Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

I was trying to write about every movie I see at the theater, but sometime (late last year?) I commenced in failing at that project, then I stopped seeing movies in the theater, and then I just stopped watching movies. Maybe I'll write a single article about the few movies I've seen and haven't written about, or maybe I won't. Anyway, I thought that this movie might be a good one to get me back to writing about movies again. My idea is to write short reviews. I have failed. But anyway, after this, it's going to be short reviews. Or no reviews. Anyway, there's a lot to talk about here. It's worth noting that Quentin Tarantino can command, maybe more than anyone currently making movies, money, stars, time, and final cut—gets credit for the popularity and success of his movies—but also is asked to take responsibility for what people criticize in his movies—and I understand can get a little prickly. But since there is zero chance of him reading this, I'm not going to worry about pissing him off (I still may want to audition for the next one). First of all, there's the goofy title, which may or may not contain “...” (also known as “three dots”). Next, for much of this movie (too long not to have an intermission), the pace is relaxed, meandering, taking its good old time. I love that. Most movies are afraid to do that. It almost felt like not watching a movie, or watching a movie from the late Sixties or early Seventies, one of the ones where you think, what in the hell is going on here? But if you're like me, are just, like, in movie heaven.

If I was to say this movie is “Quentin Tarantino's love letter to Hollywood,” in any capacity (including those words) you would have my utmost permission to march right over here to HQ and beat me with a frozen mackerel. (Not) talking about love letters, I was not expecting much after The Hateful Eight (2015) brutally disappointed me. I loved the beginning of that movie and hated where it went. It was as if you exchanged a steamy series of love letters with someone, then hiked over a mountain and across a desert to finally see them and were greeted with: “Who you?” The first half or more of this movie is like paging through old Life magazine ads, imagining, at least, an aesthetically better world. Lifestyle porn, cocktail porn, and more than anything else, cool old car porn. Perversely, there was an advertisement just before the movie started for some kind of new SUV automobile that, of course, looks like absolute shit, and like every other new car, and all these people, who are terrible actors, are saying how great it looks. (Now that I think about it, I'm not sure this wasn't actually part of the movie?—if this was some kind of joke ad, ha! You got me! Touché QT!)

So then, we're watching actors, some playing movie stars (both biographical and imaginary) and some playing not-movie stars, but all of them actors (it's Hollywood!) in some respect. Most fun is Brad Pitt playing a stunt double and self-made mystery man with a nemesis named Randy and a dog named Brandy. (When I was in high school, a friend got a new dog, and at dinner his dad asked what he named it—he mumbled Brandy, to which his dad said, “Do you think Randy will appreciate that?) The dog is a handsome pit bull (get it) and between Brad and the dog, I'm guessing the heartthrob appeal is about 100%. Brad works as driver, stunt man, and companion of a washed up, alcoholic TV actor played by Leonardo DiCaprio (amazing performance, I don't think I've ever seen anyone, a man at least, on the verge of tears for an entire movie). It didn't occur to me until later, after a big deal was made about Brad killing his wife “and getting away with it,” that this odd couple could be informed by Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs—an obvious American icon who fell into an alcohol-fueled, paranoid, angry, racist, pathetic state (though many people still loved him)—and an impenetrable, questionable antihero, who was hard to take your eyes off of. So our heroes, here, are what we (do we, really?) need right now—the super-couple for 2019, not cartoon superheroes, not robots, but flesh and blood straight white males. Though Brad's character is about as straight as a three dollar bill (no one turns down a “blowjob while driving”). I'm not sure if they're “doing it” (I might be too unsophisticated to pick up 2019 innuendo), but I see Leo as kind of like the frat guy who wakes from a blackout drunk—on Old Spice stained sheets—and conveniently “can't remember” anything. What I liked most, though, is Brad's portrayal of this kind of guy who goes through life—no matter what he's doing, driving, fixing something, feeding the dog—as if he is constantly being filmed. We all know people like that, right? In fact, you might be one. In fact, I might be one. I am, actually—I will admit that, for the first time, here. The camera is on me right now, typing this, in spite of my lack of pants.

So eventually there's the Manson Family, and our heroes thwart this horrible murder of Sharon Tate and those other people, that real-life tragedy that people never seem to get tired of rehashing. But yes, our heroes in this movie, they change history, as if they went into the The Time Tunnel (1966)—which maybe was a missed period reference, or maybe I missed it). Oh, I guess I should say “spoiler alert.” Is that a spoiler alert?—no, I guess you're supposed to say that before you give away the amazing plot twist, so the person reading can, ha, stop reading on a dime and come back to your article after they've seen the movie. As if. Anyway, if someone told me that there's a movie that's a spot on theatrical rendition of the Mansion murders, you're not going to be able to pay me to see that movie, because fuck the Mansion Family. I refuse to put people who are famous for unimaginative acts of tragic stupidity into some kind of “famous for the sake of famous” museum. My approach to the deplorable is to ignore them. Apparently QT's approach is to recreate history, so these characters can get mauled by a pit bull and have their heads slammed viciously into furniture like 1000 times. I do realize that these Manson Family murders freaked out an entire generation—no more free love, free drugs, romanticism of mental illness, and bathrooms, henceforth “for customers only.” One interesting thing I just recalled, my high school history teacher, Mr. Wenzel, in talking about Charles Manson said, “If they ever let him out of prison, there's going to be one fat man on the hill with a rifle.” (Referring to himself, he was portly.) I can't remember another time a teacher spoke with such murderous passion about someone or something, and I think it made me realize the impact that that event had on society's feeling of well-being.

While watching this movie, though it wasn't boring, my mind wandered to an idea about social media—I don't know why, maybe because of our different ways of entertaining ourselves in 1969 and now? Anyway, I was thinking that one of the problems with social media (maybe older people have this more than people who have grown up with it?) is that most of us, even though we know better, kind of assume that we're all looking at the same thing. So, for example, if someone is looking at Facebook on Sunday night, they assume it's like everyone's got the TV on, say ABC, at that time—so like what they're seeing on Facebook is what you're seeing on Facebook. So the idea that came to me is to somehow organize social media trades—so for example, for a couple of hours on Sunday night, you take over my Facebook and I take over yours—we can look at the feeds, see who their friends are, comment, and post stuff. I'm sure we can think of a snappy name for this activity! (Facebook Swapping, perhaps?) Well, let's try it. I'm very serious about this. (I know I should have made this proposal somewhere else, but since it did come to me while watching this movie...)

A few other random observations. I missed Samuel L. Jackson, but did you notice—I can't remember exactly where—someone was doing a Samuel L. Jackson impersonation? I noticed that, and it was pretty good. Also, I liked the music and how it was used, for the most part. Particularly, when we get to Family-frenzy, instead of using “Helter Skelter” like they would do, if they could afford it, on TV, the soundtrack plays “Twelve Thirty (Young Girls Are Coming to the Canyon)”—which manages to be both too on-the-nose and too ironic, yet still perfect. Also, I just love that song (who's making the creepy John Phillips biopic?!) A few decades ago, I coined a term, “The Cinema of What-It-Ain't”—though I don't know if you can say, “coined” since it didn't catch on (dumb name), but it was about the trend I noticed more and more (sure, this is all through film history and literature) of creating tension and release by exploiting expectations based on other works and then thwarting those expectations. Sure, some of that is fine, and inevitable, but it becomes a real crutch, and this movie (if you haven't seen it, why are you even reading this?) if you've seen it, think about it—this has got to be one of the worst offenders I've seen in recent years (though I admit, I see almost no popular movies). Just one example: you're just waiting, dreading the moment that dog gets shot, so you can feel real remorse, but the dog doesn't get shot!! And one last, unrelated, random thing—I've been noticing, more and more, the use of the name “Randy” to kind of shorthand some quality of particular characters. Where did this come from? What does it mean? The “Randy” in this movie has a particular quality—hard to put your finger on. Maybe I'm too close to it. (In this case, played by Kurt Russell, adding another layer of queasiness, for me, personally.) Okay, I'm just trying to figure out exactly when the name Randy became synonymous with “douchebag?” I don't like it.

At some point we do see Charles Manson—he stops by the Tate-Polanski residence, but unless I missed something, we don't see him again. After the members of his Family are thwarted, instead of successful, at their murders, I suppose we could assume that Manson might still be arrested, but on the other hand, in this new history, maybe Manson escapes (I don't remember when he was actually arrested and I'm not going to look it up)—and is still at large! Or at least until the sequel to this movie comes around (which will be QT's last, right? Before he becomes a novelist?) It could be called, Once Upon a Time... in Iowa or something, and could be about Manson's nearly successful attempt to get elected President and start a race war and end civilization, etc. Of course he's thwarted by someone (an A-list actor, of course) who then smashes his head into a coffee table for maybe like the last 40 minutes of the movie, which eventually kind of just becomes abstract, and if not entirely beautiful, meditative and perversely cleansing. Just an idea! I'm throwing that out there for free!

