Asterix the Gaul (1967)
Not rated, but mainly because this is barely considered a movie. An hour five? That's not much of a film. I suppose the first Asterix movie is pretty harmless. There's a lot of cartoon punchy violence. I suppose there might be some stereotypes played up, but even that is pretty tame. Really, this movie should be G. For all I know, some releases might even have it as G-rated. But since it is technically not rated, I have to give it the blue text.
DIRECTOR: Ray Goosens
It's so hard to take that specific thing from your childhood and thrust it upon your children. I did the same thing with Not Quite Human, but apparently I never learn my lesson. My dad was obsessed with Asterix comics. Because he was upsettingly smarter than I will ever be, he read them in the original French. I was always confused by the fact that he never liked the American puns that the characters from Asterix had because they apparently worked better in French. Regardless, Asterix and Obelix were characters I grew up with and hadn't revisited in a really long time.
Part of the appeal of revisiting this movie came from the fact that we're homeschooling. Yup, we're one of the folks who thought it was too dangerous to send our kids back to school in the midst of a plague, so we thought we would spice up our curriculum with some stuff that they might not get in a traditional school setting. As part of that, we said that we would study different cultures every month and we started with France. My contribution was to French popular culture, and voila! Here's what you get. But the thing about Asterix the Gaul is that it is really dated. How did I not notice how dated this movie was? The animation is super-duper basic. I mean, we're talking about even more simple than a classic episode of Scooby-Doo: Where are You? While I have to applaud that my kids lasted a few minutes into the episode, they clearly were not entertained. I think I'm quickly becoming the bummer pick for family movie night.
It's really interesting to think that we don't really know much about Asterix the Gaul over here. I have a Sega Genesis game of it that is borderline unplayable and a handful of translated comics in my collection, but that's about it. Part of it is that it is goofy and silly, but it also has this really weird mythology. I couldn't help but make the connection to The Flintstones in terms of visual craftiness. But The Flintstones and Asterix may be stressing the differences in both cultures. I'm not saying that it takes a genius to really piece together the basic elements of an Asterix cartoon. But both cartoons look at history in very different lights. The Flintstones don't really care about the history of its setting. Cavemen hang out with talking dinosaurs. The entire thing plays up on the novelty joke that it rode through our cultural zeitgeist. But Asterix assumes a lot. The beginning of these stories gives the basic mythology of Asterix and his tribe of Gauls. It requires a basic understanding of who the Romans were and how invasions worked. It needed you to understand who Julius Caesar was and his global politics. It never really asks for an in-depth understanding of world history, but it definitely asked for basic literacy.
I suppose, in that way, Asterix the Gaul has more in common with Mr. Peabody and Sherman. All of these cartoons seemed to be made on the cheap, as opposed to the Disney model of having gorgeous fluid animation. But Asterix seems to have at least a basic mythology to follow. I adore that there are character flaws and arcs that seem to happen. The character I always rooted for was Obelix. While as a short guy who got bullied as a kid, you'd think that I would warm up to Asterix, who was able to topple any bully with a single punch. But Obelix was always this sympathetic dude to me. He was this gentle giant who loved roast boar and simply wanted some magic potion. He was always dancing around this odd morality of wanting what everyone else had. Basically, Obelix is the metaphor of sneaking a cigarette when he really needs to quit. Because he fell into the cauldron of magic potion, he isn't allowed anymore. We're not really sure what would happen to him, despite that he sneaks droplets from time to time. But he was the character I always liked.
Because this is a children's cartoon, the good guys and bad guys are always clearly delineated. The Gauls were good. The Romans were bad. Except for Caesar. Caesar was outside of the petty morality of these cartoons and comics. He was something grandiose and large. Something that made you excited to see when he was going to show up because he was real. But it's kind of nice having such clear bad guys, especially from the French perspective. If the Gauls were pure French, the Romans were outsiders trying to take land simply for the glory of Rome. They had no good reason to continue attacking this small village, outside of the fact that it was the last unconquered land. But it made them ever so sneaky. I also adored that the Romans were always kind of double crossing each other. The head Roman (believe it or not, the imDb page is kind of lacking on Asterix the Gaul) spends the majority of the film trying to be the next Caesar. His second-in-command, the same deal. It makes the Romans so hilariously villainous that it actually encourages the scheme that Asterix and Getafix have for the Romans.
Because it really does go too far. There's a part in Hamlet where Hamlet's revenge makes him the bad guy. If Asterix the Gaul wasn't an absolutely absurd French cartoon, you do have to wonder at Asterix's intentions. Honestly, Asterix is supposed to have a downfall if it followed a traditional narrative. The inciting incident is the capture of Getafix. Asterix has to make a plan to help Getafix escape. He actually solves that problem remarkably quickly. Acting confidently into the Roman camp makes everyone think that they are going to get walloped. But because he likes to play games with the Romans, the rest of the film is just tempting fate. There should be a moment where Asterix worries about actually pulling off the plan. It's the same thing with Ocean's Eleven. The problem itself is easy to solve. It's the self-gratification that should get them in trouble.
But because the Romans are such bullies, it becomes entertaining. When they all pick on the tiniest Roman, there's this degree of sympathy. Don't get me wrong. That tiny Roman also sucks. He's super excited to narc on all of the Gauls, who were super friendly when it came to taking care of a lost little Gaul. But the story does this fun gig of making all of the revenge schemes so entertaining because they're kind of jerks.
I don't know if I can sell future films in the Asterix line to my kids. But as bad as the animation was, I really enjoyed the movie as a whole. It's very dated. Maybe it only applies to my childhood. But I got a kick out of it and felt like the weird kid all over again, so I guess it won?
PG-13 for the same supernatural horror that the first entry had. I guess if you are squeamish about barnacles as opposed to skeletons, this movie might be more of a trigger than the first movie. But really, we're dealing with apples and oranges in terms of supernatural horror. There's also some really uncomfortable stuff with marginalizing natives by relegating them to cannibals, but that's pretty standard racist fare when it comes to Hollywood action movies. PG-13.
DIRECTOR: Gore Verbinski
I think I've made it pretty clear where I stand on the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. It's one of those things that everyone loves and I think it's just fine. If anything, I find them a little boring, especially a little distanced from their releases. From what I understand, the diehard Pirates fans adore the second and the third movies as a single unit. I get it. The first movie really ends on this "To be Continued" moment, which is going to make it really hard for me to write about the middle entry in the franchise. Because my kids were obsessed with these movies, we decided to knock out the final, far-too-long movie as well. So my job, as a blogger, is to write about the middle entry in a franchise when that film goes directly into the next movie and they deal with the same themes. Yeah, this is going to be a good time.
