Greetings! Have you ever wondered if a movie's worth blowing the money on to see at the theater or what to add next to your NetFlix queue? Then you've come to the right place! Enjoy!

"West Side Story" Review

 It's long been thought that Steven Spielberg has wanted to make a musical as shown by the dance hall scene in his first flop, 1941, and the opening credits to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, so it wasn't a surprise that he finally got around to it nearly a half-century into his legendary career. What was surprising was his choice to remake 1961's West Side Story, the winner of 10 Academy Awards including Best Picture. Why not make an original musical or adapt a popular show like Hamilton or The Book of Mormon?

While some aspects of the project were reasonable like having a more ethnically accurate (i.e. Puerto Rican actors for the Sharks et al) and younger cast members who could actually sing, concerns began to rise as Spielberg started making woke noises about the project like refusing to subtitle Spanish dialog because he didn't want to "give English power over Spanish." (More on this later.) Such woke virtue-signaling - like all those Disney movies which hype how they'll have gay characters because that's what a family-friendly company focuses on - is so commonplace it hardly registers as Hollyweird panders to itself as to how stunning and brave it is in rejecting the values of those squares, the deplorable rubes who buy the tickets in the Flyover. 

Except in this case it backfired and the movie flopped. Hard. So, of course, the Academy rushed to give Big Steve's Folly seven nominations including Best Picture, Director, Cinematography and Supporting Actress which is very on brand because "Woke Side Story" is a miserable toxic exercise in cultural vandalism which is appalling and depressing. 

Little time needs to be spent recapping the story because it mostly follows the same beats of the 1957 musical's retelling of Romeo and Juliet and subsequent film. In New York City's Upper West Side, in the area which will become Lincoln Center, rival gangs the Sharks (Puerto Ricans) and the Jets (white guys) squabble for control of their disappearing turf. (Since they're not gangsters slinging drugs or other rackets, what are they controlling?) Sister of the Sharks leader, Maria (newcomer Rachel Zegler) falls in love instantly with Tony (Ansel Elgort), former leader of the Jets whose trying to reform his gang ways. Conflict, rumbles, death and misery ensue for those crazy kids. You know the story.

 The troubles begin right off the top as Spielberg's screenwriter, the gay Jewish Marxist Tony Kushner, has decided that the racial subtext of the source material needed to be elevated to TEXT text and by repeatedly stopping the story to sledgehammer the audience with reminders that white people are terrible xenophobic racists and Puerto Ricans are marginalized oppressed immigrants (even though PR is a US territory and they are American citizens), a toxic fog of racialist division hovers over everything, killing all joy in the story.

 It's not even a brilliant insight. People have been dividing into opposing teams and oppressing, enslaving and killing each other ever since there were enough people to merit making up team jerseys. News flash, Steve and Tony, but white Italian families were hating each other in 1597 according to William Shakespeare, so if you thought audiences in the early-21st Century needed to be alerted to ethnic tensions, you need to get out more. (For crying out loud, Belfast is about tribal warfare and that's the whitest of white people over in Bonoslovakia.)

 It's hard to overstate just how misguided this approach was for this project. Making any musical in these times is a heavy lift and remaking one dating from the Eisenhower-era where those who remember it are filing for Social Security is more of a reach. No one but the most successful filmmaker in American history could've gotten backing for a $100 million remake of a classic. So why choose to remake it into a wokescold lecture instead of just opening it up to a Spielbergian extravaganza of visually exhilarating cinema?

It was nearly impossible to appreciate the musical numbers because I was reeling from the sucker punches. The heavy fog of divisive agitprop weighed down everything, distracting from what should've been joyous and energetic. 

I love musicals, but have always thought West Side Story to be a tad overrated. I've seen it on stage and own the original movie, but it's been so long since seeing it that I didn't realize that Spielberg and Kushner had taken some seriously misguided liberties with the structure like taking "Somewhere" away from Tony and Maria and giving it to the newly-created character of Valentina (Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar for playing Anita in the original), a revamp of the Doc character who owns the drugstore. That song is poignant because it's the doomed lovers wishing for an escape form the dire situation they're trapped in, so why take it away? 

Also, by moving "I Feel Pretty" back to its original location in the stage show from where it was in the movie, it immediately follows the shocking rumble, depriving the deaths of their power and having them overshadow the naive tune. In stage productions, there's an intermission between the rumble and the song, thus why it was moved ahead of the rumble in the original film. Spielberg and Kushner have concocted an explanation for their doing so, but it doesn't work. 