Randy Russell 8.4.19

At Eternity's Gate

A sentence consisting of one word (“as”), and two names, was all it took to get me to the theater to this movie (without knowing anything else about it)—“Willem Dafoe as Vincent van Gogh.” Though I did also know it was made by Julian Schnabel. It's odd that he went from being a painter I made fun of (not counting how he painted his house, which is awesome) to a filmmaker who I'll automatically buy a ticket for. His movies even made me like him as a painter. I even wish he was my friend, and not only because he'd probably never let me pay for lunch. It might freak me out to have Willem Dafoe as a friend, though, because, on one hand, he seems almost too much like a “regular guy” (he's from Wisconsin, after all)—but also, there's something powerfully disturbing about him—even ordering coffee. This is weirdly at least the third movie where he's kind of played Christ (Last Temptation... and Platoon), but he's in a lot of movies, so I'm always hoping I don't accidentally see him in a shitty superhero action movie, or Meet the Fockers 11. Weirdly, and kind of contradicting what I just said, I long to see him remake every dystopian Charlton Heston movie. He will say a certain line and it will plunge you right into Soylent Green (1973). What if someone wrote a movie for him—not a remake, or a sequel—that takes the very best parts of Soylent Green, the first two Planet of the Apes (1968/1970), and The Omega Man (1971) and gets the combination of low-budget cheesiness and real end-of-the-world paranoiac despair right? I'm throwing that idea out there, for free! Invite me to a press screening!

This movie gave me anxiety, inspired me, bored me, made me think, nauseated me, and made me sad in equal parts. Bravo Julian Schnabel! I didn't laugh much, but I'm really getting kind of anti always-need-to-laugh—and I'm as guilty at that sentiment as anyone. Don't need to laugh at the doctor's office, the dentist, in court, or at church. At a job, yes. Anyway, for one thing, I think this movie made me reconsider Vincent van Gogh, which is no small thing—it's kind of like reconsidering pants. I don't think a movie can be a great way of experiencing a painter's art, but it's at least better than reproductions in a book, or on your computer. I've seen a handful of Van Gogh paintings in person, but some of them I'd already been beyond being able to make the leap from art history class, the Masterpiece game, greeting cards and coffee mugs. There are three or four of his paintings that are just... irretrievable. Fortunately, he painted more. I will make a point (I always do) to see some I've never seen—in a museum, someday, hopefully. The impressive thing this movie did, though, was helped me to see his paintings as weird and ugly and unpleasant—as many of his contemporaries did. It's kind of a miracle that any of his paintings even survived, but then, this clown painting by Mary somebody is surviving in my apartment. But you know, this was before the days of Shurgard storage, and people probably burned Rembrandts for heat. I'm not even sure, now, at this point, if Van Gogh's paintings are any good. He was obviously “mentally ill”—but we all are, to some degree—and does it matter if it was the wormwood or the bad stuff in the paint or heredity? Does it matter if people were better or worse, smarter or dumber, then or now? The truly crazy thing is how much money people pay for art, in general, and that people can still look at it the same way. Or maybe they can't. That's in this movie, as well as score music that is at once beautiful and ear melting, and visual details that enveloped me in warmth and also terrified me, and dialogue sometimes deceptively simple, and sometimes beyond inscrutable, and performances ranging from laughable to seamless to powerful. It was kind of like a Shakey's Buffet in Heaven—thanks Schnabel!

Randy Russell 12.25.18

The Twelve Movies of Christmas

A Definitive List of the Best Christmas Movies of All Time *1

by Frank Baker *2

When I think of Christmas, as a holiday season, many bad things come to mind. You can't go to the mall (no great loss, but sometimes you need to buy underwear in December). Traffic increases X10 (there is no good reason for this—maybe it's all the extra Amazon drivers?) Everyone is in a bad mood. Trying not to be one of those myself, I try to focus on the stuff I like: Christmas cookies, especially the shape ones with sparkly, colorful glitter, and powdered sugar covered Snowballs. Christmas lights—maybe my favorite thing (except for the efficiency freaks who take them down by New Years Day. I say: we need them to get through the grim months of January and February—lights should stay up, if not all year, until the spring time change). And Christmas movies, at least a few. Most are bad to unwatchable, but there's a few I love, so I made a list of, not merely my favorites, but the indisputable best. Also, note, my list goes to eleven. No, twelve. Okay, make it a “baker's dozen.”

ThirteenIt's a Wonderful Life (1946) A lot of people's favorite, just because most Christmas movies are just so bad. Just thinking about this convoluted plot makes me tired, so the fact that it shows on TV in under four hours (with about an hour of commercials) is a miracle in itself. I haven't watched it in years, so maybe I'll watch it this year, just for the sweating pharmacist. Also, I had this idea about editing the colorized version and original together, but I won't go into that here. *3

TwelveOn Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969) I like the idea of watching old James Bond movies over the holidays—just not the recent ones. This is both the best and worst ever James Bond movie *4 —but regardless, it does have the best skiing scenes, including the dude going into a snowblower.

ElevenChristmas, Again (2014) As “Randy Russell” I was lucky enough to get an assignment to write about this movie for the Talkhouse Film website—never would have seen it otherwise, not a huge hit (it's kind of uneventful as real life is at its best?) —but it really gave me a lasting memory of this guy working at an urban Christmas tree lot—I love those places! *5

TenHoliday Inn (1942) I didn't see this movie until I was an adult, in 1985, at the Theatre 80 St Marks, probably my most nostalgic holiday moviegoing memory ever, partly because it's a really solid movie—a romanic comedy musical where the somewhat involved story comes before the music and dancing (which is excellent). *6

NineThe Hudsucker Proxy (1994) A lot of people seem to hate this movie, I say re-watch it. It's a fun version of Capra that's more funny, more visually interesting, and more weird. *7

EightThe Night of the Hunter (1955) All Christmas movies have a dark side, and there are more than a few Christmas horror movies *8, and this is not really a Christmas movie, but it works as one because it's so real-life horrifying that the speck of light that finally shines through is like a miraculous star.

SevenEyes Wide Shut (1999) Also not really a Christmas movie, but it effectively uses the surreal-ness of the season to intensify its weirdness. I just saw it again, and while it's a lot of fun, and funnier than ever, I'm still trying to decide if it's even a good movie. *9

SixTrading Places (1983) Barely crossed the line for my attention (before I stopped going to Hollywood movies in the Eighties). I used to watch it every year, but haven't for a while, but I'm guessing I'll find it just as funny. *10

FiveTangerine (2015) Was this already three years ago? It was kind of revolutionary and amazing, and I expected to see more movies in this direction even more amazingly revolutionary, but haven't (could be my fault, could be what's out there, and gets to the screen). Anyway, time to re-watch this one. *11

FourThe Shop Around the Corner (1940) Another one that's a Christmas movie because of the setting (Christmastime in Budapest) but just has a really good, involved story—if it wasn't for this movie, the rom-com wouldn't exist. *12

ThreeBad Santa (2003) Should have been called “Miracle on 34th Street” *13 because to make a movie with seven or eight of the most seriously flawed characters you'll ever see in the same movie—and you end up loving them all—is nothing less than miraculous. There's a turn-around so extreme it should make you puke on yourself (but you don't—Santa Willie does that). *14

TwoChristmas in July (1940) Not a Christmas movie at all, but it has “Christmas” in the title. *15 Yeah, it's set in the summer. But it's also about generosity and the human spirt and is truly heartwarming without being sappy. Also, tremendously complex. Also, the best ending of a movie ever. It's Preston Sturges. *16

OneThe Apartment (1960) My favorite Christmas movie, in part because it's maybe my favorite movie of all time, set in New York in a kind of harsh office work environment, has a great Christmas party scene, cold, snow, liquor. It would not exist if Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, a really great story, and Billy Wilder hadn't somehow come together at the right time and not been afraid of the complexity of the suffocating darkness that is possible to get one's head above, at least momentarily. *17

1 – Don't argue. Make your own list.

2 – Frank Baker is a fictional character, the “author” of my unpublished novel, The Doughnuts. I used that name here to get me off the hook for this list (not that anyone cares) and because it's a “Baker's Dozen” - get it?

3 – I'll go into it here. I saw a colorized version, many years back (a travesty), which made me think, wouldn't it be interesting to make a version where the “Pottersville” part is in color (or wait, maybe they did this?) – so it's kind of the opposite of Wizard of Oz – which gets into the whole discussion of which world is better, the “moral” boring one, or the “sexy” disgusting one – a lengthy, complex digression (see my review of Wings of Desire (not written yet) and Eyes Wide Shut (not written yet) eventually.

4 – I liked that there was a one-time James Bond. I know you can't change the past, but I wish that they would, in the future, hire a different actor for every 007 movie – you could more interestingly explore all the elements, good and bad, that go into that whole franchise – and maybe make it more thought-provoking, if not just more fun.

5 – There used to be a Christmas Tree lot that went in this vacant lot (still vacant) near where I live, east side of Milwaukee—during holiday time—and it's no more. I am actually pretty devastated, saddened, angered, by it's absence, and if I'm pretty cranky this time of year, that's why.

6 – There is a rather gross and unfortunate blackface number, so you might want to have your kids cover your eyes during that and you can later have a discussion about why some things that were palatable to the mainstream at one time are no longer acceptable.

7 – Also because it's the Coen Bros. movie without a scene of a guy going into a snowblower.

