tick, tick...BOOM! (2021)
PG-13 for language and general melancholy. Considering that Jonathan Larson was heavily impacted by the AIDS epidemic, the movie deals with the people that he lost while writing the stories that he wrote. There is little sex, but Larson often has too much appreciation for alcohol and drugs considering that there aren't that many repercussions with these moments. PG-13.
DIRECTOR: Lin-Manuel Miranda
I have a hook ready to go and I'm going to full-on sacrifice it because I need to get this out of my system. This title is dumb. It is completely shoe-horned into a movie / musical that only uses it as this remote reference. I get the nature of time being this leitmotif throughout the film, but come on. Come. On. For the sake of my limited readership, I'm going to refer to this movie as Boom or some version of that. I can't type that title in every time. It's going to cause me to bleed out of my brain.
Okay, horrible name aside, there's something really special in this movie. I grew up in the era of Rent. For a guy who had never seen it or owned the soundtrack, I knew every word to every song for a long time. I had a friend growing up (with whom I would love to connect) who just kept singing the lyrics to Rent on repeat. Much with my disdain for Harry Potter, coupled with my outright hypocrisy, I held Rent in contempt. It didn't help that the movie was pretty panned and that people were only sharing the worst parts of the musical with me. It was just TOO part of the zeitgeist. I also wouldn't probably get along with me in high school now, if it helps. But Boom actually made me want to look at Rent again through a new lens.
I feel horrible for Andrew Garfield fielding all of these Spider-Man : No Way Home questions in light of his involvement with Boom. In no way was I prepped for how perfectly cast he was as Jonathan Larson. Jonathan Larson is a very specific kind of person. I know that there have been other Larson types since Larson himself. But Garfield absolutely nails what it was like to be theatrically obsessed during the '90s. He's this guy who is imbued with a confidence that is both undeserved and necessary to survive. That's what I took away from this movie, by the way. It's not a perfect read of what the movie is trying to sell throughout. Nope. But Larson is the right level of perfectly toxic to make something like Rent happen. He's this guy who is both gifted and burdened by genius. He has this ear for music that anyone on Broadway would kill for. I don't know how true to life that was to Larson's real life. Knowing that Larson is the one telling his own tale in Boom is arrogant as heck, but it's also so fundamental to the story.
Larson needs to have that kind of blind fanaticism towards the American Dream. Larson's understanding of the American Dream isn't that you have to work hard for success. It's the idea of gambling. Larson is this guy who is just overwhelmed with a very marketable talent. He's in the shadow of the advertising world and has the skill to make a glut of money when he really wants to be working as an artist. The very practical version of me instantly started looking inward. I mean, I really love teaching English. I really like it. I write a blog for goodness sake. But there's also a part of me that wishes that I lived like a starving artist, writing book after book only to get rejected time and again. And it's weird to see Larson tell this story about Superbia, knowing that it will not make it. There's just this meta narrative of us never hearing the word Rent anywhere in this movie; knowing that Larson is going to get his work of genius completely rejected, despite the fact that it has a glowing endorsement by the wizard-like Stephen Sondheim (may he rest in peace).
But it is the meta narrative running through the piece. I mean, Miranda has so many balls in the air for this movie. I'm sure that the Off-Broadway show did some of the lifting. But Miranda doesn't really give you a ton of context for the timeline until the real end. Honestly, for a good chunk of the movie, I didn't know that an element of the movie was acting as narration and I think that is done on purpose. Because how can this movie exist the way it does and not address that Larson can't be the one presenting the story in the way that the stage version wants to. His very anticlimactic death loomed over the world of Rent and it colors the world of Boom. Because what this movie absolutely nails is the concept of ambition. Throughout the film, we understand that this is about Larson trying to share his art with the world, no matter the cost. He's this manchild who views his 30th birthday as a sign of failure. Despite the fact that he has legally been an adult for 18 years of his life, it is his 30th birthday that views his lifestyle as irresponsible. That's really interesting because it presents the movie from a perspective of having simultaneous high stakes and low stakes. From the way that we view Larson, with his partying and his squandering of cash, that he's never going to change. But to him, he absolutely sees 30 as the death of the Larson we know. If Superbia didn't generate interest, then it was going to be about capitalism and selling out. It would have been about the death of art and that's what Garfield conveys so well through his portrayal of Larson.
I'm always a little flummoxed about "good singing" and "good dancing" in movies or on stage. I know, I have a theatre degree. But that has always been about the acting and directing. I just never really can comment on the acting and dancing in a movie. I just know how Garfield's performance made me feel. This felt like something wildly out of Garfield's comfort range and he nailed it. It didn't feel like a classically trained singer, but it felt like a guy who sung everything that came to his mind. He didn't dance like a guy who did flips, but a guy who worked in a diner and loved to see the quirky side of life. It made the movie work in a way that Rent worked. I mean, the movie even put Garfield in juxtaposition with professional singers often. He was the playwright who sang his own life, but then there were all these actors who were belting out these beautiful notes. But I didn't need that next level. I related so much more to Larson because he seemed like this wunderkind who just liked doing it. I didn't need to have layered singing. I just wanted to have a guy who found beauty in everything around him.
