Thursday, November 30, 2023


Elemental (Peter Sohn
, 2023) We will try to keep this review as pun-free as possible as Pixar's latest release seems to be doing somersaults trying to use every paronomasia to the four classical elements—Earth, Air, Fire and Water—as it possibly can within its slim 100 minute length (including the voluminous Pixar end-credits). The film is so crowded and over-stuffed that one should be glad they stuck with the Empedocles-ian list and tabled the other 118 (and, see, there I go).
It resembles Disney's Zootopia in that it posits a multi-cultural world in which there are segregated zones for the disparate groups of Earth-people, the Vapors, the Combustibles, and Those Who Go with the Flow within Elemental City, a construct that seems to have been made just for such a purpose, as things tend to melt, flow, slide, and burn when the four basics collide and exchange energy.
"Who knows?"
There's an amusing little moment when the two main characters, fiery Ember Lumen (Leah Lewis) and watery Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie) both walk through a chain-link fence—him gushing through and her melting it—where they muse "Why do they even have these?" "Who knows?" Indeed, in a society, however segregated, where barriers serve no purpose to mutual self-interest, what's the point? But, it's just a moment—an aside—that resonates within the bigger context of the movie's intentions.
And that is to show the "immigrant experience" in a film where that will serve as backdrop for the main relationship between Ember and Wade—a sort of "Wet Side Story" if you will (and I wouldn't blame you if you didn't).
Ember comes from the immigrant family of Bernie (
Ronnie Del Carmen) and Cinder (Shila Ommi)—two anglicized names they got when they entered Element City—who left their home island of Fireland for a better life, and who met resistance from moving into the wooden structures of the Earth area (fire danger!) and the Water sector (they'll evaporate the place!) and settled for a walk-up from the bodega they've found in order to make a living and serve the community. Their daughter, Ember, learns the ropes of minding the store, with the aim of taking over the place when the Old Man retires.
But, she has anger-management issues, which turns into a burning purple rage, when dealing obstinate customers. One of those hissy fits results in a broken pipe in the basement, which floods it, dropping Wade, a city inspector, into the mix. Wade is a bit of a sensitive soul, given to crying jags, naturally, so he is distressed to find out that the Lumen store isn't exactly up to code and must report it for multiple violations putting the business in jeopardy of being shut down. This puts him at odds with Ember, who is determined to save the store at all costs.
Though seemingly polar opposites, in nature and purposes, the two become close in their efforts—her to save the store and him to find out why Elemental City seems to be in danger of an infrastructure defect that could threaten to flood the Fire district—even as they know that any sort of relationship could mean...well, extinction or extinguishment for one or both of them. They can't help their natures, but their nature is also to be attracted to each other.
This is a different kind of Pixar movie for a number of reasons. One is that the story takes on the tropes of a film genre that the studio has never partaken before, that of the rom-com. It follows the basic steps—the meet-cute, the diametric odds, the mutual interest, the separating complication, and the final emotional epiphany that resolves all issues until the final fade-out, which leaves everyone in a soggy after-glow that assumes nothing else will compromise the happy ending. Elemental is not immune to such step-by-step manipulation, even if the characters are mere concepts rather than attractive B-listers for Hallmark. It's still a little phony and a lot trite.
The other thing is that although the backgrounds are the same Pixar magic we've come to expect and take for granted, the characters...are concepts, not some animated anthropomorphic projection of identifiable species, more of the type of animation done in the analog 2-D days. Pixar did much the same thing with their animated emotional traits in Inside Out, but they were off-set by more relatable characters in the enveloping story. There is just that couple of degrees of animated "otherness" that keeps one becoming wholly invested in the story.
Still, there are moments; there always are with Pixar, even with their handful of sub-par—and that "par" is very high—releases. There are moments that pay off quite well, even if one feels that the extra polish the film-makers usually do to nail the things feels missing.
It's good Pixar, not great Pixar. But, one awaits the next one with that Disney is allowing them back in theaters again.

