20 May 2022

52 for '22: Grey Gardens

Movie: Grey Gardens (1975)
Method: HBOMax

GI Jane 2 - can't wait to see it!

Why Did I watch this?

I don't know. Grey Gardens has been in my head for a while. I watched the Documentary NOW! bit about it, "Sandy Passage" (S1;E1) and then bought a gray car that I named Edith. But that was years ago now. It was available on HBOMax and I put it on my list immediately. It had been burning a hole forever, I don't know, I guess you've really got to be in a mood to chill out to Grey Gardens on a Friday night. But that's what this blog series is for! Forcing me to watch things I've always wanted to!

What Did I know ahead of time?

Really just totally from Sandy Passage. I knew there was an old one and a young one and they lived as hermits in a big dilapidated house. It was a notable documentary that a lot of people seemed to know about. I really realized while watching this how much Documentary NOW! dug into exact scenes from this.

How Was It?

I don't know. Sorry, these are tough questions. I kept trying to figure out why this was such a groundbreaking documentary. The subjects are certainly two odd old ladies, but I came here to gaze at squalor and depravity, not watch little dances with American flags. But that's all part of it. This documentary really let the ladies tell their own story, and while I'm sure there were some editing choices, there isn't an agenda or even any semblance of a story.

The film lays out its premise straight away through a few headlines, and then even showing entire articles up on the screen. Jackie Kennedy's aunt has been living in a house in East Hampton for the past 50 years and her daughter, also inexplicably named Edith Beale, has joined her for the last 25. They were "raided" by police in the years preceding the documentary for the high amount of garbage and raccoons on the premises.

So we enter in this state of paranoia, love, but also constant insane bickering. And that's pretty much the movie. There are some interesting themes to explore here. They spend most of the film waxing poetic about the days of yore. They had married into money, but Big Edith's husband abandoned them. They have strong New York connections to one of the century's most powerful families. But now they live in obscurity and poverty.

There is a lot to that. They are basically living the inverse of the American dream, where they started from everything and now have nothing. Their attitudes don't seem to have changed, which does seem on par with America. It's a meditation on complacency - little by little their lives have been chipped away. It's the same thing that happens when you don't deal with a mess so long you begin to think it's normal and don't do anything about it.

Little Edie claims that she could have married J. Paul Getty or any other of a series of millionaire suitors, but she blames a need to take care of her mother for the reason why she is where she is instead of out there with a man. We get the full gamete of emotional compensation here. Does she actually like living here and pretends to complain? Does she want to get out but her mother is really suppressing her? She seems to be able to leave whenever she wants and her mother seems by far the more mild mannered of the two, but their relationship is complex and deep, despite it emerging as nothing but surface-level bickering.

We don't get to see all that much of the garbage squalor. It's disappointing. It is a cruddy looking mansion and there are cats everywhere. Also, do they sleep in the same room together in those two beds? I was wondering who feeds the kitties every day. It's probably wise they didn't languish on their lives and instead focused on the characters as they are right now. I wonder if that technique emerged as they were filming and they realized it was the only reasonable way to depict these people without being exploitative and sensationalist. The filmmakers were still criticized for doing just that, but they seem to have done the best they could with letting them tell their own story.

In the end we don't get much insight into exactly what is going on here or why these people are the way they are. We just see them as they are and we can read into it what we need to. I suppose that is an interesting technique and it's notable for that along with the genuinely compelling characters. Still, it gets old after a big and the fact that the film doesn't really go anywhere or have anything profound to say makes it drag quite a bit.

18 May 2022

First Impressions: Doc Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

I feel like all the hot takes for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) are really obvious. Like, Sam Raimi shining under the Disney leash, how do you understand this without seeing WandaVision, why is everyone obsessed with the multiverse suddenly, and the glory of Bruce Campbell. Well, I saw this and have some thoughts so here is my amazingly fresh take. I just want to ramble, so SPOILERS forever, be warned, mortals.

Let's unpack quite a bit of this, starting with our boy, Sam Raimi, most famous in superhero circles for the original Spider-Man trilogy, but also known for the Evil Dead movies and lots of random good stuff in the 90s. I don't know really what to say about Marvel at this point, there are clearly many paint by numbers jobs and they don't seem to have great relationships with really creative visionary-type directors...until they do and it works out just perfectly fine. This film definitely feels plenty weird and has some very distinctive Raimi trademarks, but it also does feel like part of a complete universe (despite traveling to many other universes), which is everything a movie like this needs.

Sam Raimi clearly knows his Doctor Strange, he canonically exists in Spider-Man 2 (2004), as mentioned by J. Jonah Jameson. There were so many camera angles, zooms, and quirks that felt explicitly Raimi. Then somehow he prominently worked in zombies and Drag Me to Hell (2009) style witches and jump scares that really sold the horror elements of the magic world. Finally, a bit of corniness that somehow combines with earnestness in that Raimi way. It's fun to have this dude back. Also Bruce Campbell.

Second Marvel movies really are something special. Well, most of them. It takes us a minute to get past the slogging origin story and evil double who is always the villain, but usually in the second film we breathe, we're on board with the nonsense and we can just roll. This is totally in that zone. Doc Strange is an established wizard, but he's still got a bummer personal life, since the girl he never dated is getting married. Or did they date? I forget, but certainly annoyed that Strange is basically a pouty incel at the start of this film. Rachel McAdams was always thankless in her role and none of that has really changed.

Just then, a portal opens up and not-Shuma Gorath pops out fighting a young Latina who punches stars in dimensions. I don't totally understand folk who say that all Marvel movies are the same, I mean, look at that last sentence. Anyway, there is a multiverse, it's getting wacky, and hilarity ensues.

It turns out the big villain is the Scarlet Witch, Elizabeth Olsen herself, totally taken over by the Darkhold from the end of WandaVision. So let's dive into that first common gripe. I agree that it seems awful unfair that Scarlet Witch is the big villain of this film. Her powers are definitely nasty and something to be reckoned with, and she's surely towed that line (her first appearance in Age of Ultron [2015] was fighting for the other side) and yeah, WandaVision set her up as an antagonist. But that was fueled by trauma, grief, and felt like she wasn't fully even aware of what she was doing. Here she's just moustache-twirling, despite bits of self-awareness.

It does feel like too soon of a turn for a reasonably well-liked character. There are plenty of nods to Wundagore and its defenders, who I mistook for Mindless Ones, and diving into the chaotic magic realm of the MCU is and always will be a ton of fun. But it definitely felt like a character betrayal. We need some redemption (maybe even akin to Al Molina's Doctor Octopus), something to get us on her side a bit better. She's also definitely not dead forever.

I liked America Chavez, she's fun and does what she needs to do in this film, but surely could have used a bit more character development. She pops around and the crutch of "I don't know how to use my powers!" is always a bit lame, but it's a fun, solid effect when it's deployed. The sound in general in this film is great, loud, and crunchy! She doesn't really have much of an arc or learn anything besides her actual powers, so let's progress.

Benedict himself is having fun, getting to play a few different versions of himself. His accent is a little widgy as always, but this Strange is a lot more enjoyable since he's progressed beyond just a Tony Stark who is a magic doctor instead. He is always pushing for more, which we saw a little bit better in What If... and truth be told, feels like something we saw from his counterparts more than 616 himself (btw, a whole other can of bands of Cyttorak is that they call this universe 616, which is definitely a nod to the comics designation, however, this clearly ISN'T the comics designation, so what is going on here). What I'm saying is that Strange learns his lessons through other Stranges, not his own experiences, which is kind of a bummer.

Should we get into the cameos? Fine. This film is lousy with them. It's clearly all the Illuminati, which has Hailey Atwell's Captain Carter from What If..., Lashana Lynch as an alternate Captain Marvel, Karl Modo who took over for their Doctor Strange, and then the three biggest shockers - Anson Mount coming back as Black Bolt, Patrick Stewart reprising Professor X, and the fan wank casting of John Krasinski as Mr. Fantastic. Crap, let's get into all of these.

