The Unwatchables — Savages

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There are many lamentable choices strewn about the history of the Academy Awards, especially when subsequent career choices of individual winners cast a dank shadow on their trophies. Although I’m loathe to offer it as a definitive conclusion, it’s possible there is no more perplexing truth generated by the ceremonies staged in my lifetime than the status of Oliver Stone as a two-time recipient of the Oscar for directing, putting him in the company of Elia Kazan, David Lean, and Billy Wilder. It’s not that he wasn’t reasonably deserving of those two competitive wins, for Platoon and Born of the Fourth of July (though, out of the nominated filmmakers, I would have opted for Woody Allen and Jim Sheridan for the years in question). But his artistic sensibility has degenerated into such an ungodly mass of frothing lunacy in the decades sense that it’s grown difficult to remember a time when he could be taken seriously at all.

Stone’s 2012 film Savages is a proper showcase for all of his worst creative tics. The pointless over-editing, the ludicrous dialogue built on smugly incoherent adoption of film noir styling, and the performances sharpened to inadvertent farce are all in place. The usual hyper-aggressive masculine posturing is also woven through the film, distributed generously to both male and female characters, which I’d wager Stone thinks is progressively minded. Stone also seems to believe that he’s offering criticism of the grotesque behaviors he depicts, but the relevant scenes and moments are executed with a lurid attentiveness that instead suggests that he gets off on the carnage.

Based on a novel by thriller machine Don Winslow, Savages is about a pair of brash young entrepreneurs in the marijuana racket who run afoul of a ruthless Mexican drug cartel. One of the partners is Chon (Taylor Kitsch), an ex-Navy Seal whose quick temper is further aggravated by flare-ups of post-traumatic stress stemming from his service in Afghanistan. Hippie botanist Ben (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is the cooling agent in the team, pushing for more restrained, pragmatic solutions to their woes, at least until the situation goes fully sideways with the abduction of their shared girlfriend, O (Blake Lively). It’s just one of those rough work weeks.

The performances in the film are uniformly bad, though I’m not sure how much of the blame can be laid on the actors. Early in the film, Lively is required, in voiceover, to describe sex with Kitsch’s character by speaking the line “I have orgasms. He has wargasms.” A genetically enhanced super-being with the combined talent of Meryl Streep, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Marlon Brando couldn’t make that dialogue work. That line is no aberration. The entire film is filled with faux cool dialogue, all clipped and tough and painfully inane, like what Elmore Leonard might have tapped out immediately after sustaining a nasty head injury. (And then surely thrown in the trash after regaining his senses.) Stone runs roughshod over logic and proves far too impatient to find any depth in the characters or meaning in the scenarios. Even in his best work, Stone often mistook freneticism for intensity, but Savages reaches new levels of narrative-imploding haste. Not a single element works, and the worst components rot further as the film scrambles forward.

I made it approximately halfway through Savages.

Previously in The Unwatchables

— Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, directed by Michael Bay
— Alice in Wonderland, directed by Tim Burton
— Due Date, directed by Todd Phillips
— Sucker Punch, directed by Zack Snyder
— Cowboys & Aliens, directed by Jon Favreau
— After Earth, directed by M. Night Shyamalan
— The Beaver, directed by Jodie Foster
— Now You See Me 2, directed by Jon M. Chu
— The Mummy, directed by Alex Kurtzman
— The Counselor, directed by Ridley Scott
Vice, directed by Adam McKay

Playing Catch-Up — The Uninvited; The Last Black Man in San Francisco; Tickled

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The Uninvited (Lewis Allen, 1944). Based on a Dorothy Macardle novel, director Lewis Allen’s feature directorial debut is widely cited as the first movie to depict ghosts as spectral entities that might actually exist in the world, moving amidst living beings because of some elusive unfinished business in the world. To at least some degree, every subsequent film that treats ghosts seriously can be traced back to this effort. In the film, siblings Roderick and Pamela (Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey) impulsively purchase an abandoned manor on the coast of Cornwall, seeing it as a welcome refuge from the hustling stresses of the city. They soon find the house comes with a chilling added presence and launch efforts to determine how the troubled history of the previous owners might help explain the haunting. Allen achieves a nice gloomy atmosphere with the house, and the script — co-credited to Frank Partos and The Hundred and One Dalmatians novelist Dodie Smith — properly balances rapidly eroding incredulity with mildly exasperated wit. The leads are fine — both Milland and Hussey opt for a bland, capable approach fairly common in the nineteen-forties — but the supporting cast is peppered with wonderful, idiosyncratic turns, led by Alan Napier as a local physician roped into the supernatural sleuthing and Cornelia Otis Skinner as a menacing sanitarium operator.

