20 May 2022

52 for '22: Grey Gardens

Movie: Grey Gardens (1975)
Method: HBOMax


GI Jane 2 - can't wait to see it!


Why Did I watch this?

I don't know. Grey Gardens has been in my head for a while. I watched the Documentary NOW! bit about it, "Sandy Passage" (S1;E1) and then bought a gray car that I named Edith. But that was years ago now. It was available on HBOMax and I put it on my list immediately. It had been burning a hole forever, I don't know, I guess you've really got to be in a mood to chill out to Grey Gardens on a Friday night. But that's what this blog series is for! Forcing me to watch things I've always wanted to!

What Did I know ahead of time?

Really just totally from Sandy Passage. I knew there was an old one and a young one and they lived as hermits in a big dilapidated house. It was a notable documentary that a lot of people seemed to know about. I really realized while watching this how much Documentary NOW! dug into exact scenes from this.

How Was It?

I don't know. Sorry, these are tough questions. I kept trying to figure out why this was such a groundbreaking documentary. The subjects are certainly two odd old ladies, but I came here to gaze at squalor and depravity, not watch little dances with American flags. But that's all part of it. This documentary really let the ladies tell their own story, and while I'm sure there were some editing choices, there isn't an agenda or even any semblance of a story.

The film lays out its premise straight away through a few headlines, and then even showing entire articles up on the screen. Jackie Kennedy's aunt has been living in a house in East Hampton for the past 50 years and her daughter, also inexplicably named Edith Beale, has joined her for the last 25. They were "raided" by police in the years preceding the documentary for the high amount of garbage and raccoons on the premises.

So we enter in this state of paranoia, love, but also constant insane bickering. And that's pretty much the movie. There are some interesting themes to explore here. They spend most of the film waxing poetic about the days of yore. They had married into money, but Big Edith's husband abandoned them. They have strong New York connections to one of the century's most powerful families. But now they live in obscurity and poverty.

There is a lot to that. They are basically living the inverse of the American dream, where they started from everything and now have nothing. Their attitudes don't seem to have changed, which does seem on par with America. It's a meditation on complacency - little by little their lives have been chipped away. It's the same thing that happens when you don't deal with a mess so long you begin to think it's normal and don't do anything about it.

Little Edie claims that she could have married J. Paul Getty or any other of a series of millionaire suitors, but she blames a need to take care of her mother for the reason why she is where she is instead of out there with a man. We get the full gamete of emotional compensation here. Does she actually like living here and pretends to complain? Does she want to get out but her mother is really suppressing her? She seems to be able to leave whenever she wants and her mother seems by far the more mild mannered of the two, but their relationship is complex and deep, despite it emerging as nothing but surface-level bickering.

We don't get to see all that much of the garbage squalor. It's disappointing. It is a cruddy looking mansion and there are cats everywhere. Also, do they sleep in the same room together in those two beds? I was wondering who feeds the kitties every day. It's probably wise they didn't languish on their lives and instead focused on the characters as they are right now. I wonder if that technique emerged as they were filming and they realized it was the only reasonable way to depict these people without being exploitative and sensationalist. The filmmakers were still criticized for doing just that, but they seem to have done the best they could with letting them tell their own story.

In the end we don't get much insight into exactly what is going on here or why these people are the way they are. We just see them as they are and we can read into it what we need to. I suppose that is an interesting technique and it's notable for that along with the genuinely compelling characters. Still, it gets old after a big and the fact that the film doesn't really go anywhere or have anything profound to say makes it drag quite a bit.

18 May 2022

First Impressions: Doc Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

I feel like all the hot takes for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) are really obvious. Like, Sam Raimi shining under the Disney leash, how do you understand this without seeing WandaVision, why is everyone obsessed with the multiverse suddenly, and the glory of Bruce Campbell. Well, I saw this and have some thoughts so here is my amazingly fresh take. I just want to ramble, so SPOILERS forever, be warned, mortals.

Let's unpack quite a bit of this, starting with our boy, Sam Raimi, most famous in superhero circles for the original Spider-Man trilogy, but also known for the Evil Dead movies and lots of random good stuff in the 90s. I don't know really what to say about Marvel at this point, there are clearly many paint by numbers jobs and they don't seem to have great relationships with really creative visionary-type directors...until they do and it works out just perfectly fine. This film definitely feels plenty weird and has some very distinctive Raimi trademarks, but it also does feel like part of a complete universe (despite traveling to many other universes), which is everything a movie like this needs.

