Monday, May 20, 2024

CANON OF FILM: "NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD" (Romero)

 NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968)

Director: George A. Romero
Screenplay: John A. Russo and George A. Romero 

  

To be honest, I’m not normally into zombies. There’s obviously been some exceptions, but I don’t know....; I have horror fan friends who genuinely find them frightening, or appealing, or both…. They don’t usually do it for me. I think the most compelling and interesting aspect of them is that they’re always metaphorically interesting, but oftentimes, even when done well, I think that the metaphor just becomes way too malleable. What do zombies represent; you don’t really have to stretch too far to make them represent literally anything you want. That’s probably why the most interesting zombie movies in recent years were the ones that were trying something new; I don’t particularly think all of them succeeded at quality, but they were all interesting.

In that respect, George A. Romero’s original terrifying masterpiece, “Night of the Living Dead”, can probably come off as too cliché in the wrong light. No doubt, the technical brilliance is always there, but it’s become literally the playbook that every other zombie movie is either borrowing from, stealing from, or trying desperately to differ themselves from. And yet, under the right circumstances, the movie genuinely can haunt and stir me in ways most thrillers couldn’t dream of. And I don’t think it has anything to do with the “metaphor” of the actual zombies. Romero was definitely symbolic, zombies were never just zombies in any of his films, and I’m sure you can look up theories on this one, and I have one or two of my own, but the things that makes “Night of the Living Dead” so special starts with the executing of the tone of dread. At certain moments at mine, and I’m certain in many others’ lives, we feel like we’re at a point where nothing can go right; the walls keep closing in and no matter how hard you work and stress out just to struggle to keep your head above water, you know deep down that there’s this inherent dread that disaster’s coming towards you. I never really got how, zombies can be so easily defeated and yet seem so frightening to others; I get the idea that they’re so many of them and that they just keep coming is apart of and ware you out and exhaust your resources, but I don’t think most movies really express that veil of dread that that entails. Not that you’re short on everything, but that true sense that something horrible, no matter what, is going to come and take you all out, at the right, or more likely, at the worst-feeling times of your life, watching “Night of the Living Dead” can really grip you in ways other films can’t. 

Zombies aren’t actually that prevalent in the film; most of the movie, is that claustrophobia. Zombies are out there, and we’ve seen what they can do, but there’s not much you can do. You’re stuck in a house. Who’s house? I don’t think it’s ever fully determined, and nor does it necessarily matter anymore. What does matter, is hopefully being able to keep them out for as long as you can, until either the threat miraculously ends, or until the inevitable is unable to be delayed anymore.

Duane Jones’s performance as Ben, the film’s protagonist stirs me. A lot was made of casting an African-American as the lead, which was rare for the time in general and especially so for a horror movie, but Jones wasn’t even a professional actor. (In fact, most of the cast, had very little acting experience and didn’t have much after the film.) He was an English professor who directed theater in his spare time, and when he auditioned, Romero re-wrote the part to fit him. I totally get why; he’s got an intensity and a presence that yields a degree of knowledge and authority that I think too many horror films tend to forget to have. In fact, most of the characters are intelligent. When it’s revealed that a family has already taken the cellar to evade the zombies, or ghouls as the radio and TV tell them; I think they both have a point on what the best approach to evade them, and they’re approaches and reactions are reasonable given their particular situations.

What I think really is the secret of the film are the radio and television reports that we hear and watch sporadically throughout the film. Another thing that too many horror films get wrong, but they work brilliantly here, they’re almost as frightening as the actual flesh-eating zombies. They sound and feel like genuine old news reports from that time. They remind me of Orson Welles’s famous “War of the Worlds” radio program, which also used the form and structures of legitimate news broadcast to help tell their story, although this film, they’re used more for exposition, but they manage to more convey the intensity in tone that's needed and sometimes it’s the quiet professionalism of the news broadcast makes the subjects they’re talking about, seem more real. People forget just how believable and how quaint-seeming much of Welles’s broadcast originally seemed as well. (I also suspect some of the Kronkite footage of JFK’s assassination and some of the other broadcasts of tragedies of the era played a part in influence. In hindsight, 1968, in America seems like a particularly intriguing year for this film to have come out.)

Its terror is also intriguing to put into context, horror films were always around, but they were more cheesy and special effects-based, and they were goofy and they were movies, in the most pure entertainment sense. “Night of the Living Dead” really stands out next to them. In many ways, it was the first horror film that really wasn’t for kids to enjoy. It was gruesome and dark, had family members having to kill other family members, and while the ghouls might’ve eaten a ton of human flesh, we didn’t see them graphically eating people before. And the deaths were far more visceral as well.

 I don’t know if George Romero intended to be a horror film director, or for that matter the zombies guy, but he definitely leaned into after the success of the film. Even adjusted for inflation “Night of the Living Dead” is listed among the profitable movies ever made, although Romero himself didn’t get a lot of profit from it, in fact, he was still working at his local public television station in Pittsburgh after the movie came out, and believe it not, shot quite a few second-assistant segments for “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” of all shows. (In fact, Betty Abelin was originally cast in the role of Barbara, the young girl in the cemetery in the beginning with her brother who get attacked by the first ghoul, but Mr. Rogers refused saying that he didn’t want her, fearing it would distract his audience to see her performing as a different character in such a film, although he liked Romero’s films, which- for some reason I don’t particularly believe, knowing Fred Rogers’ taste in entertainment, but oh well….) Anyway, he ended up casting local actress Judith O’Dea and her and Brown were basically the only real actors in the film, everybody else was basically a friend or producer or somebody else close to Romero, the project or some of the other stars. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had professional actors though, he got some great performances out of them, and the fact that they are mostly unknown or little-knowns just helps enhance the reality of the project.

You can honestly separate modern horror, at least modern-American horror, to before and after “Night of the Living Dead” and yet that fact doesn’t make the movie any less powerful; if anything, it just get more stirring and frightening over time, and Romero’s films in general, have grown in distinction over the years. I have to watch more of them, but part of me knows that they’ll never match up to this one. “Night of the Living Dead” turned horror into terror, and instead of showing a visceral fear of the characters onscreen, it created that visceral dread and fear in us.  

Saturday, March 30, 2024

IN MEMORIAM: A HISTORY OF THE OSCARS F***ING UP THE EASIEST PART OF THEIR SHOW!

So, for the first time since I've done this blog, I didn't go out of my way to focus on the Oscars races this year. I probably could've faked it and posted a few things, but I didn't see the movies, and really have just been too distracted by life to trust my judgments at that time anyway, so I wasn't gonna force myself to say some stuff out of obligation, especially I didn't have anything to say about who won or who should've won or whatnot. I'm tired of talking when I don't have anything to say anyway. But, I'm starting to get out of that funk. At least, I'm trying to anyway. So, I happen to be able to watch the Oscars this year, which wasn't planned, but since it was kismet, I decided to watch and live tweet some thoughts on the show. 

Overall, it was a good Oscars show. Probably one of the better ones in recent years anyway, arguably the first great one post-Covid. Well, almost great.... There's one thing that ultimately ruined the show for me. It wasn't any of the results, it wasn't the fact that it was Jimmy Kimmel's worst and laziest gig as Oscar host yet, it wasn't that it went on too long, or that any of the performances were too shit. No, the Oscars were destroyed in my mind, after they did something, that they, and other award shows have been doing, for what seems like a ridiculously long time now, and this one, is maybe arguably the absolutely worst one yet. They've been fucking up, the In Memoriam segment! 

  
 

So, who died last year? As far as I could tell, the only person who died was Alexei Navalny; he was the only person who died who got honored at the Oscars this year. What in the freaking Hell was that!? Well, if I have to sit here and detail every single thing that was wrong with that segment,- it would be twice as long as the longest and worst Cinema Sins video, so I'm not going to do that. I'm just- I'm just not gonna do that. 

No, this post is about, how we got here. 'Cause this isn't the first time, I've been pissed off at an award show for screwing up the "In Memoriam"; no we've been trending this way towards that abomination- which...- like- that might legitimately be the worst segment of any kind in Oscars history. That might be worst than the goddamn Snow White and Rob Lowe opening segment. And if it isn't worst, it is undeniably so much more baffling, 'cause, it's the goddamn In Memoriam segment!!!!!! Like, stop it. Why is there so much bullshit going on?! Sad music, from the orchestra, montage of dead people, nothing else! How hard is this?! 

But no, we get, everything, but that, it seems.... So, I decided, to look up what the hell happened? Why did this segment of the Oscars suddenly get so goddamn overblown, and why?! And more importantly, find out who's responsible, 'cause somebody needs blame for this shit. Somebody looked at the In Memoriam segment and decided, "Hey, let's fuck it up!" and that's put the terrible idea in every other Oscar and award show producers' head! 

So, I looked it up. The first thing I looked up was, well, when did In Memoriam segments start? Cause, I remember the old In Memoriam segments from my youth and I know they weren't like this. At all. Like, here, this one's from the 1994 Oscars: 


    

See, that's how they should be. You get somebody who can say a few words, and then, you play, some kind of appropriately sad music,- Producer Chuck Workman would call it "Schmaltzy" music, which, okay that was schmaltzy, but just sad and appropriate and you don't need a big name performer to do it, in fact, you don't need a performer at all, just get some sad music, or have the orchestra play it, and then roll the clips! What's wrong with this approached. It's worked for years, right? 

Actually, um..., that clip above, um, that actually was the first In Memoriam segment ever at the Oscars, or any award show. 

Yeah, I didn't realize this, but apparently the In Memoriam is a much newer segment than I realized. I guess, it makes sense that it wouldn't like, date back to the original Academy Awards, back then, it was so new that not a lot of people would've died yet, but I'm still kinda surprised to find out that the In Memoriam only dates back to '94. At least, the way we think of the In Memoriam,- they did one kinda, back in 1978, and that one actually is a performance. 

It's Marvin Hamlisch  on piano and Sammy Davis Jr. singing "Come Light the Candles", and it's- barely an In Memoriam.


 

Apparently, this came up again in pop culture recently, during the credits of that "FEUD" miniseries. I haven't seen it yet, so I'm withholding my thoughts on that, but yeah, this might be the actual catalyst, and to be honest, I don't actually like this performance. But, it's barely an In Memoriam, it's mostly a performance and then, a screen comes down, with a very brief montage of some of the performers who died the previous year. There's no names, or closeups on the montage so that they can easily be identified unless you're looking really close at a TV screen, that was not hi-def at that time. But they didn't continue it the next year or anytime after. In fact, the next year, Sammy Davis Jr. performed with Steve Lawrence in a better and more much upbeat medley of movie songs that were famously not nominated for Oscars and that performance is much, much better from him. 

 

See, that's a lot better. Also, it's kinda nice to know, the Academy already knew they screwed up not nominating either "Theme from 'New York, New York'" or "Staying Alive", both from movies that literally came out the year before. (Don't look up what actually won that year, it'll just annoy you.) 

Also, a lot better were when they actually started having a real In Memoriam segment in 1994, and for the next few years they basically kept the segment the same format. Somebody coming out who can convey the proper emotional depth, and then, we see the In Memoriam segment, just a regular montage. And the montages were even better back then, more clips, lots of great images of people in wonderful idyllic moments of their career. 

The Academy also occasionally did something different and special for certain people who pass away during this time. Like, in '96, they did a whole thing for Gene Kelly.


 

Yeah, and that was good, simple. The nice shadow effect, there, and that was the great Savion Glover, by the way, tap dancing as Kelly, if you're my age you remember him fondly from "Sesame Street" which, he might've still been on at that time, now he's one of the great living tap dancers and performers. The Academy still does this, occasionally, the last time I remember them doing one was,-eh, I think it was for John Hughes, back in (google search) 2010! Good lord, he's been dead that long? Wow! Time flies. I don't remember them doing one since, and honestly, I remember not particularly finding that tribute, good. It was also just strange; I love John Hughes, but he wouldn't have struck me as someone that the Academy would go out-of-it's-way to specifically honor, (I mean, how many John Hughes films even got an Oscar nomination? [The answer is three, all of them in Music. One was for "Beethoven's 2nd". The Academy is weird sometimes.]) I don't think they've done one since, but I could be wrong about that.... But, y'know, occasionally doing something special for somebody in particular separate from the regular In Memoriam, not the worst idea some years, although you can go overboard with it, ask the 2013 Emmys about that one. 