 

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The Last Black Man in San Francisco (Joe Talbot, 2019). Scraping by the in the money-draining city of San Francisco, Jimmie (Jimmie Falls) is obsessed with the upkeep of a large Victorian house, causing him to sneak onto the property to tend the garden and touch up the paint when its residents are away. In this strange endeavor, he’s usually joined by his friend Montgomery (Jonathan Majors), a soft-spoken man always surveying his environs and then scribbling in his notebook, engaged in a seemingly permanent creative process. That’s the set-up of The Last Black Man in San Francisco, the feature directorial debut of Joe Talbot. Drawn from the real experiences of Falls, the film is elegant and insightful, calling back to independent films of the nineteen-eighties and -nineties that delved deeply into characters existing in a distinct place and time. Talbot displays a talent for image construction that’s almost startling in its ability to find beauty in the mundane, and every bit of the film’s mechanics — Adam Newport-Berra’s cinematography, Emile Mosseri’s music, David Marks’s editing — is utterly superb. Both main actors are vibrant in their roles, with Majors proving especially inventive in keeping the humanity prominent in a character that could have easily been reduced to an actorly stunt. The Last Black Man in San Francisco is absolutely extraordinary.

 

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Tickled (David Farrier and Dylan Reeve, 2016). In this documentary, New Zealand reporter David Farrier, who specializes in offbeat stories, is tipped off to the presence of tickling videos online featuring young adult men bound and subjected to skittering fingertips against sensitive areas likely to provoke giggle fits. Branded as if they’re part of a loopy sports league, the videos raises suspicions in the Farrier, and he quickly determines there might be more insidious motivations behind the fetishistic clips. He partners with producer Dylan Reeve for his onscreen detective work, including the occasional ambush interview, taken straight from Michael Moore’s now dog-eared playbook. Tickled is constructed with practiced looseness and unconvincingly feigned jolts of surprise reminiscent of Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman’s Catfish. The basics might be true, but the presentation is overly reliant on cinematic hucksterism. There are callous opportunists to be found here, well worth exposing. But Tickled is wobbly in terms of its own creative ethics. The film undercuts itself.

Now Playing — The Farewell

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It’s a simple tenet, too often ignored. The more specific a work of art, the more likely the piece resonates with a thoroughly enmeshed truthfulness that approaches the universal. A film doesn’t need to be autobiographical to qualify, nor is realism necessarily a component. The chief reason Black Panther stands as the strongest entry to date in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is director Ryan Coogler’s impassioned adherence to this guideline. The Farewell, a markedly different film, meets this standard, too, and not solely because writer-director Lulu Wang drew from her own family’s experience in shaping the story. The film is special and uniquely moving because it is defined by a cultural specificity that is presented without condescension, to either the characters or the audience.

In the film, Billi (Awkwafina) is a Chinese-American living in New York City, struggling to make her way as an aspiring writer as she edges out of young adulthood. Billi has a strained relationship with her parents (Diana Lin and Tzi Ma), so she draws a significant amount of emotional support from regular phone calls with her grandmother (Shuzhen Zhou), who still lives in China. When word comes back through family channels that the elderly woman has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, it’s devastating to Billi, especially when she’s discouraged from attending a family reunion in China to effectively pay last respects, though it is done under the guise of a wedding. The family is opting not to share the diagnosis with the grandmother, under the premise that it’s a kinder course of action to keep her in the dark about the gravity of her illness. It’s thought that Billi will not be able to keep the secret. She attends anyway, and the film traces her experience in the country she left as a child and the tension she feels over the well-meaning but ethically debatable subterfuge.

Wang’s script is constructed with delicacy and care. The family dynamics are sketched in with just enough detail to give the actors room to explore, finding nuance in the restrained affection and verbal glancing blows. Every cast member responds marvelously, with Awkwafina and Shuzhen giving notably lived-in performances. Smartly, Wang shows all the tiny deceptions that flow through various human interactions, all chosen because sometimes proffering an untruth is the simplest course, harmless and more efficient. More than any expository lecture of Chinese cultural norms could be, this screenwriting choice provides the needed perspective.

Warm and wise, The Farewell is dynamic precisely because it doesn’t strain to achieve such a state, deploying histrionic speeches or cataclysmic reveals. If it sometimes feels a touch too sedate — especially in its relative lack of visual panache — that strikes me as a minor flaw, entirely forgivable because the eschewing of vivid dramatics is its own act of kindness. The film remains well clear of any sense of emotional cheapness or other easy exploitation of the scenario. In a lovely irony, a film about a grand, knotty lie succeeds because of its commitment to honesty.