I remember when I saw this movie in the theater, I didn't understand a good chunk of it. Listen, I enjoy a fair amount of sci-fi fantasy technobabble. But the Pirates movies really push the good will of its audience. When I watched The Curse of the Black Pearl, the big takeaway was that I liked the characters and didn't care about the plot. But the thing that the sequels do even more than the original film did is complicate a story that I just don't care about. Because we can talk about one Macguffin pretty easily. The rules have to be easy to invite us in. From the nerd's perspective, the film is about fleeing Davy Jones. Davy Jones is after Captain Jack Sparrow. That's the story. Make him unkillable and make him all squid like. That's fine. But I'm going to start listing the insane things that are in this movie. Jack Sparrow becomes a god to some cannibals. Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann get arrested for trying to help Jack Sparrow. Davy Jones is looking for the locker that holds his heart. There's a witch in a swamp that has her own agenda. Elizabeth Swann's former fiancee is looking to redeem himself. Jack Sparrow has to trade 100 souls to Davy Jones for some reason. Apparently, whoever has the heart of Davy Jones can control him. Elizabeth Swann is pretending to be Elizabeth Turner. There's another guy trying to get Jack's compass. It's all kinds of stuff and none of them are particularly developed.
There's a misconception that complicated means deep. If anything, the inverse kind of happens. With so many complications with the mythology of Davy Jones and the many plot threads that are all meant to come together, all of these individual story telling elements end up being lost in a web of complication. Instead of actually caring about a CG antagonist, which is extremely difficult to do, we end up getting this impossible mumbo-jumbo. The insane thing about Davy Jones is that he's supposed to be remarkably sympathetic. Davy Jones, according to the rules of the film (because I choose not to research anything having to do with Davy Jones's locker), is a victim of heartbreak. The literal heart being separated from his chest makes a lovely image of a man torn apart by the sea. I think Gore Verbinski knew what he wanted to do. He wanted to have an antagonist that paralleled the primary internal conflict of the protagonists. Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann begin the franchise separated by economics. Will, an apprentice metallurgist, wants Elizabeth to love him, but she is the governor's daughter. The first movie set up all of the relationship stuff and this is the movie that is meant to pay that relationship off. So when they are separated and find themselves on opposite sides of choices, there's the understanding that they are ripping their hearts out of their own chests. It's not very subtle, but it is very watchable. Tease the idea that Elizabeth's heart might belong to Jack and there's a great story. This is the depth the movie should have done. Instead, this message gets buried under fluff. That seems like it is a bit of a failure narratively, but what it really does is make Elizabeth Swann look like a fickle woman.
The smart thing that the Pirates movies are trying to do is to distance Elizabeth from being another damsel in distress. I'm going to be talking about this in my last Pirates of the Carribean entry, At World's End, but Elizabeth has the potential to be so much more than someone who needs to be rescued. But because she uses her femininity to trap Jack to his death, she comes across as borderline heartless. The one thing that these Pirates movies are actually really good at is making the good guys completely unlikable. Jack's big moral complication is that he has to balance his self-interest against the greater good. He's the rogue scoundrel archetype. But he keeps learning that there is a moral objective good that he has to fight for. But that's not interesting, so Jack keeps on having to learn lessons about selflessness throughout these movies. He has this moment of weakness, where he flees the Black Pearl to save himself. But he returns. Like the other famous scoundrel archetype, he returns right when the danger is at its highest. What Verbinski is doing is that he's having Jack pay for his crime with his life. Yeah, if anyone is going to make the big sacrificial move, it has to be Jack. He's the one who fled, so his redemptive arc is tied to death. But having Elizabeth deliver the killing blow is really weird. There are other stories that have tried this scenario. The one that is coming most to mind is Buffy and Angel in the season two finale (I think, it's been a while.) But because that internal conflict is so muddied by so much other stuff, we don't really get a sense of Elizabeth and Will's struggle at this moment. We see her seduce Jack, which makes Jack look like a jerk during his redemptive moment, and then he faces his death.
But we all know that there's no actual value in this depth. As much as I genuinely love the Star Trek franchise and even really enjoy watching Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, we understand that the instant undoing of death minimizes any emotional connection to that moment. When Nimoy enjoyed Wrath of Khan so much that he agreed to come back for the sequel, Spock's death loses a lot of its punch. With Pirates, it may be even worse. This movie ends on a to-be-continued. The heroes really lost the battle. It's The Empire Strikes Back ending, but Dead Man's Chest is founded on the lie that Jack is actually dead. With Han Solo, his life hangs in the balance. Jack Sparrow is supposedly eaten by the Kraken. It seems like it should be a pretty permanent death. But minutes after he's dead, the movie promises to get him back. Okay, it's not the worst way to end a film. After all, the "how are they going to do that" element is still there, like with Empire. But then it does something a little more blah. Captain Barbossa comes back. Why? Because it was a big surprise. That's it. There's no real reason tied to the plot directly. Barbossa is simply a fan favorite. The Fast and the Furious movies do this a lot: the bad guy from the previous movie is now part of the crew. But it also means that not only is it possible to bring someone from the dead, but bringing back the dead is commonplace. The world of Pirates of the Caribbean is a world where death has no meaning. There's always a way out. The movies swear that there's weight to these decisions, but we have no time to actually have the death stick with us.
Yeah, I didn't really like Dead Man's Chest. I don't think I've ever liked Dead Man's Chest. It's got a fun performance from Johnny Depp, but it might be one of the weakest set-up movies that I've ever seen. It can't stand on its own. It is far too goofy in terms of supernatural technobabble. The emotional connections don't make a ton of sense. I think this is where I jumped ship.
The Gay Divorcee (1934)
Approved, which is funny because the movie kind of reminds me of the sweetest version of a pre-code film. Yeah, it's Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, but it is all about adultery, affairs, and divorce. It kind of glorifies it too. It's a really weird narrative to have for a movie from 1934. But also, the movie would only kind exist in the bubble it is in. It's this paradoxical mix of conservative values coupled with ultra progressive ideas. Regardless, despite having a whimsical tone, it actually is oddly dark the more I think about it.
DIRECTOR: Mark Sandrich
I need to come to terms with the fact that I don't know everything. Every time I think I understand how history and culture work, there's something like The Gay Divorcee to remind me that I know nothing (Jon Snow). It's not like The Gay Divorcee is even remotely revolutionary. We're looking at an era of spectacle. This is as fluffy as a movie can get. But as I mentioned in my MPAA section, it's absolutely bizarre that a light-hearted romantic comedy musical can be so aggressively uncomfortable at times. I mean, my wife is also mad that I watched this without her, so there's a lot of emotions swirling this blog entry.
I mean, at a basic look, it is the comedy of errors. I always find the format of the comedy of errors remarkably complex. It's a murder mystery of absurdity (not literally) and all of the pieces have to fit for anything to make sense. The audience has to be believe that coincidence exists outside of a vacuum. It hinges on the most impressive dramatic irony possible and assumes that everything is going to work out. But with the message of The Gay Divorcee, there's such a level of absurdity to get to a true happy ending that it almost boggles the mind. After all, Mimi has to be intentionally caught in a tryst so that her husband will have no choice but to divorce her. That's the actual goal of the film. Her best case scenario is that she gets divorced from her husband. I don't know if that's the cheeriest of plots. But to couple with the ickiness factor, famous dancer Guy Holden spends the majority of the movie aggressively hitting on Mimi. When she reveals that she's married, he's oddly cool with the fact that they're getting a divorce.
