Monday, September 30, 2019

Movie Review: Monos

Monos **** / *****
Directed by: Alejandro Landes.
Written by: Alejandro Landes and Alexis Dos Santos.
Starring: Sofia Buenaventura (Rambo), Moises Arias (Patagrande – Bigfoot), Julianne Nicholson (Doctora Sara Watson), Laura Castrillon (Sueca – Swede), Deiby Rueda (Pitufo – Smurf), Paul Cubides (Perro – Dog), Sneider Castro (Boom Boom), Karen Quintero (Leidi – Lady), Julian Giraldo (Lobo – Wolf), Wilson Salazar (Mensejero), Jorge Roman (Buscador de Oro), Valeria Diana Solomonoff (Periodosta).
Monos is a film that takes place in the wilds of Columbia – for the first half on a cloudy, wet mountaintop, and for the second half, in the jungle. It focuses on a group of child soldiers – who work for something referred to only as “The Organization”. The purpose of this group is to watch over an American hostage – known for most of its runtime only as Doctora (Julianne Nicholson). The group mainly though just parties – they drink, they dance, they fire off their automatic rifles into the nothingness around them. They are children, playing a real world, adult game – but that is what they are doing – playing. They all have nicknames – mainly juvenile ones like Rambo, Smurf, Boom Boom, etc. The film never tries to tie any of this to any kind of real world politics. It’s not interested in that.
The film opens with a bizarre training montage – where the groups adult contact with the Organization, runs them through their exercises, before he leaves them to their own devices. They have two jobs – keep the American hostage alive, and keep the cow they have been gifted alive. What follows are those parties – where they dance around like untamed animals. Things start to go awry when the cow is killed, and shortly thereafter, the groups teenage leader kills himself. The group that seemed tightknit starts falling apart from this power vacuum, as no one is quite sure how to proceed.
Nicholson is given a difficult role here, and plays it well. In one sense, she is the only adult in the room so to speak, but she is also the one with the least amount of power. The children are seemingly nice to her – or as nice as you can be while still holding someone hostage. She indulges them somewhat – but never really sympathizes with them, and is always planning her escape. They are children, and she knows that, but they are also her captors – the ones preventing her from leaving, and she knows that as well.
The first half of the film – on that mountain – is in many ways dreamlike. The cinematography is gorgeous here – with the drifting clouds hovering around the mountain. The atmosphere is aided greatly by the score by Mica Levi – who adds another great score to her young career, following Under the Skin and Jackie. That half comes to an end is absolute chaos – a raid on the mountain, explosions, and gunfire – although director Alejandro Landes makes the decision to mainly stick with Doctora, and her overseer for this time, in an underground bunker as the chaos plays outside. The second half, set in the jungle, is even more chaotic – as Doctora tries to escape, and the group slowly implodes. Levi’s score grows more thunderous as the movie escalates.
In some ways, the film is a kind of Lord of the Flies tale – with children, left on their own, replaying the adult savagery they have witnessed. The child soliders don’t have much individual personality – they are more personality types than people, really – although the mounting chaos separates them as the characters are forced to make decisions. The decision to not make the film overtly political doesn’t always work – I felt in a film like Beasts of No Nation, the attempt to make things universal failed, because the characters kept talking around specifics that would undeniably have been said in the real world. Here though – it works. There is no set political ideology here, no real ideals at all. These children have been drawn into a world that they don’t understand – but they kind of don’t care to understand. For the moment, they are happy to be partying with their friends – a part of something bigger, even if they don’t care what that bigger something is. And the filmmaking draws you in – there are many close-ups of the children’s mud splattered faces, where they really do feel young – and then shots of the vast wilderness that surrounds them, engulfs them, and swallows them whole.

Movie Review: Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey *** / *****
Directed by: Michael Engler.
Written by: Julian Fellowes based on characters created by Fellowes.
Starring: Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary Talbot), Tuppence Middleton (Lucy Smith), Maggie Smith (Violet Crawley), Matthew Goode (Henry Talbot), Elizabeth McGovern (Cora Crawley), Laura Carmichael (Lady Edith), Allen Leech (Tom Branson), Kate Phillips (Princess Mary), Joanne Froggatt (Anna Bates), Imelda Staunton (Maud Bagshaw), Max Brown (Richard Ellis), Robert James-Collier (Thomas Barrow), Raquel Cassidy (Miss Baxter), Hugh Bonneville (Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham), Sophie McShera (Daisy Mason), Geraldine James (Queen Mary), Jim Carter (Mr. Carson), Brendan Coyle (Mr. Bates), Phyllis Logan (Mrs. Hughes), Simon Jones (King George V), Stephen Campbell Moore (Captain Chetwode), Penelope Wilton (Isobel Merton), Susan Lynch (Miss Lawton), David Haig (Mr Wilson), Mark Addy (Mr. Bakewell), Michael Fox (Andy Parker), Lesley Nicol (Mrs. Patmore), James Cartwright (Tony Sellick), Harry Hadden-Paton (Bertie Hexham), Kevin Doyle (Mr. Molesley), Fifi Hart (Sybbie), Philippe Spall (Monsieur Courbet), Perry Fitzpatrick (Chris Webster), Oliver Barker (George), Alice McCarthy (Nanny Harewood), Douglas Reith (Lord Merton), Richenda Carey (Mrs. Webb), Marina Baibara (Baroness Valerenay), Andrew Havill (Henry Lascelles), Eva Samms (Marigold).
As someone who has never seen an episode of Downton Abbey, I am clearly not the target audience for the film version of the beloved British TV show, that arrived in theaters last week and was as much fan service as any Marvel movie, with a cast size to match. I saw the film because my wife was a fan of the show, and she seems to be the only woman in North America who has no other female friends who watched the show (she has many friends – but somehow, they all passed on this show) – and so I went in to see the film cold, knowing the music more than I know any of the characters. As a film unto itself, Downton Abbey is fine, I guess. I could follow along with the plot, and got the main character relations fairly quickly, and even found myself entertained, and sometimes amused, by the film – without ever really being involved in it emotionally. I take it that fans of the show really enjoyed it – and that’s good, that’s who it’s here for.
The basic plot of the movie is that the King and Queen of England are coming to Downton Abbey to witness a parade, have a dinner, and spend the night. Even if this house isn’t as wealthy as it once was, they still have enough to have an enormous staff, and be able to pull off one of these large scale Royal visits. The staff of Downton Abbey is upset, because it appears that the Royal staff will arrive, and do all of the work – and they will be shunted off to the side. The family itself has its own concerns – the Commoner driver from Ireland, who married one of the daughters, who died in childbirth, is Irish – and a Republican, so perhaps he could cause troubles. The matriarch, Violet (Maggie Smith, who I gather played the same basic role in the series as she did so wonderfully in Gosford Park) wants to sit down with a previously never mentioned cousin (Imelda Staunton) because she plans to leave her vast estate to her maid, instead of to Violet’s son Robert (Hugh Bonneville), who is her closest living relative. And oldest daughter Mary (Michelle Dockery) is wondering if it isn’t time to give up Downton Abbey, and lead a more normal life. And there are more subplots – many, many more subplots – that all play out of the two-hour runtime of the film.
I think one of the problems with the film is that film is simply a different medium from TV. In TV, you can have these types of enormous casts, because you don’t really need to give them all screen time and subplots every episode – sometimes, you’ll likely barely see some major characters for a few episodes, etc. But in a two-hour film, that is perhaps meant to be the last time we ever see these characters (which, given the box office success, I doubt) you have to squeeze everyone in, so that no fans favorite characters are left out. When you add in the fact that they also have to add in many more characters – not just the King and Queen, but their daughter, her stick-in-the-mud husband, their staff, the aforementioned cousin and her maid, etc. – and it sometimes feels like the movie is made up of a bunch of 30 second scenes jammed together to ensure that everyone gets something to do.
This is what made me think of the last two Avengers movies – Infinity War and Endgame. Yes, some characters get more screen time than others, but everyone needs to get their face in there – everyone needs their moment, etc. It all leads to so many subplots, that it risks not being a movie with anything really to say. Overall though, I think Downton Abbey threads the needle nicely. It’s a fun little film, even for someone like me, who senses as they watched that they are missing much of the fun, because they don’t have to backstory to make any of this connect. I left mainly having a good time, without really wanting to venture back and watch six seasons of television to figure out everything I missed.

