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3 Stars Movies

Billy Bob Thornton’s doomed All the Pretty Horses

The doomed All the Pretty Horses should have, by all rights, been a golden ticket for all involved. Let’s run through its pedigree and prestige factors:

  • based on an acclaimed novel with popular name recognition
  • directed by an indie darling
  • screenplay by a proven specialist in adapting novels to film
  • starring beautiful young up-and-comers
  • score by a notable musician/producer
  • distributed by a household-name movie company known for boffo box office and landing major awards

Instead, a heavily compromised version underperformed and was widely panned, demoralizing director Billy Bob Thornton, alienating musician Daniel Lanois, and generally disappointing everyone. Thornton’s presence in the tabloids at the time may have contributed to audiences not taking him seriously. But the key to understanding what what went wrong is, unsurprisingly, Miramax and — trigger warning! — Harvey Weinstein. Yuck.

Peter Biskind’s book Down and Dirty Pictures is an essential history of the indie boomlet within the 1990s movie industry. Particular attention is paid to the illustrative saga of Miramax, for whom Thornton had made a tremendous splash as writer, director, and star of Sling Blade in 1996. Studio cofounder Harvey Weinstein was riding high at the time for his marketing acumen, but was simultaneously loathed for interfering in the artistic process — to the point where he was known within the industry as “Harvey Scissorhands”.

Matt Damon and Henry Thomas in All the Pretty Horses
Matt Damon and Henry Thomas wonder what went wrong.

Biskind relates how Weinstein forced Thornton to excise more than an hour from his initial 3-4 hour assembly cut, partly out of understandable practicality (a shorter running time would allow theaters to run more screenings per day) but also petty retaliation for Thornton’s refusal years before to similarly abbreviate Sling Blade. Thornton has since asserted that the assembly cut was just that, and distinct from his intended 2 hour and 42 minute cut. However unjust the butchery may have been, it’s hard to imagine how Thorton thought he could possibly get a nearly three-hour-long film into theaters without having a contractual right to final cut, even under a hypothetical producer less ruthless than Weinstein.

After Orson Welles met similar obstacles during the making of The Magnificent Ambersons, he struggled for the rest of his life to continue making movies his way. Biskind heartbreakingly describes Thornton as beaten down and defeated, to the point where he suffered health issues. In the coming years, Weinstein’s far worse abuses of power would become more widely known. In light of how he abused and exploited women, the stifling of a few movies may seem rather unimportant. But it is a pity that this particular one is so compromised.

Penélope Cruz in All the Pretty Horses
Penélope Cruz has more chemistry with this hat than she does with Matt Damon in All the Pretty Horses. Seriously though, she looks fantastic in this hat.

It’s difficult to judge how I might have experienced the film if I had not known ahead of time that it was so heavily edited, but it does feel off somehow. It has notably uneven pacing; weirdly accelerating through some plot developments with choppy montages, especially in the opening sequence when Cole (Matt Damon) is forced to leave his family ranch, but slows down to a pensive crawl for others. The romance between Cole and Alejandra (Penélope Cruz) feels inert, and the looming threat from her powerful, overprotective father (Rubén Blades) never materializes. It’s hard to guess whether the full film fleshed any of this out.

Miramax was not averse to letting finished films sit on the shelf if deemed not of box office or award value — or, perversely, if insurance incentivized them to strategically not release them. Miramax also doesn’t have much of a history of releasing special editions for the home entertainment market, even for their biggest pictures. So for a movie that was not a success in its ostensibly more commercial Scissorhands incarnation, it’s interesting to note that Miramax did entertain the release of the director’s cut of All the Pretty Horses on DVD, but Thornton and Lanois refused.

Matt Damon in All the Pretty Horses
From the movie’s brief foray into a ruthlessly bleak world more characteristic of Cormac McCarthy’s oeuvre.

