Top Five

I wonder if Chris Rock has a t-shirt that says “I Made One Of The Best Movies of 2014* and All I Got Was Three Critics’ Choice Nominations.”

I’ve been talking up Rock’s Top Five to my Dad for a while now after having re-watched it recently. We finally sat down to watch it today, and I could probably put it back on again now and enjoy it just as much.

Top Five features Rock playing fictional comedian and actor Andre Allen, who is tasked to give a-day-in-the-life press availability to “Times” reporter Chelsea Brown, played by Rosario Dawson. Allen, best known for a cop-buddy franchise called Hammy the Bear, is trying to swim out of that current with a serious film about the Hatian slave revolt of 1791. But all anyone wants him to be is Hammy.

Chelsea Brown proves to be an intrepid reporter, chipping away at Allen’s shell until she finds the cracks. This setup launches a movie that is 80 percent dialog and story over action, a difficult presentation to make riveting. But we’re talking about Chris Rock here. Top Five never stops being funny, entertaining, surprising, and utterly smart, even when it’s being a little gross.

Top Five may well be in my top five. It is a good, solid comedy.

And, oh, here’s mine: M.C. Serch, De La Soul, Public Enemy, Chubb Rock, Missy Elliott. If I get a sixth, it’s Earl Sweatshirt.

*Yes, 2014. The same year that Birdman won the Best Picture Oscar. Disgrazia.

Blue Hawaii

I think Turner Classic Movies is essential during a pandemic. You can put on the TV and get a little escape while at the same time working on your cultural literacy.

I mean this even for a movie like Elvis’ Blue Hawaii. This is Elvis’ eighth feature film and was made after his return from military service. Thus, the plot of the movie, Chadwick Gates returns home from a stint in the military. His dad wants him to go into the family pineapple business (of course), and he doesn’t want to.

There are of course a buncha musical numbers. And some dramatic stuff. And of course, by the end of his movie, Chadwick Gates works out his dilemma and gets the girl. Happy happy happy.

Fun fact: The producers of Blue Hawaii took the bank they made on it and used it bankroll another film called Becket.

https://talkingpointsmemo.com/news/trump-falsely-claims-covid-19-is-dying-out-as-cases-surge-in-over-20-states


In Other Funny

Nobody Puts Gidget In The Corner

A young girl in summer. She is introduced to a new world. She is an oddity in this world, naiive when all the others seem more worldly. She is initially perceived as immature looking, overly-eager, and as an outsider. Even her nickname brandishes her immaturity. Soon, though, despite this underworld’s attempts to send her home, she becomes more ubiquitous as days go by. Her parents approve before they know more but later disapprove. She develops a friendship though with this scene’s mentor, who begins helping her master the group’s essential cultural activity. Indeed, she is invited to a nighttime party that is of the hush-hush variety and is witness to a scene most outsiders do not see, with music and bonfires and dancing. And she is pulled away suddenly. There is conflict and hurt, and she is forbidden by her parents from rejoining this crew. Yet, through happier circumstances, she rejoins her old friends, and the result is surprising.

Is this “Dirty Dancing,” or is it “Gidget?”



Meanwhile, in other funny…

Joker

Since the year 2014, my small movie going clique has felt hesitant about films with huge buzz and Oscar Best Picture wins or nominations. I myself cannot believe that it’s been six years since the year of the Birdman. But ever since we experienced this wretched, pretentious insult of a film, the lowest of low bars for a film has been, well, was it better than Birdman?

Thus it is that I have only just now watched Todd Phillips’ Joker last evening.

I had not expected to enjoy the steak I cooked as much as I had, and nor had I imagined that I would be seeing such a fine film. The steak because, despite it being a wonderfully marbled New York strip that sat in a sous vide bath at 130 degrees for nearly four hours that was then perfectly seared for 38 seconds a side in a piping hot cast iron skillet, but that I realized somewhere in the process that I did not have a drop of red wine in the entire place.

The film because I could not have imagined how many things a single film could do and how well it could do them, and also because from what I had seen and read and heard of it previously, it kinda smacked a bit of Birdman. But I can guarantee that Joker is far and away better than Birdman.

There is the sublime performance by Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, how he inhabits his character, how he fills out the space, how he runs, how he laughs uncontrollably, often showing Fleck fighting this often inappropriate response. Also remarkable is Fleck’s visible transformation as he assumes his role as “Joker.” This change is clear-cut, and the audience is transparently privy to Fleck’s decision points, misguided as they might be.

There is this film’s most effective origin tale. Any comics-based movie is going to be tempted to tweak the character-origin. See 1989’s Batman, directed by Tim Burton, which introduced the detail that, indeed, it was a young Jack Napier / Joker who was responsible for shooting down Thomas and Martha Wayne in cold blood while young Bruce looked on.