Long and short? I'm going to give Rent its fair due. I don't think I'm ready for the movie yet. I hear so many things about the movie that I feel like I can't watch it without being tainted. But I can buy the stage performance from Amazon for, like, $12.99. That can't be the worst decision. But that's the power of a good story. I want it to continue on. I want to learn everything about him now. That's a good movie.
The Green Knight (2021)
Rated R, mainly because it is an A24 horror. The real surprising thing is that I had a really weird epiphany about this film. I don't deny that this movie should be rated R. It totally should be. It's just that it's not as R as it feels. There's some mild nudity, some weird nudity, some sexual content, and a little bit of blood. It's really tame, but it feels like you are watching something abhorrent. That's pretty part and parcel for an A24 movie. R.
DIRECTOR: David Lowery
I learned some stuff about literature through watching this movie. But moreover, I learned something about myself. I've never read the whole thing of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I've only actually read the excerpt from the senior textbook I teach from. It's a tough piece of text and I understand a bit of what is going on in the short form, mainly because the teachers' edition helps me out with some of the bigger points. But first of all, I've been mispronouncing "Gawain" if this film has any accuracy behind it.
But I also might be fundamentally misunderstanding the story. I wish I was an expert at everything. Let's put that out there first. I'm sure my genius father was slightly disappointed that I'm not a Sir Gawain expert because that was his bread and butter. That was his jam. Anything Arthurian was his wheelhouse and here I am faking the excerpt of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. But I always read that story as The Little Engine That Could. I don't know if I'm right or not, but the movie implies that I'm very very wrong on my interpretation of the story. I always read the story of tiny Sir Gawain and the fact that he was the only one who had the courage to accept the Green Knight's challenge. There was Arthur and his Round Table, all paralyzed by the notion of this giant green knight visiting them on Christmas. When Gawain attacks the Green Knight, we discover his true bravery when he accepts the second half of the challenge. Instead, Lowery paints this story of ego. Gawain doesn't attack the knight because of some sense of valor or courage. He does so because he's a small man who is desperate for attention. The movie tells of his insecurity and the fact that he has borderline doomed himself to Hell by accepting this foolish challenge.
From that perspective, Lowery makes a story that I kind of enjoyed the first time and makes me really want to reexamine it. Gawain in the excerpt kind of was a flat character. He's always going to choose the right thing, even when he kind of / sort of betrays the people who take him in towards the end of the story. But as much as this is a story about Gawain's attempt to survive the impossible, Lowery turns this into a story about his soul and what it means to have true courage. There's something absolutely absurd about the tale to begin with. Gawain shouldn't even address the Green Knight. It's one of those things where nature or demons directly laugh at the weaknesses of mankind. The Green Knight's challenge is an unfair one. Knowing that he'll survive whatever blow that the competitor offers, Gawain isn't given the whole set of circumstances before taking the challenge. But that is also a test for Gawain. After all, Gawain doesn't have to kill the Green Knight. The rules, as stated by the Knight, are that Gawain gets the first blow and a year later, the Knight would return the favor. It is a story about cheating on both fronts. The Green Knight is immortal and Gawain wanted to renege on the second part of the agreement, the returning of the blow.
But there's something really cool about Lowery's ending. It's very A24. (Note: I've learned to love A24 more when I take long breaks from the movies.) Gawain offers his head at first, thinking that he can outsmart The Green Knight in the same way that The Green Knight cheated him. He knew that he'd gain immortality with the green band given him. But even then, he turns coward. We're supposed to shame Gawain in this moment because he runs from the fight, but I might honestly do the same. Sorry, pain also sucks and I imagine that being beheaded and surviving might be no fun. But Lowery seeds in that moral element to the story. Gawain gets the belt through an extramarital affair. It's very much that temptress archetype embodied. (Joel Edgerton's character is also very odd for the story, but that's another thing.) In my version of the story, Gawain steals it and that's kind of true here. But instead of being an element of quick-wittedness, it feels very gross when he takes the belt. It's because Edgerton's character gives him a moment to confess and Gawain leaves carrying his adultery and his thievery around his waist.
But I get distracted. Again. The cool thing is the nature of what honor and valor are. When Gawain is prepping himself for death, he continually shows the fear of death that the story has been teasing. He flinches and begs for his life, much to the confusion of the Green Knight. It is on that last swing that we see this cool, silent, alternate history. I kind of figured that's what was going on. But even with that accurate guess, the sequence is fantastic. That last sequence puts the entire travel narrative into perspective. Gawain is given a glimpse into his real failures. As Arthur's replacement, which his soul desperately wants, he seems kind of miserable. (Don't worry, everyone is miserable. It's an A24 film.) There's this feeling of unjust success. It's in that moment we have that Christmas Carol element. He sees the future with him taking the easy route and he realizes the coward he is. It's because the movie is a horror movie that he isn't given the happy ending and that's what makes it interesting. Because the Green Knight needs to kill him to get the ending that would justify his moral change.
It's a really strong movie. I dug it way more than I thought I would. It's not an amazing movie. But it takes what might be considered dry content and makes a meal out of it. It looks gorgeous. While it has pervy elements, it never feels full on gross. This is what I want out of A24. It's gorgeously shot and the story and performances are nearly perfect.
