Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968)
Rated G for good-natured fun. Sure, there's a story about a world where kids are considered illegal and live in a sewer system to avoid extermination. There's also a guy who traps kids in his ye-olde-timey candy van. There's also this amazing comment on privilege that comes out of left field. But over all, it's a pretty innocent time. It's a silly car story. You know, like The Love Bug but with way less casual racism.
DIRECTOR: Ken Hughes
I'll admit it! I hadn't seen this one before. I know. A lot of jaws dropped when I told people that this was my first experience with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. It seems like this is something I should have watched a long time ago. I think that there's some kind of really faint memory that I saw this when I was crazy young. Regardless, there's a lot here for me to unpack. (Watch, this is going to be the shortest thing that I've ever written.) But considering that I'm such a James Bond fan, it's kind of insane the connections to the Bond movies that Chitty Chitty Bang Bang offers. I always knew that Ian Fleming wrote this movie, but I didn't realize that Albert Broccoli must have purchased the complete works of Ian Fleming. Besides Fleming's authorship of the original work, this was filmed at Pinewood. The bad guy is played by Gert Frobe, Goldfinger himself. Then there's the rare appearance of Desmond Llewelyn outside of his Q role. It's a bit of a nerd overload for me. Not that I mind.
But the thing that blows my mind, besides the fact that this musical is charming as get out, is the absolute bananas format that the movie takes. I dare you to diagram this on a plot mountain. It follows absolutely no rules of storytelling. I keep wondering what the central conflict of the story is. From the beginning, it seems like this is the story of an inventor who just needs to get one major success. Then I think it is about saving the car from the scrapyard. Then I think it is about selling this accidental success to a candy company. But then, a bunch of these plots are wrapped up. He saves the car. He fixes the car correctly, which means he's achieved his goal of being a good inventor. Then the story teases this romance. But the second it teases the romance...
...a whole new story begins.
Yeah, it's a really hard left turn. The movie, unsure of anything besides its sense of absurdity and wonderment, decides to become this whole separate movie. To make things clear, Dick Van Dyke's Caractacus Potts starts to tell the kids a story of this evil baron who wants to steal their new car, which they have dubbed Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. The story is large and bombastic. Now, it seems pretty clear that this is an imagined story, until you realize that the story doesn't really stop. We see that dissolve of a real boat turning into a warship and then the story keeps going. Like, I love the story. I really do. It's a great story full of weird, Alice in Wonderlandy things. But the thing is, it doesn't really tell you what's real and what isn't real. I had to bring up the Wikipedia article on the movie just to confirm that I wasn't going crazy. Because, and here's the real kicker, the world of Caractacus Potts, the in-world / real world Caractacus Potts, is pretty absurd. Like, a lot of weird stuff happens to him. He accidentally gets a candy factory overrun by dogs. He burns a man's hair off and becomes the star of a carnival performance revue. He has a rocketpack with skiis. His world is pretty weird to start with. So when he tells the story of a fantasy world with a baron that wants to steal his car, I'm not exactly sure what the rules are.
I mean, we all have that image of the car flying. I thought that this was going to be the story of an inventor who built a car that flies. That's what I signed up for. Instead, his kids are simply being entertained about the hypothetical versions of themselves where a car can fly. It's a real weird move because the movie, for as long as it is, never lets you get comfortable with one idea. Oh, and that's not the final plot. There's this whole story-within-a-story about a trip to Vulgaria where kids are kidnapped and there's a revolution that frees a bunch of kids. And then...the story ends. We go back to reality and the kids decide to throw another story into the works: Why doesn't Daddy marry Truly?
Now, it's not wholly unforeseeable that there's talk of marriage in a musical comedy. It's almost expected to be in a musical. But let's look at the situation that the film is even aware of...because it straight up addressed it. As insane as the story is, realize that a good chunk of the film is devoted to this made up story that Potts is telling. In real time, the story is really over the course of 24 hours. From Truly Scrumptious's perspective (Ian Fleming really had a thing about female names being suggestive), her day included getting run off the road by the same family three times in one day, running into the family the next day at her father's factory, and going on a car ride. That's it. And don't get me wrong. That car ride isn't the worst date in the world. It is a very impressive car that he built from the bottom up. There's a lot of laughing and good times. But within the 24 hours, Potts has insulted the female protagonist a whole bunch of times. They only bond because Potts has invented a candy that Truly finds whimsical and that's it. And it's the kids who want them to get married? They said, "We want a mom" and went with the first lady that they thought was pretty enough. Now, I get the vibe that Truly isn't some kind of psychopath who likes to murder children. But I'm also basing a lot of her character based on Potts's story, that is based absolutely on nothing. He doesn't know Truly from a hole in the ground. Yet, the movie ends with them getting married. Yeah, it's a family friendly musical. But golly, that was pretty darned quick.
I'm pretty sure that there's a stage version of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I know. I have a theatre degree, which is why I spell "theater" with an "-re". Considering that the movie is shot at Pinewood and that everyone else in the movie is a British staple, I was ready for Dick Van Dyke to dust off the mothballs on ol' Bert from Poppins. I know that he gets teased for that remarkably over-the-top accent a lot. But considering that Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Mary Poppins share the same tone, Van Dyke plays Potts as an American. That's cool. I think it is a fine choice, especially considering how Dick Van Dyke can hold his own without the accent. But it is really weird, the more I think about it. I don't think I've played "Figure Out the Lineage" harder than when I watched Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Caractacus Potts is a widower with two children. He lives with someone he calls his father in England. Okay. There's a version of the story where Grand Dad sent his daughter to America. She fell in love with a guy named Caractacus Potts and they got married and moved back to England with Caractacus's father-in-law. But then, Grand Dad's last name is Potts. All this is leading to no real reason why Dick Van Dyke isn't busting out ol' Bert's accent on this movie. I mean, there's a version of the story where Grand Dad lived in America for a while, raised Caractacus in America, and then they moved to England once Caractacus's wife died. But I really don't see that being a likely scenario.
I've been harboring a thought in the back of my brain as I've been blogging. Perhaps it's the fact that each of these movies has been loving VistaVision or the DP has a sense of panorama with the camera, but it feels like every long movie I've watched lately has been something I instantly consider epic. Yeah, epic narratives are longer journey stories. But Chitty Chitty Bang Bang feels epic, despite the fact that it technically takes place all within a small town by the sea. I think it's because of the scope of the imagination of the movie, but Chitty Chitty Bang Bang technically isn't epic. It's just long. It doesn't feel particularly long and I do like it. But it is a rather small story. It's injected with a sense of scale artificially by Caractacus telling a story to his children. That story is fun, but it isn't epic. Perhaps part of it comes from the notion that everything is thrown into the formula with this movie. It really doesn't try to hold anything back, which makes for a disjointed but fun movie.
I get why people attach themselves to this movie. I don't think I've had so much fun with a musical for a while. I thought I had seen the good ones and the rest were simply going to be chuckles. But Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is a classic for a reason. Yeah, I wouldn't recommend making many movies in the style of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, but it worked this one time.
The Big Boss (1971)
Rated R for being completely shameless at times. There's a scene that involves nudity and prostitution, really for no reason. I mean, that's me putting my Western morality on this film, pointing out the completely unnecessary nudity when the entire movie is violent as get-out. It's that 1970s violence that has that red-red paint for blood. (I honestly love when I see that over-the-top red for blood.) But lots of people die. A kid dies! Also, the movie involves drugs and the protagonist gets silly drunk at times. Regardless, a pretty solid R.
DIRECTORS: Wei Lo and Chia Hsiang-Wu
I can't claim to be a Bruce Lee expert. I really can't. I've seen Enter the Dragon and I know some things about Bruce Lee. I did giggle when that scene happened in Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood. (Yeah, I know it upset his family. I am trying to figure out what side of history I want to be on with that battle.) I don't even know that much about Kung Fu films. I have seen The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and that's about it. But when I saw that Criterion was releasing a Bruce Lee box set, let's say that I got a little more than excited. I love when Criterion gets a little bit more fun. While I'll probably hold off on investing in the Godzilla box set, mainly because that sounds like a chore to me, I have to say that these were the movies that seemed like a good time.