Movie Review: Abominable

Abominable *** / *****
Directed by: Jill Culton.
Written by: Jill Culton.
Starring: Chloe Bennet (Yi), Albert Tsai (Peng), Tenzing Norgay Trainor (Jin), Joseph Izzo (Everest), Sarah Paulson (Dr. Zara), Eddie Izzard (Burnish), Michelle Wong (Yi's Mom), Tsai Chin (Nai Nai).
There’s no real point in trying to claim that DreamWorks latest animated product for kids – Abominable – really does anything to break the mold in terms of children’s animation, nor DreamWorks own model, which is to make charming films like this, and then stay out of the way of Disney and Pixar, to make money off them, while creating characters that will make adorable plush toys your kids will bug you for. That is pretty much precisely what Abominable is. What it also is though is charming and funny and heartwarming, and doesn’t feel like the warmed up leftovers that films like The Secret Life of Pets 2 or Angry Birds 2 did this summer, nor like the cheapie, cynical cash grabs of things like Ugly Dolls or Wonder Park. DreamWorks hasn’t found their latest How to Train Your Dragon – this isn’t (or at least, shouldn’t be) a massive franchise starter here – but it reminds you that they can make sweet and charming little films.
The story is well-trod territory. Plucky outsider Yi (Chloe Bennet), sad over the recent death of her father, meets an adorable child Yeti, that she names Everest, because that is clearly where he is form. Everest had escaped from the clothes of a greedy millionaire, who wanted to show him off to the world. Yi decides to try and get Everest back to Everest, from the Island (almost definitely Hong Kong, although that is never stated) and starts a cross China journey to get there – along with her adorable pal Peng (Albert Tsai) and Peng’s image obsessed cousin, Jin (Tenzing Norgay Trainor) – all the while pursued by that millionaire and his minions.
Yes, you know where this movie is going from the start – and the film doesn’t offer a lot in the way of narrative surprise along the way. And yet, director Jill Culton has crafted a sweet, funny little film here – one that doesn’t just use its Chinese locale as a cynical attempt to tap into the lucrative Chinese market, but does give the film a unique backdrop along the way on this journey. And Everest is, of course, absolutely adorable – basically a giant, slobbering puppy with magical powers that we discover along the way (as we discover those powers, you may ask why he doesn’t use them from the start of the journey to make things easier – but don’t ask such silly questions that would negate the movie).
Sometimes, clichés are clichés for a reason – so even if plucky outsider, who puts on a hard exterior to mask the pain they feel inside, is a cliché – for Yi here, it really does work. She misses her beloved father, who always wanted to take her on a trip like this, and now her doing so allows herself to reconnect to him – and with the other things he loves, like the violin, which she plays beautifully. Peng and Jin are basically there for comic relief – and they work fine for that. The greedy millionaire (voiced by Eddie Izzard), and his lackeys (led by Sarah Paulson) do have at least a surprise or two up their sleeve as the film movies along.
Sure, Abominable is a corporate product – one that is designed to sell toys, along with tickets, and its easy to be cynical of films like this. But perhaps just because I really was almost irrationally annoyed by films like Pets 2 and Angry Birds 2 and Ugly Dolls and Wonder Park, but Abominable hit that animated sweet spot for me – allowing me to enjoy a film like this with my kids on a lazy Saturday afternoon, without feeling as if I am pledging allegiance to a massive corporation intent on brainwashing my kids. Abominable does nothing new, but everything well – and sometimes, that’s enough for films like this.