8 – A billion dollars of special effects slime can't even come close to what Robert Mitchum can convey in a couple of seemingly innocent words.

9 – I'm going to write a brief article about it, in this very place, but I haven't yet.

10 – Something about the muted colors of the movie poster made me nauseous, then I realized (due to the font) it's all money imagery—and I'm wondering if my exponentially increasing mistrust and disgust of wealth might enhance or detract from this story. I might watch it again this year.

11 – Actually, I wouldn't have thought of this in relation to Christmas movies, but I saw one of those “Best Christmas movie” lists (probably what compelled me to make this one) with all the usual, ho-hum and puke usual suspects—but included Tangerine, which I thought was kind of a brilliant and insightful choice.

12 – That's not true, of course, but this is the best romantic comedy, as I recall. When I saw it at some art cinema for the first time, decades ago, I found it pretty amazing. I haven't seen it in awhile, maybe it's time.

13 – The last time I visited Macy's was just after they remodeled the main floor, and it should be called “Tragedy on 34th Street.”

14 – Also the funniest movie on this list. Also, people who know me are probably tired of hearing, I read the script for this before it was in production (it was my job at the time) and my note was: “This movie will never get made.” It doesn't bother me, sometimes, to be wrong.

15 – I probably didn't need to point that out.

16 – Also, maybe my favorite movie of all time.

17 – I won't say any more, but if you are someone who has never seen this movie, consider yourself the luckiest person in the world because you have that experience in front of you. How about this year? Give yourself the Christmas present of an uninterrupted, phone-less, block of time in which you can totally immerse yourself.

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Recently back in town and not having seen a movie in months, I rushed out to the theater on one of those rainy, windy days where sensible people stay home and clean, and the desperate crash their cars on the way to and from taverns they'd normally walk to. A biopic about a morally questionable, “unsexy,” and not famous (except to NPR literary nerds), “older” person, this looked to be one of those movies that would play a week and then disappear (at least until the best actor Oscars were announced) into the streaming vortex. As is my habit, once I made my decision, I read no more about it. By the time I reached the theater I smelled like a wet dog, so I was happy I was able to sit 20 rows in front of the closest other person (though, happily, the theater was surprisingly busy), and I spread out my wet things across four seats and took off my shoes and hoped I would dry out before it was over. Within minutes there was Melissa McCarthy, dead serious, a cat, a NYC apartment cluttered with books, Blossom Dearie is singing “I'll Take Manhattan,” and it's snowing outside the window. I was in the world—and this movie was going to have to work really hard to fuck things up.

The story of a published biographer who has fallen on hard times and discovered she can make ends meet by selling forged letters of famous, deceased celebrities, the set up and story should by all rights something that is fraught with so much anxiety-producing expectation of disaster that it's impossible to enjoy for more than a scene or two. A sick cat (you know how that's going to go), a sexually promiscuous gay man (you know how he's going to end up), and a possible romance, framed by a house of deceitful cards (you've seen Breaking Away)—with each new friendship there is the classic setup of eventual falling out, disappointment, and betrayal. The cat dies (at least it didn't get lost first), the man will die of AIDS (though we don't follow him to the end of the line), and romance between our protagonist and a woman who owns a bookstore just never happens, so we're spared the romance, betrayal, anger, forgiveness, and true love. We just get loneliness. But then, this isn't a romantic comedy.

I know it sounds like it could be a real bummer, but it's not. The movie is directed by Marielle Heller and written by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, based on Lee Israel's memoir (all of whom I was previously unfamiliar with, except for N.H.) and they somehow pull off the feat of making this story uplifting—at least for me. I can't speak for younger audiences, but as far as I'm concerned, no image is as lonely as a person wrapped up in their smartphone. The time period here is, I guess, late-Eighties, early-Nineties? We avoid seeing cars as much as possible, and instead see exteriors of bookstores and NYC diners and coffee shops, many of which still exist. And nothing cheers me up like falling snow, both in movies and real life. I was reminded of when I worked at the Strand Bookstore in 1985 and there were more characters like Jack Hock than you could summon the energy for, without stimulants (I drank, stayed away from coke). When I last lived in New York, I was constantly aware of not only the decimated landscape of dwindling diners, but so many fewer of those characters who manage to survive on their wits and wittiness, since so many didn't survive AIDS, drugs and alcohol, and rent. I mean, there is all that there, still, just harder to find than Pepsodent.

The heart of the movie, of course, is this character, Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), who has a sharp and biting sense of humor, but clashes with bosses, co-workers, her agent, publishers, and likely friends. I knew it was my kind of movie when in virtually the first scene Lee is fired from a job, with the sense of: being yourself equals freedom equals behind on the rent. It's not spelled out, but evident to anyone with the minimum sensitivity of a human being, that the brash and difficult personality that made Lee Israel shunned and impossible to work with would be celebrated and rewarded if she were a man. I was with her, side by side, from the first scene. The movie is essentially told in first person, so you are her, but at the same time with her, helping her clean, get rid of her fly infestation (in NYC Hollywood, flies and spiders stand in for cockroaches), energized by meeting Jack (Richard E. Grant), even though you know he's trouble (especially when it comes to cat-sitting), and when the forgery starts you want to say, “No! Don't do it!”—but you go along for the adventure.

It's hard not to be critical of the rich person memorabilia market, but at the same time I'm queasy when it comes to fooling people, lying to make money, and especially when the FBI gets involved. The reason Lee was successful at it was because she was able to inhabit those she was impersonating (including Fanny Brice, Noël Coward, Dorothy Parker) and essentially compose a correspondence they would have and could have written, on a good day. She had it in her, the same as they did—it's just that she wasn't famous. With her memoir, I guess she did become famous, at least marginally, and now with this movie, a bit more so, even though it's too late to do her much good. It did me a lot of good, though, this movie. It cheered me up, made me happy, restored the act of filmgoing, which seems to, at least for me, be constantly in the need of being restored.

Randy Russell 11.9.18


I don't think I saw Shampoo when it came to the theater in 1975—I most likely read the Mad Magazine version and decided it wasn't my cup of tea. When I finally did watch it, maybe decades later, I think it gave me an anxiety attack. The temptation, at least for a man, is to put yourself in the place of the main character, a hairdresser named George, because his life—riding around LA on his Triumph motorcycle from affair to girlfriend to salon to affair to girlfriend, etc.—looks great. That's the word everyone uses to describe each other, and everything is great—their hair, cars, clothes, lives—except maybe not their lives, because they all seem to be miserable. Then you realize that the entire movie takes place within a two day period around Nixon's election in 1968, which happens to be a day of crucial turning points in the lives of the characters in this story—after which—and this is the saddest thing—most likely nothing will really change for any of them. At the point that George has sex with an underage girl (who happens to be the daughter of the woman he's having an affair with and the man whose mistress he's having an affair with, I you can follow that!) we realize that what George is best at, hairdressing, is just a means to facilitate his addiction, sex, and nothing's going to change him—certainly not “love”—short of maybe becoming a Buddhist, or death.

I don't think I saw any of Hal Ashby's movies until Being There, in 1979, which was around the time I started piecing together all of this 1970s cinema, Scorsese, Coppola, etc.—re-watching what I'd seen and seeing what I missed—that was the most fun and rich time, movie-wise, of my life. It was a little more difficult placing Hal Ashby and Robert Altman in there—directors who seemed to be outsiders among the outsiders. This movie could almost be confused with an Altman movie—and it came out the same year as Nashville (which I didn't see at the time, either)—how's that for a double feature? What Shampoo has going for it most are these pretty amazing performances—it's really more of an ensemble cast than anything—Warren Beatty, Goldie Hawn, Julie Christie, Lee Grant, Jack Warden, Tony Bill, Carrie Fisher, and then even all the smaller parts. I think both Altman and Hal Ashby both made actors comfortable enough to give the most vulnerable and raw performances they were capable of, but not in most movie settings. That's why I can watch this movie over and over now, even just isolated scenes, or partially, when it's on television—the subtleties in the acting is so pleasurable to watch, and rich with meaning, and possible to keep taking things from.

A crucial scene near the end of the movie—that almost seems like lesser filmmakers would have decided didn't belong—is when George, at the hair salon, finds out his boss's son died in a car accident. I don't know what it means to have that in there, for sure—maybe it's just a warning to George that he has to change, he is mortal, and he'd better pick one of these woman and decide there is true love. Is he going to change, or is there any compassion within him? I don't think so, really, which is sad. More likely, he will be killed in a car accident—but we don't need to see that. What hurt about this movie, though, even more than that, is seeing this kind of amazing historical backdrop of Nixon's election, that feels like it was put in there to reflect our current national climate. If you were going to remake this movie now, you would do it on the eve of Trump's election, and the story would ideally be more inclusive with race, sexual orientation, and women involved in business, but there would still be a lot of people lying, deceiving each other, substance abuse, and aimlessness. Everyone would be on smartphones and social media, the cars would not be as cool, and the music—well, I wouldn't like it as much. Would there be any more potential for happiness for any of the characters? That's the big question, isn't it?