Sam Raimi clearly knows his Doctor Strange, he canonically exists in Spider-Man 2 (2004), as mentioned by J. Jonah Jameson. There were so many camera angles, zooms, and quirks that felt explicitly Raimi. Then somehow he prominently worked in zombies and Drag Me to Hell (2009) style witches and jump scares that really sold the horror elements of the magic world. Finally, a bit of corniness that somehow combines with earnestness in that Raimi way. It's fun to have this dude back. Also Bruce Campbell.

Second Marvel movies really are something special. Well, most of them. It takes us a minute to get past the slogging origin story and evil double who is always the villain, but usually in the second film we breathe, we're on board with the nonsense and we can just roll. This is totally in that zone. Doc Strange is an established wizard, but he's still got a bummer personal life, since the girl he never dated is getting married. Or did they date? I forget, but certainly annoyed that Strange is basically a pouty incel at the start of this film. Rachel McAdams was always thankless in her role and none of that has really changed.

Just then, a portal opens up and not-Shuma Gorath pops out fighting a young Latina who punches stars in dimensions. I don't totally understand folk who say that all Marvel movies are the same, I mean, look at that last sentence. Anyway, there is a multiverse, it's getting wacky, and hilarity ensues.

It turns out the big villain is the Scarlet Witch, Elizabeth Olsen herself, totally taken over by the Darkhold from the end of WandaVision. So let's dive into that first common gripe. I agree that it seems awful unfair that Scarlet Witch is the big villain of this film. Her powers are definitely nasty and something to be reckoned with, and she's surely towed that line (her first appearance in Age of Ultron [2015] was fighting for the other side) and yeah, WandaVision set her up as an antagonist. But that was fueled by trauma, grief, and felt like she wasn't fully even aware of what she was doing. Here she's just moustache-twirling, despite bits of self-awareness.

It does feel like too soon of a turn for a reasonably well-liked character. There are plenty of nods to Wundagore and its defenders, who I mistook for Mindless Ones, and diving into the chaotic magic realm of the MCU is and always will be a ton of fun. But it definitely felt like a character betrayal. We need some redemption (maybe even akin to Al Molina's Doctor Octopus), something to get us on her side a bit better. She's also definitely not dead forever.

I liked America Chavez, she's fun and does what she needs to do in this film, but surely could have used a bit more character development. She pops around and the crutch of "I don't know how to use my powers!" is always a bit lame, but it's a fun, solid effect when it's deployed. The sound in general in this film is great, loud, and crunchy! She doesn't really have much of an arc or learn anything besides her actual powers, so let's progress.

Benedict himself is having fun, getting to play a few different versions of himself. His accent is a little widgy as always, but this Strange is a lot more enjoyable since he's progressed beyond just a Tony Stark who is a magic doctor instead. He is always pushing for more, which we saw a little bit better in What If... and truth be told, feels like something we saw from his counterparts more than 616 himself (btw, a whole other can of bands of Cyttorak is that they call this universe 616, which is definitely a nod to the comics designation, however, this clearly ISN'T the comics designation, so what is going on here). What I'm saying is that Strange learns his lessons through other Stranges, not his own experiences, which is kind of a bummer.

Should we get into the cameos? Fine. This film is lousy with them. It's clearly all the Illuminati, which has Hailey Atwell's Captain Carter from What If..., Lashana Lynch as an alternate Captain Marvel, Karl Modo who took over for their Doctor Strange, and then the three biggest shockers - Anson Mount coming back as Black Bolt, Patrick Stewart reprising Professor X, and the fan wank casting of John Krasinski as Mr. Fantastic. Crap, let's get into all of these.

Hailey Atwell is fantastic in this role and has been doing it relatively tirelessly for like ten years now. It's easy to forget the Agent Carter series back when the MCU spin-off shows were actually on network television. That's where the Inhumans landed as well, which is perhaps the biggest stumble of anything Marvel has done. I'm not impressed at all with anything Anson Mount has done, but he does a good job here, mostly of looking cool in a costume and not saying anything. Well, until he does.

Lynch doesn't really do anything as Captain Marvel, and honestly gets punked out a little too easily. Chiwetel Ejiofor I thought would do more as Baron Modo, I don't buy his turn against Strange, even in the first film, it didn't really feel earned. Kind of like Sinestro in Green Lantern (2011), yeah remember that? Just like, "Hey now this guy is evil because he's supposed to be" instead of demonstrating it.