Anyway, for the Oscars, and other award shows followed with a similar format, and it's not like they weren't controversial. There's always controversy on who gets in or who's left out. Even back then, after the 1999 In Memoriam, the show's host, Whoopi Goldberg stopped the show to mention somebody being left out, by giving a thumbs up to the heavens to honor Gene Siskel. I couldn't find that clip to post, or I would've but I'm going through every Oscars In Memoriam that I can find, and if possible, finding the montage, as it was broadcast. Even the Academy, who again, has been screwing this up in recent years, has tried to remedy their mistakes before with this. Even still, I could nitpick some of the details between them. Some are better edited than others, some are more emotional than others, but for the most part, it's fair to say that there's extreme care put into these segments. From what I can tell that first starts to change in 2005. 


 

This isn't, terrible. It's the first time they've had a performance associated with the In Memoriam; they have Yo-Yo Ma come out and perform, and then the picture screen drops and shows the In Memoriam. This is..., acceptable. They do break the montage one time to show Yo-Yo Ma playing, but you don't miss the montage. That said it's a little lazily edited, the actual montage. Like, with some of the non-actors in the past, they would show clips or images from the movies they worked on, that showed off their achievements and instead, they kinds just use texts. Some of this btw, might've be a rights thing at times. The Academy does need permissions to show a lot of clips, and sometimes that might be harder than we'd like to think it is, but I would argue it's worth it, if for no other reason than to see more than just the words "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" on the screen in white text. Still, this,- this isn't like horrific at first, and if you have to do, (eye roll) a musical performer of note accompanying the In Memoriam, than just having Yo-Yo Ma play the cello and then cut immediately to the montage and then back to him at the end, like, eh, that's probably the most harmless way you could go about it, but still, you're not gonna get him every time....

To be fair, the next couple years they got it back to being about the way it should be. Then, 2009, this is when it first went off the rails. 


  

Yup, this was the first time I distinctly remember everybody being pissed off at the show for the In Memoriam. And this was controversial even regardless of the mind-boggling dumb choices for the actual presentation,- there's a whole Wikipedia on the controversies of the omissions and who got put in for this year. But, the actual montage, was not watchable. You had, Queen Latifah performing "I'll Be Seeing You", which, you don't need. She's fine, but you don't need that. And then, instead of the one big screen, just showing the montage, I guess the thinking is that, there's this whole room at the Kodak Theater that they can show images of the deceased, so, they have to show that, which, again, they don't, it- it- might work, live, for the people there but it doesn't on camera, on TV, and so, they kept zooming in and out, what I think are crane camera shots of both sides of the Kodak Theater and, you can read some of the names, but not all the names. They're not all gonna be recognizable to everyone at home. So,- what you get is that, instead of one screen, you're looking at a bunch of screens, you're focusing some time on Queen, a camera that's moving around,- so you're trying to focus on a screen, within a screen.... 

It's atrocious, and I thought after this, we'd all just learn the lesson, that you don't fucking do this for the In Memoriam!  But, time and time again, that's not been the case. The next year,  the editing wasn't as bad, but they had James Taylor perform a cover of The Beatles "In My Life" and the montage was again, multiple screens and out-of-focus for the viewer at first. After that, the next year, Celine Dion performed Charlie Chaplin's "Smile" (Yes, that Charlie Chaplin wrote "Smile") Again, too many cuts to the performer, only one screen, although the montage itself was edited a little lazily. The next year, Esperanza Spalding performed Louie Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World", with a giant choir that surrounded the stage. This was also, like the first year that they mostly just stopped doing clips of the artists and just showed a single picture of them. They put a couple clips in there and, it's kinda artistically done well, and perhaps this was a rights issue, but I still think it sucked. (And I'm sure somebody thought they were being funny ending with a shot of Elizabeth Taylor in her role in "Cleopatra" of all goddamn movies.) 

2013 though, this is the one year, where they basically, did the performer thing and they got it right. For one, they just showed the In Memoriam first! The huge montage of all those who died, they had music underneath but no performer or performance, and it was beautiful. The last one they named was Marvin Hamlisch, and that's when there was a surprise performance and speech, by Barbra Streisand singing "The Way We Were". Okay, this works, mainly because, they did the In Memoriam first, secondly they perform a song that fits into the montage, because of who passed away, Hamlisch is a legendary singer-songwriter, an EGOT winner, and one of the most importants musical artist of their day and in particular of cinema, and this is a song that he's known for and that he won an Oscar for. Also, Barbra Streisand, appearing, is itself a shock! She's somebody who generally doesn't show up for these things first of all, and then getting her to perform, is also such a rarity and an honor for these things that it's actually meaningful. She doesn't show up, she rarely performs even if she somehow does and now you got her performing, and it's all because of who passed away and she's decided to honor him, because they were such close friends, personally and professionally. It's beautiful, and perfect. And also, a once in a lifetime perfect storm scenario where the performance along with the In Memoriam actually works!

The next year, they kinda got the same idea, kinda.... The huge montage first, and then after the montage is when you go into a performance. (And again, if you are going to do it, this is the best way, but even then, I'd advise, their has to be a perfect storm scenario) Unfortunately, they choose Bette Midler to perform "Wind Beneath My Wings", which.... ugh.- look, I love Bette Midler, but for one, I hate that song. But worst than that, it's not a song that's immediately connected to anyone who passed this year and it wasn't to honor someone in particular, they just called her in to sing it. Bette Midler does have mystique, but not Barbra mystique, and- I guess co-writer of the song Larry Henley did pass away around that time, but he wasn't honored during the Memoriam, he wasn't a film person and that's not why The Divine Miss M is there, she's just there, because last year, they got a diva to sing an emotional number after the In Memoriam, and she's a diva who can sing an emotional number after the In Memoriam, but the context and meaning of the way it worked the year before is completely gone. (Also, did you know that song was a cover. It's actually a country song originally sung by an Malaysian-born Australian singer name Kamahi and Bette Midler was like, the tenth artist to record that song! Man, how did that become her standout tune; it's not even her best movie song ballad; hell, just making her sing "The Rose" instead would've improved this thing a little) Anyway, this doesn't work. It's an unnecessary performance that doesn't add anything to the In Memoriam, and that's the problem. All of these performances, whether they're good or bad, or nice or not, you have to ask, "Do they add anything to the In Memoriam", and I would argue that, only the Barbra Streisand one, in 2013 does that, and that literally, none of the others do. At best, they don't get in the way, like Yo-Yo Ma. At worst, you get...., well this year's In Memoriam. 

Anyway, the next year, they did it correctly, just Meryl Streep coming out and a montage of those who passed. Again, not clips so much as some well-done painterly images of everyone, which, eh,- I prefer clips but that's fine. Then, the next year, they went back to a performance, which in this case involved Sara Bareilles singing,- she sings Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now"? Okay, again, there shouldn't be a performance of any kind, but at least until now, I understood why they picked each of these songs- even "Wind Beneath My Wings", I-, I get why someone would use that song, This might be me, but I have no idea why you would pick "Both Sides Now". That song has nothing to do about death or passing or- it's a song about self-reflection of one's own life, it's not really a song about reflection on others' lives. I know it sounds sad, but like,- what?- This might be me, but I don't think that song works for this; maybe I just love that song too much, but I don't think that's a good song for an In Memoriam of any kind. Maybe, an instrumental as background, but definitely not as a performed piece.

Also, can I just say, there is something kinda just gross, about bringing somebody in to just do one song about the dead people every year. Not that we need another reason not to do this shit; like, I'm sure all these artists were happy to do this, and that they were at least paid well to do it, but like,-, "Hey, we want you to sing, while everybody is sad for a few minutes, can you come?" That gig sounds awful and kinda offensive, honestly; what would that sound like to you if people asked that of you, that they think of your music, they think about dead people? I might be kinda insulted myself. Even if it made sense,- like, I don't think they ever asked, say Elton John to come and do this while singing, "Candle in the Wind" for them, which is literally a song about a movie star who died, but I'll bet you a million bucks that if they did, he would immediately rejected the offer, and keep in mind, he's a two-time Oscar winner himself. (And he's smartly kept away from these performances by the way....) 

Anyway, the next year, Eddie Vedder performed Tom Petty's "Room at the Top"- which, okay another weird-ass song choice, even though I like that cover, and I guess, you can kinda stretch that song, to being relevant to an In Memoriam, at least the way Eddie does it, but the editing is back to shit, with the camera panning, right in the middle of the montage, and the screen in the background again for part of the tribute...- who now leads to the question of, who gets the full screen treatment and who gets the in-the-background of the performer treatment, as though this process isn't already too morbidly political to begin with.... 

They did it correctly in 2019, just the orchestra and the montage, no cutting to the orchestra in the middle,- perfect, no notes with the staging. The next year, Billie Eilish and Finneas O'Connor, who have performed at the Oscars, way more than I realize they have at this point,- they do, The Beatles "Yesterday",- which, is an appropriate song but at this point, I'm just morbidly curious on what other beloved songs the Academy is gonna try to shove into their In Memoriam; they seemed to just go through every popular song that's remotely emotionally sad. And this is also one of the more obnoxiously edited ones, as instead of a solemn video screen, they project the images of those who've died on these elongated, arch-like double-screen that's behind the main stage, and sometimes there's one person and an image or two from their career, and other times there's two people listed at once, and you wonder why, are they related or something, did they work together, or what, but no, they just want to shove everybody in. Also, they back up the camera again, so that we don't just see them entirely. It's another shitty job, and it another thing that politicizes this more than it needs to. Like, now that you're dead, are you important enough to have your own screen, or do you have to share the space with some other dead person? WTF?

This is another pet peeve of mine-, I know there's constant complaints that the Oscars or other award shows are too long. I'm not saying they're wrong, necessarily, but the In Memoriam, is not the area where we should be cutting time on this. I'm not saying include everybody who died...- there's always gonna be certain snubs for one reason or another, and yes it sucks, and sometimes I will complain about certain ones they makes, like the year they snubbed Joan Rivers, but I'm okay with having that controversy. We can complain about them, but what's worst, not having your name mentioned or not having your name focused on when it's there? I'm sure if you ask they'd say, "I don't care, I'm dead do whatever you want," but for the sake of argument, if your doing this, it should done well, and that's the real complaint. This doesn't need to include everybody or be apolitical when perhaps it shouldn't, but if you're doing it, it has to be done well, and frankly, we've had a long, long run of most-of-the-time, the Academy, just, not doing it well. And, to be clear, they're not the only ones, they've had bad In Memoriams at the Emmys and Tonys as well, (Probably the Grammys too, but I haven't watched them since Santana won everything) but the Oscars are the ones who started this and they're the one that, frankly we're gonna just scrutinize the most, as we should, and you know what, more than the other award shows, they have to be the ones doing it well and showing everybody how to do it, so when they are, going through it badly and lazily, you gotta really call it out. 

The 2021 In Memoriam is a good example. This is a weird one, 'cause of COVID there actually wasn't an orchestra at the show, and there also wasn't a performance of any kind, so, from what I can tell, I think they used an acoustic version of Stevie Wonder's "As" as the song. I'll let that slide, 'cause 2020 is the exception year for everything, and at least they didn't drag Stevie or anybody else to perform it, but what I will knock them down for is rushing through the In Memoriam too damn quickly! 

