Not rated because it is a British film from 1958, but it involves the tragedy of the Titanic. It's about the deaths of many people who got on a ship that floated on hubris. While the brutality is pretty minimal, there are some really depressing moments as you think about people, including children, freezing to death. There is a frozen dead kid wrapped up in a blanket, mainly because it is clearly a dummy. Not rated.
DIRECTOR: Roy Ward Baker
You know, I almost had to write about Britney Spears today. I watched that documentary and then discovered that it is probably more of an episode of a series than a standalone film. It's not that I don't want to write about that movie. It's just that I get a freebie of not having to cross it off and delay A Night to Remember, an early entry in the Criterion Collection.
I don't know what it is about the Titanic that captivates us so much. I remember as a kid, we were in Florida and we passed a Titanic museum. This is Orlando, so the place was saturated with attempts to provide entertainment on the days that the kids weren't going to Disney. I remember thinking how much I wanted to learn about the Titanic before entering the museum and then, midway through, having to leave and not really caring. (These are half-memories and I don't remember why we had to leave.) I had only seen the James Cameron version of Titanic a few years ago and remember being completely underwhelmed. Seriously, people lost their minds for that movie. It's kind of amazing that James Cameron got all of the credit for bringing the majesty of the Titanic to the screen. Honestly, A Night to Remember does a pretty darned impressive job, especially considering that it was 1958 and it is potentially less gimmicky / definitely way shorter of a film.
I'm torn about something, though. A Night to Remember is both genius and kind of dull for the same reason. Instead of relying on historical fiction to tell about the Titanic disaster, like with Jack and Rose, A Night to Remember doesn't really have a protagonist. The closest person we get to as a protagonist is Second Officer Charles Herbert Lightoller. He doesn't really have an arc in the story. Like most disaster stories, it becomes entirely about survival. I claim that he might be the closest thing to a lead in this movie because he is the first person that the audience meets before the Titanic ever leaves dock. But A Night to Remember really allows the story to be told from just the experience of being on the ship. Most of the characters, even the ones who have repeated scenes, often aren't addressed by name. I couldn't tell you which characters are based on real people and who is straight up fictionalized because we, as the audience, don't really have time to spend with any of these people.
So what happens is that the movie becomes about mood. Without a grounded character who serves as our avatar, we watch the film with a sense of suspense. We know that the story is going to end with the boat going down. We know that the majority of the people on the boat die. This is such a famous story that there is no getting around what is supposed to happen. So what it ends up being is trying to figure out 1) who screwed this all up and 2) do these people deserve death? That's really dark and I'm ashamed of myself for writing this. But there's this really unique feeling that you get where you divorce the real life tragedy of what happened and the narrative film that I ended up watching. Because some of these people come across as real saints and the other ones are monsters. There are very few people in this movie who end up being moral grey areas. The movie thrives on that juxtaposition. We keep seeing these people who are absolutely the worst and then we find others who are completely aware that they are sacrificing their own lives for other people. That's what we're watching for and gosh darned it if Baker doesn't want you to judge these folks.
What is truly haunting, though, is the commentary on humanity. Maybe we are a truly terrible species and Star Trek really got it wrong. The people who suck aren't all people who want to escape with the women and children. I, at least, get that. I mean, from the safety of my desk, I can claim that I know that I'll let my loved ones live without me. But then again, I'm not under the stress of my imminent death, so who am I to say anything. But it is the lack of listening to rules and being put out by minor inconveniences that really bother me. I yelled at a kid pretty hard today for continually sucking at wearing his mask in school. He kept doing it unconsciously, but I know that many people out there, especially around where I live, refuse to wear masks during a pandemic, despite the fact that it is endangering other people. In this one, it is people refusing to wear life vests. Who are we as a species, guys? How did civilization wreck us so much? There are people in the holds who are poor immigrants desperate to get out, and people are trying to protest wearing vests or getting into the boat with other people? Come on. I mean, I'm mad and I think I'm supposed to be mad after watching something like that.
I'm kind of shocked that this movie is so darned well made. Yeah, I'm probably not going to be obsessed with the Titanic anymore. And we don't get that major moment that you get in Titanic, where the ship splits in two. But there's very little that doesn't impress like the Cameron version does. Like, it had to be a model, right? It almost never feels like a model. Models on water tend to be rough when we watch them in film. The water never really moves right and there is something terribly artificial about the whole thing. But the Titanic in A Night to Remember never really feels all that off. It looks like it is a real ship that is going down. I know that Baker decided to intercut real news footage with his newly created footage, which you would think would only stress the flaws in the new stuff. But it never ever looks bad. Part of that probably comes from the fact that Criterion makes a neat looking Blu-Ray. But the other end of the scale involves the fact that this is a movie that was given quite a bit of attention and love. The early Criterion releases often make me question how these movies made it into the collection. But then there's A Night to Remember, which really does have a sense of scale. The early days of widescreen cinema really helps this film. There's just something epic about the whole thing.
I want to end on the title of the movie. 90% of me believes that the movie wanted to go for something ironic. Again, I was interested in the Titanic as a kid, mainly because there was always something Titanic related in Scholastic book fairs and I read those things fast. But was the phrase A Night to Remember something that was said by someone. I'm sure that I could look this up. But I do find the title somewhat haunting. We use "A Night to Remember" as something with a positive connotation. It involves celebration and success. And that's what the Titanic was before it sank. It was a giant party on a boat where we were celebrating the fact that we have built the Tower of Babel. Mankind had finally overcome the technological gap that allowed people to die at sea and we were thrust down to perdition for our hubris. (I think this is the second time I used the word "hubris" in this blog.) It is really scary, how all of this just kind of happened. This unsinkable ship sinks and sinks quite easily. And almost to spit in the face of science and technology, there were so many things that went wrong. I still don't know what happened to that ship that was only ten miles away, but it just feels like insult was added to injury.
I didn't like Titanic, but A Night to Remember has all the stuff I liked about Titanic. It doesn't seem like a small movie, especially considering that contemporary audiences probably only associate the sinking of this massive ship with the film involving not-letting-go. I can see why this is one of those movies that has entered the cinematic canon. Yeah, there is no central story and it almost just feels like a historical recreation, but I don't mind that. It has genuine vulnerability and tells a compelling tale.
PG, for kids constantly swearing and claiming that other people's breath smells like human anatomy. Also, I remember a part of this movie terrifying me. I can't have been the only one who was super scared of NASA kidnapping a dying E.T. My son found E.T. himself terrifying and never really got over that. He ended up playing Sonic Dash on my phone the entire time. I also watched the version that has shotguns instead of walkie-talkies. PG.
DIRECTOR: Steven Spielberg
I can't believe that my blog is following up something as mainstream as The Shawshank Redemption with something as mainstream as E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Before I get a handful of comments that I should be writing about the true story of the Atari cartridges buried in the desert, know that I am aware of that story and this is a film blog about the movie.