Dude, Patrick Stewart is 81 years old. He's still the perfect Professor X, and I love the 90s X-Men theme, the big yellow chair, it's all just perfectly campy in a way that superhero films were afraid to be twenty years ago. But man, he's getting old. When will we have James McAvoy take this role over in the MCU? And is this the way they do it, just multi-versing it? It's all pretty fascinating. He does a great job here, as he naturally should, and I even loved the little mind reading effect he did, which is so comic book-y.

I get the sense that we're only brave enough to do this in a multiversal context, though. Like, that's an excuse to go really weird instead of bringing it into the "616" universe. I hope we get over that. Marvel needs to watch more Doom Patrol. Okay, John Krasinksi.

I'm prepared for unpopular comments, but I don't think this dude works as Reed Richards. He's actually a really stiff and uncomfortable actor, despite the fact that everyone loves him. You ever notice how he interacts with people who aren't Pam or Dwight on the office? He doesn't really know how to joke around with people. And he doesn't give off vibes of arrogance or intelligence, which is what Reed is all about. Fans have clamoured for this forever for some fucking reason because they kind of look alike, but I don't see it. And he didn't do a good job, stiff wooden dialogue delivery without charisma. And he goes out like a bitch. Oh well. He might be our dude moving forward, or he might not be, I'm okay to just move on.

So, want to talk more about that? I love when Sam Raimi reminds us that he's a horror director. There was like some legit gruesome shit here! Black Bolt's voice echoing out of his brain, Mr. Fantastic getting unraveled until his brain also explodes. It's a lot of fun. Disturbing fun fun. Someone on twitter pointed out (sorry for not citing) that the big problem with this scene is that no one really reacts to their close friends gruesomely dying. And yeah, that's because it's all green screened and Elizabeth Olsen has never even met John Krasinski. That is certainly a problem, one that I don't care a ton about since story-wise, they're ultimately just fodder to show how much of a threat Scarlet Witch is and we don't really have to be invested in their stories, but it's also a bit of emotional distance that could have been better served. It's all fun for sure. I definitely dug how Raimi drops all these huge cameos and then immediately kills them off. There's something cheeky there.

I did like little bits like how the (presumably) Mr. Fantastic-built Ultrons work the way they are supposed to. But where the hell was Namor?! Probably in Universal Studios somewhere. I really just wanted a dude in a speedo with wings on his feet chillin out with the most powerful team leaders of the Marvel Universe, but like, he's the most badass of them all.

I dug the ending, which again like the first Doctor Strange (2016) relied more on wits and appeals to emotions than brute strength and magic outpeforming the big bad villain. The end credits scenes were decently indecipherable, with Strange's third eye suddenly opening, and indication of the evil of the Darkhold, and then him jumping in with Clea without much worry. I don't know, I feel like sometimes these credit scenes are more throwaway than we give them credit for, so whatever.

These movies are cool, I like how they explore magic and taboo and reanimate dead corpses to have evil soul snatcher capes, its just bizarre and campy and weird, which is my kind of deal. They are getting so good at fan service, too, but I'm still waiting for my Doctor Voodoo, a proper flame-headed Dormammu (might we get that with a Clea adventure), a proper evil threatening Baron Mordo, and hell, maybe even a Mephisto here somewhere. That'd be cool. Also, more gods like the Vishanti, Cyttorak, Chthon, uhh...Zom. They're all good. We've definitely breached the Elder Gods point, right?

I mean, we briefly saw the Living Tribunal! We're getting there, people. The only other real complaint is that this could have been an even wilder multi-versal romp, and we get really brief snippets, but ultimately we just see the incured universe, the Illimunati universe, and our main universe. That's not too much. It was worth it to get that music fight, that's the kind of wacky magic I want to see, but I'd like more. That's tough to say because there was already so much to cram in here, the pacing felt really really fast, but I think there is good fodder for a lot more, even when we leave this multiversal kick we're on.

As for being totally lost, I saw this with my wife who had only ever seen Endgame (2019). She surprisingly felt like she pretty much understood the whole thing and what Wanda's deal was. That was interesting to hear, I really thought she'd be lost. I like them just barreling forward and trusting that we'll either catch up or just be able to roll with things enough to understand people shooting magic lasers at eachother. That's what really counts.

I'm generally pretty positive about this, it's definitely not a perfect movie, but I dug it and as usual, look forward to whatever's coming next. I dunno, there are a lot of whiney bits about Marvel movies these days and what they're doing to cinema, but it's entertaining, so whatever. Go watch it, or not, let's have fun!

13 May 2022

52 for '22: The Mighty Quinn

MovieThe Mighty Quinn (1989)
Method: HBOMax


He also looks like a really cool admiral

Why Did I watch this?

