Skeptic Vs. Gen X Nostalgia – The Goonies (1985)

I’m a millennial, a “90s kid” if you will.  I was born very late in the 80s but came of age in the 90s and experienced all the “90s kid” stuff like Nickelodeon cartoons and N64 games that the Buzzfeeds of the world have made into hallmarks of that generation.  Right now the world exists to serve 90s kids and their nostalgic whims, but that hasn’t always been the case.  When I was first coming of age as a pop culture enthusiast in the mid to late 2000s the online discourse and the podcasts were being run by the Gen X 80s kids and that meant that I had to put up with a bunch of delusional 20 somethings who had a habit of saying with a straight face that all sorts of lame sounding kids movies from their Reagan-era childhoods were these legitimately great films, which I was always skeptical about.  To be clear, there are plenty of things from my own childhood that I have nostalgia for but which I don’t sit around claiming that I still think the likes of Jumanji, The Sandlot, and Three Ninjas are cinematic classics just because I liked them when I was 7.  However, there were a lot of movies that these Gen Xers wouldn’t shut up about which I never really saw and which I wasn’t really in much of a position to push back against.  My new skeptical series will seek to change that.

My plan is to do one of these analyses every calendar month in 2018 and treat each one of these like it’s a round in a boxing match.  If the movie doesn’t hold up and indeed was not worthy of all this retrospective praise I’ll score the round for myself but if the movie ends up surprising me and really does seem like something worth remembering I’ll score the round to the gen Xers and if I feel really strongly one way or another I’ll give out an 8/10 round if need be.  Then at the end of the year I’ll take a look at the final score to prove “scientifically” if the soul of the 80s and early 90s is worth saving.  Now, to do this fairly I’m sticking exclusively to movies that people of this era actually hold up as good movies still rather than movies like Red Dawn or The Wizard which these people actually keep in perspective or like ironically.  Additionally, I’m only looking at movies I haven’t watched before so there are plenty of movies like The Never Ending Story and The Karate Kid which would sort of fit in with the spirit of this series but which won’t be present simply because they aren’t new movies for me.  Also I want to be clear that, light hearted boxing metaphor notwithstanding, I am hoping to be pleasantly surprised by what I see with these movies and I’m not trying to just hate them for comedic effect.

The Goonies (1985)

When I first came up with this series I knew the movie I wanted to start with was The Goonies as it’s a movie that would seem to exemplify exactly the kind of misplaced 80s nostalgia I’m trying to take aim at.  It’s a movie that some people absolutely swear by.  A poll of actors once placed it in the top 100 movies of all time and it was recently actually selected for preservation by the National Film Registry.  It’s also a movie that gets quoted a lot and I seem to see all kinds of merchandise with catch phrases like “hey you guys” and “goonies never say die” written all over them.  And yet it’s also a movie that tends to leave adults watching it for the first time fairly cold.  It’s a movie that generally gets lumped in with the cannon of actual good Spielbergian movies of the 80s like Back to the Future and Poltergeist and yet of all the well like Spielberg productions of the time I was pretty oblivious to it when I was growing up.  I could never avoid movies like E.T. or Raiders of the Lost Ark even if I wanted to, but The Goonies fandom always seemed a little less mainstream, at least until years later when the nostalgia set in.  For a while I assumed it was more of a cult film no one picked up on until later, but that doesn’t seem to have been the case, it was a box office hit in 1985 but for whatever reason there was never a sequel and it never got turned into a merchandising bonanza until later.

Obviously this is another one of those 80s movies about groups of children who ride around towns on bikes, which is a dynamic we’ve seen called back to a lot in a number or recent projects like Super 8, It, and “Stranger Things.”  Unlike those copies, this original seems less interested in tapping into nostalgic memories about what childhood summers were like and more interested in giving its young audience the group of wacky friends they wish they had but which most adults would find to be a bit of a chore to be around.  This group calls themselves “the goonies” and they apparently have a bunch of rules and traditions that seem a bit unlikely for a group like this to have unless most of their dealings before this were a lot more interesting than I suspect they were.  This group is also a bit too large for its own good.  There are no fewer than seven kids going on this adventure and they don’t really have a lot of time to develop beyond irritating stereotypes.  The villains are also awful.  The Fratellis have sort of a White Heat thing going on where the ringleader is their mother (who sort of looks like Sam Kinison) and two of the most incompetent gangsters this side of Home Alone.

