Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Drive-Away Dolls

"Personal Effects"
"We Didn't Deserve...this Commodification."

It's been a few years since the Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan, made a film—the last one was the western anthology The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (and Other Tales of the Western Frontier) back in 2018. That was for Netflix, and one wondered if they were tired of the business grind of securing funding and distribution deals developing theater-ready product. Buster Scruggs was episodic and eclectic, and it felt a bit like the Coen Brothers' version of The White Album, showing their strengths, but also their divisions, which seemed invisible in their one movie-one story efforts. 
The Wisdom of the Tribe (although one hates to credit any Entertainment Press with "wisdom") had always been that Ethan wrote and Joel directed, but the two contributed to each others' jobs so much that there was no clear demarcation line about who did what. They even shared editing duties (using the name "Roderick Jaynes" as a mutual nom de tranche).

So, it was a bit sad to hear that they were going to have a trial separation; one doesn't take this talk too seriously—how many times has Soderbergh quit and how many "last films" has Quentin Tarantino made? But, it seemed like the Coens meant it. Joel made a stark version of The Tragedy of MacBeth--that emphasized stagey minimal sets and maximum shadows, the better to appreciate the performances, especially of Denzel Washington and his wife, Frances McDormand. For his part, Ethan Coen hunkered down with his wife Tricia Cooke to produce a documentary, Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind.* Now, they've made a film of a script the two had written 1999, Joel directing and Tricia editing.
Drive-Away Dolls—or as its titled in the movie, Henry James' Drive-Away Dykes—is basically, a road movie with serio-comic violence. It tells the tale of a Mutt-and-Jeff lesbian duo—uptight, repressed Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan) and free-spirit Jamie (Margaret Qualley)—who take a break from their normal lives and relationship break-ups and the up-coming turn of the millennium ("Y Not 2k?") to go birding in Tallahassee. That's the original idea, although Jamie road-maps it out to visit every dyke bar en route. Then, there's the mode of transportation: they use a drive-away service, which gives them a car for a one-way trip as long as they deliver it to the destination on time.
Sounds great. But, the guy at the service gives them the wrong car. After they drive off, "Chief" (Colman Domingo) shows up with two goons, Arliss (Joey Slotnick) and Flint (C.J. Wilson) looking for it, and upon hearing that it's gone telephones his boss for instructions. Those turn out to be "beat up the service guy and find those girls," which would be easy if Jamie hadn't mapped out such a circuitous route from Philadelphia to Florida. So, while Arliss and Flint begin investigating several wild goose chases (and coming out the worse for it), Jamie and Marian take their meandering time and, inevitably, don't show up at the agreed-drop-off point on-time.
Perhaps if they knew what was in the trunk of the car they're driving they'd be a little more responsible (well, Marian, anyway), but a blow-out along the way forces them to look for a spare and what do they find?
Well, I ain't sayin' (so no spoilers here), but it's a member in the long line of McGuffins and Whats-its in movies from Kiss Me Deadly, Repo Man and Pulp Fiction (well, the last two filching it directly from Kiss Me Deadly) and we've already seen one guy (
Pedro Pascal) get killed for it in a prologue at the beginning of the film. And it's what Arliss and Flint and Chief and the guy on the other end of the phone are after and they'll do anything to get it back. Thus, intrigue, threat of danger, and mystery.
But, really, not really. Just from my description you can tell that Drive-Away Dolls hallmarks quite a few Coen Brothers traits—the contrasty duos (but without Steve Buscemi, this time!), the ginned-up danger, the what's-it-all-mean empty space that's supposed to be wrapped up tidily at the end. Except for the lesbian angle, it's a little bit rote, and more-than-a-bit familiar while still striving be be out-RAGE-ous...think along the lines of past Coens like Burn After Reading or Intolerable Cruelty, or even The Ladykillers, where there's something about it that just doesn't gel, although you know they're throwing everything but Joel's kitchen sink at it.
And that may be the issue. There's a formality to Joel Coen's direction that just isn't here—a rigor amidst the dishevelment—that cements things into a cohesive package that feels of a piece. Brother Ethan just ratchets up the lampoonery as if he was trying to goose the material with false energy. Compound it with Cooke's editing whimsy with some graphic transitions that are a bit too Tarantino-cute on top of it all. It doesn't pay off. And there's maybe a couple flash-backs too many, although the out-of-left-field psychedelic sequences (with cameos by Miley Cyrus) associated with the contraband aluminum suitcase ultimately seem more essential the more one thinks about it.
It sure tries hard (and the actors, which also include 
Beanie Feldstein and Matt Damon, give above and beyond, with Qualley and Viswanathan the stand-outs as the fast-talking and the dead-panning hub around which everyone revolves) but Drive-Away Dolls, even with its pedal to the metal, never quite achieves the anarchic spirit it so desperately wants to convey.
The word is that the Brothers are re-uniting to make a horror movie. I get shivers just thinking about it.

