Quickie Review: A MAN CALLED OVE (2015)

a-man-called-ove-poster-2It was long enough since I’ve been to my local indie theater that my membership lapsed, so the ticket for this film essentially cost me $83. No complaints at all.

I haven’t read Fredrik Backman’s EN MAN SOM HETER OVE on which the film’s based. A lot of my film-going acquaintances have been saying lately of film adaptations, “I don’t know if I should read the book first.” I’ll usually see an adaptation but rarely go back and read the book. I probably will in this case. I’m very curious to see how many of the film’s themes came from the source material, because I don’t think I see too many films that feature an older character growing, at least in a direction other than “feeling young again.”

It’d be easy to watch the trailer and be tempted to dismiss the film as being about a grumpy old bastard who rediscovers life and joy by the end of it.

What I saw in this film, though, was a character transforming into the role of elder. Ove is someone who moves past simply enforcing the rules as a way of adhering to some idealized past. He comes to accept an expanding world, which doesn’t mean he has to give up on core values. Instead, the elements of the expanding world bring some of Ove’s values into focus, moving him forward which enables him to help others do the same. The best part is how, in the end, he does rediscover life and joy in spite of — and due to — being the grumpy old bastard that he is.

Quickie Review: HENERAL LUNA (2015)

I don’t know enough about the history to have a good picture of what the real Antonio Luna was like. I do know that the Luna depicted in the film is every hard-ass Filipino I’ve ever known from the generation before mine. Jovial one minute, borderline abusive the next, before going right back to jovial. I suppose in a lot of ways, HENERAL LUNA is more about the Filipino mindset in general, with the way it portrays the good, bad, and ugly of just about every Filipino peccadillo I’ve ever known. Take “the ties that bind” for instance, and all the ways that loyalty to family, the barangay, the province interfered with things like nation-building. “It’s easier for the earth to meet the sky,” Luna says in the film, “than for two Filipinos to agree on anything!”

Really though, it’s pretty even-handed and definitely far from self-hating, from the way we romanticize memories of home and hearth, to the way a loving mother starts a conversation with her grown son with a smack to the mouth, to the universal Filipino response to someone with a competing interest, no matter how compelling: “Who do you think you are?”

The dramatis personae is huge and the film did its best to keep the characters straight, and to highlight and summarize historical events with small text blocks, almost like a graphic novel. But I think its still struggled with its scope. Still, HENERAL LUNA’S strength is in its depiction of the people. You may not like everyone in the film, but it’s very possible to feel sympathy for all of them. Well, except for maybe Emilio Aguinaldo — but then, that’s always been the case with ol’ Magdalo.

Quickie Review: INFINITELY POLAR BEAR (2014)

Slices of director Maya Forbes’ life growing up with a mentally ill father. Thankfully, Forbes does without with the typical “Act II breakdown” you see in most other films with mentally ill character. And it dispenses with the idea that mental illness is something delightfully quirky up until the point where everything collapses beyond repair. In POLAR BEAR, Mark Ruffalo’s bipolar disorder is pervasive, with good moments and bad moments, often occurring in the course of a single day. By the end of the film we get, as we sometimes do in life if we’re lucky, a brief respite from those ups and downs even as we know the next set will inevitably come.

We also get to see how privilege can mitigate some of the worst social and economical circumstances. The Blue blood background of Ruffalo’s character absolutely is NOT his family’s salvation from its problems, something that we might see in a different film. It’s not particularly the cause of his problems either, even if it exacerbates them in a couple of instances. But it is shown (uncritically, which I think is okay since it’s not really the point of this movie) as the safety net that it is.

I’m used to films and TV shows where mixed race families always seem to be fixed in a certain specifically defined socioeconomic status (usually one extreme or the other), and dealing with (or not) a certain set of racial issues – that is to say, families of caricatures. Here, we see a mixed race family in the ’70s presented in a very complex way, i.e. like real people. Forbes gives us the sense that if this particular White trust fund kid marrying Zoe Zaldana was ever an issue to the elderly Blue blood matriarch holding the purse strings, it’d been resolved enough that it needn’t have been brought up in this particular story. Which, even in the pre-Post-Racial 1970s, was something not entirely unheard of. Okay granted, maybe in the same way it was “not unheard of” for campers to encounter something big and hairy in the woods in the ’70s but still. I like the fact that Forbes doesn’t lazily caricature Blue bloods, either.

