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Blonde (2022)

After receiving such blistering and excoriating responses, I went into writer/director Andrew Dominik’s Blonde with great trepidation. The near-three-hour biopic on the iconic Marilyn Monroe, played by Ana de Armas, is the first movie to earn an NC-17 rating since 2011’s Killer Joe, and as such, there’s a natural curiosity factor to any movie receiving such hostile reactions. Fans and critics have called the movie exploitative, navel-gazing, misogynistic, and redundant misery porn. One critic even said Blonde was “the worst movie Netflix has ever made.” I was a major fan of Dominik’s verbosely titled 2007 film, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and less so 2012’s Killing Them Softly, though I recognized sparing artistic merit. It’s been ten years since Dominik has directed a movie, so surely Blonde, based upon the novel by Joyce Carol Oates, had to have some merit beyond all its hype and criticism, right? Well, no. I processed my general disgust for Dominik’s three-hour slow-mo car crash. This movie is so stupendously misguided and cruel and filled with bizarre, outlandish, and maddening artistic decisions. For my movie review, I felt I needed to break my standard formula, so I decided to give voice to my analysis and criticisms by writing a pretend conversation between Dominik and a stand-in for the Netflix production. Enjoy, dear reader, and beware.

Andrew Dominick sits in front of the desk of a very concerned Netflix Producer, who fidgets uncomfortably in his seat and shuffles papers in his hands. 

Netflix Producer: So, thanks, Andrew for making time for this meeting. We’ve seen your full movie and we have some… well, concerns.

Andrew Dominik: That’s life, man. You can’t tell stories without risk. Break a few eggs.

Netflix Producer: Yes, sure, but, well, I guess one of our biggest questions is why did you need almost three hours to devote entirely to the lengthy suffering of Marilyn Monroe? This is supposed to be a biopic, but all we get, scene after scene, to a fault, is a moment of Marilyn being abused, or crying, or being generally exploited. It’s… a lot to take in, Andrew.

Andrew Dominik: Hey man, that was her life. She was this glamorous star, but behind the glamor is a lot more dirt and grime. Everyone wanted to be her, and I wanted to show the world how wrong that would be. This is a woman who was desired by the world and she was still a victim in the Old Hollywood system, which was a rape factory. I was just being honest, man.

Netflix Producer: I get that principle, but it really feels like the only version of Marilyn we get in this movie is the role of a long-suffering victim. It’s practically a passion play: The Passion of Marilyn Monroe. You’re cheapening her real-life suffering by making it so redundant to the point of self-parody, and also, if you were so concerned about creating an honest portrayal of what this woman went through, then why are you also making things up to add to her legitimate suffering?

Andrew Dominik: What d’ya mean? I adapted the book.

Netflix Producer: Yes, but you do know that Oates’ book is explicitly fictitious, right? It’s made up. Marilyn never had a throuple relationship with Charlie Chaplain Jr. and Edward G Robinson Jr. Marilyn had a positive relationship with her mother. Even worse, you’re adding fictitious suffering, like her relationship with her mother, or Marilyn being raped during an audition.

Andrew Dominik: Yeah, that might never have happened, but the rape represents the-

Netflix Producer: I’m gonna stop you there. You should refrain from sentences that include the phrase, “The rape represents [blank].” We don’t need literal sexual violence, of which we return to time and again, to stand in for a larger thematic message. Also, it’s quite disingenuous to add extra traumatic experiences when you’re purporting to tell this woman’s real trauma and conflict. 

Andrew Dominik: Agree to disagree, then.

Netflix Producer: No, not really, but, okay, Andrew, can you tell me any personable impression you get of Marilyn from this movie? And-and you cannot say “victim.” 

Andrew Dominik: She was…….

Netflix Producer: …Yes?

Andrew Dominik: Sexy?

Netflix Producer: Okay, sex symbol for nearly 60 years after her death, sure. What else?

Andrew Dominik: She was…. Um…. Uh… Can I look this up on my phone?

Netflix Producer: See, Andrew, this is our problem-

Andrew Dominik: Oh, she has daddy issues! There. That. 

Netflix Producer: And for an hour you have her referring to all the men in her life as “daddy,” which is very uncomfortable especially when those men are literally abusing her.

Andrew Dominik: But, y’see, she calls ‘em all “daddy” because she has-

Netflix Producer: Oh, we get it. Thank you. You have 160 minutes and you keep hitting the same point over and over, bludgeoning the viewer into submission. It’s more than a bit gratuitous, especially when you factor that you’re adding even more trauma. 

Andrew Dominik: What d’ya mean by “gratuitous?” 

Netflix Producer: I have prepared several examples. For starters, it might be a bit much within the first twenty minutes of your movie to subject your audience to a mother trying to drown her child in the bathtub and Marilyn being sexually assaulted at one of her first auditions. 

Andrew Dominik: Okay. Okay. I get that.

Netflix Producer: Then there’s the ghastly POV shot from inside Marilyn’s vagina, which by God happens twice, and both times it’s during forced abortions. Did we really need that queasy angle that is literally invading her body against her will to accomplish what exactly?

Andrew Dominik: The purpose of any true artist is to go deeper-

Netflix Producer: I’m gonna stop you there again. It’s just bad taste, Andrew. Also, speaking of bad taste, maybe we don’t need the entire sequence where JFK rapes her and then hires government goons to abduct her and force Marilyn into an abortion. And then, on top of all that, she hears the pleas of her first aborted fetus calling back to her. Yikes. Can you at any point step outside of your position, Andrew, and realize how shockingly gratuitous all of that can be?

Andrew Dominik: It’s all designed to separate the person from the icon. Marilyn Monroe never really existed beyond the fantasies of the public, man. It’s about bringing back her humanity.

Netflix Producer: Separating the legend from the person would be a natural artistic angle, but that means spending time establishing the person, building her up through multiple dimensions, multiple opportunities to flesh her out. You only spend time seeing her as a victim, that is when we’re not meant to partake in the same sexualization of her that you seem to be criticizing. I mean the 1996 HBO TV movie managed by having two different actresses portray her, with Naomi Judd as Norma Jean and Mira Sorvino as Marilyn. That literalized the differences and even had Marilyn converse with her former persona as a plot device. You have none of that. 

Andrew Dominik: I might not have that, but my movie has a cross dissolve that goes from Marilyn getting banged to the literal crest line of Niagara Falls. 

Netflix Producer: I don’t think that really makes up for a lack of character substance.

Andrew Dominik: Agree to disagree, man.

Netflix Producer: You really can’t keep using that as a defense. 

Andrew Dominik: Agree to disagree, man.

Netflix Producer: Your horror show of relentless trauma and bad taste might undercut your stated goal of humanizing this woman. She’s not a character but a symbol of abject suffering, a martyr, and you increase her suffering, and sometimes in grating, absurdly grotesque ways. Do you even care about this woman? You’ve devoted three hours to reanimating her as a powerless punching bag. 

Andrew Dominik: Well, I did say Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is about “well-dressed whores” and that Blonde is “just another movie about Marilyn Monroe. And there will be others.” I also said that the most important part of her life was that she killed herself. 

Netflix Producer: Exactly. That makes us question whether you have the passion and sensitivity for this project. Why does this movie even have to be NC-17? Will your three hour torture chamber be bereft of meaning if the audience doesn’t see two inner vaginal camera angles?

Andrew Dominik: How dare you even question my artistic integrity. If you remove those shots, you might as well be removing the soul of this movie. Why even tell this story?

Netflix Producer: Yes, why indeed?

Andrew Dominik: It’s meant to be disorienting.

Netflix Producer: Congrats. 

The Netflix producer leans back in his chair and releases an extended, wearying sigh.

Andrew Dominik: So… after everything…. Are you going to make me cut anything?

Netflix Producer: Please. We’re so hungry for Oscar recognition, we don’t care. Go for it.

I want to cite de Armas’ (The Gray Man) performance as one of the few attributes to the movie. It’s hard to watch this woman suffer and cry in literally every scene, but I also just felt so sad for not just her character but for de Armas as an actress herself. She shouldn’t have to endure everything that she does to play this character. She is undercut by Dominik’s artistic antics and avarice at every turn, like the story jumping around incoherently so every scene fails to build upon one another. There is no genuine character exploration to be found here. It’s a cycle of suffering, and the movie wants to rub your nose in the exploitation of Monroe while simultaneously exploiting her. De Armas deserves better. Marilyn Monroe deserves better. Every viewer deserves better. Spare yourself three awful hours of pointless suffering in the name of misapplied art. 

Nate’s Grade: D-

S1mone (2002) [Review Re-View]

Originally released August 23, 2002:

Director Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino) needs a hit. His new movie is in the can but his temperamental star (Wynona Ryder in a juicy cameo) pulls out and demands all footage of her be left on the cutting room floor. The studio is close to dropping Taransky’s film deal, and the studio head just happens to be Taransky’s ex-wife (Catherine Keener).

