Movie Review (PAIN AND GLORY)

Pedro Almodovar’s new movie PAIN AND GLORY moved me deeply. Antonio Banderas turns in a solid performance as the main character, Salvador Mallo, a gay, successful writer and film director. Aging, chronic physical and emotional pain, lack of inspiration, and new-found substance abuse all act as catalysts for Salvador to come to terms with his past.

Early in the story, an old wound is opened for Salvador when a film of his from the 1980s has a special screening for the public. The star of that movie, Alberto Crespo (played by Asier Etxeandia), and he must deal with 32 years of estrangement in order to present a positive front to the viewing audience. This pushes pain-stricken Salvador to further reflect on past events while accepting smokeable heroin doses from Alberto, a long-time chaser of the dragon.

The narrative consists of an interweaving of the present-day with flashbacks from Salvador’s poverty-stricken childhood and, eventually, more recent past events. Penelope Cruz movingly plays Salvador’s devoted, beleaguered mother, Jacinta, whose husband relocates the family from a country village in Spain to a city (Madrid, I believe) with more economic opportunities. Nine-year-old Salvador (Asier Flores) is recruited to teach a handsome, illiterate young laborer and artist, Eduardo (Cesare Vicente), to read and write. As payment, Eduardo agrees to help fix up the Mallo family’s new home, a white-washed cave within catacombs from Medieval times. He awakens Salvador’s sexual desire, which is filmed in a gradually unfolding, tender way.

Seeing homoerotic desire so naturally paired with childhood innocence pierced my heart. Almodovar knocked it out of the park yet again for me. I’ve always enjoyed the films of his I’ve managed to see and this one did not disappoint. I imagine much of the screen play is autobiographical of Almodovar, who also wrote besides directed this gem (which I believe he usually does for his productions). Like Salvador in PAIN AND GLORY, I find myself a middle aged gay man reflecting on past events and the main themes of my life. I felt a heady mix of heartened, intrigued, and enraptured to see Almodovar present such introspection up on the big screen with much tenderness and compassion, peppered with humor and little homages to old Hollywood movies and their beautiful stars. Whether or not you, the reader, choose to see this lovely, contemplative movie, we should all take a cue from it and view ourselves and others with more open, compassionate hearts.

Mini Movie Review (HARRIET)

The movie HARRIET was truly one of heart and soul, in which Harriet Tubman in the 19th century actively freed hundreds of slaves after herself escaping from bondage in 1849. I liked how the story kept it personal via scenes of constant, up close human interactions interspersed with displays of Harriet’s inner life of deep faith and psychic ability. The latter element, very likely fictionalized, is nonetheless effective and believable here.

While in 5th grade some decades ago, I read about Ms. Tubman and watched an old black and white film on her life as a courageous abolitionist, starring Ruby Dee in the title role. With big shoes to fill, Cynthia Erivo is quite compelling in this new production about a historical figure long-deserving of more notoriety than she has yet received. It was wonderful to re-experience my decades-old feelings of deep intrigue, respect, and appreciation for this woman who called herself “Moses.” Given that she assisted many people across a river en-route to unfettered lives in an at least more promising land, the Old Testament name-title is perfect for her.

HARRIET constantly moved me to tears, with its straightforward narrative about overcoming incredible odds to achieve a basic human need and right for herself and others: freedom. We should all be so fortunate to have as clear and pure a purpose in life and unwavering determination to carry it out, no matter what the cost. I am grateful that this movie was made. I am grateful for Harriet Tubman.

Movie Review (THE LIGHTHOUSE)

THE LIGHTHOUSE oozes creepiness often and grimness all of the time. Even the seagulls are intrusive and ominous in this intentionally claustrophobic art house horror movie. It harkened me back to watching black and white Ingmar Bergman films in years past. Well, that plus what it may have been like if Mr. Bergman had produced something while on steady dosages of LSD and liquor after having had a few influential exchanges with, say, a young David Lynch. While not exactly fun to watch, I was visually intrigued by the cinematography and impressed with the acting by Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe.

