Won Ton Ton: the Dog Who Saved Hollywood

This week our hosts took on Won Ton Ton a film attempting to parody the animal craze in Hollywood during the 1920’s. The film came to Cup of Tea via Michael’s father – Rich – who saw the movie countless times when he worked in a movie theatre in high school. It wouldn’t have felt right to watch it without him, so this week Cup of Tea welcomes a special guest host, Rich Horecki, to see how the picture stood up decades later!

The French Dispatch

This latest effort from indie darling Wes Anderson is full of his signatures. If you like his signatures this movie will be a dream come true. If you don’t like him it will be disjointed, off putting, and boring. Sadly I fall into the second camp.

Wes Anderson is an acclaimed independent filmmaker with hits like The Royal Tenenbaums, Moonrise Kingdom, and The Grand Budapest Hotel. He is most well known for his kitschy sense of style and the intricate details of his production design. This design and attention to detail is on full display in the French Dispatch. The film follows a fictional monthly news publication run by an eccentric editor and an even more eccentric staff of writers. The movie is broken up into stories written by the staff the cover an artist in prison, a student uprising in Paris, and a kidnapping of police commissioner’s son. Each segment is full of Anderson’s unique costumes and set design and is technically very impressive.

He does have a mastery of style. He shoots characters and action at 90 degree angles. He moves his camera on an axis that creates a distinct style in every moment. There’s no mistaking the film for anyone else’s work. It is fun to see a director’s vision expressed in such a unique way. I respect his attention to detail and his one of a kind aesthetic.

There are moments of technical brilliance here as when the walls open up in a cafe to reveal the world beyond the characters. When the black and white artist in prison segment flashes to full bright color to encompass the power of the artist’s work. And when the chase sequence at the end of the kidnapping story is told in animation. These are delightful flights of technical fancy that are a lot of fun to see.

I have two problems with the movie. One is a problem with Wes Anderson the filmmaker and one is a problem with this movie specifically. The first is the way Anderson handles emotion. He feels like an alien who doesn’t understand the way people feel. His characters state their emotions with robotic, matter of factness that feels detached and off putting. I never believe in his characters. They become collections of ticks and ideas stating feelings as if they were reading an instruction manual. It is very unnatural. I understand that it fits in with the verisimilitude of the films, but it keeps me at a distance. It prevents me from fully engaging with the narratives. I can never invest in the stories because I feel I am being held at arms length.

The problem with this movie specifically is that only one of the three major stories works. The artist in prison is a wonderful little piece of oddity and eccentricity. It follows Benicio del Toro as a tortured artist who murdered two men in a fit of pique. He finds his artistic voice in prison in the form of a muse. The female prison guard who is willing to pose nude form him. She is played by the alluring and wonderful Lea Seydoux. This story has humor and heart and a strong forward momentum. The other narratives don’t. The other two stories just fall flat due to muddled conflict and confusing thematics that never fully come together. He’s one for three in this movie, and that’s not enough for me.

Like I said, if you love his work, you’ll love this. If you are skeptical of his films, just skip it. This one will not convert any Wes Anderson detractors to his side. It’s a great Anderson film, but not a great film. Not my cup of tea. B-

Belfast

This is a beautiful little memory. It is a collection of moments that made up this boys childhood. It has some gorgeous and conspicuous cinematography that showcases a deeply compelling time and place. I loved it.

Shot in lovely black and white, the film follows a family that is living during a very rough time in Ireland known colloquially as “the troubles.” It was a time of social turmoil and conflict in Northern Ireland that lasted from the late 60’s through the late 90’s. It was a time of political violence based on years of social and political issues that bubbled over and resulted in blood in the streets.

The movie doesn’t focus on the reasons or the machinations of the conflict. It follows Buddy, played by the adorable newcomer Jude Hill, he is a nine year old boy just trying to live his life while his father, played by Jamie Dornan, is off working for long stretches, and his Ma, Played by Caitriona Balfe, is left at home trying to care for two young boys in the midst of violence and chaos.