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Next Goal Wins (2023)

The Anti-Lasso ("We're Just Asking That You Not Embarrass This Nation Any Further")

FIFA Faux Fun
The story behind Next Goal Wins has been told the 2014 documentary also titled Next Goal Wins. The facts are all there, too. You can look it up.*
It's just never been told by Taika Waititi before.
The story of the American Samoa soccer team attempting to invigorate (hell, "hot-wire" is the better term) their club after a record-book-breaking loss of 31-0 (to Australia) by hiring a coach who'd been fired from his last three coaching positions for anger-management issues is an absurdist nightmare of reaching for the dirt, and failing your way to greatness, the sort of story they don't cover in the sports channels except for a cruel laugh-getter before breaking to the next beer or ED commercial. It's hardly an inspirational story in the Lombardi** circles of "winning is the only thing" quippage. But, it IS a story about survival and dignity and overcoming log-odds humiliation. You know, the place where the other 98% of us live.
Now, I've been seeing a lot of grumbling about Waititi on the inter-webs in anticipation of this film. My general impression from it all is that the New Zealand director has somehow worn out his welcome or gone past his "Sell By" date. Oh, the gripers still like his TV shows—"Reservation Dogs" (on Hulu) and "Our Flag Means Death" (on HBO Max...or is it just "Max" these days?) and, of course, the "What We Do in the Shadows" series (on FX)—everybody likes those, but Waititi long-form seems to make me people cranky.
I don't get it (but I don't "get" a lot of things on the inter-webs). 
Maybe Waititi is too "twee"—that is (by Oxford) "
excessively or affectedly quaint, pretty, or sentimental"—for some folks, but I would argue that Waititi takes on some pretty strong stuff in his movies (Hell-oo, Jojo Rabbit!)—and, as he works in a comedic vein, the effectiveness of his work will, also, always be subjective. Some folks have an under-developed sense of humor while some folks laugh at the the most painful of accidents. Comedians take on the burden of failure just by telling a joke. Waititi may not please everybody (and he certainly doesn't from the comments I've read), but he's also adept at horror and tragedy, frequently mixing things up and finding the absurd in everything.
And a LOT of people...especially those espousing a religious, bed-rock view of their not like that at all (Hey, I didn't like Thor: Love and Thunder, either, but I'm not going to dismiss a director for a dud***). There were just too many good things about What You Do in the Shadows, The Hunt for the Wilderpeople, the afore-mentioned Jojo Rabbit, and Thor: Ragnarok, not least of which was a steadfast impudence to take the material and play with it, rather than merely pay homage.
Okay, okay. How's the film?

Funny, for the main part...despite it beginning "with incredible humiliation." The film starts—after an introduction by Waititi playing a community priest—with a recap of that terrible World Cup defeat, followed by coach Tom Rongen (Michael Fassbender) being brought before a FIFA board with the intent of doing two things: walking him through the five stages of grief, and giving him a "take-it-or-leave-it" offer—he either goes to Samoa to coach the worst team in the league...or they fire him. That two members of the board are his separated wife (Elisabeth Moss) and her current boyfriend (Will Arnett) does not help in any way, shape or form.
Reluctantly, he flies to American Samoa, where he is greeted by the President of the Football Federation American Saomoa, Tavita Taumua (Oscar Kightley), who is also a camera-man/restaurateur/manager of the hotel provided to Rongen. At this point, Rongen considers himself exiled to prison, so he is merely content to drink his troubles away. The first practice does not go well, Rongen resorting to basics, laps, sipping from his SOLO cup and stewing. Then, one of the better players, Jaiyah (Kaimana) shows up late, back from Hawaii and still after-glowing from a great trip.
Next Goal Wins has been called transphobic in some circles (a handful of reviews at the film's film festival premiere) because of this character. Put aside that this is based on a real player, Jaiyah Saelua, fa'afafine in the Samoan culture, an important figure in the sports trans community and is played by a trans actor. This smattering of reviews seem to think that the story is not about the team, but the one character. They play an important part, but are not the main focus of the story. The ultimate sin seems to be at one point, the drunken, frustrated and boorish head coach "deadnames" her to get her to focus. This is, of course, bad behavior. But, what this clutch of clutching reviewers seem to forget is that the coach—at this point in the story—is a bad guy. He's a white...Dutch (cue the colonizer music)...outsider who knows nothing about the culture and needs to be schooled. Call me cisgendered for taking that approach, but also call me a reviewer for looking at the bigger picture. I endeavor to go into a movie without preconceived notions and prejudices. I also try not to watch a movie myopically.
As it is, Jaiyah is the most winning part of the movie and is clearly more defined than the other team members, who, by this time of the movie aren't hoping to win a match...but merely to score a goal. She, to my mind, gains the audience's loyalty at that point and for the remainder of the movie. Not so, the coach. And as the token Aryan in the cast, Fassbender—not known for his comedic chops or his expressiveness—seemed to me to be channeling his inner Charlton Heston, all gritted teeth and furrowed forehead, a stranger in a strange land but determined to buffalo his way through it. And we all know what happened to the buffalo.
Look, it's good. It's funny. It does well by its subject and it will provoke a laugh or two...if you're not sensitive to being shocked into laughter now and again.**** But, then I like the New Zealander humor and brashness (Crikey!). And everybody improves their game.
Look. I'm not an apologist for Waititi. Taste is subjective as is humor. And he's doing more things right than he might be doing wrong.
But, here's the thing: there is a perfectly fine documentary of the story out there if you look around. It just won't be as entertaining.

