In an attempt to avoid writing a completely negative review (which is against the principles of this blog) of Dee Rees’s The Last Thing He Wanted, I’ll focus on the new film’s strong suits. There is a good cast that includes Anne Hathaway, Ben Affleck, our national treasure Willem Dafoe, Rosie Perez, and Toby Jones. Though to be honest, none of them are near the peak of their strengths here, particularly Hathaway and the usually consistent Dafoe.
The film’s big accomplishment is taking the normally masculine-associated subgenres of noir and the paranoid conspiracy thriller and supplying them with a female protagonist. So Hathaway plays a reporter during the mid-point of the Reagan presidency who wants to avoid covering Reagan’s re-election campaign and focus on work she and her colleague, played by Perez, covered in El Salvador. When her absentee father played by Dafoe shows up unable to complete an arms deal where he’s the middle man, Hathaway’s character Elena impulsively decides to take his place and complete the arms transaction for him. This move is more plausible than it sounds because like the male protagonists of films such as The Parallax View and The Passenger, Elena is anti-social and her father’s arms deal intersects with the shady dealings between Latin America and the U.S. that she wants to cover. The messy, complicated female protagonist as well a man fatale played by Affleck surely have much to do with the film being adapted from the work of a female author, Joan Didion, as well as being made by a female director.
With a good cast, a complicated protagonist, and some interesting genre splicing and reversals, why does The Last Thing He Wanted seem to fall apart? The easy answer is that the film is predictable. You’ll guess what choices the characters will make long before they make them. The stronger answer is that the film lacks narrative consistency. The start of the film, showing Hathaway and Perez reporting in El Salvador, is basically a long flashback that almost feels like a trailer for a separate movie. Rees also largely avoids a film score until the last twenty minutes when heavy noir music abruptly begins to appear. Elena, the doomed hero, gets a thorough backstory, but none of the other characters do, leaving them simply good or evil. Overall, the film is a valiant effort. Maybe Didion was just difficult to film.
The first season of Narcos: Mexico on Netflix was an underrated masterwork. It told the sad, true story of Kiki Camarena, a Mexican-born American D.E.A. agent who was abducted, tortured, and killed in 1985. The first three seasons of the original series Narcos had repeatedly alluded to the murder of Camarena and how horrific it was (Camarena’s torturer’s put power drill holes into his body until one to his head killed him). While Narcos attempted a The Wire-esque portrait of the War on Drugs in Colombia, complete with backstories and B-plots for characters ranging from Colombian presidents to cartel sicarios, the first season of Narcos: Mexico told a tight, sad story about Camarena’s end and how it intersected with the rise of drug kingpin Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo (one of the suspects most likely responsible for Camarena’s murder).
With so many crime shows and films portraying Mexicans as cartel members and criminals, Narcos: Mexico was unique for telling the true story of a Mexican-American who fought and died serving the D.E.A. The writers didn’t make Camarena into a saintly martyr either. He is portrayed as being selfish, hot-headed, and more concerned with his job than getting along with his wife and co-workers. There is a haunting sequence in the first season where Camarena, played by Michael Pena, discovers an illegal marijuana field in Mexico. Surrounded by migrant workers unaware of his status as a D.E.A. agent, Camarena is presented as being truly alone in a crowd, magnifying his outsider status at work and home.
Pena was very good in the first season as was Diego Luna as Gallardo, and Luna along with the American actor Scoot McNairy is one of the main reasons to watch the new season of Narcos: Mexico for the writers have opted for the narrative sprawl of the original Narcos and so Narcos: Mexico becomes a little weaker in its second season. A subplot involving two competing female traffickers feels shoehorned in to make up for the show’s male-dominated story. Another storyline following a more honorable, old-school trafficker than Felix provides a fitting contrast to Felix’s ruthless ways, but in many ways still feels like it could have been its own show. With so many subplots, I wasn’t surprised to learn that McNairy’s character, D.E.A. agent Walt Breslin, was a composite character made up of multiple “real life” figures.
