THE CONVERSATION

the conversationTHE CONVERSATION was always a blind spot for me. I knew it was out there, but I just never got around to watching it. After watching THE FRENCH CONNECTION last month which was on TCM for their 31 days of Oscar and FXM nearly once a week, I wanted more Gene Hackman. Also, with a lot of talk about the 50TH Anniversary of THE GODFATHER, it felt like time to dive in. I don’t know why I waited so long.

This is likely the best of the 1970’s Paranoid Thrillers, a list that includes THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR, THE PARALLAX VIEW and THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL among many others. For me it’s close between this and CONDOR, but the way Robert Redford forces himself on Faye Dunaway in one scene tips the scales toward THE CONVERSATION. I’m not going to get into the sexual politics of 1970’s auteur filmmaking. That’s for another time.

Brief plot summary time. Hackman is Harry Caul, a surveillance and security expert who is considered the best in his field. At the start of the film, he and his team are trying to listen into a conversation between Cindy Williams and Fredrick Forrest. They are using high tech microphones from three different locations and later Hackman will piece together a full conversation. He’s been hired by what appears to be a government agency. Harry doesn’t care what they are talking about at first, he just wants a clean recording. But as we follow Harry, we all learn there may be a lot more going on here. And Harry is having second thoughts because after a previous job, his work product was used to wipe out an entire family. He tries to keep an emotional distance on the job, but the more he hears the more worried he becomes.

Hackman is so wonderful at playing this kind of role. His physical presence gives an air of authority and confidence as does his no nonsense attitude. But you can tell there is more going on there. He plays these layered characters so well. It is similar to what he does with Popeye Doyle in THE FRENCH CONNECTION. The more paranoid he becomes, the more paranoid we become. It’s a fantastic performance.

The supporting case is stellar. Very early Harrsion Ford as the assistant to the director of the mysterious agency. You can see where his star power begins. Williams is very good as the woman being spied on. A very different role than Laverne & Shirley. Robert Duval has an uncredited role as The Director… it’s small but memorable considering he brings similar energy to his part in NETWORK just a few years later.

Just a moment for an appreciation of John Cazale and what might have been. Cazale died of cancer at 42. He only appeared in five theatrical films, but what a resume. The first two GODFATHER movies, THE CONVERSATION, DOG DAY AFTERNOON and THE DEER HUNTER. Holy cow that’s an impressive run and he is spectacular in every one of those films.

The film was written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola. He famously cared much more about this movie than THE GODFATHER. You can see the love and care that went into this. Every shot is purposeful. From the way Harry’s apartment and workplace are laid out, to the wardrobe to the twist I did not see coming at all. It is masterful. THE CONVERSATION was nominated for Best Picture but lost to another of Coppola’s films.. THE GODFATHER PART II. Can you imagine that? Being nominated for two Oscars in the same year? Amazing. Legend.

Coppola has said this was his favorite of all the movies he’s made. I can see why. Not much can top both GODFATHER films. But this comes close. And sometimes close is good enough. If you are like me and have yet to watch THE CONVERSATION, fire up Paramount+ or Epix and give it a try. And if you don’t like it, that’s ok. I won’t take it personally. Or maybe I’m just being paranoid.

 

 

DEATH ON THE NILE

death on the nileI was kind of interested to see Kenney Branagh’s version of DEATH ON THE NILE. I enjoyed MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS. Didn’t love it. Didn’t hate it. It was “nice”.

But the reviews were not great and the Armie Hammer-ness of it made me say, “nah”. If I’m going to a theater and risk getting sick, it’s not going to be for this movie.

Now it’s on streaming, so I thought I’d check it out. It’s disappointing.

It doesn’t have much of the flair of the ORIENT EXPRESS. It goes through the motions. It feels like it should be better. But I suppose it could also be a lot worse.

Seeing Hammer play a man who threw over his fiancé in favor of a rich beauty made my skin crawl. I could not separate the man from the role.

The rest of the cast is serviceable. Branagh is ok as Hercule Poirot. Others, including Albert Finney, Peter Ustinov and David Suchet, have done it better.

The best part of the cast is Annette Benning. Russell Brand is almost unrecognizable save his signature beard. Speaking of signature facial hair. We do get an origin story for the moustache Branagh sports in these two movies. So that’s something.