Another woke backfire was Spielberg's choice to not subtitle the Spanish. His woke white man sneer towards the audience was supposedly meant to empower those he patronizes, but in practice he has robbed half of the cast of their voices as he walls off their words and feelings from the gringos. (When the film showed in non-English-speaking countries, did they not subtitle the Spanish for French or Italian viewers or did they only subtitle the Spanish to give it power over English.) I wanted to know what they were saying; why didn't Steven trust me to know?

And in a genuflection to the radical gender identity politics which rules liberal culture now the character of Anybodys, who was always portrayed as a tomboy who wanted to run with the Jets, has been recoded as explicitly transgender and is played by a "non-binary" actress (read: non-girly lesbian who wants to be a unicorn), Iris Menas, because in 1957 when Leave It To Beaver was airing, a bunch of white racist street thugs would totally allow a non-extremely heterosexual person to hang around with them unmurdered. 

It's all a shame because there are some sporadic moments where Spielberg delivers what we'd expect from a Spielberg musical. Sure, he's aping Robert Wise's direction and occasionally quoting Jerome Robbin's choreography, but modern camera tech and VFX magic allow for a more realistic grounding for the numbers, but it's all for naught because he and Kushner had lecturing atop their agendas. 

While I found Elgort too bland, Zegler is adorable with what little the script gives her and Ariana DeBose is rightfully favored to win a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Anita as she's fiery and flashy. (Why Moreno, who looks amazing at 88 years old here, wasn't nominated for her turn is another shame on Oscar.) The cinematography by Spielberg's cinematographer wingman of three decades, Janusz KamiƄski, brings his signature silvery desaturated style here and it's a bit of a bad fit especially when there is so much lens flare it looks like a J.J. Abrams movie.

 Ultimately, what ruins Woke Side Story is the same thing which is killing popular culture and making the Oscars a joke with plummeting ratings: woke liberalism. Liberalism destroys everything it touches. Everything. The brilliant Twitter personality Iowahawk tweeted in 2015, "1. Identify a respected institution. 2. Kill it. 3. Gut it. 4. Wear its carcass as a skin suit, while demanding respect." This sums up the mission of Spielberg and Kushner here. To scratch some wealthy liberal elite itch, they hijack an American classic and burn $100 million of a studio's money to turn it into a hateful unhappy experience. 

The sadddest irony of Spielberg's descent into late-life self-loathing or antipathy towards the audience is that he garnered that net work of $3.7 BILLION by cranking out timeless blockbusters which unified audiences in the joy of the movie. Jaws, E.T., Raiders, Jurassic Park, Saving Private Ryan, and so many more brought us together and trading on those decades of history, Spielberg chose to use the power of an American musical and the movies to attack the audience for not living up to the radical Leftism of his fellow elites who own multiple mansions and private jets. 

Ironically, earlier in 2021 was another musical flop based on Hispanic/Afro-Cuban groups in upper-Manhattan, In The Heights, adapted from Lin-Manuel Miranda's (he also did Hamilton) Tony-winning stage hit. I thought it was OK (score: 6/10) and appreciated the joyous magical realism of the production, but was worn down by Miranda's showoff rap songs which are like the worst of Eminem's excesses when he just bombards the listener like an auctioneer, trying to impress us with how many words he can spit per bar. But what it did was showcase oh-so-desired diversity without needing to punish whites for being white. Hollyweird has mistaken increasing representation as requiring maximizing retribution and resentment towards those who came before as collective guilt is assigned as part of the price of admission. While the movie didn't, the marketing hype leaned into that grievance-mongering and they wonder why these movies flopped?

Score: 3/10. Skip it. Watch the original.

"Belfast" Review

 In 2018, Netflix made its first really hardcore run for Oscar gold with Alfonso Cuaron's Roma, garnering 10 nominations and winning for Best Director and Cinematography, both going to Cuaron. It was everything Oscar loves - it was in a foreign language (Spanish), it was shot in black & white, it featured extensive gratuitous full-frontal male nudity, it was about class struggle against a backdrop of civil strife and political upheaval, and it was boring as hell and unless you knew the Mexican history being portrayed, it didn't make sense. It was the self-indulgent wank that Oscar loves and rewards.

So when Kenneth Branagh's Belfast claimed seven Oscar nominations - including Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay (all Branagh), and Supporting Actress and Supporting Actor - and I saw it was a black & white semi-autobiographical movie about Branagh's childhood in Belfast during the Troubles, I snarked in my Culture Vulture's Oscar nomination hot take video that it was "Kenneth Branagh's Roma." Now that I've seen it, except for the lack of male nudity (sorry, Academy) and a slightly less foreign language (Irish), I can say I nailed it.

