25 February 2022

52 for '22: Johnny Mnemonic

Movie: Johnny Mnemonic (1995)
Method: Netflix Streaming

Why Did I Watch This?

I guess call me a Keanu Reeves completionist. This had always escaped my purview, despite being made in between huge Keanu action hits like Speed (1994) and The Matrix (1999). This obviously has much less of a cultural cache, but it's a 90s Keanu action movie that was on Netflix. Also, a cool title. I knew it wasn't that great, so perfect to both finish this series and not worry too much about deep invested thoughts.

What Did I Know?

It's Keanu, in the 90s, in an action film, and had something to do with computers or cyberpunk. That was really it. Mnemonic means memory, so I figured it had something to do with him remembering some crap. Which is kind of true.

How Was it?

This is not a good movie. Let's get that clear right away. There is a reason why this is largely forgotten. But it does actually have a cool premise and some interesting moments. The idea that in the far-flung future of 2021 corporations rule everything and the world is decimated by a brain virus that is caused by overstimulation of computer and television screens. Loteks are rebels that resist technology and specialized couriers smuggle information in their brains to people who pay for it.

I'm now not sure what the original opening crawl was, some say this, others say this. The former is definitely clunkier, but fits the insane tone and direction of this film a bit more. Anyway, we get to things pretty quick. Keanu is looking for one last job and so some business folks upload way too much data into his brain for him to transport across the world. If he doesn't get it out of his brain in a few days, he'll die. Simple enough, and they organically get to a decent action story with a ticking clock.

There are always things to laugh at about the future. Keanu's brain upgrades to 160 gigabytes, and gets overloaded at 320. That's about what my phone handles now. They correctly pin Beijing as an origin point, but for some reason the big USA data hub is Newark. It takes a bit to unravel, and it never feels like a pressing point of the story, although in the end (SPOILER), it turns out that's what he's transporting, but the degenerative disease caused by too much interaction with technology is hard-handed but not altogether inaccurate as a metaphor for current life. It's amazing how fearful we were of this stuff in 1995.

It's ultimately an anti-technology film. Our heroes are a bunch of luddites, and the villains control the screens and internet. Again, I suppose that's not totally far off where we are today. This feels like a mash-up of a lot of films that did memory, technology, and internet better, like Blade Runner (1982), Total Recall (1990), and The Matrix all at once. It particularly feels like a warm-up to the latter, but that might just be because Keanu has a big presence.

The cast beyond Keanu is shocking. Ice-T shows up, nearly unrecognizable, except for his voice, as the leader of the Loteks, with big dreads and face tattoos. A little Battlefield Earth (2000)-y. Dolph Lundgren shows up as a maniacal cyborg killer preacher, who was apparently shoe-horned in by the studio for some reason. Udo Kier is Keanu's handler who dies very early on. And Dina Meyer from Starship Troopers (1997) shows up! She's ostensibly the love interest, but has enough of her own story and agency to feel necessary. Actually, it's not really like they hooked up in the end or saved her or anything. Isn't it weird that all these forgotten classics have progressive female roles...

There is also a big Yakuza presence. I didn't recognize any of the actors but Takeshi Kitano is a big bad with some depth, as he mourns the loss of his daughter and ultimately repents. It was like as if Palpatine, not Vader finds hope at the end. Denis Akiyama is his Vader and he has a cool laser whip that comes out of his thumb. There are all these hints that he "found a use for his disfigurement" and stuff, but it seemed pretty cool. He's a relentless villain and fun to watch.

Oh, and Henry Rollins is a cyberpunk scientist for some reason. He seems so miscast, like a Dr. Dolph Lundgren, ironically enough. But it somehow works. He brings a lot of bruh intensity and I enjoyed it quite a bit.

This whole movie is about Keanu trying to get this data out of his head, and he plays his character with a solid amount of angst. In the proto-Matrix way it seems like it took a while for him to zen out as Neo. But there are many Internet scenes, most notably this one:

First, I love how rare computers are in 2021. But this Internet...what more is there to say? Virtual reality was cool in the mid-90s, except for that it wasn't actually all that cool. I do wish we surfed the net like this today, though. It does visualize what essentially comes down to hacking in a visually interesting way, though, which is fun. I think that people just really couldn't wrap their 90s heads around becoming a wholly different person online represented by an avatar. Nowadays every neighborhood kid has a finsta catfishing their grandparents out of their hard-earned war bond money.

So, why didn't this work? Well, it certainly feels like a slightly expensive B-movie. Keanu's acting is more Bram Stoker than Matrix, the plot is a little clunky and complicated without great pay-off, although it's ultimately just a little derivative. It's fun that there's like three distinct villains who close in on them, and the sets are pretty fun and imaginative. The third act definitely drags and I felt myself nodding off. It's hard to keep this plate spinning.

Robert Longo is an artist who directed a few music videos, but this remains his solo movie effort. I wish he had done some more and proved himself with a bigger budget, especially when cinematic technology caught up to his vision. Because this movie is real weird and corny, but it's also fantastically creative and unique. It has a sincere Terry Gilliam Brazil (1985) feel with its practical sets, props, and costumes. I'd like to think this would be a solid candidate for a modern remake, at least one that invests in the characters and concepts while updating and streamlining the plot, adding pathos where it needs to be, and throwing some cash at better effects.

But also, the title is so hard to read and say. I have not once typed it in correctly. It's a bit of a shame that this is generally remembered as a worse version of The Matrix, but it's so true. That film came along and just did everything better, even down to the soundtrack. It's fun to watch us grapple with the Internet in the 90s, and although at the time this seemed like all hyperbole, a lot of this crap has come true, just in more subtle ways. Or not, our society is wrecked.

I generally liked this, it's probably worth watching if you like Keanu or 90s cyberpunk. It won't change your life, but it was an entertaining 96 minutes. On to the next one!

