Casino Royale (2006)
PG-13 for possibly being the most intense Bond movie. There's the regular alcoholism and chauvinism, coupled with violence. But it is all just much more. There's nudity without actual genitalia being on screen. Major characters die absolutely tragic deaths. But the violence is actually about the intensity rather than the fun of it all. There's a pretty memorable torture scene. Daniel Craig's Bond is punishing. While I adore this movie, it probably will be the last Bond movie I'll eventually show my kids. PG-13.
DIRECTOR: Martin Campbell
Apparently, when you want to redefine James Bond, you call Martin Campbell. I'll explain why in a second.
It's so odd that when I actually have the time constraints of a workday, I find these little nuggets of time to write. The few minutes between classes, I accrue these minutes like precious moments of time. It's either that or look at my phone and that I know is a waste of time. But when I'm home for Thanksgiving break, there's no scenario where I can actually get quiet writing time. So I took Thanksgiving Break for what it was: a break. I oddly didn't watch a lot of movies during break. It was all about Star Trek: Discovery for me. But it is good to come back. It's so funny that I knew that Casino Royale was going to be my next movie, a movie I really wanted to write about for weeks. But if something is ever going to get the ball rolling again, it's a movie that I really want to write about.
It's so odd that I'm almost at the end of my Bond watching. I mean, I have to go back and knock out some of the early Connery films. I apparently havent' watched Dr. No to Thunderball at least in four years. I never thought I would confidently be able to say that. I've established that I used to have the Bond movies on a regular loop. It's just that there are so many movies that I'll never be able to see and it's weird revisiting something that is so comfortable. But that's why I absolutely adore Casino Royale. I love this movie so much. I think a lot of people do. It might be a nearly perfect James Bond movie. Unlike GoldenEye, which was also directed by Martin Campbell, Casino Royale was never meant to be part of the same canon as the previous movies. Normally I'd huff about such a thing. After all, those movies are really enjoyable and reboots often seem lazy. But the Bond movies also have a terrible mythology. They often ignore their own character bible if the story suits it. It's really weird that Ernst Starvo Blofeld often has a hard time recognizing James Bond, despite the fact that they keep on meeting. As part of what is necessary to make a good reboot, Casino Royale somehow wins by dumping my favorite elements of a James Bond movie. Gone is Q and Moneypenny, for now. There are gadgets, but they are possibly the most practical gadgets ever. A portable defibulator doesn't even feel like spy-fi so much as something that we should all have in our cars. But most depressing is the gunbarrel.
Oh, I know the gunbarrel teases its way into the opening, pre-credit sequence. (Also, the credit sequence is my favorite sequence of all. Just putting that out there.) But Casino Royale takes a lot of its cues from Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins. One of the staples of the Bond movies is that it never really develops the character of James Bond. That seems to be a broad swipe at a long running franchise, but 007 has always been more plot and spectacle motivated than actual mythology motivated. One of the few actual sticking points that kind of / sort of sticks around is the death of Tracy in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, which is why I kind of love that movie. But even that death doesn't really affect the other movies too much. Bond seems to be on a warpath at the beginning of Diamonds are Forever, although that film never directly addresses On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Bond visits the grave of Tracy at the beginning of For Your Eyes Only. There are also some veiled nods to the fact that Bond is a widower. But that's really about it. As a contrast, Casino Royale completely embraces that James Bond himself should have needs and character motivations. I don't think that I'm the only one who has subconsciously named Casino Royale "Bond Begins". It is about the man. While the pre-credit sequence may be about how the man got the number, he really isn't the James Bond of legend until the end of the film. While I haven't watched Quantum of Solace in years, I know that they tried extending that mythology into the second of Craig's films unsuccessfully.
So no gunbarrel and no Bond theme...until the end. That's because Craig's era is very focused on making sure that these stories have a coherent mythology for the character. They want him to grow. Or shrink. Maybe that's what's more telling about Craig's characters through these movies. He spends the film as the dynamic character. The beginning of the movie is almost him playing secret agent instead of being a secret agent. Yes, he's ruthless, but that's because he was trained to be ruthless. There are warmer sides to this character as Eva Green's Vesper Lynd slides into his life. We see him smile. He becomes vulnerable and sees his job for the toxic mess that it always was. I love that he's about to quit being 007 while on his first mission as 007. What's understood is that Bond is never about the talent. He has the talent from moment one, as shown by the parkour sequence leading into the embassy. Possibly no other secret agent at MI-6 could pull of what he did, despite the fact that he was reprimanded for his actions. But the film is about shrinking him back into the mold and understanding the value for his guardedness. Because at the beginning, Bond is conceptually guarded. He knows that if he lets people into his life, it will weaken him as an agent. But it is when Vesper betrays him at the end (I know it is more complicated than that), he knows what it is like to be vulnerable and how it has weakened him. It's a fireman studying fire versus actually fighting a fire. It's interesting.
And maybe that's why I never really understood the relationship that builds out of Spectre. I've only seen that movie twice. (TWICE! Do you know how many times I've watched the other Bond movies? The answer is "Too many times.") Because Campbell really makes us fall in love with Vesper like Bond falls in love with Vesper. It is low and slow. Honestly, despite having amazing action, there is almost a romance movie quality to Bond and Vesper's relationship. Because the Bond franchise has always kind of had a problem telling us that a woman was capable without letting us simply understand that a woman was capable. I look again to Exhibit A, Christmas Jones from The World is Not Enough. You can tell us all day long that a character is a genius who is not interested in a relationship. But Vesper doesn't have to say anything like that. Instead, we see these two people who genuinely have animosity for one another. Through trust and delicate situations, they actually seem to care for one another. You can see the moment where James Bond stops being 007. It's perfectly timed. It's the shower. Seeing that moment where Bond isn't afraid to look disheveled and perfect. He's not being a bull-in-a-China-shop. He's being a human being who understands what it is like to encounter death for the first time. It's really touching. It's why Vesper's betrayal, as justified as it was, hurt so much. He gave up himself and she took a risk.
Is Vesper a good person at the end though? There's a narrative there that could be explored. Maybe it has been through extended universe novels or something. But Vesper Lynd betrays Bond because she has a boyfriend who is being held hostage. She wears that jewelry as an oath to the one she loves. Yet she does fall in love with James Bond. There's actually a kind of gross thread running through the story of Bond being attracted to women in relationships. We think that Vesper isn't one of these women, but she is. It's this great amount of foreshadowing going throughout. But her attraction and love for Bond is romantic for us, but what about that guy? I mean, she sacrifices her life for not one, but two men. (Although that guy totally died, right? Oh. I just read the Wikipedia article. Apparently he is a character in Quantum of Solace.) But from Vesper's perspective, she is actually kind of betraying this guy who is going to be killed by Le Chiffre.
The last note I want to make about this whole thing is that it is really weird that this is a movie that was adapted from a book about people playing cards. In Fleming's original novel, it was Baccarat. Three movies exist based on this novel, mainly because the Bond people didn't feel it necessary to secure the licenses to a book that thoroughly lacks action. But somehow, Campbell made possibly the most riveting movie out of a kind of boring framework. Look, I like Fleming's novel. But if you are looking for the James Bond of the silver screen, this book doesn't really have it. Yet, the major foundational supports are in the movie. I mean, you probably wouldn't recognize these as the same stories, but it does tell the interesting parts of the tale. Le Chiffre, the Casino Royale, the betrayal, and the torture are all in there. Sure, the other elements are definitely Hollywooded up, but who cares? Considering that a lot of the Fleming adaptations have absolutely nothing to do with their source materials, this is a really impressive feat.
