Chinatown

Well it’s a classic for a reason. I went into this rewatch with an expectation that it wouldn’t be as good as it’s reputation, but I was pleasantly surprised by how well this cynical, slow burn of a movie holds up.

Chinatown tells the story of private investigator played by Jake Gittes, played by Jack Nicholson, who is hired by a suspicious wife to see if her husband is having an affair. Jake gets a lot more than he bargained for when his investigation uncovers murder, corruption, and the dark side of sunny Los Angeles.

I first saw this movie probably 15 years ago when I was just diving into classic cinema. It didn’t do much for me at the time. I was young and found it slowly paced, quiet, and convoluted. When I saw it was now streaming on Netflix, I thought it might be time to give it another shot. I’m glad I did because this movie is excellent.

It has a stellar screenplay by Robert Towne. It tells so much of the story through visuals and action. When dialogue and exposition are used they employ masterful subtext to get the point across. The story unfolds in a true slow burn. If you pay attention to what’s happening the story just crackles all the way through. I don’t recommend trying to watch it on your phone while you do other stuff. In order to get the most out of this movie you really have to commit to watching it and pay attention to the nuances on screen.

I was really struck by the world the movie creates. It paints an idyllic and idealized version of Los Angeles in the 1937. The sunshine is beautiful. The clothes are impeccable. The suits and hats are neatly tailored and worn just so. Jake apologizes to a lady for using the word broad to describe a woman. But at the same time it shows a gritty violent and realistic depiction of the world. When Jake gets into a fistfight it is messy and ugly and feels very real. When his nose gets cut in a very famous scene the violence is quick and shockingly painful to watch. I found this dichotomy of impossibly perfect and realistically messy incredibly engaging.

The acting here is also fantastic. It’s very naturalistic and understated. We all know Jack Nicholson can go over the top, but here he feels so natural and at ease. Faye Dunaway gives a wonderfully nuanced performance as a sort femme fatale with deep wounds and deeper secrets. John Huston is iconic with that drawl of his talking about the future.

The direction here is self assured and steady. The camera lingers and the edits are methodical. This is a movie that is in complete control of its vision. It was refreshing to see something so stylistically different from what we get these days.

Now the big question is does this movie hold anything for a modern audience? Some classic are amazing but won’t do much for the average viewer. I think this one will. I think that if you’re looking for a good crime thriller this one will hold up and be a great surprise to many viewers. It feels oddly contemporary while still feeling timeless. I think if you give it a real chance you’re going to get a lot out of it.

This is my cup of tea. A+

Awake

The latest Netflix release feels like a worse version of a dozen different movies I’ve seen. A charming lead can’t save the movie from the films clunky and awkward execution.

The film opens with Jill Adams played by the lovely Gina Rodriguez, as she finishes up her shift and steals some prescription drugs which she sells to the most generic drug dealer type in movies. She goes to see her kids who are living with their grandma and take them to school. On the way something happens that takes out the power all over the world. Their car dies and gets hit by another vehicle. They tumble into the lake.

The movie has its one effective scene here where we are put inside the car and feel the claustrophobic dread as the car sinks.

That night they discover that no one in the world can sleep. The world instantly descends into chaos and self destruction. The movie hurries itself through the usual end of the world tropes. Religious zealotry, rioting in the streets, military action, and the scientists desperately trying to save humanity.

What works? Not much. Even the decent elements are undone by terrible direction and awful writing.

There’s a scene in which a group of characters are yelling at each other and someone walks up behind another character and shoots him in the back of the head. It’s filmed in the most clumsy way possible. There’s no build up. There’s no tension. The characters start yelling. They continue yelling. Bang! Then we move on. If it was an intentional choice to film it so awkwardly, I don’t know what they were going for. If it was a mistake, and they just didn’t get enough angles, I’d understand. But serious it’s just bad regardless.

A problem I have is that the movie is in such a hurry to hit all the apocalypse high notes. We rush from the event to people losing their minds almost instantly. The pacing feels like they’re trying to get the movie over with as quickly as possible.

The real story here is that of a mother with a troubled past earning the respect and love of her kids through the crucible of extreme circumstances. This should work because it’s works a million times before. Abad parent becomes a good parent amidst an alien invasion, plague, or war is a well worn trope. I don’t buy it here because Gina Rodriguez doesn’t look old enough to have two kids. Her teenage son looks roughly her age. She has no chemistry or relationship with the kids from beginning to end. They feel like perfect strangers throughout, so when they cry out for her in the end I don’t believe it for a second.