Hailey Atwell is fantastic in this role and has been doing it relatively tirelessly for like ten years now. It's easy to forget the Agent Carter series back when the MCU spin-off shows were actually on network television. That's where the Inhumans landed as well, which is perhaps the biggest stumble of anything Marvel has done. I'm not impressed at all with anything Anson Mount has done, but he does a good job here, mostly of looking cool in a costume and not saying anything. Well, until he does.

Lynch doesn't really do anything as Captain Marvel, and honestly gets punked out a little too easily. Chiwetel Ejiofor I thought would do more as Baron Modo, I don't buy his turn against Strange, even in the first film, it didn't really feel earned. Kind of like Sinestro in Green Lantern (2011), yeah remember that? Just like, "Hey now this guy is evil because he's supposed to be" instead of demonstrating it.

Dude, Patrick Stewart is 81 years old. He's still the perfect Professor X, and I love the 90s X-Men theme, the big yellow chair, it's all just perfectly campy in a way that superhero films were afraid to be twenty years ago. But man, he's getting old. When will we have James McAvoy take this role over in the MCU? And is this the way they do it, just multi-versing it? It's all pretty fascinating. He does a great job here, as he naturally should, and I even loved the little mind reading effect he did, which is so comic book-y.

I get the sense that we're only brave enough to do this in a multiversal context, though. Like, that's an excuse to go really weird instead of bringing it into the "616" universe. I hope we get over that. Marvel needs to watch more Doom Patrol. Okay, John Krasinksi.

I'm prepared for unpopular comments, but I don't think this dude works as Reed Richards. He's actually a really stiff and uncomfortable actor, despite the fact that everyone loves him. You ever notice how he interacts with people who aren't Pam or Dwight on the office? He doesn't really know how to joke around with people. And he doesn't give off vibes of arrogance or intelligence, which is what Reed is all about. Fans have clamoured for this forever for some fucking reason because they kind of look alike, but I don't see it. And he didn't do a good job, stiff wooden dialogue delivery without charisma. And he goes out like a bitch. Oh well. He might be our dude moving forward, or he might not be, I'm okay to just move on.

So, want to talk more about that? I love when Sam Raimi reminds us that he's a horror director. There was like some legit gruesome shit here! Black Bolt's voice echoing out of his brain, Mr. Fantastic getting unraveled until his brain also explodes. It's a lot of fun. Disturbing fun fun. Someone on twitter pointed out (sorry for not citing) that the big problem with this scene is that no one really reacts to their close friends gruesomely dying. And yeah, that's because it's all green screened and Elizabeth Olsen has never even met John Krasinski. That is certainly a problem, one that I don't care a ton about since story-wise, they're ultimately just fodder to show how much of a threat Scarlet Witch is and we don't really have to be invested in their stories, but it's also a bit of emotional distance that could have been better served. It's all fun for sure. I definitely dug how Raimi drops all these huge cameos and then immediately kills them off. There's something cheeky there.

I did like little bits like how the (presumably) Mr. Fantastic-built Ultrons work the way they are supposed to. But where the hell was Namor?! Probably in Universal Studios somewhere. I really just wanted a dude in a speedo with wings on his feet chillin out with the most powerful team leaders of the Marvel Universe, but like, he's the most badass of them all.

I dug the ending, which again like the first Doctor Strange (2016) relied more on wits and appeals to emotions than brute strength and magic outpeforming the big bad villain. The end credits scenes were decently indecipherable, with Strange's third eye suddenly opening, and indication of the evil of the Darkhold, and then him jumping in with Clea without much worry. I don't know, I feel like sometimes these credit scenes are more throwaway than we give them credit for, so whatever.

These movies are cool, I like how they explore magic and taboo and reanimate dead corpses to have evil soul snatcher capes, its just bizarre and campy and weird, which is my kind of deal. They are getting so good at fan service, too, but I'm still waiting for my Doctor Voodoo, a proper flame-headed Dormammu (might we get that with a Clea adventure), a proper evil threatening Baron Mordo, and hell, maybe even a Mephisto here somewhere. That'd be cool. Also, more gods like the Vishanti, Cyttorak, Chthon, uhh...Zom. They're all good. We've definitely breached the Elder Gods point, right?

I mean, we briefly saw the Living Tribunal! We're getting there, people. The only other real complaint is that this could have been an even wilder multi-versal romp, and we get really brief snippets, but ultimately we just see the incured universe, the Illimunati universe, and our main universe. That's not too much. It was worth it to get that music fight, that's the kind of wacky magic I want to see, but I'd like more. That's tough to say because there was already so much to cram in here, the pacing felt really really fast, but I think there is good fodder for a lot more, even when we leave this multiversal kick we're on.

As for being totally lost, I saw this with my wife who had only ever seen Endgame (2019). She surprisingly felt like she pretty much understood the whole thing and what Wanda's deal was. That was interesting to hear, I really thought she'd be lost. I like them just barreling forward and trusting that we'll either catch up or just be able to roll with things enough to understand people shooting magic lasers at eachother. That's what really counts.

I'm generally pretty positive about this, it's definitely not a perfect movie, but I dug it and as usual, look forward to whatever's coming next. I dunno, there are a lot of whiney bits about Marvel movies these days and what they're doing to cinema, but it's entertaining, so whatever. Go watch it, or not, let's have fun!

13 May 2022

52 for '22: The Mighty Quinn

MovieThe Mighty Quinn (1989)
Method: HBOMax

He also looks like a really cool admiral

Why Did I watch this?

I do not remember what got this on my radar. After watching the opening credits I thiiiink it was the fact that this was written by Hampton Fancher five seven years after he wrote Blade Runner (1982) and quite frankly, it's one of the only notable films he wrote between that and Blade Runner 2049 (2017). I likely then read the Wikipedia article where Roger Ebert called it one of the best films of 1989 and "a spy thriller, a buddy movie, a musical, a comedy and a picture that is wise about human nature." And it's just Denzel Washington in a Jamaican murder mystery. Written by the guy who wrote Blade Runner. Why would you not watch this? I just watched Denzel in the Tragedy of MacBeth (2021), which fueled my interest as well!

What Did I know ahead of time?

I didn't really know much of anything. Despite all that I said above, I had forgotten that until the movie started playing. I did remember this was an early Denzel role, and I thought it was a little obscure, which it definitely is these days, but it seems like it was a big deal at the time. From the African colored opening titles and reggae music (that opens the first six minutes of the movie) I soon realized this was some Jamaican movie, so that was a pleasant surprise.

How Was It?

This movie rules. It is indeed a Jamaican cop mystery, but one where the build-up, investigation, and pay-off are also worth it. First thing's first, though, to answer the question you're thinking, yes, Denzel does speak in a Jamaican patois, and no, it is not good. To Denzel's supreme credit as an actor, though, it doesn't ever really take you out of the movie or reduce how compelling he is to watch.

The basic premise is that a rich resort owner on the island is found murdered, decapitated in his hot tub, which obviously scares the white folk and soon local island pothead Maubee is the prime suspect. Maubee also happens to be Denzel's childhood friend. There is this give and take where Denzel doesn't believe Maubee did it, but is also bound to uphold the law. He's trying to find Maubee throughout the whole film, but not necessarily to arrest him, sometimes just to talk, sometimes to protect him from worse men, and at one great part, just to hang out because he's hammered.

The plot gets a bit convoluted, but never unmanageable. There is a US agent around to re-collect some rogue obscure $10,000 bills that the government was trying to use to fund Central American insurrections, but we don't really know that until the end. The film always has this element of colonialism in the background, this constant white noise that underlies everything else going on. You get the sense of frustration from Denzel, who is the moral center with obligation to the law, getting continually fed up with the corrupt government kowtowing to the mainland.

But this is all wisely in the background, it's not a message movie. It's more a character-driven murder mystery, complete with red herrings, close herrings, and thorough investigations. All set against the backdrop of a reggae musical, including repeated instances of "The Mighty Quinn," originally a Bob Dylan song, but heavily adapted here. That song even serves as a means for Denzel to commit to the community, moving from annoyance to acceptance and an outsider to a genuine member.

