The inverse of the formidable power of movies to surprise, vex, confound, titillate and excite us lies in their capacity to disappoint. We know enough about the tricks, the history, genre and all the rest to have arrived at expectations. We have seen what can be done on the big screen and know what we want and deserve.
I've seen a lot of pictures, to paraphrase Martin Scorsese, and have a pretty good sense of how they work, both in their basic construction and their effect on me. And this weekend afforded an opportunity to consider a number of types and levels of disappointment as prompted by two very different but almost equally frustrating movies.
THE LAST THING HE WANTED, the latest from Dee Rees (Mudbound, 2017, also for Netflix), boasts a number of the attributes of a prestige picture: an accomplished, provocative director at the helm; a screenplay (adapted by Rees and Marco Villalobos) based on a novel by a sophisticated contemporary author (Joan Didion); a twisty, surprising plot; a historical setting with potential parallels to the current geo-political climate (the Americas of the early 1980s); a cast comprised of actors seemingly possessed of taste and gravitas (Anne Hathaway, Willem Defoe, Rosie Perez, Ben Affleck). So much potential.
Opening in 1982 in El Salvador, the movie introduces us to Elena McMahon (Hathway), an investigative journalist embedded there with photographer Alma Guerrero (Perez). Amid the horror and chaos of the conflict, the two uncover evidence of deeper conspiracy. Two years later, though, Elena's attempts at expanding the story have led her to nothing. Caving to outside influence, her editor demotes her to covering the presidential campaign, burying the bigger story she's been following. This frustration comes on the heels of a divorce, which has complicated her relationship with her young daughter, a cross-country move, a bout of breast cancer and, freshest wound of all, the death of her mother. Elena's had a rough year made rougher when her cantankerous, gamboling, pre-senile arms-dealer dad Dick (Dafoe) re-enters her orbit. He's got a once-in-a-lifetime deal lined up, he assures her, and then he can retire. Dick falls ill, though, and is unable to travel to close it. And so, of course, motivated by curiosity, detective impulse and some unclear sense of filial duty, Elena takes his place as bagman for a million-dollar munitions sale in Central America. Of course, things become (even) more complicated than they seem.
Beyond its CV and pedigree, Last Thing has a lot to recommend it, at least in the early going. Rees and her creative team build an immersive, if imagined, version of the early '80s, replete with great sets and costumes and props. We're transported to a simpler time, when American political corruption was still mostly a covert, back-channel affair, instead of flagrantly televised. The movie makes smart moves and has a distinct aesthetic. Hathaway and Perez come out guns blazing, and Dafoe pops up as a welcome, scenery-gnashing addition. Maybe around the time the State Department gets involved (represented here by a plasticine, perhaps misused Affleck) though, everything goes off the rails. The jargon-heavy, tough as nails dialogue Hathaway is forced to rattle off rings false with repetition; characters are manifested out of the ether and tasked with heavy narrative lifting; the plot is over-burdened; the intrigue no longer intrigues.
Spy stories aren't for everyone, and one of the most exciting prospects of Last Thing was its bridge beyond the genre, exploring social issues and family dynamics with the machinery of political intrigue and trade-craft. But the story's battling elements and themes prove too much, either for the moviemakers or itself, or both. R. 115M. NETFLIX.
CALL OF THE WILD or "The Dog Movie," as some have said, is dubious proposition at best. It's an octogenarian Harrison Ford returning to a starring role opposite a computer-generated dog. It is also, on the other hand, adapted from the Jack London novel by writer Michael Green, whose credits include Logan, Blade Runner 2049 and Murder on the Orient Express (all 2017!); not exactly a lightweight. And who doesn't like an adventure story? (Well, in this case, I don't.)
Rambunctious Buck, probably too much dog for the civilized Santa Clara County home of the judge who adopted him (Bradley Whitford, in a role beneath his formidable talents), is abducted and sold in Alaska, where he becomes part of the sled-team delivering the mail all over the state. Then hears the titular call and really comes into his own, but not before meeting and befriending grieving old coot John Thornton (Ford) with whom he shares a deep but, in the context of the movie, ludicrous and largely unexplored bond.
Dogs are great actors. Fake dogs, even in 2020, look fake. Still, the crowd with which I saw this enjoyed watching the fake dog trip over his own fake feet and get his fake head stuck in things. PG. 140M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
— John J. Bennett is a movie nerd who loves a good car chase and prefers he/him pronouns.
See showtimes at www.northcoastjournal.com or call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456; Richards› Goat Miniplex 630-5000.
CUNNINGHAM. Documentary about dancer Merce Cunningham and his dance company. PG. 93M. MINOR.
IMPRACTICAL JOKERS: THE MOVIE. Hidden-camera buffoonery on the road. PG13. 93M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
THE INVISIBLE MAN. Elisabeth Moss vs. the Patriarchy, this time in the form of an abusive ex who stalks and attacks her after his apparent death. R. 124M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO (1988). The real world is awful. Get on the cat bus with Hayao Miyazaki. G. 86M. MINOR.
NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959). Cary Grant running from a crop duster in a suit is the best Cary Grant. NR. 136M. BROADWAY.
PREMATURE (1993). Zora Howard and Joshua Boone in summer romance drama. NR. 90M. MINOR.
1917. Director Sam Mendes' single-shot World War I drama tells the story of British soldiers crossing the horrors of No Man's Land with urgency and dream-like continuity. R. 119M. BROADWAY.
BAD BOYS FOR LIFE. Will Smith and Martin Lawrence return to the buddy cop franchise set in Miami. R. 123M. FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
BEANPOLE. Russian director Kantemir Balagov's film about women living in the post-World War II rubble of Leningrad. NR. 130M. MINOR.
BRAHMS: THE BOY II. Katie Holmes stars as a woman whose son finds a haunted doll that looks like a slightly more life-like Jared Kushner. PG13. 86M. BROADWAY.
DOLITTLE. The eccentric vet who talks to animals played by Robert Downey Jr. With Antonio Banderas. PG. 101M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA.
FANTASY ISLAND. Well, someone finally remade this vintage TV show for the freaky horror it was. With Michael Peña as Mr. Rourke, and Lucy Hale and Maggie Q as guests getting the "Monkey's Paw" treatment. PG13. 110M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
GRETEL AND HANSEL. Director Osgood Perkins delivers otherworldly dread and gorgeous/ghastly visuals in this fascinatingly creepy adaptation, but self-indulgence and slow pacing lead to an unsatisfying conclusion. PG13. 87M. FORTUNA.
HARLEY QUINN: BIRDS OF PREY. The freewheeling story, brightly gritty palette and fantastic fight sequences make up for a less colorful climax in director Cathy Yan's DC Comic movie. Starring Margot Robbie, May Elizabeth Winstead, Ella Jay Basco, Jurnee Smollett-Bell and Rosie Perez. R. 149M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
HONEYLAND. A documentary about a beehunter in rural Europe and the visiting itinerant beekeepers whose methods conflict with hers. 90M. NR. MINIPLEX.
PARASITE. Writer/director Bong Joon Ho's entertaining, explosive drama about a poor family scamming its way to employment with a rich one is stunning in its sudden turns and unflinching mirror on capitalist society. Starring Kang-ho Song and Woo-sik Choi. (In Korean with subtitles.) R. 132M. BROADWAY.
SONIC THE HEDGEHOG. After Cats, this will probably be fine. With Jim Carey, Ben Schwartz and James Marsden. PG. 99M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill