Saturday, May 18, 2024

Didn't notice the missing article

When I went to start watching Warriors of Future on Thursday night, I thought I was watching a movie called Warriors of THE Future. (Emphasis mine.)

But no, once I started the movie and paused it, I saw that the "the" was missing.

I have to think this was an intentional choice in the translation and not some sort of botched job that they used to joke about on websites like, before that became problematic. (The website still exists. That doesn't mean it's not problematic.) Oh, I think I neglected to mention that the movie hails from Hong Kong. 

However, one of the first bits of on-screen text made me wonder.

When I first saw this:

I thought it said "BIG TEMPORARY COMMAND CENTER," which I thought was hilarious. The salient characteristic about the temporary command center was that it was big, but otherwise completely anonymous. 

Of course, rewinding I saw that it was B16, not BIG. But combined with the missing article in the title, I thought this movie might be destined for the Engrish hall of fame.

I enjoyed the movie reasonably well. It has a lot of FX shots and I thought for the most part, they were well done. The technology and aliens that appear here are imaginative, if they don't have quite the tactility and three-dimensionality that you'd get from the most expensive CG going today. However, for a movie without those resources, good job I say.

The thing that prevents me from quite recommending the movie is its terrible acting. You don't always notice bad acting in films that are in other languages, since one of the key signifiers of bad acting is an inability to put the emphasis on the right syllable. In another language, you have no idea what the right syllable is.

But in this case, I could tell this acting was bad. This guy is the poster child of it:

This is actor Nick Cheung, and he has this expression on his face for literally his entire screen time.

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

A "Christmas" movie you wouldn't watch at Christmas, and the question of default subtitles

I have had an itch to watch Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence for a long time. 

Long recently, and long within the full span of my lifetime.

Recently, it's been part of my Kanopy queue, probably for something like three or four years now. 

Within the full span of my lifetime, it was one of the movies my mother recorded off The Movie Channel (and may never have watched). Seeing it in the plastic bins with all the other VHS tapes of movies she'd recorded and never watched led to speculation on my part about what it was about. 

Actually I did know something of what it was about, because there was an image of it I'd caught somewhere -- probably in an ad on The Movie Channel -- that haunted me. For those of you who've seen that movie, you'd know the image was David Bowie buried in sand, so only his head poked above the surface.

I probably would have gotten to Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence before now except that I am such a slave to thematically appropriate viewings that I think I thought I had to watch it at Christmastime. Even knowing it was set a prison camp run by the Japanese in World War II, I thought with that title, I had to save it for December.

But see the thing is, in December, I've got no time for random 41-year-old movies starring David Bowie. I need to watch movies from the current release year in order to prepare my year-end list, I need to watch genuine Christmas movies, and usually I need to watch old favorites that taste just a little bit better during the holiday season. Old movies that are new to me get the short shrift pretty much from after Halloween until late January. 

So a Tuesday night in May ended up being the right time to watch Nagisa Oshima's film.

I liked it about as well as I like any movie set in a camp holding prisoners of war, which is to say, just fine. Actually, that's a bit of short shrift for these movies themselves. As soon as I started to test the validity of my middling response to POW movies, I started to think of exceptions, such as The Bridge on the River Kwai, Stalag 17 and a movie I only just watched for the first time about a month ago, The Human Condition: No Greater Love. Which, incidentally, is also made by a Japanese director.

What I can say for sure, though, is that I am not inclined to go on at length about the details of the movie. It was good, it had good performances, enough said.

Of course, if that were all I had to say about it, I'd only be addressing half of my chosen title for this post.

Nary a few moments into Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, I noticed there were Japanese characters, not to mention one English character, who were speaking in Japanese, without the Japanese being translated.

And I immediately felt I could not be certain what were the true intentions of the filmmaker.

In most English language movies, we are accustomed to expecting dialogue spoken in foreign languages to be subtitled. This happens without us having to do anything as viewers. For a very small percentage of English language movies, the film will choose not to provide a translation -- often for the purpose of disorienting their English-speaking audiences, just as the English-speaking characters are disoriented.

If you see a movie in the theater, and you are in a country where English is the official language, you know exactly what the filmmaker's intentions are. Since there is no ability for any individual audience member to customize their viewing experience, we are handed the subtitling option appropriate for the largest number of viewers. And if we get no subtitles, it means the director sure as heck intended it to be that way.

At home, though, we are in a thoroughly customizable environment. We can have subtitles on. We can have descriptive text for the hearing impaired. Sometimes we might even be able to dub it into another language.

But what should we do? What did the director want us to do?

I did turn on the subtitles in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, not only because I suspected they were supposed to be on, but because even some of the words spoken in English, with their heavy British or Japanese accents, benefitted from having on-screen text as a reference point. 

But when the subtitles don't exist as the default option -- like, embedded into the print rather than layered on top -- you don't really know what you're supposed to do. Maybe you're not supposed to understand what the Japanese characters are saying, or what the one Brit who can speak Japanese is saying when he's speaking to them. Maybe this is all meant to approximate the experience of being a prison of war in a foreign land. (The film is actually set in Java, Indonesia, but there are no Indonesian characters.)

Because these subtitles were offset from the screen by big black rectangular boxes behind them, it gave me even more of a sense that what I was seeing was alien to the original print. Maybe whoever distributed this version of the print translated because they could, not because they should.

Often I am allergic to googling the answer to one of the rhetorical questions I ask here, but in this case I did look it up. Apparently, there are two versions of the film, one with subtitles and one without. You are "supposed" to watch the one without. (So, we got the version without, but the subtitles existed as an a la carte option.)

The guy on Reddit who posted about it made what I thought was a good point about what we were "supposed" to do in this case, saying "While it sounds intriguing, I wouldn't want to miss out on half the movie if it isn't true."

I agree with this. We are only going to see most movies once in this life -- actually, most movies we are going to zero times, but you know what I'm saying. If you are only going to watch something once, you better watch the version that gives you the best chance of comprehending it. 

I'd say you could then go back and watch the version without subtitles if you really love it, but you can't un-learn the dialogue that was being said. 

Maybe I'll rewatch Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence again 20 years from now, having forgotten what was being said from scene to scene -- maybe even the entire gist of the plot -- and see what I think of it.

And maybe I can schedule that particular viewing for Christmastime. 

Monday, May 13, 2024

The demise of movie advertising, all in one handy Bond puzzle

I had a very diligent Secret Santa last year -- or Kris Kringle, as they insist on calling it down here.

When we do Kris Kringle with my larger work team of a couple dozen people, you get randomly assigned a person to give presents to, and weirdly, you never actually tell them it was you. I suppose if you're only giving one gift, that makes sense, but I prefer it to be like a handful of small gifts over the course of December, and then at the end you say "It was me!" Without that, it's this very odd sort of secretive affair, though I admit, it does prevent you from having to own up to your shitty gift if you missed the mark. And since we are scattered around the state, only all coming together a couple times a year, multiple gifts over a couple weeks isn't practical anyway. 

To help prevent your giver from missing the mark, you are invited to give hints about things you would like. For a couple years now I have been suggesting that someone give me a copy of the latest book they've read, as it will allow me to branch out to things I might not have considered, but no one takes me up on that. Since they don't, this year I included chocolate as an option, and I may have mentioned I like puzzles -- or this person just knew it from having talked to me. 

