Author Archives: Alex Good

Kiss Me Kate (1953)

*. Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew is unique in having an opening Induction that presents the main story as a play-within-a-play. This was something a little more developed than just a chorus or prologue, like you get in Henry V, but Olivier’s Henry V may have provided some inspiration for this production, taking us behind-the-scenes at first and only gradually opening up into the play proper as we leave the theatre behind.
*. There’s nothing like the play’s Induction in this film version of the Cole Porter musical of the same name, but what we have operates in a similar way, beginning with a backstage story about a pair of divorced and now dueling stars — Fred Graham (Howard Keel) and Lilli Vanessi (Kathryn Grayson) — getting ready to put on a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew. “Cole Porter” even shows up as a character. It’s all very meta.
*. The rest of it does what a film musical has to do. The songs are first-rate, with “I’ve Come To Wive It Wealthily In Padua,” “Where Is The Life That Late I Led?” and “Always True To You In My Fashion” standing out for me. The last mentioned also gets away with what I thought were some pretty bawdy lyrics. The “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” number performed by a pair of gangsters (Keenan Wynn and James Whitmore) felt flat to me. Neither Wynn nor Whitmore were dancers and by their own admission they didn’t even bother practicing. Which is fine if they were just going for rough charm, but even that takes effort.
*. Keel looks raffish with his Don Juan stage beard. The ladies are musical ladies of the 1950s, and not very memorable. The dancing is terrific. The actual musical-within-the-musical is great, but the back story with the gangsters and Fred and Lilli getting back together flagged for me. Of course it’s frantic and silly, and gets resolved in the end only with a bunch of improbabilities thrown at the screen like the items used to show off the (lame) 3-D effects, but it only underlines how idiotic the whole thing is as anything other than an excuse for the big numbers.
*. Few film genres date as quickly as musicals. Tastes in music change with the seasons, and the whole idea of casts breaking into song and dance every five minutes is a tough sell, as witness the celebrated recent box office bombings of Cats and West Side Story, both of which were established properties. I think if you’re going to enjoy these movies you have to go back to the source and take them for what they were. And if you’re still singing the songs a week later, that’s a win.

This Is Not a Movie (2019)

*. The title has nothing to do with Magritte. Instead, this is a documentary on the journalistic career and ethos of reporter Robert Fisk, and the title comes from something Fisk says at the end about how real life, which is what he hopes to capture in his writing, isn’t like a movie.
*. Fisk died in 2020. I thought he did a great job covering the Middle East, and his book The Great War for Civilisation is a landmark work on the history of recent conflicts in the region. This film isn’t about the Middle East though, but instead lets Fisk tell his own story, laying out his philosophy on the role of a reporter today.
*. That philosophy involves leaving “a direct and emotional record” as a witness, so that ages hence no one will be able to say they didn’t know or weren’t told about some specific crime or outrage. Journalism is, in other words, a calling, which it pretty much has to be for someone so willing to put himself directly in harm’s way as both a columnist and a street reporter. And if having a calling can make you sound at times a little full of yourself, that also comes with the territory.
*. I didn’t mind this, because I think journalists need a sense of idealism. It serves as an anchor, and antidote not just to the lack of rigour exercised in a lot of Internet reporting but to the nihilism that infects so much of our post-truth dispensation. People often mistake outraged idealists as cynics, but the true cynics are the ones who make such charges because they’re afraid of the idealists, seeing them as whistleblowers.
*. It’s not just the nihilistic spirit of the age Fisk opposes but the digital form it takes. Fisk is presented as the last of a breed, writing with pen into his notepad and with a study at home that’s lined with bales of newspaper cuttings and other physical records. As with other aspects of his belief system, this can come across as a little much. But he does have a point. Where will we find the truth when everything is in the cloud, where it’s far easier to manipulate or be made to disappear entirely?
*. In one conversation with a younger journalist I thought Fisk even came out a bit worse for wear in an argument over the value of digital journalism. Fisk doesn’t condemn the Internet, but he has his doubts, while insisting on the value of his own old-school methods. “If you don’t go to the scene and sniff it and talk to the people and see with your own eyes you cannot get near what the truth is. I more and more feel, especially in the age of the Internet, when so little is proved and so little checked out, that there’s more and more reason to do the old kind of journalism.”
*. But against a deeper form of nihilism, moral rather than epistemological, there is no defense. “It doesn’t matter how much we blame the bad guys, I don’t think it has a lot of effect. It would be nice to believe that the Foreign Correspondent movie was the real thing, he manages to get the bad guys, the German spies, everything works out fine. But the truth is that this is not a movie, and it’s very arrogant of any journalist to think they can change the world or alter the course of a war. You do like to think that sometimes you can switch on the lighthouse and the beam touches something and something that otherwise would happen will not happen. When you try to tell the truth maybe occasionally the torture stops and the condemned’s cell opens. and maybe we helped. Mostly, I fear, what we write doesn’t make the slightest bit of difference. Like constantly having to tell the story of the Palestinians. You will never win over the world to your version of events, however accurate, however truthfully told, however angrily written. You’ll never win. But you will lose unless you keep on fighting.”
*. This seems a “heads you lose, tails they win” sort of thing. Still, like Camus’ Sisyphus we have to believe Fisk was happy fighting his battles. If he suffered from illusions, at least they were of the productive kind.

