experience if all the talking was removed.

I'm a huge admirer, if not a huge fan, of Wes Anderson movies, and it occurred to me that it might be fun to rank his movies by favorites, and I noticed that there is some of this online (of course). I might do that some day (it's a good excuse to return to someone's work you haven't seen in awhile), though there are still a couple of his films I haven't seen, including an earlier stop-motion kids' story, Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), plus, I might wait until he makes his best movie ever, or at least one I like more than The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) (probably my favorite so far). While I've sometimes found myself less than interested on his takes on sex and love, I'm kind of intrigued with his obsession with head injuries (again explored in this movie)—though maybe I can just find that discussed somewhere; I've never read or heard an interview with Wes Anderson. But as someone who can't seem to escape his childhood (that's me, I'm not saying that's him), I feel I relate on some deep levels, including unrepentant nerdom (I was the kid who organized the neighborhood “Olympics” and drew endless cut-away diagrams of submarines disguised as sea monsters).

It was the obsessive nerdom of this story that first drew me in, but then, ultimately, separated me from it. It's a basic good vs. evil, underdog prevails, action adventure with lots and lots of physical altercation (though I very much appreciated how we were spared much of this, as each fight would be expressed by a hyper-accelerated cloud of dust). But the plot became so protracted and convoluted that it had to be explained by excessive exposition (in script form, this would never have gotten by a prickly intern). There was, no exaggeration, ten times too much story for me. I got bored, my mind wandered—it was like having someone who's into some kind of gaming that you know nothing about sit down and explain their game for two hours. I feel like this could have been an excellent 50 minute TV special, but it was stretched out to twice that length. Besides the piled on, unnecessary, nerd tech, science, and warcraft details, the love stories here were the worst thing, and particularly the dog love story, because when you meld human and animal personalities, it gets a little weird. That was one of the problems I always had with Rudolph, and similar to Clarice's way too mature voice, the female dog here, just talking about her “tricks” should have gotten the movie an R rating. Maybe I'm somewhat of a prude, but I look away when I see a couple of dogs humping, and the constant anxiety of seeing that here is like seeing it.

Maybe that's just a problem with giving animals human voices; there's always going to be a place where it becomes uncomfortable. In this movie, however, my larger problem was that the voices, in a lot of cases, are recognizable actors. That might just be a way of being able to sell the movie with name recognition (a concept, when it pertains to voice actors, that I find ridiculous), but here I think it really detracts from the story. It seems like some of the stars, who are good actors, don't feel the need to refrain from overacting with their voice—or maybe can't pull it off. I imagine that it's a very particular talent, doing it well, that isn't necessarily the same as screen acting (the same way that theater and movie acting are different things).

The interesting approach in this movie was to “translate” the dogs' voices into English, while not translating the human Japanese characters at all (the story is set in Japan, by the way), so that, if you're not a Japanese speaker, you have to figure out what's going on by the action (there was an occasional subtitle and external translation). This would be a very different movie for a Japanese and not English speaker, who would see the movie with the dogs' English subtitled. I think it would be a better movie, on one hand, but all the reading you'd have to do, you'd miss the amazing expressiveness of the animated dogs faces. For me, what was great about this movie was how much story and expression could be evoked just by the faces and movements of the dogs; both the insights of the artists and filmmakers here, into the nature of dogs, and their unique relationships with humans. You didn't need all that runaway dialog. Which is why I'll be intrigued to watch it silent, some day. There was one image that really stuck with me—it was one of the human characters, a Japanese hacker (who ultimately saves the day for everyone)—there is just this crude, animated shot of him, as he turns and looks at the camera, with an expression of high intelligence, impatient anger, and stunted social skills—you just know that guy. It's a reminder of how much of a visual medium film is, and how little you need, quite often, all those words, words, words.

Randy Russell 5.22.18

You Were Never Really Here

I went to a movie today totally on the spur of the moment, had to leave five minutes after I looked up movie times. Often, that's the way to do things. It was You Were Never Really Here, playing at Milwaukee's Oriental Theatre, where sometimes I'll go, regardless of what's playing, just because I like the theater so much. I had heard nothing about this 2017 film, but when I looked it up on the theater website I saw that Joaquin Phoenix was in it, and he is without a doubt my favorite working actor, and I may go to any movie he's in, until further notice. Also, it said it was 89 minutes long, which to me, lately, is a huge plus. Does it mean I'm getting old that I let running time determine what movie I go to? Probably, but this wouldn't be nearly such an issue if movies longer than two hours regularly had intermissions. Do I sound like a broken record about intermissions? Get used to it! Anyway, this movie felt like a much longer story—I mean, in a good way—you get an incredible lot in that 89 minutes. By the end I felt like I'd binged an entire 10 episode TV season, actually.

I also noticed that the director was Lynne Ramsay, a familiar name, though I could remember nothing about her, but now that I'm back home, as much as I want to do no research in writing these reviews, I'll read something about her; she's from Scotland and has made several films, including one I've seen and liked quite a lot, Morvern Callar (2002). Her feature before this was called We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) which I probably heard of but skipped, probably because of and in spite of sounding like a 1970s horror movie with Martin Sheen and rats. This one is based on the novel, You Were Never Really Here by Jonathan Ames. I don't know what Lynne Ramsay's primary interests are, but it occurs to me that the story—a kind of taut political conspiracy thriller—is to some extent merely a palate for the pure film experience we end up with. Though there must be something about the novel; Jonathan Ames is a fascinating guy (I've heard him on podcasts). I liked his TV show, Bored to Death, and an autobiographical comic (someone else drew it) called The Alcoholic. Now, what's really weird is, seeing his name reminded me I had something on my kindle by him (which I have no recollection of buying)—so I just looked, and it's You Were Never Really Here! If the current wrinkle on gaslighting is to add books to my kindle, I'm not going to complain, and while you're at it, maybe add money to my bank account.

The movie could be marketed as an action thriller (if I'd seen the trailer first, I probably wouldn't have gone), which it is to some extent, but it's a mystery as well, and I love mysteries as much as I don't like extreme and disturbing violence. So in this case, I was so caught up in the story, the character, and the filmmaking, that I was able to tolerate the nightmarish violent stuff, which was extreme, but far from gratuitous, I thought. Also, it's another portrait film to some extent, and we very much inhabit the main character, Joe, (Joaquin Phoenix)—sometimes even seeing through is eyes—while we try to make sense of the flashbacks we seem to be experiencing together. I don't like flashbacks in movies; I recall making a “Cinema Manifesto” at some point, one of whose rules was: No Flashbacks. They work as well in this movie as any I can think of, though, because they're woven in with the fragmented style of the present narrative, so we're able to empathize with our protagonist—what it's like trying to function while images of horror fill your consciousness. I guess it's a depiction of PTSD we've seen a lot in movies—and in a way I don't have a need to see this guy's mind illustrated—but the way it works together here, as a portrait, along with the thriller narrative—but told in a visceral, sensuous filmic style—is what makes it a special experience. I guess the closest comparison that comes to mind is some of Michael Haneke's stuff—and there are others—but no need to start unearthing comparisons while this movie is still a living and breathing thing—at the theater.

I was just thinking about the differences of watching something at home vs the theater—there's all the obvious ones—but for me the biggest difference is sound. If you're lucky, you have a great sound system to go with your big screen, and then either thick walls or no neighbors, and you watch movies at a volume level where you can hear the whispering and mumbling of an actor like Joaquin Phoenix, and then get blasted out of your seat by the unexpected intrusions, explosions of violence, and incursions of diegetic and score music, like in this movie. But me, at home, I'm the worst: small screen, and I'm self-conscious about my neighbors having to hear the moaning of a man suffering from a gunshot wound. I typically have my subtitling activated all the time. I'll stop a movie countless times to worship my smartphone, find a book, prepare a meal, go back to get the salt, pee, and end the day—sometimes I don't get back to the exciting conclusion for weeks. You're never going to have a cinematic acid trip that way. This is one of those movies, when I left, all my senses were heightened—just walking down the sinister hallway in the Oriental to the men's room felt like an adventure. Of course it wears off pretty fast, but at least it's a drug with no physiological hangover, and I'd go so far as to say it's cleansing.

