Giri/Haji (Duty/Shame)

Giri Haji
Photo courtesy of Netflix

Hi there. How’s your pandemic going? I feel fortunate in that I can say mine is going fine, all things considered — thanks for asking (knock on wood). My best wishes for health and sanity to you, dear reader.

Over the past year or so, I’ve watched a lot of “Nordic noir” and plain-old European noir — Department Q, Fallet, Baptiste, Case, Bordertown, Deadwind, The Break, The Returned, The Valhalla Murders, Modus, La Mante, The Forest, The Frozen Dead, and Black Spot (and believe it or not, I know I’m forgetting something). What can I say? I’m a Europhile, and I love mysteries. However, nothing I’ve watched in recent years has been as unusual as Giri/Haji (Japanese for “Duty/Shame”), a British/Japanese crime thriller now on Netflix. This show is a doozy. Fresh Air critic John Powers wrote a terrific review, including this: “The show is in both English and subtitled Japanese that also cross-pollinates genres — mixing cop show, yakuza thriller, love story, anime, and hokey family melodrama, all spiked with bits of offbeat comedy. ‘Giri/Haji’ is unlike anything else on TV.”

The plot begins when Tokyo police detective Kenzo Mori (Takehiro Hira) is dispatched to London to bring back his brother Yuto (Yosuke Kubozuka), a yakuza gang member who has murdered a rival yakuza boss’s nephew in London. From there, the plot thickeners include a Scottish policewoman, a Cockney crime boss and his flunkies, a half-Japanese male prostitute, Kenzo’s rebellious teenage daughter, Kenzo’s neglected wife and difficult parents, and a gangster’s gorgeous daughter — just for starters. The show’s style zips blissfully along its own eclectic path, incorporating anime, flashbacks and flash-forwards, ghostly visitations, and even a poignant rooftop ballet.

Plot twists abound, and sometimes the turn of events will flatten you, as when a supporting character who wasn’t a great guy, but wasn’t horrible either, is suddenly and violently sent to meet his maker. The storyline is unpredictable, to say the least. Buckle in and enjoy.

And if you need a palate-cleanser afterward, as I did, check out the BBC’s W1A, if you haven’t yet. We’ve been re-watching it. It’s a merry little comedy on Netflix about Ian Fletcher (Hugh Bonneville), newly appointed Head of Values at the BBC. We Americans don’t get all the jokes, as some of them reference celebrities only known to U.K. television audiences, but it’s hilarious nevertheless.

2001, Barry Lyndon, and Stanley Kubrick

Photo credit: Warner Bros. via Museum of the Moving Image, New York

Last night, Matt, Ben, and I watched 2001: A Space Odyssey with our good friend Mart. It’s a film we’d all seen before more than once, but none of us had seen it for several years. Yes, we’re a couple of years late for the 50th anniversary of the film’s debut (1968), but life gets busy, right? Anyway, it was a good opportunity to revisit what I consider to be Stanley Kubrick’s high-water mark, and to share my thoughts on Kubrick’s work in general.

There’s simply no overstating what a watershed moment 2001 was in filmmaking. It revolutionized film technology and cinematic storytelling, and it even managed to predict technological innovations in our daily lives. I guess we can forgive the fact that the film’s costumes and hairstyles (especially for the women) remain locked in the 1960s — otherwise we might start to wonder whether Kubrick himself was one of the omniscient aliens who oversee and guide humankind’s development in 2001. The movie holds up as a stellar mind-trip that is endlessly open to interpretation.

Matt and I watched Barry Lyndon (1975) for the first time a couple of months ago. This is one of Kubrick’s lesser-known films — not a hit when it was first released, but one that some critics have praised in recent years. It’s probably my least favorite Kubrick picture. The film is gorgeous to look at, packed with stunning, painterly scenes of the Irish and English countryside, featuring fabulous sets and costumes. Kubrick famously used only natural light from candles for the interior scenes, which gives a rich chiaroscuro to the proceedings. But the film is also self-indulgent, arrogant, and a bit boring. Scenes stretch on for much too long. Ryan O’Neal plays the title character, a man who is buffeted by life’s travails as he makes his not-always-honorable way in the world. Ryan O’Neal? The all-American boy next door from Love Story? Yes, that Ryan O’Neal. He wasn’t known for his acting chops, and his Irish accent is inconsistent, to say the least, but he comes through with the emoting when he needs to. However, evidently Kubrick didn’t want us to become too attached to Barry or his (mis)deeds. The audience sits back and watches a life play out in an uncaring world where nothing really matters — a nihilistic world-view that doesn’t resonate with me.

