TV-MA and, let's say this might be the most MPAA warning ever. Oh man, Adult Swim, you love messing with people. This is a straight up horror movie disguised as a Yule Log. That's not me speaking as a metaphor. The first two minutes, traditional yule log. Post-two minutes, bloodbath horror movie. There's lots of gore, although mostly done for comic effect. The real issue is the odd tone that it treats slavery horror tropes. There's also language and implied sexuality. Oh, and drug use. Can't forget the drug use.
DIRECTOR: Casper Kelly
I have so many thoughts. A solid portion of me is just doing backflips and wanting to recommend this to every living person. I mean, I put it on for my wife when it was just a yule log just to surprise her, but I didn't garner her attention for long enough. The other part of me is colored with disappointment. That disappointment, like most disappointment I carry, is probably a bit unfair. But I also realize that maybe Adult Swim might need to grow up a bit because it is on the verge of genius, yet is always making content for stoners and teens. Yeah, I'm mad at a network for knowing their demographic too well.
I loved "Too Many Cooks." I still recommend "Too Many Cooks" to people because it is just so bananas. Things like "Too Many Cooks" should exist in our society because there's so much content out there to appeal to our differing sensibilities. I'll never call "Too Many Cooks" dumb because it absolutely is, in-no-way, dumb. YouTube culture has innundated people with every variety of entertainment and "Too Many Cooks" is almost just a reaction to the entire YouTube landscape and I love it for it. Adult Swim Yule Log (which I might call "Yule Log" from here on out) is an extension of that same joke by the same people. For those people who don't know what I'm talking about with either one, let's give a crash course on both (or, you could just watch these things). "Too Many Cooks" was a fake opening credits sequence to a fake early '90s sitcom like Full House. Instead of ending after a minute, like most opening credit sequences do, it spirals into probably a ten minute video spoofing every kind of opening credit sequence while a running narrative of a serial killer starts taking over the story. It's extremely gory and the contrast of the killer to the wholesome sitcom opening is very funny for a certain group of people.
Adult Swim Yule Log (I can't help but type the whole thing sometimes) is meant to be a holiday yule log that one puts on their TV. Because every network has their own version (I tend to put on a BBC / Doctor Who one where a TARDIS is reflected in the bulbs from time-to-time), it's marketed simply as Adult Swim's answer to that. But after two minutes or so, a horror movie starts, initially in frame of the Yule Log. It then proceeds to be a 90-minute movie bordering between satirizing and lampooning every horror movie trope imaginable. And to a certain extent, it's genius. It's just the right level of troll for people who are in the know. I mean, if I'm using my entirely anecdotal evidence as key, people would only probably stumble upon it through word of mouth or by seeing what antics Adult Swim was up to now. I'll go even further for people who are fans of "Too Many Cooks". It's actually pretty funny at times. It plays up the absurdism that we have seen in other Adult Swim material, especially "Too Many Cooks." The serial killer from "Too Many Cooks" also makes a cameo. Okay. Fine. As trolling content, it works really well.
But here's where I harbor disappointment: This could have been next level. I'm disappointment because, basically, Adult Swim isn't marketing directly to me. Let me explain a bit. Adult Swim tends to teeter between being completely avant garde and challenging and just pure troll. The Tim & Eric style humor has pervaded the brand entirely, which is not a bad thing. Those guys pushed some envelopes and demanded that people pay attention to them and accept them. But it's been a minute. If you wanted to push the boundaries, keep doing it. Instead, there's this comfort zone that is starting to fester. I kind of get the joke already. As fun and trolly as Yule Log was, it never got me laughing audibly. On top of that, you went this far. You made a whole feature length film out of a yule log. Why not go the extra mile and treat it seriously? The real troll move is to never laugh at yourself. Treat it like a real thing instead of something meta.
And I'll tell you something annoying for free: Don't break your original premise. The movie starts off with two minutes of just a yule log. Then a cleaning lady comes by and is promptly dispatched by two killers. But all of that stays in frame. It never loses sight of the yule log. When new characters enter the AirBnB, they zoom the camera out to create a wide angle. Okay, you are being practical. There's a reason why this particular fireplace is being filmed. But even that feels like a cop out to the initial premise. But I can understand that choice, even if I didn't like it. But about halfway through the film, the choice to have a single stationary camera borderline acting like surveillance footage is abandoned and this becomes a multiple location movie. There clearly was a mission statement: to make a movie all within the frame of a yule log video and to go as bananas as possible. I don't know what executive decision was made after that point. Was it a choice by Casper Kelly, realizing his original plan was too constrictive? Was it a choice by Adult Swim / Cartoon Network to say that people would get bored within that frame? Either way, tryng to do both diminishes both options.
I want to explain my comment about the satire / lampoon element of the movie. To line up wtih Adult Swim's absurdism, this doesn't just become one horror movie. It becomes every horror movie. It becomes this commentary on horror tropes. It starts as a cabin-in-the-woods film, then it jumps to serial killer. Then slave ghost story. Then devil / imp messing with time thing. Then sentient fireplace thing. Then alien thing. Then cult thing. Okay, that's funny. But you know what it is not? Satisfying. This is where the serious eye could have done a lot. Golly, I hate me for the following comment, but we should be using Jordan Peele as our example. I know. I'm talking like every studio exec ever. But Peele was both a variety show creator and a big budget horror movie director. Both of them were funny, but they were treated dead seriously. The jokes from Peele's work came from catharsis. He would build tension and then release it in funny, well-timed spurts. This movie has an identity crisis to it that makes it very superficial all around. It's absurdity for absurdity's sake. We're supposed to have the reaction "How random" when really, any one of these things could have been a commentary on a genre that would have meant something.
The meta-horror movie is a real subgenre and there are great works within the movement itself. Everything that Peele does has a commentary within it. Cabin in the Woods is still one of those movies that knows how to comment on horror as a whole. Shaun of the Dead is still one of my favorite movies ever. It's not my favorite horror or my favorite comedy. It's one of my favorite movies. But these movies focus on one thing and they focus on it well. Listen, part of me is feeling like someone wants to argue The Cabin in the Woods. Okay. Cabin in the Woods, after all, has many villains. But what Goddard does with that movie is make all of the hordes of monsters as secondary ideas. The big bad guys are the institute underneath the cabin. It focuses on one thing and acknowledges that everything else is a distraction. These are horror movies that know what they want to say and how to say it well. I tell my students in their writing: "'More' does not equal 'better'". As fun as Yule Log is, it really runs into the problem of trying to do everything and hoping that no one questions it. That last shot? With the leaving early from work? It's there as filler. So much of the movie is filler because it isn't saying anything.
I'm uncomfortable with the flippancy of the slave stuff. Part of me loves that they call out racism in this movie, especially to an audience that may be less progressive than most. (I'm making broad generalizations, but there's an element of truth there.) But because the movie doesn't really take anything all that seriously, the slave horror movie becomes kind of something to joke about. It feels more like a commentary on wokeness in horror movies than it does an actual commentary on racism in America. It's a nuanced conversation that's probably going to be turned into a joke that doesn't land very well. I don't know. I'm White Knighting pretty hard right now, but it didn't sit right with me. Either talk about it or don't include it.
But I'm going to leave this by saying that I'm glad this exists. I just wish that it was...better? More vulnerable? Took itself a little more seriously? And again, it's not because I don't think it is because I don't want funny. I think it is more funny to take it seriously instead of winking at me the entire time.
PG-13 (even though the MPAA wouldn't invent PG-13 for a while after this movie) for kids being awful to other kids, adults being awful to kids, and child rear end nudity in a non-sexual context. There's swearing throughout, but it is so hard to understand at times, you probably miss a lot of it. I watched it with subtitles and I was still confused about what kind of swearing was happening. There's also animal cruelty off-screen.
DIRECTOR: Ken Loach
It's a British The 400 Blows, innit? Yeah. I have a completely unnecessary story attached to this one that doesn't really affect my blog. But do you know what it does do? Take up space. It also creates momentum, so myah! This was a Netflix DVD thing that I lost when we moved. I had written it off as destroyed or thrown away when my wife found it this week, nestled with the stamps. I'm pretty sure I didn't do it, but I can't ever trust me so who knows? Anyway, I had already paid for the disc, so of course I'm going to watch it. And do you know what? I love it. Yeah. I said it.