I feel like my attempts to try to describe what Lynne Ramsay has done as a filmmaker are going to fail, plus, I don't know how many people I know personally (or who might read this) have seen this movie, so this is a case where I'm just going to encourage you to see the movie—at the theater. (Or if at home, eventually, try to go the extra mile and recreate the theater experience, for this one.) As much as I was caught up in the suspense story (it's about a guy who does very dangerous work for hire), I was aware (but not too much) that I was enveloped in a symphony of heightened sound and evocative images. You just don't hear filmmakers using sound like this. There are also some interesting songs that fall within scenes (I think, none of which I knew, which is a plus!) and a great score. I only saw in the credits that it was Jonny Greenwood, who I think is doing the best score music of anyone lately—but also nice, the score didn't jump out and say Jonny Greenwood score, as with some composers. The imagery is often mundane stuff (some too mundane to ever even be seen in a movie) that all takes on a freshness and amplified significance because of context. I felt like getting up and addressing the sparse, noontime crowd and yelling, “People, this is filmmaking!” But I don't do that kind of stuff in public. I'm doing it now.

Randy Russell 5.1.18

Zama

I just saw the 2017 movie Zama at the UWM Union Cinema as part of the 2018 Latin American Film Series, and it felt like an event, heightened by the cosmic-joke April weather, freezing rain going in, full-on ice-storm coming out. This was a highly anticipated movie by Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel, being nine years since her last film. I am a big fan of her 2002 movie, La Ciénaga (it's on my first list of my 100 all-time favorite movies!)—though I can't remember if I saw her subsequent movies, The Holy Girl (2004) and The Headless Woman (2008). How have I gotten to the point in my life where I cannot remember if I saw a movie or not? I think your brain just gets filled up, no different than with computer memory—there is a finite amount of memory available, and once it gets near capacity, funny things start to happen. That thing about us using only 10% of our brain? That's horseshit, like the thing about breakfast being the most important meal of the day. Think about how much information your brain takes in on even the most mundane day, every single sound and smell. What's different for different people is how they processes it. When I see movies like this one, about people in the “new world,” it always makes me think about what it must have been like mentally, in that it was so different from the land they came from, and they didn't have TV and movies to prepare them. Even if they didn't accidentally ingest substances to freak them out, just the sights and sounds, it must have been like a non-stop acid trip.

This is another movie where I felt like I was understanding about 10% of it, and I just use that as a round figure—maybe more, or maybe less—no way to know—but anyway, it's to some extent a portrait film, about this character Don Diego de Zama, and his struggles... with just about everything. It's based on a 1956 novel by Antonio di Benedetto—which I haven't read, though now I'm curious about it, to what extent the movie's odd tone, odd humor comes from the novel or the filmmakers. I will have to see more of Lucrecia Martel's films, too. When I first saw La Ciénaga I was thrown so off-balance by it that I wasn't sure how much I liked it until I saw it at a later date. I used to have a theory about Canadian cinema, that there was a particular oddity to it that you could feel more than explain. Sometimes I'd notice this about non-Canadian movies, which I'd then describe as “Canadian.” I got this feeling from some Argentine films I was seeing a lot of, though now I don't remember what, except for Alejandro Agresti's Buenos Aires Vice Versa (1996). Whether there is anything to this, I'm not so sure—though there seems to be some kind of odd humor from knowing that beyond your northern (or southern) border lies the uninhabitable—the unknowable, really.

I'm not sure how many of the years since Martel's last movie were spent on this one, but it definitely has the look of a work that saw more than a few seasons pass. Besides weather (it's virtually all outdoors location shooting), the number of funding sources in the opening credits is staggering. There are more end credits than a Marvel movie, and more producers than a Frankie Latina production. And animals; it's one thing putting dogs in your movie, but I've heard that llamas like to spit when unhappy with craft services. I'm imagining there could be a documentary about the making of this film as intense as Les Blank's Burden of Dreams (1982)—and of course you can't help thinking of Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo (1982) and Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)—the way you feel the presence of the filmmaker, relating to the travails of the characters. Here we follow Zama through one event after another, all of them frustrating, confusing, or just plain bad. I really liked the actor, Daniel Giménez Cacho, and wondered if I'd seen him before, but I don't think so—though he reminded me of someone, like he could be someone I know. The visual details are consistently stunning—there's always something in the back of the shot, something in nature, or weather, and animals are constantly wandering in and out of shots, so you want to just look at stuff. You can almost smell this movie. Zama wears pretty much the same soiled garments throughout, too hot for the weather, which look like they were expensive at one time. Unlike old Hollywood costume epics where you can almost smell the mothballs from the costume department, you really feel like the smells in this movie would be something you've never experienced, occasionally intoxicating and often unpleasant.

I very much appreciated that very little is explained in that clunky way movies do, out of fear the audience will be alienated by not understanding. There is lots and lots of dialogue, at times, but you get the feeling that the characters often don't know what they're talking about, or are deliberately creating false narratives. Zama seems to be in a position of power, but there is a continuous contradiction between the political, the wealthy, and the forces that are actually in control. He encounters characters whose motives are uncertain, including a woman (played by Lola Dueñas) in a couple of hilarious scenes involving such a visceral depiction of drinking alcohol that it almost had me heading for a meeting, post movie—just the way her personality changes with each drink. Zama clearly has desire for her, and her desire is heightened as she becomes intoxicated, but it's like the closer she gets the farther away she becomes. He is clearly frustrated, but also frustrated in not being able to express that he's frustrated.

We also keep hearing about some mythical villain named Vicuña Porto, which reminded me of the first time I came across the word vicuña, a very expensive type of wool from a South American animal. It was that scene in Sunset Blvd. (1950) in which Norma Desmond is buying Joe Gillis a fancy wardrobe—the encounter with the sleazy salesman (“Well as long as the lady's paying for it, why not take the vicuña?”) —kind of an unforgettable image from that movie. Which has nothing to do with this one, but now that I think about it, there are real similarities between Zama and Joe Gillis, and maybe you can make an argument that the entire movie is Zama's feverish recollection while dying, or in the compromised position in which he ends up. We finally do see Vicuña Porto (or a character who has either claimed to be, or is saddled with the suspicion of being him)—an unimposing goof who quickly assumes a curiously terrifying countenance. He's played by Matheus Nachtergaele, a Brazilian actor I've never seen, but really reminded me of young Jack Nicholson.

The movie continues like one of those dreams that seems too long for one feverish night of sleep, as we, with Zama, stumble upon one visually stunning scene after another—beautiful and terrifying—such as one with some indigenous characters with their bodies dyed red, seeming to glow against the lush green vegetation. There is an ongoing quest for wealth—silver from a rotting corpse, fine liquor, coconuts. I am curious about the references to coconuts. What does this mean? “Where are the coconuts?” The phrase resonates in my mind, still. For some reason it made me think of Luis Buñuel—and maybe Simon of the Desert (1965), or Nazarín (1959). I'm making a note here, of my ignorance, to remind me to read some more informed articles, or maybe even the book, and to see this movie again when it comes, as it should, to one of our local movie palaces. The story ends with Vicuña Porto's advice, to Zama, for survival—which hopefully no one will ever have to heed—though metaphorically, all of us do—but I'm not going to repeat that here, sorry—you're going to have to see the movie.

