A few months ago I performed my third Pecha Kucha for Edmonton NextGen and two different YouTube videos resulted. The first is the one they uploaded, which gives a better idea of what the whole thing looked like from the audience, while the second is the version I recorded from my phone, which I like more because you can really hear the crowd laughing.
One Too Many
Graffiti Bridge (1990)
Released in 1984, Purple Rain is a film people love and remember less for its actual plot than the fact that it contains nine of the best songs ever recorded (and that’s not even counting the songs performed by The Time and Appolonia 6). It was the film/album that turned Prince from a critically admired prodigy to a culturally beloved musical icon. The film’s look helped to define the excesses of 80s fashion and the album (perhaps the best ever example of the term “All killer no filler”) pushed so many boundaries one track (“Darling Nikki”) directly lead to the creation of the infamous record content warning known as the “Tipper Sticker”.
As a film, Purple Rain is many things, none of which could be reasonably considered “good”, but for all of its casual misogyny, unnecessarily dramatic sub-plots and cardboard character motivations....
It nonetheless succeeds because all of this nonsense is fueled by the sounds of “Let’s Go Crazy”, “When Doves Cry”, “Take Me With U”, “I Would Die For U” and the title track—which in the film allows for perhaps the only truly believable example of a climactic scene where a song’s performance proves so transcendent that it instantly transforms the fortunes of the protagonist.
Both in terms of plot and actual execution, both versions of Purple Rain serve as perfect representations of the idea that the truly talented CAN collaborate without also compromising who they really are. In the film, “The Kid” (Prince’s character is never given an actual name) risks breaking up his band because he refuses to listen to a tape provided to him by Lisa & Wendy, his keyboardist and guitarist (played in the film by Lisa Coleman & Wendy Melvoin, who were in his band—The Revolution—at that time). When circumstances conspire to finally get him to relent and listen to the tape, the result is the performance of “Purple Rain” I rhapsodized about in the previous paragraph.
This was not a wholly fictitious construct. Prior to the recording of Purple Rain, Prince was famous for taking responsibility for all aspects of his recordings—writing, producing and performing every instrument. This—his defining album—marked the first time he let other performers play on his record and—most significantly—share songwriting credit. “Purple Rain” itself succeeds as much as it does because of Wendy’s signature guitar sound, which is unlike anything heard on Prince’s previous albums.
For the first time, Prince allowed himself to be a part of a group and collaborate with others in the hopes of creating something unique and special and he succeeded. And what did he learn from this?
That he really didn’t like it.
The problem with collaborating with others when you’re a genius who CAN do it all, is that it’s very difficult to get out of your own head and listen to them when they tell you you’re heading someplace that just doesn’t work or could be better. At a certain point, this just gets really annoying, so you replace those folks with people who don’t do anything but tell you how awesome you are—which is so much less stressful, even if it means your killer to filler ratio starts to suffer in the process.
Which is where Prince was six years after Purple Rain came out and made him. By then “The Revolution” were no more and he had proved how indomitable he was by turning his Batman soundtrack album into one of 1989s biggest hits with multiple charting singles, despite the fact that it was mostly terrible in all the ways his music could be when his experimental genius hat was on and he ceased caring about anything other than pleasing himself.
This, then, was probably the worst possible time for him to decide to write, direct and star in a sequel to Purple Rain, but if anyone tried to tell him that, he clearly didn’t listen because in 1990 Graffiti Bridge was released.
And—just like Under the Cherry Moon, his previous attempt at cinematic auteurship—it vanished without a trace.
The question is, did it deserve to be so quickly forgotten and dismissed?
Probably, but I still kinda like it. But I’m weird. I mean, I love Xanadu, which is a film Graffiti Bridge has a lot in common with. Both involve supernatural muses, nightclubs and tasteless displays of fashion only marginally related to the eras in which they were created. But the songs in Xanadu are so much better, which is Graffiti Bridge’s true Achilles heel.