In any case, she got me all three things, in a true case of going above and beyond the $20 limit. I say "she" because I am quite certain I know who it was, based on her interests. The "book" she got me was a Star Wars comic book featuring Princess Leia, and I happen to know this person is into Star Wars. She gave me the actual copy, rather than buying me a copy, and since people don't seem to be able to interpret this suggestion correctly, I think I will stop making it next year.

For chocolate, she got me Cadbury Favourites, which come in a distinct purple box and contain miniature versions of their offerings. This alone was at least half of the $20 limit.

Then the puzzle was a James Bond puzzle, featuring posters from all 25 movies in existence at the end of Daniel Craig's tenure. It was quite well chosen, as I had just posted on Facebook about going to that James Bond Marathon at the Sun Theatre that I wrote about on this blog a couple times last year. So that limited the potential Kris Kringles to one of my Facebook friends, which narrowed it down to about eight people. The Star Wars fan is one of those eight. 

(I actually didn't want to become friends with any work people on Facebook, and have had a policy of not doing so until I no longer work with the person. That way, I can say whatever outrageous things I want to say without feeling self-conscious. But once my boss sent me a friend request, and her boss sent me a friend request, the floodgates opened and I had to take pretty much anyone who asked. I say "pretty much" as there is still one woman I find objectionable whose request I have not accepted, but I never see her and have never actually met her in person, so I thought this might give her a hint without it being awkward.)

Okay that's a lot of preamble. I am ready to get to the point of this piece now.

My wife and I have been working on the Bond puzzle, one poster of which you see above, and the rest of which I will be providing in snippets across the rest of this piece. The posters go chronologically through the Bonds from the upper left hand corner to the lower right, proceeding more or less in the shape of a Z, and I recently realized that they get increasingly worse as you go trace that route.

Because we haven't quite finished the puzzle yet -- less than 100 of the thousand remaining -- the pictures are from the fold-out picture that comes with it that you use as a reference point. (Or at least, some people do. In a conversation about puzzles with my Kris Kringle, I learned that she and her family do not believe it is fair to check the picture, and you must form the puzzle from the pieces alone. That's insane.)

Let's start with the lovely upper left:

Ah the films of Sean Connery. How delightfully 60s they were. (They were all from that decade except for 1971's Diamonds Are Forever.) They aren't all kinetic, but that Goldfinger one sure is. It should be out of a Batman comic (also from the 1960s) and the word THWACK! should appear in giant letters. The first two on the left are fairly staid in terms of action, but just look at the warm and rich colors. Especially the last two capture the zany spirit of the movies, with Diamonds kind of functioning as the first of the sort of posters made famous in Star Wars movies, with the characters grouping around in poses. Anyway, it's glorious stuff.

As we move to the right and to my Bond, Roger Moore -- with a groovy diversion for one George Lazenby movie, half of whose slogans you can see in the previous shot -- there isn't much dropoff. We get to a lot more storytelling in the poster, as fully half the events of The Man With the Golden Gun are depicted in this poster, and The Spy Who Loved Me looks like something out of an art deco sci-fi movie. Even the simplest of these, For Your Eyes Only, has the clever through the legs shot (while getting in some more female flesh, which was a Bond calling card, and a Moore calling card in particular). The posters aren't afraid to have life and be cheeky, and interestingly, the one my wife called out specifically for positive reasons -- my favorite, Octopussy -- can't even be seen in this quadrant. (We'll get to it in the next.) She said instead of having all 25 movies, she'd rather just have a full puzzle of the Octopussy poster, for example.

As we look at Moore's last two posters, which are striking for different and opposite reasons -- one busy, one sparse -- we get a crucial line of demarcation here. Once we switch over to Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan, the hand-drawn art is retired. Not immediately -- Dalton's first, The Living Daylights, seems to be drawn, and works in a similar way to how For Your Eyes Only worked. But from License to Kill onward, photographs of the actors become the norm, for the worse. At least we're still getting story, though. In each Brosnan movie -- Die Another Day is slightly off screen here -- you get not only Bond but his co-stars, plus some visual information that tells you what the movie is about, with plenty of vehicles still making appearances. They're still good.

They're not good anymore. This may be what we thought we wanted in 2006 when the series had probably its sharpest reboot to date, to bring it into more modern times. But fully four of these five posters have only a single person on them, Daniel Craig, and not a single one gives any clue what the movie is about. (Okay, I guess you could argue that he's gambling in Casino Royale, but that title is somewhat self-explanatory anyway.) These are cold, clinical, lifeless. Taken in combination, they sort of make Daniel Craig look like the world's biggest narcissist, when I doubt that actually describes him. Only in Quantum of Solace is any of the real estate ceded to another character/actor. 

Unsurprisingly, this is the least fun quadrant of the puzzle to complete. My wife and I each get a little depressed when we try to work at it. Just a bunch of generic whites, blacks and golds. Ho hum.

You don't often think about the long history of movie advertising until you can see a single idea go through multiple transformations as it does here. And here it is obvious that somewhere along the way we lost the sense of fun. We lost the sense of things being larger than life. We lost the sense of someone creating a design that was as much an impressionistic interpretation of the movie as it was an accurate depiction of the contents of the package. And yet some of them were also that, much more than they are now.

And this, of course, is not specifically an issue with the Bond movies, but rather, a larger design trend. Remember when every new poster was blue and orange with some random ignited sparks somewhere in the frame, whether the movie featured sparks or not? That may have been the nadir of this sad loss of inventiveness. 

We can only hope that the arrival of a new James Bond heralds a new way to imagine a Bond poster, perhaps one that harkens back to these joyous works of art from the 1960s and 1970s. 

And that may happen. The posters that seem to resonate most with us nowadays are the intentional throwbacks, the ones that mimic the design, for example, of famed Star Wars poster artist Drew Struzan. Nothing makes us geek out more, for example, than to see the kids from Stranger Things oriented as they would be in a Star Wars sequel, with ephemera from the show surrounding them on all sides.

Let's hope the next Bond puzzle, released 15 years from now with the retirement of the next Bond, has a fifth quadrant -- if you will -- that makes us forget the mistakes of the fourth. 

Saturday, May 11, 2024

Blaxploitaudient: Foxy Brown

This is the fifth in my 2024 monthly series watching blaxploitation movies I haven't previously seen.

Tomorrow is Mother's Day. I was going to say "here in Australia," but unlike with Father's Day, it's the same day as in the U.S. (Australian Father's Day is in September. Let's not get into it.)

Which means it's the perfect time to watch a movie about a vengeful nurse who goes undercover as a prostitute to take out heroin dealers.

In all seriousness, though, I did think the month of Mother's Day was a good time to turn to the first female-led movie of this series, not to mention one of the genre's most iconic.

In a way, you could say Pam Grier's Foxy Brown is the mother of all blaxploitation heroines, except there's probably some evidence that an earlier film would be more accurately considered that. Grier herself actually appears a year earlier in 1973's Coffy, another likely viewing in this series. 

But Foxy Brown is the name we all know. When Grier appeared in Jackie Brown more than 20 years later, there were a lot of mentions of Grier's iconic turn in Jack Hill's 1974 film Foxy Brown, not so much about Jack Hill's 1973 film Coffy. Heck, it could just be the fact that the characters have the same last name. (Interesting to note that Hill was such a maker of blaxploitation, when he was white. A discussion for another time probably.) And since I found Grier very captivating in Jackie Brown -- one of my favorite parts of the movie, of which I have only a middling appreciation -- I had wanted to see Foxy Brown for a good 25 years.