Movie Review: Luz

Luz *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Tilman Singer   
Written by: Tilman Singer.
Starring: Luana Velis (Luz Carrara), Johannes Benecke (Olarte), Jan Bluthardt (Dr. Rossini), Lilli Lorenz (Margarita), Julia Riedler (Nora Vanderkurt), Nadja Stübiger (Bertillon). 
Luz is an announcement of a major new talent in the horror genre. First time director Tilman Singer has made a daring, stylistic film that makes me immediately curious of anything he does next. As a film unto itself, Luz is good – it’s got a masterful opening act, a daring if not altogether successful middle act, and a fine denouement. It’s clear that narrative isn’t really what Singer is going for here – the film is a possession story of a kind, but Singer is more interested in pushing the boundaries of what he can do stylistically with little to no money than he is at telling that story. This is a story more about mood than about story. Even though the film only runs 70 minutes, it almost feels like it would have been better at half that length. But what’s on display here is so promising, that I forgive Luz it’s few missteps as I cannot wait to see what Singer does next.
The opening act of Luz is clearly the best part in the movie. Over a masterful 20-25 minutes or so, Singer cuts back and forth from two different scenes – ones that often play out in long shots with only a few characters. In one of the scenes, Luz (Luana Velis) wanders into a police department – and is very clearly either disturbed, drunk or high – or some combination thereof. She is bloody and bruised, wearing a backwards cap and at first talks to the uncaring desk sergeant (I don’t even think he looks up) – with her profane ranting. In the other, a woman – Nora Vanderkurt (Julia Riedler) talks to a psychologist, Dr. Rossini (Jan Bluthardt) at a bar, where they are the only patrons, and it looks like it could be a bar in a warehouse somewhere. Nora tells the doctor about her old friend Luz – what she did when they were at boarding school together, and how they met all these years later by chance, when Nora gets into her taxi. The doctor is intrigued – at first he thinks this woman maybe trying to pick him up, but then her story is even more gripping than that.
The second act of the movie is the police interrogation of Luz. They call in Dr. Rossini to place her under hypnosis, and tell them what happened in that cab this night – and where Nora is now. What follows is kind of bizarre – Luz tells her story of what happened in real time – we hear what she heard at that time, but see here in this large room acting it out.
I’m pretty sure we never actually figure out everything that happened in that cab, and the end of the film, as creepily effective as it is, doesn’t really bother to explain much either. It does, of course, all tie back to what was done as teenagers – that profane chant Luz says, that summoned a demon, who all these years later, wants nothing more than to get back to her. Singer gives you enough information to piece enough together so that it makes sense – but not so that everything is clear.
That’s okay really – this movie really isn’t about its plot, which if you sit down and think about it is just another run-of-the-mill possession story. We’ve seen so many of them at this point, that it’s actually kind of a relief that Singer didn’t make us sit through another 20-25 minutes of movie that would nothing except a clear, linear plot line, and distract from what Singer does well.
The style of Luz is what immediately grabs you. Singer is clearly influenced by everyone from Dario Argento to Andrezej Zulawski, without really being beholden to any of them. That opening shot – it goes on for roughly five minutes of Luz entering the police station, is truly haunting. All the stuff in the bar is masterfully shot, slowly drawing out the tension with a series of long takes.
In a way, the movie never recovers from those early scenes – had the whole movie been that good, this would be one of the best films of the year, and it’s not. The middle section is strange – it’s Singer yet again, pushing stylistic boundaries, but in a way that’s more interesting than involving, as Luz’s miming of everything places a barrier between her and the audience. It’s a rather audacious choice – and who knows, maybe it was made for budgetary reasons (it has to be cheaper shooting the scene in a non-descript room with a couple of chairs, than actually out on the highway) – and Singer doesn’t back away from it. He goes all out. But if you were on the edge of your seat for the first part, you relax a little in the second. The ending gives you chills – it’s a great way to end the film, bringing it full circle.
In short, Luz is the type of low budget horror film a first time director can make to show off their skills, and hopefully get more work. And I really hope Singer does – he is a unique talent, unafraid of risks, and doing something different in the horror genre than we see elsewhere. I cannot wait to see what he does next.

Movie Review: The Edge of Democracy

The Edge of Democracy *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Petra Costa.
Written by: Petra Costa and Carol Pires and David Barker and Moara Passoni and Daniela Capelato and Antonia Pellegrino and Virginia Primo.
Petra Costa’s sad, contemplative documentary about Brazil’s recent slide into right wing demagoguery is a film that seems like it was made for the express purpose of exporting to people who aren’t in Brazil. As a look into the scandals, real, imagined or a mixture of both, that rocked Brazil – leading one popular former President to be jailed, a current President to be impeached, and the rise of Brazil’s Trump – The Edge of Democracy doesn’t really go much past the surface level. Hell, I’m not even sure it goes that far – for all the time devoted to “Operation Car Wash” that took down the left leaning presidents, the film never really does let you know where it stands on their culpability and responsibility for it. It’s certainly not a film that anyone will claim is fair and balanced – giving both sides, and letting the audience decide, because it certainly does have a point-of-view. In a way though, that doesn’t really matter. The film is about hypocrisy, who the right uses the media to push their agenda, and how they hold others to different standards, etc. It is about the fragility of democratic institutions – ones that only maintain power if we believe in them, like they’re Tinkerbell. Otherwise they die. Costa has made her film about her own country – but it’s a warning to everyone outside of it, about how all this ends.
Costa’s voice is ever presented in the film – she narrates it all in a soft, sad voice. She does try and draw parallels to herself and Brazil’s democracy – they are the same age, being born in the mid-1980s, just as Brazil was coming out of decades of military rule. Her parents were activists who went into hiding in those years – but Costa is a child of privilege in many ways. Oddly, I kind of think Costa either had to go harder into drawing these parallels, or back off a little more. As it stands, it’s a half measure – and doesn’t always work.
Costa is on stronger ground when she tells the story first of President Lula, and especially his handpicked successor – Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s first female President, and the one who will face impeachment after she narrowly wins re-election in 2014, and her opponent goes overboard claiming the results are legitimate. Her regime was scandal ridden – but did she actually do anything wrong? Was it Lula – was it others? When her opponents are pressed as to why she should be impeached, they don’t have much of real import to say – it’s more about her personality and style, rather than doing anything wrong. When she is impeached, and similar charges of corruption are leveled at the new President – and 80% of the Brazilian people want him investigated – the same politicians who voted to impeach her, vote not to even investigate him. They cannot keep changing Presidents willy-nilly you know.
It’s the cynicism that leads to the rise of someone like Bolsanaro - a man who will say anything just to gain power, and doesn’t care. He’s a liar, you know she’s a liar, but what are you going to do about it? He’s able to whip everyone into a nationalistic frenzy, and then capitalize on it.
The Edge of Democracy is a sad film – and yet one that ends with at least a little hope. If Democracy dies when you stop believing in it, you can bring it back when you do believe in it. Brazil is in dark days right now – hell, America is there too, and there’s many places around the world that are there. Costa’s film is a warning about where it’s heading – with at least a little bit of hope to get out of it.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Classic Movie Review: Harlan County USA (1976)

