28 August 2022

First Impressions: 3000 Years of Longing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

26 August 2022

52 for '22: Persepolis

Movie: Persepolis (2007)
Method: Netflix DVD

Why Did I watch this?

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

What Did I know ahead of time?

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

How Was It?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Check out more 52 for '22 right here! 

19 August 2022

52 for '22: THE FOG

MovieThe Fog (1980)
Method: Netflix DVD

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

Why Did I watch this?

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

What Did I know ahead of time?

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

How Was It?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

16 August 2022

First Impressions: Bullet Train

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

15 August 2022

SuMMER JAM 2022: August Scoop for '22!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next whatever...

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

12 August 2022

52 for '22: The Hours

MovieThe Hours (2002)
Method: HBOMax

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

Why Did I watch this?

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

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

What Did I know ahead of time?

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

How Was It?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10 August 2022

First Impressions: NOPE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

08 August 2022

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

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

PREY: Early 2020s Competency and Reactions to Reactions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Predator: Late 2010s Trying too Hard

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

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

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

2010 Predators: The Team-Up Movie

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

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

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

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

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

2004-2007: AVP movies, Just ridiculous

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

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

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

1990: Predator 2: The LA Cop Movie

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

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

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

1987: Predator: The 80s Muscle Fest

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

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

05 August 2022

52 for '22: The Bridge on the River Kwai

MovieThe Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
Method: YouTube

Now that's one bridge they built too far

Why Did I watch this?

I have never seen this before. I know it's a classic, seminal piece of filmmaking that was both a critical, commercial, and cultural event of its time. I dunno, it was never on FX at a good time. I put this in my Netflix DVD queue on February 19th, 2018. I can't say what happened on that particular date that made me want to see it, but that's certainly a significant gap in my film watching. But it was always on my radar from quoting Unforgivable #2. I always just think, "Dr. Zhivago, Brief Encounter, and Bridge on the River Kwai. A LEAN NIGHT." Like this dude is a cinephile. Yeah, my main interaction with one of the most famous movies of all time comes from an obscure 2006 YouTube video.

But I watched this because I knew had some time in July to dedicate a few hours and I saw that it popped on HBOMax but was leaving soon. Of course, if you look it up, you will find no such thing because it was totally A Bridge Too Far (1977) leaving HBOMax, not this. So that's significant egg on my face. But I searched quick and found that it's free on YouTube for some reason. It all comes full circle. I still had the time, so boom, here we go.

What Did I know ahead of time?

Well, I knew this had something to do with some bridge. And I knew that Alec Guinness was in it. I knew about the accolades, although not exactly how much it won. It nabbed Picture, Director, Actor, Screenplay, Cinematography, Score, and Editing. The last time Best Actor was in Best Picture was The Artist (2011), which definitely feels weird. Not really the same scale, right? The last time Best Actress was in Best Picture was Nomadland (2021), but hey, no need to worry about actresses in this picture. We'll get to that.

I knew that it was mentioned in "We Didn't Start the Fire." This is just a notable movie, man, it's a big deal. I found out that I really didn't know anything about the plot. I thought it was some World War II film, but I really realized how much I confused it with A Bridge Too Far, which I have already seen. Yes, this is set during World War II, but they don't really fight anyone.

How Was It?

This movie was weird. I didn't get a chance to read contemporary reviews, but obviously it was immensely popular. Fine, I had plenty of chances to read contemporary reviews, I just didn't want to. Like, okay, if you're like me and watching The Bridge on the River Kwai for the first time in 2022, your reaction has to be the same as mine, which is basically, "THAT is what The Bridge on the River Kwai is about?!" Let's get into this.

The film starts right away with Alec Guinness leading a group of captured British soldiers to a Japanese camp in occupied Northern Thailand. I really thought it'd be a South Pacific Island or something, and actually didn't get it until they showed a map to the American later on in the film. We're both just dumb I guess. I really thought they said they were on an island and there was no chance of escape, they didn't have barbed wire or watchtowers, like that's a whole thing. I guess that's why the American escapes later.

Anyway, straight away Alec Guinness is whack. My honest appraisal is that he was the film's main villain. I'm really not sure if people thought he was the hero or not. It feels like a parody or satire of British pompousness. First of all, he dissuades any thought of an escape plan. And then he insists on following the Geneva Convention for prisoners, but his primary sticking point is that Officers should not be forced to do manual labor.