Which is why we need "irritating" directors like Taika Waititi.
The actual 2014 American Samoa soccer club
* And you can watch highlights (or low-lights, depending on your POV) of it here:  

** Lombardi didn't come up with that "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing" line. He stole it. From UCLA Bruins coach "Red" Sanders who'd been using it since the 1930's. Evidently plagiarism isn't the only thing, either.

*** Yeah, this is mostly a dig at Marvel fans who don't like Waititi's disrespectful treatment of the Marvel Universe, but, if any of the MCU series needed some rejuvenating sass it was the moribund "Thor" series.

Waititi's on tap to do a Star Wars movie in the future.  You have to be a brave soul to walk into that fan-boy viper's nest.

**** One bit had me laughing for a solid 3 minutes after it occurred. Did not see that coming.

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

The Killer (2023)

Skepticism is often mistaken for cynicism. (Suuuure, it is...)

Stick to your plan.
Anticipate. Don't improvise.
Trust no one.
Never yield an advantage.
Fight only the battle you're paid to fight.
Forbid empathy. Empathy is weakness. Weakness is vulnerability. 
Each and every step of the way ask yourself: what's in it for me? 
This is what it takes. 
What you must commit yourself to...if you want to succeed.

It's the mantra by which the hired sniper (played by Michael Fassbender and unnamed except for some wildly amusing aliases on his I.D.'s and credit cards—he can't be accused of identity theft but might be in violation of the recent writer's strike) of David Fincher's The Killer (based on a graphic novel series by Alexis Nolent—ndp Matz—and Luc Jacamon) lives his life and dutifully repeats to himself after all the anticipation stops and he's actually required to pull a trigger—and only then, if his pulse-rate is hovering at 60.
It's the waiting that kills you. He keeps his body in shape with daily exercise, a light diet of protein—McDonald's...really?—and his mind focused with a steady stream of The Smiths and the aphorisms constantly scrolling through his head. 
He is in Paris, taking up temporary residence in an abandoned WeWork space across from a plush Paris penthouse that he constantly eyes for any sign of activity...or of a target. He's received an assignment, but the intended corpse is late. And this gun-man hates that. It's rude, for one thing. And if his intel is wrong about this, what else is off-track? Not that he knows anything about the target. He's not there to judge. "My process is purely logistical," he muses "narrowly focused by design. I'm not here to take sides. It's not my place to formulate any opinion. No one who can afford me, needs to waste time winning me to some cause. I serve no god, or country. I fly no flag. If I'm effective, it's because of one simple fact: I. Don't. Give. A. Fuck ."
But, he does, as far as the inefficiency goes. Cameras are everywhere. And though he purposely dresses as a German tourist to discourage any recognition...or interest...he can't help but think that his constant presence will gradually work against him, despite his M.O. of "redundancies, redundancies, and redundancies." On "Annie Oakley jobs" like this one, it's the details. "It only takes a few episodes of 'Dateline' to know there are countless ways to trip yourself up. If you can think of a dozen, you're a genius. I'm no genius." Later, he will get nostalgic: "When was my last, nice, quiet drowning?"
Maybe he should have waited until the guy got in the hotel pool. It wouldn't be a very interesting idea for a movie if everything went according to his plan. And little-by-little, that mantra becomes increasingly irrelevant and The Great Anticipator finds that he must improvise...a lot. The redundancies, redundancies, redundancies become complications, complications, complications. And, for once, he has to deal with the consequences as they hit closer to home. He finds it tough to be a target.
"I blame you...for having to bring my work home," he muses at one point. 
The Killer is fine, if you don't mind spend spending so much time with a conscienceless sociopath who has the advantage of never having to stick around for the aftermath—that's just something he never needs to calculate. But, when the tables turn and he actually has to give one of those fucks, there is no apparent empathy shift. He's still the coldly calculating death merchant with a penchant for pretense. And given his track record for playing sublimation and even mechanization, Fassbender is the perfect guy to play him. He's on-camera for most of the movie's running time, constantly in the sights of the view-finder and those types of marathons are tough to pull off. But, he does it with a seeming ease as the toughest thing his character can do is crack a smile.