Playing Catch-Up — M; Halloween; Jane Fonda in Five Acts

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M (Joseph Losey, 1951). Twenty years after the Fritz Lang film of the same name became a breakthrough for actor Peter Lorre, Hollywood took its crack at the very sordid tale of a child murdered hunted by both the police and the local criminal syndicate. David Wayne plays the compulsive killer with a fraught intensity aligned with the psychological theories of the day, when murderous impulses were often treated dramatically as a sort of migraine-induced fever dream. Director Joseph Losey gives the film a proper sordid feel, emphasizing the grit of the city and the muscular jockeying of the men who operate in it, on both sides of the law. A methodical approach to the storytelling works well, at least until the denouement, which feels drawn out as Wayne’s performance slips fully from measured intensity to the brink of floridness.

 

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Halloween (David Gordon Green, 2018). Representing the eleventh Halloween film, and at least the third attempt at significant relaunch erasing much of what precedes it, this horror film positions itself narratively as the sole follow-up to John Carpenter’s 1978 classic. The murderous Michael Meyers (James Jude Courtney, with Frank Castle, the originator of the role, pitching in) has been incarcerated for the whole of the four decades since he weaved through trick-or-treaters to terrorize the town of Haddonfield. And the most famous survivor of his killing spree, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), has been living in self-imposed isolation like a doomsday prepper, though her version of the end of the world wears a largely featureless mask. On an ill-timed and ill-fated transfer of patients from one sanitarium to another sets Michael loose on the anniversary of his last bloody romp. Fangoria-approved carnage follows. The film is directed by David Gordon Green, whose directorial career has been all over the place since his poetic debut, George Washington. He proves adept at mood-setting and is even more impressive at using smart, jolting edits to heighten the tension. As enjoyable as it is to see Curtis offer her own version of Linda Hamilton’s radical Terminator 2 transformation, the story is a little too thin. It hits all the expected beats without much reinvention, which means it inevitably gets dull. One of the strongest compliments I can pay the film in this era of endless recycling is to note the fan service is thankfully kept to a minimum (and what’s there is, admittedly, clever and entertaining).

 

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Jane Fonda in Five Acts (Susan Lacy, 2018). There are few Hollywood lives more deserving of a feature-length documentary than momentous, contradiction-laden journey of Jane Seymour Fonda. Director Susan Lacy has direct access to the star and a few of her close compatriots, but avoids letting the film descend into hagiography, even as her sympathies for Fonda as a survivor are very clear. Fonda’s most controversial actions as an activist in opposition to the Vietnam War are addressed directly and in depth, as is the familial pain she endured and caused. But her astounding acting talent and focused intelligence are also given their due. And then the film offers a reminder of the true blockbuster levels reached by Fonda’s workout products. To say Fonda contains multitudes is like gazing out on the Pacific and saying, “Well, there’s probably a drop or two in there.” Lacy uses her windfall of archival footage and photography well. If there’s a shortcoming to her approach, it’s a lack of proper astonishment at the condensed timeframe of some of Fonda’s most impressive achievements. From 1978 to 1981, she developed and starred in Coming Home, The China Syndrome, 9 to 5, and On Golden Pond, with a couple other starring roles mixed in. And Jane Fonda’s Workout Book was published in that span, too. That’s a career’s worth of highlights within a bushel of months. It’s remarkable.

Playing Catch-Up — Keeper of the Flame; A Star is Born; The Front Runner

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Keeper of the Flame (George Cukor, 1943). Only the second film to boast the famed pairing of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, Keeper of the Flame is a stern, stout-hearted drama that too often has the life knocked out of it by a pummeling seriousness. Tracy plays Stephen O’Malley, a well-regarded war reporter who investigates the car crash death of a beloved political leader. In the process, he becomes acquainted with the man’s widow, Christine Forrest (Hepburn). She’s reticent about sharing details of her life with the departed rabble-rouser, and, naturally, suspicions mount and dark secrets begin to emerge. All of the performances are delivered with a hushed intensity, an approach that become tedious quickly. More problematically, director George Cukor never quite gives the film a solid footing. Sometimes he tilts toward a gloom-filled thriller like Alfred Hitchcock might make with the material, and sometimes a Frank Capra-style fable of oppressive systems impeding the mission of true-hearted citizens seems to be the desired tenor. The film was a passion project of Tracy’s. He felt it dramatized an encroaching fascism in the United States and argued fiercely against it. The mission of the film is noble, but the final product is dreadfully dull, unlikely to rouse spirits to take up any cause.

