Heretofore unmentioned movie reviews

I forgot to post these movie reviews, which all ran in LGBT Weekly over the last few months.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Wonder WomanI was unable to see the mega-hyped, mega-budget Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice before other critics ran their reviews. And because many of the reviewers were so dismissive or so hyperbolic in their criticism, the news of the film’s opening was overshadowed by the blood sport of Internet overkill. The Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern called it “underdeveloped, overlong and stupendously dispiriting” and NPR’s Chris Klimek described the film as “a ponderous, smothering, over-pixelated zeppelin crash of a movie scored by a choir that sounds like it’s being drowned in lava.” A meme of Ben Affleck’s dejected facial expression in response to hearing about the reviews was shared by millions of people who weirdly find glee in the sadness of others. I found it impossible to avoid knowing that a lot of people thought the movie was terrible. But when I did see it, I was perplexed. While BvS is certainly not a masterpiece of the genre – neither as morally complex and smart as The Dark Knight nor as fun and thrilling as The Avengers – it is hardly a “zeppelin crash.” It’s pretentious and bombastic and it rewrites the central ethos of its main characters in ways that are disconcerting for some longtime fans. But it’s not an ineptly made film. [Read the rest.]

Hello, My Name Is Doris

Hello, My Name Is DorisAt various times in my life, I’ve frequented nightclubs: loud music, overpriced drinks, spinning lights, smoke machines and usually young people dancing in outfits chosen to attract the gaze and attention of other, hopefully very attractive dancers. Occasionally, people would stick out. A guy who arrived in loafers and Dockers, a bachelorette dancing in a white veil and an older person in what someone might call “age-inappropriate clothing.” There’d be that one woman over 60 in a miniskirt, a glittery wig, chunky earrings and an original Sex Pistols concert T-shirt. I always loved this woman, not just because it takes a lot of guts to go dancing in a club full of kids younger than her children (if she had any), but also because I knew she had a story, a good story. Hello, My Name is Doris is one such story. Starring a brilliant Sally Field and co-written and directed by Wet Hot American Summer’s Michael Showalter, the delightful Doris is both heartfelt and cringeworthy. [Read the rest.]

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny

Sword of DestinyCrouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is one of those movies that everyone likes. The seamless blend of ground-breaking martial arts action, two epic love stories, feminist character arcs, high art visuals, gorgeous music and the great director Ang Lee made the film beloved of everyone from teenage action fans to cineastes, men and women, boys and girls. More than once, I was told seeing it was like seeing Star Wars for the first time – revelatory. Even though the film is based on the fourth novel of The Crane-Iron pentology by Du Lu Wang, no one seriously suggested that Ang Lee make the prequels or a sequel. But the Weinstein Company is never one not to see branded opportunity, and 15 years later they decided to make a film based on the fifth of Wang’s books, Iron Knight, Silver Vase, and release it on Netflix and in theaters simultaneously. (Most theaters balked.) Despite hiring Woo-Ping Yuen to direct and convincing Michelle Yeoh to reprise her iconic role as Shu Lien, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny is forgettable, mostly pleasing as a reminder of a much, much better movie. [Read the rest.]


Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) reacts to Colossus’ (voiced by Stefan Kapicic) threats.

Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) reacts to Colossus’ (voiced by Stefan Kapicic) threats.

One of the problems with the takeover of popular culture by Marvel and DC superheroes is how seriously the stories take themselves, how easy the morality is and how family-friendly everything is. Monster-budget films likeThe Avengers and the upcoming Batman vs Superman, or network dramas like The Flash andAgents of SHIELD, aim to reach the broadest audience possible, which means no swearing, little irony and barely a hint of sex. (The Netflix shows Daredevil andJessica Jones are the exception, as they are niche shows.) Then there’sDeadpool, the raunchy, hyper and hilariously violent, anti-hero’s tale that exploded a dozen box office records last week. Based on one of the edgiest characters in the Marvel X-Men universe, the film both panders to the basest sensibilities of the young men who make up the lion’s share of comic book fans and mercilessly mocks superhero story conventions. [Read the rest.]

Hail, Caesar!

Hail, Caesar!While I am a huge fan of the Coen brothers, I must acknowledge that they make some odd decisions that produce some ambiguous if not totally perplexing moments: The off-screen death of a major character in No Country for Old Men, the tornado that ends A Serious Man, the lack of any plot in Inside Llewyn Davis and pretty much all of The Big Lebowski. Usually, these weird scenes are aesthetically so interesting or so funny or, after some thought, thematically satisfying that the Coens get away with them, and they often end up being the most iconic parts of the films. But it doesn’t always work that way. Maybe I need a few months to think about Hail, Caesar! but right now, the over-stuffed incoherence and very odd political choices in the film don’t work. It’s rather unfortunate, too, because the Coens put together a fantastic cast and crafted a dozen or so near-genius scenes in Hail, Caesar! – including Channing Tatum in a nearly epic song-and-dance number – but it would have been nice to see they serve some purpose. [Read the rest.}

The Revenant

The RevenantA great deal has been written, said and tweeted regarding how, for the second year in a row, each one of the 20 actors nominated for an Academy Award this year are white. According to the Los Angeles Times, the Academy is 94 percent white, 2 percent African American and less than 2 percent Latino. The median age is 62, and only 14 percent of the membership is under 50. And 77 percent of members are men.

