Destry Rides Again (1939)
Approved. I find it kind of hilarious that my wife has seen this movie enough times to know all the words to the Marlene Dietrich songs, but it isn't really child-friendly by today's standards. Don't get me wrong. There was no pausing as my kids came down for snacks after bed. It's not that kind of content. The issues with this movie are issues that you would expect from a Western made in 1939. There is xenophobia leading to outright racism. I'm pretty sure that the protagonist hit a woman for being too mouthy for him (I turned my head for a second and there she was with a split lip). It's got some very uncomfortable politics. Regardless, it is still approved.
DIRECTOR: George Marshall
Okay, I decided that I'm still doing the blog, but doing it at a more organic pace. I'm not going to go out of my way to finish movies in time to write something the next day. It's almost summer vacation and I plan to read and play video games. I know. Crazy, right? So as I watch movies, I'll write about them. The benefit, hopefully, is that my blogs will be written while the movie is still fresh. I straight up watched Destry Rides Again before I went to bed last night and now it's 8:14 am. Yeah, this is probably going to go well.
The opening of the movie is perhaps the most telling element of Destry Rides Again. Showing a sign saying "Welcome to Bottleneck", the entire thing looks pretty darned Hollywoodish. Hollywood often made the Western the B-film on a double bill. All of the sets were available. While you have a pretty impressive cast of Marlene Dietrich, Jimmy Stewart, and Brian Donlevy, everything else kind of reads like Hollywood backlot. That vibe quickly disappears and the movie really settles into being another Western. But seeing that sign feels like the bare minimum of effort was put into making that sign. I know. I'm reading into a sign here for a long time. (Pun intended.) But immediately after this sign, the opening credits roll and there's something that I'm going to over-analyze. It says that the movie was "Suggested by the novel Destry Rides Again". It wasn't based on the book. It was suggested by the book. That's something I'm not used to seeing in film.
Because --and this is exclusively headcanon that may prove accurate --I really get the vibe that the book was not this movie. In my head, the novel Destry Rides Again was an intense Western drama, detailing the rise of a hero trying to tame the West. It was about a son who had watched his father shot in the back trying to stand up for what was right and then trying to become an even more hardened sheriff. What we got, instead, was a movie that isn't really sure if it wants to be a comedy or a drama. It's tone is really weird. I'm not saying this like it is a bad thing. It's not a great thing either. But Destry Rides Again reads a lot more like a dramedy than anything else. It's borderline silly throughout. The titular Destry really rides pretty hard on Jimmy Stewart's folksy charm. It puts him in all kinds of situations where his enthusiasm and back woods knowledge is in stark contrast to the world he's thrust into. For all I know, this is the book. (Although the cover of the book has someone firing a gun, which is already in contrast to what the book is about.
As a comedy, it's kind of funny. I don't know if it works as a drama as much. This is where I kind of treat the movie as disposable, by the way. I know it's not fair of me to treat most Westerns as disposable. It's stupid of me and I know it is one of my faults. But I really wanted to invest in the drama of this movie. There are some moments that are really meant to be pretty dramatic. The death of Wash is supposed to be hella tragic. The fact that Frenchie dies is almost beyond belief. But the movie gets pretty absurd at times. It plays on the belief that I wholeheartedly subscribe to, but it treats it as a joke. Destry comes into town to clean up this den of iniquity, but he's going to do it unarmed. Realizing that the way of the gun leads to misery and death, Destry wants to find ways of solving problems without resorting to using weaponry or lethal force. Do you know how much I didn't want this to be a joke? For a long time within the movie, I was thinking that they were going to be "This is all folksy. But when it chips are down, we'll realize the value of not resorting to lethal force."
Which leads me to the point where the movie let me down. Once Wash is killed (not that Wash...), Destry straps on his father's pistols and leads this revolution to take down Kent. It's actually pretty cool because Frenchie leads an even bigger army. But he's doing so with a gun. And Frenchie dies...as does Kent. Destry shoots Kent. There's something so anti-climactic about this whole thing with Kent and Destry. Kent finds Destry to be a simpleton whom he can work with throughout the film. Destry, despite having a mission to clean up the town, is there to change minds and hearts about how people have to live. He's aware from moment one that Kent is gross and the reason that this town is so darned toxic. But if Destry was going to shoot Kent because he's angry, isn't Kent the one who is right? I keep making connections to Doctor Who and I'm ashamed of this, but it's going to happen right now. The Doctor hates guns. The same can be said for Batman. There's a scene in Series One of the reboot where the Ninth Doctor picks up a weapon. It looks cool as heck, but the show really points out that this is where the Doctor fails. It's because he's not relying on his greatest virtue: finding another way. It's the Doctor without a plan and resorting to brute force. By having Destry pick up those weapons and kill Kent, it kind of proves everyone right.
Wash wouldn't have died. This is what Tyndall wanted from moment one. Heck, it's almost like the movie went out of its way to make everyone but Destry look silly in their defense of this character. But Destry is the one one who never really looks silly, despite the fact that the movie proved him wrong. Heck, even Frenchie dies, despite the fact that she's just come around to his point of view by the end of the film. I do want to look at that character choice. Frenchie kind of is a villain. Yeah, I don't like the idea that Destry has to be the one to keep her in line, especially by splitting her lip. But I don't get Frenchie's shift in character. I mean, I emotionally get it. The movie has the two characters at strong odds. There's that gross Taming of the Shrew element in this based on humiliation and grooming. But we start the film with Destry and Frenchie at absolute odds. Frenchie, mortified by the fact that this stranger who can't even carry a gun gets her soaking wet, throws things with the intention of killing him. He then splits her lip and uses her for information. Now, the film would like to suggest that many people haven't stood up to Frenchie before. After all, she is a French force of nature, so kowtowing to her seems to be the norm. But she full on becomes a hero at the end of the movie, despite the fact that her income is affected by switching sides.
From an audience's perspective, it makes sense. We're meant to experience that Pussy Galore moment where the villainess becomes a hero because of the gallant hero. But in terms of verisimilitude, there's nothing there. It's insanely absurd. There's no small shift towards morality beyond the attraction that she has for Jimmy Stewart. It's a bit silly.