Under this intense pressure Taransky retreats to mourn his failed potential, until an eccentric one-eyed computer engineer gives him the key to his solution. It seems that instead of interacting with actors and their egos and trailer demands, Taransky has found a new movie star — one completely made up of ones and zeroes named Simone. Taransky edits Simone into his film and soon after the nation is in love with the digital blonde. Simone mania sweeps the nation and soon her smiling image graces all sorts of memorabilia. The public can’t get enough of the mysterious Simone who never goes to public functions and only seems to speak or appear for Taransky.

Writer/director Andrew Niccol (Gattaca) has some fun with the premise but tries to have his cake and eat it too when it comes to his satire. S1mone starts out satirizing egotistical stars, then the Hollywood system, then the press, then the public as star worshipers. The movie is all over the map trying to have something witty to say about all these different topics but is too busy to settle down on any one for a while. The satire S1mone embodies feels deflated from all the work it’s trying to do.

Pacino has always been able to do comedy but seems wearier than ever. He indulges in his comic like over-the-top aggression he’s been doing since Dick Tracy. Keener plays another of her icy businesswomen roles although she thaws quite easily and quickly in the film.

There’s a rather funny subplot involving Pruitt Taylor Vince and Jason Schwartzman as tabloid reporters on the prowl of the elusive Simone that deserves much more attention than it gets. The bulk of the movie could have been these two entertaining characters.

When Taransky finds that his creation has become more than he can handle he tries to discredit her through a series of funny public appearances and avante garde film choices. But then S1mone sadly goes back to its more mediocre roots. Taransky tries to get rid of Simone but it all horribly backfires.

As the film progresses you start to realize all the gaping holes that come up – like how can Taransky, a self-described computer illiterate, handle the most technical computer program of all time? How come no one would find out that Simone lacks a birth certificate, social security number or even tax records for her studio work? And why does the audience have to sit through the disgustingly cute daughter of Taransky and Keener, who just happens to be a computer whiz-kid, besides the fact she’ll have a late fourth quarter save of dad?

It’s not that S1mone is necessarily a bad film; it just has this missing piece to it when you watch it. Some scenes are funny, many drag, and the whole thing needed to be tighter and punchier. And to clear up any confusion, it is indeed an ACTRESS who plays Simone. Her name is Rachel Roberts.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

I cannot stand movie titles that try and force numbers into the place of letters. Don’t be Fant4stick, be Fantastic Four. Don’t be Thir13en Ghosts, be Thirteen Ghosts. Don’t be L4yer Cak3, be Layer Cake. Even one of my favorite movies of all time, Se7en, is guilty of this. I hate the implication of how you’re intended to say the new forced titled (Examples: Fant-Four-Stick, L-Four-Yer Cak-Three, Se-Seven-En). I find this all to be annoying, and I refuse to type S1mone as it was originally entitled, with a one replacing the “I” and a zero replacing the “O.” You get one number, that’s it, because it’s all my power to only do that much. End of re-view preface.

I thought going back to 2002’s S1mone could be interesting considering it was about cutting-edge technology possibly replacing actors and revolutionizing the film industry. Around 2001, with advancing special effects starting to touch the possibility of photo realism, this seemed like a possible turning point. Writer/director Andrew Niccol even considered using an all-digital actress for the title role of his industry satire after viewing footage of 2001’s Final Fantasy movie. He eventually decided against it, and we’re all the better for it because imagine re-watching this movie with twenty-year-old technology that fools the entire world into thinking Simone is real (cue teenage snickering). The character was played by model-turned-actress Rachel Roberts and her identity was kept a big secret around the time of the movie to keep the illusion that S1mone was cutting-edge technology. It’s ultimately proof that the real thing, whether that’s practical in-camera effects or even live actors, will always age better and have a place in moviemaking. As I said revisiting Final Fantasy: “Beyond the complexity that real actors can bring to performances, there’s the ease and cost that cannot be beat by a computer. Maybe in time this will change but for now rest easy Tom Hanks. You’re not going anywhere.” But hey, Roberts and Niccol have been married since 2002 and have two children together, so at least something came out of S1mone besides a title that causes me pain to type.

The big problem I have with S1mone, besides its title spelling, is that its satire with no bite, and its chosen point of view is actually the villain. First, this movie just isn’t funny. I was more charitable when I originally reviewed it back in 2002 but I didn’t laugh once throughout the near two hours. It weirdly feels absent much in the way of social commentary. Simone is an instant star and everyone falls in love with her. There’s a beginning entry into commentary when her creator, Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino), attempts to sully her image but only proves to make her more popular, but then that’s it. There’s a goofy, near-farcical quality to Taransky trying to hide the pretend nature of the world’s most desired actor. He even drives a car while operating a mannequin to provide cover. If Niccol wanted to really push this angle, there would be considerably more challenges for Taransky to maintain his illusion, getting more and more outrageous like steam building to a blowup. It’s not that this doesn’t happen but that Niccol’s screenplay makes it so absurdly easy for Taransky. He dictates that Simone wishes for her privacy and occasionally leaves behind some detritus of human life and that’s all it takes to establish a convincing existence. Nobody challenges him, at least not in a serious manner, which negates the conflicts and possible comedy of keeping the farce. Everything comes so easily and it makes the ensuring comedy barely explored if evident.

Another major drawback is that Taransky is the villain but the movie thinks otherwise. He’s sick and tired of the demands of actors. He has his complaints about working within the contradictory Hollywood studio system, but his major gripe is with working with actors. When the possibility of a photo-realistic replacement that will do whatever he says is offered, he snatches it. It’s because Viktor doesn’t view actors as people, and he feels the need to control and not to collaborate. He’s an artist with a capital-A but it’s the actors with their unwieldy egos, of course. It’s even more nefarious when you add an icky layer of misogyny to his actions. He wants a young woman who will do anything and everything he demands for his pictures. When the studio boss questions the extensive level of nudity for his next movie, Taransky says Simone will do it without hesitation because that’s what the role requires to accomplish his true vision. All he wants is a living doll to respond to his button-pushing without reserve or complaint. He wants an actor, and especially a woman of conventional attraction, to do his every selfish bidding.

At no point does the movie present our hero’s actions as being questionable or possessive. For him, all actors should just be replaced with ones and zeroes that will do whatever he wants, even nudity, and his perspective is strangely rewarded given Simone’s instant success within the industry. She literally ties with herself for the Best Actress Oscar. There may be a satirical commentary available about how quickly the public falls in love with their oblivious perception of celebrity, and how little they actually know the person behind the headlines, much like all celebrities of old and new, but the thematic work isn’t there. I kept waiting for Viktor to earn his delayed comeuppance, humility, or at least learn something of value, but through this misadventure he’s able to relaunch his career and even get his ex-wife back, so hooray?

This is also a peculiar outlier for Niccol as both a screenwriter and a director. He favors high-concept sci-fi scenarios, like 1997’s genetic have/have nots allegory, Gattaca, or 1998’s reality TV gone to its extremes drama, The Truman Show. 2005’s Lord of War is a powerful and slickly stylish condemnation on the global impact of arms dealers and gun trafficking and the bloody footprint of capitalism. S1mone is the lightest movie of the man’s career. Maybe he wanted a break from working on high-concept studio releases. 2011’s disappointing In Time likely lead him to a safer studio territory of adapting and directing 2013’s The Host based upon the YA novel by Twilight author Stephenie Meyer. I didn’t even know that Niccol has made two other movies since, 2014’s Good Kill and 2018’s Anon on Netflix. He’s listed as being the screenwriter for a 2027 Monopoly adaptation, so that could be a thing. Niccol is the kind of storyteller I want more often, a man with clear visions and ideas, but S1mone proves that he’s best suited for headier realms. Comedy is not the best fit for this man’s talents (I think we’re supposed to laugh at the very image of Pacino applying lipstick to kiss autograph photos).

Is there anything of entertainment value here? There are ideas that could work with more attention and development. I liked the team of Pruitt Taylor Vince and Jason Schwartzman as investigators tracking down the pieces that don’t quite add up about Simone. I think there was a real opportunity to deconstruct the star-system of Hollywood and have Taransky finally able to launch his true artistic pursuits that had previously been denied without Simone’s attachment. Perhaps the movie just narrows completely to the window of Taransky making his dream project while maintaining his deep secret. Perhaps even make the movie a mockumentary, like the documentary camera crew has discovered this amazing fact and are promised continued access as long as they can help keep the secret for like two years, enough for the director to see his vision through and then use this as his swan song. Then the movie becomes focused on the mishaps and chaotic complications of getting one project off the ground while having asides that can tweak the egos of actors and producers and studio suits eager to work with the next big thing. I think that would have been an improvement over a movie where an aging director gets his groove back by fooling the world and suffers next to nothing in the process. The climax is low stakes just like the rest of the movie because the protagonist gets everything he desires with minimal effort. S1mone is an intriguing idea of movie that suffers from misapplication, under development, and a bad protagonist to celebrate and reward.