Ultimately, it's a revenge movie—his clients don't like the outcome of the job he was hired for and so they go after him—and he has to methodically go up the chain, finding his contact, finding out his contacts, and taking them out one by one. He finds out "who", but the "why" is a bit of a mystery, unless you ascribe his own philosophy to their motivations:
"From the beginning of history, the few have always exploited the many. This is the cornerstone of civilization. The blood and mortar that binds all bricks. Whatever it takes, make sure you're one of the few, not one of the many." And so he goes about his business. Whatever it takes.
Fincher's direction is full of his feints and slights of hand—the time-transitions in a cut, the "impossible" shots (he did start out in special effects and he's in his wheel-house in a CGI-world—see the video below), all carefully controlled, composed and edited with a distinctive *snap* to them. It all looks simple, but what it takes to achieve that effect is extraordinarily complicated. That it's in service to another "revenge" plot is a bit disheartening. That it's something Fincher has wanted to make for years is more than a little depressing.
Fincher is such a craftsman, that he shouldn't be punching down. Maybe he had an extra commitment to Netflix for making Mank. Maybe he wanted to see if he could curb his instincts for budget and length and make something spare with both. Maybe the option to the graphic novel's film-rights were going to lapse. Or maybe this is his attempt to make a comedy ( although I've always considered Fincher's Fight Club more of a comedy) with its assassin who seems to have grown his habit for internal monologue watching "Dexter." Maybe it's his way of making a "John Wick" movie (why you'd want to, aside from the absurdity of it, escapes me). But, this is more This Gun For Hire than Le Samouraï.
If he was looking to make art, he was aiming a little low.
"Of those who like to put their faith in the inherent goodness of mankind,
 I have to ask, 'Based on what, exactly?'"

Sunday, November 19, 2023

Don't Make a Scene: To Catch a Thief

The Story:  
Alfred Hitchcock: Sex on the screen should be suspenseful, I feel. If sex is too blatant or obvious, there's no suspense. You know why I favor sophisticated blondes in my films? We're after the drawing-room type, the real ladies, who become whores once they're in the bedroom. Poor Marilyn Monroe had sex written all over her face, and Brigitte Bardot isn't very subtle, either. 
Francois Truffaut: In other words, what intrigues you is the paradox between the inner fire and the cool surface.
A.H.: Definitely, I think the most interesting women, sexually, are the English women. I feel that the English women, the Swedes, the northern Germans, and Scandinavians are a great deal more exciting than the Latin, the Italian, and the French women. Sex should not be advertised. An English girl, looking like a schoolteacher, is apt to get into a cab with you and, to your surprise, she'll probably pull a man's pants open. 
F.T.: I appreciate your viewpoint, but I doubt whether the majority of the public shares your tastes in the matter. I think the male audience prefers a highly carnal woman. The very fact that Jane Russell, Marilyn Monroe, Sophia Loren, and Brigitte Bardot became stars, despite the many flops in which they appeared, seems to bear this out. The majority of the public, it seems to me, prefers the kind of sensuality that's blatant. 
A.H.: That may well be true, but you yourself admit that those actresses generally make bad films. Do you know why? Because without the element of surprise the scenes become meaningless. There's no possibility to discover sex. Look at the opening of To Catch a Thief. I deliberately photographed Grace Kelly ice-cold and I kept cutting to her profile, looking classical, beautiful, and very distant. And then, when Cary Grant accompanies her to the door of her hotel room, what does she do? She thrusts her lips right up to his mouth.
Hitchcock/Truffaut p. 167-168 English Translation copyright © 1967 by Francois Truffaut*
I've been seeing a lot of stories popping up in my news-feeds, usually headlined "The Baffling Cruelty of Alfred Hitchcock" which means that I should be looking for a new book on Hitchcock out (there is..."Hitchcock's Blondes" by Laurence Leamer), and there was a review published in The Atlantic—headlined with that "Baffling Cruelty" title—that took its own sweet time mentioning the title of the new book, and cherry-picking the "usual suspects"...Spoto, White, Hedren, et al...not so much in service to reviewing this particular book, but to reviewing Hitchcock...and exposing the review-author's fascination with him. There was nothing new to the article "review", nothing revelatory. It could have been researched and written by ChatGPT.