* I've seen it, but won't write about it much. It consists of archival footage of Lewis performances and interviews, edited by Cooke in a fairly tight summation of his life and career. But, interestingly, it has little editorial point of view, other to note at the end that Lewis lived longer than his musical  peers, two of his kids, and a couple of his seven ex-wives...and that, he was a self-taught piano player...even re-teaching himself after a 2019 stroke. Amazing, given his instinctual, visceral keyboarding.

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Superman Returns

While doing work on The B/C-L Index—you are using it, aren't you?—I come across reviews that haven't been thrown on here. This one is an oddity. It's the first movie review I wrote after a long time of just letting movies rattle around in my head. It's rough with way Too Much Information about my personal life for me to be comfortable with it, and too much "What I Had for Dinner"-type information that just seems irrelevant to the subject at hand (that being the movie). Still, it was an interesting read (for me, at least). If I haven't improved since then, I've at least learned to stay more on track...which for a blog about movies is important.

You'll Believe a Man Can Float

Driving home from Superman Returns in 4-story IMAX and 3-freepin'-D on Wednesday night, I was listening to KIRO Newsradio. Thousands were evacuating, fearing the cresting of the Delaware River. Andrea Yates was convicted (again) of killing her kids. A public official was lost in the Olympic Forest.

"Man!" I thought. "We could really use Superman."

I knew I needed him. It had been a rough week of moving furniture and hauling myself from The Island to The Redmond. I was swamped at work and I had to take Tuesday off for the transfer of our big stuff from The Place What We're Selling to the current domicile, so my Wednesday started at 4 am (just in time for the sunrise) to get started early on due assignments. After all this, I was looking forward to seeing friends I hadn't ages, and seeing the new "Superman movie". I was really looking forward to that. I've been pretty discouraged lately, and a new Superman movie...well, that seemed just the ticket. The previews for it were great.
So, how is it?

