Classic movie review: “Rocky IV”

So Fraser had a suggestion tonight.

“Why don’t you write some reviews of classic movies?” he asked. “I’d love to read your review of ‘Rocky IV’.“

So “Rocky IV”. I should start by saying I’ve never actually seen this movie before. Sure, I know what happens in “Rocky IV”. I know it by the same cultural osmosis that teaches us what happens in “Scarface” and “Jurassic Park” and “It’s A Wonderful Life”, movies that are part of the cultural lexicon beyond their actual cinematic reach. I know that Scarface dies face down—but awesome—in a mountain of cocaine; I know that the T-Rex kills Newman on the toilet; I know that Rocky beats Ivan Drago and brings the Soviet Union to its knees. But I’d never actually seen it happen.

As it turns out, “Rocky IV” is an awful lot of fun. Unlike the most recent installment in the series (“Creed II”), this movie picks one plotline and pursues it doggedly through to resolution: the United States is taken by surprise by the strength of come-from-nowhere Russian heavyweight Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), who kills the heavyweight champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) in front of his corner man and best friend Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone). Now Rocky has a tough decision to make: fight the deadly Russian himself and risk orphaning his child, or listen to everyone counseling him to take the high road. (Or, in his wife Adrian’s (Talia Shire) case, viciously undermining him at every turn.) This is fairly primal stuff, albeit overlaid with a thick layer of cheese: in order to beat the Russian, Rocky decides he must train like a Russian, and the resultant montage pits mountains against treadmills, deep snow against swimming pools, all against a soundtrack composed of 80% Rayon, 18% nylon, and 2% Spandex.

Watching the movie now, it’s easy to tee up on the ideas and insecurities that indelibly mark “Rocky IV” as a product of the 80’s, but dig deeper and you’ll find you’re standing on quicksand. Rocky’s material success is epitomized by his purchase of a futuristic robot “butler” which lights up and processes speech cues well beyond the actual capabilities of the era. Over the course of the movie, the robot develops the voice of a seductive vixen, and shortly thereafter, the habits of a nagging wife, as she/it chases members of the Balboa household around, reminding them to take vitamins. It’s easy to laugh at the idea that the height of luxury is a robot butler that nags you with the voice of a sexy lady, but what is Alexa, exactly? It’s also funny to remember a time when we thought the Russian athletics program was run by physicists using space-age supercomputers in nearly sterile gyms, but it gets way less funny when you consider that they rolled us like bums in the 2016 election using fucking Facebook ads. If there’s any lesson to be learned from “Rocky IV”, it’s that judging the past is a good way to feel awfully foolish in the present.




Movie review: “Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse”

Real quick: how many Spiderman movies have there been since you started counting? Five? Eighteen? Ninety-three? What happens if you start counting all the movies that Spiderman just appears in? At this point, I’ve been subjected to more stories about Spiderman than I have about Batman, and slightly more about Batman than I have about Jesus, and generally speaking, if I never have to hear another origin story again, I will be heartily grateful. So if I tell you that there is a movie featuring seven separate Spiderman origin stories, and that you need to see it over Christmas, I would understand if you told me to fuck off. No one likes a proselytizer.

Nevertheless, I am here to spread the Good News. “Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse” is a delight, a breathless three hours of fun crammed into a two hour package. You’re going to want to watch it more than once. (Bringing your origin story total to fourteen.) Phil Lord, writer of “The Lego Movie”, has delivered yet another instant classic, and a fitting tribute to Stan Lee’s greatest creation, dropping just a scant month after the great man’s death. “Avengers: Infinity War” will of course be the formal send-off, but that will be this summer. Right now, with the loss still smarting, “Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse” feels more like a minion than a full-blown state funeral. Present among the mourners are: Peter Parker, Miles Morales, Gwen Stacy, Peni Parker, Spider-Man Noir, and Spider-Ham. Somehow, despite the plethora of spidermen, women, girls, robots, and swine, the movie doesn’t feel crowded—screentime is appropriately portioned out between the spiderbeings, with the healthiest helping going to Peter Parker (voiced by Jake Johnson) and Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore), as the older Spiderman teaches his young protégée the rules of being a superhero: no one is truly ready. Try to relax and let go. Accept that everything is now sticky. Young parents in the audience will nod in recognition.