The British Kitchen Sink drama is something. It reaffirms all my biases about a certain level of working class that makes me a monster. I worked in the inner city before. I am probably someone's evil teacher (even though my core wants to be loved oh-so-much!) These are the movies that depress me in the worst ways. Listen, I tell my students I like depressing things. I don't really know why. Maybe it makes me feel deep or something. But these are the kinds of movies that make me lose hope in humanity. The movie is named Kes because the protagonist, Billy, only finds value in life while training his pet kestrel named Kes. Apparently, a kestrel is a falcon and I learned something new. But every time I watch these kitchen sink dramas, it is a reminder that the world is a terrible place. Now, these are movies. I can't establish this enough because I'm going to rant. These are not documentaries. These are stories that I need to treat as fiction. I get it. I know my own argumentative flaw. But...
...why do villages that focus on manual labor treat everyone terribly? To make the movie work, Billy Casper has to be the most abused human being imaginable. He can't just have a sad life. He has to have an extra sad life. It makes a lovely juxtaposition for when he's playing with Kes and having moments of true happiness. But everyone in this story is terrible to a certain extent. His English teacher is the least terrible other person in this story and that makes sense. He's an English teacher. English teachers pass on the message that the world is a terrible place while desperately trying to fight the battle for humanity's collective souls. But it's not like Kes introduced the notion of manual labor as social hells. Honestly, living where Billy lives depresses everything out of me and makes me give up hope for getting up tomorrow.
Originally, I was going to point to the poor for this. But I just watched L'Avventura and that was a movie about the rich treating each other like dirt. It's just a specific brand of sadism that Billy goes through in this movie. Like, I was wondering how evil Jud could get in the movie. He was so evil, I kept questioning whether or not Jud was actually Billy's brother. Even the movie teases that a bit. But I was wondering what breeds such scorn into people and a fun Wikipedia dive actually answered that question for me. Apparently, during the time that the film was set, there was this initiative to separate students based on ability. Not just by classes, which is something that still happens today in the U.S., but by actual buildings. Billy is one of those worst-of-the-worst students who has absolutely no hope. There's something really depressing about the entire nature of education in this movie. Low academic success fosters resentment towards the students who have few expectations placed upon them.
It's odd that the movie is called Kes. I know that it is semi-autobiographical. But the movie is barely about animals. Sure, there's something heartwarming about Billy's relationship with his bird. But Kes could be anything that Billy finds valuable and has interest in. The notion is that the world is going to squash any kind of healthy outlet for certain people in society. But it is more damning for what people consider a noble profession. There are a handful of jobs that I consider really noble professions. Being a teacher, I'm always going to throw that onto the list. These are jobs that self-sacrifice are part and parcel for the betterment of humanity. Doctor, lawyers, and soldiers all hit this list as well. But for all of these professions, there's the dark underbelly. Doctors have the nip-tucks. Lawyers have the ambulance-chasers. Soldiers and law-enforcers potentially scare me the most when it hits the dark side of of the profession. With teachers, there's something so pathetic about the abusive teacher. And there are stories out there. Kes isn't writing its story in a vacuum. For all of the criticism about the people who survive through manual labor, a lot of it comes from the savagery that they hear in school.
God, the PE teacher? The PE teacher alone was enough to pay attention to this movie. Honestly, and I'm really not holding back, the PE teacher is the archetype I think of immediately when it comes to sports. I'm sorry and I know that it is really isn't fair. But everything about Mr. Sugden (I think I have the right one) scans so hard for me. I don't know why the romanticization of abuse from athletes is really a thing. I keep hearing tales of abusive coaches as forms of inspriation because "they really care." The only vibe I ever got out of these kinds of people are the obsession with being winners at all costs. When Billy recounts how his teachers and peers disrespect him all the time, I just wanted to hug him really badly...and I hate the concept of physical touch for the most part. Because he's right. There are teachers out there who hate the kids who struggle. They want to yell the dumb out of them and it's heartbreaking. Watching that PE teacher foul kids left and right and take out his loss on Billy is what I think of when I hear about "passionate" coaches. AND I ACKNOWLEDGE THAT IT IS UNFAIR. I know that there are English teachers who are monsters out there as well. But Kes is a reminder that some students only have the Mr. Sugdens in life.
There isn't much cause for hope with Kes. I know I'm probably making that pretty darned clear right now. But with the death of the eponymous bird, I don't know what Billy is going to do. There's this vibe that he's going to become Jud. His final scene, he's filled with wrath, swinging the dead bird as a useless weapon against Jud. But he's tiny. He's raised in this environment that gives him a moment of hope, only to turn it around. There's this really great scene where Billy has to stand-and-deliver about his bird and he earns so much respect. (It's in this moment that the English teacher pulls his head out of his rear end and reminds himself that students are people.) From an outside perspective, we know that Billy can train another kestrel. Heck, I was waiting for him to say something to the employment agent about raising kestrels. But Billy's lack of response in that moment is his damnation. As much as the agent sucks, he does try to pry a bit of knowledge out of Billy that might have led to some kind of animal expert. But it's this complete disconnect between student and authority figure that this movie loves playing up that reminds us that Billy is incapable of seeing that decision for himself. Instead, there's this vibe that Billy is going to die because he's too small to exist in this world.
I like depressing and I liked this movie. But I don't like where this is leading me when it comes to looking at humanity. What hope is there that we're going to make it as a people. Is the only reason that I want humanity to be better is because I come from a place of privilege? Geez. It sometimes just hits too hard.
Not rated, but it is so colored by the sexuality of the conceit that I wouldn't exactly show a kid this movie. There is no live-action nudity, but there is an artist who almost exclusively does erotic nudes. Some people would watch that scene and would get taken aback. Some people probably scoff at me for bringing it up. Regardless, it's in there.
DIRECTOR: Michelangelo Antonioni
This was one of my ex-girlfriend's favorite movies. Her favorite movies. There's so much I want to say about that. Somehow, I keep on rewatching it. It's not a commentary on her. It just keeps coming back for some reason. If I had to guess, the first time was for my ex-girlfriend, who was not an ex at the time. The second time is because I got the DVD cheap. The third time was because my wife wanted to see it. The most recent time was because I got it on Blu-ray as a gift. It's a very good movie. But this is more of a commentary to say that it is your favorite movie. Okay, you are completely allowed to love this film. There's plenty here to love. But isn't it a bit like Scorsese's recent list of best films? It's a bit...much to make it a favorite movie. Also, I'm probably going to drag my ex's name through the mud a bit after watching it with new eyes this time.
I'm still on my bender of writing. I'm behind schedule. This happens. I got distracted by a long-winded discussion about The Phantom of the Opera, and then about Star Wars, and then Indiana Jones. Be aware that if this blog becomes totally incoherent, I'm writing from a perspective of exhaustion and time-crunch.
For as many times as I've seen this movie at this point, I only ever remember the beginning. In my mind, this is a 72-minute movie about people standing on rocks looking for a friend of theirs and not really caring all that much. No, this is a two-hour-and-twenty minute movie where people go all around Italy looking for a friend and only sorta caring sometimes. The movie screams sexuality coupled with selfishness. Even before characters act on their bottled passions, there is something oddly sexual about the film that I can't put my finger on. Sure, the beginning of the movie starts with Anna and Sandro rudely fornicating while Claudia waits outside. But once Anna disappears, the movie feels like it should be about finding Anna. And it never really ignores the conceit that they are looking for this awful friend of theirs. But the movie doesn't let go of this sexual tension in the air that is wildly inappropriate. It relishes in the notion that people's erotic needs shouldn't even be an option in this scenario. While not grotesque or exploitative, the film keeps planting the seed (pun not intended) that this story needs to explode in a release of emotions (pun definitely not intended).
Out of all of the times that I watched this movie, this is probably the time I liked it the most. The same happened with multiple readings of Crime and Punishment. It went from only being okay to being pretty darned good. I still can't give my ex credit for being the best movie or someone's favorite movie, but I can see the appreciation for it. Part of it comes from a duality within me when watching the movie. I hope I can explain this clearly, so bear with me. There's a really weird performance style in the movie. As much as Anna is central to these people, especially Claudia, only Claudia seems to really care that she's missing. I know that Sandro, Anna's boyfriend, says that he cares. But most of the characters read as going through the motions of the story. One part of me believes that this is just a very Italian movie. We're not going to get to the indulgant melodrama that American cinema may have a reputation for. The other half comes from Roger Ebert's commentary on the film, that people are just bored because they are so blessed by wealth and privilege.
