For a lot of this year I’ve been doing that thing where I don’t want to watch new things, I want to watch old comfortable predictable things. But this weekend I blew through a bunch of stuff I’ve been meaning to watch for literally years. I’ve been avoiding them because I knew they would make me cry, and they did, but at least I can talk about them now.

Bill and Ted Face the Music

Okay, I know this isn’t a biopic. Well, it’s a fictional biopic. It’s still about music and musicians, anyway. Basically, this is a movie about how Gen X is hoping like hell that Gen Z saves our asses. This is a movie about how we very much believe they will.


Bohemian Rhapsody

Not totally satisfying. It’s quite disjointed, mostly made up of episodic vignettes about how Queen came up with their iconic songs, alongside Freddie Mercury’s trials and travails.  But the Live Aid recreation is just as phenomenal as everyone said it was. My favorite thing about that sequence is how much time the camera spends on the faces of the other band members, plainly showing their love for Freddie, but also their deep concern, and their wonder, which all contribute to this sense of something epic unfolding. I love ensembles, and this was a good scene for an ensemble.


Rocketman

The best of the bunch. It’s set up as an actual musical, which meant the film could be surreal as well as deeply emotional, and it felt like it had an arc. I adored how the background music riffed on “Yellow Brick Road” throughout, but when it came time to actually sing the lyrics, it was Bernie who sang the song, not Elton John.

Analysis

Both movies still kept to the rock star biopic formula:  extraordinary rock star plummets into drug and alcohol use and self loathing, alienating the people who really care about him while being manipulated by an evil mercenary lover, who must be repudiated before the star can reunite with his true self and friends. And/or he dies. (I’m so deeply glad I ended this series with Rocketman, where Elton is still alive and happy and successful. It’s ultimately an uplifting film, which these movies often aren’t.) What is it with rock stars and these stories that we’re so willing to watch over and over and over and over and over again? It’s some kind of twisted modern version of the Hero’s Journey. We love these movies because we love the people/characters they depict, but there’s a sameness to the story that I find frustrating.

Also: these two films are structured exactly the same.  Both films begin at the climactic moment. Just dipping in. Just a hint, a scene of the star marching to his destiny, full of his own aura. In Freddie’s case, to the Live Aid Concert, in Elton’s, to rehab. Then, the rewind. Going back to the start, so we can follow the path all the way out and then end up at the climactic moment in order, now with the context fully laid out.

This is so interesting to me. Different approaches in terms of presenting the content, but the structure is the same. I think Rocketman is more successful because it goes on to use rehab as a frame story in which to tell Elton’s history, which gives the movie a lot of cohesion.

Big Mood

Me spinning up Bohemian Rhapsody:  Ugh, I know I’m just going to sob my head off if they play “Somebody to Love.” (Film begins with that song) uuuuuuggghhhhhh.


Me spinning up Rocketman the following night:  Ugh, I know I’m just going sob my head off if they play “Yellow Brick Road.” (Film begins with instrumental riff of that song) GODDAMMIT

Snake Eyes

August 16, 2021

I did it, I went to another movie in the theater! This go-around, we timed it right and had the theater to ourselves–probably because no one else wants to see this one. Which is too bad, because it was great.

Please be advised that by “great” I don’t mean “this was a good movie,” because it’s kind of not. But I did enjoy it a lot, and while it followed G.I. Joe canon about as well as the previous two live-action movies did, which is to say, not at all, it still captured a lot of the tone and spirit of G.I. Joe — depending on which iteration of G.I. Joe you’re talking about, of course. (It’s all far too complicated, really.)

In this, the iteration is that stretch in the early ’90’s where the comics became obsessed with ninja and suddenly everything was all ninja and Cobra Commander’s son was a ninja and Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow are friends but then they’re not but then they are again and —

This is the stretch where I stopped reading the comics, BTW. I actually kind of hate ninjas.

So how does the movie pull it off? By replicating the aesthetic of all those crazy ninja movies from the 80’s. I’m not sure people now realize just how many ninja movies there were in the 80’s. There were a lot. A lot. And this film lovingly recreates a bunch of those tropes with modern visual sensibilities, including way too much shaky cam, but I’ve pretty much given up the shaky cam fight. Sigh.