Now, perhaps I'm an old stick in the mud, but any time a romantic comedy plays fast and loose with adultery, I get a bad taste in my mouth. I watch Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies because I absolutely adore the dancing. (I'm also comfortable with my admiration for really impressive dancing.) So on the one hand, we have a really light-hearted comedy full of really impressive dancing whenever it gets the chance to show it off. But on the other end of the scale, the film is just about adultery and ignoring "no means no". Because that is the message of the movie: "No" really means "Yes". Guy Holden, as sweet as he seems with his friends, is rejected time and again. He's actually deservedly rejected because he does the chauvinistic thing when given a choice.
For the sake of comedy, we have a parallel repeat of that scene from It's a Wonderful Life. While George Bailey telegraphs that he wants to see Mary in the buff, he definitely leaves it as a joke. Sure, we can condemn George Bailey for this joke that may have aged badly. But Guy Holden does exactly the opposite of what Mimi asks. She specifically asks for a very simple favor: get the porter to help her get her dress out of the case. From a comedic standpoint, we all get the comedy. But Mimi doesn't know that she is in a comedy. From her perspective, she is in a very vulnerable position where a modicum of empathy would allow her to go on with her day unharassed. But because we're meant to side with charming Guy Holden, this joke plays out for the sake of an uphill romance.
It's also absurd that Guy Holden is so smitten with Mimi that the entire film revolves and spins around a complicated plot. Guy's plan, literally, is to walk around London and see if he can find Mimi again. The film even stresses that Guy's plan is borderline impossible. This is all part of the comedy of errors format, again, but there's a bit of an ask on behalf of the filmmakers. Because the movie even stresses that it is nearly impossible that these two people would meet again, it makes the third coincidence even more absurd. Guy's involvement in the actual plot in the latter half of the movie is beyond the pale. But this is where you yell at me to "Lighten up". After all, I admit that I wouldn't hold Shakespeare to the same standard.
But what is the message of The Gay Divorcee then? Around the Great Depression, people actually consumed more arts and entertainment as a means to run away from their lives. Because people didn't want to think about their problems and hunger, these movies stressed the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. The protagonists were among the rich. Melodrama reigned supreme. The more spectacle a musical could show off, the happier the stories were. So realize than an audience of the hungry would watch a story of tuxedoed Fred Astaire dancing to "The Continental" while more and more visuals were thrown at the screen. (By the way, spending that much attention on a song like "The Continental" is a crime when "Night and Day" is just sitting there.) The problems of Guy and Mimi seem like such fluff when the entire world is just falling apart. While it may not be the intentional message of the film, the movie seems like it is fundamentally disconnected from reality.
Because Guy Holden keeps barking up the Mimi tree for the extent of the movie, there's an odd message of perseverance behind everything. I suppose that might be uplifting for the Depression era'ed audience. But because Guy Holden is carefree about finances, his problems all seem so extravagant. Mimi not only has a husband, but she wants a better husband. Her husband is revealed to have a second family. Mimi's aunt goes through rich husbands whimsically. Everything in the movie isn't about life and death. It's about having more and needing more. There's a scene with Guy and Egbert where Guy gets out of paying a check for a dance. He's put out by the idea that he has to dance for his dinner, which really reads as disconnected from its audience. But I'm the one looking back on history with a bit of scorn. Clearly, the audience didn't mind something that was so distant from reality that it just came across as fun.
Is The Gay Divorcee fun? Yeah. But there's a reason that it might not be at the top of a lot of lists. It's a remarkably forgettable film. Musicals are right on the precipice of being something a little bit more serious. Because The Gay Divorcee is meant to be a distraction from the misery of humanity, a lot of the bigger moments really get forgotten under a borderline stupid plot. It's funny and cute, which is fine. But in terms of greatness, it is lacking some of the panache that other Astaire and Rogers films bring. But again, I know that this movie has a low key following. So enjoy it for what it is: a really weird look at marriage with an intense final number.
School of Rock (2003)
PG-13. It's really one of those movies that toes the line. I'm going to apologize and say that this was one of our family movie nights. It's got some language, and some of that is coming from the kids' mouths. It's got some innuendo and some drinking. There are discussions about alcoholism and hangovers. But tonally, the movie is fairly tame. A lot of the more risque stuff went over our kids' heads and they really seemed to enjoy it. PG-13.
DIRECTOR: Richard Linklater
It's really weird that RIchard Linklater made this movie. I guess he's allowed to have a commercial film in him. But School of Rock is one of those movies that have really grown on me over time. To be clear, I always liked this movie, but I don't think I ever loved the film. Part of me always wanted it to be another High Fidelity, simply because Jack Black is really just transposing his character from that film into this film. But School of Rock might be one of the more touching films from Jack Black while maintaining Jack Black's persona of the goofball rock fan / star. (Note: I did not even attempt to explain to my kids who Tenacious D were. I felt like that would just be dangerous as heck.)
I'm just going to be wading in hypocrisy here. If you read this and think that I'm a hypocrite, hold onto that thought. You probably aren't wrong. I tend to really tense up when it comes to movies about teaching. In the same way that my wife couldn't watch House because, as a doctor, it made her cringe pretty hard, I have the same reaction to a lot of movies about education. It's not like I'm the bastion of education. I just made Cincy Magazine's best teachers issue. When I see stories showing how easy or insane it is to teach, I scoff. It's just my brain. So why am I cool with Dewey Finn co-opting a class to become his new rock band? I think part of the logic comes from the fact that the movie oversells that Dewey would make a completely inept teacher simply based on his own instincts. There's an odd respect for the craft of teaching, despite the fact that I twitch thinking about my education classes of the past.
Because Dewey is so incapable of treating the curriculum respectfully, he is allowed to be this lovable goofball when it comes to these kids who are completely education-obsessed. I teach in one of these schools. The majority of my students are extremely grade-oriented. Trust me, it's awesome, for the most part. They will do anything for an A because they are laser-focused on their career. But Dewey Finn is not the product of the same kind of education. While I'm thrilled that my students respect their education, I always kind of hope that they find some kind of passion for what they're learning about. It's always a bit of a bummer that, despite the fact that these students absolutely obliterate tests and understand a lot of the objective information about what I teach, very rarely do they get excited about the material.
That's where I love to teach. I am an English teacher. I get to talk about English and books and humanities all day. Sure, I'm terrified to re-enter the classroom in this era of Covid, but you get the idea. As horrible as Dewey is at following a curriculum and covering state standards, Dewey does this really smart thing and take the content away from the page. We can't deny the fact that his presence, in essence, is a con. He's there to slack for two weeks and collect a paycheck. He thinks that no one is going to narc on him because, as a kid, he would love to have a teacher that let him slack off all day. But when he discovers that these kids have a talent for something he loves, he accidentally becomes a moderately decent teacher because he shared his passion. If anything, through Dewey's oafishness, the movie becomes this love-letter to passionate teaching.