And that's the conflict that drives like, the first hour of the film. It's an insanely classist argument that just kept baffling me. First, there was no way this Japanese camp in 1943 was going to give a shit about the Geneva Convention. And Guinness is so shocked and offended. He comes across as insanely naive. And he fights so, so hard for the right of Officers not to work. He's locked in a hotbox for weeks, has intellectual mind duels with Commander Saito, and refuses to give any ground. When he finally wins and Saito concedes, his men cheer like he's liberated all of them. No, he's only gotten his Officers off of bridge-building duty.

Am I taking crazy pills? Why is this a thing? Are we supposed to be on his side? It feels like cheering for a landlord or something. Like, no get down and do the work. The film plays all of this completely straight, like it's not the most classist movie of all time. And maybe it is supposed to play up British propriety, because the American, played by William Holden, is the only sensible one throughout the whole film. He's telling it like it's actually World War II while everyone else is pretending they're in some fantasy world where honor and nobility still exist.

Maybe this is the point. Again, I'm just unsure. If it's trying to be satirical at all, it does not frame itself as such. It progresses as a typical David Lean historical epic. There are cracks here and there. Alec Guinness becomes really obsessed with finishing this bridge. One of his officers, the Doctor, at one point does mention that his actions could be considered collaboration or treason. Guinness seems to only want to prove that the Brits are the best engineers and the best prisoners, but it feels like Stockholm Syndrome. Like, he can't get out of his own sense of dignity. Supposedly the real commander in this situation secretly sabotaged the construction of the bridge the whole way, like secretly introducing termites and doing a shoddy job. Like an Ocean's 13 (2007) kind of deal. That sounds like a much more entertaining movie. We get the comments that his motivation makes no sense, but none of the real criticism.

The ending salvages that a little bit. The American who escapes is roped back into service and his secret commando team set charges and eventually do blow up the bridge. Well, until Alec Guinness almost screws it all up by revealing their location and trying to sabotage their sabotage. In the end, they all die and Guinness falls on the detonator, blowing the bridge. It's unclear if he did this with his last dying breath to make up for how much he was about to help the Japanese win the war. I think so. He seems to have some realization and regret, the "What have I done?!" as his last words. But it's a weird journey to get there.

And maybe this is on purpose and the film is a huge joke about the hypocrisy and impracticability of the British class system. Maybe. It doesn't really feel that way. Maybe because it's just shot very straightforward. When you're in a POW camp I expect The Great Escape (1963), not whatever this is.

But this is all plot problems. I just never bought into the core of what this film was about. Everything else is banging. Guinness' character I think is one of cinema's greatest villains but he acts the hell out of it. Same with Holden and pretty much everyone else. The locations are amazing, shots are framed with a steady hand and epic scope. Bats! There's all these shots of bats flying around, it's very fun. There are a lot of characters, they could have definitely used something to distinguish them. They're all just white Englishmen with brown hair. I know they're all Englishmen, but hey, I was able to distinguish RRR (2022) pretty well. This movie could do better. And the plot does follow a logical order, with twists, and plausible causality based on character, everything's firing at full steam. I just don't agree with the destination that train is headed in.

We really should talk about how women and people of color are treated in this film. Now, this is 1957, so you know what you're getting...but maaaan... There is one female character who speaks, and she's got that sassy 1950s attitude that's great. But she peaces out pretty quick. Then, we just have a ton of native Thai people who are helping the covert team find the Prison Camp. They do a lot. The build rafts, serve as guides, and definitely, DEFINITELY prostitute themselves. Prostitute is a kind word, I might say there's some decent implied rape here. I don't think it's the film's intention to do such, but that's a clear 2022 reading of the look on some of these women's faces when these white boys glance at them and then cuddle up in some swimming pools. It is extremely cringe.

There were characters here. They don't get lines and they're subservient to the white folk. It's just bizarre. They're not even whitewashing, they're absolutely sidelining characters of critical importance. It's not great at all. Again, this was 1957, so it's not like they are missing the cultural boat, it's just very awkward to watch right now and literally see how there are great stories out there that are simply ignored.

So why did this movie become such a cultural force? Why is it in "We Didn't Start the Fire?" There are things to read into this. Is it about how soldiers just blindly follow orders and take comfort in that, even when those orders come from the enemy? The ending certainly feels like the echoing words of the doctor, "Madness, madness" as all that careful order unspools. Are war objectives achieved through precise discipline and order or through chaos and violence? Big questions here.