I never really understood how E.T. is considered this universal modern classic. I mean, it's better than Mac & Me, but it is a pretty blah movie. Even the ride at Universal Studios was always kind of lackluster to me. (I also have to state for as lackluster as this movie is, I also am slogging through writing this. I just don't have the drive. What you get is an exercise in sheer willpower.) Part of me wants to write off the story as something that was a product of the '80s. I mean, I grew up with this movie. This movie was an integral part of my contemporaries' childhoods. But even then, I didn't really get what all of the fuss was about. I mean, I suppose it's a fine movie. But it also seems like kind of an empty film. I'm about to slog down a whiny curve that's pretty unproductive, so realize that if your tastes differ wildly from mine, it probably all really comes down to a matter of taste. I also harbor the same opinions on Close Encounters of a Third Kind.
What bugs me about E.T. is that I never really feel the bond for the titular alien. Like, the only real takeaway I have is the overwhelming sadness of when E.T. is dying. That's it. Yeah, I giggle at some of the cuter moments. E.T. hiding in Elliot's closet is pretty iconic. But E.T. never really felt fleshed out to me. It really just seems like a collection of ideas that really don't tie together. Listen, I know that there is a hardcore E.T. savant who could explain every element to me, but the conflict of the movie doesn't really make a ton of sense to me. For a long time in the film, the movie is about E.T. learning to stay off the grid while he finds a way to contact his spaceship. I'm cool with that. But why is E.T. dying? There's the scene at Halloween where he makes the bikes fly, but why is he all of the sudden really dying? Is it the same thing that killed the aliens in War of the Worlds? It also feels like Elliot's bond with the alien only exists to have him die later. Yeah, I admit that I forgot about Elliot getting vicariously drunk on E.T.'s beer, but that's just so we can have to worry about this little kid who is dying at the same time.
There's also a lot of, "Well that happened because it did moments." E.T. getting really sick for no reason or explanation is one part of it, but then he gets better for no reason too? To me both today and when I was a little kid, this is a moment of false conflict. It isn't a lesson that is tied to the events of the story. There is nothing that Elliot or E.T. could have done differently that has any degree of moral responsibility. Instead, the movie had nowhere to go, so it just threw this element in. If this wasn't a movie about an alien that had a degree of mystery, this plot development would have come across as absurd. Two kids become friends and then one has a heart-attack and seems to die. But then he gets up and is just fine? They continue on with their adventure. The thing is, there's already a conflict woven into the story. The idea that E.T. could be caught at any time is a perfectly legit conflict. But the scene where the scary NASA folks show up (NASA or mysterious government agency that wears space suits on Earth), there isn't much of a threat to Elliot or his friends.
It's appropriate that there is a ride at Universal for E.T. because Elliot himself is almost on a ride instead of making active decisions. That's not always the case. Elliot starts the film as an active agent in this story. He investigates the shed. He skips school. He organizes the Halloween experiment. But never does Elliot have an inkling that government folks are searching for his little alien. Instead, the threat just manifests itself. It's not protagonist versus antagonist. The two are almost unaware of each other. And with the case of the government looking for the alien, it makes them look real evil, but what is the alternative? It's not like E.T. made his awareness known or has any kind of way to communicate with them. He has come from outer space and is dying by the time that the government has shown up. From what I understand, that shadowy government agency tried to save both E.T. and Elliot. And isn't it a bit bizarre, considering how evil the government comes across in this film, that Elliot isn't under seven levels of arrest for being the only human to come in contact with an alien?
I have to mention it, don't I? I don't want to, you know. I'd rather avoid it all together, if you don't mind. But I know that this blog entry will be incomplete until I mention it...
Ahem: The Christ Allegory.
Yeah, it's pretty superficial. For all my grumbling about this random plot point, the idea is that E.T. is standing in for Christ in this one. He comes from afar and becomes one of us. (E.T. dresses up in clothing and tries beer. That's an American if I've ever heard of one.) He heals people, in this case literally, and brings back the dead (flowers). When those people who are meant to be good to him take him into custody, he dies only to return later. He eventually ascends to where he came from and we're all the better for knowing him. Why? Why did we need this to be another Christ allegory. E.T. is so cornball and Christianity isn't. It seems like the most cheap metaphor out there. I'd like to point out that I actually really like Steven Spielberg, but this metaphor is played out, especially in a movie like E.T..
My daughter wanted to watch this for her birthday and I didn't think it was the worst choice. But even with me going in extremely optimistic, golly I was bored at times. There are just some movies that everyone else likes that I get nothing out of.
Rated R for a lot of reasons. I'm going to bury this one, because I don't want it to show up in the preview, but the movie deals with prison rape. It all happens off camera, but that doesn't mean that it isn't part of the story. There's a solid bit of brutality and death. The language can be pretty foul and there's a fair share of smoking. Also, it depicts Christians as the worst. R.
DIRECTOR: Frank Darabont
Oh man, this blog has gotten basic. It's the Ugg boots and pumpkin spice lattes of blogs. When I find myself writing about The Shawshank Redemption, I must have jumped at least one shark. This is every bro's favorite movie. I firmly believe that, at any one moment, The Shawshank Redemption is playing on basic cable. Double or nothing, it's going to be on TNT. I have a confession to make: while I have seen this movie, I haven't seen it in one sitting. Because it was always on cable, I have seen the majority of this film. But that film was edited and it often started a few minutes in. I have one of those posters of Must See movies and I just couldn't justify scratching it off without watching it the way this was meant to be seen.
Again, my OG blog got deleted, so there's going to be some aggro writing happening. I need to stop writing in areas of bad Internet. I would also like to confess that I have been on a Stephen King kick as of late. In high school, I thought that reading Stephen King made me such a rebel. Now, it is my joyful, mindless reading. I still think that Stephen King is a better writer than people make him out to be, with the exception of funny characters and endings. Part of this context, I also just finished the CBS All Access version of The Stand, so I'm really into him right now.
But I can see why people are really into The Shawshank Redemption. I mean, I don't deny that it is a bit sappier than most. But I give it the most points because it is a story that doesn't allow King to hide behind his old tricks. We all know King as a horror writer. Even when something isn't overtly horror, there are elements of the supernatural or fantasy running through his stories. Even in The Green Mile, which feels like a spiritual sequel to The Shawshank Redemption, there is magic. I don't want to downplay the value of fantasy. I love genre fiction, which is probably why I really like Stephen King to this day. But I can't deny that it is really easy to have that "cool" moment in genre storytelling. But with The Shawshank Redemption, King is at his most vulnerable. There is a cool moment in The Shawshank Redemption. (Safely, there are two cool moments.) I'm talking about the opera sequence. A cool moment in a drama is tough because it has to be earned. The entire story up to that point allowed Andy to be in that situation that made him the hero of this story. It's kind of great.
But a lot of the credit kind of goes to Frank Darabont. Darabont has so much of my respect. Yeah, I don't know if I'll ever go to town for Darabont. It's not like he's made any of my favorites out there. But Darabont knows how to tell a story and tell it well. Darabont gives a certain seriousness to the tone of his movies and TV shows. I honestly don't think The Walking Dead would be the insane hit it is today. He knows how to make a story about character that is rich and cinematic. Yeah, there is a story to The Shawshank Redemption. I think a lesser writer / director would have focused on the crime that Andy was framed for as the lynch pin of the entire story. However, as important as that revelation is to the film as a whole, it honestly takes a backseat to the characterization of Andy and Red throughout the narrative.
