Quick Review: Doctor Sleep

I had planned to try and view this prior to recording our most recent Shallow & Pedantic podcast, but didn’t get around to it. Nevertheless, with the absorption of all things Shining, it was bound to happen. So we grabbed it at the library and gave it a watch.

Sequels are a delicate business. In order to have any hope of being worthy of the original, it must have more story to tell (Empire Strikes Back), or at any rate build upon the universe without breaking the spirit of it (Back to the Future, Part 2). Unnecessary sequels transform a movie into a slog of repetition, slowly bleeding the point away (The Hangover).

As a sequel to The Shining, Doctor Sleep largely succeeds in this. It helps that, as with Trainspotting 2, a sequel novel existed to draw from. Exploring how grown-up Dan Torrance deals with the legacy of his traumatic childhood isn’t boring (and as with Trainspotting 2, Ewan McGregor is good in the lead role. It’s one of the best things I’ve seen him do recently). The world of Doctor Sleep builds on that of the first story without repeating it.

Until it does repeat it. Because the Kubrick film of The Shining veered so hard away from the King novel (do check out our aforementioned podcast for a discussion of how hard), a movie attempting as it must to be a sequel to both has to take us back to the Overlook Hotel. We have to have Tub Lady and Grady and “Come Play With Us Danny”. We have to have the Hedge Maze. We have to see Danny sitting at the bar, just like Jack did.

And because of that, we’re forced into an ending that was borrowed from the first novel, which frankly misses the point. I won’t spoil it for you, but it commits the Prime Sequel Sin of Undercutting the First Story. In movie logic, the ending makes sense. But I would have preferred something different, even if that violated what has become convention.

It’s a shame, because there’s a good movie in here, that had it stuck the landing, could have deservedly gone on to cult status. As it stands, though, all work and no play makes Dan a cliche.

Quick Review: Jojo Rabbit

Yes, I finally watched it. I’d had a hard time getting into it: first off-put by the banality of “LOL HItler” (World War 2 was eighty years ago), then by being bored during the first half-hour. Frankly, for a film that billed itself as a trangressive comedy, there weren’t nearly enough laughs (the most transgressive thing in it is the opening credits, which juxtaposes Nazi propaganda reels with a German-language version of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”). The funniest character is Sam Rockwell’s Captain K, a one-eyed drunk with deadpan lines and a silent humanity miles under the surface. He’s actually a character, unlike Rebel Wilson’s Nazi matron, who’s a parody.

One struggles to find laughs otherwise. The Hitler Imaginary Friend bit isn’t as funny as it wants to be. One gets the gag – Hitler talking like a ten-year-old – and it’s not bad for all that. But it’s a shade short of being brilliant, especially as the film’s hook.

I must pause here to make the Historian’s Grumble. What year is this supposed to be? There’s talk of The Allies Landing in Italy, which was 1943. But then Imaginary Hitler references the Von Stauffenberg plot as occurring “last year”. But that plot occured in 1944, a month after the D-Day landings. I suppose it doesn’t really matter, since the film ends in the Gotterdamerung of 1945. But it annoyed me, and prevented me from getting into it.

That said, the charms outweigh the faults. Scarlett Johanssen picks this film up and carries it on her shoulders. She’s easily the best thing in it: a performance light and nimble, yet utterly grounded. The film grows whenever she’s on screen, and her character’s arc provides meaning and heart to it. The character of Jorgi – Jojo’s porky pal, who ends up in the Volksturrm – is a delight, remaining entirely child-like as the world goes blood-mad around him. The relationship between Jojo and the Girl in the Wall gets better as it goes on, becoming less “LOL Nazis” and turning into something human. Both characters overcome distrust and establish grounds for social intercourse, which grow into a familial relationship. Elsa becomes Jojo’s long-lost sister (who is dead at the start of the film, for reasons that remain intriguingly unknown), and they come to rely upon each other. In that respect, the film is a human success.

Quick Reviews: Dovlatov and The Death of Stalin

What can I say, sometimes my mood becomes very Russian.

