Rated R for being an over-the-top killfest that prides itself on trying to find creative and gross ways to kill people. The movie also makes a point of not swearing in front of the kid. But to pull off this trick, the character tends to swear first and then restates the same phrase using an inoffensive word, so it still gets points for using all kinds of language. I mean, I suppose I should be offended by gore as opposed to sex, but I quickly got over the gore and violence and embraced it. But it doesn't change the fact that it is a hard-R.
DIRECTOR: Navot Papushado
I would like to formally apologize to my wife for asking her to watch this movie. I saw that it had Karen Gillen and a bunch of people we liked and I thought it was going to be a good time. When she decided to roll over and go to bed on the couch, I didn't stop her. She wasn't missing much and I feel like I have to trade whatever credits I had building up for a rom-com with a completely forgettable title after forcing her to watch a movie like this. If there was any doubt, I didn't care for it and my wife cared for this movie even less. It's a shame, because it's not like there isn't a market for this kind of film.
The subgenre of action movie that I would consider the Shoot 'Em Up or ultraviolent film is really a thing (which includes the appropriately named Shoot-'Em-Up). I really blame John Wick. I should blame Quentin Tarantino, but I want to discuss why Tarantino is rich and smart while stuff like Gunpowder Milkshake and John Wick are maybe less-so. Now, I know that there are a ton of John Wick fans out there. If I'm right, there are four John Wick films and a TV show coming, along with a handful of videogames. I clearly am in the minority of people who found the first movie mind-numbing and can't imagine the sequels. (Although a self-flagellating part of me wants to power through these movies just so I can complain with a good deal of authority.) These are movies that thrive on the concept of being cool.
Quentin Tarantino is cool. Let me restate: A lot of Quentin Tarantino's movies are cool. Tarantino himself seems like I would be wildly uncomfortable around him. But again, I don't really know the dude. He's a celebrity and I don't have a personal connection with him. Maybe it would be a bonding experience to get to know the guy over our mutual love of obscure movies, but I digress. But Tarantino's cool is well-earned. Tarantino is a director who was a film fan first. He has this depth of knowledge regarding movies that is scary. He's seen everything. He prides himself on this. When he is making a movie, he tends to focus on cool. But he's pulling from this wealth of cinema history and homaging all of it.
When you watch a Tarantino movie, it's watching a fanboy go to town on his favorite stuff. He pulls from all of these moments in history and openly does so. Yes, Tarantino has talent and knows what to save and what to throw away. But at the end of the day, he's just paying tribute to the people who brought him joy. Movies like Gunpowder Milkshake are kind of doing the same thing, but instead are copying a very limited amount of people, one of whom is Quentin Tarantino. Steven Moffat once commented about seeing cosplay of Osgood stating that "She's a cosplayer. When you cosplay as her, you are cosplaying as a cosplayer." It's the second level of copying. Tarantino is being methodical in his choices of homage. But when you are paying tribute to Tarantino, something is lost because these references don't understand the point of origin.
I'm building up to the idea that Gunpowder Milkshake, like many movies in the ultraviolence subcategory, feels kind of vapid. There's something there that is under proven and under ripe. It should be a story about mothers and daughters. Sam, for all of her anger towards her mother, ultimately becomes her through her adoption of Scarlet's profession coupled with the fact that she is acting as a mentor to Emily. There's fodder there. But the movie is so focused on being cool that it gets in the way of being vulnerable. Considering that this is a movie about betrayal and disappointment in family, there really isn't any emotion being displayed. I know the actresses really can emote and deliver a performance that would move. But I place the onus on the director for being so obsessed with tone that he forgot the center of his story.
Because there are definitely fun parts in this. I love the relationships between all of the women. But this relationship really takes a backseat to the tone. These things should work in tandem, but it almost feels like a conflict instead. I mean, I chose this great photo above (because I'm great, aren't I?). But that image isn't earned. We don't have these baby steps. Instead, every moment of characterization is brought through blunt exposition, not feeling it. It's kind of lame.
So what we're left with is a narrative that is told to us and spectacle that is overwhelming. So the movie becomes wildly forgettable. I mean, I might be in the minority, just like John Wick, because there's a sequel already in development. But this just isn't my kind of movie.
PG-13 for sex jokes mostly. It's not like you see anything, but Star does conduct a secret romance that is almost exclusively sexual. There's also a drug sequence that is played up for comedy. It's weird, because in my head, this was an R-Rated movie. But then I thought about it and realized that there isn't that much R-rated content in here. The eponymous characters have a very tame way of speaking, stressing how vanilla their lives are. I think that the movie became PG-13 by default. PG-13.
DIRECTOR: Josh Greenbaum
Gloria Sanchez Productions, huh? Title credits come up, I instantly pause the movie. I mean, I know Gary Ganchez Productions as Will Ferrell's production company with Adam McKay. But Gloria Sanchez? This instantly brought me down a hole of reading about the company, which is a subsidiary of Gary Sanchez that focus on women in comedy. Listen, I'm just giving you the short version of the Wikipedia article I read. I saved you a few minutes. Barb & Star was one of those trailers that came out at a weird time. It was eerily cryptic. We got that this was going to be a movie about these over-the-top middle aged suburbanites and it was going to be a Saturday Night Live skit all the way throughout, but we had no idea how insane the movie would get. The answer is: pretty insane.
Taking a cue from stuff like Anchorman and Zoolander, Barb & Star exists in a bizarre world where the rules of reality are completely missing. Sure, the world can look at the personality quirks of these two characters as odd or surreal. But they'd just be hypocrites because almost every character in this movie has an odd personality trait. Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo acturally crafted something unique. If anything, Barb and Star, while exaggerations of middle aged womanhood, probably are so hilarious because they are the most normal people in a really bizarre scenario. I'm trying to think of a character in the movie who is more normal. With my arm twisted, I have to pick the couple who is going couch shopping. These are tiny characters that are there for both the joke of Barb and Star being terrible salespeople and for the exposition that they provide for Barb and Star's relationship. But that's really about it. Even minor characters in the story have some kind of wacky quirk. There's just a guy in a banana hammock making weird faces. That's his entire schtick. He's hilarious, but I get that the entire joke behind this moment is that he's weird looking and everywhere.
Barb & Star isn't a story with a message. If it had one, it had to be a celebration of mediocrity. It's wildly depressing, but this might be the optimistic form of Death of a Salesman. Barb and Star revel in the notion that they don't really move mountains. Their stories of wild abandon are hilariously tame. If anything, life tries to impose on them. When characters set off on a quest for adventure which is told over the course of a film, that story is meant to be the most important thing that they can possibly do (until a sequel shows up, neutering the point of the original film). The eponymous characters travel to a mid-range resort town in Florida and that's supposed to be them stepping out of their comfort zone. To them, the adventure is just trying something new and to buy a bunch of junk with shells on them. But like all of their stories, life has to intervene and force them into an epic adventure.
When the movie started off with Yoyo, the paperboy, blowing up a house and helping murder a scientist with killer mosquitos, I had no idea where this movie was going. I didn't know how one could possibly connect a plan to commit mild genocide with two 40-something suburbanites. That's the point. That's what the movie was going for. You did it, movie! Good job. But that's the takeaway from Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar. Based on the idea that these two names rhymed with "Vista Del Mar", the movie had to ramp up the tension with the largest threat. It's almost like Barb and Star spit in the face of fate by stepping out of their comfort zone and the movie decided to punish / reward them by offering them a threat that was unimaginable.
