We're back! I had a pretty well performing tweet about John Wick (2014) last week! Not sure if you saw that, but it's ruined my life. This is a big post, got a lot of movies in here. And! And I've got Fran Hoepfner back in here, fresh off this really great piece on A Room With A View (1985) for Bright Wall Dark Room! Fran is truly the best, and I'm so excited to be able to have her writing here on MOVIE DIARY 2018 again!
Hotel Artemis (2018)
SPECIAL GUEST WRITER: FRAN HOEPFNER
I saw Hotel Artemis with my parents, which was 100% the correct thing to do because the other option was my dad dragging my mom and I to see Hereditary, which I refuse to see, and my mom would later call "stupid" (drag 'em, Mom). For those unaware, Hotel Artemis takes one of the more interesting side details of John Wick––"what if a ton of bad people were in one place together but couldn't hurt each other?" though I guess John Wick and its cool assassin hotel also didn't make up this question... westerns (??) did (I don't know, never mind)––and puts a handful of criminals into a hotel/hospital for criminals run by Jodie Foster (who is, we learn, kind of a criminal). In the middle of severe riots in the city of Los Angeles (Hollywood, baby), a real mishmosh of folks hide out to try to survive the night. You've got a thief with a heart of gold (Sterling K. Brown) and his slightly reckless younger brother (a wasted Brian Tyree Henry). You've got a shouty arms dealer (Charlie Day––I never watched It's Always Sunny, by the way, so I'm perpetually charmed by this guy and whatever decibel he's yelling at). You've got a Sofia Boutella-type (Sofia Boutella). And then of course you've got Jodie (doing a ... um ... Brooklyn ... accent?) and her chief nurse played with Dave Bautista. Maybe it's because I didn't "come up" on wrestling so my main point of reference for Dave Bautista is the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise, but it's hard for me to look at him and think, "that's a real person, that's not CGI." Dude is huge. I hope he's 6'3" (author's note: he is). There are a couple of other folks who pop up but to say them would maybe a spoil, and a big part of my value system (??) is not spoiling Hotel Artemis for people who are going to have an absolutely fine time watching it on HBO in approximately 3 months.
Maybe it's because I got a New Jersey drivers license and "am mean" now, but I wish this movie was a little nastier. I mean, there are a couple of signature gross kills, but just thematically. After the surprise hit of John Wick, it felt inevitable to have a bunch of films copy the look and feel and tone of it. And trust me, I'm also the kind of person who is like, "a bad knockoff of John Wick is still a pretty good movie" (an opinion I held about Jai Courtney as a bad knockoff of Tom Hardy after trying to find anything good to say about Suicide Squad.... 2016 was weird). John Wick manages to pull off its emotional center with great deftness, in part because it's absolutely fucking ridiculous. This, on the other hand, is grasping at straws to establish an emotional core for a handful of the characters. I don't need that! They can just be bad. Sometimes... people are bad. To separate the "good" bad guys and the "bad" bad guys so evenly, I don't know. I wanted to squirm a little more. In turn, it's a little bit like watching a long-form improv set, with each character entering and being like, "here's ME and here's my RULE." It works! Sometimes improv is good. But you run into some issues where not all of these rules get any kind of dramatic payoff. It seems like some people wander off stage and then stay off stage because they're having an off night. (Can you tell I did 4 months of improv?) And some people have maybe too much of an idea of what's going to happen next to a point where their actions don't seem fully within a believable character so much as it does paying off their rule or their "game" to borrow a UCB (east coast) phrase. Whatever. It's like 94 minutes, and I'm fine.
Last, and I hate to bring this up, but do we have a Sofia Boutella problem? I don't say that in a tone that suggests she's untalented; I'm actually always surprised by how much I like her on screen. But I think she's becoming the type where filmmakers love to be like, "let's put Sofia Boutella in a nice outfit and have someone beat the shit out of her." I mean, she's tough! She fights! That's the appeal––she's a girl who fights. But I'm wondering if there's a little too much joy throwing her into a fight scene with a bunch of tall dudes and watching her take some punches. I can never tell when it's supposed to be like, yas queen, and when it's supposed to be like, "we're relishing in this violence towards a woman a little too much." Maybe I'm still mad about Atomic Blonde! Anyway, please watch Hotel Artemis online at your convenience later this year.