No Time to Die (2021)
PG-13 for general James Bondery. While the sex is minimalized in this film, it definitely is there. Most of the takeaways from No Time to Die is the fact that Daniel Craig's Bond has always been the most violent Bond. This one really plays up the notion of blood, most notably in the pre-credit sequence with blood on the snow. There is some language and alcoholism, but it is somehow one of the more tempered Bond films. I mean, he does kill A LOT of people, but that's to be expected, right?
DIRECTOR: Cary Joji Fukunaga
Oh so many things to say. I find Bond fairly easy to write about because I was such a Bond nerd for such a long time. I still am, to a certain extent, but it has been tempered by age and other fandoms. But I remember seeing the trailer for this pre-Covid and losing my mind. Daniel Craig has such a weird place in the Bond canon. He's the one who seems to have broken the illusion about playing Bond the most, at least since George Lazenby. He's always been this guy who has mentally treated it as any role he would normally take. He's not enamored with James Bond. If anything, Bond has always been a burden for Daniel Craig. Like Harrison Ford trying to put Han Solo to bed, there's always been this idea that Daniel Craig was always begrudgingly coming back for one more, despite the fact that he's always very publicly sworn off the character for good.
With No Time to Die, he has confirmation of that wish. Spoiler alert: Bond is dead. It's not that I don't want to see Bond dead. There's something really cathartic and final about seeing the end of the story that was never going to come. But I can't help but exist in the real world and think of how the audience plays a huge part in the decision to tell this story. I remember when Batman Begins came out and the notion of a reboot just entered the collective consciousness. Christian Bale was going to play a beloved character, but assuming that the other movies never existed. The notion of the reboot is something very commonplace today. Heck, James Bond might be the most successful reboot following The Dark Knight trilogy. Daniel Craig stepping into the early days of Bond and giving him actual character arcs saved the character from being the same film rehashed time and again. But one thing that we've never really seen (again, maybe outside of Batman) is the notion that the reboot stories might be over. With The Dark Knight, Nolan gave the character three movies. The notion of a trilogy as an arc always makes sense to me. But five films for a reboot, only to open the door is somehow extremely complex for me to wrap my head around.
Because the credits end with the iconic "James Bond will return" tease. Everything about No Time to Die screams the end of an era. Okay, maybe the villain may be a little less than worthy of a final Bond movie. But from James Bond's perspective, dealing with all of the trauma that he's been dealt over a lifetime, this the movie that celebrates the end of a journey. We thought that we got that with Spectre, a movie that decided to close the book on James Bond while leaving a bookmark to be opened by someone else. Bond has an element of immortality about him. That's kind of the tacit agreement. I read John Gardener's The Biography of 007, which is honestly a way better read than you'd think. In that version of Bond, he's an old man waiting for his next assignment. He hates retirement, despite having the best retirement imaginable. That concept is kind of unfilmable. But it also makes a lot of sense. Because Bond has never aged throughout the Cold War to today, there's something eternal about him. It's probably why Never Say Never Again came across as such a slap to the face to the character. It's why Roger Moore decided to abandon the franchise after A View to a Kill. James Bond is supposed to be young and verile forever. He's supposed to escape the death traps and squeak by, regardless of what's going on.
But that's what makes this movie work so well. Because James Bond learned to hate 007. 007 was toxic to the man and that's what No Time to Die is all about. He had found happiness. But that happiness was foreshadowed by Louis Armstrong's "We Have All the Time in the World". We knew that Bond couldn't have been happy. He was born out of violence. The death of his parents and the corruption of MI6 was just too much for him to view the world from a sense of perspective. When Madeline tells him that she loves him, he is incapable of imagining the world without a conspiracy behind it. I kind of love that as mental damage. To know that James Bond's daughter is out there, without a father, because James Bond has gone lifetimes without siring a child is very telling. It's almost more impossible that Bond could have a family with a child and a remote cottage than it is that Blofeld would try to kill James Bond from prison.
I think that's why Safin might be the weakest element of the film. I think Rami Malek is great. He looks haunting and scary. But Safin represents the need for a formalized villain. If anything, he's more of a commentary of the format of the Bond villain than anything. Henson lamented that he had an island volcano and now I think that is very intention. It's telling that Safin isn't anything special. That's got to be harsh for someone like Malek, who is far too talented of an actor to get pigeonholed like that. But Safin doesn't matter. Bond is dealing almost primarily with an internal conflict. He is fighting against bred mistrust of others. He is learning to take the diplomatic route rather than the violent route. Safin, if anything, is Bond without the sense of nuance. Safin wants to remove SPECTRE just like Bond wants to remove SPECTRE. But when Safin does it, there's something genocidal about it all. It doesn't matter that Bond mows down SPECTRE agents left and right. What does matter is that they are returning fire and that he's confronting his attackers. Safin instead is wiping the board clean using mass casualties to do it.
It's really smart to have MI6 and Mallory to be the ones who create the virus that becomes the threat in this one. While we understand that M and MI6 are the good guys is concept, it's Bond having to confront the people who made him who he is. It's the lifestyle that has been drilled into him that has taken him from his family and threatened the world and the virus gives that sense of "no real good guys" motifs in the movie. It's very smart.