And despite the fact that the movie decides to Deus Ex Machina pretty darn hard, (I mean, it's next level) the core themes of friendship above all still play out. I keep on apologizing for some reason, but we get that the ending is stupid. Sharon Gordon Fisherman (yup) should go to all the prisons for trying to murder everyone in this town. But instead, Barb and Star offer friendship and EVERYONE jumps on board. That's the absurdity of this movie. It's not bad enough that there is a gross injustice happening here. It's the idea that everyone's on board with Sharon being their friend at the end of the whole thing. Seriously. The more I think about it, the more troubled I am by this ending.
But that's also why I'm going to cut this one short. Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar doesn't need a long blog. The more I talk about it, the more I say obvious things. It's an okay movie that made me laugh a lot. It's really a dumb movie, but that's okay because it's charming as heck. It's got two great leads and a lot of it lands. But its sole purpose is to make you laugh, which it does. So message received, I guess?
Rated PG because they really advertise the living daylights out of Warner's R-Rated properties. Like, who is that Matrix joke for anyway? It really pushes that and Game of Thrones. Really, it understands that a sizable percentage of the viewing audience is watching this out of nostalgia and those people are all old enough to watch the R-rated stuff. Like, Pennywise is watching the basketball game. It's not like the movie makes a big deal about it, but that's part of what is happening in the movie. The rest is pretty tame. There's some near-swearing, but nothing to really write home about. PG.
DIRECTOR: Malcolm D. Lee
Like, I didn't help unseat Black Widow --a much better film --by watching Space Jam: A New Legacy on HBO Max, right? I don't know how this works. Did I even help Black Widow's box office by buying it on Disney+ Premiere? There are all these new rules and I don't know where I fall on the grand scheme of things. I mean, ultimately, I'm probably pretty insignificant. But there are other me's out there. If the season finale of Loki taught me anything, there's probably an alligator version of me out there and I like it. Anyway, I'm not quite off my writing break right now. I write as I watch and I'm not on a tear of movies right now. Regardless, this came out of HBO Max and the long-time readers know that I'll pretty much watch anything that's a same day premiere because I don't have to pay extra for it.
If you want the one sentence version of this blog, the takeaway is that this is a better movie than the original 1996 Space Jam (which I'm sure based on the IMdB user-generated score, is a contentious thing to say), but that's not saying much. The buzzword for everything in this movie is "nostalgia". Maybe, two generations from now, this movie is going to be lauded as the greatest movie ever. Again, the OG Space Jam is apparently untouchable to many, and that movie is as bad as they come. (I'm not even going to pretend to mince words about how much that movie is just awful.) I will say, Space Jam: A New Legacy left me more happy than annoyed, but a lot of that comes from the fact that A New Legacy is just a better written movie. The conceit, like Space Jam, is mind-numbing. But in terms of structure, writing, and acting, there's at least something going on with A New Legacy.
The OG Space Jam was an hour-and-a-half of self-aggrandizing vomit. It had a message: Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all time and no one should besmirch him at all AND the Warner Brothers make the best cartoons in the world. I'll say this, Space Jam was pre-Curb Your Enthusiasm. It took a real dude and a real film studio and made fictionalized versions of these ideas. But since Curb (this is my idea, anyway), people have learned that to make something successful that uses fictionalized versions of real people, you can't treat them as sacred. You have to make them exaggerated and flawed. While A New Legacy is still very generous to both King James and the Warner Brothers properties, it does the smart thing and makes LeBron James a flawed character and Warner Brothers kind of a villain.
That has to be the weirdest thing, right? I'm sure that there was a bunch of studio execs who sat very uncomfortably around a board table asking, "Are you sure that the Warner brand has to be the bad guy of the movie?" There was someone there saying, "No, this is how we make all the money." And he's kind of right. Like I stated, Space Jam: A New Legacy dethroned Black Widow in one week. But he definitely had his hands tied. At the end of the day, the Warner Legacy is just like it was in the first Space Jam movie: sacred. But Warner 3000, the future? That's the bad guy. It's a very cake-and-eat-it-too situation. But it is what it is. I get why they went that direction. It made the movie a better film.
Because think about it: LeBron James actually has a character arc in this movie. I mean, it is superficial as can be. It's kids' movie morality. LeBron James learned, as a child, that he had to devote his entire life to basketball if he wanted to be as great as he is. (Yeah, even blogging about this forces me to worship at the altar of LeBron James.) But he takes the lesson at face value, assuming that his kids would also have to put 110% into basketball to achieve anything in life. It's a great lesson. Our kids aren't going to be us. They can learn from our experience, but they have to apply it to themselves. It's bizarre how my kids are like me in so many ways and oh-so-very different. But LeBron, over the course of the movie, learns that Dom has his own path that he needs to commit and that's nice. In the process, he gets to enjoy the game of basketball again.
Does the movie imply that LeBron James kind of always hated basketball? Like, the movie gives LeBron's seriousness to the game as something akin to what Cobra Kai believes. There's no joking and there's no play. You can enjoy the fruits of the game, but you can't enjoy the game itself. LeBron appreciates how fun Dom's game looks because it makes him look great, but doesn't actually find the time on the court that fun until he's towards the end of Dom's game. It's funny, because that's the one time basketball shouldn't be fun. Because, think about this, Al G Rhythm (yup) is technically Jigsaw from Saw. Until LeBron can find a way out of his rigged trap, the people around him are going to die / get trapped in the Serververse for eternity. (I don't really see why Al G wants to do this outside of having people to rule, but whatever.)
Is it bad that I saw a way better ending for this movie that would have had some really dark implications? When the suits at Warner were letting Al G give his presentation to LeBron at the beginning (where LeBron was way too brutally honest), he mentioned that Warner 3000 would make a copy of LeBron and put him into franchises. So when LeBron chases after Dom when Al G took him, I thought, "Oh snap! They're just copies who think that they're real." Then there would have been the weird Wreck-It Ralph jumping between worlds, realizing that he's not the real LeBron, but he gets to have a special relationship with his kid. I don't know. It would have been super dark, but also matched up with what the movie spelled out.
At the end of the day, I got more laughs from this one than I did the previous one. The nods to the Warner canon actually annoyed me more than what was done with Universal and Ready Player One. My kid took away, "I should be able to play video games whenever I want because those are my passion" and I just didn't address it. Regardless, I'm glad I saw it for free, but it still ain't a great movie.
PG. Yeah, a movie about basketball players hanging out with the Looney Tunes seems like it would be perfectly fine. And you know what? For the sake of argument, it is fine. But there's a couple of adult jokes equating to skill on the basketball court to sexual performance. Whatever. The Monstars can be a little much at times. The only thing that's really scary is the fact that it has villains. The bigger concern that I have is Foghorn Leghorn going out of his way to sing about the land of cotton. Also, there's a couple of racial stereotypes that are simply accepted for the sake of humor. Regardless, PG.
DIRECTOR: Joe Pytka
If had known that starting a film blog about everything that I watch would require me to write umpteen words about Space Jam, I might have thought twice about ever considering it. I hated this movie when it came out. Guess what? It still pretty much sucks. See, I was raised on the Looney Tunes. My dad pushed it harder than Mickey and gang. I don't know why. I don't know why I am all down for the Mickey Mouse crew and haven't really introduced my kids to the Looney Tunes. But they were fine. But I never really liked sports. I mean, I collected baseball and basketball cards, so I knew who everyone in this movie was at the time. It's weird that I still reference Mugsey Bogues and Manute Bol from time to time. But I'm genuinely floored with the fact that I've now seen this movie not once, but twice. But, of course, HBO Max is going to have Space Jam: A New Legacy for free and there's going to be DC content.
