Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Don't let your aim ever stray

I was long overdue for a new wallet.

As I entered my local mega-chain retailer, I noticed a lady of the Hispanic persuasion at the customer service section. She looked to be in the hardest version of her late fifties, and she had a sizable assortment of pants and shirts on the counter. Behind the counter, were two employees; the male employee was translating what the lady said to the female employee, and all I caught was something about not having tags for the items. 

I continued my merry way, and picked up a wallet -- one of those RFID-blocking jobs. Then I went to the self-checkout line, and I heard a commotion. It was the two employees politely-but-firmly telling the older lady that she could not take those shirts and pants back to the clothing department. She angrily shrugged them off and tried to make a beeline to her intended destination, but the male employee blocked her, and she tried to push the man out of the way. The female employee then got on a walkie-talkie and called for security, and I think she may have thought she was far enough from earshot or she just didn't care, because I distinctly heard the employee refer to the lady as "this bitch". 

The lady became increasingly unruly, her voice got louder, and this was now becoming A Scene. The security guard -- all ninety-eight pounds of gangly shy teenager -- arrived and politely-and-only-politely asked her to leave, or at least that's what I could make out, over the lady's much louder and angrier voice.  

I was only able to make out the occasional swear word from the lady's mad invective, because despite being a Spanish-speaker myself, my Spanish is Mexican Spanish, which is to say, slow enough to be able to comprehend the fully-pronounced words being spoken. Her Spanish, on the other hand, was Non-Mexican Spanish aka Cuban, Puerto Rican, Colombian, Dominican, etc., a fast-paced onslaught of partially-completed dialogue which is where the stereotypical rat-a-tat-tat speech you hear in such funny movies come from.

There's also a third kind of Spanish: Castilian, which is what you hear Gwyneth Paltrow speak impressively in interviews. It's what they speak in Spain, but they speak it with a lisp. Imagine Ice T speaking Spanish, and that's Castilian. 

Anyway, our Non-Mexican Spanish speaker was vocally motherfucking the employees, while slowly but surely inching closer to verboten clothing department. She, like everybody else, had her mask on, so I was grateful for that, but I kept expecting her to pull it off to do something stupid, like spit at people. Instead, she violently shoved the boy guard, nearly toppling him over a display stand containing discounted Blu-rays and DVDs.

Listen, I'm not really an anxious person, or at least, I only get anxiety when I have to go to parties or get-togethers or any other kind of otherwise friendly situation with friendly people. But as far as negative scenes go, I'm surprisingly chill. I've had firearms aimed at me by cops and non-cops alike -- those are long stories for another time, preferably after you've bought me dinner -- and I was either too calm and/or stupid to freak out about it. 

But this situation with the lady literally made my heart beat faster and harder with every passing second. I also began to sweat despite the excellent air-conditioning in the building. At that point, I just wanted to leave, and every cell in my being started to scream GET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE. But the lone stubborn cell located somewhere in my testicular area responded with "Nah, buy the wallet, then leave." 

So I waited as the guy six feet ahead of me began to check out his various household products, all the while reasoning with my heart and my sweat glands to please -- please! -- keep it together for a couple more minutes. And that's when I heard the unmistakable sound of the absolute worst thing for me to hear. It is the sound that had, has, and will drive me into Lovecraftian depths of insanity, if I hear it long enough. It is my vocal Kryptonite, this sound, and it makes me feel helpless, anguished, scared, and enraged all at once:

It was the sound of a crying baby.

A placid-looking Asian woman and her well-behaved daughter had just entered the store, pushing a baby cart containing a toddler who should know better. But the spoiled boy on the overworked cart was pitching the biggest of fits. 

I desperately scanned the vicinity for an available register elsewhere, and there certainly were some available, if one wanted to wait behind scores of other customers. I even thought about just leaving while tossing a random employee twice the amount of the wallet's cost -- after all, I've pulled similar moves at restaurants, leaving money on the table mid-meal because of inconsiderate parents bringing their screeching spawn -- but I knew that would just cause more drama. 

Lady and gentleman, I had managed to make it for nearly a year-and-a-half of this goddamn pandemic without losing my shit, yet here I was, about to punch that clock. Because I don't believe in God, I could not pray to Her. Because I don't believe in people, I could not depend on anyone else doing the right thing. But I still believe in myself! And so, I took a deep breath and closed my eyes, and I transported myself somewhere else -- anywhere but that store.

I don't know where I went, all I remember is that it was not unlike the darkness, quiet, and serenity I fantasize about taking myself everyday. It was nice. Then I felt a tap on my shoulder and I opened my eyes and my ears and the baby was still screaming and the lady was still angry. I turned around to see who the tapper was; a young Asian woman, holding a basket, smiling while motioning towards the now-available register.