Randy Russell 10.9.18

Being There

Not only did I used to see double features all the time, when I was younger, I'd often sit through three movies back to back—but it's hard for me now to even see two movies in a single day, like at a film festival. But the timing just worked out the other day for me to view this new documentary about Hal Ashby, Hal (2018), and then right after that a one-time showing of Being There, on film, in the main auditorium of Milwaukee's Oriental Theatre. This movie came out in 1979, when I first saw it, and it was a huge influence on me as far as my love of the cinema goes, and generally my views of culture, society, politics, and even on a personal level. I've seen it a few times over the years, and now, even though I kind of pick it apart, its still very enjoyable. There's no reason for me summarize the plot for anyone who's seen it, and if you haven't seen it, you've probably already heard too much about it—but, still, you should see it some day—and if you're lucky, see it at a theater!

It's the last of Hal Ashby's string of great Seventies movies, based on a novel by Jerzy Kosinski, who is credited for the screenplay, though it was interesting, seeing that documentary—Ashby's longtime editor and collaborator, Bob Jones, tells us that he actually wrote the screenplay that's on screen. As you know, or should, official credits don't always line up with who did what in movies—one can never really get to the bottom of it—but for sure, anyway, film is a collaborative medium. How much Peter Sellers brought to the character of Chance, for instance—most likely quite a bit. It's funny, this character is so realized, that over the years I kind of forget that it's the same Peter Sellers as in his other movies, and even thinking about that consciously is hard to piece together. He's certainly more restrained than in any movie I've see him in, and what he's doing as an actor is deceptively simple—but there's something really powerful and subtle in his performance—maybe it's just the feeling that he might explode at any minute.

One thing that especially struck me, watching this movie again, is how it's like a giant sound collage piece, as there is television playing in either the foreground or background, constantly. What the movie says about TV in our culture feels a little dated, and too on-the-nose sometimes, but then it really hasn't ever gone away—and you can more or less apply the same ideas to the internet, smartphones, and social media. The constant TV excerpts throughout the movie do feel a little nostalgic at times, maybe even more comic now, in some cases, and in others, weirdly not dated. There are a couple of sequences that use entire songs which are particularly striking to watch now. I'm often critical of filmmakers using entire songs in montage sequences—even though there are some great ones—and these are a couple of them. First, when Chance leaves the urban mansion where he's lived his entire life and strikes out in the run-down, intense, Washington DC winter world—we have to try to imagine how mind-blowing that would be for him, or us in his place. Playing over this extended sequence is Eumir Deodato's version of Also Sprach Zarathustra—and that version of that music—it's really perfect. Even more weirdly, after Chance finds himself in a limousine (complete with TV, of course) approaching this enormous mansion, the center of wealth and power, where the rest of the movie will play out—he's watching, and we see and hear, the cartoon version of Cheech and Chong's Basketball Jones—an immensely popular song when I was in high school. It seemingly has absolutely nothing to do with the scene in which it's cross-cut, but somehow it works. It's like one of those times when you, in a fit of inspiration, throw two unrelated things together and through some magical alchemy it creates something odd and beautiful.

Thinking about this movie now, what it says and how it affected me, is very interesting to me, as I guess it was one of the things that formed who I am—but I'd never thought about it in that way. This idea that, politically, there are hidden pockets of powerful and influential people behind what we see on the surface, is nothing new, but worth reminding yourself, I guess. Also, the means to which rich, white men execute their power, and the hypocrisy inherent in everything, and also the idea that individuals are often weak, clueless, and kind of goofy, but that doesn't necessarily lessen their ability to do good or very harmful things. You can probably search online for multitudes of articles discussing Donald Trump in relation to this movie. The thing that struck me the most, though, watching it this time, on a personal level, is how much I was influenced by the character of Chance. I think I found something inspiring about him—even though it's not overt, or even intended—maybe it has to do with the performance, but also, I can relate to him. The best scenes are when he says almost nothing, or something so totally off, it causes the people around him to make their own interpretations. I'm not saying that I used this character as a role model—but maybe a little bit. It's kind of funny, as you go on in your life, when you come upon things that help you see the reasons you are who you are.

Randy Russell 10.4.18


I almost missed seeing this excellent 2018 documentary about Hal Ashby because it was playing at odd random times at the newly reopened Oriental Theatre in Milwaukee. They have definitely expanded the programming from what Landmark used to do, often showing a half-dozen different movies a day, even though there are three screens, so you really have to pay attention. As much as I'd like to, I cannot see everything that plays there. When I first saw the title of this one I thought maybe it was a follow up to Room 237 (2012)—more Kubrick conspiracy theories, starting with the HAL 9000 computer. It's interesting, Hal Ashby and Stanley Kubrick were contemporaries (and the Oriental has been showing mini-retrospectives of them both)—very, very different, of course, but having in common that they were both obsessive, uncompromising artists. People who aren't film nerds, but are a little older, will know a lot of Ashby films without realizing they are made by the same director. They are all very different, but have much in common when you look more closely.

This is the first I've heard of Amy Scott, who made this film—she has a website, you can read about her—I'm going to. The first thing to know is: she made this portrait of Hal Ashby, his life and work. Really, see it at a theater if you have the chance—because it's still a big screen experience—the collection of scenes from these great Ashby films, alone, is worth your time. There's also a formidable lineup of interviews—people close to him, and filmmakers influenced by him—the list is so long I'm not going to try to decide who to include and who not to, here—you can look it up! But it also included my friend Nick Dawson, who wrote a fine biography about Hal Ashby called Being Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel (2009), which I read half of, put aside for some reason, and have recently resumed reading. In keeping with my promise to write shorter movie articles, I'm going to wrap this up, but I just want to add, I don't normally get too emotionally caught up in non-narrative films, but at some point I thought I was going to cry. I didn't, because, you know, I'm all out of tears—but I felt like it—and writing this now, thinking about old Hal Ashby, I again felt like I was going to cry. I guess it must have something to do with that greatest thing an artist can do—to actually convey love through your work—to an anonymous audience (perhaps not even born yet) who you just have to have faith is out there—and will love you back.

Randy Russell 10.2.18


My resolution to write shorter movie reviews will commence after this one—there is just way too much to ramble on about incoherently, after just seeing Stanley Kubrick's 1962 adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's 1955 novel, Lolita, projected on film at Milwaukee's 1927 Oriental Theatre in the year 2018's invigorating autumn season. That said, I'm not really going to write about the movie (or the book), about both of which you can find hundreds, thousand of articles, entire books, dissertations, interviews, reviews, and podcasts. No stone has been left unturned... except for one. That's a joke; hundreds, thousands of stones have been left unturned. That's my belief, anyway. There are two types of people, those who believe it's all been done, all been said, and those who believe there are thousands of stones yet unturned.

I was immediately thrown off-balance when the remarkably young woman taking tickets at the theater automatically assumed I should pay the lower, senior citizen discount price. This has never happened to me before, and I said, “But I'm not...”—but then, never one to pass up a bargain, happily accepted. Or not so happily. Okay, I'm bald and fat and my thrift-store clothes fit weirdly... but that never happens. Then I saw another theater employee gyrating with a Hula Hoop near the auditorium entrance and it dawned on me... I'd been taken for a lollipop. The Oriental has been doing fun and inventive promotional stuff, and automatically offering any men over the age of 30 (roughly my demographic) the “senior discount” when buying a ticket to Lolita was a brilliant bit of performance art. Then, laughing like a madman, I tried to pee once more—and miss as much of the pre-feature stuff before this too-long, intermission-less movie—while thinking about my history with Lolita.

In just my second year in college at Ohio State University I had a class with a professor named Morris Beja, and I guess it was the English department, but it was about film adaptations from literature. We used his just published book, Film and Literature (1979)—another book I should still have but can't find anywhere. It was one of my favorite classes ever, and I think it kind of spoiled me. I saw a lot of great movies for the first time in that class. One of the assignments was to read Nabokov's Lolita (and I haven't read it since), after which we screened Kubrick's film version. It occurs to me now, the combination of the two is like giving LSD to a child (I was a young 19 year-old), but it must have been a really good class because it's always been one of my warmest school memories. It would be many (I'm not sure how many) years until I would watch that movie again, wanting to relive that magical feeling, but after my second viewing I decided it was Kubrick's worst failure. And now, after this, maybe my third or fourth viewing of the movie, I've totally come around to it again and think it's a great movie, in spite of the twin towers of pedophiliac monsters. Also, in spite of the really terrible ending—I mean, what the hell, with that ending? It's not like Kubrick doesn't know what a good ending is (see Dr. Strangelove, maybe the best ending in the history of cinema). I'm sure I could read more about it, but I hate reading “movie trivia”—I'd prefer to speculate. I wonder if it has something to do with the fact that Nabokov wrote the screenplay (which, naturally, was monstrously long). Asking a novelist to write a screenplay is kind of like asking an architect to cook a soufflé—you may well get something flat and delicious, but if it rises, you're probably better off just taking a picture.