I think the idea behind this movie is that it’s sort of meant to be a visualization of the kind of pretend “adventures” that kids imagine themselves going on when they’re playing.  The movie operates on a kind of “kid logic” where this group of children is a lot more courageous and resourceful than real kids would be and the challenges they face just so happen to align with their exact skillsets.  Certain elements are plainly ridiculous like the odd and impractical inventions that Short Round carries around and uses in the highly specific situations they seem to be designed for.  Then they meet a cuddly dude in a prosthetic suit that saves them and becomes their friend, which is pretty damn weird.  Viewing this as a sort of meta take on childhood imagination is certainly a generous way of viewing this film’s stranger aspects, one that I don’t exactly buy even though I’m positing it.  I might be more willing to run with this if the film had found a way to tip its hand a little more, but either way the fact remains that this is kind of an irritating thing to watch if you’re older than twelve.  I think what makes the movie feel so weird is that it actually as decent production values.  These are certainly expensive looking sets and Richard Donnor certainly makes the movie look good, but all these high production values kind of set you up to expect something a little more from the movie itself.

To the Scorecard:

I don’t think this movie really works, but it’s not painful.  If this wasn’t one of the more popular and talked about of these 80s movies it might have been a semi-pleasant surprise just because it looks good and clearly inspired a lot of other things (Barb from “Stranger Things” is clearly inspired by Stef), but the movie certainly doesn’t live up to its popularity.  More than anything it’s just a very strange movie for something that’s trying to be as mainstream as it is.  So, in the first round Gen X nostalgia puts up a slight better fight than expected but not enough to win the round.

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Phantom Thread(1/13/2018)

Paul Thomas Anderson is in an elite group of directors right now, the league of directors whose every movie seems like it will be a potential classic long before we’ve so much as seen a trailer for it.  The qualifications for this tier of excellence are nebulous, almost based more on mystique than anything.  It isn’t necessarily a matter of having a perfect track record, Anderson himself is actually coming off of something of a failure given that his last movie Inherent Vice proved to be more of a curiosity than a classic.  It also doesn’t necessarily have to do with the quantity of great movies you have to your name.  The Coen Brothers, for instance, have made more than enough amazing cinema to seemingly be in this club and yet I doubt even the most optimistic of Coen brothers fans to have been expecting Hail Caesar to have been any sort of classic for the ages.  Really being in this tier is mostly a matter of seeming like the kind of filmmaker who does not mess around, someone who seems like he is swinging for the fences every time and who also has the stats to back up such cockiness.  Mike Leigh, for example, has hardly made a single bad movie and yet I wouldn’t necessarily put him in this company for the simple fact that his movies are sneaky in their quality and aren’t necessarily the kinds of things you anticipate months ahead of time despite his track record.  Scorsese is probably in this club, so is Tarantino, Malick was in the club before his quality control went out the window with his last couple of projects, Christopher Nolan is probably in this club despite sort of operating in more of a populist lane than some of these guys, Alfonso Cuaron probably would be in the club if he worked a bit more often.  Of course being in this club has its downsides as it can create some very specific expectations that not every movie is designed to live up to and there are certainly high expectations for the newest Paul Thomas Anderson film Phantom Thread.

The film focuses in on Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), a world renowned dressmaker in London’s haute couture scene during the 1950s.  The House of Woodcock is already at the height of its success as the film begins but Woodcock is aimless in his personal life and has just let an assistant go and is soon on the prowl for a new muse.  Eventually he finds himself in a country diner and spots a waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps) and seems immediately smitten, but it’s not exactly clear what he wants from her.  Soon she’s in his employ as a personal assistant and as a model for his dresses, but she’s also living in his house and is soon acting as his lover and muse.  From here the movie largely becomes a mystery of sorts as to what exactly this mysterious man wants from Alma.  This guy is a fashion designer and at one point uses the phrase “confirmed bachelor,” so the possibility that he may be a closeted homosexual is certainly going to be in the back of most audience members’ minds but the truth of what makes this guy tick is a lot more complicated than that.