It's safe to say and uncontroversial to say that Hitchcock was a flawed human, but those same flaws informed his art, hence the collective appreciation of his work among film-scholars and (here's a shock!) audiences. And those audiences recognized their own flaws and fears, peccadilloes and fetishes, in his films and how Hitchcock, a master manipulator, could turn them into "thrillers." And Sir Alfred was such a skilled practitioner of motion-picture directing that he was constantly inventing new ways to thrill, new ways to tell a story with image and even new ways to surprise his audiences after they got used to his old tricks. He knew how to tell a story internationally—through the film-image—and have it work across languages and cultures.
Still, the stories of Hitchcock's obsessions began appearing soon after his death, and became something of an industry after Hitchcock's daughter, Patricia, died.
I have long since stopped judging films by the character of their directors, who by definition are both diplomats and control freaks—and those two traits, in the best and worst of circumstances, are diametrically opposed. I've read things about John Ford that make my hair stand on end. One of my favorite films—a film I consider "perfect"—is directed by Roman Polanski. The entire industry is rife with stories of scandal, and addiction, and manipulation. It's business as usual. Film-makers are obsessed, driven people, seeing things through their tunnel-visioning view-finders. They are control freaks. They create what they want to see...and want us to see. They are story-tellers, liars, manipulators...and most certainly voyeurs. I don't think you can be a director without that last one.

But, Hitchcock is something of a special case. He was always the "naughty little boy," the one his father had the bobbies lock up in a jail-cell to mete out some punishment. That little moment of cruelty at 8 years old is what inspired the many "wrong man scenarios" in his movies, their protagonists fearing imprisonment and the loss of freedom...unjustly. And the director seemed to take delight in the temptation of making the characters in his films miserable. Conversely, he was raised a Catholic, and so he also knew that intertwined with that delight came something else...Shame. There's always an element of "shame" in his films. But, perversely, that only made things better...more delightful. Intellectually, he knew that the two were linked. But, psychologically and emotionally, he was just as susceptible to them as we are.
He never really grew out of that "naughty little boy." Even as he grew older, more insecure and vulnerable...and feared becoming irrelevant. And feared losing whatever control and autonomy he had acquired throughout his career.
But, the last word, ultimately, must go to Oscar Wilde: “Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.”
Think about that when you go over this scene. Who is the one exerting power?
The Set-Up: Former cat-burglar John Robie (Cary Grant), now retired in the French Riviera, is having his post-work life some competition. Apparently, there have been recent jewel-thefts among the glitterati, and the Police (and some old allies) suspect that he is the one who is back in business, given that the modus operandi of the thief resemble his old methods. What's a man to do? Investigate, that's what! With the aid of a friendly insurance adjuster, Mr. Hughson (John Williams), Robie finds out who are the most likely targets for potential sacking. With that in mind, he ingratiates himself with Mrs. Jesse Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis), widow of Jeremiah—and less so with her daughter, Francie (Grace Kelly)—by causing a scene at a local casino, earning him a post "scandale" drink. By the time we start this scene, Mrs. Stevens has had many.