So the actual movie was probably a mild disappointment for me, though I do think Grier is great in it, and she has an absolutely dynamite succession of period outfits.

First I should say it was something of a relief to return to a more straightforward narrative after last month's Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, which was the best movie in this series so far, if not always the easiest to watch in terms of clarity of the story. I still, though, don't think I got all the details, or maybe some of those details were just wrong. For example, I don't actually think Foxy Brown is a nurse, a detail I got from the Amazon Prime brief plot synopsis when I rented it. Speaking of Coffy, I think they may actually be conflating the two, as she definitely appears to be a nurse there. 

The Wikipedia plot description makes no mention of her profession at all, but there is an early scene in a hospital, so I tell myself I may have just missed a throwaway line of dialogue. However, in that scene Brown is a visitor to the hospital, not working there, as her boyfriend, an undercover agent who had infiltrated a drug ring, has needed to have facial reconstruction to avoid being targeted now that his cover has been blown. It might have worked, too, if this man hadn't been ratted out by Foxy's own brother, a drug addict named Link, played by Antonio Fargas.

Before we continue with the plot, I wanted to pause for a moment to mention Fargas. His was a face I immediately recognized, and thought I even knew from where, even though this next film is one I haven't seen in more than 30 years. Sure enough, I confirmed on IMDB and he plays that pimp with the fishbowls in his shoes in I'm Gonna Git You Sucka!, which was probably my first exposure to blaxpoitation in the form of a spoof. Maybe I will rewatch that this year after I have seen the original version of many of these tropes. It's been too long. 

So one thing I thought was funny about this undercover agent, who is played by Terry Carter, is that to prove the success of the facial reconstruction and change in name from Dalton Ford to Michael Anderson, the film shows us a newspaper headline that reads UNDERCOVER AGENT DALTON FORD MISSING. I love imagining that there would have ever been a time when the whereabouts of undercover agents, whose names should not be named, would be the subject of newspaper articles.

Anyway, Ford/Anderson is gunned down, and that sends Foxy on the warpath both to rough up her own brother and to take down the drug ring headed by Kathryn Wall (Kathryn Loder) and her lieutenant Stevie (Peter Brown). Loder's performance is pretty campy, but it's hard to tell whether or not it's on purpose.

Hill's direction is probably the weakest part of the movie, as his ability to get good line readings from the actors is only one of the deficits he puts up there on screen. He's also challenged when it comes to staging the action scenes, with some of them even prompting laughter.

At least he has Grier, whose charisma is a physical force. I did find myself surprised, though, how much this movie takes us down into the dirt with her character. I imagined her to be kind of a groovy superhero with a great afro in a variety of sharp wardrobes, above the fray and able to dispatch foes with a cool quip. But that's me looking back on Foxy Brown from the perspective of her being an icon, not imagining how the filmmakers might have seen her at the time.

There's no doubt she's badass and strong, but the film is not above degrading her. Without getting too much into spoilers -- though I doubt you are worried about spoilers for a film that turns 50 this year -- there's a scene where Foxy is tied to a bed, drugged, and raped. The rape is off screen, but that would not have played in a film today -- at least not for the hero of the film. As she's struggling against the ropes that have her bound, we get a casual exposure to her breasts. I suspect this sort of thing may have contributed to why the film was, according to Wikipedia, "seized and confiscated in the United Kingdom under section 3 of the Obscene Publications Act 1959 during the video nasty panic." I'm not following the link to see what the "video nasty panic" was. 

There is one other actor I wanted to call out. Sid Haig, who I know from his later life collaborations with Rob Zombie, appears here, looking quite thin, as a hippie pilot. It's a goofy role and it brought a bit smile to my face.

The movie does end with a very satisfying comeuppance for its villains, which reminds me a bit of the ending of Shaft. That might be the kind of thing that gives a film its iconic status. I'll have to see whether Coffy botches that same sort of ending when I get to it later in the year, perhaps explaining why that film is not as well known.

So Happy Mother's Day, everyone. If you have a heroin ring you want to bust up, Foxy Brown is available. 

Wednesday, May 8, 2024

Not all milestones are created equal

Today I learned that The Muppet Movie is being re-released this (U.S.) summer to celebrate the 45th anniversary of its release.

Come on.

We all know it is patently ridiculous to celebrate X number of years since something occurred if the X does not end in a zero or five.

But if you celebrate all of the anniversaries ending in zero and five, that's too much too. 

The target audience for this celebration, even if it is comprised of adoring fans, will say "Didn't we just do this?"

Forty-five is a perfect example of a terrible anniversary to celebrate. Oh if you are married for 45 years, oh yeah, you should be jumping for joy, if you're still able. Andrew Haigh even made a movie about it. (Wait, I don't think that was the point of that movie.)

But a movie's 45th? Just wait five years and celebrate its 50th.

Especially if you are talking about a re-release, which should really only happen on special anniversaries, because I can tell you it ain't happening every five years. Especially if that film's golden anniversary is just five years off.

I don't recall anyone creating any hoopla over the 40th anniversary of The Muppet Movie five years ago, so maybe this is just an overdue celebration for a movie whose previous anniversaries had been neglected. Still I say, can't you just wait five more years? Are you that desperate for the extra couple million the re-release will bring in?

So let's talk about the movie release anniversaries it is okay to celebrate.

Ten is the first one I would do. When it's five years, that's too soon, and no one has had the time to develop any nostalgia for the different time in their lives when they first saw the film. Because that's a big part of this whole thing, right?

You have to skip 15, especially if you've done ten. That's easy.

Twenty is a tricky one. Two decades is the roughly defined length of a generation, the dividing line between baby boomers and Gen X and millennials. I'm okay with it, with the caveat that you have a really special anniversary only five years off. If you can wait, wait. If you can't, I get it.

Twenty-five. Of course. Quarter century. 

Thirty is also tricky. In fact, from here on out you can make an argument for any anniversary ending in zero. So that'll cover 30, 40, 50, 60, 70. I mean, 50 is such a given that I needn't even devote a separate thought to it because of course you celebrate 50.

Thirty-five is the first one that is just dumb, and 45 is equally dumb. In fact, I say you skip every other five until you get to 75, and then until you get to 125. At some point we will be celebrating the 125th anniversary of the release of certain movies, though no one alive will have seen them when they came out. 

I didn't mention 100, but obviously. 

So 45 is slightly less dumb than 55 but it's slightly more dumb than 35. In any case, it's dumb.

What really is the likely explanation is that someone got the idea to re-release The Muppet Movie like three years ago and someone else said "Okay, but we at least have to wait for its 45th anniversary." Perhaps they deemed the conditions were right, for whatever reason, and waiting those extra three years was already the compromise. Maybe waiting eight years would have lost the window of opportunity, however they defined it.

But it still doesn't mean that I can't grumble about it here on my blog, and now I have. 

Monday, May 6, 2024

Rewatching Rogue One on American May the 4th (sort of)

A few days before May the 4th -- a day I mildly look down upon, all evidence to the contrary in the date-specific viewing I'm about to tell you about -- I thought about how Star Wars Day was falling on a Saturday this year, and it would make a good opportunity to finally rewatch Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

Then I plum forgot.

But I remembered in time for Sunday night, and since many of the hours of our Sunday here in Australia are Saturday in the U.S. -- May the 4th, in case you've already forgotten -- I thought I could squeeze in the viewing Sunday night, even though Saturday would have expired in all U.S. time zones by then (yes, even Hawaii).