It’s a musical about an artist who insists on producing art that doesn’t sell, which would seem more noble if it wasn’t the product of an artist capable of producing some of most saleable music ever recorded. Whereas Purple Rain was about how much we can grow if we open ourselves up to the contributions of others, Graffiti Bridge is about the importance of staying true to yourself even if it means a pretty girl is going to end up getting run over by a truck for no logical reason.
Throughout the film, The Kid (who still doesn’t have a name despite his now pushing past 30) is criticized for playing music that’s too “spiritual”—especially by returning villain, Morris Day, who has graduated from sleazy narcissistic lead singer of The Time to sleazy narcissistic impresario who runs the city’s night life like a mafia don (one who proves his mettle to subordinates by eating hot chilies without wincing).
Over and over again, The Kid is shown to be playing songs that result in shrugs from his audience and though we get the sense that we’re supposed to be going, “What’s the matter with those jerks! That music is amazing!” we often find ourselves shrugging along with them. With the exception of “Round and Round” (performed by Prince discovery and inevitably-abandoned protégé Tevin Campbell) and the ballad “Thieves in the Temple” all of the songs display the level of technical virtuosity we expect, but in the context of the film (if not the soundtrack album) they just lay there and feel like something we’re meant to endure rather than enjoy.
And as this is going on, both Day and The Kid pursue the attention of Aura (Ingrid Chavez, perhaps best known as the co-songwriter of Madonna’s “Justify My Love”), who is literally an angel sent down to live under the titular dwelling to do something that Prince’s script is certainly certain of, but definitely keeps to itself. Chavez is actually quite charming in the role and definitely has an angelic presence, but her character is left to do nothing but recite nonsense Prince evidently believes is poetry and be sacrificed onscreen in the most ridiculous way possible.
It’s her death that finally compels Prince to perform “the” song—the one that is supposed to play the same role “Purple Rain” did in the first film. It’s the song that forces Day to see the error of his ways and leave The Kid alone to explore his genius. It’s the song the reminds everyone how great The Kid is and what his future now holds.
And it’s okay.
Actually, “Still Would Stand All Time” is a very pretty song, but it lacks that special spark of magic found in “Purple Rain”. It’s a perfect example of Prince’s deserved self-confidence becoming his biggest weakness. He clearly thought he had did it again, but Wendy wasn’t there to rip a hair off his chest during a moment of self-importance (which she has claimed was a common occurrence in interviews) and let him know how they could make it even better. And he probably wouldn’t have listened to her if she had.
In the end, Graffiti Bridge is a colourful, antic, archetypically 90s vanity project (featuring gay panic, shameless stereotypes and gratuitous George Clinton) whose central theme is if you try to force Prince to play music he doesn’t want to play a beautiful angel will die.
Which I suppose could be enough to result in a great movie, but didn’t this time. Graffiti Bridge (at least for now) marked the end of Prince’s cinematic ambitions and its failure served as the beginning of a period that saw him battling with his record label while he insisted on pursuing his muse to the point that it began to alienate his audience (especially when he used it to get laid a la Carmen Electra’s solo album).
As a forgotten sequel, the film serves as fair warning to anyone who thinks they can abandon those who helped them achieve a past success—even if you happen to be one of the greatest musical geniuses the world has ever known.
One Too Many
Deep Throat Part II (1974)
There are some films whose value and significance only make sense in a historical context. Birth of a Nation and The Jazz Singer are probably the two best examples of this. The first virtually invented the language of feature filmmaking, while the second played a crucial role in the popularization of sound, but if you ignore this and view them only on the basis of their own narratives, they are excruciating spectacles for a modern audience. One is a racist and historically libelous celebration of the creation of the Klu Klux Klan and the second is a sentimental bore based on the talents of a performer whose charisma has not stood the test of time.
The same is true for another significant film
that is seldom mentioned in the same classes where nascent cinephiles are most likely to first encounter those two mentioned above.
Deep Throat is a film that started a wave whose effects we still feel over four decades after its release in 1972. It could very well be the most successful ever movie made from a pure investment to profit basis (we will never know for sure, because the men who produced and distributed the film were not the sort to be open about their finances—they were the kind of men who compelled the film’s director, Gerard Damiano, to sign away his part of the profits for nothing more than the promise not to kill him).