My initial review in 2002 was too kind. There’s too little below these ones and zeroes to count.

Re-View Grade: C-

The Bubble (2022)/ Moonfall (2022)

What to do with a comedy that just isn’t that funny? I come to co-writer/director Judd Apatow’s The Bubble with a rhetorical surgeon’s scalpel ready to figure out this conundrum. There are plenty of funny people involved with this Netflix project. Apatow has been an industry unto himself in developing comedic talent going back to his Freaks and Geeks TV days and with such heralded twenty-first century comedies to his credit like The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up. The cast assembled for The Bubble has great comic potential. Even the premise is fun, a group of spoiled actors trying to film a bad sci-fi action movie under the challenges of the COVID-19 quarantine. So what went wrong here and why is The Bubble Apatow’s least engaging and least funny movie to date?

We follow the Hollywood production of Cliff Beasts 6, filming in rural England under the supervision of studio execs trying to keep the secluded production as problem-free as possible under the 2020 COVID outbreak. Karen Gillan (Avengers Endgame) plays Carol Cobb, an actress returning to the franchisee she had once left behind to star in a misguided Oscar bait movie where she, a white woman, was the solution to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She’s hoping to save her career, while her coworkers are just hoping not to go insane with the forced isolation and new safety protocols during their film shoot. 

So let’s circle back to the central question of why The Bubble isn’t funny, and I think I have some theories. First, we can acknowledge comedy is subjective but at the same time also acknowledge that the construction of good comedy can be academically identified and appreciated, that there are tenets that hold and maintain, like setups and payoffs, rules of threes, etc. I think one of the big problems is that nothing is really that surprising throughout the protracted and unfocused duration of The Bubble.

The characters are intended to be shallow but are too shallow to even register as distinct comedy types played against one another. There are levels of general buffoonery, but so many of these characters are missing out on a more definite angle or perspective. Take for instance the smug movie star (David Duchovny) who takes it upon himself to rewrite the script. This should be an obvious route where the story comes undone or character actions are inconsistent or that other characters, especially those who had larger roles, become subservient to the star and his ballooning ego. There needs to be distinct differences for the comedy to land and be an indication of his ideas about what he thinks would be an improvement. This doesn’t really happen. Take the recent Oscar winner (Pedro Pascal). He’s not haughty and pompous, thinking himself beneath this kind of genre filmmaking. He’s simply a dumb hedonist who is seeking out pleasure he is denying himself. That’s fine, as at least one character is set up to be more of a wild card to stir trouble. This character spends the entire movie whining and having unfunny fantasies when they should be the one causing havoc and unexpected consequences from their behaviors. What a waste. Every character falls into this nebulous underwritten area without being distinct enough to be considered stock and ultimately useful for comparisons and generating comedic conflicts. 

Another lack of surprise is how every character is exactly how they are presented, so with no points of change it all gets very redundant. If this was going to be the case, Apatow needed to be far more exacting with his satirical barbs. If he wants to really send up the industry and self-absorbed actors, we need something akin to 2008’s Tropic Thunder, which, by the way, had very distinct character differences it used for maximum comedy. This movie feels more like an extension of the privileged world populated by the bourgeoisie characters from 2012’s This is 40, a marked misstep for Apatow and his idea of recognizable midlife struggles (“Oh no, we’ll have to move from our ridiculously large house to… just a very large house!”). It’s the same pitiable rich people whining about their lives while they quarantine in luxury. Watching montage after montage of them being bored in their private hotel suites is not funny. It doesn’t even work as a criticism of the characters on display. They aren’t doing anything out there or particularly telling, they’re just being bored, and just watching bored people is boring. 

The moviemaking process and the film-within-a-film itself is also shockingly unfunny. Apatow has worked in Hollywood for decades, so I was expecting harder-hitting satire of the moviemaking industry and the way that films are continuously compromised. As another example of shallow character writing, take the director (Fred Armison), a Sundance award-winning indie artist tackling their first studio project. The expected route would be to start with this character having big ideas about a grand artistic vision, taking real chances, and trying to do something different and compelling within the realm of giant dinosaur action movies, and then little by little, they have to compromise and delete this grand vision, taking studio notes, limitations from the actors, and bad luck. This would provide a foil for every bad item complicating the production, the artist struggling to watch their dream die piece-by-piece. This doesn’t happen and the director’s indie background is never utilized as a contrast for comedy. 

Apatow plays the same trick over and over with the film-within-a-film. It will be a dramatic sequence and then cut to the actors running on a treadmill or swinging behind a green screen, the same undercutting gag on repeat. It’s not funny and, frankly, gets tiresome. The ridiculous nature of blockbuster filmmaking should be ripe for satire (again, Tropic Thunder did it) but Apatow never pushes too hard, settling on the same soft-pedaled jokes on simple characters. Pascal is left to practice funny accents, but none of what they say within the movies is funny-bad; it’s just tin-eared dialogue that is merely bad only. The only segment that genuinely had me laughing was when the young actress (Iris Apatow) teaches a raptor how to do the latest TikTok dance. This is the only moment that feels biting on the out-of-touch desperation of modern moviemaking to chase and incorporate vaporous youth trends to remain hip. The Hollywood film gone awry should feel like a mess, it should be getting progressively worse or more out of control or at least something so outlandish it separates itself from its targets. I suppose shooting the CGI genitals off dinosaurs is something you don’t see every day but it too gets old fast. 

Fortunately, these actors can still be charming even with lesser material, but you’ll simply walk away feeling enormous sympathy for them. Everyone is trying to do so much with so very little, and it can get painful at points, like Pascal’s character clinging to an amorphous evolution of an accent. There are very funny people here. Keegan Michael-Key is very funny, but he gets nothing here, especially with a ripe subplot where he might be starting a self-help cult. Maria Bakalova is very funny, and was even nominated for an Oscar, a rarity for a comedian, but she gets nothing here, being a horny hotel worker. Gillan is very funny, but she too gets nothing here as a slumming actress desperate to rehabilitate her career. It’s remarkable considering she’s the main character but really just an insecure straight man role. The main character needed to be Gavin (Peter Serafinowicz), the producer on location doing his best to herd all these spoiled and irresponsible people into getting this movie made and on time. You want to focus on the character with the most chaos to try and control, and that’s him. It just feels criminal that a cast this good, with fun supporting players like Samson Kayo (Our Flag Means Death) and Harry Trevaldwyn (Ten Percent) to round out the more famous faces. 

This also made me think to reflect on the recent release of Moonfall, which looks like the big, schlocky sci-fi disaster movie that Judd Apatow would be satirizing with The Bubble. It’s a Roland Emmerich disaster movie where he does exactly what Roland Emmerich does best: expansive scenes of cataclysmic destruction on the biggest scale possible. It was believed by industry watchers that Moonfall would be the kind of epic that people would go back to the movies to experience, watching the scale of destruction on the biggest screen and cheering along. It didn’t work out that way and Moonfall reportedly will lose over a hundred million dollars for its investors. It seemed like a smart bet as disaster movies have performed well for Emmerich, like 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow. In times of struggle, human beings enjoy fantasies about surviving fantastic odds, or at least that was the established way of thinking. After two years of life during COVID-19, maybe our idea of sci-fi escapism isn’t quite what it used to be. 

I watched Moonfall with general indifference. It felt like a mediocre hodgepodge of other Emmerich disaster movies and veered into campy nonsense at many points. It’s the kind of movie that demands you shut off your brain and just go along with the scientific gobbledygook, especially once the moon begins making Earth’s gravity go all haywire. At that point the movie becomes an inconsistent video game with its liberal use of physics. It doesn’t seem like it matters, but watching characters do Super Mario Brother-level jumps has a fun appeal as well as being impossibly goofy. One character says, “The moon can’t do these things,” and another character waves away that pertinent thought and says, almost directly to the audience, “Yeah, but this isn’t a normal moon, so forget everything.” The special effects are also quite hit or miss. Plenty of the larger effects are quite awe-inspiring and suitably terrifying in depicting an awesome reality, and then others look like they didn’t quite have enough money when it came time to render. Some of the CGI reminded me of moments from 2008’s Torque, where the high-speed backgrounds resembled badly composited video game texture blurs. If your movie is going to exist primarily in a junk food realm, then you need to either have as minimal distractions as possible to rip you from the believability of this world, or you simply need to veer into it and accept that the instability and chaos will be part of the general appeal. Provide the goods, and Moonfall just doesn’t.