I don't normally like to dwell on performances in movies, but this one is over the top, so I'll dwell for a paragraph or two. First of all, Shelley Winters is great—as good as anyone in this film—but she dies before we're halfway through it, so you kind of forget. Also, she's so good at this part (she's Lolita's mom) that she makes you profoundly uncomfortable. In a movie that is equal parts comedy and tragedy, her performance is almost perfectly equal parts comedy and tragedy. Sue Lyon plays Lolita, and it was her first movie at age 14 or something, and it's kind of incredible just how good she is at saying so much with subtle looks. The character, Lolita, knows more of what's going on than anyone in the movie while still being, on the other hand, a somewhat goofy, clueless kid. But really tragic, too—after losing both parents, she has to balance relationships with two formidable, pedophile predators. One of those, Clare Quilty, is played by Peter Sellers whose performance is one of the most insane I've ever seen. When I first viewed this movie, seeing how the Clare Quilty character is one of the major differences from the novel (as I recall), I had the idea that Peter Sellers was this out-of-control force of nature that Kubrick just couldn't contain. Of course that's ridiculous, knowing how obsessive Kubrick was about his films, and now that I see all of Kubrick's films as comedies, this performance makes perfect sense. I mean, his movies aren't comedies, but they're all funnier than comedies. What is a comedy, anyway? I don't find most comedy at all funny, actually, but I find all of Kubrick's movies hilarious.

One of my earliest moviegoing memories is seeing 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) at the drive-in, which of course freaked me out, as a little kid, but nothing freaked me out so much as the conflict in the Captain Nemo character, played by James Mason. Was he good or was he evil, a hero or a villain? Of course, that conflict is central to the story, but James Mason really made it the thing that makes me watch that movie whenever I have a chance. He's such a good-looking, suave actor, he could have had a whole career playing corny heroes and comic romantic interests, but he must have preferred playing complicated, complex, flawed characters, like the one in Bigger Than Life (1956), one of my favorite movies, and Norman Maine in A Star Is Born (1954). The latest version (is it like the seventh or eighth version?) of A Star Is Born is coming out any day, and I have high hopes for it because it's one of my favorite Hollywood stories. After seeing this new one, if you haven't, you owe it to yourself to go back and watch the 1954 version. Anyway, just because I love James Mason so much, I've had enormous conflict every time I've watched Lolita; it's hard for me not to relate to him—I mean, just as my favorite actor, I guess—but his character really is reprehensible in this movie. Besides being a pedophile and a murderer, he's also—well, not worse, but more relatable to most—an insufferable jealous boyfriend.

Talking about remakes, there was one of this movie (or maybe a “fresh” adaptation of the book) in 1997—I can't remember if I saw it or not, but I remember thinking there was no point in it (except for maybe Jeremy Irons in the Humbert Humbert part—excellent casting!). Anyway, at some point in my latest viewing, most likely during one of Peter Sellers' incredibly long, bizarre monologues, I thought of a really great idea for another remake (or new adaptation) of Lolita—but this one, instead of from the point of view of Humbert, would be from Clare Quilty's point of view. (Of course, who could possibly play Quilty after Peter Sellers? Maybe Johnny Depp?) It cracked me up that he was always with this woman, Vivian Darkbloom, who never says anything. My idea is that whenever Clare Quilty is in public, he's a manic, talking non-stop, doing characters, constant jokes. But then when he and Vivian Darkbloom are together in private, he says nothing, just sits around depressed while she talks non-stop. Maybe that's in the book, or maybe someone's already done it, or maybe it's just pretty thin, but I do like the idea of seeing this story from another point of view. Maybe not Quilty's after all—maybe Vivian Darkbloom's.

I asked the internet about Vivian Darkbloom and noticed that someone mentioned the name is an anagram of Vladimir Nabokov—so what does that mean?—worth looking into? I also noticed, at one point in the movie, a poster, I think, that said “Drome”—and this struck me as weird because I'd never heard that word except for Drome Records, the old Cleveland punk label. I didn't make a note of it, though, during the movie, and totally forgot. Then on my way home I was trying to remember what the thing was I wanted to remember, but it was gone. Then when I got home, there was mail—a total surprise—a vinyl LP my friend Jeff Curtis had sent me, from Cleveland, by the late-Seventies punk band Bernie & The Invisibles—and in the liner notes there's stuff about Drome Records—so this brought it right back! What do you make of coincidences like that? So I asked the internet about this Drome poster and it turns out it's a made-up brand of cigarettes, with some significance to Nabokov. If you want, you can look all this stuff up on the internet, and re-read the book, and watch the movie via DVD, paying attention to all those details. But I'm warning you, you don't want to go down either a Nabokov rabbit-hole nor a Kubrick rabbit-hole—and both together, forget it it—that's more like a subterranean rabbit colony catacomb—and you may never get out.

Randy Russell 9.27.18

Nico, 1988

I was just going to overlook this movie, actually, why? Because as a person with an attempted, renewed focus, I've got a radar detector for potential rabbit-holes, and the days are short. Berlin (the city), for instance—no time for it! Also, as a Velvet Underground fan, I'm more of a Lou Reed post-Velvet fan, and I've willfully neglected Nico, even though my friend Jeff Curtis plays a Nico song almost every week on his radio show (“What You Need,” on WRUW, Cleveland) and they're always good. I knew that she died, after a bicycle accident, in 1988, so could this movie not be sad and tragic? Also, what does 1988 mean to me? Personally, a new beginning, I guess. The Cleveland Browns were relatively good. Popular culture was at a low point, but then, that's always the case. Reagan had frozen the minimum wage at $3.35 for eight years, and I made just over that, but I was a rich man compared to now. There's always good music, if you look hard enough, but I had grown lazy. I remember being particularly inspired by Tom Waits and Nick Cave. Also, kind of intriguing—eleven years earlier I had purchased this book by Caroline Coon called, 1988: The New Wave Punk Rock Explosion (apparently the title was somewhat of a prophecy?—since it was published in 1977?—but I can't remember for sure). So... I just looked and looked on my shelves and have discovered it's been stolen! I know that makes me sound like a junkie who can't find his stash, but it's gone! Stealing someone's books is often justified by the book stealer as “they're not reading it”—but still, it's the lowest of the low, because often the victim doesn't discover the theft until the moment when it's essential the book be located!

So maybe the reasons I had for skipping this movie are the very ones that took me to it, but from the very first scenes I knew that I was in for a real cinema trip because visually it's gritty and beautiful, and musically intense, and dramatically intriguing. As far as the dramatic part goes, I was immediately put off balance by the dialogue and scenes, and just as quickly taken in as I realized that these interactions were so much more like human interactions (where people say things that don't make any sense, but have lots of coded meaning) than I ever see on TV or in movies. This is great writing, great directing, I thought, and I had very little time to think, before the next scene—who is the director, and screenwriter? It's Susanna Nicchiarelli, an Italian filmmaker who I know nothing about—well, of course, now I know this movie. And, well, okay—there were some scenes, later on, that deal with Christa (Nico) Päffgen's difficult relationship with her son that are somewhat more conventional and emotionally tangible—likely appropriate—but not as much fun as the scenes, especially early in the movie, where you have no idea where you're going. Each scene an individual mystery, and collectively an intriguing collage portrait that gave me the feeling—more than anywhere in recent memory—of that off-balance, dangerous, and life-affirming sensation of falling in love.

It's tricky making those biopics, especially ones about musicians, because the most enthusiastic audience for the subject is also the hardest to please. Then there is the question of: Do you use the original recordings of the subject or, as they did in this movie, have the actor sing the material. Both approaches can makes sense—but in this movie, the actress playing Nico, Trine Dyrholm—singing with the band—is the heart of the film. She is really pretty incredible. I had never heard of her before. How any movie gets funded is a grand mystery, and in this case it was apparently a multitude of European sources, but I can just see the meetings (that hopefully didn't happen) with mainstream Hollywood producers who would have been baffled—when the subject came up of making a Nico biopic—at the choice of the time period—the last years of her life—rather than the perceived glamour of the late Sixties, NYC, Andy Warhol Factory years—in which case you would cast a blonde, model-like, American movie star—and so on. And that's the movie I'd have gladly skipped—while this one I'm thankful for having seen. This is the Nico who says, “Don't call me Nico, my name is Christa,” and “I don't want to talk about the Velvet Underground.” This movie is about a powerful artist who says she doesn't care about the size of the audience, but who is deeply concerned with the music—and we get that sense from the performance. And also, a human being who is, as human beings are, full of contradictions.

I probably should be suspicious of my strong reaction to the movie, just because I know the power of the cinema can suck you in like a good evangelist, and just the sheer amount of scenes with Trine Dyrholm's eyes burning a hole through the screen should have been a warning. Who is this actress, anyway? I looked her up after I got home—she's Danish and has an enormous list of credits, awards, accolades, all of which don't surprise me, or impress me as much as this performances surprised and impressed me. Apparently, all the music was also recorded for this movie—I don't know the actors, I don't know the musicians, but I liked it all a lot. Dyrholm sang all the songs—and I also loved all of the songs—some of which I knew (Velvet Underground songs), and some I didn't. Their version of the Nat King Cole standard, Nature Boy, though—that one really killed me. Now I'm probably going to go back and listen to Nico's music, and I'm going to keep an eye out for this filmmaker, Susanna Nicchiarelli, and I'm going to hope that Trine Dyrholm gets more parts as good as this one, in movies that come to town. Hopefully someone is writing really good parts for women in their forties and older— other than those stories, you know, about meeting a corny, nice guy to grow old with while learning to embrace social media. Finally, as a public service announcement—you should go to this movie—but if you're a recovering smoker, you might want to take along some nicotine gum or something.