It was the film that ushered in the wave of 70s “Porno Chic” and its popularity was closer to that of a modern “viral” YouTube video than an actual mainstream film. People went to see it because everyone else was talking about it and everyone was talking about it for a variety of reasons. Some used it to question the very idea of pornography and what that word even meant. Some used it to talk about society’s new openness to sexual experimentation after decades of repression. While many, many others used it to talk about that scene where Linda Lovelace justified the film’s title and inhaled Harry Reems’ impressive member as if it weren’t even there.
What almost no one who saw the film talked about was how good it was and that’s because—by almost every objective standard—it’s an ugly, terrible, often tedious little film. Some cult film fans will defend its sense of humour and spark of liveliness, but what they are describing is the film they want it to be, not the one it actually is.
Deep Throat is a hard film to watch for all the same reasons most pornography is hard to watch—once the negligible story (Lovelace is a young woman who has never had an orgasm, until Dr. Reems explains to her that this is because her clitoris is in her throat, meaning she can only achieve sexual fulfillment through oral sex) stops and a sex scene begins, the film becomes a badly shot and edited documentary that goes on for way too long (and—it should be said—a documentary in which Lovelace’s participation was made mandatory by the fists of her abusive husband).
Seen today, the only thing extraordinary about Deep Throat is how ordinary it is. The ubiquity of such imagery has robbed it of its power. It was the film the world needed at the time, but once that time passed, it lost all of its appeal.
But despite this, Deep Throat still has one major thing going for it—it isn’t Deep Throat Part II.
As you might have guessed, Deep Throat Part II ranks in the Blair Witch Project: Book of Shadows/Babe: Pig in the City/Grease II strata of sequel history—a film whose existence was guaranteed by the success of its originator, but which had so much going against its creation that its failure was just as equally inevitable.
Consider this. As successful as Deep Throat was financially, that success did not come without a significant price. The film and many of those responsible for its existence (including Reems and Lovelace) founds themselves being prosecuted for obscenity across the country, while legislation and ordinances were being enacted to outright ban the film and all others like it in various cities, counties and states.
There was no point in making a sequel to Deep Throat if it meant incurring that same level of legal wrath. But it seemed equally foolish not to capitalize on such a well-known brand. The trials had only done more to turn the film’s title into a household name and it’s subsequent use as the alias of Watergate whistleblower Mark Felt actually made it a part of both political AND popular history.
The solution seemed obvious. Keep the budget low and make the film R-rated. This way the gamble wouldn’t require much financial risk and there would be nothing for the nation’s self-appointed censors to prosecute. In place of Damiano, who wanted nothing to do with the film (signing contracts at gunpoint has a tendency to sour the possibility of future collaborations), Joseph Sarno—who had been making erotic features since the early 60s—was given the assignment to write and direct.
The script he produced sees Lovelace—still a nurse, as she had become in the original film—recruited by the CIA to use her charms in the name of national security. Dilbert Lamb, the programmer responsible for “Oscar”—a sentient computer database capable of keeping track of every citizen in the United States—is a neurotic nerd who has incestuous fantasies about his gray-haired aunt. The bureau hopes Lovelace’s charms will cure his sexual dysfunction and make him less of a potential liability, while the Soviets and some liberal do-gooders send their own emissaries to seduce him in order to obtain secrets and destroy “Oscar” and the invasion of privacy he represents.
Despite being made to be an R-rated film (although for years people have speculated it was actually filmed as a hardcore feature, but all of the sex scenes were cut—Sarno denied this was the case), the film’s cast was taken from the 70s porno scene (including Andrea True, an adult actress turned one hit wonder, whose catchy disco single “More, More, More” would—in the decades that followed—frequently be used as a commercial jingle, despite the fact that it’s about falling in love on a porno set). And despite ostensibly being a “mainstream” movie, Sarno made no effort to eschew his static directing style, which saw his actors reciting their lines standing beside each other in long takes while directly facing the camera.