Miles is a quick learner, but the supervillains he’ll face are quicker, and have started out several steps ahead of him—at the reveal of one of them, I actually gasped. Despite being entirely animated, the villains in this movie are no joke. The looming Kingpin (voiced by Liev Schreiber) is especially terrifying, drawn like a blockish totem straight from your childhood subconscious and bubbling with warped, barely-restrained anger. When he pulls out a gun, you have no doubt he’ll fire it. The fear refreshes the synapses, just as the enchanting colors of “Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse” refresh the eyes. A quick scan of the Art Department credits associated with this movie reveals 58 names, and many, many multiples of that in the Visual and Animation Departments; it quite literally took a village to bring this version of New York to life, and their efforts have paid off enormously. This is a movie that begs to be paused, and printed, and put up on your wall: every frame a blazing, colorful refutation to the idea that superhero movies must renounce their paper origins to feel “real”. The artists of “Spiderverse” judiciously deploy printing dots and impact lines and even the occasional shift into black and white, but the comic flourishes don’t feel like window dressing—they are here to support the story, not distract from it, and the movie never feels over-designed. It just feels thoughtfully designed, like an Apple product.

That thoughtfulness extends to the care with which even minor characters are fleshed out. When Miles’s mother (voiced by Luna Lauren Velez) speaks to him in a fluid mixture of Spanish and English, switching between the two without the appearance of subtitles, it feels so natural that it has the effect of retroactively making you question every prior subtitle you’ve seen. What were we doing with those? The movie assumes, rightly, that even those without Spanish can follow her drift, and the character artists who’ve designed her body language ensure it. Everywhere you look in the movie, thoughtful details signal who each character is, what they value, how they want to present themselves: in short, the movie feels as lived-in and fully fleshed-out as any live-action movie, where adding an accessory to a character’s bedroom does not require hundreds of hours of digital rendering to determine what happens when the light from a specific window hits it. I think I know why it took nearly half a thousand people to make this movie.

Of course, it only took one person to imagine it all in the first place, and to create it. And on the 95th year, he saw that it was good, and then he rested. Excelsior.

Movie review: “Creed II”

Who do they think we are?


I suppose that’s my real question. Who, exactly, did the makers of “Creed II” think would be paying to see their movie? Some further questions: did they want to tell a story about boxing? About family? Did they like their source material? Had they even seen their source material? And if they had, why deliver this?


Unfocused and meandering, “Creed II” squanders all the goodwill that the excellent “Creed” had built up towards its hero Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan, playing the son of Carl Weathers’s immortal Apollo Creed)—worse still, there’s a perfectly decent movie struggling to get out from this mess. Alert movie historians may recall the drubbing Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) administered to Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) at the end of “Rocky IV”, after Drago killed Rocky’s pal Apollo in the ring. Now, thirty-three years later, Ivan Drago is back, and wants revenge. Watching his son Viktor (Florian Munteanu) beat up Rocky’s mentee Adonis sounds pretty good to Ivan: humiliating the son of the man who killed his father sound pretty good to Adonis. Stuck between a pair of hotheads, Rocky alone sees warning signs that history may be about to repeat itself. This is a great plot! This doesn’t need anything else to be a perfectly satisfying movie, equally about boxing and the complex demands of manhood.