What DOES matter to the Blue blood matriarch is Zaldana’s plan to advance herself to become a better breadwinner by temporarily abandoning her family to go to Columbia. Forbes never glosses over the fact that we’re talking about a Black woman here, but she does focus more on the problems of the traditional gender role. And while you might not like that choice – much like you can theoretically take filmmaker Anthony Chen to task for not being all that critical of the treatment of Overseas Filipino Workers in his 2013 work ILO ILO – you can only fault this filmmaker to the extent that you don’t buy that she’s painted an accurate picture of her life, more or less as she lived it.

Quickie Review: AMY (2015)

Whenever I watch films about artists with issues or peccadilloes (cf. JODOROWSKY’S DUNE, AMERICAN SPLENDOR, LOVE & MERCY, et al.), I get this naive idea in my head that, “Of course, I don’t want to be as fucked up as that artist, but if I could just dip my toe into that pool of mad genius….” I think, “I have my dysfunctions too. But if I can somehow learn to leverage them somehow while keeping them dialed back just enough so I don’t implode, well then I can be brilliant without the train wreck, right?” Of course, the difference is that if I try, and then inevitably crash and burn, it would just be a clear case of pride going before a fall. When it comes to real artists and truly troubled artists, it’s not a strategy. It’s a very precarious way of life.

I only knew the basic facts about Amy Winehouse before I saw this documentary. First was that Voice. I’d heard it back in the day, and knew instantly what Tony Bennett knew instantly. I wasn’t surprised that it came to endear her to fans and musicians alike, from the up-and-coming-at-the-time Daptone Records stable to Bennett himself. She was brilliant and I never questioned that. And of course, I knew about the spiral. Not the details, you understand. You see enough star meltdowns, and its easy to think we’ve seen it all before. “[So-and-So] found dead after a long period of [insert issue here], wash, rinse, repeat, next case.”

This documentary doesn’t really provide much in the way of missing pieces that lead us to a better understanding of Winehouse’s trials and tribulations, or even necessarily to increased sympathy. I don’t see AMY changing anyone’s opinions, for better or for worse. But I did learn a few new things. I learned how well documented life was in her circle. Because that’s just how the kids do things nowadays. I learned how soulful and penetrating her lyrics are. I had no idea. Luckily, the film literally spells them out for you. If Bennett likens her vocal chops to Billie Holliday’s, then her songwriting rates at least as highly as Cole Porter’s. And I definitely didn’t realize — if one accepts the film’s narrative, and I have no reason not to — how many times Winehouse came so close to pulling herself up out of the spiral. That’s the saddest part, to me.

Not that she didn’t make her bad choices. But trapped as she was in the petri dish that is the music business, constantly under a media microscope, having started out with a life that came close to being as tortured as that of any other troubled artist you could name, what choices did she really have?

Quickie Review: SEVEN GOOD YEARS by Etgar Keret

The Seven Good Years: A MemoirThe Seven Good Years: A Memoir by Etgar Keret
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I used to read essay collections for facts, details, or wit. And if I stumbled across the occasional bit of truth or wisdom, so much the better. Now this could be my bias towoard Etgar Keret (#2 on my I’ll Read Anything They Write List), but this collection is brimming with both. Okay, maybe more of the former than the latter… but I think even Keret would say that.

Remove the surrealist and speculative elements from Keret’s writing and you’re still left with his sense of the absurd, with keen observations of (by way of projections onto) other characters, and not surprisingly, his friend Uzi who, just like in the stories, offers advice such as…

What you need isn’t a bunch of lies from a PhD in clinical psych. You need a real solution: a nest egg in a foreign bank account. Everybody’s doing it.

Not every essay reached me; there were a couple that left me scratching my head. But I’m used to that experience reading Keret’s short stories, so I’m okay with it.

View all my reviews

Quickie Review: MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015)

Okay, maybe not so quickie. Anyway, I’ll begin by stipulating to three points. Spoilers, ahoy!

First, it’s a gorgeous film. I can’t remember the last time any film’s visual narration made my eyes widen.

Second, if this film had a literary modal equivalent, it wouldn’t be that of a novel, but rather a novella. FURY ROAD is a work with a lean-muscular, 0%-body-fat plot and very tight character development, such that everything you see and hear is exactly everything you need, with no real examination or extrapolation of subtext necessary (unless you’re into that kind of thing). I’ve seen people accuse the plot of being thin, but that’s bullshit; people nowadays are just used to having it exposited for them. Creator/director George Miller will have none of that mess.