 Opening in 1969, it's the story of Buddy (Jude Hill - because calling him "Kenneth" would be too on the nose) who lives on a short street of Protestant and Catholic families. Suddenly, a mob of rioters appears and attacks the Catholic homes. They're super hardcore Loyalists to England who are not only unhappy with the Catholics, but aren't satisfied that there are Protestants coexisting with them and feel they should be more intolerant and purgey.

 Buddy's father, Pa (Jamie Dornan, helping undo some of the damage being in the 50 Shades movies did), works in England (the economics of that commute are never explained), leaving Ma (Caitriona Balfe) to raise Buddy and his brother alone most of the time, though Pa's parents, Pop (nominated Ciaran Hinds) and Granny (nominated Judi Dench) are over frequently to help. The family is in arrears to the tax man and concerns about the rising sectarian violence, with a local thug pressuring Pa to get involved with the religious war and prove how Protestant he is, making him want to move the family to Sydney or Vancouver. 

Like most semi-autobiographical period pieces, Belfast is an episodic disjointed collage of fragments of the filmmaker's memory. While Buddy frequently is the observer of what his parents or grandparents are experiencing, sometimes he seems to disappear while the adults' stories are featured. His crush on a Catholic classmate doesn't really go anywhere and being a child he's not the driver of events, but a passenger upon them. 

While the performances are solid across the board with the exception of Hill, who slips into Bad Child Actor moments sometimes, they aren't particularly outstanding. Dench and Hinds are as good as they normally are, but not particularly Oscar worthy and why Balfe was snubbed while the acting noms were being handed out like candy is another blot on an already blotted slate this year.

 Also snubbed is the lustrous monochromatic cinematography by Haris Zamabarloukos, Branagh's longtime DP. The framing may've been cribbed from Bergman, but it's still beautiful and it's a shame it was snubbed. 

As with so many of this year's Best Picture nominees, the problem with Belfast is that it's not an especially bad film as it is an inconsequential film that doesn't really illuminate the human condition and is mainly a filmed memoir of a prominent director's youth, tarted up with A-list talent and rich aesthetics to give it a patina of relevance.

Score: 5/10. Catch it on cable.  

"King Richard" Review

 I never got around to watching King Richard - the biopic about Richard Williams, father of tennis legends Venus and Serena Williams - when it had its premiere run on Hobo Max concurrent with its theatrical release. The subject didn't grab me and I just never got around to it. My girlfriend did watch it and her review was, "It's a TV movie and Will Smith is Will Smith." Not really a ringing endorsement.

I may have never looped back to checking it out - I'm not a big sports movie guy - if not for it picking up six Academy Awards nominations including Best Picture, Actor, Supporting Actress, Original Screenplay, Editing, and Song. So I watched it and she was 2/3rds right: It's an overlong TV movie biopic, but Smith does bring some acting to the proceedings. It also reinforces my desire to see the Academy burned to the ground because while a passable movie, it's hardly Best Picture material and it really shows just how watered down and toothless movies have become.

 There's not much plot to recap. Starting in 1991 when Venus (Saniyya Sidney) was 11 and Serena (Demi Singleton) was 10, we see Richard (Smith) taking them to the public tennis courts in their hometown of Compton where gangbangers hang around menacing them. Richard and his wife, Brandy (Aunjanue Ellis), have been coaching their girls around their paying jobs as a security guard and nurse, respectively. Their home is modest and crowded with the four of them plus three daughters from a previous marriage. 

Richard believes his girls will be the best ever and has been making videotapes and brochures in a vain attempt to get sponsors and coaches, getting nowhere because who's ever heard of a top tennis player being a little black girl from Compton. No one ever says as much, but it's a factor along with Richard's overbearing manner which continually becomes a risk of blowing everything up as he challenges how things are done. Eventually he secures coaching for Venus from John McEnroe and Pete Sampras' coach, Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn), getting her on the juniors circuit, then getting Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal), then hot thing Jennifer Capriati's coach, to take on both girls and move the entire family to Florida to train.

 King Richard has the common problem with biopics in that we know how this ends. We are never in doubt that the girls will succeed because we know they have stood astride the tennis world like giants where the only real competition was each other. So the only real interest in their story is either what they did to get there (A: practice, practice, PRACTICE) or how did Richard engineer their path to glory and how many times did he nearly blow it all up? Again, since we know that it all worked out, it's up to the movie to convince us that they wouldn't have made it without his and Brandy's diligent support or that he couldn't have wrecked his epic plan and it just doesn't make it happen. 

Smith is favored to win Best Actor (as he did at the SAG Awards recently) and I can't compare him against the field because I've only seen one other performance (Bernadette Cummerbund in The Power of the Dog which didn't impress me), but when two of the others (Denzel Washington and Javier Bardem) have already won, Andrew Garfield has a long career ahead, and Bandersnatch is white and hasn't been a major movie star for a quarter century and it's been 15 years since Big Willie was last nominated, you can bet the rent. 