THE LIGHTHOUSE grows more hallucinatory as it progresses, largely shown from the perspective of actor Robert Pattinson’s character, young laborer Ephraim Winslow. Set in the 1890s on a small, stark island with a lighthouse, Winslow battles his guilty conscience, loneliness, and the cantankerous, manipulative aging lighthouse keeper Thomas Wake (Dafoe). As days pass and an ocean storm builds around them, the two men fall into increasingly raw, primal interactions with each other and their surroundings, akin to that in William Golding’s LORD OF THE FLIES, but often more bizarre. Heavy imbibing of liquor (and, eventually, kerosene mixed with honey) plays a part in all this.

The script was partly inspired by writer Herman Melville’s work and is sprinkled with passages written by men who toiled on the high seas in the 19th century. I appreciated the mythological, Pagan folk elements throughout the film, such as a recurring, eery siren-mermaid (Valeriia Karaman) and references to ancient Greek sea deities Proteus, Triton, and Poseidon. Director and co-writer Robert Eggers does not shy away from the supernatural, cleverly threading it into the psychological, skillfully conveyed through Wake’s superstitiousness and Winslow’s increasing mental instability.

While comparisons of the tumultuous ocean and the often troubled human psyche have been written about and filmed time and again, THE LIGHTHOUSE does so with originality, thanks to the genius writing of Max and Robert Eggers, the latter who also brilliantly directs. The camerawork involves a blending of old techniques from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with the screen aspect ratio an almost perfect square. We viewers are quickly led to feel boxed in as Wake and Winslow do. Initially, I could not quite always decipher what I was seeing on the screen, the landscape being filled with shadows among so much gray. On reflection, I think I was adjusting to Winslow’s dreary surroundings right along with him, the ocean and clouds often adding to the murkiness. From out of Winslow’s murky mind of memories, fears, and desires arise images, the ocean a perfect medium/reflecting pool for them. Or maybe the siren-mermaid is actually there? After all, the fearless, mysterious seagulls are real. Like Winslow, I sometimes briefly felt uncertain about what was supposed to be hallucination or dream vs. physical reality.

I do think THE LIGHTHOUSE will become a classic, joining the ranks of other cinematic masterpieces with a pared-down aesthetic to underscore existential angst and the human condition. Amidst the plethora of visual excess and distractions these days, sometimes it’s refreshing to watch a thoughtful, paradoxically stark yet full movie such as this, if only to remember I have a lot to be grateful for in my precious but ephemeral existence.

Mini Movie Review (MALEFICENT MISTRESS OF EVIL)

I thoroughly enjoyed MALEFICENT MISTRESS OF EVIL. She continues from the first movie (MALEFICENT) to represent the darkly beautiful Great Mother Goddess of Nature, who is, and has long been, misunderstood, feared, and persecuted. In this new film, Maleficent comes across her own kind, the Dark Fae. Not surprisingly, She is their inherent leader. These Fae are presented as fiercely beautiful, several ancient tribes confederated into one and living in hiding.

I personally know what it’s like to finally meet my “own kind,” others with whom I belong, namely Queer and Pagan folk, all of whom feel symbolically represented by the Dark Fae in this lovely movie. And so are Native Americans and other minorities, for that matter.

As long as there is such polarization between much of humanity and nature and ongoing in group/out group thinking and behaving, movies like this– among a myriad of other creative projects and actions in the world– will continue to need to be made.

Mini Movie Review (JOKER)

JOKER was an excellent movie, a powerful, often poignant case study of the making of a sociopath via repeated trauma and so much deprivation. I’ll be surprised if Joaquin Phoenix in the title role doesn’t get an Oscar nod. The backdrop of early 1980s excess juxtaposed with so much urban poverty and chaos, all portrayed through a very current lens of awareness and challenges, made for compelling social commentary. Seamy, rat-infested Gotham (New York) City is the perfect allegorical backdrop for the story. The “super” rats in the streets paralleled the parasitical super rich folks. This movie needed to be made. If you can stomach some very violent, personal moments, I highly recommend you see this film.

Mini Movie Review (JUDY)

Renee Zellweger was believably transformed in the movie JUDY, right down to getting the subject’s mannerisms and tone of voice right. An intimate, emotional production mostly filmed indoors or outside at night, it mainly focused on a portion of the last year of Ms. Garland’s life while she performed in London. I was quite moved in places, particularly in a scene where she visits with a gay male couple right around my and my husband’s ages, or a bit older. That hit home quite powerfully. The ending could have been more graceful and thought-out instead of like an abrupt emotional hammer.  And I wish there were a bit more exposition/flashbacks of the talented singer’s childhood and young adult years, though what was shown was interesting. I left the theater wanting more, but generally impressed with what I got.