I always used to say that From Russia With Love was my favorite Bond movie. That was the snob in me. It's still my second favorite in the series, but Casino Royale is so darned good that I can't keep pretending that Bond's second outing was his best. Casino Royale has everything that I want in a Bond movie and I won't apologize for that. This movie holds up.
PG...because there's a bad guy? I'm not really sure where the questionable content is. Like with Up, the protagonist's wife dies, but that is told mostly through narrator's exposition. There's one moment where the kids are being chased down by the bad guys and are imperiled, but that's pretty minor on the grand scheme of things and their escape has a degree of whimsy to it. I don't know, man. It seems like this only got the PG rating over the G because it is live-action. Lazy MPAA, man. Lazy em-pee-aye-AYE! PG.
DIRECTOR: David E. Talbert
It's another one of the movies that I should have paid more attention to. Again, I consider this a personal failure of mine. I watched the whole movie, but my kids weren't exactly behaving during this film. Also, I was trying to get my steps in, so I was doing chores while watching. I know. Out there somewhere, David Lynch is cursing my name for not being the appropriate movie goer. I didn't watch it on my [expletive deleted] phone or anything, but I wasn't enjoying it as I should. Because this movie looked great. Like, it looked absolutely amazing. So take everything critical I have to say about this movie with a grain of salt, because I wasn't exactly watching with the most critical eye.
I have a feeling that Jingle Janglemight not have been originally planned to be a Netflix release. My old theory behind Netflix releases were that they tended to be cheaper than cinema releases. I mean, I know that Wonder Woman 1984 is coming to HBO Max on Christmas Day, but that's only because of coronavirus. I want to somewhat tweak my original theory. Streaming services are allowed to have second tier big budget movies, except when it comes to Christmas fare, which tend to be as cheap as you can make them. I know that Netflix tends to throw more money at their Christmas outings than Hallmark, but the quality still matches the rom-com versions of sci-fi's original programming, namely stuff like Sharknado. (I have this whole ranking system in my head that places Sharknado in the same production and quality category as anything on Hallmark. There's almost something ironically bad about both, yet I encourage people to enjoy what they enjoy...assuming that they're consuming quality as well. They're both the brand X version of Little Debbie, but maybe try a vegetable once in a while?) But there's nothing cheap about this. This feels fresh and crafted. It's not just a Christmas movie, but it's a musical. And, I know, Disney Channel makes all kinds of cheap musicals. But this is cinematic and the dancing is off the walls amazing. It's really a quality thing and I wasn't prepped for that. Honestly, I didn't even know it was a musical. I knew that they got Forrest Whittaker and that they had some impressive cameras, but that's about all the points I was going to give it before I came in. No part of me was thinking that I was going to get a big budget Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dickensian Apparel.
But I also noticed that a lot of the reviews for this weren't amazing. I mean, they were watching the same movie I (kind of) was, right? I mean, those actors that I never heard of had to be professional Broadway stars, right? They had to be. I mean, the singing in this was amazing. The choreography was nuts. The songs were pretty darned catchy. What was I missing? And then I thought about it. It's not insane to think that this movie didn't resonate with a lot of people. It's kind of because it never really hits the next level. The movie, for its amazing cast and performances, kind of lacks in story. We've seen this story before. On top of that, we've seen this story at Christmas. And because it is Netflix, our minds kind of treat it as disposable. For whatever changes that they made, the movie really kind of is just A Christmas Carol coupled with The Mighty Ducks. Jeronicus Jangle has this really impressive talent for making toys, but because of hardships and cruelty, has lost his Christmas spirit. While we don't have ghosts, there is magic in this world. It should be noted that I'm lo-key obsessed with "A Christmas Carol", so much so that I have to shift out of the italics and into quotation marks to acknowledge that it is a short story.
See, as much as the ghosts make a direct impact on Scrooge, it is really the people in his life that he begins to understand more clearly. The same thing holds true with Jingle Jangle. (I hate the title. Can't stand it.) This is a world of magic, but the magic isn't what changes Jeronicus; it just helps him see the world differently. So when people aren't exactly shocked by the plot, I can kind of see it. He used to be happy and is not, so we know that by the end of the story, he will be happy again. There's a little girl who has the same talents that he used to have? We know that she will serve as a reminder of his childhood. He will be hurtful to her before he becomes helpful to her later. The toy doesn't work now, but it will work later. There's nothing that comes across as a surprise in the movie. I think that's kind of what people are looking for in Christmas movies, but I think I like a little bit of dip-and-dodge in there before getting my results. I look at last year's Klaus, also released by Netflix. Yeah, things ended up being where they were supposed to be, but the movie offered some real threats to the problem being solved. It also offered a new Christmas origin. Instead, we kind of got what we were expecting with Jingle Jangle when it came to story.
And because I love picking apart weird moral choices, I want to look at the morally complex narrative of Don Juan Diego. This is the animatronic toy created by Jeronicus. He acts as the inciting incident for the piece. When he gains sentience, he acts as the antagonist for the film. Jeronicus Jangle created this toy and wanted to give the world this toy. From his perspective, he is living the capitialist's dream. He has a product that brings him joy and will also support his family. He sees his job as a noble profession that also allows him to be creative and leave a sum goal of other people's happiness. Yeah, if you just focus on Jeronicus, it definitely makes Don Juan Diego the bad guy of the story. After all, Don Juan takes away Jeronicus's drive and success story. He can't trap lightning twice, so the goal that Jeronicus starts off with fizzles. But Don Juan actually has a far more noble goal involving sentient rights. The reason we don't sympathize with him, by the way, is because he's a jerk. Honestly, if he didn't act like a jerk, this would be a story about a toy who has sentience forced upon him and then every choice in his life is the product of other's temporary happiness. He's sentient. That's very clear. He rises up against his creator and asks to make choices that are his own. He doesn't want to be copied and cloned. It may be selfish to be the only sentient toy, but he should have the rights as all sentient creatures. The idea that he will lose all specialness and value because there will be a million of him is actually his choice to make. When Buddy comes around later with a seemingly diminished sentience, Buddy is okay with that choice. While I may have problems with the idea of a creator intentionally bestowing a neutered sense of sentience, I'll let it go under the auspices that it wasn't a conscious choice on the part of Jeronicus to do so. Don Juan didn't want to be part of a lower caste system underneath humans, so he rejected the plan to be copied. It gave him authority and value and that kind of makes sense.
Which is what makes Don Juan's punishment especially cruel. Jeronicus never really learns the lesson that Don Juan's revolution should give him. As much of an ego that Don Juan has (which isn't a crime, but just sucks), he really does act out of fear. Instead of respecting Don Juan's wishes, he kind of goes A Clockwork Orange on him, stripping him of his free will. Don Juan is never really given the opportunity for redemption as much as he is simply wiped away. It kind of is a death sentence for simply choosing not to be copied and pasted a million times, which is his right. It's a really dark moment. I honestly thought, similarly, that there should have been redemption for Gustafson, who was clearly a pawn in Don Juan's plan. Yeah, Gustafson enjoys the fruits of his sin, but also feels misunderstood by Jeronicus, who apparently has a hard time communicating his true intentions. Maybe the movie wanted to have a cathartic moment by having the bad guys punished. But it is Christmas? What happened to forgiveness? Jeronicus is forgiven by both is daughter, but also by his granddaughter. His debt is forgiven quickly by the bank when they realize that Buddy is going to sell well. Is the meaning of Christmas based on financial success? There's a lot of things that I have problem with in that ending, but I kind of get why they did it.
