School is back in full swing, which always messes with my media consumption. The lazy summer, full of long days watching interesting TV shows and fascinating movies and reading great books, has now turned into evenings that become a blur making sure homework is completed, papers are signed, and baths are taken. Soon enough, the girl will be back doing Girl Scouts, art class, and gymnastics, and we'll hardly get an evening to ourselves. Not that I'm complaining. I enjoy that my daughter is involved in so many activities and living a full life. Well, maybe I'm complaining a little bit. I like my lazy evenings. Still, I caught plenty of cool things this summer I still haven't talked about and I find ways to squeeze stuff in even with all the other activities going on.
Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood
Somewhere in the middle of Quentin Tarantino’s new film - about the time when Brad Pitt’s stuntman-turned-gopher was cruising around Los Angeles, or perhaps it was when Leonardo DiCaprio, playing former western star Rick Dalton was flubbing his lines on the set of a new movie - I realized I was bored. That’s not something that usually happens to me during a Tarantino film. I am not the director’s biggest fan, but I am at least generally interested in what’s going on in his films.
That’s the thing with Once Upon a Time in...Hollywood, it mostly forgoes Tarantino’s usual rat-a-tat banter and extreme violence and becomes a hang-out movie. It's content spending time with the characters and soaking up the vintage 1969 Los Angeles scenery. It is a sprawling, unfocused film that takes numerous tangents and isn’t afraid to let a scene run long. While watching it, I was distracted and kept wanting it to hurry up. There were compelling moments and so much of the film teases the murders of Sharon Tate (a wonderful Margot Robbie) that I wanted it to get there or get somewhere at least instead of just meandering about. I walked out of the film disappointed.
But it stuck with me. I kept thinking about it long after the credits had rolled. And the more I thought about it the more I liked it. I’m still not enthralled with it as so many critics seem to be, but when I was able to let go of what I thought the movie was going to be and take it for what it actually was, I started to dig what Tarantino had made. It is a nostalgic film. Tarantino grew up in Los Angeles during this period. He loves the movies that were made during this time. As a man who helped usher in a new era in Hollywood and now bemoans where it is going, he’s made a film about the transition from the old Hollywood system full of big studios and star contracts to independent filmmakers and independent projects. It is a love letter to those old days made a director who helped Hollywood make a similar transition in the 1990s. It will be interesting to watch it again with my preconceived notions changed.
I very much liked the first season of the Netflix Jessica Jones series. That isn’t to say I didn’t like the second and third seasons, but that I just haven’t gotten around to them yet. I really dug how in that first season Jessica is presented as someone who has powers but isn’t defined by them. She’s a hero who has suffered trauma but is just trying to live her life as best she can (which, admittedly, is not all that well). In a cultural landscape besot with superheroes battling evil in the name of all that is sacred and holy, it was nice to see someone with superhuman powers struggling to make it through the night.
When I learned it was based upon a comic series called Alias, created by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos, I knew I needed to read it. In the comic, Jessica Jones was once upon a time a costumed hero but she gave it up and now ekes out a living as a private detective. I’m a huge fan of detective stories and blending it with superhero stories provides a unique comic.
Moreso than the Netflix series, the comic exists very much in the Marvel universe and Jessica periodically runs into various other superheroes. One of my favorite moments is when she needs to obtain the Avengers' help but doesn’t know how to reach them. She walks into Avengers' Headquarters but is stopped at the reception desk. Because of course in a real world where the Avengers exist, you can’t just walk in off the street and get a face to face with Captain America or Thor. It is that sense of fantasy mixed with real-world realism that makes it special.
Sadly, they decided to conclude the comic after only 28 episodes. Bendis did write another Jessica Jones-heavy comic called The Pulse, which features her working for The Daily Bugle and interacting a little more frequently with other superheroes. I’ve just started it but so far it's quite enjoyable.