The film was written and directed by Kenneth Branagh, and it is somewhat autobiographical. He grew up in Ireland during the chaos and his family history mirrors the trajectory of the characters. He has called it his most personal film and that really comes through in every frame. The movie is shot from a boys perspective and feels like a memory.

The movie is shot in black and white with some absolutely gorgeously composed shots that utilize the frame is a really unique way. He uses deep focus and steady long shots to give the viewer the opportunity to explore the frame with their eyes. It is a really beautifully shot movie. I would love to watch it again just to get to spend some more time in these images. Some of the shots are a little bit showy. Do we really need the extreme Dutch angle and the stark contrast to get the point across? No, but I’ll give it a pass.

The movie stumbles for me at the climax. It feels like a Hollywood climax that doesn’t entirely fit with the grounded and realistic tone of the rest of the movie. It pulled me out just when the movie needed me to buy in fully.

That said the movie is full of wonderful little moments. Buddy asks his Grandpa, played by Ciaran Hinds, for advice on asking a cute girl out. Grandpa gets as involved in the romance as Buddy is. It’s nice and sweet and feels true. When Grandma, played by the incomparable Judy Dench, takes Buddy to the movies is a joy. The final moments of the movie pack such a subtle and emotional punch that it brought me to tears.

Is it perfect? No. Did it work its magic on me? Completely. I loved it flaws and all. I highly recommend it if you can find it in a theater. I recommend it if you can find it online. It’s a wonderful little movie. It’s my cup of tea. A

Tick, Tick… Boom!

This Netflix musical has a stunning lead performance and a surprisingly solid vision behind the camera that enliven the narrative and carries the movie through some slow patches.

In 1990, Jonathan Larson was a waiter at a diner and an aspiring composer of Broadway musicals. He was years away from his musical smash Rent and theater immortality. He wrote a little show called Tick, Tick… Boom! about life as a struggling artist. Larson called it a “rock monologue” it was a new style of theater for the new age. After his tragic death, Larson’s friend reached out to David Auburn, a Pulitzer winning playwright in his own right, to rework Tick, Tick…Boom! as a new show including Larson’s life and journey. This new show captured the imagination of a young musical theater student named Lin Manuel Miranda who would go on to his own form of musical theater legacy in the form of Hamilton. Miranda produced and directed this movie adaptation of Larson’s work.

The history is interesting to me and enriches the viewing experience. The movie is about the artistic process and how ideas form into plays and musicals which capture the imagination. The movie features the real life relationship between Stephen Sondheim and Jonathan Larson, and the movie was made by a director who was inspired by the real life Larson’s work.

The backstory of the show also informs how well Miranda handles the material. It’s clearly made by someone who’s been working on and thinking about this show for years. It has a strong vision and a clear voice behind the camera that elevates the material and enhances every frame. It is an adaptation that succeeds at fully translating the stage show to the screen. The two mediums operate in very different veins and this movie understands that better than most.

It’s a strong adaptation that features an incredible lead performance from Andrew Garfield. He gives a fully committed performance doing his own singing and dancing. He seems to disappear into Larson leaving all traces of his past roles and Spider-man fame behind. His charisma and charm carries this movie. He’s supported by a wonderful cast of Broadway and musical theater alums that bring their a-game.

The one problem I have with the movie is the pacing in the middle section. It’s a problem on a bone deep level. The core of the script is the problem, and the film covers for it but can’t overcome it. The story follows Jonathan Larson as he prepares to show his latest musical work. He feels the show is missing a big finish song to cap off the piece, but he’s experiencing writers block and can’t come up with a song that will work. This brings the narrative moments screeching to a halt as our protagonist is hindered. He can’t move forward and neither can the narrative momentum. We’re all just stuck waiting for him to write something. My attention waned in the middle because of this. Once we got past this hurdle I was treated to a gorgeous conclusion, but that second was rough.