Yeah, Dewey shouldn't be allowed near kids. As much as we're all supposed to loathe Sarah Silverman's character in this movie, she's kind of right. If this was reality, I'd be standing with Silverman the entire time. But that being said, the movie presents a wonderful villain. It's the most realistic villain in the world. I'm talking about the parental mass. Not all parents are like these parents. After all, it takes a lot for a kid who is good at guitar to be steered away from playing anything that he enjoys playing. But it's also such a difficult task to try to explain why curriculum should be distanced from the textbook at times. Sure, I wouldn't want Dewey Finn to kidnap my kids for a Battle of the Bands contest. But the fact that the kids are excited to go to school and learn cultural literacy is kind of awesome. Dewey's biggest problem isn't that he isn't a qualified teacher. His biggest problem is that he doesn't vary his classroom content.
But it's also the hyperbole of teaching that happens in this film that should be looked at. Dewey shouldn't be teaching this class, but it's also only two weeks. Spending two weeks on a cultural music project isn't that criminal. (Sure, taking them on secret field trips is totally illegal and Dewey Finn should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.) But because Dewey teaches the history of rock and the theory of music, he's actually doing quite a bit of cross-curricular activity. As dumb as the movie tries to make him out to be, his in-depth study of rock and roll history is extremely valuable academically. It's in a montage, so I don't exactly know what he's saying, but the fact that one of the kids is learning about Jimi Hendrix has to give some cultural and historical context to the lessons presented.
There's also something tragic about Rosalie Mullins, the principal of the school. There's a really weird common misconception that I see in education. People think that I want to be the principal of my own school one day. Nope. There's a lot of nope behind that. I know that there are a lot of teachers who go into administration one day. In fact, the best administrators were once teachers. But Rosalie Mullins, as an administrator who constantly is working to make parents happy, has lost the drive that made her get into education to begin with. Linklater teases that Mullins and Dewey probably had a lot more in common when this whole thing started. When Mullins went into education, she wanted to share her passion for music and arts with her students, but that was beaten out of her over time with the growing authoritarian attitudes that came with a large tuition.
I don't know what changed, but this viewing of School of Rock changed my opinion on it. This movie is super fun. While I always laughed at sections of it, this might be the first time that I've watched it as a certified teacher. I've been teaching for eleven years, so it isn't insane to think that this is the first time that I've watched the movie since I've taken education so seriously. I now see the movie about passion and how an effective teacher can get kids excited about education. It also doesn't make that mistake about the teacher having to be liked. For a good chunk of the movie, the kids actively hate Dewey. Heck, even the fashion design kid seems to dislike him through the end of the movie. But they all acknowledge that Dewey was effective at making education come alive.
R for the things that are in Shaft movies. There's a good deal of nudity. The violence and the sexual content are throughout the film. The f-word is every other word. You know, John Shaft? This is the bread and butter of the Shaft films (that I've seen). It prides itself on its vulgarity and this movie is especially commenting on how these films pride themselves on being completely uncensored. While there are more offensive movies by far, Shaft isn't exactly light viewing. R.
DIRECTOR: Tim Story
I don't think that there's been a movie that I've wanted to "Okay, Boomer" so hard since Gran Torino as Shaft. I will put my cinematic history on the line here. I've always tried to watch the original Shaft starring Richard Roundtree, but I oddly keep never getting to it. I think it was on a streaming service for five seconds. I watched the first twenty minutes late at night and the next day, it was gone. It's out of print and I don't know if I can explain a charge to my wife for a movie that I should just be able to watch anytime. Sure, the rental is probably only $2.99, but it's a $2.99 that I'm going to have a hard time justifying. So anything I say about the Shaft franchise is completely off-base because I only have the first Samuel L. Jackson entry to talk about with this movie.
Action movies tend not to be very vulnerable. Listen, I really dig action movies. I really do. While I may not be an expert at blaxspoitation, I have a fairly decent background at some really great films in the subgenre. Because action movies are a very specific thing, i.e. they are there to be mindless entertainment, many of these movies tend to treat masculinity as the end-all-be-all of what it means to tell these stories. I'm thinking of things like the James Bond movies, the Lethal Weapon films, the Die Hard franchise. When we made these movies in the '70s and '80s, it was fun to worship at the altar of masculinity. If you were going to make an action movie, that protagonist had to either be a womanizing man or a woman to be objectified. This was the world of Shaft. John Shaft stopped working for the man, which is sexy as heck. He took justice into his own hands and seduced as many women as humanly possible and it made him cool to do so. I mean, Isaac Hayes's classic titular song for Shaft really explained it all. In an odd way, the song and the film became this ourobouros of expectations for the movies. They held each other in check.
But as I pointed out with GoldenEye, it is hard to explain away the chauvinistic behavior as we hold ourselves to higher standards. What went from something commonplace ultimately becomes a cultural commentary, and thereby political. We go to a culture of wanting our cake and eating it too. We want to really rally behind a movie like Shaft in 2019. It stands as the product of a time that we've strayed away from. That's cool on paper, but in execution, it becomes kind of gross. Tim Story, whom I'm always trying to figure out, seems to love Shaft. The concept of Shaft, when the sexuality and the generic plots are stripped away from the character, is fundamentally about sticking it to the man. If anything needs to be said in 2020, it's that the Man is the worst and it comes back to the oppressed to take power. But to tell this message, Tim Story used the story of John Shaft, Jr. (really John Shaft III) to act as a juxtaposition to the old way. As the modern, woke person of color, JJ highlights how John Shaft hasn't really adapted to the 21st Century. He's emotional and vulnerable. He isn't afraid of technology. In short, he embraced what the Man has given him.
But because JJ isn't always busting heads and fleeing towards continual sexual conquests, he seems genuinely happier in his life. So when Story portrays JJ as naive, it means that whatever his dad says is right. The Sam Jackson John Shaft often espouses kind of creepy ideologies, but he's still the king of cool. Instead of JJ having that much of an influence on him, it kind of rides the other way. Really, the movie really embraces that this 60-year-old (even though Sammy is 72 and looks phenomenal) is right in his life of violence and sex. I know that Story implies that they improve each other, but most of the lessons are one way: John Shaft is still the baddest, well, you know.
I'm just talking about Shaft.
I was going to criticize the casting of Regina Hall as Shaft's ex, but then I realize that she was born in 1970. She looks great. Straight up. I had no idea. I thought she was this 20 year old playing John Shaft's ex, but she really can play both. I was floored at how that entire section played out. I got a little disillusioned with her in Little. (True fans of the Literally Anything: Movies will remember that I fell asleep during Little, meaning that I have no blog on that movie.) But she does a solid job in the film over all. Sure, Hall sometimes plays a little over-the-top. But a movie like Shaft really does allow for some hamming it up when it comes to performances.
But the points really should go to Jesse T. Usher for holding his own against two truly famous Shafts. I love Richard Roundtree in this movie, but it is absolutely absurd that he's in the film. I knew that was the way they were going to bring him in, by the way. Because it made no sense to bring in Grandpa into this story that really didn't tie directly into the Shaft family tree, I knew that he was going to be the weapons guy. (Also, as a family, did they buy those coats?) But Usher probably had this temptation to just do a Sam Jackson impression the entire time. Instead, there's something just fun about his performance. Yeah, I know that future generations won't ever really think of Jesse T. Usher as Shaft, but it does definitely work.
