Like most writers, I try to find an entertaining hook or an interesting angle for each piece I write. As I prepared to write this review of Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, a documentary chronicling the life, career, and vivacity of a Broadway and Hollywood legend, my initial instinct was to focus on Elaine herself. After all, at 87 years of age, Elaine Stritch continues to live a fascinating life, performing one-woman musical shows, and making waves dropping F bombs on the set of ‘Today’ with Kathie Lee and Hota. Elaine is a badass who lives her life by a no bullshit policy that somehow makes her refreshing instead of caustic.
We’ll get back to Elaine in a moment, though. The most important thing I can impart to my readers about Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me is just how spot-on director and producer Chiemi Karasawa’s instincts are in the creation of this documentary. Karasawa avoids unnecessary voice-overs and narration, allowing interviews with Elaine herself to carry the narrative of the documentary. When producing a documentary about a woman as full of vigor and charm as Stritch, allowing anyone else to tell her tale would be a disservice to the audience. Sure, Karasawa interweaves short interview segments with colleagues and friends, but these pieces are not meant to tell Stritch’s story as much as to provide framework and structure for the segments featuring Stritch herself to flourish.
The tone of the documentary is deceptively well-crafted, at first eschewing heavy emotionality in favor of allowing Stritch’s brash, no-nonsense, captivating personality to shine. When telling the story of an aging starlet, it might feel natural to give way to overproduction, creating a living memorial of sorts. Instead, Karasawa intentionally underproduces many parts of the film, showcasing a Stritch that is still full of life and energy.
As a side note: please don’t let Stritch know that I called her an ‘aging starlet’ in the previous paragraph. As Stritch herself would say, we’re all aging together at the same time. We’re all in this ride called life together. She might also tell me to ‘fuck off,’ and I’d be okay with that.
To think that this is a documentary without teeth would be to underestimate it. As the narration continues, glimpses of Elaine Stritch’s vulnerability begin to show through the cracks, revealing themselves at first as small drops before eventually flooding the audience. The first moment of weakness reveals itself during a rehearsal where Stritch flubs a line, and teeters on the verge of a breakdown before collecting herself. As Stritch regains her composure, so to does the documentary itself, which correctly chooses not to dwell on this moment for too long. Later scenes gradually introduce more of her fragility; from the loss of her husband, to her battle with alcoholism, to her ongoing struggle with diabetes, Elaine Stritch has had many crosses to bear in her life. To the documentary’s credit, each of these sequences is allowed to play out naturally and organically, never succumbing to artificial emotions.
Elaine Stritch herself is an amazing woman who reveals humility when critiquing her own singing voice and modesty in requesting that the honorary room named after her at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting not be too big or flashy. On the other hand, she demands much of her friends, bossing them around with a directness that only she could pull off. The film calls her a molotov cocktail of madness, sanity, and genius, and at no point does this come across so clearly as a scene towards the end of the film. After struggling over the lyrics for her one-woman show during a rehearsal, turning the ordeal into a near train wreck, Elaine nails a charismatic and wickedly funny performance of ‘I Feel Pretty’ by opening night.
There is plenty more to say about the eccentric Elaine Stritch, but those details aren’t important for the sake of this review. Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me tells Elaine’s story much better than I or anyone else could, mainly because it allows Elaine to take the driver’s seat. For a woman engaged in a lifelong love affair with her audience, this degree of transparency makes her story all the more fascinating.
You know that thing that happens when you make a photocopy, and then photocopy that photocopy, and you end up with a copy that comes nowhere near the quality of the original document? Well, the 2014 crime thriller The Bag Man, starring John Cusack, fits this description perfectly, presenting itself as a second-rate imitation of a mid-90s Quentin Tarantino flick. By itself, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Early Tarantino films combined quirky, charismatic characters with witty dialogue and dangerous situations in such a way as to always be interesting. The Bag Man tries to recreate this formula without understanding why the individual elements are necessary or how to craft them properly, churning out an end product that is somehow tedious and ponderous despite the numerous ‘what the fuck’ moments the film hurls at us.
The first sixty seconds of The Bag Man sets up the film’s relatively simple plot: crime lord Dragna (Robert De Niro) wants a criminal named Jack (John Cusack) to pick up a mysterious bag, check in to a seedy motel, and protect the bag in exchange for a hefty sum of money. Cusack only has one instruction: under no circumstances is he to look inside the bag. Once at the motel, things devolve into violence quickly as Cusack faces a rogue’s gallery of weird and quirky characters, including a blue-haired prostitute with potentially deceptive intentions, a dwarf in a track suit, a pimp with an eyepatch, Crispin Glover, and a squad of corrupt cops hell-bent on stopping him. Set amidst the gun fights and the double-dealing, the audience is drawn through the story wondering what’s in the box bag.
As a lead, John Cusack is almost perfectly suited for small, dark roles like this one, as evidenced by strong turns in 2003’s Identity or the more recent Grand Piano. Cusack brings an inherent likability and charm to any role he touches, a trait that is necessary in allowing us to root for Jack in spite of the non-existent background and character development present in the plot. Robert De Niro seems almost bored here; whether it was intentional or not, De Niro was outfitted with a ridiculous, over-the-top hair style reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman in 1997’s Wag the Dog. If it wasn’t for the hair, De Niro would leave little-to-no impact on this film. At times, De Niro looks distracted or inconvenienced by having to spout lines, almost as though he can’t wait for director David Grovic to call ‘cut’ so he can go back to playing Flappy Bird on his iPhone.