It has wonderful musical numbers. It is full of great performances. It has solid direction. I really enjoyed the movie, but it’s not an A+ for me. It is absolutely my cup of tea, and I think if you have any interest in theater or the artistic process you will enjoy it too. A-

They Live

This week our hosts visit the still sadly relevant science fiction action film, They Live (1988). The film follows an unnamed drifter who discovers through special sunglasses that the ruling class are aliens concealing their appearance and manipulating people to consume, breed, and conform to the status quo via subliminal messages in mass media.

We also did something new this week. We converted our podcast to a video. We now have a video review for They Live. Check out the video linked below.

Let us know what you think of the new video in the comment section.

Zola

This is a messy and extravagantly entertaining movie. It is unpredictable and fascinating. It uses the medium of film to its fullest extent. I really enjoyed this movie, but it’s definitely not for everyone.

The movie has an unusual production history. It is based on a Twitter thread that was written by Aziah “Zola” King that chronicled her time with a friend who nearly roped her into a human trafficking situation. The film is based on Zola’s own words as well as a Rolling Stone article that covered the thread as well as the various perspectives of those involved.

The movie is written and directed by Janice Bravo. It is shot on 16mm film which lends the movie a vivivd and saturated color palette as well as a grit and grain that perfectly captures the tone of the story, beautiful yet dirty. It stars the wonderful Taylour Paige as Zola, and Riley Keough as her new friend Stefani Zola’s new friend who invites her to Tampa to make some money.

Zola is a part time stripper trying to earn a little extra money. Stefani is a girl she meets at the restaurant where she works. The two of them hit it off and connect very quickly. Before too long, Stefani is insisting that Zola come to Tampa with her, her roommate, and her boyfriend in order to do a little dancing and make a lot of money.

The roommate is played by the ever excellent Colman Domingo. Domingo is an actor that is not a household name although he should be. He’s one of those actors who elevates every role he’s in. Here he is charming and charismatic then he’s terrifying. He shifts accents continuously throughout the movie depending on the scene and his mood. It’s a great performance.

The movie plays with filmmaking is such a fun and inventive way. Zola is narrating her own story and offering constant commentary on what’s happening. She has a startling blunt way of cutting to the core of the scene. There is also a really fun and fascinating sound design that uses a musical trill to denote major shifts and changes as well as using the sound of twitter to emphasize moments. There’s also a really cool scene in which the only sound on the soundtrack is the noise of two kids playing basketball. The rhythmic slap of the ball against the pavement creates a unique tension.

The movie flies through its unpredictable plot with a wonderful swift pace. It doesn’t linger or belabor moments. It is constantly surprising us with the next twist and turn or fortune for these unfortunate people. I love a movie that can surprise me. So many movies are predictable to a fault. Here is one that is full of delightful surprises.

Now, the movie is definitely not for everyone. It deals very frankly with sex and sexuality. It deals with the seamy underbelly of human sexuality. Prostitution and trafficking are major themes in the film. There is a scene that has been described as a penis parade in which the men who pay for sex are shown in full frontal flashes that will definitely put off some viewers. It has flights of cinematic fancy as when different perspectives are incorporated and visual motifs are carried out. The subject matter and execution might be off putting to some, but if you’re looking for a unique film viewing experience this one is certainly it.

This one is totally my cup of tea. It is an excellent use of all the tools in the filmmaking belt to tell a unique and compelling story. I highly recommend it if it sounds like it might be your cup of tea too. A-

The Last Duel

This movie was quickly forgotten and forced out of theaters to make room for the next superhero epic. However, this movie is better than you’ve heard and deserves a look as it becomes available to rent and stream.

The film is an historical drama that tells the story of the last judicial duel fought in France. In the mid 1300’s, two rival soldiers in France come head to head when the wife of one accuses the other of rape. The matter is decided in a trial by combat. The film plays out in three chapters covering each man’s point of view and the woman’s perspective of the crime itself leading up to the duel itself.

The movie opens with Jean De Carrouges, played by Matt Damon, he is a noble warrior who serves his king with distinction and honor. He loves his wife dearly and does everything right. He is maligned by the treacherous Jacques Le Gris and the Count Pierre D’Alencon. He seeks justice and right at all times and with every move.