I really like Gina Rodriguez, and I wanted to like her here, but she’s just lost in this mess. She does her best, but you can’t save a sinking ship through willpower alone.

This is a paint by numbers movie that never amounts to much. I checked it out sight unseen because I’ve had good luck with Netflix’s recent releases, but yikes this one was a dud.

Not my cup of tea. Skip it! D

One last complaint, this film features Finn Jones. He’s terrible. I’ve never seen him give a halfway decent performance. He always looks painfully uncomfortable on screen. He delivers all his lines like he’s confused by them. Terrible.

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It

A strong addition to the Conjuring series that doesn’t surpass its predecessors but does offer a lot to enjoy.

The film opens with a brutal and intense exorcism of a young boy named David. It took me a second to realize that David was indeed played by the cute kid from Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House Julian Hilliard. The poor kid just can’t catch a break with all these demons. There’s a shot ripped straight out of The Exorcist. I’m not sure if it qualifies as an homage or if it’s just a ripoff here.

Anyway, the family is being aided in their demonic troubles by Ed and Lorraine Warren, played once again by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga. During the exorcism Arne Johnson, played by Ruairi O’Connor, tells the demon to take him instead, so it does. It leaves the little boy and takes Arne. At first everything seems okay. Life goes on.

However, when Arne’s landlord antagonizes Arne, he begins seeing nightmare visions and defends himself with his knife, murdering his landlord and landing him in jail. The Warrens step up to help Arne with his legal defense. His defense? Not guilty by reason of demon possession.

Right away the movie gooses the Conjuring formula of a family in an evil house by turning our ghost fighters into ghost detectives almost as they try to uncover the source of the demon and who sent it against the innocent David and Arne.

This shift works really well in some spots and less so in others. We lose the immediacy of the stuck in the house setup. We also lose the horror of the home. For most people home is a safe space. It’s where you feel the most protected. In a ghost story your safe space is infested with danger and fear. When you’re scared as a kid you run into bed and hide under the covers. In the Conjuring world, the demon will pull you right out from under those covers. This movie loses that but gains a wider variety of locations to haunt.

The biggest shift from the first two films though is the director. James Wan directed the first two with clear cinematography and a slow build up and payoff. The director here is Michael Chaves. His visual approach could not be more different. He suffocated his characters with shadow. I’d say 75% of every frame is darkness. It isolates the characters and creates an oppressively ominous atmosphere.

Chaves also launches into wild expressionism in moments of possession. We get thrust into the POV of characters undergoing possession and seeing the horrifying imagery that accompanies that evil. These leaps into expressionism are intense and serve to untether the viewer and keep them off balance, constantly wondering what’s real.

I have some problems with the movie. One is the evil that they’re fighting is sort of nebulas and unmotivated. When discussing why someone would want to hurt little David the only answer offered is essentially evil people are evil. That’s just not compelling to me. I’d like a little more in my demonic villains. Do they want a soul? Do they thirst for blood? Were they wronged in the past? I’d just like a little something to give the villain shape.

There’s a cliff side sequence that looks so incredibly fake it pulled me right out of the movie. The cgi work is abysmal here. It looks like Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga standing in front of a watercolor backdrop. It’s incredibly unconvincing. It’s hard to be afraid when you don’t believe what you’re seeing.

Overall, this is a really good scary movie. It’s not great like its predecessors, but it is a good time. If you like these characters and their series this will be a fun time.

It’s my cup of tea B+

Ted Lasso

This series truly lives up to the title feel good show. It has an indomitable positivity and a true love for its characters. It made me laugh out loud every episode and brought me close to tears at times.

The series follows Ted Lasso a charmingly goofy and relentlessly positive American football coach who is hired to coach a soccer team in England despite the fact that he knows nothing about soccer. Ted Lasso is played by Jason Sudeikis of SNL fame. He is silly as when he asks his friend to goof off with him if they dream about each other. He is endearingly positive as when he marches into a new country and a new sport with the biggest smile on his face. He’s also heartbreaking in moments of personal challenge. He has a phone call home in the first episode that blew me away. He carries the show, but he’s not alone.

