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