Unfortunately, the creators of “Creed II” didn’t stop there. Onto this camel, they added straw after straw: an estranged biological son for Rocky. A marriage to Bianca (Tessa Thompson), followed by a baby, for Adonis. A further subplot about that baby’s potential deafness. A weird concussion-recovery sequence. A completely unresolved sub-sub-plot centering on, no shit, a burnt-out streetlight. What are we doing here? If, as Stephen King wrote, “fear is at the root of most bad writing”, then the team in charge of “Creed II” must have been terrified. Their everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach means we have no idea what to focus on in Adonis Creed’s life: by contrast, life on the Drago side of the equation begins to look marvelously simple. Get up. Go for a run while your aging boxer father chases you in a truck. Lift some tires in a frigid warehouse while he berates you about why your mother left. Eat some cold soup and repeat. By the time Viktor Drago gets to the big fight, we’ve seen enough of his bleak home life to understand why he wants to fight Creed—why, for the tiny Drago family, a win is so necessary. This is a big problem for the movie, because we have no similar understanding of Creed’s headspace: the demands on Jordan are so many, and often so wildly contradictory, that he’s overmatched. Brando couldn’t get anywhere with this material, and Jordan doesn’t. By comparison, Florian Munteanu has an easy time of it: all he has to do is show up, be the size of a house, and register the mute sadness of a dog that hopes very much not to be beaten this time. At this task, he succeeds, and succeeds so wildly that I felt my allegiances begin to waver about a third of the way through the final fight. As it turns out, the makers of “Creed II” did succeed in making a compelling, blood-simple boxing movie about both family and fight. They just didn’t make it about Creed.

Movie review: “Halloween” (2018)

OK so “Halloween”.




Let’s get this out on the table right away: I am deeply ignorant about scary movies. Due to an unfortunate combination of personal neuroses and genuine anxiety, I’m pretty much the last person who should ever watch horror, and so I’ve never seen “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, “The Ring”, “Nightmare on Elm Street”, “The Exorcist”, “Saw”, or most of the other classics of the genre. My ignorance doubtless shapes my opinion of “Halloween”, a sequel to one of the few classics I have seen: the movie is jam-packed with in-jokes and references, of which I caught maybe 20%. The good news is that I didn’t have to catch all the references to enjoy “Halloween”—it’s a smart update, one which retains everything delightful about the original (Laurie Strode; Michael Myers; that theme) while discarding some of the dated tropes (punish-the-slut formula) and dippy backstories (Stonehenge as a source of demonic energy?) that plagued earlier installments of the series. This installment’s version of Michael Myers pursues an agenda as pitiless and inscrutable as the shark from “Jaws”, with herky-jerky movements that suggest a person taught to walk by diagram. Adding a motive would only make Michael less frightening—director David Gordon Green, along with additional screenwriters Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley, clearly understood this basic equation, and that’s why the characters who bloviate about the nature of evil and the call of the mask are the first to be punctured. The movie’s straightforward script ignores the question of why Michael Myers enjoys robotically stalking and slicing his way through life; it is enough that he does, pursuing his gruesome hobby with a workmanlike vigor that the rest of us would do well to emulate when it comes to, say, lawn maintenance or gum care.


The only clear part of Michael’s agenda is, as always, to kill Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), a nice lady who must have spent her previous lives clubbing baby seals, or voting Republican. There can be no other explanation for the karmic retribution accruing to her. “I’m twice divorced, and I’m a basket case,” she sighs, with a what-can-you-do inflection that feels earned. Jamie Lee Curtis doesn’t need to be excellent in this movie, but she is, creating a believably difficult and traumatized character who’s alienated her daughter and is in the process of alienating a granddaughter when Michael shows up again. This should be Laurie’s triumphant “I told you so” moment—the peril she has spent her life preparing for has returned, but the damage has already been done to Laurie’s family, and neither daughter nor granddaughter are inclined to heed her warnings. Here is the movie’s real engine: three women who need to trust each other, but don’t; who must work together, and can’t. Their estrangement is the trap. Michael Myers just turns the screw.

