21 Jump Street (2012)

Revisiting this movie, I’m struck by a couple of things. First off, I think it’s mostly very funny, though like most movies with a weird gimmick the setup until they get to the point (them in high school in this instance) is pretty clunky. It’s also a pretty sweet movie in its own dumb way, following most bro-y high school movies in having parts where it really does try to say something about friendship and growing up and letting go of certain things. So yes, funny and touching. Let’s just get that out of the way.

The problem is that around all that is the crud of this toxic jovial masculinity that is pervasive in all these movies, be they penned by Apatow or Rogen or Hill or any of the people who make these kinds of movies anymore. They try to tackle these complicated emotions in the context of a funny movie, but then they fall again and again into two major lazy traps: homophobia and misogyny. None of it feels particularly conscious, but it’s there in many scenes, and the movies seem totally unaware of how jarring their ‘meanings’ are when compared to how people are treated along the margins of the film

First, the homophobia. I get it: dicks are funny. I have one, I know, they’re goofy god damn appendages and the minute a boy hits puberty he knows that his junk is ridiculous. I don’t have any problem with dick jokes in general, because whatever, right? The problem is that those jokes are often in the context of two bros talking about or inflicting their dicks on the other, through ‘playful’ humping or the casual male teen insults of ‘suck my dick’ or whatever, that all rankle with a latent sense of gay panic. Dicks are ubiquitous, but the worst thing anyone could do would be to take their presence seriously sexually, because that’s gay and being gay is scary and weird.

Which extrapolates out to the treatment of women. If dicks, and the men that are attached to them, are the norm, then women are automatically the strange Other. In this instance the movie tries to have a not-quite-romance between Jonah Hill and Brie Larson where the moral is they don’t hook up because adults don’t sleep with high school girls? But that’s hardly a thing to cheer for when the lead makes that conclusion. And when he gives her this speech, after lying to her and using her beyond what was necessary for his job, about how she shouldn’t ever go for assholes like him, how comforting is it that she smiles and they have a moment? Because of course so long as you say sorry predatory behavior and emotional manipulation  are just lovably unfortunate character quirks, right?

The problem is this is seemingly every movie of this type anymore. It’s only the rare film that’s made by women, be it Bridesmaids or The Heat or whatever else, that seems to side step this kind of casual disregard for anything that isn’t in the true bro status quo. For a movie about how two people have to learn to move past the shit they held onto in high school, 21 Jump Street is lock step with the teenage boy mindset of ‘bros before hos’ and ‘no homo’ all the way into its shitty, sweaty grave. Which is a shame, because all of it is totally superfluous to the actual story, which has plenty of jokes that aren’t at anyone’s expense.

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No More Excuses (1968)

The movies of Robert Downey Sr. are all surreal and uncomfortable, and No More Excuses settles into that groove from the very beginning. It’s five stories: one, about the assassination of President Garfield; two, a civil war soldier finds himself in the present day; three, a man representing SIPA (the Society of Indecency Prevention in Animals) talks about the evils of pantsless pets; four, a man breaks into an apartment to have sex with a woman, only to find her more welcoming than he expected; five, a series of interviews with people in New York City singles bars, shot by Downey as footage for an ABC news segment. The whole thing becomes a spinning collage of various stories, none of them interconnected aside from them all being interconnected.

A story about the sexual conduct of America, No More Excuses is a movie about the narrative that we’re a culture on the brink of falling into sexual deviance, and that there is a constant crisis of morality happening in every corner of this nation. On the one hand, you have the story of the intruder, a ridiculous sex romp that is absurdist and free-wheeling. On the other you have SIPA, that argues that if we don’t clothe our dogs, they will one day rise up and overthrow us for subjecting them to a life of indecency. And in the middle? The crush of reality, millions of young people on the prowl looking for love and sex wherever they can find it, the teeming mass of the basic instincts of this strange human being animal.