My big worry going into this is it would try to pretend like it wasn’t a G.I. Joe movie at all. I shouldn’t have, because about halfway through, Scarlett and the Baroness show up, and so do snake head logos stenciled on crates of illegal guns, and it’s definitely a G.I. Joe movie as well as being a recreation of an 80’s ninja movie and seriously, what’s not to love? This film is what it is, knows what it is, and gets the job done.

And I now ship Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow so hard, and I challenge anyone who sees this not to do the same. The nice thing about having the theater to ourselves is I could basically shout “Just kiss him already!” at the screen several times without bothering anyone but my long-suffering friends. (So, I just looked up Henry Golding, the actor who plays Snake Eyes, because I’d never seen him in anything and it turns out he’s primarily done romcoms? This explains much.)

I also sort of ship Scarlett and the Baroness now too? So weird.

Other things to know: This film pretends like the previous two live-action G.I. Joe movies don’t exist, which is probably for the best, and I guess we’re just going to keep rebooting these until one of them hits, but I’m suspecting the fandom just isn’t big enough to make one of these hit. I’m thinking now live-action G.I. Joe should be a TV series that can develop multiple characters at once and play with storylines that aren’t McGuffin-driven.

This film passes the Bechdel Test. I know, right?!

Ninja Grandma. Just sayin’.

The Green Knight

August 9, 2021

Seventeen months, almost to the day, since my last time in a movie theater, I finally made it back. How was it? Well, I rented out a whole theater along with 15 friends, all vaxxed, which made it economical and relatively safe and a whole lot of fun.

And I’m very, very glad this is the film I went back for. It’s gorgeous, haunting, strange, arresting, with an immersive soundtrack that’s half traditional song and half weird ambient. All great. If you have a chance to safely see this on the big screen, it’s worth it.

This is based on the 14th century English poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” which is my very favorite piece of medieval literature. I spent a whole semester in grad school on this poem, so I wasn’t going to miss the movie. So, how was it?

I have to tell you, this is a really great adaptation, faithful to both the plot, content, and tone of the original. Whoever would have thought?

The best medieval literature hits this intersection of pagan folklore, Christian theology, and classical aesthetic. The world of the medieval story is full of signs and wonders that must be taken for what they are, but also represent much more:  God and truth and faith and love and sex and honor. I think “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” hits that intersection better than just about anything, and the film does too.

The film gets all the iconic moments just right. The Green Knight’s entry into Arthur’s hall, the beheading and aftermath—absolutely perfect. The arrival at the castle by the Green Chapel and the dubious shenanigans there—also just about perfect. This is one of those cases where I’m sitting in the theater thinking, are they actually doing this? Are they going to go there? Please don’t pull the punch, don’t pull the punch…. The film goes there and does not pull the punch. It’s spooky and weird and uncomfortable—just like the poem! It’s great!

One of the things I love about the poem is it’s a little bit subversive—it pushes back against a lot of Arthurian lore about chivalry and honor and larger-than-life everything. It’s a smaller story. A Christmas story. And its basic message is:  Look, kid, it’s okay to be afraid. It’s okay to make mistakes. Maybe these chivalric ideals that are driving you aren’t realistic and don’t actually work all that well in the real world. Maybe step back and let yourself be human.

The movie gets most of that, giving us a flawed hero who gets in way over his head, but at the end he’s learned the lessons he was meant to and comes away understanding that heart and honesty are more important than external ideas about honor. The poem (I think, anyway) is affirming and uplifting. The film doesn’t quite get there but it gets close.

There’s a bit at the end where I almost checked out, where it took a turn into grimdark and tragedy and despair—but then I realized, this isn’t real. Gawain has been moving through liminal worlds full of signs and lessons, and this is one too. And we come back from that brink, ending with a Gawain who’s come out the other side a better person.

I also love that the movie doesn’t explain itself. I’ve gotten so used to movies where the characters all stand around explaining things to each other, and here’s a movie where nothing is explained, it all just happens, yet is clear and enthralling, and yes, more like this, please.

Almost from the start, this reminded me of The Seventh Seal, which is one of my favorite movies. Antonius and Gawain both move through haunted landscapes and encounter scenes that shock them, that they are helpless to influence. Or their influence seems so small they have to wonder if it’s even worthwhile. There’s little they can do but move on. These are films that use their modern artistic cinematic languages and sensibilities to immerse us in the strange dream worlds of their medieval milieus.

Watching both these movies feels like reading a medieval text, full of beauty and oddness and symbolism and meaning. They reward your attention.

