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Saturday, July 22, 2017

Cop Car

There's an interesting trend in Hollywood to hand over mega-budget films, usually of the comic book variety, to directors who have previously only made low budget independent films. This has worked--see Patty Jenkins with Wonder Woman--but has also failed spectacularly, as with Josh Trank and a reboot of Fantastic Four. I see that Trank is attached to another film, but certainly will never be given the keys to Dad's car again.

The recent Spider-Man: Homecoming was directed by Jon Watts, who had two minuscule films under his belt: a horror moved called Clown (which I hope to see soon) and Cop Car, a nifty little western noir. Cop Car is a very good small film, and I have to give credit to whomever at Sony or Columbia thought Watts would be able to handle the reboot of Marvel's greatest property.

Cop Car is about two boys, about ten or eleven, who have run away from home. They are in the middle of nowhere (I suspect it's Texas, but it's somewhere in the plains) when they find a sheriff's cruiser. It is empty. And in the logic that only ten-year-old boys could have, once they find the keys they take it for a joy ride.

Turns out the car belongs to the Sheriff, Kevin Bacon, who was busy burying a body he had in the trunk. He comes back to find his car gone, and he does some quick thinking to try to get his car back without anyone else in the force knowing about it, because I imagine he would have a lot of explaining to do.

What's great about Cop Car is what the movie doesn't tell us, such as why the boys are running away (just a few clues), and why Bacon killed the man. There will be a further surprise in the trunk that the boys find to ratchet up the film a few degrees, and this only makes the film more wacky and pleasurable.

Bacon, one of our consummate unsung actors, is terrific as a guy caught between a rock and a hard place. He sports a great porn-stache and you can always see him thinking, but nothing he does is predictable. It was written by Watts and Christopher Ford.

The actors playing the two boys are very good, and seem like typical boys (the movie begins with them thinking of all the swear words they and eating a Slim Jim). They are James Freedson-Jackson as the more adventurous of the two, and Hays Wellford as the follower.

I think, when it comes to it, that studios want directors who can tell stories. The special effects and CGI and all that other stuff can be handled by other people. Just tell a good story. Cop Car is a great story.

Friday, July 21, 2017

War for the Planet of the Apes

This century's Planet of the Apes trilogy is unique among film franchises--each film is better than the last. After an excellent Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which followed a so-so Rise of the Planet of the Apes, War of the Planet of Apes is top-notch, a thrilling summer movie that is also extremely though-provoking.

Picking up from where Dawn ended, Koba is dead and Caesar (Andy Serkis) wants peace. If humans will leave the apes alone in the forest, he is content. But that is not to be. Scouts, including Caesar's son Rocket, talk of an area beyond the forest and into the desert where they could relocate. But a force of humans, led by the mysterious Colonel (Woody Harrelson) attack, leaving Rocket and Caesar's wife Cornelia dead.

Caesar now wants revenge, and wants to go it alone, but three other apes, including Maurice, the thoughtful orangutan, come with him. Along the way they pick up a human child, who has lost the ability to speak (that will be important, but I will say no more now). They also find a chimp, who calls himself Bad Ape (Steve Zahn) who was in a zoo but has lived by himself a long time. He is comic relief, as he is clumsy and wears human clothes.

This film reminded me a of a lot of things. It reminded me of other movies, like Apocalypse Now (Harrelson brings some of Brando and some of Duvall), The Great Escape, and there's a shot of the heads of three apes poking over a rock ledge that took me right to the scene in the Wizard of Oz of Dorothy's three friends outside the Witch's castle. Given that some apes are crucified, there are also Biblical overtones.

The movie's themes are even broader. One of the aspects that is very disturbing are the "donkeys," apes that are working with the humans on the promise that they will be spared. This could make you think of black men who fought for the Confederacy (or Samuel L. Jackson's Stephen in Django Unchained). What would it take to make you fight against your own kind?