But first let's get into why I look down upon both May the 4th and Rogue One.

If you truly love Star Wars, then you don't need a day to celebrate it. You do Star Wars things at regular intervals. Not daily, of course, because that would be too nerdy by half. But you'd keep Star Wars in your heart and home -- "keep" in the sense that Ebenezer Scrooge talked about keeping Christmas -- and you wouldn't need to draw special attention to it once a year. For a real Star Wars fan, May the 4th is for tourists. (When every major league baseball team playing a home game on May 4th has some sort of Star Wars themed night, you know it's become too commercial by half. Much like Christmas.)

And Rogue One? A true Star Wars fan does not like Rogue One.

How do I figure? Well, I say, a true Star Wars fan does not believe that the stealing of the plans to the Death Star was an epic battle with the loss of many lives, starships and planets, the kind so consequential that they'd devote entire history books to it. A true Star Wars fan thinks the stealing of the plans for the Death Star was a cloak and dagger mission involving clever betrayals, intrigue, and probably only the deaths of a couple Imperial soldiers who might have gotten in the way.

Yet Gareth Edwards' movie did indeed posit that this epic battle had taken place immediately before Princess Leia came into possession of said plans, which is the biggest, but not nearly the only, reason I didn't dig the movie when I saw it back in 2016, and had not yet rewatched it.

When I watched and appreciated Andor, I started getting the hankering to give Rogue One another shot. I thought I'd wait until after the second and final season of Andor, but I also found myself getting impatient for that to arrive. As it turned out, I would have only had to wait three more months, as it'll be on Disney+ this August.

But Cassian Andor was decidedly not one of the things I appreciated in Rogue One. He had to grow on me in his eponymous show. I generally like Diego Luna, but I did not think he was right for this movie and I did not think his performance was up to snuff. The fact that English is not his first language was likely a factor, but I also thought he just had a big charisma deficit. Again, I've softened that stance since then.

And true enough, Cassian Andor was not a bother to me this time around. He might not stack up to other recent iconic additions to the Star Wars universe -- your Oscar Isaacs, your Daisey Ridleys, your John Boyegas, your Adam Drivers -- heck, pretty much everyone in that whole trilogy -- but he's fine here, and it's not really his story anyway. 

But I also had an issue with Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso. My memory was that I thought her facial expressions were too overdetermined, and that she needed a sure-handed director to tell her not to be going off the reservation with the looks she was giving the camera. 

I must say, I really don't know where I got that the first time. I sat there during this viewing and I specifically tried to detect why I reached that conclusion about Jones. I could not. She, too, is fine, perhaps better than that.

While we are on the cast, in 2016 I did not like Donnie Yen's chanting about being one with the force and the force being with him. I guess I just don't feel like the force and incantations go hand in hand. Shouldn't you just be able to feel the force, and have it serve or not serve you, without speaking about it? Perhaps Edwards was intentionally drawing a comparison between belief in the force and religious zealotry, but if so, I was not a fan of that comparison.

Guess what? Didn't bother me so much this time.

Riz Ahmed's mumblings about being the pilot?

Didn't bother me so much.

Forest Whittaker's admittedly scenery chewing performance?

Didn't bother me so much.

The story?

Yeah that still bothered me. 

I still don't like that this movie culminates in a battle costing the lives of, would it be exaggerating to say thousands of people? That's not so good.

But I found myself appreciating the staging of this battle, at least, on the level of pure spectacle. The beach scene with the palm trees is a good place to have a Star Wars battle. And some of the stuff going on up in space, with the assault on that invisible shield, is good material.

This is not me becoming a Rogue One acolyte. I promise you it is not.

Though it is someone who does not like dislike the movie anymore, and might already watch it again after I conclude Andor after all. Yes, even if that means two Rogue One viewings within about a year's time.

I am eager to see if they are consistent with the depiction of Andor, whom they had not conceived as the center of his own TV show when they set out to make this prequel. His killing of a person who appeared to be a friend or colleague during his first scene does not, for example, seem consistent with his character -- or not consistent, anyway, with the person he seems to have become by the time the show ends. To see how they sew this all together, it probably really will behove me to watch it right after I watch the show.

Anyway, this leaves exactly one Star Wars movie that I have seen only once. And you should be able to guess what that is.

That's right, it's Solo: A Star Wars Story, which I always considered to be worse than Rogue One and looks a lot worse right about now. 

I can't imagine the circumstances that will come along to make me want to watch that one again ... but if my feelings toward Rogue One can be rehabilitated, I won't rule out that same thing being possible here.

After all, there's another May the 4th only about 363 days away.

Sunday, May 5, 2024

Anne Hathaway goes to Coachella, Nicholas Galitzine pulls a Costanza

It's been interesting to watch former The State cast member Michael Showalter transition from comedic actor to comedic director to director of things that are primarily not comedies. Though I guess the melancholy has always been there. I'm higher than most on The Baxter and Hello My Name is Doris, but I'm lower than most on The Big Sick and The Eyes of Tammy Faye. The last time he made a true comedy, The Lovebirds, it was easily his worst film, probably because there was no melancholy. His only feature I haven't seen was 2022's Spoiler Alert, but since I believe this is a gay romance where one of the characters dies (that's the spoiler), I'm sure it has melancholy out the wazoo.

I'm actually not here to talk about the melancholy of Showalter's films. I just couldn't figure out a better intro into the piece.

I'm actually talking about my favorite film of his since Hello My Name is Doris, which has just been released on Amazon and which is called The Idea of You. And since I have a lot of random observations springing from it, that intro was as good as any.

The first is that you would call this a romantic comedy except that, despite some light or whimsical moments, it's really not a comedy. "Romantic drama" sounds heavy so when I review it I will probably just call it a "romance."

It's the story of a 40-year-old woman (Anne Hathaway) with a 16-year-old daughter who ends up in a relationship with the frontman of a boy band (Nicholas Galitzine) -- the same boy band her daughter obsessed about when she was 11 or 12. That's a good premise and it's the sort of thing that got me in the door, despite appearances from this poster and elsewhere that this could be yet another interchangeable romance gone straight to the streamers. (It was only later that I noticed it was directed by Showalter, which piqued my interest further.)

Hathaway's Solene meets Galitzine's Hayes because Solene's ex-husband was supposed to take their daughter and her friends to Coachella, but at the last minute had to drop out of the excursion because of a sudden business trip to Houston. He'd already purchased tickets to a meet-and-greet with August Moon (great name for a boy band, reminds me of Maroon 5), a sign of his being out of step with his daughter's interests. (She's now into "aggressively talented female singer-songwriters.") But they had all agreed to go to the meet-and-greet because he'd already bought the tickets, but now that he's not going at all, Solene agrees to take his place, while her daughter's friends do mostly other Coachella-related activities while grudgingly being nice and showing up for the meet-and-greet. She meets Hayes by thinking she's going to a VIP bathroom, which is actually his trailer, and things go from there.

For starters I wanted to take about this movie really pulling me in with its Coachella setting. I don't know that I've seen another film that had any part set at Coachella -- I suppose that could have been one of the stops in A Star is Born, but I'm not checking to be sure -- and it brought me right back to my festival days. I attended Coachella from 2005 to 2007, which means that among other great acts (The Chemical Brothers, Prodigy, Nine Inch Nails) I was present for the performance that has probably attained the most legendary status of any live show I have attended, which was Daft Punk's 2006 appearance. Aware only in retrospect what sort of classic set this is considered to be, I started to watch it on YouTube the other day before decided I needed to wait for a time when it was more convenient for my schedule. 

