Last week I made my way out of the Facebook forest and decided to take a brief hiatus from the constant barrage of input, positive as well as negative, and try to clear my head a little. I’ve already pretty much abandoned Twitter for the same reasons (How do all you Twitterers have the time to be constantly Tweeting and following other people’s feeds?), but that was never a platform I felt all that comfortable with anyway. But after only a week and change I already feel the Facebook junkie’s craving, and I wonder how much longer I can hold out before I initiate another indulgence of my addiction. The pull of the sense of community that naturally develops is, for better or worse, something I miss— though I have been lurking, I miss taking part in the discussions of posts made by my family and my smartest friends, and of course I miss posting myself—all the trivial stuff, like cat pictures (of my own cats) and silly memes, all the politically angry stuff, and all the random bits and pieces on whatever movie I happening to be watching. I don’t know that there’s all that many folks who care about what I’m putting on my page, but I enjoy interacting with those who do show up and drop a comment every now and again.
So, I may be back to Facebook a little sooner than I first expected. But in the meantime, there’s a whole week’s worth of Facebook posts I never made, observations about movies and other stuff that I could have made but, because of my self-imposed exile, I didn’t. And because I have this particular forum, you (if you should choose to continue reading), get to pay the price. Here’s some of the stuff that I would have laid on my Facebook page in the past week that at least I thought might be interesting.
I just saw Super Fly (1972) again last weekend, after maybe 40 years. A huge hit upon its release, right at the beginning of the short-lived “blaxploitation” trend of the early ‘70s, it’s a movie about which many viewers, black and white, hold a great deal of ambivalence. Is it a tale of black empowerment, of sticking it to the (white) man who holds the power structure in place which keeps African-Americans and other people of color down? (I can get behind that.) Or is it an amoral tale of a cocaine dealer whose primary worry is moving enough blow to get him out of the business for good, regardless of the effect his product has on the community at large? (Harder to justify.) And stitching the whole thing together is Curtis Mayfield’s excellent song score, maybe the best one ever created for a movie, a score that rather famously subverts the movie’s refusal to comment on the ramifications of the lead character’s trade by creating a running, and very catchy commentary on the movie’s social context, including harsh criticism of the very drug trade the movie could be credibly accused of glorifying. My first viewing of Super Fly was as a 12-year-old who thought the whole thing was awesome, or whatever word we used back then. Seeing it again in 2018, the movie seems like a lackluster effort, especially compared to the relative integrity on display in Shaft, the trenchant social criticism of Trick Baby, and certainly to the snap, crackle and funk of Pam Grier’s best movies, Coffy and Foxy Brown. I was struck not only by how contrapuntal Mayfield’s score is to the attitude and action we see on screen, but also by how independently it seems to exist from the movie as well. We are a long way here from the way music and image is cut together today– the images and the rhythms of Super Fly the movie seem to operate as if unaware of the music being used to bolster its power. This is a good and a detrimental thing, I think, at the same time—it almost negates the need for the typical dialogue scenes in favor of just showcasing the music, as if on a “music only” DVD track. But it also throws into relief just how indifferently, how artlessly the movie is constructed dramatically. Mayfield’s music is so independent, operating on a perceptively different plane than the entire enterprise, that it comes as almost a shock to see Curtis Mayfield and his band actually in the movie during a nightclub sequence early in the film. So, Mayfield was directly involved during the movie’s production—he wasn’t just hired to lend an overall cohesiveness to the project, which makes it an even more monumental achievement how he was able to if not undermine, then at least provide an alternate take to the movie’s amoral perspective on the Harlem drug trade in the early ‘70s.
Film critic Odie Henderson wrote a revealing post on the movie and his experiences with it back in 2012, and you can read that piece right here.
And while we’re on the subject of classic “blaxploitation” music, next to Mayfield’s brilliant work on Super Fly, I think my favorite song score would have to be Roy Ayers’ contribution of Pam Grier’s (and Jack Hill’s) Coffy, featuring Ayer’s great theme (“Coffy is the color”) and the terrific music he wrote to accompany the picture. And Marvin Gaye wrote the theme and score for another “blaxploitation” movie which I’d never seen before last week—Trouble Man, directed by Ivan Dixon from a script by John D.F. Black, who co-wrote Shaft. The movie is routine—not without interest, but also not anything too exciting either. Gaye’s theme song, however, is a genuine classic, certainly on a par with Mayfield’s “Super Fly.” Which is why, after knowing Gaye’s recording of “Trouble Man” for so many years, it was disconcerting to discover that not only is the song used only once in the movie, and not appealingly woven into the movie’s instrumental score, but that the recording of the song used over the opening credits is a different recording than the familiar version from the movie’s soundtrack album. This was true of the version of Isaac Hayes’ “Theme from Shaft” heard in that movie as well, but Hayes’ vocals were close enough that even though one can recognize the difference between it and the album version (which got plenty of radio play by which to embed itself in our collective brain), listening to it wasn’t a disorienting experience. Not so the “Trouble Man” heard over the opening credits of Trouble Man—it’s an oddly-mixed version, which the familiar instrumental track laid way low underneath a strange combination of vocal track that apparently is Marvin Gaye, but honestly doesn’t sound much like him. It was so strange, Gaye’s recognizable falsetto laid over a lower-octave take that almost sounds like spoken word, that at first I thought we were supposed to understand that it was the movie’s antihero, private eye Mr. T (Robert Hooks), singing along to the song in his car! I’ll stick with the record, thank you.