Weinstein had disliked Lanois’ unconventional guitar-based score, despite his fame and proven success with Sling Blade, and commissioned an entirely new, more conventional one from Marty Stuart. Lanois now proudly refuses to license his original score in any form, and Thornton will not release his director’s cut without it. Thornton and Lanois are still close friends, as evidenced by his appearance in the documentary Here Is What Is, so it’s safe to say the conflict is not between them. Hopefully now that Weinstein split from Miramax in 2005, the company folded in 2010, and Weinstein is finally incarcerated, cooler heads might allow the proper release of the definitive film and score.

Another ray of hope is that Cormac McCarthy has since become an even bigger literary superstar — having been selected for Oprah’s Book Club and enjoyed successful film adaptations of his novels No Country for Old Men and The Road — and perhaps his hard-earned Hollywood clout might help a definitive version of All the Pretty Horses see the light of day. The counterargument is that his collaboration with Ridley Scott, The Counselor, was itself a bizarre fiasco.

All the Pretty Horses is probably one of McCarthy’s most palatable works, which I don’t intend as a backhanded compliment; it is more accessible in comparison to his more characteristic poetically bleak tone. Its back half (the protagonist’s imprisonment and an extended chase sequence) is closer in spirit and tone to the likes of Blood Meridian, but its core elements of friendship and romance provide some relief from the brutality of his resolutely cruel literary universe. As the first volume in a loose trilogy called The Border Trilogy, Thornton’s film could very well have kicked off a motion picture franchise. Revisiting or continuing this saga is unlikely to say the least, but it would be welcome.

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4 Stars Movies

Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho still slaps, 60 years later

What is left to be said about one of the most talked-about movies ever made? But rewatching Alfred Hitchcock‘s Psycho again for the first time in years, with a live audience at Rooftop Reds at Brooklyn Navy Yards, upended a few of my old opinions.

Reams have been written about its still-unusual structure, which violates every tenet of screenwriting — and considering the early exit of its top-billed actor, even the Hollywood star system itself. My memory was that the movie came to a crashing halt after Marion (Janet Leigh) met her fate, and never recovered its early dread, suspense, and wit — almost to the point of becoming a different movie. But on this rewatch, I was surprised to find that it flowed more soothly that I recalled.

Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins in Psycho
Note the mirrors and reflections in Psycho.

It’s much funnier than I remembered, rife with intentional dark comedy, not “oh how quaint in retrospect” tittering. Some of the scenes that once felt out-of-place to me, such as when Sam (John Gavin) and Lila (Vera Miles) voice their dark suspicions to the comically folksy Sheriff Chambers and his wife, now play as willful satire. The Chambers’ inability to perceive the perversion and rot in their own community, in the form of harmless quiet boy Norman (Anthony Perkins), is an unfortunately timeless social issue.

The early office scenes hold up well, considering six decades of increasing cultural awareness of sexual harassment in the workplace. It’s very clear why Marion would be tempted to drop everything and flee: her subservient position to gross men, coupled with her hopeless financial insecurity.

Her lover Sam, a divorcée bunking in the back room of a hardware store, is suffering through a similar economic situation. But not subject to such harassment and humiliation, he never fully wraps his head around the extreme lengths that Marion took to escape. The very square Sam stands out as a 1950s-style relic that doesn’t belong in a dark thriller from 1960. But I’ve come to realize that that’s exactly the point: Sam is a basic normcore man’s man, which is intensely threatening to a resentful, twisted incel like Norman.

Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh in Psycho
Still more mirrors and reflections.

Psycho is a clear ancestor to David Lynch‘s preoccupations in Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks. Lynch and Hitchcock both repeatedly examined the violent and sexual obsessions barely repressed below the surface of polite society. But the problem with Hitchcock is, as soon as he could depict more violence and sex on screen, he did, and all the artful subtext of masterworks like Vertigo (1958) turned into the overt nastiness of Frenzy (1972).

But Psycho (1960) sits at an interesting pivot point between his two extremes; racier than you may remember (with a few firsts or near-firsts, like depicting a secret tryst in a seedy hotel room, its star in a brassiere on the poster, and even an open toilet seat onscreen), but still using cinematic artifice in place of explicitness (the infamous shower scene technically features less nudity than you’d see during a shampoo commercial today, but still feels shocking, due to the effective montage and scoring).