Good! Not as good as
Superman: The Movie. Better than Superman II (which I've never liked) and it's Shakespeare compared to the moronic Superman III: Wasting Richard Pryor and the incompetent Superman IV: The Quest for Peace ("You'll Believe a Movie Can Stink to Highest Heaven!").
But everyone will be comparing it to the first one. As well they should. Superman Returns should be called "Son of Superman" (*ahem* cough!) as it's so closely tied to the first film. It recycles 
Marlon Brando as Father Jor-El, and recycles whole sections of the first film's Mario Puzo/Robert Benton/David Newman/Tom Mankiewicz script, including my favorite Lex Luthor line: "My father always told me..." "Get out!"
But, Superman: The Movie was really three films: The deadly earnest Krypton section ("This is no fantasy" intoned Brando at the beginning); the equally serious Smallville/Fortress of Solitude section (with 
Glenn Ford's last great performance, and a farewell to Ma Kent scene in a seemingly endless epic wheat field); and finally, the Metropolis movie, with its antic screwball comedy pace (brilliantly achieved, by the way), it's cartoonish villains ("Otis-burg? O-TIS-BURG???!!!") with their absurdly successful attempts at stealing nuclear missiles, and at its soul the "Superman Meets Girl" romantic comedy story-line. I've always felt that lurching shift in tone was a bit out of step with the rest of the film (though you could make a case for showing that stalwart Superman is needed in such a crazy, zany world). Now, I'm not so sure. Because Superman Returns keeps the earnest tone of the first couple sections of the original throughout its considerable length. More cohesive it may be, but it's not more entertaining. In fact, it tends to bog down the proceedings, which consists of "regrets and things unsaid" which would have made Richard Donner's His Girl Friday pacing inappropriate. Which only points out how large the gulf is between that first film and this one.
Donner's Superman was a frothy entertainment, that, in the days of disco, long sideburns, and flaired pants, winked at the concept of heroics. This one is heavier, darker, meaner and less entertaining. There's less joy to it. And it takes its heroes deadly seriously. You think a guy like Spider-man has great power, thus great responsibility? Hell! Try being "Superman!"
Donner's flying scenes in the first (with a lot of credit going to licensed pilot 
Christopher Reeve) showed the joy of flight--the freedom of it--the grace. Who wouldn't want to fly after "Superman?" "SR's" flights are rarely graceful, and powered by stress. This Superman is always in a hurry. He doesn't stop to smell the up-drafts or do a lazy roll through the clouds. He's making a bee-line from one emergency to another. There's another quality to the SR aerial scenes--isolation. Superman is often seen as a small speck in a big, empty sky with life going on far below him. He's not a part of this Earth, and Singer drives the point home again and again. It's no fun being Superman.
I'll bet audiences have a problem with that: if they were Superman, of course, they'd enjoy it. It brings to mind the Superman scene I'd like to see. Howard Chaykin, of "American Flagg!" comics fame said in an interview how he'd like to start off a Superman comic. Lots of panels of ordinary Metropolitans going about their day only to have them interrupted by a blue-red streak going by their window.
BOOM! Another about to sip his coffee. BOOM! A couple more of those until you get to the "splash" page: Superman, over the ocean, wearing a pair of shades, and popping his fingers, listening to "I Believe in You" (from "How to Succeed in Business (Without Really Trying)) on his Walkman. "You have the cool, clear eyes /of a seeker of wisdom and truth."

Yeah. I'd love to see that Superman.

But despite Returns' seriousness, there are joys.
Brandon Routh looks and sounds so much like Christopher Reeve that it doesn't take a big leap (or a single bound) to accept him in the role. He exhibits a bit more life as Clark Kent than the more stalwart Superman, breaking into a goofy grin at the slightest provocation, and restraining the klutz routine (he doesn't constantly punch up his glasses the way Reeves' CK did). I also like the fact that his performance doesn't have the same "I'm sharing a joke with the audience" quality that Reeve brought to the role. Kate Bosworth is damned cute as Lois Lane** (as a blonde, she barely registers on the screen, but here, her hair darkened brown, she seems to have a bit more depth) and has little of the Margot Kidder neuroticism and (here's a plus!) I don't remember hearing her scream once. I do miss Kidder's whiskey baritone cracking on "Clark!," however.
There could be a bit more life to Frank Langella's Perry White and Kevin Spacey's Lex Luthor. Spacey's Luthor is self-contained malice and only sparks to life during a confrontation scene with Lois. Gene Hackman expertly tred the mine-field of jokes in the first film, but it was tough to buy him as a real threat to anybody but his cronies. Spacey's Luthor is a villain who does bad things...and enjoys doing bad things. Unfortunately, here, you mostly see him prepare to do bad things, and so there's no real pay-off for the character until 2/3 of the way through the film.
There is one cracker-jack sequence involving a doomed airliner that shows that it's pretty darned hard task to stop a plane in free-fall. It's note-perfect, right down to showing the skin of the craft buckling from a lurching halt. The movie has a good bead on the concept of heroism, too. There are a lot of heroics in this film (not just from der Ubermensch) where people who could take the easy way out, go against their better judgement and do What Must Be Done, despite the jeopardy it may put them in. It makes a statement that heroism doesn't come from powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. It comes from the heart, the conscience and the will.