Really, it's all on me. Okay, it's really all on my son who is strangely excited for this movie. Space Jam, for some reason, is sacred to a lot of people. This is a battle I've been fighting since 1996. If you ever wanted to understand 1996 exactly, watch Space Jam. It's this big tonal mess that is so focused on hitting this synergy of things that '96 wanted. I remember going to McDonalds and getting Dream Team cups with our meals. For a guy who did not care whatsoever about sports, I thought that the Dream Team was the most important thing ever. The fact that Air Jordans are still a thing kind of reflects how insane we were for Michael Jordan at the time. (Although, it is very haunting to hear to him referred to as "MJ".) But 1996 was also about people wearing Tweety Bird shirts everywhere. Tweety Bird means you had attitude, but in the most vanilla way imaginable. Kids wore Taz shirts and the world was a hot mess. (I actually wish we had the problems of 1996 today.) So imagine throwing all of this into a KFC Famous Bowl and then throw the weirdest tone imaginable to the film.
Seriously. I can understand the tone of the new movie. There's going to be very little seriousness to this movie. Instead, it's going to be another Ready Player One, only for kids mixed with a heavy dose of nostalgia. But the original movie wasn't just fun times with cartoons and basketball. It was a two-fold effort to both repair the brand of Michael Jordan and to ride out the continually waxing and waning interest in the Looney Tunes brand until it hit another slump. Looney Tunes is this brand that Warner Brothers has no idea what to do with. There is something oddly marketable, but never for the long haul. It is entirely a nostalgic thing most of the time, dependent on the cultural zeitgeist to keep it on life support. So this mish-mashup of desperation permeates this movie throughout.
And a lot of it is because of Michael Jordan himself. The movie goes full force into the mistake that Michael Jordan made transitioning into baseball. Starting with this inspirational scene between young Michael and father, it makes Jordan out to be a saint. He's only pursuing baseball because he wants to make his dad happy. There's never this moment in the film where Michael Jordan has a crisis of conscience. Instead, his internal conflict is one that is completely superficial. We know that Michael Jordan is going to go back to basketball. Mind as well tell a story that supports that idea. Why am I talking about this movie as if its serious? Because the movie oh-so-desperately wants to have a modicum of seriousness to it despite the fact that the script is goofy as heck and should be the looniest thing imaginable.
But then there's the real legacy of Space Jam: R. Kelly's "I Believe I Can Fly". The '90s were about putting R&B jams to movies that probably didn't match those songs tonally. I immediately flash to Seal's "A Kiss from a Rose" from Batman Forever. Now, this was commonplace, right? Why does it bother me in Space Jam? I mean, it's not like I love tonally mismatching songs to movies. But "I Believe I Can Fly" is this song of adoration for Michael Jordan's talent. This entire movie is one giant love letter to Michael Jordan. It's his A Hard Day's Night. (Now I want to examine why I am kind of okay with it happening in A Hard Day's Night.) Listen, I like Michael, despite the fact that I grew up in Bad-Boys-era Detroit. But this is such a gushing film. It's adoration. It never really takes potshots at him shy of the baseball thing. It feels very much like, "We can comment on this and this alone."
Now, I would really like to tread lightly on this part because this can easily be misconstrued. I've always advocated that every movie should be an hour-and-a-half. It's a toxic element to me, but I really enjoy a tight hour-and-a-half comedy. It is just that the movie doesn't really have an arc in the film. The Monstars are clearly the antagonists, but the Looney Tunes do something wrong in the sense that they want to bully them almost immediately. Because they are short, they take these guys for granted. That moment should have been the inciting incident. The rest of the movie should be about atonement, which it only sort of is. But when the movie has this external conflict that can't be solved (the Monstars are genuinely bigger than they are), there isn't really that shift of character. It does that little kid TV idea that confidence is all it takes to win. But the Tune Squad never really makes that direct connection. For the sake of a joke (and a joke I kind of grinned at), Daffy says that he understands that Michael's Secret Stuff (or steroids?) is just water, but he needs more and winks. There's never that come-to-Jesus moment that the Looney Tunes need to use their cleverness or something that makes them special. Michael learned that moment, but he was already carrying the team regardless. (I notice how Michael never really took a hit from those guys.)
Let's talk about Lola Bunny, right? Lola is very representative of Hollywood's misguided understanding of feminism in 1996. Lola, a character that was introduced for the movie to be the love interest for Bugs Bunny (which the movie ultimately doesn't need), plays the part of the rebellious kid from The Bad News Bears. She is an outsider and Michael can't have a love interest. All family friendly movies needed to have a love interest. So they sexed her up a bit. They made her wildly attractive. That's fine. And she comes in with an attitude that she doesn't want to be sexually harassed by Bugs. That's great. But Bugs also doesn't give up on Lola. It's not a central plot because there's really no solid storytelling, but it is constant. Lola has absolutely no interest in Bugs Bunny, so it's reflective of that Pepe LePew dynamic which is now considered toxic. But it's when Bugs makes a sacrificial act for Lola (which isn't all that sacrificial because he's a cartoon and the movie stresses that damage isn't real in this world), Lola instantly flips her personality. Okay, the movie wanted to do both things. But when Lola changes everything for Lola in that moment, it kind of implies that Lola's self-worth and feminism is a front in exchange for her true feelings. It's a very no-doesn't-actually-mean-no story. I'm not saying that there can't be a conflict of feelings. That's good storytelling. It's just that Lola never really comes to terms with her internal conflict. It's a light switch and that makes her a dumb character.
Why is Bill Murray in this movie? I mean, there's the great joke that Bill Murray says "I'm a friend of the producer / [Ivan Reitman]". But he's kind of part of the KFC Bowl that is this movie. Wayne Knight, same deal. These are names that are thrown in the movie because they can be in the movie and draw a bigger crowd. I feel bad for Wayne Knight in this movie. The sheer amount of fat jokes thrown his way is upsetting.
But the one thing I want to say before I close this up (a very interrupted writing time that stretched this out to be sheer torture), this isn't the Looney Tunes. The Looney Tunes are wacky and zany. But the heart of Looney Tunes is not in this movie. It's so commercialized and marketed that it just comes across as almost mean spirited. It's not fun. People who love this movie must love it for the pure nostalgia element of it. It's a criminally bad movie that is almost unwatchable. There's nothing here with the exception of a couple of jokes that made me breathe out of my nose for a second. Yet, part of me wants to watch the new one, if only to play "Name that cameo."
PG-13. It's funny, because something in the back of all of our brains said, "Man, Black Widow is probably going to be the one that's not for kids." To a certain extent, that's true. It's something about the intense editing technique that reads as more brutal than the other Marvel movies. And there definitely are some really perhaps more upsetting because they are more grounded. For example, a spy self-terminates rather than being forced to submit to mind-control and it is upsetting. Yelena also goes into detail about how the Widows were all sterilized by the Red Room. But the most upsetting element is the fact that this is a commentary about selling and using women. But at the end of the day, there is definitely a Marvel movie vibe about the whole thing. PG-13.