In short, Psycho still slaps, 60 years later.

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4 Stars Movies

The sexual revolution freezes over in Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm

The Ice Storm takes place at the precise moment when the burned-out remnants of the ’60s sexual revolution belatedly limped into the disaffected ’70s suburbia. The centerpiece of the film is a supposedly liberating “key party” that proves otherwise, thanks to long-simmering resentments and inhibitions. Two generations of two families clash during a single disastrous night, beset by heavily portentous bad weather and bad ideas.

Director Ang Lee and screenwriter James Schamus adapt Rick Moody’s novel, in what was either a nightmare or dream come true for art directors and costume designers. The very specific milieu of New Canaan, Connecticut in 1973 is rendered in oranges and browns, with the cast clad in plaids and shaggy hair, and the sets dressed with period flotsam like water beds and packing peanuts.

Indeed, its overpowering upper-middle-class ’70s tackiness was the primary talking point at the time, and I recall titters from the audience when I first saw it in the theater. The fashions may be unflattering for most of the cast, but it must be noted that Sigourney Weaver looks stunning regardless.

The Ice Storm
A key party may have seemed like an exciting idea in the abstract.

In the 2008 Criterion Collection edition, production designer Mark Friedberg describes recreating his childhood playroom, designed by his architect father. He also incorporated his grandmother’s paintings and his father’s furniture. Realizing the titular ice storm took a couple strategies, depending on the surface, including hair gel, cast resin, and biodegradable goop.

The striking visuals are made even more convincing by the crinkling, crackling sound design. Also of note is the minimalist score by Michael Danna, featuring a Native American flute. The end credits feature another creature of the 1970s: David Bowie’s melancholic re-recorded version of “I Can’t Read.”

The film and novel both cite the Marvel Comics series Fantastic Four, which features a uniquely dysfunctional family unit. The conceit is effective, if a little obvious. Lee and Schamus would later more directly explore this territory in the under-appreciated Hulk (2003). I am also reminded of Todd Field’s Little Children (2006), which also posits that the behavior of adults and their children is not all that different — albeit in a bone-dry satirical tone that makes it a hard movie to like.

Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, and Christina Ricci in The Ice Storm
“Sometimes the shepherd needs the comfort of the sheep”

The casting for The Ice Storm is excellent all around, particularly for the young actors, who all went places. Tobey Maguire and Elijah Wood would each go on to headline major franchises. The former plays a complex character, perhaps the only one who comes through the evening with his innocence intact. Yes, he had dark designs that wreak havoc, but he pulls back from causing real harm. Christina Ricci is especially perfect here; she appears worldly and cynical beyond her age, and yet simultaneously so young and vulnerable.

Of the four deleted scenes included in the Criterion Collection edition, two foreshadow the fateful key party. With these scenes cut, the party is less signposted as a significant event, and its true nature as a pivotal moment comes more of a surprise:

  1. Ben (Kevin Kline) at the office, concerned with stagflation. Schamus cut the scene because it was “too funny” – this despite the fact they were under the impression the movie as a whole was going to be funnier than it turned out: uncomfortable and squirmy.
  2. Elena (Joan Allen) and the reverend at a diner, before the party. Timely gas crisis lines are visible out the window.
  3. Ben & Elena in bed, mentioning the party again.
  4. Paul (Maguire) calls Wendy (Ricci) with a “moral dilemma.” He hasn’t been privy to what she’s been up to in his absence, so he doesn’t know she’s probably the wrong person to come to with these kinds of problems.

On the same disc, Rick Moody describes seeing an adaptation of his work as someone else’s interpretation of your dream. Like a translation of a poem into another language, it is patently impossible, and says more about the translator than the original poet.

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4 Stars Movies Music

Lou Reed and John Cale work through their complex feelings for Andy Warhol in Songs for Drella

When I was a dumb teenager that didn’t know anything about anything, or could tell The Factory from a factory, I first heard Lou Reed through his Transformer and New York albums — the former via the David Bowie connection, and the latter through a Greenpeace benefit compilation popular at the time.