The thing I think is funny about how Coachella is used in this movie is that there is a sly commentary on how far the festival has fallen since those glory days. It's sly enough that you won't be aware of it at all if you are not "in the know" like I am. But I have to imagine that Showalter would know (he's also the writer) that Coachella, in its original incarnation, would never have welcomed a band like August Moon to the mainstage. Coachella was envisioned as the anti-boy band festival, its roots primarily in electronica but always open to major rock and rap acts that had a certain level of credibility. (Plus all the dozens of smaller acts on smaller stages.) Appearances by Madonna (in the year I was there in 2007, but not the day I was there) and Beyonce, while lauded, are not Coachella's bread and butter, and they probably signalled the opening of the main stage to much more mainstream fare. August Moon would be a prime example of that.

Yet the thing that's really lovely about The Idea of You is that it does not view this band as a joke. Almost any boy band representation in the movies over the years has been for the purposes of humor, but Showalter's film takes the band seriously. He's not arguing that they are great musicians, but he's arguing that they are real people with real feelings and emotions, and that the songs they make are actually catchy for the right reasons. We hear four or five August Moon songs in this movie, and they are all credible versions of boy band songs, not obvious parodies designed to feed our sense of superiority. (Songwriter and producer Savan Kotecha, who has written songs for actual boy band One Direction, was responsible for these.)

It's not the only thing in this movie that "shows us the expertise," which is dangerous in a movie but which I listened to a podcast about the other day. The podcast talked about the making of real 70s era music, that was really supposed to sound great, for the Broadway show Stereophonic. The episode also cautioned about the pitfalls of doing this, giving Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip as an example. In this hour-long drama about a Saturday Night Live-style variety show, the snippets we got of the comedy sketches were awful. I hear Mr. Holland's Opus, which I have not seen, is also an example of this, where when we hear the titular composition it is a cacophonous mess. 

So not only does the August Moon music sound good, but there's a painting that plays a role in the narrative that is also supposed to be brilliant. Solene, an art dealer, says when she looks at it, she feels "everything." I think you might be inclined to agree:

The lighting in this particular screen grab available on the internet is not ideal to convey the multitudes this painting contains, but let me assure you, it contains multitudes.

I'll circle around and finish with the part of this subject that relates to Nicholas Galitzine, an actor whose name and faced I recognized, but had to look him up on IMDB to remember that he plays the main asshole jock in last year's Bottoms

And one day after my latest coincidences post regarding Jon Hamm and John Slattery, I'm back with another coincidence.

On Saturday night my younger son was sleeping over at his aunt's house. We usually watch Young Sheldon together as a family during one or two weekend night dinners per weekend, but without the youngest there, we didn't want to continue on with it. (And if you think Young Sheldon is beneath you or would be beneath me, you haven't watched that show.)

So we decided to introduce our 13-year-old to Seinfeld over dinner instead. (It helped that I'd seen Jerry Seinfeld's Unfrosted the night before.) In seeking out a classic episode that basically had nothing to do with sex -- sex stuff makes him kind of antsy -- I landed on the Kenny Rogers Roaster episode, which is also the episode where Elaine puts the expensive Russian hat on the Peterman expense account for George. As a strategy to get a second date with the saleswoman, who clearly loathes him, George then "accidentally" leaves the expensive hat behind her couch cushion, so he'll have a reason to contact her again. 

Galitzine's character Hayes did the exact same thing in this movie about an hour after I'd finished watching George do it. 

The need for the action is slightly more debatable, as Solene clearly likes him. But she's also concerned about what "people will say" (rightly so, it turns out) so is making gestures about it not being a good idea to increase the intensity with Hayes. As he's leaving her house, he surreptitiously deposits his expensive watch on her entryway table, meaning it can't be the last time the two are in contact.

Hey, if it worked for Costanza, it can work for anybody.

And in case you forget, it did actually work for Costanza, to a point. Using the theme from the "By Mennen" ad that we all knew back in the 1990s, she gets Costanza in her head -- "Coooo-stanza." Unfortunately, he's already screwed it up by bringing the clock he stole from her house to exchange with the hat, thinking that was the only reason she was meeting him, when in fact, she was interested in pursuing the relationship. "Was" -- because as soon as she learns he stole her clock, she's out again.

We never do find out what happened to the hat.

Saturday, May 4, 2024

Jon Hamm-John Slattery reunion weekend

Important note to readers: Although I am describing the following two movies as a "reunion weekend," it should be noted that the viewings occurred on a Thursday night and a Friday night. But let's face it: On Thursday night we are allowing ourselves the luxury of entering the weekend mindset.

What are the odds that I would watch two movies on two consecutive days that both featured Jon Hamm and John Slattery?

They were also two movies that would either potentially entice my wife or potentially not entice my wife, as we shall see.

I was already 30 minutes into Confess, Fletch -- which has only just recently landed on Netflix -- on Thursday night, when my wife came into the room and said she would have liked to watch it with me. She says things like that when I'm 30 minutes into lots of movies, but the reality is, we watch about six movies a year together these days. Her choice, not mine. So I can't be blamed if I go ahead with my own viewing priorities rather than waiting for her to be ready to watch something on her schedule. (This one was actually a little worse than usual, as she turned an expression of mild disappointment into an expression of mild accusation: "When you saw this movie, didn't you think it was something that I would like to watch?" It's true, she likes crime shows and podcasts, especially if they are gentle, like Only Murders in the Building. I volunteered to stop watching and continue it another time with her, but she wasn't having any of it.)

Of course, Hamm stars in Confess, Fletch as Irwin M. Fletcher, the role originally made famous by Chevy Chase. I was never a huge fan of Fletch -- I think I've seen it only once -- but I did understand its charms and why people would quote it. I don't think I ever saw Fletch Lives. (My movie list tells me I have, but I could not tell you a single thing that happened in that movie, and if I am ranking it on Flickchart, I'm probably rating it based on how I assumed it must have been.)

As an Easter egg of sorts to their Mad Men fans, director Greg Mottola (actually casting director Ellen Chenoweth) throws in a bearded Slattery as a frenemy? friendly rival? of the former investigative reporter. (Most likely just friends who like to give each other shit.) The two have some good banter, though Slattery's role does not need to eclipse more than about five minutes of screen time and is essentially a cameo.

I enjoyed Confess, Fletch a lot more than I thought I would, considering that a love for this character is not baked into my DNA. Hamm does a credible facsimile of Chase's verbal dexterity and above-the-fray manner, and overall I found it a pretty delightful if ultimately pretty slight diversion. Yes, my wife would have enjoyed it. 

Knowing the way I'd missed on including her on Confess, Fletch, I tried to get my wife interested in Jerry Seinfeld's new movie, which he wrote, directed and stars in, on Friday night. Now, I do know enough about her not to hold her to watching something on the same night I first mention it (even though I did that for her on Tuesday night with a movie where her friend wrote the music. No, I'm not keeping score, why would you say that). So this was just to gauge her interest in seeing it at some point, though she probably knew, because she knows me too, that this weekend would be ideal, because it's the sort of thing I would like to review. Knowing the stakes this time, she ultimately passed.

Well, maybe we will get to watch it this weekend after all. I enjoyed it so much that I would probably watch it again tonight.