22 February 2022

Norwegian Morning Wood's Official 2022 Academy Award Predictions

Are you ready for the most solid predictions of all time? To be honest, like most folks I have really lost all interest in the Academy Awards. I mean, if they're not honouring PIG (2021) what is even the point. But as long as this is ostensibly a film website we will cover and care about film sort of! Let's start our predictions!

Best Picture

Don't Look Up
Drive My Car
King Richard
Licorice Pizza
Nightmare Alley
The Power of the Dog
West Side Story

Best Directing

Paul Thomas Anderson, Licorice Pizza
Kenneth Branagh, Belfast
Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog
Steven Spielberg, West Side Story
Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, Drive My Car

Prediction: Campion

Licorice Pizza doesn't really have traction, foreign directors can be successful, but only if the film is really in the zeitgeist, Spielberg is a little overhonored and West Side Story underperformed. Branagh is a solid choice, but the momentum is really behind Campion, who is an apparently beloved and underrated director, who also directed the shit out of Dog.

Actor in a Leading Role

Javier Bardem, Being the Ricardos
Benedict Cumberbatch, The Power of the Dog
Andrew Garfield, Tick, Tick … Boom!
Will Smith, King Richard
Denzel Washington, The Tragedy of Macbeth

Prediction: Garfield

Listen, everyone is thinking Will Smith. The Academy has just dicked over handing out the honorary prize lately. They snubbed Keaton, they snubbed Dafoe. They gave it to Gary Oldman over Chalamet, which is analogous here, but Garfield is also just riding really high lately while Will Smith is kind of over. I'm just feeling Garfield, this is probably an easy category that I have messed up but I don't care anymore.

Actress in a Leading Role

Jessica Chastain, The Eyes of Tammy Faye
Olivia Colman, The Lost Daughter
Penélope Cruz, Parallel Mothers
Nicole Kidman, Being the Ricardos
Kristen Stewart, Spencer

Prediction: Stewart

I dunno, this is my troll vote. She's the only interesting option here. I like Cruz, but she has a statue already and hasn't gotten a ton of buzz. This is truly up in the air and Stewart was the last one in, but now that she's in, I think she gets votes. And Spencer just got on Hulu! I think folks will watch it easy and vote it up. Or not, who cares.

Actor in a Supporting Role

Ciarán Hinds, Belfast
Troy Kotsur, CODA
Jesse Plemons, The Power of the Dog
J.K. Simmons, Being the Ricardos
Kodi Smit-McPhee, The Power of the Dog

Prediction: Kodi

This is maybe a done deal? I'm not super impressed by anyone else. I'm not totally impressed by Nightcrawler here either, but it'd be shocking if Dog didn't come up with any acting wins.

Actress in a Supporting Role

Jessie Buckley, The Lost Daughter
Ariana DeBose, West Side Story
Judi Dench, Belfast
Kirsten Dunst, The Power of the Dog
Aunjanue Ellis, King Richard

Prediction: DeBose

I really like Buckley and Dunst, and I hope that they both return here. Pulling for Dunst in particular, but this seems to be DeBose's category to lose. With my insane picks elsewhere, hopefully this is safer.

Writing, Adapted Screenplay

CODA, Sian Heder
Drive My Car, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi and Takamasa Oe
Dune, Eric Roth, Jon Spaihts and Denis Villeneuve
The Lost Daughter, Maggie Gyllenhaal
The Power of the Dog, Jane Campion

Prediction: Campion

This could go CODA. I think Campion pulls it all in on the big night. It's really the most notable screenplay of the lot and the obvious answer.

Writing, Original Screenplay

Belfast, Kenneth Branagh
Don't Look Up, Adam McKay and David Sirota
Licorice Pizza, Paul Thomas Anderson
King Richard, Zach Baylin
The Worst Person in the World, Joachim Trier

Prediction: PTA

Somehow PTA doesn't have an Oscar. I think that's corrected this year and this is probably gotten the most love without a clear path to any other award. The Academy just loves offbeat movies like this, and Licorice Pizza fits in that zone well. Belfast could sneak up, but this just seems like Pizza.

Animated Feature Film

The Mitchells vs. the Machines
Raya and the Last Dragon

Prediction: Encanto

At one point this seemed close but Encanto has emerged as the preeminent animated film of the year. Luca and Raya were fun but neither really took off. Mitchells got a lot of hype, but never hit the big release and got mainstream buzz like Encanto. Recently also helps, it just seems like their year.

Animated Short Film

"Affairs of the Art"
"Robin Robin"
"The Windshield Wiper"

Prediction: "Robin Robin"

Ugh this crap. Apparently this studio has a strong Oscar history, it was on Netflix, and is in the zone of entertainment we all like. I have a soft spot for "Affairs" and "Wiper", but let's go safe here.

Costume Design

Cruella, Jenny Beavan
Cyrano, Massimo Cantini Parrini
Dune, Jacqueline West
Nightmare Alley, Luis Sequeira
West Side Story, Paul Tazewell

Prediction: Cruella

I have a stealth favourite in Dune, if this follows Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) and Black Panther (2018), but movies explicitly about fashion like Phantom Thread (2017) succeed here, too. Beavan has gotten a lot of buzz (she won for Fury Road). This used to be comfortably period, the only real contender there would be Cyrano, but that's really not that big of a film here. Cruella has the pedigree, the history, and the effort to nail this.

Live Action Short Film

"Ala Kachuu - Take and Run"
"The Dress"
The Long Goodbye"
"On My Mind"
"Please Hold"

Prediction: "The Long Goodbye"

"The Long Goodbye" got in my head and it might to the same for voters. Riz Ahmed is in it, which is a nice boost of recognition. You and I both know no one has any idea who is going to win this.

Music, Original Score

Don't Look Up, Nicholas Britell
Dune, Hans Zimmer
Encanto, Germaine Franco
Parallel Mothers, Alberto Iglesias
The Power of the Dog, Jonny Greenwood

Prediction: DUNE

I just remember the Sardukar chant more than anything in Power of the Dog. DUNE ought to win a lot of technical stuff, and while Score isn't really in that zone, it's certainly the most notable here.