The woman who hires Ted is Rebecca Walton played by the very imposing, very lovely, and very tall Hannah Waddingham. She won the soccer team in a divorce settlement with her wealthy philandering her of an ex husband. He really is awful. She knows that the soccer team was the only thing he ever really loved. She decides to destroy it by hiring Ted. If you think you know who this character is or where the story is going to take her you’ll be surprised. She isn’t shrewish or evil. She is a wounded person who is working through her pain in an unhealthy way. She is full of layers and depth that are so much fun to explore as the show goes on.

Joining Ted is his assistant coach and friend Coach Beard. He’s mostly silent, but has some of the funniest lines in the show. His friendship with Ted is the kind everyone should have.

The star player on the team is Jamie Tartt. He’s an arrogant young hotshot and a real jerk, but as the season goes on he too has his layers peeled back to reveal a real person underneath.

Jamie’s girlfriend is Keeley Jones played with effervescent energy by Juno Temple. She is a delight. She is an earthy working class girl who describes herself as being famous for being almost famous.

Then there’s Nate. He has such low self esteem and feels so insignificant that he is shocked to discover that Ted remembers his name. He blooms and grows over the season in a delightful way.

I fell in love with this series. It is a real breath of positive fresh air. It has elements of sports movies, but doesn’t go all out with sports cliches. It is a very funny comedy, but really gives us the serious moments to ground it. It has so much heart and pathos, but doesn’t drown in it. The series is really about making friends and building relationships, and that feels like a great antidote to the world in which we live.

I don’t usually review series because the mechanics of TV and movie story telling are so different, but this one feels like a united piece. A real story told over the course of ten episodes. It’s on Apple TV plus. Which is too bad because while it is a pretty solid streaming service no one has it. If you can get a free week promotion get it and watch this show. Even if you have to pay for a subscription it’s worth the $6.

Check it out. It’s absolutely my cup of tea. A

A Quiet Place Part II

This is a tense and wonderfully directed horror film. That lives up to its predecessor in spite of never quite matching its high points.

This is a sequel to the surprise horror hit of 2018 A Quiet Place. The film begins before the events of the first film as we are shown the arrival of the nasty alien creatures that hunt humans based on sound. Their hearing is so acute that even the subtlest of noises can attract the monsters. After a wonderful opening sequence, the movie picks up immediately following the events of the first film with the Abbot family having to leave their farm in search of other survivors. Emily Blunt is great as ever as Evelyn Abbott the matriarch with a lot on her plate. But the standouts here are Millicent Simmonds as Regan the deaf daughter who thinks she may have a way of defeating the aliens. And Noah Jupe as Marcus the son who is struggling to grow up in this nightmare landscape.

Simmonds and Jupe give wonderful almost wordless performances. They are so expressive and emotive that every moment feels real. They are great actors doing wonderful work. They really carry the film.

We know the Abbots and the aliens from the first film. This movie introduces us to new characters like Emmett played by Cillian Murphy. Emmett is a man traumatized by his experiences surviving this world. His story is implied and hinted at, but it’s effect is made so palpable by Murphy’s haunted face and fierce gaze.

John Krasinski best known as Jim from The Office is the writer director one again, and he shows a major talent for building tension and highlighting actors performances. There’s a great moment in which Regan is struggling with a first aid kit and we see an alien enter the room and approach her from behind. We know she can’t hear it’s approach and through simple camera work the tension is ratcheted up to eleven. A different kind of moment all together involves Emmett struggling to come to terms with everything he’s endured as he faces a sunrise. He stands still as the camera circles him and the waves of emotion crash over his face. It’s a really great moment and highlights so much of why Krasinski has a great future ahead of him as a director.

The film doesn’t reach the terrifying heights of the bathtub scene in the original. It also doesn’t have the powerful emotional core of the family unit that the first film uses to great effect. The movie falls into the sequel trap of splitting up its main characters for the follow up. This challenges the characters in new ways, but also sacrifices the group dynamic that made the first film so strong.

The ending is odd because it’s really drawn out then it ends extremely abruptly. And there are some logical inconsistencies within the world which you can nitpick over for hours after.

I wouldn’t let those issues spoil the movie for anyone. This is a great time at the movies. I saw it in the theater. At the start there was rustling wrappers and whispered chat. Very quickly the entire room fell silent as the movie wove it’s spell. I overheard someone at the end say they didn’t know what they’d do with all the movie snacks that they forgot to eat during the movie. I think that’s pretty high praise.

