30 September 2022

52 for '22: KRULL

MovieKrull (1983)
Method: HBOMax

Why Did I watch this?

This was like 80% that episode of South Park, which I did not know even referenced this, and like 20% leaving HBOMax at the end of the month. Mostly recognizing the glaive from the picture. Honestly I hate to admit that for the past 15 yaers I thought South Park was referencing Predator, to the point where I was surprised to re-watch those films the other month and see no glaive. Anyway, this is clearly a gap in pop culture knowledge for me, so I pressed play.

What Did I know ahead of time?

Apparently like, nothing. I thought this was going to be in space! Like The Ice Pirates (1984) or something, like a bad B movie. Instead it was a bad B movie but set in Fantasy Times? But also sort of also Outer Space Times? It's kind of a cool premise, like monster aliens invade in a disappearing mountain who mess with the medieval magic people. I had no idea about any of this going in, but I knew there was a glaive, so that kept me going.

How Was It?

I mean, in no world is this a good movie, but it's pretty fun and tries to be unique, even if it steals every trope in the book. You can very easily tell this was in a post-Star Wars world that was trying to copy everything they had, with a dash of Clash of the Titans (1981) and other generic fantasy titles thrown in. BUT there is enough to make it stand out, namely the merging of sci-fi and fantasy along with everything in the Beast's castle which is bonkers and surreal with some really mind-blowing sets and lair layouts.

The premise is basically Spaceballs (1987). A prince has to marry a princess to unite two rival Kingdoms to fight the Beast and his evil Space Army, but the princess is captured by said Beast, and so the prince has to unite a merry band of misfits to save the day. It moves at a remarkable pace, without slowing down to explain much of anything, which does work in its favor. It doesn't give you time for Fridge Logic and you just have to go along with the nonsense. It's primarily a fun adventure film and you're just along for the ride.

And you really have to be because there is no real plot development or logic here. It feels more like a series of disconnected Fantasy set pieces than anything that builds on itself. Like, we have the Quicksand Swamp, Spider's Cave, Fire Horses, and the Beast's Castle without any real logic between them, just like, things that would be cool and the characters move from one to another. They encounter problems, some of which are significant, that they largely solve just because they have to instead of proving themselves. You see this most in the SPOILER end when the hero uses the glaive to kill the Beast (it's not really a glaive btw). It doesn't work, so he just uses his Human Torch fire finger power, which I guess he had this whole time. Like, he just stands and points his fingers. It's not at all cathartic or worthwhile, it just kind of happens because now the movie has to end. The whole thing is like that.

Like, since the Evil Castle movies at sunrise every day (I really wanted a scene where one guy was left outside when it vanished, so he would fall to his death. That's not even out of the ordinary for the ending scenario, I've never seen a movie dispatch its merry rogues with such abandon in the last 15 minutes), they need a Seer who can predict where it goes. When that Seer is killed, it's no big deal, the old guy who has been traveling with them the whole time just happened to used to bang the Widow of the Web, so he goes there and asks her. Like, it's a journey to defeat the Spider, kind of, but they seem to always have a solution in their back pocket for new problems that are based on happenstance, not character.

Don't get me wrong, a lot of these sequences are fun and interesting, but there's not really an authentic story progression. I really liked the set design, so many Fantasy Realms are just generic (cough Rings of Power cough) but trekking through the brown swamp here feels really cool. And the mountain, the Lair of the Beast, and even the smooth, clean lines of the Princess' Castle feel like they hint at some kind of technologically advanced medieval world that just helps the world-building.

As far as characters go, we have the most generic pretty white boy protagonist of all time. I feel like they tried to give him a Han Solo look with a Luke Skywalker personality but blander. It doesn't work. Rounding out his merry band is a comic relief character who looks like an uglier Eric Idle and sounds exactly like an uglier Eric Idle, and also Liam Neeson and Robbie Coltrane for some reason. Robbie Coltrane looks Mexican but speaks in an English accent so that might be accidental racism there? Like, I don't think they were actually going for brownface. And yeah, that's straight up 1983 Liam Neeson. It must be bizarre for the rest of the cast of Krull to look back and see an A-lister amongst their midst. He's got presence here, man. It's a consistent but definitely bit role, but his voice has a ton of authority and he displays way more charisma than just about everyone else.

The Princess is good, she seems like she has her own agency and isn't like, a flighty stereotype, but she's still captured like Princess Peach in a generic plot. I think it's the actress bringing more to her character than what's on the page. There are no other women in this movie.

This does a great job of giving each of its characters a distinctive look, name, and weapon. I recall the Hobbit movies decidedly NOT doing this with their dwarves. That band on a mission style we just don't see anymore. I remember feeling this with the Clash of the Titans (2010) remake, which was in this zone, which felt very old fashioned twelve years ago. Everyone's got their own little thing and their own backstory. It harkens back to a time of more renegade filmmaking, now when everyone is safe and generic it's hard to make anyone stand out.

I keep talking about generic versus distinctive and it's tough because so much of this movie is really on the copy and paste side, but there are also wildly inspired creative bits. It's a weird zone to be in. Again, it was surprising how much the ending sequences just kills most of our characters, some get worthy deaths, others are definitely just offed without much fanfare. I'm also torn on the bad 80s effects. The ambition of this movie might have outstretched the constraints at the time, but maaaan it just makes Star Wars look so much better. Some of the green screen here just feels unnecessary, like they could have found creative ways around their clunky compositing rather than just going for something that looked bad. That lesson is still being learned today.

I'm not sure why their swords clashed red lightning when they struck each other, it felt like they wanted lightsabers but knew they couldn't just straight rip them off. I did love how every time the Monsters were killed they screamed the same sound effect and then a giant worm wiggled out of their brains. I mean, for real, some parts are awesome. Krull is the kind of movie that needs a remake - obviously some sort of pop cultural legacy, cult or not, but not significant enough to piss off a large dedicated fanbase and an easy way to update writing and effects to modern standards. Maybe change the name, the name Krull is obviously terrible.

My impression is a net positive, it was pretty fun, there is enough wackiness and levity to get us past the stuff that doesn't work and it helps that it doesn't take itself at all that seriously. It's definitely weird, You have like, today to watch it, so plug it in!

23 September 2022

52 for '22: Lost Highway

MovieLost Highway (1997)
Method: Netflix DVD

Why Did I watch this?

This was again one of those things where I pretend to be a David Lynch fan but haven't actually seen too many of his movies. It's like I absorb the general culture of weirdness above what he's actually doing. I forget why I selected this exact film, I think I just checked out the general premises of a bunch of his films and this caught my eye.

What Did I know ahead of time?

And yes, I totally forgot what that premise was leading into this and I also had no idea who was in the cast. Bill Pullman! Wow! Loved him in True Lies (1994). Anyway, I knew it was Lynch and not only that, but peak late 90s Lynch so it was bound to be weird, but it started off so casually! Well, suffice it to say I didn't know much. Let's get into this thing.

How Was It?

Man....man I don't know. It really does border on incomprehensible and not always in a "oh, you just don't get it" sort of way. This movie starts off with an interesting story of marriage dysfunction between Bill Pullman and Patricia Arquette, adds a layer of creepiness with someone secretly videotaping them and then jumps off the fucking deep end.

Pullman is framed (?) for murder, although it seemed like he did commit it, or at least committed it in some kind of fugue state? And goes to prison. While in prison he body swaps? I guess with some weird kid with weird parents, which takes up the middle 70 minutes of the movie. See, we get the first forty minutes following Pullman, then we just swap stories. I kept trying to track the throughline of themes, and it's the barest thread. Something about identity or fugue states or just trying to grapple with maintaining a moral compass amidst murky chaos.

Anyway, Balthazar Getty gets tied up with this porno mobster and Patricia Arquette's sister, but maybe the same person, reality goes on a bender, he has literally four separate sex scenes, goes to this creepy cabin and then transforms back into Bill Pullman who kills the porno mobster, whose death started the movie.

So what does it all mean? I don't know, I'm not really here to unpack the plot, and it's kind of foolish to do so. It's in that zone that's either brilliant or a huge misfire. I dug the minimalist design, the never-ending darkness, and the general disdain for a boring life here. Like, no one has pictures on any walls, all boring suburban furniture, like they're trapped in this prototypical domesticity that's blown apart by the surreal. It's really such a subtle way, though. It's not like psychedelic and colorful, just off and unnerving. It's maybe the most en media res movie ever made, there is no rope here. That's admirable, but also apt to lose the audience. I get the vibe that David "It's a Friday once again!" Lynch doesn't list that amongst his daily concerns.

When I was a kid I really only knew Bill Pullman from Spaceballs (1987) and thought he was just a comedy actor. Like, I didn't understand that actors could do different genres of movies and thought he was like a Dan Aykroyd or Bill Murray. I always thought it was a gag that they cast him as the President in Independence Day (1996). His acting is fine here, he doesn't do too much but scowl and play bad saxophone.

Patricia Arquette is very Patricia Arquette here, playing kind of a breathy, flighty bimbo, which I also didn't know she could play. I've really just seen her as moms and in Little Nicky (1999). She's a genuine babe here! Her character (or characters?) add depth as the movie goes on as she's clearly up to more than what we think she is, and she has this real sinister bent underneath her veneer of sexy fright.