 

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A Star is Born (George Cukor, 1954). Officially the second big screen version of A Star is Born and the first to shape the material into the form of a musical, Cukor’s film is a prime example of the resplendent entertainment constructs Hollywood could dish out with startling expertise in the middle of the twentieth century, after the new art form of cinema had properly grown up and before the brilliant, rebellious reinventions of the late-nineteen-sixties and early-seventies. In this version of the movie story that’s been shared and re-shared to point of fable, alcoholic movie star Norman Maine (James Mason) becomes enamored with Esther Blodgett (Judy Garland), a singer scuffling on the margins despite her knockout voice. Norman mentors and champions Esther, spurring her to an ascendent career even as his starts to crumble, the opposite trajectories complicating a romance that arises between the two. Cukor’s usual deftness is in full evidence here. He uses elegant, extended takes and astute, meticulous depictions of the worlds the main characters move through to craft a vivid, lived-in, emotionally rich spectacle. Mason and Garland are both marvelous, balancing their characters perfectly on the line between archetype and distinct individual. Garland in particular demonstrates how raw star power can be leveraged into a deep, thoughtful acting.

 

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The Front Runner (Jason Reitman, 2018). Jason Reitman’s film about the collapse of Gary Hart’s 1988 presidential campaign is almost entirely devoid of substance, relying on the most facile observations about the U.S. political process. Hugh Jackman plays Hart with the lightning flash aggrieved offense of a man accustomed to getting his way, but he misses the combination of hefty intellect and forceful charisma that made the senator’s hubris-driven self-immolation into a compelling story rather than a mere footnote. The film’s rote, remote nature means an aces supporting cast — J.K. Simmons, Vera Farmiga, and Kaitlyn Dever among them — is squandered. The most notable performance comes from Sara Paxton, who responds with deep honesty to the script’s small, valuable attempt to give Donna Rice a level of personhood beyond her role as “the other woman” in the scandal that ended Hart’s campaign. Other than that, The Front Runner is more re-creation than drama.

Now Playing — Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood

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By now, it should be be no surprise that a new Quentin Tarantino film finds the filmmakers shuffling together all his good and bad instincts like the thick, blood-speckled cards of a tarot deck. Then they’re flipped up with a randomness that is reshaped into a semi-logical totality on the fly by the teller, often in direct contrast to what any reasonable intuition might infer. No, no, no, he jabbers insistently, the Death card is actually good!

Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, duly pronounced Tarantino’s ninth film in promotional materials, is set in Southern California in 1969. The entertainment industry looms large in the narrative, mostly in the recounting of lonely ballad of Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a former big screen fixture and star of the TV western Bounty Law who’s slipping into professional irrelevancy, reduced to guest spots as cardboard villains to be dispatched at some point between the last commercial break and the closing credits. There are also Rick’s new neighbors, newlyweds Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha), who represent the ascendancy of the generation that’s pushing the older creative personnel aside. As real figures introduced into Tarantino’s fiction, the couple also provides the impetus for the director to dig into the darker corners of the late-sixties California culture.

To get to the ranch where trouble is fomenting, Tarantino employs a character named Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), Rick’s former stunt double and current jack-of-all-trades aide, driving the actor to and from the set, fixing items around the house, and providing pep talks. Cliff’s curiosity about a live wire hippie girl (Margaret Qualley) eventually puts him within the burbling menace of the community of hollow-eyed young disciples assembled by Charles Manson (Damon Herriman, who’s courting an especially narrow typecasting dilemma by also playing the insane monster in the upcoming season of Mindhunter). Before the film is complete, the brief connection proves significant.

To Tarantino’s credit, he operates essentially three distinctively story threads in a way that allows them all to be more of less satisfying. He’s not particularly deft in his juggling — his helpless love for languid set pieces essentially forces him to leave pots he’s set to bubbling unattended for longer than is ideal — but he largely makes the sprawling film feel cohesive and admirably, improbably tight. The more significant problem is the period details — in music selection, in art direction, in styling — that have been inserted into the film as delicately as a backhoe drops in a load of gravel. Especially in the first act, when Tarantino is establishing his world, the film can seem less of an exercise in storytelling and more of an excuse for the filmmaker to display the favorite things he acquired after going into a vintage shop and declaring he’d take it all. Very quickly, the material excess shifts from convincingly of the era to pure distraction.