Because not much really happens in The Shawshank Redemption. Instead, it is a look at prison life. It's fascinating, but I do have to comment that there's something almost a little sanitary to the prison life. I know, I've been broken by Oz and Orange is the New Black. While The Shawshank Redemption definitely gets pretty bleak throughout the story, the narrative really stresses that prisoners are good people. I know that is not an absolute because there are some monsters in this story, including people in Andy's inner circle. But Darabont is really good at creating the emotional sob-story, and to do that, the prison has to look like a community. I also don't like stating that prison communities can't be healthy and that prisoners can't be good people. But Andy's twenty years in prison kind of feels like a cakewalk after a certain amount of time. He never really feels the need to sacrifice his moral code to survive in this place. Instead, Andy makes his way though his sentence fundamentally the same person as how he left. Red is the character that makes the giant change, but much of that change happens before the story starts.
But the genius of The Shawshank Redemption isn't about Andy or Red. I know that's kind of a gutsy statement to make. Andy and Red's story is interesting, but Darabont and King use Andy and Red to almost tell an anthology tale about an experience. Before The Shawshank Redemption, we didn't really have a criticism of the prison experience. Like what Darabont would do with The Walking Dead, this is a story about setting and how it affects people. The prison for these characters establishes a set of rules that cannot be escaped. As part of that, The Shawshank Redemption almost acts an anthology series, highlighting the stories of the prisoners and guards, tied only by the walls they are enclosed by and how they are remotely tied to Andy or Red. Sure, there's a culmination to all this mythology storytelling, the downfall of the Warden and the head guard. But that is almost a story in itself. It plays both sides and works well with both.
Is it odd that I don't really bond with Andy? I know that makes me a monster. He has this insanely tragic arc, especially considering his innocence in the entire film is what causes him to sacrifice his life. But I really get along with Red, who isn't the best human being in the world. Okay, the film has the word Redemption in the title. It is about Red's redemption. But is bizarre to think that Red starts off the film betting who will be the first one to crack in prison. There is no moment of regret in this moment. There is a moment when Andy vocalizes that no one knows the Fish's name, but that's as far as that goes. And Darabont kind of takes the easy way out of this moment. If Red and his friends regularly bet on ways that the new fish will crack, we never really have this moment again. Does Red continue with these bets? I mean, Heywood straight up gets the new Fish killed. He talks him into completely snapping. For all intents and purposes, New Fish was Andy. They came in together. They became friends with Andy. They could have been friends with the Fish. Red could have killed Andy just as easily.
But then I have to stop being so cynical. This is a story of friendship. And the movie is really quite touching. I get why so many people like it. Part of me wonders if it is just my snobbishness that has stopped me from adoring this film. It is very good. It's just a bit too sappy for me, I guess. I am a broken person. But I can't deny that the film is very, very impressive.
Rated R for a lot of Frances McDormand having to relieve herself on camera. There's a couple scenes of this. There's also full-on nudity as she bathes and floats down a river. In my head, there's swearing, but I couldn't point out exactly what was said. There's some mild drug use and the characters smoke. A pretty normal R-rating.
DIRECTOR: Chloe Zhao
Nomadland is excellent. There. I didn't want to bury the lede. I didn't want to start with something clever showing off my blog. (Although, the very metacontext that I'm providing right now may defeat the purpose.) There are some movies that just knock your socks off and Nomadland might be one of them. It's not like a ton of things happen in the movie. But Nomadland kind of speaks to me on this deeper level and I absolutely recommend it to everyone, despite the fact that it is kind of boring.
I know that this one is going to be hard to write, despite the fact that the movie almost invites commentary. It's when I get overly excited about a film that I kind of fly off the rails. If a movie sucks, then I can go to town. But when a movie nails so much, how do I possibly write without being hyperbolic. Because at the end of the day, I really really like this movie, but I'll probably not end up watching it for fun. There's a chance if I'm trying to sell it to someone, but that's as far as I'll go. (Note: I think I psyched myself out about writing. I've been putting it off all day and now I'm crunched for time. Luckily, I have students taking a test today, so I'm going to race them the time in this class.) It's not necessarily a bummer of a movie. It's definitely on the depressing side. But there are some bummer movies and then there are some bummer movies. This wouldn't be qualified as a bummer movie. For all of the bleakness that this movie presents, there's something very optimistic about Fern's life.
It said that this was based on a nonfiction book. I get the vibe that Fern might be a composite of real people. That's really the big take away, I guess. As much as Fern is a sympathetic protagonist, Fern is representative of a culture that America has failed. It seems like I'm going to spiral into some old fashioned America-bashing, but this movie does that absolutely gorgeous thing of both celebrating America while critiquing it at the same time. America has failed the nomads in the sense that they are in this place where the American Dream didn't quite work. I know that the events of the story center around the economic recession of the Obama administration (technically the Bush / Obama years, but who is splitting hairs?), but there is something still very prescient and universal about the systematic poverty that hits a lot of Americans. Fern is an educated woman from a poor background. When a factory closes in America, there's a deep and lasting impact on a culture. It didn't matter that Fern didn't work at the plant in Empire. When Empire stops existing, so does life.
It's this haunting idea. There are towns out there that just stopped existing. There is an infrastructure there coupled with the potential for life to thrive. But instead, because there is no work, there are no people. It's almost like what would happen if there was an extreme drought. Employment has become one of those basic human needs like shelter or food. Without water, the land becomes barren. Without employment, the city no longer exists. Fern walking through those houses seems like this moment of confusion. These gorgeous (relatively) houses are there, completely abandoned. Fern very well could live in one of these houses as opposed to a van that she defecates in. But even a rudimentary look at her situation makes us aware that, as nice as these houses are, she wouldn't survive very long. Our dependence on capitalism has forced nomads to choose abysmal living conditions for the potential to work simple and temporary jobs. I'm thrown back to John Steinbeck and Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath. People would travel the country, looking for work. It didn't matter that they could find housing (which they couldn't). It mattered that they found work.
But like Steinbeck, there is this idea that America is a beautiful place. Fern has the opportunity to live with people. From a human standpoint, Americans are really quite lovely. Fern keeps getting invites to live a life of comfort. We, in small groups, tend to be altruistic. (As proven by the Covid pandemic, we kind of suck on the grand scale.) But Fern also really does believe in the American Dream. It just looks like something very different than what I believe in. She sees the majesty of this great county. I can see why people abroad might want to visit the U.S. for vacation. For our many faults, we have an absolutely amazing piece of land here with so many different environments. The fact that Fern would live a dangerous life shows that she has priorities certain things in her life. While it may not have been her intention to begin with, Fern has found value in being a nomad. She loves the people she meets. Work becomes a means not just for survival, but for serenity. Her travels define her. I'm sure there have to be temptations to settle down and to accept mediocrity, but she never really does.
Yes, it is incredibly frustrating to see her travel from place to place. There are so many of those jobs that would probably hire her for the long haul. I know that she keeps working at Amazon for the seasonal work, but I know that she could probably get a job there permanently. The same thing with Wall Drug. But there's something about the passion of a situation that makes sense. I know that she used to be a teacher in Empire, but she no longer allows herself to be defined by work. If anything, she is defined by her nomadic lifestyle. I don't think that she's Bob. Bob kind of gets under my craw. I mean, he seems like a pretty nice dude and he is playing a fictionalized version of himself (Bob, I respect you but I don't agree with you). But she does have a kindship with people like Bob and Swankie and Linda May. It's the people in her life that live the same lifestyle that she does that brings her joy.
