Saturday, February 2, 2019

Oh, This is Terrible: New Capsule Reviews

I've been sorta kinda easing back into writing reviews, and my website of choice, for some bizarre reason, has been Letterboxd, not my own. I'm probably going that route because I know at least some people will see them there, whether they want to or not, just by scrolling through their activity feeds, but it's rather perverse to let my own blog lie fallow while I do that, especially since I like to think there are people who still check this blog who don't follow me on any other website. So I'm going to try and perk this place up by bringing over the relatively-speaking "best of" reviews from over there and post them here. I'm going with the four longest ones, because they also happen to be the ones most worth reading (again, relatively speaking), but the result of this is that I'm including reviews of Lethals Weapon 2 and 3, but not 4 or the original. I watched all four over the course of about a week and a half, and wrote something about all of them, but there's not much going on in those other two "reviews." So they're out! Okay, preamble over. Enjoy, or don't!

Living in Oblivion (d. Tom DiCillo) - It's probably emblematic of something or other that at the height of the 1990s American Independent Cinema boom, a subgenre was spawned within the movement of films about how hard it was to make American independent films. There was Living in Oblivion, In the Soup, My Life's in that's three right there. You might call this little corner of 90s film "insular," perhaps, or "Ouroborosian," and you might wonder why the filmmakers behind them couldn't have maybe waited a few pictures into their careers before ceasing to look beyond their own noses.

Well, my feeling is, tomorrow is not guaranteed, and as a writer or filmmaker or any other kind of artist, you have to follow whatever idea has its hooks into you at the moment. Besides, in the case of Tom DiCillo's Living in Oblivion, the film he made previous to it came out four years before. Making movies is hard, and beginning to make a movie is probably harder.

I have to say, I don't buy DiCillo's claim that the character played by James LeGros in this movie is not based on Brad Pitt, the star of DiCillo's Johnny Suede -- not because LeGros's Chad Palomino jibes with what I know about Pitt (if pressed, I might be forced to admit that fundamentally I don't know anything about Brad Pitt) but because, well...Brad/Chad. "Pitt" and "Palomino" both start with a P. Blonde hair. That sort of thing. The only really strong argument against it that I can see is that when DiCillo and Pitt were making Johnny Suede, Pitt was nothing like the movie star he would become (Thelma & Louise came out the same year), and the state of movie stardom is intrinsic to the character of Chad and his behavior. And not just, I don't think, of the "I'm going to BECOME a movie star, so you might as well treat me like one now" variety. But what do I know.

I didn't see this movie (or In the Soup or My Life's in Turnaround) when it came out, which strikes me as odd now. The '90s is when my cinephilia blossomed, as it did for so many other people of my generation, may God have mercy on us all, so you'd think in my youthful myopia, movies about movies would be a thing I'd be drawn to, like booze and pictures of naked women. But somehow, no. Of that clutch of films, Living in Oblivion is without question the one that has lingered longest in the minds of the kind of people who would have seen it in 1995, and was, I think, the most successful at the time. So I'd probably heard of the dwarf dream sequence bit, and I'd like to think my take was that it was a hack joke, and this was enough, Steve Buscemi or no Steve Buscemi (who of course by then I already loved), to drive me away. The problem has turned out to be that while I'm not entirely sure if DiCillo knew that a dwarf dream sequence is a hack joke, his approach to it, and Peter Dinklage's performance, make it better than the idea deserves. It turns out to actually be funny.

As is James LeGros, come to think of it, and several other people in the cast. Much to my dismay, this film, which could not be more stuck in its time, actually works, and is funny, and even kind of interesting here and there. And boy do I still love Steve Buscemi.

Lethal Weapon 2 (d. Richard Donner) - In case you've forgotten, this is the one that begins with the Warner Brothers logo coming up with the Loony Tunes theme playing behind it, and then turns out to be about Apartheid. You'd think in that case that Murtaugh would be foregrounded, but no: Riggs has to have a second woman he loves get murdered before he can get over the death of the first one. He does, though, and he and Murtaugh also get over the deaths of, like, eight of their cop buddies. These murders are intercut with Murtaugh goofing around with Joe Pesci, and Riggs having sex with Patsy Kensit while making jokes about his dick. So tonally, Lethal Weapon 2 is a bit of a goon show.

The scene where Murtaugh is stuck on a toilet because if he stands up a bomb will explode him is actually pretty good, with good, touching friendship business between him and Riggs. On the other hand, at one point in that scene, Murtaugh says his toilet reading was the new issue of "Saltwater Sportsman" and Riggs says "Is that the one with the article about deep sea fishing?" Wouldn't every issue of "Saltwater Sportsman" have an article like that in it? And Riggs wasn't being a smart aleck, either, because when he says "Is that the one with the article about deep sea fishing?" Murtaugh says "Yeah." Come on, guys.