I'm going to go out on a limb, but martial arts films of the '70s had to be a subgenre of the exploitation film. Without much in the way of depth, the movies often relied on spectacle. Filmmakers had to be pushing the line for insanity and one-uppsmanship. Watching a movie like The Big Boss definitely feels like you are watching a really fun sideshow act. It's not exactly a high budget adventure and a lot of things don't make a lick of sense, but the narrative is a way to carry the audience from stunt sequence to stunt sequence. I would like to point out that, for as much teasing as Dolemite gets for its low production value, there's not THAT big a difference between something like The Big Boss and Dolemite. I know that Bruce Lee had finished his work on The Green Hornet years before this point, but it's really interesting to see that the filmmakers were banking on Bruce Lee to be this breakout star from The Big Boss.
You get the vibe that the filmmakers knew that Bruce Lee was a big deal. For all I know, he was a big deal by this point. But there's this decision to give Lee shackles from being involved in the movie until it was necessary. I don't think I've ever seen a character so artificially neutered for the majority of a movie. Because Lee can kick anyone's butt, apparently, he wears a necklace to remind him of a promise that he made his mother. Okay. I don't know if anyone is buying the reality of this situation. Maybe this is my white privilege talking, but I don't think that people run into the problems that Cheng Chao-an runs into on a daily basis, so much so that his mother gave him a charm to remind him not to get involved in so many violent altercations. Seriously, he comes to town and gets a snowcone. From there, he is instantly a witness to a gang shakedown of said vendor. Then the bullies mess with a kid selling dumplings. Because Chao-an is wearing his spiritual promise, he can't get involved. From there, he links up with a guy who acts as an avatar for Chao-an. It's obvious that Chao-an is going to be the hero of the story. That would be a heck of a weird Chekhov's gun if Chao-an actually kept his promise for the remainder of the story. But Brother Tsu temporarily acts as the hero of the story. What Bruce Lee isn't allowed to do, Hsu becomes the A- version of the hero. His Kung Fu is good, but clearly not as good as Bruce Lee's.
The Big Boss has convinced me that you aren't really good at Kung Fu unless you can do that magic jump. That magic jump thing is fake, right? I mean, I have to believe that. There's never such a good shot of it that it looks convincing. But you know that someone is good at Kung Fu if they can't vertically leap over groups of people. Like, it has nothing to do with punches or kicks, but simply if you can leap over folks. There's a moment where Cheng Chao-an is surrounded by a group of guys that we know he can beat. He does the vertical leap to get out of there and it looks like he can escape because of said vertical leap, but he just runs a few feet away and allows himself to get surrounded again. You know that the fight with the titular big boss was going to just be two dudes doing the vertical leap over and over again.
I was going to save my favorite part of commentary for the end, but I'm too excited to write about it. Can I preach forever how the ending is perfect, but just for me? So with exploitation films, the rule of law is pretty all over the place. Like, the protagonist is surrounded by death, but he's allowed to just walk away into the night. Not so much with The Big Boss. Cheng Chao-an spends the movie looking for Brother Hsu. A lot of the movie is the idea that the evil organization is slowly corrupting this guy to make him a bad guy. Okay, sure. I get that. In the course of that, he gets drunk, sleeps in a brothel, and a prostitute gets naked next to him. He has to be corrupted, but forgivable. But when he regains his moral footing, the organization just kills everyone around him. He returns to his house and everyone is dead. He's the only survivor of that house because he wasn't at home. He then goes to attack the drug lord at his home, killing all those guys on the way. Maybe he didn't kill all of them. Regardless, he gets into this glorious battle and is covered in blood. Like, he definitely killed the drug lord. The cops show up and, thank goodness, don't say, "Thanks for killing that drug lord." No, the movie ends with Cheng Chao-an being dragged to jail. Yay! There's actually a consequence for breaking the agreement that he made with his mother.
I can tell you why this is the perfect ending for me. Besides the fact that it probably mirrors reality way closer than what other stories do, it is also a story that follows through on a sense of consequence. There are so many movies that offer a binary situation, but don't follow through on a sense of consequence. Usually, we get, "His intentions were good and he achieved good, despite the fact that he broke a cardinal rule." I'm looking at you, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (I think.) Instead, Cheng is told by his mother that, if he fights and gets involved in other people's problems, he'll face problems. Yeah, it's really vague what's the actual consequence. But I love that there is an actual consequence.
But it really is a pretty shallow story, even when it comes to story. One of my biggest takeaways from watching a purely martial arts movie is noticing the weirdest character motivations ever. Cheng is new to the community. Brother Hsu is the guy who got him the job. Instantly, the foreman comes down on him. The first thing that Cheng does? Discovers cocaine in the ice. Of course, he doesn't really read it like that for some reason. But when Brother Hsu starts looking for missing co-workers, everything bursts into violence. (Remember, the story is there to chain together fight sequences.) This is where motivation gets all weird and characters become remarkably shallow. Because Cheng is good at fighting, he's made the new foreman. No one bats an eye at the motivation behind this choice. Everyone things that justice has prevailed and that it makes perfect sense that the new guy who can fight becomes the boss. But within hours of becoming the new foreman, he screws up and hangs out with the manager. Everyone then hates him. I get what the movie is trying to do. It's trying to become more than about fighting. But there's no real message that we can realistically graft onto. Because everyone's motivations and choices are so goofy, it distances the viewer.
But then why are these kinds of movies so much fun? Because that's absolutely the case of what's going on here. Yeah, it is a very flawed and very goofy film. But it also is really charming. You know, charming with blood and softcore stuff. It's a fun movie and exploitation films tend to be fun. But I enjoyed it. It's a good time.
Secret Window (2004)
PG-13, despite the fact that it is a horror story that involves murder of both humans and animals. There's a couple of pretty grizzly corpses. We're not talking Eli Roth gross here, but there's a really fine line between PG-13 gore and R-rated gore. Still, I'm not going to call the wolf out of the woods. The movie also reminds us about an extramarital affair that keeps getting flashed to. Nothing is gratuitous, but it is a stark reminder that the world can sometimes be a terrible place. PG-13.
DIRECTOR: David Koepp
Sometimes, you watch a movie because you have consumed the same material in a different format. My next DVD from Netflix DVD is Tomb Raider. It's not because I'm excited to watch the new Tomb Raider movie. It's because I finally got around to finishing the first game in the reboot series of Tomb Raider games and I'm curious how intensely close the adaptation will be. It's not a good reason, by any means. It is a reason. This summer, I read Stephen King's Four Past Midnight. It did exactly what I wanted it to do. The book was a series of four novellas, each presenting an anthology style approach to horror. One of the stories in the book was "Secret Window, Secret Garden". It was fine. It did its job. Now, I've seen Secret Window before. The trailer was wildly misleading and I kept waiting for an explanation to the whole magical window the trailer kept talking about. Instead, I got a movie that disappointed me the first time and was fine the second time.
The insane thing about Secret Window is that it is CLOSE to the original story. I think that it might be common knowledge that Stephen King has a problem with his endings in stories. I remember that It: Chapter Two had a jibe at King's endings. Secret Window makes the same joke. But with Secret Window, it changes the ending. I've always preached that a book should be a book; a movie should be a movie. I know that there's always going to be the crowd out there that screams, "But the book is always better." While the reader in me wants to preach that, sometimes that isn't true. I mean, it's kind of true in this case, but that's besides the point. But really, the movie should be its own thing. The greatest compliment that I can pay to Secret Window is that it followed a lot of the same beats as the novella, but it isn't beholden to it. And I'm not off the hook here for being this wise and all-knowing blogger. I didn't remember much about the movie from when I saw it in theaters. But after I finished reading "Secret Window, Secret Garden", I really hoped the film adaptation was going to stay close to the short story. It does, but it makes a lot of the changes that I would have made...
...which creates this weird paradox. David Koepp, who apparently has more fame as a screenwriter than as a director, totally saw the same weird things in the story that I did. One of the throughlines of the novella is that the protagonist, Mort Rainey, continues to justify his reasoning for not going to the police. Because this is one of those stories that is completely dependent on the twist, I will post a rare SPOILER WARNING because it makes or breaks the story. I imagine that King's reasoning for having Rainey so obsessed with not accepting help is that he is actually John Shooter the entire time. Yup. The movie is Fight Club before Fight Club. King probably had this idea that, if Rainey was Shooter, he would do everything in his power to minimize the chance of discovering this himself. Okay, fine. But it also makes Rainey really hard to relate to the entire time. See, Shooter proves that he's more than some wackjob by murdering Rainey's cat. (In the film, it is a dog.) But Koepp's version of Rainey instantly goes to the police. I like that. It's what I would do. It's really what most people would do.