For another viewpoint, I’ll let the late, great Roger Ebert have his say: “Perhaps Kubrick’s buried theme in Barry Lyndon is even similar to his outlook in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Both films are about organisms striving to endure and prevail — and never mind the reason. The earlier film was about the human race itself; this one is about a depraved minor example of it. Barry journeys without plan, sees what he desires, tries to acquire it and perhaps succeeds because he plays roles so well without being remotely dedicated to them. He looks the part of a lover, a soldier, a husband. But there is no there there.”

As I mentioned in my earlier post about the marvelous Kubrick aide Leon Vitali, Film Worker, I think Kubrick was a genius, but he was not without his blind spots. He doesn’t “get,” or isn’t interested in, women. Granted, many of his movies take on figures of authority and power, which have historically been men, so his narratives naturally focus on male characters. But even in something like Eyes Wide Shut, which is ostensibly about sexual desire both inside and outside a marriage, Nicole Kidman’s character is really just a catalyst for the journey of Tom Cruise’s character. I’ll end by quoting my earlier post: “(Kubrick) sometimes softened the harsher details of his source material, making despicable figures such as Humbert Humbert in Lolita and Alex in A Clockwork Orange more palatable. He also seems to have been a bit of a perv, always finding a way to include at least one scene of a scantily-clad or nude woman in most of his films. That said, I think The Shining is the quintessential horror film, and it’s one of my top five favorite movies.”

Bowman: You know, of course, though, he’s right about the 9000 series having a perfect operational record. They do.

Poole: Unfortunately, that sounds a little like famous last words.

—  2001: A Space Odyssey 

Ford v Ferrari

Matt Damon and Christian Bale (TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX).

If you love a good race car movie (and who doesn’t?), drive at a safe and reasonable speed to your friendly neighborhood cinema to see Ford v Ferrari, the thrilling tale of American carmaker Ford’s efforts to boost its sales and reputation by beating Italy’s Ferrari at the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans race in 1966.

Leading the charge are Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), an American race car driver and designer, and Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a British driver and engineer. They do battle with the arrogant, short-sighted suits at Ford while negotiating their own volatile friendship, crafting the fastest vehicle they can. We also see glimpses of Miles’ domestic life; he has a smart and spunky wife (a very good Caitriona Balfe) and an adoring son (Noah Jupe). The racing sequences are exhilarating, but there’s plenty of human drama as well, and Damon and Bale are at the top of their games. If you really want to get your adrenaline pumping, follow a screening of Ford v Ferrari with the excellent Rush from 2013, the story of the 1970s rivalry between Formula One racers James Hunt and Niki Lauda.

I rooted for the Ford team throughout Ford v Ferrari, of course, but I have to admit to having a soft spot in my heart for European cars, an affection I owe to my father. He loved fast German cars, especially Porsches, of which he owned two (in succession) that I’m aware of. One was a targa from the early 1970s; here’s a photo I love of my late brother and me with it in 1973. He’s rocking a white jumpsuit, and I’m looking fabulous in pigtails.

1973 Lane and Alyssa in St. George

We’re lighter, we’re faster, and if that don’t work, we’re nastier.

— Carroll Shelby, Ford v Ferrari

Knives Out

Knives Out
From left: Don Johnson, Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans, K Callan, Ana de Armas, Christopher Plummer, Michael Shannon, Jaeden Lieberher, Riki Lindholm, Toni Collette, and Katherine Langford in “Knives Out.” CLAIRE FOLGER/LIONSGATE

After suffering through a dry spell in which there were no movies I really wanted to see, I now have several to write about, and the first one I’m going to cover is Knives Out, because I think it makes delightful holiday viewing. Writer and director Rian Johnson has crafted a winning valentine to Agatha Christie-style murder mysteries while paying homage to some of my favorite mystery/thriller/comedies from the 1970s, such as Murder on the Orient Express and Murder by Death. Like those films, he’s assembled an all-star cast in an enclosed space with a mysterious murder at the center and a dash of humor.