Randy Russell 9.26.18

John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection

I did not hesitate to head to the theater for a screening of this 2018 documentary, directed by Julien Faraut—in spite of its brutal title: John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection—once I saw a brief description that said it contained 16mm film footage—because even if edited and projected via a digital format, a movie originating on grainy film is a beautiful thing to take in on a big screen. I was not disappointed, and in fact the entire venture is more than a little bold and “punk rock” in its approach, which is not only appropriate, but feels essential. And for me, personally, a good way to spend an hour and a half thinking deeply about my problems with: documentary filmmaking, professional tennis, celebrity, and sports in general—including my own participation in sports, documentary filmmaking, art, and punk rock.

Apparently, if I understood this correctly, this film was born out of the existence of hours and hours of filmed tennis footage that was intended for instructional use on the sport, technique, and movement. Whatever the origin, there is this ridiculously good footage from multiple angles and close-ups, some slow motion, most with sound, all focusing on John McEnroe on the clay courts of Roland-Garros. It's the best tennis footage I've ever seen, and we start out by examining McEnroe's movement, his technique, and his game, and then later getting into his personality, temperament—and temper. I cannot imagine someone with even no interest in tennis—or even sports—not getting fully engrossed in this film's approach; though some with an ultra-reverent view of the sport might be put off by the sheer extremes of weirdness the filmmaker experiments with (which I'd be criminal to let on to, for anyone yet to see this movie. What's fun is how it keeps surprising you). I loved it all, even the stuff that maybe didn't work, because, maybe it did work. I loved it. The one film I thought about was that odd documentary about football player Zinedine Zidane (Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait) (2006) I saw a few years back, which focused on Zidane during one match, filmed in real time with 17 cameras.

Sometimes I feel like I hate documentaries—when I hear that word I feel empty in the pit of my stomach—even though some of my favorite-ever movies are documentaries, and there are certainly some great sports ones—Hoop Dreams and Senna come to mind. But a lot more, too, and really, I love even lesser sports documentaries just because I love sports so much. I also hate sports. I love PBS, in general, but I hate the PBS approach and vibe, in general, and when I was thinking about this I thought about how I believe it was the writer, Frank Kogan, who used the term “PBS” when talking about music (though it could pertain to anything) that has an overly safe, studied, and academically accepted flavor (if I'm both remembering and interpreting this correctly). This was from a long-running and really great zine Kogan used to produce (that I contributed to) called Why Music Sucks. I have never met Frank Kogan, but it occurred to me that I was first in touch with him around the time McEnroe's career started its inevitable downhill period (music and sports are remarkably the same in this way, but for much different reasons), and there may have been a time when I thought they were the same person. We are all roughly the same age. Frank Kogan recorded some of the best punk music I've even heard, but then seemed to refuse to pursue it, instead preferring to write about things that constantly challenged and confounded his contemporaries. I have still not read all of his book, Real Punks Don't Wear Black (2006), but in the picture on the cover (one of two I've ever seen of him) he's got that McEnroe hair (where you get the impression that hair is just another annoyance). Then came Andre Agassi who just shaved his head after brutalizing us for awhile with the full-Eighties look. His battle was with DayGlo and the Wimbledon dress code. People said Agassi was punk rock, but I dismissed him as new wave (that sell-out, corporate dilution of punk rock) (But loved him as a tennis player!) Real punks don't wear DayGlo, or black. McEnroe was the real punk. But he wasn't either, really, and I'm sure McEnroe and Frank Kogan are nothing whatsoever alike (though I like to think, both a little like me).

I have often thought that the two sports that are least alike while being the most alike are boxing and tennis; this is very obvious, I know, and also, useless, and I'm right now rejecting that idea. But you know, different and alike. But where they are most alike is where all sports are alike, and that is the people who win the most are the people who want to win more than the others—what they call the “killer instinct.” (They've tried to export that idea to business, as well, but I call that greed.) You think, well, everyone wants to win, don't they? No, they do not. Not that much. Most people, more than anything else, want to be loved, and in most cases, wanting to win and wanting to be loved are at odds with each other. And it's this uncomfortable area of the intersection of the two where I find sports at their worst. Anyway, McEnroe certainly had the killer instinct, and it's that, along with the examination of the physical aspect of his game that this movie focuses on. First we see some of the most detailed and intimate tennis footage I've ever watched; I'd have still liked the movie if that was all it was. But then we get to his arguments with the officials, usually about whether a ball hit the court in or out of bounds. This was before the electric eye and digital replay we have today. I always felt that probably McEnroe was right; obviously his eye and senses were as acute as anyone in that stadium. But he couldn't let a bad call go, and thus the tantrums. Or else, that was just part of his game, in a larger sense—and that's what we're asked to decide. And then, also interesting to me, was his displeasure with being interviewed, filmed, and recorded—including run-ins with the very people whose footage we are watching and listening to. This is all great stuff.

This will be an easy movie to miss at the theater, but when you watch it at home, go for a big screen because it has a close to square aspect ratio. Then turn up the sound and immerse yourself (maybe people do this; I tend to be a halfway attentive home viewer). I promised to keep these movie reviews shorter, but there is one more thing I wanted to add, just because I alluded to my personal problems at the start, here. I have always been a big sports fan, but it's slowly slipping away because I think all popular spectator sports are declining due to their own greed. There is too much money involved. Sports gambling doesn't help that. High tech training, performance enhancement drugs and techniques, and our increasingly suicidally extreme culture doesn't help. But still, I've always liked watching sports on TV as something to do when you finish everything else you want to do that week. But now you have to take too much of an active roll; i.e., a second job to be able to afford the pay channels to watch what you used to just have to endure TV commercials to watch. The film's final, extended sequence is this famous French Open match between McEnroe and Ivan Lendl, which I actually remember watching, somewhere, in 1984. It's kind of a haunting way to end this movie. Why did McEnroe lose? Is it always “because the other guy was better”—or was there another reason?

It really made me think about my own participation in sports and what an asshole I was sometimes. My highest point, at least on a success level, was the mile run, in high school, and I very well remember the point at which the idea of competing started to freak me out. I guess I didn't like myself as a killer, and even with something like distance running, you're not just racing yourself and the clock; there is also the sense of destroying your opponent. But to this day I still think back with a tinge of regret to my last races, thinking, “I could have won them all.” All I had to do was run faster than the other guys—I could have never lost. The body would have done it. It's always the mind that gives in first. Is it because we're civilized that we give in, ultimately? Knowing that, living in the world, what we must do, as a human, is make room for other people? In the end we're either humans or monsters, and to be human, ultimately, is to lose.

Randy Russell 9.18.18


I'm reminded of an old joke: One guy holds up a quill pen and proclaims, “The pen is mightier than the sword!” A guy facing him, brandishing a sword, smiles (they both have some kind of English accent and are wearing funny hats). He then runs through (you know, with the sword) the guy with the pen, who crumples to the ground, dead. The man with the sword then says, “That may be...”

Take that as you will, but you must ask yourself, why do we take that old saying to be true, just because it's been around? Maybe the sword is mightier than the pen. And what if the pen is education and the sword is wealth, or the pen is the short story and the sword is the cinema, or the pen is journalism and the sword is politics, or the pen is the legal profession and the sword is the military? What does “mightier” mean, in the end, anyway, and why do we care? And what's this have to do with my review of this movie? The answer to that is that I'm not going to write about this movie, and the reason is because—even though I promised myself I'd write about every movie I see at a theater—I went out and broke another promise I made to myself. I said that I would see movies without reading about them first (that's always my promise to myself) and then I would get up the next morning after seeing the movie and write about it without reading anything about it. But this morning... what did I do? I stayed in bed with my phone and looked up a review of this movie, and then another, and another. Some of these were intelligent, really well-informed, and interesting. So I went on, realizing I must refer to this movie writing in whatever I wrote, agree or disagree, and alas, my bed because a deeper and deeper hole, and to try to escape, I switched over to Instagram, made a lot of red hearts, then to today's top three (determined by my phone) news stories. My comfortable little rabbit hole then became a coffin. Send flowers! Just kidding—I finally (thankfully, and with monumental effort) climbed out of it. And I got out on the wrong side.