Dovlatov is a film about a Soviet dissident writer before he became well-known. It’s less a move than it is a portrait of the writer as a winsome rapscalion. Not very much happens except you spend a week or so in this guys’ life in 1971, deep into the Brezhnev Twilight, which is my favorite era of Soviet history because of the pure Empty Nothing of it. It’s after the War and after the Purges, but before anyone dared to let anything thaw. And the movie positively swims in that: letting the USSR of the 70’s make you want to put a bullet in your brain, and enjoy the fact that Our Hero remains himself in spite of the fact that he can’t get 25 rubles together to buy his daughter a doll. In an era where everyone feels oppressed, watching a man deal with actual oppression while refusing to give into it is quite inspiring. Nothing happens, plotwise, but that’s kind of the point. It feels bad in that way that feels so good.

The Death of Stalin was one of those things that I waited eagerly to finally pop onto Netflix. In today’s poltical climate, the idea that anyone would satirize the Soviet Union is kind of astounding. The ever-present Communist Alibi would seem to preclude its existence. And yet, it was praised by all the usual suspects. Sometimes things aren’t as black as you fear.

That being said, I wanted to like it more than I actually did. The Death of Stalin bills itself as a black comedy, but the reality of the Soviet regime really defies humor. You can draw mirth from seeing hapless individuals drawn into the blood void of communism for a little while, but the ferocity of the feud between Kruschev and Beria is too real to be laughed at. When Kruschev shouts “I will fucking bury you in history!” to Beria’s burning corpse (Spoilers if you’ve never read a history book), you agree, you sympathize, but you don’t laugh. It isn’t funny.

Also, those two are miscast. Steve Buscemi, playing Kruschev, looked like the real-life Lavrenti Beria, and Simon Russel Beale, playing Beria, is practically a ringer for Kruschev. And it’s not like Buscemi, who spent 5 seasons as a gangster on Boardwalk Empire, couldn’t have pulled off that mix of worming and psychopathy. A missed opportunity.

I will say that the film doesn’t even attempt the line that the Soviet Union was a good idea inexplicably run by bad men. After the monster Beria is shuffled off, we get barbed postlude captions telling us that Kruschev stayed in power only so long as he could keep a wilier sharp – the aforementioned Brezhnev – down. There may have been no pure monsters after Stalin, but gangsters they had, and Dovlatov doesn’t speak well of the world those gangsters maintained.

Quick Review: The Irishman

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It was boring.

There.

Actually, let me be fair.

The first half is kind of boring. The second half describes the conflict between the mob and Jimmy Hoffa, and it’s more interesting than you’d think. Obviously it was dumb for Hoffa to get in bed with organized crime, and obviously that was only gonna end one way. But the way that end comes about suprises with it’s politeness, it’s almost genteel conversation of the essential conflict. It comes down to two men declaring their intentions, each of whom never raise my voice, each of whom express respect to the other. It matters not. The source of every conflict – who is to have power, who is to give way – cannot be avoided.

And so as you go through the movies second half, the power of things unstated chokes the characters off. The film becomes almost Bergmannian in its slow shots of characters in inescapable agonies. That’s to the good.

What’s to the bad is the story itself. Goodfellas and its comic twin, Wolf of Wall Street, succeed as cinema because they provide an answer to a question: Why does this institutional wickedness exist? What need does it serve? The Irishman leaves a hole in the role of its titular character. Why is he this way? Why does he just fall into the role of an assassin? We get a taste of some prisoner-clearing in WWII – a far more common practice in that war than is commonly known – but that’s only a hint. There’s nothing at the heart of this man that we can get a grip on, not ambition, not hatred, not bloodlust. Is it merely loyalty, without any higher connection to anything else? That seems rather shallow for Scorsese’s body of work.

Is it worth watching? If you’re curious as to how Jimmy Hoffa went down, sure. If you like a slow-burn drama, this’ll work for you. But if you’re expecting the electricity of Scorsese’s better-known work, you won’t get it here.