He also makes a change to the end. After all, King has a problem with his endings. I mean, I didn't hate the ending to the novella. Rainey, in the book, is killed and his fiancee is saved by the insurance agent. It is a bit random, the more that I think about it. But it is an ending that is wrapped up quite nicely. But Koepp sees that the ending isn't a slam dunk, so he changes it to Rainey just murdering everyone. It actually works better with some of the hints dropped throughout the piece. After all, the story "Secret Window" inside the story involves Rainey writing a protagonist that murders his wife, buries her in the yard, plants corn over her, and eats the corn. (I don't know if this is as clear as Koepp wants it to be in the film.) So Rainey / Shooter end up doing the same thing. Also, the entire idea of an ending is so important to "Secret Window, Secret Garden" that the film really plays that up.
So why doesn't the movie work? I mean, is this one of those great Stephen King adaptations? David Koepp, for all of his contributions to amazing cinema through screenwriting, doesn't really have a hit when it comes to directing. (I'm sorry, Mr. Koepp. I haven't directed anything, nor would I know where to start.) When it comes to this movie being successful, it's successful in its script. But in terms of actual filmmaking, it's completely vanilla. This is the part where I start listing and where I get bummed out in the writing process. Bear with me. There's a reason why The Shining is King's most famous adaptation. I know that King hated what Kubrick did with his film, but it really worked. Kubrick saw beyond the text to the potential for what it could be. Honestly, as much as I like The Shining as a novel, it doesn't really hold a candle to what Kubrick did with the potential for the film. And that's where being beholden really causes problems.
As much as I enjoyed reading it at the beach, "Secret Window, Secret Garden" is exactly that: a beach read. It's not something that is must-read or quintessential to the King canon. Instead, it's a kind of fun story of a writer (surprise, surprise!) slowly breaking down after his wife divorces him. It doesn't really bear too much weight on its own. But there was a reason that the Bond folks didn't make a proper Casino Royale until well into Bond's run. Both "Secret Window, Secret Garden" and Casino Royale by Ian Fleming share a commonality. As enjoyable as they are as books, the stories aren't particularly cinematic. To do something with Casino Royale, there has to be a wider sense of scope. The book is an intimate evening with James Bond at a casino playing baccarat. But when you watch Daniel Craig's first outing, it seems larger-than-life. That is what makes that movie worth watching. Koepp stayed so close to the scope of the novella that it doesn't really have anywhere to go. The story of a man being haunted by this imaginary John Shooter doesn't really leave its constraints. It's a safe movie. It cast Johnny Depp as Mort Rainey for goodness sake.
Maybe it's just me. I always imagined Mort Rainey as kind of a dumpy introvert. Having this sex symbol pretend that he's going to be stymied by his wife for a real estate guy (I think he's a realtor. I don't know) seems completely implausible. Also, Johnny Depp is constantly being way too cool for this character. He's one of those people who actually makes smoking look cool. There's a bunch of ideas that smoking looks cool on everyone. Disagree. But Depp makes me want to pick up a cigarette despite the fact that I find that vice abhorrent. He fills the role with charm because that's why you hire Johnny Depp. But Mort Rainey isn't charming. He's a bum. He's a guy who has no idea how to fix his marriage. He should be unpresentable and gross. Instead, we have what we think of as gross. But Johnny Depp, even unkempt, looks like that is a fashion choice. He wears a robe that's falling apart and I believe that the robe would have been tailor made by Gucci to ensure that Johnny Depp still looks attractive.
Secret Window is a warning about the dangers of playing it safe in Hollywood. This feels more like a cash grab than anything to actually make it memorable. I could open the door to high art and low art. But that's a really petty argument. Instead, there's nothing that feels loved in this movie. There's never the thought that this film was going to change the world. Instead, most people will be wondering why I picked such a weirdly forgettable film to write about. If I didn't read the story as part of an anthology, I probably wouldn't have thought of this movie again. But I did. And really, it's a forgettable movie. It has a decent performance by John Turturro, which is fine, but I feel like he could do that in his sleep. While I don't have a problem with Depp (despite some of the shady things he's been associated with), I feel like this could have been this amazing acting challenge between Turturro and Depp. Instead, it is simply a boring Stephen King adaptation that had almost no aspirations to be better than its source material.
Seven Samurai (1954)
Not rated, but the movie involves at least 40 people dying by sword, fire, or arrow. On top of that, there's that rear nudity that shows up in a lot of samurai movies. Akira Kurosawa, for all the violence some of his films have, really leaves gore to the imagination. There's nothing that's particularly gross in this movie, but rather a lot of that is implied. A villager beats his daughter pretty savagely at one point. I suppose that should be mentioned. Not rated.
DIRECTOR: Akira Kurosawa
I'm always afraid to visit a lot of my fancy-pants favorite movies. I don't know what it is. Maybe part of me absolutely loved having such a hoity-toity favorite movie. It made me feel like a real boss being able to throw down something like Seven Samurai. But that fear always kind of made me feel like a liar. I know that, as a kid, I had seen this movie a few times. Really, I had watched the first remake of Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven, a whole bunch of times. But coming back to this movie, I remembered why I like Akira Kurosawa so much.
Like all the movies I adore, I tend to have a hard time writing about them. After all, it is really easy to dunk on a rough movie because you know exactly why you don't like something. Defining why you like something comes across as empty praise and somehow seems to diminish the original object of affection. But with Seven Samurai, I think I have a pretty good idea what makes it so interesting. I'v seen so much Kurosawa. Not everything, but a ton of Kurosawa. Defining what makes Kurosawa a genius is multifaceted, but there's something that I tend to take away from his method of storytelling. Seven Samurai, like a lot of Kurosawa, is a remarkably simple movie. It's almost impossible to think that you could get a four hour film out of the plot of Seven Samurai. This is the movie that started the underdog villager under siege trope. There's this over-the-top unstoppable force and these poor villagers are dependent on these tough guys to fight an impossible battle. In the case of Seven Samurai, it's all in the title. But what Kurosawa does is make the story far more complex, despite keeping his foundation something simple.
There isn't much plot to the movie. Honestly, I've already given all the summary that the movie really needs. The bandits are going to attack the village. After getting seven guys together to protect them, some of them less qualified than others, the samurai have to prepare the town both physically and culturally to ward off the bad guys. There's 40 of them, so you know, not nothing. But everything about how people get in their own way is what makes Seven Samurai so interesting. The world is full of assumptions. Classes of people both meet their expectations and defy them. Seven Samurai, for as simple of a movie as it is, is a look at the complex caste systems that may even apply to Western culture today. After all, Kurosawa's biggest criticism in Japan is that he is far to influenced by the West to be considered a true Japanese director.
The role of the farmer is one of being a peasant. They eat millet and plow the fields. They are farmers because they are born cowards. Throughout the film, these characters are defined by their cowardice and self-interest. But we keep finding out more and more things about them. Some of these traits are impressive; some of them are despicable. There's a moment in the movie that is positively haunting. Kikuchiyo sees that one of them has an honest to goodness spear. It's not something made out of bamboo. It's not a farming implement. Nope. Full honor samurai spear. When he finds out where he got it, we have this really interesting analysis of the nobility of this quest. After all, these seven guys aren't in it for the cash that will accompany this job. This is about honor and doing the right thing. But because this one guy has this spear, we find out that these farmers aren't as pure as we simply assumed. They have murdered weakened samurai passing through their village. They have plundered the fallen warriors who have done nothing wrong to them. This moral question is raised. What went from a black-and-white story about noble samurai defending innocent farmers becomes about disillusioned men, some of them desperately trying to test their mettle, are defending a bunch of jerks.
When the samurai arrive, the farmers hide their daughters. It's not just one scene. They are convinced that the samurai are going to rape their families. Now, I don't know enough about samurai history. I'm sure that there's something there. There becomes this question about what is the greater evil. The farmers are seen as foolish. It almost becomes a dark joke, so much so that Kikuchiyo does this insulting dance, luring them from their homes. But the concept behind the story is one of escalation. While the bandits would have slaughtered them, the farmers consider shame worse than death. Kurosawa gives a clear indication of what the answer should be. He shows these farmers to be in the wrong for hiding their daughters. But as much as Kikuchiyo's jibes seem to cool tensions, that concept runs all the way through the story. The entire plan almost falls apart because one of the farmers can't get past the idea that one of the samurai may be seducing his daughter. He would rather die than allow someone who is here to protect him falls in love with his daugher. To him, that is rape. Yeah, the movie implies that Katsushiro and Shino consumate their relationship. But we actually don't know for sure what happens. Katsushiro is obsessed with both honor and nobility, but he also seems to be in love with Shiro. There's this complexity in the story that complicates whether or not this whole thing is worth it.