I do not remember what got this on my radar. After watching the opening credits I thiiiink it was the fact that this was written by Hampton Fancher five seven years after he wrote Blade Runner (1982) and quite frankly, it's one of the only notable films he wrote between that and Blade Runner 2049 (2017). I likely then read the Wikipedia article where Roger Ebert called it one of the best films of 1989 and "a spy thriller, a buddy movie, a musical, a comedy and a picture that is wise about human nature." And it's just Denzel Washington in a Jamaican murder mystery. Written by the guy who wrote Blade Runner. Why would you not watch this? I just watched Denzel in the Tragedy of MacBeth (2021), which fueled my interest as well!

What Did I know ahead of time?

I didn't really know much of anything. Despite all that I said above, I had forgotten that until the movie started playing. I did remember this was an early Denzel role, and I thought it was a little obscure, which it definitely is these days, but it seems like it was a big deal at the time. From the African colored opening titles and reggae music (that opens the first six minutes of the movie) I soon realized this was some Jamaican movie, so that was a pleasant surprise.

How Was It?

This movie rules. It is indeed a Jamaican cop mystery, but one where the build-up, investigation, and pay-off are also worth it. First thing's first, though, to answer the question you're thinking, yes, Denzel does speak in a Jamaican patois, and no, it is not good. To Denzel's supreme credit as an actor, though, it doesn't ever really take you out of the movie or reduce how compelling he is to watch.

The basic premise is that a rich resort owner on the island is found murdered, decapitated in his hot tub, which obviously scares the white folk and soon local island pothead Maubee is the prime suspect. Maubee also happens to be Denzel's childhood friend. There is this give and take where Denzel doesn't believe Maubee did it, but is also bound to uphold the law. He's trying to find Maubee throughout the whole film, but not necessarily to arrest him, sometimes just to talk, sometimes to protect him from worse men, and at one great part, just to hang out because he's hammered.

The plot gets a bit convoluted, but never unmanageable. There is a US agent around to re-collect some rogue obscure $10,000 bills that the government was trying to use to fund Central American insurrections, but we don't really know that until the end. The film always has this element of colonialism in the background, this constant white noise that underlies everything else going on. You get the sense of frustration from Denzel, who is the moral center with obligation to the law, getting continually fed up with the corrupt government kowtowing to the mainland.

But this is all wisely in the background, it's not a message movie. It's more a character-driven murder mystery, complete with red herrings, close herrings, and thorough investigations. All set against the backdrop of a reggae musical, including repeated instances of "The Mighty Quinn," originally a Bob Dylan song, but heavily adapted here. That song even serves as a means for Denzel to commit to the community, moving from annoyance to acceptance and an outsider to a genuine member.

He's an impeccably well defined character. He's a sort of absentee father, but he genuinely cares about his kids. He's tempted by white girls like Mimi Rodgers, but he stays true to his black baby mama. He is both of the island and of the mainland and tries to keep a foot in both worlds. Denzel just does it all.

The film was directed by Carl Schenkel, a Swiss filmmaker with no other real notable flicks on his resume. What is most bizarre is how authentic this feels despite definitely being written and directed by two old white dudes. Indeed, when looking for sci-fi elements or any kind of throughline from Blade Runner, one comes up empty. I suppose Blade Runner is known more for its direction and production design than screenplay. But it really does feel like a genuine Jamaican piece than an appropriated story. A lot of that is probably just actually putting black characters and black actors front and center of this film. It's not like Cool Runnings (1993) where the main character is still a white guy. This is more about the black Jamaican experience.

The directing isn't really anything super special, the shots are pretty standard, but it does have a tight composition and quick pacing. There is one aerial shot towards the end when the old witch's house is burning that is really impressive. It must have been a crane shot at the time, but looks like it could have been a modern day drone. It flies in and tracks in a continuous shot that's expansive and cool. I also really dug the final scene, shooting it out with a helicopter in some ancient ruins. This movie gets loud and explosiony really fast, but it's fun and earned.

I really liked this, it's nice to see a film in this series that's actually worth it for a change. This isn't really known as vital viewing in Denzel's oeuvre. I don't know why, maybe Glory (1989) the same year, then Malcom X (1992), The Pelican Brief (1993), and Philadelphia (1993) not too long afterwards overshadow it? Or maybe because it is primarily a black story, no one cared? I don't know, but if you are a fan of Denzel, Robert Townsend, M. Emmet Walsh, or tropical island murder mysteries, this should be must see viewing.

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