The result is a film that looks, feels and sounds like porn, without any of the irredeeming qualities that traditionally allow us to ignore and/or abide the genre’s infamous deficiencies. Deep Throat Part II is a film that actually goes out of its way to deny the audience the one thing actually responsible for the first movie’s success. It’s a Godzilla movie without Godzilla, an action movie where no one moves, a musical without any music.
As terrible as Deep Throat is, it still served its purpose. It catered to the decade’s growing prurience at just the right moment and time. It allowed everyone to publically acknowledge that blowjobs were a thing that actually existed. On the whole, there are far worse reasons to exist. But Deep Throat Part II can claim no such virtue. It’s a film that is supposed to be sequel to a film about blowjobs that doesn’t even hint about blowjobs. It literally has no reason to exist.
And that might not have mattered if there was anything else to be found in its 88 excruciating minutes, but the entire film is a black hole of entertainment—the kind where time stands still as you watch it and each second takes on the burden of a lifetime. You will not laugh, you will not be aroused; you will only question every decision that led you to this moment.
Deep Throat is a film that only makes sense in a historical context, but Deep Throat Part II is a film that doesn’t make sense in any context. It’s a title in search of content and the content it finds has been deservedly forgotten.
One Too Many
Avenging Force (1986)
It’s almost like a Zen koan. If a movie studio makes a sequel to a past hit, but casts a different actor in the starring role and doesn’t actually tell anyone that the two films are connected, is it still a sequel?
History is filled with scripts to sequels that never got made and were retrofitted to become original projects (for example, the Anthony Hopkins flop, Solace, began as Ei8ht, a sequel to Se7en that David Fincher ultimately rejected), as well as franchises that continued after their original stars bailed, but Avenging Force is the rare example of a film that was developed and made as a sequel, but then marketed and released without any mention of its connection to the previous film.
This seems especially odd when you consider the film was produced by Menaham Golan and Yoram Globus of Cannon Studios fame—as unabashedly sequel-happy a studio that has ever existed (to the point of being responsible for the most famous sequel title of all-time, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo). As the dudes responsible for not one, but four America Ninja movies, six Lemon Popsicle films, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace and Rambo III, it seems bizarre that they would choose to play down the fact that Avenging Force featured the return of a popular action movie character. In fact, it’s so bizarre that there’s only one reasonable way to explain it.
They were afraid of Chuck Norris.
Because the original film in question was Norris’ Invasion U.S.A. and his refusal to take part in Avenging Force is easily explained once you’ve seen how spectacularly the politics of the two films diverge. According to the IMDb, Norris turned down the role only because he was busy making The Delta Force and Firewalker for Golan & Globus that same year, but the fact is that the production of Avenging Force could have been easily delayed if that was the only issue. No, it went ahead without him because there was no way he would have ever appeared in a film in which he had far more in common with the villains than the hero.
Invasion U.S.A. was the first film for which Norris took a writing credit and it clearly shows. In it, he plays a former CIA operative named Matt Hunter, who—after a life of deadly action and danger—is now content to live a quiet life in the Louisiana Bayou. But his tranquil existence is upended when a group of multi-ethnic communists engage in what is not so much the invasion suggested in the title, but instead a series of random acts of terrorism (including the off-screen bombing of an amusement park carousal filled with children).
Spurred back into action by his sense of outrage and duty, he then proceeds to become a one-man killing machine, mowing down the terrorists like they’re so much tissue paper—to the point that he makes it through the final gauntlet of them without so much as a cut on his cheek or a hair out of place.
It’s a quintessentially 80s cold war action film—devoid of irony or nuance. In fact, the most entertaining part of watching it today comes from laughing at its complete sincerity. It’s a film co-written and starring a man who proudly voted for Ronald Reagan and who would only grow to become more publically conservative as the years went on—“penning” (with liberal dashes of plagiarism) a syndicated column dedicated to his right-wing politics, along with a book entitled Black Belt Patriotism: How to Reawaken America, while also appearing in political ads for Republican presidential wannabe, Mike Huckabee.
