Movies of the Week #3 #4 (2020)

Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling (2018):  In The Zen Diaries, the title really delivers, you get a portrait of someone as if reading their most intimate thoughts. Just a guy trying to put some order into his life, someone who literally learned how to be funny, for whom it didn’t all come easily. There’s a lot of work that goes into making something seem easy, but there will always be Rafael Nadals to Roger Federers, people who just make you believe that there is more than one path to excellence. More in the full review here. 9/10

Prometheus (2012): Hard to believe it’s been almost eight years since Prometheus was released, not to mention the forty years since the first Alien movie. Alas, that’s how time flies, and Prometheus is still a bitter pill to swallow for many. Some ludicrous set-pieces and underdeveloped characters who have a strong claim for the “who sent these idiots in space” pantheon were frustrating to sit through. However, I loved the look and feel of the movie when I first saw it and I stick to my initial evaluation, the beautiful, eerie, haunting monster design sticking with me well after the end credits. Then again, I’m so committed to the series I would probably volunteer to being facehugged, so maybe look for a second opinion. 7/10

Luce (2019): When a couple are faced with the possibility that their (adopted) son might be more troubled than the average teenager, they suddenly have to answer surprising questions about love, family and loyalty (a bit similar to The Dinner, which I reviewed upon its release). In this unnerving adaptation of J.C. Lee’s play, you get a sense that all is not right, yet most of the movie unfolds along familiar lines. Thankfully there’s enough nuance and subtlety to it, especially in its final third, that Luce manages to stand out and ask some important questions about modern day America and the children of today and tomorrow. So a good dollop of meta commentary to make it worthwhile. 7/10

Ford v Ferrari (2019): A perfect ride for racing enthusiasts, a solid ride for those who like movies about people who have obsessions beyond themselves. James Mangold directs Christian Bale and Matt Damon in the story of how Ford Motors came to beat Ferrari at the (in)famous Le Mans 24 hour race for the first time in the 1960s. It’s a movie about ambition, nationhood, pride, and finding that perfect racing line, as the trailer emphasizes. As far as racing movies go, this one is up there with Rush, strong filmmaking with an entertaining rags to riches story to go with it and just enough politics to give it that extra dimension. If there’s something I didn’t like (and generally don’t like), it’s seeing female wife-girlfriend characters with no other purpose than to support/criticize the lead, so it’s a shame Caitriona Balfe didn’t get more to chew on here. Beyond this, I can only recommend FvF, as the epitome of light, yet emotional mainstream entertainment. 8/10

Dark Waters (2019): If you enjoy your Erin Brockoviches, this one will be right up your alley. In the late 90s (that’s more than two decades ago, fyi – I’m sticking with this whole “time, where you gone, dawg?!” theme), cows are dying up shit’s creek USA, and the big bad guys of Megacorp inc. are to blame. So yeah, you’ve seen this, but Dark Waters thrives in its environment, as a successful lawyer played by Mark Ruffalo short-circuits his career (family, health) in order to bring the good fight to DuPont, one of the world’s largest chemical companies. Equality does not factor into this fight, but Rob Bilott somehow has the stomach, determination and masochism to keep at it until something gives. It’s a tastefully done underdog story, and while it doesn’t do anything spectacular, it sure entertains. 7/10

The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling (2018)

“I think the fact that he spelled his name with two “r”s was a warning that he would be complicated” (Kevin Nealon)

I knew little of Garry Shandling before watching Judd Apatow’s documentary, a four + hour tribute that reveals itself as an exploration of what drives us to do more than just (the Shakespearian) be. I hadn’t heard of “It’s the Garry Shandling Show”, nor his parodic work on “The Larry Sanders Show”, nor was I at all aware of his influence on a whole generation of comedians, including Jim Carrey, Jerry Seinfeld or Apatow himself. All I really had was the lukewarm “What Planet Are You From”, a rather unsuccessful collaboration between Shandling and Mike Nichols.