And then the samurai start dying. The sexiness of these samurai defending the villagers loses its sheen. The concept of death becomes very real as the story progresses. It goes from being this adventure movie to being something that is almost depressing. There are these high-highs when the villagers work together to take out the bandits. There's a dopamine spike as the X's are painted over the the circles. But one-by-one, the samurai start to fall. The entire last hour of the film is the village taking out the bandits slowly. But the final fight is aggressively not sexy. It's in the rain. It's flailing and its muddy. There's a desperation and a depression to the whole fight. People are dying throughout and the concept of defense becomes something more than something than cinema offers us. There's nothing manipulative about it. It's simply what a fight would really look like. There's a moment in Rashomon that does the same thing. Fighting doesn't look impressive. It's clumsy and ugly and that's what the ending is. And it absolutely works.
As much as the movie is about seven samurai, as the title suggests, it's so interesting to see that the movie is focused primarily on Kikichuyo, played by Toshiro Mifune. He's the comic relief of the movie. But he's the weeping clown. He's this complex guy that is meant to be laughed at. It's really weird and great. Kikichuyo is a lie. That's not even his name. He enters the movie as this braggadocio. He pretends to be this great warrior. His sword is huge (and kind of amazing). But everyone can see that he's a fake. He keeps up this persona for a bulk of the film, even though everyone knows that he's in no way a samurai. He holds his own, sure. But he's this liminal character. He lives in both worlds. He's simultaneously a warrior and a farmer. Normally, a character grows and learns from his mistakes. Kikichuyo grows. He completely does. I don't want to minimize things. But his growth isn't clean. He dies in this place that is almost parallel to where he started. Instead of having the clean Ebenezer Scrooge roundness to it, he grows and shrinks in waves. He becomes vulnerable and covers it up again. His major mistake in the movie is that he thinks that he's a hero, only to realize that his actions led to the death of someone he cares about. It's really interesting. He dies, a braggart. It's something worth watching.
I'm so glad that a movie I claimed to love is actually worthy of love. It's such a fine film. It is fun and it is serious. Maybe I can't watch it over and over because it is four hours. But it is this nice balance between entertainment and art. I adore this film.
PG. For some reason, Percy Jackson got a free pass when a bunch of other stuff didn't. Again, it all comes down to the target audience. There's a lot of scary monsters in the movie. There's regular violence involving kids. There's an evil villain who is a kid. Let's wrap our head around that. Okay, he's a teenager, but still. But the language is pretty tame and the violence is fantasy. I'm a big advocate for the PG rating, but I wish it was just consistent. PG.
DIRECTOR: Thor Freudenthall
Okay, when I wrote about Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, I thought that people were nuts for hating that series. I thought it was way better than people gave it credit for. In my mind, it came down to people-who-read-the-books and people-who-saw-the-movie and I supported the film for being what it was. Okay, I take it back. I can see why people don't like these movies. I'm so sorry to everyone involved in this movie. I'm sure that there was an attempt to make the best product possible. After all, you have Stanley Tucci and Nathan Fillion in your movie. There was at least a degree of fan service happening in this movie. But there's a lot that's really messed up about the sequel to this film.
At one point in Hollywood, and I'm sure that this is still going on today, there was the logic that YA property was considered instant gold. Everyone wanted that sweet Harry Potter and Twilight money. But then, YA franchises were being scrapped midway through the series. There would be films that would introduce other films that would never happen. Listen, I haven't seen any of the Divergent movies, mainly because I'm not into YA at all. But it's really weird that you treated these films like they were episodes of television. I think Sea of Monsters is what happens when there's writing on the wall. The first Percy Jackson film wasn't exactly held high as an example of what someone could do with a YA franchise. It made its money back and it was a recognizable property, but mega-corporations only deal in sure-fire wins. Look at Spider-Man 3. That movie financially crushed at the box office, but it didn't make the money that the studio wanted it to make. Sea of Monsters reads as a movie that had one chance to succeed or else it would have been cancelled.
As a guy who watches a lot of media, I'm used to stories being truncated to suit studio needs. It was a thankless job being a lukewarm Chuck fan. I enjoyed the show. My wife and in-laws loved the show, but I enjoyed it. But one thing that was always abundantly clear was that the show was constantly on the chopping block, at risk of being cancelled. As such, every season finale always felt like a potential series finale. Sea of Monsters had to be so great to keep the franchise going and I think it knew that it couldn't guarantee that success. So what did it do? It tried to be both a season finale and a series finale. I haven't read the books. My daughter has. She's mildly obsessed with them and has re-read all the entries time-and-again. She told me while the film was going on all the stuff that happened in future books. There are a lot of moments that really don't fit in this story and even as someone who knows nothing about the book series could guess, there are moments that are both a mix of fan service and as a means to tell a more important story than the one that they were dealt with.
Because that's the vibe of Sea of Monsters as a whole. There's movie that I could just not get into with this one. The story starts off with this rivalry which is actually pretty interesting character wise. Percy lives in a world where saving the world at least once is commonplace. That's fascinating to me. Knowing that, even after this epic adventure, that he's still a small fish in a big pond is kind of cool. But after that, the movie is lost on me. There's the attempt to get the Golden Fleece, which seems really in the wheelhouse of a modernization of Greek mythology. But there's a lot of story that has a "who-cares" element to it. It's really hard to find the empathy to feel bad for a tree. I know that sounds cold, but I think everyone involved in the story is also aware of the weirdly low stakes that is involved with trying to save a tree. The story attaches all this meaning to the tree. The tree is keeping Camp Half-Blood safe from outside forces. Okay, that's a point in its favor. The tree also used to be a person. That's all stuff that is imbuing this tree with traits that it normally wouldn't have.
But even when we are told all of this, we have no emotional connection to the tree. I can see why Annabeth would have some kind of attachment to this tree. It makes sense for her. But the rest of us only got to experience the tree-not-as-a-tree in a quick flashback at the beginning of the film. The Fellowship of the Ring starts with this history of Middle Earth to establish the importance of the One Ring. If the story was involved helping one of those people, it wouldn't have the emotional weight to carry a lot of the story. We're told that we should care about these characters despite the fact that they haven't been attached to Percy in any meaningful way.
There's something that the Percy Jackson movies really want to do right and that's not necessarily working. I hate to say that the Fast and the Furious movies might actually be doing something better here, but the focus on family seems to be a running motif throughout these stories. I really don't want to throw Rick Riordan under the bus because I know that he distances himself from these films. But it almost feels like all YA protagonists have to be orphans with a struggle for finding their parents. There's a bit too much Harry Potter with this element. But it seems like everyone has daddy issues in these stories. As such, we get kind of a Dawn situation from Buffy the Vampire Slayer thing happening. The movie injects this artificial tension between Percy and Tyson, Percy's newly discovered half-brother. There could be a real story there, but Percy seems really cool with it from moment one. So there are all these beats that are indicating that there's a conflict that really isn't there. Instead, we get this weird Cyclops racism thread with the story.
I'm not crazy to think that Annabeth's hatred for the cyclops people seems kind of forced? She has this absolute fear of the cyclops people after they murdered her friend and she turned into a tree. (These are things that I write about instead of hanging out with my kids.) It's gotta be some kind of complete blindness towards the problem they are trying to address, but in a movie that addresses racism, they replaced the one Black character with a white guy. There's all these elements to this movie that seem like they want to be bigger than its parts. But again, this feels very much like every season of Chuck. When you don't know if you'll be back, you throw all these disparate elements in the movie and none of them feel fully fleshed out. Is this a story about family? Is this a story about being cool with staying out of the limelight? Is it a story about racism? Or are we dealing with the larger mythology of the Percy Jackson series.
The thing is, I really wanted to like this movie. I loved being one of the few people who dug the first movie and I thought that I could be the hipster who loved Percy Jackson. But instead, there's a lot of stuff that doesn't allow me to grasp onto anything. There's a part where a lot of characters are straight up eaten. It straight up gets silly and boring at the same time. There's something kind of magical about the first movie. All of these elements seem so cool and unique. But this one treats magic as commonplace. It's got some Lost World: Jurassic Park vibes with "We've seen this before." I don't know. I can see why they didn't make anymore, but I think it's one of those self-fulfilling prophecies. Since they knew that they might get cancelled, they threw everything in. But if they didn't throw everything in, they might not have gotten cancelled.