Daniel Craig hams it up as “gentleman detective” Benoit Blanc, who’s been retained by persons unknown to investigate the sudden death of famous mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer). Craig’s all-over-the-map Southern accent is no more authentic than the one he affected in the marvelous Logan Lucky, but he’s having a fabulous time, as are the rest of the excellent cast, who play the bickering, avaricious members of Thrombey’s grieving family.  The film is a satisfying blend of red herrings and plot twists, laced with a sprinkle of commentary about immigration and wealth disparity in the age of Trump.

Go see it with your own (non-bickering, I hope) family this holiday season.

Lt. Elliott: I’m Detective Lieutenant Elliot, and this is Trooper Wagner. We just want to ask a few questions. Now we understand, the night of his demise, the family had gathered to celebrate your father’s eighty-fifth birthday. How was it, by the way?

Linda Drysdale: The party? Pre-my dad’s death? Oh, it was great.

— Knives Out (


Once Upon A Time…in Hollywood

Photo credit: Andrew Cooper

I’m generally not a fan of Quentin Tarantino’s films (although, checking his filmography on IMDB, I’ve seen more of them than I realized), but because I love movies, Hollywood, and stories about showbiz, I had to see Once Upon A Time…in Hollywood. It’s Tarantino’s love letter to what many critics have been calling “the Golden Age of Hollywood” (which isn’t really accurate — I think most cinephiles would agree that some span of years from the 1930s to the 1950s is actually the golden age of cinema, and a strong argument could be made for the auteur era of the 1970s). But however you slice it, the movie is a valentine to Los Angeles in the 1960s: replete with arcane pop-culture references, a groovy top-40 soundtrack, and trippy costumes.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays TV star Rick Dalton, whose star is no longer ascendant; Brad Pitt is Dalton’s pal and longtime stunt double Cliff Booth. As they make their way through a changing film industry, their paths intersect with Charles Manson and his Family and with Dalton’s next-door neighbors, starlet Sharon Tate and her husband, director Roman Polanski. The film is long, somewhat meandering in its plot, and much less violent than your typical Tarantino outing (a definite plus, in my book). In the end, it’s a fairy tale that celebrates youth, beauty, celebrity, and stoic (male) heroism. As others have noted, the film is very white and fairly sexist. The most self-actualized and feminist thinker in the movie is not a woman — not Sharon Tate or Dalton’s Italian-actress wife — she is Trudi Fraser, an ambitious and precocious 8-year-old actor on Lancer, a TV show on which Dalton is guest-starring. Fraser gives Dalton a crash course in Method acting and female confidence that is delightful to watch, even if it’s wildly implausible.

Once Upon A Time… doesn’t change my opinion of Tarantino as a master of style but not of substance; I always feel there’s a hollowness at the center of his films. But it’s definitely my favorite Tarantino film to date, and a fun night out at the movies.

I’m as real as a donut.

— Manson Family member Tex Watson, Once Upon A Time…in Hollywood


Dark 2

Photo by Julia Terjung / Netflix

My stepson and I just finished watching season 2 of the Netflix thriller Dark, a German show I’ve mentioned before. If you don’t mind time-travel scenarios that will make your brain start to ooze out your ears, then this is your thing. Moody and atmospheric settings, ominous music, scary happenings, mind-bending plot twists, terrific acting — Dark has got it going on.

As with any time-travel story, you’ll need to suspend the ol’ disbelief but good. The tale begins with a boy’s disappearance from a village at the edge of a creepy forest (of course!), which leads to more strange doings and uncovers sinful secrets among the townsfolk. Sprinkled in among the eventual time jumps are musings from several characters about the nature of time, faith, and the human condition, so if you like your spooky thrillers with a dose of world-weary philosophical theories, you’re all set. To reveal more about the plot would do a disservice to this riveting tale of tangled family connections, furtive love affairs, nuclear dangers, and cosmic power struggles. Just go watch it.

Once you’ve watched seasons 1 and 2 (there will be a third and final season) and you need an expert to help you make sense of it all, I highly recommend the funny and insightful wrap-up by Maggie Fremont on VultureAlso helpful is TV Guide’s family tree showing how the town’s four central families are connected.

H.G. Tannhaus: Will you tell me…what the future’s like?

The Stranger: I’m hoping that by tomorrow, it’ll already be different from today.

Dark, Season 1: “Alpha and Omega”

Great News

Great News
Photo courtesy NBC

Some readers of this blog are not fans of mysteries, detective shows, crime shows (both true and fake), etc., so here’s a little gift for them: an urgent admonition to get on Netflix and watch Great News, if they haven’t already. I discovered this little gem on our flight to London in October 2017, and I honestly don’t know why I haven’t written about it yet. It’s a comedy from executive producer Tina Fey that had me laughing out loud on the plane. And couldn’t we all use a little comedy right about now?