It's kind of bananas how much Shaft wants to be Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. If anything, it is the film in reverse. I know that lots of movies have tread into this pool besides these two films, but it is interesting seeing the reverse dynamic. I don't think it works as well as Last Crusade, which ties me back into the "Okay, boomer" message that the film espouses. But that dynamic still kind of works. By having these two characters being related and estranged, we get to have the two worlds colliding. Both are capable of achieving goals independently, but it takes the both of them and their Odd Couple dynamic to bring the whole thing into focus. Sure, one of the Odd Couple gets a little bit more respect than the other, but it's still a fun concept.
It's not a great movie. Stories in these kinds of movies aren't amazing. I think we all saw that the soldiers were going to be the bad guys. Also, the movie is uncomfortably homophobic and prides itself on being out of touch. But it is still a fun time. Shaft is always going to be a good time, but it never really transcends what it really wants to. I don't see another Shaft movie spiraling out of this film. It's kind of why the movie is named Shaft for the third time. It's always another reboot, rather than trust that the series will keep evolving.
PG-13 for spooky spooky pirate skeletons. It's family-friendly horror. My six-year-old is no longer an appropriate gauge for what is too scary for kids. He's terrified of everything, but this was nothing for him. I don't get it. Regardless, the Pirates movies are supposed to be just a little bit scary. There's violence and death throughout. But a lot of it is CG horror, which has that uncanny valley element that may make it less scary. Also, there's boozing throughout. That probably bad news for children.
DIRECTOR: Gore Verbinski
*long exhale* There's so much overwhelming anxiety behind writing this blog. Since the sequels came out, I always referred to The Curse of the Black Pearl as the only movie that really needs to exist. While I'm part of the minority that quasi-enjoyed Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, I always used Curse of the Black Pearl as what a big-budget Disney film should be. And maybe it was my mindset when watching this. Maybe it is the fact that I've seen this movie probably a half-a-dozen times. Maybe it's the fact that the runtime is about two-and-a-half hours, but I haven't been so bored watching a movie than watching Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.
I keep swirling around this drain. When something reaches a certain degree of cultural permeability, when it is the cultural zeitgeist, something goes off in my brain. Usually these things are so amazing that these films actually deserve to be discussed. I mean, I was blown away by The Dark Knight opening night. But I can't even imagine sitting down to watch that movie right now. There's something about something being so universally loved that raises my critical stakes so much. With something like Pirates of the Caribbean, I always thought that the first movie was fun, but I never really got on board the cultural obsession. I think the same thing happened to me with the Harry Potter fandom. I get what makes these movies appealing. They just don't knock my socks off. It's probably what the Marvel skeptics probably believe, despite that those movies are nearly perfect.
But what made me so bored this time? It's not like I watch Pirates so often that I have the film memorized. Heck, a lot of this came across as a surprise to me. Part of me was actually a little confused about the plot. Admittedly, there's an element of me almost falling asleep watching the movie this time. But maybe something just doesn't hold up about the first Pirates movie from 2003. It's been a minute, after all, since these movies were in vogue. Sure, there was Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales that came out three or so years ago. But that didn't exactly spark this whole return to the world of Captain Jack Sparrow.
Maybe it is because I get the joke. These movies are about Captain Jack Sparrow. I don't know where we stand on Johnny Depp anymore. There keep on being more incidents that either paint him as a monster or the victim, so I'm going to stay away from that interpretation of his character. But these are movies with a really complex mythology. My kids, who absolutely adored this movie so much that two nights later, we watched the even more boring sequel, kept on asking me what was going on until they abandoned all pretense of actually watching the film only to jump off of tables screaming "I'm Captain Jack Sparrow." It's got a lot of expositional dialogue. In fact, it has way too much exposition. There's a lot to swallow for what should be a simple story. From what I understand, these pirates stole cursed treasure and now they can't die. They have to return that treasure to become mortal again, but it also involves blood?
What's really bizarre about the plot is that it is a really complex telling of a story that really has pretty limited consequences. Again, I was getting really sleepy the further we got into the movie. After the twentieth "Dad, what's going on?", I quit trying to simplify the story and allowed the CG nonsense to take over. When they jumped off tables, I just let the film be popcorn and abandoned my objective critical watching of this movie. It's like Disney knew that they wanted to make a billion of these movies because so much mythology for the series is being set up in this film. We had to know that Bootstrap Bill was going to show up in part 2 because it seemed like they couldn't stop bringing him up and his mysterious past.
Maybe they knew that Captain Jack was something to be marketed. I get it. Johnny Depp, with his Keith Richards impression, is charismatic as heck. He's funny. He's got some fantastic lines coupled with perfect line deliveries. He pulls off action. I remember that the first time I saw these movies, I was enthralled by the insane stunt pieces in the film. Coupled with Orlando Bloom as a straight man, the story basically tells itself, regardless of how little sense the movie makes. The thing that doesn't quite ring as well as it should is Keira Knightley's Elizabeth Swann. Swann has the potential to be this absolutely amazing character in this movie. The sequel does a better job with her, but she has just a bit too much damsel-in-distress to her. It's odd, because she doesn't read as such. But it also could be the problem of too many alpha characters. Jack Sparrow draws all the attention, but the protagonist is technically Will Turner. So where does that leave Elizabeth Swann? She's the romantic lead, but that's really not fair to the character at all.
I kind of want to end on the idea that I know that Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl has to be a good movie. It has to. I've seen it enough times and enjoyed it enough times to say that. But it also might be something that hasn't aged well. Maybe I'm just a drastically different person than I used to be. It all seems like loud noise and theme songs. That's not something I'm all that interested in watching. But I know that I have another three hour grind to get through with what is probably my least favorite in the series. But at least I'm close to closing up another franchise for the Collections page.
TV-MA, mostly for animal cruelty. The purpose of the movie is to criticize the meat packing industry. So you are going to get a lot of similar content to something like The Jungle. While Okja isn't as brutal as The Jungle or "Blood of the Beasts", Director Bong is already a pretty visceral director. There's also some language, which tends to be for shock value at times. And I don't think I've written about this before, but the movie also deals with the forced reproduction of animals. Finally, the movie deals with eco-terrorism. A well-deserved TV-MA.
DIRECTOR: Bong Joon Ho
About a year ago, I listened to an episode of Harmontown where Dan interviewed Director Bong's personal assistant. Dan had just watched Okja on Netflix and was fascinated. If you ever wanted me to get excited about a movie, talk about it on a podcast. I almost watched the entire modern canon of Kevin Smith because of a podcast. I know that I watched The Stanford Prison Experiment because of Harmontown. It's actually pretty weird that I didn't watch this movie before this moment. After all, one of my favorite discoveries from when I was working at the video store was The Host. Then Parasite blew my mind (Yeah, I'm one of those folks who genuinely loved Parasite.) I don't know why I sat on my hands to watch Okja...
...but I didn't like it.