Good movie/bad movie? Thumbs up/Thumbs down? Hard to say at this point. There are some movies that are merely okay while you suffer through them, but are better in memory (Napoleon Dynamite is one of those films: I can laugh at parts of it in retrospect, but I'd have to be kidnapped and a gun placed to my skull to watch it again***). Superman Returns was just the opposite: enjoyable while sitting through it (though I was aware of just how long it was, I didn't quite get to the point of checking the time), but the farther I get from it, I remember what's wrong with it more than what was right. If I had my "druthers," Superman Returns would be lighter than the Batman Begins, the "X-men" films, Spider-man, certainly lighter than Ang Lee's Hulk. At least it wasn't as frivolous as the Fantastic Four. My opinion of it is evolving, and that brings up another issue.
I've noticed an interesting trend in on-line reviews over the weekend. Initially, they're scathing, criticizing every aspect of the film..and harshly, to a ridiculous , often hysterical level. Second viewings produce a more favorable response, even admiration. I suspect that folks go, expecting to see the first film or worse yet, their idealized memory of the first...or second film. In that regards, this one will fail, but it can't help but fail. You can't fight a cherished favorite, or the memory of a cherished favorite. My advice: Go, expecting Superman IV. I know I'm going to see it again. Through the double exposure of the 3-D glasses, I couldn't tell whether the cribbed...sorry, the "homage" shot of Superman flying up, up and away past the audience had its Superman smile benignly at the audience. Like the George Reeves wink at the end of some of the TV shows, and Christopher Reeve's shared smile, it would have been nice to see it in this one. The fact that I didn't disappoints me, and makes me wonder why a decision not to include it, was made. Don't we want Superman on our side? I'll have to see it again. *
My favorite sum-up is by The Stranger's Andrew Wright who grumped: "For a movie featuring a hero who can conceivably give God a wedgie, there's precious little zowie to be found." "Zowie!" as in Adam West clobbering Ceasar Romero "Zowie?"
* And, sad to say, there is no smile on the final fly-by of 2006 Superman. He merely scans the audience with his eyes on the way past, ever vigilant. He probably isn't smiling because of the relatively few bodies he sees in the seats. And the ones that were there are already heading for the Exits. Not exactly what a super-hero expects when he sets out to "watch your back." 
** Hey, c'mon, younger me: Lois Lane shouldn't be "cute".  Lois Lane would curl her lip if you called her that.
*** Yeah, I don't know what my problem was here. I watched it a few years later and fell in love with it and regard it fondly.

A bit of hind-sight from here in 2024: James Gunn is making a new Superman movie with a new "from-scratch" cast and I just read the Internet News says that the "CW" is making a Superman series with Brandon Routh playing the role again—although as it's from the Internet, I'll believe it when I see it on my TV screen. I like Routh. He's gotten looser and more charismatic with age and I bet he could do a fine performance as "Supes" these days (as he did on those recent CW shows).
But, my long-distance memory of Superman Returns tilts it to a "bit of a drag" movie. There WAS no "ZOWIE!" to it. It was dark, dispiriting, mean and vengeful. It lingered on the negative and dismissed the positive.
It should be bright, three-colored and direct. It should take pride in the right and look down on the wrong, not dwell on it. Bad guys shouldn't be taken so seriously; they should be ridiculed...but not by Superman. That would be mean. But, they should be dispatched so that life can go on positively.
And no brooding. Zack Snyder spent so much time having Henry Cavill doubting himself and "his way" that he never got around to showing a good portrait of Superman. And I, for one, am glad he got stopped before he could carry out his "Superman-as-villain" scenario for his planned Justice League series. That would have been just a dreary exercise. As dreary as making Superman a "fair-weather father" as he is in Superman Returns. Not to mention a serial-peeper. The crux of Superman is he's a good guy. Just because he CAN do something, doesn't mean he does. There's a thinking, moral filter there...that the recent incarnations have forgotten about.
Maybe it's because all I see these days (because they're the loudest) are politicians as "anti"-Supermen who don't believe in "Truth" (that's for damn sure!), "Justice" ("Delay, Delay, Delay") and I don't know what the Hell their idea of "The American Way" is (but it probably involves a lead pipe). It would be nice to have an alternative for what America supposedly stands for now.

Sunday, February 25, 2024

Don't Make a Scene: Till

The Story: Till still rumbles around in my mind two years after seeing it. The story of the murder of young Emmett Till—that keeps getting worse the longer the movie plays out—and the excoriating performance of Danielle Deadwyler (which, negligently, was not even nominated for the Oscars) has haunted me a long time.