This detail provided motivation and conflict for Batman in that film, but it has always seemed too pat an explanation to me, and certainly not one we had seen previously in the Batman lore. I am much more comfortable with the story told by this Joker, that the Waynes’ murders were not directly the Joker’s doing but instead were carried out by his inspiration and example.

And while Joker is yet another try for an origin tale, it is also a deeper-reaching story. Our villain’s metamorphosis is presented sympathetically—he is beaten into it, physically, mentally, emotionally. This is a story of the overrun, the neglected, of those screwed by society’s inequities. It is a story that highlights mental illness, its taboos, of a guy who, to be honest, made legitimate attempts to seek help from a system that pushed him into the cracks. This Joker was not born. But he was most certainly created.

It is a shame my misgivings kept me from Joker so long, and it was only serendipity that had me sitting down to my late steak dinner when this happened to be showing on the HBO. Joker is better than Birdman, by far. We may in fact now start asking if such-and-such a film is “as good as Joker.”

Now that’s a bar to meet.

Uncut Gems

Dad and I marveled over the USA Toady’s “best movies of the decade” list over lunch on Saturday. They were:

‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ (2015)
‘Arrival’ (2016)
‘Sing Street’ (2016)
‘Get Out’ (2017)
‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ (2014)
‘BlacKkKlansman’ (2018)
‘How to Train Your Dragon’ (2010)
‘Inception’ (2010)
‘A Ghost Story’ (2017)
‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ (2013)/’Lady Bird’ (2017)

It’s a fun game to start calling out movies that are much better than any of these that are not on the list. Easy. But fun. ‘Dunkirk’ (2017). ‘American Hustle’ (2013). ‘Bridesmaids’ (2011). ’12 Years a Slave’ (2013). ANYTHING BY QUENTIN TARANTINO. ‘I, Tonya’ (2017). ‘Winter’s Bone’ (2010). ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ (2013). ‘Lady Bird’ (2017). ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ (2017). ‘The Favourite’ (2018). ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ (2013). ‘Lincoln’ (2012). ‘Big Eyes’ (2014). ‘Dear White People” (2014). ‘Dope’ (2015). ’20 Feet from Stardom’ (2014). ‘True Grit’ (2010). ‘Florence Foster Jenkins’ (2016). ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ (2018). ‘The Lone Ranger’ (2012). ‘Nebraska’ (2013). ‘The King’s Speech’ (2010). ‘Eighth Grade’ (2018). ‘The Death of Stalin’ (2017). ‘Game Night’ (2018). ‘Bad Words’ (2013). ‘The Heat’ (2013).

Wasn’t that fun?

I’ll add ‘Uncut Gems’ to the list, too, although as DOD opined: “I think it’s a great movie. But imagine spending a couple of hours in a room with loud, angry, anxious assholes. Don’t want to do it often, for sure. When it’s over you think maybe it ended happily.”

I may also be the only person in America who saw a Hemingway short story in the thing. I saw it as a loosely-rendered telling of Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” Maybe that’s just me. Regardless, there are a few things you may want to know about this film if you are considering seeing it.

I found a “Breaking Bad” aesthetic to “Gems.” If you are a viewer who requires exposition, go see the Star Wars thing. This film means for you to see the story, not to be told. So much so that you actually begin the movie looking up the ass of the main character, Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler). This is where Ratner’s story begins, at his colonoscopy, which is one of the few times in the film that the character isn’t frenetic at the least.

Ratner is a man trying to support a big life, with a wife and kids at home and a pretty little thing on the side at his apartment. He is a gambler and a dealmaker, and every deal and every gamble that he makes ratchets up the butt-clench level just a bit more. ‘Gems’ is mostly lauded as a new direction for Sandler, who usually plays a goofy mensch in an otherwise sometimes likeable film. It is a stretch for Sandler, and often, it is a stretch for the audience, too, a difficult movie to watch.

But it is worth it.

On The Basis of Sects

“Well, if that’s how you think you want to spend your time.” (Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s initial response to her nephew Daniel Stiepleman when he pitched her the idea of making a movie based on the first case she ever argued with her late husband Marty)

So, Sunday my Uncle Hat and I saw a movie. He is here for family business and also for a bit of fun here in Rochester New York. And there are some movies he ain’t seen. So we have been going to some movies.

Today we saw On The Basis Of Sex, the new biopic of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Enjoyed it well. I am glad to note that RBG herself finds the portrayal to be mostly accurate, largely because she was profoundly involved in the project. And it is a fine film, though I did find myself going over the laundry list that most biopics seem obligated to tick off. This film does everything you anticipate it to do. Here’s her first day at Harvard, where the professor calls on two men before being placed into a force to call on Ginsburg, whose answer is far superior. Here’s her fighting with the chauvinistic dean. Here’s how she found her landmark case. Blah blah blah. Check, check, check.