Another look at Roy Ward Baker’s nifty Technicolor noir Inferno (1953) this week. The movie was shot in 3D, though it’s notable for its lack of typical “throw things at the camera” 3D trickery. Baker apparently was more fascinated by the stereoscopic process’s ability to make his actors stand out among the harsh, yet beautiful desert landscapes in which Robert Ryan finds himself trying to escape being abandoned to die by his wife (Fleming) and her none-too-sympathetic lover (William Lundigan). The result is a movie in which the 3D settles in and becomes a stylistic choice rather than just a jokey novelty—it’s more like watching a View-Master in motion, albeit one designed both for maximum effect while simultaneously allowing the 3D to almost disappear, a window on the natural world by way of a less-than-natural optical illusion.
Two movies logged on my new Movie Pass this week: Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World and Jaume Collett-Serra’s The Commuter. I wouldn’t have relished paying full price to see either one, but with the Movie Pass it’s a no-sweat situation. I suspect I’ll be returning to something closer to my previously ravenous theatrical movie habits if I’m not faced with the ugly prospect of laying down $17 for the very real possibility of disappointment. Movie Pass takes the danger away, so seeing a movie like All the Money in the World, an overall compelling thriller with an oddly slack center, isn’t so painful when it doesn’t quite measure up. By the way, Christopher Plummer makes a great J. Paul Getty, right down to the shape of his head—he’s a creepy ringer for the ex-richest man on the planet, especially compared to the doughy old-age makeup his predecessor, Kevin Spacey, was buried in. But the movie’s secret weapon is Michelle Williams, once again quietly devastating, and sporting a subtle, high-society East Coast accent that sounds at once eerily authentic and unlike anything I’ve heard for myself in real life. She’s great.
The Commuter is the better movie, I think, a real old-fashioned popcorn thriller by a director who is slowly become a confident master of the genre, pitting Liam Neeson once again in a pressure situation—he’s an ex-cop who must ID a government witness, who will subsequently be subjected to assassination, or his family, and likely other passengers on the train will be killed. That the movie doesn’t seem to hold up in the logic department doesn’t seem to matter much while you’re watching it, so sharp and funny is the filmmaking, abetted by Neeson’s tensile conviction and a trainload full of interesting faces who all end up with a good scene or two to help them stand out. It’s only on the commute home are you likely to start the head-scratching, kinda like I did.
I bet I saw Juzo Itami’s Tampopo six or seven times in the theater when I first moved to Los Angeles. The movie was my introduction to Japanese food culture and it had the power then, as it does now, to render me completely hungry even if seeing it, as we did tonight, directly after a meal. The difference for me between 1987 and 2018 is that all the movie’s once-exotic food is so familiar and comforting to me now. The movie itself is like that too— it may have become even richer over the past 30 years, a limber, observant satire of Japanese culture, and movie culture, that has the loose-limbed trajectory of improvisation without sacrificing focus, purpose, or soul at the altar of self-indulgence. And Nobuko Miyamoto’s performance as the titular would-be-great ramen chef is more wondrous than ever, capable of reducing me to tears mid-laugh in a single, unexpected close-up, just as it always could. Tampopo is one for the ages.
Jared Hess’s 2015 religious satire Don Verdean, starring Sam Rockwell, Amy Ryan, Will Forte and Jemaine Clement somehow never crossed my plane of consciousness when it was (barely) released about two years ago, and those critics who did see it didn’t have many good things to say. But any movie that can be described as a satire surrounding a self-professed biblical archaeologist who starts to bend the truth in order to continue inspiring the faithful is, to my mind anyway, a must-see. And after reading Richard Brody on the movie in The New Yorker, I’m more convinced than ever that Hess’s movie might be right up this agnostic’s alley.