The film also fails because, well… I hate to say this, but maybe Gal Gadot just isn’t that good an actress. She was good as a bit player in the Fast and Furious movies. I thought she was amazing in the first Wonder Woman movie, but maybe I was blinded by her gold bracelets and Patty Jenkins great story and directing. Now she is getting lead roles like this one and Red Notice. And in both she just can’t carry the load she’s given. She’s stiff. She needs to relax into the roles. She feels like she’s trying too hard.

Anyhow, it was good that this was released in “Dumpuary” (the time of year when bad movies are released because everyone is focused on awards season, and no one pays much attention to how bad these films are).

Will Branagh mine the Poirot canon again? Maybe. But I hope the next version is better than this.

EVERYTHING EVERWHERE ALL AT ONCE

everything everywhere all at once posterWhen you hear that a movie involves “The Multiverse” you probably are thinking Superhero. Something from DC or Marvel. Something that will be so totally confusing and confounding that you may just say, “eh, no”.

I implore you, do not skip EVERTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE. Calling it a Multiverse move is like calling Casablanca a Nazi movie or The Godfather a crime movie. All of those are true, but also beside the point.

EVERTHING EVERYWHERE… is about so much more. It is about family, being a mom, and the nature of failure and success. It uses the Multiverse as a tool to explore the larger message it is trying to convey. I’m not saying the Multiverse isn’t important or completely cool. It absolutely is. And it is far less confusing or brain melting than anything Marvel and DC are doing. I don’t want to spoil it, but just as a way of explanation, in this version you can access the skills of your counterpart in another timeline. I don’t think that gives too much away. It also makes for some of the craziest and funniest parts of the film. Yet for all that coolness, it is not the heart of the story.

Michelle Yeoh plays Evelyn who owns a laundromat in Simi Valley with her husband (Ke Huy Quan… yes him… more on him later). They have a daughter Joy, played by Stephanie Szu (Mei from The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel). The laundromat is not doing well.  They must go to the IRS for a meeting with an auditor played by Jamie Lee Curtis. The bring along her father (James Hong) who is visiting for a New Year celebration. After that, nothing is normal or usual.

The multiverse intrudes and Evelyn is as confused as we are. Her guide is her husband who keeps shifting into another version of himself from a different universe. Evelyn must catch on quickly to save the Multiverse, her family and her sanity. All this while trying to save and/or defeat her daughter who is the cause of all the chaos in the Multiverse.

But it’s not just about saving her daughter. It’s about saving her family. It’s about accepting who we are and who we can be. Evelyn believes she is a failure at the start. But is she? That is her journey of discovery.

All of this craziness comes from the warped minds of Daniels (Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert). They are the filmmakers behind SWISS ARMY MAN, a movie I really enjoyed. That was equally weird. But this is better. It uses our familiarity with this Multiverse stuff to tell a much deeper story. It could have gone completely sideways, but Daniels are good enough to know how far to take it before we all lose our minds and interest.

It helps that the case is perfect. Yeoh usually plays such strong, confident women. It was great to see her stretch outside of our familiarity. She totally nails it. You probably know Quan better as Short Round from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom or as Data from The Goonies. His challenge here is to switch back and forth between confused, mouse of a husband to super confident Multiverse expert. He also nails it. Plus, he wins a fight using a fanny pack… so points for originality. Curtis is so good at these roles. She knows exactly how to sell her own role while bringing humor along for the ride.

The choreographed fight scenes are fantastic. The whole movie is kind of a mash up of Hong Kong martial arts, Superhero and family drama. Doesn’t sound like it would work, but it works on every level. We are due to get deep into Marvel’s Multiverse with the next Dr. Strange movie. I am confident Sam Raimi can pull it off, but probably not as effectively as Daniels.

OSCARS RECAP

Let’s take a look at how I did. Not bad. I’ve done better in the past (Sorry, I have no photographic evidence to support my claim,, you’re just going to have to believe me).

I made predictions in 21 of the 23 categories. I left out Live Action and Animated shorts because I had seen none of them and really didn’t know enough to make an educated guess.
I missed four categories. I was hoping West Side Story would win, but I knew in the back of my head that Cruella was going to take the trophy..
As I stated in my predictions, I thought Mitchells v the Machines would have a late surge, but Encanto was strong enough to hold on.
I completely whiffed on the screenwriting categories. I thought The Worst Person in the World deserved the Oscar, but figured I was alone on Joachim Trier island. My guess was Licorice Pizza. Belfast surprised me. At lease Don’t Look Up didn’t win. For adapted screenplay, I thought Maggie Gyllenhaal would get some kind of recognition for her film, but it was CODA’s night. It’s not a bad screenplay. I just liked The Lost Daughter better.