No Time to Die
The Power of the Dog
West Side Story

Prediction: DUNE

See above. This has the best sound. It's a bummer we don't get split categories anymore. Just less to get wrong, baby!


Dune, Greig Fraser
Nightmare Alley, Dan Lausten
The Power of the Dog, Ari Wegner
The Tragedy of Macbeth, Bruno Delbonnel
West Side Story, Janusz Kaminski

Prediction: DOG

For all the hype, Pow of the D might not walk away with too much. It's reliably gorgeous and got enough exposure on the hype train to make it work. DUNE might get it, it's favored, but I'm not convinced it sweeps every technical as it's expected to.

Documentary Feature

Summer of Soul
Writing With Fire

Prediction: Summer of Soul

This is a big one between this and Flee, but folks like Questlove, it was a big movie when it came out, and is a genuinely interesting, feel good but not that good subject.

Documentary Short Subject

"Lead Me Home"
"The Queen of Basketball"
"Three Songs for Benazir"
"When We Were Bullies"

Prediction: Benazir

That sounds like something important, right? Let's go with that.

Film Editing

Don't Look Up, Hank Corwin
Dune, Joe Walker
King Richard, Pamela Martin
The Power of the Dog, Peter Sciberras
Tick, Tick... Boom!, Myron Kerstein and Andrew Weisblum

Prediciton: DUNE

So, music biopics have won with Bohemian Rhapsody (2018). Competitive sports movies have won with Ford v. Ferrari. Westerns haven't ever really been a thing and neither have comedies. Ugh, it does feel like Dune, which again follows the Fury Road model of crushing technical awards. I don't think it's a technical achievement on Fury Road's level, but it's probably good enough to win here.

International Feature Film

Drive My Car, Japan
Flee, Denmark
The Hand of God, Italy
Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom, Bhutan
The Worst Person in the World, Norway

Prediction: Drive My Car

It's that thing where isn't the foreign film that gets the BP nod inherently the best International Film? Hopefully this comes deep in the night when my predictions have long since gone to shit.

Makeup and Hairstyling

The Eyes of Tammy Faye
House of Gucci
Coming 2 America

Prediction: Cruella

Is this Coming 2 America's year?! I'm tempted to go with House of Gucci, but as Hillbilly Elegy (2020) proved last year, the most make-up isn't always the best make-up, which is a mistake I made. Still, this always goes to the move that's all about it's make-up. Everyone is prediction Tammy Faye. I guess it is all about her eyes, but it's certainly a low profile movie to win an award that usually goes to the highest profile film. Ew, I hate to say I think this might go to Cruella.

Music, Original Song

"Be Alive" -- Beyoncé Knowles-Carter and Darius Scott, King Richard
"Dos Oruguitas" -- Lin-Manuel Miranda, Encanto
"Down to Joy" -- Van Morrison, Belfast
"No Time to Die" -- Billie Eilish and Finneas O'Connell, No Time to Die
"Somehow You Do" -- Diane Warren, Four Good Days

Prediction: "Dos Oruguitas"

Everyone thinks this will go to Bond. Meh, I didn't think that song was that great. Encanto feels more of the moment. I am way too bold this year, folks.

Production Design

Dune, Zsuzsanna Sipos and Patrice Vermette
Nightmare Alley, Tamara Deverell and Shane Vieau
The Power of the Dog, Grant Major and Amber Richards
The Tragedy of Macbeth, Stefan Dechant and Nancy Haigh
West Side Story, Rena DeAngelo and Adam Stockhausen

Prediction: DUNE

Like, how is it not DUNE

Visual Effects

Free Guy
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
No Time to Die
Spider-Man: No Way Home

Prediction: DUNE

It's such an easy slam dunk to actually honor a film that's good here. Also the sandworm and city effects in DUNE beat all these other movies.

Okay, so that's it! Locked in! Stay tuned for when we find out how I did, sometime in March with possibly a live-blog!

18 February 2022

52 for '22: SWAMP THING

Movie: Swamp Thing (1982)
Method: Tubi


Why Did I Watch This?

Oh...lots of reasons. I am writing this the morning after the 2022 Oscar Nominations came out, so I'm glad you can see this blog's priorities. Swamp Thing has been on my mind for a long time. I was interested in the TV Show, but I can't find it to watch it since they shuttered DC Universe and somehow it didn't make the HBOMax transition. I remember Swamp Thing being a big deal when I was a kid for some reason. Like, I had toys and I feel like my dad was a fan. It is very niche, but there's a substantial following here. This film was remarkably difficult to find, it's not on Netflix's DVD subscription. Luckily when I searched through my smart TV I inexplicably saw it on Tubi. I was about to just buy the DVD on Amazon. I thought this was the founding opus and I'm just really down for some Swamp Thing.

What Did I Know?

I know a bit about Swamp Thing. I'm kind of familiar with the comics, or at least know that he originated as a comic character. It's always fun to see this guy in the same universe as Batman and Superman, like there's so many little pockets of these comic book worlds. But yeah, he's a legit DC character. He featured in Justice League: Apokolips War (2020) not too long ago. About the movie itself, I really didn't know that much. I knew a scientist hangs out in a swamp and becomes a swamp creature. That's about it.

What Did I Think?

This is a true B movie. It's corny and campy as hell, but does take itself somewhat seriously. The basic plot follows a female scientist, played by Adrienne Barbeau, perhaps most famous from Escape from New York (1981) arriving at an isolated undisclosed swamp location. I suppose there aren't too many candidates for massive swamps and the comics largely take place in Louisiana, but this could be anywhere. It's not like everyone's Cajun or anything.