But the one thing I can't wrap around is the means of Bond's death. I knew it was coming. When people said that this was the last one, that only meant that Bond was going to die. Now, I like a lot of elements of Bond's death. I like the fact that it was his choice. I like the fact that it was not due to a death trap, but because of an instant mistake. It was the smallest miscalculation that made that happen and I adore that. The thing I don't like is the missiles as a means to death. That seems like something that Bond should be able to outthink. There seems to be a loophole somewhere with that. But I like the idea that Bond dies an old man in seclusion. Bond is poisoned with an irreversible virus that would kill the people around him while leaving him alive. As a metaphor for the loneliness of Bond, that works wonders. But I can see him being this force out there on an island. A built house, living off the land. He watches his daughter grow up by satellite feed from Q and we watch him age into obscurity. I adore that as an option.
But overall, No Time to Die works on so many levels that it brings me an overwhelming sense of joy. It's one of those really long movies that didn't feel boring to me for a second. It redeemed Blofeld to the status that he was supposed to have. It made Madeline far more of an interesting character. It paid homage to classic Bond without feeling slavish to it. It just works so well as a Bond movie. I just think that I'll have a hard time adapting to a new Bond story.
Jungle Cruise (2021)
PG-13 for some playing up of stereotypes, spooky action, and lo-key sexism. If you are looking for something comparable, I'd look at Pirates of the Caribbean in terms of both tone and appropriateness. I'm actually going to be making that comparison a lot throughout this blog entry. I watched it with my kids and they were fine with it. I'm actually very comfortable with a lot, but it does toe on some pretty uncomfortable material. PG-13.
DIRECTOR: Jaume Collett-Serra
If you ever wanted to see me have an unabashedly good time, completely free from those stressors that overwhelm me on a daily basis, take me on the Jungle Cruise ride at Disney World. We went the January before Covid broke out and that was my first time on the ride. It was always one of those experiences that I skipped. But my wife had never seen me laugh harder. Maybe I'm just wired for dad humor, because I loved it. Now, I have this story as a means of juxtaposition to the next statement. I don't love the trend of Disney making these movies based on their rides. It's all a bit silly and I'm going to lump Pirates of the Caribbean in with that.
So how do I go into a movie about a ride that leaves me in stitches when I don't like the transition to films? The result is a watered down version of something joyful. I was warned to stay away from Jungle Cruise. But to those people, I should a loud "Aw, have a heart." This is the movie you thought it would be, right? I mean, there's not much that is all that surprising about the final product of Jungle Cruise. I decided to talk about this film with my film class and they all went berserk when I dropped my Pirates of the Caribbean references. But I'll spell the movie out and you can straight up agree with me. (Trust me, there's no disagreeing with me on this one.) A bunch of conquistadors looking for the secret to eternal life are cursed after making some poor choices. They become a threat to the main characters, who make foolhearty choices, despite being adorably flawed individuals. The ghost thing alone should earn it full-on Pirates of the Caribbean status. Heck, I'm 90% sure that is just the plot of On Stranger Tides.
I think a lot of my positive opinion about the film comes from the fact that I'm not obsessed with the Pirates movies. See, everyone in my high school class finds these movies to be untouchable, with the possible exception of On Stranger Tides. This was their nostalgia trip. I had one student actively disagree with me on this theory (which, despite my earlier comment, is completely reasonable) stating that she had only viewed them a few years ago. But this is the film series that these kids first discovered PG-13. These movies were special. God, I can imagine what it might be like to watch I Know What You Did Last Summer right now, thinking that the movie was great. That was my first R-rated movie in the theater and I felt like such an adult. But for them, those Pirates movies were sacred. For me to make a comparison between Pirates and Jungle Cruise seems like modest heresy to them.
I will say that the twist caught me off-guard. For all of my ho-humming about this movie, I have to say that there was a round of applause for when Frank's back story was revealed. I mean, it is absurd. It is completely bananas and outside the realm of anything relatable to have one of the protagonist go from the everyman character to someone with a deep supernatural background. But the movie completely foreshadows it! I mean, it really almost nailed me in the head with that answer without me ever getting it. Despite the fact that I teach writing, there's always going to be a sense of imposter syndrome to me unless I become a published author. I don't know if it is good writing or a cop out to pull what Jungle Cruise did with its reveal. Jungle Cruise lays heavily into archetypes and tropes. If anything, it uses the Disney ride reputation as a cover to do something absolutely insane. Dr. Lily Houghton is the adventurer archetype, fighting the patriarchy to metaphorically and literally to gain a sense of a respect in a world that ignores self-actualized women. Frank Wolff (now realizing that this might be a play on "Wolf in sheep's clothing") is the same archetype as Bogie in The African Queen (A movie that I should be mentioning more in this blog entry).