The next chapter follows Le Gris, played by Adam Driver. He is a womanizer and an opportunist. He is also we’ll educated and is prized for his learned bookkeeping. He is the close friend of Pierre d’Alençon, played by an inexplicably blonde Ben Affleck. He does what he thinks is best at all times and while he wants to help Carrouges, he is more concerned about helping himself. He falls in love with Carrouges’ wife, and while his pursuit of her isn’t entirely reciprocal he believes she wants him too.

The final chapter is from Marguerite de Carrouges’ perspective. She is played by the wonderful Jodie Comer. This is the most interesting section of the movie. Not only because it is lent the most credence of the three, but because it deals with the more nitty gritty details of medieval life. Carrouges tells of battles fought and won. Le Gris tells of political intrigue. But Marguerite tells what life is actually like for a person living at this point in history. It is full of its own dramas and intrigues. These dramas are more interpersonal and compelling that the impersonal battles and court intrigues, also Jodie Comer is brilliant. She is fantastic here.

I have issues with the film. For one thing, each version of events doesn’t differ too dramatically from one another. The events play out pretty similarly for the most part. I wish there was a bigger swing for the fences in terms of perspective shifts here. It’s most disappointing where the central rape is concerned. It plays out pretty much the same way in Le Gris and Marguerite’s versions. After seeing it the first time it was pretty obviously a rape. After seeing it the second time it was just worse. This confused me. If the whole idea is that we’re seeing each person’s perspective, wouldn’t Le Gris’ recollection of the event be different than Marguerite’s? Also if the two accounts were basically the same, why did we have to see it twice? It was awful enough the first time.

That said, if the varying perspective’s gimmick isn’t fully embraced it is still a fascinating story. The way life was lived back in the day is still a riveting subject that I enjoyed watching. It is a worthwhile film even though it is flawed and uneven. The actors are all great although they are curiously haired. Matt Damon sports a gross mullet. Ben Affleck is blond with a goatee. It seems like they had a bet between them to see who could look stupider. This also applies to the helmets they wear during the titular duel. Their helmets leave have their faces exposed. They look stupid. They’re dumb helmets. It’s an inexplicably bad decision that somehow made it into the movie.

Overall, I really enjoyed the movie. It is a good showcase for the actors and it is a chance to immerse yourself in a different time and place. I loved getting to live in this world for a while. It was a harsh and brutal existence, but it is fascinating to see how people lived.

I think it’s worth checking out as you’re looking for something to watch on these cold winter nights. It was my cup of tea. B

The Killing of Two Lovers

This is one of the most amazing and intense movies I’ve seen in years. It is tense and unbearably suspenseful movie from the opening moments until the bitter end. This little scene indie film is one people should seek out.

The story concerns David, played by Clayne Crawford, a man who is struggling to keep his family together. He and his wife have separated in order to try to work out their issues. He is living in his fathers house a few blocks away. He is seething and burning with frustration and rage as he watches his life fall apart in his hands.

I knew nothing about the film when I started watching it. I think that’s the best way to view it, so I’ll try to discuss it obliquely here and then give away the goods later on.

The movie is incredible intense. Every scene is built around characters not saying what they need to say. They are held back by pain, frustration, and years of hurt. They don’t want to explode and damage the relationship further. It’s this fear of hurting each other that runs throughout the film and lends it so much narrative tension. I was on the edge of my seat during every scene hanging on ever word wondering if they were finally going to say what they needed to say.

The tension also comes from David’s increasing rage. He demonstrates a capacity for violence as he leaves a bad encounter with his wife and punches a body opponent bag with vicious zeal. He could explode at any moment and harm those around him. This capacity for violence might alienate people to him as a protagonist, but I think it works. If you really embrace the situation he is in, you’ll be as frustrated as he is. I was.

The tension is amplified by the way the movie is shot. It has a narrow aspect ratio that is closer to a square. It’s called academy ratio and it shortens the sides of the frame to create a visually claustrophobic movie. You are trapped in the frame alongside the characters.