So I stumbled over to checkout my item, and looked over to see the angry lady with the clothes, now being walked off the premises while screaming mashed-together way-too-fast Spanish, but I was able to make out the swear words, and she would end every sentence by pointing at each employee and screaming: "Corona-vee-ruuus! Corona-vee-ruuus!" They managed to get her out of the store, and as she angrily walked out with the clothes, she gave out one last gesture of defiance by slamming her fist twice against the front window. 

As soon as the register spat out my receipt, I grabbed that and ran out the store with my new wallet, while making sure I was going the opposite direction of wherever she was going. When I got home, I still felt kind of rattled, so I turned on the Roku and looked for something to watch, and that's when I remembered: Oh my goodness! The Adorable Amy Adams had two films released on Netflix in the past year, and I've yet to watch them. Then it all made sense; the angry woman, the crying baby, the anxiety, the despair, all of that was the universe punishing me for ignoring our dear Triple A. 

Based on the memoirs of author/venture capitalist, J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy begins in 2011 with young Yale law student Vance burning the candle at both ends. In addition to doing the school thing, he's working three jobs to make up for what financial aid won't cover.

Money is definitely a big issue for the man, who in true modern-day American spirit, pays for things with multiple credit cards of varying limits and overextensions. It's too bad I didn't know him back then, otherwise I could've preached him the gospel of micropayments, but I'm sure he'd dismiss me on account of being a dirty ethnic and what do I know? 

Anyway, you'd think with his workload, Time is something of which Vance has little to no amount, and yet, he also has a girlfriend. I guess it wasn't enough for this asshole to have his hands full, he just has to have them fuller, and just as he's about to begin a week of interviews for a potential paid summer internship at one of the big law firms -- RING RING goes the celly. It's a call from his sister back home with the bad news that his mom has not only gone back to bootin' up that damn heroin, the dumb bitch has gone and gotten herself OD'd.

And so Vance drives his fried baloney sandwich-lovin' ass back home to Ohio in an attempt to get help for his absolute mess of a mother, and the film flashes back to Vance's youth in 1997, a year that shall remain forever glorious because that was the year that Good Burger graced silver screens all across this great nation. Unfortunately, this movie never acknowledges the release of that film, but at one point they do play "My Boo" by Ghost Town DJs, so I'll let it slide.

We watch as younger tubbier 1997 Vance lives with his mother Bev, played by The Adorable Amy Adams, but in the case of this film, I will have to refer to our Triple A as The Aggravating Amy Adams, because my word, what a goddamn trial! As we find out throughout the film, Bev wasn't always a completely addled chore of a human being. Having graduated high school, she went on to have a respectable career as a nurse, but somewhere along the way she started sneaking away an extra pill or two from her patient's prescriptions, and so on and so forth.

Faster than you can say Mommie Dearest, Bev displays magnificent feats of head-spinning manic-depression; she'll start as a happy loving mom who will gleefully drive her son to go buy some baseball cards, then one wrong word about one of the latest in a long line of boyfriends later, she'll stomp on the gas pedal and wonder aloud about just ending it for the both of them in the kind of fiery car wreck that would make Duane Hall jizz in his pants. 

I think it's supposed to be frightening to watch, but as someone who hates kids -- especially crying ones -- I got a huge kick out of watching Amy Adams beat the shit of this child. She's raining down thunder and calling him names and while I'm sure other viewers might be thinking "She's a monster!", I was like Go Amy Go! 

(By the way, the opening of the film features another adult punching another child, and that was also something I applauded during this film and will applaud in any other film.) 

Adams is pretty amped up throughout this movie, and that's both a highlight and a lowlight. To clarify, I don't think it's Adams' fault and I found it easy to find the truth in her portrayal of a boyfriend-hopping drug addict with emotional issues.

OK, I know what you're thinking, you're thinking "Well, of course you don't think it's her fault, it's never your precious Amy Adams' fault". First off, get your fuckin' head -- get your fuckin' head straight -- she's not my Amy Adams, she's her own Amy Adams, thank you very much. And second, nobody's perfect and everybody is fallible, even The Triple A.  

But I don't think it's a bad performance, it's a lopsided one -- and I don't blame her so much as the filmmakers for that. See, the problem is that the movie doesn't give us nearly enough of sober even-tempered Bev to compare & contrast with the drugged-out hotheaded Bev that we see, like, ninety percent of the time -- and so, where are we to find any range, where are we to find the tragedy in what her character has become, if we don't ever really get to see that much of the better angels of her nature?

When you look over at the comparatively subtle performance by Glenn Close as Vance's grandmother Mamaw, I don't think it's a surprise that she ended up being nominated for an Academy Award while Adams wasn't nominated at all. Of course, I use the word "subtle" for lack of a better one. Maybe "nuanced" would be a better one? Maybe not?