Fran Hoepfner is a writer living in New Jersey where she is pursuing a MFA in Fiction at Rutgers. She is an editor at large for Bright Wall/Dark Room. She is best known for being the loudest about Force Majeure (2014) online, and she also writes a cooking tinyletter called chomp chomp.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
This was one of my go-to VHS tapes when I was a kid, and I know this is not really a revelatory take, but I… did not really catch what this movie was doing beyond putting cartoons and humans together in the same world. It’s great though! It’s a lot of fun, the hard-boiled noir plot, this idea of those old cartoons working like any actor in the studio system of old Hollywood, totally delightful and deranged. Plus the performances in this one are all really entertaining, particularly Bob Hoskins and Christopher Lloyd. This is probably the definitive Bob Hoskins for me (sorry if I’m wrong, it’s just that I came to this movie while I was young and impressionable). He’s a perfect down on his luck, gruff P.I. with a heart of gold. And Christopher Lloyd is so scary in this movie, the way he’s dressed in that flowing black, immediately silencing every room he enters. I don’t know, there’s not a whole lot I think I’m going to bring to this besides like, “I liked this movie” and “I thought it was funny that the cartoon baby was like this dirty old veteran actor smoking cigars trapped in the body of a cartoon baby,” but I do think that this is one of the few times that pairing humans and cartoons in a real world setting worked out pretty well, and before you pipe up and say “but what about Space Jam?” let me tell you this: people don’t really remember that Space Jam fucking sucked. I get its impact and I loved that movie a whole lot too when it came out, but when’s the last time you’ve seen Space Jam? It’s horrible, the animation is trash, Michael Jordan’s a scumbag, it works better as a marketing exercise than it does a whole movie. Grow up. Who Framed Roger Rabbit is the only feature length human+cartoon movie that matters. At least until Space Jam 2 with Lebron.
There was a period of time when my two roommates and I would force this movie on any of our unsuspecting guests who’d come over for a movie night or a party or whatever. It was fun, we were fun, we wanted to force our other friends into the same kind of fun we were having together, which was mostly watching a young Josh Brolin skateboarding through a film executive’s idea to capitalize on the skateboarding boom of the 80s. Thrashin’ follows two rival skateboarding crews, The Ramp Locals (named thusly because they built a ramp and they live here) and THE DAGGERS (because they’re tough punks who have daggers painted on everything from their skateboards to their denim vests to the walls of this piece of shit house where like all twenty of them live together). The two crews are enemies and things begin to boil over as Josh Brolin’s Cory (of the house Ramp Locals) falls in love with the little sister of the leader of The Daggers, Hook (née Tommy from Indiana). “It’s Romeo and Juliet… ON SKATEBOARDS!” some marketing genius must have shouted with dollar signs in his eyes, thirty two years ago.
The movie has that very particular hollowness that comes with adults trying to whip up something for youth culture. There are nods to authenticity — Christian Hosoi, Tony Hawk, Lance Mountain, and others make appearances — but it’s got a slickness to it that feels committee approved, and it feels like there was some sort of note to include a skateboard in every scene out of fear that kids would lose interest. However, that out of touch hollowness allows for some really funny scenes, like when Cory and Hook get into a sort of joust-brawl on skateboards (self-explanatory), or when The Ramp Locals attend a skateboarders-only club (I’ll explain). It’s rowdy and fun, the dance floor is filled with kids dancing by way of doing freestyle tricks on their skateboards, the emcee is pumping up the crowd by throwing out free t-shirts and skateboard decks, and all of it is topped off with a performance by The Red Hot Chili Peppers. It’s… a lot to take in, and also I feel deep in my heart that these sorts of clubs were never real?