Often filmmakers rely not he edit to create tension and momentum, but the director Robert Machoian, uses extremely long takes. He never gives us the relief of an edit. He holds wide shots for the entire duration of a scene and allows the characters to move within the frame. He never cuts in for a close up or cuts away to emphasize an action. The edit would break out attention and give us some sense of relief. The way the movie plays out is in a constant unbroken moment of building and simmering tension. It allows the actors to act and feel out a scene more naturally. It’s incredible.

This is one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time. It is currently streaming on Hulu. Seek this movie out. It is absolutely worth your time. It is riveting and powerful beginning to end. It is my cup of tea. A+

Okay, let’s get to some spoiler territory.

The movie opens with David holding a gun to his sleeping wife’s head. Holy crap, that’s a very dark and dangerous place to start a movie. It makes sense that some people would be put off by a protagonist who would even consider going this far. It almost put me off too, but I stuck with it Because after seeing everything that David is going through I understood why he was that desperate. It’s not okay or acceptable, but it is understandable that he would be that broken and lost. It also sets the tone of the suspense in the rest of the movie. If we see how far he might go it makes everything that follows that much more scary. Also seeing how good he is with his kids and his elderly father really makes me root for him. I want to see him throw his gun away and get out of the darkness that made him think he needed to go this far. All I’ll say is that if the opening turns you off, stick with it.

Jumping off of that, I hate the character Derek so much. He is David’s wife’s new boyfriend. He sucks. I hate him so much. He is a smarmy, sleezy jerk. I hate him. Movies are so often filled with milquetoast characters designed to maximize “likability.” This movie offers us a deeply flawed protagonist and one of the worst people I’ve ever seen in Derek.

The movie has a somewhat murky ending. This might disappoint some viewers, but I found challenging and resonant. Sometimes it feels like the filmmakers forgot to write an ending, and just stopped the film. This movie gives us everything we need except a guarantee. There’s no guarantee that the resolution to the movie is going to last. We simply get to a certain point and leave the characters to continue living their lives. We have no promise that the problems are entirely resolved or will ever be resolved. It allows us as the audience to think through the story and its implications instead of spoon feeding us a cookie cutter conclusion.

West Side Story (2021)

Steven Spielberg took a remake of a classic that nobody needed and defied the odds to make a great movie in its own right. It is a movie musical that stands as an excellent companion to the original.

Books, essays, and documentaries have been made analyzing the craft and skill on display in the original 1961 film West Side Story. From the exquisite score, to the revolutionary camera work, to the powerful story telling, the film stands among the greatest ever made. It is not one lauded and praised, but is also an endearing and entertaining film that can still be thoroughly enjoyed 60 years later.

So why on earth would anyone remake it?

That was the question that kept me out of the movie theater for weeks after this movie premiered. I couldn’t see the point. I had dismissed the film out of hand. After hearing a flood of positive reviews from people I respected I decided to check it out, and I’m glad I did. If anyone out there is thinking like I was, put that aside and check this movie out. It’ll be well worth your time.

For those unfamiliar with the original, here’s a quick breakdown… in Manhattan’s west side, there are two gangs vying for control of their neighborhood and the future of their city. These are the Jets, a predominantly Irish working class group of guys, and the Sharks, a group Puerto Rican’s trying to build a better life for themselves in New York. The rivalry between these two is upended when Tony, played by Ansel Elgort, a founding member of the Jets, falls in love with Maria, played by newcomer Rachel Zegler, the sister of the leader of the Sharks, played by David Alvarez.

West Side Story began its life as an idea that composer Leonard Bernstein had to adapt Romeo and Juliet. He wanted to create an intricate musical world for Romeo and Juliet that would be set in modern day New York. At the time gangs were the great threat and boogeyman in American society. He chose his setting and crafted a beautiful musical that received acclaim and found success. He then took it to Hollywood and adapted his adaptation to film. The movie was a masterpiece that earned an unprecedented 10 Oscars. This movie is credited with getting many of our most prominent filmmakers interested in film among them Steven Spielberg. Now, 60 years later Spielberg has created a remake.