Quick Review: El Camino

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On paper, this is the sort of thing I should hate: an unnecessary exploitation of an excellent TV show several years after the fact, by a streaming service that just happens to still have the original on its platform. And far from being a movie, it’s really just a feature-length epilogue of the show. You can’t just watch El Camino unless you’re familiar with Breaking Bad, and as that show finished a while ago, you’d be better off rewatching at least the final season, and probably the whole damn thing. It’s almost shameless, really.

However, I don’t hate it, because:

  • Jesse’s Epilogue is a Bit of A Loose End. Last we see of him, he’s free of the prison the Okies had him in, and he’s free of Walter White. And while Breaking Bad was always primarily Walt’s story, as the seasons went on Jesse’s place in it as the Suffering Son of Heisenberg became the true balance to that. Seeing that closure is a good thing.
  • It has all the charms of the show. The visual style and pacing, the storytelling, they’re all here, and they’re nicely focused on the character we most want to see make out well.
  • It Gives us the Balance we need. Walter White’s story was always going to end a certain way, and it did, which is why Breaking Bad is the only “prestige” show of this century to retain its status as time goes on. Unlike it’s network-mate Mad Men, it finished with a climax, rather than a dull slinking away, and unlike Game of Thrones, its final season and episode gave the audience a capstone on the whole arc of the story. But it was a dark story, told darkly. Jesse’s escape from that darkness into a chance at redemption and grace is a needed counterpoint.
  • It’s Fun. The story is as I said, focused, and it moves with nice bits of action and intrigue. It’s the world Jesse knows, the dog-eat-dog of betrayal and gamesmanship, so there isn’t much of the moral degradation that Walt’s story entailed. Rather, it’s him fighting the world that has almost devoured him, and having a bit of revenge along the way.

So while it’s not the most brilliant thing I’ve ever seen on Netflix, it served its Hail and Farewell admirably. It was worth the series rewatch.

Quick Review: Mindhunter Season 2

TV tropes are a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they exist because they work: they create a kind of structural shorthand that writers can use to keep producing content reliably. On the other hand, used at the wrong time, or in the wrong show, they can smother any unique voices or angles.

I believe this is what has occurred with the second season of Mindhunter. What follows will constituted spoilers, so if you haven’t already binged it, you are accepting responsibility for this by reading any further. So, *SPOILERS* begin now.

The dirty secret of Mindhunter is that we don’t need the main characters to have full and rich emotional lives displayed on screen for us. The characters are not really characters so much as they are proxies for the exploration of darkness and the historical account of how the FBI codified the demonology of serial killers. That’s the hook; that’s what we want to see. Holden Ford and Bill Tensch and Wendy Carr are all more or less normal people, and the interest is watching normal people confront the void. Who they date and how much golf they play is of no interest unless it informs that confrontation.

No one found Holden’s girlfriend Debbie from Season 1 more irritating than I did, because watching him spend so much time with someone who could not stop belittling him and condescending to him got old fast. However, their relationship, at least in the early stages, did inform and inspire his thinking about what he was doing in the FBI. It was relevant. But Wendy’s relationship with a bartender this season was relevant to nothing, because it was the only thing we saw her do. All it serves is the trope of “we’ve revealed she’s lesbian, so we need to explore that, so she can *grow as a character*”. No. We don’t need to explore that, because Wendy Carr is not a teenager. She is who she is, and if we don’t know what we can do with her while Holden and Bill are chasing the Atlanta Child Killer, then do we need to see her at all?

The same with Holden’s psychology. Watching Holden have a massive panic attack at the end of Season 1, as he confronts the reality that the void, in the form of Co-Ed Killer Ed Kemper, has also gazed into him, was a strong way to close Season 1. We spend time with it in the early episodes, and it seems as if it’s going to matter, as both Wendy and Bill feel obliged to look after him. But then it goes nowhere, until it’s played off as an almost-joke at the end of the season (Bill telling Holden “You look anxious. You should take a Valium”). I don’t watch this show for lame cliffhangers.