For most of the past decade, McNairy has almost only featured in interesting and adult projects (True Detective, Halt and Catch Fire, Godless, Argo, Killing Them Softly, The Rover, and the list goes on), and he is believable as the sad, reckless, everyman Walt. The major acting standout is Luna, who somehow is able to act with his entire being. Felix is not a static character. He starts off as a family man and a Mexican cop only to slowly lose his soul and become a tightly coiled cartel snake willing to murder women and children to send a message to his own employees. Luna can even project carrying a heavy mental weight with his back to the camera. He’s that good.
So there’s yet another American television program portraying Mexicans largely as cartel criminals and corrupt politicians, but the acting is good. Does that make it worth watching? I guess, if it can help educate cocaine users on how their purchases support crime and violence. As Brad Pitt’s character says in The Counselor, “think about that the next time you do a line.”
Editor’s Notes: The original three season Narcos played fast and loose with the facts. After watching the show, the first two seasons of which followed the D.E.A.’s hunt for Pablo Escobar, I read Mark Bowden’s landmark Killing Pablo to see where the show had held true to the facts and where they had printed the legend. I’d be curious to do something similar with Narcos: Mexico. I’ve read that Elaine Shannon’s Desperados covered the Camarena story shortly after his assassination occurred.
My sister and her boyfriend were kind and generous as usual and took me to The Last Bookstore in Downtown Los Angeles over the weekend. If you’re in Los Angeles and love books then this large, organized new and used bookstore is for you.
One of my discoveries at TLB was William Claxton’s Steve McQueen Photographs, published by Taschen in 2004. The late Claxton was born and raised in Southern California, and he was a famous photographer of jazz musicians, movie stars, and fashion models. Claxton and the mega movie star Steven McQueen became friends in the 1960s, and the book’s collection of photographs charts McQueen’s stardom right before and after John Sturges’s The Great Escape immortalized McQueen on celluloid.
Having read Marc Eliot’s very thorough biography on McQueen as well as the supremely touching memoir by Neil McQueen-Toffel (McQueen’s first wife), I was struck by Claxton’s frankness in his linear notes for the photos in this book. Rather than submit to blind worship of McQueen, Claxton mentions McQueen’s abusive treatment of studio-lent automobiles, general distrust of people, and rumored cocaine use (confirmed in Toffel’s book). I was also surprised to learn through the book that McQueen’s first child Terry had passed away. I was less surprised to see some of Claxton’s more tender photos of tough guy persona McQueen cuddling his family cat.
As film critic David Thomson has noted, McQueen is now regarded as somewhat of a hero. Though he passed away in 1980, the influence of The King of Cool continues to live on.
I said that I wouldn’t write negative reviews on this blog so I’ll try to find something positive to say about the mess that is Brian De Palma’s 2019 thriller Domino (currently streaming on Netflix). Any superficial criticism of the film can begin with the lack of originality in the title (the late Tony Scott also directed a film with the same title). More serious criticism can be the leveled at the film’s broad depiction of Islamic terrorists, its often poor-paced editing, and its general low-budget aesthetic.
Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (famous thanks to Game of Thrones) plays a Copenhagen police detective whose partner is killed on a routine arrest gone wrong due to Coster-Waldau forgetting his service weapon (just one of several implausibilities in the plot), Carice van Houten (also a veteran of Game of Thrones) plays another Copenhagen cop looking for the man who killed NCW’s partner, and Guy Pearce is a C.I.A. operative in possession of the killer everyone else is looking for.
Domino starts off as a film noir complete with a very traditional symphonic score and jarringly becomes an espionage film when it is revealed that the man who killed the hero’s partner is also looking for revenge against an ISIS leader who killed his father (you get an idea of how plotty this film is). So nearly every Muslim in the film is portrayed as a terrorist except for the necessary Muslim cop fighting with the good guys. De Palma rather recklessly includes a mass shooting at a film festival. The world has enough of these horrors already, and cinema doesn’t need to depict them especially if Muslims are to be typecast as the shooters.