I would shortly discover that these two albums represented a more accessible side of his sometimes challenging or confrontational discography — for my next purchase was Songs for Drella. Good thing I didn’t pick up Reed’s notorious Metal Machine Music at that point, or I really would have stopped there. Luckily I think I heard Magic and Loss next, and was back on track.

Lou Reed and John Cale: Songs for Drella
Detail from the Songs for Drella album cover; which really ought to have clued me in that it was not going to be a rock ‘n’ roll album.

I didn’t know what to make about a drumless song cycle, co-credited with a name new to me at the time, John Cale, and all about an artist I was only vaguely aware of, Andy Warhol. You can excuse a rural kid at the beginning of the ’90s for knowing only one fact about Warhol: he was that one weird artist that screen-printed countless images of Marilyn Monroe and Campbell’s Soup cans.

I’ve come to appreciate the Songs for Drella album more over the years, coincident with learning more about Warhol and The Velvet Underground. Warhol had died only a few years earlier, and Reed & Cale’s songs feel very immediate and personal, and not at all hagiographic. They were in a unique position to have known Warhol better than many who might presume to have opinions about him or his work. They evidently retained complex feelings about him, for it’s right there in the title: “Drella” was a derogatory nickname (Dracula + Cinderella) that Warhol didn’t appreciate.

John Cale and Lou Reed: Songs for Drella
Detail from the original VHS/laserdisc cover. “I love images worth repeating and repeating and repeating”.

Many of the songs channel his voice in the first person, about the mundane (perceived slights at an MTV event), to the cataclysmic (his attempted assassination by Valerie Solanis — who herself would be the subject of a dramatic depiction in the film I Shot Andy Warhol a few years later). Lest this all sound too artsy fartsy, some of the tunes are real bangers, like the stomping “Work”.

A live performance in December 1989 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music was filmed by Ed Lachman, and a new 4K restoration is currently screening on The Criterion Channel. It was fortunately shot on film, not SD video, so it looks and sounds great. I listened to part of it through headphones, and the audio is notably clear and intimate. You can hear in the stereo mix when Reed or Cale even slightly turn their heads while singing.

I strongly recommend the film for anyone with more than a passing interest in Cale, Reed, or Warhol, and who either doesn’t know the Songs for Drella album, or for whom it never clicked. Those with a mental image of Reed from his glam Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal period, or the cool tough guy downtown poet of the New York era, might be a little surprised to see him looking so studious here. The always-dapper Cale, with an excellent haircut, looks in his element. Watching a live performance of the whole song cycle straight through, with the two legendary musicians sitting opposite each other like a proper hoity-toity music recital, really suits the material.

“Work”, from Songs for Drella. The full film is available in much better quality on The Criterion Channel.
Categories
3 Stars Movies

Michael Haneke’s Funny Games confronts audiences with the violence they paid for

Director Michael Haneke has made Funny Games twice, a decade apart. They are essentially the same movie: nearly shot-for-shot, with the same title, similar music and location, and at least one of the actors physically resembling one of the original cast.

The few adjustments include the spoken language, updated telephone technology, and added Americanisms. So this is not a case of a filmmaker completing a rough draft (as Michael Mann’s L.A. Takedown was to Heat), or reimagining a film (as Alfred Hitchcock did with The Man Who Knew Too Much). So why recreate an earlier work in a fashion that hews so closely to the original?

The marketing images created for the 1997 and 2007 versions both utilize the stylistic fetishization of violence in popular entertainment.

Haneke has frankly stated that both Funny Games are his commentary upon violence in cinema, particularly American. His particular depiction of violence here is deliberately senseless, cruel, and unmotivated. The cyclical nature of the attacks is reflected in the very existence of the two films themselves. The remake is a sequel, or the sequel is a remake, just like the unimaginative popular entertainments that Haneke is satirizing.