I’d like to say that the breakdown of Bill Tensch’s family is better, but it isn’t. The creepy little boy is still a creepy little boy, and the incident involving the toddler feels like cheap drama. It seems to be so important, and yet it’s only Nancy not wanting to stay in the house that blows everything up at the end. It felt obligatory. A toddler died, and the result is Nancy packing everything up and moving out without leaving (so far as we can tell) so much as a Dear John letter. This isn’t where the emotional weight of the series should be. It’s not a character show, it’s a content show.

Meanwhile, the actual draw of the season gets almost short shrift. You’ve got BTK, who was mere shadowing in Season 1, suddenly landing on the Behavioral Science Unit’s radar, but by the end of Season 2, we’re back to watching him for a scene at the beginning or end of an episode acting weird. Which isn’t unreasonable, as BTK wasn’t caught until 2005. But other than a quick trip to Wichita for Bill, they seem oddly blase about the whole thing. Is this really the best use of the material?

The season works best when dealing with the Atlanta Child Killings of 1979-1981. The tantalizing mystery of this, with so many dead children, and so few leads, and a community deeply suspicious, is top-shelf stuff. More, it serves as a great challenge to the whole concept of “profiling”: although Wayne Williams fits the profile, physical evidence tying him too the dead children remains elusive. The story builds logically off of what we’ve seen them do in Season 1, but everyone except Holden treats it as an irritating distraction. The conflict between theory and reality should occupy the center stage, and everything the characters are doing should build off of that. Instead, we have conversations about authenticity and real estate but nothing about why Holden is so certain about the kind of man he’s trying to catch. He doesn’t get to make his case. It’s like the show just wants him to be wrong.

Fincher says he plans to do five seasons. I’m not going to wait with such anticipation for the next one.

Quick Review: Ingrid Goes West

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Weird little quirk of a film that somehow manages to condemn the age we live in, and the Matrix that we detest and fear and and cannot bear to be apart from (there’s no paradox there, the second thing leads inevitably to the first).

Meet Ingrid. Ingrid is unhealthy. Ingrid obsesses with people she only knows on Instagram. Ingrid lives on her phone. She’s almost (not quite) incapable of forming normal human relationships, because her entire reality is external to herself. She doesn’t have a self. She has no dreams, no goals, no real personality to speak of. She is a void that cannot be filled.

After an incident with one of her InstaFriends lands her in the boobie hatch, she takes a pile of inheritance and crosses the country to form another emotional codependency with a brand new girl who’s InstaFamous. Hilarity and tragedy ensues.

It has a comic sensibility, without really trying to be funny. Such, of course, is how the younger generation speaks the truth, in sly, awkward self-mockery. So it’s really geared for them, but the yearning to live an artful life, a not-mundane life, a beautiful life, is not something that only Generations Y and Z know. The methodology for conceptualizing that life has changed, become more democratized, and way more addictive. Ingrid seems more healthy when she’s drinking a beer on her couch, or even doing a line of coke in a parking lot, than when she’s compulsively liking every photo on her InstaFriend’s feed.

Aubrey Plaza is so perfectly cast for this that’s almost too on-the-nose. O’Shea Jackson, Jr. takes a charismatic turn in a part that could have been nothing. He makes it something, because he’s got something. Everyone else is blonde, and almost part of the landscape. They don’t quite feel real, which is sort of the point, so I can’t fault the performances.

Literary sidebar: the movie focuses on Joan Didion novels as a hipster vintage passion of letters, and it did inspire me to google her and then grab a copy of Play it As it Lays at my library. I suspect Joan Didion got or is getting an uptick as a result of this. I wonder if authors hope for such things. Probably not.

Bottom Line: Skynet doesn’t need to blow us up. It has us by the brain already.