Black Widow

July 19, 2021

Okay, so, I didn’t actually make it to a movie theater for this. Long story. So my friends and I broke down and watched it at the home of the friend who has the 65″ TV. With White Russian cocktails on hand, naturally.

Now, on to the film.

The Short Review:  So wait, is this like Mirror Universe Incredibles?

Yes, the best parts of the movie were very much like a Mirror Universe Incredibles, with this weird dysfunctional superfamily that somehow still manages to come together. I’m really glad nobody got killed off because it would be nice to see the family again at some point.

Other than that, and I hate to say it, but the movie is kind of a mess. A series of McGuffins stringing together a series of action set pieces, which is fine. But you know, we’re going to roll a car in this scene, so a couple of scenes later we’re going to roll a car and have it plunge down the steps of a subway. Action scene inflation.

And the climactic confrontation was so, so very dumb, it just pissed me off.

Spoilers Ahoy!

When Natasha confronts the big bad, Dreykov, the sadistic mastermind behind the Red Room training regime that produces unstoppable women assassins, she discovers she is physically unable to kill him – because of a “pheromone trigger.” The women are all conditioned so that smelling his pheromones makes them incapable of harming him.

Like…that isn’t how that works? That’s not how any of that works? But okay, I’ll give it to you if it goes someplace interesting.

Where it goes:  Turns out Natasha knew about this ahead of time and was told she needs to sever the nasal nerve so she can no longer smell him. So Natasha breaks her own nose, to sever the nerve I guess?

And I’m thinking…you could have just, like, shoved kleenex up your nostrils? Or, I don’t know, you’ve got these super high tech face masks that completely change your face, and tiny ear comms, and amazing weapons, and…maybe someone could have rigged up some kind of pheromone filter that fits in your nostrils? Or picked up high-grade filter breathers from Home Depot? Or shot Dreykov from the doorway before smelling him? But no. Natasha smashes her face into a desk to break her nose. And then fixes it herself later, which I guess unsevers the nerve? I dunno.

This is about the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen in a Marvel movie. I’m embarrassed for whoever came up with this. It’s like the filmmakers went with their first idea and just didn’t think it through. At all.

And now, my deconstruction of this film’s take on kick-ass women.

Every single woman character in this film is a brainwashed/conditioned from childhood assassin. All of them. (With the possible exception of the post-credits scene, which I’m not actually counting, because I mean really.)

One of my least favorite tropes is the one that says that in order to be kick-ass and physically aggressive, a woman has to be traumatized. Every single woman in this film has been traumatized. There’s no alternative.

I mean, sure, it’s about empowerment. Natasha wants to destroy the Red Room to free all the abused women, her sisters-in-spirit. She wants them all to be able to make their own choices, to live the lives they want to live. She says this all the way through the movie.

So what do both Natasha and Yelena do with their freedom, what choices do they make once they’re free of the Red Room? They continue being murderous assassins.

Natasha’s distinctive black fighting togs, and her red Black Widow symbol that has been her own personal trademark as part of the Avengers, for the last decade? Turns out all the Red Room assassins wear similar black fighting suits, they’re all called widows, and they all use that symbol.

Natasha has been wearing the uniform and symbol of her oppressors all this time. Everything we thought was distinctly Natasha’s actually isn’t, it turns out.

I kept thinking about Wonder Woman, which also features a special cadre of amazing kick-ass women, but the difference in tones is…breathtaking. The Amazons of Wonder Woman are joyously empowered, celebrating their strength and abilities, in service to their own cause. And this film shows us other ways women can be brilliant and empowered, through Etta Candy and Dr. Poison.

In Black Widow, the cadre of kick-ass women is tragic, victimized, controlled, oppressed. And as much as I dearly love Natasha, her own tragic character arc raises the question of whether their liberation is even possible.

I wish someone behind this movie had thought some of these things through.

movies!

July 8, 2021

So, er… I haven’t actually been watching any, really. I know they’re out there. I know there’s some big budget SF blockbuster type things coming out. But I haven’t really been paying attention like I used to.

It’s been a year and four months since I’ve been in a movie theater. I’m completely out of the habit of checking to see what’s playing. I have no idea.

And I gotta tell you, I’m not ready to go to a packed evening showing on opening weekend. Not on a bet.

But Black Widow is finally, finally here, and that’s the one I’d like to return to the theater to see.