I think it might be both. These ideas seem paradoxical, but I think it is important to remember that this movie is the most Italian movie ever made AND that Antonioni is commenting on the aloofness of the aristocracy. One thing that is rarely stated is that Anna sucks. The movie, through indirect characterization, establishes this idea. Anna seduces Sandro, knowing that Claudia is watching. She jumps off the boat, bored with people and lets them know that they aren't entertaining enough. She fakes the shark attack, leaving this girl-who-cried-wolf element to her whole disappearance. But also, this is a potentially dead lady. Not only that, you call Anna your friend. I'd like to think that I would be torn up about a missing person that disappeared on my watch. These characters, however, don't seem all that put out by it. And it's that way about everything. The way that they treat Anna's disappearance seems to be in line with the way that they treat everything. One of the women is groped by someone wanting to start an affair. She says some clever words and he stands rejected. But there's no raising of voices or outrage to something that might be interpreted as sexual assault. I'ts the way that things like this are dealt with by the upper crust.
It's only Claudia who exhibits an air of normalcy. She never gets hysterical. I don't think that Antonioni would make a movie where Claudia gets hysterical. But for all of the personal slights she receives from Anna early in the film, she doesn't seem to come from the same class as the others on the boat. She recognizes the insanity that someone she knows is potentially dead. It's what makes her journey throughout the piece something compelling to watch. As much as Claudia is the moral good of the film, the film is about her choice to throw away her morals for that ever-shifting line. Antonioni creates this massive love story for Claudia and Sandro, a love doomed by its wrongness. Most everything Antonioni does in the film is to build this relationship to greater heights only to tear it down. But it isn't really a romance. It's attraction based on how forbidden it is. For a good chunk of the film, Claudia rejects Sandro, despite how she feels in the moment. She knows it's wrong. It's why, when she finally does submit to her feelings, it's such a cathartic moment. It's the temptation being indulged. Antonioni has the two characters constantly tell each other that they love each other, stressing the romance of the entire situation.
But there's a moment where the two get comfortable with each other. Nothing from the outside really bad happens. They keep getting false leads about Anna and they keep exploring the Italian countryside. But it is when the relationship becomes less forbidden and more acceptable that the two start falling apart. It's actually less and less likely that they are going to find Anna, yet Claudia primarily worries about Anna's return as something that may tear the relationship apart. It's almost like she's trying to infuse something sinful into something that's becoming healthy. The film ends with Sandro cheating on Claudia, not with Anna as the misdirect would allow you to believe, but with Gloria. Sandro is the one who cries while gettng caught, but that's also very telling of who they are as people.Sandro's infidelity with Gloria paints the picture of a man who lives for the forbidden. Even his relationship with Anna seems like a bit of a mismatch, especially when it comes to age. It's what makes it so tragic for Claudia because she realizes that all of this was about embracing the forbidden. But Claudia has to question her own approach to the relationship as well.
Claudia doesn't cry at the end. She's horrified by seeing the two of them together. Okay. But she always kind of figured that this was an ethereal relationship. They were using each other because it was wrong. Claudia doesn't weep because, in the back of her mind, that's something that always ran there as script. Sandro's tears are just because he has no excuse. He has no retort. Nothing can save him. He's almost crying the tears of a child knowing that there's nothing that he can to do to get out of trouble. All of this scans with the relationship with the ex, by the way. Of course, I'm going to paint myself as the good guy in this version (despite the fact that my life is gangbusters now and I probably dodged a bullet with that ex). But she was in it simply because it had a finale date: graduation. I was into the relationship hard and would have jumped through hoops for it. So when I think of this as my ex's favorite film, there's a weird parallel that I can't help but see. It's a story about people who use each other and I can see how it's her favorite movie.
It's really good though. I hate that I came to that conclusion. Sure, it's really long and the point gets hammered hard at times. I also kind of don't want to live in the world of L'Avventura. It's a world where people don't mind ripping each other apart for momentary happiness. I'm the same way about rom-coms. Adultery stories never seem romantic to me so much as they are just depressing. L'Avventura implies that everyone cheats. L'Avventura and Woody Allen would really get along. I'd like to think that we're more than selfish brats waiting to find an excuse to indulge the next temptation that comes across my path. But if the world of L'Avventura is only fiction, then I suppose I can enjoy it as fiction.
The Phantom of the Opera (2004)
PG-13 mostly for a serial killer who keeps murdering artists because he's a bad dude who is oddly romanticized. Honestly, that's mostly it. Okay, you probably have to have conversations with your kids about the dangers of grooming and toxic masculinity. But if you don't, you're probably like most people who watch Phantom and love the romance of it all. There's a little blood and I guess the Phantom's face is a little gross, which shouldn't be part of an MPAA rating.
DIRECTOR: Joel Schumacher
Warning: what little quality of writing that I aspire to is going to go through the toiilet today. I have time to write today and I really don't want to write over break. So I'm going to write a whole bunch of posts today and shove them into my drafts folder. If you see me cutting corners, it's probably because I'm in marathon mode of writing today. Also, you know, I'm writing about The Phantom of the Opera, the movie adaptation of the Broadway show that I didn't necessarily love to begin with. Listen, it's my daughter's fault. She got the song for piano lessons and then really wanted to see the movie.
The oddest reaction to having seen the film version of The Phantom of the Opera is that I now really want to read the book. Most people who see a movie and say that they want to read the book are such fans of the adaptation that they want to read the source material. Not this guy. This guy wants to read the source material because I can't imagine that the original story is that bad. I do believe that this is probably one of those stories that glosses over some really problematic romance things, but I can adjust for old-timey novels. Most of the movie (which I'm not sure if it is the same length as the stage production; I'm an expert on neither) feels like a summary of a much deeper work. Okay, now, I didn't like the movie. I didn't like the story. I'll get to why I didn't soon. But something happens when you tell a story too quickly, at least complex stories.
Characterization goes out the window. If the stage production of Phantom is the only thing you know, characters come across like complete psychopaths. I'm not exaggerating. Almost none of the choices in the musical make the slightest bit of sense. I can see making sense if you let the story breathe a bit. Insane choices make sense when we get to know characters. But as of right now, characters just make banans choices. This blog is going to turn very quickly into a list and I apologize, but none of this movie makes sense. Normally, I tend to leave the greatest example for last, but I am too insensed to do that. Christine comes across as a nutbar. Yes, I'm aware that she has been groomed to be who she is by the Phantom. I completely respect that as her characterization (that the book probably did better). But Christine has grown up with the voice of the Phantom as her teacher. Cool. She follows this weird voice into the sewers. I'm not throwing stones yet. She has this big romantic song with the Phantom in the bowels of the theater. But then, she seems confused about who the Phantom is for the rest of the play? She has these over-the-top, no-subtlety love moments with Raoul and then she reloves the Phantom?
Okay, feel free to write that off as a love triangle. Here's the moment that drives me nuts. About three quarters of the way through the story, Raoul and she flee the opera when the Phantom issues his ultimatum. Okay. She visits her father's grave. There, she hears the voice of the Phantom. Okay, let's really shut our brains off and pretend thart she hasn't heard this voice for her entire life. The voice claims to be the voice of her dead father. Okay, this is a world of phantoms. Maybe ghosts exist too. But, the voice claiming to be her dead father refers to himself as the Angel of Music. You know, the same thing that the Phantom called himself. And that's where nothing makes sense. You met the guy! You know he's not your dad. Why would you think that he's your dad? This is typical for the play. People SEE the Phantom. The Phantom hangs a guy in front of everyone and it's just an accident? Moments before murdering that dude, the Phantom announced himself in the middle of a show and the owners of the theater just say "It's an accident"?
And people are thrilled by the notion of a phantom haunting this theater. What is happening? This guy murdered someone in front of everyone. He was a stagehand! What? How are we all cool with forgetting that guy's death? Sure, he looked kind of goofy, but so did the Phantom. I genuniely don't understand the logic of anyone. Even at masquerade, they are celebrating three months without incident. Part of me wants to yell that it's only been three months. The other half of me wants to yell, "Did you accept that you have a phantom problem because you are celebrating three months without a phantom incident?" Also, that hole in the floor. The hole in the floor the first time makes a lot of sense. He's this rich dude under the opera and that someone built him a Batcave underneath all of this stuff. Fine. I get that. But the first time he uses it, board it up afterwards. He uses that hole trick in the floor so many times. These are preventable moments. And not to get all Scott Evil on the story, but shoot him. Just shoot him. There's nothing that implies that he's immortal. From anyone's perspective, he's just a terrorist whose address is very well known.