But, then, it should. Emmett Till's murder was the straw that broke the camel's back (along with the bombing deaths of four children at the 16th Street Baptist Church) in order to get the Civil Rights Act of 1964. When children are the victims of the unthinking and the prejudiced, something's got to give or no communal effort can be considered a society. But, then hate is always the irritant to any formation of a community. How can such a group improve, do better, become "more perfect" when there are elements insisting on doing the opposite. "A house divided cannot stand."
But, Mamie Till doesn't want to hear all that. Her son is dead, and the insanity that caused that act reached up into the government of Mississippi to minimize any "fuss" about it. And it became a time for a single mother to become an activist, a problem that wouldn't go away, and a beacon of decency in contrast to her victimizers...who had none.

It's quite the journey, and it starts on this porch and one goal—get her son's body back so it can't be buried and forgotten in Mississippi (which was official's intent), but bring it home. She would not cooperate with evil. And when she saw the mutilation of her son at the hand of white bigots, she vowed to put their hate on display, giving her son an open casket funeral, for all the world to see what they had done.

How could she do such a thing? Because it had to be done. It had to be shown. It had to be exposed for what it is. Pure evil in the midst of what was considered a society.

And if it's can be dealt with.

It's a superb movie about a horrible event. And teaches a lesson that should never be forgot.
The Set-Up: Emmett Till, all of 14 years old, is dead. Kidnapped, beaten, murdered and his body dumped in the Tallahatchie River, his mother, Mamie Till-Bradley (Danielle Deadwyler) is in shock. She had sent him to Money, Mississippi to spend time with family, but warned him to "be small" and not attract attention among the residents. Now, Mamie, still in shock from the news of her only son's death, is being called on by her cousin Rayfield Mooty (Kevin Carroll), an activist with NAACP, over negotiations to return Emmett's body to Chicago for burial. Mississippi won't do it...for their reasons. Mooty is here to deliver that news...and encourage Mamie to speak out about her son's murder. But, Mamie has one thing on her mind. Getting her boy back.
"Hate is like a virus in the blood of Misssissippi. They can't help it."
TV: That was Roy Wilkins, the Executive Director of the NAACP, giving his reaction to the recent killing of 14-year old Negro boy
Emmett Till.
Burial preparations by local sheriffs have already started being made in Tallahassee County, Mississippi, where Till's body was found.

(O.S.) Mamie?
leaders are calling on officials to investigate the murder
and to indict J.W. Milam...

Mamie finally acknowledges the world around her and looks up at Gene standing with Rayfield. 
Mamie closes the door behind her and Rayfield. 
My...sincere condolences -- 
I can’t. 
I need Bo’s body sent back here.
MAMIE I can’t have him buried in Mississippi. 
Mississippi won’t make that deal (with you) -- 
Then make them! 
I’m sure Mr. Huff can get...Mayor Daley or the Governor to talk to somebody. 
Those people in Mississippi are trying to dump Bo in the ground like he’s just... 
...another body! He’s my baby. 
I need to see him. 
Rayfield takes in her passionate words. 
I’ll speak with Mr. Huff. 
Thank you. 
Mamie takes in the outside air.
She hasn’t taken a deep breath in a while. 
Rayfield has something on his mind... 
You know...
Mamie, You have the public’s attention right now 
and uh
and it would be in a politician’s best interest to help you during an election year. 
There’s an opportunity in that. 
Mamie barely nods her head. 
(CONT'D) Some organizers and executive members from the NAACP have been speaking with the justice department about creating legislation to make lynching a federal crime. What happened to Reverend Lee was a lynching. Lamar Smith, a lynching. 
(cutting her off), uh...
We have 
an opportunity to use this moment to help us pass this legislation. 
(pause) It might also help you get an indictment, 
and maybe even a conviction. 
Mamie listens, but the information is overwhelming. 
I..can’t think about this right now. 
I just need Bo back here. 
Well, the public's paying attention right now, Mamie. 
See, this doesn’t have to be just about Emmett -- 
Mr. Mooty, my son is dead! 
Rayfield retreats. 
(CONT'D) Make sure Mr. Huff handles this today. 
Yes, ma’am. 
After a beat, Rayfield nods
and heads for his car. 
Off Mamie watching him walk away...
Till is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Universal Home Entertainment.