Mini Movie Review (DOWNTON ABBEY)

The new movie DOWNTON ABBEY was splendid and sumptuous– from costumes, sets and settings, to a nimble script filled with so many interwoven characters, all very well-acted. There was something in it for just about every white person, given it was noticeably devoid of any people of color.

Dame Maggie Smith’s cutting remarks of wit and her frequent foil played by Penelope Wilton were delightful.  I’ve always found it fun to watch two elegant women go at it with a battle of words.

Flawed/limited as it was, the film was a well-done period piece I plan to see again, only next time with my husband. Even two gay men had some warm, tender romance in this lovely production. I followed along just fine, and I haven’t even watched any of the multi-season TV series. I left the theater in heart-felt tears, pleasantly surprised, and feeling generally satisfied.

Mini Movie Review (ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD)

Quentin Tarantino’s new film ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD was a mixed bag. I enjoyed all the 60s music, TV, and movie references.  I also liked the frequency of long scenes with the main characters, such as them driving and listening to music or talking one-on-one with someone.  Facial reaction shots were a thought-out part of this technique, along with some creative tinting to the lighting, all to lend a colorful, nostalgic tone to the movie, which I appreciated.  But, the scene mocking Bruce Lee felt insulting and racist and I could have done without all the gratuitous violence at the end. Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio did make pretty amusing foils for each other, however.  And Margot Robbie was fun and adorable as Sharon Tate.

The real alienating and angering aspect for me with the movie overall was the very negative stereotyping of hippies. They were repeatedly portrayed as stupid and sociopathic Manson followers.  This is such a tired trope.  I was raised by and around hippies and, man, we had nothing to do with Manson (and the vast majority of hippies didn’t) and were anything but stupid and sociopathic.  We were justifiably concerned about many things, such as the environment and the ongoing war in Vietnam.  Some of those values would have been good to see expressed in the film, but they were nowhere to be found.

My advice to all who are interested in watching this movie:  wait until the release on DVD to see it, or, better yet, watch it for free if you can.

Movie Review (GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS)

My expectations were pretty low when I went to see GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS, so I was pleasantly surprised to find how much I enjoyed it.  Most importantly, there was much more direct footage of Godzilla and other radioactive monsters, all referred to as “Titans,” than what was shown in the disappointingly sluggish 2014 prequel (titled simply GODZILLA).  The pace was comparatively faster yet easy to follow.  I’ve loved Godzilla since watching on television some of his very first movie (GODZILLA, a Toho Studios production from 1954) when I was five and-a-half years old.

Some of the main cast from GODZILLA returns in this sequel, with a few tragic losses happening throughout the movie.  The multi-government-led scientific organization Monarch is back to work with researching signs of Titans becoming active from out of their respective places of dormancy around the world.  This chain reaction arises from eco-terrorist Alan Jonah (played by veteran British actor Charles Dance) proceeding to release a series of them to wreak havoc on the world.  His motivation is to bring the planet’s life back into balance via having much of humanity, particularly in urban centers, killed off by these ancient guardians of nature, since humans are responsible for climate change and other grave environmental issues.  He and Monarch scientist Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) join forces to accomplish this paradoxically well-meaning yet ultimately sinister goal, much to the chagrin of the rest of Monarch’s main team and the U.S. military.  Jonah also selfishly wants to harness the Titans’ power and untapped resources.  However, this is only briefly referred to and then hinted at further in a preview scene of the upcoming sequel.