I'm not sure why this film was so popular. Curious if any grandparents are out there reading Norwegian Morning Wood who would like to contribute their opinion. I suppose the spectacle and location shooting were impressive, it's an early epic film, pre-dating Ben-Hur (1959) and not too far after The Ten Commandments (1956). It's a war film without having to really be about whether or not war is good or bad so anyone can side with it. And even though it was controversial for making the Japanese out to be poor engineers (which sounds crazy), it definitely didn't make them out to be the cruelest Prison Camp runners in history, so that's nice.

It's weird. It's just a weird film. I had a lot of problems with this, but I did enjoy watching it. It's a testament to how much all the visuals and acting add up to make a movie great, even if the plot is baffling, at least to modern standards. This is enough of a cinematic giant that it should be on everyone's list to see, but still...it's a weird way to end a lean night.

First Impressions: Thor Love n Thunder MORE LIKE GLOVE AND BLUNDER

Alright folks, I'm going to save you some time right now. This will probably turn into a long article because I have a whole ton of feelings and have been sitting with this film for far longer than I wanted but here is the big scoop: THOR: Love and Thunder (2022) is bad. It's really bad. No hot takes, this really just a bad movie.

Okay, you're done! Go about your lives.

Still here? Cool, let's get into why nothing about this thing works. SPOILERS forever, but who cares, apparently if you've seen a trailer you've seen the whole movie, not that it gives anything away, but there's just nothing more to this movie. Let's get into it. First - the obligatory context.

I'm not sure if it's more trendy at this point to be an MCU fanboy or an MCU hater. I really try to just analyze each movie as it is - a movie. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) I believe is a genuinely great film. THOR: Love n Thunder is a genuinely shitty film. I do reject the sameness criticism of the MCU, I think they stay ahead of the curve, like just when the staleness sets in they tend to upend the status quo. They create trends instead of following them and that's how they've stayed ahead of a litany of shared universe imitators.

I'm curious to explore more if in 2022 cinematography is even a thing anymore. There is art here, sure...but it's really just VFX. Like, there is less need for careful composition of shots and lighting because everything can be shifted in post-production. There is some worthwhile criticism that shots in the MCU aren't doing anything special and there is a difficult sameness of the Tony Stark model of quippiness. But there's also been some really great leaps here. Loki, Moon Knight, and WandaVision all presented really unique and interesting shots, cinematography, and plots (except when WandaVision gave up its complex treatment of grief and remembrance in favor of whizz whizz zap zap magic laser battle). Anyway, like I mentioned earlier, there are some properties that are doing a great job. Others are not.

A lot of this came to a focus in Taika Waititi's previous attempt at revitalizing the MCU's most boring character, Thor. THOR: Ragnarok (2017) stood out as a complete director's vision, with interesting jokes, levity, and fun. My criticism of that film was always that it was far too cavalier when dealing with Thor's genuine loss of everything in his life, people mistook bright colors for good cinematography, and the Planet Hulk stuff, while fun, was thematically (and plot-wise) disconnected from the Hela story. It's not actually a good movie in any sort of way. But it skates by on vibe, man. It possibly remains the most fun MCU film and its whole attitude carries it and provides a salve against all its flaws. It's a very old concept that the feeling a movie elicits can overcome its structural problems.

So we last left Thor in Endgame (2019) where he really didn't get the vengeance he sought. He felt guilty for his inability to kill Thanos and took it out on himself. But he never got his redemption. It was the one dangling character thread. Cap and Iron Man got to ride off into the sunset, but Thor's just as much an original dude as they are. But I guess they just want to keep trotting Chris Hemsworth out for this stuff because Ragnarok did well and they want to milk more of that? Rest assured, that is the reason why this movie exists.

He flies off with the Guardians for the promise of more fun adventures. I could tell by the trailers that the Guardians would not feature heavily in this movie. Indeed it feels like Taika wanted to get rid of them as fast as possible. There is no interest in telling a combined story here. They're around for one scene, Chris Pratt looks as disinterested as could be, and then they come up with a hokey reason to part ways.

This is when I first knew something was wrong. Pratt and Hemsworth are in different movies. It's uncanny to watch. That's when it dawned on me. This is just Sarcasm: The Movie. Pratt is actually trying to progress the scene, but Hemsworth's doofus Thor is cranked up to 11. It doesn't make any sense. Like, they aren't reacting to what the other is saying in any kind of natural way. This film is completely disinterested in any genuine or sincere scenes. It truly is a film entirely made up of classic MCU quipping.