The King of Marvin Gardens (1972)
Rated R for sexuality, nudity, and some violence. Like the rest of the BBS box set, it's approach to sexuality is almost bohemian in quality. It treats open sexuality as part of the norm. Similarly, behavior tends to be a bit on the bizarre side. The movie also has a 1970s attitude about racism. Black men are considered thugs and involved in crime while white people tend to be on the more white-collar stuff. This is a fairly typical R rating for the box set.
DIRECTOR: Bob Rafelson
Now that I'm on Letterboxd, I have to remember to build up my street cred. I can't be throwing down Disney classics every other movie. I need to remember my film roots! I had never seen this one before, but I kept hearing about it. These were whispers from the film nerds at the video store. It's not like I knew anything about it. Heck, without the rest of the BBS box set from Criterion, I don't think that I would have been ready to even watch it. But The King of Marvin Gardens and Five Easy Pieces were enough to justify getting the box set alone. (I had seen the other major films in the box set and the lesser known movies in the set were fine.) But like with the rest of the box, there might be some discoveries as I write today. After all, challenging art makes us question and re-question what we're absorbing. Let's see if I mine anything good or if it all comes out as trash today.
There's an allusion to Of Mice and Men in the movie and that put a lot together for me. Thank goodness it is there, because there was a lot of "What am I watching?" throughout the film. David makes this reference about tending the rabbits and it all clicked for me. David and Jason are dreamers. Jason is the unrealistic dreamer. He lives in this world of delusion. Part of that comes from his con man background. He is drowning in this world of lies, but I honestly think that he believes that he's this big successful guy. Everything is around the corner for him. Jason makes sense to me. He's this guy who clearly lies to himself and to others. He's never going to be happy in the way that he wants to be, but also thinks that he's already happy. There's a scene where this cabal decides to rent out the space for the Miss America pageant. This moment at first confused me. After all, they can't pay even basic bills and now they're renting out a technical crew just to imagine an impossible luxury? Then I thought about Uncut Gems. By the way, looking for an image from King of Marvin Gardens yielded an advertisement for a King of Marvin Gardens / Uncut Gems double feature somewhere. I can't be the only one who made this connection. It is the role of the con man never to be happy with what he has. He always has to set himself to square one. It's not about getting rich. It's about beating the system. Jason, from that perspective, makes no sense to me.
But David? David is the confusing one. David, from moment one, is shown as this wrapped-up-tight guy. As a young man, he wanted to be like Jason. After all, when Jason makes the call to come down, he actually responds in the way that Jason wants him to. But David is not that man anymore. He's actually achieved the success he wanted. He's moderately famous. (I'm not quite sure what his radio show is, but it sounds like a mix between creative non-fiction readings and philosophy.) But he comes down to Atlantic City and does a paradoxical thing. He both gets wildly entangled in Jason's schemes and also sits on the side, judging everything from a distance. Part of me thinks that David has always held onto the knowledge that Jason is more free. After all, David never seems happy in the story. While Jason is having the time of his life, carousing with two women and having naked cowboy time, David is a grumpy gus who spends his life talking into a tape recorder about things that he probably no longer believes. (Buddy, I get it. There are times that I really don't want to write this blog.) Perhaps the entire movie is about David's shift out of his stuffed shirt existence into a world of chaos. Maybe that chaos is exactly what he needs.
But the world of chaos isn't exactly a balm to these people. After all, David returns to his miserable lifestyle, taking care of their father who is also obsessed with the past. Jason ends up shot. A lot of it comes from what happens when a world is all about self-obsession. Jason treats Sally terribly. Sally, for the majority of the film, on the verge of a nervous breakdown. She's constantly playing second fiddle to her own stepdaughter. Which all ties me back to the whole Of Mice and Men thing.
Maybe the Of Mice and Men thing isn't a perfect comparison, but I do want to see how much weight this analogy can hold. George and Lennie are ultimately good people continually found in situations that make them look bad. George, an altruistic soul with a hardened edge, takes care of Lennie, who continually gets them into trouble. Lennie has more investment in the dream because he's a simpleton (I hate using that word, but the book is really unclear with what's going on exactly with Lennie). George doesn't really believe in the dream until it actually gets a foundation with Candy. So, I guess David would have to be George and Jason would have to be Lennie. Jason doesn't really live in reality. He has invested everything he has into this dream that can't possibly play out the way he wants it to. David is indulging Jason's fantasy until it, too, becomes very real with him. Having David as the intellectual makes Jason seem so much more simple than he really is. But the thing that doesn't really work with the whole Of Mice and Men thing is that everyone in King of Marvin Gardens is terrible.
It almost feels like Grey Gardens was grafted to Of Mice and Men. I mean, I'm not here to judge Big Edie and Little Edie by any means. They are national treasures and that is not my place. But everything in King of Marvin Gardens is about people who have wanting more. George and Lennie's journey is a tragedy because they don't really deserve the things that are coming to them. But David, Jason, Sally, and Jessica live a life that they have chosen. Heck, David might be the most culpable of the group because he doesn't need this life. He has the opportunity to change what is going to happen, but his morbid curiosity actually leads to the death of Jason. There's a reason that everything escalated when he's there. Jason is so desperate to show off in front of his successful brother. There's a need to maintain the illusion stronger than before.
Yeah, I'm sure if I watched this a billion more times, I could get more out of it. There's something about the entire BBS set that is always going to be a bit of a mystery to me. But I loved watching all of these movies. There's something so rebellious and free-spirited about it, while being bleak and pessimistic at the same time. These stories end with death and misery, but I kind of dig that stuff. Maybe it's part of me that is trying too hard, but these movies speak to me.
Queen of Katwe (2016)
PG. A lot of that PG comes from the fact that it is a live-action movie and it's impossible to make a G-rated live-action film anymore. But there are some dark things that happen to Phiona. Her sister runs away with a guy and gets pregnant. The movie is always surrounding that living tragedy that is extreme poverty. A character almost dies. There's just a bunch of sinister moments that would justify a PG rating.
DIRECTOR: Mira Nair
Mira Nair directed this? Monsoon Wedding's Mira Nair? Okay, now I have to refocus everything I was going to write about. It was Dad's (my) pick for family movie night. I originally said Apollo 13 and then got shut down for runtime. (Accurate. I won't fight that.) Then we remembered that Catch Me if You Can has sexual parts that might involve some explanation to our kids. So I decided to play Disney+ roulette. I heard that Queen of Katwe was pretty great, so that explains why we're all here today. The thing is...
...I don't like sports movies. I know, chess isn't really a sport. The only thing is, chess is treated exactly like a sport in this movie. The inspirational sports movie doesn't do a ton for me. You can argue with me all day and you would be right. Sport is woven into our culture and our DNA. For many, sports are the way to change the world. In the case of Phiona, it gave her opportunities that she never would have experienced. Everything about the inspirational sports movie I can get behind, but I just don't like them. There's something about sports that drive me crazy. Even though many of these stories are true stories, they all seem to follow a formula. It's the whole Bad News Bears things, only without the comedy. The unexpected savant comes in, is naturally adept for the whole game. With the proper support system, square peg in a round hole grows more and more successful until they are taught the lesson of failure. There's someone out there that is better. There's a crisis of faith. The lesson taught is not to step out of line until someone convinces the protagonist to try again. They work and work and work until they are either able to redeem themselves or learn that winning isn't everything. I find these stories remarkably boring. It's because I don't like sports, but it is also because it keeps being the same movie.
I will take the stance that Queen of Katwe is a step above a lot of the things I watch. Maybe it's because I kinda sorta dig chess. It seems like the hipster thing to say that you consider chess the ultimate sport. But on top of that, if you cut out all of the sportsy sports stuff, there's a pretty good story going on behind the chess. Really, this is the story of being afraid to fail. (I know, a pretty common sports theme.) If I look at this entire experience as a story about poverty and how poverty begets poverty, there's something really interesting in the story. Phiona starts the movie smelly. No one wants her there because she is uncomfortable to be around. Her character is defined by her poverty. Heck, the story probably wouldn't even exist if the chess club wasn't offering porridge as an incentive to play.