Harlan County U.S.A. (1976) 
Directed by: Barbara Kopple.
It’s fascinating to look back at Barbara Kopple’s Harland County U.S.A. from 1976 throw 2019 eyes. The film documents the yearlong miner’s strike in Harlan County, Kentucky, where coal miners unionized and tried to get a fair contract from the Duke Power Company, and were met with nothing but resistance – scabs coming in to take their jobs, a Sheriff and police department who claimed to be neutral, but were clearly more favorable to the company, and gun thugs – men hired by the company, who carried guns they used to threaten – and sometime more – the miners, and their wives, who were out their fighting. Over four decades later of course, coal is a dying industry – and Kentucky is the height of Trump country. Back then, it was a company town – and a Union Town, and while the politic leanings have shifted – the complaints are basically the same – the rich have their foot on the necks of the working man, trying to back as much as possible off of them, without caring about them in the least.
This was Kopple’s first film as a director – and won her the first of two Documentary Oscars. She started out looking to make a documentary about the race for Union Leadership – which ends up playing out here in about 10 minutes, and certainly is fascinating as it ends up with one candidate murdered, and the other in jail for hiring men to do it. But when she took a detour to Harlan County for background, she simply stayed put – and filmed everything she saw. She gets the type of access most documentary filmmakers can only dream of – and earned, by being there day-in, day-out – and going right alongside the picketers every day. So when the gun thugs threaten – and even fire – on the miners, they are threatening and firing on Kopple as well.
Some have argued that the film is one sided – that it doesn’t show the companies side, in anything other than news conferences, etc., and while that’s true – it’s also true that if the company wanted her to have more access, they would have given it to her, and they didn’t. And besides, even in those news conferences – when the company is supposedly trying to get the public on their side, they don’t sound too sympathetic. They argue that there is no conclusive proof that breathing in all that coal dust harms the miners. They admit that the houses they have provided the workers don’t have running water – but that they are looking at upgrading them. And they hired those guns’ thugs, didn’t they? Kopple didn’t have access to the company side – but I doubt it would change much if she did.
The film is fascinating in another way – in the way that it shows that it was the women – the wives of the miners – who really took the lead in the strike. They are the most vocal against the police and the gun thugs, they are doing all the planning of where and when to picket. They are more willing to get arrested for picketing illegally. The film features some older voices – voices who remember the last time they had a strike this long, this contentious in the 1930s. That strike turned violent – and the company keeps insisting this one won’t, as if it hasn’t already.
It is probable that most of the people depicted in the are dead by now – Kopple isn’t, but she was young when she made the film, and after all, didn’t have to work in a coal mine for decades. I cannot help but wonder though what they would think of the situation today. Today, coal mining is all but dead in America – despite Trump’s best efforts to bring it back, the truth is there are cleaner, cheaper ways to get power – and besides, they’ve already dug up so much of the coal. Coal isn’t coming back – and it kind of looks like the company won, even if the movie ends with a contract (although one that only came about when one striker was killed by one of those gun thugs – who course didn’t go to jail). They got these men to go into those mines, at great cost to themselves, and bled them dry, making money off of their labor, without the horrible health risks. You can see roots to the anti-Union movement in the film – a few of the scabs and members of the community complain about how it will affect prices if the men are paid what they want. It has, of course, only become worse over time. It’s one of the reasons why – all these decades later – Harlan County USA remains one of the best documentaries ever made.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Movie Review: Rambo: Last Blood

Rambo: Last Blood * ½ / *****
Directed by: Adrian Grunberg.
Written by: Matthew Cirulnick and Sylvester Stallone based on characters created by David Morrell.
Starring: Sylvester Stallone (Rambo), Paz Vega (Carmen Delgado), Yvette Monreal (Gabrielle), Óscar Jaenada (Victor Martinez), Adriana Barraza (Maria Beltran), Sergio Peris-Mencheta (Hugo Martínez), Fenessa Pineda (Jezel), Marco de la O (Miguel).
They really should have left John Rambo alone after his last outing – 2008’s Rambo, which was the best film in the series next only to the original First Blood, and ended on kind of a perfect note. After perhaps the bloodiest shootout in the entire series – truly, it was Stallone (the director) trying to outdo The Wild Bunch - he didn’t succeed, but you have to give him credit for the sustained chaos he created, and because it lasted so long you were forced to deal with the violence in the way you normally don’t in these films – the film ended with Rambo returning home to the farm he left all those years ago – looking finally for some piece. 2008’s Rambo really was Stallone’s version of Eastwood’s Unforgiven – although, of course, because Stallone isn’t the artist Eastwood was, it played as a cartoon version of Eastwood masterpiece – but I gave Stallone credit for trying, and that film really does work – and is perhaps even underrated.
Now, 11 years later, we get Rambo: Last Blood (although, as the ending makes clear, perhaps Last doesn’t really mean last) – which is Rambo for the Trump era – in that it paints a portrait of Mexico that Trump would love, and ends with an extended sequence that is basically an ultra-violent Home Alone, in which Rambo kills perhaps dozens of Mexicans. I’m sure Stallone and company would argue that the film isn’t racist – that he has “good” Mexicans in the film as well – like the journalist played by Paz Vega (who I would point doesn’t actually do anything in the film) or Rambo’s beloved niece Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal) and her grandmother Maria (Adriana Barraza). But it’s hard to deny that the film is basically Stallone killing a lot of Mexicans criminals in grisly, gruesome fashion.  (Not to get sidetracked here, but I would love someone to explain this whole niece thing – as the film never does. If she is an actual niece, that would mean that she is the daughter of Rambo’s sister – who is dead – as we see Gabrielle’s no-good father in the film. But if that’s the case, then that would mean that the father is the son of Maria, who makes no reference to him being her son, and really, deeply, truly despises him. If she’s not an actual niece, then you would think that would be addressed in some way – and yet, it isn’t really. End rant).
The niece Gabrielle really is a poorly thought out, written and performed character. Her basic job in the film is to be the portrait of beauty and innocence, only so we can watch as she is defiled and debased for the majority of the runtime, to give Rambo the excuse he needs to kill everyone he clearly wants to kill. It’s horribly uncomfortable to watch her scenes in the film – as she really is a complete innocent – impossibly naïve about the real world for a teenager in 2019, and she suffers constantly despite the fact that her only sin is going to Mexico.
Basically what happens is that Gabrielle wants to find the father that abandoned her years ago, and hears from a friend in Mexico where he is now living. Against the wishes of Rambo and her grandmother, she goes anyway – and with the assistance of her “friend” is basically sold into sex slavery. Rambo gallantly tries to save her – but is too late. So, he decides to get his revenge – first by going back to Mexico, then luring the rest of the gang to his Arizona farm, where he has constructed a series of insane tunnels underground, that he’ll booby-trap to kill all these evil, evil men.
Rambo: Last Blood would be more offensive if it weren’t such a cartoon. This film clearly hasn’t been thought through very much, and was made quickly and cheaply by director Adrian Grunberg – who, it must be said, is able to keep the pace of the movie up, and able to disguise what was perhaps limited budget in the kills that are mainly in the dark. It’s not a movie where people have put a lot of thought into anything like plot or characters. Everything is just an excuse to let Stallone kill a lot of people.
What’s disappointing about the film is that Stallone seems to think this is a proper send off for his second most famous character. It has always struck me as odd that the good first film – about a Vietnam vet with PTSD who has not been able to fit in at home, and becomes a killer when pushed too far, essentially became a series in which Rambo was a superhero in the second and third installments (the latter of which is a film remember that Stallone helps what would become the Taliban). You would think that at Stallone’s age – and given what the two Creed films have done for his most famous creation – that Stallone may have wanted to do something similar with Rambo. To bring him into the real world, or at least treat the character with respect. Instead, Rambo: Last Blood plays like a cheapie exploitation film – the type of film a movie star makes when they have tax trouble (I haven’t heard that about Stallone). It’s impossible to really accuse Stallone of selling out (if he did that, it was decades ago) – but you would think he would have more respect for Rambo’s legacy then he clearly does.