Balthazar Getty looks like if Charlie Sheen fucked Legolas. That's all I really kept thinking about. And Robert Loggia also from Independence Day shows up here! What a fun reunion. How has his rant against tailgating not gone viral? Probably because no one has seen Lost Highway. Shit should be legendary.

This is the last film role for both Richard Pryor and Robert Blake! Robert Blake apparently made all of his characters' costume and mannerism decisions, which makes it even more baffling. He's also a murderer! Pryor's appearance is bizarre, he's in like one scene and Getty walks in and sees him just chilling there. You can tell the Parkinson's was getting at him even at this point but that energy still tries to shine through.

I dug a lot of this. It is a truly odd experience when Gary Busey is one of the most normal parts of your movie. I don't think you can unearth the plot. Characters literally change who they are, create different stories, but also maybe it's the same story? They are in two places at once and maybe two characters at once? You need to just let go and give yourself into the vibe here, which is noir and wacky.

Check out more 52 for '22 right here!

16 September 2022

52 for '22: Night of the Comet

MovieNight of the Comet (1984)
Method: PlutoTV

Pretty good for a girl? That's pretty good for Rambo!

Why Did I watch this?

Bro, I forget, haha! This got on my radar somehow, I really forget why. I definitely have an interest in B-Movies and the more 80s the better. I like existing in that world between camp and sincerity, with a little bit of winking goofiness that's sort of lost in our more modern age that oscillates only between ironic cynicism or humorless self-seriousness. Anyway, I love the genre and read somewhere at some point that this was good or interesting, so I pressed play. It was also leaving Pluto soon, so go watch it.

What Did I know ahead of time?

Whelp...there was some kind of comet and then some bad stuff was going to happen. I knew it was in that B-movie zone and that some dastardly weird sci-fi weirdness was at stake. That's honestly more than I usually have go go on.

How Was It?

This movie is amazing. I loved every second. The basic premise is that a comet is headed perilously close to earth, but I mean, it's fine, it's not going to hit or anything. But the tail comes close and that makes everything go cuckoo bananas! Most people turn into dust (a full thirty-five years before Thanos), others are turned into ghouls, and some are just dandy. Those dandy people are our main protagonists.

Regina and Samantha are sisters with a very specifically complicated family life - their dad is a Green Beret in Central America so they live with their philandering step-mother. At one point Doris punches Samantha in the face, to which I laughed out loud because it was amazingly unexpected. They both sleep in steel containers through contrived means, but this means they are immune to the dust from the comet's tail that messed up everyone else.

They do keep saying Zombies, but they aren't really mindless brain munchers (well, some are), but being a zombie in this world just means they become total homicidal dicks. So they battle these ghouls for a while, find a radio station that is actually just a recording, and eventually encounter a team of scientists going through sort of a parallel story. But they're evil! They explode and then the movie ends.

What makes this work is its attitude. It is totally a teen comedy set in the apocalypse but again, with none of the irony. The girls are most oblivious to anything wrong going on, despite the sky being turned from blue to red, empty clothes and dust everywhere, and the streets of downtown Los Angeles being abandoned. It take them sooo long to figure out something is amiss. Then they go to the mall. The jokes actually land, although there is again one unfortunate homosexual slur (but it's part of a really good joke...I hated how hard I laughed at that one...). This is also fabulously 80s, with the music, fashion, and big hair kicking into very high gear.

I'm struck by how much our typical view of movies of old is one of backwards values, poor roles for women and people of color, and outdated stereotypes. Well, that really just seems to be a problem, for whatever reason, for our most popular movies. A film like this nails the Bechel test over and over and presents incredibly fleshed out female characters who solve their problems without just being masculine stand-ins. This B-movie in 1984 is doing what so many modern movies are trying to do. Why not remake this one instead of creating a distaff counterpart movie that rings as hollow virtue signaling? Maybe it's because this film was largely ignored for the past forty years.

It maybe has a cult following, but I couldn't believe how modern its sensibilities felt. These underground B-movies were stealth doing the cultural work that we've been trying desperately to achieve in the #MeToo era. This film balances all this with genuine thrills, a compelling plot where stuff actually happens and has consequence, a distinctive visual palette, and a cavalier attitude towards the apocalypse that actually works and feels fresh. I give it to big toes up!

Check out more 52 for '22 right here!

09 September 2022

52 for '22: Hollywood Shuffle

Movie: Hollywood Shuffle (1987)
Method: Tubi

Men on film

Why Did I watch this?

This was added to my Netflix queue on January 11th, 2010. I forget what got it on my radar. It was maybe an interest in old Wayans brothers comedies (although this is really the Robert Townsend show), and a notable but somewhat forgotten bit of 80s Black Hollywood satire. The premise always sounded really interesting to me but I never pressed play. UNTIL TODAY.

What Did I know ahead of time?

I knew the just of it, that it was a satire of black actors in Hollywood and their expectations in particular acting roles. I had some idea that it was kind of a sketch movie, I think I honestly had a little Kentucky Fried Movie (1977) in my head, but I know it has nothing to do with that. I felt pretty confident in the humor and was prepared to dive in.

How Was It?

This is pretty good! I was left wondering why Robert Townsend didn't end up being a bigger voice in black comedy, I hate to say, was it because of the reasons laid out in this film? That he wasn't an "Eddie Murphy type" and wouldn't play gangsters and drug addicts? Or was it just Meteor Man (1993)? I should add Meteor Man next year, I have such a distinct memory of that ad in a comic book I owned. I did not watch it. I DID just see him in The Mighty Quinn (1989), which I totally forgot about. Probably because he plays a very sincere Jamaican.

Anyway, THIS film is about Bobby Taylor, played by Townsend, an actor trying desperately to break into Hollywood, even though the role he's up for is let's say, one of questionable African American stereotypes. This is the basic throughline of the film, but we get diversions both through his own fantasies and through fake TV shows and movies that further the film's satirical point.

We don't really see a lot of great sketch films created this way. It worked really well. It all had one driving focus and is able to freely spin from there. It fires on all cylinders structurally and many of the jokes land. We are maybe slightly better than we were representation-wise from 1987, but a lot of this still holds true.

There's this sense in the film, and I always got this from Chappelle Show-style comedy, of a presumption of maligned resources in the black community. Their versions are always the cheaper, shoddier versions than what the whites get and Townsend / Chappelle both accept this but are also slyly indignant. There's hardly a question that what they're being handed is wrong and the movie takes a while for Bobby to realize that he should stand for his ethics instead of taking stereotypical work because work is work.

And this gets into a bigger issue. Is it fair to just have representation at all? Or does it matter that it's the right kind of representation? Characters here argue that they're still getting to appear in films, still getting paid, and still furthering their career, but it's all through really problematic roles that don't illustrate a fully fleshed out experience of Black life in America. It's clear what side the film is on, and we do continue to get this today in a wide variety of underrepresented groups.

It's intriguing that the film ends without anyone learning any kind of lesson, Hollywood not changing, and people pretty eager to step in when Bobby eventually steps out. It's all sorts of hypocrisy, but do they really have a choice when they don't have another choice for a career? The option here is clearly what we've almost sort of gotten to - black voices telling black stories from a black perspective, which can neatly avoid both the Uncle Tom scenarios and the Black Sambo scenarios. We've really screwed up just about everything with white representation of black people, haven't we?

Now, speaking of Chappelle, there is a bit of focus only on the Black Experience, and apparently there's even some critical reevaluation that says that Townsend does to the gay and trans community in this film what the rest of Hollywood is doing to Black Folk. I can see that, but I don't think it's really egregious enough to take me out of the movie, but then again, I am not one of those people so what do I know. There is a casual f-word, which is a nice little reminder that yes, this is 1987.

And Paul Mooney shows up! Sorry, MR. Paul Mooney, as the credits state. It's fun to see him in a big movie, even if it's really just a few lines. Keenan Ivory and Damon Wayans, John Witherspoon, and Dom Irrera are the big names here, but there is a substantial cast of people doing great bit roles. The only thing I'd really want to see is to lean even harder into the sketch troupe idea and see the same actors again and again in different scenarios.

I liked this, and most important, it was very short, a solid 81 minutes, in and out, no waiting for jokes to get stale. It makes its point pretty fast (really within the first few seconds) and the rest is free to riff and develop characters, which is actually pretty solid.

Check out more 52 for '22 right here! 

02 September 2022

52 for '22: 8 1/2

Movie8 1/2(2007)
Method: HBOMax

Why Did I watch this?

This has been one of those movies on my queue forever. Since January 15th, 2010! This is one of the major old movies, an immortal, Mount Rushmore movie, timeless, one that every film student should now. And I've never watched it. It was just that time on the queue.

What Did I know ahead of time?

I knew it was Federico Fellini and it was his 8th and a half film, but I'll admit that I haven't seen any other of his films so I don't really know what that means. As I watched it I thought I knew his style, but I was actually picturing Michaelangelo Antonioni, so whatever. I apparently knew nothing about the plot or style or just how surreal this thing was going to be, so it was a lot of fun!

How Was It?