But when Frank flips the script on the everyman trope, the movie gets a bit bizarre. And I don't hate that, but it also is this moment in the film where the story becomes almost unrelatable. This movie was never going to be my go-to film. I know that. I think this is very few people's go-to film. But what I will say is that it is a good time and with that, it should be noted that a lot of that falls on Dwayne Johnson. Johnson takes Bogie's drunken boat captain archetype and leaves that personality with him, despite the fact that he is an insanely larger-than-life character. I do feel bad for Emily Blunt's character who is just underwritten enough when standing next to an immortal river god. (Okay, that's me being flippant, but it also solidifies my point.) I really wanted this movie to be Lily Houghton's movie because her story is the one that drives the story forward. Frank almost co-opts her narrative because it is the Rock playing the part. It's an odd bummer, but it is also true.
I will give points to Disney about their portrayal of the indigenous peoples in this movie. The travel film always deals with a problematic trope, the civilized interacting with the savage. Over time, we realize that this has become the white man's justification for cruelty over the years. Jungle Cruise kind of wants to rectify this outdated story point while enjoying the benefits of the river adventure. By making these people appear to be basic while actually flouting their own savviness in the face of the white explorers, it definitely spins it on its head. But I don't know if it calls out the troubling attitudes that cause treasure plundering to begin with. On a different problematic note, the treatment of the effeminate gay man is in the film, which Disney keeps on including as a sign of being progressive. But it is an outdated trope already. It's okay to have gay characters just be people instead of being comic relief. It just feels stale. There's a moment of vulnerability, but it doesn't really sell in this situation.
Jungle Cruise is a better movie than people make it out to be. But it never is transcendent. It knows it just wants to b be a fun film, which is all it really asks to be. But sometimes, I just need a film to be more.
The Sparks Brothers (2021)
Rated R for language and innuendo, I guess. It's a long movie and I was wondering what garnered this movie the R-rating at one point. There's some references to sexual content, but this movie is a sneeze away from just being your standard PG-13 movie. I suppose there's something rock n' roll about swearing, which matches the tone of the film. But it's a very mild R.
DIRECTOR: Edgar Wright
When I worked at Thomas Video (oh no, another one of these anecdotes!), the bosses were Sparks. Okay, they weren't literally Sparks. They were Cinecyde and it was weird for me. For a guy who just consumes popular culture almost on a professional level, my knowledge of music is lacking so much more than everything else. I will watch a movie and immediately know if I like it or not on a deep level. Music, for me, is such an odd thing. I'll listen to an album over-and-over again and I might have an opinion on it after a long time. So I just stick to the same stuff without reaching out.
When Edgar Wright made a movie about the band that only the pros know about --which may be the ultimate hipster cred --I can't claim to be in the select few to claim myself as a fan. It's kind of like knowing about Cinecyde. Despite being wildly prolific, the masses just never really grabbed onto Sparks. Part of me, throughout the documentary, was ready to think that this whole documentary was an experiment and I was ready for the rug to fall out from under me to discover that this band never really existed. Heck, at one point, that was the more plausible suggestion. I couldn't believe that a band that had 25 albums out and had music videos out on MTV was as unheard of as Sparks. It didn't help that Ron and Russell state fake facts about themselves in the after credits sequence. There's just something about the notion that Edgar Wright, my favorite current director, making a movie about a band that I didn't know about and treating it far more traditionally than he treated anything in his life.
It's not like he didn't do anything with this documentary. There's little threads of personality that are sticking out of the little moments. These are the moments I glom onto. But the entire movie led me to something I thought I had buried in eighth grade. After leading an adulthood hinged on cynicism and debunking the conspiracy theory, my brain went into full on conspiracy theory mode. The Sparks Brothers is a fantastic documentary that literally carries its weight when it comes to teaching. I learned so much about the Mael Brothers and I understood what drove them to make their art. I understood the themes of passion and its tendency to imprison those who loved it. But at the end of the day, Edgar Wright --the guy who made the Baby Driver opening credits one of the best openings in cinematic history, made just another rock doc. It's better than most. But this is Scorsese's Last Waltz. While both filmmakers are once in a generation geniuses, it's odd seeing them both nerd out on music like they do.
With the Maels, I get the appeal of a documentary. They are kind of the illuminati of film. There's a secret society that worship at their feet. They are a band that dares you to like them. They don't make anything easy. Heck, they made me reconsider getting back on the Weezer train (although, to be fair, I think that Weezer is desperate to be commercially successful at all times). Just talking about Sparks is a punk rock statement, considering that the brothers were always just outside of the punk scene. I also get that Wright wanted to paint the picture of the brothers, but with the constant foundation of the film being Ron. There's something haunting about Ron as an artist. He's an eccentric. He's the Teller of the Penn and Teller act. Yet, it is almost Ron who is the drive for this band. Russell, while fully a collaborator, understands that this band's voice is Ron's weirdness. He feels like the posterchild for the the "Keep Austin Weird" movement, which has the unintended consequence of being phenomenally lonely.
And Wright, because he stays out of our way with it, successfully conveys Ron's frustration with entertainment and his weird place in the annals of history. Ron and Russell are the morality play about the importance of integrity. Everything they do stares at the comfortable and actively denies it. They want success. The film can't deny that the two want to be household names so badly. But they don't want to be household names if that means selling out in any way. They want to be household names in the same way that Jackson Pollock or Pablo Picasso are household names. That is really interesting to me from someone who will never be a celebrity. As much as I can think of Cary Grant or The Beatles, there's something very different about the troubled artist that seems more important. I'm thinking about the Sylvia Plaths and the Ernest Hemingways of the world. From what Wright presents in The Sparks Brothers, that's where the Maels will probably end up, given the right amount of attention. They know what they want and they'll continue fighting for that imagery.