Our Man In Havana
After the huge success of The Third Man, director Carol Reed and writer Graham Greene once again teamed up for an espionage thriller set in a foreign country with Our Man In Havana. This one has a much lighter touch drifting closer to comedy than drama and it isn’t nearly as good as The Third Man but it's quite a bit more fun. It stars Alec Guinness as a mild-mannered vacuum-shop owner living in Havana just before the revolution from Fidel Castro. He is approached by a British Official and asked to spy for them - sending headquarters intel and recruiting local agents. He agrees because he needs the money but he doesn’t have the slightest idea about how to do any of that spy stuff. So he starts making it up. He invents agents, sends made up intel, and even begins to draw pictures of secret lairs (which looks suspiciously like modern vacuum parts.)
This works so well that headquarters thinks he is a super-spy and they take special notice of those giant vacuum drawings. Of course, things eventually turn deadly, and the film takes on a modern spy-thriller visage, but it never loses its humor. Guinness is as good as he ever was, playing it both smart and over his head. The rest of the cast including Burl Ives, Maureen O’Hara, Ernie Kovacs, and Noel Coward are all terrific. It is fun, and brisk, and totally enjoyable all around.
I’ve never been a huge Jackie Chan fan. His breakthrough in America in the mid-'90s coincided with a period in which I had grown tired and bored with action films. I was a burgeoning cinephile and learning to discover what I thought of then as “real cinema” and so I didn’t have time for some goofy martial-arts movies from Hong Kong. I had friends who loved him and I did catch a few of his films of which I enjoyed the action set pieces but all the rest of the films - things like story and character development, things I felt were the upmost of importance at this time - were pretty dumb and quite silly.
While I certainly still love the classics and so-called important, art-house films, I’ve come back around to being able to enjoy dumb blockbusters, action flicks, and the like. The time between has created a pretty sizable gap in Jackie Chan knowledge so I was happy to see Police Story and Police Story 2 on the Criterion Channel.
Watching Police Story, I realize my initial opinion of Jackie Chan films remains pretty much spot-on. The story is pretty silly, staying well within standard police-movie tropes while adding in a pretty big dash of slapstick. Chan plays a cop who is asked to protect a gangster's girlfriend after a botched mission forces her to serve as a witness. Lots of misunderstandings arise between Chan and his own girlfriend over this beautiful witness hanging around him. Lots of action scenes ensue with the criminal element trying to stop the girl from testifying.
Really, the plot is not the reason anyone watches a Jackie Chan film and it's all pretty flimsy and not particularly well done. The slapstick doesn’t do much for me, but those action scenes are stunners. There is an early one involving Chan hanging onto a double-decker bus with an umbrella and the final battle scene inside a mall involves more people flying through glass panes than I ever thought possible. It holds up incredibly well even some thirty years after the fact especially when you realize none of it involves computer-generated effects.
Michelangelo Antonioni films are certainly not for the easily bored. For people raised on modern blockbusters where big action set pieces occur every few minutes with explosions, punches, and quick edits, his films must seem so incredibly dull. Of the three films I’ve seen from him - Blow Up, L’aventura, and now La Notte, the most exciting has been Blow Up and at its most action packed, we find a man perpetually enlarging a photo he took of a field.
With La Notte, describing the plot, typing out what happens, would be about as exciting as taking a nap in an airport. It follows a married couple (played to perfection by Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau) who are rich, bored, and no longer in love. They spend one day, and the titular night walking about their old neighborhood, having drinks at a bar where a scantily clad woman does acrobatics, and wandering around a party at a friend’s mansion. While things do happen, one can be forgiven for not noticing that they do.
But what it lacks in action packed-ness it simply overflows with visual beauty and sly commentary on the bourgeois and modern life. Antonioni frames each scene with striking compositions. We understand the listless ennui of these characters even when they aren’t saying anything. This couple have not only grown apart from each other, they are disconnected from life. But as an audience, we have never been more enthralled.
Terminator: Dark Fate
I pretty much tuned out on this franchise after Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. But with James Cameron back on as producer, both Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton reprising their roles (Edward Furlong apparently has a small role, though you won't see him in this trailer), and newcomers director Tim Miller and MacKenzie Davis as a new human/terminator hybrid, I think I'm back on board. The trailer is filled with callbacks to the first two movies and apparently, the filmmakers came to the same conclusion as me in that this film throws out all but the first two films and takes place not long after the events of T2: Judgment Day. Consider me excited.