Alright, terrible cultural expose time, this film washed over me like waves on a brick wall. I could not engage with this thing. I really tried to sit down and absorb it, but it couldn't hold my attention. I was maybe not in the best head space, it was late at night, I was tired, kind of forced for this column, but getting through it was rough. I think it was maybe the subtitles, but it also seemed to be dubbed in another language? That may have been the Italian mid-century style of just doing the actor's native language and dubbing later. But the dubbing and subtitles made it tough to follow anyone. This may have just been an HBOMax thing.

I really appreciated just how biting and surreal this was. Like films today don't push this hard enough. Bullet Train (2022), which I just saw, is a great example. Like, that movie is trying so hard to be fun and surreal but refuses to commit. 8 1/2 COMMITS. Maybe too much, scenes seemed to end abruptly, others didn't appear to go anywhere, and characters seem to float in and out without much introduction. I get that that's the point, and there is brilliance in how this film is simultaneously extremely lived in while also a fantastic exercise in surreality. I loved it, but with my headspace, it just really through me out. This isn't really a sit down and brain turn off movie.

The plot follows a director with director's block as he goes through periods of fantasizing about his own life, particularly past relationships, and deals with ex-wives and mistresses, and studio pressure and nonsense in between. It reminded me a little bit of Orson Welles' The Other Side of the Wind (2018) which was hacked up, restored, and put on Netflix a few years back. I also couldn't get through that. Maybe I just don't do well with films about directors talking to other directors at parties? That's all this movie is, too.

I kept thinking while watching this that I feel like this has been on so many best of lists because it must be so relatable to people close to film who are making these lists. Like if fisherman made Greatest Film lists The Perfect Storm (2000) would be really high. I've hardly ever seen a film where I felt so much space between myself and the filmmaker. It was as if everything was so inside that I couldn't get into it.

So, first, I'll admit that I suck, and I'm sure many people don't have the problem I had. It probably deserves another chance and I should watch it again when I'm ready for it. But there were many things I liked. As I mentioned, the efforts at a warping surreal structure are flawless and something I wish contemporary films would be bold enough to do. It's surprisingly meta, at one point they cast people within the movie for a scene that we just saw in a fake movie. It's actually meta, existing simultaneously as itself and a product within itself, not just calling out tropes like films do these days when everything has been recycled to death.

It's also an incredibly crafted film, I've spoken at length recently about the odd distinction growing between cinematography and computer-generated landscapes and the merit of distinguishing the two, but it's fun to watch a movie from 1963 where you know everything is camera trickery or practical sets.

With that being said, the cinematography here is in fact cinematography and it is stunning. It's the kind of subtle stunning, like again, I think we often think good cinematography is really just a pretty picture of a landscape, where the terrain is doing the work, but it's the black and white interiors, the many people in frame at once, the shadows, compositions, and framing here which are excellent. It's maybe one of the best crafted films ever made.

The acting is fine, again, no one seemed to be using their own voice, and the main dude seems to be some version of Fellini, who is detached, bored, and restless. That's a hard line to follow to make interesting. Kind of like how the protagonist in NOPE (2022) is distinguished by being passive. Anyway, it's tough to make interesting and this film largely doesn't.

That's my culturally bankrupt take, this really hit with some of the technical stuff, but I couldn't get past my personal distance to really enjoy it. Am I the worst film blogger ever? Or is this not that great?

Check out more 52 for '22 right here! 

28 August 2022

First Impressions: 3000 Years of Longing

I can sum up my reaction to this film as a great overwhelming, "huh. Okay." I genuinely can't tell if I liked this or not. I think I did. There were some parts I really did. I'm not sure if I will revisit this film's brilliance in later years but I can't recall going from being so high on a film to such a crater in recent memory. Let's talk spoilers for Three Thousand Years of Longing (2022)!

This got a lot of hype for being George Miller's first film since Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). I wasn't totally expecting a non-stop thrillride since I know this is also the dude who made Babe: Pig in the City (1998) and the Happy Feet movies. He crafts great stories, but it's not like he ever ties himself down to one genre. In fact, as soon as you do that, he explodes and does something really wacky. Like this!

The premise centers around a Narratologist, played by Tilda Swinton, who likes being alone with stories. She travels to the Levant, in and around Istanbul, unleashes a Djinn, and then they spend most of the film chatting about life in a hotel room while the Djinn narrates his previous three incarcerations. It's all a brilliant set-up, a BOTTLE story (my wife came up with that one), and works well as a film centered around storytelling. I am typically someone who finds no use for narration, but this film is almost all Idris Elba narration, but it works somehow, because the whole premise is that this is a fairy tale.

Swinton and Elba are two of the best in the game right now and you totally lose yourself in their characters. The idea of a central conflict growing out of a woman who is granted three wishes and doesn't really want to use any of them is also a fantastic concept. The film starts off immeasurably strong, with hallucinations (OR ARE THEY), a dynamic color palette that's vibrant and contrasting without resorting to neon, and a camera that feels sneaky and floaty, composing each shot with intention and thoughtful framing. There is some dodgy composition work, particularly a shot where Tilda is in the foreground and a massive, room-filling Idris is in the background, but it's nothing egregious.

Most of this flows through the first story, which is Djinn's love for the Queen of Sheba and her leaving him for King Solomon. It's engrossing, full of intriguing mysticism, and brings us into the ancient magic of the olden days. This ends up being the peak of the film. The middle story is stretched overlong and starts to feel disconnected with the narrative. What narrative is this movie even supposed to have? It is a story about stories I suppose, but even a collection of stories should have some kind of momentum or propulsion towards some kind of unifying theme or point. Tilda argues this in one instance, suggesting that all wish stories end up being cautionary tales. There is that vibe in the Suleiman Era stories, but it's not as strong as it could be because the focus is never on the wish-maker, but rather on the family she falls in love with (on that note, since that was her wish that Tilda later repeats, she doesn't seem to be learning or growing from this fable).

It got me thinking a lot of whose movie this was supposed to be. Ostensibly Tilda is our focal point character, and our gateway to this world. And she's fantastically interesting, even if it's through her un-interestingness. We get a lot of hollow connections. Zefir mimics her study habits. A woman in her modern entourage reappears suspiciously as an Ottoman. But there's never any learning or irony from these strands. The movie seems to introduce many of these concepts and then drops them, like the ghosts that bring her into this world in the first place. They never return or are mentioned again, which means they're just there for the sake of being cool, a mystery with no pay off, a tease with no fulfillment. It's frustrating.

But Djinn's story is literally the story that most of this story tries to tell. It's his 3000 year life we're flashing back to at points. It might be more his story than hers. And dual protagonists aren't anything new, it just leaves this particular story a little cluttered. This comes to a head in the final act (which might be Act 4? 5?). Tilda, out of nowhere, decides she wants to wish for longing, and decides to focus on the Djinn himself. It is a bit too much of a stretch, not only because it's weird to think of this Djinn banging all these white girls (he definitely does in every story, and his lovecraft is apparently pretty hot). But the pairing feels very forced and rushed and it's hard to grasp that these characters would love each other. Djinn was impressed by the strength of Sheba and the drive of Zefir. Tilda exhibits some of these characteristics but is far more demure than either. She admired her ex-husband, Jack, but maybe wants to exploit the forced loyalty of Djinn? That gets into some really fun toxic stuff, I dunno, it's kind of murky.

Should we jump into the problematic section? Always tricky when a white dude is portraying Middle Eastern cultures, but nothing seems too stereotypical here, everyone is fleshed out, but it did strike me that in a movie inspired primarily by 1001 Arabian Nights (itself subsequently spun through the lens of "The Djinn in the Nighingale's Eye" by A.S. Byatt), we get a white girl and a black guy as our focus and all the Arab characters are largely without lines or a real spotlight. I get it, as I said, Tilda and Idris are both fantastic, and their names are what is greenlighting this movie, but it just seemed like there were obvious opportunities here to not further a colonial narrative.

And there it is, like, these stories are out there. There are so many stories available for marginalized communities and we're just on the tip of accessing them, but these gatekeepers are still strong. We just aren't as far along as some folks think we are. And I get it, like, there ARE interesting white people stories where it wouldn't always be appropriate to cast people of color. But that argument falls apart because here is a story just begging for representation but roles are yet denied to say, Turkish people for an opportunity to have a big speaking role in a major Hollywood production. It's just more and more bizarre the more you can see the cracks and the dwindling excuses.

Anyway, Tilda wishes them to be in love! And then the movie breaks its own cool attempt at a Djinn bottle movie and heads back to London where we get a flurry of title cards and events that rush towards an ending where we see the Djinn broken down by the electromagnetic pulses in the air caused by our modern infatuation with cell towers and satellites. All this is ham-fisted as hell, it works better as a metaphor. Tilda at the beginning said that legendary figures and gods are reduced to mere myth as our technology increases. Man, just do that here instead of trying to explain him away as made of electromagnetic pulses. Like, that doesn't explain his magic, so just let it be magic It felt LOST-y and weird. But the Djinn starts dusting and eventually Tilda wishes him to go home (basically wishing him free like in Aladdin [1992]). Then he visits from time to time, presumably banging her.

There's some genuinely good commentary here about our technology lessening our ability to joyfully consume stories and magic and I liked all that stuff. But it felt like it needed an entirely new movie to fully develop instead of racing towards the end.

