Downton Abbey: A New Era (2022)
I have only watched the first movie, released in 2019, and know precious little about this widely successful BBC television series detailing the rich aristocrats and their plucky servants, so take my assessment with a whole serving tray of salt. The first Downton Abbey movie served as an epilogue for the series, providing extra resolution to several characters and coupling up others to provide a happy ending. Then it was wildly successful (a worldwide gross of almost $200 million) and so creator/writer Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park) got to come upon with yet another epilogue, this time finding even more happy endings and couplings for the those left out from the first cinematic victory lap. As someone new to this world, I was amused by its understated wit, puffery and pomp, and class conscious dramatics, plus it had a killer cast, most notably Maggie Smith as the tart-tongued Dowager Countess. The second cinematic offering is mostly more of the same, splitting the cast in two locations. One half are inspecting a picturesque villa in the south of France left to the Dowager, to the buttoned-up surprise of her son who questions what relationship his mother had with the former owner. The other half are stationed at the Downton estate while a Hollywood film crew decamps to make a movie. The inclusion of the movie-within-a-movie allows for some dishy moments, starstruck characters, and opportunities for a few Downton residents to make their mark in the pictures. These scenes are fun and provide some interesting conflict as the production has to quickly adapt from being a silent movie to one of them newfound all-the-rage talkies (with a lead actress better suited without sound). It’s a fluffy side story but allows many characters to shine. While the movie is mostly low-key and charming, much like its first big screen effort, by the end there might be some real tears, especially if you’ve been with these characters from the start. If you’re a Downton fan, you’ll eat this all up. I did have two questions that lingered: 1) where is this baby that was the entire story line for Edith in the first movie?, and 2) where in the world is Lady Mary’s husband (Matthew Goode) by the end when he should definitely be in attendance? My pitch for Downtown Abbey 3: Stiff Upper Lip begins with Lady Mary divorcing her racecar-obsessed hubby and moving to Hollywood for a new adventure.
Nate’s Grade: B
Being the Ricardos (2021)
Have you ever wondered what a week in the production of the I Love Lucy show would be like? Have you ever wondered about Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz’s marriage? Have you ever wondered if Ball was secretly a communist? Well worry no longer, because Being the Ricardos is writer/director Aaron Sorkin’s ode to early television, the creative process, and recapturing something he was trying to articulate in his failed TV series, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Yes, this feels like an especially long edition of that old show, with too many plotlines vying for attention like B-stories and C-stories for an episode of television, and several of them have curious conclusions. The storyline given such outward significance, whether or not Ball will be shunned as a possible communist in her youth, is wrapped up so anticlimactically and easily, and the storyline given such minimal coverage, Desi’s possible infidelity, is then given an ending that doesn’t feel nearly as setup to have its proper impact. The acting is another issue. Everyone is mostly good, but Kidman is no Lucille Ball, and while she doesn’t attempt a direct impression it’s still not a favorable comparison. Bardem is better as Arnaz but you can’t help but feel both actors are miscast. The supporting players, like J.K. Simmons as William Frawley, Nina Arianda as Vivian Vance, and Tony Hale as show creator Jess Oppenheimer, offer the more entertaining and insightful positions from the wings. Being the Ricardos feels like Sorkin trying to work his signature rat-a-tat snappy dialogue but missing a few rhythms, and part of that might be Sorkin serving as his own director for the third time. Director Sorkin plays everything too stately and serious, so even when the script is telling us these comedy writers are making a comedy show, the flow is off and everything is a little too self-important and reaching for culture war symbolic terms, reminiscent of, you guessed it, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. I guess my disappointment was not really getting to know more about Ball besides her perfectionism and underrated comedy savvy. This movie is just too busy with narrative devices; there are documentary-esque interviews with aged crew members in the future, a present-day storyline about workshopping one episode through a week’s schedule, and intermittent flashbacks to Lucy and Desi that can be confusing when past and present swap. Then there’s the black and white interludes of the show which are Lucy’s imagination of what may be? It’s a cluttered mess with pacing issues. You also get to watch Lucy and Desi have sex, which is like walking in on your parents. Being the Ricardos feels like an overly serious TV movie that’s too busy and scattered to remind itself that funny people can also be fun people.
Nate’s Grade: B-
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
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-
The Many Saints of Newark (2021)
If you’re a fan of The Sopranos, I can’t say you’ll enjoy The Many Saints of Newark, and if you’re not a fan of The Sopranos, I can’t say you’ll enjoy The Many Saints of Newark. It’s a prequel set in the early 1970s, decades before an adult Tony Soprano was ruling his turf in New Jersey and going to therapy to deal with his rising panic attacks. The Sopranos was an era-defining, ground-breaking show for HBO and creator David Chase would captivate and infuriate audiences in equal measure, mixing shocking violence, twisted comedy, strange side steps, pessimistic psychoanalysis, and stubborn subversive storytelling to its very end with a polarizing finale that still elicits debate to this day (count me in the Tony-is-dead camp). It would be too much to expect a return to that world to pack in all the entertainment and enrichment of a peak TV series, but I was at least hoping that Chase’s return to his mobster magnum opus would present an engaging story that would add further insight or intrigue into the series and its characters. After two hours, I’m left shrugging like Silvio Dante and about as clueless as Paulie Walnuts.
As personal background, I watched all seven seasons of The Sopranos and eagerly anticipated its finale in 2007. I was one of those people that even questioned whether my cable had somehow gone out as the series suddenly shifted to a black screen without further warning. I enjoyed the show though I haven’t watched it since it originally concluded over ten years ago. It would be a worthy series to re-watch in our binge era, but I think I would keep my initial interpretation of the show and its self-loathing patriarch, Tony. I think over the course of 8 years Chase intended to demystify the perverse allure of organized crime and the glamor of Hollywood myth-making. I think he subversively took a familiar setup, a family man trying to fight for respect from his family and his Family, and knew many people would find themselves rooting for Tony Soprano and his underdog status and his potential redemption through therapy and self-analysis. Except, Chase’s point, is that these bad men are not complicated, they’re not geniuses, and they’re not capable of real empathy. Tony’s near-death experience and inevitable return to his old ways was proof of that. Chase created a vehicle where people sided with the anti-hero lead and he systematically provided more and more evidence that this man was cruel, impulsive, selfish, and incapable of redemption, and every episode, especially in that final season, pushed the viewer to ask, “How much longer can you look the other way? How many more excuses can you give?” It was Chase taking the appeal of mob movies and anti-heroes and testing viewer loyalty, making people question the appeal of these kinds of stories about these kinds of men. That’s my reading.