The filmic reference point for Phantom Thread seems to be, of all things, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 film Rebecca.  That movie is generally not considered one of Hitchcock’s major efforts, in part because the Daphne du Maurier novel it’s based on is a bit higher brow than his usual fare and that sometimes overpowers his interest in suspense.  At its heart Rebecca is something of a mystery, but it’s not a mystery about “whodunit” but more of a mystery as to what the intentions of its male lead’s intentions are.  Like Rebecca this is a movie about a young woman of modest origins who suddenly finds herself courted by a much older and richer man who is sort of mysterious and aloof and it’s not clear if this is a true romance or if this is merely an older man trying to control and possess a younger woman.  There are also shades of Mrs. Danvers in Leslie Manville’s role of Woodcock’s sister Cyril, who acts as something of a business partner and at times seems to have a bit more of an objective eye on Alma.  There are, however clear differences between the two movies and the comparison between the two only really goes so far.  Unlike the narrator in Rebecca Alma is never really seems to be living as much in the shadow of a former lover.  There’s an element of mourning in Woodcock’s life but it isn’t as pervasive.  The big twist from Rebecca also isn’t really here at all and the second half of the movie isn’t really all that analogous to Rebecca at all, so this is less an adaptation and more of a jumping off point that Anderson seems to have used to conceive of the movie.

That this movie stars Daniel Day-Lewis is of course itself an event, like Anderson he is someone who does not mess around.  Day-Lewis’ work here is a bit more subdued than what we’ve come to expect from him recently as he is not doing a major physical transformation like he is in a movie like Lincoln and he isn’t going into the kind of grand theatrics we saw him doing in There Will Be Blood and Gangs of New York.  Instead here he’s characterized by a generally gentle demeanor that often belies his more ruthless actions and his generally controlling personality.  In some ways it almost feels like he’s holding himself back to leave some room for his co-stars, especially Vicky Krieps who is something of a revelation here.  Krieps has been seen in small roles in movies like Hanna and A Most Wanted Man and has apparently starred in a variety of not overly notable European films but this is clearly her most prominent performance to date and she manages to be effectively mysterious throughout.

Throughout awards season I’ve been a little confused as to why Phantom Thread seems to get so many awards despite receiving such positive reviews.  Now that I’ve seen it I kind of get what was going on.  Phantom Thread is a movie that demands respect but repels simple acceptance.  It’s a movie about the lives of two really messed up people and it’s not always easy to relate to either of them or really get a grip on their behavior.  This is very much a film for the arthouse crowd and for people willing to take a deep dive into the weird dynamics of this strange relationship.  There is certainly some interest in the procedural elements of watching this fashion house work but outside of that I don’t think this will have much appeal for the mainstream viewer.  Even for the arthouse crowd the film may seem elusive.  It’s a movie that intrigues you and leaves you looking for answers to questions the movie never really even asks.   Honestly, I think I’m going to need to see this thing a few more times before I’m really going to be in a position to talk about it intelligently, but I certainly liked what I saw.

I, Tonya(1/7/2018)

I am old enough that I remember the O.J. Simpson controversy.  I don’t remember it very well as I was only about seven when the verdict was handed down and was mostly oblivious to its details and its social context, but it was something I knew was going on at the time.  I am not, however, old enough to remember the other scandal du jour of the early 90s: the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan kneecap clubbing affair.  In fact I first heard about the whole incident from a Weird Al Yankovic song called “Headline News” which was a parody of The Crash Test Dummies’ “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm” that described other tabloidy 90s news stories like that kid who got his butt caned in Singapore and that lady who cut off her husband’s wiener.   You’ll note that there was not a word about O.J. in that song, in part because that story involved a double-murder, but also because that delved into some pretty serious aspects of American society which wouldn’t make it terribly suitable for a song parody (dancing Itos notwithstanding).  The Tonya Harding case on the other hand was basically a joke from the beginning and was viewed by the public as little more than a cat fight writ large.  However, like the O.J. story this is being revisited recently in a number of documentaries and articles to see if there was actually something to be mined from it now that the dust has settled and we have some perspective and the latest manifestation of that is the new feature film I, Tonya.