Perhaps the 2007 version, featuring internationally bankable stars Naomi Watts (also a producer), Tim Roth, and Michael Pitt, allowed him to more directly confront English-speaking audiences with his cynical thesis. As if prophetic, the American home-invasion themed The Strangers would be a box office success the very next year.

Funny Games introduces us to a happily carefree family, immediately signaled as affluent and cultured. They own a vacation home, boat, and listen to classical music. Even their neighbors have refined taste; they are heard enjoying the downtown New York avant-garde musician John Zorn. The family is not unlikeable, but Haneke’s depiction of their easy privilege seems designed to invite either envy or eat-the-rich distaste.

Class envy is certainly implied when they are shortly terrorized by home intruders: unsurprisingly a pair of young white men. Their choice of golf whites and equipment is no accident; perhaps only fencing accoutrement would have been more apt. Had either Funny Games been made a mere few years later, critics would be analyzing these characters in the distressing language of today — disaffected male incel rage — and compared their appearance to the preppy white supremacists that rallied in Charlottesville, VA in 2017 with the fascistic Donald Trump’s open approval.

The obscurely-motivated home intruders from the 1997 (left) and 2007 (right) versions of the film.

Haneke, already known for employing the mechanics of cinema to indict or confront the audience in Caché (Hidden), does so here as well, albeit significantly less subtly. One character breaks the fourth wall five times:

  1. He winks at the camera during a childish yet sadistic hot/cold game.
  2. He bets the family they will be dead in 12 hours, then turns to the camera and asks how the audience would bet, and whose side it’s on.
  3. As the husband pleads for it to be over, he whines “But we’re not up to feature film length yet” and says the audience wants a “real ending”.
  4. He literally rewinds the film to alter events to a manner more satisfying to him.
  5. In the very last shot, he gazes directly at the camera again.

All suggesting one possible theory for his motive: his performative concern that audiences are suitably entertained and get their money’s worth — traditionally the role of the filmmaking, distribution, and marketing teams. Indeed, he seems at times to be directing and editing the action.

Even the marketing for each movie seems designed to comment upon the visual fetishization of violence in popular entertainment. The original poster depicts a child in bonds, and the latter a beautiful woman in distress, with her anguish and tears presented in a fetchingly artistic manner.

The intruders behave dispassionately and ritualistically, and when they are through with this family, they immediately move on to another. We never learn for sure what motivates them, if anything, so we are left to wonder about the film itself, and our culpability for paying to watch it — and other violent delights that the entertainment industry offers.

Categories
2 Stars Movies

Rutger Hauer lives on anxiety, coffee, and chocolate, in Split Second

Tag yourself: “He lives on anxiety, coffee, and chocolate.” It me; can relate.

Tony Maylam’s Split Second is probably forever doomed to be a cult favorite, but it’s a pity it’s not better known. It has a wild, sometimes even manic electricity that covers up most deficiencies. I happened to watch it back-to-back with another forgotten 90s sci-fi, Screamers, which is as much a drag as Split Second is a good time. A boring bad movie is the pits, but a bad movie with verve can be a blast. Good thing Split Second is the latter.

Rutger Hauer in Split Second
It’s right behind me, isn’t it?

It hails from that very specific trenchcoat / combat boots / spiky hair / round tinted glasses moment in the early ’90s, with all the look and feel of cyberpunk without the cyber. It’s almost kind of a relief to see a sci-fi movie that isn’t packed with PDAs, virtual reality goggles, floppy discs, or other gizmos. The sets, costumes, and art direction are all nice, but would have probably looked better had the studio lights not been cranked all the way up. Also of note: the goopy monster suit looks so much like 2018’s computer-generated Venom that it seems beyond coincidence.

Kim Cattrall in Split Second
Kim Cattrall rocking her Vulcan hairdo from Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country

Rutger Hauer is entertainingly eccentric and committed throughout, and has an unexpected chemistry (a baseline requirement for the buddy cop genre) with Alastair Duncan — if a little less chemistry with Kim Cattrall. She’s super-cute here, sporting what looks like Juliette Binoche’s haircut from The Unbearable Lightness of Being, but (check calendar) it’s probably her Vulcan hairdo from Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country.

