Welcome to Fuds on Film, semi-officially the 22nd most popular movie podcast in Egypt. We need to up our game in the Czech Republic though. In this episode we take a look at American Utopia, On the Rocks, Peninsula, The Eight Hundred, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, and The Trial of the Chicago 7. Come get some.
Starting as I mean to go on, there’s not an awful lot to say about American Utopia, so I won’t belabour this too much. It’s a Spike Lee directed capture of David Byrne’s stage show / album tour for his American Utopia album, with a good number of classic Talking Heads tunes interspersed throughout.
As such, I suppose how much you enjoy this will depend on how much you like David Byrne and Talking Heads. Thankfully, I like them a lot, so I like this a lot. To be critical, as a stage show it’s perfectly engaging, with some interesting choreography for a live band, but to be honest it’s not adding a lot more than just listening to the album on Spotify. It’s a straightforward recording, really, not a Spike Lee joint in any meaningful sense, so don’t go expecting a huge amount of flourishes in the visuals.
But that is really to be expected, given the nature of it, and does not detract from the enjoyable performance of enjoyable tunes. Two far more critical, er, criticisms – there’s one dancer / backup singer that is, as again I suppose should be expected, playing to the back of the house, which unfortunately on film comes across as wild mugging and gurning. More worryingly from a health perspective, and I know the ‘rona has consumed a lot of mindshare in the prevention narrative of late, but let’s not forget the horrors wrought by verrucas and athlete’s foot, by which I mean, for the love of God someone get these people some socks. Christmas is coming up, just sayin’.
On the Rocks
When is a relationship drama rooted in infidelity not a relationship drama rooted in infidelity? When it’s an excuse to spend 90 minutes with Bill Murray in Affable Dad mode, that’s when.
On the Rocks is the latest from Sofia Coppola, reuniting Murray and Rashida Jones, his co-star from 2015’s A Very Murray Christmas as father and daughter in a somewhat slight tale of a marriage that is, well, on the rocks. Jones’ Laura is a writer suffering somewhat predictably from block, while her husband Dean (Marlon Wayans) is preoccupied driving the success of his Manhattan business and, Laura suspects, knobbing his PA Fiona. Initially dismissing her suspicions as a byproduct of her own frustrations, Laura finds her father Felix (Murray), an ageing Lothario himself, dumping fuel on the fire of her worst fears, and employing his formidable network of contacts both foreign and domestic in unsolicited fashion to dig deeper into Dean’s extra-marital activities.
That which ensures might not be described as “hilarity,” nor outright comedy, but there is certainly plenty of levity in what turns out to be a surprisingly lightweight study of cross-generational insecurity. Despite her protestations, Laura becomes an all too willing participant in Felix’s antics, joining her father in an adventure of sorts across Manhattan and ultimately to Mexico; an adventure which is part Hardy Boys amateur detective antics, part reckoning with her father’s own history of infidelity.
I actually really like On the Rocks as an idea, and I like a couple of aspects in execution. Murray and Jones’ chemistry goes down pretty easily, and for the most part it’s enough just to spend time in their company. Their relationship is entirely believable, and their motivations sympathetic, even if their occupations and circumstance reek of the kind of social naivety that could only come from someone who hasn’t ever occupied what the rest of us might consider reality. Marlon Wayans acquits himself pretty well as Dean, displaying enough by way of likeable character traits that we desperately want him not to be playing the field, but maintaining enough ambiguity that we might never really be sure.
Unsurprisingly though it’s mostly Murray’s show, and this kind of work is something he really inhabits now, to an extent there’s a real possibility he will ultimately be remembered by movie fans as much for this kind of character work as for his 70s and 80s comedy output. Felix is, perhaps annoyingly, an incredibly charismatic guy, and if he’s mostly just Murray doing Murray then that’s kind of alright, because it’s what the material requires. The problem with On the Rocks, for there is a big problem, is that this is the only cheque it really has to cash. As I said before, I really like the father-daughter road trip detective story as a concept, but Coppola’s script makes way too little emotional investment to claim any kind of pay-off.