All that said, it's a good performance. Even playing near his age (around 50), Smith can't completely dim his charm, but Richard was a fame-seeking hype man for a hot product (his daughters), so it's not going to be agoraphobic. You can see the weight of what his hopes and dreams for his daughters mean behind the bluster even when they script minimizes his faults so much that when his wife mentions previous children and failed businesses during an argument, it's a big surprise and then never mentioned again. (Seriously, this is nominated?) 

Squaring off in the typical Strong Mother Keeping The Family Together When Dad Gets Vainglorious role is the nominated Ellis who embodies the strong woman behind the flighty at times man. She's good, but the character is stock. Also good are the girls playing the sisters and when the time jump happened, their looks changed so much that I checked to see if new actresses were swapped in. (There weren't.) Perhaps the biggest surprise performance was Bernthal who comes of like a peppy Robert Walden (ask your parents) as opposed to his usual fistfaced brooding roles.

 Also restraining the cinematic aspects are the perfunctory direction by Reinaldo Marcus Green which doesn't do anything to make the endless tennis sequences visually interesting, leading to a samey monotony which does little to amp up the drama; the pedestrian editing has little to work with and again, this was nominated. 

King Richard isn't a bad or merely mediocre movie; it's just nothing particular special as either a biopic or sports flick and really doesn't belong in this race. I didn't know much about the Williams sisters since I'm not really a sports guy other than they seem to be ubiquitous winners, and after seeing this I still don't really know much about them. Then again, it's not called Queens Venus & Serena, is it?

Score: 6/10. Catch it on cable. (It's back on HBO Max) 

"The Power of the Dog" 4K Review

During the second season of South Park in 1998 there was an episode mocking the Sundance Film Festival with the legendary crack that independent movies were all about "gay cowboys eating pudding." Mind you, this was seven years before Ang Lee's Oscar-nominated Brokeback Mountain came out, but it's been an evergreen meme that covers much of what gets prestigious awards acclaim. Why am I prefacing this review of Netflix's Oscar-nominated juggernaut The Power of the Dog with this reference? Oh, no reason. [/whistles]

 Written and directed by Jane Campion, who was the first woman to be nominated for Best Director (for 1993's The Piano, though she'll have to settle for being the likely third female winner after Katheryn Bigelow and Chloe Zhao), TPotD is up for a field-leading 12 nominations including Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Actor, Supporting Actress, and two Supporting Actor nods. It seemed destined to steamroll the field until CODA began its upstart worthy sleeper run.

 Set in 1925 Montana, we meet the wealthy cattle ranching Burbank brothers, Phil (Bernadette Cummerbund) and George (Jesse Plemons), as they drive their herd to town to be loaded on a train. George is a quiet doughy fellow who wears a suit and whom Phil frequently calls "Fatso." Phil looks no different than his ranch hands. dirty, wearing chaps, being a near parody of a manly man. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)

In town, they and their crew dine and spend the night at the owned by Rose (Kirsten Dunst), whose son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), helps with waiting tables. Skinny and pale, Phil bullies him, using the paper flowers he crafted to light his cigarette, real bad hombre style. Later, George hears her crying and consoles her. Some time afterwards, he heads to town in his car to see her and seemingly immediately they're married and she's moving out to the ranch to Phil's displeasure. 

He thinks she's only after their money and trashes her in letters to their parents. When George buys her a baby grand piano since she had previously worked as a pianist for silent movies, her attempts to brush the rust of her chops leads to Phil subtly bullying her by first playing along with, then going full "Dueling Banjos" at her on his banjo upstairs. (If you have an Atmos-equipped home theater, this scene really shows it off as his banjo comes from the ceiling speakers.) The pressure for her to perform at a dinner party makes her crack and she becomes an alcoholic.

 When Peter comes out on summer vacation from school, Phil spies another easy punching bag as he calls the kid, whose hat looks to weigh more than he does, a "sissy" like manly men do. However, when he realizes Peter may've discovered something about Phil, he flips and becomes very friendly to the concern of Rose who is becoming more unraveled. 

If I've made the plot sound dense and complicated, my apologies, because so little happens in the two-hours-plus run time that I wondered if the story was going anywhere. Campion expertly does the show-don't-tell thing good movies are supposed to do, lacing in many clues and references that the astute view can slowly assemble into a cohesive picture. However, there ultimately remain so many unfinished details - there's a point where you should stop alluding and start explaining - that you never really get what's motivating the characters; we're just left to fill in the blanks. 