The movie also takes an inordinate amount of time to get back to space after a prologue, almost halfway through its two hours. This first half stalls with setting up so many characters to follow that you simply won’t care about. I didn’t care what happened to anyone back on Earth. When the rednecks found our party (again!) in a petty car chase, I literally laughed out loud. The alien/moon mythology is also convoluted and vague enough to simply apply a good versus evil designation for technology, and the big sacrifice doesn’t feel so big when you find that character to be annoying for the duration of their grating screen time. It’s another movie tipping you off about a possible linked sequel and one that appears more appetizing than the film we just witnessed (just like Emmerich’s 2016 Independence Day sequel). In short, Moonfall is a bit of a mess, a mess I can imagine others enjoying and laughing with, but definitely one of the lower outputs in Emmerich’s long career of destroying global landmarks and formerly pristine vistas. 

I found Moonfall and The Bubble to both be poor examples of what Hollywood thinks audiences will desire as escapism in the wake of COVID-19 disrupting routines and lives. Each of the movies is disappointing because it doesn’t fulfill what it promises. The Bubble has a bunch of combustible characters in a combustible scenario and squanders its time with weak satirical gags and lazy characterization. Moonfall wants to be the big, fun epic of Emmerich’s past, but it takes its sweet indulgent time with uninteresting characters, convoluted and underwritten lore, and a plot that would have been more entertaining had it better embraced the absurdity of its implications. You may likely have an enjoyable time watching either movie, and they’re almost the same length too, but I found both to be middling examples of Hollywood’s attempt to try and give the people what they think they want and missing the entertainment mark. 

Nate’s Grades:

The Bubble: C

Moonfall: C+

Mulholland Drive (2001) [Review Re-View]

Originally released October 19, 2001:

Mulholland Dr. has had a long and winding path to get to the state it is presented today. In the beginning it was 120 minutes of a pilot for ABC, though it was skimmed to 90 for the insertion of commercials. But ABC just didn’t seem to get it and declined to pick up David Lynch’s bizarre pilot. Contacted by the French producers of Lynch’s last film, The Straight Story, it was then financed to be a feature film. Lynch went about regathering his cast and filming an additional twenty minutes of material to be added to the 120-minute pilot. And now Mulholland Dr. has gone on to win the Best Director award at Cannes and Best Picture by the New York Film Critics Association.

Laura Harring plays a woman who survives a car crash one night. It appears just before a speeding car full of reckless teens collided into her limo she was intended to be bumped off. She stumbles across the dark streets of Hollywood and finds shelter in an empty apartment where she rests. Betty Elms (Naomi Watts) is a young girl that just got off the bus to sunny California with aspirations of being a big time movie star. She enters her aunt’s apartment to find a nude woman (Harring) in the shower. She tells Betty her name is Rita after glancing at a hanging poster of Rita Hayworth. Rita is suffering from amnesia and has no idea who she is, or for that fact, why her purse is full of thousands of dollars. Betty eagerly wants to help Rita discover who she is and they set off trying to unravel this mystery.

Across town, young hotshot director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) is getting ready to go into production for his new film. He angers his mob producers by refusing to cast their chosen girl for his movie. After some harassment, threats, and a visit by an eyebrow-less cowboy assassin (God bless you David Lynch), he relents.

In the meanwhile, people are tracking the streets looking for Rita. Betty and Rita do some detective work and begin amassing clues to her true identify. As they plunge further into their investigation the two also plunge into the roles of lovers. Rita discovers a mysterious blue box and key in her possession. After a night out with Betty she decides to open it, and just when she does and the audience thinks it has a hold on the film, the camera zooms into the abyss of the box and our whole world is turned upside down.

David Lynch has made a meditation on dreams, for that is at the heart of Mulholland Dr. His direction is swift and careful and his writing is just as precise. The noir archetypes are doing battle with noir expectations. The lesbian love scenes could have been handled to look like late night Cinemax fluff, but instead Lynch’s finesse pays off in creating some truly erotic moments. Despite the population of espresso despising mobsters, wheelchair bound dwarfs, and role-reversal lesbians, the audience knows that it is in hands that they can trust. It’s Lynch back to his glorious incomprehensible roots.

Watts is the true breakthrough of Lynch’s casting and she will surely be seen in more films. Watts has to play many facets of possibly the same character, from starry-eyed perky Nancy Drew to a forceful and embittered lesbian lover.

One scene stands out as a perfect example of the talent Watts possesses. Betty has just been shuffled off to an audition for a film and rehearsing with Rita all morning. She’s introduced to her leathery co-star and the directors await her to play out the audition scene of two kids and their forbidden love. As soon as the scene begins Betty vanishes and is totally inhabited by the spirit of her character. She speaks her lines in a breathy, yet whisper-like, voice running over with sensuality but also elements of power. In this moment the characters know, as the audience does, that Betty and Naomi Watts are born movie stars.

It’s not too difficult for a viewer to figure out what portions of the film are from the pilot and what were shot afterwards. I truly doubt if ABC’s standards and practices allows for lesbian sex. The pilot parts seem to have more sheen to them and simpler camera moves, nothing too fancy. The additional footage seems completely opposite and to great effect. Mulholland Dr. has many plot threads that go nowhere or are never touched upon again, most likely parts that were going to be reincorporated with the series.

The truly weirdest part of Mulholland Drive is that the film seems to be working best when it actually is still the pilot. The story is intriguing and one that earns its suspense, mystery, and humor that oozes from this noir heavy dreamscape. The additional twenty minutes of story could be successfully argued one of two ways. It could be said it’s there just to confound an audience and self-indulgent to the good story it abandons. It could also be argued that the ending is meticulously thought out and accentuates the 120 minutes before it with more thought and understanding.

Mulholland Dr. is a tale that would have made an intriguing ongoing television series complete with ripe characters and drama. However, as a movie it still exceeds in entertainment but seems more promising in a different venue.

Nate’s Grade: B

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

How much is a dream worth to you? That’s my main takeaway re-watching David Lynch’s surreal indie Mulholland Drive twenty years later from its release. Lynch has had plenty of his own run-ins with the dream makers of Tinseltown, from the difficulty to see his admittedly weird projects off the ground to the swift cancellation of his once zeitgeist, and deeply weird, TV series, Twin Peaks. It’s common knowledge now that Mulholland Drive began as a 1999 TV pilot that Lynch re-conceived as a movie, shot 30 minutes of additional footage, and earned a 2001 Best Directing Oscar nomination for his perseverance and creative adaptability. The movie has since taken on quite a reputation. The BBC and Los Angeles Society of Film Critics have both hailed it as the best film of the twenty-first century (so far). Lynch has retreated back to his insular world of weirdness with hypnotic, over-indulgent retreads, Inland Empire, and bringing back his signature TV series for a Showtime run in 2017. In 2001, Mulholland’s Drive’s success seemed to be the last point with Lynch working with the studio system he so despised. In a way, this is his farewell letter to chasing his own dreams of stardom, at least as far as a director can have creative control and a steady supply of protection and money to see his vision through. Watching Mulholland Drive is like stepping through a dream, which has been the hallmark of Lynch’s more celebrated, obtuse filmography from 1977’s Eraserhead onward. The movie is meant to operate on a certain dream logic, sustained with choices that seem artistically self-destructive, but the journey might feel as emotionally or intellectually fleeting as a dream as well, so I ask you, dear reader, to think as you continue, how much is a dream worth?

The failed pilot serves as a majority of the film’s running time and it’s filled with peculiar beginnings that will never pay off. There are actors like Robert Forster (Jackie Brown) and Brent Briscoe (Sling Blade) who show up for one whole scene and then are never seen again. Presumably, the roles would have been more significant as detectives snooping around from the peripheral. There are mysterious forces chasing after “Rita” (Laura Harring), an important-looking woman who has conveniently lost her memory and adopted her name after seeing a poster of Rita Hayworth. She’s got a bag filled with money, a gun, and blue key. One would assume over the course of a network season that we would get closer to discovering the real identity of our amnesiac leading lady. There are also scenes that seem to exist as their own short films, like the darkly comedic hapless hitman and the scared man detailing his spooky dream to a concerned friend in a diner. These characters, presumably, would come back for more significance or at least larger interplay. The same with the mysterious locked box and key. You can practically identify the J.J. Abrams “mystery box”-style of storytelling for future intrigue. The role of a TV pilot is to serve up a storytelling engine that can keep churning, as well as ensuring that there’s enough curiosity to hook an audience through commercial breaks. Lynch is used to inserting strange symbols and starts in his movies that potentially go nowhere, so the difference between a Lynch pilot and a Lynch movie aren’t terribly noticeable. These characters, clues, and moments were perhaps intended to be developed further, or perhaps they never were. It’s as if the movie itself is a nightmare of different television programs colliding incoherently.