I know. I know. I'm going to end up on the wrong side of history when it comes to being a vegetarian. My moral compass gets veganism. If you asked me a decade ago, I think I would have actively scoffed at you for being a vegan. Again, I never like my old self. But now, I'm very in the frame of mind for eating meat. I'm both apologizing and not apologizing. Keeping all of this in mind, I'm not opposed to the message of veganism. After all, "Blood of the Beasts" may have been one of the most traumatizing things I have ever seen. Seriously, it's the closest I have ever gotten to dropping meat forever. I knew what I was getting into. Harmon described the movie, and I'm completely paraphrasing because I haven't listened to this episode in a long time, as a complex and nuanced understanding of how the meat industry works. So I went into Okja with that expectation. The thing is, there's not all that much that is subtle about Okja, let alone nuanced. Is it a well-made film about the price of eating meat? Sure. But that doesn't mean that it is really a nuanced story that can really go beyond the superficial level that it initially posits. Honestly, Okja reminded me of an R-rated Free Willy. We've seen this movie before. A child has a pet that others don't consider a pet. An evil corporation wants to take it from said child. The child spends the majority of the film trying to free this animal from the cruel overlords.
The thing is that Director Bong actually had the opportunity to tell a much more challenging tale than what Okja really offers. The film starts off with Tilda Swinton's Lucy Mirando dropping all of this world-building stuff. Her family have always been corporate jerks, but she is working hard to 180 the family name. But she brings up something really early in those early expositional speeches. She comments on the idea that hunger still ravages the globe. Scientists have worked tirelessly to find a way to make food more available and that these super-pigs are meant to do that. Again, I'm on the wrong side of history on this argument, but that's a really good point. After all, the world is suffering food crises and poverty all the time. These super-pigs are actually good for the environment because they don't have the same toxic cow farts that is contributing to the climate crisis we're dealing with right now. Why is Lucy Mirando considered the bad guy of this piece?
Lucy Mirando comes across like a Paris Hilton styled CEO in this. I don't know if it is Director Bong's commentary about Americans, but all of the Americans in this movie come across as absurd. Okay, Giancarlo Esposito comes across only as somewhat absurd. I want to talk about that in a second. But again, Okja was meant to make me rethink what went into the food that ends up on my table. So I'm going to continue challenging the film and ask it questions about why I didn't get to that place it needed me to get to. A lot of it comes from Tilda Swinton's performance both as Lucy Mirando and as Nancy Mirando. Lucy Mirando's words say that she's genuinely trying to be the hero of her own narrative. I'm not saying that she has to come across as exclusively likable. After all, the best villains believe that they are the heroes of their own narratives, even if we have the blessing of being removed from that perspective. But there's this speech where Lucy falls off the rails. It's after Okja tears up an underground mall in Seoul. Lucy is watching this footage and she's terrified of what the result will be. She gives this great speech about her intentions and how she's trying to make the world a better place. It's supposed to be this moment that comments on how the road to Hell being paved with good intentions. But I honestly think that Tilda Swinton thinks very little of Lucy Mirando. When that speech is being delivered, it doesn't feel like Lucy really believes a darned thing about what she is saying.
And that's where some of the weaknesses really creep in. Lucy Mirando is supposed to be the sympathetic villain. She's charged with this Herculean task to turn this awful corporation into something that will save the world. But when Tilda Swinton doesn't believe what she's saying to her board of advisors, the message comes across as heavy handed. It's even worse once Nancy shows up. I don't deny that there are probably more Nancy Mirandos at the head of major conglomerates than I care to think about. But every time we get a suit as the antagonist in a film, it's always this character. It's the character who is so inhuman and emotionally stilted that they can only see what it means to make a buck. Listen, my wife already thinks that I'm the most progressive thing on two legs, so I'll just own it. I love when art takes pot shots at global conglomerates. Corporations are evil and greedy and the rich keep on getting richer. But there's straight up a line in the movie where Mija asks why they need to kill Okja, considering that the Mirando Corporation has an ungodly amount of money. Because Nancy is evil and Tilda Swinton has no sympathy for this character, Nancy replies boldly, "Because I want more money" or something like that.
For a movie that's really daring me to rethink my values, I don't really feel like there's anything that I can latch onto. It's the people who are already sympathetic to the veganism cause might find value and confirmation bias in a piece like that, but is it really going to change that many minds? Is it really going to turn that many heads? Heck, I was open to this movie as anyone could be, but my mind wasn't really shifted in any direction. Was it sad when Okja was almost killed? Oh sure. The audio footage from Okja's imprisonment is disturbing. But because the movie went so black and white with through, there's not much wiggle room for really seeing reality over this piece. Instead, we get the subtlety of They Live rather than a complex story that is going to be talked about for generations.
But there are some really cool moments. I don't know why, but I found the portrayal of the ALF fascinating. Note to the world, but especially Paul Dano: Paul Dano is incapable of being incognito. I didn't know that Paul Dano was in the movei. But the second he was on screen in his ski-mask, I knew instantly it was Paul Dano. His eyes are the emoji for ennui. It's palpable. I love that the ALF exists outside the realm of saints or sinners. Because the movie is advocating for the protection of animals, we have these characters who are taking the law into their own hands and trying to make real change when it comes to animals. But considering that their ideas are on the side of the angels / the director, their paradoxical incompetence coupled with their savvy chaos is actually pretty interesting. Mija sees the same thing we do: kids playing dress up while causing actual damage. I'm sure that if she could accomplish her goals without ever seeing a member of the ALF, she'd be pleased as punch. But that was not in the cards.
It's not that I didn't like the charm that Director Bong infuses into his films. Sometimes it feels really over the top. I mean, Tilda Swinton was a make-or-break performance for me, and unfortunately, it broke. (I'm sorry, Ms. Swinton. I find you a fascinating actress, but not in this.) But I think that we all wondered what was going on with Jake Gyllenhaal's performance. I'm going to revisit my original concept and I really do believe that Director Bong wanted to portray all American's as overt buffoons. Gyllenhaal's performance is so insane throughout the film that it actually almost pulls you out of the film. I get that he's built to be artificial, considering that his entire life is documented on television. But that performance kept just smacking me out of any serious moment. And that character is in a lot of serious scenes. But he comes across as Bozo the Clown and the movie is really asking me to think that this is a film that deals in nuance?
Man, I really wanted to love this movie. I found myself being bored. The worst part of me kept coming out and rolling my eyes at the heavy-handedness of a lot of things that happened throughout the film. Director Bong makes pretty movies that often are challenging. I think that this movie desperately wanted to be challenging, but it just came across as silly.
Men in Black: International (2019)
PG-13 for some innuendo. It's really because aliens can get scary, especially when there's a big bad guy at the end of the film. There's a lot of sci-fi violence and death. But the film has more of an adventurous tone, which means very rarely does the death involve horrifying gore or anything that is meant to upset. There's also so mild language that tends to accompany PG-13 movies. If you've handled the other MiB movies, then this is more of the same. PG-13.
DIRECTOR: F. Gary Gray
There was a time in my life that I was mildly obsessed with Men in Black. My buddies and I all all wore black suits. I bought the expensive Ray-Bans that Will Smith had in the film. (I wish I got the Tommy Lee Jones version because wraparounds do nothing for me.) When Men in Black: The Animated Series was out on Kids WB!, Burger King celebrated with Men in Black toys as part of the Kids' Club meal. I braved running across Woodward to buy as many neuralizers as they had in stock. I think I lost my last one five years ago. To say that I was a fan of this movie was part of my childhood. In reality, my good friend, Roy, was wildly obsessed and I kind of jumped on his fandom. When Men in Black II came out, I thought it was still pretty great, despite what everyone else said. Part of me still defends Men in Black III, if for no other reason than Josh Brolin's dead on Tommy Lee Jones impression. But I think I now see what other people were talking about with the Men in Black sequels.