I'm really torn on this. It looks gorgeous, although I'm again split on whether it's actually good cinematography or just a good guy sitting at a computer. Still a good skill set I suppose. It opens so strong, in my head I was like "Movie of the year candidate!" then it biffs its landing so hard. Remarkable, really. There were moments I really dug and moments that completely baffled me. Like I said, I wonder if its brilliance will show itself in time but for now, I don't think it becomes something worth recommending.

26 August 2022

52 for '22: Persepolis

Movie: Persepolis (2007)
Method: Netflix DVD

Why Did I watch this?

I don't remember when I read Marjane Satrapi's graphic novel, but it was definitely before the movie came out. Maybe 2005 or 2006. I recall being really excited about the movie since I dug the comic book a ton but for whatever reason it just didn't penetrate my Queue since I first put added it on January 16th, 2010. That's the deal with a lot of these movies, I feel like I had all my formative cinematic years in the late 2000s but I didn't actually see a ton of these movies. Some of them are definitely of their time and to be quite honest, I missed the boat, but others really stay with you. For the record, Persepolis stays with you.

What Did I know ahead of time?

For once, quite a bit. I had read the comic so I knew what the basic deal was. I forgot all of the exact intricacies of the plot because it had been nearly twenty years, but I knew that it was autobiographical, in a very distinctive flat art style, and centered on a young girl's experience growing up amidst the Iranian Revolution. I definitely didn't remember how much the story centers around her years as an early adult.

How Was It?

Persepolis really hits on every level. It unmasks what it's like to be a kid who's easily swayed by what they think justice is (first adoring the Shah because why wouldn't you, then competing for which relative had the most jail time). It's all really universal as well, despite being hyper-specific. In a weird way it's that specificity that brings it to become universal. Because even though the circumstances are inescapably tied to the Late 70s / Early 80s Tehran, her reaction to the insane world around her is very level-headed and logical, even if it's a sort of child logic.

That's the big thing about the comic - it doesn't necessarily denounce Iranian culture, although it clearly favors a side in the debate of women's rights under the Islamic Republic. It's notable because there are so few pieces of mainstream global art that comes out of this area that showcases this perspective. It's why we try to find ways to let underrepresented voices be heard, because this is the kind of story that could only be written by a woman who went through this stuff. It's her perspective and we see it all through that specific lens.

And it's not clear cut. In only 90 minutes we get her whole life, from an idyllic childhood under the Shah, although they make no hesitancy in denouncing his regime and the need for revolution, so her complicated relationship with her homeland as an adult. The irony is just that the Shah was replaced, "democratically" in the movie, by a much worse theocracy.

From there we get a twisting, winding tale of what it means to have a home and love your home but acknowledge that there are significant problems, to the extent that you may not feel proud of your own country. Americans in 2022 should relate. There is this loss of childhood innocence without realizing it, and this compounds as a young adult when you're trying to sort out this trauma that you didn't even know you internalized.

Marji travels to Vienna, where she doesn't fit in well at her boarding school, runs into the punk scene that she idolized as a kid, falls in and out of love with a few gay men, and is then literally left on the street because her friends judge her by her country and not her character. It's baffling to think that she'd return to Iran, but it's where her family is and it's her home, as much as she resents their tightening restriction.

She deals with depression and doesn't know why, but it's because her heart is split in half. She loves her home country and her family but knows she can't stay there. She's too vocal, too smart, and too much of a rebel to last long under the Ayatollah. It's heartbreaking to witness. The most important thing to realize when watching this is that Iranians are all just people, too. That's easy to forget here in America that labels all of them part of the Axis of Evil.

While we're dealing with all these pretty significant themes, there is a cheekiness to the proceedings and a general tone of levity which helps humanize the whole thing and not present itself as an Oscar-baiting cry for help and acceptance. That would be what a Western-made movie like this would do. It would end on a judgment of the country and exultation of Western values. But Satrapi points out how much she struggled in Europe as well.

The art helps fuel this. It's incredibly distinctive and replicates the comic. It's very flat, but also dynamic with wacky expressions and movements constantly while also knowing when to reign in its style for its more dramatic moments. It's remarkably simple but also beautiful and esoteric at times, even presenting conversations with a god (maybe the God), Karl Marx, and more in some trippy dream sequences.

Everything was good and this movie rules. I did not realize that Marjane Satrapi had become a director of other stuff like The Voices (2014), which I thought was spectacular. Give her a Marvel movie! That's the final goal.

Check out more 52 for '22 right here! 

19 August 2022

52 for '22: THE FOG

MovieThe Fog (1980)
Method: Netflix DVD

We have a report of some leper ghosts who reportedly injured some bathers

Why Did I watch this?

I've been trying to catch up on some John Carpenter movies after realizing that I have been calling myself a fan but have never really seen any deep cuts. I maybe overdid it watching The Fog, Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) and Vampires (1998) in one month, but I'm making up for lost ground. The Fog's premise of creepy ghosts invading a quiet seaside town jumped out at me, and it was really just next on the queue.

What Did I know ahead of time?

I have the haziest, cloudiest, not sure another synonym, memory of the 2005 remake. I don't really know what that's about at all. I also did at one point read the plot, but had completely forgotten it by the time I pressed play in my all-in-one TV/DVD player. I knew that it had something to do with some kind of fog and was probably creepy. GO.

How Was It?

This is solid. There is an essential creepiness to the whole affair and although we get a decent explanation for why everything is going on, it still remains mysterious. We get the general just of things, we're all on board, time for some ghost murders.

The story is pretty simple, the town founders tricked a leper colony one hundred years ago to crash on the rocks by building a fire they thought was a lighthouse and now their swampy ghosts are back for revenge! They will kill six descendants of the six conspirators who lead them to their doom. Or something, I was really sleepy. It had shades of Pirates of the Caribbean movies, with cursed gold, gross undersea ghost people, and creepy fog. But it's better. IT'S BETTER.

I really dug Adrienna Barbeau as the midnight DJ. This was somehow her first film role! Her voice is perfect and that element has become such a throwback profession. Hubie Halloween (2020) tried to do that, but I'm going out on a limb to say they didn't stick the landing because they didn't commit to the old-timey premise. She essentially becomes trapped and can't do anything physically to help her save anyone, including her son, but she's able to use the radio to give a play by play on where that dastardly fog is traveling. And she never becomes a damsel in distress. It's all sorts of fun.

Jamie Lee Curtis shows up right on the heels of Halloween (1978) and she's never given all that much to do, but I also liked that old timey element of a hitchhiker who just drifts into a movie and is totally game for all the nonsense going on. We've probably never properly ranked Curtis as one of our all-time actors. Does she just do too many bad movies like every possible Halloween sequel and Christmas with the Kranks (2004)? Can we get a Curtis-saince with Knives Out (2019) and Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022) showing just how far she can stretch? I guess I've always thought of her as a legend, but zero Academy Award nominations and really hardly any parts that deserved it. A Fish Called Wanda (1988) probably. True Lies (1994) and Freaky Friday (2003) for sure. Anyway, she's remarkably natural here, displaying a kind of effortless acting in a tiny role that made her stand out. Let's pair her up with something really great and get her a statue.

It is a weird movie because although it's all about the less than noble history of a town, we don't actually get to know too many of the townspeople. Our main entry points are people passing through, and we get less of a sense of a community than say, a Midnight Mass which recently showed us just what you can do with this kind of a small town story. We get the preacher character here as well, and notably, a woman, I dunno, mayor / town organizer or somebody who DOESN'T want to pretend that everything is fine and that sharks don't exist.

The effects are very 80s but they work for this story. It's never overdone and Carpenter is a master of keeping his ambitions in check, or at least exploring creative ways to fulfill them. The final image of red eyes glowing the darkness out of the fog of the church is haunting and awesome. The rolling fog is a little hokey but you get immersed enough that it works.

The Fog was really good. It could have maybe used a more cohesive worldbuilding and a protagonist to center the proceedings around, but it's a fun monster movie that uses all sorts of really classic elements to blend together a fun time.

16 August 2022

First Impressions: Bullet Train

I was pretty jacked up on seeing this one, folks! I thought the trailer was fun, the cast has everyone who is good, and it all around felt like the kind of madcap loose action film that belongs in the mid-2000s like Smokin' Aces (2006) and Shoot 'Em Up (2007). This is in that zone, but it also focuses on mental health and zen wellness. It's also not very good. OR IS IT? That is the eternal question - spoilers here dear readers for Bullet Train (2022)!

The premise is simple enough. Brad Pitt is an assassin of some kind but he's not very good (he claims to be unlucky), and after some time off he's trying to do a simple snatch and grab assignment as sort of a warm-up. However, the case he's supposed to grab is on a bullet train headed from Tokyo to Kyoto and also full of the baddest assassins in the world!

If the premise and world-building feels a little John Wick (2014)-y, that might be because this shares a director in David Leitch who also directed Atomic Blonde (2017), Deadpool 2 (2018), and Hobbs & Shaw (2019), which is in fact an insane three years for the quality of action in all of those films. I think Leitch might be coasting a little too much here though - to be quite honest, my major gripe is how action-less this film is.