Zoolander (2001)

*. While I can appreciate that they do have talent, work hard at their craft, and are “really, really ridiculously good looking,” let’s face it: male models are kind of funny. Give “male model” a bit of a push and you don’t even need any jokes. Just have Derek Zoolander doing one of his trademark pouts (Blue Steel, Ferrari, or Le Tigre) at the camera and otherwise have him being dense. That’s all the joke you need. That’s the movie.
*. There is more to Zoolander. Lots more. But even though this movie is only 87 minutes and has an overload of plot (which might have been influenced by Bret Easton Ellis’s Glamorama, a novel I actually liked at the time) involving Derek being brainwashed by a cabal of evil fashion designers into killing the Malaysian prime minister, it’s all just running hysterically in place. Ben Stiller plays Zoolander, and he also co-wrote and directed, but despite the fact that he’s a very funny guy he’s upstaged here throughout by Owen Wilson as his fashion rival/bosom buddy Hansel and Will Ferrell as the mad designer Mugatu. Throw in more, way more, cameos than you can shake a press card at, and Ben/Derek actually disappears a bit from his own movie.
*. Which I think a good thing, on balance, since there’s no there there. That’s on purpose, of course, but it makes it hard to get that interested in whatever Derek’s up to. I’d also add that I found his voice to be really annoying. That might have been deliberate too, in the way that you wish models wouldn’t talk because whenever they do it’s like what legendary porn critic Al Goldstein called spiritual bad breath.

*. Twenty years later, I don’t think the funny stuff holds up that well. Which, given the talent assembled, is disappointing. It’s sketch comedy where only a few of the sketches work. The brainwashing stuff, which I guess was riffing on The Parallax View, was the best. Otherwise, there’s not much going on. Christine Taylor as the straight girl is reduced to just being a cutaway for far too many reaction shots. David Duchovny’s hand model wasn’t interesting. And to be honest, the clips included with the DVD from the VH1 Fashion Awards were just as funny as anything in the movie itself.
*. That final point leads into another thought I had watching the DVD. I was amazed while listening to the commentary track to find out how much of the material here was worked and reworked for years. They had all sorts of ideas, like a climax on Mount Rushmore and stuff about Derek’s father (Jon Voight) having been a model himself, that didn’t make it in. Given all they left out, you’d think that what was included would only be the best stuff, but with comedy I find that’s not always the case.
*. What’s left today are the memes. “Obey my dog!” “I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!” The Derek Zoolander Center for Kids Who Can’t Read Good and Who Wanna Learn to Do Other Stuff Good Too. Not much, but enough for some good box office and the catchiness of the name alone pretty much guaranteed a sequel.