Perhaps it is because Phiona had earned the term "Queen of Katwe" that the movie is named the way it is. But Phiona is representative of a culture that is often ignored by society. Phiona is the lowest of the lowest class. The other kids in the chess club are also remarkably poor. It becomes easy to forget that at times in the movie because as little as the other children in the story have, Phiona and her family have less. But Phiona's love for the game is not necessarily one for the beauty of the rules or because of the skill that she has behind it. Chess, for Phiona, is a way to get away from Katwe. She has nothing. I look at Maslow's hierarchy of needs and think about how far away self-esteem is from survival. Phiona and her family are basically trying to survive. She has no real sense of shelter. Her meals are basic. She must work to eat and move ahead. An education, from her perspective, is a luxury. It's not that chess is necessarily a fun game, but it is a means to both food and a luxury.
She comes across as the stereotypical cocky athlete, but there's something bigger going on there. She's so desperate to be the best in the world because her life has been a series of cause and effect. When Phiona showed that she was adept at this game, she received food. When she started beating others, she garnered attention. This attention allowed her to sleep in a real bed. Beating kids who had money showed that she had value. It only makes sense that she would want to be better than anyone she would ever play because going backwards led back to thinking about survival again.
We often see characters like Phiona's mother, Nakku Harriet, in these stories. These are people who find these distractions frivolous. Trust me, I get it. But the character changes don't necessarily happen to the protagonist. Okay, sure. Phiona learns that she just needs to practice and lose her ego to get better. But the story that we should actually care about is the tragedy of Phiona's mother. From her perspective, she lost Night in the first few minutes of the movie. She has sold her soul and her body to this guy for a degree of comfort. Her family falls apart in the first few minutes of the movie. From her perspective, Night is a character who was always rebellious. She was always the threat to the family. Night would perpetuate a degree of poverty from a young age. But Phiona was always her good kid. She was the sure footing that she needed in her life. But when Phiona becomes interested in becoming bigger than her station, that's when rock bottom proves to be nothing of the sort. Phinoa was never supposed to leave. And from Mom's point-of-view, this obsession with a game is similar to what Night has done. In a desperate place to get out, she has done anything to escape this world.
See, from Mom's perspective, leaving Katwe is selling your soul. Her entire life, she's been bred and raised to believe that poor people were meant to be poor. When Mom sees this man come into their sphere of influence, she can't help but compare Robert Katende as the man who took Night away on the motorcycle. The financially better-off male is the devil. He is the temptation. I mean, this is a Disney movie, right? It earned a PG rating and I have already talked about that for a little bit. But I don't think the real mother in this story was worried about a chess game. Phiona ends up living with Mr. Katende. When she spends all of her time with this stranger, is it that bizarre that she might make a sexual connection between these people?
Maybe that's what always bothers me about inspiring biopics. There is always this tendency to over-simplify the narrative to make a clear good guy and a clear bad guy. Mom's never the bad guy, but she's definitely an antagonist. From Phiona's perspective, her goal is to become the best chess player in the world and to become rich doing it. She wants to buy her mom a house. But who is standing in the way of that? Mom's reticence to allow Phiona to leave implies that Mom doesn't want her leaving her station and her caste. But the Night narrative has to color what we are talking about as well. Because Night kind of prostitutes herself, Mom has to be influenced by that narrative. Instead, it kind of does Mom the disservice of implying that "She just doesn't get it" or is too afraid to step out of line. Nah, she's probably worried that Phiona has repeated the mistakes of Night, only with a far more insidious man.
It's weird, some of the choices in the story. While it is heartwarming that Mr. Katende doesn't take the better job, he does have a responsibility to his family. I mean, he's barely getting paid with the mission. But I do really appreciate that this movie didn't try to remove faith from the storytelling elements of the events. I mean, I hear that Tolkien completely divorced God from the story, so seeing everyone praying seemed like a gutsy move for a 21st Century Disney movie.
I don't know if I got to the heart of it all. I got bored for a while because I don't love sports movies. But there's a rich character study going on in the background that Mira Nair didn't really touch on as much as I thought she would. It's a touching story that just isn't for me.
PG-13. We have entered the new world of Bond. There is no more casual nudity, but the sexuality somehow became more real. Maurice Binder isn't doing the opening credits anymore, but that doesn't distance the opening credits from being overtly sexual. Bond's violence, like with the Dalton films, is pretty intense. Also, the female villain derives pleasure from painful and violent sexual acts. There's a lot here that deserves the PG-13 rating.
DIRECTOR: Martin Campbell
Martin Campbell knows how to reboot Bond. In my article for The Living Daylights, I talked about how the Timothy Dalton Bond movies were the equivalent of the Paul McGann Doctor Who. They were these liminal films. I consider the Pierce Brosnan Bond movies the beginning of Nu-Bond. I know. Daniel Craig is officially the reboot years, but there is a lot in common between Brosnan's Bond years and Craig's Bond years, especially with a film like GoldenEye.
Side story: When I was really little, family movie nights often were classic James Bond films. Sure, I'm not showing my kids Bond films until they are way older, but I was mentally pretty excited to watch a James Bond movie when I was little. I have very strong nostalgic memories about the classic Bond films. But my dad died the year GoldenEye came out. I think the first movie I saw in the theater after my dad died was GoldenEye. I held onto that movie tight. Like, it became something bigger than it really was. It changed my nostalgic love for James Bond into a full on obsession. As much as I love Classic Bond, it was the same formula over and over again. The movies weren't cheap, by any means. But they had really failed to evolve with the decades that passed. There were moments, sure, where Bond reflected the culture. But Bond wasn't really treated as cinema with everything following the Connery era. They were entries in a long running franchise. It was a case of not upsetting the apple cart.
But MGM or United Artists (it's very hard to tell who owns Bond at what point) had legal troubles making another Bond movie after Licence to Kill. It might have been the best thing for James Bond because GoldenEye is an honest-to-goodness movie. It's shot stylistically. It seems to be something that can hold weight against other action films of the era. Yeah, it screams a little '90s today, but it still holds up. I would like to point out that this is the second time in the past few years that I tried watching GoldenEye. The first time was with a room full of people who were distracted, so I watched with the assumption that the movie wasn't that strong. There might be validity to that criticism. But when I watched it this week, I was amazed how much the movie held up.
While I love Craig's Bond movies the most, almost equally to Connery's Bond movies, Pierce Brosnan might be an ideal Bond. I know. That's a real dangerous statement to make. Again, I think Craig is the most watchable Bond and Connery is the OG Bond, but Brosnan has everything that makes Bond interesting to watch. Brosnan is coming right off of Dalton's era. Dalton has some really great stuff going on and I encourage you to read my other articles about the Dalton era. But Brosnan's Bond has so much going for him. The opening sequence, mirroring the teasing elements of On Her Majesty's Secret Service because they aren't showing the actor's face for a reason, says a lot about the character that Brosnan built into his Bond. The movie starts with an insane stunt, bungee jumping off of an insanely high dam. His Bond will try to top other stunts: check. He uses technology with a laser watch: check. Upside down, he tells a joke. His Bond has a sense of humor: check. And then he just wrecks the guy. In terms of establishing character and tone, there's so much in those first few minutes.
But GoldenEye might be the most telling of what era it was made in. It's interesting to see how Bond tries, but ultimately fails, to connect to the larger growth of an era. I hear that in No Time to Die, the coronavirus-delayed Bond movie, the new 007 is female. James Bond is still James Bond, but he retired the number to a woman. Cool. But in trying to address how the world is changing, it is only highlighting how behind James Bond is from the times. There's a scene in GoldenEye where Bond and Judi Dench's M square off. M opens the door to criticism and Bond responds. Really, the scene is in the film to justify that Bond is still needed at the turn of the millennium. But I really want to look at the actual words being said by the characters. M calls Bond "a sexist, misogynist dinosaur" and "a relic of the Cold War." Fair. Bond has always embraced everything but the "dinosaur" element of the story. But Bond's thoughts on M are reflected in the idea that he considers this new M a bean-counter. The story centers around this idea --and this idea is kind of lost to a bigger threat --that the only reason that this horrible event happened because a female bureaucrat who doesn't really understand the game made a critical mistake.
GoldenEye takes a big step forward by making M, the head-honcho at MI-6, female. But it takes a bigger step back by saying that because she just doesn't get it, people are now dead. Bond keeps running into red tape at the beginning of the story. He wants to chase down Xenia Onatopp and prevent the capture of the Tiger helicopter. He wants to chase down the lead to this helicopter, but the "evil Queen of Numbers" won't let him follow through on his hunch. It's only once M comes to the realization that Bond is the only one who can make a real difference in this story --once she neuters herself --that the world can be saved. In an attempt to justify Bond for the new era, they're actually making the story more misogynistic. It's kind of why we all love Skyfall. In Skyfall, M is fallible, but it's not because of her lack of understanding. It's because she's more Bond than Bond.