We get spurts here and there. Most notably with a spike in creativity and energy towards the end. But much of this film feels lifeless despite desperately trying. We get thorough backgrounds for every character but our main one, and while Pitt exhibits charisma rarely seen and proves again and again why he's one of our last remaining real movie stars. He's doing hardcore Brad Pitt stuff here. He's just cool, kind of wacky, and definitely in a different movie than everyone else. All other actors are stone cold serious, especially the scant Japanese ones. Let's just get into this.

The film opens on Andrew Koji from GI Joe: Snake Eyes (2021) all sad because his son was pushed off a roof. His father, Scorpion from Mortal Kombat (2021) (Hiroyuki Sanada) is greatly disappointed. This opening is flatter than it sounds and doesn't really kick off the kind of zany, madcap action thriller we'd expect. Koji and Sanada are in an immensely serious Japanese film. Everyone else is a ham.

And let's get this out of the way right now because it's been brought up elsewhere, but I will say that it's painfully noticeable here. There is a weird dearth of actual Japanese characters in this movie set in Japan. Apparently this is a whole thing and even the book's author was okay with it (this was a book? what the hell?), but it's still very conspicuous. I get the idea of like, people from every continent converging in Tokyo, but the actual Japanese characters are sidelined until the end of the film. It's more weird that the main villain is a big Russian bro (lol Michael Shannon) who just has like, a Samurai fetish or something? Because he took over the Yakuza. It just all seems really weird. I thought we were over this.

Anyway, inside the case is a $10 million ransom for Michael Shannon's son and Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry are two assassins assigned to bring both the son and the money back to Michael Shannon. Brad Pitt obviously snatches the case and hilarity ensues! Again, no one knows what movie their supposed to be in. Taylor-Johnson is playing pretty broad but doesn't quite have the comic timing, although he does have the physicality. Henry is the opposite, he has some of the best lines and moments, but isn't totally convincing as an unstoppable killer assassin. I mean, these guys are both pretty dumb to be feared so much.

Bad Bunny shows up for some reason! In literally one scene then HE DIES. I said spoilers. Sorry. It just made me pissed, he gets this whole long intro, is by far the most visually interesting character, has the most defined motive and exudes charisma nearly on a Pitt level and he's axed off immediately. It's a bizarre choice. The same thing pretty much happens with Zazie Beetz, who is an assassin who kills with boomslang venom that they've been trying to find for a while (snakes on a train!), so her presence is around for a while, but same deal. She doesn't get much screentime and as soon as we see her face she's taken care of. And not even any Atlanta reunion with Brian Tyree Henry. What's the deal man.

Joey King is here and I swear this girl is so damn familiar, but she hasn't done too much. Well, okay, she's done a ton and starred as the little kid in like every 2010s movie ever made. But never a role like this. She's refreshing, a true chameleon manipulator who messes with the heads of every single other person on the train. She's ten steps ahead of everyone and a total psychopath. It's fun to watch.

I'll tell you one thing, though - I'd sure like it if modern Brad Pitt movies quit teaming up to beat up young women. I mean, why does this keep being a thing. Sure, in both movies they deserved it, but also both movies consciously created their artifices to make the women deserve it. What is going on here, man. I think we really should just add a whole section to these reviews called "Problematic Stuff." That happens in every movie.

And I don't mean to whine like a millennial but it's blatantly ignoring opportunities to be inclusive, failing to read the room, and stuck in an older mentality. Also quite frankly, just lazy writing. There are so many fridged women in this movie. Like how is a film made in 2022 still featuring primarily male characters whose motivations stem from dead wives? Like, the end features Zod vs. Scorpion fighting because they killed each other's wives. Michael Shannon's wife sets this whole thing into motion, like, women can do more than just die in order to motivate the male characters. This is like the Christopher Nolan school of filmmaking. It's just played out at best and adding to problematic tropes that we are long past at worst.

Anyway, here is where I thought this movie actually gets kind of good. Yeah, I know I just said all that stuff, the motivation is problematic but the end result is actually interesting. See, there's both this subtext and open dialogue throughout the film about luck and fate and free will and possible redemption and throughout the film it all just feels coincidental. And that's fine, it's a movie, you have to have coincidences or else we literally don't have a fast-paced and interesting story. But as it turns out, nothing was really coincidental, it was all planned by Michael Shannon!

Normally I hate this kind of "Aha! I am the master of all your torment!" kind of big villain reveals, but everything is actually really motivated here. Everyone took actions that lead them to this train and it's subtle, but the reveal is quick and relatively free of clunky exposition. I do love when a films themes actually tie into what is happening on screen, and everything starts hitting towards the end. There's even a really terrible cliche when a character is hit by a bus at the end, which is totally just a quick way to end a characters' story without any attempt at growth. BUT we see that it was Tangerine as revenge! Actions tend to be motivated and it's generally satisfying. I dug it.

There are also a surprising amount of cameos. Channing Tatum and Sandra Bullock show up for some reason. Why is this Lost City (2022) reunion a thing that needs to happen now? I was really thrown by the Ryan Reynolds cameo, but then I did remember that Brad Pitt showed up real quick as Vanisher in Deadpool 2. Zazie Beetz, too. Leitch I guess is starting to assemble a cadre of repertory players. No idea how The Lost City connection was a thing. Something was wrong with Sandra Bullock's face, it was either plastic surgery or airbrushed to hell. Most of the film looked pretty good, but you get the sense that the eponymous bullet train was all a nice closed, COVID-testable set and the outdoor shots are super dodgy CGI.

I did want to talk about how few bullets there actually are in this film. Towards the end, sure, but before then there are hardly any guns fired. I thought that was the whole point! Like, that's the pun, right? I just expected more. The film is fun enough, I do think it drags on a bit long. There's also this weird bit throughout where they flashback constantly to remind us of earlier references, like items or things that happened. It gets irritating and shows a total lack of trust in the audience.

I shat all over this movie, but I did generally enjoy it. I'd say it was worse than I had hoped but better than what the reviews are saying. I need to think a bit more about the cultural context and how odd this film feels in contemporary cinema. I did like how much the plot connected to the theme and its commentary on the nature of fate. And the ending fight is cool. Brad Pitt rules. I laughed a few times, especially at the snake in the toilet bit. Anyway, this will probably be on streaming or something, probably worth a Friday night mindless thing but not terribly much more.

15 August 2022

SuMMER JAM 2022: August Scoop for '22!

Alright folks we are rounding the last few weeks of a relatively forgettable summer and only have a few more jams in the hopper. I really don't know what song should earn the crown this year. I mean, we actually do all know it's definitely "Running Up That Hill" but I protest mainly on my annoyance with Stranger Things and also, as wonderful as it is, totally not a new song! Whatever, it definitely wins, let's run down the rest:

Hot JAM of the Month: "Cracker Island" by Gorillaz

Gorillaz as of late have seemed to somehow dipped even further into its EDM indulgences and that's not always great, but for me and this band it's like pizza. Even the cold and old bits are going to taste great. This is actually a bit of a banger and their distinctive voice is showing through all the nonsense. Obviously not a hit at all, but this is the HOT JAM baby! It's just hot.

This track is hot as hell. I haven't heard it anywhere ever until this week but I really enjoy it. It seems to be letting Megan rip her flow up instead of putting her into some novelty garbage (I obviously also love the novelty garbage, no hating here). But she's just doing her thing here and it's really fun and refreshing to here. It's not that popular anywhere but I dig it.

What do folks think of my main man Yung Gravy. The word problematic is thrown around quite a bit. I mean, maybe it's cringe? I don't know. Is he self-aware? Or is he reveling in it? Am I terrible for unironically enjoying pretty much everything he does? This has gotten some mainstream traction which is fun. Bold to ape the Rickrolling legend so blatantly, and this song is...well, it might actually be better, right? But quality was never the point. Homeboy's got to keep his glasses on, though. He an ugly dude.

This is the epitome of Summer 2022. Completely forgettable background music that's pleasant and inoffensive that masks a deep deep darkness as the world implodes. I dunno, this song definitely sucks, there's just nothing to it but it's definitely been around for a spell. Your reaction is like, "Oh yeah, that song. Sure."

Yeah, same kind of crap here. Like, this song exists. I get grumpier the less interesting a song is, especially for the talent involved here. It's just very safe and uninspiring. Seems to be the radio a lot though. There's a weird gap between radio play, Spotify play, and what's actually popular any given time. Almost as if the artifice of this entire column's purpose for existence is crumbling before our eyes. Why do you think we've only done once a month this year?

Yeah, this like sort of in that same zone, but it actually has a little more of an edge when you clue in. It's definitely a "Uh, yeah, what is that song? I've heard that somewhere." Beihold is a new voice and the beat is super minimalist, but the lyrics are deep enough and I like the way her voice flows over the bridge. I'll put it in my much vaulted plus column, definitely a presence this summer.

I don't know what Doja's deal is. I remember "Mooo!" and "Go To Town" and like, oh wow look at this original wacky taboo-breaking voice! And then we she blew up I guess her original voice is just to dress and make videos exactly like Nicki Minaj and Cardi B? I don't know, I'm so grateful for the amount of black female rappers now, but why do they all seem to be pigeonholed into the same aesthetic. I blame the studio and I think that we're not actually quite as far along with representation as we like to pretend to be. But I do like this song! And most of Doja's other tracks.