Yeah, it's not fair that I'm writing about something that only got half of my attention. I'm going to have to figure out how to watch stuff while walking, because I need to get my steps up. Regardless, this seemed quality while potentially avoiding moral grey areas.
Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
Rated R because it is a wildly depressing film despite the fact that it found a very wide audience. There's child exploitation and abuse, both sexual and physical. There's all kinds of disturbing violence. There's a lot of feces, which is used to comic effect. There's language, but again, that always kind of seems like an afterthought after writing about the things I just talked about. There's slavery. This movie has a lot of questionable content, but we only remember the parts involving Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? R.
DIRECTORS: Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan
I oddly thought that I would never watch this movie again. It's not that I disliked it / dislike it. In fact, I think the movie is way more impressive on a second watch. It's just that everyone was talking about this movie for a hot second. I don't know what part of my brain instantly gets into judgment mode when that happens, but I really just love the idea of being outside the zeitgeist, I guess. I remember a buddy of mine from the video store days railed against this movie. He thought it was the lowest common denominator kind of stuff. Mind you, he and I often disagreed, but I always respected his opinion. I think we might both be right about this movie. It is emotionally manipulative and kind of a gimmick, but it is that type of storytelling done really well.
I'm going to talk about things not in binary good or bad. There's just some things that I don't know if I would have done. Slumdog Millionaire is an exercise in keeping as many plates as possible in the air. There's almost too much going on here. I mean, I'm going to establish very clearly that Boyle pulls it off. He's a really good director and he knows how much things will work before they topple. But looking at this finished product really makes me feel like the whole thing is up there, but wobbly. Like, it's more impressive that it is up in the air as opposed to the individual beats. But that being said, I can't ignore that this is an impressive piece of cinema. The thing that puts it over the top, oddly enough, is the central conceit. I don't know if the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? stuff really needs to be in the film. Yes, there is tension on whether or not he is going to win. But it takes such a backseat to Jamal's personal history that it almost seems absurd that he's going to be one of the richest men in India because of this gameshow. Does he need the wealth? No. It's this nice coda establishing that he has earned the life he is about to receive. But that's where the plausibility really ends.
I think a lot of stories about Fate-with-a-capital-F really run into the same problem. I used to teach The Alchemist. It's not my favorite book, but my students absolutely dig it. It's a nice start off to the year and allows them to be more open minded when it comes to the more challenging books that we'd be reading later in the year. But stories like Slumdog Millionaire and The Alchemist really hinge on the concept of Fate being real. Myself, don't really buy it. It's almost like a Twilight Zone kind of story. Jamal shouldn't have been able to get onto the game show, but it was written that he did. Every single question (some of them oddly easy for final rounds of show that has apparently stumped doctors and scholars alike) aligns with his skill set, even if it means educated guesses. But is that also a condemnation of Fate as a concept?
Think about this: We read the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? stuff as the reward for a life of misery. Jamal has lost his mother. The love of his life has been forced into prostitution and slavery, along with probably being raped by his brother. He has immersed himself in feces and had his prized possessions given away in spite. He has been hunted and watched people killed at point blank range. One side of that is a story where karma returns all of the misery for outrageous fortune. But what if all of that is actually inverted? I mean, the questions may have always existed outside of time. What if Jamal's life simply took a path that would allow him to answer any question? After all, Boyle starts the story with Jamal on TV already. From our perspective, Who Wants to be a Millionaire? is the present and everything else is told through flashback or nontraditional chronology. That's a real bummer because I think that Jamal would agree that he would rather be without the millions if none of those miserable things happened to him. I know this because he risks an ungodly amount of money when he doesn't even know the answer for something. There's a message that says that money corrupts and means nothing, but he still gets it all in the end anyway.
While the central story has to be about the money, considering that it is in the title of the film, I do want to look at other elements that are either odd or genius. One of the weaker moments of the movie is the characterization of Irrfan Khan's police inspector. Part of me wants to believe that he's a dynamic character. He starts off absolutely believing that Jamal is cheating. He believes it so much that he encourages torture of someone of whom has no actual evidence against him. He goes really far too. It's not torture as in "Some of his rights are violated." It's torture in the sense that if anyone saw him do what he did, there would be serious criminal allegations behind the actions. Yeah, he's got his henchman behind him who seems to enjoy the torture more, but the rest of the film shows him to be good cop. He believes Jamal's story and actually invests in it, wondering whatever happened to Salim and Latika. By the end, it seems like the Inspector is Jamal's only friend, but that's kind of gross, isn't it? He's never apologetic for almost killing him. It's just that we find out that he has a good heart? I don't know how to think about that at all? I don't care what kind of heart he has. He's a bad dude who is remarkably comfortable with torture of a young kid coupled with an impassioned hatred for the poor. It's real gross.
But I do want to look at the story of two brothers. That's where the movie really flies for me. In my head, there's a version where the Millionaire stuff is taken out. When you take away the Millionaire stuff, you take away that police stuff, or at least recontextualize it to make it more plausible. The movie seems to be hiding a lot of really important stuff around a high concept. This is the story of two brothers. They were raised the same way. One was older and had to accept a lot more responsibility, coupled with a toxic understanding of masculinity. The other brother developed a thick skin and became a little more empathetic than the older one. It becomes a story about the importance of family and how society and money can completely destroy who we are. Because Salim knew that money would keep them alive, he did anything he could for it. At the end of the day, the money is also the thing that drove the brothers apart and would lead to Salim's death. Boyle didn't miss a beat having Salim die in a tub full of money. But Jamal, with one of his lower needs met, could have room to empathize. Because money wasn't his top priority and because he could rely on someone else for survival, he was able to reach out to others and become a good person. Part of me wants to read this as a genetics thing. Salim was born rough, so he stayed rough. But I think it is circumstance and priorities as well, based on cultural understandings of expectations on an older child. It's something to think about at least.
But at the end of the day, Slumdog Millionaire is really impressive and pretty entertaining. Yeah, part of me wants to play the snob card and say that it's emotionally manipulative. But I also liked it, so should I pretend that it isn't impressive?
GP in Australia, which may be a heck of a commentary on what Americans find inappropriate. GP is our PG (I have an amorphous joke about Down Under and everything being backwards, but I don't have time to really cook it.) I mean, this movie has a lot of nudity, which includes underage girls and boys. Some of it has an erotic context, much of it doesn't. There's also suicide and murder. While I can see where the GP rating could come from, it wouldn't pass muster in the states. Regardless, GP.
DIRECTOR: Nicholas Roeg
I'm all turned around. Since we're full on quarantined, there's not been a lot of time to write. The odds are that I'm not going be able to finish this blog today. But the worst part is that I have a draft of another blog just sitting there because, for some reason, my frantic mind started writing about the wrong movie. We'll see how this plays out. I watched my first Criterion release of Walkabout, which may be the first time I watched my copy of the film. I mean, I've seen it before. But actually watching my copy, picture-framing and all? It was an experience. I know that I'm asking the world for whoever is deliberately trying to get me bumped from Facebook, but please don't report the very questionable nudity above. There are so many great shots in the movie that have some degree of nudity from an Indigenous Australian that I had to give up, so please tolerate the shot that is mostly obscured.