As a prequel, The Many Saints of Newark might appeal to the most diehard fans of The Sopranos who just want to have two hours more in this world, seeing these characters again one more time. Perhaps fans will thrill to see James Gandolfini’s son, Michael Gandolfini, play teenage Tony Soprano. Perhaps they’ll thrill to see Tony’s mother at a younger age but recognize some of her self-pitying and antagonistic quirks that would define her as an elderly woman. Perhaps they’ll thrill to watch Christopher Moltisanti’s father, Dickie (Alessandro Nivola), as Tony’s uncle, the man he said from the series who was so influential to him. In essence, this story, written by Chase and Lawrence Konner, is about how Tony got to be on his doomed path of crime. The fact that Tony is merely a supporting character in this tale is not a grievous structural fault. However, the fact that Dickie is such an uninteresting lead character in such an uninteresting and glum story is a significant fault.
The Sopranos was dark and frustrating too, though your emotional investment was grander, but it was rarely boring. The majority of my time with Newark was spent stooped and patiently waiting for something meaningful to happen. There were bloody murders and gunfights and love affairs, but I kept waiting for it to seem like it mattered to the overall bigger picture. Very little in this movie ever felt important, because the movie doesn’t invest in its own characters and its own story on their own terms, it merely coasts off the attached appeal of the TV show it’s meant to link up to and coasts off the good will of its audience. If you removed the names of the characters, thus denying its creative inheritance, then I doubt even the most ardent fans of mob movies would find that much to appreciate here. If this wasn’t a Sopranos movie, it wouldn’t have gotten this platform and attention, and that seems less a reason to run with an underdeveloped story with a dull protagonist stumbling through mundane mob cliches.
If Dickie is meant to be so influential, I don’t understand the appeal. I guess he’s slightly more emotionally stable than Tony’s father, played by Jon Bernthal, but that’s not saying much. Dickie violently confronts his father, “Hollywood Dick” (Ray Liotta), over his abuse of his young new bride from Italy, Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi), to defend her. That’s good? But when Dickie takes up an affair with the same woman, his stepmom, he proves just as depressingly violent. That’s bad. The problem is that Dickie is not a complex character to hang a movie upon. I thought there was going to be a slow temptation to begin an affair with his new stepmom, but that happens far too early, which places her as simply the “goomah” on the side he retreats to for sexual gratification and empty promises of building a life. She goes right from being a potentially interesting character, a woman with agency and danger, to another mob movie cliché, the arm candy waiting on her bad man to patronize her. Dickie says that his wife has had trouble conceiving, so I thought maybe this new stepmom would be revealed to be Christopher’s actual birth mother. That’s why she was here in this story. Nope, yet again this possibility is dismissed early. The Many Saints of Newark frustratingly takes every tedious story detour it can when presented.
The movie is set primarily in the late 60s and early 70s in Newark, barely tackling the riots of 1967 to use them as a cover for a storytelling choice for Dickie. The entire subplot featuring the struggles of the African American community feel tacked on to this movie, as if Chase is responding to criticisms that his series wasn’t diverse enough. The rise of Harold (Leslie Odom Jr.) as a gangster is given such little significance. He begins as an employee of Dickie’s and then becomes a rival, but this complicated relationship isn’t played like it’s complicated. Every time Odom Jr. (One Night in Miami) appeared I kept hoping that finally the movie was going to give him something to dig into, to really explore this perspective in a meaningful way. The rivalry between Harold and Dickie doesn’t even feel significant because both of these men are criminally underwritten. The Newark riots are played so incidentally and without consequence. Why begin to explore racial unrest and police brutality if you’re just going to ignore it after twenty minutes of movie?
As a movie, The Many Saints of Newark did not work for me. As a Sopranos prequel, The Many Saints of Newark did not work for me. I had some mild amusement and intrigue with moments like Corey Stoll going full force in his impression of a young Uncle Junior, with Vera Farmiga chewing the scenery as Tony’s mother, and the impeccable resemblance of Gandolfini to his late father. I enjoyed the weirdness of Liotta playing twin brothers. I enjoyed the period appropriate production values and music choices. Unfortunately, it doesn’t add up to a vital experience that lends better understanding and insight into the Sopranos universe. Again, some fans may just be happy enough to exist in this universe for two more hours, to soak up even the most superfluous of details (I know I would be for my TV show favorites). That’s fine, but for me, what’s on screen barely resembles the daring and complex characterization of the series. Maybe a movie was always set up to fall short but this one falls short even as a mediocre mob movie.
Nate’s Grade: C
Traffic (2000) [Review Re-View]
Originally released December 27, 2000:
The war on drugs may be one worth fighting but it’s a battle that every day seems more and more impossible. Traffic is a mirror that communicates the fruition of our current procedures to stop the illegal flow of drugs.
Traffic is told through three distinct and different narratives. One involves an Ohio Supreme Court justice (Michael Douglas) newly appointed as the nation’s next Drug Czar. While he accepts his position and promises to fight for our nation’s children, back at home, unbeknownst to him, his daughter is free-basing with her bad influence boyfriend. Another story involves a wealthy bourgeois wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) awakened to her husband’s arrest. Her shock continues when family lawyer Dennis Quaid informs her of her husband’s true source of income. He’s to be prosecuted by two DEA agents (Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman) unless she can do something. The final and most compelling narrative involves Benicio Del Toro as an honest cop in Tijuana battling frustration with the mass corruption surrounding the city. Each story weaves in and out at various points in the film.
Traffic was photographed and directed by the man with the hottest hand in Hollywood, Steven Soderbergh. He uses a documentary feel to his filming that adds to the realism. Different color tones are assigned toward the three narratives as reflections of the emotional background. Soderbergh expertly handles the many facets of the drug industry and pulls out his typical “career best” performances from his onslaught of actors.
Benicio Del Toro is the emotional center of Traffic. His solemn demeanor and hound dog exterior reflect a good man trying to fight the good fight in a corrupt environment. He effortlessly encompasses determination, courage, and compassion that you’ll easily forget the majority of his lines are in Espanol. Benicio is an incredibly talented actor and one with such vibrant energy whenever he flashes on screen. It’ll be wonderful watching him collect all his awards.