Those articles and discussions—many of them about the political nature of this film, its effectiveness or lack of effectiveness, and Spike Lee's massive career, and future hope or despair—can be found on your phone or reading device, or even a newspaper, and I'd encourage you to see this movie while you can see it on a glorious large screen with good sound, then read to your heart's content. I'm going out for a walk, while it's still summer, and watch those new students, full of hope and despair, head off for the first day of school. But first, during my coffee, I'm looking up Spike Lee's filmography online. There's a lot of stuff there. He's just a few years older than me, but it feels like he's been around forever. Though I remember vividly when She's Gotta Have It (1986) came out, how fresh it seemed—I'd like to see it again, now. Do the Right Thing (1989) is one of my favorite movies, and I've seen it repeatedly over the years. I still feel like it's powerful and thought-provoking, and it's always highly entertaining, funny, quotable, and disturbing. I say disturbing in that it made me examine a lot about myself: prejudices, fears, and perceptions; not exactly a feel-good reaction, but one of growth, hopefully (as opposed to the kind of disturbing that a lot of movies try to be: disturbing for the sake of being disturbing). For whatever reason—I'm really not sure—I stopped seeing very many Spike Lee movies. I'm guessing there isn't just one reason, but a combination of: his really wide array of styles and subjects might have felt intimidating? Or maybe his movies stopped getting the screen time they once did? Or maybe (I'm sure this is part of it) I started seeing less and less movies—a trend which continues, with me. Anyway, it occurred to me, as a mad list maker, that Spike Lee would be another good person to focus on, see all his work (or at least the features) and consider it as a whole. So maybe he'll be next (after Robert Altman, and, and...)

That “based on a true story” thing is usually a red flag with me—or else I just ignore it—but seeing that this movie is based on a story set in Colorado Springs in 1970, that got me out of my chair and to the movie theater in the rain. It turns out that you need to have some faith that this story is based on a true story (based on Ron Stallworth's book), because it's so outlandish. It's about the first black detective (played by John David Washington) with the Colorado Springs police, infiltrating the local Ku Klux Klan chapter—by calling on the phone, then getting invited to join. So naturally he had to get another detective (played by Adam Driver) to be him when meeting “The Organization” in person—which ends up being somewhat comic, harrowing, horrifying, and just very satisfying—as a story, a yarn, a kind of tall tale (but that really happened, right?—as nuts as it is). Also, something that could never happen in these internet, cell phone days. Spike Lee does some cool film things here, too, like showing the Klansmen (including our infiltrator) shooting guns out in the woods—always a lot of fun, right, watching dudes shoot guns—but then, when they leave the woods, the camera moves around to see that the metal targets are racist black caricatures, kind of permanently out there, full of bullet holes—purely visual storytelling that's chilling and disturbing. As far as the reflection you will inevitably have watching this movie, you will ask yourself (as we all keep asking ourselves) are things getting better or are things getting worse? Who can answer that? One thing that popped into my mind was that old saying, “One step forward, two steps back”—which seems like how we go, sometimes, as a society. That is kind of pessimistic, I guess, but look at it this way—even though the two steps back part is tragic on some, and many, levels, that still doesn't totally negate the one step forward part, without which we wouldn't' survive. The work is never done, it never will be done, and why would you think it ever would be?

Ultimately this is a pretty lengthy and convoluted story, I'm not going to go on about what I think worked and didn't work (a lot of both). I had an enjoyable time at the movies, and the parts I didn't like didn't infuriate me—so it was a successful outing. When you're watching a movie, there are just so many levels of involvement and appreciation—from the drama to the story to the performances to the art—all of which can be appreciated or criticized on their own. And then there's the music, also a big deal—I was really excited to hear almost the entire Temptations song, “Ball of Confusion,” because it brought back my 10-year-old self buying that as a single, with the lyrics on the sleeve (what other 45 had the lyrics printed?), analyzing it line by line. The movie is also, ultimately, entwined with its political message, and the degree to which it's powerful or important or works for you necessarily has to do with where you are at. It's not going to be the last word on the subject. Why would it be, or why would anything be the last word? It's part of an ongoing conversation. With movies, it's okay to have a lot of different conversations that don't even have anything to do with each other. Movies are huge, expensive, and powerful. It's also interesting that Spike Lee uses several references to Birth of a Nation, which adds complexity on several levels—even possibly as a self-critique (of the filmmaker and the audience). Movies are also, you sometimes forget, a short form, and if they try to do too much, sometimes fail their ambition. And also, movies, many of them, especially the expensive ones, we should remember, are often made for a more general, not very esoteric audience. It's a difficult arena to work in, for the artist. Sometimes you've got to think—especially if you've ever tried to make one—it's a small miracle movies even get made at all.

Randy Russell 9.5.18

The Beaches of Agnès

After getting up early to work on writing, taking a walk in the oxygen heavy park, recording a podcast, having breakfast with friends, it was still early—a much better Sunday than usual—so I had that feeling of, I can do anything, even watch golf on TV—but instead, I looked up the movie schedules and saw there was a movie I knew nothing about called The Beaches of Agnès, from 2008, and if I walked over to the Oriental right now, the timing would be perfect. That is a very exciting prospect, sometimes, so I went, after quickly reviewing Agnès Varda's filmography. Her name is familiar—pretty much a household word, along with Godard, Truffaut, Demy, etc.—for someone who attended some sort of film school and /or can remember the repertory film programs with big newsprint schedules you'd tape to your refrigerator. I realized, however, that I'd seen none of her films, at least that I could recall, except for Vagabond (1985), a grim story of a young woman drifter, which did make a strong impression on me. Also, it may be the movie that contains this really haunting image, burned into my memory (but it may not the be that movie, so I don't want to describe this haunting image, be wrong, and look like a dumb-ass).

So, it turns out that this movie, The Beaches of Agnès, is a sort of memoir film, a kind of personal retrospective on Agnès Varda's career, which is longer than even my life—so it was a great way to remember what I'd read (but not seen) about her, which is very little—but more important, get to know and become excited about her work, which I might, in the future, have a chance to see. That description makes the movie sound somewhat dry, but it's anything but that; it's playful, goofy, thought-provoking, and for me, highly inspirational. The first thing that's evident and really pretty exciting is that she is not that person just forever recreating their success—legacy-obsessed and over-serious—in fact, her work isn't limited by the feature narrative straitjacket—it's all over the place; documentary hybrids, short film, installation, and really just herself as a performer—and also is not contained by grim art heaviness—not contained at all. That is what you get from this movie, which she made at the age of 80, and I suppose thought by many to be her last film (for the artist, you always think your current work will be your last work). But she went on to make another film after this, in 2017, called Faces Places, so how exciting is that? I haven't seen it yet, but now I'm looking forward to it.

After my project of re-watching and writing about all of the Coen Brothers movies (which you can find on this website) I was thinking about doing another list, where I watch all of the work by a filmmaker. You'll notice that many such lists, in the writing-about-film world, consist of the work of white men filmmakers (and I admit, Robert Altman is next on my agenda). But it occurred to me that it would be fun to try to see all of Agnès Varda's work (if that's even possible, I don't know). Right after I moved to Iowa City, a new town to me where the only person I knew, at first, was the person I moved there with, I immediately discovered the Bijou, a repertory film program who were showing, that fall, all the works by Alain Tanner—which I religiously attended—and that really set the tone for a successful, happy, fruitful period my life. The cinema is a church and religion for many of us (even if you also have church and religion in your life). I'm not sure how the Oriental Theatre is going to be programming, going forward, but I'm excited just thinking about the possibility that they might show all of the work of a particular filmmaker—or at least provide significant pieces of the puzzle for such a quest.

I realize I'm not really writing about this film—but I'm just accepting that's the kind of movie review I'm going to write. I will never take notes during a movie, and for me to sit down now and try to craft a summary would expose my spotty memory and require me to read, online, someone else's summary—and really, if the reader of this (all two of you) wants more, you know where to look. The exciting thing is that I feel like I got to know a lot about Agnès Varda—and even had the illusion of getting to know her. Also, which I feel like she might appreciate, my mind opened up to a lot not seemingly related subjects and emotions—and the rest of my day was really transformed into a kind of life-receptive performance living. Also, I got to check out the current restroom situation at the theater. During the recording the podcast (more on that later) with local musician, artist, and explorer, Lauryl Sulfate, I learned about a few local haunted bathrooms, including possibly, she said, the women's lounge at the Oriental. So I was anticipating returning there, after having entered it for just the first time during the intermission of a film just a week ago. To my horror, it was now, once again, the ladies lounge! What was with this restroom musical chairs, I thought? I was not real happy, at least until I found the new men's room, which boasts some totally substantial urinals, with significant, tiled walls around them. I anticipate some film festival action here in the near future, and thus you can count on being in line to pee, and there is nothing worse than standing at a public urinal with “stage fright” while that antsy film festival crowd burns holes in your back with their eyes. Old tile work can only be preserved, never matched, but a humane and safe place to perform the miracle of urinary evacuation, that's something to get excited about.

Randy Russell 8.29.18

Barry Lyndon

Along with The Domes, Milwaukee's Oriental Theatre is on my very short list (two) of the best places in town, so the company, Milwaukee Film, that runs the film festival, is taking on a great responsibility as caretaker, and I hope they are up for it. The only thing I care about more than movie theaters is diners, and I first arrived in Milwaukee about five years after the legendary Oriental Pharmacy Lunch Counter, next door, closed, but I never stop hearing about it; it's not even necessary to manufacture a slogan imploring you to “remember.” The Theatre has recently reopened after some renovations, most of them, I'm assuming, technical, but it was with some trepidation that I entered. “As long as they haven't made it look like a giant Apple Store,” remarked my date, which is funny, but stranger things have happened, and we're living in stranger times. My chief concern was the restroom situation, but it seems that that is still a work in progress, so I'm going to have to have faith that they will do the right thing(s). Like most Stanley Kubrick movies, Barry Lyndon (1975) is too long, but at least it has an intermission built in, which used to be quite natural for long movies (before the invention of the phone app that tells you best best place during a bloated movie to get up and pee). The intermission came not a moment too soon, and I was delighted to see the inside of what was once the ladies' room, upstairs—a pleasure that threatened to overtake the cinematic experience.