FRANCIE: I think we’d better go to bed, mother. 
MRS. STEVENS: Nobody calls me Jesse anymore. 
Mr. Burns—would you call me Jesse? 
ROBIE: I’d be happy to.
MRS. STEVENS: Mr. Hughson—would you call me Jesse? 
HUGHSON: If you like. 
MRS. STEVENS: Good. I like. (Looks away—then back) Stop worrying. 
(To Robie) Mr. Burns—
you said lumber. 
ROBIE: That’s right. 
She stares at him a moment. Then, slowly and measured— 
MRS. STEVENS: How come you haven’t made a pass for my daughter? 
MRS. STEVENS: (To Francis) And don’t say “mother” to me. (She imitates Francis’s tone) 
Robie glances at Francis. 
MRS. STEVENS: Mr. Burns—I asked you a question.
ROBIE: She’s very pretty. 
ROBIE: Quietly attractive. 
MRS. STEVENS: But too nice. 
I’m sorry I ever sent her to finishing school. I think they finished her there. 
Francis rises, seemingly not disturbed. 
FRANCIE: Come on, mother. 
Mrs. Stevens rises, a little unsteady, Hughson putting out an arm to steady her elbow. 
MRS. STEVENS: And so up to bed—
—where I can cuddle up to my jewelry. 
She turns to Hughson. 
MRS. STEVENS: You know, Mr. Hughson—as rare and wonderful as they are—
—I think I’d rather have eighty thousand dollars worth of Jeremiahs. 
Robie helps Francie on with her fur, as Mr. Hughson helps Mrs. Stevens on with her stole. 
HUGHSON: (Stretches) Well, I think I’ll toddle along to my cot. 
ROBIE: (To Francie) I’d be happy to escort you to your suite. 
FRANCIE: (Over her shoulder) That’s very thoughtful of you— Mr. Burns. 
(To mother) Come on, Jesse. 
MRS. STEVENS: (To Robie) Do you make much money at lumber, Mr. Burns? 
ROBIE: Right now building is booming. 
MRS. STEVENS: (Thinks this over) Mmmm hmm. 
Would you mind —if I had you—investigated—a little? 
ROBIE: Certainly not. Any particular reason? Not at all. With what object?
MRS. STEVENS: If I were Francie’s age—you’d sound too good to be true. 
Robie smiles. 
Mrs. Stevens, Robie and Francie are coming down toward THE CAMERA.
They stop at the door to our left. 
Mrs. Stevens is unsteady. Without even trying the key, she hands it to Robie. 
He takes it, opens the door. 
MRS. STEVENS: Thank you, Mr. Burns—
there is very little lumber around here. Just why did you come to the Riviera anyway? 
ROBIE: To meet someone as charming as you. 
MRS. STEVENS: (Turns into doorway) Boy! Now I am going to have you investigated! 
She starts to close the door behind her. 
Robie turns to Francis. 
ROBIE: Aren’t you going in? 
Francie starts to move away. The CAMERA RETREATING. 
FRANCIE: I’m down the other end. 
The door closes behind Mrs. Stevens. 
Robie walks after Francie, and the CAMERA GOES quite a way down the corridor.
It passes one door, and 
Francie finally comes to a halt at the third door which leads into the suite. 
She puts her key in the lock. 
The CAMERA PANS her as she starts to pass through the door. Robie remains in the foreground. 
She stops in the open doorway, and turns to look back at him. 
She studies him for a brief moment with a calm expression. 
Then quickly steps forward and
presses her lips on his.
At the same time, the CAMERA MOVES IN to big heads. 
She breaks away, 
turns, enters the doorway 
and closes it behind her. 
Robie stares at the blank door. 
When he tarns back to the CAMERA, 
there is a thoughtful look on his face, 
and a lipstick smear across his lips.
He turns away,
and retraces his steps slowly up the hall,
taking a handkerchief out of his pocket to wipe off the lipstick.
He slows up as he reaches the door through which Mrs. Stevens went. 
To Catch a Thief is available on Paramount Home Entertainment—the only one they kept the rights to!
* From the "Hitchcock/Truffaut" tapes:
the point where they have this discussion starts at about 17:00 into the video.
You'll hear that the actual discussion is quite changed from the book's transcription.