Catherine Zeta-Jones also shows strong signs there may well indeed be an actress under her features. Her role is one of almost terror as you watch her so easily slip into her imprisoned hubby’s shoes. The ease of transformation is startling, but in an “evil begets evil” kind of fashion. The fact that she’s pregnant through the entire movie only makes the shift from loving house wife to drug smuggler more chilling.
The entire cast does credible acting performances with particular attention paid toward the younger actors deservingly. Don Cheadle throws in another terrific performance showing he’s sublimely one of the best actors around today.
Traffic oversteps its ambitions and aims for a scope far too large. It is based on a 6 hour BBC mini-series, so trying to cram that material into a two hour plus format is taxing. As a result we get an assembly of characters, but too many with too little time in between to do any justice. Screenwriter Stephen Gaghan (Rules of Engagement) condenses the towering impact and influence drugs have well enough, but he intercuts the stories too sporadically that attachment never builds for either of the three narratives. He does balance the Douglas Drug Czar one carefully as not to fall into the cliched vigilante metamorphosis. But the mini-series had more characterization and depth to its tale.
Traffic is a good film but it has edges of greatness never fully visioned. Soderbergh shines bright yet again and all accolades will be deserved. Traffic is undeniably a good film, but it’s one you may not want to watch a second time.
Nate’s Grade: B
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
So twenty years later, how is that war on drugs going? Considering the billions of dollars and countless lives that have gone into trying to stop the intricate infrastructure of supply and demand for the drug trade, the United States has little to show for its efforts. If anything, there has been a dawning realization of the futility of playing cartel whack-a-mole, removing one leader just for another to take their place in the supply chain. There have also been movements toward treating addicts rather than incarcerating them. The country has stubbornly become more accommodating and understanding of the ravages of addiction; it only seemed to take the spread of the opioid crisis where affluent families in the suburbs were affected personally. Tragically, it seems too many Americans have to have an “it could happen to me!” moment before their empathy for another person’s struggles kicks in. These relaxing attitudes have translated into recreational marijuana being legal in 15 states as of this review. Many other states have decriminalized marijuana, and Oregon has recently voted to decriminalize all drugs. It seems that in 2020, our concept of the war on drugs has dramatically changed. Some may find these developments an admission of giving up, of retreating from some moral duty, but others have concluded that maybe we’ve been fighting all wrong for 50 years and the only thing we have to show for our blood-soaked efforts is that multiple criminal elements got much richer.
It’s an interesting social and cultural landscape for going back and re-watching 2000’s Traffic, the last film on my re-watch of 2000 cinema. Times have changed and this is felt in Steven Soderbergh’s Oscar-winning ensemble covering the globe-trotting scope of the war on drugs. Traffic won four Oscars, including for Soderbergh for Director, Benicio Del Toro for Best Supporting Actor, and for editing and adapted screenplay. The only Oscar it was nominated for that it didn’t win was Best Picture, losing to Ridley Scott’s sword-and-sandals epic, Gladiator. It was an ambitious movie and had over 100 speaking roles. Soderbergh served as his own cinematographer and cameraman, bringing a docu-drama versatility to the movie that added its own sense of realism. 2000 was the year Soderbergh hit his critical peak. He was an indie darling from 1989’s influential sex, lies, and videotape and puttered throughout the 90s with small, personal, weird movies (I loved Schizopolis as a teenager), and then in 1998 he gained a new level of credibility providing sheen and heat to Out of Sight, the movie that cemented George Clooney as a major movie star. The one-two punch of Traffic and Erin Brockovich in 2000 earned Soderbergh two Oscar nominations for director, a feat not accomplished since 1938, and after 2001’s highly successful Ocean’s 11 remake, Soderbergh had jumped to the top of the industry while maintaining his indie artistic credentials. He’s been dabbling and experimenting since (A movie shot on an iPhone!) with mixed results, but the man’s track record is hard to digest into simple categorization. He can jump from an action showcase for an MMA fighter, to a gleeful male stripper romp, to a four-hour epic covering the life of Che Guevera. With Traffic, Soderbergh was working with his biggest budget and cast yet. The decision to use different color tones is smart to easily distinguish the various storyline locations so that an audience can be immediately oriented when jumping around from place to place. It’s also extremely hard on the eyes at times. The Mexican storyline is so washed out in bleached colors that it looks like an atomic bomb just went off in the distance and is filtering the world with an excess of bright light to make you squint. Soderbergh also has a penchant for natural light coming through windows to be seen as giant blocks of white. Again, it achieves its artistic purpose but it also makes you want to avert your gaze.
The 150-minute movie is based on a sprawling 1989 BBC miniseries that totaled six hours. Stephen Gaghan (Syriana) adapted the screenplay and he does a fine job of condensing the major plot points of the mini-series into a manageable feature length. He also does a fine job of articulating the many intertwined players and motivations and contradictions of the drug trade. However, I can’t help but feel like some of the nuance and character development is lost by condensing everything into the body of a manageable American feature production. Take for example the character Catherine Zeta-Jones (Chicago) plays, Helena Ayala. She’s a rich southern California housewife who has her life upturned when she discovers her husband, recently arrested by the DEA, is one of the chief distributors for a Mexican cartel. Her character is in disbelief and shock at first, then she tries to make due with legal bills and mortgage payments. Things get considerably worse when the cartel threatens her children if Helena can’t pay her husband’s outstanding debts that have now fallen onto her. Her character arc goes from an ignorant, privileged housewife into a ruthless co-conspirator willing to do whatever it takes to protect her family and maintain the cushy lifestyle they have become accustomed to. Over the course of the BBC miniseries, you watch that version of the character undergo significant changes in six hours. In the 2000 film, the character undergoes significant changes in a matter of scenes. Helena goes from desperate to duplicitous in literally minutes, and the jump feels too unearned. The rushed storytelling caps some naturalism. A character can go from not trusting the DEA to providing damning evidence to the DEA in three scenes. A character can go from bored, privileged teenager to junkie prostitute in three scenes. For a movie about gritty realism, these character leaps can feel overly forced and inauthentic. There are so many characters and storylines and political points to make that the overall narrative can feel crowded, so while it’s always interesting, it can inadvertently fashion its own ceiling for emotional engagement because the many characters feel like impressions hitting their marks rather than as fully developed portrayals of people.