She meets a team of scientists trying to do...something. No, really, even in the movie they don't seem to know exactly what they're trying to research, and when they come up with a glowing green goo they are really surprised that it both explodes and then creates plant growth. Then a rival scientist arrives with a squad of hired goons and the lab explodes. The main scientist gets covered in goo, catches on fire, and runs into the swamp to explode. Obviously, this turns him into a swamp thing.

This movie is insane. It gets progressively wonkier until the final battle between Swamp Thing and a pig-wolf monster wielding a sword. Believe it or not, the comic inspiration is even crazier. I'm impressed they actually stuck decently close to comic book origins, as both Barbeau's character and Anton Arcane are big characters from the source material. I'll remind you, this was also 1982. It's really bizarre that this movie came out so long ago. In fact, forty years ago tomorrow! But it was also the second modern superhero comic book movie after Superman (1978). This is what I'm talking about when I say Swamp Thing was a weirdly big deal in the 80s and 90s.

There is a tremendous amount of wacky shit. Anton Arcane reveals himself by taking off a mask of the head of security he was impersonating, Mission: Impossible style. There's a black kid who runs a gas station by himself who is killed off-screen then brought back to life by Swamp Thing. Two unmanned fan boats run into each other and explode. It's non-stop.

For a massive, unnavigable swamp, everyone also keeps running into each other. Barbeau is captured four different times. FOUR. To her credit, she escapes every time, and she has a good amount of agency, never falling into a damsel in distress stereotype, although at one point she does complain that her boots are expensive. Like, you living in a swamp, girl. There is however, maybe the most gratuitous nudity ever seen in a movie. There is no reason to have Barbeau's tits out as she bathes...in the swamp. The camera lingers on her for an uncomfortably long time, and then the camera pans to show that Swamp Thing is also watching her. He smiles. It is...really really awkward. I don't know if Swamp Thing still gets plant boners. There is a weird bit earlier when you think that the doctor is working there with his wife, and then he awkwardly hits on Barbeau, but it turns out the other scientist was his sister. They don't seem to know what to do about the sexual tension here. Barbeau is forcibly kissed a few times, by good guys and bad guys, and I even thought I sensed some sexual tension between her and the black kid. None of it has aged slightly well.

Also, apparently the nudity wasn't in the theatrical cut, which was rated PG. One mom found out the difference between the theatrical and the DVD cut the hard way. Clearly this scene didn't need to be in there. I mean, I'm glad Tubi apparently showed the uncensored DVD cut, where magnificent titties appear out of no where, and part of me just really thinks that no one cares or notices. Like, the people who are sitting down to watch Swamp Thing in 2022 are surely wild degenerates. Who is watching it from Blockbuster in 2002 as a kid's movie anyway? Hey, Billy, you can't watch Spider-Man (2002), here's Swamp Thing. Did they think it was Shrek?

But yeah, everyone keeps finding each other in this massive swamp really easily. The plot of the movie is like, "We need to find the Swamp Thing! He shows up where the girl is! Find the girl! Oh, there she is!" At one point she actually calls the main villain and tells him her location. That comes immediately after a scene where the main villain espouses how he wants to find the girl. It's downright comedic. I just kept thinking, "Well, that's a freebie." I guess she wasn't in the room for the reveal and thought she was calling the Head of Security? How is that possible? Even on the phone she hesitates and says "I think he may have been compromised" and then straight up tells him everything he wants to know.

Ray Wise plays the scientist, and he does a fine job. Except that he DOESN'T play the Swamp Thing, that was Dick Durock, who would go on to play the Swamp Thing in the follow-up sequel and TV series. It's kind of weird we just never see Ray Wise again and the transformation really does mess up his brain and create a new person. It's like Frankenstein except Frankenstein becomes the Frankenstein.*

I couldn't get over how it's a big shock to all the characters that Swamp Thing is Ray Wise. Like...he obviously is! He was covered in the goo and ran into the swamp and exploded. Swamp Thing mostly wanders around the swamp moaning and screaming. Seriously, there are just shots of him yelling alone in the woods. Some of this had to be on purpose, right? I don't know the context enough, but it had to be a little sly.

The monster costume...is pretty bad. Okay, it's a B movie so whatever, but it does not look plantlike or realistic at all. Swamp Thing has such a distinctive face and nose bridge. They tried it a little bit, it did not work well. He's also not that big or hulking like his comic counterpart. If only there was a modern retelling with a budget that could help this effect. It doesn't really help that almost the entire film takes place during really bright days. They could have masked it with rain or darkness, but oh well. You get the sense that this was all to save budget, there are hardly any sets, mostly just running through swamps. That's not totally a complaint, I knew what I was getting into here.

Of course, the sets culminate in...SWAMP DUNGEON. Seriously, they're all captured by Arcane and put into what can only be described as the Swamp Dungeon where his Swamp Mansion becomes a castle. They're chained up in a medieval torture chamber until Swamp Thing reaches out and touches the light (which soon moves to his whole body, he didn't need to stretch out) and then gains the strength to regrow his arm and break the chains.

There is this bit where the plant formula doesn't actually turn people into plant monsters, it merely brings out their inner being. I guess that means Ray Wise just really liked plants and was noble enough to become a plant hero? But he's kind of an ambitious scumbag who hits on new co-workers. Noble, for the early 80s I suppose. A henchman turns into a small hobgoblin thing, who then suddenly has the personality to be a turncoat for the heroes and a mischievous rascal, literally saying "Have a nice trip, see you next fall!" to the bad guy. It's...weird.

Arcane of course turns into the pig-wolf. Why. Why does this happen. We do get a big final battle, and it's fun. The ending of this film leans so hard into camp, it's really fun and fulfilling and the kind of stuff you would just never see today unless coated with a thick layer of irony. This film was directed by Wes Craven somehow, who has obviously proven himself competent. It was the last film he made before A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), which feels much more confident and assured. Some of that is probably just budget, but I do want to think he was messing around with this film. Some of the wipes are positively bonkers. It makes Star Wars look restrained. There's literally a star wipe here. It blows my mind.

