Film Brief: Only God Forgives

Compared with Nicolas Winding Refn’s previous picture Drive, there’s not much happening in Only God Forgives. But there was so much going on in Drive — all those irons in the fire — that the comparison is a little unfair. The better comparison is The Neon Demon.

So I understand the underwater rating aggregate, but I like simple stories. The point of Only God Forgives is not so much the story, but a terrific visual draw and great style. And it’s got a pulse. I’ll take this over Miller’s Crossing any time. 6/10

Viewing notes: in Thai and English. Somehow I watched for free on Amazon Prime, as the film was no longer available on iTunes. After watching, it said something about watch free with ads, and also that it’s linked to my IMDb (app). Not sure what happened there, but I’ll take the free viewing. There were no ads, and I discontinued Prime a few weeks earlier.

Comparison Notes: Metro Manilla, The Neon Demon, Enter the Void, Kill Bill

TV Log: Don’t F**k with Cats

If you’re into True Crime, I direct you to a compact 3-episode series on Netflix, Don’t F**k with Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer. There’s a lot of division among the few critics who reviewed it, but I found it well done, fair, and fascinating. And I can’t help but think that the critics who didn’t like it simply prefer to have their heads buried in the sand.

Ashlie D. Stevens,

…with its deconstruction of the psyche of an internet killer, “Don’t F**k with Cats” is one of the most compelling true crime docuseries that has been produced by Netflix to date.


Kristy Strouse, Film Inquiry:

Watch Don’t F**k With Cats with caution, but watch it none the less.

Yes, and yes. Overall, of course, it doesn’t have the devastating impact of Making a Murderer, but I highly recommend for any fan of true crime.

The Irishman – Ramble On

My thoughts on The Irishman will ramble like the film itself.

1- I think no intermission speaks to the lack of chapters, to the lack of big story arcs. Does a movie that’s 209 minutes long need an intermission? Even if you don’t need to use the john, that’s a long time to sit. Longer films of yore had intermissions: Lawrence of Arabia, 2001, Patton, and, it was rumored, The Hateful Eight. But those movies all had significant story movements. Chapters, if you will. Like a novel. Or a good epic/saga-like film. Such sweeps don’t exist in The Irishman. The film starts and just goes in a somewhat monotone fashion until it’s done. No intermission is criminal.

2- Yes, monotone. But there’s a lot going on. And it’s not exactly draggy. As long and big as it is, The Irishman is not hard to follow and hold one’s interest, more or less, for the whole length. It’s not boring.

3- I felt that all the star power was not used that well. Pacino, yes, because he plays Jimmy Hoffa, a larger-than-life character. The De Niro and Pesci characters I thought should have been played by younger actors. I didn’t entirely buy their act, though I give some credit for the depiction of aging.

4- One big problem is that it’s hard to become emotionally invested in the Irishman/De Niro’s character.

Think about The Departed. You’re pulling for the good guy, the DiCaprio “good cop.” You’re not pulling for anyone in The Irishman. They’re all pretty much a bunch of weasels, and not even the fun quirky type of weasels you can pull for in any way. So that even more is why it’s a big so-what. Somehow in Raging Bull, even though Jake La Motta was a jerk, you were made to care about him a little. You’re definitely pulling for our hero/anti-hero in Breaking Bad. In The Irishman, I found myself glazed over because I just didn’t care, other than as a point of interest.

It’s a personal odyssey, but it’s not thrilling enough to be a personal thriller. Not round, but flat.

5- The worst sin: I don’t think anyone’s going to come back in 5 or 10 years and say oh what a great movie that was. There’s nothing particularly memorable or novel about it. There’s no a-ha! moment. There’s no classic quotable line or citable scene. It was all rather hum-drum. Well-executed, but humdrum.

6- The Irishman never plunges into a juicy, thrilling story like The Departed. That kind of lock-in setup never happens. The film just plugs along. However, the meditative moments that draw the film to a close combine with the earlier highlights and better sequences to raise the whole into positive territory, if barely.

7- Captions are placed over characters who will meet a usually violent end, even though those characters have little or nothing to do with the story. They’re introduced on screen, with a note on their demise, and proceed to have no import.

8- The film’s only title presented on-screen (prior to end credits) is “I Heard You Paint Houses.” This is code for whacking those who need to be whacked. Again, if Scorsese had any sense of grandness we’d see intro titles. And why “I Heard You Paint Houses”?  Like that’s a big-time title. Of course there’s no intermission. We couldn’t even get titles.

9- On Netflix. Back to point 1. There are big plot points, but the film just isn’t built in a way that lends itself to an intermission. Or maybe it does, if the desire were there. One may wonder if the film was built this way to make the theater-going experience as uncomfortable as possible. So that Netflix could make a point: how much better would this be to watch at home? Locally, in all of San Diego county, the only place showing the film was the Landmark Hillcrest, the local art house. Like a Scorsese film starring De Niro and Pacino is some kind of indie.

The Landmark features non-reclining seats that if anything are less comfortable than average. So I said if you can’t beat em, join em. I tried to stay with the film best I could, taking no break in the last 2 hours of the film. And, I admit it worked well to watch at home. Unlike Roma, there’s not a ton of long shots with detail that is missed on your home screen.

It would seem that this type of release will become more and more the norm. It’s a little sad. I give A24 grief now and then, but they, along with Fox Searchlight, Blumhouse and a couple other studios, are keeping the theater alive with movies other than Marvel and animated releases.

10- Marvel movies aren’t cinema. In significant vectors, neither is The Irishman. In just as many other vectors it is. There’s a lot of good production value here — would we expect anything less? I hardly loved it, but at least we’re not seeing the downward spiral à la Oliver Stone.

11- A lot of caveats on this, but on balance: 6/10.