Quick Review: Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile

extremely-wicked-shockingly-evil-and-vile-549dda557f5e5c9f5632a216886432b2 I detest serial killers. By which I mean, I detest the attention paid to them by popular culture. There is a sickness in being as aware of them as we are, something concupiscent in our fascination with twisted pyschopathy. That being said, I am hardly less guilty. I regard From Hell (the graphic novel, not the movie) as a work of art. I have rewatched Mindhunter (in fairness, this series is largely about the FBI’s early exploration with the phenomenon of the serial killer, and is as deeply ambivalent with the fascination with them as I am). And I watched this, despite never giving a damn about Ted Bundy. He was a beast in human flesh, and he got what was coming to him. More than that need not be said.

But this film, like Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street, does an admirable job of explaining the fascination with the evil character that sits at the heart of it. The mafia was a way for immigrants to break the rules and get paid. Wall Street is a way to manufacture wealth out of nothing by selling people the promise of wealth. Extremely Wicked doesn’t have the ambition to explain why Ted Bundy murdered 30+ women in the 1970’s – what explanation, really, could there be? – but it does go a long way towards explaining why his case haunts us, forty years after he was finally caught.

Everyone says Zac Efron is great in this, and he is. The camera still loves him, and he makes every use of it. But what makes this film worth watching is its mis-en-scene. We don’t see Ted Bundy as a killer. We don’t see him cut a swath through innocent co-eds. We see a handsome fellow pulled over in his VW Beetle by a cop and arrested. We see him stand trial despite maintaining his innocence. We see him intimate to his longtime girlfriend that someone is out to get him. We see him withstand prison with stoic spirit and determination. And gradually we get wrapped up in his worldview, his frame, until we find ourselves perversely believing that he’s the protagonist, despite knowing full well that he’s everything the title says he is. It’s a marvelous exercise in structuring a film to drive home the real story, which is that this man was a handsome and charming shell, capable of pulling people into his orbit, and successfully hiding the demon underneath.

But only for a time. Reality will out, and eventually even Bundy is no longer able to maintain the pretense. The climax of the film is the moment where Bundy’s almost self-gaslighting persona cracks – not fully, not in the spittle-flecked Hollywood way – but enough to confirm for us that what we know to be true really is. And that’s both satisfying from a film point of view and deeply sickening from a human one. As with MacBeth, this film about a killer has a weird way of condemning all of us.

Quick Review: The Highwaymen

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This little NetFlick represents the third time Kevin Costner has played an historical lawman up against a famous criminal. In 1987, he did the Hollywood version of Elliot Ness, playing a bright-eyed young crusader forced to get rough to take down Al Capone. In 1994, he did the opposite of that, giving us the grim dirty reality of Wyatt Earp as a thoughtful counterpoint to the previous year’s Tombstone. 

Both of these roles depend to a certain degree on Costner’s trademark flintiness. One of my favorite moments in The Untouchables is when Ness, having been suckered by a bum tip on his first bust, cuts out the headline “Crusader Cop Busts Out”, and pins it to the corkboard behind his desk, then turns around and stares down the rest of the Chicago PD squadroom, a sea of hostile faces silently watching him. His face says “You wanna laugh at me? Go ahead, laugh. I haven’t even started yet.” Underneath the law-and-order, square-jaw good intentions is a quiet fury, which will break loose over the course of the film and throw men off of buildings. He gets his knuckles dirty, because that’s the Chicago Way, and that’s how you get Capone.

Wyatt Earp takes this theme to extreme. The film spends a good hour giving us Earp’s failed first life as a young husband and businessman, who loses his mind when his wife dies, and heads west a jump ahead of a possy, never to return to the land of his birth. Something in him died, the film tells us, and this made him precisely the kind of iron man needed to impose order on the chaos of Dodge City and Tombstone. There is no sign of the killer with the heart of gold, as in True Grit, or even the man haunted by his sins, as in Unforgiven. Wyatt Earp feels neither joy nor remorse in violence. He does what must be done. He’s as cold as a pistol in the rain, and the film is relentless in telling us that by men such as this, and no other, was the wilderness tamed.