If you thought the now 70-year-old Seinfeld was past his comedic prime, you'll be surprised to note how he a) can still perform in a manner that recalls the groove he eventually found on Seinfeld, and b) he can direct! I was noting clever choices that a director would make throughout this movie. You won't be surprised that he can still write, as that was always least in doubt.

Anyway, I was laughing throughout and there was one bit that made me laugh harder than I've laughed at anything in a movie in a couple years. 

As you may have gleaned, this is an apocryphal retelling of the invention of the pop tart at Kellogg's, and it's a hilarious one -- similar in approach to something like Weird: The Al Yankovic Story, but funnier I thought.

At one point, the Kellogg's team, which includes Seinfeld's character as well as very funny turns by Jim Gaffigan and Melissa McCarthy -- yes, sometimes Melissa McCarthy just needs to be directed smartly -- calls in a pair of hot shot New York advertising execs to help get just the right ad campaign for their new product. You guessed it, because this is the 1960s, the ad executives are the actual Don Draper (Hamm) and Roger Sterling (Slattery), though they are credited as "Man #1" and "Man #2." (Would that be a "mad" Man #1 and #2?) I don't believe Man #2 ever calls Man #1 "Don," but I believe Man #1 does call Man #2 "Roger." 

This scene, like everything else in the movie, is funny. I won't spoil their proposed advertising campaign for the breakfast treat but it's a good one.

Sometimes coincidences are just too much for me to comprehend, though I suppose both of these movies recently coming to Netflix means that viewings on consecutive nights was slightly more likely to happen. However, in order for that to happen, it meant I had to have not seen Fletch when it came out two years ago, something I usually would have done in my attempts for completism in a given movie year, and also that my wife would not have held up the Unfrosted viewing for a night when it was convenient for her to watch it.

I had a coincidence this week with another Jon that adds further profundity to the whole concept of coincidences. It was either Wednesday or Thursday that my wife was talking about an Israeli she was working with named Shlomi, which put me in mind of Shlomo, the name of one of Hanukkah Harry's reindeer on Saturday Night Live. Hanukkah Harry was of course played by Jon Lovitz. Not an hour later, after finishing one YouTube video, I was fed another where Bill Burr was watching people do impersonations of him. One of those impersonations was by Jon Lovitz.

I might go a whole year without ever thinking of Jon Lovitz, and then twice in one day. (You could say that me having spoken the name Jon Lovitz earlier was picked up by my phone and led to a later YouTube video involving Lovitz. I don't think I'm quite paranoid enough to go there.)

Burr plays yet another John -- John F. Kennedy -- in Unfrosted, where he is also doing an impersonation, so it all comes full circle. 

Sunday, April 28, 2024

Random rewatch: Time Bandits

It's not entirely accurate to refer to my Saturday night rewatch of Time Bandits as random.

First there was the fact that someone recently got the movie assigned from my Flickchart in the Facebook group Flickchart Friends Favorites Fiesta, where each month you are assigned to watch the highest ranked movie you haven't seen from another member's chart. The person really liked it -- I suspected she would from her tastes -- and the comments section engendered a bit of a discussion about the movie's ending, which multiple people found troubling. (It's a head scratcher to be sure, but I've never had a problem with it.)

Then there was Friday night's viewing of Jabberwocky, and yesterday's writing on The Audient about that disappointing viewing, which whetted my appetite for another Time Bandits viewing as a point of contrast and a bit of a palate cleanser to rid myself of the bad taste of Jabberwocky.

But the clinching reason I watched Time Bandits Saturday night was that I have a very periodic series on this blog called Random Rewatch, in which I use a random number generator to choose a movie on my Flickchart to rewatch, and once I've watched it, I do it again. 

Sometimes it takes years for me to watch the next movie. This time, it took a little under a year. Last June I rewatched Zack Snyder's Sucker Punch, and drew Time Bandits as the next movie. A very favorable draw, since the movie currently ranks 29th on my chart, but because I'd only last rewatched it in 2020, I was not in a hurry to put it on my schedule straight away.

But the confluence of recent events promoted it to the top of my viewing queue, and now, at the end of me writing this post, the next movie in the series can be selected.

Because I've written about Time Bandits a lot over the years -- including most recently yesterday -- I thought I would just give you a few takeaways from this viewing, even if they are thoughts I may have expressed in the past.

1) Yesterday I talked about how Jabberwocky was missing a good appearance by John Cleese, which Time Bandits does have. In fact, the appearance is so good -- even if it is over inside of five minutes -- that Cleese actually gets top billing in the movie. In fact, his name is the very first image of any kind against a screen of black when the movie starts. Either Cleese demanded it to do this favor for his friend Terry Gilliam, the co-writer and director, or Gilliam just thinks that highly of this brief contribution.

2) The actor who should actually be first-billed, if we were going only by the main character of the movie, is Craig Warnock as Kevin. Two things about this. One, I find it interesting that I had to wait for the closing credits to learn/remember his name. I am fairly likely to know the names of kid actors from formative movies for me in the 1980s. For example, I could tell you the name of every actor or actress in The Goonies. But for some reason, Craig Warnock is never a name I committed to memory -- and that could certainly be because Warnock never had much of a career after this, while Goonies like Corey Feldman and Sean Astin did. The other thing about this character is that Amazon's synopsis for the movie -- I rented it on Amazon as a convenience instead of having to hook up my old computer to watch it on DVD -- shows his name spelled as "Keven." Fortunately, I checked other resources and this seems to be just a typo.

3) Speaking of Gilliam as a co-writer, want to know his other co-writer? Michael Palin. That appears to be a course correction from Jabberwocky, which Gilliam wrote with some person named Charles Alverson. No wonder this is an infinitely better script. Alverson is listed in IMDB as an uncredited writer for Brazil, though nothing after that. Maybe that's why I don't love Brazil.

4) Speaking of Palin, I laughed the most during the two exchanges between him and Shelley Duvall, one in the Middle Ages and one aboard the Titanic. That's not news. But I did have a new takeaway about this, which is that the rule of three would have ordinarily meant they placed these two actors, with their various embarrassing physical issues (she's got "an enormous --" and we never hear what), in one more scene, either in the Battle of Castiglione scene with Napoleon or in the Ancient Greece scene. They didn't, and I think that's to the movie's benefit. They have priceless comedic timing and chemistry and one more might have ruined it.

5) I'm pretty sure the best comedic performance in the entire movie, though, belongs to David Warner as the Evil One. I relished it this time as much as I ever do. I don't have anything specific to say about that, but I thought five takeaways was a good round number.

You know I love Time Bandits. Let's let that be it for today.

But there's one more piece of business, which is to choose the next movie in this series.

There are currently 6477 movies on my Flickchart, so that's the number I am plugging into the random number generator as we speak. Let's see if I get something more challenging than my top 30 movies of all time.

Ooo, much more so. I got 6012, so this is going to be a movie I really don't like. And that movie is ...

The animated movie Doogal from 2005, which is based on a property my wife watched as a child.

I don't see anything to be gained from watching Doogal again, but rules are rules. I'll put it on the schedule sometime between now and 2030.

Saturday, April 27, 2024

Adjacent to Python, not adjacent to good

Terry Gilliam directed or co-directed two of my top 50 movies on Flickchart, those being Monty Python and the Holy Grail (#41) in 1975 and Time Bandits (#29) in 1981.

In between, he directed one of the least funny turkeys I have ever seen.