That's why when the story gets around to explaining What Phil's Deal Is, it's almost laughable and how explicitly obviously it's portrayed. It's as if Campion trusted her viewers' ability to keep up for 99% of the time, but decided to just bludgeon them with the Big Reveal, nudging and winking and shouting "GET IT?!?!?" so hard that even your sweet old great-grandma who never understood why that nice Liberace fellow never settled down with a loving lady would say, "Yep. Read you loud and clear the first five times you elbowed me in the ribs, Jane." And what happens at the end comes so far out of left field that it may as well have had Idaho license plates. 

On the bright side, Campion's direction in general is lovely; reminiscent of Terrance Malick's obsession with blades of grain and grass. While proceeding at a deliberate pace (polite way of saying slow), it never really drags into boredom, mostly because wondering what the heck this is leading to and the bizarre chamber horror score by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood keeps the audience confused as to whether this is a Western or weird Eastern European Hitchcock pastiche. 

Where it starts getting into questionable territory is the performances. Dunst has a long IMDB page listing her habit of playing crushed out spirits going back to her Spider-Man appearances or Melancholia and it's on display here as well. Smit-McPhee is also quite good, almost making the crazy turn the plot takes at the end work as he squares off against Cummerbund. (Yes, I am deliberately messing with his name. He can dab his tears with his Doctor Strange money.) 

But Plemons is merely OK and his nomination seems more like the Academy was tossing invites to everyone in the cast. George is supposed to be the quiet one, but there's a fine line between being internal and no one being home. I know we're supposed to treat him as the new version of his lookalike Philip Seymour Hoffman, but as Morrissey sang he just hasn't earned it yet, baby. 

But the most problematic performance for me was Bandersnatch's. I never really felt like I was seeing Phil, but Cloversneech's imitation of someone playing Phil. A big part of this disconnect is that unlike seemingly endless numbers of British and Australian actors who play American characters with undetectable American accents because apparently there are no American actors, his has always rang untrue. When he debuted as Doctor Strange, I thought his accent sounded borrowed from Hugh Laurie's House accent and it's never improved. Phil and Steven Strange sound the same and when Phil tells Peter to not call him "Mr. Burbank", the echoes of Strange and Peter Parker having a similar conversation in Spider-Man: No Way Home added to the distraction.

Am I focusing too much on a ropey accent? I don't think so and here's why: While looking up something about the production and why they shot in New Zealand instead of Montana (A: budget constraints) which lead to some vistas that made me wonder if Hobbits or orcs were just over the hill, a video popped up with Boobookitty and Smit-McPhee doing press junket duty. I unmuted the player and was stunned to hear an accent coming out of Smit-McPhee's face. He's Australian! I have seen him in movies dating back to The Road and Let Me In in 2009 and 2010 and never had a clue he wasn't an American kid, same as with the young romantic couple in CODA who were English and Irish and never slipped. Blunderbuss just isn't very good at this.

The Power of the Dog - the title comes from Psalm 22 - is a film that beautiful on the surface, but somewhat empty on the inside. While I get that it's about loneliness, cruelty, depression, grief, sadness, retribution, flashes of full frontal male nudity and Hollywood's favorite Dark Secret That Controls Everything - you know, all that fun stuff that people watch movies for after a hard day at work - it's just too skeletal in detail for a movie of its length and Cumberbatch's (see? I can be nice) performance just didn't connect. And South Park was right.

Score: 5/10. Skip it. 

"CODA" 4K Review

 I'd been avoiding CODA (which stands for Child of Deaf Adults) for some time as the Oscars drew closer because after last year's poor Best Picture nominee Sound of Metal and the heavy Sundance hit and record-setting $25 million sale, I figured it was going to be another preachy slog that the Academy favors since entertaining movies are just for making money. When it surprisingly won the Screen Actor's Guild Best Ensemble Cast award it suddenly hinted at being a sleeper contender, so it was time to eat the broccoli. Surprisingly - and it's sad that the Oscars only surprise like this rarely - it was a lovely, sweet, funny family dramedy worthy of one's time.

 Set in Gloucester, Massachusetts CODA is the story of Ruby (Emilia Jones), the only hearing member of her fishing family which includes father Frank (Troy Kotsur, nominated for Best Supporting Actor), mother Jackie (Marlee Matlin, Oscar winner for Children of a Lesser God 35 years ago), and brother Leo (Daniel Durant). She helps the family on the boat, which causes her to fall asleep in school, and serves as their interpreter. It's a hard life and the fishing community is being pinched by poor payouts and government regulation.