What I'm saying is that as Mamaw, Close plays a tough-but-fair granny with a cigarette practically fused to her hand. But she's not just playing a one-note type, we get to see more of what makes her tick. For example, we find out that in her earlier years she ran away from a troubled home, only to have found herself in a brand-new version of the same thing.

On the other hand, we're mostly told that Bev grew up observing some of this turmoil, and we're told that she was particularly close to her father, despite the growing rift between the family. It would've been nice to actually see some of this, the way the film was eager to have us see Bev's wild and crazy antics, giving us plenty of Effect but very little Cause.

I get that there's only so much to get across in under two hours, so what I'm saying is maybe director Ron Howard and screenwriter Vanessa Taylor should've worked more on finding the right balance before committing anything to celluloid -- ahem, I mean digital files.

It's too bad because here and there we see hints of Howard and Taylor's potential in making a very effective film; for example, the flashback format enhances the heartbreak because when we see a scene of Bev choosing to clean her act up, it only hurts more, because we know from the present day scenes that it didn't work out that way for her. 

But overall I was left feeling as if I had watched an early rough cut for what could've been a really good movie. Instead, Hillbilly Elegy is kind of a mess that's less a proper adaptation of the book and more like a haphazard dumping of all the book's various threads into Thunderdome and forcing them all to fight each other for narrative supremacy: It's a mother & daughter story, a mother & son story, it's a fish out of water tale, a fish back in water tale, it's a drama about dealing with an addict in the family, a comedy about cultural differences, and an overall lesson on how one must not fall into the same rut that previous generations fell into because of family trauma.  

Regarding that last part; I did feel that the running thread about characters being placed at the crossroads of doing the right thing, and sticking with family, right or wrong, was something Howard and Taylor did get 100-percent right.

Now I haven't read the book and for all I know, it handles all the above-mentioned themes, topics, and plotlines a lot better. Not that I'll ever find out, because I'm not gonna read that fuckin' book. I mean, the only reason I watched this movie was because The Adorable Amy Adams starred in it. But I don't give an inkling of an iota of a shit about J.D. Vance, and I know the ending already: He goes on to become an ardent chugger of Orange MAGA-cock. The End.

The second Amy Adams film I watched on Netflix is also an adaptation of a book by a morally questionable author, (and where she also plays an unstable character): The Woman in the Window, written by A.J. Finn -- and I was about to do an entire bit about how that's not even his real name, and what kind of cowardly douchebag would write under a pseudonym?


While we're talking similarities, I found myself way beyond flattered upon realizing that my favorite living actor is playing...me! I mean, look, Adams' character, Anna, is a shut-in who keeps her human interactions to a minimum, preferring to plant herself on her comfy couch drinking and watching movies all day until she passes out. It's like looking in a mirror, only not.

Obviously they changed many details, like the name, gender, and occupation -- for the record, I am not a female child psychologist recently separated from her husband and child. I don't live in a NYC brownstone, nor do I rent out the basement of my brownstone to some dude played by Kurt Russell's son.

Speaking of that dude, there's a scene between him and Adams that shows quite possibly the biggest difference between the movie's version of me and the real me who is currently talking to you, and that is the way we celebrate my favorite holiday, Halloween. Let's just say we wouldn't see eye to eye on that issue.

Also, Anna suffers from genuine agoraphobia, whereas I am just insufferable. Anna's attempts to step outside result in her getting overwhelmed by her phobia, whereas my attempts result in me getting overwhelmed by my hatred of humanity, then returning home to bitch about these people on various social media posts and blog/podcasts. 

By the way, my misanthropy is why I didn't have as difficult a time as others during this pandemic, because as much as I enjoy going out to eat and going to movies, I enjoy not going out even more. If anything, the outside world completely showed me its whole ass during this past year-and-a-half, the outside world confirmed my worst suspicions about it, the outside world said "It's OK to stay inside". 

The plot begins a-brewin' when Anna partakes in her other usual pastime: Being a fucking snoop, which is something that I would never do. But here she is, spying on her new neighbors across the street, played by Gary Oldman and Julianne Moore.

They have a son, played by somebody's somebody, and he's one of those shy awkward teens that make you either want to hug and tell them It's OK, or you want to slap the shit out of them and order them to stand up straight and Speak Loud Enough So Everybody Can Hear You.

Anna gets friendly with the son, becomes wine buddies with the wife (who's amusingly named Jane Russell, like the actress), and is the requisite minimum of polite with the husband.  But soon Anna finds herself in a Rear Window kinda situation, except in this case, it's more like Front Window, because it appears that she spies with her little eyes the husband doing something really bad -- maybe even permanent -- to the wife. But good luck convincing everybody else, Anna. 

See, something happened in Anna's recent past; it is the reason for her agoraphobia, the separation from her family, and the lovely prescription drugs that she washes down with vino. Anna is all kinds of all over the place, and even her shrink is kinda getting tired of her shit. The shrink, by the way, is played by Tracy Letts, best known for writing the plays "Bug" and "Killer Joe" and for writing the screenplay to this movie.