I also like the scene where Riggs tells Darlene Love about the night his wife died. It's a nice little moment, and I like how close Riggs is with the whole Murtaugh family. It's moving! And overall I think of Lethal Weapon 2 rather fondly, even though it includes one of my most hated film cliches: a guy picks up his TV remote, turns the TV on, and begins laughing immediately at whatever show is on. That's what aliens or psychopaths who've never laughed do when they've incompletely absorbed the visual information of normal humans laughing at TV comedy shows, and now want to assimilate. For what reason, we cannot know.

Lethal Weapon 3 (d. Richard Donner) - Back in the 80s and 90s (and maybe still to this day), there was a particularly bothersome movie trope wherein, lacking either a villain or figure of mockery, Hollywood filmmakers would give that job to a character who, in reality, would be appreciated for their hard work in a thankless job. The most egregious example of this I can think of is the flight doctor played by Christian Clemenson in Apollo 13, whose concern for the physical health of the astronauts is meant -- because he's getting in the way of our good time and is just generally a drag -- to instill in the audience a boundless fury, leading us to scream "HE'S NOT GONNA GET THE FLU YOU FUCKING SON OF A BITCH!" at our screens.

The Lethal Weapon series of films carried on this tradition with the character Dr. Stephanie Woods, a police therapist working for the LAPD, played by Mary Ellen Trainor. In the first film, she's actually sort of taken seriously, in that she at least provides the grade-school psychiatric exposition to explain to us, the laymen, what kind of mind can be behind the wild eyes of Detective Martin Riggs. By Lethal Weapon 2, the attitude towards Dr. Woods is closer to "Go read your books, egghead, Riggs gets the job done!" and by Lethal Weapon 3 she's an oblivious clown who actually thinks she can help Murtaugh through the trauma of having to gun down an armed teenager. Jesus fucking Christ, lady, you're embarrassing yourself, Murtaugh is fine!

Otherwise, I found Lethal Weapon 3 somewhat less tedious than I'd remembered, although for about the first hour it piles on the cartoon bullshit like mad. Riggs and Murtaugh are busted down to uniformed beat cops after causing a building to explode, and Riggs threatens to murder a jaywalker before tearing after trigger happy bank robbers, within the first ten minutes. This is all played for a goof, but this being a Lethal Weapon movie, the tone has to at some point jump out of an airplane without a parachute and hope everything works out, so eventually we end up on Murtaugh's boat while Riggs tries to scream Murtaugh out of his post-shooting drinking binge.

That bit occurs sometime between the two scenes that were ripped off wholesale from, of all movies, Jaws. There's no beach, the plot doesn't revolve around sharks in any way (the plot's about an evil ex-cop who's building a house, I think), but let's randomly lift two of the most iconic scenes from one of the most famous films ever made. Nobody even says the word "jaws" in this thing.

Finally, given the two films that preceded it, it would have been really funny if Rene Russo's character had died.

Mikey and Nicky (d. Elaine May) - As I mess around with the idea of regularly writing reviews again, one of my objectives is to keep things short. The problem is that in the case of Mikey and Nicky, the most unlikely film Elaine May ever had anything to do with (a statement which may be nothing more than proof that I don't know the first thing about May, which is certainly a defensible position) is that there's almost too much to say.

If I wanted to limit my scope, and I do, I might home in on the scene where Falk as Mikey and Cassavetes as Nicky go see a woman (Carol Grace) who may have a mental problems, and who Nicky regularly has sex with. He gives her money, but tells Mikey she's not a prostitute, you have to tell her the money is a gift. Nicky has sex with her while Falk waits in the kitchen. Then when Mikey tries to make his move, she rebukes him, biting his lip during a kiss he forces on her. From here, the two men -- who, it becomes easy to forget, are gangsters -- fall easily into abuse, slapping her (Mikey) and chastising her as though she were a child (Nicky). Then, when they leave her apartment, they act as though nothing has happened, and May's camera falls in line. Or at least, nothing happened to her. The incident blows the two men's friendship apart, but their fight could have been about anything, money, a job, for all the woman exists for them as a living human still in her apartment, experiencing her own aftermath. This scene anticipates one in Terry Gilliam's not-entirely-dissimilar Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, when the true danger and vile natures of Dr. Gonzo and Raoul Duke are revealed in a scene where Gonzo menaces a waitress played by Ellen Barkin, in front of an indifferent Duke.

And see later, too, when Nicky visits his wife (Joyce Van Patten), and from her body language it's clear that, while he doesn't hit her now, he's hit her before. Or when Mikey goes home to his wife (Rose Arrick), who, during their long talk, frequently shifts her conversational gears, placating and apologizing to keep her husband's temper in check, even though she hasn't done anything to raise it. It's morning, and she has a day to get through just like everybody else; why let it begin like this if she can possibly help it? Well, she ain't seen nothin' yet, of course.

I believe Mikey and Nicky would face rough sledding were it to come out today, because it depicts two pigs, not so much without judgment, but with its judgment concealed beneath an almost shocking amount of sincere empathy. These scenes of misogyny are surrounded by a film about the humanity of these two pigs. And somehow, May doesn't sneer. She could, and she'd be justified, but she doesn't. Nowadays, you'll get bashed for seeing the humanity inside those we have every reason to despise. So thank God Mikey and Nicky was made when it was, at the only time it could be.