Category Archives: Jay

1917

Time is the enemy, the tag line reads. But also mud. And also Germans, but time first, and mud second. Oh the mud. They trudge through it, slipping and sliding, it squishes between their toes and claims the corpses of men. I worry one of the men will lose his footing in the slippery, unforgiving mud and accidentally bayonet himself, or someone else. The sludge is real. You feel the dirt viscerally just as you feel the time urgently.

Oh the time. Time is the enemy you see. Two young soldiers on the Western front are given an impossible task. Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) has a brother in another unit, an isolated regiment about to walk right into a trap. He and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) need to get to them before dawn to save the lives of 1600 men, but the journey to prevent their massacre is likely a suicide mission.

Director Sam Mendes executes this film with such mastery and technical prowess that it induces a state of anxiety, dread and hyper-vigilance in the viewer, immersing us quite brilliantly in the ethos of the battlefield. Most of the film feels like it’s done in a single take, and because we’re experiencing this nightmare in near real-time alongside the soldiers, the urgency and gravity of their mission infects us with constant tension and foreboding. Inevitably this sounds like a harrowing cinematic experience and it is, but one that’s deeply moving and conscientious and frankly impossible not to admire.

Cinematography by legendary Roger Deakins highlights the horror of war, the monotony of the mud, the pitted landscapes, and is particularly effective at night, when a village burns and is intermittently lit by flares. But his work with Mendes to seamlessly knit together shots to create a visual single take is surely worthy of the Oscar. And Thomas Newman’s score is similarly haunting, some of those trumpet swells literally responsible for a tightening in my chest.

My adrenaline was so successfully engaged that it wasn’t until the very end of the film that I finally indulged in a tear. My nerves were so keyed up that I probably didn’t take a full lung’s worth of breath until I was in the parking lot. 1917 is not easy to watch but boy is it easy to praise.

Troop Zero

A little girl named Christmas (Mckenna Grace) is fixated on the stars, in part because her mother died and now belongs up there, among the comets and the black holes. When she learns that the winners of the upcoming Jamboree will have the opportunity to record a special message to be sent into space, she’s determined to win. But first she has to assemble her very own Birdie Scout troop to compete.

Recruit #1 is her best friend Joseph, who will choreograph the winning dance. But with her short list of friends thus exhausted, she has to choose among the bullies to round out the numbers. Her father (Jim Gaffigan) is a mostly unpaid lawyer and busy dog owner and single father, so he appoints his long-suffering assistant Miss Rayleen (Viola Davis) as their den mother. She prefers criminals and murderers to little girls, but she’s getting paid, allegedly, so Troop Zero is born.

I could watch this for Davis alone. I’d watch a spin-off show of her character reacting to courtroom dramas all day long. Or her going head to head with Allison Janney playing rival troop mother, Miss Massey. But you know what was a nice surprise? Because Davis and Janney excelling is on-brand and totally expected. But the kids in this are actually interesting little characters. It’s an underdog-outsider story, as many tales about childhood are, but screenwriter Lucy Alibar has some tricks up her sleeve and directors Bert & Bertie know how to make a mark.

Christmas longs to break away from what’s expected of her, but the lessons learned here are more like pride and dignity. Owning who you are and realizing we all contain multitudes. And of course there’s always value in shelling out for a well-placed Bowie tune. Charmed the pants right off me. In fact, by the end of this little film, it gathers enough steam to laugh a sneak attack on my emotions. There’s a cosmic feel-goodness to it that’s hard to resist.

A Fall From Grace

Grace is a grandmother, a devout church lady, a steadfast volunteer. Also a murderer. Also a murderer? That one doesn’t fit. But she’s in jail and she confessed. So how come no one believes she did it?

Jasmine (Bresha Webb) is a young public defender. She’s already questioning whether the law the right career path for her, so to get throw this case as her first murder trial is a little daunting. She’s inching along cautiously but Grace (Crystal Fox) isn’t making things easy for her. She’s more concerned with protecting other people than herself.

In court, her story unravels: after a post-divorce depression, Grace meets an artist, a younger man who sweeps her off her feet. This is her alleged victim. But obviously things are not what they seem or else they wouldn’t have bothered to make a movie. Well, they hardly bothered to do even that. It’s pretty bland as courtroom dramas go, with a pedestrian script by writer-director Tyler Perry.

And yet this movie was fractionally entertaining to me, for a few reasons.