A combination of scientific research, including studying and manipulating sound waves the Titans emit, and reviewing of ancient folklore about these huge creatures results in Monarch identifying Godzilla as an age-old “benevolent” force who can lead the other Titans back into a calm, subdued order.  His rival super Titan “Monster Zero,” the storm-causing, three-headed dragon (though not referred to as such in the movie) Ghidorah, will bring chaos and death over everything if he is not defeated.  His intentional awakening out of deep ice in Antarctica by Jonah and a mis-led Dr. Russell starts a powerful action scene of giant monster destruction, probably the best on the big (and small) screen I’ve ever witnessed.  The immediacy of the danger is well-filmed and timed as main characters and soldiers try to escape via military helicopter to avoid being crushed by Ghidorah or vaporized in his irradiated, fire-lightning breath.  We see the dragon’s sinister, regenerative heads nipping at each other and roaring at the puny humans, then reactions of horror as men shoot their ineffective rifles and one shouts, “Holy shit!”  Quite an entry for the arch villain creature, and the only one identified as being of extraterrestrial origin.

Closeups of different gargantuan monsters’ faces near humans, such as by a helicopter in one scene, an underwater facility in another, and a fighter jet in yet another, serve to make them feel more present and real to the audience, with one such moment effectively startling me even on my second viewing.  This was a monster thriller of quality I’ve been longing to see since childhood, thanks to CGI and other cinematography technology finally achieving such state-of-the-art advancement.

Being the long-time fan of Godzilla that I am, I was again somewhat disappointed to see how his physical design was changed.  His snout has been shortened since the 2014 prequel, whereas when it was longer and larger in earlier movies, he had more teeth and, hence, seemingly more substantiveness.  However, I can only imagine what the designers were thinking about this latest incarnation of such a star monster of the cinema.  Perhaps a shorter snout made him seem more tough like a pit bull, I don’t know.  Anyway, I was able to let go of this bother to some extent as I watched the enormous two legged lizard of the sea do his grand stuff, including breath out white radioactive fire, his mighty spines gloriously lighting up.

The other benevolent Titan is Mothra (“Mosura” in Japanese), who is the first monster we see in the movie.  Initially in giant larva form, she spits out a sticky webbing out of self defense shortly after hatching before a circle of armed men placed there to contain her.  She then cocoons herself in a nearby waterfall and later rises forth as a grand, brightly shimmering moth to assist Godzilla, her relationship with him being symbiotic, though not fully explained how.  This ultimately did not matter to me, as I was able to accept the Monarch team’s exposition that some of the Titans are peaceful and working in harmony with each other.  They all follow an alpha leader, like a pack of wolves does.  Godzilla has historically been in this role, similar to the god Zeus over the other deities of Greek mythology, the term Titan being aptly derived from that particular pantheon.

Mothra is referred to as being the queen to Godzilla’s king, flying and fighting beside him to help restore order with her radioactive beauty and insectoid strength.  She is followed and studied over several generations by attractive identical twin women, the latest being Dr. Ilene Chen and her sister Dr. Ling (both played by Zhang Ziyi), each of Monarch.  This movie does not explore the spiritual-religious, deity worshipping element/implications so much as it subtly alludes to all of these through closely associating Mothra with the lineage of twins.  This gives the royal-seeming moth a pleasant mystique, equating her with beautiful femininity, angelic light/heavenly grace, and the cycle of death and rebirth.  The too-briefly shown theme of women twins drawn to Mothra also seems to act as a dutiful acknowledgement to the queen Titan’s miniature women fairy companions, played by Japanese twin pop singers The Peanuts, in the 1961 movie MOTHRA, and other actresses in the same recurring roles throughout several sequels starring this colossal insect.  (I readily admit to never having seen any of these earlier movies.)  I only wished that the celestial, exquisite Mothra/Mosura had more screen time in this latest Godzilla production.  But, alas, she was unavoidably underused in an already crowded narrative where the king monster himself was at least not short shrifted this time around.  The movie was just over two hours in length as it was.  For all of the interesting elements of the story to be fully explored, almost an hour or so of footage/digital imagery would have to have been added, so sacrifices were clearly made and, on balance, fairly.

One giant monster is colossally ridiculous, an earless bipedal mastodon of sorts we the viewers briefly see on a few television newsfeeds.  I believe it shows up again at the very end.  What were the designers and director thinking here??  Perhaps it was meant to be comic relief?  Mr. Snuffleupagus of Sesame Street turned radioactive giant mutant, I guess.  Give me a break.  Fortunately, it at least had no starring role the way Ghidora, Rodan (an enormous bird-pterodactyl-like creature originating from a volcano), Mothra, and our hero Godzilla did.  The crab-like critters, of which there was one in the prequel, return, which is fine.  They look believably scary and interesting in a primal way.