Okay, you are reading that I'm exasperated. I think I have every right to be. But this all leads me to my main point: what makes this romantic? I really want to lay this out clearly. That dude is the most unromantic person ever. There's the notion that beneath someone's scars and deformation is someone beautiful. Beneath the Phantom's physical scars is someone way grosser than anyone else in the story. Yeah, he became a bad dude because of his childhood. But he is a bad dude. I'm going to play out a lot of scenarios right now and we're going to hopefully end up at the same level of frustration. The Phantom's isolation is self-driven. Okay, traumatized child finds comfort in the isolation underneath the opera house, where the music settles his soul. (Not that much, because he regularly murders folk.) Imagine Christine returns his love, which the story plays with regularly. That means we have a guy in desperate need of mental help using someone who is groomed be the perfect mate, who is significantly younger and has been traumatized into his sadism.
Alternatively, Madame Giry is the Phantom's contemporary. She is the one who frees him from his torture. She is the one unbothered by his horrible scarring. She recognizes his personhood and they come from the same place. Why aren't you pursuing Madame Giry while she was still Mademoiselle Insert-Maiden-Name-Here? The only person you would have killed is your slaver. That actually would be really healthy instead of preying on this little girl who lost her father and you groomed into becoming dependent on you. There's a romantic story in this play that is completely snubbed. And maybe, AND MAYBE, in the book, we found out that Madame Giry rejected him. I doubt that because Christine regularly states that she loves Raoul and he still stalks her. I'm sure that he would stalk Madame Giry if she rejected him. Also, the whole ignoring of Madame Giry takes away what little sympathy that the Phantom's garnered. His personality is entirely based on the notion that people would find his visage abhorrent to them, yet there's someone who clearly doesn't look at you that way. But she's not good enough?
All this leads to my frustration that this play isn't romantic in the least. I don't think that there's much wrong in the film adaptation (as far as I can tell from my little comparison). Some of the songs are bops. Electric piano is a bit dated. I'm super impressed by the singing in this. I used to rail that musicals were all spectacle and no substance. I've since changed my mind. They often have spectacle as a grounding element for entertainment with larger depth. But The Phantom of the Opera is so much spectacle and so little substance that it drives me up the wall. I was using Phantom as my Exhibit A for the prosecution in those days. And because so much of Phantom is spectacle, some of it doesn't land when it comes to film. We expect to be bedazzled with cinema, which can do anything it wants visually. (On a similar note, I didn't see Avatar: The Way of Water this weekend.) If anything, Phantom should only been seen live for the appreciation of real world special effects. I don't think Schumacher did anything wrong outside of agreeing to make a movie based on a play that has limited appeal live.
Rated R for being overall pretty darned disturbing. It's got a lot of language, but the real stuff comes from how mundane it makes over-the-top gore feel. Glorifying gore is somehow less than this. There's a lot of dead bodies or people dying. There's also some sex stuff that happens off screen. This is one of those movies that's just really upsetting. Doesn't mean you shouldn't watch it. R.
DIRECTOR: Dan Gilroy
I refuse to believe this is a movie from the same guy who brought me Kong: Skull Island. Maybe my memory is short and I'm subjected to recency bias, but Nightcrawler might be the best movie I've seen this year. This is exciting for me on a personal level, because I finally might share an opinion with someone I disagree on every movie with. Either that, or he hated it and I'm misremembering him losing his mind on this movie. I'm going to go with the former and assume that he loved it because this is honestly going to be a career highlight for anyone involved in this movie.
Very, very rarely do I want to rewatch a movie almost immediately after finishing this. I mean, I'm probably not going to rewatch it any time soon. But I so desperately want my wife to watch this movie (and to like it!) that I would consider sitting through it again tonight. If nothing else, I'm overhyping a movie and that's going to bring a bunch of people down on me. I'm going to go further and say that it is going to make this movie hard to write about. I don't know. Maybe not. After all, the recent viewing of Scream gave me plenty to talk about. Let's see how this thing pans out.
My gut knows what Nightcrawler is trying to say. Absolutely, it's mostly in my emotions. My logic center is trying to work out a lot of stuff, though. Part of my (good) frustration comes from the fact that Lou is such a sociopath. Before I go too far, Jake Gyllenhaal makes this movie. It's such a good performance by him and the entire thing is just compelling as can be. I don't want to go too far without making that abundantly clear. Gyllenhaal is masterful in this performance. But back to Lou, not Gyllenhaal. Lou being the way he is --from what I understand: a sociopath --challenges me so much to find the theme of the film. Gilroy is pointing his satire at the world of local news. Over the course of this, I hope to come down on a side if this is a commentary on local news or journalism in general, so please be patient. But considering that so much of this is aimed at the power of character, Lou makes things confusing. That's a fair assessment (of my own writing!), because Lou confuses people around him.
Everything that Lou does fits into my understanding of sociopathy. His fundamental trait is his ability to manipulate people for his own gain. He feels no empathy for those he manipulates. There's something wonderfully appropriate about the way that he treats other people in his life. He treats the secondary characters like they are secondary characters. I would say that Lou has no arc, but he does in a really disturbing way. Much of the film is building a house of cards. Lou continues to imposter syndrome his way to the top and we keep waiting for him to go too far and get caught. And, because he does get caught, but without any consequences, that's what makes the movie interesting. Everything that Lou does is criminal. Maybe "criminal" isn't the right word because he keeps getting away with stuff. But it is heinous. Actually, throw "criminal" back on the pile. It is criminal. But the film almost becomes about how criminality is necessary for a culture to go on.
Both Nina and Detective Frontieri (both women, but I can't unpack that just yet) are aware of who Lou really is. Nina sees him as this necessary evil. Nina, wading through moral ambiguity from the word "go", needs someone like Lou, a sociopath who can do what people with moral scruples can't. He gets these extremely personal shots of people at their lowest point. Nina takes these videos from him, knowing that they are borderline Faces of Death videos because they let her keep her job and because she's the underdog. She plays the game throughout because that's what the culture expects her to do. It's odd to think that there's such a thing as a local news sweeps week. After all, news is supposed to be a reflection of reality. There are busy weeks and their are slow weeks. But even more than all of that, news is supposed to be more than gore and crime tragedy. Okay, keep all of that in mind. But what might be even more tragic is Fontieri's relationship with Lou. Fontieri reads the cards pretty clearly on Lou. From meeting him, she knows what his real deal is. She knows that he's a sociopath that will do anything to get ahead. She arrests him for the footage that leads to the death of cops, but knows that there isn't much consequence for a video jockey who provides the news. There's all those moral grey areas that she keeps playing with, like knowing that his tip did lead to the arrest of drug dealer murderers. The fact that Lou is able to expand his business after all of that is almost a commentary about how the law has to turn a blind eye to guys like Lou.
But the real satire is that of local news. I said I wasn't sure if I was going to turn this into a commentary on journalism. I kind of am because local news is run by nationwide corporations. Watch John Oliver's thing on it. It's fascinating. Anyway, Lou is the weirdest guy in the movie, but Lou is also a sponge or a mirror for those around him. Joe Loder, the other late night news hound, is Lou's inspiration. Lou, a guy who bums around citing business success classes, sees this guy leading this high adrenaline junkie lifestyle, models himself after Joe. Joe is a monster in his own right. We only empathize with Joe because Lou is grosser in juxtaposition to him. Joe would be the villain of any other piece. But the system is made for guys like Lou and Joe.
I'm having one of those moments where my personal beliefs are coming into conflict with the message of the movie, that I also agree with, synthesizing a new opinion. Since 2016, I have been on the side of journalists. I'm not talking about Fox News journalists. Me explaining exactly who I'm with would be a book all by itself, so let's leave it at that. Journalism exists to expose truths, things that people need to know. People who don't follow the news or politics are doing the world a disservice because people's lives are affected by ignorance. With the rise of Donald Trump, we saw some journalists come out swinging, refusing to allow this man to bully the truth out of them. It was a Woodward and Bernstein thing. Well, at least a Woodward thing because he wrote Rage. But as much as I respected journalists during Trump and beyond, I have to come to a concession that Nightcrawler solidified. As much as there were great journalists who were working to stop his tyrannical powers from spreading, Trump also wouldn't be in power if it wasn't for ratings and giving Trump as much airtime as he could possibly want. SNL, the same criticism goes to you. You can say these things are horrible all you want, but you are partially the reason that they exist.