While a master at his art, that is ultimately not what makes The Zen Diaries absolutely watch-worthy. This isn’t just bits of stand-up patched together. Apatow somehow created a delicately intimate portrait of a man he admired immensely, a feeling that oozes throughout, a sprawling piece of work that could have done with more structure, but ultimately replicates the complexities of its subject. Of almost any person that you never really got to know. Shandling is the proverbial onion, layers upon layers of self, uncovered with a deft touch, that captures his brilliance, his passion, his eccentricities, his…desperately human imperfections.

I’m not sure I’ve ever liked the idea of listening to people who describe their search for inner peace, who make so much room for this search in their lives. To everyone his own, of course, because in some sense, I guess this blog is my very own straggling experience of it. But in The Zen Diaries, the title really delivers, you get a portrait of someone as if reading their most intimate thoughts. Just a guy trying to put some order into his life, someone who literally learned how to be funny, for whom it didn’t all come easily. There’s a lot of work that goes into making something seem easy, but there will always be Rafael Nadals to Roger Federers, people who just make you believe that there is more than one path to excellence.

Apatow’s movie, while as imperfect as its subject, achieves what it set out to do and even goes beyond that, showing the making and breaking of one of the most influential people in American comedy. At the same time, it feels like it could be almost anyone you know. A rare and timely example of becoming (or trying to become), as opposed to simply cultivating. 9/10

Movies of the Week #1 #2 (2020)

The Irishman (2019): It wasn’t easy to get 3.5 hours together to watch Scorsese’s latest in one sitting, but I guess that’s what the holidays are for. The captivating tale of Jimmy Hoffa’s demise is worth the runtime – that’s if it wasn’t enough for you to watch De Niro, Pacino and Pesci regardless of subject matter. The project’s sheer ambition is impressive and it amounts to a skillfully crafted showcase for what Scorsese does best, even if I didn’t feel that it broke any new ground. What bugged me a little was that its leads are at least a decade too old for their roles and no matter how much you deage them, you just know as a viewer that these guys are in their mid to late 70s. Other than that, a solid mob story. 8/10

Memory: The Origins of Alien (2019): On the film’s 40th anniversary (cray!), a new documentary on the making of Alien, focusing on some of the key elements and scenes was released. If you’re as obsessed about the Alien franchise as I am, this latest refresh brings little to the table, compared to e.g. Alien Evolution (released alongside the Anthology pack) or Jodorowsky’s Dune (which discusses unexpected connections between Jodorowsky, O’Bannon, Giger and the Alien universe). However, it’s a tight package that proves capable of explaining why Alien still stands tall forty years later – a movie made with Ridley Scott’s genius touch, benefiting from an excellent cast and visuals that go a long way towards telling a compelling story. 7/10

Dolemite is My Name (2019): I had no idea what I was going to watch, beyond a supposedly remarkable performance by Eddie Murphy. To my surprise, Dolemite proved to be a story about movie-making, a kind of Ed Wood/The Disaster Artist whose lead gets a lot more respect. The larger than life character of Rudy Ray Moore fits Murphy like a glove, but he’s not alone with a bunch of strong and likable side characters to keep Dolemite entertaining at all times. Unless you become molecularly enraged at the American platitude of “you can be whatever you want to be” which then romanticizes any shortcomings that don’t fit the bill, there is no reason not to enjoy this flick. 8/10

Cocktail (1988): In my attempt to not leave any stone touched by Tom Cruise unturned, it was finally time to dig deep and go for broke with one of the man’s worst reviewed movies. Cocktail turned out to be a watchable affair, in spite of itself, its bland characters, its ridiculous plot, its inane climax and conclusion. It mostly runs on the charm of its leads, Cruise, Bryan Brown and Elisabeth Shue, which is why I don’t feel the need to skewer it. Heck, enough people have done that already, so just try and enjoy the 80s in all their glory. 4/10

Snatchers (2019): This little horror-comedy has people conflicted – is it the worst movie they ever saw or is it just a perfectly pitched genre picture? You can probably guess I find myself in the latter category. On the premise that a girl becomes pregnant after having sex for the first time and gives birth to…something a day later, Snatchers decides to have a lot of fun with its subject matter and manages to do so thanks to the good vibes of its two leads, played by Mary Nepi and Gabrielle Elyse. Like its rom-com equivalents, hor-com movies come down to good chemistry…and how they execute the visuals effects. While I’d have wanted a little more Edgar Wright-ish wit to go with it, there’s no doubt in my mind that Snatchers is worth the time for genre enthusiasts. 6/10