 One day at school when signing up for extracurricular activities, she spots a boy she's crushing on, Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), signing up for choir. She enjoys singing, but never really took it seriously. The choir's director is Bernardo "Mr. V" Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez), a curt and imperious man, but genuinely interested in his students. He spots potential in Ruby and encourages her to study and apply to the famous Berklee College of Music in Boston, but her obligations to her family and their seeming lack of support complicate matters, especially since they're trying to operate a co-op with other fishermen and are pinched financially which leads to legal troubles.

What makes CODA so enjoyable is that for the most part the situation is believable and the characters are realistic. The family is loving (especially the sexed-up parents as we learn in their introductory scene at a doctor's office) and tightly-knit; Ruby is cute and can sing, but she's not a young Mariah Carey type who'd smoke the competition on American Idol; the tensions between family loyalty and making one's way into adulthood when disabilities are involved are relatable; and while a satisfying ending is a given, it doesn't feel cheap or unearned.

 The performances are all strong and subtle though at first I thought Kotsur's nominated performance  was silently hammy, some quiet emotional scenes towards the end tempered that. That the schoolkids seemed school-aged - Jones and Walsh-Peelo were 17 and 18, respectively, when it was filmed in 2019 - and had a realistic relationship (read: didn't hop into bed immediately like an HBO or CW teen show) also rooted things. It's also beautifully photographed, which is surprising for an indie flick.

Adapting from a 2014 French film, writer-director Sian Heder's background in television (she was a writer/story editor on Orange Is The New Black) leads her toward the crowd-pleasing side of the path, but is that such a terrible thing? While Oscar loves to virtue signal with "challenging" movies (read: no fun lectures about the evils of everything that makes Hollyweird rich), the fact that the slight, but entertaining (unless you're a wokescold SJW) Green Book won a few years ago indicates upsets can occur. 

It's ironic that almost no one will have seen CODA because it's on Apple TV+, a small streamer compared to behemoths like Netflix and Hulu whose early offerings were thin and not particularly compelling, but are expanding into interesting directions. It's only $5 per month with a 7-day free trial, so it's possible to watch a heartwarming movie for free and not too much to graze what else is on offer.

Score: 8/10. Catch it on Apple TV+

"Deep Water" Review

When it comes to directors who had a massive influence on the look and style of Eighties movies was Adrian Lyne. Specializing in wildly successful, erotically-charged, MTV-ready stories and visuals (i.e. so much atmospheric haze that you wondered why OSHA didn't shut the productions down), he made between 1983 and 1993 Flashdance, 9-1/2 Weeks, Fatal Attraction, Jacob's Ladder, and Indecent Proposal. His last film was 2002's equally sweaty Unfaithful which reinvigorated Diane Lane's career as a sexy older woman though she was only 36(!) at the time. (That's an older woman?!?) 

Now at the age of 81, Lyne is back with another steamy erotic thriller, the Hulu Original (meaning it's being dumped there after numerous delays from its original November 2020 theatrical release due to Hot Fad Plague) Deep Water starring Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas as, well, here's the IMDB blurb: A well-to-do husband who allows his wife to have affairs in order to avoid a divorce becomes a prime suspect in the disappearance of her lovers. That's more than we knew going into our viewing of it and barely captures just how weird and ultimately stupid the story is.

 For the first 45 minutes or so we were wondering what the actual what was going on. Affleck is a wealthy retired tech guy who "invented a chip used in military drones" who spends his days riding his mountain bike around his small Louisiana town and tending to his snail collection in the basement. He's married to de Armas and they have one of those trademark borderline annoying moppet daughters (think Fatal Attraction) who keeps having Alexa play "Old MacDonald" to the parents annoyance. 

She seems to be flaunting affairs with younger lovers openly in front of their friends at the lavish day-drinking parties they have and while Affleck passive-aggressively menaces them, casually mentioning that he may've murdered a missing man, some take the hint and others don't. But then for all of her hanky-panky, they're having rough cinematic sex, but also seems to be sleeping separately. It's all disorienting and we kept wondering when things would make sense.

 When one of her lovers ends up drowned in the swimming pool at one of these party's, she accuses him to the cops, but evidence is scant; everyone was drunk and it could've been accidentally. However, a writer friend of theirs begins to investigate, sniffing a new book idea while catching a killer. As silly and implausible as this tale from a weird alternate universe where such antics aren't that scandalous for some reason is, everything goes off the rails in the last act where there simply isn't a crane strong enough to suspend disbelief sufficiently to not laugh at it.

The core failing of Deep Water is that we never understand why this couple simply doesn't get divorced. Yes, they have a young child who seems clued into the whispers about daddy, but how is staying together in a broken marriage where alcoholic mommy is bringing boyfriends home for dinner (when she comes home at all) doing the kid any favors? While da Armas is hot, it's not like Affleck is Danny DeVito and incapable of finding a less cheaty companion considering he's rich and looks like Batman. None of their friends seem to disapprove very much beyond sympathy for his being inexplicably bound to her? 