It’s a dumb movie but the best thing it does, and part of why I think it had stuck so much with my roommates and me is how it’s able to capture that joy of hanging out with your friends and doing stupid harmless things for a summer. To watch it is to feel a nostalgia for a summer that maybe never existed but still feels real and pure. The movie spends a fair amount of time on both The Ramp Locals and The Daggers’ respective hangouts — they both like skateboarding and partying (obviously), but more than that, what they both have is a tightly knit gang of friends, united by something dumb and arbitrary, but united all the same. So while at times it feels like a little bit of a cynical cash-grab (because it is), there are also these great moments where you just want to be in there, carefree and surrounded by people who get you, barrelling headfirst through the summer.
The Replacement Killers (1998)
I can’t believe this movie! I first saw it in the theaters when I was a kid, and I remember liking it but I hadn’t seen it since then, so I was worried I was walking into something that wouldn’t hold up, but wow does this movie hold up! This is Antoine Fuqua’s first movie and Chow Yun Fat’s first American movie. It’s also produced by John Woo, and it definitely looks like a John Woo movie. It helps that Woo choreographed the action sequences, but Antoine Fuqua’s doing a lot to default to Woo’s style too. I can’t blame him, I feel like if my first movie were being produced by John Woo, I’d try to follow in the footsteps of one of the greats too.
Chow Yun Fat is John, an assassin on the run from a mob boss who wants to kill him and his family for his decision to walk away from a job where he was supposed to kill some cop’s kid (Michael Rooker, the cop not the kid), and Mira Sorvino(!) is Meg, an expert forger who gets caught up in all of this when she agrees to help forge a passport for John so he can get back to China to protect his family from the killers. The movie is a pretty standard chase movie, John and Meg figure out where they need to be next and the bad guys (Danny Trejo and Til Schweiger and others) arrive shortly after to shoot up the place and keep them moving on to the next thing, but it’s done so stylishly. Every location is lit in a gaudy neon, Chow Yun Fat looks so fucking cool and he’s constantly moving in slow motion and artfully shooting his guns. He’s so cool he makes sunglasses from 1998 look not entirely embarrassing! There are also, surprisingly, these funny little Bugs-Bunny-Ain’t-I-A-Stinker-esque moments that punctuate the action, particularly in the fight that takes place in the middle of a carwash. I wonder if this was in the minds of the guys who did John Wick (2014) because it looks like it could have been an influence on the setting and vibe of that movie. Though I guess The Replacement Killers probably is also borrowing from some older Hong Kong action movies as well so who knows where it all starts? We’re all just trying to copy the things we like sometimes, I guess, and that’s fine because sometimes you end up with stuff like The Replacement Killers, or sometimes* (*one time) you get really lucky and end up with a John Wick.
First Reformed (2017)
***THERE ARE A BUNCH OF SPOILERS IN HERE PLEASE BE CAREFUL***
It seems like the critical consensus surrounding this movie, at least in my circles, is “This movie fucked me up,” which is correct. This movie fucked me up. Ethan Hawke plays a priest, Reverend Toller, at the titular church that was a former stop on the Underground Railroad who is wrestling with a crisis of faith after an environmental activist he was counseling, Michael, commits suicide. Toller then takes up the mission of this activist, and he explores the question of how the church is supposed to respond to global warming, something he has come to see as a massive destruction of God’s creation. It’s an incredible movie that presents this conflict and brings up these weighty questions about our existence and the impact we have on this world without ever feeling too overbearing or smug. What I loved about First Reformed was that it truly did feel like the experience of grappling with problems that are too big for any one person to understand fully. I feel like too often in books, movies, comics, etc. people of faith are presented as people who have some sage wisdom or they’re constantly alluding to God’s unknowable plan which usually feels like a cop out (or they’re just cretins like the rest of us), so it was nice to see Reverend Toller as a good man of faith using his knowledge and relationship to God as a tool or a guiding force rather than some cryptic excuse to avoid a reasonable question about what one man can do about a global crisis. Toller is a man who is struggling to both understand this huge problem and figure out how to use his position to address it.