Now, I have to give the same caveat that I gave to Emma. We were in the hospital with our newborn daughter and hospital television isn't exactly the ideal way to watch a movie. The movie didn't have subtitles and the sound comes out of that little remote that isn't even aimed at me. But my wife didn't want to watch this movie, but we were short on options. Even I wasn't really feeling watching this movie. We followed Men in Black: International with Little and I couldn't even stay awake for that one. So if you swear that this movie is actually way more genius than I give it credit for, I'll accept that argument because the situation wasn't ideal when I watched this.
My argument for watching this one, besides the fact that Men in Black movies tend to be kind of fun, is that it was starring Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson of Thor: Ragnarok fame. Yeah, the movie just didn't have the same charm to it. I get this move, Sony. I'm going to really dunk on Sony later, but I get the logic of reuniting these two people. Because Hemsworth and Thompson had such good chemistry in Thor, it makes sense that these two would be absolutely perfect in a movie where they are the foundation of the piece. As much as Thompson was an extremely welcome edition to Ragnarok, she doesn't really have the screentime that this movie offered her. However, I really don't think that the movie knew how to write for Thompson. Thompson's strong suit might not be cute and this movie definitely gave her a "cute" vibe. I like the confident Thompson as Valkyrie. She's flawed and violent and that was this awesome contrast for someone who represented the notion of dumb masculinity. With MiB, the movie wanted her to be quirky and weird while being annoyed with Hemsworth's H.
It's so odd that Sony just can get a franchise to work perfectly. I know that they crushed it with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, but my theory is that they didn't trust the property enough, so they handed over creative control. From a corporate position, the summer blockbuster that was Men in Black should hypothetically have the legs to support a franchise. After all, we're in the same mental space as Doctor Who. A universe full of aliens should bring about a variety of threats and problems. But the more entries into the series we get, the more I am convinced that this should have been a solitary movie. I think the biggest problem is the tone established by original director Barry Sonnenfeld. The first movie worked wonders. But what Sony has always done and continues to do is to return to the same well over and over again. Really, what keeps happening is that we get a variation on the same movie again. I know that we have a new cast with technically new characters, but even these characters are stand-ins for J and K.
With the look and the tone being the exact same as the previous entries, we are left desperately hoping to explore new themes. It's a bit ironic that the first movie ends with the Earth being a marble in this massively conceptual universe, but the movies keep going back and doing the same thing over and over again. We have that odd parental relationship and feelings of distrust in this organization that prides itself on emotional distance. I'm sure that when this movie was being planned out, the major elements were laid out in script form. We needed someone to be Will Smith's cocky Agent J. That cockiness was then given to H. But we also needed an outsider to serve as an avatar for the audience. That's M. Liam Neeson is simply's K's casualness to seeing the most insane thing in the world. Throw the very thinly veiled twist from the first Mission: Impossible film with Jim Phelps and the movie is all laid out.
It's actually a bit mind-blowing how much filler the movie offers. The movie dances around the idea that there's a mole in MiB. Okay, that's fine. We're all aware who it is. But the movie intentionally distances the story so far away from the inner workings of MiB. Now that I've mentioned Mission: Impossible, I'm going to use that franchise as a comparative point. The Mission: Impossible movies often deal with moles within the organization. Those movies tie IMF with everything that Ethan Hunt does from that point on. But MiB isn't interesting because of the inner structure of this shadowy organization. The reason that the first movie works so well is because it shows us aliens living among us. The more bizarre creatures we see, the more interesting the movie gets. But the movie offered a story about the conspiracy within the system. But we don't care about that. It's this oil and water concept. We offer this story that just doesn't really work within the attitude of the story.
So I kind of left Men in Black: International disillusioned. As much as I want this to be a franchise, the movies haven't offered a revolutionary concept since the first film. I love everyone involved. I chuckled at a few of Kumail Nanjiani's lines, but there's not much here to keep Sony, the studioest studio that ever existed, afloat.
PG, much to my chagrin. Okay, it's not like I was itching for the raunchy Jane Austen novel. But this trailer made it look like it was going to be the next Marie Antoinette. It is a period drama that treats itself like a period drama. In terms of questionable material, it seems to go along with the novel pretty well. (It's been a few years since I've read Emma, so much so that I've forgotten major plot points.) But it's a very tame movie about courtship. PG.
Director: Autumn de Wilde
I just finished teaching Pride & Prejudice to my AP Lit class when this trailer came out. It's not like I would have subbed Pride & Prejudice for Emma, but that seems like it was a lost opportunity. Don't worry, the kids saw an abomination of a play for Pride & Prejudice that allowed us to have a discussion about the problems with adaptation. But with something like Emma, there needs to be something special. After all, I'm sure that between PBS, BBC, and Acorn, the works of Jane Austen have been remade on a yearly basis. So if something this adapted comes to the big screen, I kind of expect something special with it.
Now, I will put a disclaimer on this blog. My youngest daughter, Violet, was born a week ago today. (Thank you. I'll take your fruit baskets and eat them gladly.) This was one of the free movies offered on the hospital television. I will say that hospital movies are one step below catching a movie on a flight. The audio was terrible. We were both sleepy from the hours being awake. I watched it safely on the most uncomfortable couch imaginable. So am I really giving this movie a fair shake? Probably not. But I'm still going to write about how this movie failed to live up to my expectations.
With something like Emma, there needs to be something new. It's pretty sad that I know the major beats of Emma from my memory of Clueless, which I now really want to rewatch again. With something like Clueless, it is easy to dismiss the movie as a product of the '90s. Say what you will about the era, but the '90s and the early-2000s loved adapting the literary canon to meet my generations self-absorbed nature. But Clueless was something new. It took a well-tread storyline and made it as accessible and fun as Austen's readers would have read her novel in three parts. It was funny because the jokes were updated. It didn't really take itself too seriously. Honestly, Clueless might be an absolutely genius film the more I think about it.
So when the trailer came out and it looked completely subversive, I was jazzed. After all, this wasn't Emma without a period. This was Emma. with a period. It's not even an exclamation point. It was going to be right in your face and I was ready to see why this movie had a period. What statement was that period making? This wasn't going to be your momma's Emma. This was going to be something that you heard about in underground clubs. This would be the only movie that played at CBGB. But instead, this movie is as safe as it gets. It's not saying that the performances are bad or anything is flagrantly off. Instead, it's just...Emma.
This kind of leaves me in a predicament. Anything I say about the movie, because it is such a safe adaptation of a fairly well-known work, means that I am, in all essence, commenting on Jane Austen's masterwork. I mean, I'm in the clear that this isn't Pride & Prejudice or anything sacred. But I can at least look at what limited choices that Autumn de Wilde presents for me to comment on. The story of Emma is about what it means to play matchmaker. The titular Emma always kind of comes across as well-meaning in terms of her relationship to the reader / viewer. But to the world around her, and from the audience's larger perspective, she is a woman who is so imbued with privilege that her entertainment comes from the joining of couples, often against their wills or desires.