Randy Russell 4.23.18

In the Jungle

I'm a little afraid (which means terrified, when people say that) to write about In the Jungle (2017), a movie at whose heart is the subject of fear—but if I'm remembering correctly (mere hours ago)—the last line spoken is, “Don't be afraid.” I didn't take notes, though I thought about how I once had a ballpoint pen with a little light in it, handed out at a film festival for that purpose—though if you attempted to look away and take notes during this one you'd risk being lost in the jungle of words, which pretty much come non-stop (or so it seems; the words in the movie propagate the words in your mind). Not long in minutes, the movie feels fairly epic. Some refer to this as a “video”—but to me, if you sit and watch it in a theater, it's a “movie.” (A “video” is also often referred to as a “piece”—which is a word I reserve for speaking of pizza.) I mention film festivals because that is likely where you would see a movie like this—deemed “experimental”—a label that scares away mass audiences (and mass audience venues)—though for me (and for many more people than those venues realize, I think) it means banana split. Also, I think the required minute designation (I believe it's 70-something) to be considered a feature, that many film festivals enforce, is idiotic (as is having a word-count designation to make a novel). Most important is how it feels, and this feels like a feature movie, and that comes from the structure, which is in this case three distinct parts, or “acts.” I am here to declare that a movie of any length can be a feature (though if it's over two hours, it should contain an intermission).

My fear here extends from the fact that I personally know the filmmaker, Stephanie Barber—and whether it's unethical not to mention that in a review (just solved that)—and also suspecting that she may read this. Even for filmmakers who seek out their reviews, they won't find mine in the jungle of the internet, even with a powerful search party like Google. And, I probably wrongly think I know her well enough to be able to put myself in her place, reading this, and thinking, “You got that totally wrong,” and “Why didn't you mention that?”—because that's what I would do! Also, in this, as in a lot of her work I've seen, she doesn't shy away from including all of the influences percolating in her brain at the time of creating the work, stuff that my ignorance of which doesn't make me proud (unlike my ignorance of pop culture, which merely makes me smug). Also, I know she's a person who can do a NY Times crossword puzzle in the time it takes me to remember my frustration with the last one I attempted. She loves words, and though I do, too, I come from the town of willful ignorance, in the county of undiagnosed learning disorder. An example: I believe the word “corporeal” marched by, but I grabbled on, wishing I could hit pause and look it up, because I only kind of know it, and my mind wanted to, right then, develop a pun with it and corporal punishment (and Corporal Klinger). In the meantime, the movie continued on without me, alas, lost.

It starts with a woman (played by Cricket Arrison) speaking a monologue while typing on a giant Pee-Wee's Playhouse typewriter—or maybe she's voicing what she's “typing”—her notes on her long stay and study in the jungle. It's all very theatrical, and I found out later the movie is based on a performance Stephanie Barber put on, in which she played this part, as well as writing and performing much or all of the music. There is a lot of music, much of it also equally intense with lyrics, as important as the words the actors are speaking. I guess it could have been a choice to film the performance, and make a feature that way (or to go out and film in an actual jungle). Often movies based on plays feel exactly like movies based on plays, and trying to hide that makes it worse, but here, in heightening the theatricality, it makes it into an integral part. Eventually the camera turns and views the audience—it's kind of shocking when you first see it—and we stay there between “acts” as stage hands move set pieces around, accompanied by jarring repetitive sounds that could be a factory, or a noise band. Rather than this feeling like we're watching a play, it makes us wonder how much of the narrator's reality is in her own mind, which makes it all more real for the viewer (unlike enormous budget Hollywood movies whose advance technology takes us further away from the imagination, which is still more powerful than CGI). It also makes you wonder how much of what we are seeing is a child, “playing” adult, or an adult channeling childhood.

All of this served to break me free from my own biases, as a viewer—the first and hardest of which is the concept of “jungle”—and that struggle started, for me, in just being aware of the title; what does the jungle mean to me? In my case, it was a dead concept, because the first thing that comes to mind is Guns N' Roses “Welcome to the Jungle,” a terrible song by a band I like, so I wish I'd never heard it. And then there is Apocalypse Now (1979), a movie I saw too many times, so that its jungle became a comic book jungle in a comic book war adventure. At some point a tiger appears—a person in a very excellent tiger suit—and then there is a video representation of a tiger, running, running through changing backgrounds. It could be running through time—the world changing—the tiger staying the same? I'm not sure—but as a metaphor, what is a tiger? It's both too mundane and too prevalent to be useful, unless you take several steps back. For me, as a person who has spent far too much time closely examining the domestic house cat, I think of scale, and how often the only difference between something being terrifying or not is how big it is.

The second part, then, is the woman at a podium giving a presentation to an association of botanists, and again my mind got on its own runaway train, for which I apologize. While I missed what she was talking about, I was thinking, “How funny is a botanists' association?” (I'm sure botanists don't appreciate me thinking that.) I once lived in a house with several apartments, and some new neighbors moved in and took over the garden, claiming to be botanists, after which I never referred to them by name, but as “The Botanists” (which sounds like a movie from 1970). Which got me thinking about how I heard there is a remake, coming soon, of the Lost in Space TV show—which I watched from an age young enough to be terrified by it, despite the campy humor. Very bad idea (the remake), I thought, until I saw that Dr. Smith was being played by Parker Posey (an actress I love, and now that I think of it, her humor reminds me of Stephanie Barber's). That TV show (a sci-fi Swiss Family Robinson, which kept stranding the explorers on new but the same desert/jungle planets) was consistently about, like many post-war TV dramas, PTSD, and also a very bizarre obsession with and fear of plants. I don't know if anyone has written a book or article about it, but its writers constantly explored ways in which plants are not benign and passive, but aggressively threatening.

By the time the third part came around I was swimming in words and memories, and actually thought about swimming, wondering if the ocean could be considered a jungle (it's a desert, after all). Holding my breath, I thought about how the cinema is an art form that died in its infancy, and how the greatest filmmaker in its brief history, Jean-Luc Godard, is still working, and also couldn't get arrested at an American film festival. I thought about him because he's always been my example for someone whose work I can watch repeatedly and keep getting something from, because I'm maybe only understanding ten percent of it at any given time. And maybe that's where I'm at with In the Jungle.

This last part, though, contained song and dance (snake puppets!), and a late-night radio DJ (played by M.C. Schmidt) being listened to by the woman, now hiding out as a snake, in her snake sleeping bag, or hiding out in childhood. She is comforted by the DJ, feeling a connection to him, and she even calls him on the phone—a “landline.” But he's just broadcasting, both caring and indifferent. We're all broadcasting now, for little red hearts, but no two people are hearing the same thing. I thought about this time, 30 years ago, after visiting a woman I had just met—we had kind of an emotional goodbye, and I drove the couple hundred miles back home in the middle of the night. Would people, now, continue the conversation on their phones? She went to work, an overnight radio DJ, while I drifted through radio stations to keep awake, well out of range. But by some weird atmospheric connection, about halfway home, her signal drifted into my orbit, and for a few minutes I could hear her voice, talking about the songs she was playing, and how much they meant to her. I would have to get home safely, I thought, so I could write her a letter and tell her about this. Love will come and go, over the generations, the same promises and disappointments. But it is those unique moments—often fleeting and understood by no one else—that separate you from the merely hungry.

Randy Russell 4.16.18

The Death of Stalin

As I lurked in the movie theater lobby while the trailers played (it's my goal to avoid trailers and reviews before seeing a movie) it occurred to me that I could read a little about Joseph Stalin and USSR history on my phone, just before the movie, but the idea of that kind of last minute “catching up” struck me as pathetic. I've had half a century to read some world history and managed to avoid it. I'm not proud of my ignorance—I'm not proud of anything—but I'm maybe kind of not beating myself up about being able to admit my shortcomings. So anyway, I figured, it's a movie, it will probably spoon-feed me the history part, which was to some degree true, but it was pretty fast and furious, the jokes just kept coming, and I realized I'd probably have gotten a lot more out of the movie by having a sound historical background and being more familiar with these characters who were involved in a struggle for power after Stalin's sudden death put the government in chaos.