There does seem to be a consensus interpretation for Mulholland Drive, one that synchs up the various doubles and symbols. For two hours, we’re riding along with Betty (Naomi Watts) as she moves to L.A. with big dreams and perky naivete. She finds the amnesiac Rita in her aunt’s apartment and takes it upon herself to give her a home and investigate her identity. They grow close together, Betty nails her big acting audition, and then Betty and Rita become lovers. They go to a club (Silencio) where performance artists insist “everything is recorded,” and thus already happened, phony, and a replication of memory, and then Rita inserts that mystery blue key into the mystery box and mysteriously vanishes. We next return to the scene of Diane, who at first was a dead body that Rita and Betty found during their investigation. Now it’s Betty, or at least Watts playing her, and she’s a struggling actress who is jealous of the success and favor her girlfriend, Camilla (also played by Harring), is indulging in from their seedy director, Adam (Justin Theroux). Overcome with torment, she hires a hitman to kill Camilla. From there, she’s attacked by a homeless monster, tiny versions of the people portraying Betty’s parents in the first part, and she takes her own life in grief and guilt. The most common interpretation is that the final twenty or so minutes with Watts as Diane is the real story and that the proceedings 110 minutes was Diane’s dream trying to process her guilty conscience and mixed emotions. The blue key, the symbol from Diane’s hired hitman of a job completed, is the point of transportation between the dream and returning to a living nightmare of regret. Adam’s prominence in the first two hours is explained as punishment from Diane’s mind, so this is why he is emasculated repeatedly, from being robbed of control over his movie, his marriage, and ultimately his future.

Just because this is the most prominent interpretation, and even perhaps the author’s intended one, doesn’t mean other viewers cannot find equally valid and differing interpretations. That’s the appeal or point of frustration with Lynch’s most Lynchian work. However, the problem with asserting that the first two hours of your two-hour-plus movie were all a dream can make it feel overindulgent and unsatisfying. The TV pilot segments are shot in a way that evokes the cliché storytelling stye that prevailed at the time, with overly lit scenes and flat acting. I cannot say for certain but it feels like Lynch purposely told Watts (King Kong) to try and be hammy. Lynch has been known to purposely ape the style of prime-time soaps to provide subtle satirical contexts. Is Watts doing a bad job with the purpose of making us think of other bad actors from soaps? The one scene Betty comes alive is during her audition scene. We’ve already seen her act it out once so we’re expecting more of the same, but in that moment, she comes alive with sensuality, taking control from the aged acting partner who was just there to exploit some young new starlets. The intensity she unleashes, a mixture of carnal desire and self-loathing, is nothing like bright-eyed Betty. Is the irony that when Betty is pretending to be someone else that’s when the performance excels? You can see the points for interpretation, especially considering the ending thesis, but if so, it’s such a bold gamble by Lynch that could prove so alienating. You’re deliberately having your lead actress act in a cliched and stilted manner to perhaps make a point fewer will grasp? Obviously, the ending wasn’t intended to pair with the pilot parts, so it feels like projecting an unintended meaning onto the intentions of acting decisions, but dreams are murky that way.

I wouldn’t be surprised if just as many people are tested by Mulholland Drive as they are mesmerized. It’s a combination of different genres and film iconography, from Manning as a living-breathing femme fatale, to dark whimsical comedy, to surreal mystery, to tawdry erotic drama, to industry-obsessed soap. As much as it feels like a pilot retooled into a new beast, it also feels like a collection of genres being retooled for whatever intended association Lynch wants to impart. It’s ready-made for dissection and ready to take apart the Hollywood studio system. I enjoyed some of the strange moments that felt most ancillary, like the mobster with the extremely refined taste for espressos, and the eyebrow-less cowboy assassin threatening Adam. That scene in particular still has an unsettling menace to it, as Lynch takes what could have been absurd and finds a way to make this man overtly threatening without ever explicitly doing anything threatening. His browbeating to Adam over the difference between listening and hearing is well written and ends perfectly: “You will see me one more time, if you do good. You will see me… two more times, if you do bad. Good night.” I wish more sequences like this could stand on their own. So much of Mulholland Drive seems intended to provide a skeleton for meaning to be provided later as the added meat that Lynch didn’t value as highly.

Watts became a star from this movie and was taken to another level with the success of 2002’s The Ring. From there, she was in the Hollywood system of stars and after toiling for ten years from rejected interviews to rejected interviews. She was thinking of quitting acting and going back to her native Australia at the time she got asked to play Betty/Diane. The audition scene, the later distraught and frail Diane, as well as the mannered Betty served as an acting reel for every casting agent that had rejected her. Here was Watts, capable of doing it all and then some (she was nominated for two Oscars – 2003’s 21 Grams and 2012’s The Impossible).

My original review in 2001 is also wrestling with the question over interpretation versus intention, with the genre mash-ups as symbolic satire or as laborious TV pandering. Mulholland Drive is like watching a dream and trying to dissect its many meanings. Some people will relish the puzzle pieces that Lynch has provided and finding further hidden mirrored meanings, and other people will throw up their hands and ask for a road map, or lose interest by then. I don’t think this is the best film of the first twenty years of this new century. I don’t even think it’s close. I think at its best it can be hypnotic and intriguing; it’s a shame that these are only moments for me, and twenty years later these moments felt even further spaced apart. I just didn’t find Lynch’s movie quite worth the long, surreal drive into the dark of his imagination.

Re-View Grade: B-

Val (2021)

Watching the documentary Val, comprised from thousands of hours of home videos shot by actor Val Kilmer over the course of 30 years, may make you realize just how little you know about the actor. His reputation is that he’s difficult to work with, conceited, and Method to the point of losing himself in roles and pushing his co-stars to the brink of sanity. Coming from his own words, narrated by his son Jack, naturally allows the most empathetic read of the man and his rationale for his personal and professional decisions. I never knew about his family life, losing his teenage brother who was an inspiration and early collaborator. I never knew Kilmer wrote his own plays, including a student production at Juliard that broke new ground. I never even knew he was an early adopter of technology and had a warehouse filled with his self-documentation and behind the scenes footage (Kilmer is even credited with the doc’s cinematography). You get the sense of a wounded and restless soul, a handsome movie star who so rarely found a film role that allowed him to feel like an artist in his element. Kilmer can be one of his generation’s greatest actors, as evidenced in classics like Heat and Tombstone and as Jim Morrison in The Doors, still one of the greatest acting performances I’ve ever watched. Kilmer languished through plenty of studio dreck as well. His time as Batman is marked by dejection and loneliness, stuck playing the straight man in a movie of oddballs and trapped in a suit of limited mobility and an inability to hear (actors and crew started avoiding him in the Bat suit because he couldn’t respond). Strewn throughout the movie is contemporary footage of Kilmer after beating throat cancer, though the subsequent surgeries have left his speech haggard. Listening to the labored and tortured sound of his voice is a direct jab to your sympathy. Given that this is produced by Kilmer from his own archives, and narrated by his son, the documentary isn’t as critical as it could have been. I wish the movie provided more self-analysis for Kilmer, especially on some of his rockier relationships and onset disruptions, like for the notorious Island of Doctor Moreau. I don’t think you can still fall back on his deceased brother for decades of his behavior. There’s a limit to the level of insight because it feels a bit like Kilmer managing his reputation and legacy within the industry. Still, for nearly two hours, Val can be a poignant and illuminating expose of an actor with a reputation for equal parts trouble and brilliance.

Nate’s Grade: B

Black Bear (2020)

What an intriguing little movie Black Bear turns out to be that inspires so much interpretation and dissection. I spent time reading through different interpretations on Reddit about writer/director Lawrence Michael Levine’s (Always Shine) surreal indie, each one providing new insights and connections. It all just made me realize even further how intriguing and rare a movie like Black Bear can be, an accessible puzzle that still works outside of the guise of sifting the pieces for larger meaning.

Allison (Aubrey Plaza) is a director who is looking to rebound her career. She takes a retreat to a bed and breakfast out in the woods run by a husband and wife Gabe (Christopher Abbot) and Blair (Sarah Gadon). There’s a lot of tension between these two and perhaps some unwanted romantic advances toward Allison. Then the movie changes, and now Allison is an actress in a movie filming at the same cabin in the woods. Gabe is now her director and her husband, and Blair is now the co-star that she suspects is having an affair, both with her real husband and the husband character in the movie they are making. Things get a little weird from there.

There are really three primary stories here: 1) Allison sitting on the dock and then trying to write, 2) Allison coming into the realm of a dysfunctional married couple and adding extra jealousy and combustion, and 3) Allison is starring in an independent film that appears loosely connected to the second story, and this time she is being manipulated by her director/husband into thinking he is having an affair in order to add more realism to her screen performance. From there, the movie invites you to build your own connections from its many surreal parallels that fold onto one another begging for discussion. Is the second story what really happened in real-life to Allison and then the third story is the film version of these events, with the roles swapped for greater personal anguish? Is the third segment what really happened in real life and, in her anguish, she has projected her hard feelings into her own movie version of her torment, achieving a delayed vengeance? Are both segments mere fictional accounts from Allison in the first segment struggling through serious writer’s block? Dear reader, I cannot say because any of the interpretations I have cited, and many more, would be valid with enough careful corroborating evidence. I was delighted to read new takes. Part of the movie’s fun becomes building the meaning and finding more hidden clues after you’re done with it.