I don't know if I want to go anywhere else. As a music documentary, this is one of those movies that makes me want to explore their back catalog. There's a 10% part of me that honestly believes that this band still doesn't exist. But the rest of me wants to understand them better. But there's something wildly intimidating about that. Every album, if it exists and isn't just a directorial experiment by Edgar Wright, is a different vibe. Here's me, in 2021, having to go through this insane back catalog and not only determine if I like Sparks, but which Sparks I like. That's a tall order, but it might be something that is ultimately worth it.
The Ruling Class (1972)
PG, but is it really? This is the most controversial PG I can imagine because, in England, it was rated X. Yeah. That's a big jump from PG. The thing is, it isn't deserving of either rating. Honestly, this is just a solid R. There's nudity and sex, which automatically makes it an R-rated movie in my book. But also, it's insanely blasphemous. It's trying to get a rise out of the audience. But in terms of tone and overt vulgarity, it's pretty mild. But I'm not the one doing the ratings for these movies, now am I?
DIRECTOR: Peter Medak
They're going to take my Criterion card away from me, you know that, right? I'm going to not appreciate enough works of art that someone is going to raise even more of a stink and then they won't let me watch Criterion movies anymore. My views on this movie are really an issue, too. One: I'm deeply influenced by a lifetime of Catholicism. Not all of that is rosy. Heck, I don't even know how I feel right now about it. But that is something that is fundamentally me and I can't help but look at a movie trying to get a rise out of me as somewhat childish. The other thing is that I'm not in the least bit British.
Trust me: being an Anglophile doesn't cut it. This movie is for the British. It wasn't made for me, despite the fact that I still glom onto some of the more universal themes. But I am definitely playing the spectator on British satire here. Our aristocracy is night and day different from what it means to be British upper crust in 1972. So I'm already coming from more of an appreciation-perspective rather than something that is innate to my culture. I'm giving all of these excuses for my ambivalence. It's just that this kind of stuff kind of annoys me. I don't mind criticisms of religion. I honestly don't. Considering that Mike Flanagan stuff never really affected me, his work with Midnight Mass was life-changing. (I might be the only one to ever say that, but I completely approved of it.) The Ruling Class is about hypocrisy. While, as an American, it is easy to say that this is either about religious hypocrisy or cultural hypocrisy, there's something very intimate about those two subsections of British life. Considering that the Church of England is both a political and a spiritual force, The Ruling Class is an outright attack on both.
But my complaint comes from the notion that there is no nuance to religion. It also seems pretty flippant on the whole notion of mental health. Okay, I'm really high horsing the whole thing right now because that's not the point. I have to remember that this is satire. But the movie has a really damning look at mental health services and religion. Sure, the antagonists of the film are the Gurneys, who are simply using Jack for the family name. But the concept of Jack getting better is poo-pooed throughout the film. Jack as JC is joyful. His mental health is considered whimsical and fun. Because he thinks of himself as the god of love, Jack sees the world in a way that is juxtaposed to the stodgy Gurney clan. But Jack is deeply unhealthy in many ways. He doesn't have relationships. He's under the impression that he is happy, but he's this element of chaos in everyone's lives. While the Gurneys have selfish reasons for involving mental health professionals when it comes to Jack, the actual action of getting therapist involved is a healthy one.
It's just that everyone in the world of The Ruling Class (which I suppose is the point) is awful. Even Dr. Herder, who is possibly more sympathetic than the other characters in the story, still tries to use Jack for his own professional goals. It's the scene where Jack goes against the god of electricity that Herder becomes this unlikable character. (Oddly enough, this decision to risk Jack's life is what ultimately "cures" him from Herder's perspective. I am really lost on the god of electricity showdown. The film presents an absurd premise, but one that is grounded in a set of rules. Jack clearly can't be God because he has this history that we're all aware of. He consistently fails when it comes to performing miracles. This is the world of reality, which is why Medak paints it in such a morose, blah way. But when the god of energy fights against Jack, there's literal lightning pouring out of his fingertips. I suppose that I have an answer for that based on Medak's precedent.
Jack views his miracles as successes. When Jack is given the task to levitate the table, he does so in his mind. He sees the table floating while everyone else is just left disappointed. But I don't know if this is a one-for-one thing with the god of electricity. Things in the room genuinely react to the interaction with the god of electricity. (God, I seem so petty right now.)
But I do really applaud what comes out of the emergence of the Jack persona. I read the movie as this story of the sadness that comes with sanity. When the god of love is stripped from Jack, I simply thought we'd see the overwhelming depressing elements of what reality has to offer. But instead, Jack is never actually cured of his madness. Instead, he becomes Jack the Ripper and that persona is far more interesting as a satirical vessel than the god of love. The god of love is unable to comment on the corruption of the ruling class. He is disinterested, so he has no real opinions on it besides being beneath him. But Jack the Ripper has active scorn for the aristocracy and those beneath him. When we look through the Ripper's eyes, we see his disdain for humanity and how much joy he gets from his sense of privilege that is afforded to the 14th Earl of Gurney. It's just handing Jack the Ripper that knife to gut the country. And Jack the Ripper serves to be this quintessential commentary on hypocrisy. As the ruling class talks about the poor morals of the newest generation, we see them all harbor absolutely abhorrent perspectives on things. Jack, holding onto this secret murderous rage, typifies the problem with the upper crust: they see themselves outside goodness and evil. That's where it really works.