I, Tonya begins with a title card saying that it’s based on “irony free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews” from it subjects.  The main subject is of course Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), who the film follows basically from her first professional skating lesson at the age of four up through the duration of the scandal that would define her.  Throughout her youth she is being driven to succeed by her mother LaVona Fay Golden (Allison Janney), who paid for Harding’s lessons out of her modest waitress salary and supports her as she rose to the top of her sport.  That would be an incredibly inspiring story if not for the fact that LaVona is otherwise a horrible mother who constantly abuses Tonya verbally and sometimes physically.  As a teenager Harding is frustrated both by her mother’s craziness and the snobbery that’s preventing her from getting good scores at tournaments and this drives her into the arms of Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), who provides something of an escape for her despite also being physically abusive and just generally a loser.  She ends up coming in fourth place at the 1992 Olympics and thinks her career is over until she learns that because of a re-allignment the next winter Olympics will be held just two years later.  She believes she’s primed for a comeback… one that will soon be sabotaged by her scheming husband and his nutty friend Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser).

I, Tonya takes the form of a dark comedy and is structured by a series of faux “to the camera” interviews with the various characters which often become voice-over and the on-screen characters also occasionally break the fourth wall and talk to the screen.  A lot of this structure is reminiscent of The Big Short or perhaps even 24 Hour Party People, especially when we get to scenes the characters stop, look at the camera, and says something like “it didn’t happen like this” during scenes where the testimonies of the various principals contradict each other.  But the movie that this most clearly wants to be like is David O. Russell’s American Hustle.  That movie, and other recent movies from Russell, deal with lower class families like Harding’s and have a similar pace and patter to them.  The film certainly paints the “incident” at the center of the film as a hustle gone wrong more than anything and there’s a largeness to all the performances here that certainly matches what we saw from Bradley Cooper, Christian Bale, and Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle.  In fact I’d say it’s trying so hard to be like that movie and Goodfellas that it has an extensive soundtrack which mostly features music from the 70s even though the film is mostly set in the 90s, including certain songs that have become clichés of “70s soundtracks” like “Spirit in the Sky” and “The Chain,” which were both prominently featured in Guardians of the Galaxy movies.

Derivative as the film may be it would be something of a lie to suggest that these techniques that the movie rips off don’t still more or less work.  As a comedy the movie does more or less function effectively with all the film’s colorful characters saying a lot of rather ridiculous things to one another and the film frequently cutting to them in interview form contradicting each other and commenting on certain things and occasionally even breaking the fourth wall.  That the film functions as well as it does as a comedy is surprising given that it covers some rather dark material, namely the domestic violence that occurred between Gillooly and Harding, which could easily come across as rather flippant.  The film has also been criticized for not being overly concerned with what Nancy Kerrigan went through in all of this, which seems a bit unfair as the movie is simply focusing on the more entertaining figures in all of this.  What’s more I’m not sure that the movie is as sympathetic towards Harding as people are making it out to be.  The movie certainly isn’t on Harding’s side when she makes goofy excuses or says wildly un-self-aware things like when she accuses Kerrigan of being the real bad sport in all of this.

There are a lot of movies that I respect more than I like.  They’re movies that I can clearly see doing new and interesting things but which I just don’t really enjoy watching.  This is the opposite of that, it’s a movie I like but don’t really respect.  Its director Craig Gillespie is a guy who can deliver professionally made movies like the Fright Night remake, but he’s clearly not an auteur with a vision and here you can tell that he’s just borrowing from other contemporaries and applying those techniques to a movie that’s not nearly as clever as it thinks it is.  I don’t think it has a terribly clear message to deliver about wealth inequality, domestic violence, or tabloid culture but it sure wants you to think it does.  It does hit those funny notes when it needs to, it does move along at an impressive pace, it’s greatly elevated by its cast, and even when you’re cringing at how un-clever “Barracuda” is as a song choice you still sort of jam to it.  Winter is a time when movies like this get held to a slightly higher standard as we try to parse out which movies are deserve to have their legacies built immediately by awards, and with that in mind I feel the need to knock this thing down a couple of pegs, but it’s also a movie I suspect most moviegoers looking for a good time at a theater shouldn’t be dissuaded from.