Crimes of the Future (2022)

*. Crimes of the Future was David Cronenberg’s first film in 8 years (and first original script in over 20) but wasn’t as much a big change in direction as it was a throwback, as even the title suggests (Crimes of the Future was also the name of one of Cronenberg’s first movies, a lifetime ago in 1970). Put another way, the crimes of the future we see here are really the crimes of the past, or a future that’s grounded in Cronenberg’s vision of the 1990s.
*. Instead of a gleaming city of the future and scientists in lab coats we have some dark and dirty streets that look like Interzone from Naked Lunch (the film was actually shot in Greece) and a hero named Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) who dresses like a homeless ninja. Even the tech is laughably crude. There is a breakfast chair that seems designed to frustrate digestion and a surgery pod that looks like a scaled-up version of the children’s game Operation.
*. Cronenberg’s aim, and theme, remains alienation. Alienation from our own bodies and alienation of the audience. The idea here is that growing designer internal organs has become a form of high art or mass entertainment (nobody is reading books or watching movies in the future), meaning that “surgery is the new sex.” That said, and despite all the potential such an idea has for gross-out body horror, I really didn’t find it repulsive or shocking at all. And I imagine anyone going into it expecting to see a scary or gory movie was likely disappointed, not to mention bored by all the talk.

*. Almost equally alienating are the performances, which are (again, true to form with Cronenberg) almost anti-human. Without subtitles I wouldn’t have had a clue what Kristen Stewart (looking “attractive, in a bureaucratic kind of way”) was saying, as she seems to have turned her preferred form of whispering/muttering her lines into a trademark now. Mortensen, who apparently could barely walk due to a recent injury, sounds like he’s been growing a new organ in his throat as he is barely able to rasp out a few words at a time. Léa Seydoux is suitably foreign even before she gets implants to turn her into one of the freaks.
*. I’m not going to go into the plot, as you’ll have guessed it’s more or less just a clothesline for Cronenberg to hang his usual anxieties on. He’s like a literary scholar doing a deep dive into the text of the body, or a psychoanalyst digging into the subconscious and only to find (no surprise) a brain with “Mother” tattooed on it. Whether all of it really looks forward to a merging of man and machine, as films like Videodrome and eXistenZ did, or back to something more primitive and archetypal I couldn’t say. Meanwhile, the retro pull feels strong here, and we’re very much in a (painfully) analog not digital world.
*. It’s a movie that didn’t do much for me in any respect. Some of the ideas seemed kind of interesting, and thinking about directed evolution as a fetish is a pregnant parable for our time, especially with the fillip about transforming our digestive tracts so that we can consume plastic. But the exposition was mostly dull and off-putting in a deliberate way, and you have the sense of flipping through scraps from the cutting room floor of Cronenberg’s oeuvre, and finding props that don’t quite fit, weird furniture ready to be marked down, and what feel like deleted scenes from other movies thrown in.
*. More than anything, I came away thinking that Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor (2020) was in every respect not just a better movie but a better Cronenberg movie, done up very much in the style of his father. There’s nothing wrong with this Crimes of the Future, but there’s nothing new here either, and while it’s weird it doesn’t feel weird enough to make much of an impression.