So, this movie rules, watch it. Load up that Tubi, it's free, I think. I don't pay for it. And bring back Swamp Thing!

*Listen, I know this is improper and I should note the novel, Dr. Frankenstein and Frankenstein's monster. But this is a good joke and it's staying in.

11 February 2022

52 for '22: King Arthur

Movie: King Arthur (2004)
Method: Hulu

Suddenly a generation was a lot more interested in Arthurian Legend

Why Did I Watch This?

Like so many of the movies on this list, oftentimes I sit back and think..."Why DID I watch this?" I had never seen King Arthur. It felt like a big movie at the time it came out, but I also looked up that it finished third at the Box Office its opening weekend, to Spider-Man 2 (2004) and Anchorman (2004). That's awesome. It's in a weird zone where it was a mindless blockbuster movie from my childhood that no one ever saw, which always intrigues me, plus I do generally like movies about medieval times. The vibe I got was fun, brainless fun.

What Did I Know Going in?

Well...I knew that Keira Knightly was in it. In a costume that just seems really dumb for combat. It's definitely a 2004 outfit, though, check out that straight up tube top. I firmly remember the marketing at the time bragging that this was the REAL take on King Arthur, and that it was based on concrete historical evidence that would blow all other interpretations out of the water. It starred Clive Owen and Mr. Fantastic. That's really about it.

What Did I Think?

Haha! Okay. To get this out of the way, there is no level that exists that this could be a good movie. The plot is incomprehensible, motivations extremely blurry, the action is middling, and the acting is remarkably flat and uninteresting. However, I enjoyed bits and pieces of this, mostly because this snuck up on me as the most 2004 movie of all time.

First of all, the whole thing is clearly an attempt to ride the Lord of the Rings / Gladiator (2000) wave of the early 2000s, but it just doesn't get anything right. Like I said about The Dark Tower (2017), it feels like it's cheating itself out of epicness. It's more like it's trying to get some quick cash and ride everything that was popular in 2004 and it lacks any identity of its own.

I did not realize the cast this thing had. Arthur's knights are composed of Ioan Gruffudd, Madds Mikkelsen, Ray Winstone, Ray Stevenson, Hugh Dancy, and Joel Edgerton. Dude - this is like a dream cast of mid-2000s stars waiting to break out. Gruffudd did Fantastic Four (2005) the next year, Mikkelsen did Casino Royale (2006), Winstone did The Departed (2006), Stevenson did Punisher: War Zone (2008), and Joel Edgerton did...well, it took him a bit to catch on, maybe his next big big role is Warrior (2011). And Dancy, I dunno, that's always a name I hear that can't place. Always one dud in the bunch! Totally true, I straight up did not recognize that dude as I was getting pumped for all the other Knights.

Joel Edgerton is really fun because he plays Gawain here, and later he started in The Green Knight (2021), not as Gawain, but you should check out this way better movie based on Arthurian Legend! I kept thinking about that over and over again, not only because both films share a particularly mist-filled England, but to see an interpretation of valiant Arthur at the beginning of his reign juxtaposed with a dying corrupted Arthur at the end. This movie needed more weird foxes.

And it's a film that has Ray Winstone and Ray Stevenson! I got those two confused for the longest time. I remember watching The Other Guys (2010) and thinking, "That doesn't look like the dude from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)!" They're both really good in this, in fact, all the Knights have pretty defined personalities and you get hang-out time with them that serves way better than a film like Transformers (2007) that never lets you into the personalities of the team beyond caricatures.

Anyway, it's all Clive Owens' show. Or...is it? He was the most about-to-blow-up actor of any of them, cranking out Sin City (2004), Inside Man (2006), Children of Men (2006), and Shoot 'Em Up (2007) in subsequent years. I forgot how big Owens was as just a cool dude in the mid-2000s. I question if this is actually his film or not, because we never really get into his viewpoint. We don't really get into anyone's viewpoint. It opens on Lancelot being taken as a child in Samartia to fight for Artorius as Roman...mercenaries? Guards? I don't know. I thought, "Oh, we're going to follow Lancelot," but he's really far from a main character. He's slightly more developed than the other random knights, but it's not his story to tell.

So, it's Arthur's, right? I guess so, but he's also kept at a sincere distance. It's like an ensemble that was too afraid to be an ensemble and a character study that was too afraid to have a protagonist. It's bizarre. We need to talk about Keira Knightly, though, because she takes so damn long to appear in this movie. At the time it was released Clive Owen was 40 and she was 19, no big deal. He finds her in a whole and then she becomes like, a Woad Warrior Queen? I can't figure out her arc at all, but she does throw herself into this role for some reason and gets to fight a lot of people. She's like one of two women, though, this might be one of the worst Bechdel tests ever. Keira was obviously coming off Pirates of the Caribbean (2003), and had that trilogy to ride for a while while also crushing Atonement (2007) and shit.

There's this really out of place sex scene between Keira Knightly and Arthur. I mean, I know she's supposed to be Guinevere, but they don't set up the romance more than he saved her. I also cringed at the end when she's battling as good as anyone...but STILL needs Lancelot to save her. It's insane. No one else needed anyone to save her. (SPOILER - Lancelot does actually die fighting Til Schweiger, but it really feels like her character was cheated out of a heroic moment to complete her arc as...Woad Commander or whatever).

And Stellan Skarsgard shows up as the villain! He's a bad Saxon dude who is invading Roman territory. He's reliably wacky, as his Til Schweiger, who didn't really break out until Inglorious Basterds (2009), but he fits our star bill as well. Skarsgard is really just in every movie ever made, he was well past his breakout role.

This is one of many muddled messages in this film. The Saxons are bad because they want to invade Roman territory as the Empire is collapsing. This in itself is a really interesting point in history, and the characters ask often, "What are we fighting for? What are we preserving?" It's odd to think of King Arthur as protecting British freedom on behalf of the Romans against the Saxons. They also fight the Woads, which are really just the Picts. Did anyone here watch Braveheart (1995) and know what's coming up in a few hundred years? It seems so misguided, and it's really just an attempt to elevate Arthur's morality, but he always had that sense of virtue and chivalry. Just do that. Be like The Green Knight.

