Friday, August 16, 2019

'Where'd You Go, Bernadette,' And Why Should I Care?


"Manjula, I need to order a black scarf, decidedly less itchy than the monstrosity currently around my neck."

Unless it's a genre I actively dislike, I can usually find something in a story to glom on to, even if it's just the setting, or the music, or the costumes, especially when the central character is a woman, roughly my age, living a life I may not be living, but can certainly recognize. But Where'd You Go, Bernadette has to be one of the weirdest works of art I've ever experienced, because in both its book and now movie forms I wasn't able to connect with it at all. And I really have no idea why.

When the book was a best seller, I tried to read it, more than once, but I just couldn't get past the first dozen or so pages. I assumed it was the epistolary format, and maybe the satirical tone that I didn't find particularly funny, but sitting down to watch director Richard Linklater's film version, I was faced with the same feeling of disconnect. I wanted to become engaged with the film, sat there waiting for that happen, and never felt it.

And this time, I can't really blame the format (although translating that epistolary storytelling technique does lead to a lot of monologues and people talking, uninterrupted, for a lot longer than they naturally would). Cate Blanchett as Bernadette, along with Kristen Wiig as her nemesis neighbor Audrey, certainly bring the right level of comedy to their roles, and they both almost save the movie. But for almost half of its running time I kept asking myself, "What is this movie even about?"

I suppose a big answer can be found in the title itself. While Bernadette does "disappear" towards the end of the story, the truth is the real Bernadette has been missing for years. She lives in Seattle with her husband Elgin (Billy Crudup) and their 15-year-old daughter, Bee (Emma Nelson), in a huge, dilapidated former girls home called Straight Gate, which sits on a hillside overrun with blackberry bushes.

You can catch bits of whimsy throughout the home, like wall decorations made out of old school books, and a door in a crumbling room may open up to a beautifully restored bathroom, but you get the sense the house is a project long ago abandoned. Why the family lives there, and why some of it is stunning and innovative while the rest is a disaster is a mystery for way too long, which is one of the screenplay's (by Linklater, Nina Jacobson, and Brad Simpson) biggest problems.

Facts about Bernadette's past, and just what made her a curmudgeonly, insomnious, misanthrope are doled out too slowly, so that you spend the first half of the movie wondering if you're actually supposed to think she's off her rocker, or if she's just reacting as anyone might to a "gnat" of a neighbor who fakes injuries for sympathy, a husband who works too much at his Microsoft job, and a daughter who has decided to leave for boarding school. This is the most crushing to her, as Bee is the only person who seems to understand her.

Removing what is essentially the central mystery of the novel turns the story into more of a character study, and while Cate Blanchett's Bernadette can be certainly be an entertaining asshole to watch, I needed to see more of the supposedly stifled creative genius in her if I was going to garner any real sympathy for her situation, which, on the surface, certainly doesn't look too bad.

Bernadette spends most of her days puttering around her home, driving Bee to and from school, occasionally falling asleep on pharmacy couches, and dictating long emails to her virtual personal assistant Manjula, who takes care of things like refilling prescriptions, ordering fishing vests, and booking travel. The travel, vest, and prescription are all needed for the family's upcoming trip to Antarctica, a reward for Bee's perfect report card. Bernadette is, as she tends to be with most things, not exactly excited about the trip, but it isn't a spoiler to say she does get there. Her kayaking among the glaciers is the film's opening shot.

The film's final stretch, centered in Antarctica (actually Greenland) is definitely beautiful, and may have you contemplating your own treacherous sea voyage to get there. It almost had me buying that Bernadette could actually "find" herself there. I could buy it. But I still couldn't feel it.




Friday, August 2, 2019

'Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw', Deck's Redemption

"Has anyone scene my motorcycle, Fido?"

Every time I see a movie in the Fast & Furious franchise, I have to remind myself that I have, indeed, seen every single movie in the series. And then I realize I don't remember a goddamn thing about any of them. In theory, that shouldn't come as a surprise. They're fast paced action films, the cinematic equivalent of a thrilling car ride, and when was the last time you came away from one of those experiences remembering every detail?

The thing is, the Fast & Furious universe is as complicated as a Tolkien saga, with way more plot than they'd ever need, numerous heroes who become villains, and villains who become heroes (with their own movies), and so many sisters and brothers marrying their best friend's/worst enemy's brother or sister I still need to remind myself Vin Diesel and Michelle Rodriguez are married in the series, and not siblings. (Though who knows, maybe that'll be another twist in a future film.)

Trying to remember and catch up on this stuff never seems to work for me, so I tend to just go into the films like they're all stand-alones, and for the most part, that can work out fine. Of course, there's probably more enjoyment to be had when you can watch and piece it all together, going back five movies, but when there are also enough car chases, explosions, and fights to enjoy, why bother trying to think?

Which brings us to Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw, the first "spin-off" from the series, which implies it was designed so you wouldn't need to know too much about the other movies to enjoy it. And in fact, coming in cold may be help. That way you wouldn't know that Jason Stathams's Deckard Shaw was once a cold blooded killer who murdered a lot of people, including one of the franchise's favorites. (And no, I didn't remember that; a friend had to remind me.) But no matter, he's a hero now, paired up with Dwayne Johnson's Luke Hobbs, the retired DSS agent and former prison mate he loathes.

You might be wondering who thought it was a good idea to pair two people who fantasize about bashing each others skulls in every time they're around each other to help save the world, and I am too, because despite seeing the movie this week, I can't remember. What is it with this franchise and my instant amnesia?!

This I do remember: they're sent on a mission to retrieve a deadly virus, one that could bring about the end of humanity (well, at least the end of weak humanity), which was apparently stolen by rogue MI6 agent Hattie Shaw (Vanessa Kirby). Yes, Hattie Shaw is Deckard Shaw's sister.

Brixton Lore (Idris Elba), another former MI6-agent-gone-bad, is also hot on that virus's trail. He's got history with Deckard Shaw (because of course), and has now teamed up with a terrorist organization that goes by "Eteon." Thanks to them, he's mechanically enhanced, bullet proof, and in possession of a self-driving motorcycle that shows up like an eager puppy when summoned. (Great. Will those now replace rentable e-bikes all over the country?)

While we know Hattie was actually framed, it takes Hobbs and Shaw a little while to figure that out, and a little longer to realize the virus she "stole" is still on her person, literally, having been injected in capsule form into her palm. The majority of the film is then a race against the clock to figure out how to get the capsules out of her before they dissolve and she becomes the Walking Black Death. (Cutting off her hand never seems to occur to them, and she certainly doesn't seem to be protecting that palm during all the fist fighting she goes through.)

But really, Hobbs & Shaw succeeds or fails based on three things: car chases, fighting, and banter. I was definitely entertained by the former, a little less so by the latter. Too often the barbs they toss at each other come off as lazy and too juvenile (I think at one point Hobbs jokes about doing the "sexy hula hula" with Shaw's sister). Much funnier are scenes between Dwayne Johnson and Ryan Reynolds, who makes an appearance as a former co-worker and "best friend" of Hobbs, but that's probably because Reynolds has much more natural comedic talent than Jason Statham does. (That Ryan Reynolds shows up isn't much of a surprise when you consider director David Leitch also directed Deadpool 2.)

And while there might not be quite as many elaborate car chases as your average Fast & Furious film, what's there doesn't disappoint, particularly the one involving a bunch of trucks, a helicopter, and the side of a cliff. Is Hobbs & Shaw a good movie? Does it matter? The important thing is, in a year or two, when the next entry in the franchise inevitably comes out, I'll have forgotten this one completely, and I'll be ready and eager for that next exhilarating car ride.