DIRECTOR: Cate Shortland
I shouldn't feel bad for Kevin Feige. That man has to have more money than anyone can imagine. He gets to make the superhero movies that the '80s and '90s could only have dreamed of. He's wildly successful and is probably unimaginably fulfilled. But this is a guy who shows what can happen when people plan out franchises and then Covid goes and shows up. I was having a discussion with my brother-in-law about the Star Wars sequel trilogy --because I'm me and none of this is shocking --and he really stressed the point that it is mind-blowing that J.J. Abrams didn't plan the whole three movies before starting The Force Awakens. Then there's Kevin Feige, who actually upsets some of his people by saying that they have to follow the script, only to have Black Widow come out a year-and-change after the original plan. At the end of the day, it didn't matter because we got some sweet Marvel TV and the opportunity to downplay the fat shaming that the trailers played up.
I find myself on the defensive with this one. Maybe I can only hear the naysayers amongst all the positive stuff, but it seems like people really didn't like Black Widow. It's not a perfect Marvel movie, but Black Widow is way better than it has any right to be. Black Widow, like Guardians of the Galaxy, really highlights what is so magical about the MCU. Kevin Feige took these properties that were hard to sell in their original forms and then distilled them down to something remarkably watchable and enjoyable. I started reading Guardians of the Galaxy when Brian Michael Bendis picked it up. I'm sure it was no accident that the film had just been announced right around that time. And I absolutely adored Bendis's run on that book. But I'm also a massive Bendis fan. While I have a handful of Black Widow comics, I can only say that a handful of them are really good. I don't remember any of them being bad, but the character of Black Widow always worked way better in a supporting role. While I'm completely an advocate for women-led superhero movies, I can see why Black Widow never got her own movie until now. It's not that she's a woman. It's just that she is great juxtaposition for other superheroes. Captain Marvel? That made sense. She has this heavy story and is an absolute powerhouse. If anything, Black Widow is a reminder of our own fallibility in the face of superheroics.
But that never comes up with Batman, does it? I mean, sure, it does to a certain point. But Batman almost has too many movies and Black Widow only has this one. Maybe it is about keeping women to a role where they play supporting parts. Because I'll tell you right now, I'm super excited about the Hawkeye TV series, so that may be commentary about me. (That being said, I'm more excited to see Kate Bishop than I am to see more Clint Barton.)
I'm wasting time again, aren't I? Let's talk about why Black Widow works and why people are complete haters. I'm going to give the opposition points. The biggest complaint about the movie is that Natasha Romanoff takes a back seat in her own movie. Like I mentioned, Black Widow works really well as a supporting character, so I can see the need to indulge that once again. The things that my wife and I were talking about both during the movie and after is how great Yelena Bulova and Red Guardian were in a movie about Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow. A lot of that comes from great writing and absolutely outstanding performances by Florence Pugh (still the best part of Little Women) and David Harbour. I feel bad because it's not like Scarlett Johansson didn't deliver. She totally did. But we now really know her character. She's been in so many Marvel movies. When I logged into Disney+ to see if my Premiere Access had unlocked, they had a Black Widow category and she was just in so many of the movies. Despite the fact that she was cloaked in mystery, we kind of got the mystery.
That was a complaint on the part of The Atlantic, I think. They were hoping to see what all that background stuff on Black Widow was all about. But this movie sells the concept of the unimaginable, ironically, by asking the audience to use its collective imagination. This movie could have been something very different. Heck, the haunting opening credits implied that this movie was going to go into the years of torture that Natasha and Yelena went through in the Red Room and to provide a definitive origin story for how this little girl became an Avenger. That's one way to look at this movie. But think about how darned bleak that would be. It would be the superhero version of torture porn. I have tried to avoid that phrase in this blog as much as possible because of the connotation it has, but I'm going to use that to really sell what the movie would have been. The version of Black Widow we just watched was an empowerment film. It was women supporting women, despite the fact that they have been exploited their entire lives.
But imagine if we saw all of the horrible things that Natasha was forced to do only to escape by the end? As much as it would have been empowering, we would have been watching a girl get tortured for two hours with a happy ending. How is that any different than an exploitative horror movie? I don't want to see a girl get tortured for two hours. I wanted to see the movie I got: two women taking back their power. We get the idea that they went through Hell because of the performances by the female leads. That's all we needed. The Red Room is as disturbing as our imaginations would allow us to believe. That's what is way more interesting. We don't have to watch every awful mission that James Bond went through to see the fun ones. I'm sure that there's a story about Bond executing a whole family, but I don't want to see that. I want to see the ones where there's a laser beam in spac--you know what? I actually don't. But you get what I mean.
What ends up happening is a two-hour commentary on family. I know that there are so many Vin Diesel memes about family right now. But Black Widow kind of sidesteps a lot of the ideas that we see in other movies. I talked about the value of family in The Mitchells vs. the Machines recently, which is about the family you might not want, but the one you were born into. The Fast and the Furious movies won't shut up about the family you choose. But Black Widow is about the family that comes out of a shared trauma. It's the idea that you can't do some things alone. There are people out there who understand and that you might not like them immediately.
And for all of the cool themes that are running through the movie, it's really good. We watched it with my in-laws. My father-in-law doesn't always love the sci-fi stuff. But we sold him on the idea that this was a spy-fi thriller. (I didn't use the term "spy-fi" because that would have been one-step-forward-two-steps-back.) But it would be easy to relegate it to a spy thriller, like I did with Captain America: The Winter Soldier. But there is this major action setpiece that belongs in a Marvel movie at the end. The humor and the action and the joint mythology is all there. Yeah, the movie really asks you to have watched Captain America: Civil War before this point, but that's a pretty minor ask in the long run.
It's a really good movie. Like, I LOVED Black Widow. I want MORE Black Widow. When I first saw the trailer, I thought it was going to be a bit of a yawn. I take it all back. I thought it was absolutely great. Man, Marvel. I really feel like you can do anything.
Approved. It's always so weird writing the MPAA rating thing before there was an MPAA. It's about a murder. There's death. A kid dies...just randomly. It's got some divorce. One of the characters is obsessed with seducing this married woman, so keep that in mind. It's got a pretty negative view of humanity, if I had to be honest. So while there's nothing on camera that's all that offensive, the bleak portrayal of the human race isn't exactly something I want to share with my children. Regardless, Approved.
DIRECTOR: Michael Curtiz
Spoiler: Of course it was all Veda. Veda was the worst. I'm going to go into this for a long time, but of course she did it. This all started when my wife and I were trying to think of a movie. My wife said something about the lady who murders people and then bakes pies. I had no idea what she was talking about. "You know, the pie murders?" Nope, I had nothing. She finally looked it up and saw that Mildred Pierce was on my Amazon wish list and that it was our anniversary coming up. Anyway, I love this movie, but the pie lady wasn't the murderer. It was just implied that she was the murderer!
I don't know if I want to come out of the gate talking directly about Veda. Part of me wants to talk about how the human race doesn't deserve anything and that everyone is absolutely terrible except for the put-upon American housewife. (I can support the idea that the American housewife is put upon, but gee whiz this movie makes everyone else look terrible.) Curtiz starts the movie with Mildred at a point of despair. She's on the dock, ready to take her own life. It's heavily implied that Mildred murdered her husband and wanted to frame a "friend" (I don't even know how to explain the dynamic between Mildred and Wally). She seems like this terrible human being in a world of decent people. But by the end of the film, borderline everyone seems terrible and Mildred comes across like a bit of a saint.