He's an impeccably well defined character. He's a sort of absentee father, but he genuinely cares about his kids. He's tempted by white girls like Mimi Rodgers, but he stays true to his black baby mama. He is both of the island and of the mainland and tries to keep a foot in both worlds. Denzel just does it all.

The film was directed by Carl Schenkel, a Swiss filmmaker with no other real notable flicks on his resume. What is most bizarre is how authentic this feels despite definitely being written and directed by two old white dudes. Indeed, when looking for sci-fi elements or any kind of throughline from Blade Runner, one comes up empty. I suppose Blade Runner is known more for its direction and production design than screenplay. But it really does feel like a genuine Jamaican piece than an appropriated story. A lot of that is probably just actually putting black characters and black actors front and center of this film. It's not like Cool Runnings (1993) where the main character is still a white guy. This is more about the black Jamaican experience.

The directing isn't really anything super special, the shots are pretty standard, but it does have a tight composition and quick pacing. There is one aerial shot towards the end when the old witch's house is burning that is really impressive. It must have been a crane shot at the time, but looks like it could have been a modern day drone. It flies in and tracks in a continuous shot that's expansive and cool. I also really dug the final scene, shooting it out with a helicopter in some ancient ruins. This movie gets loud and explosiony really fast, but it's fun and earned.

I really liked this, it's nice to see a film in this series that's actually worth it for a change. This isn't really known as vital viewing in Denzel's oeuvre. I don't know why, maybe Glory (1989) the same year, then Malcom X (1992), The Pelican Brief (1993), and Philadelphia (1993) not too long afterwards overshadow it? Or maybe because it is primarily a black story, no one cared? I don't know, but if you are a fan of Denzel, Robert Townsend, M. Emmet Walsh, or tropical island murder mysteries, this should be must see viewing.

06 May 2022

52 for '22: Drive Angry

MovieDrive Angry (2011)
Method: Peacock

Why Did I watch this?
This is obviously in poor taste, but hey, this is Norwegian Morning Wood here. I was totally trying to think back to what the movie was where Amber Heard and Johnny Depp met and for some reason only Drive Angry stuck out in my mind. I goofed up – obviously this is a Nic Cage movie! I knew that. But then I thought, hey this is basically Nic Cage week, and this is a sincere gap in my Cage knowledge! So it obviously worked out perfectly.
What Did I know ahead of time?
I knew the premise, that Cage plays a guy who escaped from Hell to save his daughter or something and it starred Amber Heard as not his daughter but someone else. I also knew that this was not well received at all. It also involved a car. I think I had seen it parts of it at some point, and had definitely been excited at maximum Cage.
How Was It?
Dude, this was pretty good. I mean, that’s all relative, but the action here was really heightened, as was the sex, gore, violence, fuck words, all that good stuff. At one point Nic Cage has a shoot out with the bad guys while in mid-coitus. That just sums up what this film is. Lots of titties, lots of hands and legs being blown off, lots of people getting ran over by cars. Nic Cage’s car is on fire constantly, it’s just that kind of movie.
And sure, this is going to turn off some people, and to an extent this becomes a little too much edge and trying too hard. It feels a lot like the most 2011 movie ever, which is fun to examine. It’s right on the precipice of Cage becoming a parody of himself, full of dodgy CGI, acting that doesn’t quite know if it should take itself seriously or not, and a lot of unsatisfying action, as much as we do like a mid-fuck shoot out.
Really the biggest issue is tone. Nic Cage plays it very very straight. William Fichtner knows what kind of movie he’s in, as he hams it up as the Accountant from Hell who is looking to bring the escaped Cage back to his cage. There is some truly terrible compositing work in the scene when he drives a hydrogen truck through a police barricade, but him singing, dancing, and not caring about anything is what this movie needed to be. There is a really tragic daughter-lost-to-a-cult backstory at the heart of this, and I get the intention was to demonstrate the stakes, but it’s a bit too serious for what this film ultimately is, which is just pulp nonsense.
Amber Heard holds her own, but her importance in the story diminishes as it moves forward. There is also a lengthy bit of domestic violence early on with her and her boyfriend. Oof. But, and it’s weird to say, this is really what made her a movie star and not just the girlfriend in Pineapple Express (2008) and Zombieland (2009).
The guy who plays the cult leader is okay, I kept thinking that role should have been Walton Goggins, but maybe he’s just the only southern actor I think of these days. It may have been before his time, too. There is some heinous malarkey going on in that cult, and it’s pretty fun.
There is definitely some nebulous stuff like how Nic Cage escaped from hell, and he can exactly be injured or not, but I actually prefer the lack of an explanation for all that. It provides way better mystique, although it also creates a distance from the character that we never really recover from. He maybe needed to be a little more swinging and energetic for us to get a good feel for him.
Like I said, this gets a lot into the “save my daughter!” trope that all old man movies seem to follow, even The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022), although I still like to think that was on purpose as a parody of lesser films like this one. But this is more fun than it deserves to be and worth watching for Cage completionists, especially those trying to decipher how he went from blockbusters to B-movies.
Check out more 52 for '22 right here!

29 April 2022

52 for '22: The Legend of Tarzan

MovieThe Legend of Tarzan (2016)
Method: Netflix DVD

On that Michael Phelps diet. Or the Johnny Weismueller diet!

Why Did I watch this?

Back in the summer of 2016 this movie dropped along with two others that I had no interest in seeing. I don't know why Tarzan stuck in my mind for the past six years. I guess I read some reviews that it was good actually, and the cast was phenomenal (even though I forgot everyone who was in it except for Skarsgard by the time I watched it this week). Something about this stuck in my head, maybe just for being a big recognizable IP, which is definitely exactly what they want with this stuff. Also, anyone who reads this site should know my fondness for failed blockbusters. I really like understanding what makes them tick while other films inexplicably take off. And I'm always attracted to films that may have been underappreciated and turn out to be a hidden gem, buried at the time by unfair criticism. To be fair, that didn't turn out to be what was going on with Tarzan, but we're surging ahead anyway. I guess with The Northman (2022) I was also into Skarsgard's other famous shirtless performance.

What Did I know ahead of time?

Reading that preview I wrote in 2016 again, I apparently knew pretty much everything going into this. It had Tarzan returning to the jungle, Margot Robbie, Christoph Waltz, Sam Jackson. But I definitely forgot all of that by the time I watched it in 2022. It makes me think of recent discourse about the state of streaming, and how no one can remember a movie anymore because we don't watch commercials and trailers all the time. Even if we didn't see a movie, we felt like we did. At one point my wife said to me, "Oh, I remember this scene from the commercials!" and that's totally what this film was. Looking back, it feels like the last gasp of a blockbuster era pre-cord cutting.

How Was It?

There are a lot of movies that deserve a fair shake after being unfairly scorned upon box office release. The Legend of Tarzan is not one of them. There isn't much of anything that is good in this film. It operates as both an origin story for Tarzan, told through flashbacks, and as a new story about Tarzan returning to the Belgian Congo after years spent as a gentleman exploring his rightful home as an Earl in England. BUT IS the jungle his rightful home?!

I with the film had focused more on its actual premise rather than being a vehicle to explore an ancient IP. The deal is that an American ambassador, played by Sam Jackson, suspects the King of Belgium is up to some shady shit in the heart of Africa. He wants Tarzan to investigate. At the same time, the King has ostensibly invited Tarzan down on a goodwill tour (in actuality that is a ruse by Christoph Waltz to lure Tarzan back home so he can present him to Djimon Hounsou in exchange for diamonds so Djimon can get revenge for Tarzan killing his son when he was in full ape mode). As I'm saying it now, it sounds needlessly complicated, but the film actually does a pretty competent job laying out its inciting incident and genuinely establishing every character's motivation.

But then that's quickly abandoned. This movie doesn't seem to be able to find what it wants to be. This could have been a cool film of the characters investigating the Congo and Tarzan being slowly pulled back into his old ways. The latter does happen, and I enjoyed how slowly he starts losing articles of clothing to become the Tarzan we all know and love. But then Christoph Waltz kidnaps Margot Robbie and it's just kind of a typical damsel in distress plot.