The thing is, the slope of morality has always been slippery, but only in the framing of the uptight status quo refusing to admit the realities of those around them. Young people get together and have sex. Lots of it. Adults do too. That was true in the 60s, that’s true now, and the movie even illustrates through the seeming non sequitur of President Garfield that it was true in the 1800s. Indecency is forever, sexual revolution is in many ways only the myth of the changing of generations told and re-told, and there will always be some dour faced middle aged guy denouncing it all as the end times for wholesome American values.

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Her (2013)

The most incredible thing about Her is that it feels so inevitable and so unremarkable. The story of a man who begins to develop a relationship with a new, intelligent and learning operating system, Her is science fiction that goes out of its way to sidestep all of major beats a story about AI typically has. They aren’t really persecuted (though sometimes misunderstood), there’s no point where the humans try to destroy what they’ve made, and there’s no moment where the AI’s try to destroy their creators. In fact, the movie is almost completely free of traditional conflict, instead believing in the power of two beings with vastly different trajectories coming into contact and what that does to both of them.

And that’s where the true magic of Her lies. In eschewing the typical directions this story goes in in mainstream storytelling, instead what we witness is a quiet rumination on personhood and wrestling with the nature of being—both from a program becoming something much more complicated and from a person trying to put themselves back together after a long depression. The movie doesn’t even go out of its way to show that both are so linked together, because it is increasingly becoming less and less of a leap to just accept the reality of this potential future.

There’s a bot on twitter currently called @greatartbot, that regularly posts an image created through some sort of randomization algorithm. There’s a program called Emily Howell that creates music based on learning the fundamental rules of music theory. Emily’s creator has put out two albums of that music under the name Emily Howell. When Samantha, the OS voiced by Scarlett Johansson, plays a piece of music she wrote deep into the film, and it is treated as a moment of a human being recognizing the art and significance of a creation of a not-human-being, I thought back to these things that already exist. Are we hurtling towards the world depicted in this movie? At least in the broad strokes, I feel like we’re already on the cusp of it.

What is the difference between a computer program and the human mind. We create one and the other forms on its own? Perhaps. But biology would say that the human mind is just a collection of neurons that takes in input and then grows to recombine it in increasingly complex ways. If a program can do that, where’s the difference? If art is already being created by computer, and we feel something, isn’t that just as real? The definition of what is a real interaction and real relationship is a murky one at best now, much less what might happen in a decade or two. And Her offers up that truth, giving us just enough vague future tech to make us see this as a place we’re eventually going, even as it reflects back at us the world we live in right now.

One more real world example: in 2009 a Japanese man married his girlfriend. He had to go to Guam to find someone who would perform the ceremony. That’s because his girlfriend was a character in the video game Love Plus, a Nintendo DS game that’s expressly about forming a relationship between one of the characters and the player. It became a silly ‘look at this weirdo’ think piece around the internet at the time, but by and large it’s simply a thing that happened in the world, generally unknown and if remarked on mostly in puzzled, vaguely dismissive tones. That’s one person in one (admittedly less intense) situation, but nobody lost their minds. Some people would look at that and just shrug, others might question the guy’s ability to form real relationships. And that’s exactly how people react in the world Spike Jonze depicts as awaiting us. It doesn’t. In many ways, it’s already here.

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Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

Sometimes people are just fuck ups. Inside Llewyn Davis is about one of those, a hard luck case who generates most of his own troubles in his desire to suffer for his own art. It’s a complicated thing that the Coen brothers do with this tale of a down and out folk musician in 1961 New York, because they create a character that you both root for but ultimately can’t really feel good about. He’s an asshole, a guy who uses people and refuses to compromise, but lashes out when the world won’t cooperate with that sort of viewpoint. And it doesn’t, repeatedly.

That’s the source of a lot of humor in this movie, which I would call a fairly broad comedy despite the fact that everything happening within it is portrayed as deathly serious. There’s a certain profundity to the Coens’ tales of the cosmos shitting upon one human being, and it allows us to laugh at the pains that we all feel we’re subjected to day by day. Sure, things are bad, but at least we aren’t this fuckin’ guy. Anything but couch surfing and self loathing, which seems to be all Llewyn can muster. As it is, we sit and watch, knowing through the hindsight of history that he’s a man living on the cusp of his entire way of life becoming the ‘in’ thing in the culture, but him increasingly wanting to get out and set everything he worked for on fire.