   
 

Okay, this is why I never advocate listening to fans, "Oh, the show's too long, it needs to be shorter," yeah, but sometimes it needs to be longer, and if there was ever a year, when you should've just said, "Fuck it, make the In Memoriam ten minutes long if we need to!", it was the 2021 Oscars. Like, I didn't feel sad, or annoyed, I think I just got dizzy watching this. Maybe figure out how long the montage needs to be, and then pick the song? And, btw, you picked a song that should've worked; the album version of "As" is seven minutes long, why are you playing it at double-speed to get through everybody?! If it's ABC bitching, (And it very well could be, I might add) stand up to them and tell them, we're spending this much time on it, I don't care, we'll cut something else! 

Oscars 2022, they fuck up the In Memoriam so badly, that the Academy had to post an alternative, better version on their Youtube page. They previously did this in 2009, but it was only on their official website at the time, Youtube and the Oscars Youtube presence wasn't as prominent back then. This one, again, they use this oddly-shaped stage where the screens are more abstract, and not like a normal screen, and the montage is blocked, originally by Tyler Perry talking too much about Sidney Poitier and then by the gospel group The Samples, that's a little way too happy to be singing, and singing the peppiest version of Sarah McLachlan's "I Will Remember You" at that, 'cause that's how that song should be sung as gleefully and blissfully happily as possible, (eye roll) and then Bill Murray talks about Ivan Reitman for a bit in the middle, then the stupid peppy chorus does a two-step in unisom and starts happily singing Norman Greenbaum's "Spirit in the Sky", and yes, complete with lots of cutting away from the screen putting the emphasis on them. And then there's- I'm told that was Jill Scott, I didn't recognize her but she's singing-eh, actually, I honestly have no idea what song that is. She's just singing "I'm Going to Heaven" on repeat; I honestly have no idea if that's an actual song or not. I tried to look it up, but I couldn't find it. She might've just been improvising until Jamie Lee Curtis and a puppy came out to talk about Betty White's passing for a few minutes. Then the theme to "The Golden Girls" kinda leads into the rest of the music performing over the clips. Then there's some other speech...- Um, this was awful. All of this. Weirdly, while the Academy did post their more appropriate montage, I don't see a lot of reports about just how bad this montage was at the time, but-eh, it's honestly horrible, maybe the worst version of it yet. I can kinda understand though, 'cause this occurred a few moments after the Will Smith/Chris Rock incident, so I'll forgive some for not remembering this, but this was pretty bad. And I'll show the French dub for maximum hilarity.

  

Man, this was so tone-deaf, it's kindly startling in hindsight. This is the kind of performance that might work, like the old Gene Kelly one did, for a single person, separate from the In Memoriam, but when you shove into it a joyous gospel performance for their passing, this- well,- some of these deaths this year, were kinda difficult to consider like that. For instance, William Hurt, who while an amazing actor, and an Oscar winner, also was a domestic abuser, and a domestic abuser to another Oscar winner, one who just happened to be starring in that year's Best Picture winner, btw. That's a little indecent.... Also, Halyna Hutchins, the cinematographer who was accidentally killed on the set of "Rust", a death that, we're still in the middle of dealing with through the court systems. (Baldwin's involuntary manslaughter's case is going to trial in July, meanwhile a jury convicted Hannah Gutierrez-Reid, the film's armorer of involuntary manslaughter with sentencing up to 18 months in jail possible) Yeah, I think gospel choir was a very bad idea to "celebrate" that particular horrid death. 

Compared to that, the 2023 Oscars where Lenny Kravitz sings "Calling All Angels", is considered better, even though it's pretty awful too. Kravitz's performing his own song is good, but again, we don't need him. Also, this has everything bad about past bad In Memoriams. The bad directing, constantly cutting to a performer, the screen in the background not the foreground, some people getting clips others having to share the screen with another random dead person. I do like, that they added the Oscar insignia for those who've won an Oscar; it's kinda tacky, but I like that that's acknowledged now. The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, started doing that one recently too, and I kinda like that when they did it. It's still just a lot of everything that ruins the In Memoriam for me, just tamer. 

And now, we finally get caught up to this year's atrocity.... which, again, I'm just not going into.

So, who is responsible? Well, while I'm tempted to the first year they had a performer for the modern In Memoriam, which was '05, I think '09, when they really first started screwing this up, and apparently they never learned the lessons that should've been taught then. So, who was running that show? 

Okay, that year, Bill Condon and Laurence Mark were producing the show. Bill Condon, an Oscar-winning screenwriter for "Gods and Monsters," he also wrote the screenplay for "Chicago" an Oscar-winning Best Picture, and he's also directed quite a few movies, "Kinsey", "Dreamgirls" most notably. This is the only time he produced the Oscars. Laurence Mark was a producer on "Dreamgirls" and him as well as several other films; him and Condon have worked together a lot. They're both industry vets and they both like things to be a little too big and a little too over-the-top when possible, especially when it comes to music, so yeah, perhaps they were thinking, "The audience likes musical numbers, let's find places to put more musical numbers in the show" and they thought of the In Memoriam as a place for music a musical performance, and not, as an In Memoriam. (Also, Queen Latifah, was in "Chicago", so there's that connection.) Anyway, knowing that, explains why it happened that time, but it certainly doesn't explained why everyone else keeps following in that tradition, which, again, was not a tradition before, and should never have been!!! 

I can't express how bad this idea was to begin with, was considered bad at the time, and how just it's continued as though it ever really worked. (Again 2013, is the most extreme exception) But now, I'm afraid people are going to think this is normal and common and it's friggin' not! And for that, I am blaming Condon and Mark first and most. As much as I like you guys' work otherwise, I hope you two burn in Hell and when you do die, you look up from there and see yourselves get snubbed in your In Memoriam! Cause, goddamn, you guys screwed this up, so much worst than you even realize.

I don't know who's producing the Oscars next year, but whoever it is, take this lesson, and don't fuck up the In Memoriam, ever again! No performer, no performance, create a good In Memoriam montage package, find a sad song and play it. I'd rather "Crash meet Green Book" win Best Picture next year than see this shit again! If ABC bitches about it, tell them, you don't have to re-up when the contract runs out in 2028 if you don't want to, but we're here now and celebrating those we've lost correctly! If the studios asks for extra money for footage,- okay, well, if it's in the budget, pay it, if not, eh, find a good tasteful idea to compensate;- that actually could be tricky paying for all that, so..... 

If you really need an extra performance, how about do a new version of that list of songs that were never nominated?! That was cool. Do a modern version, get like, Lin-Manuel Miranda and I don't know, eh, Janelle Monae to do a medley. That'd be awesome. Start with Lin, singing, "We Don't Talk About Bruno" and then have Janelle sing, I don't know, "When Doves Cry", then go into, eh "Secret Garden" or eh, "Part of Your World", maybe do some rap songs that weren't eligible but memorable, like "Gangster's Paradise" or something and Janelle goes into "Independent Women Part I". Let them figure it out and have them do ten minutes on that. Go into. you know, "How Deep is Your Love", or "Don't You Forget About Me" or "Born to Be Wild" or "Jailhouse Rock", have some fun with it. See what new songs missed and what songs from the past they didn't get to. Let the show run a few minutes longer doing that. I mean, we are starting the show at 4:00pm on the West Coast now, so you got the time. 

Or Not. But whatever you do, just do the In Memoriam correctly. No noteworthy performer, or any performer, just music that plays, montage plays on a single big screen, so everyone at home can see it! And do literally nothing else to it! Nothing! NOTH-THING! Take an Oscar-winning musical's wishful words of wisdom to heart and "Let It Be"!

Tuesday, March 5, 2024

MOVIE REVIEWS #204: "ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (Berger)", "NAVALNY", "AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER", "BARBIE", "TRIANGLE OF SADNESS", "EO", "ALL THAT BREATHES", "EMPIRE OF LIGHT", "DECISION TO LEAVE", "HAPPENING", "X (West)", "PEARL", "SAINT OMER" and "THE VELVET UNDERGROUND"!

I wrote most of these movie reviews months ago. 

I don't think they're particularly my best work, but at some point I gotta get back to watching and reviewing movies. More importantly I gotta get back to writing. 2023 was a rough year for me. 2024, itself isn't starting out great either. In fact, the last few years have been...- well, they've sucked for me. I haven't posted anything in a while, and the last thing I posted here, I didn't even promote for personal reasons. (If anybody's interested in that post, I read and reviewed a comic book of all things, and found it-, um, mostly perplexing honestly. Here's the link

Lately, I haven't been saying much either. It's not that I haven't had opinions on things that have been happening, but I haven't felt the desire or need to express them. In some ways that could be considered growth, but I just consider it grief. I don't even think I'm gonna be posting for the upcoming award season this year. I'll be paying attention, but with a more passive perspective; the desire is gone. I haven't had the desire to watch films in a while, even before my mother passed. My life's been too much Hell to focus on it. I'm still struggling, I started a GoFundMe, just to get through. I finally did get guardianship of my autistic brother, but now my mom's boyfriend/stepfather, he's been sick as well, and, he's starting to do better, but it's still a struggle. And my brother's not doing great either. I'm gonna be struggling to figure out the next steps for awhile, and hopefully I'll be able to come out of this eventually, and hopefully stronger and better, but for now, I've got other things I have to focus on and it won't be easy. 

I've always viewed entertainment as that which is there to distract us and help us relax as we deal with the struggles of the world. I still do, but I certainly get why people, as they get older, just watch and rewatch those programs that make them most comfortable. I haven't been able to focus on newer films, or watch them for that matter. When I do, I feel more distracted than ever. I've had bouts of such apathy before, but never this bad. I hope it's temporary, but even if it isn't, my focus is just not there right now and I don't think forcing it to return is the best thing for me at the moment. 

I will write again, and write here again, I'm just not sure when or what it'll be on, but while I'm still grieving, and struggling with the perils of finding Robbie a place, hell, just keeping a roof above us for now....

So, most these reviews are old, but they're still the latest I've written, and as a writer, you have to show your work even when you don't feel like it. As for those in true grief you know that there's never a real "time" to move on, you just have to move on anyway, and hope you emotionally catch up, so that's what this is. Sorry, I've been so absent and sorry my mind's been elsewhere. 



ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (2022) Director: Edward Berger 

⭐⭐⭐⭐


I haven't read "All Quiet on the Western Front", but I have seen the original Hollywood film. The 1930 Lewis Milestone-directed epic was one of the first really great war movies in Hollywood, and it's especially noteworthy for a lot of the technical aspects that we often associate with modern war cinema, particularly sound effects. It was in 1930, it was Milestone's first sound film, and sound in films itself was barely a few years old, and considering the technology of the time, the film was a modern miracle, much less and incredible advancement in cinematic directing. As to the plot, and the story, I don't remember a lot of the specific details, mostly I remember three scenes that, actually had very little to do with the epic battle sequences. I remember the first early sequence where the young kids are excitedly heading off to the war, not only because it almost seems like the movie's about to burst into song, right before it doesn't. I remember a midpoint scene where, the was has been going on and the battle, for the time being is stalled, and the soldiers begin to question why exactly they're fighting the war to begin with and what they are fighting for and why are they fighting the people they're fighting. And then a scene at the end, where the main soldier, is supposed to give a similar boisterous talk up of the war, and then he breaks down and doesn't. In hindsight, I might've made up that scene. It's been awhile seen it, so I'm a little rusty on it, but it definitely seems like a scene that was supposed to be there. Nowadays, scenes like these in war and anti-war movies are kinda commonplace and cliche; it's actually easy to forget how influential "All Quiet on the Western Front" is in marking out the modern-day soldier-at-war narrative film; to some degree, it feels like most war movies basically are just modern remakes of "All Quiet on the Western Front". 