Third, it is a feminist film. Not a perfect one, but one nonetheless. Want to know more? Google it. Want to argue about it? Then take it to one of those sites. FURY ROAD is Imperator Furiosa’s story and yes, the spotlight shines on her frequently. But the idea that this comes, or indeed, must come at a cost to Mad Max — either as a character in this particular film or to the franchise in general — is bullshit. And I’ve seen this argument on both sides of the “MM:FR is Feminist” debate.  And you know what, if some folks feel the interpretation of “Max has to be sidelined so Furiosa can be front and center” is necessary — well I just don’t think that’s the worst thing in the world; it’s totally arguable. I just don’t buy it.

Personally, I thought the Max I saw in FURY ROAD is pretty compelling. THE ROAD WARRIOR and BEYOND THUNDERDOME make clear that Max is ultimately concerned about exactly two things: His immediate survival and a shot at redemption, in that exact order. In that context, it makes absolute sense that Max’s alliance with Furiosa and Immortan Joe’s Wives didn’t happen after any kind of “Come to Jesus” moment about the righteousness of their cause. There was no indication he thought or felt anything along the lines of, “I must help burn down this Patriarchy That Objectifies Women and Brainwashes Boys to Perpetuate the Cycle!”

In fact, the moment Max had anything resembling an upper hand in the film, his first move was to threaten Furiosa with throwing her, The Wives, and himself under Immortan Joe’s fast approaching bus. This, AFTER coming to understand their plight. A bluff? Maybe. But regardless of his intentions or subsequent deeds, this act (for which I don’t think he ever formally apologized) is the modern-day equivalent of tweeting out…

@MadMax: Sorry @Furiosa but if I don’t get away, none of us do. Hope #WeAreNotThings was fun while it lasted… #BloodBag #WhatALovelyDay #ZeroFucks

But instead of throwing under, he throws in, because just like ROAD WARRIOR and THUNDERDOME, these people end up being the keys to both his immediate survival and a shot at redemption. And he knows it. Which means, of course he climbs all over the War Rig to keep it moving. Of course, he lets Furiosa use him as literal support to take out the Bullet Farmer. Immediate survival. And of course, he encourages them to go back to the Citadel. That’s for some redemption, something Furiosa wants for herself as well.

So, don’t listen to any of this “FURY ROAD sux ‘cos Max isn’t driving the plot of his own movie!” crap. I mean, except for MAD MAX, has Max ever really driven the plot? Granted, I haven’t watched ROAD WARRIOR or THUNDERDOME in awhile but as I recall them, you can argue they were both about Max stumbling into other people’s squabbles, trying to work a hustle, failing, and then ultimately fumbling his way to doing The Right Thing before resuming his Walkabout. Hell, in the first movie, Max was lackadaisically half-assing his cop gig for two-thirds of the story before his wife and kid get killed.

All that said, I do have two nits that I almost missed because yes, the movie throws you right into the action and doesn’t stop. One: Is George Miller really trying tell me that in a post-scarcity economy, it makes sense for Immortan Joe to burn guzzoline to get guzzoline from a town withing spitting distance? He had engineers and mechanics, and no one thought to build a pipe? “But it was his display of wealth and power, blah blah….” Whatever. Two: No third party narration at the end. If someone pointed a gun to my head and forced me to come up with one thing that didn’t make this a “Real Mad Max movie” to me, okay… it’d be that.

Quickie Review: LOVE & MERCY (2014)

A very well acted biopic of legendary songwriter Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. A touch predictable, though. After all, (I don’t think this is much of a spoiler, but) whenever you have a character split between two time periods, you go into the film knowing that at some point they’ll at least metaphorically come face to face. At least the film tried to do this in a way that would almost make Alejandro Jodorowsky proud.

But the film had a tough task. How do you show the life of a rock legend with a storied half-century career in two hours? One is by using the kind of trick I just mentioned. Another is to avoid direct dramatic reinterpretations of (real or imagined) biographical events, and allude to them instead, which is a plus. (Cheeseburger, anyone?) Another involves making the delineation between the story’s heroes and villains as stark and simplistic as possible. The results on this score are mixed. You get Paul Giamatti’s awesome scene-chewing Dr. Evil, but you also get not very nuanced portrayals of Mike Love and Murray Wilson that serve only to make you rage against their toxicity to Brian’s creative spirit.