The thing that I found most striking about this long example of self-generated suffering is how out of sorts Llewyn seems with the people of the time. He is, in many ways, the avatar for modern man, and the America that surrounds him feels weird on all sides. Most people are squares, both of the honest variety and the secretly-square future hippies that bring him around to pat themselves on the back for having a poor artistic friend. But the counter-culture is just as bad, out of touch and irrelevant, burnt out beat poets and old jazz musicians, still living a 50s-style world that’s white and unaware and seemingly over the world. That the 60s are about to come and wash it all away just increases the irrelevancy of their pontifications about the nature of their existence, and our own ability to discount them. Fools, they don’t even see the tides turning.

Of course, that’s the trick of this kind of movie. We laugh at them and hopefully realize we’re laughing at ourselves, all of the foibles of being a person who has dreams and makes plans in a world that doesn’t care what you aspire to. Fate is bigger than any feeling we might have, or goal we might be working towards, and all you can do is ride the wave when it comes crashing onto the shore and hope that you have fun instead of getting dashed against the rocks. Inside Llewyn Davis is a story of a man who doesn’t know how to laugh, and so he suffers, but in a way that we are not unkind towards. He deserves it, but we wish him well all the same. That incongruity is a magic all its own, the kind only great storytellers can wield so deftly.

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The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

The Wolf of Wall Street ends with its ‘hero’, Jordan Belfort, free and clear of all consequences and trying to sell to a rapt audience at a conference in New Zealand. The very last shot, a still of the rows of seats slack jawed and hanging on Belfort’s very word, is one of the most pointed mirrors of the audience one could ask for. Who are we, but people who have sat enraptured by Belfort’s tale of greed and excess for the past three hours, hanging on every word and somehow incredulous that the whole thing could be true.

Of course it’s not true, because Belfort’s narration contradicts what we’re shown on screen more than once, as cars change color and events play out in entirely different ways sober and under the influence. This lack of reliability extends to the movie itself, a tale that wraps itself in the American dream and the glamour of all the money and power so many people aspire to in capitalist society, even as it unravels faced with the inherent destruction such a story causes in its wake.

People have called The Wolf of Wall Street a glamorization of the criminals it purports to be about, but I’m not sure how anyone could look at these people and see someone you would want to emulate. They’re monsters, their greed and hunger for all things matched only by their power to go and get it. They’re buffoons who devour drugs and people as much as they do money, cartoonish in their drug-fueled stupidity and arrogance. But that’s not to say they make them into a farce for our amusement, though perhaps a shallower reading would come to this result. Instead, what this does is pour gasoline on what should already be a fire of resentment within each and every one of us for the fact that our lives are so dominated in real life by people as dense and as childishly greedy and insanely out of touch with reality. The fortunes of the world rest on people like Belfort, who takes quaaludes so powerful he has to snort a whole vial of coke to get off of his kitchen floor.

The Wolf of Wall Street is an angry movie, angry about the reality of the way things are, and wrapping its knives in laughter only so that we may feel the message that more keenly. These are the assholes that rule the world, look at their smallness and wonder: how have we let this happen? Why do we allow these people to get away with all their money over and over again, shifting from one ruinous scheme to another? The world is full of men like Belfort, and they are the kings of the world, with nobody raising hands against them.

Scorsese doesn’t provide any sort of answer, but he illustrates the problem with a deftness that is profound. Belfort’s world is one in which all the non-white people are in the background serving them, and all the women are in states of undress servicing them, because that’s his powerful man dream, the juvenile power fantasy made real. In glimpses, we see the other America, the one through the eyes of the investigator sent to bring him down: muted, relatable, full of diversity and dressed women and people of color not wearing butler outfits. Why does one not rise up and destroy the other for the cancer that it is? Because men like Belfort can sell. They can sell poison, they can sell pens, and they can sell everyday folk on the dream that these are heroes to aspire to, and that one day people like you and me might be just like them.