The storyline that has aged the worst is Michael Douglas (Ant-Man) playing Robert Wakefield, a newly installed Drug Czar learning the ropes. For the majority, he’s akin to a 60 Minutes journalist just sitting in rooms and asking various professionals about their experiences and advice from their unique positions. From there, the storyline takes up the “it could happen to me!” trapping with Robert’s private school daughter (Erika Christensen) becoming an addict. It may have been surprising for a high-profile politician to have a child as an addict, but now this kind of irony feels passe. We’re used to politicians having ironic skeletons in their closet. The ongoing plot of her descent doesn’t really humanize her even as she makes some drastic decisions to chase that next high. She’s more an ironic counterpoint to shake her father, and the audience, of their preconceived mental imagery of what an addict might look like. It feels slightly retrograde and pearl-clutching, not simply that she goes through hell but that it’s set up to register that, oh my, WHITE PEOPLE, even RICH WHITE PEOPLE, can also be junkies. In 2000, this story might have been jolting and scared some older adults into wondering if this drug menace could find its way into their hallowed gated homes too. Nowadays, it seems obvious. If the storyline of a father dealing with his addict daughter had reveled more about one another as characters it would be worth the attention, but the daughter is kept as an example, a symbol, and Robert just has to take his lumps before the inevitable conclusion that his job is a lot harder than he would have imagined. His speech at his introduction at the White House has the hallmarks of drama ready and waiting, as he chokes over the political boilerplate he no longer believes in, but he simply walks out rather than sharing what he’s learned.
The best storyline in Traffic is, no surprise, the one closest to the action with Benicio Del Toro (Sicario) playing what feels like the only honest cop left in Mexico. Obviously that’s an over simplification, but the police force and political class are heavily corrupted by the cartels and their money. The character Javier Rodriguez has to navigate this tricky world without making himself as a target for those corrupt officials who think he’s an impediment. He’s trying to do good in a deeply flawed system and maybe even he knows he’s fighting a losing battle but he’s decided to keep his integrity while trying to fight what he considers is a worthy cause. A high-ranking general seeking his services reminds him of his lowly pay as a police officer, yet Javier Rodriguez is unmoved. Del Toro made a career of playing oddballs and sleazes, so it’s interesting to watch him play a fairly noble, straight forward role and in a language he didn’t speak before production (while born in Puerto Rico, he moved early and grew up in the U.S. and knew little Spanish). I don’t know if I would have awarded him the Oscar (my favorite for 2000 was Willem Dafoe as a vampire) but it’s certainly an understated performance with real gravitas. Del Toro is the quiet, churning contemplation of this movie and I would have been happy if the whole enterprise had been devoted to his south of the border exploits. I appreciated that the moves in this storyline would have larger effects on others, like a crackdown on a cartel being a reason why they need more money and the reason they now step up the pressure on Helena to pay up or else. It best encapsulates the knotty, interconnected framework that Gaghan and Soderbergh are going for.
Traffic is one of those movies you know are good. It’s well written, well acted, and has a definite vision it’s going for that it mostly achieves. It’s also a movie that engages more intellectually than emotionally. There are some deaths and downturns but I doubt you’ll feel much regret or catharsis. The movie unfolds like an in depth journalistic article, and the leaps in rushed characterization feel like a result of a looming deadline and a hard cap with its word count. It’s unfair for me to continue comparing the movie to its miniseries when that project had almost three times the length to fill out its tale (about poppy trafficking and heroin manufacturing in tribal Afghanistan) but it’s a clear cut case of crammed plotting. My initial review back in 2000 keeps mostly to the plot and the many actors, though I think I overstated Zeta-Jones being “chilling” and I think my love of Del Toro in Way of the Gun that year transferred some extra praise for his performance here. It’s hard to remember but I was really anticipating this film my freshmen year of college. Traffic is a good movie but it’s not exactly one people get excited over. Every aspect is professional, proficient, but there isn’t exactly a lingering takeaway that changes your perception of the war on drugs. I’ll hold to the same grade and say it’s an admirable accomplishment but one better suited for a mini-series (it was adapted back into a TV miniseries in 2004).
Re-View Grade: B
Charlie’s Angels (2000) [Review Re-View]
Originally released November 3, 2000:
These angels aren’t exactly what your father was enjoying when your mother was away fulfilling errands. These angels aren’t delegated as mere sex objects running around providing the jiggle entertainment that is (or was) supplied by today’s Baywatch. The 90s is a different decade after our minority movements and today’s woman is just as apt to do a flying kung-fu face plant into a baddie as any man. The angels of the film are action heroes for an armada of small girls needing some female empowerment when their only other choices consist of a barely clothed Britney or a barely covered Christina. These angels aren’t just the sex objects that the classic assortment of angelic 70s stars were; these angels are also tough-as-nails, resourceful, and not afraid to tussle or tango. Now that this exposition is out I can concentrate on the scattershot film Charlie’s Angels.
The film has been rumored to have at a minimum of 17 writers who tried shaping a story for Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore, and Lucy Lui. The story is pretty much shelved toward the back so the forefront is our trio of ladies kicking ass then shaking it with zig-zaggy and wild camera movements from debut filmmaker and video director McG.
Charlie’s Angels is whiz-bang dumb fun. The overall feel of the film is something more difficult to get a grasp on. At times it shows itself as tongue-in-cheek and satirical but then at other times it seems overly serious or overly dumb. The characters are non-existent and basically only discernible by hair color. The characters are very wooden and I actually found more enjoyment watching the villains and seeing more of them; call it the Austin Powers dilemma. Diaz makes the only notable attempt as her goofy and light-hearted angel connects with the audience best. Lui plays a techno-babe dominatrix but is easy to see that she was the last angel chosen and doesn’t exactly gel with the others as much as she could have.
Charlie’s Angels is best when the action is pumping. The scenes are cut together in a jam-packing sequential way adding distinct flavor and style. McG is a true surprise in the effectiveness he can orchestrate his action motifs even if the Matrix effects and moves make absolutely no sense in the real world.
Crispin Glover shows himself as a silent assassin nicknamed “the thin creepy man.” Glover is so suave and slick in his role of the non-verbal Oddjob henchman role that he exhilarated me with every presence he made on screen. Goodness, he was too cool in this film and everyone gets brownie points for allowing him. He has such energy and charisma that I wanted the film to veer off into him and desert our angels. Seeing our ageless McFly perform action scenes and choreographed fights is something I will be pleased with until my grave. seeing Crispin in the excellent Nurse Betty and now huge exposure in this is a true joy. And man… he smokes a cigarette way too cool every time he’s in this film. Some people can smoke cool some of the time but Crispin does it all of the time. His mere presence almost cancels out the annoyance of Barrymore.