King Lear (2018)

*. I’ll be honest and say that I had my heels dug in against this version of King Lear, directed by Richard Eyre, right from the start. The glittering lights of the City. The black SUVs gliding toward the Tower of London. This doesn’t feel right.
*. The earliest film versions of King Lear had Stonehenge as a backdrop, or men in furs and horned helmets (see what it looked like in 1909 and 1916). The actual story is set in an ancient, pagan Britain, so this isn’t far off the mark. But does it work in modern dress? Yes, for its cruelty and sense of the absurd, even its post-civilization air of collapse. But the tribal code feels out of place. Is a prime minister or a CEO more or less than an ancient king of England? I had to wonder.
*. Then there is the opening scene. I think this only makes sense as a big public show, as it’s already been made clear that Lear has decided how he’s going to divvy up the kingdom. So they might have put it on TV here. But instead it’s done in a room in the Tower among a small, select group of family and courtiers, which kind of upsets the notion of Lear asking for a public declaration of love.
*. After that, however, my cavils were mostly silenced. I still didn’t like what they made of Edgar (a nerdy academic), but this is a solid production that moves really well (coming in at just under two hours), with some excellent performances. Even Cordelia (Florence Pugh) works in this first scene, not playing a shrinking violet but a modern woman not interested in all this profession-of-love bullshit. And given what I’d seen of her in Lady Macbeth and Midsommar I had no trouble buying her resolve. A Cordelia we can believe in is a rare thing in productions of this play.
*. There’s a modern tradition of emphasizing Lear’s mental deterioration even before his semi-abdication, with suggestions of erratic behaviour and perhaps the onset of some mild dementia. This has the effect of making Goneril and Regan, who remark on this, more sympathetic.

*. That angle is really played up here, as I think we have to be on the side of Goneril (Emma Thompson) in the early going. Anthony Hopkins’ Lear comes off as downright abusive, both verbally and physically, while his men are boorish louts who even track mud into her palatial digs. We have the sense that he’s the one driving her mad at the beginning of the play, and not the other way around. We don’t see her as someone bad by nature, but rather as a society lady who snaps when pushed to her limit. Oswald (Christopher Eccleston) makes a nice complement, being a foppish personal assistant who didn’t sign on for any of this drama. Regan (Emily Watson) is the quieter, but dominant sibling. Which is not how she’s usually drawn, but after all, she’s the one who married the odious Cornwall.
*. Effective performances throughout, though I’m starting to wonder at the casting of Black actors as villains in what are otherwise mostly or all-white casts. Here we have John Macmillan as Edmund, which made me think of Sophie Okenedo as Queen Margaret in The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses. And while I guess it fits with the idea of Edmund’s bastardy, is that somewhere they really wanted to go?

*. It plays like The Hollow Crown adaptations too in the way the script is cut to run more naturalistically, like a quickly-edited TV drama. Don’t expect a lot of long takes and full speeches. But this is what twenty-first century Shakespeare looks and sounds like because we’ve changed too.
*. I also liked Karl Johnson as an old Fool. That part is usually played as a younger part, but here it makes perfect sense that he’d be a frail old man, a companion of Lear’s going a long way back. Plus, they can explain his disappearance by having him suffer a heart attack after the hovel scene.
*. The hovel itself is a cargo container (rather nicely turned out) that’s in a tent city of homeless. That worked as a modern update. The fight between Edgar and Edmund, however, has to be done as an MMA-style fight because obviously no one has a sword or armour (Edgar’s face is concealed behind a black balaclava). I didn’t much care for that. And finally there’s yet another underwhelming storm on the heath. I wonder if Shakespeare really knew what he was doing here, as it’s hard to work on stage as well. But he wanted a world falling into chaos so that’s what he dialed up.
*. In sum, it won me over and I came away enjoying it quite a bit, being thoroughly entertained throughout. Very much a King Lear for our time, which is as it should be.

Riders of Justice (2019)

*. I’m not sure why I pulled this one off the DVD shelf at the library but I’m glad I did. The box cover wasn’t particularly catchy, consisting mainly of a big picture of Mads Mikkelsen’s face, complete with a gracefully silvered beard. But behind him you see a trio of motorbikes tearing away from a giant fireball explosion in a road cutting through some hilly country, and this turned out to be egregious false advertising. The only explosion is the one on the subway that gets the story rolling and the only motorbike we see is the one being driven by the hapless boyfriend of Mikkelsen’s daughter. In other words, nothing remotely like what’s show on the box cover is in the movie. There aren’t even any hills. Just some flat cornfields once we get out of the city.
*. Another thing that there was no evidence for on the box is that this is a Danish production. This didn’t bug me because I watch movies with subtitles on even if they’re in English, and I think the fact that the cast was speaking their native language probably improved their performances. But it’s another way that picking up the DVD turned out to be a pleasant surprise. At least for the movie itself. The DVD is a bare-boned production. No extras, and indeed not even an option for scene selection. They still release movies on DVD without having a scene selection option? Yes, they do.