Briga Heelan stars as Katie Wendelson, a segment producer for the news program The Breakdown at a cable channel in New York. Her professional life is upended when her mom, Carol (a hilarious Andrea Martin), is hired at the station as an intern. The entire cast is wonderful: John Michael Higgins (long a favorite of mine) as Chuck Pierce, a vain, egocentric, old-school news anchor; Nicole Richie (surprisingly good!) as a vain, egocentric, millennial news anchor; Adam Campbell as an uptight British executive producer (and Katie’s boss/love interest); and creator Tracey Wigfield as the program’s really strange weather forecaster. Tina Fey is terrific in a supporting role in Season 2 as a ruthlessly ambitious station boss.

Great News originally aired on NBC, which had the gall to cancel this delightful show after just two seasons. If you love comedies along the lines of 30 Rock and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, then this will be just your cup of tea. I loved being introduced to Andrea Martin, who I know I’ve seen in things over the years but hadn’t really seen enough of to appreciate. She is a national comedy treasure (even if she does live in Toronto). If you need a bit more of her after watching Great News, I recommend Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Episode 11: “Kimmy Googles the Internet!” 

In the movies, villains always have British accents — even the Nazis! How is that fair?

— Greg, Great News, Season 1: “Chuck Pierce Is Blind”


Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile

Incredibly Wicked
Zac Efron as Ted Bundy and Lily Collins as Elizabeth Kendall. Photo courtesy IMDb.

If, like me, one of your guilty pleasures is true crime, there’s a double-header on Netflix for you right now: Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile and Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. Both are about Ted Bundy, the notorious serial killer who committed at least 30 homicides in seven states between 1974 and 1978. (In my own defense: I’m not someone who’s obsessed with serial killer stories, but I do find Bundy’s tale compelling because he was active in my hometown during my childhood, so there’s a local connection for me.)

Conversations with a Killer is a documentary featuring taped interviews with the murderer when he was on death row, and Extremely Wicked (the title is a verbatim quote from the judge at Bundy’s trial in Florida) is a fiction film based on the memoir of Bundy’s former girlfriend, Elizabeth Kendall (her pen name). Both films are directed by Joe Berlinger.

Zac Efron plays Bundy in Extremely Wicked and also served as one of the film’s executive producers. Perhaps that explains why the movie, which is billed as focusing on Bundy’s story from Liz Kendall’s point of view, actually spends more time examining the enigmatic, charismatic Bundy. Lily Collins is solid as Kendall, but her somewhat bland character can’t compete with Efron’s charming sociopath, and Efron does a great job as the magnetic Bundy. Some reviews have criticized the film for glamorizing Bundy and taking a too-sympathetic view of him, and I have to agree. But if you’re going to watch it, be sure to stick around for the prison confession scene at the end, when Bundy finally admits to Kendall — after years of denials — that he’s guilty of the crimes for which he’s imprisoned. The handling of that moment is deeply chilling and very effective.

It’s been a few months since I watched Conversations, but I remember it was a riveting look into Bundy’s history and his depraved, calculating mind. (Utah natives will get a kick out of the inaccurate scenery used for various Utah locations in the documentary.) If you’re interested in Ted Bundy and are choosing between Extremely Wicked or Conversations, I recommend the latter.

Ted Bundy: You fell in love with a weirdo.

Liz Kendall: I did. I fell in love with a weirdo.

Ted Bundy: That makes you weird, just by association.

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile

Kubrick Fan? Check Out ‘Filmworker’

filmworker photo from
Stanley Kubrick and Leon Vitali. Photo from

I’m a bit late to the party on this film, since it came out in October of 2017, but in case you’ve missed it too — if you love the work of Stanley Kubrick, and you haven’t watched Filmworker yet, you’ll want to.  It’s a riveting documentary about Leon Vitali, a British actor who gave up a thriving career on stage and screen in the mid-1970s to subsume himself in the work of Stanley Kubrick, becoming the director’s apprentice, right-hand man, and, at times, whipping boy.