  1. The boring reason: the performances were good. Ish. If you can look past the bad wigs.
  2. It’s always fun to watch Sean, an actual real-life lawyer, squirm through what Tyler Perry (or whomever) thinks is the law. As a non-lawyer myself, there was plenty of objectionable content that even a lay person could easily point out, but yelling “I object!” from my bed hasn’t persuaded a single Netflix judge yet.
  3. Perry boasted that this film was shot in just 5 days. What he didn’t say was that he edited in just 5 minutes. At least that’s how it feels. You could play a very saucy drinking game just pointing out the plot holes, continuity errors and other fun editing mistakes of which there is a continuous parade.
  4. My grandmother, who turns 87 this week, recently received a jury summons. God bless her little heart but even IF she could drive there and then by some miracle find the right place, and let’s be clear that I do not believe she could do either of those things, she would then not hear any single thing that anyone said. Not a thing. But let’s for a minute pretend she somehow gets there, and somehow hears things. She’s still not going to understand them. Not a damn thing. My grandmother speaks a hybrid of French and English but understands neither. For the past three decades she’s been getting by on the popular “nod and smile” technique. Later she’ll ask my mom, if she remembers. Which she probably won’t. So I’m mentally inserting my grandmother into the jury box, picturing her confused scrunched up nose, picking invisible lint off her slacks, balling up kleenex and putting it in her sleeve, and if she thinks anyone’s looking, smiling vaguely and nodding uncertainly in the direction she thinks is appropriate. Wouldn’t you be pleased to have her on a jury of your peers?

But wait just a minute y’all: my daddy is sleepin and mama ain’t around. There’s a twist!

My Hindu Friend

Diego has been fighting cancer for a decade. The chemo has helped keep it at bay but is no longer working. The only chance he’s got is a bone marrow transplant but Diego doesn’t want to die in a hospital. To do nothing, his doctor warns him, means things will happen very quickly. In months.

Diego (Willem Dafoe) is a talented film maker who has managed to alienate a great number of his friends and family during his decade-long battle with cancer. But he somehow stumbles into a relationship and marries quickly – til death do them part. And then, having found the will to live in a beautiful woman, he goes to Seattle to face treatment.

Writer-director Hector Babenco is telling his own story in My Hindu Friend though he gives the character another name. His 1985 film Kiss of the Spider Woman was nominated for 4 Oscars, including best picture and best director, and won William Hurt best actor. 1987’s Ironweed earned acting noms for both Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep. My Hindu Friend was Babenco’s last film.

Have you ever noticed that when someone dies we forget every single thing we ever bitched about them and start saying things like “her smile lit up a room”? And when someone has cancer we call them a “brave warrior” and back track on the whole “Karen’s a narcissist” agenda? Well this film doesn’t paint over the ugly portrait. It takes a ‘warts and all’ approach to the whole cancer crusader bit and Dafoe is of course up for both sides of the coin.

My Hindu Friend is a deep-dive into what makes life worth living – love, art, and how for some of us, the two are different words for the same thing. It’s a frank and often raw assessment of one’s life and the meaning we give it when it’s on being threatened with extinction.

Speed of Life

June (Ann Dowd) is nearly 60 but hasn’t yet filled out the obligatory paperwork for relocation after 60. So says her house. Not in a weird way. The year is 2040 and her house is wired with a bunch of monitors and an Alexa-like voice tells her when her bills are due or the pH in her urine is less than desirable. June rips out all the monitors and buries them in her garden but you can’t really keep Big Brother out.

June has a good reason for not wanting to leave her home. Well, depends who you ask. A good reason to June sounds perfectly crazy to everyone else. You see, back in 2016 she and her boyfriend were having a fight. She’d just found out that David Bowie was dead and Edward, as usual, wanted to crack jokes. His inability to take anything seriously was a pretty big sore point in their relationship and they were on the verge of a blow-out fight about it when Edward disappeared. Like, a rip in the universe opened up and he went through it and was gone. Gone forever. Gone for the past 24 years.

But guess what? One night, Edward (Ray Santiago) reappears. He hasn’t aged a day. He doesn’t know that he was missing, presumed dead, mourned. Doesn’t recognize this older woman as his girlfriend June.

Speed of Life, written and directed by Liz Manashil, is interesting on a few levels:

a) The wormhole: where did he go, where has he been?

b) The relationship: is everything still there 24 years later, when June has changed so much and Edward not at all?

c) What happens in a few days when June turns 60 and “The Program” takes over?