The second story plays like an identifiable mumblecore indie and one of the most awkward dinners you’d never want to be part of. Allison becomes the catalyst that pushes the husband and wife to open up their mounting disagreements and simmering conflicts with one another. He’s feeling like he’s compromised too much as an artist who still wants to be considered an artist, so he seeks a solidarity with their guest. She wants to bring a dash of reality to Gabe’s sense of self, which includes pushing him to adapt rather than holding onto a version of himself that no longer fits. Blair also seeks solidarity from a fellow woman to call out Gabe’s questionable viewpoints where he says life was simpler and perhaps better when gender norms were rigid. The night starts out amenable but ratchets up the discomfort moment by moment, opening up the characters and their histories and looking for allies through a cross-section of confrontation. We’re put in Allison’s position and different people might find fault with either husband or wife. Allison seems to enjoy being contrarian, admitting she was even lying about key points just to get or stifle a reaction from the others. As the night wears on, you worry mistakes will be made.

The third story is about twice as long and has multiple times the participants. Whereas the first film is a tightly wound threesome, this new story involves a small family of indie filmmakers. You start to notice repetitions and your mind begins to form potential connectivity. Allison is now starring in a movie directed by her husband, Gabe, who is carefully constructing a cruel ruse that he is engaging in an onset affair with her co-star, Blair. In the previous story, Allison was the interloper and thought to be the homewrecker, and now in this tale Allison and Blair have swapped positions. Gabe’s rationale is that he is pushing his wife to give the best performance of her career, where her powerful emotions will feed the role of the jealous wife breaking down. It’s blatant manipulation and again I was growing in fear that this was going to build to something calamitous and that a misunderstanding could have tragic, possible fatal results. The third story calls into question the complicity of artists when it comes to abusive behavior. Everyone benefits from Allison delivering a headline-grabbing comeback performance, their careers get a boost, and yet the torment she goes through is undeniable and it sure doesn’t feel justified for the sake of art.

Despite an amusing and diverse ensemble of the film crew, this is really a three-person movie and Plaza (Child’s Play) is the constant. For those saying Plaza will only be able to play some variation on her famous sarcastic, detached persona, I happily invite you to watch Black Bear because she is capable of so much more. The second story, the mumblecore version, is playing upon the kind of role we’re used to seeing from Plaza, which I must think the filmmakers anticipate. That’s why the next version either deconstructs it or perhaps contrasts it. With the third version, Plaza digs deep and unleashes some startling dramatic outbursts, enough that the crew feel entirely uncomfortable and perhaps a little guilty over how far things have gone. There are moments with Allison breaking down that reminded me of like Gena Rowlands in a John Cassavetes movie. There’s an extra meta layer to the performance where if you argue Plaza is going bigger than she should, well perhaps that is her portraying an actress who is modeling her breakdown after depictions in movies and award-caliber movies. Had I watched Black Bear mere hours before I handed in my critics’ nominations, I would have found a place for Plaza on my shortlist.

I invite you to watch Black Bear and join the discussion. It’s well written and engaging from moment-to-moment, so even if you don’t care about larger textual connections you can still enjoy yourself watching interesting characters simmer and explode. If your mind does enjoy rearranging the building blocks into more meanings, then the movie becomes even more fun. It’s also just a great showcase that proves Plaza is more than an actress stuck playing snide comedic roles. Seek out Black Bear, read other interpretations, and then craft your own.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Mank (2020)

In 2003, director Peyton Reed (Ant-Man, Bring it On) recreated the “no-sex sex comedies” of the 1960s starring Doris Day and Rock Hudson, with Down with Love. It recreated not just that era in time but also the hokey filmmaking techniques of its time, including green screen for rear projection as the characters drive. It was a big homage to older Hollywood and a celebration of its outdated filmmaking and storytelling. But was the movie ever more than one elaborate homage? Did the film have any other reason for being than imitation? What about Gus van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of Hitchcock’s Psycho? This is what I thought of as I watched David Fincher’s highly anticipated new movie, Mank, a surefire awards contender about Herman Mankiewicz as he writes early drafts of his career masterpiece, Citizen Kane. Fincher goes to a lot of trouble to recreate the look, feel, and sound of Mank’s creative era, but by the end I had one clear summation in mind: Mank is David Fincher’s Down with Love.

Herman “Mank” Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) is washed up and he knows it. It’s 1940 and he’s worn out his welcome at the movie studios he used to be a screenwriting titan, heading story departments and adding witty, sardonic patter to dozens of studio pictures. He was a favored guest of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and a friend to his wife Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), an actress who got a boost from her high-profile marriage. Now he’s on the outs of the industry that has grown tired of his antics. Enter 24-year-old radio wunderkind Orson Welles (Tom Burke) who personally wants to work with Mank. Welles has been given full creative control for his feature film debut and wants to make something big. He tasks Mank with writing the first draft and Mank turns to the people he knows best to skewer.

I was not expecting my blasé reaction to a Fincher film. It’s his first movie in 6 years (Gone Girl) and I think maybe his least compelling movie of his career. I’m not going to say that The Game or Panic Room are more artistic movies than Mank, steeped in the Hollywood studio system and lovingly recreating a faded era of bigwigs and big mouths. However, I will resolutely claim that either The Game or Panic Room are more entertaining. I doubt I’ll ever watch Mank again in my life. Thanks to the convenience of Netflix streaming, I watched the 130-minute movie over the course of two days but I was starting and stopping throughout. At one point I found myself zoning out and realized I had missed the importance of the scene and had to rewind to watch again. Dear reader, this was not my expected response at all. Why did I find the movie so lackluster? I think it comes down to the fact that it doesn’t really give you any more insight into Mank, the old studio bosses, the life and allure of filmmaking, the ascending industry of motion pictures and their prevailing cultural dominance, or even on Hearst or intriguing behind the scenes struggles with Kane. You’re just witness to history and not actively digesting and assessing it. In all honesty, you would be better off watching the Oscar-winning documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane or the underseen 1999 HBO TV movie RKO 281 (starring Liev Schireber as Welles and John Malkovich as Mank). Either of those two other movies would give you better intrigue and insight into the men and their legacies.

The character of Mank comes across so superficially like he’s just a catty, booze-soaked genius who is only good for a cutting retort and vomiting on your floor. I cannot state enough how uninteresting the character of Herman Mankiewicz comes across during this movie. He’s exactly the same from beginning to end and it gets rather tiresome. Even his first moments, where every dialogue response has to be pithy or setting up a later pithy remarks, can grow tiresome. It’s as if Fincher has made Mank one of his own characters in one of his own movies. He’s certainly not an unblemished protagonist. He has all manner of self-control problems, from his drinking to his mouth to his gambling to his general impulsivity. There should be drama here especially as he composes what every character tells him is “the best thing you’ve ever written.” I think part of the reason that I never really warmed to this character is that it never feels like anything really matters to him. Sure, he has his liberal values and trumpets causes and spats but I didn’t feel like I ever really knew Mank as an actual person. He’s too flippant, too passing, and too pleased to remain that way that spending an entire movie with this portrayal becomes exasperating.

The screenplay by Jack Fincher (the late father of the director) jumps back and forth between the framing device of Mank being cooped up in 1940 and writing Kane and his earlier experiences in Tinseltown through the 1930s. The framing device is unnecessary and boring. Mank’s relationship with the personal secretary (Lily Collins) tasked to write his dictation is just a dull storytelling device, another person in the room to give Mank a foil to launch his wit, and also, naturally, to remind him just how great a writer he can be. The 1940 Mank doesn’t feel like he’s gained any more wisdom or remorse. The flashbacks, accompanied by typewriter screenplay headlines, never fully coalesce into a clearer picture of the times. There is a lengthy subplot involving muckraking writer Upton Sinclair (literally played by Bill Nye “The Science Guy”) running for California governor, but all it does is establish that the studio heads are on one side of the ideological spectrum and Mank is on the other. There’s some conflict, yes, for him to continue working with these fat cats, the antithesis of his socialist politics, but it’s such a lengthy segment that I kept waiting for more relevance or life lessons. Then there’s a guy who might or might not kill himself and I’m supposed to care. The screenplay feels more like a series of anecdotes that jumps around a bit too much to really offer an insightful portrait of its star.