That said, it's a little odd that Germany hasn't produced their own version of the film until now. Well, it- kinda is and kinda isn't, because the book and the original movie were actually banned in Germany by the Nazis of course, who really wanted to glorify WWII and bemoan those who seeked and got the armistice signed. That's inherently the biggest difference between the two movies, as well as the book. The original film, might be most remembered for those elaborate battle scenes, but the movie's narrative is actually quite tunnel-visioned in it's approach. It's simply about the horrors of war and what that experience is like on it's soldiers. And it's here too, and a lot of the scenes are basically the same. We follow Paul Baumer (Felix Baumer) as he goes from excited young soldier to eventually, disenchanted and disenfranchised dead soldier, but it also skips back-and-forth between two other tales. 

The first one follows Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Bruhl), as he leads the charge towards ending the war peacefully and we see him struggle to eventually get the armistice signed. Erzberger is actually a real person who was ostracized by the incoming Nazis for his part in ending the war before Germany could've hypothetically won;- see, this is kind of the issue. The other tale is that of General Foch (Thibault de Montalembert), who is a fictional character, but represents, essentially the Nazi stand-in of those who gung-ho fighting generals and others who wished to distort and propagandize the German's spot in the war. Now both sides of these are incredibly distant from the actual battlefield, despite making decisions that effect them, which is itself a major point, but really, this is a look at, World War I, from the German perspective, in modern times, knowing what we know now. One of the few real problems with the original "All Quiet on the Western Front" is it's lack of hindsight and awareness; in hindsight, knowing how WWI would lead to Germany's role in World War II, is something that, well,- Germany at least, has had to deal with and try to contemplate all the implications of it. So, I guess in that light, it makes sense why director Edward Berger would want to explore that, as much as the actual novel. Apparently, in light of Russia's invasion of Ukraine which has indeed turned very much into a very similar World War I-style trench war at certain parts of the country, it resonates a lot more in Europe. The movie won the BAFTA for Best Picture among other acclaims, and while it did okay here, including four Oscars, a Best Picture nomination and winning International Feature, it definitely plays better overseas. 

As for me, I think I just like the tunnel-visioned storytelling of the original too much, and appreciate more, the horrors of war and seeing how it effected the soldiers than I like anything else. It's not that there's not a good story with Erzberger and the Nazi stand-in, and it is something worth exploring, and has been done many times before and done well, Michel Haneke's "The White Ribbon" does a decent job exploring that. I just don't know if it particularly improves this text in of itself. It could just not relate to me, but it could also be representative of Germany's conflicted legacy about "All Quiet on the Western Front" itself. I don't know, maybe if I didn't have the original to compare it too, I'd appreciate it more, but this version's still how powerful and important the story remains even today, so at least that didn't get lost in the translation. So recommending it, but eh, I think we're gonna have still more and better movies in the future that will reflect on all the subjects touched on in this film, whether it'd be inspired by the novel itself, war itself, in particular the Ukraine war, or even exploring that strained part of Germany's past they're still struggling to overcome. This'll do for now though. 


NAVALNY (2022) Director: Daniel Roher

⭐⭐⭐⭐1/2

 

(NOTE: This review was originally written and posted on Letterboxd on Nov 17, 2023. [Sidenote: Yeah, I have a Letterboxd now, I'll discuss it at a later date] This review has not been altered or revised in light of recent events.) 

I've spent months dealing with my own personal struggles and grief and unwillingness to write this, or any review. (Or write anything really.) That had nothing to do with the film itself, the movie is great, it's not the movie's fault I haven't felt inspired or compelled to write. That said, recall and memory of the film are definitely a bit foggier than I would like, which is a real shame cause it's such a mind-boggling expose into the genuine, terror, horror and utter stupidity of the Kremlin and Putin in particular, that I really wish I was more in the state of mind to be inspired by it.

Alexei Navalny, is himself a major political figure in the nation, although the most apropos comparison to him in the U.S. is somebody like a Jon Stewart type. He's an inspirational YouTube foil for Putin, so much so that in 2020, Putin tried to kill him through poisoning. It didn't work, thankfully, and Navalny's around to make the movie, but what's so striking, is just how idiotic and short-sighted Putin's assassination attempt was, but also, how shockingly easy it was to figure out how and who did it. Literally, at one point, with the help of internet detectives, they're actually able to single out the three men who were assigned to the project, and Navalny has their names, addresses and phone numbers. It doesn't just show how wrong-headed Putin's Cold War KGB Perspective on the world it, but it also suddenly reveals, possibly, just how simple-minded and dumb much of the KGB practices probably were. The Cold War was pretty lucky to have gone on back before the days of the World Wide Web. (Don't think the CIA was necessarily smarter or better at their brands of spycraft, "Navalny" shows that if anything, we are firmly passed that classic era, except Putin's powerful enough to think that he's still in it, and that it doesn't matter what detractors like Navalny might say. Why are all dictators so damn stupid?)

Anyway, "Navalny" won the Best Documentary Oscar and I can see why. Navalny is a compelling man with a compelling story, one that's still getting told. He might someday, somehow overthrow Putin, and that shift towards a more Democratic Russia could have its own potential issues. (While Navalny himself is generally on the Left-to-far left, the constant presence of Putin's control over Russia has made him literally march with some more far-right bedfellows in the painfully slow march towards Russian Democracy. In the meantime, Navalny is one clever court jester, hopefully one of many figures that are picking and prodding at Putin's continued reign. Hey, he can't kill all his enemies, literally.


AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER (2022) Director: James Cameron

⭐⭐



I guess before I start this review, I don't think I've ever actually expressed my thought on "Avatar" before, so, let's get that out of the way:

(Clears throat)  

Ahem. There is a certain James Cameron style and approach to filmmaking, and I like his films the farther and farther away that he gets from that style, so I enjoyed "Avatar", a lot,... for about the first ninety minutes or so. In fact, I might dare say, that, if the movie ended at about that point, I could easily see myself ranking the film among the best movies of the 2000s decade. Then, the movie turned into a James Cameron action film, and I frickin' hated all that. I've never cared for James Cameron to be honest; admittedly I gotta catch up on a lot of his back catalog, but I have not particularly liked what I have seen. Actually, that's not entirely fair..., well, except for "True Lies", which is just, trash. Sorry, I'll never understand why anybody likes that one, but I guess "Titanic", eh,- well, that movie is just weird in general to me. It's not a technically bad film, but I've never found it as interesting or as compelling as everyone else did at the time and to a degree seems to now. Cameron's movies are strange to me, like, I can watch them once and generally give them a pass, but if I ever try to watch them more than that, the flaws and the simplicity of his stories really start to burst out at me. 

Actually, that's why "Avatar" ultimately, pissed me off; it's never been so much that he decided to create that hugely elaborate, beautiful and amazing new world, and then used it as a battleground, although that does piss me off, but it just annoys me that, it feels like, in his case, turning this land into a battleground, was the only thing he could think to do with it. I do tend to get annoyed at that trope in general when there's a fantasy world that we spend all this time learning about, experiencing and living in, and then, all that ends up in is some giant special-effect blast. Of all the things that pissed me off about "Avengers: Civil War", and there are a lot, the biggest one that pissed me off the most was Wakanda just being used as a sight for a huge Avengers defeat. I just learned about this Wakanda place, loved this place, and now you're just destroying this place; and all I can think is, what the fuck was the point of all that to begin with then? There's so many other interesting and intriguing stories you can tell with that world..., and "Avatar" just felt the same way; the last hour-long fight at the end, it should've been the end of like, the fourth movie, not the first! (You know, actually,- I take that back, I don't really get why it should've been the end of any of the movies; why create this world just to threaten it with destruction? Can't you just enjoy your creations and let it wash over us?)

For comparison, let's look a movie that clearly "Avatar" wanted to be based on how much they stole from it, Hayao Miyazaki's "Princess Mononoke"; now that's a movie about a stranger coming into and learning about a foreign fantasy land and there's a giant battle at the end of that movie as well, but the conflict of that battle, is complicated, and filled with complexities that go beyond the simple meatheaded military conflicts of a colonizing force wanting and striving to overtake a more natural group tribe of locals. The battle, comes around, naturally, because of the complexity of the situations and of the people, the natural evolution and changes in beliefs and technology, and therefore the battle for power is really a battle for survival in a world, where only one way of life can and will survive, and that's regardless of whether the factions fight each other or not. One side is dying out and the other side, might not survive themselves if they don't seek to take out the others...,- it's so much more intriguing and elaborate, and meanwhile, "Avatar", just doesn't have that kind of complexity. Some may argue about the implications and metaphor it's making for the sins and ills of colonization, but, like, it's barely metaphor, and this can be done in much more subtle and complex ways. Off the top of my head, even something like "Dances With Wolves", isn't so simplistic with it's details of the Americans raping of the indigenous lands and genocide of it's peoples. 

Or even, Terence Malick's "The New World" is much more elaborate and nuanced than the story seems on the surface. I mention that one, 'cause I wonder if Cameron is trying to be Terence Malick with this film. I know that seems like a strange comp, but especially in the opening, of "Avatar: The Way of Water", with the editing of the family sequences and the voiceover, it does feel a bit like he's trying to evoke the gravitas of a Malick epic, before the ships from Earth come back in, in an attempt to do the same stupid thing the humans were trying to do in the first film, only dumber,- (Well,- not-, actually yeah, let's go with dumber.) and they're now after Jake (Sam Worthington) as well as his whole family. 

And I do mean they're back, kinda.... The same group of villains are here, only this time, they're avatars themselves. Except they're not exactly the same villains, they're Na'avi avatars, who were inserted with the memories of the past fallen warriors who died years ago, so they essentially are, like powerful zombie clone avatar versions of them. They're not after the unobtanium anymore, per se, but instead, they're looking for tulkun, a whale-like creature who have a substance in their brains called Amrita that prevents human aging, so instead they're now after that substance and have brought in some marine biologists and harpoonists to go chasing after them. 

Okay, this is what-, why would you do this? Like, I get, why the military is here to overtake the land, I've read American history, I get how colonialism works, but like, why would they do this? Like, okay, maybe in a desperate move, after all else fails, this would make sense, but like, it's almost like this was Plan A to bring back these soldiers, from the dead, to fight the indigenous peoples who took them out the first time? First of all, I don't want to see these people at all, even in the first movie these cartoon villains pissed me off. (Jesus, a lot of things piss me off with this film!) And they are cartoon villains; there's like one, like, half-a-line from a monologue from Edie Falco, who plays like, the main general, about how is the Earth is dying? And that pacifying the natives on Pandora can lead to them being able to colonize and find a hypothetical new home, but you never actually believe that, and besides, since we're dealing with zombie clone soldiers of evil soldiers from before, who the hell cares?  

And why, just go after Sully, and his family, so much that they decide to leave their forest and instead live amongst a far off island tribe who connect with tulkuns unlike the forest people who connect with, the flying hornet-like dragon things? (I don't remember what anything was called, I'm trying to follow a Collider guide while I'm writing this. Pandora's a beautiful world, but for a story so simple, it's fantasy is too complex) I guess, it's because Sully is like, the one main skillful soldier who can out-maneuver the humans attacks in guerrilla warfare, but, I don't know, I still feel like following him across Pandora to take him out specifically feels like a strange strategy. Wouldn't you rather have like, a multi-pronged attack from several direction on multiple parts and directions, especially if the tulkuns are the more valuable resource now, why aren't they more focused on going after the more coastal tribes connected to the tulkun anyways-... not to mention, just coming to attack the Naa'vi is just stupid, when you could just come as refugees if the Earth really is dying like they say? You tried this already, the Na'avi are aware of working with other humans for years who are friendly....- MY GOD! Are these space-traveling earthlings just fucking incompetents idiots and jackasses in the future!?!?!??!?!?