That's 1977's Jabberwocky, which I finally saw last night on Kanopy. That delay seems unimaginable for a person who grew up steeped in Monty Python, and who, in fact, memorized an entire scene in Holy Grail which he can still quote today. (Which will actually come up in a minute.) But that's just an indication of how little people who liked Python actually talked about this movie, even though it features fully half of the Python players and is directed by one of them.

Based loosely (if at all) on the Lewis Carroll poem, Jabberwocky acknowledges its connection to Carroll by kicking off the action with that poem's famous opening: "Twas brillig and the slithy toves ..." I guess these words are being spoken, or at least thought, by a butterfly, because they end when a poacher (played in his one quick scene by Python Terry Jones) steps on and crushes the butterfly while tromping through the woods. A few moments later, this character is going to be skeletonized by the titular beast, unseen at this point, which at least set me up for something interesting.


Poor Michael Palin, saddled with being the movie's main character and having to act out a movie's worth of bad ideas by Gilliam and co-screenwriter Charles Alverson. He keeps his chin up and at least is a beacon of sweetness within all this grossness and drudgery.

Yes, if there's something Monty Python collectively understand, it's the grossness and drudgery of the Middle Ages. Most of the characters in Holy Grail and in this portion of Time Bandits look like gnarled gnomes with bad teeth. Python think it's funny what cretins these people were, and mostly, they're right. Just think of the scene in Time Bandits where John Cleese's Robin Hood -- ah, what Jabberwocky might have done with a good dose of John Cleese -- is giving out stolen goods from the rich to the poor, but the price of each receiving their small amount of riches is that one of Hood's goons, with teeth practically coming out of his forehead, must punch them square in the face. And it's not just men, as this menace is knocking the block off of women as well.

That might not have worked, tonally, but by the time Gilliam had made Time Bandits, he knew a) how to pull off the tone and b) that small doses were all we needed. Jabberwocky is essentially one hour and 45 minutes of a goon punching you in the face, and it's as unpleasant as that sounds. 

There are jokes here about shitting, eating grossly, bawdy sexuality, inbred-looking royalty, terrible hygiene and the general awfulness of people. Under the right circumstances, some of this stuff might make me laugh. Since none of it did -- I literally did not laugh once -- each new flailing attempt just stacked the deck against this movie. The most I can say is that I appreciated what they were trying to go for once or twice, but they were quite far from achieving it.

Why does this stand in such stark contrast to Holy Grail and to Time Bandits, which also features Palin as well as Cleese? Is Charles Alverson that much of a detriment to Gilliam's comedic instincts?

Because this is, really, very close to those two movies in many respects. It looks shoddy, which is a feature not a bug of Holy Grail (and a product of its mid-70s origins to some degree). It has the bawdy humor that Gilliam explores more credibly in Time Bandits. There are even some things that are so directly explored in the earlier film that they would be considered rip-offs if the same creative talent were involved. For example, Palin's character is named Dennis, which is the same name as the character who talks King Arthur's ear off in the aforementioned "constitutional peasant" scene in Holy Grail. (You don't remember me aforementioning it? That's the scene I memorized when I was 14 and can still recite to this day.) There's a black knight in Jabberwocky, just as there is in Grail, and there are rude guards at the top of a tower, just as there are in Grail, although all they do is urinate off the tower. 

That's a good metaphor for what is being traded off between these two movies, though. Although the French guards delivering their complicated insults in Holy Grail has faded over time for me as one of that film's best sources of humor, more silly than masterful comedy writing, it's Shakespeare compared to two guys urinating off the top of a tower.

I do think this gives us an idea of how important the other Pythons -- who included Graham Chapman and Eric Idle in addition to the ones we've already mentioned -- were to the writing process of Holy Grail. When you only have some of them, and when the one who is directing it has not yet come into the visual powers that would later distinguish his career, you get a lowbrow, mean-spirited and unfunny slog like this. 

I thought this might make me a Gilliam completist, but just checking now, I see I have not yet seen The Brothers Grimm, one of two movies he directed in 2005 (along with Tideland). That one was not well received, so I won't rush to fit it in.

In a year in which I am reviewing outlier movies from favorite directors, Jabberwocky does not qualify. In fact, looking over Gilliam's filmography for this piece, there are actually more Gilliam movies I dislike than like. While the two movies I've discussed glowingly in this piece are obviously my favorites, Twelve Monkeys is also around my top 100 on Flickchart, clocking in at #127. From there, though, things drop off pretty steeply, as only one movie he has made since then -- and that's nearly 30 years -- has gotten three stars from me on Letterboxd, which is The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, and I may have been generous with that rating. All the others since 1995 are some sort of misfire, and I'm no fan of Adventures of Baron Munchausen, which came before Twelve Monkeys, either. (I like Brazil fine, but not as much as most people.)

In the grand scheme of things, it should not be a surprise that Jabberwocky stinks, because Gilliam missed more than he hit. And we now know he's not a great guy either, aligning himself with right-wing politics, so you know, he and his shitty 1977 movie can go eff themselves. 

Friday, April 26, 2024

Blaxploitaudient: Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song

This is the fourth in my 2024 monthly series watching blaxploitation movies that I have not previously seen.

I had been curious about seeing Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song -- checking the correct number of A's and S's, and confirming -- ever since I saw the movie about the making of that movie, made by the son of its director.

Mario Van Peebles directed the movie Baadasssss! in 2003, and he plays the role of his father, Melvin, who wrote, directed, produced, edited and starred in Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song back in 1971. As an interesting side note, Mario also appears in the movie as the 13-year-old version of the character his father plays for the rest of the movie.

Having vaguely understood that this was a significant movie in the history of blaxploitation, I found that a little funny because I never considered Mario Van Peebles to be quite that black. Now, it's highly problematic to tell somebody they aren't "black enough," and that's not really what I mean. More than anything, I mean that Mario Van Peebles never struck me as someone who particularly bucked the system or fought for the rights of people who looked like him. I didn't see any of the Mario Van Peebles movies that might have undercut my impression of him -- for example, New Jack City is a notable omission. But he always profiled as someone who went down easily and was not very confrontational.

His father's movie does not go down easily and is highly confrontational.

In fact, at first, I had no idea what to make of it. This is a genuine arthouse movie, the first such I've encountered in this series. While the movies I've seen so far have showcased both the grit and the humor of blaxploitation, they have all stayed within bounds in terms of the narrative. Even a fairly outlandish narrative like the one in Petey Wheatstraw is still something that is more or less easy to follow.

Well, Melvin Van Peebles wanted to make this movie his way. He had made the studio film Watermelon Man the year before in 1970, and apparently didn't take to the rules and restrictions of a studio film. So he blew that all up and made a movie so experimental that it leaves you scratching your head for large quantities of it, until at some point you decide it might be brilliant.

There isn't much of a plot in the movie, and what is there has been forgotten to me in the nine days since I watched it. (I really would have been better off writing this post straight away, but life doesn't always work out that way.) What I can tell you is that the main character, who bristles against the system the whole movie, is known for his "sweet back" and for having intercourse with various women as a sort of performance art in groovy settings that are into that sort of thing. (Er, whorehouses I guess.) At some point in his young adult life he runs afoul of the police, getting caught in a scenario where the cops were trying to frame him and a couple of the officers ended up being killed. This puts him on the run for most of the movie as corrupt and blatantly racist officers try to track him down, and we see his interactions with various other characters throughout. (Including, I was pleased to see, a young John Amos as a biker, who is billed as "Johnny Amos.")