And folks might take issue with that criticism. But it really feels like Waititi hates his characters. They are never allowed to actually experience any emotion, everything is kept at a sarcastic distance. It's not exactly cynical, but that somehow makes it worse. It's just unmotivated. I contrast with The Suicide Squad (2021), which is equally goofy, but treats its insane characters and situations seriously. That's the key to what makes that (and other James Gunn movies) work. It's still a love of characters and creation of stakes. Somehow even though the universe is always at stake, nothing feels weighty because nothing seems to really affect any of the characters in a meaningful way.

And I don't mean to hate on Waititi because he's had a great career. What We Do in the Shadows (2014) and Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) are all-times for me. The dude knows how to craft stakes (sometimes literally!) and characters, and like I said, while Ragnarok falls apart under scrutiny, I ranked it decent because the vibe is so damn strong. What happened here?

Ultimately, it's just what happens to every sequel. I think he (or the studio) got caught up on the little things, blew them out, and got overwhelmed. Love and Thunder doubles down on everything. The goofiness, the colors, and on the surface, the themes. At its heart, this is a brutal movie. The actual plot centers around Christian Bale's Gorr the God-Butcher finding the Necrosword and offing gods around the cosmos because they've become huge jerks. So there's your existential threat, seems like it'd be a great challenge for a Thor who's lost and trying to find his place after the Thanos thing.

But like Ragnarok, this just mashes a lot different stories together. Add to that Jane Foster's reappearance and claim to Mjolner, which doesn't really hold up at all. I mean, maybe it would, but like, okay, so Mjolner could be repaired (and have a cool new rock separating power?), Foster is worthy, but also she's got cancer and Mjolner is accelerating that I guess? I can see her becoming worthy after her cancer diagnosis and reassessing her life and priorities or something, but like, we need something to show how she did this. The comics had no problem letting her prove herself. And no, I don't mean that women aren't worthy like some troll, I'm saying that this movie needed to let Jane Foster become an actual character with actual needs and wants. I mean, at least show the scene of her picking up the hammer. Why hide that? We know who that is under the mask in the next scene (the comics just dropped her mysteriously and then it was a big, satisfying reveal. Imagine for a second a world where we didn't know Natalie Portman was in this movie until we arrived in theaters. I hate everyone.). I'm not usually a "comics did it better" kind of guy, but when the movie version stumbles it's hard when you have this template right here that's being ignored. She only gets to use the Hammer because of Thor, which seems like it lessens the potency and interestingness of the character

I can't sum up the problem with Gorr better than Captain Midnight did. There really is so much potential here if this movie had any interest in being an interesting movie. Bale gives the best performance in this movie, and it's because his villain is right. Like, when they visit the gods on Mt. Olympus or whatever, they act EXACTLY in the way that Gorr had a problem with. But nothing happens because of that. They get no comeuppance besides Thor killing (but not really) Zeus. Russell Crowe seems like he just wants to be weird here and has no interest in making a real character, although he fits this story. But it's hard to believe Odin would have been treated like a joke or Thor wouldn't be a big deal in Omnipotent City. It's very incongruous, especially when he clearly kicks everyone's ass. Nothing makes sense, but by this point in the movie, that's just par for the course. I was waiting for it to end.

Gorr has so much motivation and challenges Thor in a really unique way. Plus their names rhyme! But the movie throws in a bizarre child kidnapping as extra motivation, that doesn't really go anywhere, and never lets Thor grapple with these big questions.

We do, however, get the best scene. I love how Taika's greatest strength is color, so naturally, Gorr lives on the black and white planet. Color is the enemy! This is the only time when this movie felt like a movie that was trying to actually advance a theme or idea and dive into a character. It's the only scene where they try to earn something. Color is afraid to exist there, so when they use lightning powers it's like they are inspiring bits of bravery. Nuance! Implication! Subtle development of themes! It's fantastic! Much like how color reacts in this section, something deep down in this movie is striking out trying to emerge on its own. But then again it doesn't really lead anywhere.

The shadow monsters Gorr unleashes are genuinely scary but no one seems scared of them. Not even the little kids. Like, we need to get invested in the movie by how the characters react to what is happening in the movie. When everyone is clearly chilling in front of a green screen, well, that's sort of a cooler than this attitude, which is popular, but what's really cool is showing vulnerability and triumph over adversity. Also creating obstacles out of CGI that contain actual weight and presence. Unrelated, I just watched IT: Chapter Two (2019) which was so insanely unscary because big, fast, fake CGI monsters are just not scary.