The film’s edits seem to happen a beat or two before expected giving the editing an unnaturally noticeable feel. There is a great, nearly wordless sequence at a bullfight (this coming from someone who hates bullfights) that is both suspenseful and recalls silent films.
What else can I say that’s positive when it comes to such an unnecessary film? Well, Coster-Waldau is likable and handsome, Pearce is fun to watch as usual, and at least De Palma is still making movies.
I didn’t plan on watching the Oscars last night. The broadcast just happened to be playing at the restaurant I was located. I’m grateful that I got to see the last handful of awards especially Joaquin Phoenix’s win for Best Actor in Joker. Phoenix, once known for abhorring the awards show circuit he was paraded through with Walk the Line, displayed gratitude, humility, compassion, and wisdom in his wide-ranging acceptance speech that promoted forgiveness over woke ‘cancel culture’ and compassion for animals over destructive natural resource plundering. So now we know he is both a great actor as well as brave and thoughtful. Phoenix was already brilliant in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master and Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here. The rest of us are now caught up.
I’m five episodes into showrunner Richard Price’s miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s The Outsider on HBO. The premium channel is clearly looking to profit off the southern gothic whodunnit premise and aesthetic of its first season of True Detective as well as its own Sharp Objects miniseries. When a young boy is brutally murdered in a small town, the local baseball coach (Jason Bateman) is arrested for the crime despite being in another state when the murder occurred. Everything about the series indicates craftsmanship from the meticulous cinematography to the abnormally exceptional cast (Ben Mendelsohn, Bateman, Julianne Nicholson, Cynthia Erivo, Bill Camp, and Yul Vazquez), but this is a Stephen King adaptation so with that comes a supernatural doppelgänger premise that worked in a postmodern show like Twin Peaks, but only the remaining episodes of The Outsider will reveal if Price and company can pull the premise off in a more straightforward and earnest show such as this one.
I had the good fortune yesterday of driving from Long Beach to Rancho Palos Verdes for a close friend’s wedding. The drive from Long Beach through Rancho Palos Verdes for the wedding itself and then through Torrance, Hermosa Beach, and finally to Manhattan Beach for the reception was gorgeous. This world is certainly full of beauty and goodness.
The Master (2012)- At last month’s Cold Violets concert at The Troubador, an acquaintance asked a friend and I what we thought was the best film of the prior decade. I knew my answer before he even finished his question and replied, “The Master.” My acquaintance, his girlfriend, and my friend collectively ignored my response. Weeks later, the more I think about Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece, the more I’m convinced it is simply the best film of the decade. Where do I even begin to try to find the words to describe this work’s brilliance? Well, there is the obvious motif of a father figure and a surrogate son coming together, falling apart, and then having a confrontation, present in each of PTA’s films save Phantom Thread. There is the near-flawless acting of the cast including the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Rami Malek a few years before Mr. Robot would make him a star, Laura Dern, and, of course, Joaquin Phoenix. With The Master, Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, and Todd Philips’s Joker, Phoenix has clearly established himself as one of the greatest living American actors. In each of these films, Phoenix plays a social outcast who must violently confront both his own trauma as well as a hostile world, each to the tune of psychically discordant music. If any actor has made the case that the actor can be as much of an auteur as the filmmaker, then it is Phoenix and it all started with this work of art.
Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood (2019)- Mostly eschewing the recent obsession that has damaged his output since Kill Bill, Quentin Tarantino returned last year with a big-hearted fairy tale set in the 1960s Hollywood. The film has garnered the same two major complaints, the first being that the narrative doesn’t stay true to the facts of the Sharon Tate murder. That this film doesn’t take place in the ‘real world’ should be apparent to anyone who can observe the ubiquity of kindness and courtesy that most of the characters show one another in the film. Another common complaint is that not enough happens. I’d encourage you to look again. Even just the Western TV show production section of the film illustrates how false this observation is, as Tarantino self-reflexively comments on the precarity of success in the entertainment industry simply through his casting! The late Luke Perry is a stand-in for all showbiz careers that have fallen while Timothy Olyphant represents all rising stars. Their casting parallels the positioning of the falling star Rick Dalton and his young costar in the same section of the film. This film is a masterpiece, and one that would probably disturb Tarantino to realize just how conservative it is.
The Tree of Life (2011)- I can think of no other film that truly encapsulates the feeling of how brief our time on this earth is and yet how connected we all are to an infinite cosmos. Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain are stellar in this work that is a subtle reminder that each breath we take is a miracle.
Zero Dark Thirty (2012)- Along with Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty will go down as one of the decade’s most politically polarizing films. The movie has been routinely criticized for depicting that the C.I.A.’s torture practices led to the procurement of information that led to the assassination of Osama bin Laden. Mark Bowden has astutely observed that if the film hadn’t portrayed these torture practices, then the same critics would accuse the filmmakers of being negligent. Alas, I don’t think there is any way for Bigelow and her screenwriter Mark Boal to win any arguments against those who disapprove of this film. Zero Dark Thirty presents a C.I.A. and to a significant extent, an America, that fundamentally doesn’t know what it is doing. This is seen through Kyle Chandler’s oblivious C.I.A. official as well as the infamous scene where the late James Gandolfini’s C.I.A. director is utterly clueless as to where bin Laden is and which of his employees are looking for him. A.O. Scott rightly noted that the film ends in tears, not solely triumph. The film is a tragedy about what wars and violence cost us all.
The Irishman (2019)- Once again, Martin Scorsese presents the finer side of life as a criminal only to say, “You think this is attractive. Well, look at what it will eventually cost you.” Faithfully adapted from Charles Brandt’s book by Steve Zaillian, The Irishman, like The Master and Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, presents a postwar era populated by men both macho and emotional, doing more damage than good. Robert DeNiro hasn’t been this good or heartbreaking in years, and he’s ably supported by Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel, Bobby Cannavale, and Anna Paquin.
Tales of the Grim Sleeper (2014)- British documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield certainly puts the ‘grim’ into this outrageous film about the Los Angeles Police Department’s ineptitude in catching a serial killer who preyed on African-American prostitutes. Much of the film exists and works because Broomfield wisely situates himself with locals living near the murders simply by hanging out with them and letting them tell their stories. That this film hasn’t been brought up much in the Black Lives Matter movement is surprising.
Phantom Thread (2017)- Paul Thomas Anderson appears again on this list thanks to this lush, surprising film. Yes, the allusions to Alfred Hitchcock are there, but so are repeat PTA collaborators Daniel Day-Lewis and Jonny Greenwood along with the breakout star Vicky Krieps.
It Follows (2014)- David Robert Mitchells’s sophomore film established him as a major voice in American film. The genre-blending work is a terrifying take on budding adolescent sexuality, propelled by haunting visuals and Maika Monroe’s believable performance.
Collaborator (2011)- Perhaps the most underrated U.S. film of the past decade. Martin Henderson’s hostage film is more of a showbiz and class drama than yet another home invasion thriller. Henderson plays a liberal bi-coastal playwright who returns to his Los Angeles childhood home only to be confronted by his right-wing ex-felon neighbor played by David Morse. I won’t give any more of this film away because it is best seen with as little prior knowledge as possible. The ever-reliable Olivia Williams is also very strong here.
Sicario (2015)- Obviously Denis Villeneuve’s film is in conversation with the many recent film and television programs related to the ongoing drug wards, but none of them accomplish the feat of representing the disorienting unknowability of who the good guys and bad guys are quite like this film. Taylor Sheridan wrote the script, and his second film in the series, Soldado, needs to be seen along with this one.