While it is fun to see Peter O'Toole as the god of love, the movie only really picks up when JC is purged from the film in exchange for Jack the Ripper. Pun intended, but that's when the movie goes for the jugular. That's when Peter Medak really sells the message he's trying to get across. When he's commenting on the stupidity of religion, it just seems petty. But when he is looking at the people in power, there's a fear there that makes the story worth telling.
Things Heard & Seen (2021)
TV-MA. It's a horror movie, I guess. There's some pretty brutal murder at one point in the movie. It's got uncomfortable material, including adultery and predatory behavior. TV-MA might be a bit much, but TV-14 would be too little. It's a pretty tame movie for a horror movie, bordering on boring at times. There are some pretty low-key jump scares, but that's not going to change people's opinions on jump scares. TV-MA.
DIRECTORS: Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini
Oh my goodness. Yawn. Every year, I get my free pass for a horror movie. I'm not saying that I don't watch horror movies whenever I want. It's just that there's one that's tee'd up to be special. My wife will sit there while we're watching. And it seems, every Halloween, I pick something that is exceptionally dull and forgettable. Okay, last year was His House, but that was a lucky find. There are horror movies out there that I really want to watch. I swear there are. It's just that I don't feel particularly vulnerable when choosing movies that my wife will have to sit through. I think that there's this code in the back of my brain saying, "If you pick something that you know nothing about, you can't be judged for it when it sucks." And that's exactly how it played out this year.
Man, this movie did not know what it wanted to do. The result is something so anti-scary that it goes beyond boring. Again, I don't hate boring, especially if there's a payoff to that boredom. There isn't much in terms of actual story progression. Part of it is that the movie tries to do so much that it actually accomplished nothing. We just watched Maid, also a Netflix original. Maid deals with the reality of domestic abuse and toxic relationships in this amazingly nuanced way. Sean from Maid is way more despicable than George, despite committing fewer evils and having more sympathetic traits. The thing about George is that we never really have those moments where he has any level of nuance. Catherine, from moment one, is already in this sacrificial position. Her character deals with eating disorders, which instantly makes her sympathetic. She is moving to the country for the sake of her husband and we get that she is going to be ripped away from the world of art. From a tension perspective, it really works. But George never really has that descent into selfishness that someone in his position would have.
Our first view of George without Catherine is where he is trying to seduce Willis. Willis stresses how toxic George is, so there's no room for ambiguity. This is the director basically telling us that we're supposed to hate George from moment one. Yet, Willis still ends up sleeping with him. She abhors him and yet we get that moment where George becomes even more gross to us. Honestly, the movie spends so much time stressing that George is gross that by the time the big reveal about George appears, we're already hating on him pretty hard. All of the character development is spent on George. But that moment should be a shift in perspective on George. We are given all of this stuff that makes George a scumbag, but not a criminal. When his past is revealed, it would have been this much stronger moment to see that dramatic shift from heroic charismatic teacher to con man and murderer. That's the story we want to see. It's Doubt, but in a horror movie.
But I think I could forgive a lot of the George stuff if it wasn't for the really underdeveloped, almost shoehorned in ghost story. I don't know what is going on with the ghost story in this movie. The movie makes a lot of rules for ghosts in this movie. Apparently, good people can only see good ghosts. Bad people can only see bad ghosts. If this is true, why are the ghosts torturing everyone in the house? Catherine is genuinely scared by the ghost in the house, but she only sees the good ghost. But there is still the effects of the malevolent spirit? This could be a decent ghost story. I love me some haunted house stuff. But I don't really see the connection between George, the house, and the ghosts. The movie seems to want to have this Amityville Horror element or The Shining thing happen in this movie. But with those movies, the character had worked to distance themselves from a toxic past only to be corrupted by the house. Why is a malevolent spirit needed in Things Heard & Seen?
What I'm really dancing around and refusing to simplify is that there is no need for a ghost story here. There is the potential for a very interesting drama that needs to be cleaned up. But F. Murray Abraham's character really just complicates the whole thing by tying the story to mysticism and the supernatural. Fundamentally, this is a story of white male entitlement and the ghost story doesn't really serve as an effective metaphor. All it really does is try to make the movie seem complex when it is honestly quite overly simple. The bulimia is in the story not because it is a commentary on the expectations placed upon women, but just for a couple of throwaway lines. It's almost like the movie tried to make something brutally simple into this one-size-fits-all message about every problem a couple could have...plus ghosts. It's a real let down.
Rated R, for gore involving hooks and bees. It's the reason that I hadn't watched this movie until today. Hooks and bees just seem like a particular brand of horror that didn't really excite me. There's a lot of gore in this film and some really uncomfortable racial politics in this movie that probably don't hold up to scrutiny. The nudity and the language often seem gratuitous. It's a very R rated movie.