Vitali was still at drama school when he saw 2001: A Space Odyssey and declared it the best movie he’d ever seen. He was likewise impressed with A Clockwork Orange, and he decided he wanted to work for Kubrick. Vitali’s agent arranged an audition for Barry Lyndon, and the actor scored a role as Lord Bullingdon. His time working with Kubrick on that film (Vitali stayed on after shooting was finished to watch how the editing was done) sparked a desire to work with the celebrated director behind the scenes. Kubrick recommended the young actor get some more experience, which Vitali did by helping out in the editing room of a Swedish movie called Terror of Frankenstein (in which he also starred as Victor Frankenstein). Then Vitali contacted Kubrick, who sent him Stephen King’s novel The Shining and asked him what he thought. Vitali told the director he thought it would make a great movie, and the rest is history — albeit a history of which moviegoers were largely unaware until this film was released, and a history that sheds new light on Kubrick’s status as a loner genius.

Vitali took on a wide range of duties for the director, including traveling to the U.S. and auditioning roughly 4,000 children to play Danny in The Shining. He also helped cast R. Lee Ermey as the drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket, and he served as on-set acting coach for both those actors. To hear Vitali tell it, his duties over the years were endless; he helped Kubrick on set, but he also took copious notes for the director, handled correspondence and phone calls, arranged logistics — and often took the brunt of Kubrick’s mercurial temper.

Vitali worked for the famously meticulous Kubrick 14 or so hours a day, seven days a week, yet still somehow had time for a marriage and three children. His kids, now grown, recall their father as a loving but mostly absent presence who was constantly working. One failing of the documentary is that it barely skims Vitali’s personal life; his ex-wife is never mentioned, let alone interviewed, and the toll his devotion to Kubrick took on his relationships and his health is noted only briefly.

(I should mention that I greatly admire Kubrick’s work, but not without some reservations; he was incredibly talented, but he falls short — or maybe wasn’t interested — in realistic depictions of female characters. He sometimes softened the harsher details of his source material, making despicable figures such as Humbert Humbert in Lolita and Alex in A Clockwork Orange more palatable. He also seems to have been a bit of a perv, always finding a way to include at least one scene of a scantily-clad or nude woman in most of his films. That said, I think The Shining is the quintessential horror film, and it’s one of my top five favorite movies.)

Since Kubrick’s death in 1999, Vitali has dedicated himself to securing Kubrick’s legacy, overseeing the restoration of most of the director’s films with the same perfectionist attention to detail that was Kubrick’s hallmark. Watching Vitali’s complete sacrifice of his own ambitions in the service of Kubrick’s creative vision, you’re struck by all the Leons — in varying degrees of self-sacrifice — who make the grand artistic statements of others possible.

What Leon did was a selfless act, a kind of crucifixion of himself.

— Matthew Modine, Filmworker

Forget What You’ve Heard About ‘Vice’

Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld, left, Christian Bale as Dick Cheney, and Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush. 

I had heard that the Dick Cheney biopic starring Christian Bale, Vice, was disappointing, so I was going to skip it. I’m very glad I didn’t — it’s a wild, crazy, funny ride through the life of one of the most influential politicians of recent times.

Christian Bale’s performance alone is worth the price of admission. He is completely transformed into Cheney, doing the dramatic weight change that Bale has carried off for other films. But he also nails Cheney’s weird head tilt and habit of speaking out of one side of his mouth. Amy Adams is terrific as Lynne Cheney, Steve Carell is great as Donald Rumsfeld, and Sam Rockwell really deserves his own movie as George W. Bush.

If viewers were expecting a stately, by-the-numbers biopic, that would explain their disappointment. This is no Lincoln. Vice is a freewheeling romp that veers from scenes of Cheney’s misspent youth to glimpses of White House intrigue, punctuated by narration from a character (Jesse Plemons) whose connection to Cheney is only revealed near the end of the movie. One highlight is a sequence in which Dick and Lynne, tucked cozily in bed, plot their machinations in faux-Shakespearean iambic pentameter. A dollop of Macbeth, anyone?

In a wonderful profile in The New York Times Magazine, director Adam McKay says, “We’re discovering new styles and forms, because this era we’re in demands it. The world has gotten so cartoonishly exaggerated and over the top. Why be subtle anymore?” Why indeed, and Vice is by turns hilarious and frightening, but never subtle. If you want to know about the differences between the film’s Cheney and the real Cheney, The New Yorker has a good article by Nicholas Lemann. And if your political views align with the conservatism of the Reagan/Bush era, then you’re probably better off passing on this film.

I’m having a heart attack, you idiot.

— Dick Cheney, Vice