War of the Planet of the Apes is ably directed by Matthew Reeves, who handles full scale war scenes as well as intimate scenes. He is helped by the exquisite acting of Serkis, and also Karin Konoval as Maurice. The special effects and the acting combine to make it easy to see what these apes are thinking just by their facial expressions (Caesar is usually looking very intense and determined, and pissed off)/ I would have no trouble at all if Serkis is nominated for an acting award for his work--acting is acting.

My only quibble is there are a couple of coincidences at the end that lead to an otherwise satisfying close to the trilogy. You might find yourself wiping away a tear by the end.

War of the Planet of the Apes is first-class entertainment.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Bang the Drum Slowly

Robert De Niro has been all over the place lately. Now 73 years old, he has been showing up for panel discussions on important anniversaries of his films (last year it was the 40th for Taxi Driver, this year it was the 45th for The Godfather, though he was the only cast member on the panel who was not in it, he was only in The Godfather, Part II). He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama last year (that would not be a likely award from President Trump, whom De Niro said he wanted to punch in the face) and was this year’s recipient of The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Chaplin Award (and thus is on the cover of this month’s Film Comment). He has already won the AFI Life Achievement Award, the Kennedy Center Honors, and the Golden Globes’ Cecil B. DeMille Award. He has won two Academy Awards, with a total of seven nominations.

In the coming weeks I’ll be having my own retrospective of his career, as I haven’t had a chance to write about many of his films. The only major films I've covered are Taxi Driver and The Deerhunter, along with his recent David O. Russell renaissance of Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle, and Joy. So there's a lot to look at, including some films that I haven't seen.

This is my second time seeing Bang the Drum Slowly, which was De Niro's first major film, an adaptation of a novel by Mark Harris (which I read when I was about 12, I think after I saw the movie) about a dying baseball player, a catcher, and his relationship with a star pitcher. It was a well-received film, and earned an Oscar nomination for Vincent Gardenia as the team's blustery manager. But I think it hasn't aged well, and seems to be missing pieces of the plot. It's only 97 minutes long, but it could have used some extra scenes to provide more context.

De Niro is Bruce Pearson, a second- or even third-string catcher. When the film begins Henry Wiggen (called "Arthur" because he wrote a book--instead of "author") is driving with De Niro from the Mayo Clinic to De Niro's home in Georgia. He has Hodgkin's disease, but the two play it very close to the vest, not even telling his parents.

Pearson is a rube; not very smart, and he knows it, while Moriarty is a city slicker that wears purple suits and likes to obfuscate. For a baseball movie, there is a lot of talking. There's a long scene in which Moriarty negotiates his contract (to show hold old this movie is--1973--Moriarty is asking for $120,000 a year. I think Alex Rodriguez probably made that in one game). He takes less money, but insists that he and Pearson have to be a package--whether traded or sent down, they have to be together.

Then much of the movie is Gardenia trying to figure out what they were doing in Minnesota. Moriarty comes up with several creative lies, thinking that Gardenia will get rid of Pearson once he finds out. But actually, once the team learns, they all come together as a team, stop ragging Pearson, and win the World Series.

The book, as they do, has much more information, but I don't remember it. Why, for example, is Moriarty drawn to Pearson? Were they friends before his illness? I suppose the spine of the film is friendship, and that does come across, as Moriarty is true blue, but I didn't feel the film offered any great truths. Compare it to Brian's Song, which came out a few years earlier, about Gale Sayers' friendship with his dying teammate, Brian Piccolo, and see the difference. The latter film had grown men crying. Bang the Drum Slowly seems purposely unsentimental.

It was directed by John Hancock, and has that grainy look that a lot of '70s movies have. The colors are subdued and muddy--even Moriarty's purple suits are toned down. The baseball scenes seem authentic, although De Niro was much too slight to be a catcher, but he seems to have learned how to swing a bat. Though called the New York Mammoths in the film, the team is wearing the uniform of the Yankees, and the film was shot in Yankee and Shea Stadiums.