But that's what the whole movie is. It's just a bit silly. I don't hate silly. I don't even hate what the final product is with Destry Rides Again. It's fun. But there's a bunch of concepts that I would love to explore just a little bit better. Instead, we get just a safe Western that is better than most because of charismatic personalities. That's fine. But I want better than fine sometimes.
A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
M/PG. It's so bizarre when there's no PG-13, things get really icky. The movie is about controlling people through sexuality. Admittedly, the movie dodges or only hints at a lot of things, but the film deals with sexual assault, alcoholism, spousal abuse, racism, and suicide. There's just so much stuff going on here that it's strange to think that this movie is PG. It's definitely not for all audiences.
DIRECTOR: Elia Kazan
I'm having a day. It's one of those days that I almost took off because I just didn't want to deal with it today. Anything I write today is by sheer willpower and determination. Like, I'm sinking fast. Here's the deal: If I write this blog by the end of the day and decide to eat healthy, I win. I win all the points. I will win points that you didn't even know existed. That might keep me writing.
I don't know why I didn't write about this last year. I taught A Streetcar Named Desire during lockdown last year, so maybe I didn't consider what I had watched a real viewing. But I watch this movie every year with my class. (Also, my film class may not exist unless I can get my AP numbers down.) It's always such a hard sell. It's such a bleak and miserable story about such miserable people. Couple that with the fact that it's in black-and-white and that this isn't a film class, I often find people put off by this film. But, not this year. I mean, I had a couple of kids who had their heads down. It's the end of the year and I'm asking for something that doesn't have a grade attached. That's no good. But the kids seemed to really get into it. Part of it came from the notion that we talked about things that were cut from the cinema version of the story and how that drastically changes the experience of Streetcar. Normally, it takes a lot to get a good discussion. Not this year. I have good kids.
But this movie is so prescient. Tennessee Williams dealt with a lot of the motifs that run through the story. His sister battled mental illness. He was a homosexual who drank in excess. The fact that you see these moments in the film, albeit hidden from the 1951 audience, is so earnest and truthful. I know that his other stories dealt with a lot of this stuff, but I don't think it ever gets as distilled as it does in A Streetcar Named Desire. Mind you, it's been a while since I've read The Glass Menagerie. This is a story about sexual power and control. It's one of those universal themes and stories that can apply to any generation. But I really like putting it in the context of 2021.
I'm talking about the absolute end. I mean, I'm going to put it into the context of the other scenes because Streetcar has always been more than just the ending of the story. I used to think of the important element of the story as the rape. When I first experienced Streetcar, I viewed the movie as a power grab for Stella's soul. The climax of that power grab comes from Stanley's sexual dominance over Blanche. The last scene, where Blanche is waiting for Shep Hunleigh to take her away in the midst of a mental breakdown, was always just the denouement. I wanted to think of it as the epilogue to a greater story. But the effects of the women's movement really recontextualizes William's message about women. Williams includes lines about Blanche revealing Stanley's abuse to both Stella and Eunice. I'm going to butcher the line, but Stella and Eunice discuss Blanche's accusation of Stanley. Eunice says something along the lines of "You can't believe her, Honey," and then spiraling into implications of what would happen if Stella believed Blanche's story.
And it was this year that the end meant something. As much as this movie is about sexual dominance, it demonizes not only the Stanleys of the world, the sexual and spousal abusers --but also those who actively choose to avoid being allies. Stanley has a history of physical abuse. Throughout the story, Stanley has been described through his sexuality, often to the point of bluntness by Blanche and Stella. The notion that Stanley would rape someone isn't beyond possibility. It actually seems rather grounded. If anything, it's always there in the background. Stanley is a predator, constantly looking to dominate prey. And Williams ensures that the sexuality is about control and power versus eroticism. Stanley continually points out how unattractive Blanche is with her falsehoods. When Stanley rapes her, he does so to destroy her. It is violence without any frame of arousal or eroticism. But the secondary crime, which is arguably worse, is that Stella and Eunice choose not to believe her.
Stella looks at Blanche being taken away and only finds her moral backbone once she has been carted off to the asylum. And even then, Kazan and Williams leave the ending kind of ambiguous. While Stella has big words about Stanley never being allowed to touch her again, there's the parallel of Stella's actions with the physical abuse she suffered at the card game. When Stanley hits her at the card game, she flees to Eunice's apartment only to return once Stanley screams outside. She quickly forgives him and actually gets mad at Blanche for even questioning their relationship. It's this horribly toxic moment. But it is also a very telling moment for Stella.
Stella is the seemingly normal until this moment. It really looks like the movie is about two toxically unhealthy individuals fighting to justify their own toxicity. But it is in this moment that I realized that Stella might be the most screwed up one of the bunch. The film messes with sympathies the entire film. While Stanley is mostly unlikable throughout, he is fighting for his family to be the way he wants it to be. (It even sounds gross while writing it.) Blanche goes for underage boys and I'm never going to let her off the hook for that. But part of me believes that Blanche is so desperate to reclaim the past that she can't differentiate aging from the person. When her young husband killed himself, the love of her life, she seems to find men that remind her of him. It's really screwed up, but it is also oddly sympathetic on her part. But Stella is the only one who thinks that she is healthy. She believes that she is normal. But it is when she is continually the victim of abuse and she keeps justifying Stanley's actions as love, it becomes apparent that Stella is potentially the most screwed up person in the group.
I love this story. It's one of the AFI's greatest movies and I don't know if I can necessarily sell it that hard. The play is so much of a harder punch that the censorship of 1951 actually hinder the play a lot. The story that Blanche tells about her husband actually doesn't make a lot of sense with the homosexuality removed from the story. But it is still a powerhouse of a film and I continue to dig it.
Rated R for being pretty darned sexual. This is art-film sexual, which I feel is a very specific subgenre. Like, it's all done in this cheeky manner that is meant to get a laugh. But that being said, there is nudity. There is a very odd commentary on prostitution. There are some really weird elements involving consent. It's pretty gross by today's standards, but it seems like Fellini's intention was just to get laughs. R.