The rest went as I thought it would. I’m not some predicting genius. A lot of these were obvious if you did a little research. So yay me. I can research. 5 years of college didn’t go to waste. Thanks CSUN.

The show was a complete mess. Nearly 3 hours and 45 minutes of mostly crap. They pushed the below the line categories to the pre show and replaced those awards with some absolutely terrible bits. If the Wanda Sykes tour of the Academy Museum was supposed to motivate me to visit, it had the opposite effect. Regina Hall’s bit about the testing hot guys was cringeworthy. As was the Hall and Sykes bit about giveaways. Not funny. Not even close to funny. Not even in the neighborhood.

The reunions were nice, yet completely pointless. The “hey look who we got together” gawking was just dumb and did nothing to celebrate those films. The Godfather tribute did nothing for me other than make me concerned for Al Pacino’s health. Why didn’t he and Robert De Niro talk?

The In Memoriam segment was a complete disaster. A little TV 101 from someone who’s been in the business 35 years. Don’t make it harder for the audience to watch. I could barely read some of the names when they were placed on the giant screen at the back of the stage. Why were there dancers in the first place? The little speech interludes were nice, but Betty White? Yes, she’s a legend. But she made her mark in TV. Felt out of place at the Oscars. And Spirit in the Sky was a bizarre choice. One of the lines is “put your trust in Jesus”. Wonder how the Jews, Muslims or Atheists in that part of the “number” felt about invoking Christian iconography.

You’re waiting for me to talk about Will Smith and Chris Rock. I’m not going there. The one thing I will say is I felt terrible for Questlove. It stole his moment. That sucks.

I’m glad CODA won. It was the feel good movie we all needed. Will it go down in the pantheon of great Oscar winners? Probably not. Drive My Car, Dune and The Power of the Dog are probably better movies. But what’s wrong with making everyone smile after 2 years of panic and anxiety. Nothing at all.

OSCAR PREDICTIONS

CODA

CODA POSTERI was thrilled that CODA has received some love this awards season. The Best Picture and Supporting actor nominations are the minimum the Academy should have done. CODA is better than just about every movie being talked about this awards season.

What amazing performances by all the lead actors. This could have gone down the treacly path that would have made it insufferable. But all the moments worked on me. It’s a story of passion and family and sacrifice.

Troy Kotsur’s win at the SAG awards and nomination for Supporting Actor at the Oscars seems the right call. He was so tough, frustrating and touching as the father. I was disappointed Marlee Matlin also didn’t get recognized. She too was so perfect as the mom.

Emilia Jones is a revelation. Not just her singing (she has a great set of pipes), but her acting. I felt her struggle and her fight for her own life.

Sian Heder’s script and direction are wonderful. The adapted screenplay category is stacked this year so it would be a huge suprise if it wins. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve it.

This movie gave me all the feels. Watch it with a box of tissues. Then watch it again just because.

KING RICHARD

king richard posterI was very ambivalent about seeing King Richard. I like Will Smith, but he’s not among the actors I will seek out on a regular basis. He’s very hit or miss for me. Also, movies that deal with terrible parents make me squirm in my seat (I put I, Tonya in that category but it was impossible not to love). I always saw Richard Williams as one of those crazy sports parents, a type I have dealt with in my life.
I finally decided to give it a shot and I’m glad I did. It is not by any means a great movie. I liked it, but wasn’t over the moon. I’m probably very alone on an island with this opinion, but I did not love Will Smith’s performance. He felt like he was in a different movie. His “impersonation” of Williams was almost distracting. Everyone else seem like a real person while he seemed like a caricature. It felt like he was in a very different movie. What saved it for me were the performances of Aunjanue Ellis and Jon Bernthal. They were the best parts of the movie. Ellis felt like a real person and thank god she was there to rein in Smith. She felt like she was pulling him off a cliff (both story and acting) a few times. She deserves a Supporting Actress nomination. Bernthal was just fun and a real audience surrogate.
I wondered why this is an awards contender. But I get it. The Oscars now is about rewarding impersonation. If you play someone famous or infamous and you pull it off then you will be recognized. I dislike that trend in films. We need more original, fictional stories and fewer of these biopic-style treatments. Rant by grumpy old dude over.