For some reason, I consider Walkabout to be the most approachable artsy-fartsy movie. It's artsy-fartsy as all get out. I know that might not be the most intellectual thing to say, but I can't help it. I honestly put Walkabout into a mental category of "The Best of Criterion." Part of it is the idea that it is a very watchable movie. As next level as the movie gets, it still has a great sense of pacing, compelling characters, and a solid plot. Like, if you liked nothing about artsy fartsy movies, Walkabout kind of still works as just a movie about survival in the Australian Outback. It is an intense movie where you honestly question if they are going to survive. Roeg has the story really begin with a smash cut. The father, who is the definition of civilization (see, I'm already analyzing the film!), breaks from his routine of doing the most academic thing that could possibly be done, grading papers, to shift into a murder spree ending with a suicide. Thankfully, for the characters and the story, he's a lousy shot so he ends up just killing himself. But that instant smash cut takes what could be a commentary on civilization and drives up the suspense with an inciting incident that is disturbing. The boy goes from playing cops and robbers to unknowingly dodging real bullets. It's a really upsetting image, him firing his toy pistol back at his father, who is clearly off his nut.
But that's all I really want to talk about the evaluative element of the movie. It's a good film for nerds and casual watchers alike. What I really want to talk about is the role of civilization in this film and the concept of savagery, juxtaposed with the reality. Roeg starts his films with this montage of city life. He shows the absurdity of school, with girls making tribal sounds. We know, as members of the civilized, that these girls are simply preparing for choir. It's something that we've kind of accepted as commonplace. But there's something very ritualistic about the whole thing, isn't there? If you came from another world and saw girls, in unison, make guttural noises that had no meaning, you'd see these people as simple or savages. And those images juxtaposed to the Australian Outback are the point. While the film never shies from the idea that these kids could die out in the wilderness, there is an odd sense of normality and culture in the Outback. The boy and the girl do things that are reminders of their old lives. I find it extraordinary that the siblings can look so put together by the end. But it is when they abandon the confines of normalcy that things actually make a lot more sense. Like, it is absolutely absurd that the kid is still playing with a car. When he verbalizes that he might have torn his blazer, it comes across as absurd. Sure, they end up being right because they do make it back. But it really does feel like that, at one point or another, they should abandon all pretense of returning home. Because the more that they actually accept their situation, the more right it all feels.
In the MPAA section, I talked a bit about how this movie is full of nudity. It really is. There's just a lot of nudity throughout. But I also mentioned that some of it was erotic and some of it wasn't. I'm putting this all in context of the Indigenous Australian. This is a character who has no stake in being with the boy and the girl. We see him hunting when we are introduced to him. He doesn't even acknowledge that these two are dying out in the middle of nowhere. In fact, their ineptness seems absurd. I love how the boy and the girl cling to their civilized ways as if they are in charge. They yell their English louder as if that would change anything. But he's the new way of the world. He's the way of civilization that they have to accept. But as the story progresses and the trio grows closer, there is that sense of sexual attraction that goes on between the girl and the Indigenous Australian. That last sequence, where he is doing his mating dance, there's something absolutely tragic about what is happening there. This is where the two cultures need to clash. From her perspective, her virginity is hers. Her sexuality is her own. Because this man helped her, it means that she shouldn't necessarily share her body with him. But from his perspective, it feels like everything he has is about rejection. He did everything right. I could easily connect this idea to the "good guy" intention, but this is something very different. He views himself as a failure. His suicide has a ritualistic element to it. After the dance and the presentation of the self, that was his moment. That's what his Walkabout was about. There's where the communication really broke down. The girl, grown up to be a woman at the end with her husband, imagines him fondly. There is a love for that man, but that never really translated properly.
The last thing I really want to look at is the fact that the girl lies to the boy throughout. From one perspective, this is a story about a girl needing to adopt her womanhood far too early. There's never a question for her, having to abandon frivolous things. She goes from having an adorable picnic (covered in ants) to being the head of the family. There are moments when she questions her ability to survive, particularly when the boy is being kind of a butthead. But she never really misunderstands her role as the driving force for survival. She is a parent in a hot second. But that's why I look at the choice to lie to the boy as something that's worth noting. The girl is kind of a static character in the idea that she quickly acknowledges her fate. But the boy is dynamic. He's definitely not the protagonist of the story. If anything, he's the plot. (If the boy dies, the whole thing is a failure.) But he comes to terms with the idea that his father wasn't a good man, despite the fact that his sister was never really honest with him about the entire situation. Perhaps Roeg is talking about how we view our parents as we and they grow up. Sure, the children's father was an extreme case. But the boy, through a veil of imagination and denial, continues to view the walkabout, for all of its length and hardships, as simply part of the picnic for what must be weeks to months. (Although the boy's hair is at a reasonable length by the end of it.) Was it right for her to lie? It kept the boy alive. That idea that father will some day be there and perfectly fine is a powerful motivator, albeit impossible. It's an interesting choice.
I adore this movie. It's so good and so powerful. Yeah, I can see how people could view it as gross, especially considering how so many people got hung up on the Cuties thing not too long ago. But it is an amazing movie that is unquestionably gorgeous and meaningful. I loved returning to it after so long.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016)
Rated R for a lot of reasons. It's a horror movie, but it is also a horror movie surrounding an autopsy. Because they are dissecting a corpse, there's going to be a naked person throughout the movie. Then they have to cut into this naked person and do some awful things to the body. Of course, Jane Doe has had horrible things happen to her and she's also haunting the coroners. There's a lot. I suppose there is language in there, you know, in case that's the thing that's holding you back from watching something. R.
DIRECTOR: André Øvredal
I technically should have written this yesterday. Yeah, I had a break in there because I had actually caught up with my backlog of blogs, but that's not why I didn't post yesterday. We're officially on quarantine. That's something that's part of the new reality. I'm home with the kids, which is four of them. Having a newborn that you are holding all day kind of puts a kink in the writing schedule, so I apologize if I'm sporadic about posting for the next ten days. I'm writing this stuff in the few minutes that the students are remotely working on assignments, so I don't know how in depth this blog will be. Regardless, I'd rather do something than nothing, so here's my best attempt to get a blog out in a criminally short amount of time.
I really need to stop believing hype. Maybe it is because I'm a broken person who has seen too many horror movies. (I'm not even a horror buff. I just watch a lot of movies and don't necessarily dislike horror.) It's just that I heard that The Autopsy of Jane Doe was supposed to be next-level. It was supposed to be one of those films that not a lot of people saw because it was just too terrifying. But after I watched it, I have a feeling that it was probably marketed as such and that it wasn't real hype that I was hearing. The marketing team probably knew that this was a small, low-budget horror movie that was going to be mildly okay and they decided to pretend that it was a cult flick that was going to blow minds. It really wasn't that. It was simply a movie that had some mild jump scares. Considering that the movie connects itself to witches, it only does an okay job, especially that we're in a post-The Witch era of horror movies.. The bar for scary witch stuff is pretty high and The Autopsy of Jane Doe really only ticks some boxes.
I have a few things I want to focus on in this blog. One of them is pretty petty. The other is a central philosophy to the story. I'm going to talk about the nature of scares in horror movies. There's a scene in the movie that involves a lot of story pieces being in place for this scare to work. I'm talking specifically about the bell thing. One of the more telegraphed scares in the movie involves the bell on the end of a cadaver's toe. Apparently, according to the film, back in the day, morticians and coroners would tie a bell to the toe of a cadaver to ensure that it was dead. It made sense back then because there wasn't great medical equipment to ensure that someone wasn't dead instead of displaying minimal signs of life. I don't know how accurate this is. It seems pretty legit. But the problem is, this isn't an old timey tale. This story takes place, for the most part, in modern day. When asked why Brian Cox's Tommy still does this, he says something along the lines of respecting the past or not letting things go. That's not a real good answer. By that logic, he would have to special order bells that attach to toes, which I'm sure a bunch of departments would have a real problem with. What I'm kind of dancing around is that there's a lot of effort for the film to get one very specific kind of scare into the movie. Because there is something haunting about the ringing of a bell getting closer and closer. But the fact that the movie is just begging its audience to be cool with something that really has no place in reality is cuckoo bananas. There's a lot of "Sure" reactions that I had.