*. But getting to the movie, I’m happy to report that the news is good. I was expecting to see Mads Mikkelsen going full Liam Neeson. He’s a tough military man on duty in some war-torn desert land who comes home when his wife is blown up in an explosion on a subway train that may have been an accident but which a data scientist (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) thinks was a targeted assassination. The scientist and a pair of similarly geeky buddies point Mikkelsen in the direction of a criminal gang that Mad Mikks proceeds to exact vengeance upon. Somebody is going to pay! That’s the tag line on the DVD box.
*. So far, so shopworn. But writer-director Anders Thomas Jensen, a veteran of this brand of action-comedy in his native land, has crafted a film that’s touching and charming and smart, without overdoing any of these elements. I mentioned how working in Danish might have helped with the performances, because the cast here are great. This is a comfort zone with Jensen, as he’s worked quite a bit with Mikkelsen and Kaas before. There’s not a ton of action, but it’s used as punctuation nicely and Mikkelsen doesn’t sugarcoat his role as the violent patriarch. He really does seem like a psychopath. The Lone Gunmen are stock types as well, but given enough individuality and weirdness to be memorable.
*. The plot that has MM, yes, defending his daughter from the evil gangsters (I told you about going full Liam Neeson) also has an interesting motif about calculating probabilities and the laws of causation that doesn’t add up to much but does play nicely in the background. The humour isn’t laugh-out-loud funny but has the sweet ironic vibe of ugly Christmas sweaters. Throw in a happy ending and my least-favourite Christmas carol is nearly redeemed.
*. The bottom line is that even though this is bog-standard plot, everyone involved is in good form and they play well together. It gave me the same sort of feeling as In Order of Disappearance, but with a lighter touch. Why such simple films are coming over as imports and finding an audience is hard to explain, as they don’t do anything bold or new but are just well-turned-out entertainments. It’s not a formula that Hollywood has lost. In fact, they may be too stuck in a rut of conventional formulas. What’s missing is the spirit, Christmas or otherwise.

The Meaning of Hitler (2020)

*. There’s no end to the books about Hitler. Or movies about him. One of the people interviewed in this documentary is the curator of the Berlin Bunker Museum (that would be Hitler’s bunker), and as he puts it: “If you switch on German TV you have a 95% chance to get a Hitler documentary . . . [like] the Ten Things You Didn’t Know about Hitler, and it’s always ten things you already know about Hitler.”
*. Given all of this, and the fact that The Meaning of Hitler is based on a book by Sebastian Haffner (a pseudonym for Raimund Pretzel) published in 1978, you’d think it wouldn’t have much new to say. You might also be wondering why Martin Amis is given so much screen time as one of the talking heads, since I don’t think he knows anything more about Hitler than I do.
*. These are questions that don’t have great answers. There are answers, ways that the directors Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker try to keep it fresh, but they’re not great.
*. The first answer has to do with a connection made between Hitler and Donald Trump. To my eyes, the resemblances pointed out are superficial and not all that telling. The two have little in common in terms of their personality, psychology, or motivations. Nor is the label of fascism all that useful. Fascism and communism are twentieth-century political phenomena that don’t have much relevance today. There are right-wing, anti-democratic, authoritarian movements, and this movie sounds a warning about them, but they are different beasts than what Europe saw in the 1930s, essentially being anti-liberal, anti-government parties trying to implement single-party rule and oligarchy, which is something different than blood and soil (though they’ll make use of that sort of language).
*. The other way the directors try to make things new is by some meta-style hijinks, like showing what I assume is Epperlein reading Haffner’s book, having lots of clacking slates introducing the different locations, and splashing giant keywords up on the screen. It’s snappy and knowing, but I don’t think it adds anything of substance.
*. Having said all that, I thought this was a decent documentary that made its point in a quick, engaging manner, with some insightful commentary by heavyweights like Saul Friedlander, Richard Evans, and Jan Gross. I also liked the bit from the “microphone guru” who talked about how Hitler was set free by the new technology of the microphone, and another part of the film where the comparison is made between the cult of Hitler and Beatlemania.
*. Finally, it is a warning from history that whatever the name of the leader or party or political movement the same dark forces drive human behaviour today as they did then and nothing about our current world that seems stable and progressive can be taken for granted.