It’s really compelling watching Rev Toller’s journey into environmental activism and his eventual attempt at suicide/domestic terrorism. We’re presented with a pretty unflinching look at Toller and his tragic background, which left me open to understanding how he could bring himself to strapping on a suicide vest with a plan to blow up this congregation of powerful men, unwilling to change to save the Earth. We see his loneliness and his depression, we see his crisis of faith, and, I think most importantly, we learn about the guilt he has. He feels guilt about his son’s death, he feels guilt at Michael’s suicide, he feels guilt about his place in his church’s famous legacy of activism and creating real positive change for the world. He’s a man who’s at the point in his life where he’s desperate to do something to redeem himself and to leave his mark on the world, and he’s decided that the problem of impending catastrophic climate change is his moment to, like Christ, do something to change the world and inspire others to follow. Blowing up a church is probably not the solution to any of this, but we know enough about Toller to at least understand how he’s gotten to this point.
First Reformed is a movie that’s less about coming to a definite answer about a problem, and more about exploring how we figure out where we stand and how we are coming to terms with a problem as big as global warming. And it’s tough to watch because it’s stressful, it’s overwhelming, and no one has an answer to a question so big. The solution to global warming is pretty clear cut, but the problem is that we may be too late for anything we do to make any meaningful impact, so how do you deal with the very real possibility of human life on earth being in jeopardy in your lifetime? Toller starts out the movie thinking that he can stick with his faith and his church and that will give him the answers, but as he gets deeper into the reality of environmental activism he soon realizes even with all of his training and knowledge, he’s out of his depth, and he finds it difficult to confide in his colleagues and fellow church goers. His closest peers are the staff of the megachurch in the nearest city, and none of them seem as concerned with his new crusade— in fact it’s in their best interest not to be, as they are bankrolled by a rich industrialist, one of the leading polluters on the planet.
One of the brilliant things about First Reformed is that, with the exception of the rich industrialist polluter, there are no villains standing in the way of Toller, just real people whose main concerns don’t align with Toller’s newfound activism. Even Pastor Jeffers (Cedric Kyles, née The Entertainer), the leader of the megachurch, someone it’d be easy to put in league with the unapologetic industrialist in terms of treachery, is treated with a complex humanity. He is an obstacle in Toller’s view, but you get the sense that he is dealing with Toller in this way out of a genuine concern for a friend. They have a difference in how they view their respective responsibilities to the church and to the world. Toller sees the church as having largely ignored what he thinks is the biggest problem the world is facing, while Jeffers is focused on a smaller picture of surviving in the present and keeping his congregation together. Pastor Jeffers is doing the best with what he’s got to go with, and what he’s got to go with is trying to steer his church through an unfamiliar new world while watching his emotionally vulnerable friend slowly becoming radicalized for a cause he hasn’t been able to fully comprehend. Ironic, I guess, in that he’s a practicing Christian— their whole thing is a leap of faith on far less evidence than there is for climate change.
And that ending! I’m not sure I’m ready to even talk about that ending. I just remember feeling totally clenched up and tense during that whole scene, Esther’s off-putting song, watching Toller make preparations for his back up plan to kill himself, and that kiss with Mary. Just tense and sweating the entire time, and then it ends and you’re just left sitting there, still as lost and overwhelmed as Toller, and then you need to figure out how to write about all of this for your very popular movie diary.