I'm guessing that the comic, sometimes even slapstick, version of this significant moment in Soviet history is not too close to anyone's memory, who were there, though I suppose the people who survived Stalin's long reign of terror were somewhat biased, anyway, by skewed information—I mean, no different than any history, just more so, by the historical subject's vigorous program to rewrite history. But this probably isn't the movie you show in high school history class on substitute teacher day (do they still do that in high school?). I heard that the movie was banned in Russia, and you can't really blame them—I'm all for free speech, but there're some movies I'd like to ban here if they ever put me in charge (“minister of culture”). Of course, in this country, there is no point to banning a movie when you can just marginalize it. Put it on YouTube, free and accessible to everyone, and after about five minutes no one really cares.

I know I don't know what I'm talking about, but worse, I can't even trust what I've just seen. 24 hours after seeing this movie, I had the impression, on one hand, that the entire thing was in Russian and subtitled, and on the other hand that everyone was speaking in a kind of Americanized Star Trek Klingon version of a Russian accent. None of which is true, and I think that all the characters spoke in their own voices—more suited for non-stop zingers, one-liners, and crushing put-downs—but somehow—I guess because of the quality of the writing and the performances—I was sold like hotcakes on Saturday morning. I mean, it's nothing like the Biblical epics where one guy sounds like he's from Brooklyn, another from the Bronx, another from London, etc.

I suppose seeing a well researched and scrutinized documentary on this subject would be a more responsible approach to history, but I don't know—after watching that epic Vietnam War documentary on TV last fall, I felt like I was ready to go to sleep for the next ten years. I know that's wimpy of me, and yes, there are people who lived through that on many levels (and ones who didn't survive). But no matter how funny it's presented, or how impressive the artistic achievement, horror is not easy for me to stomach. I'm still trying to get through the fourth part of Roberto Bolaño's 2666 (The Part about the Crimes)—been trying for a couple of years, and good writing just makes horrific depictions more horrific (but I endure, because The Part about Archimboldi sits there waiting like clean sheets in the El Dorado Motel).

When I saw in the credits that this 2017 movie was based on the French graphic novel, La mort de Staline, something in my brain clicked the response, “Oh, that makes sense.” I guess that was what inspired director and co-screenwriter, Armando Iannucci (of whose considerable credits I've seen exactly zero, but whose name I'll pay attention to in the future). I only recognized a handful of actors, but they are all very good, and you get that that Preston Sturges/Coen Brothers feeling of expertly casting and utilizing this seamless parade of character actors who you can marvel at while simultaneously forgetting they're acting. Speaking of the Coen's, it occurred to me that had the wood-chipper in Fargo (1996) been a time machine, Steve Buscemi's character might have slid into a time and place where his Carl act could have found success (though I'm sure Khrushchev and Carl Showalter are day and night, IQ-wise). (But then, Steve Buscemi is one of those guys—if you got a temp job locked in Sam's Club overnight doing inventory and the Steve Buscemi character was your co-worker, you've hit the jackpot in life.)

To sum it up... well, I'm not going to, so screw it. I feel like I could have actually benefited in this case, against my thing against reading anything about a movie before seeing it, and gotten something out of reading about it ahead of time. So you might, too. But God help you if this is the review you've chosen to enhance your moviegoing experience. On the other hand, if you're like me and are baffled at why some horror movies are called comedies, and some comedies are called horror movies (not that both can't be both, and often are), maybe you'll latch onto the very universal side of this movie, which is about fear. Though we know it's the only thing to be feared (itself), that helps very little when you're at the mercy of someone or something with control over your life, making it not good. This movie is a very particular type of humor, then, that might be still there for you, even when you are all out of tears.

Randy Russell 4.10.18

The Party

The first thing you notice is that it's black and white! (Remembering that some movies fool you by opening with black and white, only to crush your spirits by switching to color.) Then a familiar voice: “You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension...” I'm just kidding—but at the end of this terrific experimental comedy, it did occur to me that it's a slightly extended Twilight Zone episode. I mean that as the highest compliment. As is my custom, I went to the theater knowing as little as possible about the movie, so when I got home I looked up the director, Sally Potter, and realized I have not seen anything by her previously, and will now look forward to checking out some of her work. I was familiar with all seven of the actors, however, and they're all very good. I can't tell if something is shot with film or digital anymore, but the black and white cinematography looked really good, and I think more movies should be b&w, particularly if they feature acting and faces (as opposed to cartoons and explosions) because b&w intensifies faces. I was also noticing details more, like fabric—which led me to think, for the second movie in a row, that what the cinema is really missing out on is exploitation of the olfactory realm—though how that can be accomplished is up to some future genius.

The Party (2017) is barely feature length, and essentially one extended scene in one setting (the living room, kitchen, bathroom, and just outside a house). It doesn't feel like a play, however, and actually feels more like an entire season of an ensemble television drama insanely compressed into seventy-some minutes. This compression is where the comedy lies—much more so than in the vicious and cutting dialogue; much of the ongoing joke is that these people are so unpleasant that the relentless dispensation of information and lack of breath from one hyper-dramatic moment to the next is actually a relief. God help me if this is a party I find myself at anytime soon. Or worse, the normal person, “sane” version of how the party was “supposed to” go—the congratulations, the polite announcements—if the hidden resentments, the deep-seated hatred hadn't bubbled to the surface.

I know I said I'm going to write about movies without worrying about giving anything away, but in this case, even a rudimentary plot summery will ruin the viewing experience for anyone who hasn't seen it, and if you have seen it, there is no point. I will mention that there is a gun (which enters in about the first four seconds), three blows to the head, and lots of vomiting. Also, some absurdly copious burning food kitchen smoke. And one texting phone, with an annoying (are there any other kind?) tone. Anyway, what I am going to do is present a couple of theories that occurred to me about the formation (and perhaps meaning) of this story—which seem obvious to me, and therefore might be subject of some other article or online discussion group, but I've read nothing, and this is straight from my mind, hours after watching the movie. Also, I might be totally off base, but the fact that I'm still thinking about the movie is a good sign.

Theory one is that this movie is a sequel/remake/parallel universe re-visitation of St. Elmo's Fire (1985)—which is one of the worst movies ever made, but somehow irresistible for its train-wreck quality and unintentional humor. That movie also has seven main characters, all personal and professional acquaintances and friends, with messy histories and uncertain futures. Each character embodies a “type” (“the yuppie,” “the party girl”)—badly written, overwrought, ridiculous—to the point of hilarity. I could imagine a writer/filmmaker using that movie as a starting place, imagining these characters thirty years down the road, but instead of maturing and expanding their horizons, they spent too much time with each other with, for some reason, in an unhealthy insularity. Of course, it doesn't quite fit, since The Party is comprised of half old friends and half newcomers to the group—and also, there's the character we never actually see, who is the “wild card”—and I don't know who in St. Elmo's Fire that would be. Still, it's worth considering.

Maybe my second theory is more plausible, and that's that this movie is based on the Gilligan's Island (1964) TV show. The clue here is that The Party's unseen character is named Mary Ann—we keep hearing about this Mary Ann—the one person who is late to the party—but seems to be at the center of everything that is going on. On Gilligan's Island I always felt that Mary Ann was the most intriguing character because she is the only one who is not a “type”—and I realize that she's the “farm girl”—but I think she's meant to be a stand-in for the viewer—the normal person—while the rest of them are various versions of ridiculous. And I realize The Party has an extra character—but the character of “Tom”—who brings the gun, the coke, and the bad intentions to the party—I see as the weekly Gilligan's Island “intrusion.” Essentially, these seven characters have achieved an ideal, isolated existence, and with each episode, a new outside force is introduced—the threat being that they will be “rescued” (and thus, The End). Anyway, you can do worse than to write a story with the characters from Gilligan's Island as a framework model of your characters (I have done it).