DIRECTOR: Federico Fellini
I've almost started this movie a dozen or so times. Part of the issue is that Fellini is one of those intimidating directors. (On a related note: I got my film class back! Next year, I'll be teaching this stuff again. I should use this opportunity to read up on Fellini, but I'm on a roll and it feels like I should keep writing.) But then my wife said that she never watched a Fellini film. More accurately, she's not sure if she's seen a Fellini film. So she picked this one and I got pretty excited.
Amarcord both feels like a Fellini film and drastically different. This is the most superficial read on the movie ever, but the addition of color almost feels like this whole other director is approaching this movie. It almost reads like someone is inspired by Fellini, but decided to make his own thing. But that's a lot on me. Because Fellini is such a talented director and an accomplished artist, it isn't shocking that Fellini is exploring something new with a film that has a very different feel to it. It definitely isn't outside of his oeuvre, but rather just expands it outwards. That's great. And while I can't possibly glean all of the nuance of a Fellini movie from one viewing of the film, I kind of get a lot of what is going on with this movie compared to his other cinema. I'm not going to lie. I did read a bit on this one before writing, so it's not all me. But knowing what the title means and the inspiration behind the film definitely gave me a leg up. (My wife can't help but Wikipedia a film while watching it.)
Fellini's take on memory really is novel. Usually, when I look back at the classics, especially those films that inspire entire genres or tropes, I tend to be a little forgiving. After all, when something inspires a trope, you can't hold it against the movie when everyone else copied off of that. Amarcord is all about remembrance. After all, apparently the title translates out to "I remember." In the best and weirdest way possible, Amarcord is the pre-cursor of the nostalgia film. There's so much baggage to that sentence that I feel like I'll be unpacking it for the rest of this blog. I tend to criticize the nostalgia film. I think I did it with American Graffiti (made the same year!) and Everybody Wants Some!!. It's just that Fellini is making a nostalgia film...about fascism. It's not like Fellini is a Fascist. At least, I'm pretty sure he's not, based on his commentary on Mussolini's Italy. And that's what makes it different than the Americana I'm oh-so-used to. Like Rome, Open City or Paisan, a look back at Italy isn't baseball and apple pie. It's the understanding that things were gross. That's kind of interesting because our nostalgia films tend to gloss over the mistakes we make from a White perspective. But Fellini doesn't exactly wallow in the misery that was unleashed upon the world. It is both a celebration and a criticism of Italian culture.
But the insane part of it all is that apparently it's not his own memory that he's writing from. He's apparently writing about his friend's childhood. I simply assumed that Titta served to be an avatar for Fellini himself. Apparently not. It's his buddy. He's making a film about his friend's memory. That's pretty deep. But the even more deep element of the film is the disbelief that Fellini carries with these stories. I'm about to cheapen everything about the film with what I'm about to say. Without being ludicrous and over-the-top, Amarcord is Big Fish. We don't really know what the true story is or even if there is a true story behind everything. Big Fish is overt with its commentary while Amarcord hides its tall tales amongst reality. And it is almost so much better. There was a time when I would preach Big Fish real hard. I hate that guy now. I'm sure if I watched that movie today, it might be fine. But Amarcord, for all of its artsy-fartsiness, has this gorgeous element of subtlety when talking about memory. Yeah, there's no way that the stories played out exactly like they are described here. But it isn't slapping you in the face with its obviousness. Okay, Volpina is a bit much. But besides Volpina, there's something very organic about how we process memory. Even daydreams become part of our reality.
I'm going to come across as super 2021 American who openly voted for Joe Biden. Fellini uses Gradisca as this centerpiece of the movie. Much like The Sandlot, Gradisca is the focus point for the male gaze. Her role in the film is to be objectified. But Fellini's depiction of Gradisca has something very sad about it. Gradisca, to the boys, is an object of myth. While the Tobacconist is also hyper-sexualized, she comes across an obtainable circus act. But Gradisca is meant to be unobtainable. She is both the most sexual person imaginable, yet the representative of the divine. She is the Greek goddess of sexuality. But Fellini allows her to be human at moments. And in those moments, there's something pathetic about how people treat Gradisca. Yes, she goes around the movie seemingly footloose and fancy-free. But through the eyes of Titta, who objectifies her more than any other character, we see her as someone who is sad and acts as an outsider. Fellini teases the notion that Gradisca might somehow find companionship in Titta's uncle, an odd outsider in his own right. But the film ends with her marriage to a character that I'm pretty sure wasn't in the movie to begin with. He's criminally average looking. Look, I barely have any hair left, but I have more than this guy (at the time of writing this). And I'm not sure if Gradisca is happy with this arrangement. I mean, she's still objectified by the boys at her own wedding. But there's something about simply moving on with life and abandoning this idyllic town.
This might be my favorite Fellini movie. It's been a while since I've sat down and straight up watched a Fellini movie. But as inappropriate as the movie is, coupled with how dated some of the humor was, I found it remarkably funny. I mean, Italian people can be mean. That guy could have burned to death and everyone would have laughed. But still, it's a really good time. It's a gorgeous film and I thought it was a triumph.
Those Who Wish Me Dead (2021)
Rated R for language and violence. Like, despite the fact that the movie desperately wants to be edgy, very rarely is the violence all that cringeworthy. If anything, I laughed a bit by the absurdity of the violence. After all, lightning is a common danger apparently in this world. I'm now convinced that I could totally survive a lightning strike based on this film. Rated R...just 'cause.
DIRECTOR: Taylor Sheridan
Alright. Let's get back to business. What's going to be the big return to form to get me writing everyday again? Let's take a look at the notes...
Those Who Wish Me Dead. Geez, come on. The point of my weeklong vacation from writing was to get me excited about writing again. I was going to catch up on some much ignored television. But do you know what? My treadmill died. So I had to run outside all week. I know. These are my problems and people have it way worse. So I didn't even get to watch the TV shows that I was planning on watching. I caught up on podcasts that I didn't even plan on binging. And then I got caught in the old HBO Max trap.