The thing that drives me nuts is that the whole flashback is started by the notion that the police were going to arrest her ex-husband, Bert. Not wanting an innocent man that she actually kind of liked to go to prison, Mildred claims that Bert is the most noble, sweet, and gentle human being imaginable. She has a really weird sense of what makes a good man because he literally is the worst. I'm never a fan of divorce or separation, but Bert is not a good man. The movie really implies that he's sleeping with is secretary. I would give him the benefit of the doubt, but he immediately goes to her when the separation begins, so point one to Mildred. He's mad that she's making money. And he's also mad that she's saving her own money to buy her daughter a dress.
And this is where I question reality altogether. Bert really gets mad because Mildred buys Veda a dress with her pie money. Now, I can't deny that Veda sucks. I can't deny that one bit. The movie goes out of its way to make you really look down on Veda. But Bert's theory is that Mildred is destroying her daughter by buying her a cheap dress. I'm pretty sure that Veda from just being in a middle-class home has become completely spoiled. I can't blame that dress. If anything, that dress should have woken Mildred up to the fact that Veda is a terrible person who can't appreciate anything. But the actual purpose of that dress is completely fine. Bert, throwing a big stink about that dress and separating from his wife is absolutely absurd. But the worst part about it? It makes Bert right.
See, the sleeping with the secretary is still very much implied at the beginning. But Bert's central thesis in that argument was that buying Veda anything is just going to spoil her and make her out to be a monster. That's exactly what Veda does. No one blames the divorce for making her a monster. No one blames the fact that she was always predisposed to be a horrible human being. Nope. It's all Mildred's fault apparently. It's not like Mildred was going above and beyond with the spoiling either. Veda seemed pretty talented at piano, so she got her lessons. She needed a new dress, so she bought her a cheap dress, which is all she could afford.
Then the movie just doubles down on the horrible views of humanity, especially of the working woman. Veda, when Bert leaves, throws a bit of a hissy fit about not being able to keep up with the Joneses. But she ends the argument by saying, "As long as we're all together." Now, I'm pretty sure the read on that line was the Veda is being manipulative. She comes across as a spoiled, but sweet, girl until she marries this rich guy and fakes a pregnancy. But when Mildred reveals that she has a plan to become a restaraunter, Veda gets excited. It's not very flattering when she exclaims, "You mean, we're going to be rich?" But Veda does care where her money comes from at this point. She's actually excited for her mother. It's only when Monte shows up and the two of them form this kind of disdain for where their money comes from that the story really does get bleak.
I know I don't live in 1945. I know. I get it. The idea of a working woman is so disdainful to everyone in this movie. When Bert leaves his wife, it's because she's the one making money by baking cakes and pies. That doesn't ingratiate me to the whole story. (By the way, if you ever want to argue wage politics in 2021, look how much Mildred can buy as a single-earner waitress.) But Mildred becomes this powerhouse in business and everyone is still grossed out by the fact that she works for a living. It's really this bizarre narrative that unfortunately existed (and probably still exists) in 1945. I don't know what Veda's plan was, really. Veda kept trying to kill the golden goose. Monte at one point refers to Veda as the prodigal daughter and that's an apt comparison. But the element of the prodigal son is in the name itself: repentance. Veda keeps going for these quick scores that are way more despicable than what Mildred does.
I mean, I don't really feel like I have to comment on Wally. Bert goes from being gross to being halfway decent. Monte goes from being a good guy to being a monster. But Wally? Man, Wally borderline sucks from moment one. We see him being good-natured with his flirting (I'm being really forgiving right now). It's only the more we get into the story that we see that Wally has always been super-duper gross.
So it's all a story about how the world is a terrible place. I mean, if I had to really nail it down, it's about the cultural theme about women in the workplace and how they never get the respect that they deserve. But to get that message loud and clear, we have to sit through just the most gross character traits that humanity has to offer. I mean, I love the movie. I genuinely love bleak things so it's not shocking that I'm all rah-rah about this movie. But it is fairly miserable when you think about it. Honestly, Mildred spends the movie trying to frame the wrong man for murder and perjuring herself to the police, and still, she's one of the most sympathetic characters in film.
Not rated, but this one actually involves cutting someone's hand off as opposed to just killing them. If anything, this movie really stresses how much killing is going on, despite the fact that the gore level is pretty light. Zatoichi takes some gnarly hits in this one, including an arrow through the arm and a sword slash that really should have put him out of commission. There's also some skinny dipping, but we don't really see anything because Zatoichi also wouldn't be able to see anything. Still, you know, it's a lot of killing. Not rated.
DIRECTOR: Kazuo Ikehiro
It's really late at night and I just finished watching Black Widow. Part of me is writing this late because I want to get around to writing Black Widow sooner. But I also know that I should be cutting myself some slack because today was an insanely busy day and I have a feeling that tomorrow will also be an insanely busy day. It is so hard to get motivated to write about Zatoichi. There was a period a while ago where I considered writing about everything pop culture that I would absorb. This means every comic issue, every TV episode, every podcast episode, every book. The whole shebang. But I realized that I would burn out so quickly that it would defeat the purpose of even maintaining a blog. I'm really glad that I didn't do that now and I think that writing about the Zatoichi films is a reminder that writing about something that is so episodic only proves to be an exercise in frustration.
When this is all over, I'll probably claim that I really like the Zatoichi movies. I have them on a very specific rotation, ensuring that I don't fly through them and not appreciate them. I'll watch one, get a little disappointed that it was very similar to the previous entry, and then watch a bunch of other stuff. But then another Zatoichi film would enter the chamber and I would get excited about it again. I'm also doing the same thing with Samurai Jack, but am way more disappointed with Samurai Jack. (I know. I'm just making enemies left and right.) Each one of these Zatoichi movies promises to change the script just enough to make it interesting. I really like the conceit that the movie always presents. With Zatoichi's Pilgrimage, the conceit was exactly what I wanted out of this franchise. Always thrust into action and adventure, the titular character laments how much killing he has done in his life. He's always been on the side of the law (with the exception of the cons he pulls with gambling), but regrets that this life has led him to this place within his soul that is at odds with his intentions. The movie starts off with the pilgrimage to visit the 88 Shrines with the focus of never killing again.
But then the movie forgets this almost immediately and has him kill a bunch of dudes in a very similar fashion that he does in the other movies. He runs into a woman that might be the one to free him from this lifestyle, finds out that there is a gangster boss intimidating the people of this small farming village, and then dispatches the entire gang. The end. What was all that about visiting those 88 shrines to save your soul so you can officially put an end to the killing? The movie even calls him out on that first killing that happens almost immediately after taking the oath. He kills Eigoro, which is not really on him. It is like the gods placed Eigoro on Zatoichi's path to try to tempt him with a moral dilemma. But he never spirals out of control in that moment. It just leads him to Kichi, Eigoro's sister. There's almost a moment where the movie was going to embrace the conceit and allow Zatoichi to undergo a character change.
With Kichi attacks Zatoichi with the blade and he chooses to allow the sword to strike him, I thought that there could have been something there. I thought that this was going to be this tale of him falling in love with Kichi as he sees Boss Tohachi slowly take over parts of the town. It could have been the Logan of 1966. I mean, Logan and the whole Wolverine mythos that was established on the comics borrowed heavily from Japanese Ronin stories, so it's not like that plot is unprecedented. It is just that the movie so quickly abandoned the main storyline. The movie is straight up called Zatoichi's Pilgrimage and that storyline just fades away in the first ten minutes of a pretty short film. Why? The titles, to a certain extent, are like rom-com titles at this point. They are there to simply differentiate entries in the series. Which Zatoichi movie is the one where he's on a pilgrimage before he starts killing everybody? Zatoichi's Pilgrimage. That's it. It's not about the soul-searching necessary to become a better person.