So yeah, it is a very depressing movie. Watching this level of poverty play out is disheartening. After all, one of her prized possessions is a collection of plates that her dad gifted her from yard sales. That was a moment of reflection on my part, looking at my 60 inch television in my very comfortable home. And then those plates break? She has to go to the bathroom in these demeaning areas. Heck, this guy decides to relieve himself in front of her and that's just part of life. But on the other end, Fern almost doesn't seem to care that his is her life. For as hard as everything always is for her, she clings to that life with such vigor that you know that it is special for her. She might view my life as limited because I can't just explore the Badlands on a whim. Freedom is the most important thing for her, so much so that it hinders making real attachment to people like Dave. Dave, even though he gets the nomadic lifestyle, isn't what Fern is.
Finally, I would like to applaud the use of actual nomads in the movie. My wife and I commented that it all felt so authentic. It's weird to think that people who aren't classically trained can sometimes be the best performers. I know that isn't a universal truth, but it really works in Nomadland.
PG. I was wondering how in the world this didn't get the mythical live-action G-rating...and then I remember that there's a teeny-tiny amount of blood. Danny Pudi's bad guy has a cut across his nose after running into a mean cat. Okay. I suppose the movie might be also playing up ableism for laughs, which kind of felt uncomfortable at times. Regardless, the movie is extremely tame (pun intended).
DIRECTOR: Lena Khan
I have a bit of a story behind this movie. It's a tiny bit embarrassing, so strap in. A few years ago, I was teaching sixth through eighth grade at a small Catholic school near me. This had to be at least seven, eight years ago, so I was still a bit more underripe than I am now. I really wanted to show off and be that impressive teacher. I still kind of do, but it's different now. Anyway, my friend said that his aunt was Kate DiCamillo, the author of Flora & Ulysses. For those people who know my friends, you know who pulled this card. I jumped at the chance for this to happen and told my boss that I was going to have a Q&A with the author of a bunch of children's novels about the writing process. Um...my buddy completely lied to me because he thought it was funny. Admittedly, it was pretty funny, but I do wince at the thought of anything involving Kate Dicamillo. That being said, this movie was pretty good.
Part of me has to put this first and foremost: DuckTales fans are going to lose their minds. The reboot of Disney's DuckTales is one of my favorite animated children's programs ever. It's funny and witty. But also, the majority of the cast of DuckTales is in Flora & Ulysses. I don't know if they just opened the door to the DuckTales recording session and invited them to take over their film, but that's how it kind of comes across. Like, Bobby Moynihan feels like he has half a day of filming in this movie, but he's not going to let his buddies down. (Note: I'm becoming a big Bobby Moynihan fan.) This headcanon I've established might be exclusively responsible for a tone that is adorable and charming. It just seems like everyone involved in this movie is having fun. Yeah, part of my headcanon also worries that Allyson Hannigan really wants to be part of the shannanigans, but doesn't have her Buffy or How I Met Your Mother friends on set. But again, this is headcanon and based on nothing but the fact that I really like DuckTales.
I'm going to feel really foolish if I mess up this blog. I've never read the novel that this was based on, but I feel like I should be gleaning the right themes for a children's book. The themes were made for children to pick up on. This is a true thing about me: I will volunteer the answers for really hard questions, but completely break all eye contact if a question is really easy. If I screw up a hard question, no one can really throw stones. I show initiative and get a dialogue going. But I screw up an easy question? Then I just look like a moron. I think I get the themes of Flora & Ulysses. But if I screw this up, please cut me some slack. I'm thinking more about today's to-do list than I am about absolutely nailing this blog as the end-all, be-all writing assignment of my life. Also, I am aware that the readership of this entry may be limited, so keep all of that in mind.
As much as this is a story about a girl and her superheroic squirrel, there's a lot going on in the background of this story. Maybe it is just a common thing with a lot of kids' movies, trying to deal with heavy issues that actually affect children, but it is about families, specifically how they can fall apart. DiCamillo's story is absolutely more optimistic than most. SPOILER ALERT: Dad and Mom get back together after going through a separation because of the adventures of the titular characters. My wife absolutely adored that. I think part of me really did too. She commented, and I mostly agree with her, that most kids stories don't get the parents back together anymore. I kind of understand why. It kind of puts the onus on the kid to have larger-than-life adventures in the hopes that the adrenaline rush of saving a superhero squirrel from an evil animal control agent will save a marriage that is falling apart. Here's where I'm split. I'm a big fan of marriage because I love my marriage and my marriage is great. That's me talking from a point of privilege. I also do think it is the responsibility for parents to do everything that they can to make a marriage work. The parents in Flora & Ulysses definitely have real problems. But I don't know if those problems are divorce-worthy. I can see those problems being a real strain, but jumping to separation seemed a bit much. But I also acknowledge that some personalities are more toxic together than they are apart. Basically, I'm a big waffle who keeps waffling all over this issue.
So why a superheroic squirrel? There's a metaphor there, but I want to put it on hold for a cynical look at how writing works. I can see Kate Dicamillo in my head. (In my head, she's just a female older version of my buddy and I'm so sorry for that Ms. Dicamillo.) If I ever had to hit on a topic that would be distracting for 7-10 year old girls, I think superhero squirrel would be at the top of the list. The story of Ulysses is hilariously over-the-top, allowing for real issues to come out in the background of the story. So now, I'm allowed to talk about the metaphor. The story of how Ulysses is a superhero squirrel is an extremely telling one. Yes, Ulysses has an origin story. But that origin story is completely absurd. He's a squirrel who was sucked up into a vacuum and resuscitated. That's it. There's no gamma rays. There's no mutant gene. Flora regularly re-establishes that it was the vacuum cleaner that imbued this squirrel with powers. It's funny how we can lie to ourselves about radioactive spider-bites or gamma bombs giving people powers, but this moment just comes across as silly. Maybe it's the fact that we all know exactly what happened to that squirrel physically, but nothing grandiose happened that leaves us out of the loop.
And that origin story is the thing that really messes with the mind. There's a fine line when it comes to kids' stories about what the rules of reality are. For a lot of this movie, I read the story as this wasn't actually a superhero squirrel. I saw this like one of those squirrels from Disney movies who just does adorable things that mimic human behavior. Like, there is such a thing as a flying squirrel, so I just read into that moment like they were seeing what they wanted to see. But then, the squirrel saves Dad by flying him down? Okay, so I'm meant to completely change my belief in the movie this late in the game. One of two things can come out of this. 1) I'm meant to watch the movie not as a cynic and instead believe from moment one that Ulysses was given super powers from a vacuum. 2) My cynicism is a commentary on adulthood. In the same way that Trix are for kids, kids probably always knew that Ulysses was a superhero. But the adults who were watching the movie are too broken to really believe until we see concrete evidence. Because in my mind, it is Flora who gives Ulysses superpowers.