I think it's a real failing of movies to want to make sure you know exactly what's going on and why, so when it's over you feel satisfied and forget it fifteen minutes later. Longer and more overwhelming isn't necessarily an improvement, as far as I'm concerned. Being crushed under the weight of a movie isn't my idea of fun, nor is being suffocated by its immensity. Sometimes I really value that feeling of “what just happened”—in life, and in art. Though there are times when you do appreciate being crushed by a movie (in particular, the rare story that's sad and real), and would rather not talk about it, sometimes it's nice to meet for coffee after it's over and talk about it. Or if you don't have anyone to talk to, you can write an article, and if you're lucky, get paid a kernel of popcorn per word.

Randy Russell 3.12.18

Black Panther

I realize that this, being: 1: the new Marvel movie; 2: the biggest movie of the year so far and maybe all of 2018, and; 3: a good place to make a lot of observations about race and politics (world-wide, but particularly in a country who after two terms of a very popular black president, then elected a president on the fear, hatred, and white supremacy ticket)—that there is no shortage of people writing about this movie (with infinitely more Marvel knowledge and racial/political savvy than I have). And seeing how I'm writing this for my own website that is for the most part politely ignored, I realize I'm really farting in the wind with this review—but my ongoing project here is to write about every movie I see in the theater, and do it in my own, neither academic nor mass-media style, often willfully ignorant, obtuse, and esoteric. But also as honest as I can be, and not caring if I step on anyone's toes—or even enrage anyone (because I've found, over the years, that you will do that sometimes, anyway, no matter how hard you try not to, so it's better to just not worry about it).

So first of all, I have to admit to seeing only two Marvel movies, previously (one of which I thought was OK, and the other I hated with a passion). I'm not a Marvel guy, and I wasn't as a kid. Though it just occurred to me, I should get out my old comic books (I saved them) and write something about the Marvel and DC action comics I did have, and try to describe my memories of the weird feelings I got from them. But anyway, this movie is my first exposure to the character Black Panther and the fictional country of Wakanda, but with that little informational intro (which charmingly reminded me of the intro to Escape from New York) I was right in it. I'm a sucker for maps and making up places that seem like they could exist, and I love this idea of the hidden African country that has a third world exterior but is actually the most technological advanced place on Earth.

At the center of this story—and placed deep in the earth by a meteorite—is a substance called vibranium—which as far as I could tell has a crazy ability to absorb and release energy, making it miraculously useful and potentially catastrophic. It also affected some kind of heart-shaped herb, which ancient people of the region discovered would give then super powers, thus the origin of the Black Panther. I hope I'm getting that right. And now in contemporary times, and most intriguing to me, the nation of Wakanda has been able to both isolate itself, and thrive with tremendous advances in technology and science, aided by the use of vibranium. Though isolated, they send people out in the world, presumably to study and gain knowledge, but also in some cases as spies—necessary, of course, to know what's going on in order to protect their country. The major conflict—and a fascinating one—then becomes whether to use their power to help oppressed people (particularly of African descent) throughout the world, or to remain isolated (arguably to protect their resources from global powers which would then eventually destroy them and use their resources to further oppress the oppressed). You can debate this endlessly, and I guess people will (both in the movie, about the movie, and as a fundamental question).

I guess that when these movies are made, Marvel geeks debate endlessly about the adherence and deviation from the source materials, and in this case the director and co-writer, Ryan Coogler, is young and tremendously successful, and may be in the position to decide if he wants to direct the next Black Panther movie, or make Heaven's Gate. I will look forward to reading an interview with him, like an in-depth one. I'm not going to get to all the things I wondered about in this movie, some of which might have been wedded to the source material, and conventions of the genre, but then in some case could be breaking away from those things, including possible subversive allegories. I hope so, because I think the filmmakers could see crossover potential of this movie, not just among Marvel fanatics and don't-give-a-shit-about-Marvel audiences, but from the movie-as-a-violent-video-game audiences to sophisticated, thoughtful, and politically minded audiences. Sorry if that sounds condescending.

As usual, I'm avoiding any plot summery (for that, see-any-review), but I want to mention that I liked how our protagonist, T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the Black Panther, has flaws and weaknesses, and I realize this idea is central to the superhero thing, but was played out here in a way I found pleasing and fun. It's also interesting, that for him to become king, he had to fight a challenger with his powers stripped away. Which, of course, immediately makes you think, what if a President had to run for office with no financial and corporate backing? I know. Anyway, then later when Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) challenges for and assumes the throne (in order to carry out his plan of world revolution), the movie achieves its greatest complexity as some of the Wakandans feel obligated to follow him, while others resist. As Killmonger is pretty ruthless, and as king immediately becomes a dick, the audience is compelled to turn on him, but I couldn't help feeling somewhat on his side, seeing his back-story, in early and later flashback. Anyway, then in the inevitable, protracted, hand-to-hand battle between T'Challa and Killmonger, we have the classic battle between one whose superpower is compassion with one whose superpower is anger and hatred. In the real world, who knows, but this is a movie, so the ending is hopeful (but since it's a franchise movie, don't ever count on the dead not to return, as long as one speck of DNA is kept in a test-tube somewhere, and audiences want a return).

There were some other really interesting things to me, such as that the most fierce of all the Wakandan warriors were women. And the real hero of this movie was T'Challa's 16 year old sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), one of their top scientists and inventors, who essentially saves the day. And then the one major character who is white (besides the evil arms dealer, Klaue)—an American CIA agent, Ross (Martin Freeman), who was not only kind of annoying, but also uncomfortably fawned over because “he took a bullet” and saved T'Challa's girlfriend, Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o). I don't know about you, but in that scene, as well as most of the action scenes, I could not tell what was happening amidst all the lethal metal flying everywhere. Maybe I am too old to follow action sequences in movies anymore. Is that one of the things that diminishes with age? Anyway, it's nice of them to save his life, but it really made me nervous to let him walk around in their secret laboratories—he's a American CIA for God's sake. And he's pretty lame—but it occurred to me that it might have been a pointed choice to make the “token” white guy really boring in order to poke fun at and critique the countless examples, in the movies, of the token, non-threatening black character.

That's more than I planned to write about this movie; I might need to take brevity training. Oh, but one more thing. Do you mind if I use the bathroom? (Was there ever a Columbo episode where he came back with his “one more thing” and asked to use the bathroom?) This is yet another movie that's well over two hours long with, naturally, no intermission. This would have been a tremendous movie to work in an intermission. I can almost picture where it would go. Also, there were a lot more kids and families at this movie than at ones I usually see—who would really benefit from an intermission. I don't want to pick on the theater by naming it, but you are selling out shows, so it would really be nice if you HIRED ENOUGH PEOPLE to sell tickets and concessions. I really wanted some popcorn, but I had to skip it because the line was too long (could have bought some at the intermission). And I had to rush from the theater, after it was over, to the bathroom (and in the two men's rooms, 50% of the urinals are broken. Memo to iPic/Bayshore: Hire. A. Plumber).

And one more thing. Something I read (after seeing the movie) alerted me to the fact that there was a very illuminating scene during the credits—maybe more than one. I'm sure Marvel people know that they do this. (I think this is a Marvel movie thing.) But at most movies I go to (if I don't have to rush out and pee), I do sit through the credits—and then get up and everyone is gone—and the usher, picking up trash, looks at me uncomfortably, like, “Am I going to have to get the 409?” But with large action movies, the visual effects credits alone read like a phonebook, and frankly kind of depress me. And by that time it might be three hours since you entered the theater. I'm envious of people whose bladders are that large, but also suspicious. Like, if that's your super power, what are your flaws?