If you can see it safely in the theater, do it. It’s worth it for the group experience. Horror movies are always fun with a crowd, and this one was a great experience.

This is definitely my cup of tea. A-

The Whole Truth

I was with this one until they ruined at the very end. It’s a pretty standard yet entertaining courtroom drama until the terrible finish.

After allegedly murdering his father, legal prodigy Mike Lassiter, played by Gabriel Basso, refuses to speak to anyone including his attorney Richard Ramsey played by Keanu Reeves. Ramsey’s in the legal fight of his life, and he doesn’t know what really happened.

I like Keanu Reeves here. He’s a really solid and charismatic lead. He’s supported by a lovely Gugu Mbathaw-Raw. There’s a woman here who is credited as Renee Zellweger, but looks nothing like her. I remember some hubbub about her altered looks a few years ago, but this is the first time I’ve seen her since her transformation. And my goodness I had no idea who she was until she started talking with her very distinct voice. Rounding out the cast is Jim Belushi playing the most monstrously vile murder victim ever.

I really enjoyed the first two thirds of the movie especially when witnesses testify on the stand. Various people are called to give their versions of events. Their words are supported or contradicted by flashbacks to the actual events. A chauffeur says they went straight home. The flashback shows they stopped to pick up some girls. A neighbor testifies that he stood up against the bully. The flashback shows him standing by. It’s a fun and somewhat cynical way of looking at the courtroom drama framework.

I liked watching the process in this movie. We really get to join Ramsey as he tries to play the limited hand he’s dealt and come up with a winning strategy.

I like all the actors. They do really good work. I especially like scene in which am a thaw-Raw’s character has to cross examine a witness and her fumbling start gives way to confident execution through the scene.

The movie is pretty low stakes. In spite of the minor on death row, the movie feels somewhat inconsequential. I never doubted the kid would walk free. I was more interested in finding out what really happened and more importantly why.

Unfortunately, the answer they give is one of the dumbest twists I’ve ever seen in a movie. When it is revealed what happened, I paused the movie and took a walk around the room because I couldn’t believe it. It was stupid. I’m not going to spoil it. I’ll just say there’s a twist at the end, and it’s dumb. It’s so dumb that I will tell everyone to skip this movie. Don’t bother. It’s a bad ending. It’s an ending that ruins the movie and leaves most of its plot threads dangling and forgotten. It screws up the narrative and themes and then cuts to credits. It’s a bad ending.

It wasn’t a great movie before the twist, but it would have made for a great Sunday afternoon movie until that terrible twist. It’s currently streaming on Netflix, but don’t let that encourage you to check this one out.

It’s not my cup of tea. You can skip it. D

Chemical Hearts

This movie was a really pleasant surprise to discover on Amazon. The movie is a sincere and authentic depiction of young adult life.

The film follows Henry Page, played by Austin Abrams, as he embarks on his senior year. He is struggling to find his voice and his perspective on the world as he becomes the editor of the school newspaper. He meets and begins a challenging relationship with Grace Town, played by Lili Reinhart, the mysterious new girl in school.

It’s feels funny describing the plot of the movie because that doesn’t feel like the movie I saw. The movie I saw was a quiet and challenging movie about a relationship that changes two people forever. It has all the trappings of teen romance, but it never feels that way. Cliches moments are turned on their head by an emotional sincerity that often surprised me.

I’d hate to give anything away, but there is a first kiss that happens. It begins very sweet and tentative, but instead of falling into a slow mo kiss set to an 80’s ballad, it shifts into a deeply dramatic and emotionally revealing moment that pushes the characters in new directions.

There’s an emotional honesty on display here that really resonated with me. These two actors are well known for recent tv series, Austin Abrams from Dash & Lily and Lili Reinhart from Riverdale. Having not really seen either I had no prior conceptions of these two and was blown away. Austin Abrams looks and feels like so many people I knew in high school. His stammering unsure ways feel so real. The movie wouldn’t work if Reinhart wasn’t as good as she is. She is devastating. She’s guarded and defensive at times. Other moments she’s like a raw nerve that reacts in unpredictable ways. In early scenes between them, she so guarded and he is so eager to know her that the interplay crackles with a silent tension. He watches her face as though trying to see through a wall. They’re fantastic.

I also love the fact that it didn’t offer up easy answers. Love doesn’t solve all their problems. A romance doesn’t open him up and make him a great writer. High school isn’t the whole world for these characters. The movie creates the vivid impression that it’s characters live lives beyond the frame and into the future.