This similarly applies to the song that keeps coming on the radio. It's a very haunting song that ties into some of the lyrics a cryptic message about Satan. Sure, we could say that Satan is pulling this witch's strings. But everything about the story is about how old and ancient the Jane Doe actually is. The more that the coroner uncovers, the more we find out how the body is hundreds of years old, a victim of the Salem Witch Trials. Why is a victim of the Salem Witch Trials committed to a song that sounds like it came out of the 1930s or 1940s? Yes, this is haunting. I won't deny that the song is very, very creepy. But it also is a song that doesn't belong in this movie. (A stray thought: The New Justice League Snyder Cut trailer came out today and, once again, he scored it to "Hallelujah", one of the most overused songs in cinema. He did it in Watchmen and he's doing it again for Justice League. *sigh*, back to our previously scheduled program.) This is my problem with a lot of the movie. It is doing things for scary sake, but not for story's sake.
I know it seems like I'm griping. Some things are allowed to throw everything at the screen and see what stick. But these movie tend to be a tad bit more corny than what we're watching in Autopsy of Jane Doe. This is a movie that is begging its audience to take it seriously. Every element of this movie shouts to the rooftops that it is going to be bleak and morose. If the movie is taking itself that seriously, it also has to be conservative with the details it sets forth. That song and the bell are things that don't belong in this film. They are haunting and spooky, but the narrative doesn't support either moment. Save it for another movie. Those things would crush in other films, just not in this one. Actually, I'm pretty sure the bell thing did happen in another movie and it was actually pretty good scene. The bells, in this case, were on the tombstone themselves and it was a fairly effective scare coupled with a story that supported that scare.
My other big beef with the movie is the motivation of the witch. I kind of went off with this when I wrote about Life. I like when morality is tied to consequences. Tommy and Austin are two good people. Their job is to help the silenced tell their story. The reason that they are autopsying the titular character is because someone has wronged this girl. From everyone's perspective, there is a mystery and they are trying to get justice for this girl. Heck, Austin is even more sacrificial. He has to put his relationship on hold because there's such a priority to solving this crime. So when it is revealed that Jane Doe is hurting all those who hurt her in the same way, it's a weird punishment. We have these two male characters who are committing disturbing acts to a woman who is ultimately technically alive. I'm not sure exactly how the story frames Jane Doe, but she's supposed to be still living kind of. But there's a crisis moment in the story where Austin asks his father to stop cutting her open. Tommy does not stop and that's when Jane Doe decides to get her revenge. But the intentions of the coroners is that of allyship. They view this woman as a victim and they want to restore her as best as they can. There is this big apology for continuing the autopsy, but why are they apologizing? Is the movie condemning the notion of justice and devictimization of women? The reason that Jane Doe is so angry is because men tortured and killed her. They victimized her brutally. But these two men are trying to fix the damage that they did. Why are they punished so? It's a really weird call because neither Tommy nor Austin have any kind of moral hangups that involve this. Heck, Tommy had lost his wife and decided to get closer to his son. If anything, Tommy becomes a victim for his entire life.
I probably don't have the patience or time to go deeper into this movie, but it quickly fell into the category of "Just another horror movie", which is a bit of a bummer. It's fine, but it also has a lot of loose ends.
Why Him? (2016)
Rated R for shock humor. Okay, I'm turning into an old man. There are too many jokes in this movie that are entirely around saying swear words and doing shocking things. There's nudity. There's urine. There's lots of sex and kids saying awful things. Really, I could spend a lot of time explaining why this movie is R. But just be confident that it was going for shock value in a lot of these cases. R
DIRECTOR: John Hamburg
Guys! I might be able to take a little bit of a break. This is the last movie on my list. Unless my wife and I watch a movie tonight, I don't see how I can get a movie up by tomorrow. I built my blog schedule into incorporate natural lulls. I was beginning to wonder if one would ever show up and it did! So if I'm posting tomorrow, it's because I'm a real go-getter or we ended up watching something last second. Please don't abandon the blog, my few followers. I just realized that creating natural breaks might encourage better writing and lower my stress levels a bit. Besides, you were probably wondering how I could possibly watch a movie a day. I swear that my life is actually remarkably hectic, so keep this in mind.
I'm not going to lie. I might have a problem with John Hamburg. Mind you, I didn't know who John Hamburg was before this moment. But when I'm formatting this blog, I look up the director and see what else that the director has done. In this case, John Hamburg directed a little film called Along Came Polly. Along Came Polly was this very weird creature that I had a hard time identifying. It had a stellar cast, a cool premise, and some jokes that absolutely should work. But when I watched the movie, nothing was really hitting. It kind of felt like it was trying too hard at times. There wasn't anything artistically special about it. Really, it felt like the attitude was to cast a whole bunch of good people and then assume that the movie is going to be great. I can say that Why Him? kind of suffers from the same problem. (I may or may not include the question mark in the title of the film, based on how motivated I am. I apologize in advance.)
By all intents and purposes, Why Him? should have crushed. It had everything going for it. Okay, I think James Franco is a little creepy now. But he's a funny dude. Bryan Cranston has become a national treasure. You had the talent all in place and a premise that was just basically a Meet the Parents from the other perspective. Oh, that's what the movie is, by the way. Instead of sympathizing with the boyfriend, you sympathize with the dad. But it felt like everything was just trying too darned hard. While I consider Along Came Polly to be kind of a comedy travesty, Why Him? mostly works once I became comfortable with mediocrity. That's a bummer sentence to type, but it is also super duper true. Once I realized that the film absolutely avoided artistry and craftsmanship, it became okay that it was just a raunch fest. Now, I will say that I never found the language funny. It got real old, real quick. It's not that I have a problem with blue language. It's just that all of the language was meant to be a joke. I think the reaction was "Oh my goodness, I can't believe he said THAT!" And it just wasn't. It was a one-note joke that just kept on getting returned to.
Now I have to question the central conceit of the film. The movie really harps on the idea that Laird is a good guy, despite his many many flaws. Okay, there's something to be explored here. We know that, by the end, Ned Fleming is going to bond with Laird because we've seen this movie before, again, when it was called Meet the Parents. Ned has a lot of the same personality traits that Robert DeNiro's character does. He abuses his power in the attempt to protect his daughter from someone who is driving a wedge between them. Okay, pretty standard trope stuff. But the movie alleges that Laird is actually not only an ideal boyfriend, but the ideal for humanity. I might be overexaggerating, but Ned verbalizes his admiration for Laird at the end, stating, "You really don't have a single dishonest bone in your body, do you?" On this principle, the movie's message hinges. (Note: I will give this movie a point for establishing that both male characters are selfish, as verbalized by Stephanie.) But is complete honesty actually a moral good?
Laird is a manchild. He's a well-intentioned manchild, but he's still a manchild. As much as his language is meant to be displayed as a joke, he lacks any maturity whatsoever. Part of what he is makes him a sociopath. While I believe that he thinks that he loves Stephanie, he really is concerned with his own happiness. He does all of these things because money holds no value to him. He can give all of this money because he is beyond money. I'm not saying that all of the rich believe this. It's just that he doesn't understand the value of money. He invades these people's privacy. While he seems to admire the family, it isn't a two way street. It's kind of an odd celebrity worship. What I'm really getting at is that he completely lacks boundaries. While this creates the majority of the jokes throughout the movie, that is actually a pretty disturbing trait. He's not a good person. He's trying, and that's really admirable. But this obsession with surprises isn't for the other; it is for him. He so wants to prove that he has value as opposed to finding the value in the action in itself. There's nothing that is actually a sacrifice involved in these actions. The goodness of someone giving someone else a gift comes from the sacrifice that the action involved. When everything becomes disposable coupled with the notion that someone should be thanking you afterwards, that's a real problem.