There are more moments like this in the story. I love Samantha Bond as Moneypenny. I mean, her name alone is great. But GoldenEye might be trying a little too hard to comment on the sexual politics of the mid-'90s. Having a joke about sexual harassment while Bond is honestly sexually harassing Moneypenny might be a bit on the nose. I do like the idea that Moneypenny is not waiting around for Bond to call though. Listen, I'm always going to be a big fan of Lois Maxwell's Moneypenny and her tete-a-tetes with Bond. But it completely changed dynamics as Maxwell aged and Bond stayed a young man. Okay, A View to a Kill seemed appropriate. As I remember, Samantha Bond's relationship with Bond became better before she left with Brosnan. But this one is a bit cringey.
But remember how I said that Brosnan was the ideal Bond? You guys all winced. I don't think that there was a problem with Brosnan's portrayal of the character. I think a lot of his weaknesses were based on the quality of the stories in the other movies. As much as I enjoy most of the other Brosnan films (shy of Die Another Day, which is an affront to cinema), GoldenEye is his only real win in the franchise. I even remember reading that people think that GoldenEye is kind of weak. I want to fight for GoldenEye. Sure, it's probably not a lot of people's favorite Bond entry. But it does have a lot going for it.
GoldenEye gets what Licence to Kill gets wrong. To make Bond have a bit of staying power, the threat has to be personal. Craig's films are obsessed with tying the bad guy to the good guy. It's actually beginning to get a bit obsessive. But Licence to Kill introduced this guy who hurt Bond personally. It was this outside character who had no personal tie to Bond. In fact, Franz Sanchez doesn't even know who James Bond is for the majority of the movie in Licence to Kill. Bond is the one carrying the weight of the emotions, while Sanchez is just having a "business-as-usual" attitude. But making 006 the villain of GoldenEye is smart. I like the fact that we have this pre-credit sequence that establishes the intimate relationship of these two guys. Alec Trevelyan is Bond's failure. With the exception of the death of Tracy, failing 006 is the thing that haunts him.
Because of that failure, the entire movie is about haunting James Bond. It's bad enough that he let down a fellow agent and friend. But the movie becomes about those small failures having great big consequences. On one end, it is about ensuring that someone with that much power and responsibility (sorry) maintains the highest standards. When Bond can topple governments, he has to ensure that everything he does is perfect. On the other end, and this comes from Bond's grappling with his internal conflicts, it is about forgiving oneself. Alec Trevelyan, despite the fact that he repeats the betrayal motif, is a bad guy. The line that he's "a common bank-robber" awakens Bond to the fact that this was always Trevelyan's plan. His death was staged. Bond couldn't have known that the events at the dam were always going to end up the same.
But let's talk about the really weird moral choice at the end of the movie. Bond has a licence to kill. Cool. We get that. But I think one of the movies mentions that part of having a licence to kill is knowing when to use it. The movie is begging Bond to kill Trevelyan. The film ends with Bond risking his life to grab Alec's leg as he falls off the antenna. There's a conversation between the two of them and then Bond lets go, causing Alec to fall to his death. (Okay, broken bones right before being crushed by the flaming antenna.) The message is that Bond has been holding out hope that his friend is still his friend. By letting go, Bond has made peace with the idea that Alec really is the bad guy of the story. But isn't that kind of a dark message? Bond really can save Alec in this moment and have him rot in jail. I'm applying both my own morality and the morality of other heroes I appreciate to the story. In Skyfall, he captures Silva, which leads to his escape and destruction of everything Bond holds dear. I think the series really relishes that Bond has no mercy. It's an odd moment that Bond decides to save 006, only to send him falling to his death. It's not like one of those moments where Alec decides to betray him one last time.
Do you know what's a great motif that makes no sense? The six-minutes-versus-three-minutes thing. It's this repeated thing that is super cool, but Alec's mad that Bond changed the timer on a dead body. It's part of this whole betrayal thing and I get it emotionally. But logically, it's pretty dumb.
GoldenEye is a great introduction of Bond into the new world. Brosnan brings something of the classic series while completely grounding the character in a bigger world than we've seen him before. Nothing feels cheap in GoldenEye and it is risky filmmaking, but it pays off.
The Last King of Scotland (2006)
Rated R. A lot of people warned me that this was a pretty brutal movie. It is. There's cruelty and gore horrors that are perhaps more troubling because these things happened to real people. There's also quite a bit of sexuality in nudity in this movie, which I wasn't really as prepped for. The language is intense at times. Really, the movie as a whole is a pretty intense experience. Any movie that involves an attempted abortion under duress is going to be some pretty heavy stuff. It's not for the feint of heart. R.
DIRECTOR: Kevin Macdonald
I made a mistake, guys. The next movie I was supposed to watch was Little Miss Sunshine. I only realize that I skipped it when I put this disc back. Can you imagine the different day I would have had if I had watched Little Miss Sunshine? Instead, I watched a movie about a genocidal madman who did uncomfortable surgeries on people who dissented against his regime. Regardless, I have wanted to see this movie for a while. When I got the Fox Searchlight box set, I was slightly bummed how many of the movies I had owned on DVD or had seen before. The Last King of Scotland was always a hole in my movie watching, so I'm glad that I watched it. It's just...you know, intense.
I have a history minor. But I have to admit that I knew very little about Idi Amin. I knew the name and I associated that name with a dictatorship. Can we really count film as scholarly sources? I wondered if you could take a history course and teach the entire thing with movies? It's a dangerous precedent to set, but watching a story like Amin's makes it come to life. I think we have a problem with empathy when we are presented with statistics. It's why we are so moved by films about the Holocaust, because we make these people real. Telling the story from the perspective of Garrigan does so much to both inform about the situation in Uganda, but also allows the movie to provide commentary on western ignorance.
Again, I don't know how accurate the characterization of Nicholas Garrigan was. When I found out that James McAvoy was in this, I got a little excited. I think this might be Forrest Whittaker's most famous role, so that wasn't a shock. But starting with McAvoy is a bit brilliant. McAvoy, for as deep as he gets within this story and this regime, represents my absolute ignorance of what is going on in the rest of the world. If the world wasn't burning right now, I don't think I'd be on top of the news like I am right now. Even the news I get today is more condemning of American politics than it is about the world stage. But Garrigan is this guy whose biggest problem is that he is far too comfortable to be happy. There's nothing more unsympathetic than to say, "You're a doctor, but you don't want to be like your dad." I mean, some stories get a lot of distance on the idea that the protagonist is desperately trying to be different from his father. I don't know how he didn't think he was going to get Canada on that first spin, by the way.
But his actions during the opening credits of the film are telling of the kind of man that both he and westerners are. He sees this experience in Uganda as a kind of vacation. He wants that hero worship. "How noble" and whatnot. But what does he do on the bus ride out to his clinic? He sleeps with a woman that he just met. Okay, this is me being judgy-judgy because I can be. But Garrigan is a man who seems to dehumanize people because he sees his life as more valuable. There is no intention to form a relationship with that woman. Instead, he opens his vacation to Uganda by sleeping with one of the local people. It's this odd balance of showing how open-minded he is while simultaneously being remarkably naive.
I mean, the story is really establishing the thing that Nicholas Garrigan's downfall will come from his womanizing and sexual obsessions. He sleeps with the girl at the beginning, showing his complete distancing from the human person. He doesn't see her as a woman, but simply as a conquest based on his verbal cry during intercourse. But then, he tries seducing Sarah Merrit, Dr. Merrit's wife. Merrit, an on-the-nose name, is a good man. He is actually there to help people, not to run from the responsibilities of the suburbs. By seducing Sarah, Merrit loses all form of conscience. Sarah, after all, seems to have a far greater understanding of the coming of Amin and what the consequences will be with his regime.
I can't help but view Nicholas Garrigan as Nick Carroway from The Great Gatsby. The Last King of Scotland isn't about Garrigan so much as it is about Amin. The Great Gatsby is not about Nick Carroway so much as it is about Jay Gatz. But because we're looking through the eyes of a flawed narrator, we get to see the contrast of these extreme characters. Similarly, because they are so flawed, we wonder if any of the situation would have happened if these narrators had actually had degrees of moral fortitude. With Nick, he knows that Daisy's husband is cheating on her and he does nothing. With Garrigan, he reports Jonah Wasswa to Amin, knowing that Amin is a little off and dangerous. Neither narrator holds complete responsibility for the actions of their counterparts, but there is enough there to plant the seed of doubt.