While the monsters were indeed the true stars of the movie, I did especially appreciate some of the people cast.  Ken Watanabe returns as Monarch paleobiologist Dr. Ishiro Serizawa, the thoughtful wise man and conscience of the movie.  Through him, we viewers are encouraged to be curious about and sympathizing of Godzilla.  Ishiro’s younger colleague, Dr. Ilene Chen (Zhang Ziyi), is a folklorist who shows pertinent antiquarian bits of texts and images of sea and land monsters to the rest of the Monarch crew and military personnel.  She bridges the Titans from their primeval past to the present, providing personal information such as their actual names.  She and her twin sister reflect the beautiful, graceful, harmonious side of nature, embodied in one of the two’s (Dr. Ling’s) personal deity, already discussed above.  This relationship of veneration is simply relayed through Dr. Ling’s facial expression upon witnessing the initial rising of Mothra.  At that point, hope for the planet more clearly enters the picture.  All is not evil or lost after all.

Charles Dance as the ruthless Alan Jonah uncannily seemed so much in both appearance and presentation like the late screen thespian Peter Cushing, star of many Hammer Horror Studios productions and in the first STAR WARS movie (as the evil Grand Moff Tarkin).  I was impressed with Dance’s similarity to such a man of grave elegance and sincerity.  His presence packed a punch and surely will continue to in the sequel.

Aisha Hinds is believable as an Army Colonel, conveying a balanced mix of concerned and commanding.  I was glad that she was both bald and African American, normalizing more unique, nonwhite, gender nonconforming women being in strong leadership positions in a mainstream movie.

To appeal to youth in the audience, teenaged actress Millie Bobby Brown (of the Netflix series STRANGER THINGS) stars as Madison Russell, who takes it upon herself to try and change her mother’s mind about allying with eco terrorist Jonah.  She manages to get into the thick of the action as the movie progresses, changing from guardedly defiant to scared and vulnerable, becoming a predictable but sweet vehicle for a very temporary union between her estranged parents.  Such sappiness for the sake of adding a more relatable, family element felt formulaic and bland.  This movie’s power and originality lay with the monsters and their impressive development in form,  immediacy, and even a kind of earthly or– for Mothra– celestial divinity.  Certain human characters already discussed particularly supported and reflected that power, making them stand out against an uneven script of sometimes lame dialogue.

In this movie’s universe, these Titans have existed for millennia and longer, helping to keep a tense balance between humanity and the rest of nature, whereby whole cultures had worshipped them.  The undersea origins of Godzilla are gracefully explored here, implying that he is a cyclically sleeping dragon of sorts.  The radiation of each Titan is deadly yet life-giving, a mysterious mix that is both amusingly and fascinatingly referenced during the film’s clever end credit sequence.  These beings’ existence is aptly tied in with climate change, some embodying a means of worsening it, others a way to ameliorate it.  In sum, the movie is an allegory, with the humans ultimately more villainous through causing centuries of damage to the earth.  The Titan monsters represent both destructive and ordered forces of nature reacting and roughly trying to set things right, even at the expense of humans, whose only salvation is to align with some of these mighty Titan forces or perish.  Enter good guy Godzilla, whose boundless, radioactive rage is well-directed.  Long live the king.

 

Movie Review (SHAFT)

The new movie SHAFT, which is the third produced screenplay with that same title, and the second to star veteran actor Samuel L. Jackson, was fun and interesting. The generational tension between Millennial actor Jessie T. Usher as J.J. Shaft and Baby Boomer actor Jackson as his father John Shaft was intriguingly expressed via cleverly written repartee between them throughout the narrative.

The implications of changes in inner city African American culture through generational and economic shifts are adeptly packed into this entertaining comedy-action movie. Kudos to writers Kenya Barris (creator of the TV show BLACK-ISH) and Alex Barnow.

Jessie T. Usher is able to hold a lot of nuances or layers in his character as an MIT educated, rookie FBI data analyst– nuance of having a natural sensitivity to women as equals to men, the value of healthy eating, the embracing of multiculturalism, and a reluctance to glorify guns as a means to power and domination– to name a few that come to mind. And all this while coming across as emotionally expressive and caring, strong in convictions, and downright adorable. He is someone I could imagine talking with over coffee or a drink, very approachable and relatable.