Randy Russell 3.7.18

I, Tonya

It's hard to believe it's nearly a quarter of a century ago, this story, because it feels like yesterday. I moved to Seattle late in 1993 (and Portland in 1994) so I was out there when this was going on, and that spring felt cursed with sad and surreal stories (Kurt Cobain's suicide, OJ's “low-speed chase”). This 2017 movie reminded me to get out this half-completed scrapbook I started around that time that I fondly called my “White Trash” book. It's a glued together collage art thing, which includes images and articles cut from magazines, mostly about celebrities who I was for the most part celebrating, including Mickey Rourke (articles about him were, at one time, insane and priceless), Ellen Barkin, Courtney Love, Drew Barrymore, and other favorites (though also included some who creeped me out, like Oswald, Kitty Kelley, and weirdly, on the very last page, a picture of Donald Trump in one of his tacky properties). I have more pictures of and articles about Tonya Harding than anyone, including two Newsweek covers. Her story was, to me, at first inspiring, then weird and fascinating, and finally sad and heartrending.

I was an undeniable fan of Tonya Harding as a figure skater. She was an outsider, and I found that inspiring, as I'm sure many people did, and for awhile there, no sport in the world was as captivating as skating, partly due to her. This movie shows a lot of that, and that's my favorite part of this movie—it allowed me remember and relive some of that excitement. The rest of this story, however, is pretty tragic, and the movie doesn't claim otherwise, and it also doesn't claim to get totally at the truth—much of which will never be known. In fact, with its comic, pseudo-documentary style, it starts right out by admitting that we're going to be subjected to some conflicting and less than factual portraits of the lives of its subjects, and the “incident.” This approach, strangely, has the opposite effect of leading the viewer to think the filmmakers actually do have some inside track on what really went down with everyone, and audiences (which includes a lot of people who weren't even born at the time of these events) are likely to perceive this movie as the last word on what really happened, which is troubling.

Well, some of it was fun, some funny, and it was almost emotional for me to revive these memories, like the Triple Axel, and then the tragic Nancy Kerrigan knee-bashing, and the Olympic events. One of the most memorable moments, for me, was Tonya's broken ice-skate lace, her crying, pleading to the judges. It was well-recreated, and is still one of the more baffling and tragic moments in my personal sports fan history. What this movie also shows, that I never read or thought about—or maybe did but tried to forget—was the endless tales of physical abuse, first by Tonya's mother, then her boyfriend/husband. It's hard to watch. It's treated in this movie seriously, on one hand, but then maybe not so much—which, in the minutes since the movie has been over, I've become increasingly disturbed by. I don't feel the movie makes these characters relatable to the audience. As good as the acting is (it's very good) throughout, the movie is a clear wall between us and the characters—though maybe that's just me. It's possible that victims of physical abuse, watching this movie, feel that much is speaking for them. But I feel like the movie is saying, “Look at these savages. Aren't we glad this isn't us?

Well, ultimately, I'm okay with an approach of being able to laugh and be entertained by a story while also trying to include a serious message—but that's very tricky business. Maybe just showing the abuse is enough. And the movie was, for the most part, entertaining. One place it was trying very hard, though, and wasn't working for me, was with the endless montage segments over which a loud, period, popular song played. If I wanted to hear someone play hit song after hit song I'd go to a bar with a DJ—and then I would't; I'd stay home and play music I actually like. I lost count, eventually, how many times there was a wrenching dramatic scene followed by the an overly loud explosion of a song, over which a montage scene was cut to the music. These scenes often employed slow-motion and intense sound dynamics in an attempt to heighten the emotional impact. As far as I'm concerned, a movie can get away with that kind of thing maybe once (and depending on how it's done, maybe not even once). But those segments came one after another until I felt like I was being bludgeoned. And worse, in many of the scenes, the music was over scenes of Tonya literally being bludgeoned. The music rights budget for this movie must have been staggering, and I'm all for musicians making some money this way, but it wouldn't make me too happy to hear my music (or even music I really love) over scenes of brutal, physical abuse and violence. By the time of an ironic placement of Doris Day singing “Dream a Little Dream of Me” over some disturbing images, I felt like standing up in the theater and yelling, “Enough!” I didn't do that, however, and I realize some people might enjoy the very things I hate. I'm okay with that. Some people don't like my favorite things, and I never liked MTV, and when the late night TV plays a re-run of The Big Chill, I start to watch it until I realize it bugs the shit out of me.

Randy Russell 2.5.18

Phantom Thread

Sometimes timing is everything. Had I seen Phantom Thread (2017) last weekend, it would have been an entirely different movie. I had intended to go to a movie after breakfast at a local cafe where I accidentally ingested some form of a wheat product, and since I'm gluten-intolerant, a few hours later, at the time I would have been at the movie, I was suddenly overcome with the clammy, cold sweats, turned white as a shroud, and was endowed with that primal knowledge that this spell was not going to pass until the contents of my stomach, and then some, were forcibly and unceremoniously removed. I can think of worse places for such a ceremony than the cinema men's room, but not many. Had this transpired, I probably would have understood, if not quite applauded, Danial Day-Lewis's alleged retirement from acting, and I might have suspected something about director Paul Thomas Anderson as well—like the use of witchcraft or subliminal images. Fortunately, for all involved, I didn't go to see this movie until today, while in excellent physical health. Still, I'm a little concerned about what this movie has done to me. If you've seen it, you know what I'm talking about, and if you haven't, I don't think we need to throw up a spoiler alert. I think it was Chekhov who said, if your protagonist goes foraging for toadstools, make sure the prop department is equipped with cream of mushroom soup and plenty of paper towels.

If you are a dress designer, this is your movie! I think—maybe it's too close—but really, if you're an artist of any kind, I think you might relate to the portrait of the ups and downs of being a creative person. The good and the bad and the weird. I related a little too much, at times, in certain scenes, with this guy (Day-Lewis), and it wasn't always a good feeling. (I felt that sudden, flushed embarrassment of regret, with the compulsion to write letters of apology to everyone I've ever gone out with—but it passed.) And really, I think this portrait goes beyond the arts and creativity. I was thinking, during the movie, that this character could represent, to a lesser degree, any person who is passionate about what they are doing—in that way that your work is your life. It's not always sunny. Sometimes I think that the key to happiness is to make your work your work, suffer through it, and then leave it behind when you are in relaxation and enjoyment time. Because, often, for people whose work and passion are the same, there is no relaxation and enjoyment time. But, oh well, I suppose for most of us, we are just the way we are, and there is no choosing.

The other people who will relate to this movie are the ones who live with an artist—and it doesn't have to be a good artist—or an artist necessarily. Anyone who lives with someone who is driven, temperamental, obsessed, self-centered, possessed, cranky in the morning, or highly successful at the cost of those around them—they might relate to the wife of the dressmaker. Really, this movie is more about the two women—the sister/business partner of (Lesley Manville), and the new girlfriend of (Vicky Krieps) (later, wife of) the dressmaker. The scenes with the sister, who has a complex relationship with the dressmaker, are delightful—full of mystery and complexity—very believable, while being something we, as the moviegoer, feel privileged to witness. The scenes with the new girlfriend (later wife) are exhilarating, then painful and sad, and eventually maddening and disturbing. And I'm not sure I even understand it all, inside and out—and I'm not so sure that repeat viewings wouldn't have more to tell me—along with time, and thinking—and I will enjoy thinking about this film.