This is the first one to really bite me in the butt. I knew that I wasn't going to get excited for Mortal Kombat. Because I had seen the other entries in the franchise, I also knew that Godzilla vs. Kong was going to be a bit of a stinker. But this is the beginning of the summer film slate. Yeah, I didn't know much about the movie going into it. I just knew that it involved Angelina Jolie and that there was a fire at some point in the movie. Boy, maybe my philosophy of watching every cinema release the day of might be dangerous. After all, when a Netflix original movie drops, I don't immediately lose my mind. Heck, I still haven't seen The Mitchells vs. the Machines, and I hear that is absolutely top notch. But we have the garage movie theater up and running. I thought that I could really get the cinema experience. And I'll even admit, if you are going to watch Those Who Wish Me Dead, which I do not recommend, watch it on a big screen. But this movie was a phenomenal amount of dumb. It was so dumb that when I saw that it was based on a book, I wondered how that was even possible, especially considering that the author of the book helped with the screenplay.
I don't think that anyone really believes that Angelina Jolie would be a fire jumper. She has this long, flammable hair. She's known for being stunningly good looking and for kissing her brother intimately. The former is subjective. But there's nothing that makes this movie seem plausible. I suppose that there's this need in Hollywood to make a fire jumper movie. I can kind of get what the drive behind making a movie like this is. There's something majorly epic behind the concept of a tiny little flammable human juxtaposed with raw destructive energy that is automatically pretty darned rad. But a setting does not a movie make. This movie is so at odds with itself that it really just comes across as silly. I'm going to put myself in the shoes of the author. The author has a decision to make: he really wants to make a story about fire jumpers. Realizing that the natural disaster genre tends to produce a lot of mediocre storytelling, he has infuse another separate story. This is all an attempt to have an epic fight as the woods burn around the protagonist. So how does the author accomplish this? By sheer force of will.
These are two disparate stories. Heck, I'm a Firefly fan, so I get the idea of fusing two ideas together, like the Space Western. But what happens here is the watering down of both storylines. Frankly, the witness on the run story is played out and Those Who Wish Me Dead doesn't really add anything to the conversation. Like Ronin, the movie embraces the MacGuffin as simply that. It doesn't let us know what the MacGuffin is. It doesn't want to to let us know what the MacGuffin is. It knows that it is just going to be a disappointment, so our minds will automatically create an absurdly large threat that the movie couldn't possibly deliver on. There are consequences to this kind of thing too. Because the MacGuffin is intentionally cryptic, so much of the movie has to remain cryptic. There's a completely wasted opportunity here. Aidan Gillen and Nicholas Hoult are two absolutely top notch actors. They are these faceless figures of death that ride through the world, killing people willy-nilly. But because we're not allowed to know anything about these guys, they quickly turn into generic bad guys. The actors behind these roles have the opportunity to create something really special and it just becomes this blah wash of generic villain.
And then there's the fire. The fire is meant to be this epic conclusion. It is a crescendo. It is a force of nature that looms on the horizon. Because Hannah has recurring nightmares about the fire, we know that her redemption comes from the idea that she will save this kid from a fire. But if you saturate the film with fire, the climax will get nerfed. So the movie really tries to do the most absurd thing imaginable: it tries to make Mother Nature a killer on a Final Destination level. I'm pretty sure that God is trying to kill Hannah because she's nearly killed by non-bad guys multiple times throughout the film. I'm going to be very clear: these sequences were added to the film to make it less boring. If Hannah did not get attacked by lightning multiple times, an hour-and-a-half movie would have even less to do until the end. But Hannah, at one point, is in the fire tower. Okay. Hannah figures out that lightning is going to get the tower fer sure [sic]. So she Tomb Raiders her way onto a rope to avoid lightning. I'm pretty sure that people who regularly man fire towers don't have to do this.
Then she gets hit by lightning.
Yup. Hannah gets hit by lightning and just walks it off. Getting hit by lightning is literally the standard we use for how rarely something happens. In the same day, her tower is destroyed by lightning and she is hit by lightning. This doesn't take into account the fact that she encounters a child who is on the run from hitmen and that she has to finally face down something that has so heavily traumatized her in the same day. The odds of all these things happening in a matter of hours is hilarious. Part of me thinks that there might be a justification for all of the lightning hullaballoo. Maybe lightning is really a problem in Montana. I don't know. But it's not like the lightning caused the fire. If this was all about a freak storm interacting with a very specific environment, I might give the movie some leeway. But the lightning is just a wholly different threat than the massive forest fire. The movie had nothing to do for the majority of the film, so it just decided to hit Angelina Jolie with lightning anytime the movie got boring. It was the Nintendo villain that annoyed you as a kid...but as a movie. It's absolutely absurd.
And the funny thing is that the villains, for as evil as they get, only really come across as evil because of the fire that they started. This is how evil they are: they kill a cop. They murder an innocent bystander. They kill a bunch of random people. They try to kill a pregnant woman just because she is what keeps the cop involved. They spend the majority of the movie hunting a kid whose dad they just killed. But the most memorable evil? They just set fire to a massive forest because they wanted a distraction. Come on. While I'm not saying that is completely an impossible concept, I call shenanigans. In fact, that's what this movie is. It's me calling shenanigans over and over again. My wife can attest to this. I kept saying, "No, no thank you. I can't believe you movie." There is so much implausibility for the sake of making a movie that my brain desperately wanted SOMETHING grounded. (Besides Angelina Jolie when she got hit by lightning multiple times). It's just that the movie is so dumb that my eyerolls couldn't get any louder.
Those Who Want Me Dead is such a cool title for such a dumb dumb dumb movie. It's aggressively dumb. It's been a minute since I've seen something this dumb.
PG-13. Oh, you thought that Pinocchio would be something made for kids? I mean, it is made for kids. But these are European kids. These kids have seen things. Apparently, they are cool with the protagonist being hanged from a tree. There's all kinds of messed up stuff in this movie. At one point, Pinocchio's feet get burned off. It's just a generally upsetting movie. But did we show it to our kids? Most definitely. PG-13.