The complete lack of gravity as Laura and Felix finally confront that latter’s own history is quite an achievement in itself: it’s a brief conversation that kind of ambles along, is addressed with a shrug and a sigh, then is gone again in short order so that everyone can smile affectionately and be on their merry way. It ought to be a moment of emotional reckoning worthy of the stunning Mexican coastal setting…but it’s not. Frustratingly it leaves one with the sense that there wasn’t any real point to the whole thing other than to spend time with good friends, and that’s sometimes enough by the way, but it could have been something so much grander and more resonant.
Fortunately, at a whiff over 90 minutes including credits, On the Rocks falls comfortably into our box labelled “Movies That Do Not Outstay Their Welcome,” and I appreciate that Coppola has respected my time. I’m not going to tell you not to watch this movie, because I quite liked it in spite of its beach-ball-in-a-hurricane levels of emotional heft, but go in knowing that you’ll neither laugh your ass off nor cry your eyes out.
Yeon Sang-ho returns us to the Train to Busan universe in Peninsula, set a few years after the zombification of Korea, with Korean refugees in other nations not being all that warmly received due to the typical prejudice against undead outbreaks. One such refugee is a Marine Captain Jung-Seok (Gang Dong-won), who managed to survive along with his brother in law, Kim Do-yoon’s Chul-min, although his sister and nephew did not.
The pair of them are struggling with survivor’s guilt and living borderline illegally in Hong Kong, where they soon become embroiled in a mafia scheme to slip back into Korea to quickly recover a truck full of cash and get out. This, as you will imagine, did not quite to plan, with their team being attacked not just by zombies, but by a squad of rogue militia members who are surviving in the post-zombocalypse Seoul, who mistake the truck for one containing food and other more useful supplies, given the situation.
Chul-min is captured by the militia, Jung-Seok is saved by the intervention of two resourceful youngsters, Jooni and Yu-Jin, who take him back to the hideout of their mother, Lee Jung-hyun’s Min-jung, and grandfather Kwon Hae-hyo’s Elder Kim. At the risk of slight oversimplification, Jung-Seok convinces them that recovering Chul-min and the truck will be all of their tickets off the peninsula. Their plan does not survive contact with the enemy, hence a whole bunch of chasing going on.
Peninsula has approximately twice the budget of Train to Busan, but unfortunately about half of the charm. That’s not to say that is a completely unenjoyable film, as it’s falling squarely into the “fine but broadly unremarkable” category, but almost all of the things that were cool about the predecessor, like the imaginative sequences in the claustrophobic confines of carriages, are replaced by CG laden action setpieces that aren’t all that interesting, and the characters are a lot blander and therefore harder to empathise with here.
To be blunt, that’s nigh on everything I’ve got to say about Peninsula. It’s an enjoyable enough film to pass the time with, and I don’t think it’s doing anything it sets out to do badly, but it’s ultimately quite characterless and I doubt I shall remember any sequence in this next week, let alone next year.
Four stars says Paul Ross.
The Eight Hundred
As we approach the end of this 33rd month of 2020, a surprising title sits atop the list of highest-grossing films of the year (an increasingly irrelevant statistic, to be sure, but still of some interest): Chinese war film, The Eight Hundred, which recounts the tale of the 452 defenders of the Sihang Warehouse in Shanghai in 1937, and their unlikely, morale-boosting resistance against the Japanese Imperial Army. (That discrepancy in figures is due to the soldiers’ commanding officer, Xie Jinyuan, providing an inflated number to the public in order not to tip off the Japanese to their true strength, though 800 hardly seems better than 452, compared to a Japanese division of 20,000 that had just helped to send 300,00 other Chinese soldiers into retreat.)
While I am familiar with the broad sweeps of the Second Sino-Japanese War, I am unfamiliar with this particular event, so everything I know about it I learned from this film, so necessarily have no take on its veracity, even if I take a fairly high base level of scepticism into anything produced in China about significant events in Chinese history.
Caveat in place, let’s return to the action. With Shanghai surrounded and the National Revolutionary Army fleeing with its tail between its legs, a handful of defenders remain in Shanghai, consisting of the 88th Division and a number of other soldiers scraped together from the scattered remains of other divisions, lucky enough not to have been executed for “desertion” (setting aside the inherent immorality of executing “deserters”, especially in a conscripted army, it seems simply stupidly wasteful to kill soldiers when the army needs them as a resource, but The Eight Hundred is another war film that neglects to confront this).