No one in this movie has any functional reason to do anything. They instead all just do the war because they're told to. None of them want to. We don't see any of them relishing the killing (except maybe Mads Mikkelsen), or learn a lesson, or have a deep intrinsic desire for anything that they are trying to achieve. Well, they do I suppose, they're all trying to go home, but it feels like their wants are trampled and they all easily sidestep those desires for baseless reasons. I don't know how to fix that, I think they really needed to unearth the entire premise. Maybe introduce the Bishop earlier as their taskmaster or show more how 15 years of fighting a cause they don't believe in has taken its toll on them. Make them soldiers who don't know how to go home. Surely that'd have no relevance in 2004 right...

I don't know what is about King Arthur movies that they keep making them. I guess it's just easily recognizable and in the public domain. Yeah, that's enough. I actually enjoyed Charlie Hunnam's King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017) - that's an underrated film. What are the other big ones? Excalibur (1981). We need a decent King Arthur movie every 20 years or so. Just update to whatever kind of blockbuster filmmaking we're doing at the time.

This was admittedly fun, it's a fine way to spend a mindless evening, but nothing in this really works. The supporting cast is solid, though, and you get to see a little bit of Keira Knightley's boob, so they fulfilled that promise.

08 February 2022

First Impressions: Jackass Forever

 Ohh....Jackass. I was pretty excited for this one, having been a significant of this series for the past twenty-two years. I was right at the perfect age in High School when it came out and completely bought into the skater culture of the time. It's also the kind of movie that doesn't really get old. People falling down is still funny. Of course, the actors are much older here, but they bring in some new blood. So, SPOILERS here, but let's talk about Jackass and what this film does right and how it whiffs.

No! Not the bees they're in my eyes auuughhh!!

I watched all three previous installments (plus 2.5 and 3.5) in anticipation of this. It reminded me of both how cinematic a collection of random sketches can be, and also their distinctive eye towards nailing iconic shots. Director Jeff Tremaine deserves more credit than he gets for wrangling these insane personalities, but also for his crisp editing, impeccable comedic timing, and a clear vision for where the brand is going. Knoxville adds a lot to this - there's always this Buster Keaton / Looney Tunes element. They go for really classic gags that are typically creative to see on screen. Their improvisation, especially Knoxville and Pontius' was always far, far underrated. They only get one chance to nail a one-liner after an insane stunt. "Is Butterbean okay?" still slays me.

Now, this series obviously being one focused on the most puerile elements of society, but I also really dig how it continuously and effortlessly busts taboos. There is ingestion of fecal matter, interaction with venomous animals, and an extreme amount of nudity. In 2.5 they interact with the Aghori Tribe of India who partake in this to the extreme, cutting themselves, dusting with ashes of dead bodies, and consuming raw and dead flesh. Jackass isn't the Aghori, but it's as close as Western Civilization will come.

Despite all this, though, Jackass in the end tends to be a warm and welcoming place. There is a ]high amount of divergent acceptance, both physically and neurologically going on here, and more than that, the camaraderie always shines through. You see them hurtling their bodies through these insane stunts, but they also capture moments of pain, support, and laughter at each other. It's as if by acknowledging the pranks, stunts, and pain, they are able to express that true love and brotherhood at the end of the day. This is not always true. Also, we'll talk about Bam later.

However, this is still why Jackass stands out and why it's lasted so long. Well, that and Johnny Knoxville's invincible will to push himself far longer and harder than anyone else in the business. But there is such a jovial nature to the pranks, and it's rarely at the expense of the victim. It is far more focused on the person doing the prank, with public embarrassment, taboo-busting, or shock value as the goal. Victims are almost always seen laughing when the curtain is pulled down. Again, this isn't always the case with the cast.

So, let's dive into the fourth movie! Right away something is wrong. Namely, we're missing two of our beloved cast members. Ryan Dunn was killed in a drunk driving accident in 2011. Bam Margera was supposed to be a part of the movie (you can see him in one scene - the band members on the treadmill), but he was not able to submit to sobriety regulations handed down from Paramount and was kicked off set. I want to tackle this head-on.

Losing Dunn was devastating. He was always more of this sidekick character to Bam, but it was fun to watch him (and his beard) grow. He doesn't do too much in Jackass: The Movie (2002), he gets beaten up by a professional Japanese kickboxer, but then isn't all that much of a presence. Until the end, when he does the stunt that even Steve-O wouldn't do and establishes himself in Jackass history forever. After that his presence and confidence increased and you see him as a huge utility player in the group.

Being part of Jackass naturally means you're always teetering on the edge of full-blown alcoholism. It's a crazy environment. You see how much beer they drink on set (most notably in the papercut scene, which I really can't watch. This film adds the Spider-Helmet to that honorable distinction). Steve-O demised and rised, but Bam struggled with addiction before losing his best friend Dunn. That really pushed him over the edge and it's been a difficult recovery. Here is where I'm at - when you watch him in this deleted instagram video, you get his side. It seems like Paramount was setting him up for failure with multiple drug tests and breathalyzers a day, and as he notes, he's not the only Jackass member with substance abuse problems. Nothing seems to be on the side of the addict.

At the same time, he's clearly handling it poorly. He blew up at Tremaine and Knoxville, and seems to be burning the bridges of that great intimate friendship they had had twenty years ago. It's all just really sad and looms over this film like a dark spectre. I kept thinking about which sketches Bam might have done if he were here. The nut-boxing that Preston does seems like a weird choice for him, as he doesn't usually do nut stuff. But Bam does. I'm sure there are others if I looked at it with a clear eye.