DRIVE MY CAR

DRIVE MY CAR POSTERThe first Japanese film to be nominated for Best Picture did not disappoint. Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s film kind of blew me away. It is filled with emotion, but it is also filled with humor.. something I didn’t expect.
The whole movie is a vibe and it’s a vibe I was not prepared for. It explores grief and how we deal with it. But it is not overly sad or depressing. It uses art as a vehicle to examine grief and guilt. How do we move on.. or do we ever. How long does it take and what is the trigger that could influence that movement toward acceptance and rid yourself of blame.
It’s kind of hard to talk about the film without spoiling several parts or all of it. One think I will say is that the lead character, the theater director Yûsuke Kafuku, played very well by Hidetoshi Nishijima is hired to direct a multi-lingual version of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya. A young woman is hired to be his driver.. and that’s where the title comes from. The is beautifully done. I was worried about a 3 hour long movie with subtitles. But it didn’t feel that long. I loved all the characters, even with their flaws. The look of the film is wonderful. Hamaguchi and his cinematographer Hidetoshi Shinomiya made a very interesting choice. It is not that the film is without color. But the only really bright color is the car referenced in the title. It is a fire engine red 1987 Saab 900 Turbo. I always wanted to drive one of those.. but I digress. The rest of the film is a palette of blacks, grays and pastels. Even in long shots you see the red car stand out on the road among all others.
They also don’t feel the need to bring the camera into everyone’s face in every conversation. It adds to the feeling of being disconnected and loneliness.
The actors are all wonderful. The language/subtitles can sometimes be a barrier to emotion, but not here. I felt everything I was supposed to feel.
Really there is nothing bad I can say about the movie. It would probably help to have knowledge of Vanya because I’m sure there are cues or clues to the larger meaning of the story in that choice.
Parasite broke the ground for Asian filmmakers at the Oscars and the Academy has honored Mexican directors a lot in recent years. I could see Hamaguchi walking away with best director over Jane Campion and Steven Spielberg. It would not surprise me. Whatever accolades Drive My Car gets are richly deserved. It’s rare that we get these type of adult stories anymore. So if giving this film one or more trophies allows that to happen, then I’m all for it.

THE BATMAN

THE BATMAN MOVIE POSTERWhen the first stories about Matt Reeves’ THE BATMAN were out I had the thought that many others might have.. do we really need another Batman movie? After sitting through this nearly 3 hour epic, the answer is a qualified definitely. Reeves did something I didn’t think could be done. He created a new take on the iconic character that I didn’t think was possible.
All Batmen are damaged in someway by the trauma of seeing their parents murdered. But, this isn’t Keaton and Burton’s slightly damaged but still functional Batman. It’s also not Bale’s brooding Dark Knight who spends three films trying to figure out how save Gotham City. And it’s also not whatever the heck Joel Schumacher was doing.
Reeves and Robert Pattinson have created a very raw and vengeful Batman. This Bruce is an adult but still is coping with his parents’ death. He doesn’t give much of a darn about Gotham. He’s Vengeance. He is simply out to cleanse his psyche and if he cleans up Gotham along the way, well that’s fine.
When we meet Batman he has been Batmanning for only a couple of years. So it’s not odd that he hasn’t figured it all out. His nemesis in this version is The Riddler, in an epic crazy performance by Paul Dano. It’s not Heath Ledger’s Joker, but’s pretty close.
This is a detective story. Batman is trying to figure out who is killing Gotham City’s leaders. The great detective in this case is wearing a cowl with bat ears. He relies on his knowledge and intelligence rather than technology (though there is a little of that, it is not leaned into like in the Nolan films).
While he is investigating Batman meets Zoe Kravitz’ Selena Kyle. She is a waitress at a bar owned by Carmine Falcone (John Turturro) and run by The Penguin (Colin Farrell). Selena is trying to avenge the murder of her roommate and friend who was also the late mayor’s mistress. Ok, I’m going to try to avoid talking about the plot any further. Both to avoid spoilers and so it doesn’t get too confusing. I did not have trouble following it, but it’s easier if you’re watching it.
The Gotham City created by Reeves, his co-writer Peter Craig and his production team is dark, dank, damp and dreary. Yes.. the 4 “D’s”. It seems to rain all the time. It completely fits the tone of the film. If you feel comfortable going to a theater, please go. See this in the dark with other people on a huge screen.
Michael Giacchino’s score is simply fantastic (I’m listening to it as I write this). The needle drops are perfectly placed.
The acting is just amazing. I’ve heard Pattinson’s Bruce Wayne described as “emo”. Yeah, whatever. It’s just fantastic. There is far less Bruce than Batman in this movie, but he plays both sides of the character to near perfection. As I mentioned, this is a very depressed and damaged character and you feel that all the time. But Pattinson plays his confidence as the vengeful detective perfectly.
Kravitz’ Catwoman is smart, sexy and slinky. She is also a badass in a fight. The connection between her and Pattinson is perfect. They play off of and together extremely well. I need more of these two fighting crime.
The other major players are also fantastic. Farrell is unrecognizable behind prosthetics and a really spot on New York mobster accent. But he is a much needed foil for the hero. Turturro is really in his element here. He brings all his Turturro-ness to the role of the crime boss. He’s so much better than Tom Wilkinson in Batman Begins. Jeffrey Wright’s Jim Gordon is very good, but I still prefer Gary Oldman’s in the Nolan trilogy.
Dano is on another level here. He is truly frightening in several scenes. He is a psycho with a plan. Where Ledger’s Joker was an agent of chaos by his own admission, Dano’s Riddler seems more focused on one goal right from the start.
There are nods to QAnon-like conspiracy theories and January 6th style insurrection, but it’s not the main point and Reeves said he wrote this before all that insanity. You get the point without being beaten over the head with it.
Now it is nearly 3 hours long. It felt it after a while, but that didn’t ruin my enjoyment. I could see what Reeves was doing, but I could also see where it could have been trimmed. Can’t tell you where without spoilers.
I don’t think this is the best Batman movie ever made. That crown still belongs to The Dark Knight. But this grounded version of the Caped Crusader feels more real than any other. And that’s why I loved it.