Is honesty a good thing? Yes. I can't deny the value of honesty. But treating any virtue with absolutes can be really problematic, as displayed by Laird. Total altruism becomes an issue of boundaries. Saying whatever is on your mind is actually somewhat toxic. The reason that we have these filters is for the good of the other. By having Laird spout off any offensive thing to Ned isn't a sign that he's good. It's a sign that Laird values his own cultural norms than the norms of his guests. Remember, Ned is not there to win over Laird. Laird is there to win over Ned. Ned respects certain cultural touchstones. Yeah, I don't want to jump on board the "Boomers are right" train, but there's something to be said that anything archaic is kind of dumb and absurd. Laird buys what he wants, including feelings and friends. Why would Ned be excited for Laird to be in his life? Now, I could understand a narrative where Laird starts off low-key and, through a series of mistakes and nerves, screws that up. I keep jumping back to Meet the Parents, but that's a central idea behind that film. Greg Focker is trying to respect DeNiro's cultural norms and fails at it. That's something. But Laird keeps ignoring requests by Ned because that's his character.
It's a fine movie, I guess. I wanted more. Comedies are hard and sometimes a formula should work, but really doesn't. It isn't the raunch that's the problem. It's the dependence on the raunch that makes it fall apart.
Dick Johnson is Dead (2020)
PG-13 for kinda sorta gruesome imagery coupled with a morbid sense of humor. The movie really goes out of the way to remind you that all of the gore is fake. The conceit of making a film chronicling the way that the titular character could die and how they're going to pull that off really destigmatizes any kind of violent imagery. But the movie is bleak. G movies can be bleak, but that doesn't mean that I want to show some bleak stuff to my kids. It also could be seen as blasphemous in some lights, but I don't really view it that way. PG-13.
DIRECTOR: Kirsten Johnson
What is with me and dead father stuff? Like, I can't stop. It's such this neurosis that I should probably get it checked out. But my inherent biases plus obsession with finding a nanosecond of free time has stopped me from getting this checked out. So instead, I decide to watch documentaries about dead parents and the dying parents. It's probably not just a me-thing, but I am definitely part of that thing. I mean, I know that my wife wasn't exactly interested in watching something like this. It doesn't mean she didn't enjoy it, but we are definitely coming from different places when it comes to confronting loved ones' mortality through cinema.
I don't know if I completely get Johnson's mission statement for this movie. As an experimental filmmaker / documentarian, I get that not everything is supposed to be "gotten". There's always going to be room for interpretation. Heck, if she's doing her job right, there's going to be a lot of room for interpretation. The goal of the film is very clear: It is a way for both the dying and those who love the dying to come to grips with the fact that death comes for us all. And tenuously, I kind of get the logic. By filming Dick's death many ways, it forces us to talk about it. It destigmatizes the whole thing and makes us adjust to some harsh realities. It brings us context for our daily lives. After all, few of Dick's deaths actually were natural or pathetic. He gets hit on the head with a falling air conditioner. He gets stabbed in the neck by a two-by-four. He keeps encountering these gory deaths that are so sudden and instant that it gives meaning to the slow progression of dementia that is taking over. For all of those instant deaths, with their avoidance of suffering and deterioration, there's no goodbye. There's no prep or coming to terms. Kirsten Johnson and her father wouldn't have had the insight to make this movie if any of these things actually happened. Instead, Alzheimer's becomes a sort of double-edged sword. Because Dick is fading slowly, she has time to process all of the things going on with him.
I mean, we all want Dick Johnson to be our dad. Despite the fact that, not once, did the movie reference the fact that he has to have the most innuendo-laden name imaginable. It's probably avoided out of respect. After all, Dick is such a nice old man and he was raised pretty religious. There's no need to shame him. But Dick has been through a lot. The truly tragic element of the whole film is the fact that his wife went through the same thing. The cruel irony is that he's had to play both roles in this story. He's had to be the observer of Alzheimer's and dementia. He, as a psychiatrist, knows what is logically and emotionally happening for the family that is seeing a loved one slowly slip away. But then he also is the victim of the same disease. He is both sympathetic and sufferer. That's a weird place to be. Yet, he takes it with this absolute grace. Every moment in this movie, I kept wanting to give this old man a hug and I wanted to thank him for his courage and wit in the face of something so darned miserable.
But all this also makes me suspect of the tone of this film. This movie is meant to be a living tribute to a man. When Dick actually dies, this film will serve to be the perfect remembrance of him. He's happy and he's charming. He tells jokes and is mostly with it for most of the movie. He's an active participant in his own story and it's great for a mourner to have this. That being said, I know that dementia can't be as easy as all this. I've always questioned tribute stories that idolize their subject matter. I don't know why I always relate to stories better that are warts and all. I get it. There's something selfish (in a good way) about making a perfect tribute movie for a dying man that you love. That's the way Kirsten Johnson wants to remember her father. It stems out of knowing that the only footage she has of her mother is completely riddled with dementia and that it isn't an accurate representation of the emotional person that she carries in her heart. That makes sense. I don't know if it is Kirsten Johnson's responsibility to teach people about the turmoil that surrounds Alzheimer's. Instead, she is making a movie for two people. I'm just grateful that the film was shared with me through Netflix.
Perhaps that's being a bit too generous. I think that there was an active attitude to say, "The audience for this movie are people who knew and loved my dad." Cool. Kirsten's coldness as a director in this movie sometimes makes me think that perhaps she got too comfortable with death at times. It's got to be weird. People deal with death differently. She isn't doing anything right or wrong. But I also think that it's good to be sad. For all I know, she's weeping her eyes out every moment that the camera isn't on. It's entirely possible. We saw his best friend bawl his eyes out at a fake funeral, so there is a real emotional stake to what's going on here. But I wonder if it is supposed to hurt. Perhaps this movie is too fun at times. Maybe there's supposed to be a little death each time we see him get hit by something, causing a squirt of fake blood to cover the sidewalk. It's nice that she has this time with her dad, but is the brief working the way it was supposed to. I think it never gets more distant than when they make these stylized heaven sequences. While Dick is adorable and hilarious during these sequences, I get that Kirsten is just doing her artsy-fartsy thing. It doesn't feel like it is adding to the emotional resonance of the film, but it is simply an excuse to show what Johnson can do creatively.
But all that being said, it did get me. I know that the movie was for them, but I can still be moved by this kind of stuff. This loving portrait of a dad is sweet and nice. He's this guy who lives a genuinely good life, according to what his daughter laid out. His grandkids seem to love him genuinely and that's what really matters. I'd love to have something like this for one of my family members.
On the Rocks (2020)
Rated R, but mostly because the movie is about adultery. There's a lot of innuendo and Bill Murray's character revels in his sexual conquests. In terms of anything visually offensive, I don't remember too much. The language can get pretty intense, especially when the f-word is used to describe the sexual act. But it's an on-the-verge of being PG-13 R rated movie. R.
DIRECTOR: Sofia Coppola
I think I have too many expectations for Sofia Coppola. I mean, I love Marie Antoinette too much. I might be the only one still talking about it, I'm so obsessed. The same thing holds true about Bill Murray coupled with Sofia Coppola. I mean, in my head, I was getting another Lost in Translation. How is it fair to judge any movie by those expectations? I wouldn't want a director to keep making the same movie over and over, yet my heart wants more of the same. And maybe it is because the tone is so somber in this one. Like, it is a bleak look at aging and marriage and that's just hitting me a bit too hard. Movies are now directed at my age for the older stuff. Movies about people my age aren't about parties and good time. They are about marriages falling apart and fundamental distrust. How is that a good time?