Even if Hollywood as a whole is supposedly very liberal, old white men are in general not likely to support people of color – in whatever venue, whether film awards or politics.

The Revenant, a ruthless and bombastic tale of revenge in the cold western American frontier, is the kind of movie many men like. The Academy nominated it for 12 Oscars, more than any other this year, and the film is currently holding an 8.3 rating on IMDb, ranking it as the 124th greatest movie of all time. About 80,000 of the IMDb votes came from men, and 13,000 from women. I don’t want to say that men like The Revenant so much because no woman speaks in it, but of the two female characters, neither have audible lines in their few minutes on screen. (One is murdered, the other is raped.) According to the site’s stats, the women who saw the film rated it nearly as high as men, but any film executive will tell you that fewer women are drawn to films so violent, so depleted of female voices or faces, and so focused on themes of classic male heroism. [Read the rest.]

Beautiful loser

Inside-Llewyn-Davis-featIn the early 1960s, many of the now-iconic folk singers earned their followings and made reputations in the smoky, cramped clubs in New York’s Greenwich Village. This is where you could hear Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, or Joni Mitchell, and be close enough to see the spittle on their lips. As history usually works, we only know the stories of the victors, and in this case, the Dylans and the Mitchells are who we imagine on those tiny stages as we sing along with their records. The failures, however, failed to become history and their voices, songs, and struggles have been swept into the sewers of memory. Some of them were just as deserving but for some reason didn’t connect with a massive audience or a smart record label. Or they just didn’t have the right personalities; narcissists, jerks, depressives drunks, all of the above. The Coen Brothers, among America’s great artists who have managed to embed themselves in history, have imagined one of those Greenwich Village figures who didn’t.

In the winter of 1961, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is sleeping on the couches of the friends who aren’t angry with him, reeling from the suicide of his former singing partner and a furtive affair with his married friend Jean (Carey Mulligan). His solo album, titled Inside Llewyn Davis, is not selling at all, and his gigs aren’t paying. And then Jean tells Oscar that she’s pregnant and doesn’t know if it’s his or her husband Jim’s (Justin Timberlake), so she has to get an abortion. Oscar sets off the find the money for the procedure while also trying to get his career going, and this leads him to session work, wandering through the cold streets of Manhattan, and in a car on the way to snowy Chicago with hobbled, caustic jazz musician Roland Tuner (John Goodman) and his greaser valet Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund). Throughout, Oscar carries, loses, and chases an orange tabby cat.

While this does sound like a lot of plot, the Coens don’t much believe in the traditional, tried-and-true structure of stories. Stuff happens, scenes move with drama and humor, but people don’t change in the movies they write.(Their adaptations, like No Country for Old Men and True Grit are different. About Inside Llewyn Davis’s lack of plot, Joel Coen said, “That concerned us at one point; that’s why we threw the cat in.” The cat doesn’t help, because it seems so symbolic that I kept trying to figure what it was symbolic of – and I never did.

llewyn-davis-cat-gifBut we are privy both to lines and images that get stuck in your head, and Inside Llewyn Davis has many: Oscar Isaacs holding the cat on the subway as it stares at the stations going by to Isaacs shuffling through the snow outside a Chicago bus station, from one of his hosts screaming at him about testicles to Cary Mulligan’s swearing tirades, from Adam Driver’s hilarious baritone noises on a song called “Please Mr. Kennedy” to John Goodman’s monologues, which are among the best the Coens have ever written. And the songs, produced by T. Bone Burnett and Marcus Momford, are wonderful, gorgeous and moving when they’re supposed to be, dated and silly when they’re supposed to be.

As is usual with the Coens, each performance is strong and idiosyncratic. After a decade of working mostly under the radar, Oscar Isaacs will now be recognized as a leading man; his Llewyn is funny, crass, desperate, and musically moving, if not terribly likeable. Mulligan’s role is small but loud and snide, and she’s great fun. Timberlake has little to do, but his naïve sweetness is a great counterpoint to Isaacs. Goodman’s barely alive Falstaffian monster is the best part of the movie, and I hope he is not forgotten at Oscar time. The film itself will be nominated for many, but as good as it is, Inside Llewyn Davis may end up lost in the stack of their better films. Not forgotten, but not iconic either.

Inside Llewyn Davis
Written and Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen
Starring Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, and John Goodman
Rated R
Opens in San Diego December 20