Home Video Round-Up: 12/30/2017

Girls Trip (12/13/2017)

Looking back on my old review it appears that I did like The Hangover back in 2009 but I don’t really have overly positive memories of it.  Part of that might simply be because of all the imitators that came in its wake included among them its own sequels and the decent but not great Bridesmaids.  Now almost ten years later we’ve got another one, this time with black women called Girls Trip.  I’ll give Girls Trip this: 2017 has been a horrendous year for mainstream comedy and with competition like Baywatch and Rough Night to go against this probably does look like something special and I don’t think I would call it “bad” but I don’t quite get what all the fuss was about either.  One thing that I found divergent from the usual formula is that in these movies are usually populated by losers, schlubs, or at the very least profoundly average people, which usually helps explain why they act like morons over the course of the movie.  This movie on the other hand is populated by highly successful aspirational symbols including a wealthy publisher and someone who’s on the cusp of being a lifestyle guru along the lines of an Oprah, so their behavior on the trip seems a bit odd.  The film’s ultimate moral about the importance of friendship is also a bit on the nose and sort of kills a lot of the comedy in the last quarter of the movie.  That said the characters are overall enjoyable and there are some amusing points along the way.

*** out of Five

Let it Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992 (12/15/2017)

2017 marks the 25th anniversary of the post-Rodney King L.A. riots and between that and the fact that anger about police violence was very much a big issue again in the last couple of years there was a sort of race to make documentaries about that event.  As such there are two major docs about that event: there’s LA92, which I think is more of a visceral collection of archive footage from the riot, and then there’s this film from director John Ridley which is more interested in delving into the context  of the time and the tensions that led up to the riot.  In fact I was a little surprised there wasn’t more of that given the title.  The 1982-1990 portion is pretty brief and the movie does get to Rodney King and some of the other events that immediately proceeded the riots faster than I expected.  There’s certainly archival footage to be found, but also some pretty good talking head interviews from people who were around at the time including some of the people involved in the Reginald Denny attack, who have become reflective with age.  The film certainly establishes its ties with the present day and is obviously opposed to the injustice that was going on at the time, but it isn’t a fire spitting polemic and is clearly willing to listen to talking heads who occasionally defend some of what the police were doing at the time.  It doesn’t exactly break the mold and isn’t quite the definitive take on this event, but it’s a good overview for those who are interested.

***1/2 out of Five

Patti Cake$ (12/17/2017)

This Sundance hit about an aspiring white female rapper was seemingly set to be the next indie crowd pleaser but then it never really took off.  Seeing the movie I think I get why.  For one thing I think the movie is kind of dated in its understanding of hip-hop.  The kind of lyricism that Patti is bartering is falling out of favor in the trap era and she also seems to have some rather old fashioned ideas of how to break into the industry.  Has this girl never heard of Soundcloud?  Ignoring that there just isn’t a whole lot here that isn’t done better in 8 Mile and Hustle and Flow aside from the fact that Patti Cake$ herself is fairly interesting screen presence.  The basic filmmaking here also doesn’t really come together in a way that makes it stand out.  It’s a little too ugly to feel slick but a little too pretty to feel “raw,” and to some extent that could be said about the whole movie; it’s not a bad movie exactly but it doesn’t have that special quality it needs and frankly it feels like a pretty textbook example of a movie that Sundance made feel more noteworthy than it was.

**1/2 out of Five

Kedi (12/18/2017)

Kedi could be called a sleeper hit and is the fourth highest grossing documentary of the year behind the Inconvenient Truth sequel, I Am Not Your Negro and a Disney documentary about pandas called Born in China.  It probably has the most in common with that last title as Kedi concerns itself with the population of stray cats in Istanbul but it’s also way more pretentious in its presentation.  The movie mostly consists of footage of said cats as well as interviews with various people who have made it their hobby to look after or interact with these cats.  The interviews are mostly a bunch of anthropomorphizing nonsense, I wanted Werner Herzog to show up and knock some sense into these people.  The footage of cats didn’t necessarily strike me unprecedentedly brilliant either though there was some interest in the way it showed what Istanbul was like and there were a few interesting tidbits about how the number of different cat species were brought in by the various ships that docked in the city.  Not a fan of this, or at the very least it’s not for me.  Frankly it felt like little more than the slightest intellectual veneer to justify watching a bunch of cat videos.