So then, there's me, wanting to find a good movie to watch with my wife that has us have a good time and all we can see is a husband working too much and a wife who thinks he's having an affair. We were ready for "I want candy" over a montage about trying on shoes and instead we're left in Bleaksberg? How can I judge a movie for being too morose when its goal was to be morose? I mean, in my head, I don't see anything wrong with this movie. It's not like it is absent of fun. There's definitely fun in the movie. That scene in the convertible was absolutely darling. Like, I know that there are all kinds of problematic behavior happening there. It's not like Felix is necessarily a role model. But there's something very endearing about that scene, assuming you divorce the context of why they are there in that moment to begin with. Felix trying to perform a tail of Laura's husband with the most obtrusive way absolutely plays like my favorite moments of a Sofia Coppola movie. Similarly, the fact that he knows the cop's dad and grandfather feels like something all dads probably do. It's this moment where Felix's embracing of his problematic behavior plays out the way it always does in his head. Laura gets to see Felix the way that other people see Felix and it is phenomenally charming.
But what is the movie saying about cheating? I really wanted Dean to get caught. I don't know why. I'm going to try to explore that right now, but I also know that there's something really toxic inside me brewing to see him get caught. We know that Felix's behavior is crossing a line. Felix has written this narrative for Dean based on his own persona. His dislike of Dean is a criticism on himself. If Felix, a man who is fun and personable, can do absolutely awful things to his family, there has to be a justification saying that worse people do far worse. Because as much as there's nothing wrong with Dean, we've been trained to think that working too much is the warning sign of villainy for the emotional drama. Yeah, Dean actually kind of sucks because he goes to late night parties and doesn't spend the time with his family that they need. I mean, it is overt when he doesn't have time to spend with his wife on her birthday. It's even more troubling that he just books Mexico without consulting her. (Is this a world where text messaging doesn't affect a workday? Maybe I shouldn't be confessing this here.)
But Dean is also exclusively shown through the lens of an unreliable narrator. The movie is shown almost exclusively through the eyes of Laura. Her paranoia quickly becomes our paranoia. In our minds, Dean has to be cheating because that thought entered Laura's mind. Similarly, I can't help but feel like Sofia Coppola's understanding of formula is a bit of a mislead. After all, if I found circumstantial evidence of my spouse's infidelity, there wouldn't be a certain guarantee. Instead, Coppola is playing with a Chekhov's gun. We see signs of infidelity, we assume that this is a movie about a woman finding a cheating husband. And they got me. I kept on questioning in the back of my head "What if Dean really is just working late and sucks at communication?", but I never took that voice seriously. After all, this is a movie. Laura's phobias have to be right because she is the protagonist of the piece and the only information we get are through Laura's blinders.
Instead, this movie chooses to condemn Felix. For as much as Dean should be communicating with Laura more and making time for her more, he is trying the best he can to be a good husband and father. Trying should matter for something. It's actually Laura (and I really don't want to victim blame a fictional character) who lacks communication with Dean about her fears. The lesson that Laura learns is that she should have just straight up asked her husband where he is all of the time. She should have verbalized her fears about Fiona. If she had, she would have discovered Fiona's sexual identity and a lot of her fears would have been put to rest. Instead, Felix is the one left high and dry and looking ugly in this movie. Felix, because he's Bill Murray, comes across as the good guy who is really the bad guy. He's the toxic friend (or, in this case, father) who makes himself look good by making other people look bad. He thrives on Laura's insecurities and revels in the idea that he's there when she most needs her. He's a crutch when she should be learning how to walk tall by herself. Yet, all of his choices make sense. He's a guy who loves his daughter and is trying to bury a lifetime of screwups. This is the opportunity to not only cement the hero worship that his daughter has, but also to make her see him in a new light. After all, she has always probably resented the way that he treated her mom and he has this opportunity. The worst part is that he probably isn't even aware that he's doing this.
For the first time in his life, I think Felix feels like the hero. He uses his own lifestyle as a roadmap to save his daughter. He couldn't save his wife from himself, but he can save his daughter from being hurt the way his wife was hurt. Felix thinks that he is on the redemptive path all along, but he's really just stoking the embers of Laura's fragility. And as much as he consciously doesn't see himself as the bad guy, he subconsciously knows the truth. When Laura blows up at him, she is the one who sees the toxic behavior that the two of them have been indulging. But in a masterful choice for Bill Murray, Felix seems to have realized it all along. He simply shifts his perspective in that moment to understand what he has always been. It's been the thing keeping him up at all hours and now it has voice.
So as much as I didn't absolutely love On the Rocks, it's mostly because I wanted it to be something else. There's nothing wrong with this movie. If anything, it feels like a Woody Allen movie than it does a Sofia Coppola film, but that's okay. It does its job as a small thinkpiece rather than a bombastic tour de force.
His House (2020)
TV-14. I don't know how this is TV-14, but it is. It's absolutely terrifying. Get ready to see a bunch of dead bodies. People die in the most tragic possible ways. There's a ghost with a knife. That's a thing. I remember when I played the first Silent Hill game, there were kids with knives. I remember showing everyone that sequence. Well, apparently, that's cool enough to garner a TV-14 rating now. It's pretty brutal. TV-14.
DIRECTOR: Remi Weekes
I think I get one horror movie a year with my wife now. That's okay. I get it. Horror movies aren't for everybody. Heck, horror movies should be for nobody. I don't know what it is about wanting to be scared by horrible things, but I totally appreciate it. It's interesting to me. Part of me really was going to make my wife watch The Brood, because I haven't seen it before. But I also knew that if I threw a David Cronenberg at my wife for the one horror movie a year, I might lose that one horror movie a year. Instead, the trailer for His House caught my eye. I do appreciate the Netflix Top 10 now. That's not a litmus for quality, but I do know that it might be a talking point at work.
I kinda / sorta believe that the New Golden Age of Television is over. Sorry. We have a lot of quality shows, but nothing is really water cooler discussion worthy. But I do think that we are in an era of horror that can't be ignored. Horror, for a long time, was considered cheap entertainment. It ticked boxes and adhered for formula. Given the right level of marketing, it would make a buck. If it didn't, it was forgotten. It felt like low-risk cinema. I think we have to give a lot of points to Jordan Peele's Get Out and to A24 for realizing that the rules of cinema should apply outside of genre. Making movies should be about art, message, and cinematography. We should care about what we're watching, not just the jump that we get from fear. I mean, I'm really fighting the high art versus low art thing right now, which is as pretentious as it gets. But movies like Get Out and His House seem to transcend genre. It's not to say that these movies aren't scary. If anything, these movies are scarier because they take the subject matter seriously. Investing in the film and investing in the characters make the moments more important. We care about these characters and we care about the plot.
Maybe message films get me. I think they do. I had a professor in college, while I was just a lowly theatre major, that stressed the importance of art having a message. The message is pretty overt. The way we treat refugees is similar to locking people in a haunted house. I can't help but make the comparison to zombie films, only with a loftier cause. Zombies tend to serve as setting. It's an explanation for why characters should be acting differently than they would in a traditional setting. Bol and Rial are trapped in a house with a witch and they can't leave because the horrors of Sudan are worse than living with a witch that is trying to kill them. That's powerful. It is heart wrenching thinking about the trials of the refugee. I've written about refugees before with the documentaries that I've watched about Syria. But that has always been a criticism of "there." It is terrible "there", it is fine "here". Admittedly, this is London. But I can't help but lump this into a criticism of the West. The fact that these people will jump through any hoops to prove that they are "one of the good ones" is terrifying.