This is what a real pop superstar looks like. She's somehow not chasing any trends but manages to update her music and crank out another true banger. This has really taken over August in the way that only Beyonce can. And for the record, Beyonce isn't actually that popular, it's just popular to think she's popular (she gets crushed by Taylor and Mariah, who are intern annihilated by Rihanna), but she still has a tremendous amount of integrity as an artist for someone of her still admittedly stratospheric level. Anyway, this song rules.

Next whatever...

I left Nicki off. She's giving Rick James her Sir Mix A Lot treatment, and it's not all that good, but whatever. Latto's always there, and I even sniffed some Imagine Dragons this month, but the former is assuredly fading (even if it's my personal favorite summer jam) and the latter is obviously hot ocean garbage.

12 August 2022

52 for '22: The Hours

MovieThe Hours (2002)
Method: HBOMax

Read on for how I feel about this nose. And note
 that this picture doesn't change my feelings.

Why Did I watch this?

You may have noticed that this series is strongly composed of films from the mid-2000s that no one seems to talk about much anymore. This for a few reasons - the 2000s were when I really started to pay attention to movies, so many of these films caught my eye. However, I may have missed a lot in theaters and since streaming or Redbox or Netflix DVDs weren't really a huge thing (or at least my priority), I never caught them. Suuuuure I could have gone to Blockbuster but whatever. It's not like I wasn't watching anything. I saw Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (2004) plenty of times.

But it's movies like The Hours that make this series worth watching. It came out, it was a big deal, culturally notable, but not really the kind of franchise movie that made a long-lasting impact. It was on HBOMax's leaving soon, and I was thinking about how the amount of female-led films in 2022 I've watched is pretty paltry, so boom! Watched.

What Did I know ahead of time?

I knew about Nicole Kidman's nose. Much more on that later. I've never read Mrs. Dalloway, but I'm actually somewhat aware of its deal after reading a literature book this year. I knew it was separated by three different time periods, I always thought it was like, one was the author, one was a woman reading it, and the other was the person in the story. That's...sort of true, but it's more nuanced. Like, they're all in the same reality. But I knew it was critically lauded and starred three of the greatest actresses of all time.

How Was It?

It's pretty good. It lost me a bit about halfway through but then the ending hits home really hard. There is a lot to talk about here. First of all, I thought I was getting into a women's story, and I was, but also, this film was written by a dude based off a book written by a dude and directed, produced, edited, and shot by dudes. Did anyone think that was a little weird?

The film is far from male gaze or anything, and the only two straight white characters in the movie are basically useless husbands, so I'm not saying it's terrible. It does just feel weird. Or maybe it just feels very 2002. I don't think they'd do that with dudes today. I'm curious to get into the framing a little bit, but let's start with the director.

Stephen Daldry did like, Billy Elliot (2000), The Reader (2008), and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011). That's the filmography of...a director. That's it. Just like a director who makes good, interesting dramas, none of which really stand out as anything visionary or game changing. All fine, but like, just fine. This movie's direction is just that. It feels like any drama, pretty static, no real bold color choices. It kind of exists and is competent but it's nothing really distinctive. Same with Philip Glass' score. It fits everything that's going on, but we're not advancing the art form.

And maybe he does know what he's doing because that actually lets the acting shine. It's a lot of fun to see young Toni Collette, Claire Danes, John C. Reilly, Jeff Daniels, Allison Janey, and Margo Martindale show up in bit parts. They're all as good as you'd expect them to be. Janey does have an Academy Award, she deserves more. She can do anything. Daniels is on the other end, he doesn't get enough credit for coming out with Dumb & Dumber (1994) and Speed (1994) in the same year. Jim Carrey wasn't doing that. Character actor Margo Martindale is brief but strong and John C. Reilly plays a great clueless husband.

Ed Harris has a bigger role as a tortured AIDS-stricken author, and one of the films' better twists is realizing his backstory (SPOILERS) as he's the connective tissue between two of the interlocking stories. He's angsty but shows us the reason behind the crazy. And that's ultimately his literal downfall (TOO SOON). It shows the strength of this cast that both him and Kidman were nominated by the Academy, and Julianne Moore and Meryl Streep were also nominated....for different movies!

The film follows three different time periods. In 2001, Meryl Streep is trying to plan a party for her gay AIDS-stricken friend, Ed Harris, and he's being a difficult tortured author, but also Streep is trying way too hard to throw him a party that he doesn't want. They're both kind of jerks here. This is some of the film's meatiest scenes, particularly when Streep goes toe to toe with Jeff Daniels, who plays an old jilted lover of Ed Harris', in town to celebrate. We simultaneously get the biggest window into what she's thinking, but her defense mechanism is constant business and meddling instead of sitting and crying. It's a deep role, but they all are here.

In 1951 Julianne Moore is a bored housewife in LA who is clearly suffering from clinical depression and wants to kill herself after reading Mrs. Dalloway (it can't be THAT bad). No, I kid. It's interesting to watch this film in an age where we are more aware of mental health issues. There's nothing that really sets her off, and I was waiting for the husband John C. Reilly to show how awful he was, but none of that ever actually happens. It's more difficult when there's no culprit, and I give the film credit for its restraint. Because that's how it actually is in the world. There's no one to blame but our brains.

John C. Reilly is oblivious, though, to an almost laughable extent. His wife is sobbing in the bathroom because of her suicidal ideation and complete discontentment with her life, but he's just blathering on about how great his birthday cake was. It's shockingly real. The 50's thing is a little on the nose, and I kind of wish films and TV wouldn't resort to the "well, she's probably just a lesbian!" trope (see also, the otherwise phenomenal Minx). It always takes me out of it a bit. Although all three characters here flirt with lesbianism to some extent, and it's hinted that that repression could be a cause of her depression. But the film never really becomes about that, so it's unclear where they stand. The Julianne Moore scenes have the least propulsion and purpose, but they might actually be the most internally dynamic and insane. It's a tough line to walk, and kudos to Moore for letting us in without letting us in.

Finally, we have Nicole Kidman. She did win an Academy Award for this performance and she deserves it. Although, let's get real, it was all the nose. I may be in the minority here, but I always thought it somehow made Nicole Kidman way hotter. It really, really does it for me. And that's weird because there is no reason at all to sexualize this movie and that says way more about my own primal dumb male horniness than anything they were presenting. But it works.

We only get hints about her mental state until she unleashes a little more towards the end, but she's similar to Moore in that she feels confined, misunderstood, and although she protests it, likely has some form of mental illness to the point of suicide. She ends up following through with it. There's a lot to be said here for different forms of repression and husband manipulation, although the intentions presented here seem largely honorable. They just really don't know how to even approach any of their wives' mental crises.

The acting and drama here are top notch. The structure is also fascinating, limiting itself to a single day from three distinct time periods, with only one character who crosses over into more than one (okay, fine, technically two, but we don't know that for much of the film). It's linked more by theme, and sure, the literal book tying everyone together, but it's remarkably easy to follow considering there is no change in lighting, camera style, or any other signifier besides actors. It almost feels like a play, though - constrained sets and a limited cast invite us in.

Something here feels hollow. Maybe it is how it still kind of treats mental health issues with a ten foot pole. Or maybe it's just the really flat direction and lifelessness to individual scenes. Hell, it's probably just too domestic for me. I want to see this remade by George Miller on a War Rig. I'm hopeless. I did enjoy this, though, and I'm curious what women think. Because it seemed to exist exclusively from the female perspective but told through a male lens.

10 August 2022

First Impressions: NOPE

NOPE (2022) is the latest from Jordan Peele, who is quickly becoming our most notable horror auteur and a driver of original cinematic content in theaters. It's bizarre to see something new on screen. Almost like stepping back in time. Which is what this movie is all about! And aliens! SPOILERS FOREVER.

Yes, I did keep staring at her shirt in this scene. What the hell is that shirt

This is unpopular, but I think Peele is like, okay. Get Out (2017) was fine, I do think it was ruined for me since I knew the twist going into it. I maybe just had a sub-optimal viewing of it. I really liked US (2019), but that had a handful of problems. None that should really get in the way of the movie, and to be sure, we shouldn't get bogged down by things like how this secret underground society couldn't really exist. Like, it's the premise of the movie, go with it.

NOPE clears all this up and I will catch up to calling Peele one of our greatest current directors. This is one of those "fires on all levels" movies. The acting is unreal, the plot is staggeringly original, it develops complex themes through action, metaphor, and parallelism, it's shot in both breathtaking vistas that serve the setting and plot while moving the story forward. Everything here just works, man.

It opens on Daniel Kaluuya and his father Keith David hanging out on their horse farm. They used to do a lot of Hollywood stunts but that's gone out of favor with CGI. This is a persistent theme in the background that runs through the whole movie. On the surface it's basically about the exploitation of animal labor, but it's also about the shifting development of spectacle in Hollywood, our relationship with technology, photographs in particular, and in a broader sense, our lack of respect for nature and what happens when that happens (it's not great...).

Keith David gets a quarter to the brain and suddenly Kaluuya and his sister Keke Palmer are left high and dry. This is more of a Kaluuya movie than a Keke movie, which I wasn't entirely disappointed by because he does a stunning job and it's a worthwhile story to tell, but the trailers just seemed to hint that Keke would be the lead. Let's jump into that first.