So, at the end Jane sacrifices herself to kill Gorr (that's kinda what happened), and Thor gets all the credit. I do still love the recent trend of just putting comic books on screen without being afraid of costumes or scenes. Again, I'm not sure if this is it good cinematography or just a computer generated image. Is that still art? I like how they did Eternity, she's straight up like her comic counterpart. We're more accepting of the weird these days, which is refreshing.

I've seen some criticism of the final scene where Thor gives his power to all the kids' toys so they can fight monsters. I actually thought this was great, it was like him stepping into the role his father had, imbuing powers to others as King of Asgard. Because that's really where he should be, right? I know he's not headed in that direction, but his whole arc starting from THOR (2011) is him learning how to not be a dick and be a leader, right? Like learning what mercy and worthiness means? It's this whole series' stupid fault for not defining how hammer powers work. This seems like a natural extension, and almost a little Silver Age-y comic book wackiness. Whatever.

The film ends with Thor adopting Gorr's daughter, who was brought back to life by Eternity. This was not set up at all, and is presented as if it was settling Thor's issues with finding himself and his purpose throughout the film. It reeks of a couple on verge of divorce saying, "Well, let's have a kid, that will solve our problems!" No, it's just a non sequitor. A kid doesn't solve any of his issues. Also, what are his issues? He starts as he finishes, charging into battle. Is that his purpose? Or is it finding a way to like people, so he likes this completely unrelated surrogate daughter? It is so damn bizarre.

Marvel needs to figure out its end credits. They are just giving a ton of dangling character introductions. Are there plans for these people? What's up with StarFox, Clea, Hercules, magical ten rings, and Adam Warlock? I want to see all these folks but I just get the feeling that we won't see the pay off. They're either not going to be big factors or will be dropped entirely. C'mon man, innovate, not imitate. I feel like this isn't working.

I mentioned King Thor, but we should talk about King Valkyrie. I think it's another bit of Marvel pretending to be down with women's lib, but mostly just delivering lip service without actually fleshing out any female character. Valkyrie is sweet, she had a nice arc in Ragnarok and Tessa Thompson does a good job. But she totally peaces out in the middle of this movie for no reason. We don't deal with the struggle she's clearly having being a leader of a displaced people who have sacrificed their culture to make a (very American) buck. I was also struck at one point when Valkyrie and Korg are just like, watching two cis white people try to date each other while they get no one (Korg gets a man at the end I guess. Sort of.) but they do get to talk to each other about the straight people. This is what I'm talking about, like, it's just pretending to be progressive, but it's stuck being a mid-2000s romantic comedy.

This movie is also full of characters just saying what they're feeling. Again, it just lacks any kind of subtlety or implication. I mean, literally. It's just really really bad. Like, I don't actually care about special effects, I know people have criticized Heimdall's son's floating head and apparently bad use of the Volume. I don't know, I don't really care about that unless it takes me out of what the movie was trying to achieve (See my IT whine earlier). This movie just fails because of its script and complete disinterest in actually being a movie.

I'd sum it up by saying it's a movie that's not nearly as fun as Ragnarok, but one that's desperately trying to be. And some of that might just be that Ragnarok was such a fresh breath for this character, the MCU's style, and again the vibe. When you just crank out a lesser version of the same thing, all of that freshness is lost. We need to have a variety of voice (which Taika has - WWDITS, Wilderpeople, and Jojo Rabbit [2019] are wildly different and creative in their own ways), otherwise why are we watching. It does make me wonder a little how the hell Scorsese pulled off making forty-five different gangster movies and the latter ones still feel fresh.

So what about Hemsworth? I dunno. This version of Thor is probably still better than his first too movies. He's really really ripped in this. But his character just lacks any semblance of direction. I know that's kind of the point, but we've had lots of movies about ennui. And is it even ennui? He get super motivated by saving Asgard again. This movie has no idea what it wants to be or what its central conflict is. And the rest falls apart around it.

This is a weird aside, but I was bothered more by stupid elements like Matt Damon rehashing the plot of Ragnarok, which Korg already did earlier in the movie. It felt as if they were reminding us to go watch this better movie that came out years ago. I was okay with a lot of what other people complained about, like screaming goats and whatever. That's fine. My issue is that they come screaming during what should have been a difficult pivotal scene where he leaves the Guardians. It's just a distracting joke that again, means that nothing means anything in this stupid movie.

I mean, okay, to some extent we just need to care about something right? Like take something seriously? It can still be fun and goofy, but that is distinct from it mattering. Nothing in this film matters. Except when their lightning symbolizes bravery.

To me the best part was seeing Moon Knight in the opening comic book flip. I'm over it.
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