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.

08 April 2022

52 for '22: Swingers

MovieSwingers (1997)
Method: HBOMax

Like the guy in the $4000 suit is going to hold the elevator for the guy who doesn't make that in three months C'MON

Why Did I watch this?

Ohhh....Swingers... I have been meaning to watch Swingers for years. In many ways, it's what this whole 52 for '22 series is all about. It's always been a film that I wanted to watch and thought I might like a lot, but it was just never THE movie to watch that night. So it just burned a hole in my queue forever. And it was in a lot of queues. I'd like to see the streaming history of Swingers. It was on Hulu for the longest time, then Netflix, but I ended up watching it on HBOMax. That was partly because it was leaving this month, but also because it's an easy 96-minute movie to watch on a Wednesday night.

But why was this on my radar in the first place? It was really just understanding the Vince Vaughn backlog, and being able to check out the movie that made everyone. Ironically it wasn't Made (2001) that made them. But everyone is in this, even that girl from The Replacements (2000).

What Did I know ahead of time?

Apparently not all that much. I knew it was Vaughn and Jon Favreau, and by the title and iconic Vaughn-with-a-martini box art I figured it had something to do with some dudes who go party or chase women or whatever. I suppose that turned out to be a pretty spot on assessment. I liked getting into this bromance and start making the connections between PCU (1994), Very Bad Things (1998), Swingers, Made, all the way up to Couples Retreat (2009). It's a little pocket of 90s Hollywood that's fun to explore - never as big as the Carrey / Sandler / Stiller films of their day, but they found their niche.

How Was It?

So much hype. I'm going to say it was...okay. The film centers around Favreau as his sad ass mopes around moving to LA after breaking up with this girlfriend (or she broke up with him, I'm not sure even he knows), and faking it until he's making it in the 90s LA movie scene. All his friends are kind of layabouts doing the same thing, just trying to land the next big role. Trying and failed actors are ubiquitous here, and I did dig the fact that in between not landing roles they just try to party every night.

It's really about chasing women. Vaughn is the master here, and he does get laid (sort of) and snag a number, but the cockiness is what's for show here. This film is about a bunch of dudes trying to prove their worth to other dudes, and Favreau really only has success when he stops being so anxious and opens up - although not TOO open, that's the biggest turn off of all when you're a sad loser.

That probably pulled me the most out of this movie - Favreau plays his character so sad and pathetic that it was tough to watch sometimes. The cringe is really strong, especially in the first half when he's trying so hard to be cool but clearly has no idea what he's doing. Like, they roll into Vegas and he's barking orders at Vaughn to get his act together, but he completely flounders on the table and shows his hand at how much he's out of his league.

And I get that that's the point of this movie. It's about dudes finding their way, almost a coming of age type film (except they're in their mid-20s) but it's also about how much these dudes are trying so hard to be cool and seen and how much the delude themselves. But it's not in a cynical or scolding way. Just in a way that tries to push them to be more self-aware and supplant the self-conscious puffing show with real self-confidence. That's hard to do, especially when you're a dude in your twenties fighting your way in an unforgiving industry. There is a lot chest puffing and little actual help and support.

Some of that got too real for me. As a dude not too far removed from his own mid-twenties, the scenes of them headed to bars, house parties, and diners felt a bit too real for me. And this isn't a party movie. It's not The Hangover (2009) where we're here to see how drunk and rowdy they get. It's a real movie. The parties kind of suck, they don't connect with anyone, they strike out with every woman they talk to, and then the night just kind of ends. It's sad and real and fascinating.

So they go to Vegas and I thought this was going to turn into a Vegas movie. It sort of does. But they lose all their money instantly, are awkward getting breakfast, meet some girls, cry, and go home. It's almost this meta comedy, except it came out way before comedies would create the tropes that Swingers comments on. I don't think it's try to comment at all, it just sort of exists on its own.

I can't help but look forward with a lot of these actors. Ron Livingston would make Office Space (1999) a few years later and has a steady career ever since. Heather Graham would be in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999) and then launch from there. And Boogie Nights (1997) I guess. That black guy was in Becker. And the other white guy hasn't been in anything. But Vaughn and Favreau are the heart of the movie here and it's bonkers to see where their careers have gone after this movie.

I had forgotten how much shit Favreau had actually been in, since he might be known now more as a director, although he actually hasn't directed all that much. He had Elf (2003), which is a ridiculous second directorial effort - every bit about the staging, costuming, and framing is just so iconic. And then Iron Man (2008) and he was good. There's like Cowboys & Aliens (2011) and a couple Disney remakes in there where I'm sure he just told the animators what to do. I never saw Chef (2014). It's probably good. He might best be known for Star Wars shows at this point, could you ever predict that this dude would be shepherding so much Disney crap 25 years on from this film? He's had one of the biggest hands in all their major properties, Marvel, live-action remakes, and Star Wars at this point. As an actor, he's just been in a ton, although I might say he's far from a recognizable leading man. I will always remember him as Eric the Clown in Seinfeld tho.

It's amazing how much his character is at ease with Livingston here, who plays his friend from back east who just moved out to LA. He's always a little on edge trying to prove himself to Vince Vaughn, and some of the arguing, especially during the scene where they all sit around and play the coolest new video game, NHL '93. But Vince Vaughn is here, and he's so totally Vince Vaughn. He's got that fast talking endless charisma we'd see in Old School (2003) and Wedding Crashers (2005), and when writing this I really forgot how much dramatic work he did to get his start. When you see him in Psycho (1998) and The Cell (2000) some of his more modern work makes sense.