And two movies for which, as we roll into Oscar season, I held considerably less love than most critics and guilds handing out year-end awards. I caught up with The Florida Project last week, and I must confess that, though I recognize it as being “well-made” and “uncompromising,” and though I found the final images of desperate escape into fantasy satisfying in an unsettling way, spending time in the presence of these characters—the rambunctious, obnoxious kids, but more pressingly the young mother—made me eventually want to push away. I appreciated Sean Baker’s examination of the possibility of childish exhilaration of three aimless children in the shadow of Florida’s Disney World, all while skating the outskirts of abject poverty, and that he didn’t feel the need to make us “like” the mother of the little girl at the movie’s center or even understand her behavior, beyond its aggressive immaturity and anger. But I felt that exhilaration was too fleeting to register as much more than an affectation, and I didn’t find the portrayal of the mother’s emotional and economic stasis compelling enough to make me believe the torture of watching her was entirely worthwhile. At least Willem Dafoe, as the manager of the seedy motel in which all of them spin out their lives day-to-day, was very good, though probably too low-key to make much of a ripple on Oscar’s awareness. At least I don’t have to retrofit my top 10.
I won’t have to for I, Tonya either. This is “edgy satire” for those who like their targets big and fat and juicy and dumb. And for a movie that traffics in contradictory statements and displays of bad behavior repeatedly denied (on camera, often in the scene itself) by characters who openly question the veracity of what’s being seen, the movie comes to a conclusion about the illusory nature of truth which seems closer to Kellyanne Conway’s “alternate facts” and other fake news than to any genuinely disquieting examination of its subject, the rise and hard fall of American skater Tonya Harding. (The more warring perspectives, the less the filmmakers’ imperative to settle on something resembling a point of view.) Aside from one ugly sight gag near the beginning– Harding’s mother unexpectedly kicking a chair out from underneath her 10-year-old daughter’s chair—I don’t find a lot to the charges that the movie makes a joke out of the abuse Harding suffered, at the hands of her mother, or her lame-brained husband Jeff Gillooly, whose misguided notions of expressing his love for Tonya (if you can believe the guy in the movie anyway!) set in motion the destruction of Harding’s career. And I do think that Margot Robbie’s performance is noteworthy—she’s far too conventionally pretty to accurately convey Harding’s fiercely embedded lack of self-worth, but she stands out, both in her physical presence and her guarded emotional stance, as the older Harding, recipient of a legal and media brutalization for which, no matter how you sense the movie view her overall, she’s not entirely blameless.
But am I alone in finding Alison Janney’s performance a tad on the overrated side? Janney could do this role in her sleep, and from the approach she takes, it almost seems as if she has, taking a one-note concept and streaking past subtle observation on her way to coronation as a gargoyle worthy of permanent installation in Norman Bates’ fruit cellar. Technically she’s impeccable. But when Janney is given almost nothing to do but scowl and swear vilely, without modulation, in every scene and in the presence of every single person she interacts with, the “joke” of her tone-deaf hostility—which she shares with Tonya, who never met a well-meaning coach or even an earnestly inquisitive police officer she wouldn’t greet with a petulant “What the fuck?”– wears thin fast. It takes a pretty bitter pill to make this old salt want to swear off swearing, but after two hours of Robbie and Janney, all I wanted to see was something that had had its mouth properly soaped.
The screenwriter is the violator at whose feet these weaknesses, and several others, must be laid. When one character, a reporter for Hard Copy, expresses astonishment at a stupid move made in a story populated entirely by stupid people, all the movie’s pretensions to a Rashomon-esque dissection of fictionalized truth crumble quickly. I would have much preferred a stylistically dull talking-heads documentary, or even better a piercing Alex Gibney-style documentary about Tonya Harding and the ensuing media hypocrisy swirling around her case, to the relentless flippancy that cripples I, Tonya. If this movie is “the GoodFellas of figure skating movies” (whatever the hell that means), I’ll take 100 ccs of Sonja Henie, stat.
Lest I come off too cranky at the end, let me offer up a hearty recommend for Christopher Landon and Scott Lobell’s Happy Death Day which, if we’re going to play the I, Tonya game, is certainly the Groundhog Day of slasher thrillers. Anchored by a terrific, cagey performance by Jessica Rothe (La La Land), HDD is the story of a bitchy sorority sister who must, repeatedly, relive the day of her own murder and solve the mystery of the identity of the killer, who wears an unsettling baby-face mask(think Michael Palin in Brazil, or even better, Who Framed Roger Rabbit‘s Baby Herman), before she ultimately runs out of deja-vu days and stays dead. The movie deftly plays with the disease that often afflicts these sorts of movies—the revelation of the killer being far less interesting than the trip toward the unmasking—by recognizing that inevitable disappointment and weaving it (and its antidote) into the fabric of the storytelling itself. And that I guessed who just had to be the killer way early on did nothing to dispel the fun of Happy Death Day, which has enough visual invention and sharp, funny performances for three similar movies of its ken. (And if I can guess such a mystery correctly, you can bet everyone else watching will have probably figured it out at least 15 minutes earlier.) This is a funny, sorta scary, altogether surprising and inventive little movie; along with Cult of Chucky it puts a happy face on a genre whose modern entries are often too nihilistic or just too baseline stupid to be believed. And as far as its source inspiration, it does Groundhog Day proud too.
Jeez, I write this much on Facebook in a typical week? No wonder I needed a break!