As enjoyable as the ride was, some questions nagged me throughout the film. It’s one thing to depict a person’s behaviors. But part of Wilson’s struggle was the fight to transfer what he heard in his head as faithfully as possible to tape. How could any movie deign to try depicting what’s in his head for a moviegoing audience? Was I being a little foolish for not realizing from the outset that this ride could only take me so far? On the other hand, if Wilson himself is happy with the film, what do I know?

Quickie Review: RIVETHEAD

Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly LineRivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line by Ben Hamper
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read Rivethead from the perspective of someone for who lived through the time period this book was written in. Very little of this touches my direct experience except vicariously though the stories of people I’ve known who have lived a version of the life described herein. I mention this because, as in my reading of Nothin’ But Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times, and Hopes of America’s Industrial Heartland, I do have a slightly stronger connection than someone reading this to get off on Rust Belt Chic ruin porn hipsterism.

Those sorts would paint Hamper as a working class revolutionary, an embedded journalist exposing the truth of life at the bottom of the American auto industry in Flint, MI in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Certainly, the book’s blurbs lead you to that line of thinking. But Hamper’s and his cohorts’ enemies weren’t really General Motors, its then-Chairman and CEO Robert Smith, or even the shop foremen of the Truck and Bus plant. Hamper writes, “Our only adversary was Father Time”, that is, the interminably slow second hand of the clock, plodding toward the end of your shift, during which your only choices are to either occupy your mind with plots to sneak out of the plant, inventing workplace-unsafe and semi-violent games like “Rivet Hockey” and “Dumpster Ball”, or numbing your mind with chemicals. Anything to escape the tedium of the “unskilled labor” for which men like Hamper were programmed. Hamper doesn’t (intentionally) expose a corporation’s secret agenda; he’s writing about what he’s living, with skills he gleaned from Catholic high school education, reading and writing poetry, listening to Mothers of Invention albums, and taking LSD. The result is prose that simultaneously delights even as it shames you for thinking, “This, from a shoprat?”

Hamper is very much a product of his time and place, a Boomer writer using WWII and Viet Nam War references to talk about the Midwest cultural clashes surrounding him: Salaried employees vs. hourly employees. Foremen vs. the shoprats. Fathers vs. sons. Mars vs. Venus. Art rock vs. Classic rock. Living and writing within his comfort zone vs. the life he could’ve had, and actually sampled through his association with filmmaker Michael Moore. (The book is worth the price of admission just to read an account of Moore outside of Moore’s narrative.) Thing is, you wouldn’t think a book of pieces written in the late ’80s/early ’90s would be as even-handed as it is about the US auto industry’s competition with Japan, and so you learn things like about how GM didn’t just try to instill a fear of Toyota in its workers, but of Ford, as well.

Consequently, being a product of his time and place, the writing shows Hamper’s exposure to the background radiation of racism, classism, misogyny, body-shaming, slut-shaming, homophobia, and ableism you’d expect from someone who grew up the Midwest in the ’60s and ’70s. (One plus: the use of the word tranny in the book only ever refers to an automobile’s transmission.) I have no reason to believe Hamper would espouse or display the above; I doubt he would in this day and age where he continues to do the occassional reading. But neither does Hamper try to disabuse you of the notion that some of his family and coworkers might.

Hamper is often referred to as Flint’s answer to Cleveland’s Harvey Pekar. Hamper’s output and subject matter certainly bear a resemblance, from life on the job right down to the unique cast of secondary characters from the line. Neither men particularly want your praise or your pity. But even Pekar’s observations occasionally had bright, if rare, moments of optimism. Harvey wanted to show profundity hidden in the quotidian. Hamper, on the other hand, shows you absurdity hidden in the drudgery.

In the end, Rivethead is the story of a man embracing his destiny, for better AND for worse, and ending in a place you don’t expect but by which you shouldn’t be especially shocked.

The truth was loose: I was the son of a son of a bitch, an ancestral prodigy born to clobber my way through loathsome dungheaps of idiot labor. My genes were cocked and loaded. I was a meteor, a gunslinger, a switchblade boomerang hurled from the pecker dribblets of my forefathers’ untainted jalopy seed. I was Al Kaline peggin’ home a beebee from the right field corner. I was Picasso applyin’ the final masterstroke to his frenzied Guernica. I was Wilson Pickett stompin’ up the stairway of the Midnight Hour. I was one blazin’ tomahawk of m-fuggin’ eel snot. Graceful and indomitable. Methodical and brain-dead. The quintessential shoprat. The Rivethead.