The line is drawn with Charlie’s Angels in that it’s sex-kitten jiggle and an acrobatic arrangement of (light) feminism and humor. These gals know they’re sex objects and they’ll use it to their advantage delighting in every second of it. Therefore, you could argue successfully that Angels is exploitation hiding as meaningful but hell… why think about this stuff? The movie rolls along at a fast pace where you don’t keep track of these issues. It’s just an easy sit down.
The gigantic success of Charlie’s Angels makes sequels and a possible franchise all but certain. I’d be happy for McG to hop back in his directorial chair but have a unique idea for Angels 2: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut… it involves Glover kicking a lot of ass really cool like.
Nate’s Grade: B-
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
The 2000 Charlie’s Angels seems to understand that nobody should take this seriously. It even opens with an in-joke of T.J. Hooker: The Movie being inflight entertainment and an undercover character lamenting how bankrupt Hollywood is when it comes to recycling old TV shows. From there, our undercover angel literally exits with her target in the middle of the air and plummets to the water below, safely landing via parachute with a team meeting via helicopter aerial hook-up and a speedboat below. Why any of this? What sense does any of it make? It doesn’t matter in the slightest, and from the opening scene onward the movie lives by this credo, doing its best to be silly and have fun and just not care about the rest, and it shows. Twenty years ago, I think Charlie’s Angels benefited from low expectations as I recall mostly enjoying it. Now, having re-watched the movie for the first time in ages, I will say the fizzy appeal seems to be diluted. It’s still got energy to spare, though it feels a little too antic, a little too episodic and slipshod, and a little too proudly shallow, and that’s before you re-examine its depiction of the angels.
It took 17 writers and considering every under-30 actress in Hollywood to put together Charlie’s Angels. Drew Barrymore had bought the remake rights and wanted to make a big screen splash with a trio of kick-ass heroines that could better relate to the culture of the new century. I understand that Barrymore and her team wanted the angels to be sexy, yes, but also smart and funny and goofy and fearsome and all the things that little girls should believe possible. That’s commendable from a positive representation, but then so much emphasis is placed on their bodies and their off-the-charts sex appeal to bamboozle men that the goal becomes eclipsed. One could argue that Barrymore, Cameron Diaz, and Lucy Lui are embracing their sexuality, and that taking control of this is empowering, and if you feel empowered by Charlie’s Angels, by all right enjoy that and bless you. However, twenty years later, this feels less like the girls are in charge are more like they’re just being exploited in a manner we’re being sold as new feminism.
There are so many examples where the angels are in skimpy clothing or objectified. There was an entire clip of Diaz dancing in her underwear that I remember Harry Knowles of the early 2000s mainstay Ain’t It Cool News devoted a gross drooling essay to his obsession (“But to sum up, Cameron Diaz’s Swirling Ass is one of the greatest images and objects in the whole of human existence.”). Barrymore’s character is constantly getting undressed and using her body to disarm men. Again, duping men through their hormones can be a key asset as a spy, but it’s happening in every scene and at her disservice as well. She tumbles down a ravine naked in a last-second escape, and the movie treats it as cheeky comedy (no pun intended). Lui adopts a series of disguises that routinely sexualize her, from a masseuse to the most overt, a domineering corporate boss that resembles a dominatrix. They’re straight fetish roles. I’m surprised a Catholic schoolgirl outfit wasn’t adopted as a disguise. The movie’s depiction of its female stars and the emphasis on their bodies feels retrograde for its ideals. I know they wanted to improve upon the portrayals from the 1970s but we still got problems. McG’s stylish direction prioritizes the angels’ sexuality. They can be smart and kick ass but also in a sexy way, the movie is telling you. Thandie Newton was supposed to be an angel but schedule overruns from Mission: Impossible II got in the way, and later she admitted she had strong misgivings because her character was going to be introduced with a closeup of her denim-clad butt. No one is arguing that women should be barred from taking ownership of their sensuality, but the lens Charlie’s Angels utilizes is strictly a male gaze, and these women are repeatedly objectified.
As a result, the movie has a new sheen of discomfort during all the silly, sudsy spy missions and wardrobe changes. Before you might think, “Oh look, they’re dressing up as Japanese geisha girls, what fun,” and now you’re like, “Oh, somebody at the studio was getting off on this.” Before you might think, “Oh look, they’re dressing up as Middle Eastern belly dancers, what fun,” and now you’re like, “Oh, somebody at the studio was getting off on this.” There are a lot of ethnic disguises that would likely get axed today as cultural appropriation. The carefree, frivolous attitude of the movie is meant to be charming and low stakes, but when it’s applied to the exploitative nature of how the women are depicted, it all becomes a bit dodgier to accept.
This was the first real blockbuster after The Matrix reshaped action cinema and the stylish choices can run the gamut between exciting and cool to dated and shallow. Twenty years later, it’s just not as impressive that they used wires to swing their actors around for stunt choreography, or that they replicated key Matrix touches like bullet time. The fighting sequences are often choppy in editing and some of the moves meant to demonstrate the power of the angels just feel silly, like a moment where Diaz went full Lui Kang with her flying kicking feet. It’s moments like that where the style gets away from McG. The tonal trick is finding a balance between goofy and cool, exciting and cheesy, and I don’t think the movie achieves this with its action. The set pieces feel built around “cool moments” rather than using geography, organic complications, and escalation. It means that Charlie’s Angels has its share of cool moments but then they are fleeting and ultimately meaningless because they don’t better connect to character, story, or even simply their own satisfying action compositions. It’s like immediately disintegrating cotton candy. The dozens and dozens and dozens of needle-drop music cues feel like another potent example of this charge as well as some anticipated attempt to distract from its shallow and diverting design.
I was dreading revisiting my original review as an 18-year-old because I was convinced my younger self was going to conflate the portrayal of the women as taking ownership. I just knew this would be something I had bought into in 2000, and yet it wasn’t quite so: “The line is drawn with Charlie’s Angels in that it’s sex-kitten jiggle and an acrobatic arrangement of (light) feminism and humor. These gals know they’re sex objects and they’ll use it to their advantage delighting in every second of it. Therefore, you could argue successfully that Angels is exploitation hiding as meaningful but hell… why think about this stuff? The movie rolls along at a fast pace where you don’t keep track of these issues. It’s just an easy sit down.” Hooray for my younger self seeing through this movie’s sheen of empowerment. At the time, it bothered me less because the movie was dumb fun, and now it just seems less fun and also dumber. I was so taken with Crispin Glover (Back to the Future) and his creepy cool style, much of which was Glover’s doing. His character was supposed to have dialogue except he hated the lines and asked to be silent. That’s one way out of memorizing, and it worked because he was a breakout and appeared in the 2003 sequel. Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards) was also a fun discovery though he only gets good once he’s revealed as a baddie. He would reuse those dancing moves for Iron Man 2.