And what's with all the snails? For all the scenes and allusions to the snails and how they must be prepared for eating lest they be toxic, nothing comes of it and one final detail is so ridiculously stupid that viewing Deep Water as even camp trash became untenable. It's as if no one bothered to read the last 15 pages of the script and noticed that it was underthought. Based on a 1957 novel by Patricia Highsmith, who wrote Strangers on a Train and the Thomas Ripley books which have had many adaptations, perhaps their unwillingness to divorce is of its time, but simply doesn't work in a contemporary setting.

What's most disappointing about Deep Water is that despite our culture having become ever more pornographic and sexually depraved since Lyne's Reagan era heyday, it doesn't bother to take advantage of it to really push boundaries to explore what their toxic relationship entails. For all the rampant sex on HBO shows like Euphoria, movies these days are gripped by a neo-Puritan timidity which precludes getting really crazy with the cuckoldry. 

Score: 4/10. Skip it. 

"Licorice Pizza" Review

 It's two weeks until the Oscars are handed out so that means grinding through as many of the nominees as possible and after watching Licorice Pizza, Paul Thomas Anderson's latest effort nominated for Best Picture, Director, and Original Screenplay, I want the Academy to be burned down and the ashes razed and the land salted. It's not that it's a bad movie - it's perfectly innocuous and pleasant - but if this is what they consider "best" then the word no longer has its old meaning. (To be frank, it killed my interest in slogging through the rest of the nominations.)

 Based heavily on the life of Anderson's friend, Gary Goetzman (who really should've been given a story credit), it tells the improbable but apparently true-ish story of precocious 15-year-old child actor Gary (Cooper Hoffman, who reminds of Paul Dano, but is Philip Seymour Hoffman's son, making his film debut) and his romantic pursuit of Alana (Alana Haim of the band Haim, a fellow rookie whose band mate sisters and their parents also appear as her family), a school photographer's assistant who is 10 years older. When his publicist mother (Mary Elizabeth Ellis) is unable to chaperone Gary to NYC for a television appearance, Alana gets the task, setting things rolling.

 What follows is series of vignettes which separately trace their lives and how they criss-cross. He starts a waterbed store and sets her up with his agent so she can try acting. She tries dating a slightly older co-star of his, but rejects him for his atheism and rejection of his Judiasm, but later volunteers for an upstart Jewish mayoral candidate more her age. Throughout, we're supposed to believe there's a will-they-or-won't-they sexual tension in their February-March relationship.

 Adding to the disjointedness are the Big Name Star cameos like the 10-15 minute-long digression involving Sean Penn as an older star (Spicoli is 61 now, kids) and Tom Waits as a director who drunkenly have a dumb idea at dinner. While modestly amusing, it, like just about everything else serves no narrative purpose. 

Bradley Cooper's scenes as a full metal a-hole Jon Peters are a hoot, but are also superfluous and when you ponder how much work went into shooting the sequence of an out of gas moving truck rolling backwards down a twisty canyon road or gathering all the circa-1973 cars to populate the gas lines, it just shows what a self-indulgent personal nostalgia trip Licorice Pizza is for Anderson. (However, the soundtrack is laden with anachronistic needle drops from years after the setting.)

It feels like he cribbed random Cameron Crowe scene sketches and didn't bother trying to connect them with a narrative. It doesn't seem certain whether the protagonist is Gary or Alana. The ease with which a modest child star is able to capitalize his businesses as a minor is unexplained. But most damaging is we never really understand why a 25-year-old woman would even be interested in this kid. If she had a bad breakup with an abusive boyfriend, perhaps the cradle-robbing wouldn't strain credulity, but she doesn't have any existential angst or trauma. Oddly, for being a minor star at a public school, Gary doesn't seem to attract any admiring fans from his classmates. 

Haim and Hoffman are both appealing and natural performers who give little hint of neophyte status. As the son of an Oscar-winner, Hoffman will likely get more work, but Haim's plainer looks make it more likely she'll stick to her musician day job.

In counterpoint to my grouchy stance, my girlfriend really enjoyed it because it wasn't heavy, it was amusing enough and sweet. She's not wrong in that it's not a complete waste of time and I'll admit much of my antipathy towards Licorice Pizza is borne of my annoyance at the Academy. Licorice Pizza serves no higher purpose which warrants it being gifted three - and only these three - Oscar nominations because, with Woody Allen being unpersoned after endless false accusations of child molestation, P.T. Anderson is the lucky default "art house slot" guy. (Same reason Drive My Car got the same Picture/Director/Screenplay noms and nothing else to fill the designated foreign film slot in hopes of recreating Parasite's win because Hollyweird's self-loathing knows no bounds.)