I suppose that I'm pretty blessed to live in America, although I can't really see the goodness very clearly in these very troublesome days. It's because I see the elements of Amin's dictatorship over the country that has always mentally been distanced from such insane goings-on. Amin is this guy who is borderline a manchild with a gun. Obsessed with people liking him, he puts on a show every time that he is at the mic. Even Garrigan acknowledges that this is Amin's strength. But to maintain that illusion, he removes anyone who even questions his authority. He is a man who is built on lies. This week, we found out that there is a secret police in Portland rounding up protesters. While Trump isn't executing his own people, I can't help but see that people are dying because the commander-in-chief wants so much for people to like him right now. It's an odd film to be watching right now because the cultural context of 2006 isn't exactly the environment of 2020.
I adore the performances in this movie. Forrest Whittaker is such an amazing actor and he just immerses himself in this role. I give him props because it is a very challenging task to show a character who comes across as remarkably childish without playing him as a childish guy. There's this history of dictatorships in Uganda that Whittaker is drawing from. His behavior, from his perspective, is that he's the hero that Uganda needs. But he is also one of these people who is instantly corrupted by power that he's never had before. He loves being loved and hates being hated. There is no politics to what he does, but rather a showmanship. The age of the television camera made Idi Amin, based on Whittaker's performance. Because he can get reporters to laugh and ignore hard facts, he comes across as this guy who can't possibly be doing these evil things. And Garrigan, because he's so darned close, doesn't realize the evil he's condoning because you can only see atrocities from a place of exile.
It's not an easy movie to watch, but The Last King of Scotland is a tank of a film. It's a bummer watching this cautionary tale of something that might be happening today. But Amin is this guy who is so over-the-top evil that it makes it this interesting fencing match.
Rated R for being a teenage raunchy comedy. Yeah, it's got brains. But it also involves all kinds of sexual innuendo, sexuality, drug use, things that border on the pornographic, and stuff that I wouldn't want my kids watching. Raunch comedies have to have raunch and Booksmart, for all of its intelligence, can't avoid what makes the teen comedy so successful. I also will be discussing abuses in people of power within the article, so keep an eye out for that. Hard R.
DIRECTOR: Olivia Wilde
I remember this movie making waves. Like, everyone was talking about it. And when I mean everyone, my feed was full of people reminding me that Booksmart was still in theaters. We lead a fairly boring life in the best way possible. We're hip to nothing anymore. I can tell you that we got a Snoo. That's the level of cool we're at. But when I saw that Booksmart was on Hulu, I was going to take full advantage of the fact that this major movie that garnered a lot of attention was easy to watch. And you know what? It's pretty much worth it.
My big question for the movie (and, by proxy, this article) is, "How does something feel fresh when it might be one of the most time-honored stories in comedy history?" The losers who have one last chance at high school fame making their way to the party. It has taken multiple forms. Can't Hardly Wait, Superbad, and, if you squint, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. (I argue that White Castle is always a party and there's a high stakes need to get those tiny burgers.) I mean, I've seen Can't Hardly Wait a billion times when I was in high school, but nothing really sticks out for me right now. So I'm going to make the comparison to Superbad. Honestly, it's probably the closest movie in terms of plot right now. I loved Superbad, but I was one of those people who distanced himself once everyone loved Superbad. It's my hipster cred, y'all. I gotta maintain it. I remember thinking, "Man, for such a dumb movie, it's pretty smart."
I kind of got the same feeling about Booksmart. But part of me never wanted to acknowledge that it was a dumb movie to start with. I mean, there is some pretty base humor in this movie. Like all of these journeys of discovery, the protagonists get drugged and experience a different plane. I give Wilde and her team complete props for using the Barbie dolls as a means to explain what it must be like to have a drug trip. (I'm both straight edge and a hipster. What?) But the story is basically the same. In all of these stories (and I hate that I'm using the word "all"), there's a goal that they establish for themselves. Because they have vocalized their quest, that quest gains significance. The only real downside is the potential loss of self-discovery. There's something hyper-aware about the party quest. We all know that the party will both fail expectations and completely exceed expectations. But part of the conflict is the internal conflict. The protagonists in Booksmart are aware that there is something incomplete in their lives that they didn't know existed before this moment. (I actually hate that Molly vocalizes that she's going because of a crush because it almost minimizes the quest.) On the last day of school, Molly realizes that her obsessive study habits have led her to being basic. Everyone is getting into a school of choice. (I kind of love this and kind of don't believe it for a second.)
There's an agreement that we make as an audience when this quest is put out there. We all kind of have to lie to ourselves. The idea of the party becomes something far more grandiose than it actually is. Lives are made and destroyed at these parties. There's something ancient about this event that seems almost spiritual. From an outside perspective, we know that the people at the party are terrible people. Amy and Ryan aren't going to work out. We all know that one party can't do this. If anything, it highlights the inadequacies that Amy has been demonstrating her entire high school career. If it was ever going to work out, it would work out anywhere BUT the party. Molly and Nick also make no sense. If anything, Wilde and her team perpetuate a fantasy that really doesn't exist. Nick's complete character change is such an obvious red herring, meant to disappoint us because it is such a fantasy.
But these movies always tend to give us something potentially unearned. We see these characters go through the wringer. We fall in love with them because we've seen them at their highs and lows. Amy and Molly start out lovable, comfortable in the knowledge that they are better than everyone else. But they hit a series of lows. Molly evokes a sacred trump card and Amy follows. But Molly doesn't respect the rules. It becomes this uneven power dynamic between the two characters. Because Amy is doing something begrudgingly, Molly becomes this quasi-villain in the story. We know that Molly's goals are noble (kind of), but her means of achieving those goals is phenomenally selfish. What the journey to Nirvana does to the two girls is risk not only the potential of self-discovery, but a loss of what they had going into the mission: each other.
But all this being said, there is something really bothers me. Like, it's uncomfortable. Let's have a discussion about Miss Fine. Listen, Booksmart may be the first woke raunchy comedy. It addresses all kinds of antiquated notions and confronts them head on. It does very little laughing-at and does a lot of laughing-with. Good for this movie. It's taking a lot of steps forwards. But that being said...why is it okay with kinda / sorta statutory rape? I'm going for the heavy implication first because I don't want to dance around it. It really seems like Miss Fine slept with one of her students at the party. I know it said that he was 20. But the entire (uncomfortable) joke of her character is that she knows that what she is doing is pathetic. There's a power dynamic that is really gross in that situation. Miss Fine is disgusted by her own behavior, but she does it anyway. There's also the concept that Miss Fine is someone to be conquered. It's pretty gross. I have a pretty solid slam dunk on that one (even though I'm still convincing people that Call Me by Your Name is the same dynamic). But the real trouble comes from Miss Fine's behavior through the movie. Miss Fine, on the last day of school, gives some students her number and asks them to call her. Okay, I allow former students to be Facebook friends after they graduate, but even that is a distance from "Call me." Then, Miss Fine picks up these girls and drives them to a party where she knows that drinking is going on?
There's something about the mythical fun teacher that works in Hollywood but is really gross in real life. A lot of the younger teachers I meet who are considered the "cool teachers" try to bond with students by stressing their laissez-faire attitude. But these teachers end up being way more ineffective than they are supposed to be. The whole Miss Fine thing is uncomfortable because it normalizes sexual abuse. Also, for a movie that is so supportive of strong female characters, isn't it just degrading to women to say, "I guess I'll sleep with my student because I have nothing else going for me?" It's really gross. I don't know. I didn't laugh at any of the Miss Fine bits because it just read as counterproductive to the film as a whole.
Anyway, shy of this moment, I dug the film as a whole. I don't at all buy Amy's relationship with the mean girl. The whole myth of people who hate each other being perfect for one another, although Shakespearean, is the worst. These two barely know anything about each other and then they go at it. On top of that, the encounter involves Amy vomiting all over this girl. Why would she be back? Is it because Amy went to prison? I don't know.
But again, I liked this movie a lot. Maybe I like the formula, but Olivia Wilde puts forwards this absolutely fun movie that seems to show that comedy can grow up again while still being as immature as ever. It's well-written. It has phenomenal talent. Sure, it's a bit stupid at times, but it has a lot of heart where it needs it. Check it out, especially now that it is on Hulu.
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.