Beast is a so-so movie, and the decision when writing about it is whether to focus on what works or what doesn't. If I talk first about what's good, it will sound as if I liked it more than I actually did. If I talk first about what's not so good, it will sound like I didn't like it at all.
So ... to the good. Idris Elba is always a good thing, and here is in a mode we don't usually see: he's scared. He plays a widowed doctor who takes his two daughters to South Africa, where their late mother grew up. Elba and the two actresses playing his daughters (Iyana Halley and Leah Sava Jeffries) make a believable family, trying to put their lives back in order. The titular beast is also great, and the CGI is seamless ... you forget it's not a real lion. It's also nice that the Beast isn't an alien from outer space or a mutant created in a laboratory. It's just a lion, big, pissed off, but a lion nonetheless, and someone even scarier as a result.
And yet I didn't care for the movie. Part of the problem lies in those daughters. It's completely unfair of me to complain that their vocal fright at their predicament is annoying ... I'd be just as scared or more so ... but honestly, as some point I just wished the lion would eat those damn kids. Also, to establish the cranky independence of the elder daughter, she is constantly doing dumb stuff that puts her in danger. This adds to the thrills, but it also makes her character seem pretty stupid (when she clearly is not).
Beast is by the numbers, and is perfectly satisfactory as a Saturday afternoon time waster at home on the couch. I won't say more.
This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film starring Ray Liotta.
Ray could do these parts in his sleep. Here he plays Roy DeMeo, a real-life New York mobster. I guess I buried the lede ... The Iceman is based on the true story of Richard Kulinski, a hitman who in the film works for DeMeo (this appears to be a bit of an exaggeration as far as being true to life). DeMeo/Liotta is not the main character. That's Kulinski, played by Michael Shannon, who can also play these parts in his sleep. (You can almost imagine the people making the movie saying "get me a Michael Shannon type and a Ray Liotta type", then realizing they could just get the originals.) The film centers on the split between Kulinski's job as a hitman and his life as a family man with a wife and daughters. The family never suspects that Kulinski is a murderer.
It's interesting that Ariel Vromen actually seems to have toned down Kulinski's character (in the movie, he loves his family and only regrets that his actions as hitman hurt them, while in real life, he was physically and emotionally abusive). I'm not sure why this was done ... are we supposed to empathize with Kulinski? Honestly, I have no idea why this movie was even made. It tells us little to nothing about the mind of a hitman, and the hitman/family life duality isn't very interesting. The cast grabs your attention ... besides Shannon and Liotta, there's Winona Ryder as Kulinski's wife, Chris Evans and David Schwimmer are barely recognizable, James Franco has what amounts to a cameo, and there's Stephen Dorff and Robert Davi and John Ventimiglia. There's nothing wrong with The Iceman, but I imagine I'm not the only person who wonders after watching it why I bothered.
Today is Bruce's 73rd birthday. All week I've been posting Bruce videos on Facebook ... here they are, all in one place:
In 2006, Springsteen released We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, consisting of songs associated with Pete Seeger. The subsequent tour kicked off at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. The Backstreets website writes:
Quite an important night for Springsteen -- when's the last time he really had to prove himself to an audience? Closing out the first weekend of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, following Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint, it was to a decidedly non-partisan crowd; Bruce wasn't preaching to the choir for the first time in a long time, he had a brand new band to boot, and this their first non-rehearsal show.
The Ghost of Tom Joad was a mostly-acoustic album Bruce released in 1995. Rage Against the Machine released a hard rap/rock version. In 2008, Rage guitarist Tom Morello joined Bruce and the E Street Band for an electric version. As Morello tells it, during the rehearsal, he played a very straightforward guitar solo, so none of the band was prepared for what he unleashed in front of an audience. Morello later joined the band as a temporary replacement for Steven Van Zandt on tours in 2013-4, and an electric version of "The Ghost of Tom Joad" featuring Morello's guitar finally appeared on the 2014 studio album High Hopes.
In 2012, Bruce played at the legendary Apollo Theater. It was the first full E Street Band show without Clarence Clemons, who had died less than a year before. (In what now feels inevitable, filling those Big Man shoes was Clarence's nephew, Jake Clemons, who has been with the band ever since.) Celebrity watchers can look for Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Elvis Costello in the audience. Trivia note: Bruce was 62 years old when this concert occurred.
Australia, 2017. Bruce sees a fan in the audience with a sign that reads "Missed school, in the shit now. Can I play Growin Up with you".
Still my favorite Bruce song. He's coming to liberate us, confiscate us:
The Woman King delivers on everything promised in the trailer: great action, powerful women, inspiring story.
Tony and Oscar winner Viola Davis is as you've never seen her before, and it is inspiring to have a black woman in her mid-50s personify the action heroine. There are fine performances throughout the movie, so many that it's not fair to single out anyone in particular (but I'm going to do it anyway and mention Lashana Lynch). Gina Prince-Bythewood gives us strong and coherent action scenes (shoutout to fight choreographer Jénel Stevens). She pulls this off on a budget of only $50 million. Compare that to the $70 million she had to work with on The Old Guard, a solid actioner with Charlize Theron that was released on Netflix, and you'll ask yourself why after proving her action chops, Prince-Bythewood got a smaller budget to make a film centered on Black people.