WRATH OF MAN

wrath of man

wrath of man

It has been more than a year since I stepped into a movie theater. And that movie (SEBERG) left a really bad taste in my mouth. You see an average movie and you figure, “eh I’ll just go see a better one next week”.  But there was no next week. Weeks turned into months and into more than a year. Now that I’m fully vaccinated, I figured it was time to take the plunge.

 

But what to see? An indie movie? Wait for a potential blockbuster like IN THE HEIGHTS, FAST 9, BLACK WIDOW, even CRUELLA might qualify. I decided I didn’t want to wait. Pick up the phone, open the AMC app and see what’s out there. WRATH OF MAN looked promising. Guy Ritchie co-wrote and directed. I like Ritchie. LOCK, STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS and SNATCH are fun crime movies. The first SHERLOCK HOLMES wasn’t bad. THE MAN FROM UNCLE didn’t get a lot of love, but I liked it. So Ritchie, awesome! Jason Statham glowering for two hours. Statham is a great action star. Ok, that seemed like the perfect re-entry point. I made the right choice.

 

WRATH OF MAN is not a perfect movie. But it may have been the perfect “return to a theater” movie. Statham glowers more than usual. He’s said it may be his darkest role and it’s hard to argue, but it’s dark with a purpose. One of loglines I read says it is a look inside Los Angeles’ cash truck culture. I didn’t realize there was one, but sure why not. Apparently, part of that culture is well planned robberies carried out by highly trained crews. Again sure, why not.  Statham goes to work for one of these armored car companies without much explanation of why. At least not initially.

 

And I would love to tell you the reason why Statham’s character “H” takes the job, something for which he seems galactically over-qualified. But here’s where telling you would spoil the whole movie. What starts as confusion is explained in a series of flashbacks involving Statham and a crew of robbers lead by Jeffrey Donovan and includes the requisite wildcard, Scott Eastwood. The crew is made up of army veterans who miss the “action”. Yeah, yeah, it’s kind of a tired premise and here it’s offered without any backstory other than we are led to believe they served together in the “shit” (even the cliches are tired).

 

WRATH OF MAN has some very good set pieces involving robberies and gun battles, including the climatic robbery. Statham is a solid, reliable action movie star and he carries a lot in this movie. Eastwood goes rogue and It’s pretty good. Holt McCallany plays “Bullet”, another guard who shows H the ropes. McCallany has made a career of playing heavies. Here he stretches a bit and it’s worth it. I have loved Donovan since BURN NOTICE. I wish he was cast in more movies and was given more to do in the ones he appears in. He has a knowing vibe that I really love. We see a little of it here, but I want more.

 

Is WRATH OF MAN good? I’d say it’s good enough. It moves. I never got bored and after staying away from theaters for more than a year, it was a great way to re-enter the world of entertainment.