As for De Niro, he wouldn't play a part like this again. Once he made Mean Streets, he for years played aggressive, even psychotic characters. Bruce Pearson is a happy-go-lucky guy, and though he knows he's dying, he has only really one bad moment, when he tells Moriarty he's scared. But his comic timing is evident, particularly in a scene in which he's part of a team singing group, and tries to keep up with the dance steps. De Niro has said he's always been more confident with comedy.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Christina's World

Andrew Wyeth was born 100 years ago this month. The son of illustrator N.C. Wyeth (and the father of Jamie, another artist), he was one of the most famous and successful American artists of the twentieth century, yet his place in the academy is not secure, most probably due to his being a realist painter in an age of abstract art. Realism as a form of painting died out after the invention of the camera, which provided all the realism anyone would need.

Wyeth's most famous painting is Christina's World, painted in 1948. It is one of the most famous American paintings; I would venture to guess it's the most famous of the twentieth century, and right up there with "Whistler's Mother" or the portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart that adorns the one-dollar bill as the most famous of all American paintings.

It is realistic, but the story it tells is open to interpretation. The facts are these: the model is Anna Christina Olson, who lived in Cushing, Maine. Wyeth saw her crawling across the field from a window and was inspired to paint her. The house still stands, and you can tour it if you'd like.

Why was she crawling? If you look very closely at her hands you can see that she is crippled. Olson suffered from Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, a polyneuropathy that affects the muscles and is similar to muscular dystrophy (it was once sub-classified as form of MD).

At first glance, without that knowledge, I see a woman stranded. Some people may like to go and lay in the grass, but even though we don't see her face there seems to be some peril in the picture. She is a long way from the house and barn, and there is no indication that anyone is there to help her. How did she get there? She is heading toward the house, with a body language that suggests, to me at least, desperation, as if something were chasing her, or as if she was terribly late for something.

It appears from the reality that Olson, given her affliction and getting used to it, crawled easily and for great distances, and perhaps she was just on a simple jaunt. But Wyeth has made her seem stopped in movement--she wants to move, but can't. To me, it's a terrifying painting, something of a horror story.

When the painting was first exhibited it didn't cause much stir, and was bought by the Museum of Modern Art for $1,800, where it still is today. I'd say it's value now it is considerably higher. It is frequently parodied--Google Christina's World parodies and you'll see some good and bad. My favorite is of Montgomery Burns in Christina's position (it hangs on his wall). Most recently, I've seen Chris Christie in a beach chair in that field.

I could look at this picture for hours, even though it is only a girl, a field, a house, and a barn. So much could be told from it.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

In Jackson Heights

The last of the three films from the list of the 25 best movies of the century published by The New York Times that I hadn't seen was In Jackson Heights. This actually dovetailed with wanting to see this film because its director, Frederick Wiseman, won an honorary Oscar last year. I actually had the DVD from Netflix but accidentally sent it back, so I got it back again.

Wiseman is well thought of in documentary circles, but I had never seen one of his films. He usually follows the same template--find some kind of institution: a prison, an mental asylum, a school, a ballet company, and simply document it with a camera. There are no voiceovers, no interviews, no one talks to the camera. It's fly on the wall filmmaking.

His latest project was to take on a community, Jackson Heights in Queens, New York. According to someone in the film, Jackson Heights is the most diverse neighborhood in the world, with 167 languages spoken. I wouldn't have even though there were 167 languages spoken in the whole world.

Wiseman moves from topic to topic, with just a few overarching threads of narrative. One is the increasing gentrification of the area, with small business owners forced out by raised rents, and stores like the Gap and Home Depot coming in. During one sequence, an activist explains how this happens, and it's mostly due to taxes. Another is the prominence of the LBGT community, which flourishes in Jackson Heights. It's where the Queen Pride Parade takes place, and we sit on meetings with support groups for elderly gay people and transgenders. At the end of the film, Bill DeBlasio is the first mayor to take part in the parade.