DIRECTOR: Bernard Rose
Do you know how much I want to see the new one? "You want to see it a lot" is the answer. That's what you should be saying. I mean, I'm not dying to see it, or else I would have already seen this one. But the fact that I keep seeing trailers for the new one and it seems fascinating makes me want to watch it. But I had to confess that I hadn't seen the previous entries. I figured that I should at least see the OG entry, if not parts 2 and 3, before sitting down to the remake / sequel. Well, I think that my fear of this movie might have been a little too hyped up because what other people saw as a staple of horror, I watched as an extremely messy and problematic film.
Before I dive too deep into this, I would like to say that I find most of Clive Barker to be messy and undercooked. Some of you just shut down and ignored me and you have every right to do that. Barker's obsessed with knives and carving people up does nothing for me in terms of storytelling. It's the same thing with Eli Roth, so keep this all in the front of your mind while I write this. Candyman is a lot of...that. Part of it is that I don't really understand Candyman as a character. There are so many elements to this character, but none of it is really fleshed out. Some of the elements are very clearly spelled out. His hand was cut off and replaced with a hook. At one point, he was covered in bees. That already seems like a hat on a hat, but I can see that this is all about unnecessary cruelty, so who am I to complain? But it seems initially that Candyman's motive, like many supernatural villains, is to ensure that people believe in him. Belief in Candyman gives him strength and that's what he needs to survive. But then there's another element that I'm not sure where it comes from. I'm talking about Candyman's need for Helen as a romantic figure.
The motivation for Candyman's pursuit of Helen is his love for an impregnated white woman, which resulted in the lynching. But there isn't much about that relationship. All of the origin of Candyman is condensed in a really quick exposition dump at a dinner. We don't get what Helen's attachment is to the pregnant white woman. Is Candyman simply finding substitutes through all white women? If so, um...I don't know how much he really loved that original woman. The movie has this real need to make Helen special. That's where the movie really falls apart for me. I get this vibe that the movie wouldn't have been made unless there was a white, attractive lead spearheading the movie. They wanted this to be a movie for everyone as opposed to the Black horror movie. There's a lot of consequences that kind of stem out of this idea.
Helen is a bit of a White Savior in this one, only with the notion that she comes to a bad end. She doesn't come to a bad end because she does anything wrong. She still maintains the rules of the horror movie and stays away from vice. She's only really punished for evoking Candyman's name. But in terms of virtue, the movie presents her as "one of the good ones." She visits Cabrini-Green because she has this good heart and that she shouldn't be afraid of Black people. But really, her time at Cabrini-Green is a means of exploitation. She is not there as an equal. She dresses "conservatively" and is only there to help herself to juicy content for her Master's thesis. This isn't looked negatively upon. She gets comments that what she is doing is dangerous. But it also seems like there's so much white privilege being thrown around this story that it really should be checked. Why would Anne-Marie want Helen in her apartment? If race and socio-economics was taken out of the equation, would Anne-Marie just invite a stranger into her apartment to look at her child? It's just bananas.
The message that ultimately stems out of Helen's quest for the ultimate Masters' thesis is a form of racial tourism. The Black tenants of Cabrini-Green are kind of relegated to a place of otherness. Anne-Marie has some agency, but the rest of the people in this tower are almost animalistic in their ritual phobia of their home, whether it be the eponymous Candyman or of Black-on-Black crime. Instead of showing a complicated dynamic within the tower, Black culture is once again relegated to the disadvantaged and almost the savage. Like travel narratives that treat other cultures as less civilized, the residents of Cabrini-Green are fearful of the dark. They set fires to their large piles of furniture to destroy the Candyman. Instead of having control or intelligence, they act like a force of nature. I think a lot of this comes from the fact that this is a movie made by a white director and written by a white writer. This is an imagined situation of the Black perspective. Heck, this blog is the same thing, but I also know that I don't really see a lot of progress being made in this movie. Instead, what should have been an opportunity to be one of these truly amazing pieces of Black horror becomes another reason for white America to fear Black America.
Maybe part of me is broken. I may have seen too many horror movies, but there wasn't anything that really ticked my buttons for a scary movie. Yeah, there were cool gory scenes for me. But the fact that Candyman himself was all over the place in terms of his power set confused me. The movie kept teasing the notion of Helen's sanity, but it never really pulled the trigger on that. Instead, it let the world think that she was crazy, but we always had the sense that the Candyman was real, an odd choice considering that Candyman's motive for murdering folks was to ensure that they believed in him. Why would he frame this white woman into all these murders if he wanted to take the credit for them? The film does the same thing with the baby. The movie seemed to be the first movie to brutalize a baby (not something I want to see, but I always considered it to be taboo in horror) only to backpedal. It's even more nuts considering that she was institutionalized for a month while the baby was missing. How did that baby survive? Did Candyman raise a baby for a month? Also, if his goal was to force Helen into being his unwitting servant, how does her medically induced coma help him at all?
It just seems so weak for the most part. There's so many elements and no one said "No" to any of them. Perhaps the '90s played a large part in the themes of the film, but a little bit more crafting would have done wonders for final product.
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.