Flora is the only one who believes in Ulysses at first. It is only when Dad sheds the artifice of adulthood does he believe in the power of this super squirrel. (Oddly enough, Ulysses and Pennywise draw their power from the same source: belief.) It is why Mom is continually on the outside until the end of the story. It's what makes the animal control agent the villain of the story, because he never believes that Ulysses can be special. It is that belief that makes him justify the euthanasia of someone's pet. Because, in my mind, I can't ever fault the animal control agent. I'm the animal control agent. I've never been a pet person and I don't know if that's ever going to change. I get the allure of pets, but I also can't stand when people refer to animals as "fur babies." From his perspective, the animal control agent sees this little girl as a potential victim of a squirrel bite that could kill her. I get that. The family seems wildly irresponsible that they are endangering this kid. But it's the second that you start believing that Ulysses is special that he becomes special. Kids only associate the animal control guy as the bad guy because Pudi plays him as a villain.
At the end of the day, there isn't anything that is going to make Flora & Ulysses memorable. It's a fun movie that I really enjoyed watching with my family. That's the point. It's the perfect entry in the Disney+ archive because it was a fun bonding experience for my family without the emotional baggage that a truly great movie could have.
Rated R for language and violence. It's pretty brutal when a movie has such intense death scenes, but knowing that this is a true story makes it all the more horrifying. The movie concentrates a lot on police violence, which I know is going to bother some people. But it should bother some people. Judas and the Black Messiah asks people to step out of their comfort zones because the message has been hidden for too long. R.
DIRECTOR: Shaka King
White culture hasn't really gotten to know the story of the Black Panthers. The story that has been told over and over was that the Black Panthers were exclusively terrorists. I can't say that I've done my fair share of research into the Black Panthers. That's on me. But the narrative I have been fed is the one that I've been brought up on. It's only after the events of this summer have I worked to educate myself on anything beyond what is experienced in high school textbooks. But can I say that Judas and the Black Messiah is meant to be a teaching tool? I can safely say that I do not know.
The universal takeaway from Judas and the Black Messiah is that institutionalized racism is real. I've been having a lot of conversations regarding the complete person of Martin Luther King. It is very comforting to cherry pick MLK's message into exclusive cooperation. But King was a guy who went through so much misery while speaking out against the establishment. King's message has been perverted and domesticated and that's when we need to look at the complete context of the era. To do so, we need to look at Malcolm X while also looking at the Black Panthers.
I can't deny that Judas and the Black Messiah offers a rosier take on the Black Panthers. But one thing I can contest is that it doesn't paint them as perfect. I'll never advocate for violence. I realize that I'm so aggressively a pacifist that I come across as grossly naïve. Part of that is coming from a place of privilege. I know I don't have to fight for survival, so it is easy to sit back and say that everyone should be a pacifist. But the world of the Black Panther isn't the same as mine. I suppose that, as direct as I'm being, I'm still beating around the bush. Black men and women have been targeted by law enforcement and killed because it was culturally acceptable. There was evidence in the 1960s and there's more evidence today that this is something that has been systemic. Judas and the Black Messiah starts the film with that fact firmly in place. The movie doesn't build up to a place to show that racism exists, like other movies. It starts with the assumption that you have understood this and understand that fighting back is sometimes necessary. With this in mind, the movie paints the Black Panther Party as people who are concerned with community while being revolutionaries as opposed to simply violence-for-violence-sake extremists.
And that's where we have to focus on Fred Hampton. The film portrays him as this dual personality. He is both a great man, but he's also an everyman. Hampton has the passion and conviction to lead this movement in Chicago. He's young and zealous. However, Hampton also is this guy who makes a lot of small mistakes. While he is a promising speaker, many of his speeches lack experience, hampering them from the masses. He sees the world as malleable. But what makes Hampton absolutely fascinating is that he understands nuance better than most people do. There's a scene in the movie where Hampton extends an offer of alliance to a Southern Pride / Confederate Pride group. What Hampton realizes is that, while it may be easy to talk about the divide between black and white, it really is about the system versus the oppressed. He sees these poor white people as both part of the oppression and also as the victims of their own ignorance and economic status.
That's possibly what makes Judas and the Black Messiah something special. The movie provides two viewpoints. I can't deny that we're meant to sympathize with Fred Hampton and his followers with the film. It does take a hard line on that front. But we also have the view of Jesse Plemon's Roy Mitchell, an FBI agent tasked with dismantling the Chicago branch of the Black Panthers. Mitchell doesn't come across as an extremist. He's definitely gross at times, but he really views himself as the representative of law and order. It's not that he hates these people. He sees this troubling element of society that arms itself and resorts to violence. And from that perspective, he really is right. He is definitely representative of the demographic of "I'm not racist because X, Y, and Z." He says that he sees the Black Panthers on the same level as the KKK in the sense that both use violence to intimidate society into making change to their way of thinking. And, again, if you took that one data point in isolation, he has a point.
But to highlight Mitchell's problematic way of thinking is J. Edgar Hoover. I know that I used to look up to Hoover when I was a kid. Being in the FBI was the coolest thing I could imagine. I think a lot of that came from my obsession with The X-Files. But Hoover, in many docudramas, is a fanatic and a fascist. He's obsessed with not allowing any kind of disruption of the status quo to occur. After all, look at how the FBI is portrayed in Selma and you'll know what I'm talking about. (I know I have watched this in the past few years, but apparently I've never written about it.) Hoover sees the big picture and that's when Mitchell doesn't really grow a backbone. There's a moment in the film where Mitchell seems wholeheartedly aware of the evil of Hoover's actions. In fact, he even questions "We have Hampton. Why do we have to kill him?" And it is in that moment, when realizes that it is no longer his responsibility what happens to Fred Hampton that reflects the greater burden on white America.
It is when someone of authority tells us that evil is justified that the story becomes troubling. I don't think that Roy Mitchell is bad guy from moment one. But his manipulation of Bill O'Neal becomes more and more troubling as the story progresses. The movie does this amazing tightrope act of making O'Neal both sympathetic and utterly despicable. The title, Judas and the Black Messiah, as much as I want to avoid Christian allegory for someone who was so violent, really is appropriate. We see Bill O'Neal genuinely bond with Fred Hampton. We see that he understands the need for Hampton's message to be out there. And yet, he still betrays Hampton, leading to his death. There's something very sinister in the fact that O'Neal doesn't actively poison Hampton. Instead, he simply assists the FBI in the murder. By putting him to sleep, he becomes Judas, washing his hands of Hampton's murder. Knowing that O'Neal committed suicide because of his involvement in Hampton's death reads as history repeating itself as well.
This is not one of my favorite movies. I don't necessarily know why. While I adore the central universal message of duality and betrayal, there seems to be a bit too much explanation of history in the movie. Maybe I'm just tired. That's unfair of me, you know. I'm not allowed to be tired. I lead a very comfortable life. It's just that the movie presents the world and law enforcement as particularly bleak and hopeless. I want to live in a world where nonviolence is the best answer. My soul thirsts for that. But because violence is a response that can't be judged sometimes, I grow weary. Fred Hampton didn't need to die. He was a dude who questioned the norm and that seems to be the ultimate crime nowadays. It's really depressing, but it seems to be the way of the world.