Kaluuya impressively plays a largely passive protagonist. This is hard to pull off. His character is shy, nervous about himself and his place amongst his family and legacy, and isn't really worthy to carry on his father's mantle. Keke isn't worthy, either, but for entirely different reasons. She's charming and confident, but also a flighty schemer who doesn't care enough about said legacy to be invested in it. Combined they could really be powerful, and they do work together well, but hey, that's why we have a movie. The acting really is something to behold, but it's more subtle than it's gotten credit for.

Steven Yuen rounds out the cast but maybe we can just have a whole Gordy section later? We've also got Brandon Perea and Michael Wincott, who both fill their roles exactly as needed, but people are probably a little too hard for Wincott. He's fine, here, a little more showy. I'll take this moment to complain that I don't think this film passes the Bechdel test, and it notably sidelines Keke during the final confrontation (although she IS the one who gets the final shot at the end). Just saying, it's weird how much this does come up a little short with its female character, despite her phenomenal screen presence.

Weird stuff starts happening. Power goes out, stuff falls from the sky, horses get spooked and go missing. This mystery is unraveled through out the first half and many of these answers are filled in through implication and matter of fact storytelling that doesn't call attention to itself. You know...like a good movie. It's shocking to witness a film that doesn't spoon-feed us every answer like a Wikipedia page. Is it weird to even call this good direction, but it does require a deft hand and Peele is proving himself to be a master.

So, when will Keegan Michael Key show up in one of these? I know, I think he wants to distance himself from that stuff. It's like how Mel Brooks took his name off of producing The Elephant Man (1980). I just kept thinking about like, an Oscar-winning KMK performance in some mind-blowing Peele picture. That'd be unreal. It would just feel better than him showing up in bit parts in trash like The Predator (2018), The Bubble (2022), and The Pentaverate lately. Man, it's tough to see how far one of their career has gone while watching the other.

NOPE seems to be primarily about animal exploitation and how we can't control nature. Animals don't do what we want them to do. This hits home for me, from Tiger King to Rabbits at the County Fair, I just don't understand why we have anything to do with imprisoning, showing, or messing with animals. Just let them be wild animals, we don't have to mess with them. I am all about animal CGI to get them out of human hands. It's bad for humans and no good for the animal. I don't even care if it looks fake. NOPE instrumentally uses CGI for its alien and of course Gordy, but does use live horses. I wonder if they gave some work to a real life Haywood Ranch some work. But it presents the thematic contrast within the film itself - is there a difference between using real horses that offer that realism, while they are treated with kindness and respect in the Ranch (note how no one listens to Kaluuya when he tries to explain their danger) and the more obvious out of nature exploitation of Gordy? Let's dive into both of these because they're the same thing.

Kaluuya isn't able to articulate the safety needed around horses or the danger they impose because of his character. He's just not a confident, vocal dude. It leads to people getting hurt and his company being sacked. But it does, however, offer that mentality that he has inherent respect and deference for animals. It saves his life with Jean Jacket.

Steve Yuen learns all the wrong lessons. He was the only surviving cast member (okay, the girl whose face got ripped off kind of) of a horrible Monkey Tragedy. But Gordy gave him a fist bump at the end of his rampage (in one of the most chilling scenes, let's say...ever). He either didn't learn any lesson at all, thought he was special and could control animals, or thought he learned a lesson about how to be safe and exploit them but really didn't change his behavior.  Yuen is a product of a particularly cruel Hollywood machine incapable of learning respect because he believes he deserves a higher status. It's capitalist, it's corrupt, it's exploitative, and he pays a damned steep price.

I was also struck by how much this film is obsessed with images. It seems no coincidence that the first thought these millennials have when they suspect the existence of alien life is to get a picture of it. That's really the impetus for the entire movie. It's to get the perfect framing for insta. We see this later with the TMZ guy who when his life is at stake still can't let go of getting the perfect shot. And it's not actually just a millennial thing, old af Michael Wincott dies so he can get the perfect shot of prey being gobbled by a perfect predator.

It's the intersection of artistry with vapid narcissism that forms the foundation of our 2022 culture. Everything must be documented. Our first instinct is to capture a moment for later rather than living in it now. And fine, that's a boomer complaint and maybe that's just the lens that I watched this movie through, but it seemed to crop up again and again. There was no desire to alert authorities, make contact, exploit technology. Just get a picture. That's the basis for everything they try to do in this film.

Then it all parallels the animal stuff. There is an older generation with a luddite camera, digital motion sensors linked up to home security systems. The final shot where they actually capture the beast on film is through a very old school, novelty contraption. It's fitting that she has to keep inserting tokens to get a snap. The pictures always cost us - wha ho!

From an actual directorial standpoint, this is a sublimely crafted film. The vistas of Southern California, the imposing balloon structures, near-experimental shots of the alien innards where it's hard to tell what is even real, the unraveling mystery, it's all peak. The tension is mind-blowing. When Kaluuya is getting punked in the barn is more disturbing than all of IT (2017). No question. And that Gordy scene. You just want it to end! It's strung along like fine twine and broken at a perfect moment.

We should talk about the blackness. I love that the reaction is "Nope" so often because that's a very black reaction to when things get sour. White girls always run and fall and white guys seem to always want to split up and check out what's in that spooky closet. I love how they crafted a film where every character could go "Nope" and peace out while still being so damn scary and effective. I think black folk are just more cautious and skeptical with insane shit because they live with that stupid shit every day. I'm a white dude, so feel free to call out my stereotyping in the comments. But the refreshing thing about Peele is that he's a black voice giving black stories with black characters instead of someone being forced in some way to write something inauthentic.

This is great, easy one of the top films of the year. Everyone should check it out - I do recommend a theater for the inherent bigness. Don't be like when I watched Get Out on a tiny screen like a year after it came out. This has everything going for it, so boom watch it.

08 August 2022

From Predator to PREY: Examining Each of the Predator Movies in Respect to their Eras

PREY (2022) dropped on Hulu last Friday and if you haven't already, you should see it. It really deserved a theatrical release, but whatever. That helps movies become bigger event films but frankly, I'm perfectly content to watch it snuggled up with a few beers in me in my own home. Anyway, as these kinds of movies often do, it inspired me to think back on previous Predator movies, which I realized I'm always in a mood for. So let this serve as both a review of PREY and a walk through memory lane of the last five decades of Predator movies. Let's start there and work backwards:

PREY: Early 2020s Competency and Reactions to Reactions

Is that a weird way to describe modern blockbusters? Like, they try really hard and just become good movies. I think of Mortal Kombat (2021), the Top Gun: Maverick (2022), even something like Bloodshot (2021). But the key is also that most of these are well known IPs. It's like we're entering another phase in the lifetimes of these franchises. We've gone in really weird routes, and now it's time to scale back and focus on a smaller story.

You see this a lot, actually. There is quite a bit of over-correction like Ghostbusters Afterlife (2021), Dark Phoenix (2019), or Bumblebee (2018). There is less interest in telling a new edgy story than telling a different, good story. They just kind of surf with the IP and have fun with a smaller story. However, in all three of these cases the end result was also a much less interesting story. It feels very weird to criticize competency, but I'd rather have a bombastic failure than a boring safe movie. That's the worst a film could be. I recognize the insanity of me preferring The Last Knight (2017) to Bumblebee, but I want a movie to at least be memorable.

I think this started with either Logan (2017) or maybe even the John Wick movies. As with most things in Hollywood, it started with good films that unfortunately made a lot of money and got high critical praise. I know I'm going to be unpopular for saying so, but the John Wick sequels assuredly fall into that boring yet competent zone of action films. They're all good - really good action movies full of unbelievable practical sequences. But can you recite the plot of John Wick 3: Parabellum (2019)? I cannot. The recent Planet of the Apes movies are totally in this zone. Like, I don't remember the last two. But they were good! It's such a weird phenomenon.

Assuredly, PREY is not in this category, but you can tell it got greenlit to be in this sort of zone. A pared down, competent, and most importantly, cheap action movie that could be sold to streaming. I know that it was originally intended for a theatrical release, but it's also the kind of film that 20th Century Studios could feel better about sliding into streaming. I'm suspicious of Disney's motivations, as I always will be with films that were in development during the Fox Merger, but however you slice it, it's a huge get for Hulu, which rarely gets buzz like this around its movies. And it's a prefect Friday night film to check out in your living room.

So let's actually talk about it. What if a Predator landed in the northern great plains of North America in 1719 and encountered a tribe of Comanche warriors? That is all you need. Amber Midthunder is trying to prove herself as a hunter and ends up going against the most badass thing in the galaxy. Everything is firing here.

First, it is a thoroughly Comanche movie with an all Indigenous American cast. It is rare that we get a movie like this that focuses on an American Indian perspective without the lens of white dudes. We do get the French fur traders in the last third of the film, but they're kept at a healthy distance, not only because we never get their language subtitled. There is good balance here - they definitely affect the proceedings (we see how they recklessly kill and skin the buffalo - there's a great fake out there when you assume the Predator did such things. Nah, not worse than white guys), and at the end Midthunder tells them they need to move on because white folks have entered their territory, but it's never the focus of the story. It does a nice job of keeping the film moving on target but also acknowledging necessary historical issues.