And yet, there's something. It's very hidden in the background. It's like director Ikehoro really really wanted to make Zatoichi's Pilgrimage slightly special because, even though the script almost completely ignores the story presented within, Ikehoro allows for these moments of quietness to the movie. Here's the deal: If I summarized this film, it would follow, beat-for-beat, the formula of every other Zatoichi movie. I already gave those major moments above. But there are really slow moments where it seemed, just by holding the shot for a second longer than was necessary, that Zatoichi might have been going through something when he wasn't killing someone. There's nothing to be said in those moments. It's not like Kichi or the other farmers within the village are commenting that Zatoichi seems to be a little bit off. It's jus these cinematic shots that make it feel like the character is becoming one with the background. It's subtle, but I give points. Again, some of this could just be me and the fact that I over-read into everything.
There's a really weird lesson that eventually stems out of Zatoichi's Pilgrimage and I don't know if it the message that the filmmakers wanted to tell. Like many of these movies, the final act comes down to Zatoichi versus the gang in one giant fight scene. Like in some of the other entries in the series, Zatoichi is fighting in the village he is defending. Like Seven Samurai (at least, early on in Seven Samurai) the farmers are cowards and will not help in defending their own village. Kichi begs and pleads with the farmers to get out there and to help Ichi, but none of them agree until one of the tertiary characters decides to grow a backbone. Everyone aware that this character is greatly outnumbered, but he's going to stand by Zatoichi, even if it means that it kills him. Now, normally a character that grows a backbone offers some help. He at least dispatches one or two guys, right? Not in this situation. That guy goes out, dies immediately. And Zatoichi looks at him like "Why would he do that?" yet salutes his honor and bravery. Aren't the farmers right to hide if the only guy who ran out to help after listening to a protagonist's pleas is killed immediately? Like, when Zatoichi honors the guy and admonishes the farmers, aren't they kind of right? Because Zatoichi got zero actual help and was mostly fine. Okay, he got an arrow through the arm, but I think that was just to make him look cool.
I'm going to end this here. If the filmmakers of the Zatoichi don't offer me more to write about, anything else I add here is just ultimately filler. It's a fine movie, but it is so darned similar to every other entry in the series.
Rated R for kid murder and kid death. I mean, there's other death, but the most memorable and gutsy death involves kid death. It's really tame for an R-rated movie, considering that the PG-13 horror movie exists in today's culture. But I can see the idea of this movie being R for 1980 as a real thing. It's only when you think about Poltergeist as a PG film that things get a little wonky. But it is kind of adorable what is considered a hard R for 1980. It might be a bigger commentary on America than anything else to consider a movie like this to be R-rated. Or the fact that I even question a movie about brutal murders to be something of PG faire. Regardless...
DIRECTOR: Peter Medak
This movie is a classic, right? I feel like this is one of those beloved horror movies of yesteryear. It's the kind of horror movie that really appeals to the film nerd. But part of me might be projecting on the film because I absolutely dig the poster art. That might make me a bad film blogger, but that's something I've never denied in the four years that I've written this blog. (Also, I know that I watched most of Poltergeist two years ago, but did I watch the whole thing enough to have written an entry? These are the random thoughts that interrupt the flow of what-should-be a naturally progressing blog entry.) I knew nothing of this movie outside of the fact that it had the wheelchair on the poster and that people treat it with a modicum of respect. When I saw that this was a movie about General Patton fighting oogetty-boogetties, well, that ended up just being a treat.
Listen, The Changeling is a perfectly fine movie. I'll not complain about it. Heck, I keep throwing Poltergeist in here as a comparison mainly because it would make a fine double feature with The Changeling. There's something about the older haunted house movies that really scratch a pretty exciting itch. I can't help but make the comparison to the gothic novel that we kind of got a resurgence with when it came to the horror movies of the '70s and '80s. I'm going to be writing about a feeling of synergy that I can't quite put into words. As much as I still appreciate a good haunted house story set in the contemporary era, there's something about setting a story in 1980 and coupling it with an evil home that makes it worth while.
I think it is the idea of the cell phone and the creature comforts of today that don't mesh quite well against the spiritual realm. Maybe it is because we are inclined to turn to science in the contemporary era when the characters in a 1980s horror movie just instantly dive into the realm of fantasy and the afterlife. Don't get me wrong, John Russell first looks at the pipes to explain the goofy noises. But he never really has that stage of trying to capture the ghost using EMF or whatever newer films tend to lean on. There is no internet scene. Heck, I have to imagine that George C Scott probably felt pretty good that he was using the library's microfilm database to look up the history of the house. It had to feel like the future compared to the halcyon days of Vincent Price and The House on Haunted Hill.
What this all inadvertently does is make the mood of The Changeling a powerhouse. It really doesn't have to be that good of a movie. In fact, there are a handful of things in this movie that are plain ol' dumb. But it is that atmosphere of 1980s grit fighting the macabre history of the early 1900s that really just works. 80 years is a long time, but it isn't such a long time that it can't interact with the world of today. Sure, it kind of goes off the rails with the senator plot. I really wanted to like the senator plot. The really great haunting movies, for me, are the ones where the protagonist has a chance to escape the fate of the house by investigating the history and putting the ghost at rest. Really, it's a fantasy-led detective story that should ultimately come full circle to the events that are happening to the cast of heroes. This is what made The Ring so great at the time. Maybe it is the feeling of being kind of antiquated (although I loved The Ring the most when it first came out).
But when The Conjuring movies do what they do right, it is usually because it is all old timey. That feeling of otherworldliness is often lost on today's society. This is me sounding like a sad old man who isn't even 40 yet, but everything now is about the Internet and making things bigger and scarier. The idea of the gothic horror is kind of passé for our culture. Again, we can only revisit it through nostalgia.
But I suppose I should talk about what doesn't really work in The Changeling as well. See, it's a perfectly fine movie...if you shut your brain off. (Trust me, I'm very okay with doing this. I'm not saying The Changeling is for dumb people. But the movie asks you to go along with the ride and simply accept a lot.) John Russell has a traumatic inciting incident. He has the best family in the world. I love how the story needs for Russell's car to breakdown while simultaneously showing the family at their best. So instead of having a complaining family pushing a station wagon down a snowy road, they're somehow enjoying it. Honestly, this family goes from shoving a multi-ton (I think?) vehicle in crappy weather to instantly transition to giggly snowball fight. It's pretty hilarious and I instantly didn't take the movie seriously. They had to get wrecked at the height of John's happiness, but that accident needed to have an element of John blaming himself.
And for a while, it really seemed like John's internal conflict was getting over the death of his family. After all, Joseph really plays up the dead daughter haunting by having the ball constantly remind him of the death of his little girl. But the second he finds out that the haunting isn't done by his daughter, his family really takes a back seat. Now, we could call this character growth. But there isn't a direct tie between moving on from his grief and purging the house of this damned spirit. (Not like I'm swearing there, although it kind of works both ways.) Then there's the mislead. There's the girl who dies by the coal cart. I got invested in the girl who dies by the coal cart.
Now, I'm going to play devil's advocate here. The girl who dies from the coal cart in 1909 could act as a cautionary tale. If John decides to ignore Joseph, he could end up like the little girl in 1909. But I'm going to fight that reading of the story because, like John's family, the little girl never comes up again. And the movie devotes so much time to this story. John discovers the little girl's backstory when he finally accepts the call of the goddess and continues into the attic. The reward for his courage is the girl's story. That story needs to have value. Instead, it is just this side story that ends up being a complete red herring in the narrative.