It works because every actor is at the top of their game. It's bizarre that Christoph, Margot, and Sam have two Academy Awards between the three of them, and they're both Christoph Waltz's. It makes me think how deserving the other two are. I can't believe they haven't been in more films together - Waltz and Jackson had Django Unchained (2012), but for being some of the biggest IT stars of the past decade Tarzan is their shining collab.

I was looking up Alexander Skarsgard because I feel like I like him, but his only good role I remember is War on Everyone (2016) which I enjoyed. This role feels similar to his totally phoned in performance in Godzilla vs. Kong (2021) where he just kind of shows up and does his role without much going on there. It's fine, but the definition of bland. Truthfully, there's just not a lot to Tarzan here, but you can add depth to that conflict of a man torn between worlds. Robbie also has the definition of a thankless female role, but she adds a tremendous amount of personality and energy to the part.

The color composition in this film is bizarre. Jane's introduction scene looks like a Monty Python cartoon. There's something wrong with her hair, it's like, too bright for the rest of the film or something. There is quite a bit of this, just terribly composed shots and really dodgy CGI. At some points the apes didn't look like they had fur on them. I wasn't watching on the greatest TV, but this is unacceptable in a post-Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) world. The ending finale as well, which features wildebeest busting through walls and knocking over brass cannons looks cheap as hell (for all the wackiness of a Tarzan movie, a gnu effortlessly knocking a cannon actually really took me out of the movie). When we complain about misused CGI nonsense and weightlessness, I hate to say that The Legend of Tarzan is a poster child.

And I like when films change up their colors, but every scene in this film was dramatically different. There are really green forests, really yellow fields, really blue manors, and really white...random scenes. Don't get me wrong, variety is good, and it was very helpful in distinguishing flashback scenes, but it felt all over the place, like there was no consistent cinematographer with a coherent vision.

This blame should mostly fall on director David Yates, who after four pretty good Harry Potter films has really proven himself to have a turd of a career. All he's done since then is this and all three (so far!) Fantastic Beasts films. It's like he's the king of generic Hollywood filmmaking that demonstrates how broken Hollywood is. And seeing Fantastic Beasts put this more in perspective - there's no planning or interest in creativity, just product here. I was struck by how generic the soundtrack was, like, it could have been for any movie ever. This is the kind of soundtrack that gets put in trailers because it works anywhere.

It definitely takes itself too seriously as well. You need to lean into the ridiculousness of this. Get George of the Jungle (1997) up in here. He DOES do the yell, but it's out of madness instead of vine swinging fun. Christoph Waltz comments on it, but we need a bit more. Movies are so afraid that they won't be taken seriously for some reason, but you just get bland and awkward instead, because the PREMISE is insane!

Should we talk about the politics of it all? The concept of Tarzan is inherently problematic - let's get that out of the way right now. A white dude left alone to become King of the Jungle has so many difficult implications of colonialism, native narrative hijacking, and a crystal clear white savior complex. But uhhh...yeah do NOT replace Tarzan with a black guy as King of the Apes. That...is not good. It's not like we need to ignore what came before us, but we also definitely need to admit that what worked a hundred years ago when the only voices were white men, does not necessarily apply today, even if the IP is recognizable.

The film tries to grapple with this. Sort of. It has a clear anti-colonialist and anti-slavery bend, but it also likes to present the Britain and America of 1890 as egalitarian societies ready to step in and persecute those wicked Belgians for crimes in Africa. Bullshit. And we never even see the Belgian King, who is like, the main villain! For a movie that spends most of its time in Africa, we also never really see the African perspective. Even in the intro when Christoph Waltz is ambushed by Djimon's tribe, it's from the white point of view. And they are clearly warrior savages, which I thought we got past after the mid-2000s racist native trifecta of King Kong (2005), Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2006), and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) that found that Pacific Islander, Caribbean, and Incan cultures are all generic and identical. Why not add Africa to that list?! I don't know, man. It's tough in a post-Black Panther (2018) world to sit through this shit.

Like I said, the film tries, but I don't think you can do anything with this premise anymore. Tarzan joins Robin Hood and King Arthur as juicy recognizable public domain IPs that Hollywood continues to be obsessed with because they're recognizable stories that can drive people into seats. But no one actually cares about these anymore. It's a shame that all our public domain stories feature bland white dudes - if only we had those diverse voices hundreds of years ago we could be making all kinds of interesting movies! Oh wait, we did get 47 Ronin (2013). Crap.