The film follows Midthunder as she seeks to prove she can hunt as good as the dudes. At first it feels Mary Sue-ish (a term I'm trying to use to critique women written as poorly as underwritten characters with no agency by dudes who overcompensate by giving them no challenge to overcome, not the blanket term for "women" that has been co-opted by incels lately), but we quickly see that even though she thinks of herself as a great hunter, she has a lot to learn. She screws up! A lot! And we see her grow!

I kept thinking about how refreshing it was to see actual character growth demonstrated through action. I realized I'm too used to films where the growth is either "superhero learns to use powers" or "superhero learns that saving people is good." The film (SPOILER) ends up heading into similar territory as Predator (1987). Everyone else dies, so she uses what she learned to set traps and tricks this monster into killing itself. Yet we get no sinister laugh at the end!

And that's probably the one thing that this movie comes up short with - ultimately it IS a film we've seen before. I kept thinking at multiple points, "Boy the Predator series sure has an interesting relationship with mud." I fear that we are just past the point of novelty. We're at a stage where all films are devoid of new concepts, so we can just hope the old crap is remixed in an entertaining way. That's entirely the point of this post, as a matter of fact. When and why does that remix fail? More on that later.

We don't get a ton of on the nose references. "If it bleeds we can kill it" of course. And mud. There is a lot of set-up and pay-off here, the mud being one of the more obvious examples. There were some fun bits downgrading the Predator's technology, although I dunno, it's still capable of intergalactic space flight, it can probably still have energy cannons. I mean, the Iron Man targeting stuff was still cool tho. I did wonder a bit if the Predator understood how its own technology worked. I guess at the end it was trying to just manually aim because it was so close to her? Didn't work out for Preddy. Preddy Woman. Now that's a crossover!

Everything else was a cool downgrade. I dug the boneskull-like mask. Was it a Super Predator from Predators (2010) underneath? It kind of looked like one. I really dug how just like in the first film, bravado and masculinity is useless. Using a female protagonist to demonstrate this is inspired. I called Arnold a Final Girl in my write-up from a few years ago. It seems like this movie is exploring the same territory. Like, Predator '87 is the most muscle-bound movie of all time, but the point is that none of that matters when facing the sheer oblivion of an otherworldly threat like this. The real hunter hunts with her wits, not her brawn. And as Ra's al Ghul says, always mind your surroundings!

This is a gorgeous film to look at, too. It's easy when you're on the forests and mountains on the edge of the Great Plains. I'm not familiar with where this was exactly filmed, I'm assuming Montana or something? But hey! It's real! Director, Dan Trachtenberg hasn't actually done a ton, but he did do 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016), which is underrated and spectacular. He isn't really known for capturing shots like this, so hopefully this pushes him into more serious director territory. Maybe he'll get to direct an Apache Chief DC movie!

I am also going to support the use of CGI animals - if it prevents animals from getting injured and exploited, I'm 100% for their use, I don't care how fake it looks. Except for the dog. Easy Dog of the Year candidate right here. Some close calls!

PREY is great and seems to fit in really well in the 2020s. Now, let's take a look back in time...

The Predator: Late 2010s Trying too Hard

We're not that far removed from The Predator. I was pretty psyched for this, and thoroughly disappointed when it came out. What even is this, it's just a mess. The cast was and is pretty unreal. Boyd Holbrook, Olivia Munn, Keegan Michael Key, Thomas Jane, Trevante Rhodes, Sterling K. Brown, Yvonne Strahovski. Unreal.

I previewed this back in 2018, along with A Simple Favor (2018). Who could have guessed that A Simple Favor would have been the FAR superior movie. That movie rules. Anyway, no one enjoys this movie. It's a fine line between ironic winking and genuine shallow writing, and while writer / director Shane Black usually knocks this stuff out of the park (and just did so with The Nice Guys [2016]), nothing works here. It just kind of bumbles everything.

And that's the late-2010s. It's a reaction to all the sincerity that came before it. It doesn't feel like it can tell a straight story, so it has to lampshade everything and pretend it's better than its pulp origins. It's not, and nothing about the film revolutionizes anything, so it feels hollow. I think of like, Hotel Artemis (2018), also starring Sterling K. Brown (he was really cast as these sarcastic intelligent characters in this era), the Deadpool movies, the Guardians movies, or Kingsman movies that all just felt like being far too clever. And I like all these movies, but it sort of leads to some significant hubris when it's pushed to far. I think this was really trying to be meta and edgy, but it reeked of too much corporate universe building and fell on its head.

2010 Predators: The Team-Up Movie

This is actually the same exact movie as the first one, but somehow the Predator hunting parts are spread out more. There are more people at the end, it's less witty, and no one figures things out for themselves. They just learn about what the Predators' deal is from exposition from Laurence Fishburne and Alice Braga.

But, it has two academy award winners. I mostly said my peace here, but I'll reiterate that it's weird to cast Adrian Brody as the King of Badasses. It's even weirder that he almost pulls it off. This remains now the third-best Predator film because it has one of the best openings ever, displays enough twists to the formula, and has a likable cast of the baddest motherfuckers on earth. Basically what The Predator was trying to do.

Looking back on 2010 there was a surprising amount of team-up movies. The Losers, The A-Team, Inception, and The Expendables all come to mind. They were making solid movies back then, and looking back now it feels like this time period of uncertainty in films. We were definitely in the Superhero world but the only movie that came out that year was Iron Man 2. At that point we had had ten years of this stuff, and they were popular, but far from dominant.

Somehow five of the top ten films of the year were animated, and it was also the year of big 3-D releases like Clash of the Titans and Alice in Wonderland. The latter along with Despicable Me portended the following decade of live action Disney remakes and Minions movies dominating the landscape. It's this weird transition zone that is somewhat underrated. It's also the eve of Netflix and all that good stuff. I'm not sure 2010 knows what it wants to be. In drops Predators out of the sky, which feels out of time, it's not entirely edge but it does feel like a mission movie, somewhat aimless, somewhat pulling from its previous IPs but more in a matter of fact way than a reverential way. The memberberries aren't quite hitting so hard yet. 

And Walton Goggins calls Predator a Space Faggot. It seems really late in our culture for the word Space Faggot to be thrown around, but here we are.

2004-2007: AVP movies, Just ridiculous

The mid-2000s brought us the first crest of staleness and we seemed to not care about spicing things up in major ways. We had Freddy vs. Jason (2003), and then these movies. The people who grew up watching this nonsense finally had the clout to make movies and smash their toys together. CGI allowed us to do so. Requiem is notable for the only Alien movie ever to take place in a modern day setting on earth, but really doesn't work. AVP was made for the masses and Requiem felt like one that was trying to course correct for fans who wanted more violence and ridiculousness. It's like Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2011) being the more hardcore version of Ghost Rider (2007). But the attempt is in stupid vanity.

We got into this a bit in 2010, but people didn't have the reverence back then. It was just another stupid movie and the 2000s really had fun without having very high stakes for this kind of stuff. This was peak Resident Evil years, we had the Star Wars prequels and Shrek, and all these meme factories to shape foggy childhoods. There is an extreme amount of baffling carelessness and what I'd call the first wave of old IPs crashing and folding in on themselves.

Look at Rocky, which is great because it also exists in every time period at once. We had Rocky Balboa (2006) which is an earnest attempt that falls flat because its premise is obviously insane. It takes a while for that to morph into Creed (2015) where it gained its self-respect through telling its own grounded story.

1990: Predator 2: The LA Cop Movie

It's just in LA. I mean, that's really it, but it feels like the apex of Joel Silver insane 80s thinking maximized to 90s potential. There are so many explosions. So, Predators like hunting Aliens, commandos, Comanche warriors, and....what, 90s Los Angeles cholos? Yeah, that's what it's about.

I dig this movie because it follows that Predator mantra of again just making a movie and then dropping a Predator in there. See, Predators and The Predator were too obsessed with centering a movie around a Predator. No, you need to make Commando (1985), Lethal Weapon (1988), and uh...The Last of the Mohicans (1992) and just drop a Predator in there. That is the secret. And Predator 2 is really just outshone because its predecessor is perfect, but it does a fantastic job of nearly parodying 80s/90s Los Angeles cops movies (see The Last Action Hero [1993]) and their excess, but then just adds a Predator to make it a slasher flick. It's phenomenal genre combination.

It's also bizarre how this much maligned flick ends being like, the THOR: The Dark World (2013) or Fast & Furious (2009) of the series. It is definitely bottom-tier but has the most important Easter eggs. So we are obliged to watch it to understand lore and connective tissue. Thanks, guys.

1987: Predator: The 80s Muscle Fest

I summed up everything I needed to here. I even mentioned the masculinity thing, the governor thing, and predator's laugh, which they definitely need to bring back. But ultimately this is a movie made out of insane 80s muscle-bound macho heroes and serves as the high point of this kind of movie making.

This series over the years tends to reflect its eras. Some of these bleed in and out of each other, despite not having time to do so, but the point is, I really enjoyed PREY and I hope there are more films of this scale but also of this level of interestingness in the future.
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