It also doesn’t help matters that Fincher’s film is part revisionist fantasy about the creation of Kane. This discredited theory stems from film critic Pauline Kael’s 1971 book, Raising Kane, where she proposed that it was solely Markiewicz and not Welles who wrote Citizen Kane. That is true… for the first two drafts. There were five drafts afterwards leading to production. It’s very true that much of the sturdy foundations were laid in place from Mank and his connections to Hearst and Davies (though Mank swore his portrayal of Davies was not intended to be her but the media version of her). It’s also true that Welles would shape and revise what Mank had begun and improve upon an already great start. There are plenty of articles to be read to better educate on the subject, or you can watch The Battle Over Citizen Kane, but the idea that Welles wanted to steal unearned credit and that Mank is some artistic martyr has not held up to decades of re-evaluation after Kael’s initial publication. There really is an interesting story how many ground-breaking rules Welles and Mank and cinematographer Gregg Tolland broke to tell their great American movie, and how revolutionary the movie was and continues to be so modern. You don’t have to resort to revisionist fantasy to tell the story of Mank and Kane, especially when the portrayal of Mankiewicz isn’t exactly notable to engender my passionate outrage.

Another bizarre choice is that Mank sidesteps the real blowback from Citizen Kane. Hearst was a powerful man and using his considerable influence to sabotage the movie. RKO Pictures was offered a sum to sell the film and bury it so it would never be seen. Hearst used his newspaper empire to discredit and defame Welles and his collaborators, but the genius of their work was too much to ignore and was nominated for nine Academy Awards in 1941 including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor. It lost to How Green Was My Valley (the Crash of its day) and only won a single category, Best Original Screenplay. To turn the opposition against Hearst and the powerful mechanisms of capitalism into a squabble with Welles over sole ownership of a collaborative work just seems petty and insulting. Again, there is real drama and real backlash to Kane’s domestic release. Welles was never given complete control again and Mankiewicz faded back into alcoholic obscurity and eventually died in 1953 at age 55. There was much more that Mank could have gone into as a film and yet it just dragged through scene after scene of characters entering rooms, saying pithy remarks, and exiting rooms. More was required.

Oldman (Darkest Hour) is a reliable actor and can be enjoyable as Mank but he’s also victim to the overall tone and limited characterization. His performance is too smirky and self-satisfied, like the character knows he’s going to serve up the perfect one-liner waiting in his mouth at every turn. It’s also a little weird that Oldman is even older than Mank was after he died but Mank’s wife (Tuppence Middleton), who was the exact same age of Mank, is played by a woman almost 30 years younger than Oldman. I see some things from the old system still remain. I thought the two best actors in the movie were Dance (HBO’s Game of Thrones) as Hearst and Seyfried (First Reformed) as his wife, Marion Davies. Dance very much is modeling Hearst like a living king holding court, and Mank is his favorite jester, and the malevolent authority just under the surface is always noticeable, always on the cusp, a powerful man ready to act upon his power. Seyfried gets to reclaim Davies as a character and showcase her not just as a smart actress, who would act “dumb and silly” when she got ahead of herself with Hearst, but as a loving and supportive spouse. She’s goofy, humble, loyal, but also multi-dimensional, far more than the low-class, lonely wannabe opera singer Charles Foster Kane destroys his marriage over that she represented. If anyone deserves to be nominated for an Oscar for Mank, it’s Seyfried and the way she can breathe depth and life so brightly into her role.

Give the tremendous filmmaking pedigree of Fincher, there are obvious technical pleasures to admire. Mank is a stunning recreation of the old studio system, and there is an enjoyment simply watching this world come back to vivid life. The costumes and lavish production design are impressive. Knowing how mercurial Fincher can be as an artist, whenever you’re watching a crowd scene, I think about how long it took to stage every specific element. Fincher is rarely rivaled as a big screen visual stylist with his compositions and camera movements. There’s a gorgeous montage where Mank awaits the gubernatorial election returns and the imagery comes together like a Renaissance painting, reminding the viewer why Fincher made such a name for himself as a music video director in the 80s and 90s. Fincher also adopts much of the technical style of Mank’s era including a sound design that sounds like it’s crackling and humming constantly and “cigarette burns” in the top corner to denote reel changes. Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor produce a score that is jaunty, jazzy, and period appropriate, a big detour from their ominous, fuzzy, electronic-heavy scores we associate with them. It’s a whole lot of effort to make a painstaking homage of an older era but what does the movie offer outside of this homage? I don’t think much. If you’re a fan of Old Hollywood and Citizen Kane, you may get more out of Mank, but if you’re looking for insight and entertainment into the men and the movies beyond stylistic imitation, retreat to the real deal.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Jay and Silent Bob Reboot (2019)

Jay and Silent Bob Reboot is strictly made for writer/director Kevin Smith’s fanbase, so does trying to play outside this cultivated audience even matter? Honestly, there’s no way this is going to be anyone’s first Smith movie, so it’s already running on an assumed sense of familiarity with the characters and stories of old, which is often a perquisite to enjoying many of the jokes (more on this later). It’s been 25 years since Clerks originally debuted and showcased Smith’s ribald and shrewd sense of dialogue-driven, pop-culture-drenched humor. He’s created his own little sphere with a fervent fanbase, so does he need to strive for a larger audience with any forthcoming movies or does he simply exclusively serve the existing crowd?

Jay (Jason Mewes) and his hetero life-mate Silent Bob (Smith) are out for vengeance once again. Hollywood is rebooting the old Bluntman and Chronic superhero movie from 2001, this time in a dark and edgy direction, and since Jay and Silent Bob are the inspirations for those characters, even their likenesses and names now belong to the studio. The stoner duo, older and not so much wiser, chart a cross-country trip to California to attend ChronicCon and thwart the filming of the new movie, directed by none other than Kevin Smith (himself). Along the way, Jay and Bob discover that Jay’s old flame, Justice (Shannon Elizabeth), had a daughter, Millennium “Milly” Falcon (Harley Quinn Smith) and Jay is the father. Milly forces Jay and Bob to escort her and her group of friends to ChronicCon and Jay struggles with holding back his real connection to her.

One of my major complaints with 2016’s Yoga Hosers (still the worst film of his career) was that it felt like it was made for his daughter, her friends, and there was no point of access for anyone else. It felt like a higher-budget home movie that just happened to get a theatrical release. Jay and Silent Bob Reboot feels somewhat similar, reaching back to the 2001 comedy that itself was reaching back on a half-decade of inter-connected Smithian characters. There is a certain degree of frantic self-cannibalism here but if the fans are happy then does Smith need to branch out? This is a question that every fan will have to answer personally. At this point, do they want new stories in the same style of the old or do they just want new moments with the aging characters of old to provide an ever-extending coda to their fictional lives?

I certainly enjoyed myself but I could not escape the fact at how eager and stale much of the comedy felt. Smith has never been one to hinge on set pieces and more on character interactions, usually profane conversations with the occasional slapstick element. This is one reason why the original Jay and Silent Bob Strikes Back suffers in comparison to his more character-driven comedies. Alas, the intended comedy set pieces in Reboot come across very flat. A lustful fantasy sequence never seems to take off into outrageousness. A drug trip sequence begins in a promising and specific angle and then stalls. The final act has a surprise villain that comes from nowhere, feels incredibly dated, and delivers few jokes beyond a badly over-the-top accent and its sheer bizarre randomness. There’s a scene where the characters stumble across a KKK rally. The escape is too juvenile and arbitrary. A courtroom scene has promise when Justin Long appears as a litigation attorney for both sides but the joke doesn’t go further, capping out merely at the revelation of the idea. This is indicative of much of Reboot where the jokes appear but are routinely easy to digest and surface-level, seldom deepening or expanding. There’s a character played by Fred Armison who makes a second appearance, leading you to believe he will become a running gag that will get even more desperate and unhinged with each new appearance as he seeks vengeance. He’s never seen again after that second time. There are other moments that feel like setups for larger comedic payoffs but they never arrive. The actual clip of the Bluntman and Chronic film, modeled after Zack Snyder’s Batman v. Superman, is almost absent any jokes or satire. There are fourth-wall breaks that are too obvious to be funny as they rest on recognition alone. There’s a running joke where Silent Bob furiously taps away at a smart phone to then turn around and showcase a single emoji. It’s cute the first time, but then this happens like six more times. Strangely it feels like Smith’s sense of humor has been turned off for painfully long durations on this trip down memory lane. The structure is so heavily reminiscent of Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back that there are moments that repeat step-for-step joke patterns but without new context, meaning the joke is practically the repetition itself.