28 April 2022

First Impressions: The Northman

I knew this shit was going to be good but...wow. I mean...wow. This film quickly shot up on my all-time recent favourites list, and is going to be hard-pressed to be unseated by year's end. Ladies and gentlemen, this is the SPOILER-filled review of Robert Eggers' The Northman (2022).
It's hard to tell if Eggers is a thing or not yet. Despite helming both The VVitch (2015) and The Lighthouse (2019), which feel like they've had a big cultural impact, I'd say he's still pretty outside of the mainstream. The VVitch made $40 million worldwide and The Lighthouse wasn't even that high, with $18 million. And I don't know if the average person would know what the hell I was doing if I started chanting "BLACK PHILLIP!" or "Why'd ya spill yer beans!" and then farted. And while both are critical darlings sitting at 90%, they haven't done any awards anything besides critic circles.
Folks are already saying The Northman is a bomb, which I always think is both cynical and a little premature. We seem to always want to root for movies to fail, which I don't understand why. But also, you should go see this movie if you want to see more of these kinds of movies being made. We also always complain that all we have is Marvel films, but we don't support films like The Northman. ANYWAY, my point is that I think Eggers deserves a lot more mainstream credit at this point (or maybe not, his films are really out there), but where he is with film twitter right now is a good place. Let's get into this whopping film.
It opens on a volcano and that kind of fury is all you really need to know. The basic core of the film is a very simple, age-old premise. A Viking king returns from war to greet his family, fears his death and so names his heir, but is killed by his brother. His son grows up and swears vengeance on his uncle. It's basically The Lion King (1994). I guess that's also Hamlet. There are also elements of Gangs of New York (2002) in there when the son comes back as a man and his target doesn't recognize him, and at times feels sympathy for the man he has vowed to kill.
But since this is a Robert Eggers film, somehow every turn is unexpected. Every great moment is cynically undercut, and it's fantastic. Alexander Skarsgard - Tarzan himself - plays the son who becomes a berserker Viking pillaging the Land of Rus at whim, generally acknowledged as the greatest warrior. He hears that his uncle no longer has his kingdom and has been reduced to a sheep-herding chieftain in Iceland. He disguises himself as a slave in a move from Gladiator (2000), although this is on purpose, not coercion, and stows away on the ship.
It's a film about how stupid this revenge is. It's first undercut by the fact that Skarsgard is not reclaiming his kingdom or throne. He's just killing a sheep herder. But his mind is clouded by rage. I have seen some folks talk about how this movie encourages toxic masculinity and here's my take on that: if you are someone who is reading into his obsession and deeds as a noble path to aspire to, that says something very dangerous and sad about you. It was crystal clear to me that Skarsgard's quest is folly and fruitless, and I'd like to spend most of this post talking about why.
He keeps repeating his mantra - Avenge his father, save his mother, kill his uncle (who has definitely a difficult Scandinavian name, trust me, this film does not skimp on that). However, near the end of the film we get the huge revelation from Nicole Kidman (his mother) that his father was a total bush. His father was not a great ruler, despised by most, hated by his wife, a slave-owning rapist who was an arrogant coward.
By that same vein, his mother doesn't need saving, she's the one who plotted to kill him, and intended to kill Amleth, her son as well! So his first two obsessions and fuel for revenge are totally meaningless. And his uncle, despite killing his father, is actually shown to be a pretty decent dude. He teaches both of his sons important life lessons, is generally positively regarded by the tribe, and seems to be leading okay, despite being kicked out of their homeland.
He does reach his goal of killing his uncle, but in the process is he himself killed. We can't mention this without clarifying that this is during a naked volcano fight, but it's also what he chooses instead of being father to his own children. See, he bangs Ana Taylor-Joy and can sense through her blood tree that she's pregnant with twins. This is all while sailing away on a boat. They were done, they were free forever. Instead, he gets paranoid and swims back to his doom. I don't know how you could read this as an endorsement of masculinity, he really screws up by letting his rage and hatred overcome the love and kindness he has for his family. It's tragic.
It also a much older story structure that harkens back to old legends. It is based on a real Viking legend, and there is much of that epic quality here, from witches foretelling the story, the hero getting help from the gods, and going on a mystical quest to obtain a sword that can vanquish evil. All the good stuff. It feels bizarre that Amleth is so concerned with fulfilling his fate, we could have a whole talk about fate vs. free will here, as he feels he has none, even saying that he isn’t fated to kill his uncle yet until they battle on a Lake of Fire. He keeps refusing to make his own decision and instead gives himself up to destiny.
That sword is gnarly, though. It should enter the ranks of all time great cinema weapons. It thirsts for blood, can only be unsheathed at night, and can never dull or break. It’s pretty cool. It’s also guarded by a giant soldier who literally had one job – stay out of the moonlight, but then he’s pushed slightly into its rays and dies. Oh well.
On that note, the cinematography is unreal. The nights are so dark, but you can still tell what’s going on. There are some great bits of framing, like the gates of the initiation ceremony and even an impressive shot where we see the Viking canoes through two bushes, then the camera presses in and finds its rest in the canoe’s center. It’s really a wild shot and I have no idea how they got a camera there. There’s also a few astounding long action shots, from the siege in Rus to the final volcano battle. Eggers seems to always let the action play out with clarity on screen, which is enormously refreshing. It might be because I just watched Drive Angry (2011), check out how many indecipherable cuts there are in the first scene.
The movie’s also about taming man and separating him from the beasts. It’s never too much of a problem that they act like insane animals all the time, but there is certainly this movement that Skarsgard goes through from idolizing acting like a wolf to becoming a reasonable and responsible husband. Again, in the end, he chooses being an insane wolf and I have no idea how folks could see that as an endorsement of that kind of behavior.
Let’s talk about the acting! Because this is the kind of movie where everything hits – it’s gorgeous to look at, the themes are well-developed, the plot is intriguing, and the performances are killer. Nicole Kidman seems like a weird choice for the put-upon mother but then she goes extremely off-kilter, dabbling in incest, murder, and carnage, but it’s all pretty motivated. A+ in my book.
Her husband is played by Claes Bang, who I did not recognize but is totally from The Square (2015), which is fantastic and I just saw. He is great at playing slightly sleazy and sinister, but ultimately a good and rational man. His kids are impetus and a little stock, but that’s okay. Bill Skarsgard was originally going to play Thorir, which would have been fun to see the actual brothers on screen.
Ethan Hawke and Willem Dafoe appear briefly as the old King and court jester respectively. Dafoe is typically insane and weird but it really works here. Hawke is good, I was surprised he can play that old. Well, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, he’s getting up there, but that might be the weak spot for me.
Ana Taylor-Joy brings back her Russian accent from The New Mutants (2020), but it’s a bit better this time around. She’s amazing, and her fury calling the winds to speed her sails is one of the more badass moments I can remember in a movie filled with badass moments. She brings sadness, hope, and steely determination to what could have been a pretty thankless love interest role.
Skarsgard himself is great, he’s not too much more than a hulking mass, but his performance is so subtle here. He also has such sadness in his eyes, which fights with such fury that he can’t control as he’s taught that the only way for a man to express himself is rage. He has a characteristic hunch, which he did well in War on Everyone (2016), which brings him back to his animal-like behavior and also befits his status as a slave. He rarely stands upright, he more sulks and lurks his way around this movie. It works really well, it’s weird to say he has one of the more distinctive postures in Hollywood, but they take advantage of it here.
He doesn’t have too many lines or emotes too much, but he assuredly feels like the best dude for this plot. There are so many ripped young dudes in Hollywood, Skarsgard has always had some trouble standing out, but I hope this can launch his career a bit. Or maybe it’s already launched, he was in Godzilla vs. Kong (2021) after all. And really unused there. He should have done more screaming.

I really dug this film, it’s that rare gem where everything just clicks and every box is ticked. I would watch it every day until my eyes bleed and are pecked out by crows – it’s definitely not for everyone but it really worked for me. I’m curious to see what kind of attention it gets, I don’t think it has gotten even the critical appreciation it deserves so far, and I hope the Academy remembers it a year from now.

24 April 2022

First Impressions: The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent

There's not too many actors that are singularly unique in the vein of Nic Cage. There's not too many who have earned both an Academy Award and made their mark on Direct-to-DVD sales. Or who have starred in as many major action blockbusters and introspective and experimental indie films. The Cage just does it all and it's about time we had a film that synthesized this into a meta-commentary on his career, Hollywood, and the fact that all of Cage's insanity has become iconic. Ladies and Gentlemen, this is the SPOILER-filled impression of The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022).

This film stars Cage as Nic Cage, an actor past his prime, but who is very much an in-demand A-Lister. Sort of. He blows his shot with David Gordon Green, gets drunk at his daughter's birthday party, decides to quit acting, then accepts a gig to appear at a Spanish millionaire's birthday party. But Pedro Pascal is maybe a drug lord who kidnapped the President of Catalonia's daughter. Hilarity ensues!

Watching this film is a trip. It's chock full of Cage references, and everyone seems to have their own favourites. No one seems to mention The Trust (2016) though. The heavy hitters are here, Con Air (1997), Face / Off (1997) and The Rock (1996) get their due. But also a ton of more niche films, most of which are caught here and here, from Captain Corelli's Mandolin (2001) to Mandy (2018). This is a celebration of all things Cage, and it finds ways to honor his gonzo acting without ever looking down on it.

I have long been a Cage admirer, and I think all cinephiles are to some extent. There's just so much interesting acting going on there. And so many questions. Is he self-aware? Is this on purpose? Is he doing this for insane spending habits on dinosaur eggs? Or does he, like he remarks in the movie, just like working and doesn't think about his public persona or reputation, and moreso just sees it as a job to show up to every day. This film wisely leaves all that stuff pretty ambiguous, but the Cage as Cage we get here feels pretty real and authentic.

Of course, Cage himself has said it's not, which is even more bewildering. Like, in the first twenty minutes you can just picture that this is what Cage must be like. Apparently he's someone else, maybe that's an entirely different movie. Not since This is the End (2013) have I seen a film so joyfully toy with an actor's commonly excepted public persona, and purport to give us an inside look at the madness. And to make it more unbelievable, this really was just a film written by two random dudes that someone were able to actually talk to Nic Cage and then get this made. I suppose if this wasn't ever made, it'd just be sitting around somewhere as a fun lark. But to answer the question of "Did Nic Cage have any involvement, or really told the story he wanted to tell about himself?!" The answer is...no.

I generally did like this, but I thought it got a little off track when it departs from being a winking Cage-focused Hollywood satire and instead becomes...a Nic Cage movie. It's actually the exact plot of the movie Adaptation. (2002) starring...Nic Cage as two different Nic Cages, who end up writing themselves into the movie they are writing, as an action film to get more easy viewers. To add to the matter that that was Charlie Kaufman's way of breaking through the writer's block he had adapting the book The Orchid Thief is just even better.

The film devolves into an action shoot 'em up, which still has plenty of surprises in store. There is a lot of intertextuality here, though. The ending is basically Tropic Thunder (2008) or Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002) where the events of the film lead to an actual movie with big name actors, but I actually did like how instantly Hollywood-ified the scene became, with expansive sweeping shots, classically beautiful actresses, and the American flag proudly and prominently waving in the background.