DIRECTOR: Matteo Garrone
Guess what, guys? I'm finally going to take a little break from the blog. We're talking about a writing vacation. I've been catching up on TV shows, despite the fact that there are at least half-a-dozen movies that I want to see. But I've been looking forward to this break for a while. As much as I love Academy Award season, I acknowledge that it makes me binge watch movies too hard. These movies should never really be a chore for me. So I'm going to take at least a week from blogging and see how that plays out. Mind you, if my wife wants to watch a movie, we're gonna watch a movie and I'll write about it. But if everything goes according to plan, I'll actually be able to relax for a bit. Sure, I'll probably lose my ever-diminishing readership if I take a week off. But if I'm writing because I want popularity, I clearly haven't learned my lesson.
Roberto Benigni really wants to be in a successful Pinocchio movie, doesn't he? I'm pretty sure that he played the titular character post Life is Beautiful, which means he played him as a grown man. I get it. People have things that they really want to make work. I can't say that I saw the original Pinocchio, so I don't have too much room to critique it. I just remember after Life is Beautiful became part of the cultural zeitgeist, people were a little let down to see that Benigni's follow up was the Pinocchio movie. I remember the reviews were straight up bad. So to come back to the same project from a different perspective takes guts. I don't know if it necessarily paid off, but there is something kind of watchable about Pinocchio. Part of me is really spoiled by the Disney version of the movie. It's not like I love that movie. When my son said that he wanted to watch the animated version after we watched the live-action, I was enthusiastic. Not because I wanted to watch the Disney Pinocchio. It was because I could use the time to take a 70 minute nap...which I did. I review that nap 4-stars. Could be longer, but nobody bothered me for the length of the nap.
The thing about Pinocchio is that it really follows the rules of fables. Fables, being narrative stories, have a lesson at the crux of the story. "Little Red Riding Hood" is about following instructions. "Hansel and Gretel" instills fear of strangers. "The Three Little Pigs" is about doing things correctly the first time. Pinocchio, however, is about not being a jerk to your parents all of the time. Garrone's version really nails that point home. It's staring at all of the delinquent Italian children watching this movie and pointing at them for the length of two-hours-and-five-minutes. I'm really going to stress the five minutes because the movie is just too darned long. What I never realized with a much longer version of this movie is that the titular wooden child becomes way more unsympathetic given a longer runtime. The Disney version and this newest entry both stress that kids shouldn't be bad and that they should listen to their parents. But the Disney version is way more likable because he has to work towards his redemption arc early.
For a good hour-and-forty minutes, Pinocchio does absolutely awful things that make Geppetto distraught beyond recognition. And Geppetto is the most likable character in the story. He's Roberto Benigni. Take a second and think about how lovable he was in Life is Beautiful. Now give him a kid who is a huge turd and doesn't care about his feelings at all. Yeah, you feel bad for him, don't you? That's the movie. Considering that I only really think of this movie with Roberto Benigni front-and-center, he actually isn't in the movie that long because Pinocchio keeps on doing awful things farther and farther away from home. And what we quickly get is the beating of a dead horse. I realize that the original story was about the hi-jinks of this wooden boy who keeps falling prey to temptation and being given extra chances by magic, but holey moley. Tom Sawyer is somewhere on the shelf asking this kid to take a break from the naughtiness. At one point, we were sure the movie had to be almost over and we realized that we weren't even at the halfway point. I mean, what other evils did he have to accomplish that day? I have a to-do list on my board that would be shamed by Pinocchio's machinations.
And then there's the fever dream element to this movie. Disney has really made stories way more palatable for most audiences. I get that a lot of the original versions of these stories are meant to be weird. I get it. It's why people like the books. But Garrone's version takes every single weird thing about the original story and brings those in. There are other living puppets. I always thought that Pinocchio was special because he was the only living puppet. The "I Have No Strings" song was meant to be synecdoche, the missing strings representative of the entire magical transformation. But in this case, apparently, if you are a puppet, you are alive, but you have strings. This brings in the weird concept of slavery and classes of citizens. I mean, Geppetto is amazed to find that the magic wood created a boy who had emotions. That's fun. But I guess the expectation was that it would only have life if he gave the puppet strings? It's all very bizarre.
There is something really Terry Gilliam about the whole piece. I love me some Terry Gilliam. I haven't seen enough to really say that I love the complete oeuvre of Gilliam, but he makes these movies that are more visual experience than it is about the content of the story. I wish I could make a stronger connection to Brazil, but I remember having the same experience with Pinocchio as I had with The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Mind you, it's been a dog's age since I've seen that movie. But with both movies, I remember being happy to have seen it because of the sensual experience it provided. That's what Pinocchio is. It's all about the imagery, which is why it was nominated for an Academy Award. Visually, the movie is absolutely stunning. I mean, it's a horrorshow for a lot of the movie, but it was the horrorshow that the movie intended to have. So as much as I'm kind of dunking on the movie, in no way do I regret it. Sure, the protagonist is a huge tool who keeps falling for the same tricks. Sure, the movie is about forty minutes too long. But it is a visual feast and probably exactly what the filmmakers wanted to make.
Also, Roberto Benigni is a doll. But in this case, not literally.
Mortal Kombat (2021)
Rated R for being Mortal Kombat. Wait, the other Mortal Kombat movies are PG-13? Well, that was clearly a mistake because the most infamous element of Mortal Kombat is the over-the-top gore. I mean, it's just a perk that characters in this are allowed to swear in a movie that completely embraces the concept of the fatality. While I was expecting way more intensity, similar to the remake of The Evil Dead, it is pretty darned gory. R.
DIRECTOR: Simon McQuoid
Yeah, I thought I was going to sit this one out too. It didn't look like it was going to appeal to me. But then I thought of how I wasn't going to the movies anymore because of Covid-19 and embraced the "Well, it's free at least" attitude. And while I had a mostly okay time, I quickly came to realize...Mortal Kombat, as a narrative concept, is kind of dumb and it is bizarre that we have a mythology behind this video game.