The problem with comedy is that familiarity can breed boredom, and during the funny stretches, I found myself growing restless with Reboot as we transitioned from stop to stop among the familiar faces. I enjoyed seeing the different characters again but many of them had no reason to be involved except in a general “we’re bringing the band back together” camaraderie. It’s nice to see Jason Lee again but if he doesn’t have any strong jokes, why use him in this way? Let me dig further with Lee to illustrate the problem at heart with Reboot. Jay and Silent Bob visit Brodie (Lee) at his comic book shop, which happens to be at the mall now. He complains that nobody comes to the mall any longer and he has to worry about the “mallrats,” and then he clarifies, he’s talking about actual rodents invading the space, and he throws a shoe off screen. I challenge anyone to find that joke amusing beyond a so-bad-it’s-fun dad joke reclamation. I kept waiting for Smith to rip open some satirical jabs on pop culture since 2006’s Clerks II. In the ensuing years, Star Wars and Marvel have taken over and geek culture and comic books rule the roost. Surely a man who made his name on these topics would have something to say about this moment of over saturation, let alone Hollywood’s narrow insistence on cash-grab remakes. I kept waiting for the Smith of old to have some biting remarks or trenchant commentary. Milly’s diverse group of friends (including a Muslim woman named “Jihad”) is referred to like it’s a satirical swipe at reboots, but there isn’t a joke there unless the joke is, “Ha ha, everyone has to be woke these days,” which is clunky and doesn’t feel like Smith’s point of view. There are several moments where I felt like the humor was trying too hard or not hard enough. As a result, I chuckled with a sense of familiarity but the new material failed to gain much traction.

I do want to single out one new addition that I found to be hysterical, and that is Chris Hemsworth as a hologram version of himself at a convention. The Thor actor has opened up an exciting career path in comedy as highlighted by 2017’s Ragnarok, but just watching his natural self-effacing charm as he riffs about the dos and don’ts of acceptable behavior with his hologram is yet another reminder that this man is so skilled at hitting all the jokes given to him.

Where the movie succeeds best is as an unexpected and heartfelt father/daughter vehicle, with Jay getting a long-delayed chance to mature. It’s weird to say that a movie with Jay and Silent Bob in starring roles would succeed on its dramatic elements, but that’s because it feels like this is the territory that Smith genuinely has the most interest in exploring. The concept of Jay circling fatherhood and its responsibilities is a momentous turn for a character that has previously been regarded as a cartoon. His growing relationship with Milly is the source of the movie’s best scenes and the two actors have an enjoyable and combative chemistry, surely aided by the fact that Mewes has known Harley Quinn Smith her entire existence. This change agent leads to some unexpected bursts of paternal guidance from Jay, which presents an amusing contrast. There’s a clever through line of the difference between a reboot and a remake, and Smith takes this concept and brilliantly repackages it into a poignant metaphor about parenthood in a concluding monologue. Smith’s position as a father has softened him up a bit but it’s also informed his worldview and he’s become very unabashedly sentimental, and when he puts in the right amount of attention, it works. There’s an end credit clip with the late Stan Lee where Smith is playing a potential Reboot scene with Stan the Man, and it’s so sweet to watch the genuine affection both men have for one another. I’m raising the entire grade for this movie simply for a wonderful extended return of Ben Affleck’s Holden McNeil character, the creator of Bluntman and Chronic. We get a new ending for 1997’s Chasing Amy that touches upon all the major characters and allows them to be wise and compassionate. It’s a well-written epilogue that allows the characters to open up on weightier topics beyond the standard “dick and fart” jokes that are expected from a Smith comedy vehicle. It’s during this sequence where the movie is allowed to settle and say something, and it hits big time.

The highly verbose filmmaker has been a favorite of mine since I discovered a VHS copy of Clerks in the late 90s. I will always have a special place reserved for the man and see any of his movies, even if I’m discovering that maybe some of the appeal is starting to fade. I don’t know if we’re ever going to get a Kevin Smith movie that is intended for wide appeal again. Up next is Clerks 3, which the released plot synopsis reveals is essentially the characters of Clerks making Clerks in the convenience store, which just sounds overpoweringly meta-textual. He’s working within the confines of a narrow band and he seems content with that reality. I had the great fortune to attend the traveling road show for this film and saw Smith and Mewes in person where they introduced Reboot and answered several questions afterwards. Even though it was after midnight (on a school night!) I was happy I stayed because it was easy to once again get caught up in just how effortlessly Smith can be as a storyteller, as he spins his engaging personal yarns that you don’t want to end. As a storyteller, I’ll always be front and center for this gregarious and generous man. As a filmmaker, I’ll always be thankful for his impact he had on my fledgling ideas of indie cinema and comedy, even if that means an inevitable parting of ways as he charts a well-trod familiar path. Jay and Silent Bob Reboot is made strictly for the fans, and if you count yourself among that throng, you’ll likely find enough to justify a viewing, though it may also be one of diminished returns.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Dolemite is My Name (2019)

I’m a sucker for behind-the-scenes movies on scrappy genre indies, following a band of creatives come together, build camaraderie, and serve as the underdogs we root for as they put on their fun show, so Dolemite is My Name is right up my alley. It’s a biopic on Rudy Ray Moore (Eddie Murphy), who by the 1970s rebranded himself in his 40s when he began performing as an outrageous, rhyming pimp character named Dolemite. He recorded crude comedy albums, sold them out of the back of his trunk, and reached a new level of fame, but he sought a blaxploitation movie to get him to even further heights. This movie is akin to The Disaster Artist where we watch a lot of artists pull off a bad movie with little money, as well as 2004’s Baadasssss!, where Mario Van Peebles recreated the making of his father’s 1971 blaxploitation hit, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. Chances are, if you enjoyed either of those two movies, or the hilarious blaxploitation spoof Black Dynamite, you will be smiling aplenty with this new Netflix movie (given a short theatrical run and soon to be widely available via streaming). The movie belongs to Murphy, who hasn’t had a part in three years, and he comes roaring to life as Moore, a man who won’t let anything stand in the way of his dreams. Murphy is fully captivating in every scene as he turns the Dolemite persona on and off, sharing moments of personal insight and fear, like when he’s nervous over his physique with an upcoming sex scene for his movie. He’s a determined hustler and it’s hard not to fall for his grinning charm. The Dolemite movie has a special appeal because it was intended as a comedy, so the shoestring, scrappy nature of it works nicely with the good intentions of simply making a big, silly, kung-fu-filled action comedy with what audiences want. I’ll confess I never found any of Moore’s standup to be funny as the audiences at the time. However, the filmmakers have already answered this, as Moore and pals go see The Front Page, a movie dubbed by critics as a laugh-out-loud comedy, and the men sit stone-faced and confused throughout the pithy, erudite comedy that seems to be amusing the largely white, WASP-y crowd. Humor is subjective, but not only that it’s the kind of entertainment with the shortest shelf life. It’s naturally going to expire quickly. Comedy routines we found hilarious decades ago might not still be funny today, and that’s okay. Dolemite came out at the right time and influenced other artists and filmmakers. A behind-the-scenes film is destined to be a movie with a definite ceiling. Moore is an interesting success story but there’s only so much to be gleaned from this underdog tale. Thanks to writers Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander (Ed Wood, The People vs. O.J. Simpson) and the energy of Murphy, Dolemite is My Name is a fun two hours with a bunch of cut-ups.

Nate’s Grade: B

Judy (2019)

The real reason to watch Judy is the triumphant, blazing return of Renee Zellweger as the talent we’ve known her to be as an actress. She’s faded from the spotlight over the last decade, gotten a controversial face lift, and spent over a year prepping to play the role of the legendary Judy Garland during a 1969 British tour, what would prove to be the last months of her life. Zellweger disappears into the character, astonishingly recreating the mannerisms, posture, and vocal cadences of the famous Old Hollywood Wizard of Oz star. She’s tremendous and while clearly troubled and weathered, the film takes a remarkably sympathetic approach to its subject. Garland’s present-day alcoholism, pill popping, and narcissism can trace their roots to her young days as a teenage studio star where the powers that be, namely studio honcho Louis B. Mayer, would bully her, harass her, and molest her. The exploitation mechanisms of Old Hollywood made me wish that Judy was a more unconventional biopic, blending the past and present into a daring, metaphorical journey over the rainbow of a woman in the spotlight her entire life. Instead, we’re watching Garland stumble onto the stage, struggle to sleep and perform, and live a sad existence where she can be reminded, just every so often, the impact she can have, like a sweet impromptu home visit with a gay couple that is a miracle of tiny kindnesses. There’s not much plot here as the film, too, stumbles and shambles to its finale, with very little attention given to the supporting characters. Her whirlwind romance with a younger man (Finn Wittrock) fails to ignite much insight, and he’s named Mickey, so I was confusing him as an adult Mickey Rooney, who appears onscreen in flashbacks and was Judy’s first love (she asked if they were dating and Rooney said he would have to check with Mayer — every woman’s dream). Watching the movie made me feel like there was a stronger version of this story begging to be told. Regardless, Judy is a well made if conventional biopic with a real razzle-dazzle performance from Zellweger, who stunned me with her final singing number and the longing, remorseful, melancholy emotions she was able to dredge. Judy will be best remembered for her performance alone and that’s perfectly right.

Nate’s Grade: B

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