As much as I give some responsibility to Frontieri, I'm also looking at the journalists who aren't Nina. Nina is pretty corrupt from moment one. But the other people in that newsroom vocalize their real problems with Lou's footage. And yet, it still goes forward. It's kind of the same thing that happens in Bombshell. You can vocalize your abhorrence all day long, but at a certain point you are part of the problem. Sure, what I'm taking away from this movie is the performance by Jake Gyllenhaal and Riz Ahmed (I have nothing to really say about him, but he's amazing). But if you wanted to throw the dark side of journalism under the bus, this is the movie that does it. And it stars real news anchors? I looked up one of the news anchors, who kept their real names for the movie. It's so fascinating that they are fundamentally playing themselves, but lambasting the very thing that made them who they are. It's really interesting.
Honestly, Nightcrawler hits so hard. It's one of those films like There Will Be Blood where I keep going back to it every few years just to relook at it. It hits. Hard.
Not rated, but it features clips from movies that are quite R-rated. I'm often talking about nudity in these cases. I normally don't flag politics in a movie because movies should be political. But Varda talks quite about the politics that affect her choices. You know, in case an elderly family member who is cool with nudity, but not apposing viewpoints walks into the room. Not rated.
DIRECTOR: Agnes Varda
What a place to start. Yeah, I bought the Agnes Varda Criterion box set. It's just so impressive and I apparently need to watch these giant box sets sometime. I don't know what's wrong with me either. It doesn't change the fact that I genuinely having them. They're just so pretty and I know that I love Agnes Varda. Okay, I kind of love Agnes Varda.
I fell in love with Varda while studying the French New Wave. For those not in the know, there were two camps in the French New Wave: those who came out of the Cahier du Cinema and the ones who didn't. Varda falls into the latter. But I watched the first Varda box set (which I suppose has now become obsolete shy of amazing packaging). Cleo from 5 to 7 and Vagabond both blew my mind. Varda stood out as an absolute genius to me. But because I won't be able to watch everything and I refuse to exclusively watch Criterion films a' la Scorsese, I didn't watch anything outside of the smaller Varda box until Visages / villages, and that was only because it was up for an Academy Award for documentary. Visages bugged me. It really did. I mean, in terms of visual art, it really works and it is kind of cute. But Old Lady Varda was a very different filmmaker to me. My completely unfair takeaway was an artist fighting with her youth. She knew that Agnes Varda of old was this revolutionary filmmaker who, at the right time and place, absolutely delivered on what society and the art world needed. This Varda desperately wanted to be her and it wasn't the same.
Varda by Agnes is the film immediately following that piece. When I say "film", I found out that it was a two-part limited series, which almost meant that I didn't have to write about it. It has a lot of the vibes of Visages / villages, which is a bummer. But there's something really respectable about Varda by Agnes. I can't deny that Varda, young or old, is an artist. Sure, she directed it herself, which goes into a lot of my criticism of Visages / villages. But there's something so twee and fun about Old Lady Varda making her own monument because no one else would do it for her. Maybe they would. But there's a motif about the role of aging in art. There's something nice about this whole thing being autobiographical. We get her thought process all the way through the film. In the course of watching this spliced together limited series (which is why I'm justifying writing about this), there's the notion that people don't want to listen to the elderly. They acknowledge that Varda has been this heavy hitter of cinema. But all it takes is something that isn't widely accepted and these artists become forgotten. Varda, the person, isn't ever ready to be forgotten. As much nonsense as I'm giving her, she's the person who stayed alive and kept the dream alive of making art. Even more so, so wanted to make art for art's sake.
I'm kind of the bad guy for wanting more of Varda's early stuff. The first half of the series is a retrospective of Varda's formal cinema. It's almost a clip show with mini-commentaries attached to these clips. And the weird thing, it's Varda who is pushing the narrative. I originally thought that this was going to simply be a rundown of her theatrical releases and two second takeaways. There's a few problems with this for me, mainly because it is the first film in the Agnes Varda box set. Part of me watched it as a trailer for all of the movies that I would be encountering in the movie, which makes sense why Criterion put this movie first. But on the other hand, it was stopping me from analyzing these films from my own perspective. It wasn't letting the movies speak for themselves. The author of these movies was telling me what the central themes and ideas were and who am I to argue with the artist? (The audience, that's who.) But then the second half of the movie showed up. This is the stuff that I thought that I was going to hate, because it is mostly Old Lady Varda. (I already went into my misguided thoughts on this era of Varda.)
What I discovered in this second half --now I know that it was its own episode -- was that I was able to see things that I would never be able to see anyways. As much as Varda is known for her directing, she is a visual and performance artist as well. Listen, the completionist in me jumps for joy at seeing these kinds of things. The second half of the movie were all of her museum and art instillations. These are things that I would never have the opportunity to see because they were, by nature, ephemeral. And it's in that appreciation of art that I realized that Varda was not one thing. I was the one putting her in this cinema box that she probably would not have appreciated. Yeah, I think she had a hard time defining herself given that time has passed. But I'm the one who is placing this idea that she has to be able to define herself in a void. Because I only saw snippets of these art instillations, I can't say that I took too many of them to heart. It was through a glass darkly and all that. But worse-comes-to-worst, she is a woman who is redefining herself with each art piece. Why do we have to be more successful than our previous works? Some of these works were impressive. Some of them less so. Who cares? She made them and that's all that matters.
The weirdest part of this movie is the notion that Agnes Varda would die soon after the release of this movie. It's a final piece that acknowledges that it is going to be the final piece. It reminds me of Shakespeare and The Tempest. There's something very final about The Tempest being his last work. Varda is not only saying goodbye to her audience (which might even be a stretch in itself), but she's saying goodbye to a lifetime of work. Her life is defined by her work. Her peers had either died long ago or stopped creating beyond a certain point. Instead, Varda is this lady who hung on and said that the good times didn't have to end. She was in her 90s, I think. She knew that there was a series of diminishing returns and she wanted to have everything in one place. She wanted you to come at this work as a doorway to a much wider world of cinema. As a movie in itself, it may be lacking. But it is also so perfect as a last movie that I couldn't imagine doing anything different with it.
PG-13, but it feels dirtier than it is. Honestly, if my kids wanted to watch it, I could probably watch it with them and be fine. There's some really mild language throughout. The most uncomfortable stuff has to do with death and a potential suicide. It's more thematic than it is anything outright offensive. There's a joke about a one-night stand that becomes a bit of a running gag.
DIRECTOR: Sean Anders
I was going to write this yesterday. I really wanted to. Okay, by "really wanted to", it was my plan. But the Internet was crap, so I let this one get mothballed to today. But it also was one of the things that caused me to give up exercise. It's funny how thought processes work. But I do want to write about Spirited. I'm a sucker for "A Christmas Carol." I talk about it with my students every year. I use it as an example of a perfectly formulated story. If you had to distill what makes me emotional at Christmas, it's the themes of "A Christmas Carol." I'm going to be honest, I didn't get the feels with Spirited. Perhaps it is because it didn't allow itself to get as vulnerable as other movies, but I still think that the movie is brilliant.
I think "A Christmas Carol" is one of the most adapted stories ever done, maybe second to Sherlock Holmes. I read that somewhere. Google it. Prove me wrong. But with so many adaptations of "A Christmas Carol", it's smart to do something else with it. Scrooged has been and probably always will be my favorite Christmas movie because it blends the old with enough of the new to create something really genius. Spirited is an even bigger departure from the original work, so I almost want to treat it as its own thing. This sounds insulting, but it almost feels like fan fiction or expanded universe. I say it isn't an insult because the very nature of its existence is something that is done for fans of the original story. For the most part, "A Christmas Carol" is a litmus test for cultural literacy. Like I stated, I use "A Christmas Carol" a lot in my class and every so often, someone doesn't know what I'm talking about. I'm not judging them. But Spirited not only requires you to know "A Christmas Carol", it requires you to analyze the heck out of it.