Part of me was really tempted to binge all of the Mortal Kombat video games. There I was, reading the Wikipedia article on the Mortal Kombat stories, and I realized that should probably play these games. Then I realized that I have a stack of games that I want to play but can't due to time constraints. Then I realized that I don't like the Mortal Kombat games that much. So when a movie came out which heavily cites the insane Mortal Kombat narrative, I really became aware of how silly this storyline is. Now, I acknowledge I have no right to write that phrase out. Time and again, I have defended absolutely ridiculous storylines. A self-proclaimed geek who shouts it loud and proud, who am I to judge about what makes mythology silly? After all, I have a student who is deep into the Mortal Kombat narrative and I totally love it...if it wasn't for all the gore. There are probably healthier outlets. But something about Mortal Kombat seems sillier to me than most stories. And I suppose it is about the fact that the mythology seems way too complex for the format of the game.
I'm very skeptical about video game movies in general. I mean, I'm not exactly being revolutionary by saying this. It seems just part of the zeitgeist to say that video game movies suck. I'll go as far as to say that this new Mortal Kombat movie doesn't completely suck. But the format of the fighting game doesn't really lend itself to complex storytelling. If I'm playing Mortal Kombat, I see two fighters, one on each side of the screen. My entire purpose for playing is to see these two characters destroy each other in the most brutal way imaginable. It becomes beyond winning and losing. It becomes about seeing bone-breaking animations. But what I don't care about is the complex life of these characters. I love complex characterization. But stuff like Mortal Kombat begs for an audience to invest in the absolutely bananas story that these characters are going through.
And that's where Simon McQuoid deserves a little bit of credit. McQuoid is a director of commercials. A lot of these commercials are for video games. I get that he's excited to make a movie involving characters that he's passionate about. That passion comes through in the movie. For what it is worth, these characters are taken with the right degree of seriousness that a franchise like Mortal Kombat deserves. He seems to really like some of his characters. Sonja Blade (and I feel absurd writing this) actually has a character arc. It just feels like her attempt to uncover this mystical fighting tournament in a NetherRealm has no way to make seem relatable. Jax is at least sympathetic. He's there for altrustic reasons and he has his arms ripped off. (Yeah, there's only so much sympathy that someone can dole out to these kinds of characters.) But that's why we have Cole Young. From what I understand, the director had nothing to do with the screenplay. If I'm wrong, I apologize. But focusing on Cole Young creates this avatar for us.
I had a love / hate relationship for Cole. Cole, not being a character, is mostly unburdened from a dense mythology that I don't appreciate. He's outside the story and acts as an avatar for me. Yeah, we understand that he is somehow tied to Scorpion, a prize that I don't really care about in the long run. But he's this guy that could be one of two things. He could be this clean slate character for a casual audience (me) to relate to while having some deeper tie to the mythology (MK nerds). Or he could be a travesty to the purity of the mythology while being kind of blah for the apathetic. Unfortunately, I think he's more of the latter. I know. I'm being a huge punk with this. But Cole does absolutely nothing for me. I honestly wanted to look up to see if he was in any of the Mortal Kombat games or something to justify his presence in the story. It's not like Mortal Kombat is exactly missing the roster of charactrs that this could be about. I mean, I only got up through Mortal Kombat 3 (technically, I got to Mortal Kombat: Sub-Zero, but that's an abomination apparently in itself) and I knew there were a billion characters.
Cole just isn't compelling. I like the idea that characters in this murderverse have families and whatnot. But Cole's entire character arc is being kind of lame. He used to be a good fighter. We're not exactly sure what happened to him to make him a bad fighter. He can't exactly switch on this turn or whatever makes him a special fighter (that's a bizarre choice, by the way, explaining away the magic within the Mortal Kombat universe). It's only when he's nearly beaten to death by Goro that he gets his stuff. It's really weird. Goro is supposed to be the big bad. They bring him along because he'll get the job done. But when Cole gets his little magic trick, which seems way too overpowered to tell balanced story, he beats up Goro pretty quickly. Why not send anyone against him? From that point on, he has very little story to fall back on.
I'd also like to point out that, for as gory as the movie is and as dark as Mortal Kombat is supposed to be, I don't see why Cole's family survives Sub-Zero's freezing. (Yeah, I'm really nerding out on this movie.) The movie starts off with Hanzo Hisashi getting his family frozen to death by Sub-Zero. The movie is okay with killing kids, according to this. But Cole's family survives...because we really wanted them to? It seems oddly like a happy ending for the movie that really didn't need to happen.
But my biggest comment, and I would like to stress that this took me way too long to write because of a lack of motivation, is that this feels like a prequel to the actual movie. When Star Trek came out, J.J. Abrams and IDW made a prequel comic book series called Star Trek: Countdown, explaining how the normal Star Trek universe led to the leaving of Ambassador Spock. It's this fun, ultimately unnecessary, story that really prefaces the audience for the real story, for those people who want to have a fuller experience. Fun. But Mortal Kombat...never actually gets to the tournament. The one thing that is Mortal Kombat is the knowledge that these fighters are fighting in a tournament and they never got to the tournament? Listen, I don't care about the tournament. But there's this absolutely almost unearned confidence to assume that there will be a sequel based on this first movie. I know that a lot of films tease a sequel. But I've never seen a movie so dependent on a sequel. What if this movie bombed? Did it bomb? I have no idea. I mean, I enjoyed it more than the other entries, but they don't make filmmaking decisions based on whether or not I enjoyed the film.
Regardless, I find myself hating myself. Not because I watched Mortal Kombat, but because I feel so judgmental about a franchise that was never mine. I'm sure that lots of people view the franchises I'm obsessed with carrying a look of disdain. I'm just bummed that I can't appreciate Mortal Kombat on any respectful level.
Quo vadis, Aida? (2020)
Approved. I'm surprised that the MPAA ain't got time for these. Actually, what I think actually happens is that a film distributor has to pay the MPAA to rate their film, so who has time for that? Anyway, the content matter is pretty troubling, especially for those who ache for the plight of the refugee. While much of the violence doesn't happen on screen, the film deals with genocide and the fallout that occurs with that genocide. There is a scene of mass extermination. It's pretty bleak.