And so far, it seems, it’s working.

 

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The Movies of 2014 and The Great Dictator

I return to this blog after many months away unsure what to even say. I have no good excuse for letting it lie fallow: I had many plans and machinations for things to do with it, and then suddenly my taste for writing about films dried up completely. I saw an incredibly low number of films in 2013, instead spending my time reading and playing games and starting other projects that I hope will never get as out of my control as this blog once did.

That said, I have a stated goal in 2014 to write about every piece of media (be it a book or movie or game) that I consume, and so I return here to talk about the movies I watch, albeit in a much briefer form than before. These aren’t really reviews and I doubt they’re anything one might consider criticism, but they are more for me than for any audience I might once have had. If you stay with me, thank you. If you’ve already forgotten this less-than-notable space of the internet, I would never hold that against you.

The Great Dictator (1940)

I’ve had this on Blu-Ray for months, waiting for a good opportunity to crack it open and give it a first watch. The New Year seemed like as good a reason as any, and thus I open my year with one of Chaplin’s most notable works. This is a movie I went into knowing nearly everything about, having seen the speech in videos in the internet and knowing the history of its production and many of its most notable scenes going in. Difficult and unfair things for a movie to contend with, to be sure.

The thing, then, that I’m brought to (as I always am with Chaplin) is just how human his movies are. The evils are banal and equal turns full of bravado and only accidentally effectual. The good is often cowardly, selfish, but ultimately compassionate. What makes Charlie Chaplin a genius of a filmmaker and an actor isn’t that he is profound, but that he reveals the profundity within the honest intimate truth of human interactions. It isn’t surprising that the call to arms that ends the film is a plea for compassion and hope, because he seems an artist constantly obsessed with both. It is only the cumulative efforts of the small deeds of people who stumble into the opportunities to do good that saves us all from the void, and one has to believe that that’s enough. It’s a very anti-heroic statement, but we have always (despite our best efforts to pretend otherwise) lived in anti-heroic times.

I will say that the sheen of history has made it very strange to see Nazi propaganda and the plight of the Jewish people made so light of in the movie. 1940 was a time when the true understanding of what was happening in Germany was very limited, but that’s not really relevant to my point. It is more that the evolution of how comedy is done in mass market entertainment means that contemporary portrayals of the boogeymen of our times are rarely handled with such buffoonery. Nobody ever made an Osama bin Laden caricature on the level of Adenoid Hynkel (and even lazy attempts to try like Team America only lean into racist stereotyping more than actual parody), and I’m not sure anyone of Chaplin’s caliber would ever try again.

It seems shockingly aggressive for such a mainstream style of film, and initially I was taken aback by it all. While we’re used to silly Hitlers (The Producers, or even Inglourious Basterds) rarely do they also contain within them moments portraying even a smidge of the actual fear and oppression suffered under that regime. The Great Dictator has no such qualms about holding up both the moments of comedy and the unflinching honest truth of tyranny. Which is probably why it endures, when so few pieces of outright propaganda have done so.

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Toho Kaiju Monogatari – Invasion 7: Mothra

Godzilla! One plaintive cry of fear, accompanied by the roar of the biggest baddest monster of the nuclear age, created a cinematic icon that has lasted for well over fifty years. Godzilla, and the associated kaiju movies that sprung up in its destructive wake, not only captured the cultural imagination of people worldwide in the 1950s, but carved out an incredibly vast new genre of science fiction movie that lasts well into the new millennium.

Welcome to Toho Kaiju Monogatari, a year-long weekly series that hopes to not only share the joy of these Godzilla movies, but all the kaiju movies that came out of Toho Studios from 1954 to 2004. Not just Godzilla, but Rodan, Mothra, Japanese King Kong, kaiju-Frankenstein, and dozens more! And you can play along with the adventure, following the full weekly schedule HERE, as we watch men in suits stomp miniatures of famous cities flat for not just our entertainment, but for the history of cinema itself!