I think I'm just focusing on all of this so much because it's the stuff that keeps ruining this franchise for me. Like, Jake and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) start a family, that's fine. There's conflict with the humans, that's fine, if it wasn't stupid and this conflicts leads them to head off to another part of Pandora and have to discover and learn more about the world and different parts of their world, that all makes sense, and is interesting on paper, even this idea of the island Na'avi connecting more closely with the water creatures, this is all intriguing and fascinating, and yet, I can't get into it, because I know what's coming. The last hour of the movie is basically an action movie, and a James Cameron action movie at that, and this one, comes complete with, apparently Cameron's new trademark, a sinking goddamn ship! Again! At least, with the first "Avatar", you didn't know that the conflict was coming up and I could actually be impressed and intrigued with the world they were showing, but here, in this film, I was impressed by the visuals, but I wasn't impressed by the world itself. I wasn't getting my hopes up, 'cause I didn't want to get built up to see it annihilated and massacred again. 

The fact that the villains are so single-mindedly military and bullish; it undercuts everything that would otherwise be fascinating after "Avatar", about this world that's apparently ingrained deep inside James Cameron's mind. Also, it doesn't help that it's been done a little better at times. I can't have been the only one who was thinking a lot about the "How to Train Your Dragon" sequels and wishing they were watching them while watching this. Actually, I can go into a long rant about how they should just make these films animated, but Cameron loves his goddamn special effects. "Avatar: The Way of Water", feels like a stew of all the worst indulgences and tendencies James Cameron has. Maybe others see some of these things as fun, with Cameron, but I never have, and frankly for as long as he takes to make these movies, now, like...; I know I'm just watching on a DVD or streaming on some streaming service, but I feel like I'm watching a lot of ingredients for an elaborate seven-course meal come into the kitchen and then when I sit down at the restaurant to eat, I find all the least fattening and unappetizing parts of those ingredients prepared in the least appetizing ways possible, and only in three courses instead of seven, but still getting charged for the whole seven I was hoping and imagining I would get. Like the kind of meal where sauce is presented in foam form. That's what James Cameron movies feel like to me the more I see them, and especially this one.

 
BARBIE (2023) Director: Greta Gerwig

⭐⭐⭐⭐1/2

  

I’ve been forgetting to talk about this, but the guys over at the Geekcast Radio Network, invited me to submit a ballot for them in a poll. I’ve participated in a few of their polls before, and occasionally we’ve gotten into some spirited debates, sometimes a little way too spirited admittedly but they’re good guys; this time they did the Top 100 Greatest Toys of All-Time. I had plans to post my ballot here on this blog, but life got in the way and frankly I just didn’t feel like it, at the time, and frankly I just forgot the whole thing existed it until recently. Here are the links to their podcasts where they reveal the final results:

And if you’re interested, I did eventually post my ballot on my FB pages, so if you want to look at that you can.

(Shrugs)

I think it’s a good list, but-eh, it’s apparently very different than the results that the GCRN crowd and group came up with. I did expect that, to a degree; I typically am the outlier in this voting group. Also, apparently people like playing with action figures way more than I ever did. (They sent every voter a reminder packet of toys to consider and separated them into a bunch of different categories. Action figures, took up like four or five pages, and before I saw the packet, I was debating whether or not action figures as a whole were worth putting on the list at all. I did ultimately put a couple on there, and maybe should’ve put “Star Wars” on their at least, considering their importance but I’m sorry action figures just annoyed me growing up. I don’t get how they were so appealing to others) Also, another spoiler, my number one missed the list entirely, which was playing cards! How the f- how do action figure for TV shows that lasted like thirteen episodes make the list, but a deck of cards doesn’t make it! I know it just missed, but c’mon! You can do anything with a deck of cards, all action figures do is stay there and break if you do anything to them!-

I’m sorry, I had a point I was making… Oh, yeah, anyway, on my ballot I ranked Barbie number six.

(Shrugs)

I think it was a good spot for her. I never played much with “Barbie” (Margot Robbie) myself growing up, although I never had anything particularly against Barbie either, which actually makes me unusual ‘cause nearly everybody else in the world does have something against Barbie. Boys hated Barbie ‘cause they were girls, girls hated Barbie for a litany of reasons that would take up a book if I went into detail over all of them, although if I had to boil it down, most of the reasons were because Barbie is a girl, and of course everybody hates Ken (Ryan Gosling) including Barbie, who I believe officially broke up with him, around the mid-2000s I think. (Google search) Yeah, Feb. 14, 2004, oh on Valentine's Day too! Damn Barbie, that's a bitch move!.... So, there you go, everybody hates Barbie. But, a “Barbie” movie has always been a weird thing to me. In fact, any Barbie media on film or television or home video, has always sounded weird, ‘cause, well, who is Barbie? Frankly, I couldn’t particularly tell you. Barbie is…- whoever or whatever Barbie needs to be or whoever you want her to be. She’s,- ummm,- she’s an image of admiration, I guess, but- it’s hard to explain, even if you’ve lived in a world that’s been shaped by Barbie literally your whole life. She is and has become so malleable over the years that, it’s hard for me to actually believe, literally anyone or anything actually is Barbie, so how would you create a story about here?

Well, a few people gave it a shot over-the-years; I’ve been following this film project back when Amy Schumer was originally tasked for writing and starring in the film, and even before then, the project was stuck in pre-production Hell forever. I love Amy Schumer, but I get why she would’ve been the wrong choice here, even if you wanted to do a spoof of Barbie, it’s a fine line to take a product and also be able to satirize it, while also selling it and I don’t know if that really was in her wheelhouse. Frankly, I’m half-amazed it’s in anybody’s, but eventually, Greta Gerwig took over the project and I suspect she started from scratch.
 
Or, actually, I think she started from “Enchanted”. Yeah, I don’t know if anybody’s compared these two, but “Barbie” struck me as a sardonic version of “Enchanted”. Instead of a fairy tale princess in the real world, we just have a Barbie girl in a Barbie World. Literally, Barbie, lives with all the other Barbies in her own dreamhouse in her owl dreamworld where everything is perfect. Except she begins to have thoughts of death and other disturbing ideas. Then, her feet become flat and other odd things start happening. She can’t fly down from her rooftop anymore, her toast got burnt, even the Lizzo song interrupts her day to ask if she’s okay. It’s weird. Eventually, she ends up getting help from Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon), the Barbie who got played with a little too hard and rough in the real world. She’s like the Barbie World medicine woman who everybody makes fun of behind her back and to her face, even if everybody kinda begrudgingly respects her.
 
Robbie is Stereotypical Barbie, so she’s the most bubble-headed bleach blonde of them all, even to the point of being completely oblivious to Ken’s needs and desires to be with her. In this world, Ken’s are just there to be at the beckon call and will of Barbie, but apparently something is amiss, so before things get any wronger or stranger for her, she decides to leave for the Real World, to find the girl playing with her, figuring that solving her emotional crises could help her get over hers. Ken tags along, and immediately, they get arrested a couple times, as they begin rollerblading on the West Coast, and realize that they don’t have a lot of money or the means to get by, and eventually two stranger dimwits going around half dressed saying their Barbie and Ken, gets the attention of the Mattel people. Apparently this has happened before, y’know, but with Skipper, so nobody cared, and they need to get Barbie back to BarbieLand. (They're not so much worried about Ken being out.)
 
Eventually, Barbie does find out about how much or how poorly Barbie’s influenced the world, eventually finding her owner, Gloria (America Ferrara) a Mattel employee who’s struggling raising her angst-filled daughter, Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt). Meanwhile, Ken learns about patriarchy and begins embracing a more machismo view of the world and the media he’s apart of. While he’s not equipped to get the male positions in society that he really desires, he goes back to Barbieland and immediately starts changing things in order to make all the Kens more dominant in decisions and the Barbies becoming more subservient to them. This is actually kind of a improvement from “Enchanted” but it’s still just as goofy. It’s just goofy and definitely has a sharper point about society at large.
 
That makes sense. In a way, if you can describe Barbie, it’s that she’s always been a representative of the times that she’s around. When she started, in was in the 1950s, and my Aunt Patty had one of the early original Barbie that would’ve made me buttloads of money if my grandmother hadn’t toss it away not-knowning the value that doll would’ve had now. Back then, just the idea of a doll that wasn’t a baby or child for a child herself was a novel idea, the idea being that she could become the adult that the girl would envision. What that adult is, eventually could be anybody and continue to evolve and change based on what society has thought that “anybody” could or should be. So, the film, taking the approach of comparing an ideal Barbie World, to the real world, and then seeing the collision between them, how Barbie struggles to have the influence/impact on the world that was originally intended, and then seeing that ideal world, ruined by an idea of a Ken-dominated patriarchy…- it’s definitely subversive, and at times, really funny, even if it is still a commercial, although Mattel doesn’t necessarily come off that ideal in it, but I don’t think they care that much. I mean, they’ve had a couple female CEOs in the past, so they’re good?

How good is “Barbie” though… Well, I don’t know honestly. I’ve been debating this one myself. It’s apparently beloved for its sharpness and wit, it’s made most of the award season, including the Oscars. I can’t completely tell if it’s truly that good. I guess in order to really see just how good it, I have to think about, exactly what it could’ve been, ‘cause absolutely this could’ve been awful. Most toy adaptations are questionable-at-best, despite many of them being much more easily adaptable to the feature film format. I mean, I’ve never like G.I. Joe, but I get why that could be a movie franchise. (Yes, I left G.I. Joe off my poll, not only is G.I. Joe an action figure that sucks, but he’s caused more harm to society than Barbie has done. [There’s your controversial “Barbie” opinion for you]) Barbie, really could’ve been as empty and blank as a stereotypical barbie doll, and it probably would’ve still been big, but Greta Gerwig is a lot smarter than that. She made not only “Lady Bird”, but also the best adaptation yet of “Little Women”; in fact, her “Little Women” is very much the key to this film. That movie is also about recontextualizing a text, and a very feminine one at that, and then looking at how it was essentially corrupted and reinterpreted by a more masculine patriarchal structure before being put out into the world, and essentially revealing just how that itself has effected the world; how Louisa May Alcott had to change the ending despite finding love not being representative of Alcott’s own vision. That’s what makes her perfect for Barbie. Gerwig’s constantly struggling to find an equal place in a masculine-controlled world. Hell, even her Best Director snubs in recent years can be interpreted as such, and it’s all through her material. “Barbie”’s just the most populous and pronounced product that she’s supplementing this conflict through. It’s also probably the most obvious medium you could express this ache and frustration through.

In that respects, “Barbie” is exactly the only movie that could’ve been made, at least the only one with any emotional power at all. It’s still a blatant commercial, but in a way, it’s the best kind of blatant commercial, the one that’s honest enough about it to show its greatest faults warts and all. Good job, Ms. Roberts, you got about as good movie out of you as you possibly could’ve been. (Yeah, Barbie’s actual full name is Barbie Millicent Roberts. That’s my favorite Barbie fact; I guess because knowing her middle name is Millie shows just how old she actually is.) 


TRIANGLE OF SADNESS (2022) Director: Ruben Ostlund 

⭐⭐⭐⭐1/2


I think if I was more, in the mood or willing, I'd probably write a more analytical look at Ruben Ostlund's first English-language feature "Triangle of Sadness"; the metaphorical significance of what he's saying or trying to get at or analyze, but I don't think that makes the movie more entertaining or enjoyable. Besides, it basically boils down to, "Let's laugh at the capitalist rich and famous," which is fine by me and more than enough, but "Triangle of Sadness," just takes such a deliriously absurdist and surrealist takes on it, that it's just too much fun to actually dissect. Besides, this story is just too absurd to secretly be about the Russian Revolution or anything like that anyway. 

Ostlund's movies, while they're all various forms of dark comedy, they're all really about taking a look at the accepted norms of humanity and society and then breaking them, and breaking them down, tearing away the artifice and facade, and showing them for the incompetence and unimportance they are. The film is titled after a cosmetic term; a "Triangle of Sadness" is basically what a bag that grows under one's eye is called, and it's something that botox injections are famous for trying to alleviate. 