To its credit, The Bag Man does succeed at times in delivering witty, crafty one-liners, showing brief glimpses of its potential. Sadly, the script doesn’t deliver these lines confidently, burying them in the middle of bizarre, swiftly punctuated exchanges that don’t allow the lines to breathe. Going back to the Tarantino comparison, the memorable quotes from films like Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction were given full scenes, allowing the actors ample time to chew on the memorable moments. Had The Bag Man gone this route, trimming a few of the film’s more monotonous scenes and replacing them with interactions that highlight the absurdity of the antagonists, it would be a much stronger, more entertaining work.
A film like this needs a hook, and The Bag Man relies on the mysterious contents of the bag to keep interest high through the flagging action sequences and dull conversations. The problem with this approach is that with this type of film, there is only ever going to be one item in such a bag, and even audiences slower on the uptake will guess what’s in the bag well before the anticlimactic reveal towards the end of the film.
Sadly, The Bag Man is not going to leave very many audiences satisfied. The film suffers by failing to make bold moves; if it were a darker film, or a quirkier film, or a more clever film, if it had chosen a direction and stuck with it, it might have snagged my attention. As it stands, the film will probably only appeal to a few Cusack loyalists, and even they may struggle to find much of value here.
As a child of the 80s, RoboCop holds a special place in my heart. Growing up, the popular culture that I ravenously consumed was full of hot-shot police officers disobeying strict police lieutenants, being forced to turn in their badges, and yet still finding a way to track down the bad guys before the credits rolled. The 80s also brought a technology boom that popularized the concept of robots, androids, and cyborgs in science fiction cartoons. The inevitable blending of the two trends gave me not only 1987’s RoboCop movie, but also the Saturday morning cartoon and action figure line that followed. I still remember lazy childhood days where RoboCop, the Karate Kid, Chuck Norris, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles teamed up in my bedroom to face army after army of generic plastic villains and hoodlums.
Like many children of the 80s, I’ve seen my beloved childhood memories hauled out of antiquity, dusted off, and re-imagined in reboot after reboot in recent years, often with disappointing results. So, when the inevitably RoboCop remake was announced, I vividly remember dueling emotions, the unbridled, giddy joy of my inner child clashing with the cynical disdain of my inner man-child. No remake could ever replace the 1987 film that played such a pivotal role in my childhood, or match the often satirical tone that I’ve come to appreciate as an adult. I say all of this as a disclaimer, not only for the review that follows, but as a reflection of what I expect to be the the views of audiences as a whole. As much as I plan on divorcing the remake from my views on the original as I craft my review, I know that many movie-goers will not be able to make the same distinction. Read the rest of this entry »
It doesn’t take a third-rate film reviewer to make this claim, but please humor me as I do so anyways: relationships are tricky, complicated animals. Often, we are willing to sacrifice our core beliefs, and even our own dignity, in pursuit of the adoration or approval of others.
In Sebastián Lelio’s Gloria, the titular lead is a 58-year-old divorcée who spends many an evening at singles mixers in search of a cure for her loneliness, usually in the form of a one night stand or a fleeting moment of joy on the dance floor. On one such evening, she runs across the pleasant Rodolfo, a former naval officer who has begun a physical and emotional transformation of his own, and the two begin to explore the possibility of a meaningful relationship with one another. Read the rest of this entry »
It has been said that art is the cornerstone of civilization, an integral thread in the tapestry that makes up our cultural heritage, a defining piece of the puzzle that defines not only society, but also humanity at large. As I reflect on The Monuments Men, a film about the preservation of art during the second World War, I’m reminded of a George Bernard Shaw quote: ‘Without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable.’ World War II was a horrific affair, bringing to life the harsh reality that truly does make the world unbearable at times, and the idea of art as a safeguard against the often ugly nature of the world rings true. With The Monuments Men, director George Clooney attempts to instill in the viewer a sense of wonder about the ‘old masters’ of art, and a belief that the preservation of art, and thus the preservation of culture and civilization, is paramount even to the value of human life. Thought gifted with a brilliant premise and a cast that looks encouraging on paper, Clooney’s vision never quite takes off. Sadly, we’re instead left with a film that is dead on arrival. Read the rest of this entry »
I love talking about movies almost as much as I love watching them. This year has been full of bounty for me; the Movie Bears Podcast has picked up quite a bit of steam, building a regular listener base that, frankly, is fucking staggering when I think about it. 2013 brought me Fantastic Fest, my first film festival. I also attended my first set of press screening events this year, something I never expected to do when I started up this blog a year ago.
For anyone that may be reading this; thank you. Thank you for joining me on my journey as I explore a hobby that I love. Thank you for engaging me in conversation about film, for challenging me when I support questionable films, for shedding light on themes and director choices that I might have missed. Most of all, thank you for sharing my passion with me.
And, because a year-end blog wouldn’t be complete without a list of some sort… here are my top ten films of 2013! Love my choices? Think I’m full of shit? Let me know in the comments! Read the rest of this entry »