So most of this movie is just a movie, which I guess I'm okay with, but I always want something a bit weirder. We do get some nice hallucinations, or maybe they're just Cage's way of talking to himself, in the form of a de-aged Cage from the late 80s / early 90s. The technology for that is getting scary good, although it's still just uncanny because you know it's not possibly him. We also get a Cage on Cage make-out scene, apparently his own suggestion, which is perfect in every way. But other than that we don't quite get into the loudness, the mania, what it's like to truly experience the mind of the Cage. I shouldn't say all that, we get some nice loud FUUUUCKS and all the ticks and mannerisms we've come to love. I don't know what caused my insanity-meter to go so high, but this film just didn't get weird enough for me.

That's all to say what we get is pretty good. Pedro Pascal easily goes toe to toe with the Cage and Paco Leon, who I just saw when I accidentally watched You Keep the Kids (Mama o Papa) (2001) because I didn't know it was in Spanish plays a great menacing, but still ultimately stock drug kingpin villain, mostly on the periphery before clanging down on everyone in the third act. Tiffany Haddish is here looking like she's getting ready for GI Jane 2 but does a spectacular job. Although does she live at the end? Shit. Did we ever see her get up?! No one else is super notable, but this is and is always supposed to the Cage show.

And he shows his impressive range, which we all know. This might be his most human performance ever, and that's surely in no small part because he's playing himself and not some insane businessman who thinks he's a vampire or a stunt-biker whose skull is on fire. There's this running gag that Cage is back, but also maybe he never left. That's definitely true. Cage seemed to go down that Liam Neeson / Bruce Willis / John Cusack geezer teaser route, but then pulled back and dropped stuff like Color out of Space (2020) and PIG (2021). He's not really in that mainstream blockbuster mode anymore, which probably peaked with National Treasure (2004), but he's far from someone who's been off the map.

Still, the goodwill from this and PIG certainly feels like we're on the edge of a Cage-assaince. I'd love to see him more in at least films like this instead of those random hackey movies designed for old angry white men. I did note, and I'm not sure if this is on purpose, but the plot did hinge on a daughter kidnapping, then a double daughterknapping! If old white men can't get their daughters back, what is even the point of being alive? This was too sly, I'm not sure if it was supposed to be meta or genuine, but hey, that's the age we live in now.

I thought it was interesting that Cage has a beard in this, as he's not really known for beards. Some famous moustaches in Kick-Ass (2010), The Trust, and Raising Arizona (1987), but not too many beards. Definitely a lot of recent films, though. Maybe he just wants to grow one and doesn't shave anymore? Since you asked for it, he sports a full beard in, Seeking Justice (2011), Army of One (2016), Mandy (2018), Primal (2019), Kill Chain (2019), Willy's Wonderland (2021), and Prisoners of the Ghostland (2021). And PIG, of course.

These recent Cage flicks are crazy. Is he the only one to come back from the geezer teaser bin? It just seems like his movie choices are so close to the edge. What makes one film a PIG and another a Willy's Wonderland? Cage does just seem to say yes to a lot. Him saying yes both elevates the material, like he's still a star that can get stuff made, but sometimes that high premise turns out to be Mandy and sometimes Prisoners of the Ghostland. I don't know. It's just truly one of life's bigger mysteries.

I also dug how this movie had such a free discourse on good movies like Paddington 2. I did jump on the hype train for that film and I actually disagree that it's the greatest thing ever - I didn't think it was all that special. But so many people do, and it's nice to acknowledge the many forms a great movie can take. Like Face / Off. Which obvi is the #1 movie of all time and probably the greatest Cage performance. I'll say it again, he has an Academy Award. It wasn't even one given to someone in a career honorary sense, it was in 1995, man. Like, he used to make the jump to action films. It's totally wild.

This is a great celebration of Cage and all he's done for our lives. It hits the highs and lows and is really an amazing film to see. I think it could have pushed a bit more, but that's always me. Go see it and ensure that more of these kinds of movies get made!

22 April 2022

52 for '22: Open Range

MovieOpen Range (2003)
Method: Hulu

Why Did I watch this?

Listen...Open Range has a weird place in my heart. I remember it was 2003 and my grandparents wanted to take me and my brother to the movies for my birthday, which was in late August. And dammit, I really wanted to watch Open Range. It was definitely an inspired choice for a soon-to-be 17-year old. It looked cool, like there were cowboys on the range, it seemed really authentic and I was into it. No one else was, not even my grandparents, who you'd think having lived through this era, would want to watch it.

We went and saw Bad Boys II (2003) instead. Definitely the louder, more crowd-pleasing, easy to digest affair, but I always longed for what sliding doors could have been had literally anyone else in our group wanted to see Open Range. Since then it's just eluded me. It was never a sexy cable TV choice (unlike...Bad Boys II), and didn't even pop up on streaming for a long time. It had been on my Netflix DVD queue forever, like all the movies on this list, but also like most of these movies, I was never compelled to check it out. It's not the kind of movie that belies urgency. I knew I had to throw it on for this series this year, and when it popped up on Hulu this month - done!

What Did I know ahead of time?

I knew it had Duvall and Costner and featured cowboys on some kind of open range. I didn't know too much more than that. Reading the Wikipedia entry as part of my intense preparation, I did remember that the ending gunfight is legendary (it totally fucking lives up the hype), but I really didn't know much else. It always felt like it was going to be a slow, methodical, deliberately paced Western.

How Was It?

This was a slow, methodical, deliberately paced Western. Nah, I really liked it though. It is a completely unnecessary two hours and nineteen minutes for reasons that escape me, but it's a pretty good time. It does star Duvall and Costner, doing their own "Who's More Grizzled" competition as two free range cattle ranchers who done get into some trouble with some more ornery settled down types.

Diego Luna and some other dude are their hired hands, and they all make sort of a living out there. the big dude gets into some trouble in the town and is roughed up. This is really a great revisionist Western, where the heroes don't necessarily immediately ride into town to seek vengeance. In fact, most of the conflict in the film comes from their debate about what to do and how to hold their own pride and freedom to make a living intact in the face of rabble-rousers and offenders. It's like TNG on the prairie. And yes, if you were wondering, Diego Luna's accent is pretty offensive.

So, let's talk Costner. I hadn't really realized it, but this dude makes a ridiculous amount of Westerns. It was all coming back to me - Dances with Wolves (1990) of course, Wyatt Earp (1994), Hatfields & McCoys, Yellowstone. I guess that's it, but Waterworld (1995) and The Postman (1997) also feel like westerns where he plays this sullen lone cowboy survivor dude. Also Michael Jeter is in this, who I only know from Waterworld, which is fun. He also plays the same exact character.

But this is the third of three movies Costner has directed, which is strange for an Academy-award winning director. I realized that I haven't seen many Kevin Costner movies, which is okay, I guess. The only real major ones I've seen is The Untouchables (1987), JFK (1991), and Waterworld. But he is like a major movie star, right? It's weird, he doesn't seem synonymous with the 90s like other stars do. Maybe that's because his biggest films were just huge bombs.

He also seems to just cast himself as the biggest badass in every film even though he can't really fully sell it. That holds true here. But his character has an interesting twist - he's a former hired gunman who did some horrible shit in the Civil War and beyond, but is trying to mend his ways. But he has repeated PTSD and can't always control his actions. Again, he fights fiercely with Robert Duvall, but he also acknowledges his attempt to change, but he's still just a killer. It's legitimately compelling stuff. We don't need every scene with him trying to bang the doctor's sister Annette Benning, but whatever.

Duvall is a legend here. He commands the entire movie. There is a great moment of restraint where Duvall convinces Costner not to murder an injured man when he's down (they came for killin' not murderin') and it looks like the man is going to reach for a fun and shoot Duvall in the back, showing perfect irony. They don't go that obvious route, though. I'm torn on whether or not Duvall should have lived, there are a few good death moments, including an inexplicable point-blank shoot-out with Dumbledore at the end of the film where he is not hit. But he is hit earlier! But he doesn't die. I mean, fine, that's great, I guess. Duvall is so genuine here that it's fun to watch. It's as if they took these stock western tropes and characters and just added depth and backstory. I love seeing Duvall and Costner in the candy shop buying Swiss chocolate before they go to what they think will be their death. It adds a human dimension to these characters where they don't sacrifice any of their masculinity, because that has already been well earned.