There are of course a lot of immigrants in the neighborhood, and much of the film is in other languages. A meeting of immigrants allows a woman to tell a harrowing story of how her daughter crossed from Mexico and spent 15 days lost in the desert.

While some of this is very interesting, the movie is over three hours long. I watched it in two pieces, and there are so many committee meetings that you get the idea that everyone in the neighborhood is an activist. That may be a skewed view--after all, if you're only seeing meetings, you're not seeing people who don't attend them. I was amused by a small group of ladies sitting in a restaurant knitting, talking about the state of a small cemetery. The talk swerves to old movie starts and how many of them were gay. "All the actors I liked were gay," a woman says. "I wonder what that says about me."

What I liked most were some of the transitions, especially those that go inside businesses. We visit an Indian salon (I finally realized what "threading" is), a dog grooming shop, and a poultry processing business where birds have their throats slit, are tossed in boiling water, defeathered, and then cut up in the most brutal way you can imagine.

I also loved the scenes of people just going about their business--walking down the street, sitting in a park, window shopping, or dancing at a club. The colors of the fruit and vegetable stands are vibrant, and sometimes you can smell the food cooking.

There are certain areas not viewed. We do see the city councilman in a meeting, but there are no other shots of politicians, nor schools. The film seems to be skewed toward the elderly, like a 98-year-old woman who complains that she has no one to talk to, or the LGBT community, who may have been more cooperative to get their stories told.

In Jackson Heights is sporadically interesting, but I felt a little like some of the parishioners in a scene in church--a few of them had their eyes closed.

Monday, July 17, 2017

The Douche Doesn't Fall Far From the Bag

It can't be easy to be a president's close relative. Most of the time, they are considered off limits, and when they are criticized decent people cry fowl, such as when Rush Limbaugh called Chelsea Clinton, then a teenager, ugly. But there have been a few presidential relatives who have earned their brickbats, such as Billy Carter and Roger Clinton. Now we have perhaps the stupidest presidential relative of all time, Donald Trump Jr.

Everything wrong about Junior can be seen in this picture. Anyone who would purposely kill an elephant for sport is someone I don't want to know, and then to take the tail as a trophy seems even worse. Is he going to frame it? Turn it into a whip to use on Russian prostitutes? Who knows. All I know is that when his time comes, I hope he's being stomped by an elephant.

But what makes Junior really stupid is the scandal now erupting about a meeting he took with a Russian lawyer during the 2016 campaign, in which he was seeking dirt on Hillary Clinton. Also in the meeting was Paul Manafort, the extremely shady ex-Trump campaign manager, and Junior's brother-in-law Jared Kushner, whose most impressive feat seems to have been marrying well. According to an email trail, this lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, was representing the Russian government, and was not acting as an independent Russian citizen. Soooo, what we have here is an American citizen, three of them, seeking aid from a foreign government in an attempt to electioneer.

The talk after this revelation, which Junior confessed to (his dad says he was being "transparent") was whether this was illegal, good politics, or just stupid. The President says anyone would take this meeting, because it was good politics. Except that's patently false, as most people would go directly to the FBI. Junior's reaction was "I love it." Unfortunately, he got no information. Does that matter? If you rob a bank but get no money is that illegal? The best quote about this was, if you spend an hour casting a line into the water, but catch no fish, weren't you still fishing?

Was it illegal? Yes, if you interpret that Junior, Kushner, and Manafort were part of the campaign. Manafort certainly was. Take a look at statute 52 U.S.C. 30121, 36 U.S.C. 510, which states that: "A foreign national shall not, directly or indirectly, make a contribution or a donation of money or other thing of value, or expressly or impliedly promise to make a contribution or a donation, in connection with any Federal, State, or local election." If you interpret that "other thing of value" is damning information against a candidate, then clearly the Russian lawyer is guilty (note that the words "impliedly promise" are in there, so it doesn't matter if she had anything or not). But what about Moe, Larry, and Curly? "No person shall knowingly solicit, accept, or receive from a foreign national any contribution or donation prohibited by paragraphs (b) through (d) of this section."