** out of Five

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets(12/30/2017)

I clearly remember seeing the trailer for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets and thinking “that’s going to bomb even harder than Jupiter Ascending and John Carter.”  Sure enough that did prove to be the case (although it did do better internationally than Jupiter Ascending).  You’d think that with the Star Wars franchise being the behemoth that it is that it would be easier to get a space opera series off the ground but they seem to just fail spectacularly every single time.  I think the problem is that when these things get made in the era of CGI directors just can’t help themselves and end up making overly busy and frankly kind of gawdy worlds that just become eyesores.  Star Wars and Star Trek were immune from this because they were made during a time when technological limitations forced them to show a little restraint.  The other problem also seems to be that these filmmakers over-think the worlds they’re creating so much that they lose track of just how off-putting they can be to audiences who haven’t been living in them for years and don’t really properly introduce them.  The other other problem is that they’re often being based on these old pulp sources that audiences care a lot less about than the people making the movies, which is part of the problem with Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.

Valerian is based on a Franco-Belgian comic book series, the kind of thing Mœbius would have been involved in.  I’ve never read these comic books but the two minutes of googling I did about them suggests to me that the Valerian in them was something of a take on the traditional 50s/60s masculine hero and here they’ve replaced that with Dane DeHaan, who has a much more millennial take on what a hero is supposed to look like.  That’s certainly an idea, but they don’t actually seem to adjust his behavior enough to make it work.  His partner Laureline as played by Cara Delevingne fares a bit better but she doesn’t really have the time to establish herself either and both ultimately end up playing second fiddle to the film’s many other concerns.  The film is filled with interesting visuals, but it’s so jam-packed by these ideas that it feels like overload.  If they wanted to make this they should have started with a much simpler story that would introduce people to this world and these characters.  All that said, I don’t exactly think the movie is terrible and probably wouldn’t even call it bad, at the very least it’s never even a little bit boring.

*** out of Five

Molly’s Game(1/6/2018)

As with most vices I’ve spent most of my life avoiding gambling as an activity in all its forms.  I don’t go to casinos, I don’t bet on sports, and I don’t even play the lottery.  That having been said in the last couple of years I’ve developed a fascination with the game of Texas Hold ‘Em poker.  I never play it mind you, not for money anyway, but I watch a number of Youtube channels about the game and when high profile tournaments are televised or are being live streamed I try to check them out.  This does not make watching movies that have poker scenes in them all that much easier because poker scenes in movies are often kind of ridiculous.  Most poker hands involve one dude with a pair and one dude with an ace high and end with one or the other folding because the other shows the slightest bit of aggression.  The poker scenes in Casino Royale are basically science fiction scenarios with ridiculously large hands showing up on the regular, but then the movies that actually seem to take the game seriously end up being these mediocrities like Rounders and Lucky You.  But my eyebrow still pops up a little when a movie involving poker pops up and I was particularly curious when I heard about the film Molly’s Game, which was going to tell one of the more famous stories in the world of poker and would be the directorial debut of Aaron Sorkin to boot.

The film looks at the true events surrounding a woman named Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) who achieves fortune and infamy running underground poker games that were attended by movies stars, athletes, millionaires, and billionaires.  As the film begins Bloom, who has quit running poker games and wrote a book about her experiences, is being arrested as part of a wider crackdown on the Russian mafia under the belief that her games were part of a money laundering scheme, forcing her to seek out a high paid attorney named Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba).  From there we flash back to her childhood, where she was pressured to be an over-achiever by her father Larry (Kevin Costner) and became a highly successful skier before having that career cut short by an injury.  We then watch as she moves to L.A. and finds herself working as an assistant for an asshole Hollywood producer, and part of that job is to help organize his weekly high stakes poker night in the basement of The Viper Room which is attended by a number of big name directors and actors including one the movie calls Player X (Michael Cera) who is by all accounts based on Tobey Maguire.  Eventually things sour with the producer and rather than let him run things she simply starts up her own card game and poaches all his players.