Almost in defiance in its flaws, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood continuously reasserts itself as disarmingly compelling, mostly due to the conviction Tarantino and his collaborators bring to the intoxicating allure of the movies. Propelled by DiCaprio’s multi-layered performance — which, at times, seems to be lightly satirizing the floridness of his turn in Tarantino’s Django Unchained — the rickety endurance of Rick achieves an unexpected poignancy, and the perplexing underuse of Robbie is very nearly redeemed by the sweetly unguarded joy she conveys in the scene in which Sharon goes to a movie theater to watch her own performance in the Dean Martin vehicle The Wrecking Crew. Tarantino’s obvious and genuine affection for the roiling history of U.S. cinema inserted into his work has previously come across as overly self-satisfied, predatory, and even mildly toxic. This film represents the first time his obsession plays as warm and movingly appreciative.

As has been the case in every movie bearing the director’s signature after the comparative control of Pulp Fiction, the new Tarantino joint is messy. Personal appreciation will depend on how the the filmmaker’s well-established tics registers with the individual viewer. Are they are joy, or are they an irritation? I’ve gradually drifted toward the latter camp, but I recognized the charms of — and was occasionally enthralled by — Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. Although I found plenty to dislike (mostly the borderline sadism of the grand finale, shaped by Tarantino’s now trademark vindictive revisionism), the more restrained, observant moments — Rick’s tentative pleasure in succeeding on set, Rick and Cliff smack-talking their way through an episode of The F.B.I. — managed to compensate. If nothing else, this film offers the least aggressively mannered dialogue of any Tarantino film, a small yet laudable feat.

I’m long past expecting Tarantino to restrain his oddly lowbrow pretensions enough to let his actual talent catch up. Creatively, he’s a typhoon that swirls up gemstones. Standing in his path mean gets buffeted, but riches are the reward. Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood could be leaner, smarter, kinder, easily a half hour shorter. But then it wouldn’t be a Tarantino movie, would it?

Playing Catch-Up — It Came from Outer Space; The Fastest Guitar Alive; At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal

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It Came from Outer Space (Jack Arnold, 1953). From the boom years of modestly budgeted, big studio science fiction, this tale of space creatures who alight on Earth is based on a story cooked by no less a luminary in the genre than Ray Bradbury. A spacecraft crashes in the Arizona desert and the shuffling, shaggy globules that emerge start body-snatching the locals as they work to repair their vessel. Characterizations are thin, the acting is stiff, and director Jack Arnold stages most scenes with a perfunctory efficiency. The film strives for social commentary on flaring prejudice against outsiders, but screenwriter Harry Essex lacks the acute sense of human psychology and adeptness at layering in moral underpinnings Rod Serling brought to similar storytelling in The Twilight Zone, which launched a few years later. There are definite charms to It Came from Outer Space, but they are entirely dependent on nostalgia. The film plays best as an artifact of a certain style and era.

 

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The Fastest Guitar Alive (Michael D. Moore, 1967). This dippy western likely contributed to Hollywood abandoning the notion of banging out star vehicles for rock ‘n’ roll singers. Roy Orbison plays Johnny Banner, who travels the range with a guitar equipped with a retractable rifle barrel. With his partner, Steve (Sammy Jackson), and a small fleet of dance hall girls, Johnny is on a spy mission for the Confederate Army in the waning waning days of the U.S. Civil War. There are double-crosses and other shenanigans galore, and the film stops dead every few minutes for a musical number, most co-written by Orbison. Predictably, Orbison isn’t a very good in the film (though his gentle urgency and halting cadence calls to mind the delightful William Sanderson at times), but his thespian talents don’t lag all that far behind those of his castmates, who claimed acting as their day jobs. The Fastest Guitar Alive is most painful in its flailing attempts at comedy, notably the downright embarrassing depiction of a Native American tribe that includes comedian Ben Lessy as its befuddled chief.

 

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At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal (Erin Lee Carr, 2019). As it should be, this documentary about the abuse of girl gymnasts at the hands of a trusted and  institutionally protected team trainer is a lingering gut punch. The crimes of predator Larry Nassar are duly detailed, but director Erin Lee Carr also provides plenty of space for the raised voices belonging to the survivors of his fiendish manipulations and appalling physical intrusions. And she brings an equally sharp, journalistic attention to the broader culture around the sport of gymnastics, which thrives on abusive power dynamics and borderline abusive coercion of eager girls at its most innocent, pummeling athletes into shape before they’ve reached their teens, obsessively eying future Olympic gold all the while. Carr expertly relies on classic documentary techniques — straight-to-camera interviews, extensive use of dramatic archival footage — and the result is sturdy rather than staid. At the Heart of Gold is agonizing and vital.