Something that happened last weekend when I was sick might have told me more about this movie (in advance!) than any other explanation (again, timing!). I was cat sitting, actually, as I don't currently live with an animal, and so I was very alert to the cat's presence. As I lay on the floor (and I'm sick, remember), visiting with the cat, it reminded me of how animals have this instinctive knowledge of when their human friend is sad or sick, and their empathy is palpable. How that relates to the humans in this movie, you're going to have to see for yourself. I know I said I wasn't going to give a damn about giving things away, but this is a movie I feel strongly about, and it would be a horrible disservice for me to clumsily try to explain it when I don't fully understand it. You must see it for yourself. To some extent, it's a movie about the most basic subject there is—human relationships—which is also the most complex. It's a beautiful movie, I can say that, and it's exhilarating at times, and depressing at times, and sad, and maddening, and mysterious. And did I say funny? (It was the most I've laughed in quite a while.) If you want to be told how to feel, maybe choose another move—even the musical score puts you off balance. But if you are open to it, you might really feel something, even if those feelings are upsetting. Can I end a positive movie review with the word “upsetting?” I guess I just did.

Randy Russell 1.28.18

Call Me by Your Name

I really liked this movie. It occurs to me (again) that it's more fun to write about stuff I don't like, and more fun to write about movies I feel a superiority over—and therefore feel compelled to write about a problem with, or an aspect of the movie that, in doing so, necessarily “ruins” the movie for someone who hasn't seen it. But you have to know for yourself, I guess, how much you should learn about a movie before seeing it. Personally, I try to not even see trailers, but seeing how they play them before movies, they're often unavoidable. I skipped going to the “Three Billboards” movie because I saw the trailer three times, and each time it nearly made me cry—I felt like I'd been through it. I know this is unfair to the movie, but then certain trailers are unfair to movies. Anyway, I avoided seeing a trailer or reading anything about Call Me by Your Name (2017) before seeing it, and didn't even know until it was over (and looked it up) that the director is Luca Guadagnino, whose 2015 movie A Bigger Splash I saw and liked quite a lot (except, if I'm remembering correctly, the ending). But that, and more so this one, was impressive filmmaking, which (I thought about while watching it) really interestingly uses and subverts film shorthand conventions (which are ingrained in us, so we don't think about them). Scenes are mostly short, without beginnings or endings, or any indication of what scene you'll see next. The dialogue continuously surprised me, too, and pretty much delighted me. I don't know how much of that was on the page of the script, or how much was written in the process, but it was impressive, as was the acting throughout.

What I had heard about this movie was that a lot of people really liked it, and it was a “gay love story”—so what I was expecting was a kind of watered down romance, being careful not to scare away the “straight” audience. It seems like, often, gay love stories that are meant for both straight and gay audiences have to spend so much time trying to please both, and respectfully go through emotional and societal ups and downs, it just leaves very little time for anything else. It's maybe why that subject might be better dealt with in a TV series, which you can really stretch out and take your time. And in this case, couple that with a coming of age story—it's too much. I'd like very much to never again see actors depicting someone having sex for the first time—yet two of my favorite movies in the last year dealt with exactly that. (This, and Lady Bird.) Oh well, I guess there are really only a handful of cinematic canvases we start with, and it's what you do with them that's the crucial thing.

What I want, when I go to movies, is surprises—and it's often humor that surprises you most—and I guess that's why romanic comedies exist—because the comedy part makes the romantic part palatable. Two people meet and there's an attraction, but first they hate each other, of course. And there's always that point where it (love) nearly gets away—the convention of it, it's unbearable to even think about. What is surprising about this movie is how civilized everyone is. If you had to say what movies are about (in the the most general sense) it might be: “people hurting each other.” Whether that's physically or emotionally or both, it sometimes seems like cinema is just endless blows to the head. Maybe that's why I thought Shinya Tsukamoto's Tokyo Fist (1995) was kind of the ultimate cinematic expression. Well, the surprising thing in this movie is when the hurting does happen, it felt a lot more like my actual true-life experiences than the dramatically inflated versions I see in most movies. Partly it's a relief, and partly a revelation.

I think the movie started with an inter-title that maybe said the place, and maybe the year—I can't remember—but I swear I saw the year 1968, but that couldn't have been, because it was set in the early 1980s. For awhile though, I was pretty involved with solving the mystery of time and place, as well as trying to figure out who these people are, what their relationships are to each other. A movie's strength is dropping you into a situation cold, and I love that. At first it made me think about Lucrecia Martel's La Ciénaga (2001), just because of the mystery in the rural setting, and the family—but that was very different. This place is an almost unbearably idyllic rural Italian setting that is so luscious that it makes human lust seem like an imposition. It almost hurts when our protagonist, the young Italian kid, says how bored he is. At some point there is rain, too, and you think, it's not fair—these people can't stand up to this place, to nature, especially when it's filmed like this, and on the big screen of a movie theater! But the characters slowly start to fight back, little by little revealing themselves through their actions, and little windows of dialogue—that often seem unrelated to each other or the scene—that work on your evolving perception of them.

Okay—there was a point—about two-thirds through—where the story took over—it conquered the weather and the place—and I was unhappy. Also, I had to pee, but I didn't want to leave, and I got to thinking again about how movies that are over two hours should have intermissions. One could have worked very well in this movie. It would have been tragic to miss this father-son talk, not very long, but the piece of writing the entire movie is turning on. The father is played by Michael Stuhlbarg, the only actor I recognized, though I barely recognized him, because he's been entirely different in the half dozen rolls I've seen him in. It would be fascinating to be this guy's friend in real life. This was a monologue, essentially, the kind that actors might literally kill each other to get. Really, I felt like all of these actors were really good, and even the smallest parts were a bit fascinating. I didn't want to leave these people!—and that's a nice feeling at the cinema.

I wouldn't be surprised if we see more period movies than ever, since you don't have to go back that far to be a period movie (even Lady Bird was one)—for one huge reason—yes, of course, smartphones. You can't make a realistic contemporary movie without the smartphone being, essentially, a character—and so how do we deal with that? So, of course, we will see some very brilliant and inventive ways to deal with it, but also a lot of period movies, and I'm all for that. I got to thinking about this, and it is frightening—the science fiction scenario where all humans are connected to a mainframe computer which becomes part of who they are? Yes, we're living in it. So it's nice to see a movie, like this one, where no one is a victim, the story is not hinged on a tragedy, no one strikes anyone in the heard—and instead of smartphones we have: bicycles, gym shorts, some really good looking fruit, an old piano, the Psychedelic Furs, and water (it's funny, the last movie I saw, The Shape of Water, and this one, could have swapped titles)—in brooks and rivers, swimming holes, coming down from the mountain, and coming down from the sky.

Randy Russell 1.24.18

The Shape of Water

I almost didn't go see The Shape of Water (2017) while it was at the theater, which would have been sad because it's worth seeing just for the lush visual experience on the big screen—and I just saw it at Milwaukee's Oriental Theatre's main screen, always an experience in itself. But I'm glad I went, on a Saturday afternoon—it was a great time at the movies. I almost stayed away because I saw the film described as “fantasy” and “horror,” two words that will always keep me scrolling down the movie option list. I also saw “fairy tale”—and that, along with an R rating should have intrigued me. The film's somewhat pretentious title, and the director, Guillermo del Toro, did intrigue me enough to go; I admit, I've never seen one of his movies, assuming (with titles like Blade II and Hellboy) that we just don't enjoy the same tea, but I knew I should have seen at least one of his films by now. He's just a few years younger than me (I assumed he was much younger) and I could immediately see, in this one, someone whose life was changed at a very young age by the movies. The apartments above the theater, the diner, the nightmarish industrial workplace—I was in. Some of my earliest memories are the 1950s ice cream shop, and the foundry where my dad worked, with robotic cauldrons pouring molten steel. And the almost round, black and white eye of the TV, and big band music playing on the kitchen radio. My aunt and uncle's 1950s motel, with its basement and sub-basement, and the pool where I learned to swim. And most of all, the movies my parents took me to, probably at an inappropriately young age, like the first of the James Bonds, which is why I'm obsessed to this day with that franchise which has always only been fair to dreadful.