Movie review: “Crazy Rich Asians”

The marketing team for this movie uses the words “decadent” and “frothy” quite a lot, words which generally haven’t been associated with romantic comedies since the last time Esther Williams unpeeled herself from the edge of a swimming pool. That’s fitting, because “Crazy Rich Asians” hearkens back to an earlier era of romantic spectacular, the kind where impeccably attired ladies and gentlemen teetered endlessly on the verge of tipping into song, or dance, or both. Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) is about to fly home to meet her boyfriend Nick Young’s (Henry Wu) family. Unbeknownst to Rachel, Nick is hiding a secret. Not the kind of secret you or I or anyone on Tindr is used to—Nick is neither closeted, nor married, nor a hidden Republican. No, Nick is rich. Like, seriously rich. Like… the kind of rich that uses the word “comfortable”. Into these unfamiliar but invitingly warm waters, Rachel is thrown. The movie hinges upon her attempts to win over Nick’s mother, the imposingly regal Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh). As such, the “romance” half of the romantic comedy fades into the background; we see Nick, and his washboard abs, but we don’t necessarily feel him as a full agent in the movie. This is between Rachel and Eleanor. Thankfully, Rachel has brought reinforcements—her colorfully brusque college roommate, Peik Lin Goh (Awkwafina), plus a healthy dose of good sense from her own mother, Kerry (Tan Kheng Hua). When the two mothers are brought into the same room, it feels like the undercard has ceded way to the title fight. Thankfully, in the world of “Crazy Rich Asians”, there is room for more than one kind of mother, or one kind of family—Nick’s nest of vipers untangles to reveal a braid of complex women, doing the best they can against difficult odds, and Rachel herself discovers a few secrets about her own maternal legacy. It’s not exactly Boy Meets Girl, but it is a story just as old: Girl Meets Mother-In-Law; Recognizes Self. Slipped between the chapters, there is a bachelor party on a barge, a bachelorette party on an island, and an entire wedding party balanced, in an improbably Jesus-like fashion, atop the surface of a thin and rippling brook. “Crazy Rich Asians” is indeed very frothy. Esther Williams would be proud.

Movie review: “BlacKkKlansman”

I have a memory from childhood. I don’t know if it’s real. I remember a fire, briefly glimpsed from a car window, while driving home through the steep and winding landscape of West Virginia. We’re talking about a one, two-second glimpse, at most, of a fire far away, seen through trees. I was an anxious child, prone to attention-getting exaggeration, and deeply obsessed with evil: as a Jewish child growing up deep in Appalachia, I was sure that Nazis were everywhere around us, laying dormant like locusts underground, waiting for their hibernation to end so they could re-emerge and lay waste to my family, to me. I was equally afraid of the Klan, and convinced of their ubiquity; and for all these reasons it’s impossible to say whether I saw a burning cross that night, or a lightning-struck tree, or just a tall bonfire that I eagerly interpreted as evidence that real live racists were all around me, just like in my nightmares.


I have another memory, too. This one is real. I remember belonging to a local 4-H chapter when I was about eleven or twelve. I didn’t do much; sewed a felt flag and entered a photography project that was more my dad’s work than my own into a fair, but didn’t go on any camping trips or raise any livestock. In fact, of all the 4-H meetings I attended, only one sticks out in my mind. It was the first one of the year, where the officials of the chapter were elected. That meeting was also the first time I ever met a black child, a girl my own age. I regret that I do not remember her name, nor anything about her other than her blackness. I regret much more what I did next. We were each volunteering for the various roles we wanted to play. (4-H meetings run on a sort of parliamentary procedure, with a secretary to keep minutes and a president, vice president, etc.) And when it came my turn to volunteer the role I wanted to play, I looked right at her and said that I wanted to be treasurer, so I could make sure that nobody was stealing anything.


Of the many sickening aspects of this memory, one especially galls me: I enacted this jaw-dropping racism without ever questioning why I was doing it.  With my motive practically hanging above my head in glowing neon, I was filled only with the smug zeal of the teacher’s pet—certain I was enforcing a common good.