The funny thing is, I'm not sure if the movie is smart or dumb about it. At the end of the day, it is a Will Ferrell / Ryan Reynolds movie. I'm not saying that those guys are exclusively starring in dumb things. I'm saying that there is almost a subgenre involving these guys. And I will say that Spirited falls into this category. It has the vibe of The Other Guys. These are the movies that we have wildly broad archetypes, but there's something to say in the movie. With Spirited, I'm almost picking apart what the movie is actually trying to say. Part of me is intrigued by the almost moral good that Clint believes in. (Trust me, I will rip into Clint in a minute.) I like how broadly un-Scrooge that Clint is. They are still the same archetype. They are fundamentally selfish. They leave a wake of destruction behind them because of their own selfish needs. But Clint isn't necessarily hateful like Scrooge. (Note: I dig that Ferrell is a reformed Scrooge as a ghost. It helps the story a lot. Also, my wife called it in Moment One.)
Clint, when he talks about people not changing, isn't denial completely for his own sake. He's not trying to convince himself that people don't change. His stubbornness is almost a ministry to Present / Scrooge (from hereon, I will be referring to exclusively as Scrooge because why not?). Clint sees himself as put together. He sees the world as a broken place comprised of broken people who will continue to destroy humanity, based on his impact or not. Scrooge doesn't see him that way, and uses the metaphor of ripples to describe how much influence that Clint has over humanity. But Clint's major motivation is pity. As much as Scrooge is ministering to Clint to be a force for good to humanity, Clint isn't doing a completely opposite battle. It's not like Clint wants Scrooge to be a bad person. But he does want to let Scrooge know that he can't fix certain people. After all, there is something therapeutic about letting people go.
And that's where I'm at. To a certain extent, they are both right. It is our role to step in and fight evil when we see it. But sometimes, coming at people full force is mentally scarring for us. The genius part of Spirited is that it doesn't make Clint Scrooge. "The Christmas Carol" Scrooge is a caricature. It is so easy to hate Scrooge because he's borderline unrealistic in his grumpiness. Okay, I know people like Scrooge really exist. But Dickens uses Scrooge to represent a notion rather than a person. Clint I find to be way more evil than Dickens's Scrooge. Clint is a real dude. He's genuinely why things are so terrible right now. His entire business, for as charming as he is, is to spread disinformation and spark discord between people for private gain. And that is a force of nature. For all of Scrooge's talk about ripples, Clint may be too big. He might be a societal problem. There's a fun irony there. Dickens wrote Scrooge to be representative of personality, yet it is believable that he can be changed. Clint is written to be painfully human, yet it is almost unbelievable that he could change because humans might be more damaging to society than general grumpiness. It's interesting.
Can we talk about my favorite moment? It's extremely superficial, the more I think about it, but I love it so darned much. I love that the movie is very cool with not giving us the happiest ending. Clint dies. He straight up dies. No takebacks (kind of). His big moment is that he sacrifices his life for another person, which shows that he can think of someone beyond himself. Now, time stops right before that moment and we get this sweet and touching dance number proving that Clint is capable of wonderful things. But then time starts again? The bus hits Clint and there's a line that makes it all worth it: "Sacrifice needs consequences". I'm paraphrasing because I'm not going to cue up the movie to find the exact line. Yeah, it wouldn't be a sacrifice if there was a get-out-of-jail-free card. Having Clint get out of that would have diminished what he did for Scrooge. I know, we probably wouldn't have noticed if Clint got a free pass, but man that hit me hard. I know. Superficial, but I really dug that the movie had the guts to do it. Sure, he comes back as the new Ghost of Christmas Present. But I don't even care. Christmas needs to have dark storytelling from time to time. It's why I hate Hallmark Christmas movies so much.
Yeah, I should probably write more. I had stuff to talk about, but then got distracted. Can we give so many kudos to Octavia Spencer? Man, her scenes. I get that this is a goofy musical comedy. And everyone does a good job with the music. But Octavia Spencer's songs in this just imbue the film with a sense of legitimacy. There's something a little silly with everyone else's songs in the movie, but Kimberly's songs are vulnerable as heck. I'm assuming that she's singing, but her songs are amazingly done. And tying them to the key themes of the story --drawing a line? --so good. She might be my favorite part of the movie and she rarely has a joke. No, everything about her character works. I had no idea that she would have such good chemistry with Will Ferrell. But her stuff is the best meet-cutey stuff that I've seen in a Christmas movie in a long time.
I don't know. The movie is good. Is it amazing? This was going to be flimsy wrap up paragraph, but I feel like I have to answer this. It's really funny, really cute, and has some great ideas coupled with decent singing and dancing. But is there something muddy about it too? Yeah, I can't deny that there's a bit of a mess lying in here. It's almost trying to do too much, which I don't really fault it for. Without the complexity, this movie wouldn't be at all memorable. But it also is messy and I can't ignore that. So is it amazing? Probably not. But I also applaud that it aims for something higher, even if it kind of misses.
Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989)
Rated PG for terrifying me as a child and having some smoking. Listen, I was shamed last night while watching this with my family for thinking it was too scary for our children. They seem find after having seen it, including my two-year-old. It's a lot of peril and bugs up close look pretty gross. Honestly, even the oatmeal cookie looks a little gross close up when they break off crumbs. Still, PG.
DIRECTOR: Joe Johnston
Man, Joe Johnston had a much bigger career than I ever gave him credit for. Anyway, we watched Willow a few nights ago. When the movie ended, Disney+ in all of its gracious glory, recommended similar films. My wife lost it. We kept clicking the recommendations to see what else would be suggested afterwards. Yeah, that got out of control. But my wife seriously got into the notion of watching the first Honey, I Shrunk the Kids movie. Now, my wife was a quasi-expert coming to life while Willow was going on. I was far more wired to be into Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. It's that sci-fi v. fantasy preference, I guess.
I didn't watch it as closely as I would have liked to. Our dishwasher is on its last legs, so I was handwashing too many dishes at the time. But I realized that if I didn't write about this one because I didn't watch it AS closely as I would have liked, it would have felt like a cop out because I could hear everything; I was listening to everything; I watched most of it. Yeah, that counts. If I miss a beat from a movie that I had seen many times many years ago, I'll take the mulligan on that one. It's weird watching a movie that you used to watch as a kid as an adult. Now, this is a film from 1989, so I have to give the points to Honey, I Shrunk the Kids on this one. But is Honey I Shrunk the Kids just Jurassic Park with less to say. That sounds like I'm really slagging it off, but bear with me.
I realize that the kids-in-peril subgenre is a thing. But it's really condensed and juiced here harder than I have seen in a long time. The kids didn't ask for this to happen to them, which makes them the more likable. It's why they can only be tortured so much and that they all have to survive, unlike poor Antie. Okay, maybe Ron can be blamed. But this is one of those movies that wanted to really push the limits at times, but kept reminding itself that it was a Disney property in the late '80s. The saddest you were allowed to get was killing the ant who came to the kids' rescue. That's something, I suppose. But in terms of storytelling, it's an excuse to show off set pieces. Again, this sounds like an insult (and to a certain extent it is). But if the purpose was to show off set pieces, this is a movie that does that. Sure, the proportions are all over the place. For example, that T-Rex toy had to be tinier than a blade of grass to exist in this film. But this was a movie that reveled in the details. The grass wasn't just a waxy surface. It had strands.
As much as I love Joe Johnston for making a movie this fun, I want to give more props to the set designers. (I almost said "props to the propmasters" before realizing I'm barely above that.) There was this push to add real world conditions to everything. It's stupid things, but it made me just appreciate the notion that Disney tends to pull out the stops. In the final minutes of the movie, once the kids are found, they're being transported around on a spoon. That spoon has natural scratches on it. It's something that we don't see unless you are really looking. That is consistent throughout the movie. The table, which look like a solid colored table, is actually a composite of dots that create an effect. When we see the table from the kids perspective, we see all of the small colors that make up what we perceive as a single color. That stuff is great. So part of me is now stuck in an assessment of judging a work as spectacle. Honey I Shrunk the Kids, like the original Avatar movie (the blue people movie), is a movie of spectacle. Okay, that sounds like I really hate it. It's more of a movie of spectacle and charm.
I mean, it's not hilarious. It is funny, but it isn't hilarious. But it is charming. What Honey, I Shrunk the Kids does is combine a bunch of archetypes that we are very comfortable with and have them all interact. I used to write this all the time on the blog, but it is the best version of paint-by-numbers. We have the nerdy dad played by Rick Moranis. I mean, how much more on the nose can you get? Then you put a kid in the same pair of glasses and you have Rick Moranis, Jr. You have a hot girl coupled with the rebel and a school bully paired up with the nerd. If you were to watch this movie for any kind of depth, there's going to be something lacking. I never really got on board The Breakfast Club train. I know. It's a bit of blasphemy that I saw it once and decided it wasn't for me. But both these movies allow their archetypes to do all the talking for them. No one in this movie really needs to do any acting outside of what their archetype mandates. (Geez, it sounds like I really hate this movie.) Yet, there's something charming about the whole thing.