Also awkward is the Ryan Dunn tribute. I know they were trying to be touching, but I found it odd they shoved it in at the end of the credits instead of in the movie proper. It just feels like this elephant in the room for the whole movie. They also clearly tried hard to find clips of him that didn't also contain Bam. This put a bad taste in my mouth because it's contrary to everything that made Jackass great that I said earlier. It's ignoring the timeless camaraderie and friendship bonds that made this fun to watch in favor of something more corporate. I recognize that it's more complicated than that, but it was a downer.

Looking back at the other films, I was surprised to realize how commercial this is. That's really weird to say because we straight up see Steve-O's dick covered in bees, but it lacked the gritty edge that the first two movies had. It finds itself in line with 3D (2010), which had these ridiculously expensive phantom cameras that could capture the stupidest shit in slow motion 3D. Sometimes literal shit. This film does find an excellent way of integrating phantom cameras again, although it's not the main gimmick this time. There is a good mix of old and new here, with old stunts updated with a new twist, like Dave England taking a shit at a yardsale or Knoxville doing another 360 with a bull. It's all a lot of fun. And it's perhaps weird to bemoan the era of grainy video cameras, but that level of cheapness always made it feel DIY and home-brewed. I know we're well, WELL past that, but I'm still whining.

This film adds a lot of new cast members and transition is always hard. The CKY crew seems completely burned off, although we do get a glimpse of Raab Himself operating a camera. I didn't spy Loomis Fall, but he's apparently in there somewhere, and they seemed to replace Manny Puig and David Weathers. These were always fun apocrypha to dig into about Jackass. I always loved how close it was to the extreme sports world, with Brandon Novak, Matt Hoffman, and Clyde Singleton showing up randomly. Re-watching the old ones, Matt Hoffman is in a surprising amount of background shots. Some of this is assuredly the loss of Bam, who was a strong connection. Also the world has kind of moved on.

We get Poopie, Rachel Wolfson, Zach Thomas, Eric Manaka, Jasper, and Dark Shark. They are pretty good. I think it's tough because we don't totally know them and we don't really have that history with the guys. Poopie fits in really well, but he doesn't totally have a distinctive sketch. None of them really do. Rachel comes close with her scorpion Botox and positively gnarly silent electricity lick. By the way, I love how Pontius plays the doctor putting scorpions on Rachel's chin, after he fought them the same way when he dressed his face up like a barbarian. There's also a great bit when he asks permission to touch her breast to remove the scorpion. He's just so sweet and earnest.

Distaff counterpart Jackass

I liked Dark Shark as a kind of cameo as Jasper's dad that hangs out and does spider and vulture shit. His death grip of Knoxville is fantastic, like this is finally someone who isn't taking his shit. Same with a brief appearance by Tyler the Creator, who seems to be the only one who realizes that he's about to get shocked as he plays the piano. I didn't realize how much Tremaine worked on Loiter Squad, and yeah, that's a perfect partnership to bring into this fold. Jackass has always been incredibly egalitarian in incorporating its imitators.

Eric Andre appears and seems to be a continuous presence, and even gets some good one-liners, but I was waiting for a big sketch with him. He's the best heir apparent to this world and has pushed Jackass concepts to their natural millennial conclusions. He supposedly might be in 4.5, but I'd take more of him now mixing it in with these guys!

Mostly, I was looking for something distinctive from these new guys. They more or less just seemed like fodder since a lot of the original cast couldn't come back. Everyone always had a role - Knoxville was the leader and chief prankster, and would specialize in stunts. Bam was the whiney skater and Dunn the stealth gnarly sidekick. Pontius loves his dick, Steve-O master of pain and turds that combined taboo with physical feats. Dave England could take craps, Wee Man was a little person, Preston the fatass, and Ehren the whipping boy who could also stealth do some incredible stunts. I know it's really just a new lot of people, but like many modern updates, they had trouble finding their voice amidst the old cast trotting out their tried and true.

The best of this is probably the Icarus. Knoxville so instinctively is able to spread his fake wings at the apex of his cannon launch. It is incredible. I don't know how he pulls this off. He really broke himself on...well, just about everything he did, but it's an amazing sight to see here.

So, let's talk about Ehren McGhehey. He always came off as a huge piece of shit, but it seemed like they really went after him in this movie. The "Terror Taxi" gag was a fun prank on a prank, and it felt like they just rolled with that. Ehren isn't the only one fooled by the Silence of the Lambs bit, which is terrifying, but he's the most canny because they've done this too him before. In the bear bit, it really feels like Knoxville is a psychopath, though, tying him him and shocking him in front of a large bear, repeating over the PA system, "Are you really allergic to bees, Ehren?" as if it had been some great lie. It's haunting.

I hate to say it, but these moments are what pushes Jackass Forever (2022) over the edge into a really, really funny movie. I give it all the credit in the world for creating an experience where I cringe, cover my eyes, laugh, become uncomfortable, and find some genuine shock. It is a real trip. It oddly felt really short, though, despite being the longest of all movies. I think that's because there isn't a high total amount of bits.

For the record:

Jackass: The Movie: 55
Jackass Number Two: 52
Jackass 2.5: 27
Jackass 3D: 46
Jackass 3.5: 44
Jackass Forever: 36

The bits breathe a ton more, though, and more than any other film we see more of the set-up, more of them breaking, more angry call-outs to Jeff Tremaine, and the after-effects of pain. The lack of Bam and Dunn also mean that everyone else gets a lot more time to shine, particularly Ehren, although that's also because he seems to get all the most painful tasks to complete. I wonder if he was Darfing it up every night.

It's amazing to me that the final sketch is Jackass: The Move is more memorable than this one. You can do a lot with a car up your but. The Vomitron that became a paintball war just seemed unconnected and unironic. Normally pranks work because they set the victim up to compound their pain. When Bam and Knoxville dump bees in a limo, they run out in a panic, only to trip on marbles. I don't know. I thought the final bit in 3D was a letdown, too. They needed to up the tension of Steve-O's rollercoaster fear more. Number Two with their huge production number at the end remains the high point of a big conclusion for me, Forever is assuredly anti-climactic.