It took me a very long time to write out this memory. Over two decades later, it still fills me with intense and lasting shame—as it should. But, over two decades later, I am much less worried by that foggy memory of a burning cross, and much more worried by that memory of myself. I am convinced that the unexamined racism of ordinary white girls and boys, lying dormant like locusts in our brains, is what’s been laying waste to this country. For every cross-burning Klansman, there are one thousand Permit Patties who, certain they are enforcing a common good, will call the police because a black person was “out of place”. Racism has gone through several successful mutations in the past century, but perhaps its most cunning strategy is convincing white people that being A Racist is a full-time job requiring a membership card and uniform, not a temp gig that we all do on the side. If A Racist is something you have to burn a cross to be, then you are forever exempted from the charge. The mere suggestion is cause for offense. (Go ahead, ask a white person if they’ve ever been racist and watch them explode in self-righteous, defensive indignation.) That’s why the KKK make such popular villains in TV and movies—they serve not as warnings, but as reassurances to white Americans. You’re not a real racist. You’ve never used that word. You’ve never burned a cross. You’re one of the good guys. Your own motives remain above reproach or question, even by yourself.


Which meant that I sat in the theater to see “BlacKkKlansman”, Spike Lee’s newest movie, in a fairly complicated headspace. As I absorbed the mindbending predicament of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the black detective who, in the late 1970s, successfully infiltrated a Colorado Springs-area chapter of the KKK, I noticed the mainly-white audience around me giggling as a Klansman (Paul Walter Hauser) scratches his head with the barrel of a handgun, then subsiding into shocked silence as Harry Belafonte (playing a witness) describes the 1916 lynching of Jesse Washington. All the beats land in the right places in this movie: dark humor buckles like rotten wood under your feet, plunging you into horror, before a sly and ticklish joke hauls you right back out again and resets the rollercoaster. That’s fitting for Stallworth’s experience, in which the actual inner workings of the Klan were weirdly mundane—replete with paperwork and snack breaks at meetings—right up until the moment they weren’t. (In one of the movie’s most haunting moments, Washington wanders through an abandoned shooting range used by the Klan, letting his fingers drift over punctured targets as the camera shows only his face. After he departs, the camera turns to let us see the targets: black minstrel figures, which director Spike Lee purchased directly from the Internet, bypassing the props room entirely. Washington was informed of this fact the moment before the cameras began rolling.)


The movie’s most successful moments are all ones of quiet contemplation, as characters stop to consider their place in the world. In one such scene, Adam Driver, playing the white police officer who pretended to be Stallworth at meetings, sits inspecting Stallworth’s new Klan membership card. Reflecting on his non-observant Jewish identity, he wonders out loud if he has been “passing”; wisely, the movie lets the question stand. Similarly, the movie lets Stallworth stand as an uneasy example of “double consciousness”, the schizophrenic view of self that results from living as a black man in a society which hates blank men.


Less successful is the movie’s attempt to put a bow on Stallworth’s own undercover experience by having him bag a racist cop: the incident didn’t happen, but most white audience members, eager to accept the idea of a self-cleaning police department, will miss the hints that the movie has entered the realm of purest fantasy. Ditto the scenes with earnest undergraduate activist Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), whose efforts at consciousness-raising all sound as if they were written by a focus group whose only access to black culture is a single mis-remembered episode of “Shaft”. At one point, Dumas must call Stallworth a “jive turkey”; Harrier pronounces the phrase as though she holds it, pinched between two fingers, at arm’s length. Who is that moment for? Thankfully, more jabs land than don’t, including the moment when a detective explains that David Duke genuinely thinks he will pave the way for an eventual white supremacist president, and all the cops guffaw in incredulous, disbelieving laughter. The theater groaned in unison here, and a number of people in my row made sad, wry eye contact with each other. And in the final moments, Lee floors the gas, taking us up to the present day in a sickening lurch to real footage of the racist marchers in Charlottesville, overlaid by our current president’s assertion that he saw “very fine people” among their numbers. The movie, for me, perfectly captured the horror-movie disorientation of 2016, as my darkest childhood suspicions about the Nazis hiding behind every rock and tree were vindicated. But that sense of vindication is hollow. “BlacKkKlansman” lays the blame for our country’s ugly predicament squarely in a spot which I suspect many of my fellow white Americans will be all too happy to lay it: at the feet of other, more obviously racist white people, people equipped with torches and uniforms, marching in the South. But 58% of us, 58% of white Americans, voted for Donald Trump in 2016. It’s always been us. The calls have always been coming from inside the house.