By the time 2003’s sequel Full Throttle rolled out, the appeal was gone. In my own brief review, I summarized, “It all seems so ho-hum and excessive at the same time. Quite an accomplishment. No more please.” I feel like the 2000 film also falls into this summary. It’s clearly not intending to be anything more than a goofy action movie, and I suppose the right person could still likely turn off the necessary parts of their brain to enjoy the rush of sights, sounds, and cleavage. There shouldn’t be a “wrong kind of feminism” so if this works for you, great. Many years later I felt that the male gaze was more ogling the women in the name of celebrating them. And yet Sony still felt there was material to be mined when they tried again with a failed 2019 reboot. The original Charlie’s Angels film is a cocktail of style with a creeping hangover right behind.
Re-Veiw Grade: C
Fantasy Island (2020)
I wasn’t expecting to become a defender of Blumhouse’s much-reviled remake of 1970s TV staple, Fantasy Island (it currently has a 7% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes) but this year has been defined by surprises. I’m not going to say that this is a good movie but turning a cheesy TV drama into a horror thriller that might as well take place on the magical island from Lost, I have to admit that’s a daring approach and it almost works. Michael Pena is miscast as a villainous Mr. Roarke who invites a group of strangers to a beatific island resort to have their fantasies come true be they hedonistic (wild parties with sexy guys and gals) or vengeance (Lucy Hale getting even against a high school bully) or regret (Maggie Q saying yes to a proposal and starting a new life). At first the fantasies seem too good to be true and then the darker reality comes forward, forcing many characters on the run. I was very happy that the filmmakers, the same creative team behind the equally-reviled Truth or Dare, present the proceedings as being clearly supernatural and stick with it. I was expecting some hackneyed explanation of how it was all a show, or a simulation, or some kind of televised event for the rich to gamble upon, but the movie stays supernatural to the end as if it is the Lost island with its weird secrets. Because of that scenario, even when the rules of the island and the final scheme comes to light as to whose fantasy all of this pertains to, it’s a forgivable level of convolution. There were moments I even had fun, mostly just seeing how crazy and far away from the source material everything can get. It felt like if someone was ordered to remake The Love Boat and came up with Ghost Ship. It’s just fun how different it can go. I didn’t care for any of the characters outside of Maggie Q, who gets the best acting showcase as a woman with many regrets who is trying to ignore her misgivings. Hale seems to be playing a character ported from the Spring Breakers universe (what a dreadful thought). Michael Rooker (Guardians of the Galaxy) appears as a grizzled veteran of the island. Even when things aren’t working, like black-eyed zombies or much of the comedy, I wasn’t ever bored. How crazy would things get next? How would they tie this all together? Fantasy Island is not the horrible experience critics claimed earlier this year. It’s not a great movie but it works as silly escapism, and during a time of pandemic-initiated quarantine, a little silly escapism might just be what you need for a couple of hours.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Late Night (2019)
Late Night follows the fictional long-running TV talk show host Katherine Newberry (Emma Thompson) who has been informed by her network exec that his current season will be her last season. She will be replaced and the show will be retooled. Along comes Molly (Mindy Kaling), an aspiring comedy writer who works in a chemical plant. She’s hired on the spot to serve as a token and offer more diversity in Newberry’s all white, all-male writers room. She has to find herself, find her voice, stand up for herself, and try to get the show to change with the times if it’s going to potentially survive the eager network axe.
For fans of the inner workings of show business, and the ups and downs and push and pull of creatives, Late Night was made for you. I’ve always been fascinated by the nuts-and-bolts of creative ventures in the entertainment industry and especially a writer’s room where people hash out ideas, build out a storyline, and generally bring our TV to life. I enjoyed the short-lived show where Jim Rash would interview different TV showrunners about their writer’s room processes and how they would resolve creative decisions. It’s one reason I loved HBO’s The Larry Sanders Show, a deeply satirical and self-deprecating look at the bowels of Hollywood. So if you’re like me and enjoy the inner workings of creative people working in tandem, then Late Night is already starting on fertile ground for you. Kaling’s world is informed by her years of television writers room experience, as well as running her own show, and that experience better informs the reality of Late Night, from the joke-writing process, to the wariness of content that may push away sponsors, to the means of staying relevant in a vastly changing landscape of how people get their media and entertainment. You feel Molly’s sense of triumph, and disappointment, when her first joke is placed into the monologue and then removed. The movie feels informed and real to its tiniest detail, which makes it all the more interesting.
The film is consistently funny because Kaling is writing with such a sharp grasp of her characters. Right away the dynamic between Katherine, a cynic with an acid tongue, and Molly, an idealist but a novice who is pushing for reforms, establishes so much wonderful conflict and eventual resolution. It’s universally enjoyable watching a character come into her own, transform the lives of others for the better, and to have characters who butted heads form a mutual friendship and understanding. That’s all present, but with Kaling’s command of writing the characters come first. They drive the story, and while the destination is rather predictable with this sort of thing, that doesn’t make the journey any less satisfying. The character of Katherine Newberry is interesting because she’s a woman who has established her own perch in late night, but she’s still older, white, and from an elitist, privileged bubble. She’s stuck in the middle, which makes her such an interesting character to explore and push into new territory. Kaling has mined some talk show headlines for her story’s drama and it doesn’t feel cheap. Past mistakes are given weight and force characters to reckon with them in a way that acknowledges the extent of the ramifications and the people that have been hurt. Kaling also has a generous sense of writing for her supporting players, giving many a small moment to make an impression and enough for serviceable secondary character arcs.