For a long time in the movie, I was actually a little put off by the concept of the movie though. As much as I preach against formula, there is one trope that I kind of respect: the victims must do something wrong. From moment one, Bol and Rial are seen as "the good ones." Bol verbalizes the concept of goodness to the housing committee. There's this concept of gratitude and goodness that keeps pervading the story. So when they are tortured by this witch ghost (I can't quite express what kind of supernatural creature it is), it seems like it is unwarranted. But that's when the other shoe drops. The movie implying that Nyagak is their daughter makes it seem like Bol and Rial are the ultimate victims of a horror movie. They lose their daughter, are put into a haunted house, and are tortured by a witch ghost? The reveal that Nyagak is not their daughter and that she died in their care completely changes everything. It also gives context for why Bol and Rial view the witch ghost differently. Yeah, they're both being haunted, but it feels like Bol has gotten the brunt of the haunting. Rial somehow sees the ghost as just and appropriate for their condition. She also wants to make amends to the ghost while Bol is obsessed with assimilation.
Their attitude towards the witch ghost is telling of two very different philosophies. Bol sees the witch ghost as an obstacle from blending in. He goes clothes shopping and tries to mimic the clothing choices made by white families. He goes to bars and sings with the football hooligans. It seems like he wants desperately to please the housing committee, but he's really trying desperately to bury the Bol who got an innocent girl killed. He wants this to be a fresh start. Rial, however, acknowledges the sin and is slightly forgiven for her intentions. It wasn't her intention to take Nyagak. Because she stole her mother from Nyagak, Rial was going to be the best mother she could. But she faces this criminal failure, causing the death of this girl who was thrust into this situation. By acknowledging her sin, the torture becomes a kind of penance for her. But it also distances her from the philosophically different Bol, who can't understand why she isn't embracing this substandard lifestyle.
The kitchen table shot is something else, isn't it? Like, it's really effective. Most of the movie deals with hallucinations. There's a lot that is questionably real or imaginary. Most of this stuff really works. In fact, I love a lot of it. But I don't know if I love the zombie refugees. Besides not reading as effective as masked Nyagak, there's something almost cheap about it. Geez, I can't believe I'm writing this sentence down right now, but I think the corpses in themselves are haunting enough. I don't know if they really need to be up and walking around to earn a scare. The idea of dead refugees is actually more terrifying. Judging corpses might actually detract from something that is already haunting.
But the movie is scary. Like, this movie is really good and it's weird that it is only TV-14. It might be the most effective scary movie this year. While A24 keeps churning out impressive horror movies, I think stuff like His House might be both visually impressive and actually more scary than the most recent entries. I loved this one. It's pretty great.
Not rated. It's a 1956 horror movie. Aliens from space stuff. I would say that this one might be more troubling than traditional invasion faire, but it isn't like this is going to wreck anybody. The performances are haunting, but the gore is limited to destroying pod people duplicates. Also, one of the character gets a cut on his hand. A cut. On his hand. It's fine.
DIRECTOR: Don Siegel
Today's lesson is one of political bias. Good science fiction is supposed to be a commentary on who we are as people. I would lump Invasion of the Body Snatchers in as some pretty great science fiction. Sure, I might enjoy the 1978 remake a little more in terms of quality, but 1956 is a haunting time in America's history. While there is no one specific read on Invasion of the Body Snatchers, I'm going to be taking a couple of things for granted. We're looking at McCarthyism and fear of communists here. This movie is prime time for that kind of stuff going on in American history. From any perspective, imagine sitting down in a theater in 1956 and watching this movie without seeing the fear of communism in every element. People that you knew and trusted are all of the sudden acting differently? They want to change your way of thinking? The hero of the story is trying to beg people to think for themselves. I mean, there's Twilight Zone and then there's Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
I find the era of McCarthyism one of the most scary moments in American history. Well, I find it one of the scariest moments in American history until the era I decided to live through today. (I'm not a time traveler...) Last time I wrote about the evils of McCarthyism, one of my readers tried to set me straight on how McCarthy may have had a point and I got the real wiggins after that. But my big thought in watching something that was meant to be pro-McCarthy propaganda was how my political bias allowed the story to work against Trumpians. I stress my own personal biases because I know that Trump's America could also be using the same film against me and my support for Joe Biden. (At the time of writing this, it is two days after the election and Nevada is just taking its sweet time releasing poll numbers.) So be aware, as much as I work to not be bias, there's no such thing. I have to critique myself at the same time. That being said, I'm going to write under the umbrella that I'm aware of my bias and am still writing the following.
I mean, what the heck happened America? People I thought were good people are very cool with some awful things because President Donald Trump, a bankrupt reality show host, told them so. I've become more political in the past four years than I ever thought that I could be. I have seen him do some absolutely abhorrent things and people keep telling me that "He's just telling it like it is." I always thought that the presidency was always about holding the guy in office to task, whether he be your guy or no. But I'm watching people try to spin disgusting things into moral victories and I don't know what's going on. Yeah, I know that people aren't literal pod people, but the embracing of vitriol completely baffles me. Part of the argument that Trump makes is that everything that is critical of him is fake news. He says it about everything and people believe him. But they watch what he says on Fox News and still believe it. It's kind of like a mix of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (I brought the train back to the tracks!) and They Live!.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers was meant to embrace cultural themes, but as proven by completely inverted politics, there's something fundamentally universal about this story. It always feels a bit icky to write off friends and neighbors using hyperbolic ideas like pod people. But sometimes, a science fiction answer provides a better response than people being fundamentally immoral. (Again, from the film's perspective, I'm the ultimate pod person because I'm documenting all these progressive ideas for other people to read. I'm borderline kidnapping conservatives and asking them to join me.) But maybe that answer is easier. It's so hard to grasp why people can ignore objective evil. As a Catholic, we're supposed to be about objective truth. While Trump may do some things that I really believe in as a Catholic, like contesting abortion laws in this country, he's doing so many more awful things that are fundamentally anti-Catholic. And that's where Body Snatchers comes in. It's the willing acceptance of everything without criticism of anything. I think it is possible to say that one can vote for Trump, but hold him to task for the bad stuff. It's the Trump Train stuff that makes no sense to me.
The rules of Invasion of the Body Snatchers are weird to me. I mean, I love the "get woke" metaphor running throughout the story. Evil comes when you are sleeping and relaxed, so always stay awake and alert is cool. But are characters never ever allowed to sleep again. Is Dr. Miles J. Binnell doomed from moment one of the story? I mean, he has to sleep sometime. A Nightmare on Elm Street has confirmed that. So in my head, it was those pods that became the duplicates. But Becky Driscoll falls asleep in the most troubling scene in the whole movie and wakes up as a pod person. Do people swap bodies? Like, if someone wanted to make a duplicate of me, would I wake up in a plant version of myself after I woke up? Do they kill me after that? I don't...I don't understand. Like, it's very haunting to have Becky wake up and narc on Miles. That's cool. It's also cool that all these duplicates try talking the OG versions of us to join them. But I'm pretty sure Jack fell asleep for a second when the pod corpse was on the table and he was fine for a while. If someone could explain the rules to me and not try to convince me that Biden's the worst and "Yay Trump", I would appreciate it.
I love me some allegory. While Invasion of the Body Snatchers has some problematic allegory, it really works for a sci-fi horror movie. It also really rocks considering that I'm reevaluating my relationships with a lot of people in the wake of this election.
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.