How many hundreds if not thousands of film-industry professionals, above or below the line, would be financially stricken or hurting if Congress was to pass a law outlawing all zombie films for the remainder of the 21st Century? Just a thought. Actually, it’s a wish. I wouldn’t have the slightest argument if the making of all post-apocalyptic films was to be banned henceforth. It’s a genre that’s been done to death. As two-reeler B westerns were to the ’30s and film noir was to the late ’40s and mid ’50s, zombie films are to the 21st Century. Only low-rent, bottom-of-the-barrel filmmakers are invested in them.
Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris‘s The Battles of the Sexes (opening today) is fine as far as it goes. And I’m not saying “fine” as a dodge. It really is an acceptable, good-enough thing.
During my one-and-only Telluride viewing I never once said to myself “this isn’t working” or “why isn’t this better?” I was engaged in the true story as far as it went. I never felt bored or irked. Okay, perhaps a little let down when I began to realize that it wouldn’t be delivering any big knockout moments and that it was basically an acceptable, competently made sports drama with five or six good scenes. But I was always “with” it. No checking the watch, no bathroom breaks.
I wasn’t knocked out by Emma Stone‘s performance as tennis great Billie Jean King, but neither was I disappointed. I believed her; she’s fine. Ditto Steve Carell‘s performance as the occasionally clownish, gambling-addicted Bobby Riggs. Honestly? The performance that touched me the most was Austin Stowell‘s as Billie Jean’s husband, Larry, who shows grace and kindness as he realizes that his marriage is on the downslope due to his wife’s emerging sexuality, and that there’s nothing to be done about it.
Nobody at Telluride was over the moon about Battle of the Sexes, and a few were underwhelmed. But nobody put it down either. There’s nothing wrong with a film that rates a solid 7.5 or thereabouts. I wish more films were as moderately satisfying. I am not damning with faint praise here. Not every worthwhile film has to be brilliant.
My insect antennae are picking up odd little tingle vibes from Tomas Alfredson‘s The Snowman (Universal, 10.20). Which may signify something good or even great. Who knows? But there’s something odd going on…I can feel it. How can a snow-blanketed policier about a mystifying hunt for a serial killer, especially directed by the respected Tomas Alfredson (Let The Right One In, Tinker Tailor Solder Spy), be anything but satisfying in a shaded adult way? How can it not be different, disturbing, unsettling? And with such a great-sounding cast — Michael Fassbender, Rebecca Ferguson, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Val Kilmer, J. K. Simmons, Toby Jones, Chloë Sevigny, et. al.
On the other hand there are four “hmmm” factors: (a) The Snowman opens four weeks hence (10.20) and yet I haven’t heard of any screenings or reactions to same…nothing; (b) I’ve learned to be slightly wary of films that open in England before the U.S. (the U.K. debut is on 10.13); (c) why didn’t The Snowman play at the Toronto Film Festival?; and (d) Michael Fassbender is still on the HE shit list — I’ve simply come to dislike the guy no matter what he does, and I don’t see that changing any time soon.
I had to pester Gold Derby‘s Tom O’Neil last week about including Wonder Wheel‘s Jim Belushi and I, Tonya‘s Allison Janney as potential nominees in the Best Supporting Actor and Actress categories. Actually they’re hotly favored. Tom is usually ahead of me on this stuff, but he was momentarily distracted by the Emmy Awards. This is how I see things now. Call Me By Your Name‘s Michael Stuhlbarg and Novitiate‘s Melissa Leo lead in their respective categories.
Jett Wells and Caitlin Bennett are getting married in high style tomorrow, and then flying to Spain for a honeymoon. The ceremony happens tomorrow at Bykenhulle House in Hopewell Junction, a small hamlet about 20 minutes south of Poughkeepsie. The wedding rehearsal starts today around 5 pm, and then a big dinner at some local eatery. I’m on a Poughkeepsie-bound Metro North train as we speak. The trip from Grand Central takes 110 minutes. I’m staying at an Airbnb in Hopewell Junction. Returning Saturday morning to NYC, hanging there for two days, and then flying back to Los Angeles on Monday night. (The video quality is poor due to iPhone hotspot upload, which doesn’t permit HD-quality.)
These dogs sure have a dry, droll sense of humor, you bet. I might as well admit that I’m somewhat…okay, more than somewhat concerned about the Japanese backdrop. On top of which I’m not feeling all that aroused about a film set on a toxic-waste-dump island. The milieu reminds me of the final scene in Mike Hodges‘ Get Carter.
What was it about Election, exactly, that turned so many people off? Alexander Payne‘s brilliant, perfectly shaped black comedy cost $25 million (just shy of $37 million in 2017 dollars) to make, and it only earned a lousy $14.9 million (or nearly $22 million by today’s calculator). Something in this film irritated a large swath of the public, obviously, but what in particular? The reviews couldn’t have been better, but outside of some modest action in the cities Joe and Jane Popcorn just wouldn’t go.
I’ve long suspected that on some deep-seated level Jane didn’t care for the demonizing of Reese Witherspoon‘s Tracy Flick, who always struck me as a female Richard Nixon type — resentful, craven.
The irony, of course, is that Witherspoon will probably never luck into a role as good again. It enabled her to give her very best performance. Certainly her most memorable, in part because she wasn’t “acting” — Tracy Flick is inside Witherspoon as surely as Tom Dunson and Ethan Edwards were inside John Wayne. Tracy Flick was lightning in a bottle, and that stuff doesn’t grow on trees. Criterion’s Election Bluray will pop on 12.12.17.
“mother! is Darren Aronofsky’s Stardust Memories, his vehemently exaggerated satire on the burdens of fame. And for anyone who thought that Woody Allen’s 1980 film looked a gift horse in the mouth, critiquing fame from within its comfortable confines, mother! tops it — it’s a cinematic version of an equine root canal. The films’ similarities in intent and differences in degree emerge in one aspect in particular: while Stardust Memories doesn’t exactly flatter Allen’s character, in Aronofsky’s film the artist — freed from direct identification with Aronofsky’s own persona — comes off as an ingratiating monster.
“mother! is the story of a mid-career male artist — a writer, played by Javier Bardem — whose conjoined qualities of celebrity and vanity give rise to a uniquely destructive power. For Aronofsky, the calculus is cruel: the adoring crowd is motivated by a greedy and cavalier selfishness that is sought, enabled, nourished, sustained, and encouraged by the artist himself. His film flirts with the ridiculous and sometimes falls into it — though to ridicule it, or Aronofsky, for doing so is to miss both the point and the pleasure.” — posted by The New Yorker‘s Richard Brody on 9.18.
I’m kind of fed up with traumatic recovery movies. Hard-knock tales about the resilience of the human spirit, I mean. Protagonists walloped and nearly destroyed by some godawful tragedy only to gradually fight their way back to a semblance of a normal life.
And so I sat down to watch David Gordon Green and Jake Gyllenhaal‘s Stronger (Roadside, 9.22) with a guarded attitude. Here we fucking go again, I told myself — the story of real-life Boston bombing victim Jeff Bauman (played by Gyllenhaal) overcoming the loss of his legs and becoming a hero of perseverance. This is certainly what’s been sold by the trailer, which is full of rah-rah uplift.
Well, guess what? Stronger includes a few inspirational moments in the third act, but mostly it’s a darker, grimmer and more despairing thing than you might expect. It’s been shot and cut in an intimate, off-angled way, and it certainly doesn’t unfold in the usual manner, at least in terms of rousing third-act recovery music and scenes designed to tug at your heartstrings. And Gyllenhaal, it must be said, really drills into Bauman’s pain, shock and despair, and I mean in a Robert De Niro-as-Jake LaMotta sort of way.
Is this Gyllenhaal’s most award-worthy performance ever? That’s a tough call for a guy who’s slammed it out of the park four or five times over the last dozen years (Brokeback Mountain, Zodiac, Nightcrawler, Demolition, Nocturnal Animals) but I honestly think it might be.
Augmented by some first-rate CG that totally convinces you that his legs are truly absent, Gyllenhaal’s Bauman is certainly more intense and blistering than Gary Oldman‘s Winston Churchill, I can tell you that. And I really admire that he never seems to be trying to charm the audience into liking him. That’s partly an aspect of John Pollono‘s script, which is based on “Stronger,” a personal recollection book by Bauman and Bret Witter, but it also comes from Gyllenhaal’s bravery.
The overall emphasis is a lot more on “fuck me” and “this really sucks” than “I not only have the strength to improve my life and make things better all around, but I will make you, the popcorn-munching audience member, feel better about your own life in the bargain.”
Maslany is not…how can I put this?…she’s not exactly my idea of an actress I’d like to hang with for long periods of time or, you know, have a couple of drinks with or whatever, and she’s certainly not the birds-of-a-feather equal of Gyllenhaal in terms of basic attractiveness, but she knows how to make difficult situations and emotions play in relatable dramatic terms. (Last February’s announcement that Bauman and Hurley intend to divorce is ignored by the film.)
The degree to which Stronger is not a formula recovery flick can’t be over-emphasized. The trailer makes it seem like an uplift thing but the trailer lies.
As of right now there are seven fall-holiday biggies, listed in order of likely award-season importance, that are yet to be seen: Steven Spielberg‘s The Post, Paul Thomas Anderson‘s Phantom Thread, Woody Allen‘s Wonder Wheel, Ridley Scott‘s All The Money In The World, Richard Linklater‘s Last Flag Flying, Michael Gracey and Hugh Jackman‘s The Greatest Showman, and Clint Eastwood‘s The 15:17 to Paris (which should obviously be re-titled as 3:17 to Paris).
I would also add Bjorn Runge‘s The Wife, the Glenn Close-starring contender that’s only been shown once at the 2017 Toronto Film Festival, for a total of eight.
I don’t regard Tomas Alfredson‘s The Snowman, Rian Johnson‘s Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Denis Villenueve‘s Blade Runner 2049 (all but written off at this stage of the game) and Pixar’s Coco as potential award contenders. (Thanks to Jordan Ruimy for the nudge.)
I’ve chatted with Alicia Vikander at a couple of social events. She’s a fine actress (loved her to death in Anna Karenina and Ex Machina) but she’s no more of a muscular, martial-arts badass than Angelina Jolie was when she made Salt. Like Jolie, Vikander is wirey and slender and on the petite side. Unlike Gal Gadot or Gina Carano, she’s no one’s idea of an Olympian, Amazonian badass. So that’s an instant “no sale” on her Tomb Raider, which will on 3.16.18.
I am Yul Brynner‘s Ramses, standing in my gleaming blue-and-white chariot and holding three golden arrows above my head as I attempt to rouse the fighting spirit of the Egyptian army: “Death to Tomb Raider! Death to the executives who pushed this through the Warner Bros. bureaucracy! Death to any and all attempts to make super-muscular action heroes out of 110-pound actresses whom I could personally take with one hand tied behind my back!”
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