Nostalgia aside (I'm one of those people who will not only not complain about the inexplicable insertion of a full-blown musical number, I think it should be a requirement), I was immediately caught up in the mystery plot that unfolded with little explanation (which unfortunately became a little too much explained later). You can always bring me in with a mystery. The big surprise, though, is how funny this movie was, especially for a movie with such a pretentious title, and a story that could have sunk under the weight of its sentimentality. The heart-rending and humor perform a pretty good balancing act here, or at least kept me on its good side, which I'm guessing is a credit to the credited writers, Vanessa Taylor and del Toro, and the top to bottom excellent cast, including two of my favorite actors, Richard Jenkins and Michael Shannon. And if degree of difficulty is factored in on the acting awards, which it is (this is the most you'll ever hear me talking about awards, which I despise), English actress Sally Hawkins should win them all, as she convincingly and with great empathy plays a hispanic woman who communicates with sign language, and must endure an underwater nude sex scene with an actor wearing a scaly and dangerous looking fish-man costume.

With a different title, say, Fish-Man, this is your basic creature feature, not so different from the Saturday afternoon sci-fi movies I'd watch in the lobby of my aunt and uncle's motel as a kid—occasionally being scarred for life. I could see parents, wanting to save on babysitter expense, taking inappropriately young kids to this, focusing on that “fairy tale” part of its description. I personally don't think nudity should be problem with kids or anyone else, but that early scene with the guy torturing the creature with a high-voltage cattle prod, that could mess up your kids. And I'm sure if the kids play a lot of video games they're pretty numb to overly realistic gun violence, but the guy inserting his fingers (this movie has a sick obsession with fingers) into the freshly gunshot guy's bullet hole wounds and dragging him that way, I'm not sure that's something you want your kids to form their brains with. The creature's spiny penis is left to the imagination (which hopefully is an adult's imagination) but the bad man's sex scene with his wife, filmed from above, is something nobody should have to see.

I've also seen this described as a “Cold War thriller”—which means there are Russians (who provide us with additional humor) and a really pretty suspenseful action plot, which is well done and doesn't dominate the story. The heart of this movie, though, is its characters—the mute woman who cleans at the secret government facility and her work friend (Octavia Spencer), and her older, gay man neighbor and best friend (Jenkins). The subplot about the diner where they go to eat pie was what really hooked me into the movie, I guess, so that later, when I'm forced to watch an otherworldly creature and experience its emotions, I'm in it. This is good filmmaking, good storytelling, I guess. It kind of made me think of one of those short stories by George Saunders. And then, also, the sadistic but tortured government creature wrangler (Shannon) who, as despicable as he is, is examined in great detail; we see scenes of his home life, and a very good scene with the General, his boss, reminding us that most bad people have someone worse writing their paycheck. Most interesting to me was the way the camera lingered over his incredible face, and then you notice his kind of creepy, alien-like eyes are not so different from the creature's amphibian eyes, and you're allowed to make of that what you want.

Personally, I could have watched a whole movie about all of these characters' everyday lives—their work, friendships, and the common-to-everyone difficulties with homophobia and racism—tempered with the love of music, movies, musicals—their friendships, and yes, there are cats. I guess no one figures there is a movie there, though, without the creature, the guns, villains and evil—and I suppose they're right—and you can't have all that rain if it doesn't mean something. But for me, rain is both the greatest character and the greatest plot, just rain for the sake of rain, and I think my favorite movie scenes are my favorites just because of the weather. But that's me, and maybe I'm getting to a point in my life where I'd rather watch the rain than see a movie, but until that time comes, I hope they keep making movies like this one, and showing them in movie theaters, so that once in awhile you can have that experience of leaving the theater and world looks—if even for a few minutes—very different.

Randy Russell 1.15.18

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

In calling the new Star Wars movie “The Last Jedi” are we meant to go into a panic about God/LucasFilm ending the entire mythology? Because without the Jedi, what do you have but strormtroopers, wisecracking rebel soldiers, and someone meditating in a corner (of the Universe)? But there is no reason to worry because even if the franchise decided to end it all right now (which I would applaud, even though it would make me sad) there would be endless underground fan fiction (which I guess there is anyway). Star Wars is not going away in any of our lifetimes and is on much firmer ground than longtime institutions like the NFL and the USA.

I approached this movie with fresh eyes, as it is my habit is to avoid any reviews (and trailers, as well, ideally) of movies I think I'm going to see for myself. I thoroughly enjoyed this new episode (VIII) as a Star Wars thing, while not really liking it as a movie. It helped that I was in a comfortable seat, had popcorn, christmas candy, and people around me shut the hell up—and my migraine pill kicked in just as the last, dreadful trailer was over. The news headlines I did see about this movie were about how divisive it's been among fans—which I suspect is just a successful internet marketing campaign. This is a movie that tries to please everybody, and does a pretty good job of it, often even pleasing those who are not happy with it trying to please everybody.

I have been a Star Wars fan since I saw the first one when I was 17. I liked about 90% of that movie, but was pretty excited about what I liked. It still felt like a mishmash of the Westerns, the war movies, and the swashbuckling adventures I despised while growing up. But I guess I was won over by the dime-store zen, and also the blue milk and other sci-fi innovations that really did seem fresh (and we've been seeing in every sci-fi movie for the last 40 years). It's as pointless for me to wish they'd ended it after that first movie as it is to make suggestions on how the franchise could improve, but I do hope they have some kind of writing continuum from episode to episode, and also some supreme being who can eliminate the budget for movie star cameos in the future, which are just distracting. It would also be nice if the wisecracking could have died with Han Solo; there was not a single funny moment in this movie that didn't involve cute animals. And with that kind of budget, couldn't the cute animals look like live action animals, and not look like cartoons?

If I was allowed to speak at the big meeting about the direction of the franchise, I'd argue that we should crank out one movie per year (hey, an old guy like Woody Allen can do it) on a strict schedule, with the premier each Christmas week. New characters should be unknowns who are contracted for the few films (with few exceptions) until they're killed off. Try to come up with something each time—sci-fi-wise—at least sightly innovative. The focus of the work, year after year, should be on the writing, which does not rely on a production schedule or excessively paid technicians who can't put together a sentence. The story should be painfully born, evolved, revised, debated, and ironed out several years ahead of any digital cameras rolling, or whatever digital cameras do. Also, and most important, all the films should be either shorter, or have intermissions built in. I think ALL MOVIES that are over two hours should have intermissions, but more on that later. In the case of Star Wars, the ideal running time would be 90 minutes.

Ultimately, I like to see one crappy, excessive fantasy movie a year, and if it doesn't have to be Marvel or what James Bond has become, I'm kinda happy, and this year it was a Star Wars. Though I was pretty bored at times, there was one really cool bit (which I won't relate, because if you haven't seen it, it will ruin it!) and that was enough for me. Oh! Also, that part where Adam Driver took his shirt off, and opened the little control panel in his CGI abs?—that was so Star Trek: The Original Series!

But seriously, I do like that there is the hint of a future direction that examines the dark side of goodness, and the reason for what is misguidedly called evil. Because the whole black and white, good and evil thing gets a little simplistic to anymore over six years old (and I might be underestimating six year olds). Now that we know that you and I might be Jedi, who knows what the future holds—because, as we now know, Jedi could possibly be punk rock girls, Stormtroopers, annoying orphan stable boys, robots, bucket-of-bolts spaceships, penguins, (hopefully not) aging rock stars, ghosts, blobs of protoplasm, and hopefully—when we finally explore the bending of the universe a little more—a barista at Starbucks.

Randy Russell 1.9.18