Comparison Notes: The Departed, Mystic River, Donnie Brasco, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, JFK, The Drop

Who’s the Joker now?

Joker has evoked tons of media coverage and criticism, those flames fanned when Joaquin Phoenix stated that a movie is not responsible for teaching right and wrong. He’s right. A Times writer felt he needed to explain how the movie accidentally makes a big statement about being a white anti-hero vs. a black one. There’s truth in what he’s saying, but so what — you could write that about any movie with a white male lead.

So yes, it’s annoying that critics have to complain about the perceived social ills of Joker. Because it’s a good movie. And, in fact, something that it would seem only I am saying is the societal impact is exactly the opposite of its criticism. Joker does a great service by showing what a plain old revolver can inflict on the flesh and bone of a human being.  All the do-gooders out there should be more concerned about a fake war movie that shows a bazooka hitting a vehicle A-Team style, causing it to flip over but then everyone exits unscathed. Or lame superhero/Fast & Furious movies in which no one ever gets hurt.


Joker contains something much better than all the societal messages the critics wish it did: grand cinematic vision. The story is not the strongest I’ve ever seen by a long shot, so I did not love the movie. But I dug it. It’s entertaining. And just like a Lynch film, or any film, it needs to be judged by what it is, not what it is not.

And if you’re concerned about gun violence, there’s a simple solution: make guns a lot harder to obtain.

* * *

Two big positives: Joker features a great look and setting, perhaps my favorite “Gotham City” yet.  And, best of all, a perfectly-cast Joaquin Phoenix. He delivers a spirited performance in a role he was meant to play. Joaquin Phoenix is, like Ryan Gosling, an actor who’s always fascinating to watch. There’s something always under the surface that you just can’t quite figure. A character that moves in unexpected and explosive ways. And it’s nice to see him getting paid… a stalwart indie/small film actor for years and years who finally got to see a payday.

You wouldn’t guess this is Todd Phillips, the same director as Due Date and The Hangover franchise. I don’t think the direction is utter genius, but’s it’s good and a league above The Hangover. There’s a sense throughout that we’re doing something different here. This is not just another comic book movie. Hardly.

About on par with last year’s Upgrade and a peg or two below Midsommar; on the low end of 8/10

Comparison Notes: Taxi Driver, all Batman movies, Streets of Fire, Natural Born Killers, Gorky Park, Punch-Drunk Love, The Master (which I definitely need to revisit at some point – every time I think of it my opinion rises.)

Hustlers on the take

Hustlers is like a very boring version of Goodfellas. There are good, even great performances, but there’s little to the “true story.”  Look to Comparison Notes below to understand that despite the positives, there’s no way I could recommend Hustlers.

Those performances are among Hustlers’ redeeming attributes, but is it a good time at the movies? Not quite. The Rotten Tomatoes consensus:

Led by a career-best performance from Jennifer Lopez, Hustlers is a uniquely empowering heist drama with depth and intelligence to match its striking visual appeal.

Sometimes I wonder if the critics are watching the same movie. No, it’s not uniquely empowering, there is some depth and intelligence, but not much, and nothing at all striking visually. It’s not even a heist drama, per se. There is something to the relationship building that critics are nuts about, but it’s not enough to overcome a bland, so-what plot. And one more thing — I’ve been reflecting on this Titles MIA thing. Titles here would have told me that the filmmaker understands when her story is underway. 5/10

Comparison Notes: Goodfellas, Widows, Casino, Leaving Las Vegas, The Wrestler, Flashdance, Bound (now that’s a heist film), Donnie Brasco

Destroyer of all that is Holy

The much-anticipated Destroyer lives up to its name by squandering the exceptional talents of Nicole Kidman.  Though the highlight of the film, Kidman’s performance was not where it needed to be — on this I blame more the storywriters and director than her.  Mostly a Sicario / Inherent Vice – type bore, Destroyer wasn’t nearly as edgy as it fancied itself to be.

Besides wasting an alterna-face Nicole Kidman, the film hardly maximizes its splendid urban and desert settings.  Logic problems, two very weak half-stories, and a half-hearted hocus-pocus narrative trick at the end do nothing to lift this project.  4/10

Comparison Notes: Highly Recommended: Chinatown, The Big Sleep, and After Dark, My Sweet; Not Recommended: the aforementioned Sicario and Inherent Vice


Film Brief: The Mule


The Mule is a little like Falling Down (1993) in slo motion.  Which is to say it’s a bit of a yawner.  There’s a definite sheen of artifice through the whole thing, and the feeling of second-rate TV drama.  In slo-mo.  I was reasonably engaged, however, in spots, and you can’t deny Clint Eastwood’s character — though even that was muted here.  5/10

Comparison Notes: The Old Man & the Gun, Breaking Bad & Better Call Saul, Fargo TV series, Hell or High Water, No Country for Old Men

5 Years for Widows — Was it worth the wait?

To produce Widows, the living director (to distinguish from the late actor) Steve McQueen waited five years after making the best film of 2013, 12 Years a Slave.  Was that Kubrik-esque gap to foretell a film of the magnitude or gravitas of 12 Years?  Hardly.  Next to the grand 12 Years a Slave, McQueen’s latest project is a severe letdown.  The gulf between the two films is probably explained by their respective writers: McQueen for Widows, someone else for 12 Years.

But 12 Years a Slave is a high bar.  On an absolute scale, Widows is a good movie.  It has some structural issues, and the whole “heist” sequence brings the film down.  On the plus side, it features solid dramatic timbre, and there’s a good sense of watching real characters in real, desperate situations.  Lots of pluses, lots of minuses.

So, considering all the story elements, this could have been a lot worse.  Conversely, though, if those story elements are switched up, Widows comes out much higher.  6/10