Passed. It's a very light musical that has a weird bit of racist stereotyping in it for one scene. But the movie would probably be rated G if the MPAA decided to come back to it. I mean, it has a really terrible sense of morality to it. I'm going to be talking ad nauseum about that. But there's really not too much to fight against. Oh, there's a song about drinking beer. Regardless, it's pretty innocent.
DIRECTOR: Vincente Minnelli
I almost didn't write about this movie because I couldn't find a photo in the correct aspect ratio with the black bars on the side. That's right. I'm very petty. I don't know if you knew this, but you probably suspected. It's just so nice to have the image the way it is supposed to be. But I suppose this blog isn't supposed to be about the availability of properly formatted images. Who knows? Maybe I'll find one down the line and have to delete this whole paragraph.
I'm 90% sure I've seen this movie before. It was in my 501 Must-See Movies Before You Die book so I could just check to see if it is highlighted. I don't really understand the appeal of The Band Wagon. It's on a whole bunch of really impressive lists and I just don't get it. I mean, I get Fred Astaire. Fred Astaire is kind of amazing always. If the reason that this movie gets any attention is because of Fred Astaire and that the movie is in color, I can kind of see it. But I know that the world normally isn't as petty as I am. So what about this movie garners so much attention? I'll tell you, it can't be because of the plot.
The Band Wagon takes Astaire's favorite character type, the performer, and has him take on a subject that I find absolutely abhorrent. At the end of the day, and I want to spell this out as clearly as I can, this movie is about high art versus low art. I'm a guy who is an advocate for both. I love me some fancy pants movies. But I also like watching completely entertaining trash. These different styles of tone allow for a level of complexity and personality that views art for what it is. But The Band Wagon says that all snobby movies are a waste of time and the only way to tell a compelling story is to be a song-and-dance act. I kind of understand that this is something that seems to be prevalent in the musicals of this era.
Give me some credit. I really am trying to contextualize this for this era. I know that cinema, especially in the United States, was almost exclusively commercial. (This can easily be debated considering that Citizen Kane exists.) But The Band Wagon almost seems to be a vapid war on the artistry of film. My theatre major is coming through, but we were always told that art was supposed to say something. I mean, I write this blog, for goodness sake. The reason that I write is that I want to peel away the layers of artifice to find a deeper meaning behind everything. I want to find that universal truth that exposes who we are as a people. But The Band Wagon almost spits in the face of that, in the nicest way possible. When Jerry Cordova finds a Faustian allegory within The Band Wagon (Why it is called that is beyond me), it is something that could be explored. But Jerry Cordova, despite the movie's insistence that he's one of Broadway's brightest and most brilliant stars, seems clueless to what makes high art actually work. Instead of placing Faust in the subtext, he has literal explosions all over stage.
So when Tony has this huge emotional vomit all over the stage, he's supposed to come across as the hero of the story. But in all reality, that behavior is completely toxic to what is going on with the rest of the cast. Why is it okay to stay in one's comfort zone as the primary moral of the story? Tony had a washed up career because he refused to change. He kept doing the thing that made him famous. I will watch a Fred Astaire film any day. His movies are charming and make me feel good about the world. But I also like to see someone try something new and step outside the bubble. For me, right now, typing this out, I have a hard time differentiating Fred Astaire and Tony Hunter. But Fred Astaire has kind of built that attitude into me. He keeps playing these parts of the aging dance man. There's only so many times I can be told that this is a character before I believe that it actually reflects Fred Astaire.
So, to fix the story, they put their faith into Tony Hunter who turns it around on a dime. This is where my plausible deniability completely skips town. It is with these moments that I really question why this musical is so highly regarded. Don't get me wrong. The songs presented, especially the baby one, are great. But they also have no place in this movie. The story that the two playwrights present are this tale of a writer of crime novels who gets lost in his own imagination. Okay, cool. That last song really reflects this. But those other songs, in no way, match the plot of the story. How do we get from sunrise, to baby, to Louisiana, to crime dream ballet? I know. It's a musical. It's a big flashy musical. But this is what always put me off to musicals before. It's the laziness in these moments. I'm not saying that we shouldn't have fun with that sequence involving fixing the play. After all, Singin' in the Rain does it as well. But not even pretending that the story has to matter is just frustrating to me.
And that's what The Band Wagon is to me. It's a frustrating mess. It's a perfectly well performed movie that looks absolutely stunning on Blu-ray. But the movie itself isn't that good. It fundamentally tries attacking a core belief of mine, that theater can be silly and inspiring. It takes a lot of shortcuts when it shouldn't. Even its argument is pretty weak. It tells me that great art isn't worth anyone's time, but doesn't explain why vaudeville is a better substitute. I don't get the love for this movie.
PG and that has to be for witchcraft, right? I mean, there's a scary character in there named The Mandrake, but he didn't really scare my kids. Henry is weird. I don't know what scares him anymore. There's a scene where the Mandrake melts a wall, climbs through it as a giant and nothing happened with him. There's another scene where they are all playing rock 'n roll and he starts screaming like a madman. Kids are goofy. PG.
DIRECTOR: Goro Miyazaki
Let's put this out there. I wrote most of this. I didn't even lose the website and it all disappeared. That's some malarky. I put a lot of work into that draft, so if I come across as a little snippy, it's because of my hatred for Weebly's weird saving features.
Um...I'd like to talk to the manager, please. This isn't a movie. Oh, I know that it looks like a movie and it has the length of a movie. But a movie doesn't just end there. There's got to be more movie, right? (I'm trying to recapture the magic of my original draft and I'm failing. I don't care. I can't afford to write another draft at this point.) I'm going to be going into the most specific spoiler territory of my life because it doesn't actually spoil anything. The movie drops this major bombshell and just ends. Now, some movies can get away with that. After all, there are teases for sequels and the like. This...wasn't that.
The movie's central conceit is that the titular Earwig needs to fix her new family. Like most Ghibli movies, the movie starts with a bit of mystery. There is a mystery woman. Is she a witch? Probably. I mean, the word "witch" is in the title of the movie. Why is she dropping off this baby at an orphanage? The movie sets up these questions and hints that we will be solving these mysteries over the course of the film. We are then given Bella Yaga and the Mandrake and they seem to have all of these mysteries too. And we're given little snippets into the mystery. After all, that is the point of our investment. We know that these odd characters have something to do with the disappearance of Earwig's mother. But we only get these photos.
Now, look, this format has potential. If the lack of answers was a central theme in the movie, I would be all over this. After all, the mystery of her mother could be the tie that stops Earwig from accepting her new family. Okay, that's actually kind of a cool idea. Or maybe it could be something about how children never really understand the complexities of adulthood and vice versa. That could be really fascinating, to see this complex story playing out in the background of a film, but from Earwig's perspective, it only comes across as jumbled chaos. That's really cool. But the movie doesn't really take either approach. What kind of comes out is more of a pilot for a TV show (that realistically I wouldn't really watch).
What ends up happening is that we're dumped with Mom at the end. That doesn't seem that bad, but it slaps the rest of the movie in the face. In my OG draft, this is where I had a major epiphany, so I'm going to pretend to have that same epiphany now. "Oh my goodness, I just figured out why this movie is so frustrating." (See? Flawless.) The movie completely lacks catharsis. I hate myself for writing this once, let alone twice, but there's some really screwed up storytelling going on here. Part of it is me. I'm obsessed with traditional Western storytelling and that makes me a bad person. I'm aware of it. But I'm still going to barrel through my explanation for why traditional storytelling would really help this movie.