Being a half-hour too long and being pointless doesn't make Licorice Pizza a movie to avoid, but it serves as another indictment of how wildly out-of-touch and committed to visually inspecting their own colons the Academy is when House of Gucci gets snubbed in favor of wanks like this.

Score: 5/10. Catch it on cable.  

"The Hyperions" Review

 The latest Daily Wire movie pickup which received its premiere for free on YouTube is Jon McDonald's The Hyperions, an oddball indie flick about superheros and family not drawn directly from any existing comics or books, but very reminiscent of several other titles.

 Opening in 1965 we're introduced to young Vista Mandulbaum (Indigo Carey), a tween in a subway car wearing a superhero costume being observed by a starstruck crowd. She's wearing a gauntlet on her arm and when a light surrounding a circular H badge glows, she makes a man in the crowd take out his wallet and drop it in a woman's bag. When the car stops, three security men come in and separate the crowd from her and in comes the awesomely-named Professor Ruckus Mandulbaum (Cary Elwes), her father for a talk about why she's running away.

 We jump ahead 15 years to find an adult Vista (Penelope Mitchell) and Ansel (Alphonso McAuley) visiting the Hyperions exhibit at a museum right before closing time. They change into superhero costumes and proceed to hold several hostages when they realize the target of their actions, the Hyperion badges are locked into the display and only the Professor's fingerprint can release them. 

Via flashbacks we're filled in as to their backstories: As original founding members of The Hyperions, they were recruited (or is it adopted) by the Professor to be recipients of the badges which combine with their DNA to give them specific superpowers. Vista's was the ability to read and control minds; Ansel's was super strength; and their third member, Maya (Elaine Tan), had the ability to teleport. (If you're catching heavy whiffs of the X-Men's Professor X and Nightcrawler there, you're breathing.) But as they got older, they were eased off the team in favor of new members except for Maya who was retained to train the new lineups as we see in an undercooked side plot involving a recruit so clueless that he forgets to use his power to turn his skin into metal (hello Colossus) and gets shot as a result.

 As the story progresses, the motivations of Vista and Ansel become clearer. He misses being a superhero and she's working on behalf of an unknown man forcing her to pull this heist. Their "father" presented them as a family for TV shows and marketing, but was emotionally aloof and cruelly indifferent to their feelings. Will this family be able to get through this ordeal and learn to love and understand each other?

 The Hyperions is an odd film which feels like something you'd see as a short on YouTube musing "What if Wes Anderson made a period comic book movie on a shoestring budget?" McDonald not only wrote, directed and produced, but also handmade the props and did the animation for several sequences. In the intro to the screening, Daily Wire co-founder Jeremy Boreing was effusive about what a visionary auteur he felt McDonald was and while he certainly has a singular vision, the fact the aesthetic immediately evokes Anderson's fussy staged style sort of belies the assertion of originality. 

The first 15-20 minutes are a bit of a lift to get in tune with as the viewer is tested to stay involved with the action until the why to the what begins to get explained with echoes of The Umbrella Academy's broken family scenario. Brief hints of the desire of fame for being a superhero are alluded to, especially as other former Hyperions appear on the periphery. Vista's journey between her being exiled from the team to the heist isn't really fleshed out and the resolution is simplistic. 

Elwe's performance is the highlight as his Professor Ruckus (free rap artist name!) is plummy and eccentric, but not cartoonish as he talks with an animatronic bald eagle in a space suit with a telephone in its chest. Mitchell is also good, as is Tan, but the dropoff in thespianism from the rest of the cast is distracting. 

Independently produced before Hot Fad Plague 2020-2022 shut down the world, The Hyperions has languished in distribution limbo for a few years, initially picked up by Saban Pictures, then acquired by The Daily Wire for their nascent film slate following last year's pickup Run Hide Fight and their first original production, Shut In, which debuted the same way last month, streaming once on YouTube before going behind the paywall of the conservative site. 

 While their moves to bring films without an aggressive Leftist bias to audiences tired of being scolded and lectured by their supposed entertainment, I think using them as a lure to get people to subscribe is mistaken. I listen to a couple of their podcasts, but I don't have time to consume all their offerings to justify the subscription fee and three movies that I don't even know I could watch on my home theater isn't going to make me pony up. 

They should still make movies, but release them theatrically or at least make them available for streaming rental and purchase. While their previous films were good, they weren't subscription sellers either. While The Hyperions didn't do much for me, it's still deserving of an opportunity to be discovered by others without signing up for a political news site even if you agree with the ideological position of the site.

Score: 4/10. Skip it.  

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