Movie Review: Between Two Ferns: The Movie

Between Two Ferns: The Movie *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Scott Aukerman.
Written by: Scott Aukerman and Zach Galifianakis.
Starring: Zach Galifianakis (Zach Galifianakis), Lauren Lapkus (Carol), Ryan Gaul (Cam), Jiavani Linayao (Boom Boom), Rekha Shankar (Gaya), Chance the Rapper, John Cho, Benedict Cumberbatch, Peter Dinklage, Will Ferrell, Ryan Gaul, Tiffany Haddish, Jon Hamm, Rashida Jones, Lauren Lapkus, Brie Larson, John Legend, David Letterman, Jiavani Linayao, Matthew McConaughey, Keanu Reeves, Paul Rudd, Jason Schwartzmanm Adam Scott, Hailee Steinfeld, Chrissy Teigen, Tessa Thompson.
There’s a difference between, say a Comedy Central Roast, and Between Two Ferns even if, at heart, both are just sitting their mocking celebrities. The difference is that basically in Between Two Ferns, the joke is always on host Zach Galifianakis for asking such hugely inappropriate questions in the first place – which is brought out by the fact that the celebrity guest always either has to sit there stone faced, or act offended by the questions, instead of having to play along. There is also that Galifianakis’ questions are usually more light hearted, and less crude.
How you turn the long running web series into a movie is a challenge. There is no story to the talk show – it’s just Galifianakis insulting celebrities, as both sit there and try not to burst out laughing (perhaps the best sequence of the movie is the end credits where they show up just how hard that is) – but for the most part, Between Two Ferns: The Movie walks that line quite well. True, what you will remember about the movie is those celebrity interviews – but the story grafted on top of it is also light and amusing – and has the same spirit – which is that Galifianakis is a clueless dolt – but a lovable one as he knows not what he does.
Basically, the film takes the talk show on the road – which was required when the studio flooded, and they have nowhere to film anymore. Will Ferrell gives Galifianakis two weeks to produce 10 episodes of his show, and deliver them to him in L.A. – and if he does so, he’ll fulfill Galifianakis’ dream of having a real network talk show (on the Lifetime Network) – because, as Galifianakis puts it, he’s a straight, white man and he deserves it. So he and his crew – producer Carol (a hilarious Laura Lapkus), camera man Cam (Ryan Gaul, who helpfully tells us his nickname is because his name is Cameron, not because he runs the camera) and sound woman Boom Boom (Jiavani Linayao – who has to turn down advances from all the male guests) hit the road, and find celebrities in strange places.
Yes, the celebrity interviews are the best part of the movie. For the most part, they pick the right guests as well – people like David Letterman and Paul Rudd are able to give back to Galifianakis as much as they take, Brie Larson and Tessa Thompson are able to act offended better than most and Benedict Cumberbatch and Jon Hamm confirm what good sports they are – but still pale in comparison to Peter Dinklage in that regard. The movie shows that there is still gas left in the tank in this format.
The connecting scenes are lightweight and funny. Truly, this isn’t a deep movie and doesn’t try to be. It isn’t really saying anything about anything – not even celebrity culture really. This really is a movie in which we watch famous people having fun being famous. The movie is smart enough to get in and out quickly (just 84 minutes) and never really lets things lag. It’s brisk, fun and entertaining – the perfect Netflix film, because you may feel a little ripped off if you paid money to see it in the theater, but sitting at home on your couch, the film is an immensely entertaining time waster – and knows precisely what it is, and doesn’t try to be anything else.