The movie has all sorts of elliptical editing, quick cuts, half-seen camera angles, interesting uses of close-ups and slo-mo, and a soundtrack of what I might call "protest soul" by Brer Soul and Earth Wind & Fire that is equal parts joyous, chaotic and desperate. This movie is a scream of rage against the establishment in the package of a cool 70s movie that is constantly in dialogue with the racism of society, but rarely in ways you can easily parse.

If you want to understand where this movie is coming from, in the opening credits it describes itself as starring "the black community," and is dedicated to "All the Brothers and Sisters who had enough of the Man." In reading up a bit more about it now, I see it is rightly described as a "picaresque." That's a good word and I should use it more often.

I see also that the film is considered instrumental in the creation of the blaxploitation genre. So if I am considering its style and rhythms to be an outlier in what I have seen so far, that may be because other blaxploitation films realized that they could not be quite so abstruse and still connect with an audience, even though SSBS seemed to pull that off just fine. (And while we're talking about the inception of blaxploitation, I should say that two of the films I've watched, Shaft and They Call Me Mr. Tibbs!, are actually direct contemporaries of SSBS, so which chicken hatched out of which egg at which time is a subject of some uncertainty and/or disagreement.)

I was flummoxed by large sections of this film, and it took me a really long time to decide it was not a slog. The realization I really had, as I was going, was that this movie did not want to feed me easily understandable narrative beats with conventional satisfactions. That's beside the point of what this movie is trying to accomplish, as this movie defines itself by being different. And the technique applied to making it distinct represents a true artist's understanding of the tools of cinema, and how to blow them up and use them in confronting ways. You can't make something so shaggy and ragged unless you understand exactly the things against which you are contrasting it.

I doubt I will ever see Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song again, but I respect it immensely -- and I think there is a good chance it will make me curious enough to revisit Mario's homage to his father, who was still living and continued to be so until 2021, the aforementioned Baadasssss!

On to May.

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Audient Outliers: True Lies

This is the second in a 2024 bi-monthly movies reconsidering a single outlier in the career of a director whose work I otherwise champion.

I may not love every James Cameron movie I've ever seen, but they all would receive at least 3.5 stars from me on Letterboxd -- with one exception. (Emphasis on "I've ever seen," as I am not a Cameron completist. I have not seen Piranha II: The Spawning.)

That exception is True Lies, which I laughed and groaned through during my single viewing in the summer of 1994.

One of those sounds positive, but I was laughing for the wrong reasons. (Actually, there's one really legitimately funny joke in the movie, which a friend of mine and I would quote back and forth. When Bill Paxton puts Jamie Lee Curtis' head in his lap while he's driving his convertible, and a surveilling Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tom Arnold notice this, Tom Arnold quips "Maybe she's sleepy." For some reason we always thought his line delivery there was hilarious.)

The fact that the best joke in this movie is one about implied blow jobs really gives you an idea of how the tone is off in True Lies. And that's the problem I still have with the movie today. 

In case you need reminding, this is a film where Schwarzenegger's spy character spends the majority of the movie -- I think it's fair to say that -- spying on his own wife to see if she is cheating on him. It's pretty gross and it really goes against the good guy persona Schwarzenegger had been cultivating in his last few movies, especially the delightful Kindergarten Cop

The thing is, True Lies actually sees him as a good guy rather than a jealous creep, and that's part of the problem.

If he were just obsessed with the possible adultery as a result of being an insecure fool, that would be one thing. But he becomes kind of a creepy perv -- there's that word "creep" again -- when he concocts a ridiculous and logistically improbable scenario where he's going to sit in a darkened hotel room as she strips down to the sexy lingerie he asked her to wear, all while using a series of pre-recorded phrases on a tape recorder so she won't know it's him. 

Set aside for a moment that this is twisted and needlessly perverse for a mainstream movie. What I want to know is, how the hell did Harry Tasker think this would even work? Any movie that relies on someone using pre-recorded dialogue on a tape recorder strains all credibility for me -- yes, even the bit in Ferris Bueller's Day Off -- but this just takes that way over the top. You get the sense that it's really important that Helen does not identify that it's Harry there in that room, yet he takes all sorts of risks, like trailing a flower down her face after he's told her to keep her eyes closed, while relying on a highly flimsy setup with very little chance of succeeding. Given how bizarre it also is on a character level, that scene should have just been pulled altogether.

Though in 1994, I wasn't really liking True Lies even before that. The cold open is competently executed and I have fairly fond memories of Schwarzenegger riding his horse on an elevator as he pursues the Arab terrorists who are the villains in this film. (One element that dates it, as Arab terrorists as villains in a movie today would just promote unhelpful anti-Islamic sentiments.) But I remember finding the setup to be lacking, the set pieces not doing enough to make up for it, and then the whole thing being sexist and gross.

If you are considering similar sorts of filmmakers being on a continuum from prestige to hack, you'd ordinarily put James Cameron on the prestige side (maybe with Christopher Nolan even above him) and Michael Bay on the hack side, with maybe Zack Snyder in between them. In True Lies, though, it's like Cameron's inner Bay came out. (It would have to be pre-Bay, though, since Bay had not yet made his first film in 1994.) The focus on the body of Jamie Lee Curtis in this movie is fairly shameless, not only in the stripping scene, but elsewhere. You get a clear view of her cleavage for most of the last 30 minutes of the movie, and what's worse, she's acting a bit like Kate Capshaw acts in the second half of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, always complaining and screaming and requiring saving.

I feel like this movie was a misstep for both Schwarzenegger and Cameron, and yet I feel like it is basically seen as of a piece with the other star vehicles for the former and films for the latter. Sure, True Lies had stiff competition from other Cameron movies in the 1990s, as this movie was bookended by the stone-cold classics Terminator 2: Judgment Day on one side and Titanic on the other. Tough to compete with that. Most people, though, would probably consider True Lies the equal of a film like The Abyss, when I really think that's being unfair to The Abyss.

My opinion of the movie did not change this time around. I will say, however, that it has some moments that I think are pretty iconic, such as:

1) The shot of Arnold as he swims under water while there is an explosion going over him. I doubt Cameron was the first person to do that shot, but I feel like that shot gets used a lot in montages or Oscar clips. 

2) The limo falling away as Arnold grabs on to Jamie Lee's arm from the helicopter.

3) The fight atop the harrier jet. It's ridiculous, but in a good way. 

4) This exchange of dialogue while Arnold is on truth serum, which may actually qualify as the film's second good joke:

Helen: "So have you ever killed anyone?"

Harry: "Yeah but they were all bad."

True Lies is not bad. It's misguided, but it's not bad. 

I don't really think it's good either, though. 

Probably the most interesting thing about it is it's weird existence as a series of questionable choices shoved into a really expensive action movie package, and its dated gender politics and Islamophobia. 

And speaking of that Islamophobia ... one thing I discovered on this viewing, and I'm glad to have discovered it so I can stop making this mistake, is that I thought Kiwi Cliff Curtis played the lead villain, Salim Abu Aziz. I've always thought that and I've mentioned it to people on occasion.

He's actually played by Art Malik. You'll have to let me know if you think the two are similar enough for me to have made this mistake legitimately, or if I was just an idiot.

Here's Art:

And here's Cliff:

There's definitely a similarity. And the fact that Curtis appears in Avatar: The Way of Water makes me think Cameron sees the similarity too.