View all my reviews

Quickie Review: MAGGIE (2015)

I really wanted MAGGIE to be Arnold’s JCVD, that is, an art house flick that plays with everything we think we know about a foreign-born actor and the American Acton heroes he played in the ’80s. It did not let me down! MAGGIE deconstructs the expectations built up over 30 years of Governator- and zombie-film over-saturation, and subverts them at literally every turn.

If you’ve seen enough Schwarzenegger and zombie films, you’ve seen every scene setup in MAGGIE before. Thus, you’re not surprised to see tense moments with John Matrix poised to kick ass, or creepy moments where you just know Abigail Breslin (who’s been in similar surroundings before) is about to take a bite out of someone. But few things play out as expected here, and MAGGIE prepares you for this by setting up the characters properly. So yes, you have scenes of Dutch Schaefer brandishing a shotgun, because Ah-nold! But when you write his character as a man clinging desperately to what is best in life, whose former wife instilled in him a love of reading(!) and planting daisies(!!), and then have Trench Mauser play that character convincingly, then you have a Schwartzenegger zombie film where anything can happen.

Quickie Review: AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON

Spoilers ahead, minor and major — YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!

Suffice it to say, the movie appealed to my inner six year old.  This is a good thing.  It’s also a bad thing.

That aside, I still have to say that AofU didn’t thrill me like the first Avengers film.  It didn’t bore me, though.  There were certainly enough comic book “Fuck yeah!” moments.  But I suspect part of that was my brain trying to keep up with the plot, and not stumble over the holes where things were obviously cut out.  In fact, yes, I felt like I was watching an edited version on FX, “compressed for time”.   On the plus side, though, there was the particular way this film hit my comic book geek spots.

Because if you’re really going to hit all the highlights of Marvel Comics history on film, then fuck it — go for broke, from the creation of the synthozoid Vision, down to creating an “All New, All Different” B-team at the end of it all, just like in the comics.

This past Free Comic Book Day, I found this: a fresh copy of MARVEL SUPER-HEROES Vol. 1, No. 80, one of the first comic books I ever remember reading as a child.  The cover date is 1979, so I was 5 or 6 years old.  (The issue itself is a reprint of THE INCREDIBLE HULK Vol. 1, No. 128 from 1970.)

The Avengers roster started changing in the comics after the second issue.  Characters like General “Thunderbolt” Ross were already missing the classic line-up…

Okay, even as a kid maybe I knew this team seemed a little wanting, just like the team introduced at the end of AofU seems to be.  But six year old me still thought this image was bad ass!  (Don’t worry, Wanda gets her licks in by the end of the issue.)

Just like people have “My Doctor” (i.e. the one they imprinted on as a kid), I have my Avengers.  And my Avengers will always have Goliath, The Vision, The Beast, Yellowjacket, and Wonder Man in the turtleneck and the red pimp safari jacket, because they were the ones in the comics I read after this one.
For me, that’s the joy of AofU.  I enjoyed this retelling of Avengers history!  Very well done, “A” for effort!  I want to see what Captain America, Black Widow, War Machine, Falcon, Scarlet Witch, and The Vision do in the next go-round!
And yet, although I judiciously avoided all spoilers, I knew I’d seen this — well, read this — all before.  Which begs the question of who exactly AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON was written for — six year old boy comic book geek me, or for over-forty dude comic book geek me?  I’m fairly sure much of the praise or scorn heaped upon this movie is based on the answer to that question.
Six year old me might’ve interpreted that scene between Black Widow and Bruce Banner a little more generously than most (if you’ve seen it, you know what I’m talking about) and might’ve thought Widow’s MCU history reveal probably means something different to the character than it does to people watching the film.  Part of over-forty me believes that.  But the rest of over-forty me knows a reveal like that doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and it’s a shame, too.  A revelation that might’ve offered some additional depth (“My soul is as dark as Banner’s, but I have the same heroic potential.”) is doomed from almost the very start of the movie and it’s “lullaby” scene, and frames things in a way that makes the snarky “cleaning up after you boys” quip a mere one step above that one line in the last movie.