All this comes down to the fact that this is really a short story about a senator who profited from the death of a little boy that he never met. There's not a lot of meat there. I mean, the meat that we got is good. It's like quail. What story there is actually is fun and impressive. It's an interesting and deep melodrama about privilege and corrupt government. Okay, but it doesn't say much about it. Also, we never get the full notion that the senator knows what's up. Sometimes the movie implies that he knows all about the handoff. Sometimes, he can't believe his father would be capable of murdering a little handicapped kid in a bathtub and seems mortified by the accusation. It's all very muddy. But all we know is that he goes up the stairs of a burning house to confront Joseph...
...and Joseph doesn't really care what John did. That's a weird moral of the story. Joseph has tried to tell his tale to all of the inhabitants of the house. John actually responds and does his best to remedy this situation and put Joseph's soul to rest. (I just realized I'm complaining that the demon is being a little unfair at this point.) John takes a major religious and philosophical leap to get Joseph's soul free from the house. But each time that John returns, the house just gets more aggressive. Was John supposed to kill the senator? The movie kind of implies that's what Joseph is mad about when he returns. John presented all of the information to the senator and gave him all of the evidence and then hoped for the best. Yeah, from a ghost's perspective, that might be a lame decision. But I would argue that John killing the senator would only evoke more rage from Joseph. I suppose that there's a far-fetched scenario where John leads the senator to the house, yells "Surprise" coupled with an expletive, and then allows Joseph to rip him apart. But that really makes John the bad guy of the piece.
But all of that is more of a commentary on the genre. There's always a rush to unravel the mystery of the ghost and the ghost rarely seems to be at peace about that investigation. Maybe it is because ghosts are insane or whatever canon that particular movie follows, but I honestly believe it is because that's what we want. We want our third act to be bannisters on fire and old-timey wheelchairs trying to murder people. And it works. That's what The Changeling is. It's a goofy old horror movie that ticks a lot of boxes, despite not having a ton of content. I enjoyed it, but I also don't know how much I could put it in the "great" column.
PG. You know, those movies that have nudity and a sex shaming plot that often end up with a PG rating? Oh, I can't forget the murders by garroting that are also in this movie. That's pretty typical to get an R-rating as well. I mean, the entire SPECTRE training ground stresses that they train with live ammunition. These are all things that are pretty typical of a PG rating. Okay, sure, I watched this movie as a kid multiple times. But look how I turned out. You know what? Back that up. It's James Bond PG. Also, the movie has a pretty backwards attitude towards the Romani people, referring to them as gypsies throughout.
DIRECTOR: Terence Young
For years and years and years and years, I considered From Russia with Love to be the greatest Bond movie. Heck, there was a time in my life that I considered it to be one of the greatest movies of all time. (I was in a bit of a Bond phase at the time.) But since I got this blog and started teaching my film class, I've been trying to watch these movies with a bit of a critical eye. And I have a confession to make: the last time I watched From Russia with Love, I got a little bored. It was in that moment that I thought that my new favorite Bond movie was Casino Royale. That slight dip in ranking made me question everything I thought about Casino Royale. I thought that maybe I was being a snob. After all, while From Russia with Love is probably one the better Bond movies by a lot of people's opinions, most people give Goldfinger all of the props. But maybe all it took was some time away from the film to appreciate it anew. While I can still confidently say that Casino Royale might be the best Bond film, From Russia with Love is the best that Classic Bond has to offer.
While writing about GoldenEye, I stated that there was a tonal shift between Licence to Kill and GoldenEye that was a firm break from what I consider Classic Bond and nu-Bond. In my head, these are different franchises that wink at each other from time-to-time. But I think both Classic Bond and nu-Bond owe a lot to From Russia with Love. As much as I love James Bond movies, they have one really dangerous flaw that is hard to reconcile with: they constantly want to out-do the previous film while holding aggressively onto the formula. What ends up happening is that these film become outrageously cornball, as can be seen in stuff like Moonraker or Octopussy. Heck, even Diamonds are Forever is a far-cry from the Ian Fleming source material. I'm not saying that Fleming's writing was the most tame stuff in the world. His final full length adventure has Bond getting amnesia and living in a Japanese fishing village after killing Blofeld. It's not like he shied away from melodrama. But the James Bond of the film franchise was almost a cartoon character. I'm not saying that is a bad thing. I fell in love with the concept of these films, so who am I to complain about absurdity?
But From Russia with Love is this really special thing in the timeline. It is a very different film from its predecessor, Dr. No. Part of this comes down to setting and how setting influences mood overall. But moreover, Bond grows into a more international character in From Russia with Love. In Dr. No, the titular villain comments that Bond is "...nothing but a stupid policeman." While Bond certainly isn't stupid, Dr. No kind of treats him like he is a policeman. He's following clues and it seems like he stumbles upon something that is far greater than anything he's ever dealt with before. But the sequel, From Russia with Love, makes his world that much bigger. The events of the first movie now seem commonplace for him. And this is what makes From Russia with Love this perfect nexus of Ian Fleming's character and what Broccoli and Saltzman wanted out of the character. Fleming almost reads like a goofy Tom Clancy novel with a healthy dose of racism and sexism woven in. But central to his story was the world of international espionage. When we think of Bond, we often think of Bond versus the Russians and the tenuous diplomacy of the Cold War. From Russia with Love is where we get that idea. While the films revisit Russia as the villains throughout the series, no time is closer to the actual situation than what we see in From Russia with Love. The Russians aren't moustache twirling in this movie. In fact, Terence Young portrays them as equally capable as Her Majesty's government, both being played as dupes by SPECTRE.
It's amazing that I'm so just cool with SPECTRE. Fleming, an author who had a history with espionage in reality, wrote this organization (Okay, the original was SMERSH) that was an evil comic-booky shadow organization that just was crime-for-crime's-sake. Yet, so much about this is about the politics of two superpowers that are not allowed to shoot at each other on land that was tenuous. And it somehow works. The fact that SPECTRE is the bad guy gives it a complexity while also making it borderline cartoonish. Both sides of the Cold War are allowed to be sympathetic because they are both being manipulated by this shadow organization that you are asked to shut your brain off for. If you think I'm being flippant about SPECTRE, by the way, think about the Kronstein death scene. It's very over the top. Also, does Blofeld just have a fighting fish budget so he can keep using them as a metaphor for SPECTRE as a whole? I don't know.
One of the great Bond debates is about the Bond girl. I always find this to be gross. For being such a die-hard James Bond fan, it always puts me off ranking the Bond girls. I easily have a least favorite Bond girl with Christmas Jones from The World is Not Enough. But I just realized that Tatiana Romanovna might be my favorite Bond girl. Romanovna really sits in this really interesting space. She is outside of the world of espionage. In many ways, she acts as the audience's avatar. Bond can't be our avatar. He has it all too much together. But she is this woman who is only trying to do the right thing while not getting shot. It becomes clear that she genuinely has feelings for Bond, despite the fact that it is a dangerous thing to fall in love with James Bond. She puts on this strong front and gets a job done that she is woefully ill-prepared for. Yeah, there are moments where she comes across as the fragile woman, but most of that is under the influence of sedation. But the biggest thing is that she never comes across as a silly Bond girl. She isn't given this over-sexualized name. While she's obsessed with Bond, there's a reason that she acts the way that she does. And these are the glory days where you can still lie to yourself that Bond isn't only using these women for Queen and Country. (I mean, he totally does. It's straight up his mission. But there's a hint that Bond might actually love her back.)