Movie Review: Our Time

Our Time **** / *****
Directed by: Carlos Reygadas.
Starring: Natalia López (Esther), Carlos Reygadas (Juan), Phil Burgers (Phil), Maria Hagerman (Lorena), Yago Martínez (Juan - hijo).
There are some directors who take years between movies, and you wish they would work a little faster – produce a little more. And then there are filmmakers like Mexico’s Carlos Reygadas, so seemingly takes five years between each movies, and that’s about right. You wouldn’t want to necessarily dive into a new Reygadas film every year – they demand a lot from you – and it’s not always clear that they will deliver. His latest, for example, is called Our Time – and is a three-hour film about a couple’s failed experiment with an open relationship. That Reygadas cast himself as the man, and his own wife Natalia Lopez to play the couple, and their own children to play the couples children – and neither are really actors – may lead you to believe that the film is autobiographical – although Reygadas won’t confirm or deny it. If that’s true however, that Our Time may just be three-hours of navel gazing – filmmaking as therapy – although to be fair here, if that’s the case, then Reygadas really doesn’t do much to make himself look good. He plays a petty asshole in the film – who says that he’s okay with his wife sleeping with other men, but does everything he can to undermine it – to control it – which pretty much dooms it from the start. And yet, we sit through three hours of this.
Asking if a film like Out Time works or not, I think misses the point. It isn’t a film that I would recommend to many people – Glenn Kenny has called it a “for cinephiles only” film – and that seems right. You likely wouldn’t want to make this your first Reygadas film – and there is a decent chance that even if you’ve liked some of his other films – Japon, Battle in Heaven, Silent Light, Post Tenebras Lux – that he’s going to test your patience with this film. Reygadas does interesting things throughout this film – finds interesting almost cinematic non-sequiturs at times, most notably when he takes us instead a car’s engines and wheels while a Genesis song plays. There’s also a strange trip to a concert, and another strange decision to have a very log, detailed letter that the wife writes to Juan, while the footage we see seems to be shot from underneath an airplane flying over Mexico City. As to why Reygadas does these things, who really knows – they do break up the film that it otherwise these people in rooms picking at each other, and having extended fights – so they can be welcome.
Because for the most part, Our Time does trap us with Juan and Esther – the husband and wife characters – as they bicker and argue. She’s younger than he is – the second wife that he left his first wife for. He is a celebrated poet, who occasionally travels and receives prizes for his work (seriously, Reygadas may have been better served to just make his character a filmmaker) – while she stays behind and runs their vast ranch. The man she starts the affair with is Phil (Phil Burgers) – an American who specializes in breaking horses. It appears that even before the film opens, this concept of an open relationship has been agreed to – logically, it makes sense of Juan – and Esther is certainly articulate at explaining why she is interested – to have something apart from him – as she feels she has done everything for him for the last 15 years. That’s theory though – in practice, the whole thing turns Juan into a jealous, manipulative asshole. He gets hung up early on a small lie Esther tells him about it that he uses to justify becoming that asshole. And then, he will covertly try and control the relationship by talking directly to Phil about it – without wanting Esther to know. He’ll spy on her – looking through her phone for example – and sometimes more directly – hiding in closets, peeping in windows, when she’s with either Phil – or another man he also put up to sleeping with his wife. As she keeps discovering these betrayals – the arguments keep happening – and get worse.
I think part of the point of the film is to trap you in hell with these characters – and in that, it succeeds perhaps too well. You will want out – you will want away from both of them. While Juan is more actively the asshole, I don’t think Esther helps very much – if you want an open relationship to work, you need to communicate with your partner – and both seem to be incapable of that. I cannot tell if Phil is supposed to be as dull as he is here, or whether that’s a byproduct of Reygadas’ insistence of working with non-professional actors (he and his wife are fine – not great, but fine) – because Phil is should be such a non-threat to Juan. He is, quite frankly, a dull idiot – perhaps Esther likes fucking him, but you cannot see her actually leaving Juan for him.
There are those who see Our Time and insist it is a masterpiece – a visionary film by a visionary director working on an entirely different level than most others. There will be those who are bored to tears by the film if they make it through it at all. To me, I’m somewhere in the middle – the be sure, the film is self-indulgent, and perhaps just navel gazing – something we take many filmmakers to task for when they are American. And yet, it did hold me in its spell – at least for most of its runtime (the film is too repetitive, and probably would have been a little better had it been a little shorter). But it is the type of film that only Reygadas could or would make. I’ll be ready for his next one in about 2023.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Movie Review: Ad Astra

Ad Astra **** / *****
Directed by: James Gray.
Written by: James Gray & Ethan Gross.
Starring: Brad Pitt (Roy McBride), Tommy Lee Jones (H. Clifford McBride), Ruth Negga (Helen Lantos), Donald Sutherland (Thomas Pruitt), Kimberly Elise (Lorraine Deavers), Loren Dean (Donald Stanford), Donnie Keshawarz (Capt. Lawrence Tanner), Sean Blakemore (Willy Levant), Bobby Nish (Franklin Yoshida), LisaGay Hamilton (Adjutant General Amelia Vogel), John Finn (Stroud), John Ortiz (General Rivas), Liv Tyler (Eve McBride). 
It is a minor miracle that a film like James Gray’s Ad Astra exists. It is a big, brainy sci fi film with little action, a slow pace, and an introspective outlook – asking big questions, and perhaps delivering smaller answers. Yes, it stars Brad Pitt – but still, a studio spending $80 million on a film like this – with a director like James Gray, who has been a fine, sometimes great filmmaker for 25 years now, but has never really had a hit is great to see – and would be cause for optimism, if of course, it wasn’t Fox who made it, who has now been gobbled up by Disney – who isn’t likely to make something like this again. So for now, let’s just be thankful this one exists.
The film set in the near future stars Brad Pitt as Roy McBride, a stoic, emotionally closed off, perhaps depressed astronaut. His father was the legendary H. Clifford McBride, who 30 years ago – when Roy was 16 – took a job heading into deep space, and then completely went off the grid 13 years later. Roy has been haunted by his missing father for all these years – which is probably the reason he has become so emotionally closed down and depressed – which has ended his marriage, and basically left him alone. He connects with no one. We hear his voice throughout Ad Astra – but it’s mainly either in voiceover, or when taking “psychological evaluations” – administered by computers. It’s by design that most of the other characters in the film come and go fairly quickly – have a scene or two, and then are gone. Roy is alone – and he wants to be.
Roy is called into to see his superiors one day after a near death experience, caused by massive electroshocks that have hit the whole world. He thinks it’s a debrief – but it’s not. They have traced those shocks to near Neptune – and tell Roy that they think his long lost father not only isn’t dead after all, but is the one responsible for setting off those shocks. They want to send Roy to Mars, by way of the moon, so he can send a message to his father – and perhaps get a response. Otherwise, if these shocks continue to happen, the earth may not survive.
Ad Astra is one of those science fiction films that is more about man’s place in the universe, than about action, special effects or aliens. Gray, I think smartly, does have two intense “action” sequences fairly early in the film – the first is the opening scene, where Pitt is working on some sort of large tower that seemingly extends into space, and has to parachute out when the shocks hit, and the second is when they arrive on the moon (that Roy complains humans have travelled to just to rebuild the same things – we do see an Applebees for example) when there is a car chase with space pirates. Yes, there are moments of great intensity throughout the rest of the film – but these are the moments of action in the film. Most of the rest is about questions.
Brad Pitt is having a great year (making his recent comments about stepping back from acting even sadder) – and if two performances could more show his range than the ones in Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and the one here, I don’t know what they are. Pitt can, of course, cruise through many movies with his charm – even some of his best performance (like say Moneyball) do that. He doesn’t do that here. He has dialed that way back. His Roy is a broken man in many ways – a lonely and depressed person who doesn’t want to let anyone get close to him. These types of roles can be tricky to play – they sometimes come across as an actor doing nothing, or else can be quite dull to watch. But Pitt anchors the movies – he’s in practically every scene, and you know what he’s thinking, what he’s feeling in every one. It is a quietly stunning performance – one of his best. The supporting cast are all quite good – even if, by design, we never really get to know them as people. Still, actors like Donald Sutherland and Ruth Negga come in, and own a scene or two, and are gone. When Tommy Lee Jones does eventually show up – he has more to do, but not all that much more – even if he is characteristically wonderful.
There will be debates about what Ad Astra means. On the surface level, it is a film about fathers and sons, the pain of being abandoned – and how that ripples through the child’s life. In a strange way, it’s the flip side of Gray’s last film – The Lost City of Z – which concentrated on an explorer who left his home, his family and his son, for long periods at a time in order to go on his exploration. Ad Astra focused on that son who was left behind. I do think the film works on a larger, metaphorical level as well – one about God, and how humanity responds when they feel that God has become essentially an absentee father figure. The silence of God is, of course, a long running theme that has often been explored in movies – half of Ingmar Bergman’s output for example, or more recently Martin Scorsese’s Silence or Paul Schrader’s First Reformed. Gray has given it a sci fi twist. You can choose to see Ad Astra then as either a very depressing movie – or, in a different way, a hopeful one. In the end, Roy seems to learn to stop looking upwards – to space, to the heavens – for answers, for meaning, and start looking here on earth.
It is all wrapped up in a stunning package by Gray – who has made his most ambitious, and best, film to date in Ad Astra. The film looks amazing – from that opening, intense scene, to the scenes on a fiery Mars, to the climax in space. I’m sure Neil Degrasse Tyson is preparing a Twitter thread right now about how the science doesn’t work, but screw him – it works in the context of the movie. And the film is quiet, slow burn stunner. Go in expecting to have to be patient – to have to think. The results are worth it.