The movie itself is separated into three segments. The first showcase a pairing of a couple, Carl (Harris Dickinson) a male model and Yaya (Charli Dean) a social influencer. This feels like it's in the same universe as Ostlund's last film, the absurdist satire of the high art world, "The Square", and the two characters get into a very elaborate discussion over money and how they much they make. 

The second, and longest segment, takes place on a cruise ship that Carl and Yaya are on, a trip they got free due to her fame as an influencer. There's other couples there, mostly older couples. I don't want to give too much away about them, but the big thing you want to know about them is that, through a series of scenarios too ridiculous and absurd to fully describe, they eventually put all their lives on the line, in several ways, during the cruise's "Captain's Dinner", where they honored their inebriated Captain (Woody Harrelson). The slow build-up and watching all these eccentric and mostly rich characters, unaware of how their own little insistences led to such, nauseating problems for themselves and everyone on board, the movie finally kinda started working for me. 'Cause, this is basically a Jacques Tati film this whole sequence. It's "Playtime" at sea basically. You can look at every little detail if you want, but really think about it, would the entire sequence make any less sense, if M. Hulot was walking around everyone and everything during this scene? If anything, that's what this movie needs. If you like these kind of slow-moving setups, for Tati to come in and make a mockery out of everything, this sequence is perfect for you. 

Inevitably, the ship gets blown up by pirates in the middle of this, stranding and shipwrecking fellow passengers, luckily most of the castaways that we've been following throughout the boat trip. On the island, with everybody else seemingly cos-plays as the Thurston Howell III and his wife, that leaves, the toilet maid Abigail (Dolly De Leon), eventually becoming the leader of the group, being that she's the only one who can catch food, build a fire, basically do anything to survive on their own. Now, if you're me, than the movie this part reminds you of, is Lina Wertmuller's "Swept Away...." and it isn't exactly off per se. At one point, she even has Carl, basically as a sex slave in order to get extra amenities for him and Yaya. This goes on, until even this situation, falls into a twisted perversion of power and wealth dynamics running amuck. 

"Triangle of Sadness" probably inspires me the least of Ostlund's recent outings, but it's hard to top "Force Majeure" which is simply a brilliant and nearly perfect script, but "Triangle of Sadness" feels like a modern-day Luis Bunuel film, particular at his most surrealistic. You could easily play this on a double feature with "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie" or "The Exterminating Angel" and feel like you're watching the same story just told fifty years apart. I've listed a lot of filmmakers off in this video, I can probably list more; I'm sure I won't be the first review to mention "Monty Python's The Meaning of Life" in a review of this film, but you know what all these artists have in common is that their approaches to filmmaking and their style of filmmaking and storytelling were very at-odds with the times they were working in. They were all rebellious filmmakers who's work constantly challenged the norms of filmmaking, and often of society. Even Tati always seemed out-of-time-and-place; he seemed like an old comic from the silent days who accidentally stumbled into a modern film and modern world. And they were all satirists too, maybe not always comedically per se, but they saw the world as a joke and sham that needed to be exposed for the flaccid incompetence that was really behind them. "Triangle of Sadness" takes dead-aim, and if it does falter, it's only because the power and oligarchy that he's making fun are just the same ones that have been around forever now. Only, this one takes Instagram photos of pasta dishes that they don't eat at the dinner party that they can't seem to leave. 


EO (2022) Director: Jerzy Skolimowski

⭐⭐⭐


There's a famous movie called "Au Hasard Balthazar"; it was made in the '60s and basically the movie follows a donkey from it's birth, an through several owners, almost all of whom mistreat the donkey in various ways over the years, and then, the movie ends with the donkey's passing. The point of the movie is that, the donkey, just keeps doing whatever he's doing, whatever's asked or required of him and he doesn't react with any callousness or any other recognizable emotion or reaction, he's a donkey. I've seen the movie, I've even thought about revisiting it a few times over the years, but I gotta admit I've always been a little reluctant to do so. It's by a filmmaker who I haven't talked a lot about over the years, Robert Bresson. If you talk to most of the really big critics over the years and some of the really big filmmakers as well, they'll often list Bresson as one of the all-time greats, and it's not that their wrong, 'cause I've seen more than a few Bresson films and all of them are great films, but I tend to find him, much harder to connect to than others. 

For one thing, his films were really religious. Christian to be exact. Not necessarily in content, like I said, one of his more famous films is just following a donkey, but the idea of that film even, is that the donkey, and his life, is representative, of life as a whole and how we should live it, in this very reserved, evangelical counsels way. No money, no fuss, just going about your day and doing what you can and should, it's almost saint-like some people describe it. A lot of this also has to do with his unique filmmaking style. He didn't like professional actors 'cause he was a severe minimalist, only shooting the most essential details and didn't want his performers to express much emotion; he would often wear out his actors, shooting and re-shooting scenes until they gave almost no emotion in their performances. The effect is, fascinating; it makes you pay attention more intently, but the lack of emotion also means you gotta essentially start putting your own emotions onto the characters and situation; it's almost like some kind of a reverse audience Kuleshov Effect. 

Essentially, "Eo", which is, one of the absolutely most annoying-titled films to search through when trying to find it on a word document, is essentially a modern remake of "Au Hasard Balthasar". It's definitely not exact, but a lot of the elements are there. The donkey's named Eo, and when we first meet him, he's working for a circus act, which is getting protested for them using animals. He gets sold to a stable, where the horses run free, which, I guess, Eo, finds.... um, yeah, I think it's implied that he finds the horses being free, inspiring. He ends up working at a labor farm where Kassandra (Sandra Drzymalska), the person who he performed with during their act, visits for his birthday. That's the last time he sees her as she ends up escaping and into a brutal and chaotic, often violent world. At one point, he gets adopted by an amateur soccer team. At another, he ends up nearly killing a man who works at a fur factory. He gets befriended by a priest, Vito (Lorenzo Zurzolo), and by "befriend", I guess, talks to Eo like a person and not like a donkey. Vito has a gambling problem, that his stepmom, The Countess (Isabelle Huppert, weirdly) complains about him enough. Eventually, Eo does end up dying, he ends up, somehow in a slaughterhouse and gets caught up in the line. 

Honestly, I don't know what to make of most of this. "Eo" is in many ways, just as out-of-reach for people like me as "Au Hasard Baltazar" can be, but even in that film's episodic nature, there are a few continuous threads going on, and a lot of it actually does tie into Baltazar specifically. Clearly, "Eo" isn't entirely random either, but it's weird, 'cause the movie seems to be indicating that Eo, has a lot more agency in his actions than Baltazar had. The whole point of "Au Hasard Baltazar" is that everything that happens to him, and is out of his control, in "Eo", I don't think that's entirely what he's going for. I still kinda read it that way, but at multiple points, Eo seeks out freedom and escapes into the world, and it's indicating that he was inspired to do this. I guess, you can read it like that, since he grew up originally in the circus and that kind of free-spiritedness is inside him, but eh, I don't know. I feel it's just a little hard to be believable. I kinda have the same problem with Steven Spielberg's "War Horse", that essentially we have to be putting these extra human actions and emotions onto an animal that frankly, eh, I question whether or not a donkey is an animal that's really capable of it, and especially a real donkey. Six different donkeys played the role of Eo, not that I could tell them apart, but this isn't a special effect film. It's impressive in that regard; despite the advancements in CGI technology, and yes, the horrors of some of the more exploitative stories of animals on set, I do miss real animals in stuff. 

The thing is, they only, kinda go along with this idea that he's in control of certain actions and not in control of others, so I don't really know the intent by this decision. It makes it actually feel less meaningful and more pointless to me if the movie is indicating that he does have motivation and desire to act out, and not have it just be, something that happens. It would make the story, like, he got out of his bondage, and then, bad things happen to him, and ultimately, it doesn't work, and he dies like all the other animals. Eh, it's not as inspiring or moving. The tragedy is that, Eo doesn't have the freedom, right? Would that just be too close to "Au Hasard Baltazar"? 

Maybe. The film was an Oscar-nominee for Best International Film, as was directed by the legendary Polish filmmaker Jerzy Skolimowski, and he's had a very eclectic career in Europe and the United States, both in front of and behind the camera. He's 84 years old and started work as a screenwriter for Andrej Wadja, one of the all-time great Polish filmmakers. (His film "Ashes and Diamonds" is basically the Polish version of "Rebel Without a Cause") Skolimowski's been a little bit of everything though, he's an award-winning writer-director, he gave it up to paint in L.A. for a couple decades, he was a boxer at one point in college, he came into film through architecture like Fritz Lang had...- he's basically one of those renaissance guys who's done everything. Hell, he even had a minor role in "The Avengers", and six decades after writing the dialogue for Roman Polanski's breakout feature "Knife in the Water", he's writing his next feature film. (I'll let the penal colony determine their own judgements on that one, but whatever..., they're legends of the Polish New Wave) Probably his biggest films in America was 1970's "Deep End" and 1982's "Moonlighting". I haven't seen either of those films, and I also haven't watched too many other feature films he's directed unfortunately, so while I can list off the list of people he's worked with, I don't really have a sense of his style or motifs as a director. Nor, do I really get, why he wanted to make this film of all things. 

I could speculate, the idea of stardom with the circus and then breaking free and getting beaten down by the constant search for fame, from the donkey, and then seeing, that strange robot, could be, the failure of the donkey being replaced with a machine, then he's exploited,.... I-eh, I don't know. I feel like trying to make logical sense out of the film is just stretching. "EO", is fine, as a movie, but it's thin when you analyze it any deeper than that. It's a well-made and interesting homage to Bresson, but interesting is about it. I'll still barely recommend it, but there's probably better introductions to Skolimowski and I hope to explore them someday.


ALL THAT BREATHES (2022) Director: Shaunak Sen

⭐⭐⭐


I guess my initials thoughts while watching "All That Breathes" were some variation on the idea that, "Well, I guess somebody has to." It's one of those things, looking at the greater world that you do wonder, why and how somebody would focus their time and energy, into something like what the brothers in "All That Breathes" do. The Shehzad Brothers live in Delha, a city that's recently been both a political hotbed center in the world, as well as, in some cases very paradoxically, one of the biggest and most technically advance in the world. That however has lead to pollution. Now in some of America's bigger cities, we're kinda use to waking up to some smoky gray skies, or in the old days in Las Vegas, dirt brown skies, but in recent years, certain big American cities have started alleviating that problem. Delhi however, is a little slow on renovating the air quality and that has led to a phenomenon of, birds dying. 

Yeah, birds. Black kites to be specific, and some of them have been literally falling out of the sky. And the brothers have over the years started collecting and helping them heal, building a sanctuary for them. "All That Breathes" is a meditative look at having such a,- well, I don't know what the word would be, but as we see the brothers as they continue to find and help heal these birds, the discussion often runs towards some of the political activities going on in the country. I can barely understand a lot of it, India's politics have always been a little on-edge, caste systems and several various groups, there's been a controversial populist movement in the country in recent years. I'm not gonna I understand most of it, but the main conflict of the film, is that, when you're surround by, a greater chaos, what's the point of just of birds. 

And mean birds at that. Blue kites are predators, but traditionally, the locals would throw meat up at them to eat and I guess it, some kind of good luck. I wasn't entirely sure about that, but like, they're raptors, which I didn't even realize is a kind of bird, which,- seems a little +Hitchcockian-like foreboding for me, but you know, the struggles of the birds are indeed, an effect of the problems with Delhi right now. And yeah, I mean, birds are falling out of the sky, somebody has got to help back into the air. 

The movie was directed by Shaunak Sen, it's his second feature, his second feature, the first one I've seen. His previous feature, "Cities of Sleep" was about the homeless of Delhi and the struggles for them to get beds at night at the local shelter. Apparently the health of the city is important to him and he shot over 400 hours of footage of "All That Breathes". I'm not surprised, but it still felt like a bit of a struggle to come up with a true narrative, and I'm not surprised by that either. I can kinda see how this film more than others would appeal to the Academy members as the movie got nominated for Best Documentary. Normally I'm not as big anymore on these meditative documentaries on life being lived, but "All That Breathes" does put it in a bigger context. it might strain itself trying to reach it sometimes, but it gets there. I probably appreciate more than I like it, but at least it's aiming to soar, even if it just mostly flutters. 