There’s a definite message afoot with Late Night and it goes about it in a way that makes it far more accessible — as entertainment. Rather than dragging out a soapbox, the movie does the smarter ploy by demonstrating why a homogeneous writers room of the same kind of voice/perspective can be limiting and potentially regressive. Molly is the long-overdue change agent to the show, to the characters, and to the old ways of thinking of what television, and by extension the entertainment industry, had to be simply because it had always been that way. The film’s sense of advocacy for representation is strong and a central tenet, but this doesn’t get in the way of telling a good story with enjoyable characters. By demonstrating through its tale, Kaling has smartly packaged her movie as an empathy test designed to expand the perspectives of its audience, to get them to think how difficult it may be for a woman, let alone a woman of color, to find work in her chosen field. It’s the kind of movie you could take your grandparents to and have them nod along in approval.
Allow me to get a little personal here as I reflect on the topic of representation. I think recognizing one’s self and one’s stories is a huge deal. The power of empathy is potentially endless but that doesn’t mean that all stories need to be told from the familiar template of a straight white dude encountering conflict and change. With good storytelling, anybody can feel for anybody’s plight, but that doesn’t mean that those in the industry should stop trying to give voice to others who have historically been marginalized. TV, and particularly late night TV, is something of a boy’s club and needing more women. A recent analysis on late night TV concluded, with the exception of TBS’ Samantha Bee, that the typical late night talk show writing staff is only one quarter female. More people deserve more opportunities to shine because we, as a society, benefit when we have a plurality of stories from a plurality of voices and perspectives. It makes us all better.
During the summer of 2018, I wrote a rom-com Web series (The Spirit Inside Me) that was told from the perspective of a bisexual woman and dealt with an eventual romance with another woman. You better believe I consulted with my queer friends to make sure every script didn’t feel like it had been written by a straight dude. Then we started to make it a real thing throughout the fall and winter of 2018/early 2019, and the mission statement of the series, and for me, was to try and get as many women involved in the production as we could. There were nine total episodes and I wanted to try and line up as many female directors as possible (if able all of them would be directed by women). Our show was from a feminine perspective, concerning an unorthodox LGBTQ relationship, and I wanted a feminine perspective to imbue as many facets of the production as possible. We put out notices for crew and emphasized that we were looking for women first. You would have thought I had just insulted people’s mothers the way some men responded back. They told me this was “reverse discrimination” and insulting and that the best talent should win out. I dismissed these whiny grievances and continued to seek and hire women. I know many women, even in our small community of filmmaking, don’t get as many opportunities as men. I wanted to give them those experiences. I felt it would make our series better and, personally, it just felt like the right thing to do because I could. With the show currently in editing (stay tuned!), it’s actually one of my happiest decisions as I really enjoyed seeing several women rise to their opportunity and shine. I’m not writing this to pat myself on the back or seek woke plaudits. This is such a slight example of mine over the overwhelming obstacles women face breaking through in a male-dominated industry that doesn’t want to share, but I felt it was worth sharing, dear reader.
Late Night was a movie that kept me smiling and feeling good all over. It warmed my heart, it made me laugh, and it gave me a group of characters to latch onto that earned my affections. Thompson is tart and witty and wonderful. Kaling is lovable and charming and hopeful. They make for a dynamic, combustible combination. Late Night is a fine example about the benefits of diversity, representation, and empathy, and it’s also a cute and funny movie that will make you happy by the time the credits roll. Tune in.
Nate’s Grade: B+
The Equalizer 2 (2018)
The Equalizer 2 is lucky that the threshold for entertainment is just low enough to cover even middling affairs where Denzel Washington dishes out righteous justice to the cocky criminals and ne’er-do-wells of the world. This is very much a strict formulaic second entry for 2015’s original movie, based on the TV series. It’s lesser in just about every regard although it returns Washington, director Antoine Fuqua, and writer Richard Wenk. It’s hard not to feel like a paycheck venture where everyone went on some autopilot. The plot takes a bit long to get into gear and it’s desperately missing the first movie’s lead mob investigator to create an enticing game of cat and mouse. I miss the gradual escalation, as Washington’s character gets in worse and worse trouble as he moves up the ranks of the Russian mafia. I would actually say Equalizer 2 is a movie that peaks in its first act (my favorite moment was an episodic dishes of violent retribution with a group of arrogant sexual assaulters). There just isn’t anything truly memorable here. The action can often feel murky with how it’s been photographed, and there is the occasional questionable quirk that would take me out rather than fully engage (baking flour is combustible now?). There is a satisfying storyline where Washington reaches out to an at-risk youth to dissuade him from joining a gang. It has some nicely drawn character moments that feel meaningful, but then it’s back to the grind of whatever an Equalizer movie means in the twenty-first century. I enjoyed the first Equalizer as a modern-day Canon action vehicle with some pretty sickly entertaining deaths and taut action/suspense sequences. It was a movie that made its presence felt beyond Washington’s cool charisma. With the sequel, all we’re left with is Washington’s charisma performing the heavy lifting.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018)
Coming down from the surging adrenaline rush, I was trying to determine when was the last time an action movie made me feel the immersive, delirious highs that Mission: Impossible – Fallout offers in spades, and what I came up with 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road. Simply put, this is the best straightforward action movie in three years. It’s the best Mission: Impossible movie in the series, which, if it hadn’t already, has assumed the peak position of the most consistent, most entertaining, and best action franchise in Hollywood. Allow me to explain how returning writer/director Christopher McQuarrie (Jack Reacher) makes an action movie that demolishes the competition.
Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) has been pulled back into spy action thanks to the lingering fallout (eh, eh?) of the capture of Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), whose followers, nicknamed The Apostles, have stolen three plutonium cores. It’s Ethan Hunt’s fault the nuclear cores got loose, and so he and his team, Luther (Ving Rhames) and Benji (Simon Pegg), must clean up after their mess. The CIA sends its own asset, the burly August Walker (Henry Cavill), to help oversee the mission and specifically Ethan Hunt, who must pose as a shadowy terrorist broker to maintain appearances with important figures in the criminal underworld. In order to get the nuclear parts, Ethan Hunt has to retrieve Solomon Lane and release him back into the open. Complicating matters further is Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) who needs Solomon dead to clear her own spy debts.