At 10 am on a weekday, probably.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Wonder Woman 1984

January 26, 2021

Welp, I guess I can’t put this one off any longer.

There’ve been wildly divergent reactions to this one. Where do I fall?

I thought it was awful. I really hate that I thought it was awful. But it’s like at every decision branch, the filmmakers made the stupidest choice. I don’t actually want to talk about it. It was badly paced, the action scenes went on too long and looked like cartoons, and nothing made sense. A World War I pilot would not be able to get into a modern jet and fly it. Don’t tell me “you just have to shut your brain off,” because that’s not what’s going on here. This is thinking your audience is stupid and isn’t going to notice stupid. What a waste.

(Here’s the Pitch Meeting video, which is hilarious and lays out everything. )

 

cloying moppets

November 24, 2020

I’ve been thinking about cloying moppets recently. This is my label for the child characters that frequently show up in action-adventure/genre films, usually as an overly-sentimental way to force the audience’s sympathy or make our hard-bitten heroes learn the True Meaning of Family or whatever. The presence of a cloying moppet doesn’t automatically mean the story will become saccharine and intolerable, but often it does. If not handled well, the trope is manipulative — it’s there for the reaction it hopes to evoke in the audience, not because it makes sense for the story.

Two of the most egregious examples I’ve reviewed here are in Elysium and Terminator: Salvation. In those, the moppets possess hilariously unrealistic levels of cuteness and feel shoe-horned in. It’s as if the makers didn’t trust their stories enough and felt there needed to be an extra emotional string to tug on. Newt in Aliens may be the ur-model of cloying moppet, but I think that one works because she’s frequently the smartest one in the room, and Ripley’s bond with her isn’t forced — Ripley immediately goes into mama bear mode with her, which is realistic and understandable, versus the stories where some wide-eyed waif has to win over a muscle-bound brute. I loved what Iron Man 3 did with the trope, which was have the characters deconstruct the trope even as they’re playing it out (and also age up the kid, Harley, so he’s barely a moppet at all). Laura in Logan is definitely a cloying moppet, but there’s a lot of interesting story around her and she isn’t the reason I dislike that film, which I think is two hours of missed opportunities.

Which brings me to this awkward realization: Baby Groot and Baby Yoda are cloying moppets.

They’re designed to be adorable, with their gigantic shiny black eyes. A merchandiser’s dream, really. Part of the adorableness is how incongruous they are against the back drops of their dangerous worlds, alongside characters who in normal circumstances no one would ever trust with a small child. Gah, cloying moppet is one of my least favorite tropes, how can these two versions of it be so amazing! Is it just because they’re not human, so I’m able to think of them more as like, puppies, not actually in need of more developed characterization? Except I don’t think that’s it.

There’s something they have, that Newt has, that the good versions of this trope have and the bad versions don’t, and that’s agency. They make decisions. They impact the story their own actions, and not simply by forcing character development on the protagonist.

That’s what it all keeps coming back to, isn’t it? Make good characters, and then make sure those characters have an impact on the story they’re in.

 

so that Dune trailer…

October 5, 2020

I’m a couple weeks late — a couple centuries, actually, the way the viral news cycle runs on social media — but I wanted to talk about that trailer for the new Dune movie that everyone is so excited about.

I’m not that excited.

We’ve been down this road before, everyone losing their minds over a fantastic-looking trailer. And then a year later no one even talks about the movie anymore. We’ve been down this road before with Denis Villeneuve, even, and Blade Runner 2049, which in the final analysis was not a particularly good movie (my long review here) and pretty much no one talks about it anymore.

So here we are again, with a visually spectacular tease of a greatly anticipated movie based on a classic book that’s already been adapted for screen twice before.

One of the things that’s got me cranky is that I love the David Lynch movie. It’s weird and gonzo and fun and visually really interesting. Part of why so many people are so excited about this new version is there’s this idea that it will correct what’s wrong with the Lynch film and be a better adaptation of the book. This is where I really get people’s dander up by suggesting that maybe it’s the book that’s not that good and not particularly suited for adaptation. But okay, let’s see if we can get a more faithful adaptation.

Guys, the trailer looks just like the Lynch version. I mean, it’s modern production values and all but it’s a lot of the same scenes, a lot of the same framing of the same scenes… for something that’s supposed to be new and better, it sure feels familiar.