EMPIRE OF LIGHT (2022) Director: Sam Mendes

⭐⭐⭐


It admittedly feels weird trying to review a movie that's essentially about how great the old moviehouses used to be, to be writing a review on a blog while listening to some Youtube video, which I occasionally pause on the TV to watch different Youtube videos on my computer, while listening to a podcast on Spotify on my tablet, but here we are. That said, "Empire of Light" did continue to capture my attention. 

That said, it is underwhelming in hindsight, especially for Sam Mendes. I always felt he's mostly been overlooked as one of our great directors. "1917" was regarded as a comeback for him to many, which-, I don't really get. Maybe it's that he didn't originally come from film; he's probably more of a theater director than a filmmaker, it might be that the modern reevaluation on his debut breakout feature "American Beauty" hasn't been kind and most people still associate him mainly with that film, (Even though they're wrong, it's still a masterpiece) Yet, here's the thing, he's never made a bad movie. In fact, I think most of his other films are pretty damn good. "Road to Perdition" is in my Canon of Film along with "American Beauty", "1917" will probably be there eventually. "Revolutionary Road" was a damn-near masterpiece, "Jarhead is a fascinating anti-war movie about Persian Gulf. Okay, "Spectre" isn't the greatest Bond film, but "Away We Go" is an underrated comedic gem. Plus he also did "Skyfall" and that is up there with any James Bond. Exactly, how and why doesn't he get more credit and appreciation? 

Even "Empire of Light", it's a bit flawed and cliched, but it's got some moments. The "Empire" is a classic old-school moviehouse on the Eastern shore on the English coast. It takes during the early eighties, around the time "Chariots of Fire" was coming out. Hillary (Olivia Colman) is the leader of a nice little crew of people running the Empire. She herself, doesn't actually watch a lot of movies, and is actually fairly quiet it seems; she's been doing this longer than anybody and has seen everything. She's also taking lithium now, and the only person she really talks to occasionally is her doctor. And her boss, Donald (Colin Firth) who she's having an affair with, and it's a rather depressing affair at that. 

Eventually, she befriends a new employee, Stephen (Michael Ward), a young man who's family came from Trinidad. Right around the time of the upheaval of in the UK of race attacks. (Sighs) Margaret Thatcher just totally sucked; I'm sure there's more that needs and should be said there but that's about all that really needs to be said. Anyway, she starts a relationship with him, a tender one that includes romance in the upper abandoned theaters, where they take care of a bird that's nesting. He does have his own relationships with people his own age and ethnicity; he befriends a nurse named Ruby (Crystal Clark) for instance, but he's more drawn to Hillary at first. Both of whom have one good acquaintance in Norman (Toby Jones) the projectionist. He's another of those older male projectionists who can spout poetry about about the magic of movies, and the projector. I guess he's not the romantic blind schemer character like, say, Alfredo in "Cinema Paradiso" or anything but it interesting to me that, at the end of the movie, a movie is played for one character and a book is given as a gift to another. I like that idea, that a gift to remind one another of stuff is art. 

That said though, I think the problem is that these two stories aren't exactly good at being connected. I'm leaving out a point about Hillary's condition, that's partially a reveal, partially shown ahead of time, but either way,- you know something's up but you don't realize how bad it is until much later in the movie, but I'm not sure it was ever gonna be good.  The movie that I was reminded most of was "Educating Rita", another movie about two characters who fall in love through each of them experiencing their own diverse worlds. That movie has simplistic reveals about each of their main characters as well, and honestly it's not as deep as it thinks it is. (Apparently the play was better, and I believe that) "Empire of Light" is not that bad. The May-December is a little more interesting and intricate. I don't know, it just doesn't have the magic of the kind of romance that it's trying to force on us. It's more idea than story,- perhaps if it was a more in-depth miniseries I would like it more, but eh, for Mendes's worst film I can still kinda appreciate what he was trying to do at least. 

It's a shame though. This could've been better. 


DECISION TO LEAVE (2022) Director: PARK Chan-wook

⭐⭐⭐


It took me a few times to even push my way through "Decision to Leave", the latest from the great Korean director PARK Chan-wook. I wasn't really big on him until his previous feature film "The Handmaiden", which, was actually inspired by a book by British author Sarah Waters. It worked pretty well anyway, because, well, Waters is a pretty good writer to begin with, but the themes that that film developed through the complex class relationships between their characters, actually held a lot more metaphorical value. "Decision to Leave" though, is just as western in influence, it's basically a romantic thriller, but I'm not sure it's actually a good one, or if there's a greater depth to it that I'm missing. Personally I kept watching it and found myself thinking about more interesting recent neo-noirs. "Basic Instinct" came to my mind a lot, which is unfortunate 'cause "Decision to Leave" is way better than that film, but compared to something like say "Body Heat", ehhh.

Yeah, "Decision to Leave" is basically one of those films, that neo-noir erotic thriller film where a detective on a case, Hae-Jun (PARK Hae-il) falls in love with a suspect, in this case, the wife of a immigration officer Seo-Rae (TANG Wei) who's husband was found off the edge of a mountain. Seo-Rae is a Chinese emigrant who works as a caregiver for elderly patients, and was found with both several unexplained bruises, plus a unique tattoo that matches the markings on some of her husband's prized possessions, possibly indication something nefarious. She also seemed noticeably unshaken by her husband's death and Hae-jun is soon watching Seo-Rae under surveillance as they suspect foul play. 

Little is found, but he becomes infatuated with her. Hae-jun is already an insomniac, and while he is married, he rarely sees his wife due to her job, and he becomes getting closer to Seo-Rae. Eventually, he falls for the femme fatale, and they begin a relationship but eventually it does end, only for them to reconnect later when she's with another guy and eventually they reconnect when she's with that other guy, Ho-Shin (PARK Yong-Woo) who also, soon later, winds up dead under suspicious circumstances. 

Honestly, PARK Chan-wook's films have, been much more hit-and-miss for me over the years, and sometimes it does take me a while. It took me a couple viewings before I really understood the power of "Oldboy", his big breakout film in the West, in fact, I hated that film at first, but eventually I warmed up to it. Park is more western-influence than most of the big Korean filmmakers, like I said, his best film is an adaptation of a British work, and even "Oldboy" is basically a reimaging of "The Count of Monte Cristo". His vampire film "Thirst" is pretty popular as a vampire goth romance, that's pretty western all-in-all, and it's okay, but I didn't care much at all for "Stoker" his only English language film, even if it was basically a reworking of Alfred Hitchcock's "Shadow of a Doubt". 

I think that's my issue with him, I think Park just lacks depth sometimes and is more-or-less attempting to coast on doing interpretations of these other genres and films without always adding greater context to them. It makes me think that when their is something else to them, that it's almost entirely by accident moreso than intent. Compare him to say BONG Joon-ho, I don't love everything he's ever made, but even his worst film, which for the record is "The Host", which is basically a Godzilla film, and frankly I can't stand it but, it's got a lot of subtext going on, like the origin of that monster and how it relates to the ways that the sins of the rich western world has hurt other countries. PARK's films, I don't always see that, and when that's not there and all you see is the genre, you kinda feel deflated. 

Perhaps I am missing more than I should, I guess there is something with the notion of a Chinese emigrant coming in, and suddenly those who've brought her in have sudden passings, but, eh, I feel like I'm stretching with that. I think Seo-Rae is basically just another femme fatale who tries to get away with murder by manipulating the detective investigating her, and perhaps I've just seen too many of those films. I mean it's less sexual than most of those erotic thrillers that loved this kind of plot, especially the '80s and early '90s ones and that's mostly for the better. In fact, it's not nearly as sexual as you'd expect, that's a positive. I found "Decision to Leave" better than most of those movies, which isn't saying much, most of those films were pretty sketchy, and it's not in the great category either. 

I'll say this, "Decision to Leave" marks the last film I'll get on DVD from Netflix, so for that, it means something to me. That means something, but I wish it was a better film though. It's okay if you just want something familiar-but-new, but if you're looking for a transcendent take on a classic genre, eh, I didn't get that.  


HAPPENING (2022) Director: Audrey Diwan

⭐⭐⭐1/2


Out of curiosity, after I watched "Happening," I googled what year it was that France made abortion legal, it's 1975, but more importantly, I ran into a recent article talking about how next year, France will have abortion legalization ingrained into their Constitution. Huh, can't help but notice the irony, being in today's America, where our backwards-ass Supreme Court reversed Roe and the right is doing their damnedest to backpedal without actually backpedaling on the issue. 

So, "Happening" feels particularly prescient at the moment to us, but perhaps to more civilized and progressive parts of the world, it plays like a reminder of the horrors of the way life use to be, and not as a foreshadowing of the ways the world will become if we don't fucking fix this. 

I'm not gonna get too political with the film though. Every so often, even without abortion being in the news, it's important to be reminded of where we were and how far, or how little, we've come. The film takes place in 1963 France, and Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei) is a precocious and ambitious young student in the dorms. Even though, sex is a constant discussion amongst the girls, even the supposedly prudish ones, somehow Anne's the one that's been branded as the slut, because occasionally she has a one-night stand or two. Of course, she ends up pregnant though, and begins to struggle to get an abortion. No doctors will help her, one of them even lies and gives her pills to make the embryo stronger, which- how was that not illegal?- and she seems to continually ostracize all the coeds and professors around her. To me, this is a little unclear why she's rubs everybody around her the wrong way, but it doesn't help that when asked, she doesn't speak up as much as she should. One of her Professors, Prof. Barnac (Pio Marmai) seems like he'd be more sympathetic if she ever let him in on her problems, but perhaps since she's shunned or misguided everywhere else, Anne's reluctant to share her struggles and pain. 

Perhaps this is just, the time period too. This is the story of a successful abortion in technicality only. "Happening" is adapted from Annie Ernaux's memoir, the Nobel Laureate and was directed by the Lebanese-born French screenwriter, Audrey Diwan, who'd been a go-to screenwriter for a while after years a journalist and she noted how personal the novel was to her. The movie swept the Venice Film Festival among other accolades. It was her first big breakout hit as a director, and she's now directing...- 

(Stares at IMDB. page with wide eyes!) 

"Emmanuelle"? 

Seriously, they're remaking that? Huh, they won't put it in the XRCO Hall of Fame, but it's getting remade again. 

Oh-kay, that'll be interesting. Anyway I can understand Diwan's devotion to the story and this is a good time to tell it. It sucks that I do have so many other films I can compare this too though, 'cause I would recommend, say Mike Leigh's "Vera Drake" or Eliza Hittman's "Never Rarely Sometimes Always", or  Christian Mingiu's "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" over this. Although that shows just how prescient and important this subject is that so many films and filmmakers are tackling this issue. "Happening" There is something to be said about the way it's done here though. 

More than once, Anne talks about the baby as an illness, and how it's the sickness that turns women into housewives. That's odd enough, and definitely true feelings that many women have, although, in hindsight, I realize how rare the actual word "abortion" was uttered from her, or anybody for that matter. Something so taboo has a lot of euphemisms doesn't it? "Happening" is definitely one of them. 


X (2022) Director: Ti West

⭐⭐⭐



I gotta admit, I get a little chuckle every time I hear somebody talk about how they're going to make porn that's more artistic and even make it mainstream. Believe it or not, that kind of thinking still exists. I think I once heard porn director Kayden Kross a few years ago, talking about how she had intended to make a film  that, with some edits for the really adult content would actually be able to be shown in mainstream theaters. Believe it or not, that's actually happened before. Not lately, but there were a couple attempts at that back in the early '80s before the home video market completely took over the porn industry. 