Earwig is at odds with her new family. Afraid of change, Earwig enters this household instantly sparring with Bella Yaga. That's okay because Bella Yaga sucks. While The Mandrake has taken a shine to her, he still has horrible temper issues (and it isn't really explained what the Mandrake's actual deal is). But the movie is about them hitting a low point before working to come together as a family. The lion's share of the runtime is devoted to making a conflict come to a head. Earwig manages to trick Bella Yaga into upsetting the Mandrake and it is really uncomfortable for everyone. But then, we get this weird montage sequence explaining that they all became friends after that. Okay, a low point is supposed to be a turning point for characterization. I wish it wasn't done in a montage, but fine. But we never really get to experience how close these people have grown together. When a family comes out of the forge stronger than they were before, we're supposed to see that bond tested. That's the catharsis we need. We watched Earwig and her new family suffer all of the trials, but we never really get to experience how far they have come.
The movie, instead, takes a hard right turn. We see Mom come back with Custard? What is Mom's relationship to Custard? There's a bit of an implication that Mom would come back after dealing with 12 witches, but that isn't exactly made clear. And that's the abrupt ending to the movie. There aren't any lines. We don't get to see what Earwig thinks of this whole situation? This should all sound like this is a tease for a big sequel or something, but it isn't really like that either. It just ends. That's the ending to this movie. So the format of the movie is: Girl gets adopted by bad guys. The bad guys and the girl fight. When the girl is about to bond with the family, Mom shows up. What? That's not a movie.
My wife was most bothered by the animation style. I know that she's not alone. I didn't hate it as much as everyone else did because it still looked pretty Ghibli to me. (By the way, this is where I got to in my original draft AND the paragraphs were longer.) I applaud Ghibli for not being tied to one format of storytelling. I don't know if this could necessarily be considered successful as an outing for computer animation. There were times where the movie just looked cheap and I couldn't really deny that element of the movie. But I do miss the gorgeous hand-drawn animation that Ghibli is so famous for. The opening credits probably do the movie a great disservice because we see what this movie would look like if it was hand-drawn. Golly, I love the opening style so much more than the rest of the movie. Yeah, it's smart to try new things, especially if you are an animation studio as well-respected as Studio Ghibli. But this isn't a win. This is an experiment.
I'm sorry that I didn't write as much as I usually do. I write these while my students are writing as well. I had a few minutes, but I wrote what I could. I really wanted to love this movie, but it really feels completely undercooked.
Unrated in the United States. Yeah, I'm baffled too. I mean, it would be rated R for being a pretty raunchy comedy at times. There's an entire strip tease joke that goes on a bit. There's a lot of sexual humor. There's language. It's got a lot of stuff that would give it an R. The international ratings all seem to aim the movie at mature audiences. There isn't any nudity that I can remember, but I did get a bit sleepy about midway through (Not the movie's fault). But the movie really plays up the drug elements. That's pretty hilarious, if not a little weird. It's an adult-friendly unrated film.
DIRECTORS: Madeline Sami and Jackie Van Beek
Oh man, I thought I was going to get a long period of time off. I had finished my list and I was watching a lot of TV. As much as I enjoy doing this blog, I do look forward to time off. But then my wife and I were looking for a light and funny night and that led us to this movie that we hadn't heard of before. But it was touted "From Producer Taika Waititi" and we were sold. I know that the producer credit shouldn't mean much. After all, Martin Scorsese has producer credit on a billion dumb things. But this was a New Zealand release so of course Taika had to have his name on it somewhere.
I have a really short way to put this movie and it doesn't exactly make for compelling reading: The Breaker Upperers is a very funny movie, but it isn't exactly a great movie. What I'm starting to realize about Kiwi cinema (if that's considered appropriate) is that it really thrives with absurd concepts. But I think what separates great absurd concepts is the notion of a really great movie behind it. I'm naturally going to make comparisons to the other works of Taika Waititi. Waititi is an absolute master of cinema. He's one of the most impressive directors of this generation. (I'm afraid to use the phrase "auteur" after some of the articles I just glanced over regarding Kubrick.) But looking at some of his movies, he tends to have a really great story coupled with absurdist jokes. When I think of Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Jojo Rabbit, I think first and foremost of the emotional resonance that those movies really arouse. Yeah, those movies really cracked me up and I often quote some of the better parts, but I left those movies kind of wrecked. They were these powerful tales about emotional connection. Even What We Do in the Shadows, Waitit's most arguably absurd films, had this emotional throughline that seemed kind of grounded, despite the fact that it was a mockumentary about vampires who have been abandoned by history.
But The Breaker Upperers almost feels like an extended sketch. We're kind of hitting some of the same level of farce that The Naked Gun movies kind of hit. Admittedly, The Breaker Upperers exists in a more silly version of reality as opposed to something like The Naked Gun, but it does tend ot really lean heavily into jokes. Now, this is where I have to make a choice as someone who writes a blog about movies: Is this a bad thing? I get the idea that the writers / directors / stars of the movie were very cool with the tone that they were aiming for. I don't know a lot about the duo in charge of this film outside that one of them really reminds me of Kristin Wiig. But this kind of feels like a passion project for these two. The movie really just aims for being funny. It's not like there isn't any vulnerability in this movie, but it is very limited and often the film uses the silliness of the tone as a whole to explain away how people would react in similar situations.
But then let's talk about what the movie is trying to get at. This is a movie, for all of its obsession with rollicking comedy, that comments on morality and friendship. The movie hinges on the concept that these two protagonists are doing something immoral. Yeah, I will say that the choice to dump people professionally seems pretty sketch. But there is something that kind of hangs in the background of the movie with the notion that some relationships can be considered toxic. Sure, Mel and Jen do some pretty sketchy things to help people break up. I'm sure that pretending that people are dead is pretty gross. But there is the notion that maybe these relationships should be disrupted. In a perfect world, people would be breaking up by themselves. But then the movie presents the situation of Jordan. The big joke is that Jordan is kind of a moron, but he's an adorable moron. He's an archetype, that's for sure. Jordan is this nice kid (that ends up being a running gag) who is in this relationship where he's bullied into staying into it. Jordan, by the way, seems morally questionable through his own stupidity. But Sepa is this absolutely toxic element in his life. I know that the movie gets them back together under the pretense that they were made for each other, a notion I probably contest pretty hard. I really think that Sepa is more of a way to close up the film without too many strings attached.
But the bigger question is how people take advantage of each other. Mel is this character who seemingly has it all together. That's adorable for me to say considering she gets pregnant with an 18 year old and ends the movie single and pregnant. But Mel has this healthy attitude towards life. She sees the best in people and she wants to be this instrument for goodness in the world. She views this service of helping people breaking up as something potentially normal. Now, I'm really straying into the world of moral relativism, but this is an absurd movie so I have to shift my perspective a little bit. But Jen seems to be this self-destructive element. She seems to be the primary protagonist in this movie because she has the greatest changes in her story. She goes from being a coke addled drunk to becoming vulnerable for a friend. Yeah, it isn't a great change, but it is enough to be considered something of a character arc. But she realizes that everything isn't about the self or romance. Yeah, from an outside perspective, this is a pretty mild lesson to learn. But again, I told you that there wasn't too much to write about.