So we’ve been firmly entrenched in the early years of kaiju films so far, the wave of movies that appeared after Godzilla all more or less embracing the model of Godzilla with horror elements and a focus on the destructive power and inevitable suffering that’s caused by our own scientific hubris. But on the tail end of this first wave, a new screenwriter would appear: Shinichi Sekizawa, who had a new concept for where to take kaiju films, an idea that would reshape the direction of the genre.

And with it would come the first emergence of the new trend for these movies: successful, relatively cheap adventure films, that eschewed the sobering social commentary of the 50s for something much more adventurous, something much more light-hearted, and something much more fantastical.

mothra

Of all the kaiju movies we’ve seen thus far, none of them have felt as instantly King Kong inspired as Mothra. From the outset, we’re given a mysterious irradiated island where a fishing boat accidentally crashes. The rescue party, heading to this Infant Island expecting to find bodies, finds the fishermen not only healthy but unaffected by the radiation sickness. When they admit that they came across natives that gave them some sort of concoction that cured them, it becomes clear that Infant Island might hold the much-desired secret of curing the affects of radiation. Too bad the press broke into the lab to hear the discovery, and is ready to tell the world the exciting news.

The discovery, however, is also discovered by the Russian-American amalgam/stand-in called Rolisica, who were originally the ones who conducted the nuclear tests and who technically own the rights to whatever is on Infant Island. The Rolisican government then quickly forms a Japanese-Rolisican coalition, roping in the reporters before they can get their story out too far and wide, that is tasked with heading to the island to discover the source of this mysterious power and, if possible, find a way to exploit it. Heading this task force is Clark Nelson (Jerry Ito), a huckster capitalist with a penchant for making money by any means necessary.

A bunch of Japanese people in blackface. Sometimes these movies are gross.

A bunch of Japanese people in blackface. Sometimes these movies are gross.

Once the expedition lands on Infant Island, they quickly discover not only indigenous natives, but the shobijin (translated to small beauties), two women only a foot tall who communicate through song. They seem to be worshiped in some way by the natives, who also have caves full of hieroglyphic writing that the expedition struggles to decipher, seemingly speaking about a guardian spirit called Mothra. The entire expedition seem instantly protective of the identity of the shobijin, outside of Nelson who decides that he can use them to further his own gains by capturing them and bringing them back and putting them on display to sold-out concert halls who will pay to see magical tiny women sing. Needless to say, the expedition isn’t into this idea, and are happy to leave the shobijin in peace, so Nelson takes them in secret and smuggles them back to Tokyo.

All in all, this whole plot is essentially what happens in King Kong, with the shobijin standing in for the gorilla. It’s pretty shameless, but in many ways its the best part of the movie, if only because Nelson is such a scummy guy and the shojibin are the best part of the movie, iconic not-really-performances by musicians The Peanuts. It’s also the start of some really problematic stuff in these films, as the ‘natives’ are an assortment of Japanese actors playing ambiguous ethnicity with the kind of grass skirt, dumb stare stereotypes that belong back in the 1930s but read as really weird here. It’s not quite openly offensive (at least comparatively) yet, but we’re going to see a lot more of this in future movies, so it’s worth noting how big a role it plays here.

Either way, the shojibin begin to perform against their will, singing a song that became instantly famous and video of which will be linked below. The Mothra song is pretty indeible, more so in some ways than the monster itself, which only is revealed halfway into the movie when the natives pray around a mountainside that gives way to reveal a giant egg that slowly begins to crack open. What was hidden away was the eponymous moth-monster itself, who emerges from the egg in a larval state and immediately makes a beeline for Tokyo and the shojibin, connected by telepathy and ready to rescue them to the exclusion of everything in its path.

Really the stars of this movie.

Really the stars of this movie.

The joint forces of the Japanese and Rolisican military aren’t nearly enough to stop the larval form of Mothra from swimming from Infant Island into Tokyo where it proceeds to headbutt the hell out of everything before wrapping itself into a cocoon up against the confines of Tokyo Tower. In the meantime, Nelson takes this opportunity in between the chaos to smuggle the shojibin out of Tokyo and to New Kirk City, a strange fake-New York where everything looks like a set that’s part American city and part European village. It’s here that the reporters and police finally confront Nelson, leading to a shootout where Nelson is killed and the heroes finally get the shojibin back. Just in time, too, as in Japan the cocoon bursts open and suddenly the fully mature adult Mothra takes off, leaving devastation in its wake as it rushes for the shojibin with renewed purpose.