These defenders, many of them apparently expected to be grateful that their country hasn’t executed them and is instead allowing them to die for their country, are holed up in the warehouse, a former bank building with thick walls and stockpiles of food, medicine and ammunition. Situated as it is across the narrow Wusong River from the foreign concessions in Shanghai, it provides both an incredible visual juxtaposition, with the bullet-ridden building flanked on one side by the shelled and smoking ruins of the rest of Shanghai, and on the other by European streets and glowing neon marquees. Its proximity also gives the inhabitants of the still pristine and shiny parts of the city the opportunity to watch the various assaults on the stronghold as entertainment, because people are scum.
Beyond the unusual setting, though, things are fairly unremarkable, with your standard-for-the-genre mix of scarred and fearless veterans, callow youths who have no place near a battlefield, a coward or too, and an inspiring commander and a horse called whatever’s Mandarin for Metaphor. Probably. This group must then repel a number of assaults, fight their own fear, etc. etc. etc. I’m not trying to dismiss the events the film depicts, it’s just that a lot of it is quite typical fare for a war film.
What makes it interesting, for me anyway, is the setting, which I don’t know an enormous amount about (nor that war, and I don’t think Flowers of War, if you remember that, educated me particularly well), and a naïveté about the world in general that’s uncommon to see depicted, including one former farmer who pleads for a description of the feeling of woman’s breast in the hand, or an officer who doesn’t know where Shanghai is on a map. It’s just as well the setting and those few scattered experiences were interesting to me, though, as if I’d been only interested in character I’d be shit out of luck, as the film more or less forgot to include any. Oops.
There are a few faces you’ll know under all the muck by the end of the action, but few, if any, rise to the level of “character”, and that’s a pity.
It’s always difficult to judge performances in a language with which you’re unfamiliar, but physically, at least, it all seems pretty solid, as opposed to the not infrequent scenes in the area of the foreign “concessions” in Shanghai, where English is spoken, generally truly terribly, though it may be that the director, Guan Hu, for the same reasons of unfamiliarity, can’t discern that.
Continuing the international flavour is the presence of Londonderry Air (the tune for Danny Boy), first played by a soldier with a harmonica, and then a Chinese lyrical adaptation, sung in both English and Mandarin by Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli and Chinese pop singer Na Ying. I don’t have any point to attach to that – it just struck me and I wanted to mention it, and couldn’t really think where to fit it in, so this is where it went. I’ll carry on.
Or I won’t, as I’m mostly done. As a war film alone, it doesn’t particularly stand out, though it does look good, and I appreciate the practical work, including creating a set with 68 buildings. What makes it worth checking out is that unfamiliar setting that I mentioned, so you probably should.
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
I thought I was giving myself the easy films to recap this time around. After all, for people of a certain age, namely old geezers like us, I can simply say that the second Borat film is much the same schtick as the first, but the joke hasn’t quite worn thin yet, and that’s pretty much all the information you need. Take the rest of the review off.
However, disturbing as it seems to me now, that first Borat film came out fourteen years ago, and there’s a possibility some listeners weren’t born then. Oy Vey. So, perhaps a touch more detail is warranted. Sasha Baron Cohen’s Borat is an, of course, wildly fictional Kazakhstani journalist who was previously sent by his government to make some Cultural Learnings in the U.S.A for to Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. It went poorly, and was in the main an excuse to interview some wildly racist bigots through then lens of Borat’s own wild racist bigotry, and a good laugh was had by all us liberal bubblepeople, safe in the knowledge that wildly racist bigots would never again wind up in positions of great power. Oy Vey.
So, having humiliated Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, Borat’s been sentenced to hard labour for the past 1.4 decades, but he has an opportunity for redemption. The country’s Premier wants to bring Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan back to international prominence by Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, namely delivering Kazakh Minister of Culture, Johnny the Monkey to President Donald Trump. That’ll sort it out.
So off he goes, although sadly Johnny the Monkey does not survive shipping, having been eaten by a stowaway, Borat’s female son, Maria Bakalova’s Tutar. Given that Borat’s face, moustache and mankini is still relatively well known, its now often falling to Bakalova to provoke a number of the reactions in the various people they encounter on their way to giving a replacement gift – Tutar herself – to Rudy Giuliani, in what was his most cringeworthy scene for a about a week before that whole Four Seasons thing.