But then there's the controversy, and while I tended to agree with Prince-Bythewood, who said "You cannot win an argument on Twitter", and I thought this was another case of people condemning a movie before they'd seen it, now I'm not so sure. The Woman King plays as intended if you don't know any of the history of Dahomey. But the more you learn about the history, the more problematic The Woman King becomes. (Julian Lucas has an excellent piece in The New Yorker that illuminates this.) The Woman King does acknowledge some of Dahomey's participation in the slave trade, but it deflects that history to make a "better" story. In the movie, the slave trading is connected to the Oyo Empire, who are the enemies of Dahomey, and the fight led by the Agojie (Amazons) is against slavery. In reality, Dahomey was complicit in the slave trade. As Lucas notes, "'The Woman King' chooses to make resistance to slavery its moral compass, then misrepresents a kingdom that trafficked tens of thousands", and "The film’s conceit is, charitably, an elaborate exercise in wishful thinking: Wouldn’t it be nice if Dahomey’s brave women warriors had also been fighters for justice?"
These are all worthy of discussion ... I have learned more about the history of Dahomey from reading about the protests against the film. As good as the movie is, I'm a bit surprised by the clunkiness of the responses from Prince-Bythewood and Davis to the criticisms. Davis claimed "Most of the story is fictionalized. It has to be." In the same interview, Julius Tennon (a producer on the film who also acts in it and is Davis' husband) says "It's history but we have to take license. We have to entertain people."
This may be why The Woman King, for all its excellence, isn't as good as Black Panther. The latter film is entirely fictional, and so the story can be reflective of reality without needing to copy it. The Woman King wants us to think it's based on fact, but then alters facts to "entertain people".
Our Mothers comes from Guatemala, and tells the story of the trials of the soldiers who committed atrocities against the people during the Civil War. While the trials are always in the background (and eventually come to the front), the central story is of a young forensic anthropologist who thinks he has found his long-lost father who fought for the guerillas.
There in an inherent drama in this story, and the acting has an honesty that deepens the audience's involvement. But César Díaz, who also wrote the screenplay, seems intent on making a movie devoid of sensationalism. An honorable intent, letting the actors and the narrative convey the seriousness of what we are seeing. But the film is too often flat ... it could have used a little sensationalism. Events unfold slowly, and at only 78 minutes, there isn't much time to get to the core of things. The final scenes feel rushed, and we haven't been properly prepared for them. Again, Díaz is to be praised for treating his characters as human beings who have already been exploited too much. But the impact of Our Mothers is dampened.
Breaking, like so many movies, is based on a true story of a Marine war veteran named Brian Brown-Easley who is ready to go over the edge. He has a grievance with the VA about back pay, and he wants the world to know about it, so he goes into a bank and says he has a bomb. That's a setup for a fairly standard movie, but there are a few things that raise Breaking above the norm.
Most important is the performance by John Boyega as the veteran. I've been a fan of Boyega's ever since Attack the Block, made when he was just 19. He has since proven himself as a reliable addition to any cast. He is the center of Breaking, and he is the main reason it is not just another standard film.
Director Abi Damaris Corbin also delivers, in her feature debut as a director (she also co-wrote, with Kwame Kwei-Armah, based on a story by Aaron Gell). She's not a total mystery, although as I write this she doesn't even have a Wikipedia page. From what I gather, she's a bit of a prodigy, graduating from high school at 13 and from college at 17. Breaking is a confident film, showing no sign of inexperience (her 2017 short The Suitcase won several awards ... she's not an amateur). She has received comparisons to Kathryn Bigelow, which is mostly just lazy, but Breaking does make me want to see what Corbin does next.
Finally, the film features the last performance by the great Michael K. Williams. His work here is not revelatory ... it's more that he delivers just as we always know he will. It's always good to see Williams, and it's painful to know that we won't see anything new from him now.
I long considered myself a big fan of the work of Jean-Luc Godard, ever since the first time I saw Breathless and was so taken with it I stayed in my seat for a second straight showing. I never saw a Godard movie I didn't like, with the possible exception of A Woman Is a Woman, and even there, as I once wrote, "I’d still rather watch it than Captain Phillips." Breathless is the standout for me, but I was equally taken with Vivre Sa Vie, and so many others. But I can't really claim to be a big fan in the end, for while I've seen ten of Godard's movies, I never saw any that came after Weekend in 1967. And Godard made more than 100 films after that. I guess I have some catching up to do.
In the middle of the film, Breathless stops for about 20 minutes while Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg talk in her apartment. (I use the actors’ names intentionally … Godard has said the film could be seen as a documentary about the two.) It’s like seeing Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in a prequel to the “Before” movies, if those two played amoral, self-absorbed icons instead of something resembling real people.
Vivre Sa Vie has a documentary sheen, but you can’t say we are encouraged to see it as a form of fictional cinéma vérité, because Godard interrupts our viewing experience in a Brechtian fashion, so we are always aware that the documentary sheen is constructed, not real. I appreciate that the above might suggest a dry film you wouldn’t watch if not forced to do so, but it is nothing of the sort. Anna Karina is as good as she has ever been.
Pierrot le Fou gives us an idea of what Bonnie and Clyde might have been like if that film’s producers had followed through on their attempt to get Godard to direct.
Masculin Féminin is the “children of Marx and Coca-Cola” one. Godard has a love/hate relationship with these young people; the pop singer seems shallow, the pop revolutionary seems, well, shallow, but then there’s the legendary interview with Miss 19, a young woman who makes the other people in the movie seem like Sartre and de Beauvoir. She is treated like the “consumer product” the intertitle calls her, and Godard is not in favor of consumer products. She is verbally destroyed in the scene, so much so that we start to feel sorry for her, which may not have been Godard’s intent. The movie in general is harder on the women than on the men, but they are all children of Coke. It’s not a cheery movie.
Weekend is infuriating, and you might think it doesn’t matter that Godard intends to infuriate. His command of the medium is immense, yet he seems intent on using that mastery solely to break our concentration, to frustrate us, daring us to not like his film.