It probably comes from a superficial emotional core. There's a version of this script (at least, I imagine so!) that doesn't have a fight between Wayne and Diane. The movie starts off with Wayne and Diane in crisis. At least, that's what we're told secondhand. Amy is talking to a friend about how her mom had to stay at Grandma's that night because of a big fight. Amy doesn't seem all that bothered by it, which is at least an interesting choice because the movie will make a meal of that later. But every time we see Wayne and Diane, they seem absolutely loving of one another. I get that the two are in a bit of a slump, but I don't get the divorce angle. My guesses about why Wayne and Diane are in a slump? I imagine that it adds a level of emotional depth that the movie is sorely lacking coupled with a plausible reason for Wayne to smash the machine. The machine needed to be smashed because Act III is underdeveloped. There's something anticlimactic about returning the kids to the regular size. The machine needed to be broken and repaired to have Wayne to have some business.
The movie knows that the most marketable name to this movie is Rick Moranis, right? It's most billable actor is on the poster and he has very little business in this movie. It's fun to see him on the dolly looking for his kids. But his life isn't in danger. He's John Hammond sitting in the visitor's center hoping to get his grandkids back. (Yeah, I can't unsee the Jurassic Park comparison that will come in a few years.) So the machine is smashed to make him a better husband and to have emotional stakes for returning to the home. I'm surprised that they didn't try the old "I'm staying tiny" game, which wouldn't have made much sense, but I can see being the old switcheroo. Anyway, that's why Wayne and Diane are fighting: to give the movie some meat and to pad out an underfed third act. (I can't read "underfed" ever. It always looks like "un-derfed" to me.)
Anyway, I enjoyed the movie, but it doesn't have much to say. Sure, kids and parents realize that they need each other. But the lessons learned are pretty superficial. Trauma brings these two neighbors together and gets kids to talk to their parents. But it's just meant to be a fun movie. And it is...I guess.
PG --and if you listen to the Disney+ reason for it, that's probably an inaccurate description of why. Disney+ says the PG is for some depictions of tobacco use. Okay, also, there is some straight up violence and scary parts to this movie. The troll's transformation alone is some Cronenberg level nonsense. There's a lot of questionable themes that may not have survived the test of time as well, but I'll talk about that later. Regardless, PG.
DIRECTOR: Ron Howard
It's December. I have to get this out because, even though I'm alone in a room right now, I gotta get this elephant out of here. It's December and I'm blue. Why is melancholy so much harder to handle around the holidays? When bad things happen, I can shake it off to a reasonable extent? Have the holidays created a sense that I expect people to be nicer? I'm saying all of this because I was surprised by how much I like Willow, but I don't know if I have the emotional honesty to convey that in my writing right now. Sure, this paragraph is dramatic. But you know what's the best thing about this paragraph? No one will read it.
I think my dad hated Willow. 1988 was a weird time for fantasy films. Willow may have been the death knell in the whole practical effects fantasy boom that included movies like Labyrinth, Legend, and Conan the Barbarian. The reason that I think my dad may have hated this movie is that I barely remember this film. I mean, I definitely saw it as a child. When I say "definitely", I mean "90% sure" because memory is fickle and I don't want to stand by anything. Maybe it was me who didn't like the movie and my dad who was of the mindset that I am now that watching something new goes a long way. Now, I'm not going to say that Willow is a perfect movie. It's far from that. Heck, as much as I enjoyed it, I mostly just watched it to prep for the new Disney+ show that I hear good things about. But I'm of the opinion that the world wasn't really ready for Willow yet, despite the fact that we had those other movies that I mentioned. There might have been fantasy-fatigue or simply a closemindedness to accepting a big-budget film led by a man with dwarfism. I don't know if you know this, but the 1980s were not particularly kind to anyone.
I am going to play devil's advocate for my dad. (Probably not the best term to be using for someone who is dead, but it's there now and Lord knows I'm not going to backspace if I don't have to.) The movie starts off in my least favorite way, a title crawl. I know that Lucas did it in his other tiny film, Star Wars. Now that I think about it, most fantasy requires a SparkNotes guide to the world. But there is a lot of heavy lifting that those title cards are doing. The entire background of a prophesy is happening in that section, not to mention that we have to discuss how much we should hate Queen Bavmorda. It's one of those scenarios where we are told what to believe, but not why we should believe it. Now, once the movie gets started, Howard gets the audience to hate Bavmorda as much as title cards tell us that we should hate her. But that's almost because Bavmorda is entirely built around well-worn archetypes and tropes. I can't imagine my dad (whom I've put a lot of responsibility on in this blog) wanting more of this movie that he already dislikes. But in terms of the title cards reflecting problems with the film as a whole, he might have a point there.
Willow, as a whole, might be a four-hour film stuffed into a two-hour movie. Now, we're used to the four-hour epic fantasy. Each Lord of the Rings extended edition runs about that long. Even those movies have a prologue explaining a lot AND they are beasts of films. But there might be something in saying that these films are ahead of their times. There's two things that really stand out from Willow being one of those all-time-great classics: time and money. The two are linked. It's not that Willow is cheap. But a lot of Willow is going to the special effects budget and not a lot goes into the mise-en-scene. I'm going to use another cheap-looking, but honestly pretty great fantasy films: Army of Darkness. 1988 didn't have the hindsight to look back on The Lord of the Rings films as examples of what fantasy could be. Instead, there was this obsession with fantasy films being places that had a lot of dirty old rocks and everything was designed in either silver or black. Honestly, both Willow and Army of Darkness have the same visual look to them. If you showed me a still of any scene that didn't have a major character or set piece, I probably couldn't tell the difference between the two. Okay, I'd probably recognize Army of Darkness because I'm sure I'd just see Ted Raimi hanging around that set. But you should understand my point.
I will say that two hours serves the eponymous character of Willow pretty well. Throughout those two hours, we see a strong character arc of a man who doesn't want to leave his family, but acknowledges the moral good of a situation. When forced to confront his scruples, he discovers that his is more willing to sacrifice for others, regardless of the consequences to himself. He is fallible, lacking confidence in the greatness that few see in him. Instead, he listens to the world and their opinions of him until he examines himself more closely. Nah, Willow is a fully fleshed out character. It's just that...other characters aren't. To a certain extent, Madmartigan is a bit more defined than other characters. We know his arc. It wasn't surprising to know that George Lucas wrote this because Madmartigan is a bit too much Han Solo at times. But we meet Madmartigan while he's already in a cage. The cage is too much shorthand for me. We get that he's a scoundrel, but there isn't much more to pick up beyond that. It's almost that he becomes something greater than himself because he meets a baby. Okay. That's fine. But the thing about Han Solo is that we see Solo make choices before he meets Luke. (There's a lot of genius that is accidental in the first Star Wars film, by the way.) Yeah, he's great by the end, but in almost the same way that Anakin just becomes evil by the end.
But now we have to talk about Sorsha. And this is where the movie genuinely has problems for me. Sorsha is woefully underwritten and might be one of the worst written women characters in fiction. Willow isn't a small movie. This is not something that Mystery Science Theater would be quick to spoof, despite the fantasy themes. Sorsha starts off as a villain. In fact, for a good chunk of the movie, she is THE villain of the piece. Sure, Kael is there. But as Pat Roach is wont to play, he's the silent villain. He's the Jaws of the movie. I'm talking about the Richard Kiel Jaws, not the rubber shark. Since I keep coming back to The Lord of the Rings well, I mind as well continue making the same comparison. If Bavmorda is Sauron, Sorsha is the Saruman of the film. Willow, Madmardigan, and the baby whose-name-starts-with-an-E (sad December. Not looking it up.) aren't runnign away from Bavmorda because she's sitting comfortably in her very uncomfortable castle. Sorsha is the threat of the movie.
