The Death of Stalin

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

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

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

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

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

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

Randy Russell 4.10.18

The Party

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

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

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

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

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

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

Randy Russell 3.12.18

Black Panther

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Randy Russell 3.7.18

I, Tonya

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

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

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

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

Randy Russell 2.5.18

Phantom Thread

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

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

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

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

Randy Russell 1.28.18

Call Me by Your Name

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

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

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

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

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

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

Randy Russell 1.24.18

The Shape of Water

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

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

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

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

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

Randy Russell 1.15.18

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

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

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

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

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

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

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

Randy Russell 1.9.18