It’s here that the movie hits its weirdest point, as the Rolisicans decide to pray in front of a clearly Christian church for sanctuary from the wrath of Mothra, even as the shojibin send out calming thoughts in order to keep it from destroying New Kirk City when it arrives. Their prayers include a pan up the church itself, until it lights upon a cross with a halo from the sun behind it, which matches a hieroglyphic that the reporters found all the way back on Infant Island at the start of the film, a sort of symbol for Mothra’s protecting godhood. Nobody ever stops to consider the implications, as they rush to get the shojibin to the air field where Mothra is going to land, but essentially the movie collaborates Mothra with some sort of greater mythological deity, a sense that Mothra is an eternal myth and its wrath or protection has echos even in Christian myth.

What Japan thinks America looks like.

What Japan thinks America looks like.

And that might seem rather trivial, but it’s a decided move away from the prehistoric creatures mutated by the hubris of nuclear technology and into the realm of full on adventure-fantasy. Mothra isn’t a metaphor for our own foibles as a people, but a creature from forgotten history, a spiritual mythic legacy that comes back into our modern lives to readjust our perceptions of what is or isn’t possible. The horror of Mothra (if you can claim the movie has horror elements, because it really doesn’t) isn’t that we create our own destruction, but that we bring destruction upon ourselves by forgetting our heritage and not respecting the cultural foundations of others. It’s more socially conscious, and decidedly apolitical, and there’s little surprise that it breezes into the genre and takes a firm hold as the movies begin to step more and more into the realm of the fantastical as kaiju enters the 60s.

Zilla’s American Counterpoint

mothra usThe American version of Mothra manages to cut ten minutes out of the Japanese release, removing a lot of the more overt implications that Rolisica is the United States and managing to remove the entirety of the religious connotations towards the end. Which really just leaves it as another monster movie, which is honestly the weakest part of Mothra as a whole.

I decided to save my general impression of Mothra until now because it’s even more apparent in the US cut, but Mothra is a movie that lays better groundwork than it does work on its own. It’s interesting in themes, but ultimately the story is just a weird rehash of King Kong with the monster mostly removed from the movie. Mothra doesn’t even emerge from its cocoon into the colorful monster everyone knows until the movie is nearly over, and most of the time it’s just flying somewhere. There’s no personality, a general dearth of cool ‘moth destroys stuff’ effects, and just an air of disinterest. It ends up feeling monster-wise like a cut rate retread of Rodan, which did flying monsters infinitely better than Mothra bothers to do.

Mothra egg! I think the kaiju eggs are all really cool in general.

Mothra egg! I think the kaiju eggs are all really cool in general.

Not that the movie is terrible. It’s not as immediately interesting as many of the films that surround it, but Mothra is a cool monster design and the themes that it brings to the genre feel fresh after so many of the serious first-wave kaiju films with their heads firmly stuck in 50s moralizing alarmist tales of science gone awry. It’s great to have some fun and fantasy put on the screen, but it just doesn’t feel like enough. A step in the right direction, but really what the world needs is something ridiculous. Something monumental. Something … like King Kong vs Godzilla.

MONSTER BESTIARY

Mothra – larvalvlcsnap-2013-02-28-17h41m53s16

length: 80 meters
mass: 15,000 metric tons
origin: guardian of Infant Island, hatched from egg

abilities

  • unstoppable by conventional weapons
  • silk spray
  • telepathic link with the Shobijin

weaknesses

  • ???

Mothra – adultvlcsnap-2013-02-28-17h52m08s15

wingspan: 250 meters
mass: 15,000 metric tons
origin: metamorphosis of larval Mothra, emerged from cocoon under Tokyo Tower

abilities

  • super speed
  • destructive gusts from wings
  • telepathic link with Shobijin

weaknesses

  • ???
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