Movies of the Week #52 (2019)

Knives Out (2019): If you’re an Agatha Christie fan, this flick written and directed by Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper and Star Wars VIII) is an absolute treat. With a deliciously over-the-top performance from Daniel Craig as ingenue private detective Benoit Blanc, it’s a whodunit with a twist – the viewer finds out the would-be-murderer early on, which then turns the movie on its head. The high-profile cast (Toni Colette, Michael Shannon, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Chris Evans and Christopher Plummer) forms a family of dysfunctional would-be-heirs to the estate of successful writer of detective mystery stories, Harlan Thrombey (Plummer), whose death occurs in the first scene of the film. They all play second fiddle to Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), the Ecuadorian-Paraguayan-Uruguayan-Brazilian, salt-of-the-earth house nurse to the deceased, whose physical inability to tell a lie makes for a fun gimmick in unfolding the truth. As you would expect, there will be twists, turns and suspense, in this perfectly executed murder-mystery story of, really, a different age. 8/10

Psych: The Movie (2017): One of my goals for last year was to catch up on the last two seasons of Psych, a show that ended in 2015, and then watch the movie that came out a couple of years ago. It came as a shock to find out that Timothy Omundson, portraying one of the leads, had suffered a massive stroke in early 2017, at the age of 48. He has been recovering since, even made a small (heartbreaking) cameo in the 2017 movie and is headlining a second sequel for the series, to be released this spring. You can watch an excellent interview he did with Larry King a couple of months ago.
That being said, it was both entertaining and difficult to watch the Psych movie, which feels more like an extended (and mostly inspired) episode than a real format transition. It adds Zachary Levi to the cast and only really gets going in the second half, building up to a satisfying finale. If you’ve never seen the show (which is most likely), it’s one of the great buddy comedies out there, led by Shawn Spencer (James Roday), a would-be psychic detective who actually uses his acute powers of observation to make a living at the Santa Barbara police department. Chock full of pop-culture references, there were few shows as quirky and idiosyncratic as Psych out there in the last decade, so this probably won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but for a fan, it sure feels like a welcome story. 7/10

After the Storm (2016): So I kept going with Koreeda and tested everyone’s patience once more with AtS. Featuring a father who is desperately lost in his own life, who is trying to stay close to his son and somehow recapture the attention of his (ex)wife, it’s a truly sad movie of underachievement, of fallibility, of vice. It will probably not be an easy watch unless you’re in the mood, because there’s not much going on in terms of a narrative, but there’s enough poetry in it to satisfy those with more metaphysical tastes. 7/10

Clear and Present Danger (1994): A classic Tom Clancy story cum Harrison Ford vehicle, CaPD is all you would expect of it – a complex story set in political context, with compromised characters contrasting Ford’s Jack Ryan, and quite a few moments of Clancy-esque exaggerations. Alongside it’s prequel, The Hunt for Red October (I have yet to see Patriot Games), the movie is a great treat for conspiracy theorists and political action-thriller lovers, as it outdoes the more recent sequels (The Sum of All Fears, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit). 7/10

Bad Times at the El Royal (2018): It’s hard to say where exactly El Royal gets it wrong. A great cast, starring the likes of Jeff Bridges, Jon Hamm, Dakota Johnson, Cynthia Erivo and Chris Hemsworth, it tells the stories of its characters in a disjointed fashion, making for a much inferior version of The Hateful Eight (2015). It’s a familiar set-up, too: a bunch of strangers with hidden agendas come across one another at the El Royal hotel, a formerly famous resort for the rich and fancy, slowly expiring after its alcohol licence was revoked. At more than 140 minutes, it makes for an interesting start, which then quickly veers towards the tedious, unaided by the jarring timeline shifts used to tell everyone’s backstory. A decent finale brings it back to life, but my take is that it’s an underachievement from all involved, a movie I simply cannot recommend. 5/10