Fortunately, this movie does it well. Really well. No Oscar love for this thing–not even Original Screenplay, Academy? Really? Oh, well. Perhaps there’s too much RBG power in the nominations with the two nominations of the documentary of that particular honorific. But it is a fine film. A little rote, but well done.

Anyways, since I’m writing movies today, let’s for my own reference most of all list all the Oscar-nominated films I’ve seen…and, go: A Star Is Born, The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs, BlacKkKlansman, Bohemian Rhapsody, The Favourite, Vice.

Wow. I’ve really got some work to do.

Widows

Steve McQueen does not think his audience is stupid. 

In fact, the dude gives his audience great credit. He does not invest much in exposition. He trusts that you will do some of the lifting in his attempt to deliver a story, and he does this like few directors can. 

For instance: There is a scene in McQueen’s heist caper movie Widows that is so smart and so laden with story detail and, simultaneously, social commentary that it has more potency per tablespoon than cinnamon. And it just involves this car driving while two people sit inside the car and argue. 

When the scene begins, it’s weird because the camera is kept outside of the car the whole time, mainly shooting the landscape of some city blocks over the driver’s part of the windshield. The shot lasts long enough that you become conscious of it and begin to wonder why the director is doing it. 

And then you realize why, and it is an astonishing realization. Because it tells you everything you need to know about the politician inside the car, of his likely expected entitlement, of his legacy, of the distance he can set between him and his constituency and still expect to be elected. That scene delivers the essence of Jack Mulligan’s character, and in fact explains the larger political context generally, and it does not draw a diagram for you to get there. 

And while a heist film like Ocean’s Eight earlier this year was marketed as “hey this is like the Ocean’s movies, but with broads, isn’t that great and progressive and shit?” all that movie did was make a heist movie that was about the heist and replaced the dudes with women. Widows is not about the heist. It’s about the characters, specifically, Veronica, Linda, Alice, and, later, Belle. Their motivations are more urgent than those of Deb Ocean’s petty little revenge quest:  As widows of thieves, they are being pinched by some bad hambres for the money. And these characters, and these actors who play them, they rise to that challenge. 

McQueen’s pacing is dangerous, but effective, as it was in 12 Years a Slave. His story (or perhaps the story of Jayhawk and co-writer here Gillian Flynn) forges the most unlikely of alliances or, perhaps, friendships. And this heist film is not about the heist–in fact, were it not for a few twists at the end there, the heist itself would seem anticlimactic. This is, in my opinion, a feature, not a bug, in the movie Widows

So this ain’t your normal heist flick. What it is, kids, is what an artist does. Happy little clouds. All struck up on the canvas that moves. What a perfect movie. 

In Other News

  • Aaron found the “drop cap” button.

Bohemian Masterpiece

If you like joy, you should go see the film Bohemian Rhapsody in the movie theater. Likewise, if you like masterful acting. Or music. Or Queen. Or if you remember what you were doing when you witnessed Live Aid. Or, if you’d just like to see a really great movie.

Bohemian Rhapsody, the film, will satisfy all of these checkboxes, and more. It is, certainly, the best film I have seen this year and the best I expect to see. It is my favorite cinema experience since the brilliant Dunkirk.

I ain’t the only one. While the thing currently has a score of 64 on Rotten Tomatoes, it has a 94 audience score there. Critics are enjoying dissecting this movie, but audiences are simply * enjoying * this movie.

Yeah, but they got stuff wrong, critics are saying. Freddie didn’t have the studly mustache look until 198x, they says. They didn’t have to coax Geldhoff into them doing Live Aid, he had to coax them, and it wasn’t because of that, it was because of this, they says. And how about that stuff where Princess Leia floats through space like Mary Poppins, they says.

Blah, blah, blah, blah.

Rami Malek is reason enough to see this thing. It’s like he invites Freddy Mercury to live in him for a while. If he isn’t holding at least one tall bald trophy sometime next year for this, I’ll be more surprised than I was on Nov. 8, 2016.

The best of this movie is its ending, which is essentially a strut-by-strut re-enactment of the band’s Live Aid performance. This is some of the best faux rock performance footage since Purple Rain. Val Kilmer was a good Jim Morrison, but this kid from Mr. Robot is a great Freddy Mercury, accurate down to the hair on his forearms.

Holy crap I may just have to start watching Mr. Robot.

Among pop-music-group-bipopics, this is the best I have ever seen. Does it contain ever dull pop-music-group-biopic trope? Oh, yes. But it does ever single one better than any other. I say they might as well stop making pop-music-group-biopics now. (Sorry, Michael Hutchence.)