It's 1988 and I have to forgive a lot. But 2022 Tim sees love potions and rolls his eyes. Now, it would be pretty bad if Sorsha becomes a good guy because she had a love spell put on her. What is almost worse is that she becomes a good guy because someone else has a love spell put on them. Madmartigan, through wackiness, is overwhelmed by a love potion that makes him fall in love with the first woman that he sees (thank God, of age. For a second I thought it was going to be the baby). He says all of these kind words to Sorsha, again the villain who wants to kill them all. She's confused by his kind words, but a kind of confused that makes her question her entire way of life. Now, because the story needs to progress, Madmartigan reads that he's about to be captured and destroys Sorsha's tent. I don't know how he had the presence of mind to do that considering that this love potion makes him act like an idiot in every other way. Later in the film, Madmartigan has captured Sorsha. The love potion has worn off so hard that he didn't even remember what he said while under the influence of the love potion.
And that's when she falls in love with him? There's some odd Stockholm Syndrome going on there. She has a few kind words and then he goes back to being abusive to her? Now, we're on Team Madmartigan because he's one of the heroes and doesn't want to kill a prophesy baby that will bring the world out of darkness. Okay. But from Sorsha's perspective, she sees this baby as a threat to humanity. Yeah, change your perspective because you don't want to kill a baby. I can get that. But changing your mind because this guy said a few romantic words to you once? That is some underwriting of a character. The thing is, I highly doubt that an imaginary four-hour cut of the film would fix this character trait in a reasonably way. It seems like the love potion was something that was probably considered hilarious at the time that absolutely doesn't hold up under scrutiny.
But the big takeaway about Willow is that it holds up way more than it has any right to. Yeah, the special effects are a bit dated for 2022. But if you are a fan of detailed practical effects, this movie has them in spades. The humor is mostly pretty good. Sure, there's a lot of corniness happening, especially Madmartigan in a dress. But even if you are just watching the movie for a cute baby who somehow must have been filmed 24 hours a day to find the best facial expressions, that's worth it. It's so much better than I remember it being.
Rated R because it really wanted to be R, not PG-13. I know. PG-13 movies make more money. But PG-13 horror movies often seem to be relegated into the second-class tier of horror. So they added a bunch of f-bombs to make it a hard-R. The rest of it is probably as disturbing as The Ring. I do admit that there's a fair amount of blood and on-screen death. I really have to stress that the movie is about suicide, which is treated as a casual topic here.
DIRECTOR: Parker Finn
You know what? Meh-leaning-on-dislike. If you are here for the big takeaway from the movie, I'm going to be the contrarian who didn't like the movie that everyone told me would be amazing. I'm going to try to rush this blog entry into publication because I didn't get my comfortable morning spot and I have too much going on to really give it the attention it deserves. I encourage you to keep reading because I have reasons for disliking this movie. But I'm sure that I'm going to make more mistakes than normal, so if you just want the quick version? Meh-leaning-on-bad.
Everyone is talking about this one. "Have you seen Smile?" (Okay, I hate using hyperbole, but colloquially it scans.) I didn't really want to watch Smile. The trailer didn't do a lot for me. Sure, the head falling down in the trailer got me pretty good. But this is one of those movies that really plays on specific imagery that is a scare-or-not option. I do applaud the viral marketing campaign that happened with MLB. That gave it points in my brain. But then people told me that I had to see this movie. Like with my MPAA section, I was told it was like The Ring. I mean, that advice was accurate and I do like the format of the film. It's like The Ring in the fundamentals, which I realize is become a new subgenre of supernatural horror. The protagonist has done something that seems innocuous. This protagonist then has a suspense-inducing amount of time before they fall to their death. They use this time to investigate the evil that they have stumbled upon while being tormented by whatever creature is punishing them. I remember loving The Ring. An even better version of this is It Follows, which slightly skews the trope.
But there's a real problem with the movie here. Dr. Rose Cotter makes an inappropriate victim. I almost said "awful", as if the actress did a bad job. Nope, Sosie Bacon. You did fine. I don't think that Dr. Cotter should be the focus of a haunting. There are real problems that come out of this. Okay, let's pretend that this movie couldn't be tied to allegory. I would be disappointed, but it makes the following criticism better. Dr. Cotter views the suicide of Laura, thus dooming her to commit suicide within the course of a week. Dr. Cotter didn't do anything wrong. With horror movies, there has to be some degree of culpability. There has to be a warning. The movie stresses that Dr. Cotter had very little time with Laura and never really made a choice that led to Laura's death. Her therapist says so. Okay, so why are we torturing this poor woman? Rose is the pinnacle of empathy. She pushes herself too hard for the good of humanity. Her major character flaw is that she cares too much. Are we punishing that? If horror movies often act as morality plays, are we teaching people to care only about themselves? If I really had to dive deep, which I tend to do on these things, is it about self-care? I don't see a direct line between self-care and punishing others because Rose is encouraged to just bury her feelings the entire movie.
But the even worse thing is that I do see allegory in Smile. As a horror movie, it's a bad idea to torture Rose, but as an allegory, there's a deeply upsetting message. Dr. Rose Cotter is not just a doctor; she is a doctor who deals with emergency mental health. It's a traumatizing job, but she does it so that no person has to deal with trauma by themselves like she did. The constant repetition of mental health makes for a potentially great storyline. I tend to be more critical of films when I see untapped potential and that's what's going on in Smile. Because Rose is a therapist, it is her job to stay objective when people say they are seeing things that don't exist. When Rose is forced to watch Laura's suicide, Rose is now the subject of trauma. Laura begs Rose to believe her, but Rose is not allowed to be believe her. After all, indulging the demons gives them power and Rose is there to de-escalate whatever is going on with Laura. (Again, why is she punished for this?) But the movie, as an allegory, gives Rose the opportunity to view mental illness through the eyes of their patients. It could be this interesting story about how we should have empathy for the mentally ill (and to a certain extent, it does).
But what is also true is that it gives the film the worst solution imaginable to the horror. Rose, in her investigation, discovers that, like It Follows, that the demon moves through spreading it to other people. Rose spirals, knowing that she will A) commit suicide and B) force this demon to someone else given the opportunity. So instead of seeking proper mental treatment, everything in this movie is about encouraging her to deal with her problems herself. I do understand that the movie should make it feel like Rose would want to handle her problems by herself. That all tracks with the allegory. The problem is that the solution doesn't come from other people. The movie leaves us with the understanding that Rose should just deal with her problems herself, leading her to killing herself in isolation. What kind of message is that? The one thing about suicidal ideation is that it needs to be shared before things get out of hand. Suicidal thoughts and tendencies aren't a contagious disease. That's such dangerous storytelling and I really dislike the movie because of that.
And the thing is...she fails? What? When someone offers to help her at the end, she spreads it to that guy because the movie wanted to end on a potential for this to continue. If anything, the film leaves Rose in a position of being one of the more forgettable hosts for this demon because she did nothing to stop it or slow it down. Horror movies are meant to deal with our taboos. I mean, there's something really sadistic about wanting to watch people go through absolute torture that tickles parts of our brains. I don't deny that I want to be scared at times. I may be moving out of my horror movie phase, despite the fact that I've written about more horror movies this week that I might have written for the entire month of October. But I always liked that great horror movies planted subconscious messages in our brains. The good triumph and the naughty are punished for their own lack of repentance. Sure, it didn't always have to be one-for-one. But Rose is someone who had a crappy life. Rose blames herself for her mother's death, which is something that makes her less-than-perfect. But it was something that she was trying to fix both in herself and in others. What the heck, movie? Why is that such a bad thing?
I want to rant about this forever, but it is causing me to shy away from the most superficial element that I need to talk about: "But is it scary?" It's fine. If you hate jump scares like my wife hates jump scares, then yeah, it's real scary. I tend to like them. I will say that, while the smile doesn't really scare me that much, it is effective. It's the same combination of innocence juxtaposed with the sinister that lots of horror movies like, like It, or Leprechaun. I really liked the over-the-top finale version of mother. I know it is imagery we've seen before. It doesn't change how effective it is. But there is one moment that may have lowered the movie a whole star for me. The best part about the demon is how quiet it mostly was. At best, it said your name in a whisper or a scream. But when the demon is the psychologist? Man, this scene took me out of the movie. It starts talking in a demon voice and I just thought it didn't effectively communicate terror in the way that the movie wanted to.
All of this leaves me with a movie that was only kind of scary, mostly a bummer, and offers some dangerous messages. It's not good. I don't know. I don't get what people are losing their minds over. Maybe if I was a different age and in a packed theater, that might be something different. But for me? This is irresponsible filmmaking.
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.