Movie Review: The Goldfinch

The Goldfinch ** ½ / *****

Directed by: John Crowley.
Written by: Peter Straughan based on the novel by Donna Tartt.
Starring: Ansel Elgort (Theodore Decker), Oakes Fegley (Young Theodore), Jeffrey Wright (Hobie), Nicole Kidman (Mrs. Barbour), Finn Wolfhard (Young Boris), Sarah Paulson (Xandra), Ashleigh Cummings (Pippa), Aneurin Barnard (Boris Pavlikovsky), Luke Wilson (Larry Decker), Willa Fitzgerald (Kitsey Barbour), Denis O'Hare (Lucius Reeve), Luke Kleintank (Platt Barbour), Peter Jacobson (Mr. Silver), Robert Joy (Welty), Boyd Gaines (Mr. Barbour), Aimee Laurence (Young Pippa), Ryan Foust (Andy Barbour).
Some books should probably just not become movies – and it appears like Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch is one of those books. Her brick of a novel (because of its sheer heft of 784 pages) was always going to have trouble coming to the screen because of its size. But this isn’t a case where I think a miniseries would do all that much better. Tartt’s book just doesn’t lend itself to a filmed treatment – the book works because of the sheer energy of the propulsive narrative, which is built upon coincidences, which may work in book form, not so much when visualized. It also doesn’t help that the main character is fairly interior – he hides his himself from even those closest to him, which on screen, doesn’t translate well. The problem here isn’t really the performances, or the beautiful, soft light cinematography by Roger Deakins. It’s just that when translated to the screen, Tartt’s narrative feels rather silly. It always was kind of silly – but it worked in the book, not so much here.
The film is about Theo Decker – played as a young adult by Ansel Elgort, and as a young teenager by Oakes Fegley. When Theo was that teenager, he and his mother were visiting MOMA, when a right wing bomb blast ripped through the museum – killing his mom (I don’t think the movie mentions anything about the motives of the bomb blast). Theo has no other family – his father walked out on them six months before and no one knows where he went. For a time, he stays with the Barbour family, he was school friends with one of their kids – a wealthy New York family, where he bonds with the sensitive, fragile mother (Nicole Kidman). He also starts hanging out at Hobart & Blackwell – an antique shop, because he was next to Blackwell during the bomb blast (who was also killed) – and finds himself drawn to Pippa, Blackwell’s niece, while bonding his partner Hobart (Jeffrey Wright). Things seem to be going okay – the Barbour’s are about to adopt him – when his father (Luke Wilson) shows back up, and drags Theo to Las Vegas. In the thick of the Financial Crisis, Theo lives in an all but abandoned development – not getting along with his greedy father, or his unfeeling girlfriend (Sarah Paulson – once again showing that movie directors have no idea how to use one of our greatest actresses). He does bond with Boris (Finn Wolfhard, trying really really hard to do a Russian accent), as the pair start drinking and doing all sorts of drugs. Things don’t turn out well either – and he returns to New York. And through it all, he keeps a secret – on the day of the bomb blast, he took a valuable painting – the one that gives the story its name.
The major problem with the film version of The Goldfinch is that because so much happens in the novel, the film has to rush to cram as much as possible into its 149-minute runtime. As a result, many key events are breezed over quickly, many characters become one note and you wonder why the film bothers to keep them in the first place (like say Kitsey, the Barbour daughter Theo becomes engaged to, or Mr. Silver from Las Vegas). It kind of feels like Peter Straughan’s screenplay tries to cram everything in – and maybe he wrote a massive screenplay that was all shot, and then director John Crowley had to figure out how to pare it all down into movie length. As it plays in this film, everything is so built on coincidence that it’s almost comical – it works in Tartt’s novel, who is obviously trying to do some kind of modern Dickensian tale, but in the movie it seems silly – especially when we somehow get to a shootout with Dutch gangsters in the end. The film also feels like it leaves so many narrative threads hanging – as if the film is missing key scenes involving Pippa, Kitsey, Hobart, etc. – and just kind of stops.
I don’t think the problem here is really the performances. I’m not convinced Ansel Elgort is particularly good in the film – but he’s got the right look and feel for Theo – a man keeping secrets from everyone, who is slowly sinking, while putting on a façade. The problem is that is all the film asks him to do. Oakes Fegley as better as the younger Theo – which is saying something, as he has to carry the film through some rough patches (like Las Vegas). Nicole Kidman is actually quite good in her role – she has the ability to suggest a world of hurt underneath her own façade – and there’s enough here to suggest that if they gave Jeffrey Wright more to do than deliver monologues, he would have played Hobart quite well. I don’t blame young Wolfhard for not being a convincing younger Boris – he really is going for broke with that accent, and someone (like the director) needed to tell him to dial it back. Luke Wilson is barely given a character to play at all here with the father – and then is just kind of gone. I do admire Sarah Paulson’s ability to command the screen, even with such a poorly written and conceived role as she has here.
And the cinematography by the great Roger Deakins is also quite beautiful. He favors soft sunlit rooms, and warm colors while the film is in New York – and a brightly lit, almost blinding Las Vegas desert. The 14 time Oscar nominee (who finally won for his last film, Blade Runner 2049) is clearly still a master of his craft.
But the film is just too dull to really work. At some point in the process, a decision needed to be made to be less reverential to Tartt’s source material, and find a way to fit that narrative into a satisfying movie. Instead, it seems like they tried to do the impossible – and make a faithful adaptation of a massive book, with a narrative not suited for the form. At least the film will provide a way for high school students to write a C-level book report on Tartt’s novel without having to read the book. But other than that, The Goldfinch really does not work as a movie.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Classic Movie Review: Shampoo (1975)