Movie review: “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again”

I didn’t realize quite how much I needed “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” until, watching several hundred people on a dock greet another several hundred people on a boat by singing “Dancing Queen” at them, I burst into tears. Such is the weird magic of the “Mamma Mia” franchise: by circumventing entirely such concepts as “taste” and “restraint”, it plugs directly into the part of your brain that wants to be reassured and comforted and surrounded by bright colors and soft textiles. (In other words, mamma’d.) You leave the theater feeling as though you have had six months’ worth of intensive therapy, coupled with a vacation to a particularly thorough spa: both your spirit and your cheeks exfoliated. Just as with spas (or therapy), your openness to the “Mamma Mia” experience depends on your comfort level with vulnerability; with uncoolness; with feelings about your mother. There is also singing. “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” is not for cowards. But the bravery of the audience, who must be prepared to sit in public for nearly two hours being sung at, pales in comparison to the courage of actors like Pierce Brosnan (65), Christine Baranski (66), Stellan Skarsgård (67), Julie Walters (68), Meryl Streep (69), and Cher (72), all of whom face being belted into skintight lamé and platformsbefore gingerly negotiating docks, stairs, and high barstools—while singing. (Colin Firth, at 57, is here to capture the youth audience.) The first “Mamma Mia” movie was released ten years to the day before the sequel, and it shows: both in the limited choreography on display, and in the scripted moments where the actors simply bend over and wheeze. I suspect that how you feel about these interludes will mirror how you feel about aging. Those who fear the process will find the spectacle pretty grim, while those who rush forward to embrace it will be heartened to see aging characters treated like physical, carnal beings, in need of a smoke, a drink, a flirtation, and finally a fucking break at the top of the stairs.


The characters in “Mamma Mia” deserve a moment of sustained admiration, as well. I’ve seen the first movie six or eight times, and each time I’m impressed not by the indestructibility of ABBA’s songs (thoroughly tested by Pierce Brosnan) but by the strength of its characters. Within thirty seconds of meeting Julie Walters’s Rosie or Christine Baranski’s Tanya, you can easily imagine the interior of their homes—or their diaries. Similarly, to watch five seconds of Colin Firth’s shy banker Harry dithering about ferry times is to instinctively know, on a gut level, what he craves in bed. (The first movie coyly confirmed the basics, but the second delves into kink: the moment lands as a relief that an old friend has gotten so comfortable with himself.) For the most part, “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” honors that rich characterization—the surprise is that instead of moving the focus forward to the next generation, the movie travels backwards in time, introducing actors to play younger versions of the principle grownups in a decade loosely inspired by the 70s, but lacking any actionable resemblance to a real decade, living or dead. The sparkling turquoise world of “Mamma Mia” is innocent of borders, war, or politics beyond those expressed within the ecosystem of a family. Interestingly, this has caused nearly every major movie critic to identify both movies as fluffy, enjoyable distractions from the real, serious concerns of mankind. But both movies hinge entirely on a gutting conversation in the first installment when Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) asks her mother Donna (Streep) how she managed to raise her alone. Streep replies, “Well, honey, I didn’t have a choice […] When I got pregnant, my mother told me not to bother coming back.” That harrowingly lonely situation, and the blast radius it cast across three generations, is a mortar explosion that only fifty percent of an audience, and apparently zero percent of major movie critics, could feel. Maybe there needed to be more tanks.


If “Mamma Mia” is a world devoid of the concerns of mankind, then it follows that perhaps what is being explored are the concerns of womankind. Love. Desire, and what happens when it is thwarted. Family, and what happens when a piece of it is suddenly gone. As it turns out, in the void left by a loved one, the layered harmonies of an old pop song can suddenly matter very, very much. Nearly every major musical number in “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” accentuates a loss: of youth, of a parent, of a partner, of a potential future. The end of the movie has been roundly criticized for throwing the living and the dead together in joyful chaos, as all the characters dance with the youthful versions of themselves. But what else is music for, if not to bridge the gaps between worlds? As long as your record player still works, bye bye doesn’t mean forever.