Is Emma heroic or a cautionary tale? If we've been taught anything by fleurish script at Hobby Lobby, it is that we are meant to use our gifts to help others. From Emma's perspective, her role and interference in relationships is sacrificial to her. I mean, we all see that she enjoys having this gift of meddling. But from her point of view, she is doing the Lord's work. It's so odd that this is Emma's downfall. After all, the people in Emma's life view her as remarkably skilled at setting up relationships, even doomed ones. Heck, even Mr. Knightley, who views her prowess for matchmaking as something toxic, seems ultimately impressed by her abilities. It's why he probably falls for her, despite the closeness of their families.
From an objective perspective, we see the problems that Emma is causing in the lives around her. She single-handedly shatters the potential marriage between her best friend and a commoner, despite the romantic exchanges between the two. Her friend, through her actions, almost ends up an old spinster. Emma becomes this force for destruction because she is rude and selfish. But she never really views herself through this lens. I mean, again, I'm commenting on how genius Austen is right now, not the film itself. It's almost the message of "The road to hell being paved with good intentions." But we do bond with Emma to a certain extent. While we see the mistakes that she continually makes throughout the film, because she means well, we can only roll our eyes when we see these mistakes.
I don't really feel like breaking down Emma from a film perspective. If I were to ever really write about Emma, I'd want to re-read the book and cite passages from the text sooner than breaking down Austen's intentions secondhand through film. The movie is fine. It's a very pretty movie with very pretty actors. But I think I would have loved this if this was a PBS miniseries more than a cinematic release. Because the director takes the source material with too much respect, I feel like I just viewed something done before and, unfortunately, done better with more gusto. Safe adaptations gets the die hards happy, but I want something rebellious a bit. I want Little Women and Marie Antoinette, not Emma. It has not earned its punctuation.
Zatoichi and the Doomed Man (1965)
Not rated, but the violence is the thing that gets you every time. This one also implies that a woman was kept as a sex slave. Because Zatoichi films tend to be a little bit more tame than your Lone Wolf and Cub movies, everything is just toned down enough. Sure, there's a lot of death and violence, but it kind of comes across like The Lone Ranger in terms of how innocuous the murdering of people can be. It's all heroic and there's a distinct lack of blood.
DIRECTOR: Kazuo Mori
It's kind of different! It's 77 minutes! I mean, that's really all I'm asking for. After having seen about ten of these movies, it's slightly refreshing seeing a slight change of formula. I really have to stress that it's not THAT different. There are still a lot of the same elements that the other movies have. As I've established my other Zatoichi blogs, there's a formula to these movies. So let's look at why even a slight deviation from that formula brings a certain degree of fun that I haven't gotten out of the last few movies.
If I had to lay out the formula for a Zatoichi movie, it would involve the protagonist pulling the old David Banner from The Incredible Hulk television series. The locals take advantage of this poor blind man, who shouldn't be able to function like a normal human being. Zatoichi plays along and not only does what the sighted could do, but in excess of what seems even remotely possible. Everyone instantly identifies him as Zatoichi and then the criminal organizations in these towns sic their men on him. There's a complicated background to the moment-to-moment that could ultimately be ignored. We still have elements of that in Doomed Man, but those moments that are different make it so much more interesting.
The problem I've been having with my last few Zatoichi movies is that Zatoichi has become a bit unkillable. He's too perfect. Even in Doomed Man, Zatoichi takes down an insane target that no one with perfect sight could take down. He has more sensory awareness than even someone like Daredevil would have. Okay. But the movie starts off with Zatoichi in prison. I love that he somehow dropped the ball along the way and is taking a beating. Yeah, he's unmoved by the violence inflicted on his body. It's a bit of a movie logic. But there's something important in the idea that Zatoichi is not always in control. I know that these movies are made pretty much back-to-back-to-back, but it seems like he went from being this blind masseuse who is really good at killing people to being someone who is almost godlike in his abilities. Starting him in prison brings him to this skewed logic version of humanity.
Coupled with Zatoichi's fallibility is the very simple plot that gives genuine stakes. We know from moment one that this guy seems to be innocent. There is a time-table and a set of characters who will make the goal of freeing this man more difficult. But in terms of pure storytelling, Zatoichi has a clear goal. With other movies, there's investigation into bosses and local lords. That seems to go with this abstract concept that we're meant to identify with because we're told to identify with that idea. But an innocent man who has a family is a great story. With that pre-credit sequence alone, we find out so much about Zatoichi's values and how he reacts to the little guy. Instead of bad guys making Zatoichi the center of the conflict, Zatoichi is fighting for something external.
I love the addition of Monk Hyakutaro. It's really weird how his story ends. It really feels like Hyakutaro is going to be a running character throughout the movies. (For all I know, he might be. I write them as I see them.) But there's this character who almost is parodying the formula as its going on. I don't know if the movie didn't know what to make of this character, but I get the vibe that Zatoichi kind of liked this dude, even though he was a constant screw up. Maybe that's my read after recently writing about Seven Samurai, but it has that same attitude. Hyakutaro is this lovable con man who thinks that he's putting one over on Zatoichi and Zatoichi keeps letting it happen. But when Hyakutaro is being dragged off to prison at the end and Zatoichi just watches with the attitude of "Oh, that rascal", it's a really weird ending. I get the vibe that those guys were going to kill him. Perhaps this ends up being an accidental commentary on Zatoichi's morality. Zatoichi is the epitome of heroism. He fights for the downtrodden. He takes down criminals. He takes his adversity and not only overcomes it, but weaponizes it. Cool. But Zatoichi, from a Dungeons & Dragons alignment, isn't exactly lawful good. He cares little about the law. The fact that he often just murders folks before they get a chance to get the drop on him is extremely telling. Hyakutaro is clearly out for himself. He's this guy who plays up his confidence games for profit and comfort. Cool. But he's also extremely likable. But this gets him into trouble. Zatoichi even saves him from himself.
When Hyakutaro is about to be ambushed for pretending to be Zatoichi, the real Zatoichi rescues him. In this moment, Hyakutaro has his crisis of character. He realizes what it must be like to live Zatoichi's lifestyle. He doesn't necessarily join the side of angels right then, but he does become a real help in the fight against the bosses. Why would Zatoichi save this man only to have him regress to his criminal ways and face a potential death penalty for his actions? Zatoichi isn't lawful good. If anything, he's chaotic good. Hyakutaro is an odd reflection on Zatoichi himself. He's early in his journey, but it is poetic that Hyakutaro pretends to be Zatoichi. After all, these two end up being foils for one another. Dumping this character into jail at the end of Doomed Man when he was on the path to redemption is a really weird choice that I don't know I can get behind.
I know that this isn't the longest blog entry, but the Zatoichi movies have been discussed to death. It's a better movie because it has a very clear plot. It offers a degree of vulnerability that we normally don't see in the Zatoichi movies. It also has a great supporting cast is better than normal, which makes for a fun film. I just don't understand why the film didn't play up the Harry Mudd element of the story when it was all right there.
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.