DIRECTOR: Jasmila Zbanic
I'm so grateful that the foreign language nominees were released in a way that was accessible to the public. Yeah, I wish that I got them a while earlier. But now I'm just being ungrateful. It's such an experience seeing art from other countries. The Western world has important stories to tell and I'm always fascinated about what we have to say. But the rest of the world has a message that can be so personal. For many Americans, the Bosnian / Serbian conflicts seem almost the thing of fiction. We have a hard time really visualizing the tension of real world disasters and atrocities. Movies like Quo vadis, Aida? both serve to remind me of my blessings and to break my heart over my comfort at home.
My wife commented on the fact that this is a fairly simple story. She's right. I can't even fight that. The narrative of Quo vadis, Aida? is so straightforward that it offers not even a hint of deception. The entire movie is an attempt to escape the inevitable ending of the film. We are watching how dramatic irony creates suspense for the length of a 100 minute film. We should know about the Serbian genocide. Even if we don't know the particulars of the genocide, Zbanic starts the film off with this shot of refugees piled in, shoulder to shoulder, trying to get into a U.N. camp. We see the inside of this building and the hopelessness of it all. Things never look good or optimistic. But that puts us in the shoes of the titular Aida, who is reading the writing on the wall. She knows that this whole thing has been turned pear-shaped. Yet she still fights for the small victories.
One of the key concepts in To Kill a Mockingbird (a movie that I might need to rewatch pretty soon) is the notion that we have to fight for battles we know that we're going to lose. With the case of Atticus Finch, his battle is altruistic. The right thing to do is to fight for Tom Robinson. But the easy thing to do is to walk away. Aida isn't Atticus Finch. Aida is fighting a battle of bureaucracy. She sees this solution that seems fairly simple. She is employed by the U.N. She is safe from whatever oncoming storm is coming after her. She knows that it would simply take a blind eye to allow her family into a place of safety as well. But instead of just fighting a bloodthirsty dictator who wants to kill her people, she has to fight against a spineless organization filled with weak-willed individuals. That's the most frustrating part of the whole a story. After all, dictators gotta dictate. But the point of the U.N. peacekeepers is to keep as many people alive as humanly possible. They are the voice of the people who have no power behind them. They are at their lowest place, facing extinction all so some general can feel like a big man.
So when we realize that the people that we should consider allies are almost greater enemies than the actual enemies, something really resonates. No one really expects Aida to fight the general with words or actions. She can't use her gift of speech on this guy or his cronies. But the fact that the film is about her losing her most powerful gift to allies is what is crushing. She should be able to change someone's mind in the U.N. camp. Instead, she's constantly butting her head up against a wall with reasonable requests. And that's the greater message of the story. Yes, this movie is fundamentally about remembering those who were slaughtered just because they lived in a place that someone didn't want them to live. I can't deny that is the foundational purpose of the storytellers. But Aida being a woman is also part of the story. The fact that she is a woman who primarily deals in communication and sees the big picture is the role of the story.
It is the men who are slaughtered. The traditional strong male archetype is inverted. The men in this movie all seem impotent. The dictator seems evil for evil's sake. He's obsessed with his own media coverage of the events. His soldiers are the ones who really do all of the legwork, leaving him in a place of comfort. Even the soldiers do their murdering from a place of safety and invisibility. The U.N. representatives are almost bullied by this general. The lead representative is almost obsessed with being liked and making sure that everyone is happy at the expense of the refugees and Aida's family. Even Aida's husband questions his role in the greater tapestry that Aida sees. He second-guesses her because he sees himself as male. It is Aida, a woman, who understands the dangers of words. Her hesitancy to translate at times shows that she knows more than the people around her. She understands the power and value of these words and it is telling that she is nervous to say those words aloud. When her male family members are stuck outside the camp. she uses her words to offer them a modicum of safety.
But it is when she gains too much control over the situation, the male characters do anything that they can to strip her of that power. Instead of taking the smallest efforts to help her, they become obsessed with control. I think that's why the guard ousts the man dressed as a woman who is trying to escape. They all turn on him, but that was a moment where the guard felt a moment of power in a powerless situation. The generals all ignore Aida because they want to put up a front for power. But it all comes down to words. For Aida, her words are one-to-one with action. She is there to deliver messages of actual change. When she says something, she intends for success. The generals, however, have words that ultimately lead to nothing. They are almost putting on a play of strategy. Because at one point, everyone knows everything is lost. The lie that the buses are there to help the refugee becomes a straight up farce, especially considering that the buses are segregated by gender. So the notion that the U.N. can't be bothered with Aida isn't for a good last-ditch effort. Instead, it is about maintaining the façade.
I loved this movie, but it crushed me. I might be alone on this one. But sometimes a movie is more about character and suspense than it is about story. My wife is right: there was almost no story in this one But in terms of heightening a single emotion, Quo vadis, Aida? did exactly what it was supposed to do for me. I was rapt with attention. That specter of doom over the horizon terrified me and it broke my heart. This was a powerful film.
Better Days (2019)
IT SAYS PG ON HULU! It straight up says "PG". IMdB doesn't have an MPAA rating, so I don't know if this is at all official. Um, this isn't a PG movie. At all. It should be considered Hard R. It's about insanely violent bullying, suicide, rape, crime, and torture. It honestly is a lot. It's a bleak romance. So I don't know what o color the font. I suppose "green" because...um...it's the only data I have and I can't just break my own rules. PG...by sheerest technicality.
DIRECTOR: Derek Tsang
I'm going to put a pot of tea on. I honestly took a nap in my car before work because I'm so tired. I have time to write this today. But I know that, because I have time, I'm going to dilly-dally and then fill my time with this blog. I do have other things that I would like to do or should do today, so maybe writing this intro will shame into getting my rear end into gear about writing. Wish me luck, reader. Wish me luck.