Jackson portrays the less evolved old guard, “kill or be killed” inner city Black, tough guy private detective, unapologetically coarse and sexist, making both a comic yet thought-provoking foil to the younger, warmer Shaft (Usher). He holds the primal force, including (but not only) rage, for the film, balancing out his son J.J. Shaft’s comparative softness and tendency to think more deeply. Their dialogue had me laughing often– that and the interweaving of old, Motown R&B songs into the musical score, including within some action sequences, particularly a few done in slow motion as if to imply dancing. This was bizarre, clever, disturbing, and funny all at once, leaving me to think of Kabuki theater somehow merging with old action films from the 1960s and 70s. This movie makes fun of itself often, including humorously yet gracefully glorifying people’s nostalgia for earlier, seemingly “simpler” times, namely the 1970s and 1980s. The result is a form of high camp within both a visual and musical theatricality that I eat up like rare, fine truffles. Granted, such treats are not to everyone’s liking.

The one matter I took some issue with is the blatant homophobia expressed via John Shaft’s hyper concern about his son J.J.’s sexuality. To the older, traditionally hyper-masculine Shaft, the younger man’s sensitivity, non-macho presentation, and non-aggressive, respectful approach to women is confusing and anxiety-inducing, with the father asking his son if he likes “pussy.” John later circles back to this matter, listing off possible sexual orientations, including “metrosexual” and “fluid,” for J.J. to choose from before the younger man clarifies that he is indeed straight. However, the fact that John knows these latest terms and states them matter-of-factly while caringly putting his very drunk son to bed for the night suggests to me that a part of the older man is wrestling with his discomfort and more likely than not to ultimately accept J.J. regardless of his sexual proclivities. And it is realistic to portray a middle-aged inner city African American man and other men around him as rigid believers in compulsory heterosexuality being bound up with achieving true manhood. The movie does not push the envelope nearly enough here to my satisfaction, which it would, say, if J.J. Shaft’s orientation were left vague, not so defined, hinted at as possibly bisexual or fluid. Well, homophobia and heterosexism in mainstream media are very slow to fade, this production only confirming that point, sadly. More open-mindedness and acceptance to happen all in good time, I suppose– so long as the good fight for queer visibility and equality continues.

The actual storyline concerning taking down a powerful drug smuggling and dealing ring is secondary to the strong, sympathetic, ever-evolving characters of SHAFT, namely the father-son duo. However, these two are well-supported by Maya Babanikos (Regina Hall), John Shaft’s long-lost girlfriend and mother of his son J.J., and Sasha Arias (Alexandra Shipp), the close friend and love interest of said son. I would have liked each of these smart, independent, likable women to be given more to do in the action sequences other than act freaked out and helpless. But, perhaps that switch up of roles will be forthcoming in a sequel. After all, it is the young woman Sasha, herself a physician, who carries a gun and lends it to J.J. in a time of need. Clearly, her full abilities are not put to use here. Hopefully, they will be in any future Shaft productions. As for Maya, she is the one who raised J.J. Shaft to be the well-rounded person that he is, leaving his long absent father to return and mix a healthy bit of grit into him for good measure. Fortunately, Maya and Sasha survive to flesh out a true family, anchored by three generations of Shaft men, with the elder actor Richard Roundtree (the original John Shaft in three early 1970s movies starring that character) showing up to improve the odds in a final face-off against the arch villain and his henchmen. And those three Shafts aim for laughs with us viewers while packing heat and going for broke.

I had no qualms with seeing white people portrayed unflatteringly at every turn in SHAFT, be they as secondary villains, suspicious cops, or establishment assholes (i.e., J.J. Shaft’s uptight boss in the FBI). We all need to laugh at ourselves, regardless of what ethnicity and socio-economic class/status we happen to belong. We white folks especially need to be brought down some pegs and onto the ground with everyone else, there to roll about in the dirt and laugh at the theatricality, often absurdity, and ever-changing wonder of life. The movie SHAFT clearly, amusingly reminds us viewers to do just that.