Sorry To Bother You (2018)
***SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS PLEASE DON’T GET THIS MOVIE SPOILED FOR YOU***
I knew this movie would be weird and out there, but I truly had no idea about the direction this was going. I watched this the day after I watched First Reformed and this was definitely a solid double feature. Sorry To Bother You follows Cassius “Cash” Green and his rapid and surreal ascendance in the world of telemarketing. As Cash rises through the ranks and becomes a “Power Caller” he finds himself caught up in the weird, unethical, and evil world of the super rich, selling slave labor and weapons to world powers. All the while his friends work in the call center below him, organizing a labor movement to stand up for a living wage. It’s a movie made to speak to our current situation of corporations taking over our lives and arrogantly waving away labor laws that people have fought for, and debut director Boots Riley is… not subtle about how he feels about all of that and it works perfectly. It’s disgusting, it’s excessive, it’s horrible, it’s hilarious, and it’s bizarre, but the world of Sorry To Bother You never feels more than just a couple of days and wrong decisions away from us. It reminded me a lot of Verhoeven’s movies in that regard, particularly with the running refrain of the popular TV show “I Got The Shit Kicked Out Of Me!”— very “I’d Buy That For A Dollar!”— which is nice because I feel like usually movies trying to go for a Verhoeven vibe are too stupid and not self aware enough to hit the mark. Always a gift when a movie knows what it is and what it’s trying to do.
On top of all of this, and not unlike Verhoeven’s best, the movie is funny too! It’s got a very idiosyncratic sense of humor, morbid and celebratory and disconnected all at once, and it really works to keep the movie moving. Coupled with the gaudy tongue in cheek social relevance and the sort of day-glo and concrete aesthetic, Sorry To Bother You at times feels more like a 2000 AD comic than anything. Lakeith Stanfield is great as Cash, a slacker who aims to do something worthwhile with his life, increasingly at the expense of his principles. But I also really loved Steven Yeun as Cash’s counterpoint, the handsome union organizer Squeeze. Squeeze is smart and charming and principled— pretty much everything that Cash isn’t— but he is constantly working to make Cash see the light of starting a union to stand against individualistic corporate greed. Even when cash crosses the picket line to be a Power Caller, Squeeze still meets him with compassion, trying to guide him back to the interests of the collective good. He’s the best! Put Steven Yeun in more things and let him fuck! Seriously—if I can talk reckless for a second here on my own blog— letting Asian characters fuck and have relationships with other characters is still a relatively new thing in American movies, and John Cho and Steven Yeun are like pioneers, let’s keep this wave going!
Armie Hammer. Holy shit is he good in this one. He’s Steve Lift the billionaire CEO of Worry Free, a company that preys on the poor by offering free housing and meals if they sign a lifetime contract to work and live in the Worry Free factories. We first see him in a TV interview denying accusations that Worry Free is just a repackaged form of slave labor (it is), then when we meet him in real life, he’s dressed in a blazer and sarong combo (very tight) and snorting the biggest line of cocaine you’ve ever seen. He’s completely unhinged, but it’s all just a regular, normal time for him, which makes it doubly hilarious when he very seriously explains his deranged master plan for Worry Free as if he were going over sales figures for the quarterly report. That’s something that I think really rings true with the wealthy, that they’ll casually talk about rich people shit with you assuming that you’re onboard with them. In the aforementioned situation it comes off as hilarious, but it can also be aggravating, like in a scene where Lift invites Cash over to a crowded room of sycophants to tell them about his presumably dangerous life in Oakland. When Cash says he doesn’t have any wild stories about gang violence or whatever, Lift forces Cash to try to rap by leading this roomful of white people in chants of “RAP! RAP! RAP!” until Cash acquiesces and embarrasses himself in front of everyone with a totally lame rap. I was squirming in my seat for that whole thing, even during the punchline when Cash is able to turn it around by saying offensive shit that white people like to feel allowed to say, because the idea of performing your otherness to a group of white people is still something so real that a lot of people of color still have to struggle with everyday. And I think that’s what works so well with Sorry To Bother You — it’s totally out there, but the struggles at the core of this movie are very real. There’s a surrealist edge to the movie’s aesthetic, but it’s cut with reminders of the poverty and inequality that these characters are living in, their fight for fair wages, fair treatment, and dignity is never out of sight.