He's just so skinny here, too. His physicality wasn't used to great effect until movies like Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017) and Freaky (2020). But he's incredibly engaging and obviously going to be the breakout star. Add to that Doug Liman, who would go on to be a primarily action director, notably with The Bourne Identity (2001). I find it super weird that he did Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005) and Jumper (2008) instead of the sequels, which were instead directed by Paul Greengrass. Someone do a deep dive as to how that happened.

So in the end, Swingers is pretty okay. It looks incredible for the fact that it was shot for nothing, it serves as a blatant ode to 90s cultural moments like Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Goodfellas (1990), and stars everyone you want in a movie. But it's also one of the realest movies ever, and not in a boring or pretentious way.

01 April 2022

52 for '22: Five Easy Pieces

Movie: Five Easy Pieces (1970)
Method: Netflix DVD

Just another day of sun!

Why Did I watch this?

Oh, I forget. It's been on my Netflix DVD queue forever and is part of me trying to burn through a lot of it this year. I'm sure I put it on because it has fame as an early Jack Nicholson role that cemented his stardom in the early 70s and it has quite a laudable following. As for what pushed me to watch it at this particular moment in time...I dunno. It was just sticking out to me, really as something very different than what I had been watching.

What Did I know ahead of time?

Shit, like most of these movies, basically nothing. It's amazing how these films are these indelible parts of our culture but we have no idea what they're even about. Or at least I didn't. I knew it had Jack Nicholson in it, it was from the early 70s, it was some kind of drama, and so really I could piece together that it would be some kind of New Hollywood, likely borderline experimental, conflicted domestic drama film.

How Was It?

I didn't know what the hell I was watching here. Jack Nicholson is with this girl that he clearly hates, they go bowling and she's terrible and he gets embarrassed, then he's working on an oil rig with his buddy who gets arrested for some reason, and then he goes to visit his sister who is a classical pianist, but so is he, then his dad gets sick and he goes to Washington State where he actually comes from a renowned wealthy family, and then he cries, gets pissed and takes a truck up to Alaska.

That's this whole movie. A lot of it seems to just kind of flow into the next sequence very casually, which I didn't totally appreciate when I was watching it. I had to sit with it for a second and just contemplate how much these early 70s dramas are drastically different from modern films. It is said often that they wouldn't make a movie like this today, and it's really true. Studios would just never ever make a film like this that lacks a driving narrative.

Instead it's really a character piece, although Jack's character is hard to pin down. He's just kind of a dick who is unhappy everywhere. He hates the woman he's with, he doesn't really like his friends, he thinks he's better than them, he hates his job, he's just eternally dissatisfied. There are hints to overarching themes, notably when they pick up hitchhikers headed up to the clean pastures of Alaska to get away from the filth and grime of commercial capitalism. Their inclusion was baffling to me upon first viewing, because they just pop in, spew a bunch of environmentalist clean living stuff and then peace out. But really, they're there because they're just like Jack, except they're open about it. Nicholson keeps trying to fit in but he can't. He can't live the blue collar lifestyle, but he also hates the rich snob lifestyle.

Apparently the famous scene is where he tries and fails to order toast at a diner. It is the most entertaining scene, and equally baffling that this restaurant makes no substitutions and can't give him toast. So he orders a chicken salad sandwich minus the lettuce, mayonnaise, and chicken. It's maybe a take on how much we just follow the natural order of things that don't make any sense and lack any kind of free judgment, but it also serves to further isolate Jack. Whether white or blue collar he can't even order the meal he wants. He just doesn't fit in anywhere.

Once they get up to Washington he tries to bang his brother's fiance and just kind of pouts around until his girlfriend shows up after she spent two weeks at a motel and ran out of money. It's insane how he treats this woman and how she puts up with him. To be fair, she is fantastically annoying, played with aplomb by Karen Black, but he just keeps hanging out with her. Maybe because he feels guilt built up from leaving other women or his family in his life? He's clearly conflicted when he tries to break up with her and peace out to Washington without her before he relents and brings her along. It's just another example of how stuck he feels, but he's really just a dick for no reason.

There is a nice scene though where he defends her hick ways to possibly the most pretentious character ever put on television. Anyway, he can't bang the other girl he wants so he just leaves after having a breakdown in front of his wheelchair-bound father who may or may not even be able to understand and process what he's saying. It's as close we get to any kind of vulnerability from him and it's truly amazing how much acting Nicholson can do with just his eyebrows.

After all this we get to the end, which is heartbreaking, but also if you follow the throughline, expected. At a gas stop he ditches his hick girlfriend and hops in a logging truck for even more remote country, the naked wilds of Alaska! He's been drifting around and just screwing up everywhere he goes, and even though he was estranged from his father, his family really was the last bit tying him to anything. He has a bit of remorse, but just can't stand anything and decides to go where it's clean. The last shot of the cloudy dismal day as Karen Black just wanders around, not sure if she should wait or leave is haunting as hell.

We never really find out the source of Nicholson's anger or trauma nor is it really resolved. It's fun when movies used to do this, just show characters instead of explaining everything. This is a great film although it's admittedly a little tough to get into, although I think most of that is just our modern film brains being really compounded by a film that explains nothing, starts right away, and then just keeps chugging with slice of life stuff until it just sort of ends.

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