I bring this up because "X", this, artistic horror movie from writer/director Ti West, follows one of those crews hellbent on making one of those kind of artistic porns. Of course, the movie takes place in l979, and admittedly looks it, especially with the farm aesthetic and the gorgeous cinematography the movie does indeed look like, well, a lot more of those supposedly artistic porn movie than you'd think. The film could've been on double feature bill with a Bethel Buckalew film. The film takes place in Texas in the 1979, and this Houston-based crew have rented out a small side house to a farm out in the middle of nowhere owned by a Howard (Stephen Ure) who's the kind of old-time farmer in the middle of nowhere you'd expect in these kind of movies, the ones that open their doors with their shotgun in hand. He warns about his elusive wife, but they all plan on avoiding them at all cost while they quickly film this artistic porno film.

So, trying to describe the rest of the movie is tricky.... For one thing, the movie isn't really complete, it's actually part one of a trilogy of films, all starring Mia Goth, in a duel/role as one of the actresses, Maxxxine, with three X's and as Pearl, deep in makeup as the wife. The second movie is "Pearl", and it's high on my Netflix queue, I'll get to it soon enough, with the third film being "Maxxxine", that's currently in post-production. So far, I'm not entirely sure, why, she's playing both roles, other than Mia Goth is probably just that fascinating a muse, which I can understand. I haven't seen her in much, but she takes on some brave roles when she does. There's actually quite a few interesting actors here, Jenna Ortega from "Wednesday" plays a girlfriend of the film's writer/editor RJ (Owen Campbell) Another couple porn actors are played by Brittany Snow, slightly against type here, and her boyfriend is Scott 'Kid Cudi' Mescusi, I didn't even know he acted, but he's actually quite good here as a former Vietnam vet who went into porn and reminds me a lot of Eddie Steeples's Crabman from "My Name is... Earl". 

I guess the parallels of youth and attraction also helps in the double-role. A lot of the conflict, before the movie turns into a blood-soaked disaster, is about that gray area between love, sex and art, and then, when the old couple eventually make their feelings known, the idea of youth, sex and beauty comes into the story. I'm not sure exactly what he's saying about it, other than using this conflict as a reason to get to some horror deaths,... I guess that's my issue in that, while I appreciate the influences and look and style of the film, and the attention to the details, I just don't know or think there's much else to the film though. Compare these horrors to say, Jordan Peele's movies, there's just as much detail and ideas in those films, but they're making bigger points and using the motifs of the genre to create more unique and personalized points, and in that light, "X" feels rather miniscule in comparison. I'm still gonna recommend it for doing just enough to create an interesting and different take on the genre, but I wonder if the movie itself is just as shallow artistically as those porno films from the past were. Hey, it's true, sometimes they were making art as well. 


PEARL (2022) Director: Ti West 

⭐⭐⭐



Okay, I think I get Ti West now. 

I was intrigued by "X", his previous feature, took place in the late '70s and followed a ragtag group of filmmakers trying to make an artistic porno, but unfortunately running into the wrong farmhouse. And the wrong Farmer's wife, Pearl (Mia Goth). 

Now, we got "Pearl", the origin story prequel. Why did we need an origin story to "X".... Umm,- no, we didn't. Honestly, most prequels I don't think we really need, especially horror prequels, but I at least get why West would do it now. He loves old movies. He loves movies and filmmaking in general. That's why "X" genuinely did look like old '70s porn, and "Pearl" opens with credits that feels like an old Douglas Sirk movie from the '50s. 

Of course it strays from that aesthetic into horror, but actually narratively, it doesn't stray that much. Pearl is the story of a small-town young war bride during the end of WWII, who's  stuck living in her family home with her demanding mother (Tandi Wright) and her nearly-catatonic and disabled father (Matthew Sutherland). She dreams of eventually becoming a star and is excited about an audition for a traveling group of dancers, who are holding an audition in town, and while her mother won't let her go, and insists on just dealing and living with what you have and not have such high goals and dreams, she doesn't recognize the clear-cut fact that Pearl is frickin' insane. 

Like, really crazy, insane. We learn that in "X" of course, but in "X" she's this sexed-crazed old woman who's as murderous as she is lecherous. In this movie, it's hard to tell whether she started that way or became that way, but she does get pushed by having a brief affair with a sleezy film projectionist (David Corenswet) who shows her some very early stag films. I don't quite know what to make of all this, but I kinda like that about "Pearl". Most of the time, I feel like giving movie villains a genuinely sensible excuse or explanation for their actions, is kinda,- well, it takes away from the villain's power and influence. Sometimes, the scariest stuff is that which isn't naturally explained. We don't exactly get an explanation, just a series of events per se in "Pearl". 

Or maybe, I'm just more sympathetic because I like the film's throwback style as well as the performance of Mia Goth. This is partially her story as well. Originally, their was no plans for a sequel, but after shooting "X" in New Zealand, the cast got stuck in the area after COVID and they decided to come together for a prequel since they were still around and still had the set.  So, I kinda like that it feels kinda half-formed as a true sequel and ends on such a twisted note, leaving us to fill in a lot of blanks. All that said, despite West's flair for circumventing the aesthetics and expectations of classic movie genres, the movie only really works because of Goth. She's been one of the more daring young actresses around for the last few years, and she's used these films to really thrust herself into the breakout roles. In many ways, "Pearl" is actually kind of a demo reel of all her skills and work not just showing what she's done up til now, but what she's really capable of doing. The movie is kinda reminds me of is actually "Jolene" a movie that would otherwise not be noteworthy except for how it shows Jessica Chastain as basically any part you can ever possibly imagine her being cast in. "Pearl" is a little more interesting artistically than that, but it basically serves the same purpose. I don't know which film is better, but I think I slightly prefer "Pearl", and I'm looking forward, although admittedly, I am slightly worried about "Maxxxine"; they might've had too much time to think about it and try to make something too coherent for this series. Hopefully, I'll be proven wrong.


SAINT OMER (2023) Director: Alice Diop

⭐⭐1/2 
 

"Saint Omer" has one of those strange conceit plots that,- eh, well, it's hard to explain but essentially, it's a movie that's more about how a character reacts to the events and actions of others, as opposed to just being about those events. There's ways to kinda do this well, "Nocturnal Animals" essentially comes to my mind, but I don't like that example, because that film is a little too complex. It's about a character reading a book, and what that story and book means to her. "Saint Omer", is kinda trying to do something, similar, but not really. It doesn't help, that also this isn't a fictional tale at all, in fact, it's autobiographical, sorta.... 

It's hard to explain. Let's start with the filmmaker, Alice Diop. No relation to the famous Senegalese filmmakers Mati Diop and her famous father Djibril Diop Mambety, but she is Senegelese, but mostly until now a documentary filmmaker, and even then, I think I might argue that she's been more a journalist than a filmmaker. In fact, this movie, "Saint Omer" is actually about a case that she was a journalist on. And it's about her, being a journalist on the trial of this case. It's from her perspective, or at least, the surrogate character's perspective, Rama (Kayije Kagame). She's a pregnant young journalist, from Senegalese immigrant parents, and she's in a relationship with a Frenchman outside her nationality and heritage. 
The trial, is a murder case where a young Senagalese woman, Laurence (Guslagie Malanda) is on trial for murdering her 15-month old daughter. A daughter, she had in secret, and didn't tell her French boyfriend about, and has issues with her Senagelese immigrant family. 

This is, based on a real trial, and an infamous one that Alice Diop herself was in the courtroom for, and reported on. I don't know if she intended to interpret the story as a modern day telling of "Madea", in the movie she's a literature professor, and finds the story intriguing, but eventually, begins to find the story, more meaningful to her. Laurence confessed to allowing her daughter to drown on the beach, believing that the witchcraft and evil forces led her to the decisions she made. This was a big trial in France and attracted a lot of attention, especially from women notably, many of whom sat in on the trial from the beginning to the end.

Now, the trial itself is kinda interesting, and I'd be interested in a story about Fabienne Kabou, the woman Malanda's story is based on. There's been good stories about mothers who, for one reason or another begin to lose it mentally. The Joachin Lafosse film "Our Children" comes to my mind; that movie's still harrowing to me. "Saint Omer" is not though. It's too disconnected to me; it wants to tell the story of how a trial affected her and frankly, all it really does is point out the similarities between them, and yeah, I guess, we do become fascinated by cases and random things we see on TV and in movies that reminds us of ourselves and viewing how somebody's life, especially when we see how troubled they are, just how different our life is to theirs, or how close our life could be to theirs, it is fascinating. It's not really a movie though, I don't think. 

This movie has gotten a lot of praise, but I'm not seeing it. I think there's some interesting stuff here, but the perspective is just all wrong. I get that it's personal and it's her first non-documentary feature, so I get why the film is like this, but it just doesn't work. There's a way to do this, maybe focus more on her personal life, and then intercut more with the trial instead of being as meticulously detailed about recreating the trial.... I don't know, once you start with the off-perspective to a story, if you're not doing something with it, it becomes tricky and the plot becomes too distancing to really cover and make up for it.


THE VELVET UNDERGROUND (2021) Director: Todd Haynes

⭐⭐⭐⭐


You know, I'm fairly knowledgeable about the history of rock'n'roll, the evolution of it to be exact, and how the major cornerstone artists and trends changed, altered, reinvented and reimagined the genre, and-, the thing is, I rarely, if ever, think about The Velvet Underground on that paradigm chart. In one way, they kinda don't belong there; in another way, it feels more fitting to actually put them outside of that chart. They are influential and groundbreaking, their music was way ahead of their time. And yet, I don't think about them. Trying to explain or examine their importance and influence, within the history of rock'n'roll is, just is too difficult. I mean, I can go through the same talking points that others make, that while The Beatles were doing "I Want To Hold Your Hand", The Velvet Underground were doing songs like "Heroin", or whatever, but what does that even mean, how exactly do you characterize that? (Shrugs) I don't really know. They don't follow or start any trends, they weren't successful, John Cage talks about how he once got a $2.37 check and that was more money than he ever made with the Underground. I rarely if ever hear their songs on the radio, and if I do, it's usually not their version, it's usually like Cowboy Junkies's cover of "Sweet Jane" for instance. They don't come from the same music backgrounds and inspirations as everyone else did from their era, and hell I barely think of them in terms of music at all; I tend to place them more into the New York Underground Pop Art movement of the '60s than I do, anything else that was going on. They were progenitors to hard rock and punk I guess, but they're not really hard rock, and they were too good a musicians to really be listed as pre-punk. They weren't hippie, West Coast or East Coast. Honestly, I think it's easier to fit Frank Zappa onto this chart. 

Luckily, Todd Haynes, doesn't try to do that. He knows the story of "The Velvet Underground" can't fit into a traditional rockumentary narrative. "The Velvet Underground" is naturally more of a mood piece, as much as the music is. My big nickname for the Velvet Underground myself is the House Band at the Factory and it is probably more important and accurate to look and think about them in terms of their relationship with Andy Warhol and their place with his whole scene than any analysis of trying to connect them to the music scene of the time. The movie itself, while it does have some talking heads, it's mostly footage and that's been collected over the years. The idea is to get us right inside of all aspects of the band and the scene they were apart of. Perhaps it does that in the content, but I mostly just fell into the tone and the mood. Like their music, "The Velvet Underground", is music that sets and places you in a particular vibe. It's one of the frustration of addiction and personal struggle, especially when it seems bathed around you with peace and love that feels just as counterintuitive as the Nixon-era squares that were really running the country. They told stories of the disenfranchised, those shunned by society. Those who were addicts, those who were gay, those who were just struggling with life in general. 

"The Velvet Underground" goes through the band's history well-enough, but it more than succeeds at creating a visual tone of the band and their music overall. If you like the band you'll like the movie henceforth. If you don't, well, maybe you'll find the experience it's own hallucinogenic wave for a few hours enjoyable anyway.