The Program is a very interesting aspect; seniors 60 and over are given mandatory government housing where they no longer go outside, or socialize with other age groups. They are medicated, zombie-like. It’s a little funny because the old people in 2040 are Millennials. Old Millennials. It’ll happen to all of us. And I realize that Baby Boomers are sort of ruining everything just by reaching retirement age in such voluminous numbers. It’s crushing to the generations underneath them. So I get why you would want to deal with the problem. And yet Baby Boomers are also proving that 60 is hardly old at all. It used to be. Now it’s practically the same as 40. I know lots of Baby Boomers who are fit and busy and contributing in many ways, even outside employment (in fact: perhaps particularly outside employment). They are redefining old age even as they seem to reach it. They are living longer, yes, but also, I think, better. There are many more healthy years after retirement than ever before. So think of June (again: Ann Dowd) as somehow so old that she is now irrelevant to society…it’s jarring. It feels very Atwood. God I love sci-fi/ speculative fiction when it’s written by women.

Sword of Trust

Cynthia’s a little disappointed to learn that she won’t inherit her dead grandfather’s house. In fact, the only inheritance Cynthia (Jillian Bell) and her wife Mary (Michaela Watkins) will receive is an old civil war-era sword that they can’t wait to dump at a pawn shop.

Mel (Marc Maron) owns just such a pawn shop. He isn’t overly impressed with the sword, or with Cynthia’s story about her GrandPappy, but when he learns that this sword may be of value to a certain kind of collector, his assistant Nathaniel (Jon Bass) puts him in touch with a man crazy enough to shell out big bucks. So now these four people are going to partner up and travel down to the deep south where a “proofer item,” ie, a sword that purports to prove that the south won the civil war, is high in demand.

You can imagine what kind of idiocy you invite into your life when you start hanging out with someone who vehemently believes in a southern victory. What other conspiracy theories are you likely to wind up in?

Sword of Trust is slow in the good way – it takes its time getting to know folks, and really probing the dirty corners of people’s wildest speculations. This is the kind of movie where the players just get in a room and hang out. Even when they’re locked in the back of a U-Haul they’re pithy and quippy and full of spunk.

We got to see Marc Maron at Just For Laughs this summer, and while I expected to be entertained, I wasn’t prepared to see a truly energizing and exciting set. This film gives him the space to act and react. Writer-director Lynn Shelton crafts the perfect opportunity for him, and then casts people around him with similar improvisational aplomb, especially Jillian Bell who has really blossomed in her last few roles. By the time Dan Bakkedahl makes his appearance, we’re already sold, and the rest is just icing on a confederate cake.

Brewster's Millions

Monty Brewster (Richard Pryor) is a minor league relief pitcher who still dreams of the majors even though he’s a little long in the tooth. His best friend and catcher, Spike Nolan (John Candy), seems a little more content with their lot in life, just happy to still be playing ball alongside his best bud. But life is about to change.

A long, long, long, long-lost uncle of Monty’s has just died, leaving him, his sole living heir, millions of dollars. But there’s a catch:

  1. He has 30 million dollars to spend in 30 days.
  2. He MUST spend the entire 30 million, and if he does so, he’ll inherit a further $300M.
  3. But he can’t acquire assets. At the end of 30 days, all the money has to be gone, to the penny, but he can’t have a single thing to show for it.
  4. He can’t willfully destroy the stuff either.
  5. He can donate 5% and gamble 5% but that’s it – the rest must be spent.
  6. He can’t tell anyone what he’s doing. Not his best friend Spike, not even the paralegal Miss Drake (Lonette McKee) hired to keep tabs on all his receipts.

Ready, set, go! Imagine. Imagine leaving that meeting with a frothy sense of urgency. Imagine leaving the bank vault (this is 1985: it’s all cash) with a pile of money. What’s the first thing you’d do?

Monty makes a valiant attempt: he buys priceless stamps and slaps them on postcards, he prepares his minor league team to play the New York Yankees, he runs a phony mayoral campaign, he treats a lot of people to a lot of champagne lunches. But some of his attempts backfire; his high-risk investments somehow pay off, even his long-shot gambles hit big. Now he’s got to spend those dividends as well!

But the real comedy is that the people close to him look on in horror. To them, he seems to be burning through his windfall at an alarming rate. He seems crazy. And he is, more or less: this mandate to burn through money recklessly is crazy-making. Richard Pryor is a lot of fun to watch in these moments. He can hardly believe his “luck.” And the chemistry with John Candy is pure pleasure. But it leaves you wanting more: more Pryor, certainly, and more unfiltered Pryor in particular. Brewster’s Millions is a PG comedy, and Pryor is not at his best at that rating. So there are times when you’re almost seeing him reigning himself in. I’m certain that a very exciting director’s cut of this movie exists somewhere – or at least out-takes worth their weight in gold. Still, this is a fun, silly movie, not quite as good as others in its genre, but worth it for Pryor alone.