It doesn’t hurt that the source material is Freddy Mercury, one of the most powerful presences ever in rock-n-roll, and Queen generally, one of the most bodacious bands in rock-n-roll. I remember the first time I heard “We Will Rock You.”

Do you?

If you do, it was probably one of those moments, like the first time a girl blows in your ear, or your first gyro, but like, louder and with harmony. I mean, all it is is a powerful stomping percussion with a choir and a fantastic guitar solo. This was a less-is-more first I think that was later extrapolated buy guys like Prince (see “Kiss”).

For me, Queen was one of those musical revelations that kneaded my brain at a formative age. One of the first. One of many to follow.

And many reviews have somehow taken exception with how the film handles Freddy’s (homo)sexuality. How would they like the movie to portray this? Freddy was out and FABULOUS? He wasn’t. He couldn’t be. He lived under the same oppressive nonsense that made millions of others just as isolated as he was, an isolation that ended up drowning him to death via AIDS, a public health epidemic treated by our powers that be at the time as a modern-day leprosy rather than as a health crisis that required recognition and action.

Or did you forget all that?

Anyways. Of all things, this film is a fine, suitable tribute to one of the most powerful performers in rock. It is a joy, a sustainable, uncontainable joy.

Do you like joy?

A Star Is Boring

A relative unknown female vocalist whose physical image is not exactly “typical” but whose sheer talent has lately garnered her more attention. She then appears on NBC’s Saturday Night Live and boosts her profile considerably. Soon, she earns several Grammy nominations. She takes home “Best New Artist.”

If you have recently seen Bradley Cooper’s reboot of the cinema classic A Star Is Born, you probably think I have just summarized the film, leaving some bits out, of course.

Also, I have just summarized Adele’s actual career.

I think that’s one place where this film struck me as feeling awkward. Adele’s actual story would have been more interesting. Because “Ally” in Star sadly shorts her own talent and chooses a song for her SNL debut that marvels at how a person’s jeans make they ass look. As I recall, and, I’m sorry, the comparison for me anyway is inevitable, Adele’s performances of “Chasing Pavements” and “Cold Shoulder” were a revelation in their very quality. Real music on SNL for a change. That was interesting, and I felt that seeing Ally fight for her artistic relevance would have been interesting, too. Not this one. This one’s only objection to selling out was that she didn’t want to dye her hair blonde.

(SPOILER: She settles on light auburn.)

[WEIRD: Was this choice a hat-tip to Adele?]

I think though the trouble I had with this film is the same problem I have with Gaga. I like her. I’m probably a bit in love with her, because, who isn’t? And I’ve seen and heard performances by her that have blown me away, such as, for example, when she went toe to toe with James Hetfield at the 59th Grammys, and again, for example, in her first performance in Star, which sadly indicates they should have been remaking Cabaret instead. Seriously, I’d go see this film again just to watch her do that one more time, then I’d leave. It’s that astonishing a performance.

That’s how good she can be. But the essential problem is that I like her as a performer and as a personality generally.

I just really hate her music.

That’s a problem in a musical.

I have trouble believing the same artist(s) who performed “Shallow” later debuts on national television with “Why Did You Do That?” (Lyrics: “Why do you look so good in those jeans? | Why’d you come around me with an ass like that? | You’re making all my thoughts obscene | This is not, not like me) Call me naive, but I cannot reconcile those two artists nor those performances, nor those with the typical Gaga piano-belters later in the film, generally performances I find so self-absorbed they have certainly been composed of half water and half paper towel.

(That’s a Dennis Miller joke.)

[I recognize that that the callipygian tribute was probably a “statement” of some kind regarding the current state of the music “industry.” I just don’t agree that it worked.]

I have never seen previous iterations of this for-some-reason Hollywood perennial, so I cannot compare it to them. I can compare it to one of the best movie musicals I have ever seen: Once. The film itself is worth seeing, but its greatest strength as a musical is that the music never fails.

I didn’t think the music in Star A) was good or B) made sense.

I am probably a rare one, though, because the theater was packed, and the young lady sitting next to me was bawling her eyes out.

Some September Movies…

Amazon Prime Video
Bandits (2001) (Cate Blanchett and Bruce Willis star in this underrated heist flick.)
Chinatown (1974)
Ghostbusters (1984) Also, Ghostbusters II.
Jerry Maguire (1996)
Sleepless in Seattle (1993)
There Will Be Blood (2007)

Sony Crackle
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1997)

Neflix
The Breakfast Club (1985)

Source: TV Guide

Thoroubreds
American Animals
Tully
Director’s Cut
Please Stand By
First Man
White Boy Rick