Similarly, the Q-Branch fight, coupled with the Red Grant fight, all seem within the realm of possible. The relationship between Bond and Q hasn't been started yet. I know. That's my favorite part of these films too. But Bond's first gadgets all seem kind of practical. A briefcase with a knife and an anti-tamper device? Cool. That makes sense. Even Red Grant establishes the idea of the Bond heavy that he has to take out. But Red Grant is one of those Jaws-like characters who actually just seems like he's a really strong and well-trained dude as opposed to completely gimmicky. I love Robert Shaw in this movie. As much as people see him as Quint in Jaws, I always thought of him as Red Grant. (For you Man for All Seasons folks out there, simmer down.)
There is just so much that works in this movie and it's all because it is the toned down version of what Bond would eventually become. The fights seem larger than life, but plausible. The bad guys are great and nuanced. There's an attempt to ground the world of this grandiose sci-fi world that would eventually get so big and overinflated. There's no giant fight sequence, which makes the smaller fight sequences all that much more powerful. Honestly, the series need not get more exciting than Bond taking out a helicopter that is chasing him over a mountain. Also, the supporting cast is just great. I actually get bummed when Kerim Bey dies because he's one of those all time great supporting roles. As much as Casino Royale will take the cake, I was right to consider From Russia with Love one of the great Bond films. It's solid and ticks all of the boxes while offering a slow and interesting narrative. Sure, it also introduces plot holes for later films, like General Gogol's alliances or why there even is the St. Sofia scene. But it doesn't matter. The movie really works.
Rated R for a lot of language, off-screen drug use, off-screen adultery, and mild violence. Also, you really have to be comfortable with your own mortality coupled with the mortality with the people around you to make it all the way through this movie. It's a gut punch and it's going to try to get you in all of the feels. I don't know if you can really make something R rated by that logic, but don't expect the lightest comedy from this outing. R.
DIRECTOR: Alexander Payne
Man, what a difference a decade makes. I'm 38 now. I have a wife and four kids. I thought that this was an okay movie a decade ago. I certainly didn't think it was worthy of an Oscar nom. Back then, I didn't know who Nat Faxon and Jim Rash were, let alone that I would consider Jim Rash to be a genius a couple of years later. But at 38, this movie hits and hits hard. It's not like I have Matt King's life in the least. I don't think that wife is cheating on me. I know that she's not in the hospital dying. I'm fairly certain that my kids don't live the lives of these kids. But this movie just ripped me apart this time. The funny thing is, despite the fact that I watched the same movie twice, it seemed like two very stories, despite the fact that the plot was what I remembered it being.
In my head, this was the story of obsessive Matt King and the fact that he is torn between stalking his spouse's lover and having to keep it together for his kids. When I watched this the first time, I thought about this was about a man's toxic elements consuming him until he realized he needed to let things go. Boy, I was wrong. Now, I know what this is going to make me sound like a bad person considering what I just said, but Matt King is kind of a flawed saint. Heck, I would probably do exactly what he did in a similar situation. Matt is hurting for the entire movie. From moment in the film, he is dealing with a spouse who is dying. While most movies deal with the crisis moment coming right before the climax, Matt has already dealt with his crisis moment before the movie even began. Elizabeth's accident was his Ebenezer Scrooge moment. He discovers that he has been lacking as a father and as a husband and he has committed to change. It's not that he was a bad guy before this. It's just that his priorities were all screwed up. Not evil or anything, but someone who has made small compromises and had to deal with the consequences of those compromises.
Now, in this world, Elizabeth is terrible and my wife is not. But I can see myself napalming the world given the situation. And when he discovers his wife's infidelity, that's where the new story begins. He made his choice and there's an almost Twilight Zone style irony to this discovery. He made this huge decision to become a better person and the universe dared him to renege on that decision. Sure, the movie becomes heartwarming after that. It's because of his wife's toxicity that these people come together. I feel like I'm going to go real sappy now and I really don't want to. But there's something that reminds me of the aftermath of World War II. All this tragedy and misery that anyone would avoid given an opportunity leads to something positively vital to society.
It is in this moment that I realize that this is a movie about bonding over shared toxicity. Matt is so disappointed Alexandra and in himself for letting Alexandra become the person she is. But when they realize that there's a reason for Alexandra's dark turn and that it is a shared mourning, that makes things oddly better. The rest of the movie becomes this very dangerous tightrope to walk. Matt knows that he has to be a better person than he wants to be. In my head, he wants to go scorched Earth on everyone. Scott, Elizabeth's father, is borderline begging to get ripped apart. He becomes this litmus test for how far a person can be pushed. The right thing to do would be to hold back, allow Scott mourn the death of his daughter by allowing Matt to be the punching bag. Yet, as an audience, that seems like a betrayal. Because Matt is our protagonist and avatar for going through the process of grieving, we want him to have a moment of catharsis that doesn't really come. It's that sacrificial element that we all experience in this moment. Because the movie really does have a happy ending, despite how depressing the film is. (Part of me kept rewriting the story in my head that allowed Elizabeth to wake up from the coma and the story oddly became more tragic, despite a miraculous recovery.)
But Matt's new goal isn't necessarily to find Brian, Elizabeth's lover. That's the quest he is on. In the same way that Frodo's quest is to destroy the One Ring, his real quest is to show that mortals are ultimately good and capable of resisting sin. Matt's quest is to find Brian, but his real goal is to ensure that Alexandra sees that the world doesn't need to be about revenge or indulging selfish goals. Those moments are so tempting and Matt even is on the verge of losing his soul in the process of the whole thing. That's what I really indulged the first time I watched this, not knowing the importance of being a good role model for the kids. When Matt confronts Brian at his cabin, he starts letting his true motivation peek through. But he still holds back. And that's when the temptation about the money becomes something that forms this new element of the story.
I know more about Hawaii now than I did a decade ago. I'm not saying I know everything, but I know something about the culture from podcasts and editorials. There is a really complicated cultural dynamic in Hawaii. I always thought of it as just another state, just far away and tropical. But Hawaii, um, maybe shouldn't be a U.S. state? Maybe it should be independent. The struggle exists between white people holding power and the indigenous people being seen as second class citizens. I know, what else is new? There's this story that is publicly about Matt's morality being on trial. Matt knows that his land is complicated. While legally his, there's something about the King family owning such a large plot of land in Hawaii that is kind of gross. Now, Matt's stance has always been on the low-key moral side. He kept the land as-is because it preserves the natural beauty of the landscape. But laws have forced his hand into deciding something that would be a morally neutral decision. But there are still consequences to this action. He has to sell the land, which would make him rich. But by selling the land, he is betraying the Hawaiian people and changing the entire dynamic of the region. And that is all going on while he's dealing with the medically dubious situation with his wife coupled with an affair that he just discovered. Any man would crumble under these situations. Matt doesn't come across as a hero, but he really is.
It's because of his real flawed reaction to everything is what makes this movie excellent. He is a good person and the movie intentionally rarely gives him credit for his good actions. Sure, the end at the family vote, there's that moment where we can pat him on the back. But the entire movie is this guy who is acting against his own self-interests and how the world turns out to be a better place because he did the right thing when the easy thing would be to do the wrong thing. God, I was so so wrong about this movie a decade ago. I knew it was okay, but the movie is kind of genius. It is a gorgeous film that acknowledges what privilege is about while stressing the importance of sacrificing oneself for others. Well done, movie. Well done.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.