Michael Gambon is a sort of a stock Western town magnate baddie character. He is basically the turtle from Rango (2011). He's Irish for no reason other than I guess Gambon probably struggled with an American accent? It's fun to see him so villainous. He doesn't appear in many scenes, but is a perfect villain who makes a lasting impression early on and whose presence haunts the rest of the film despite not being on screen. The same goes for Kim Coates who plays the dude who kills Costner's friend early on. You never see him until the end, and don't really even know who he is except for his broken arm, which they said happened earlier. He waltzes in, backtacking the sheriff and taunting Costner. So he just shoots him in the head. It's refreshing and kicks off the best part of this film - the gunfight.

It's legit and I was glad to see that others thought so as well. I guess you have to sit through two hours of set-up for this to really pay off, but it happens so fast and feels so real. And by real I mean, they have finite bullets, they miss, they find cover, they have strategy, it pays off, then it doesn't, then it does again. It pushes story and character forward and you learn about these dudes and why they fight. It's fulfilling and wonderful and makes all the slow crap that came before it matter.

Well, almost. This makes Slow West (2015) feel like Crank (2006). It's the one thing that really brings this film down. It drags like crazy. Even something paced like 3:10 to Yuma (2007) would have been a little more satisfying. This goes right up the end where we drag out Annette Benning and Costner's relationship, where he doesn't even stay with her, he goes off to find his cows that, oh yeah, have been missing for like this entire movie.

And don't get me wrong, Benning is good, her role is pretty thankless, but she holds her own without anything really compelling to work with. I partly get the feeling that she's here just so everyone knows Costner isn't gay (literally the only woman with a substantial role on screen falls in love with him), and we don't get a ton of story progression out of their interaction.

In general, this is hearty recommend! I dug this film a lot, I don't know if I would have appreciated it as much nineteen years ago, but I was very glad to finally get it in!

19 April 2022

First Impressions: THE Batman (But can they be quick please)

Last night I finally saw The Batman (2022). It was okay but maybe pretty good. I usually reserve these first impressions for films I see in theaters, and I am not proud of myself that those are typically just big superhero movies. I'm just feeding the machine, man! Whatever, they're still fun. Same with off brand impressions of movies I watch on HBOMax I guess. Let's get into the definite article Batman! Short this time! I mean, short for me. SPOILERS and Robin!

I thought the first ten minutes was terrible. It was extremely slow to start up and super boring. It did not catch interest at all. What I'd give for a clever bank heist or plan being hijacked. It was just R Patts talking about what all of Batman Begins (2005) did by showing. It was not great.

And to be sure, we'll be comparing a lot of this with previous entries. I hate to do it because I want a film to stand on its own merits, but when a character is in the spotlight to the extent this one is, it just feels inevitable. After the intro it picks up and gets into the characters. I liked the realistic treatment of his rogues' gallery as legit psychopaths and serial killers. The Riddler is terrifying in a good way. There is a line between Jim Carrey and Paul Dano (probably like most things, the Harley Quinn TV show did him best). But Dano is inspired casting, as is most everyone here, even if everyone  is an unusual choice. It almost all pays off. Even John Turturro, who I could only picture standing beneath an enemy robot's scrotum at the Pyramids is menacing as Carmine Falcone.

Gotham is very realized. There are shots that are blatantly Chicago and blatantly NYC, but it feels like it has a rich history, obviously of corruption, and it just exists as this almost parody noir of constant rain, crime, and agony. It's not easy to do, this city and these characters have been done so many times, very tough to find a fresh take, and I think largely they did so.

BUT I really like watching a newer, definitely shittier Batman. There is a lot of redundancy here, especially re: Batman Begins. I  don't know how you avoid that at this point, and it did as good as it's going to get. These movies are in dialogue with each other. Remember when Christian Bale escapes from the police station using a bat attracting gizmo? Pattison escapes by just fighting everyone. The best scene progression early on was him getting into the Iceberg Lounge by just knocking on the door and showing up as Batman. It felt like such an un-Batman thing to do. And the movie agrees! We watch him learn. The second time he arrives, he tricks a guard and slips in, locking the guard out. So totally a Batman move. Like, he's not good at being Batman yet. It reminded me of how Spider-Man: Far From Home (2021)'s ending revealed that all three Tom Holland movies were actually just one big origin story (while skipping the obvious origin that we know). It's all worthwhile - this is the same way, and it's more subtle and clever than a film like this would be twenty years ago. We more see a character origin, starting with someone unfamiliar to us and bringing us to the person we know.

Nolan's  Batman films always seemed to wrestle with justifying every single little thing. I get it, there's no way a man dressing up as a bat and fighting crime would ever make sense. In 2005 it was gratifying. In 2022 people just roll with it. This is by far a more grounded film (if that was even possible), with the exception that we are expected to just accept that Bruce Wayne is definitely a dude who dresses as a bat and beats up criminals. There's no deep reason or origin for this, and for the record, that's a good thing. The world seems to accept him, too. He just kind of hangs out with the cops and in clubs and stuff.

The soundtrack / score set the mood well. There's that one song from the trailers, it shows up a few times and captures the mood terrifically. It is also a dreary, terrible, rain drenched film, but it actually has a more colorful palette than a Zach Snyder movie. The score does sound like the Imperial March, but I give it a pass.

So, rough stuff - and right off the bat, jeez that length. It's sort of justified, but damn if a lot of the story threads aren't wrapped up at the 2 hr 6 minute mark (I checked) and it finds its way to give us another 41 minutes (then 9 of credits. I also checked.) of really wrapping up a single story thread, but not really any character development. That's maybe a stretch, it seems to take until the end for Batman to realize that he needs to be a symbol of hope in addition to vengeance, but there isn't an excuse of "every moment was needed!" in this one. And I do like films where the world is sincerely wrecked at the end without a solution. Again, Begins did this when Batman straight up did not save the Narrows and they presumably ripped each other apart with fear gas. But it just sort of ended. There's a nihilism there that I don't necessarily enjoy but I accept.

And that dreariness. I don't think there's a single wisecrack or bit of lightheartedness here. I get that that's a Marvel thing that gets a lot of backlash for some reason, but also, movies are allowed to breathe and have jokes. I feel as if after the Nolan movies we're scared to let Batman be funny, but at least 50% of his lifetime canon appearances are insane and campy and awesome.

I knew I was getting old when at one point I leaned over to my wife and said, "Say what you want about Batman & Robin (1997) but at least I could take our kids to that!" I just kept thinking about some poor dad on his afternoon with the kids and not really paying attention to what Batman has become in the past twenty years. That is the budding cranky dad in me so feel free to ignore that gripe.

We don't get a clear shot of Pattinson's face without make-up or a mask until 56 minutes in. I checked. I kind of liked that, this really is a movie about Batman and he is almost always in costume. To his credit, he does an insane amount of acting with just his eyes and face and he is a better Batman than George Clooney. But it does feel weird. I dig Pattinson as a dude who made Twilight money and now doesn't give less of a flip about anything and he's the right guy for this role.

Colin Farrell's Penguin is insane, I really couldn't see him at all in there. Not only the face make-up but the voice. The role is showy and he's interesting, but it's probably not really the stuff of Academy Awards, but shit if this doesn't win best make-up. It's insane. Zoey Kravitz is fine as Catwoman - I don't think Anne Hathaway gets enough credit for what she did in that role. We always go back to Pfeiffer, Newmar, Kitt, and Berry. This movie does not do well at all with the Bechdel test, by the way. I think Catwoman does talk to her Russian movie briefly about a not-man but it's not much. And she's bi, right?

Jeffrey Wright might be having a bit of a renaissance. This, What If..., and The French Dispatch (2021) all showcase flawless and drastically different performances. We always knew he was good, but I don't think we realized he was THIS good.

Thematically it seems like this is trying not to be a Chris Nolan "private authority is good" fest (and I sort of argue that by the end of The Dark Knight Rises [2012] that's not the case, but it's still awkwardly, "demagogues prey on your liberal sensibilities and cops need to restore order." It's not great), although that's all surface level. Batman works with the police unlike any other film, but he's clearly just a private citizen who's just able to do whatever he wants only because this random police lieutenant trusts him. There's a lot about systematic corruption and how we can't trust anyone, but also that there are good people working to change things.