I'm going to quit while I'm ahead. I guess I'm allowed to have little to say. It's a cute movie that lacks almost any substance. But in terms of laughs, it kind of crushes. It's hilarious if nothing else.
Not rated, but at this point, do I really need to point out what happens in a Zatoichi movie? There's just a ton of death, but most of it is bloodless. In this specific entry, Zatoichi gets beaten up and bloodied, but it is actually kind of mild considering. Also, there's a prostitute who gets really really drunk at one point. But if that's all I have to say about a movie needing an informal MPAA rating, it's mostly fine. Not rated.
DIRECTOR: Tokuzo Tanaka
People who produce a lot of content need to go into each entry with the concept that "this entry may be someone's first entry". While the whole purpose of this blog is to express my love of film and to view film critically, it is really hard to write about each and every Zatoichi film like I did that first entry (which I technically haven't written about because I started watching these movies more than four years ago). There are a lot of movies in that box set and a lot of them get a little repetitive. But I'm going to try my best and discuss Zatoichi's Vengeance (which sounds remarkably similar to Zatoichi's Revenge) with a cool head (and a keen eye).
This movie has nothing to do with vengeance. There. I said it. I was in this sweet spot in the Zatoichi movies where the title of the movie actually kind of reflected the story that took place. These were titles like Zatoichi and the Chess Expert and Zatoichi and the Doomed Man. They were about the titular character meeting a chess expert and the titular character meeting a doomed man, respectively. How great is that? But I don't know why they would go back to generic naming. Marvel kind of did this for a while. They realized during their Ultimate line that generic covers of the hero in cool poses tended to sell more comics than covers that gave an indication of the content within. Maybe the Zatoichi movies kind of did the same thing. All I know is that Zatoichi gets zero vengeance in this one. If anything, he's trying to minimize the amount of damage he is doing. If anything, it's anti-vengeance. It's un-vengeance. Just don't call the movie Zatoichi's Vengeance.
One of the things I keep talking about with the Zatoichi movies is the concept that the filmmakers are really afraid to shake up the formula. They keep introducing ideas that should be absolutely amazing, but keep backing down before that idea comes into play. In this one, Zatoichi meets a guy who out-Zatoichis him. Like many stories, Zatoichi revolves around a hero who lacks a fundamental sense, making differently abled. Like many movies, Zatoichi gains such strength in his other senses that he almost becomes superheroic, you know, like Daredevil. He's an amazing swordsman who has a sixth sense about traps and cheats. In this case, Zatoichi meets another blind man. This blind man doesn't have sword superpowers like Zatoichi. But he somehow can see even more than Zatoichi can. While Zatoichi's hearing acts kind of like Matt Murdock's radar sense, this blind man can see into the soul of people and know things that cannot be known. Again, both of these blind men don't TECHNICALLY have powers, but we get that they are more in tune with the universe, or however you want to explain how they can do these amazing acts.
But this blind monk is everything that Zatoichi is not. While Zatoichi has used his blindness to cheat people who would cheat him, he's mostly been considerd extremely noble up to this point. He's the hero of the story, after all. He's the guy who shows up in this small town that's been overwhelmed by a corrupt boss and takes down the army of cocky assassins to save the poor people of this town. But this blind monk puts Zatoichi in his place. This is the kind of stuff I like. I mean, I rail against it sometimes, but I like it in the case of Zatoichi, who has gotten a free pass for a long time. (I'm referring to how everyone criticizes the Doctor's practices from Doctor Who. Why is everyone so up in arms with his behavior?) Zatoichi tends to think with his sword. It makes sense. He, after all, is Zatoichi the blind swordsman. He has killed scores of people, all of whom, in his mind, deserved it. But the monk brings up the idea that maybe death shouldn't be the answer.
And the way he really drives this point home? Taichi. I know, his name is spelled Tai Chi and that's why I remember it without looking it up. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin has the main character named San Ta, so Taichi is completely acceptable. When I was writing the MPAA section of this blog, I was wondering if I should bring in Taichi into that section. He's this kid who looks up to Zatoichi. Now, there's something really meta about it all. Zatoichi has always been the far more tame samurai film than stuff like, say, Lone Wolf and Cub. While both franchises involve a samurai who travels the countryside and murders just ungodly amounts of people, I can get complacent that Zatoichi is fine because there's so little blood. But Taichi is the audience. He's someone who sees Zatoichi as heroic because he murders the bad guy and the monk at least gives pause to Zatoichi. I adore this. I mean, I'd really adore this if they followed through on this.
The monk isn't an antagonist to Zatoichi. If anything, he's a friend that I would like to see in future entries. (That's probably not going to happen.) But I like the idea that Zatoichi needs to be called out on implementing the same things over and over again. I mean, he does it in a friendly and helpful way. The way that he presents this advice involves knowing that, one day, he'll meet someone who will out swordsman him. (I don't know the term. Just know that he'll die by the sword.) It's good advice. So if Zatoichi wants to be the best protagonist, he needs to find nonviolent ways to solve conflicts. And it really affects Zatoichi...
...I mean, not enough to do anything about it.
Sure, there's the moment where he gets himself beaten up. But he didn't even really understand the monk's advice. The point is that the movie really hinges on Zatoichi learning his lesson the hard way. It seems like he conceptually gets that the sword will be his undoing, but it never really plays out that way. I can almost guarantee you that the rest of the movie involve heavy amounts of swordplay as he cuts down people who try to cheat him and others. I mean, I don't think that the folks making the Zatoichi movies are willing to abandon their formula at this point or at any other point. It's the central conceit of the movies and just because the movie addresses this problem doesn't mean that they are going to do anything about it. It's all smoke and mirrors.
I would also like to discuss a really weird thing in the movie. Let's write off that the series wasn't going to listen to its central theme for a second. We can always delude ourselves to know that the monk's way influenced him in small ways that we'll never understand. Fine. But the movie goes out of its way to establish that Zatoichi has a weakness like kryptonite. Like Daredevil, Zatoichi can be disoriented by loud noise. It's a very cool weapon against him and we see that it really bothers him early in the film when he's at the festival with Taichi. The movie sets up that he can't stand to be around noise. So when the bad guys decide to use this against him, it should work. Heck, it's a great addition to the mythos. The bad guys bring these giant drums and start the process of throwing him off his game...
...and nothing happens. We have invested in a rule that the movie went out of its way to establish for us and then nothing happens. That's not fair. Don't tell me that there's a weakness. Find a way around it, but don't just ignore your own rules. That's a big thing for me and movies. When a movie sets up a set of rules early on, we're allowed to find loopholes, but we're not allowed to just ignore those rules. It's such a cool shot too. The bad guys just come in and we get everything in profile that creates this great visual. But ultimately, that image means nothing because nothing in this movie really matters.
That's what makes me constantly disappointed in the Zatoichi movies. I love the character. I really like the action. But nothing in these movies matters. Zatoichi has no chance of real danger because the movies keep retreating to their safe place any time real stakes come into the storyline. It's a bummer, but I also get it.
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.