A lot like the first film, it’s about half and half interviews with various types of dickwad, be that racist, sexist, or particularly given Borat’s own views, anti-semitic, and half advancing what passes for the linking narrative with some equally wild, outrageous statements going back and forth between Borat and Tutar, and their government via fax, who’s ultimate scheme for Borat is perhaps the best gag in the piece. Apart from the Running of the American.
You are going to have to have a high tolerance for cringe comedy, as there’s a hell of a lot of cringing involved here. I’ve always thought the non-interview segments in this kind of thing were funnier than just exposing another yet another yahoo, and for me that’s still the case here, apart perhaps from that one impossibly kind Jewish lady, who is a saint.
If I’m honest, I could have lived the rest of my life without seeing another Borat film, and while I enjoyed this sequel well enough, and laughed a great deal, I could still stand to live the rest of my life without seeing another Borat film. I don’t think the world was crying out for a sequel, but it’s here, coming out of nowhere, and it’s pretty funny, and I’m not going to complain about that.
The Trial of the Chicago 7
In 1968, the US’s Democratic National Convention was talking place in Chicago, and a number of protests were planned against the expected nomination of Hubert Humphrey for presidential candidate, a man vilified by anti-war protestors as being a Vietnam War apologist. Permission to protest was roundly denied by the authorities, but protests happened anyway, with some ending in violence and conflict with the Chicago Police Department, and no small number of injuries.
The film suggests (and as I don’t recall ever having heard of this case before this film, I’m learning all I know about the trial of the Chicago 7 from The Trial of the Chicago 7, so please bear that in mind) that the newly-appointed US Attorney General wants to have a political trial, and instructs hotshot federal prosecutor, Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), to mount a conspiracy case against a selection of notable protest leaders, among whom are Sacha Baron Cohen’s Abbie Hoffman, Eddie Redmayne’s Tom Hayden and John Carroll Lynch’s David Dellinger. Charged alongside them, and for seemingly no reason except, you know, the glaringly obvious one, is also Black Panther leader, Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mahteen II).
With the help of Mark Rylance’s lead defence attorney, William Kunstler (who, before watching this film, I had only ever heard of when a certain Mr. J Lebowski of Los Angeles informed the fascist police chief of Malibu that, “I want a fucking lawyer, man. I want Bill Kunstler, man, or Ron Kuby”, but was apparently quite the big deal), the defendants must fight the government’s case, massively hamstrung by Frank Langella’s comically awful, prejudiced and wilfully ignorant and/or actually mentally unsound judge (every time he spoke I heard in my head Graham Chapman telling John Cleese’s Black Knight “yer a looney!”).
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, and is very much an Aaron Sorkin film. And that means Aaron Sorkin dialogue, and I am a big fan of Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue: it’s witty, intelligent, often scintillating and, usually, entertaining. It’s one of the primary reasons that I found The Trial of the Chicago 7 so compelling. It is, though, too often too perfect, and that’s a problem here, if a minor one. Appealing as it is to believe that these heroes of the right to protest could be so urbane, eloquent or, simply, so smart-arsed all of the time, it all feels a little too polished, particularly for something as chaotic as anti-war demonstrations.
A bigger issue with the film, though, is that it expends so much energy excoriating Frank Langella’s Judge Hoffman – rightly so, as he was clearly incompetent, something attested to by a survey at one point in which 78% of Chicago attorneys who appeared before him having a hugely negative opinion – and little more than lip service to the true villains of the piece, US Attorney General John N. Mitchell and a Mr R. M. Nixon, then of Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington DC.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s prosecutor is also rather let off the hook, something perhaps exacerbated by Gordon-Levitt being such a likeable presence, but beyond my earlier concern of not knowing how accurate it is due to lack of familiarity with the history, I have little negative to say: it’s funny, smart and very well-acted (Sacha Baron Cohen being a surprising standout, with his dubious accent more than compensated for by a lively performance, though I could’ve done with much more Michael Keaton), but I am left with a sense that Sorkin, a clear lover of the law and the idea that impassioned, righteous rhetoric can save the day (witness, particularly, the climax of A few Good Men) is disappointed that he couldn’t write the film in that way due to that not being how it actually happened, with 5 of the 8 men put on trial being found guilty at the time of incitement to riot. A disappointing ending, perhaps, but a fun, albeit enraging, and in many ways timely, ride.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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