Morbius (2022)

*. Whenever I start to feel like cutting down on the frequency of posts at this site it’s not because I’ve given up on movies totally, but because I feel like I’m running out of new things to say. Here are some things I’ve said before about superhero movies, in relation to Morbius.
*. (1) Origin stories are boring. Nothing new here with the origin of Michael Morbius, a doctor dying of a blood disease that he cures by turning himself into a human-vampire bat hybrid. Which is fine, as origin stories go, but not something you want to spend a lot of time on, especially when the setting is a hospital for sick children.
*. (2) Having a fight at the top of a building is an artificial way of heightening the action. You always have these at the end of a movie.
*. (3) Here’s a quote lifted from my notes on Venom: “Isn’t this the same as a bunch of other Marvel movies where the hero has to fight an evil doppelganger? In Iron Man Tony Stark is supplanted by Obadiah Stane who steals the Iron Monger suit, making him the anti-Iron Man. In Ant-Man, Hank Pym (whose proxy becomes Scott Lang) is supplanted by Darren Cross who becomes Yellowjacket (the anti-Ant-Man). In Black Panther T’Challa is supplanted by Killmonger. In this movie Venom has to take on Riot. Once you know the pattern, you’re just staying to watch them tear up buildings and beat on each other.” So again here, with Michael/Milo being the good vampire/bad vampire, Morbius and anti-Morbius.
*. (4) As we move into a post-superhero era (I hope), are we also transitioning into a post-CGI one? Because is there something CGI can give us that it hasn’t already? As I’ve previously observed, it’s really good with armies (or swarms of anything except insects), giant monsters, and watching cities being destroyed. But we’ve seen all that. And the thing about most CGI today is that we’ve seen it done better. The technology doesn’t seem to be improving. The CGI in Morbius looks bad. I’m sure they were trying for a different look with the way the super-vampires move in a blur, but it’s crap.
*. (5) Every hero is an anti-hero. Director Daniel Espinosa thought Morbius was “just like Venom,” in being a good-bad guy. So much so that at one point Morbius even introduces himself as Venom. Apparently there has been some talk of the two teaming up as they are set in the same (sigh) universe. I can wait.
*. Jared Leto. He seems very intense and committed to his roles, but I’m close to throwing in the towel on him. Though in his defence, it’s just been one terrible role after another I’ve been seeing him in.
*. There’s not much point beating up on a movie like Morbius, as it’s just more of the same and was trashed by critics anyway. I liked the character of Morbius when I was a kid. And going back and re-reading some of the comics recently, both from his early days and in his more modern iterations, I think they stand up. But this movie doesn’t have any creative or original spark to it, no sense of humour, and it feels like they were already thinking not of the sequel but of the reboot before they even finished making it.
*. There are a couple of mid-credit sequences that tease a sequel with Michael Keaton. Again, I can wait. Or wait for the much ballyhooed relaunch of the Blade franchise. Or whatever other sub-Underworld vampire shenanigans Sony/Marvel have in the pipeline. One Morbius movie is enough for me.