One of the strengths of Molly’s Game is that it manages to not feel like a ripoff of Goodfellas despite basically having all the elements of one.  This is after all a movie telling the true story of the rise and fall of a crime empire of sorts through a briskly edited romp with voice over narration from the person at the center of it all.  Part of why this feels different might be the absence of anyone getting wacked and part of it might be its flashback structure or the lack of classic rock over the montages.  Really though I think it just comes down to the fact that it’s a movie that doesn’t exude machismo.  Unlike Martin Scorsese Aaron Sorkin does not come from “the streets” and he’s also a grown-up who isn’t terribly interested in seeming like a tough guy the way that most of the young filmmakers who are prone to ripping off Goodfellas are.  Also, perhaps more obviously, the person at the center of this movie is a woman and not one who’s trying to be an heir to Scarface.  Where most gangsters build their empires on being “respected” (I.E. feared), she built hers essentially on social skills, organization, and psychology.

Molly herself is pretty impressive as a person despite her flaws, and Jessica Chastain brings her to life with some clear star power.  This is also of course a film by Aaron Sorkin and you can certainly tell he wrote it though there a bit more restraint then there could have been.  The theory among critics is that Sorkin works best when his screenplays were interpreted by directors with somewhat icy directorial styles like David Fincher and Bennet Miller to dilute out some of his cornier ideas, but he seems to do a pretty good job of holding himself back while directing this one.  That said, he’s still clearly not a master filmmaker behind the camera.  There are certainly moments that are more visually ambitious than what he normally does with his television work but none of them really blew me away in their execution and the overall style here doesn’t really rise much above the level of “average.”  There also doesn’t ultimately seem to be much of a point to all this beyond the fact that it’s an interesting true story.  The things that make Molly tick ultimately aren’t all that deep or complicated, though that doesn’t stop them from outlining all of them via pop psychology in one rather on the nose scene towards the end, and the movie is also occasionally a bit too in love with her for her own good.  Her ultimate claim to sympathy is that she’s very intent to keep all the dirty secrets of the famous people at her games… which maybe explains why it’s as well liked as it is at industry awards shows in 2017… and that she isn’t a murderer.  At certain points it’s argued that it’s an injustice that Molly being prosecuted when white collar criminals who’ve done worse are often not prosecuted as vigorously, which is true, but there are also poor black kids who’ve done even less and get prosecuted even more vigorously so Molly’s position as an underdog in the legal system seems a bit dubious.

Ultimately, Molly’s Game is merely a good movie and that’s okay.  It used to be that dramas like this had a lot less pressure on them.  Hollywood would put them out regularly and they could serve as solid populist entertainment, but these days movies like this are immediately vetted to see if they’re Oscar-worthy and if they aren’t they get pushed aside.  I wouldn’t consider this movie to be high art but there’s certainly plenty of good in it.  Should you see this in place of all the other great movies that are out in theaters right now?  Probably not.  But if you’ve seen all of those or you’re in the mood for something lighter and this sounds interesting give it a watch.  And if you miss this in theaters, go ahead and give it a rental or catch it on HBO because it’s definitely the kind of movie that makes for a good casual viewing.

Call Me By Your Name(12/22/2017)

Do you need to relate to a coming of age movie to like it?  That would depend on your definition of the word “need.”  There are obviously ways to enjoy movies about the childhoods of characters who live lives pretty far removed from one’s own.  The ultimate coming of age movie is probably Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows which is based on Trufaut’s own experiences growing up in 1940s Paris, a milieu that would seem to be pretty different from where most modern American viewers would have grown up, and yet that hardly seems to matter because Antoine Doinel is such a well-drawn character and his ennui largely seems removed from his surroundings and on some level you can relate to the way that he responds to teachers and parents and the like.  Then there are examples like Federico Fellini’s Amarcord, which is set in a small town in Mussolini’s Italy, but in that case the town is in many ways more the protagonist than the young man at its center and the fact that it’s drawn from such specific memories of its director of this time and place makes it so everything that’s foreign about it simply makes it more interesting.  There are, however times when movies do lose some impact when your personal connection to them is a little more tenuous.  For instance, Terrance Malick’s otherwise immaculately made opus The Tree of Life ultimately never quite impacted me as much as I wanted it to, in part because I never quite connected to the nostalgia of its child protagonist and his rather specific experiences in rural 1950s Texas.  Conversely there’s a very good chance that the experiences I shared with the protagonist of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood really multiplied the enthusiasm I would have had for the film by quite a bit.  I bring this up because the protagonist of the highly acclaimed new film Call Me by Your Name is about as different from me on any level as someone can be and it in many ways puts to the test whether you can connect to audiences in situations like this and how.