But I liked this movie! I liked it a lot. It felt good to laugh again and these idiots just felt like old pros the whole time. I'd honestly like to see this continue with the newer cast getting more of a chance to prove themselves. I think Knoxville and Steve-O are done. They just keep breaking too many bones. Knoxville might remain as a ringleader, destroying everyone psychologically. And as we know, Steve-O will outlive all of them.

04 February 2022

52 for '22: The Square

Movie: The Square (2017)
Method: HBOMax

Apes together strong!

Why Did I Watch This?

The Square was one of those classic movies that was on my queue for literally years. It had buzz when it came out, it was nominated (and I think favored) to win the Oscar for Best International Film, although it ended up not pulling through. I had heard of it from back then and don't watch enough foreign films, so it was a no-brainer. It was really one of those moments where it was about to be taken off HBOMax on January 31st, so I finally pulled the trigger and checked it out.

What Did I Know Going in?

Surprisingly little. I knew there was a shirtless guy from all the ads. And I read the synopsis, which said it was a satire. Also, its 2.5 hour run time turned me off for a looong time. But really...not much more than that when I pressed play.

What did I think?

This movie was fantastic. Let's get the negative out of the way, it is DEFINITELY too long, especially towards the end. There is a lot of momentum in the film, it always feels propulsive, but there were scenes down the stretch with new characters (his daughters, which first appear [checks timer...] an 94 minutes into the movie! He's got kids?!) that assuredly drag on and forego the point. There are also a lot of really unique cinematography choices, some novel, others baffling, but in general I really enjoyed this.

Some folks will surely gripe at the chopped up, nearly anthology nature of this movie. It is oddly constructed in that it moves between only a handful of long scenes, some influence each other, others don't. Notably, the Wikipedia plot summary just tracks one storyline at a time, although in the film everything's happening simultaneously. The most famous (and best) scene, the aforementioned shirtless dude goes on for about 10 minutes and actually doesn't impact the plot in any way. It's not even in that Wikipedia summary...

This can be a negative, but ultimately, this feels like a hangout movie that still has a plot and sincere character arcs. Our main dude, Christian, is a museum curator who is smarter than just about everyone else, but also shallow. He's able to outwit conscious questions about the nature of art, but doesn't actually have much of substance to stand on. The film nominally centers around the museum's objective to install and promote a new piece, called The Square, which blandly promotes equality and helping others. Conversely, there's also a thread where Christian has his wallet pick-pocketed by a pair of con artists. Both of these pretty simple premises spiral out of control for the rest of the run time.

The thesis of the film seems to be repeated again and again, that within the Square, everyone is harmonious, helps each other, and has equal rights and obligations. Over and over it does seem like outside this square, no one is willing to help each other. You get that at the outset (sure, SPOILERS here), when Christian's wallet is stolen because he tries to help a woman, whose cries turn out to be false. There are beggars that everyone refuses to help, although again, Christian eventually does so, but he isn't thanked or rewarded. There's a mysterious entertaining bit when Christian refuses Elizabeth Moss' help in throwing away a recently used condom. You see it with the YouTube video that explodes, the boy Christian accidentally pushes down stairs, and more. It's just everywhere. This whole movie is about people not helping, not listening, and not bothering to understand other people.

So, do you want to talk about that scene? It fuels the thesis of non-helping as well as a commentary on the nature of art, mostly just how unknowable and exact it is. This dude is giving a performance at a gala where he's playing a Gorilla, and he absolutely commits to it. When does he just become an asshole for his commitment to a role that is clearly bothering everyone? The director, Ruben Ostlund (who also did the excellent, Force Majeure [2014]) says he was inspired by a piece by Oleg Kulik where he pretended to be a dog and attack people. That's great. Like, I get what the art is trying to do, but why do we need that in our lives? At what point do we agree that our point is made and move on?

It takes a lot. There is this disconnect between the patrons who think this artist will give up on his own, and the artist who takes his role seriously. It finally comes to a head when he assaults a woman and really looks like he's about to rape her. Folks finally get up and start beating the hell out of him. Would he have gone all the way for his art? Is it him trying to push this crowd and get them to stand up for each other (at the expense of himself?). Again, this is just the idea of helping each other out, even strangers at a gala, even if it means accepting the falseness of art.

This feeds into a bit about following directions. The gorilla in the film states before he comes out that if everyone is still and calm, the animal will ignore them. Just like when Christian gives directions to everyone who lives in a building to return his phone and wallet to him. But ultimately neither goes the way they expect, because we're dealing with human beings here. Chaos ensues, as one response to his letter so aptly suggests.

The film is supremely interesting, there are dozens of scenes to drill down into and pick apart. This doesn't even get into the other core plot element of creating a shocking YouTube video to drive up attention, even though it's wholly negative. Christian eventually has to resign from his position because he couldn't bother to screen the promotional video (which let's just say involves a child...that explodes), but it actually does exactly what the ad agency promised. He should be praised, but that surely wouldn't align with the museum's values. Or does it? Because they clearly are just insane people with no values. It's a really fun movie to think about.

It's also shot really weird. There is little to no camera movement in any given scene, even if two people are talking. Often one of them is off camera, so we really just stay with one character at a time and see their reaction. The scope is so limited and narrow, but there's also room for these big scenes in the museum, particularly on the steps when Christian introduces the exhibit and in the Ape scene. But more often, we barely get a glimpse of the car, the parking lot, or even establishing shots of the buildings we're in. It's so wholly focused on the characters. There was one scene where Christian is driving and his assistant is in the backseat, and I really couldn't figure out why. The camera is in the passenger seat and it's better for their dialogue, but it seems to totally break convention and doesn't care at all.

The Square is really long and the ending is dumb, but it's pretty great and you should watch it. Not on HBOMax anymore, but put it on your Netflix DVD queue baby!!
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