Director Joe Wright makes a pretty canny choice of having Anna's everyday movie-watching consist of Alfred Hitchcock classics. Normally I'm against this sort of thing, because showing classic movies within your movie usually results in people wishing they were watching the classic instead. But I think it works here -- regardless of how you feel about this movie -- because it allows the viewer to consider the very real possibility that Anna is just seeing things.

Hell, I remember spending a three-day weekend at home fucked up on booze, weed, and shrooms, watching nothing but Shaw Brothers kung fu films all day and night. By Tuesday, I was convinced everybody around me had disgraced me and the Shaolin Temple. So why wouldn't Anna think she's in the middle of some real Hitchcockery?

Oh, that's another difference between Me and Anna; you can straight up O.J. a bitch six feet in front of me, and as far I'm concerned, I didn't see shit, I don't know shit, I don't want to know shit. I was busy tying my shoes the entire time, officer. But no, Anna's calls the pigs over and digs herself an increasingly deeper hole with a She's Imagining Things shovel. 

Now the movie is referencing Hitchcock, and it's aping Hitchcock, but the end result actually felt more like Dario Argento. This felt kinda/sorta like an American giallo at times, with a wonderfully garish mix of colors and lighting, a pulpy plot that favors trash over class, and where emotion beats out logic -- it just needed an extra on-screen murder or two or three. I don't think it's as good as early Argento joints like Deep Red or The Bird with the Crystal Plumage -- this is an American distillation of an Italian genre, after all -- but it's still a fun watch, if watched in that context.

I understand the reviews for this are pretty terrible, and I kinda get it; with a prestige cast and crew of award-winners and nominees behind it, one might expect something a bit more hoity-toity, and this ain't that. But I will not stand anybody who might have the audacity to say that Amy did not come to play.

She is excellent as Anna, and she manages to come off as both prickly and wounded -- probably from being so prickly, she can't help but hurt herself the most. She has a couple of certified emotional bangers late in the film; both are monologues, one given to a group of people, another to a camera, and either one would've made for a great Oscar clip in the category of Best Actress in a Fun Trashy American Sorta-Giallo. 

The film was delayed multiple times -- much to my dismay -- partially due to COVID-19 making a theatrical release not the most eligible option, and partially due to reshoots. I don't know what came out of the reshoots, but if I had to guess, the climax of the film was one of the results, because it does feel the most out-of-place with the rest of the movie. I've nothing against the climax, but I wished the film would've slowly worked its way to that wildly different tone, rather than suddenly whiplashing the audience into it. 

Also, I wonder if the reshoots are the reason Jennifer Jason Leigh's role seems so minor for someone so major; she doesn't really get much to do with a role that could've been given to somebody cheaper for the same effect.

Actually, her role isn't that much smaller from the rest of the supporting cast, who definitely live up to the "supporting" part, because this really is The Amy Adams Show. If Anna can't leave her house, that means the movie doesn't leave her house. She spends most of her time alone, and so the other characters are left to be occasional visitors or intruders. If I hadn't known about the novel, I would've totally assumed that this was based on one of Tracy Letts' plays, because this story could easily play out on a stage.

While the movie is expertly made and very well-acted, I couldn't help but think that there was an even crazier and better version of this story begging to be told, just aching to let its freak flag fly, and I'm afraid Joe Wright was just a bit too buttoned up a filmmaker for the job. This needed someone like Brian De Palma or Paul Verhoeven or Julie Taymor -- someone with a strong sense of the operatic, absurd, and theatrical. They also would've known how to make the climax and the rest of the film feel like one and the same.

Hell, why not give it to Argento himself? It could've been his best American work -- or his worst movie ever, although I don't know how the latter would be possible, unless he had Brian Tyree Henry's character turn into a praying mantis somewhere along the way.

Minor complaints aside, I thought this nutty little ditty fit the bill, and it passes the test as actual entertainment and not simply an Amy Adams thirst watch, because I'm pretty sure I'd still dig this movie if it instead starred, uh, I don't know, uh, maybe, uh someone like Isla Fisher, or Karen Gillan, or Jessica Chastain, or Emma Stone, or Christina Hendricks, or Bryce Dallas Howard -- you know, any random actress would do. 

Well, it was nice while it lasted. I don't mean the Amy Adams double feature, even though that was nice as well. I'm talking about my brief post-vaccinated return to the outside world. I got to eat in a couple of restaurants, went to see a couple movies in actual movie theaters. But I'm going back inside. Not because of a virus or its various variants, no way. My reason is something else, something that I feel was best expressed by one America's last great poets of the late 20th century, Andrew Dice Clay, in his 1993 special No Apologies: "...'cause people are scumbags".