As over the top and ridiculous it is about everything else, Split Second is unexpectedly clear-eyed about climate change. This near-future dystopia is a waterlogged London beset by extreme weather, poverty, crime, vermin, and pestilence. It makes the roughly contemporaneous Waterworld look like the cartoon it is.

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4 Stars Movies

Falling in love at the end of the world, in Wim Wenders’ Submergence

Ladies, if your fella isn’t returning your calls, maybe he’s a secret agent on a tippy-top secret mission for queen and country. Fellas, if your girl isn’t liking your posts, maybe she has zero bars because she’s doing science stuff on the ocean floor.

I went into Submergence fully aware of the generally negative reviews, but I’m willing to watch anything by Wim Wenders, who directed at least two of my most beloved movies: Wings of Desire and Until the End of the World.

I suppose I can see how many (most?) people would find Submergence frustrating, but to me it is intriguing update to one of Wenders’ longest-running themes: falling in love, despite — or perhaps accelerated by — looming death. In Wings of Desire, an immortal being contemplates earthly concerns like suicide and the legacy of Nazi Germany, and chooses mortal love. The characters in The End of Violence and Until the End of the World live under different kinds of technological swords of Damocles: drones in the former, and nuclear disaster in the latter. After all, it’s right there in the titles.

Alicia Vikander and James McAvoy in Submergence

In Submergence, two beautiful people (Alicia Vikander and James McAvoy) meet cute and fall in love, but each is haunted by their own particular view of immanent environmental apocalypse: hers primarily scientific and his political. Lest the Anthropocene Extinction and potable water crisis be insufficient cause for existential anxiety, there is also an eerily prescient prediction of a virus not unlike COVID-19. Submergence was released in 2017.

She is more optimistic than he about mitigating the disasters sure to come in the near future. Given how his mission goes drastically awry, with him a powerless prisoner while she remains actively in control, perhaps she is right.

The one key Wenders ingredient that is lacking in Submergence is his usual A+ primo taste in music. So many of his past movies have utterly superb soundtracks, particularly the sublime Until the End of the World, the cd of which was effectively one of the best mixtapes of the 1990s, and famously outsold the movie. But the score for Submergence is disappointingly generic and overbearing, and the only needledrops are the classical music that Danielle blasts through her bluetooth speaker.

Categories
3 Stars Movies

Star Trek: The Motion Picture was always out of step with the times

With a release history more tangled than a TNG time travel plot, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is now finally available in its most complete form yet: a 2022 4K remaster of the 2001 Director’s Edition of the 1979 film. Got that?

Engadget has the full details, but in short, don’t call it a “restoration”. The original elements have been fully rescanned and regraded, with effects recreated, all suitable for contemporary screens. Thankfully for the Trek completist, the basic edit has not changed — so there is no “new” canonical material to trigger a warp core meltdown as Memory Alpha is updated. After more than 40 years, the movie finally no longer has a “yeah, but…” asterisk attached to it.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture
The cast of Star Trek: The Motion Picture model their jumpsuits and miniskirts.

But I still just can’t get behind it. While it has many of the typical Trek trappings (cosmic alien first contacts, tension between workplace hierarchies and personal relationships, and an overemphasis on Spock — more on that later), it lacks the core spirit of Star Trek, which for my latinum, is gee-whiz model UN nerds in space.

It was also always fatally out of step with the times. It borrowed all the wrong things from prior landmarks like 2001: A Space Odyssey (the ponderous psychedelia, conflict with artificial intelligence, the too-tight jumpsuits and too-short skirts), but not the Flash Gordon adventurism that Lucas and Spielberg would employ to define action and sci-fi in the coming decade.

Leonard Nimoy in Star Trek: The Motion Picture
Spock’s voyage beyond the infinite.