My wife has watched her fair share of Chinese romance films. She's also watched her fair share of Japanese and Korean romance movies. For as many movies as I watch, I don't tend to watch newer Chinese romances unless they draw attention from the snob community. I kind of wish my wife was sitting next to me, telling me what to think about the other movies she's seen. But the biggest takeaway she gave me was that a lot of Asian films love the dynamic presented in the film. The studious and shy girl coupled with the bad boy male protagonist goes a long way in this subgenre of film. I kind of get that vibe. I mean, even though I don't necessarily binge these kinds of movies, I get from what films I have seen that this seems pretty on point. What is it about this dynamic that forces filmmakers to have this formula in every film? It's not like Americans necessarily shy away from this coupling. But I don't think we go into it so hard. It's not like these films get aggressively sexual. As much as Better Days has quite a bit of graphic and uncomfortable content, I don't ever see a moment when it glorifies that kind of content.
I think a lot of it comes from a similar notion seen in Western cinema: dynamic characters need to grow up and get out of their comfort zones. For Western teenagers, the concept of high school is considered one's glory days. These are the stories that are told over and over. In popular culture, Americans imbue high school with rebellion and popularity. It's why we have so many high school football games at the center of storylines. Yeah, we deal with bullying narratives as well, but there's a real jump between stuff that we see in American dramas when it comes to bullying and things that you would see in international cinema. The reason for the character dynamics comes from the philosophical shift of what high school is meant to represent in other countries, especially with China and Hong Kong. High school is a time to buckle down. The academically successful are the powerful in school. While in America, we have elements of backbiting and competition in academics, I don't think it is as open as it is in Hong Kong. Bullying stems out of the academically powerful worrying about losing that power.
Chen Nian's primary antagonist is Wei Lai, a popular girl who finds it necessary to torture Chen Nian once the social pariah kills herself. That's a pretty dark beginning to the story to begin with. But as much as Wei Lai makes an excellent villain, Derek Tsang doesn't exactly hide the fact that he knows where people like Wei Lai come from. Wei Lai is the product of an institution that thrives on spitefulness. The teachers throughout the film comment on the problems of bullying and suicide, but seem to understand that those things are just part of the process. Instead, they are the ones driving home the need for success and domination. For the next two weeks, my students are taking AP tests. While I want and need them to do well, my number one thing is their mental well-being. I've taught them the content and I've told them how to study for it. But I can't imagine only compounding their stress by reminding them constantly of the alternatives to failure. Tsang regularly will stress the insane environment that encourages students to end it all if they can't succeed.
I've questioned this before, I think, in my blog about The 400 Blows. What is it about international kids that decide to ramp up the bullying to supervillain levels? Seriously, these kids in these movies do things that would get them life in prison levels of evil. I'm not saying that these things don't happen. I taught in a very scary school and I saw the awful things that kids would do to each other. But these moments of torture, coupled with mind games, seem so excessive. At one point, Wei Lai has one of her girls approach Chen Nian with a boxcutter as she holds a cage of rats. That took some prep work. Then there is the straight up sexual assault that happens with a head shave that seems so over-the-top excessive. Derek Tsang grounds his movie with the message of bullying in his opening and closing. But do almost hilariously villainous attacks on the protagonist really sell the notion that bullying should be curbed. It's kind of the same thing that we see in White Knighting movies about race. As important as it is that we know that there are insane examples of racism in our history, showing an over-the-top racist only really does one thing to change society: it lets low-key racists think "At least I'm not that guy."
When we see that savage attack on Chen Nian, the people who don't bully are horrified. Lord knows, I was aghast at what I was watching. But isn't the message for the people that need to change, "Well, at least you aren't as bad as Wei Lai." A girl could have committed suicide because of microaggressions. Heck, Chen Nian probably would have broken down a long time ago from small things like being excluded or getting beat up once in a while. But I will say, because Wei Lai is so insanely evil in this movie, Xiao Bei's intervention seems all that much more cathartic.
And this ties into the dynamic of the protagonists (I had my first sip of tea and found my way back). As virginal as Chen Nian is, it takes someone like Xiao Bei to offer perspective on the fact that life isn't all about a stupid test. Xiao Bei brings clarity to how stupid this all is. Wei Lai, for all of the power that she throws around in the movie, isn't remotely prepared for the real world. She's able to be as cruel as she is because the high school system allows for girls to be that insanely mean as long as they are academically successful. But it's over so quickly when Xiao Bei shows up. All that complexity falls apart when they are met with brute force. I should be grossed out by this, by the way, but it is hella cathartic to see Wai Lai taken down a peg very quickly by something that seems so simple. Also, Chen Nian is a very sympathetic protagonist, so there is that.
The movie is straightforward to a fault. It's kind of a long movie and it really doesn't need to be. The movie really goes out of its way to stress that Chen Nian is bullied. That can be cut by an hour, safely, because there isn't a lot of story. But the story decides to throw in this complicated plot at the end that almost doesn't make sense. The movie really wants to have a tragic ending for Chen Nian and Xiao Bei as their relationship starts looking healthy. When Chen Nian accidentally kills Wei Lai, the movie takes a really hard left and kind of drops the ball. Considering that movie is also comprised of a lot of wanting stares, Derek Tsang tries to force this tragic ending that doesn't make Chen Nian as sympathetic as it wants her to be. Up to this point, she's earned a lot of good will. But she kind of cashes in all of those chips to let Xiao Bei go to prison for her. At first, I totally get it. The idea that Xiao Bei's life is already kind of ruined makes sense that he would take the hit, especially with the lie that he would only serve two years as a minor in prison. But when Chen Nian discovers that he would get life in prison and still allows for him to be incarcerated...that doesn't make her a good guy.
And yet, the movie really wants us to like that scenario. When the police officer (who oddly has a whole B-plot in this story that seems like it is meant to set up a gross love triangle) holds her as she weeps, begging for one of them to be free, it doesn't really hold water. It seems like she's just being selfish, knowing that she can greatly diminish his involvement in the crime. I mean, they both have a shot at happiness if she just abandons the structure that has taught her that academic excellence is everything. I'm pro-academic excellence by the way, but not at the expense of the self. So the end doesn't really make sense.
All of this leaves me in a place that has to simply absorb the movie from an emotional, if not logical perspective. I mean, Better Days is a gut punch. It is visceral and I really like the relationship that it builds. But if you think about the movie too hard, it kind of falls apart simply on third act problems. Regardless, I kind of dug 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.