What does Spielberg bring to the story? First and foremost, he brings an authenticity and a grit to the story. The time and place feel authentic and lived in. The neighborhood feels real. He also shifts the story to a slightly different time and place. In the late 50’s there was a push to tear down a certain neighborhood and build a massive arts center. Spielberg sets his story in a neighborhood being demolished. The shifting times and the looming threat of a way of life disappearing is the backdrop of his film. It adds a layer of subtext that informs every minute of the movie. It underlies a lot of the films themes and enriches the narrative.

He also adds a real Puerto Rican perspective to the film that has been missing since Bernstein put pen to paper. Bernstein chose a Puerto Rican gang not as a means of exploring the culture but as a convenient ethnicity to differentiate the gangs. This film lends their story and their culture a lot more weight. A lot has been written about the fact that there are scenes in this film that are in Spanish without subtitles. I really enjoyed hearing the language spoken and the way these performers are able to switch effortlessly between English and Spanish sometimes within a single sentence. It adds a musical poetry to the scenes without actual music.

The musical numbers here are really well done. The America number in particular is brilliant blend of old and new styles. It is a big, splashy, old school musical number with hundreds of people dancing in the streets. The costumes are bright and colorful, and the staging is classic stuff. But the choreography and the editing reflect modern sensibilities. The choreography has a motivation beyond flashy moves. Every action has a motivation and a purpose. The editing is faster and more chaotic than the original, but it isn’t distracting. He holds his wide shots long enough to create a real sense of the performance as a whole.

The fun of watching dance numbers is the joy of seeing dancers perform at the top of their game. When you edit these scenes rapidly and chop them to the bone you lose the performance. Too few modern musicals understand this. Spielberg on the other hand seems to know what makes for a good musical number and edits just the right amount.

The other thing he gets right in regard to the music is that he doesn’t pull a Tom Hooper and force his actors to sing live. That was always a bad decision that resulted in some terrible musical moments, namely all of Cats. Spielberg goes old school and prerecords his actors. This gives them the chance to give the best singer performances they can, but he also doesn’t sacrifice the emotion of the moment and impact fo the performance.

The performers are brilliant across the board with one exception. The stand outs for me are three of the leads, Rachel Zegler is wonderful. She was literally acting in a high school musicals when she started filming West Side Story. Her voice is exquisite. Her acting is wonderful. She has an open and expressive face that conveys so much of her characters inner journey. Ariana DeBose is phenomenal as Anita. She is a veteran of the stage, and she brings a light touch to the comedy and a hammer to the emotional beats. Her duet with Maria toward the end is unbelievably powerful. She knocks it out of the park. David Alvarez, and Mike Faist play Bernardo and Riff respectively. Alvarez is powerful and imposing. He is charming and dangerous. Faist is an extremely unlikely leading man. He has a unique face that looks intimidating and intriguing at all times. He gives Riff a nasty edge without sacrificing the characters charisma.

The weak link here is Ansel Elgort. Ugh he sucks. I could not stand him in this movie. He was a blank slate. He offered nothing. Draw a face on a two by four and you have him in this movie. His singing voice is excellent. He can sing beautifully. He just can’t perform the songs. It really hit me in his song Maria. He’s just fallen in love with Maria, and he’s walking through the streets singing about how wonderful she is and how happy he is, but you’d never know it by looking at his blank impassive face. He is emotionless and stiff. Luckily most of the rest of the cast makes up for it. Zegler carries their scenes together with her emotional presence, but Elgort really left her hanging.

All in all, this is a movie with issues, but is a worthy addition to the West Side Story world. It is a powerful movie in its own right. It has wonderful staging and great cinematography. It updates the story in intelligent and rewarding ways. It is a good movie that deserves an audience. Check this one out.

It is my cup of tea. A-

The Year End Bonanza

We’re doing something a little different this week. We are approaching the first anniversary of our podcast and wanted to celebrate with a mega sized review.

Our hosts watched 61 movies together in 2021 and released most of them on this podcast. Tune in this week for a long-form episode talking through everything we watched this year with behind-the-scenes musings, some enthusiastic Steven Seagal bashing, and another battle over Krull.