So, either this new one isn’t going to be any closer to the book than the Lynch version, or the Lynch version is closer to the book than people like to admit.

But I still want to see it and I’m still excited about Timothée Chalamet because casting a really good actor as Paul may be the one thing no one’s tried yet.

Meanwhile, I can name ten classic science fiction novels right off the top of my head that deserve screen adaptations that would make better movies than Dune. And we’re not getting them, and that makes me cranky. (The Stars My Destination, Dragonriders of Pern, The Left Hand of Darkness, Ringworld, Downbelow Station, Neuromancer, Wild Seed, Gateway, A Canticle for Leibowitz, Doomsday Book.)

 

 

Wild Nights with Emily

August 24, 2020

This is a movie imagining the intense romantic relationship that might have (probably) existed between poet Emily Dickinson and her sister-in-law Susan. It’s good and fun and biographically accurate for the most part.

But my favorite thing about it is that the worst professor I ever had in six and a half years of higher education, who was an expert in Emily Dickinson, probably hates everything about this movie. This makes me happy.

Let me explain.

In the last year of my master’s degree, I took an entire seminar on Emily Dickinson from this professor, who announced on the first day of class that she would not let anyone else talk, because we couldn’t possibly know as much about Emily as she did so what was the point? This was a 5000 level graduate seminar, where basically the entire point is for students to discuss concepts and come up with their own ideas. So her contempt for us was…a tad frustrating. Especially when she’d spend the first twenty minutes of every class telling stories about her cats. I have many more terrible stories about this class, too many, so I’ll just close by saying that on the last day of the seminar she made us watch her perform the one-woman play she had written about Emily Dickinson running away to live in a relationship with Helen Hunt Jackson in Boulder. I’m not making this up.

Two good things came out this experience:  I wrote “In Time,” because I was so frustrated that no one ever wants to talk about how Dickinson was a dog person, not a cat person. And I came to love Dickinson and her work, and am convinced she would have despised this professor.

This movie is filled with true things about Emily, her weird sense of humor, her ambitions, her relationships, and so on. It specifically dismantles the myths about her — like the one about how she never published, that she was a recluse — that were purposefully propagated after her death by family members and others who were embarrassed by the truth and wanted to market Emily as a genteel retiring New England poetess.

And the film has a massive, massive burn against Helen Hunt Jackson. I laughed so hard, you guys. Mostly thinking about how appalled that professor would be, watching this.

Good. She never deserved Emily.

 

The Old Guard

July 20, 2020

Netflix seems to be becoming the go-to place for fantasy these days. Just watched The Old Guard — I’m not sure if this was supposed to be a theatrical release that got shifted to streaming, but I actually would have liked this one on the big screen. Charlize Theron cements her place as action heroine extraordinaire as Andy, an immortal who leads a team of other immortals who hire out as mercenaries who are trying to make the world a better place. Andy has been doing this for thousands of years. She’s tired, and she’s finally decided she isn’t doing any good at all. She’s wrong, of course, but that comes late. Enter:  Nile, an American Marine killed in action in Afghanistan, except not really, because she’s the first new immortal to appear in 200 years, and Andy adopts her, however reluctant Nile is to be adopted.

I’m always pleased to see something like this that feels like a really classic urban fantasy series in the making. Kick-ass characters with a big supernatural element battling through the world with over-the-top action featuring massive firepower. It passes the Bechdel test handily, in multiple cases. Evil corporate antagonist. This is super, super predictable. Like, every double cross is instantly apparent as a double cross, but somehow I didn’t mind so much that the characters never see it coming. The characters are pleasant enough that I enjoyed the time I spent with them. Count me among those thoroughly intrigued by Joe and Nicky and I’d like a movie about their entire history right now please.

Comparisons to Highlander, which is also about mysterious immortals moving through the world, are easy to do, but it’s the differences that interest me. In Highlander, the immortals are loners. They are destined to do battle, and can’t really afford to be friends because of the fear that they’ll have to kill each other. There’s tension in those rare friendships.  In The Old Guard, the immortals are connected. They dream about each other. They come together because they’re the only family they’ll ever have. They can support each other. I’m fascinated at this difference between a story that came out in the “greed is good” 80’s and one that came out, well, now. Over the last few years I’ve talked about how much I appreciate stories about people who care about each other coming together, versus nihilistic stories of people being horrible to each other. This is another data point on that.

This is based on a comic, which I haven’t read. Yet.