In The Highwaymen, the theme encounters variations. First of all, in the story of Bonnie & Clyde, the men who caught them are virtually unknown to the public at large. Frank Hamer has never had a movie or a radio show about his exploits, and previous Bonnie & Clyde films have had the law as a faceless entity, a nemesis that catches up with the romantic pair as it eventually must. Much of The Highwaymen is a reversal of this trend. In fact, we hardly see Bonnie or Clyde in the film, and when we do, we tend not to see their faces. In this film, they are the shadowy enemy, the thing that strikes unseen. Instead, we see Frank Hamer and Maney Gault (an excellent Woody Harrellson), two old Texas Rangers in an era that has ceased to appreciate them even as they make a desperate call for their skills learned, occupying center stage.

On one level, Frank Hamer is as storied a lawman as Wyatt Earp or Elliot Ness, and as feared for his toughness (he’s credited with saving 15 Blacks from lynch mobs and the Ku Klux Klan). But there’s a reversal here. Hamer is hard on the outside, but inside has moments of vulnerability and understanding. His conversation with Clyde Barrow’s father in particular is a moment of confession and of near-empathy. But he does what must be done.

As with the 1967 Bonnie & Clyde, the film leads up to the young criminals death by bushwacking, and does not spare the audience the reality of that shooting. But if Bonnie & Clyde was all “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”, the bright Rebel Yell of the New Hollywood, this film is as dour in tone as its protagonists, and seems to take as its soundtrack Johnny Cash’s “Someday God is Gonna Cut You Down”. We recognize the humanity of Bonnie & Clyde even as we know they’ve got it coming, and we feel a certain horror at the men who gunned them down even as we appreciate their efforts. Nothing is ever as neat and clean as we want, which is why sometimes containing evil requires methods extraordinary.

Quick Review: Velvet Buzzsaw

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People always make the mistake of thinking art is created for them. But really, art is a private language for sophisticates to congratulate themselves on their superiority to the rest of the world. As my artist’s statement explains, my work is utterly incomprehensible and is therefore full of deep significance.

-Bill Watterson

Modern art is good for nothing so much as the joy you experience in hating it. A trip through MoMA in New York is a wonderful opportunity to sneer, and it is a merited sneering, because most people not in the modern art scene have intuited that the singular mood of that scene is one of sneering at them. Whether modern art has any aesthetic merit is a separate question. The bulk of it doesn’t, as it is driven by the sneering to produce anti-art more than anything else.

There is thus something disturbingly satisfying to the Netflix film Velvet Buzzsaw, which inflicts horror-movie tropes upon art-scene stereotypes. Horror is largely a genre of Judgement, and one of its unspoken messages is that the victims deserve their fate because of their ignorance. The drunk girl who swims out into the night ocean at the beginning of Jaws is a fool tempting fate, and fate devours her. To see this applied to the brokers and curators and critics, to see them killed, as all of them are, by Art, cannot but evoke a knowing nod of the head.

And yet, it doesn’t quite work. The other unspoken rule of Horror is that the Dread Thing, the Monster, have clear rules, thereby giving characters an opportunity to escape. At some point, late in the second act, it is traditional for some Outsider possessing knowledge of the Monster to explain to our protagonists how to avoid it. This never fully happens in Velvet Buzzsaw (some underdone investigating occurs), consequently, the Monster is never fully seen, and can pretty much do whatever it wants whenever it wants. The film thus devolves to an indie version of Final Destination; Death comes when it needs to, for no particular reason.

Probably there are two many characters in the narrative, each traveling their own arc, to give the Monster enough development. One of the reasons its handy to put horror protagonists in a single Place (an island, a cabin in the woods), is that we don’t have to give time to exploring their unique lives, and can so focus on the encounter with the Monster and so figure out how to escape it. But Velvet Buzzsaw is so determined that we find these snobs execrable that they end up without the advantages of a bunch of teenagers in a Slasher flick.

Bottom Line: fun mis-en-scene, almost rises to satire, but incomplete. On the other hand, it’s on Netflix, so watching it won’t cost you anything you haven’t already spent. That’s more than most Modern Art can say.