The film is set in 1983 in a small town in Northern Italy and focuses on Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet), the seventeen year old son in a Jewish American ex-patriot family that is in Italy because of his father (Michael Stuhlbarg) is an esteemed archeologist.  The film begins with the arrival of Oliver (Armie Hammer), an American graduate student who has come to assist the father for the summer and will be staying with him at the villa.  Elio has spent much of the summer reading, practicing his skills at the piano, and chasing after his girlfriend Marzia (Esther Garrel).  There is, however, something about his relationship with Marzia that leaves Elio unfulfilled and there’s something about this Oliver guy that he finds intruding.

Call Me By Your Name was directed by a guy named Luca Guadagnino, who previously directed a pair of films called I Am Love and A Bigger Splash, which were both movies with fairly different tones but the one thing they had in common was that they were both about rich people living decadent lives in Italy.  A Bigger Splash in particular felt almost like “lifestyle porn” with its British and American expat characters frolicking around on a Mediterranean island while decked in expensive fashions and eating expensive food and seemingly not having a care in the world until someone gets murdered.  Call Me By Your Name does not feel as decadent as that movie did but it’s still very much a movie about rich ex-patriots who live cultured European lives.  Because of this I found the first half of Call Me By Your Name to be a bit slow, in part because it mostly just felt like it was painting a portrait of Elio, who seems like the most privileged 17 year old who ever lived.  This is a dude who is living as a citizen of the world in an idyllic Italian countryside with super chill parents who surround him with culture and who has friends and beautiful girls (who he seems fairly receptive to despite future developments) throwing themselves at him.  His life is one that’s so far removed from my own teenage experiences that simply witness it during its more mundane moments was not really giving me that thrill of recognition I often expect from these kind of movies, which isn’t inherently bad but in the absence of story development I wasn’t terribly interested.

The movie does, however, pick up in a big way once Elio and Oliver stop beating around the bush and commence with their affair.  This development has become controversial in some quarters because of the age difference between the two characters.  On paper Elio is 17 and Oliver is 24, which is kind of questionable to begin with but it’s confounded by the fact that Timothée Chalamet is 22 but quite convincingly looks 17 while Armie Hammer is 31 and looks 31.  The movie does go out of its way to make it clear that the attraction between these two characters is mutual and that Oliver isn’t acting in a particularly predator manner and the movie does still eventually dig a bit into the reasons why a love affair between a high school student and a post-grad might not be an entirely healthy decision for either.  Still, I get why people would be queasy about this relationship but also why people would be open minded about it under these specific circumstances.  Regardless of the morality of the situation I do think Armie Hammer was a bit miscast here in terms of age and also because he never quite fit as this intellectual grad student and he never made it terribly clear to me why his character would be interested in this scrawny pretentious 17 year old.  The movie is primarily from Elio’s point of view so it’s makes sense that his experience of these events would be clearer, but that half of this romance could have been explored a bit more.

I can’t help but compare this movie to the year’s other high profile coming of age movie: Lady Bird.  Unlike this movie, the protagonist of that movie is incredibly relatable for middle class viewers from mid-size American cities.  That movie also feels a lot more clear eyed about how youthful romances tend to play out, which is to say that it views them as misbegotten superficial things that get literally painted over by the end rather than as grand romances to be remembered forever.  On the other hand this movie is hardly oblivious to the fact that the romance at its center is rare and out of the ordinary and the events of the film do feel increasingly meaningful during its last thirty minutes or so.  That’s the other big difference between this and Lady Bird: Gretta Gerwig’s movie feels highly entertaining pretty much from the beginning but never quite seems sure how it wants to end while Call Me By Your Name has a nearly perfect ending but seems to spend an awful lot of time trying to set it up and that made the film’s first half slow and uneventful.  I’m glad I saw the movie in a theater because I suspect I would have lost patience with it and abused the pause button if I was watching it at home.  It’s certainly a well-made film, one that I respect quite a lot, but it’s not necessarily the film for me or at least not the film that’s going to knock my socks off.