Back to Spock: The character is the most overused aspect of Trek, appearing in the original series, the animated series, The Next Generation, Discovery, Strange New Worlds, and almost every movie (including the J.J. Abrams reboots). It’s not fair of me to complain about Spock oversaturation when talking about the very first movie, long before the character was run into the ground. But even so, it all just feels so tedious and simplistic. I understand the character appeals to people on the autism spectrum, but doesn’t the concept of a neurotypical person consciously electing to suppress emotion, out of a cultural/religious impulse, undercut the life experiences of those born that way, without that choice?

The character of Spock may be a challenging exercise for any actor, but on the evidence here, I’m not sure that Leonard Nimoy did much more than simply gaze at everything and everyone impassively. And he’s not the only one who seems emotionless: Ilia (Persis Khambatta) is already an alien ice queen when we meet her, so it isn’t much of a transformation when she is reborn as a walking Siri/Alexa device. And Decker (Stephen Collins) never seems too perturbed when the woman he loves is abducted and assimilated.

Drinking game: down a Romulan ale every time someone says “Spock!” or “orifice”.

Categories
2 Stars Movies

Never Been Kissed: a wacky misunderstanding, or should somebody call the police?

Without thinking about it too much, the basic premise of Raja Gosnell’s Never Been Kissed sounds perfectly fine: an adorkable young adult gets a high school do-over. What could go wrong?

And indeed, roughly the first half of Never Been Kissed is likable, powered almost entirely by Drew Barrymore’s trademark charm and quirk. But the plot begins digging a hole for itself as soon as her teacher’s (Michael Vartan) attention becomes more overtly sexual, her newspaper’s motivations turn crass and exploitative, her nerdy-but-a-knockout friend (Leelee Sobieski) strips down to a leotard for no reason, and her brother’s (David Arquette) own self-actualization turns predatory. And the movie just keeps digging deeper and deeper.

Never Been Kissed never evinces any awareness that its problematic premise is anything more than a wacky misunderstanding. I’m not sure if there was any way for this story to work without being creepy. Or, uh, unlawful.

Let’s try some offhand script doctoring: First, cut the 16-year-old gymnast entirely; that subplot is unsalvageable. Second, perhaps Josie could discover that she misjudged her teacher’s attention, and he is in fact focused on helping her blossom. For example, he could invite her to her office, with she and the audience anticipating a hot assignation, but he instead produces a letter of recommendation for her college applications. This way, it’s cute, they still like and respect each other, and can hook up later, when all is revealed.

Or at the very least, during the editing stage, it could have been made more clear that when Josie confesses, her teacher’s disappointment is specifically over finding out that the newspaper was trying to entrap him. I can’t believe it didn’t occur to anybody in the editing room that the scene played like he was disgusted to find out that Josie was in fact an adult.

Orrrrrr… maybe just don’t attempt this premise at all. I can’t believe Disney+ is trimming swearwords from some of its PG-13 movies, but Never Been Kissed‘s basic plot doesn’t concern them?

Categories
3 Stars Movies TV

The Many Saints of Newark is Sopranos fanfic

As Solo and Rogue One were to Star Wars, The Many Saints of Newark is to The Sopranos: mere fanfic dressed up as a prequel. We did not need to learn how Uncle Junior hurt his back.

Unpopular pop culture opinion: The Sopranos is overrated. Yes, it opened the floodgates for what came to be called “prestige TV”, but so much of what followed is better. Tony Soprano may be the archetypal male sociopath character that rationalizes his behavior to himself and to his TV audience, but I would argue that Walter White, Al Swearengen, Jimmy McNulty, and Don Draper are all more complex and interesting figures.

It’s a more common problem for a movie to fail from not having enough substance, but if anything, Alan Taylor’s The Many Saints of Newark has too much material for a two-hour movie. It’s been so long since I’ve seen The Sopranos that it took me ages to untangle the complex family tree in my head. I couldn’t remember which characters we were expected to remember from the series, and which were new.

Some intriguing coloration is given to Tony’s mother, one of the series’ biggest unalloyed villains (not to mention the most Freudian), but she is barely a footnote in this overstuffed mess. I can’t help but think it would have been a better movie if it had focused on her, and perhaps also Janice and Carmela, both of whom merely cameo.

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