Perhaps what I liked the most is how The Riddler and The Batman had the same exact motivation, and upbringing. Well, one was an orphan in a billionaire's tower, the other was in a hellish asylum. But they want the same things. The Riddler just lacks a moral compass and is willing to go far farther in literally cleansing the city. There might have been a sly environmental dig there, too. But this the kind of stuff I wish Morbius (2022) would learn - hero and villain can be similar, but the stories work so much better when they are just a few shades off ideologically and push their powers against each other creatively.

And yeah, the Riddler's powers are his ability to make riddles. That's still badass in this film, which FINALLY treats Batman like the World's Greatest Detective he is. Other films would do that, but it mostly involved Bruce putting evidence in the Batputer and it spitting out the answer. The Dark Knight (2008) did that a lot. Batman messes up a lot in this movie, and it's cool to see him actually work out a case. Him and Jim Gordon are like buddy cops at one point. It's pretty fun. But this elevates the Riddler pretty high, he's always been a notable rogue, but not at Joker or Bane level. This shows what he can do and what a true menace he can be, leading to city-wide destruction.

So I ended up enjoying this a lot, it is definitely not without its flaws, namely the length and grimness, but it's a well made movie for sure. Two bat wings up.

15 April 2022

52 for '22: Where the Buffalo Roam

Movie: Where the Buffalo Roam (1980)
Method: Netflix DVD

The drugs starting kicking in around Barstow
Jk they do not go to Barstow in this movie

Why Did I watch this?

I forget what got me into Hunter S. Thompson. It was either Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) or Hunter Gathers from The Venture Bros. But I great an appreciation for his world-bending gonzo journalism, as any teenage boy who wants to strike out against the establishment does. I wouldn't say I was like a diehard, consume every bit of writing he ever did, but I thought Fear and Loathing was funny and I appreciate the hippie-adjacent culture of subversive truth and drug use.

I had heard about Where the Buffalo Roam years ago, probably from Wikipedia scrolling of both Thompson and Bill Murray ephemera. It always stuck out to me - like how was there this movie of early Bill Murray playing Hunter S. Thompson just sitting there with no cultural appreciation? It's been on my radar for a long, long time (I need to start logging when I put these movies in my Netflix Queue. It's probably been 10-11 years), and I really wanted to pull the trigger on this.

What Did I know ahead of time?

Pretty much exactly what I mentioned above. 1980 Bill Murray, released three months ahead of Caddyshack (1980), during his last spring at SNL. He had been in Meatballs (1979) the year prior, but this is just a forgotten gap in his early resume. But I knew Bill Murray played Hunter S. Thompson, that they were friends and his performance was heavily praised at the time.

How Was It?

This is not a good movie. But it's so close to being a good movie. All the elements are there, but it's missing some thing. It's hard to place your finger on it, although quite frankly, it's missing the element that made Thompson's writing so memorable sixty years later (seriously, the list of 1960s and 70s magazine journalists we're still talking about today is very short). It's missing energy, it's missing pizzazz, it's missing GONZO!

This movie feels as if it they thought they could just shoot Bill Murray on screen for 99 minutes and that would be enough. It almost felt reminiscent of 1941 (1979) where the thought seemed like just having John Belushi would be enough, but there's no material to work with. And to be fair, Murray does carry this movie. But it's amazing that even though he's trying, this doesn't feel like a Ghostbusters (1984), a STRIPES (1981), or even a Meatballs. It feels so flat.

This kind of thing drives me nuts, so let's get into it. It really comes down to the direction. The screenplay doesn't have a great drive to it - it's ostensibly about Thompson and his relationship to Carl Lazlo (Dr. Gonzo in Fear and Loathing, Oscar Acosta in real life). Supposedly this screenplay grew out of an attempt to capture Acosta's life, and you can tell that here. The film is split into three big chunks - the first is a courtroom drama of Lazlo attempting to defend some young hippies, Thompson covering the 1972 Super Bowl where Lazlo distracts him and sells guns to revolutionaries, and then Thompson on the Nixon campaign trail where Lazlo again comes and distracts him, getting him kicked off the plane.

The first segment relegates Thompson to a supporting character role. Peter Boyle plays Lazlo with great effect, and it's really compelling court stuff that reminded me of The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020), but again, it had no spirit, no energy. Scenes linger either too long or two short, there's no comedic timing of the cuts, blocking, or line delivery, and at its heart, it doesn't really know what it wants to be. Is it a comedy, a dark comedy, a dramedy, a drama? Who knows. It can never quite pin itself down. Murray parading around with his bloody Marys that he eventually gets all the law students to drink is genuinely amusing, but he also just isn't much of a factor here.

From there their relationship begins to fray, as Lazlo starts running guns, which pushes Thompson over the edge. He maintains his aloofness, but that doesn't gel with the actual tension in the scene where Lazlo and a bunch of Mexicans are trying to escape from a shady airport from the police in a helicopter above them. Immediately preceding this is the closest we get to the more familiar Thompson legend, his insane hotel escapades all on Rolling Stone's dime, and the bit where he trades his Super Bowl VI Tickets and press pass for a bottle of wine and a hat is inspired.

But it's just all over the place. We are essentially looking at their relationship at three different points in time, and there is an arc there, but it's not developed. The final segment may be the best in this movie, where Thompson is on the campaign trail of "the Candidate" (Richard M. Dixon) and ends up drugging and swapping places with a more respectable reporter from the Washington Post to get on Nixon's plane. He then runs into the big dude himself, where the gag I guess is that he has painful urination? Lazlo shows up and starts ranting about buying land in Mexico where they can do anything. Thompson says that's stupid, and then the movie just sort of ends.

It's disjointed in focus, but there is a throughline there in the degradation of their relationship. But is this what anyone wants in a Hunter S. Thompson movie? It seems bizarre to stick it with a plot at all. Reading more about the production seems very troubled and doomed from the start. I wanted to like this, but I think there's a reason Fear and Loathing remains the definitive take on this dude.

Murray as Thompson is cool, though. It's a perfect marriage of two cool dudes whose personas were largely based on being tricksters who didn't give a fuck about anyone else. I think it's easy to say that ends up being problematic in today's society. Like, we would definitely have people on Twitter saying that you should treat hotel staff better. But it's also what makes them really cool. And Thompson, at least in this movie always seems to rope the unwilling staff into his shenanigans and eventually has a fun time. But really, the idea of not giving a shit about anyone is so liberating, isn't it?

I was also intrigued watching this film as ideas and concepts bubbled in my brain - in the 60s and 70s the idea of subversive going against the grain anarchy was a thoroughly leftist affair. It's the classic slobs vs. snobs mentality that Murray built his career around. It was always these hippies or hippy descendants who would rile up the stodgy old establishment. This is still a great mine for comedy. But in modern times, it feels like the right are the mavericks, not caring about anyone else, and riling up the precious PC-obsessed left. It's bizarre to me that this switched and to me it's just a gaslighting fallacy, since conservatives do in fact want the stodgy old order to remain, like that's the whole point. It's disruptive in a way that caters to a specific group of people instead of acceptance of all. But liberals are painted as the stuffy ones who can't take a joke. And that might largely be true. It's a fascinating development. Why can't we just laugh at rich people getting sprayed with a fire extinguisher anymore? I dunno, maybe I'm part of the problem, my thought during that was also that there were plenty of respected journalists who had done nothing wrong except not be weird. Also there is some problematic unconsensual drugging in this film. I'm definitely getting old, when the old guy from the Post was clearly annoyed at people playing football on an airplane my thought was just "that's so reasonable, he's just trying to do his job!" Is there a line between cultural subversion and just being a dick? Probably.

Anyway, this movie was kind of fun, but largely deserves its forgotten reputation. It remains an intriguing little bit of what could have been, but for the full Hunter S. Thompson experience, probably just reading his collected works or watching Fear and Loathing is the way to go.

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