Shampoo (1975)
Directed by: Hal Ashby.
Written by: Robert Towne & Warren Beatty.
Starring: Warren Beatty (George), Julie Christie (Jackie), Goldie Hawn (Jill), Lee Grant (Felicia), Jack Warden (Lester), Tony Bill (Johnny Pope), George Furth (Mr. Pettis), Jay Robinson (Norman), Ann Weldon (Mary), Luana Anders (Devra), Randy Scheer (Dennis), Susanna Moore (Gloria), Carrie Fisher (Lorna).
Shampoo is an odd movie. It is essentially a screwball comedy – featuring one man juggling multiple different women, and the husband of one of those women – and his business – and yet as directed by Hal Ashby, the whole movie goes a little slower than screwball comedies do. The dialogue doesn’t snap – if played another way, it could snap – but here, everyone seems laid back. It’s also a screwball comedy with a melancholy ending – and that melancholy seeps into the movie slowly as it moves along, so that it certainly feels earned in the end. I’m not quite sure that all the political stuff going on in the background of the movie quite works – it feels a little like the film is straining for some greater significance that it doesn’t quite have – and frankly doesn’t quite need. It is used to signify the end of the era – the 1960s – and how eventually, all these ‘60s kids have grown up, and will sell out.
It’s also an odd film in that it was co-written by Warren Beatty, and is clearly at least in part based on Beatty himself, and yet it isn’t really a vanity project. His George is a dim bulb, a womanizer who both understands women, and on another level, is clueless about women. There is a reason why so many women want to sleep with George – and more reasons why none of them really stick around. He can offer them great hair, and great sex – and when you’re with George it’s great. But when George isn’t right there with you, he’s completely gone. He’s the type of guy who when caught cheating can say – and mean – that it just kind of happened, he didn’t plan it. And that’s because George never really plans anything. Which is why he will always end up alone.
In the film, George – an in-demand Beverly Hills hair stylist – juggles multiple different women. His current girlfriend is Jill (Goldie Hawn), a beautiful, young, insecure actress who hasn’t yet figured out who precisely George is. He’s also sleeping with Felicia (Lee Grant) – the older wife of a wealthy businessman, Lester (Jack Warden) – who may, or may not, invest in George’s salon he wants to open. Lester’s current mistress is Jackie (Julie Christie) – who used to be George’s girlfriend, and they are still friendly. At some point in the movie, George starts to believe that perhaps Jackie is the one that got away – and he wants her back.
The film takes place over just a few days, leading up the 1968 Presidential election, when Richard Nixon would become President (the film came out in 1975, just after Nixon resigned). You can use a lot of signifiers for the end of the 1960s, and the election is a good one. There is a sense that George is getting too old to keep doing this – Beatty was in his late 30s when Shampoo was made, perhaps playing a little younger (he could pull it off being such a beautiful man). That his life of womanizing has gone on too long. But he is incapable of really changing. He is incapable of seeing that Jill really does love him – despite the fact that he doesn’t seem to listen to her. He is chasing after Jackie – but is it because he actually does love her, or because she has slipped through her fingers, and is now with Lester.
If there is a central flaw in Shampoo, it is probably that Jackie is a fairly unwritten character, so you’re never really sure which one she is. It feels more like she is a prize to be won by one of the two men in the film – Beatty, or Jack Warden, the older, wealthy businessman who supplies everything to women – money, security, etc. – that George cannot, while not being able to provide what George can. In a strange way, even though Lester is older than George, he is the future – and George is the past. Shampoo was prescient in this observation – the rising tide of conservatism in America that would make people like George seem more like relics than people like Lester. You can make the argument that Lester is perhaps the most complex character in the movie – his “morning after” showdown with George is the best scene in the film to be sure.
The other female characters in the film are better written. Goldie Hawk is excellent as Jill – the naïve actress who gets her heart broken. She’s not playing the likable, funny dim bulb of her Oscar winning Cactus Flower – but perhaps that character a little further along, a little wiser, but not wise enough. It would be easy to write her as a dumb blonde – but the film doesn’t do that. Out of all the characters in the film, Jill is the one whose emotions feel the most real. Lee Grant is great (perhaps not great enough to warrant an Oscar in a year where they nominated Lily Tomlin for Nashville against her, but great still) – as the older, cynical woman. She sees through George, but doesn’t much care. She doesn’t much care about anything – not her husband, not her daughter (Carrie Fisher). She uses George for exactly what George is good for.
I do want to talk a little about the scene between George and Lorna – played by a then 19-year-old Carrie Fisher – which culminates with her asking him “So, are we going to fuck?” – which cuts to Lee Grant walking in on Lorna on her bed, and George walking out of her bathroom tucking in his shirt. Is this the scene where George really does lose the audience – where you really do completely see through him? Because for the first hour or so of this film, it’s fairly lightweight and fun – like I said, a laid back California version of a screwball comedy – but here, when you see just what George will do – practically anything – he isn’t quite the fun loving guy anymore. It’s one thing to sleep with a bunch of women – who whether they realize what he’s doing or not – are old enough to make their own decisions. It’s another to sleep with a teenage girl. It’s clearly consensual – I’m not arguing that – but I cannot help but wonder if this is where George crosses the line that he cannot be redeemed from, at least in this film – or if I’m watching a film from 1975, set in 1968, from the vantage point of 2019. Either way, I think it works.
Shampoo isn’t quite the film that Ashby’s other masterpieces – The Last Detail and Being There – are, but it’s close. Like I said off the top, I’m not quite sure all the Nixon stuff quite works – while I see what they are going for there, it comes across as fairly heavy handed, despite the fact that it’s always just there is the background. And it’s not really needed – because everything with George and Lester does the job better than those snippets do. And I still do wish that Jackie was a more complete character – Christie’s performance is quite good, but I don’t think the screenplay quite has a handle on why she does what she does, a part from the fact that it needs her to do it for the sake of the story. Still, those are minor complaints for a movie that is funny on the surface, but slowly, steadily sneaks up on you with more substance than you think will be there.