I got to thinking: I'm not sure if history will be kind to Stanley Kubrick, as the flaws in his movies seem to grow as time goes on. Dr. Strangelove (1964) might be the closest he's made to a perfect movie, and our culture, as it spirals toward extinguishing itself, seems to somewhat paradoxically demand more perfection at the same time it increasingly sucks. For me, it's the flaws that make not just the cinema interesting, but everything, but oh well. Kubrick is still all over those top 100 movie lists people make, but I'm guessing less and less—but then, those lists—if you need a cure for insomnia look at one made by, say, the AFI, and imagine having to endure a serious discussion about it. I'm not so in love with any of Kubrick's movies as much as I am with his entire oeuvre, and reexamining it—and the greatest pleasure with his movies, upon re-watching them, is the way you are likely to totally change your opinion of them. The documentary, Room 237, while stretched pretty thin, still contained enough to think about to make me re-appreciate The Shining (1980), even love it. There are two conspiracy myths you may have heard about Kubrick—one, that he worked on some fake version of the moon landing—which is likely, whether or not there was a real moon landing and his footage was ever used—and, two, that he made personal pornography, on the side. That one you can count on. I'm sure even Spielberg does that.

I don't need to point out how themes of, and interest in, pornography run through all of Kubrick's films, do I? Don't get carried away, I'm mostly referring to the broader definition, i.e., porn—that could include nature TV shows, or muscle cars, or food. It's no accident (as we know, there are no accidents in Kubrick movies) that the big hill in the background of an opening scene has a nipple on top of it. Much of the sex in this movie is stuff we've seen a lot, the contrast between raging horniness and repressed manners. But there's also the twisted, the unhealthy—and in this movie just imagining how itchy the wool must be against your skin, and the way everything must smell—I'm sure there's an audience for that. And then of course, the duels, and the floggings, and the really stupid battles—in general, man's stupidly inhumane interaction with his fellow man—I know this is a lot of people's thing. The nauseating perspective it gives us—how much better off we are now—and how much worse off—as we spiral toward oblivion.

This movie is also very, very funny, pretty much from start to finish, though sometimes the humor is a little more evident than others. You can kind of imagine Kubrick over there in jolly old England, enjoying Monty Python and Benny Hill, but thinking how much funnier they would be without a man in drag, screeching, riding a tricycle in fast-motion. I'm not sure how much the tone, the dry humor, the satire, comes from source material, William Makepeace Thackeray's 1844 novel, The Luck of Barry Lyndon (I'm guessing a lot). I have not read Thackeray, and I'm probably not going to, and I don't recall having any conversations about Thackeray with anyone, and I'm not aware of his name being turned into an adjective, lately (though it could still happen, I guess). There is a voice-over narrator throughout the movie, giving us insight into what's going on, but mostly presenting a humorous counterpoint. I admit that this is the last of Kubrick's movies I watched, and only for the first time very recently—and my resistance had much to do with an aversion to three-cornered hats and Ryan O'Neal (the anti-Warren Oates). It was that Love Story (1970) thing—you have no idea how stifling a huge movie like that could be in a the early-seventies, in a small town with only two movies screens. Though I did love What's Up, Doc? (1972), you almost forget that Ryan O'Neal is in it. Maybe I just didn't have a sense of Kubrick, at that time (how could I?) and maybe Barry Lyndon didn't even come to our town.

Ultimately the movie is costume porn, candlelight porn, flintlock rifle porn, and endurance cinema porn, but all, if not totally wholesome, at least, to me, not gratuitous, and worthy of a date at the cinema. Popcorn and Raisinets helped with the endurance part, as did the glorious intermission! When Barry's leg was amputated it felt more symbolic than anything; I didn't even smell the cauterization or the antiseptic, but it did make me think about seeing a person with a limb missing on my way to the theater. But the reason I even noticed that, I think, is because I recently was trying to watch one of those new streaming TV series' that you're supposed to binge on (which I won't mention by name, not intending to condemn or promote it at this time) which I had to stop watching, declaring (to myself) that this is sick, irresponsible, gratuitous, and highly unpleasant pornography. That was the word that came to mind, but I'm not sure if it's the best word for something not meant to be sexually stimulating, but meant to grab the attention of the very sick culture we live in. I don't know, maybe I'm just old; after all, it used to be that we were barraged with death and mayhem imagery subliminally, everywhere from movies to advertising to children's books—so maybe just laying it out there is more honest. But I'm kind of afraid, also, that absolute honesty in society would consist of us wantonly beating each other over the heads with stone clubs. Let's be better than that.

Randy Russell 8.21.18

Sorry to Bother You

Before many of you were born, I worked on a movie called American Job (1996), directed by Chris Smith, which I think is still worth seeing, even though it's harder to find than The Sweet Ride (1968). I played a low wage worker passing through a series of “dead end” jobs, the last of which, representing the pinnacle of hopelessness, is telemarketing. The very last scene shows my character buying a lottery ticket, representing, for me, a kind of final surrender, not a happy ending. We intended to make a follow-up called The Winner, in which the character had won the big lotto, imagining what his life would then become (even less happy). Sorry to Bother You (2018) starts with the main character, Cassius Green, interviewing for and landing a telemarketing job, finding his way to success at it, and then essentially becoming the most successful sales-person on Earth. This is a fairly inaccurate one-line description of a really great and insane movie that throws everything at you and needs to be re-watched just to begin to peel back the layers. But I felt especially close to it in that this is a movie I wish I would have made (or could have made... or could have even imagined making). Describing too much of either the story or the details will definitely detract from the surreal experience you will have at first viewing. I seriously wish I could just say “see this movie” and people would listen to me, but I'm lucky if anyone is even reading this, so I'll go on a little bit without too many specifics.

As a compulsive list maker, I have either a mental or real list of what I call “job movies” (which also includes some book/movie adaptations, such as Bukowski's Factotum). This includes documentaries like the Maysles' Salesman (1969), Barbara Kopple's Harlan County, USA (1976), and many fictional narratives in which working is an integral part. Sorry to Bother You now tops that list (and is going to inspire me to make a more comprehensive list and publish it). It was made by Boots Riley, a musician and producer I'd never heard of. This is his first feature, though he's not particularly young, and it does have that feel of the exuberance and joy of a first feature—together with the intelligence and life experience details of an older person—that you're just not going to see come along very often. Feature filmmakers often have the experience that making a movie is like building a bridge all by yourself (I mean effort-wise), and despite the highly collaborative nature of filmmaking (in itself, somewhat of a trial), it is easy to get burnt out by the sheer effort necessary. So I see this movie as a kind of gift, and it's at the theater now, and again, I just want to say go see it. But I'll go on.

The first major turning point in the story (I'm already giving away too much) is when Cassius, played by black actor Lakeith Stanfield, is instructed by a co-worker (Danny Glover) to use, when making sales calls, his “white voice.” This reminded me of a couple of things from my life. One was when I was working at a collection agency, filing, but in the room with all of the collectors, so I listened to them all day make their calls, and the way they'd chameleon their voices to who they were talking to. The other, weirder thing (I've told this story a lot, so sorry if you've heard it) is when I used to correspond with other zine makers via the mail, and there was one woman I'd written to for years, who when we finally met, we both uncomfortably admitted to each other that we each thought the other was black. I have no idea how that idea was born in the first place, but it made me realize something, maybe about my own dishonesty, a particular manifestation of racial prejudice, but also something that was probably very common and all too human. Anyway, back to the movie—here the story takes one of many amazing surreal leaps by having these particular telemarketers use exaggerated white voices (executed in the movie by using white actors) which is both hilarious and really gets the point across.

To say that there is much, much more is the understatement of the summer season, but I'm going to limit myself to summing this review up. I have to add, though, that one of my favorite parts of the movie is the depiction of the upper tier sales office that Cassius soon finds himself in—a great satirical (but barely, if at all, exaggerated) version of the ad agency and tech company environments we've all either read about, visited, or found ourselves cultishly inducted into. The center of the movie, too, is a labor struggle that Cassius finds himself in the middle of, due to timing and circumstances, and while this conflict is so extreme it's comical, it's still a very real conflict that is the heart of a very real story. And just as significant is the other heart of the movie (this movie has countless hearts, really)—the story of the relationship of Cassius and his girlfriend, Detroit, played by Tessa Thompson, a politically motivated performance artist whose work and friendship with Cassius is not secondary, but integral to the movie. (I have another movie list called “A Star is Born stories” which this movie would also fit very well into.) If this all sounds like it could use a season of television shows to contain it, that's right, but I like that it's all compacted into an under two-hour movie. Once it's available to stream, your version of binging might be to—as soon as you get to the end—immediately start the movie over—and see another whole movie in what you missed the first time.

Randy Russell 8.3.18

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


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