All that said it’s not the best movie ever. It has some painfully obvious symbolism. Like the more I think about it I can’t believe someone didn’t raise their hand and ask if it wasn’t too on the nose. There are a couple of subplots that don’t really pay off. The parents in the film are kind of window dressing. There is a scene late in the film that feels cheap and melodramatic in a way the rest of the film doesn’t. It feels like it was lifted from a different lesser film. The movie recovers, but it is a misstep.

I accidentally started watching this one. I was looking for something to put on for a quick twenty minutes, but I got hooked. It really worked for me and really resonated. I heartily recommend this movie to anyone looking for an emotional experience, a movie that never settles for easy answers, and that gives two great young actors a showcase to do great work. It’s currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

It might not resonate with everyone, but it was my cup of tea. A-

Also, it was shot on 35mm film. I don’t know if that matters to anyone else, but I loved it. It had a real texture at times, and a real softness in certain scenes that added a lot.

The Red Shoes

Released in 1948, this British classic is well regarded among film lovers for its stunning visuals, but does it hold up?

The Red Shoes is a film I’ve avoided watching for years. It’s one of those film student assignments everybody knows they should watch but usually don’t because it’s reputation looms too large. Like Citizen Kane, the weight if it’s reputation can diminish the viewing experience.

However, due to an excellent video essay by Royal Ocean Film Society and my resurgent interest in expressionistic filmmaking, I decided to finally give this one a look. I wasn’t disappointed, but I know it won’t be for everyone.

The story follows the Ballet Lermontov a renowned ballet company run by the meticulous and demanding Boris Lermontov played by Anton Walbrook. The young ballerina Victoria Page played by the stunning Moira Shearer, joins the company and becomes a star with the production of their latest ballet The Red Shoes based on the Hans Christian Andersen story of the same name. When the new star Victoria page falls in love with the young composer Julian Craster, played by Marius Goring, a jealous Lermontov forces her to choose between her career and her love.

The film is often described as being about Moira Shearer’s character, and she is the standout. But the movie is really about the ballet company itself. It is about the artistic process. Conceiving a show, designing the production, dance rehearsals and all the personalities that collide in that act of artistic expression.

The film is not constructed in the modern fashion of following one character to the exclusion of all others. There are really three main characters who all have complete arcs and full stories. It doesn’t pick it’s lane and charge through to the end. It builds its story slowly. It adds layer upon layer until it’s ultimate story is revealed in its final moments.

Modern films try to immerse us in one characters perspective and make the experience as realistic as possible. This movie paints with a much broader brush. It incorporates multiple characters perspectives and it goes as wild and impressionistic as possible.

The centerpiece of the film is The Ballet of the red Shoes performed in surreal fashion in front of vivid impressionistic backgrounds. If you know anything about The Red shoes you know that it is beautifully shot. It was filmed with Technicolor’s three strip process which essentially involved exposing three strips of film and dying each one a different primary color. This created the incredible colors seen in old Hollywood films. Technicolor is the reason the yellow brick road is so yellow in The Wizard of Oz and why the red shoes are so startling red in this film.

The colors here are stunning and produce a dreamy effect. Every frame is a painting here with colors and composition combining to form a deeply expressionistic experience. The skin tones are heightened the set pieces look like something out of a half remembered dream. The entire film feels like a dark fairy tale.

The acting here is superb especially from Anton Walbrook and Moira Shearer. Her dancing is especially exquisite. The movie walks an interesting line between hammy and naturalistic. Some moments feel contemporary as when Victoria is congratulated by the choreographer after her big performance while other moments feel like dated melodrama. Marius Goring in particular feels over the top as Crastor.

The big question though is of course is the film worth watching? For film students? Yes. Watch it and take notes. I wish I had watched it sooner. For film lovers and lovers of film history? Yes 1,000%. It is a really fun really entertaining ride. It deserves its place in the pantheon of film greats. For the average viewer looking to have a good time this weekend? No. I think it’s surrealist style is going to be off putting for someone just cruising through HBO Max looking for something fun. I think if you want something very different. If you’re tired of gritty realism and predictable story structure this will be breath of fresh air.

I loved it, but I know it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Don’t let it’s reputation as one of “the greats” put you off the film. There’s a lot to love here. It’s my cup of tea. A

This is the video essay by Royal Ocean Film Society definitely worth your time.