Every action movie lives or dies depending upon its unique set pieces, often the first thing constructed by a studio and then the plot mechanics are ladled on merely as the barest of connecting tissue. They need to have stakes, they need to have purpose, they need to be memorable, and they need to be understood and develop organically. Mission: Impossible – Fallout could be taught in filmmaking schools about how to properly build action set pieces. They are brilliant. McQuarrie finds interesting ways to set them up, complicate them, and just keep the escalation going in a manner that still maintains the believability of the moment. Take for instance a foot chase where Ethan Hunt is trying to nab a bad guy through downtown London. Where McQuarrie pushes into the extraordinary is by having that foot chase on a multi-level terrain. Ethan Hunt has to chase after his target but multiple stories above the ground, and so he’s leaping out windows, jumping over rooftops simply to keep up. It’s a simple twist that takes what we’re familiar with and, literally, elevates it to new heights. Or take for instance the mission in Paris to capture Solomon Lane. At first it’s capture, then it’s flee police, then it’s flee another assassin. There are multiple stages to this sequence, each with a new goal, each with new complications, and each with new eye-popping stunts and escapes. The action finds natural points to progress, making smart use of the geography, and keeping different elements at play to come in and out to add more problems. This is how you do action right. As soon as the half-hour mark settles in with the arrival of Walker, the movie is practically nonstop in its set pieces until the very end. At a steep 147 minutes, this is the longest Mission: Impossible movie yet but it’s breathless in its execution.
Amazing set pieces that are cleverly designed is one aspect of a great action movie, but if you can’t tell what’s going on, what’s the point of all that cleverness? Fortunately, McQuarrie understands this and adheres to a visceral depiction of the action that creates gloriously immersive and pulse-pounding sequences. The set pieces are terrific, so it stands to reason the stuntwork should be terrific, and to make sure you appreciate the stuntwork, McQuarrie makes sure the photography highlights the verisimilitude. It’s a symbiotic (or as the Venom trailer tells me, “sym-BI-oat-ic”) relationship but when done correctly, as evidenced in this film, it’s the key to truly kinetic action sequences. Take for instance a parachute jump that marks the start of the second act. McQuarrie films it as a sustained long take, and as the camera plummets to the ground chasing after the two men, our brains can tell us that there is some special effects trickery to mitigate the dangers, but our senses are overwhelmed with the sustained illusion of tension. The fight choreography is equally up to the challenge. A bathroom brawl with Ethan Hunt and Walker and another man becomes a lesson in how many things can be smashed and what can be used as a weapon. A high-speed motorcycle chase through Parisian streets gets even more frantic when Ethan Hunt drives against traffic, and the scene becomes even more exciting when McQuarrie’s lens allows us to see the danger in all its glory.
The Mission: Impossible franchise has been notable for its insane stuntwork but also, chiefly after the second installment, its edict to practical effects and maintaining the believability of its reality. It’s still movie spy shenanigans and globetrotting adventures, yes, but the moment-to-moment thrills feel like they’re really happening. The Fast and Furious franchise has gained great acclaim for the bombast of its physics-defying spectacle, and the Mission: Impossible franchise seems to have gone purposely in the opposite direction. It’s real Tom Cruise jumping off that building, it’s real Tom Cruise riding through traffic on a motorcycle, and it’s real Tom Cruise falling and climbing up a speeding helicopter during the thrilling finale. Cruise has had a death wish when it comes to throwing himself into the high-wire stunts of his franchise, but even at 56 years old he’s still at it, essentially trying to commit suicide on film for all of our amusement. Cruise is one of the few remaining movie stars and his commitment is without question.
This is also the first Mission: Impossible film that feels like the characters matter. It’s a direct continuation from the previous film, 2015’s Rogue Nation, bringing back the (somewhat lackluster) villain, the newest spy counterpart/potential love interest, the CIA and IMF brass, and the essential supporting team members from prior engagements. Because of this it feels more like what happened previously was establishment for a new story building upon that foundation. Rather than starting all over, the characters find ways to deepen their relationships, and the film opens up Ethan Hunt as a character and the toll his duty takes on those closest to him. There are some nice quiet moments that examine these characters as actual people. Several complications are as a direct result of personal character decisions, some good and some bad. I was joking with my pal Ben Bailey beforehand about wondering whether they’d find a way for Ving Rhames to matter, since he hasn’t been much more than “a guy in the van” for four movies, and by God they make him matter. They make each team member matter, finding moments to give them, mini-goals they’re entrusted with. During the dizzying helicopter chase in the finale, supporting players are left with their own task. Luther has to defuse a bomb but doesn’t have enough hands. Benji has to find something valuable in a very needle-haystack situation designed to torment and waste precious time. Ilsa is at cross-purposes for most of the film, not wanting to harm her fellow allies but also being given her own orders to prove her loyalty and protect her future. All of this comes to a head and it makes the parts feel as important as the whole. That’s great storytelling.
Let’s talk about that million-dollar mustache of Cavill’s. It was a year ago that Justice League re-shoots required Cavill and the Mission: Impossible team refused to allow their actor to shave his mustache, thus leading to that unsettling fake baby lip Superman was sporting in a majority of his scenes in the haphazard Justice League film. I just read an AV Club interview with McQuarrie where he for the first time discusses the whole mustache brouhaha and apparently Paramount estimated that it would have cost them three million for the effects to uphold Cavill’s upper lip continuity. Warner Brothers refused to pay up and so went down that ill-fated CGI mustache-removing route. It was shortly afterwards that Cruise shattered his ankle in a roof-leaping stunt (that is in the finished film and advertisements) and the production had to shut down for a month. If only Warner Brothers had waited, perhaps we all could have avoided this mustache mess.
Mission: Impossible – Fallout is a new highpoint for the best action franchise going in movies today (I’m still waiting for a third Raid film, Gareth Evans). The set pieces are memorable and unique, leading from one into the next with exquisite precision and thought. The action sequences are stunning and shot with stunning photography, highlighting the stunning stuntwork by the best death-defying professionals. It’s the first Mission: Impossible movie that doesn’t climax at its middle; in fact there’s a pretty obvious reveal that feels like it was going to be a late Act Three twist, but McQuarrie recognizes the audience thinking ahead, and there’s like a whole other exciting 45 minutes after. The stakes are better felt because the characters matter and are integrated in meaningful ways. This is the most I’ve enjoyed Henry Cavill in a movie (with possible exception of another spy movie, Man From U.N.C.L.E.), and you know what, his mustache works too. While the vertigo-inducing Burj Khalifa sequence is the best set piece in the franchise, Fallout has everything else beat at every level. Mission: Impossible – Fallout is a reminder that there are few things in the world of cinema better than a properly orchestrated, properly filmed, and properly developed action movie operating at full throttle. This is one of the reasons why we go to the movies, folks. See it in IMAX if possible. Soak it up.
Nate’s Grade: A
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