If this is not limited to financial contributions, which I don't think it does, then they are all guilty of receiving, or attempting to receive, information that would contribute to their campaign.

This is going to drag on for months, I suspect. The Fox-Right is saying who cares, after spending months denying that it ever happened. The old "what did he know and when did he know it" that dogged Nixon will now dog Trump, as the meeting happened with two of his relatives and a campaign manager in an office a floor below him. As much as Sean Hannity and Trump himself try to wish it away, it won't go away.

But what has come out of this is a hilarious set of memes and parodies. I've heard the rumor that Junior is considered the Fredo of the family (the memorable Godfather character played by John Cazale who finally erupts at Michael, "I'm smart!"). A meme on Facebook had Steve Bannon carrying out the same execution as in the film, on a fishing boat. Junior, with his brother Eric, also bear an unsettling resemblance to cartoon idiots Beavis and Butthead, and even more disturbingly, to Saddam Hussein's sons Uday and Qusay--not a physical resemblance, but one of filial privilege. Their father is already someone who was born on third base and thought he hit a triple. I can't imagine what these two bozos believe.

We can only hope that all three of these men go to jail for breaking this law, but the odds are against it. But was there a moment when the President, not the brightest bulb on the chandelier, got his eldest son in a room alone and laid him, saying something like, "What were you thinking?" Oh, to be able to see or hear that and treasure the irony.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Sarah Silverman

I think I've had a crush on Sarah Silverman since I saw her doing some stand-up and she made a reference to how Ron Jeremy masturbates with an extended pinkie, as if he were holding a cup of tea. A cute girl, talking about porn? That's all it takes. Over the years since then I've only grown to admire her more, for her political stances, for her honesty about her life, and because she's so fucking funny.

Silverman has become a "serious actress," but last night I watched her Netflix stand-up special A Speck of Dust. It was a delightfully vulgar 70 minutes, ending with her asking the only man in the audience who believed in God (or at least raised his hand) if he would let God come in his mouth.

But there was much more. She covered a range of topics, mostly about her own life. She talked about visiting a laser hair removal clinic (the highest-rated one within three blocks of her home), her experiences as a bed-wetter at summer camp, her dog, who turned her on to squirrels (she says that squirrels are like cokeheads--they only remember where 80 percent of the nuts they bury are).

She also spends a long section talking about a life-threatening emergency she had, when an abscess in her windpipe nearly killed her. She was rushed into emergency surgery, but felt her preparatory anesthetic wasn't strong enough. "I'm not high enough!" she wailed, and to prove it, she discussed Brexit in great detail (this is all proven by the videotape which is shown during the closing credits).

She performed before a very appreciative audience--it almost sounded as if the laughter was sweetened. It was a good audience though--when she was telling a story about her sister in college, that seemed to be leading to a rape story, but instead turned into a shitting-one's-pants story, she was amazed at how quiet they got. "That's called a relief laugh," she said, analyzing her comedy mid-stream. She has an endearing quality of saying "put a pin in that," so she can come back to a topic after a digression.

Silverman has gotten in trouble on occasions. In the film The Aristocrats she jokingly accused talk show host Joe Franklin of raping her, and he didn't get the joke. She also used the word "chink" in her act in an ironic way, which made the Media Action Network for Asian Americans angry, again, for not understanding the joke. During her act she said that comedians have to be careful, and apologized for the metal detectors that the audience had to pass through.

Silverman has covered it all-stand-up, sketch comedy (she was a short-lived performer on SNL, which didn't know how to use her), her own sit-com, and now movies. I'm not sure what her best venue is, perhaps just having her stand in front of a crowd and talk about her life.

And she's now dating Michael Sheen. That just doesn't sound right. He was married to Kate Beckinsale. It seems wrong.