We can only imagine then how he reacted when he read screenwriter James Booth’s (a British character actor who would also go on to write the second America Ninja movie) script for the film’s sequel. In continuing the adventures of Matt Hunter, Booth did what a lot of screenwriters do—he looked at what happened in the first film and devised a scenario that reversed it. If in Invasion U.S.A. the villains were psychotic left-wing commie terrorists looking to cause chaos through fear and violence, then in Avenging Force they would be psychotic right-wing members of a secret society hell-bent on using their wealth and influence to mold the country in their survival-of-the-strongest racist worldview.
Not only did Norris read a script that found the villains espousing a philosophy similar (if a lot more cartoonishly extreme) to his own, but it also demanded that at one point he actually say the line, “Because sometimes in politics…you have evil men who won’t stop at anything to get rich and gain power over other people.”
It was as if Booth had taken Norris’ original concept and turned it into a photonegative of itself—turning the former film’s commie-panic into a liberal call to action against right-wing hegemony. So, the reality was that Norris was ALWAYS going to be too “busy” to make Avenging Force, no matter how long they waited for him.
Rather than rewrite the script to better suit Norris’ personal beliefs, the decision was made to film it instead with American Ninja stars Michael Dudikoff and Steve James as Matt and Larry, the doomed black liberal Louisiana senatorial candidate targeted by the right-wing extremists. Directorial duties were handed over to Sam Firstenberg, who had helmed American Ninja, along with the already mentioned Electric Boogaloo and Ninja III: The Domination, a film that bore zero connection to the two other Cannon ninja films beyond the appearance of co-star Sho Kosugi.
The 14-year age difference between Norris and Dudikoff would appear to have necessitated some minor script changes. I’m assuming that in the original script Matt is joined by his young daughter and father rather than the sister and grandfather that appear in the finished film. If I’m right about this, then it begs the obvious question: Why didn’t they just change Matt’s name at the same time and make it a wholly original film?
Clearly the decision to not market it as a sequel was made after it was filmed. It’s easy to imagine that this was to placate Norris, who was not only working on the much more expensive The Delta Force, but who would also go on to make Braddock: Missing in Action III (which he also co-wrote) for Cannon a few years later. Whatever the reason for this, it’s status as a sequel would have likely gone unnoticed were it not for online genre fans noting the repeated use of the Matt Hunter name.
But beyond its status as a cinematic curiosity, how is it as an actual film? Pretty cheesy, but in that classic Cannon 80s action way that has you rooting for it, rather than against it. It’s ultimately as silly and cartoonish as Invasion U.S.A. is, but the change in political direction gives it a novelty that other film lacks. Firstenberg does a good job with the film’s many action set pieces, but whiffs all the film’s emotional beats, which in the hands of a more talented filmmaker could have been seriously devastating.
Dudikoff, a male model who made his way into acting through TV guest spots on shows like “Happy Days”, isn’t anyone’s idea of a great actor, but as Matt he brings a humanity to the character that Norris deliberately eschewed. This version of the character can actually be hurt and he only barely survives the Most Dangerous Game-style hunt he’s forced to endure in order to save his sister.
One thing the two films do have in common is a stubborn refusal to pass the Bechtal Test. Invasion U.S.A.’s only woman character is a journalist who follows Norris around on his adventures, but he barely acknowledges her existence and she has zero impact on the plot, while in Avenging Force the two female characters (Larry’s wife and Matt’s sister) only exist as plot points to drive Matt on his mission of vengeance. On that score, both films fail pretty spectacularly.
The film ends with Hunter warning the fifth and last surviving member of the “Pentangle” secret society that he has his eye on him, promising another sequel that never came. Avenging Force failed to make the same impact at the box office as Invasion had and Dudikoff and co. were tasked with more American Ninja movies instead.
Never released on DVD, Avenging Force appeared on Blu-ray for the first time in 2014 and nowhere in the packaging is the film’s connection to Invasion U.S.A. ever mentioned. But it doesn’t matter, because it stands on its own, especially in its defiance of the prevailing political attitudes of the genre of the time—the rare action film from that period that owes more to Noam Chompsky than it does to Ayn Rand.
No One Can Tell Us We’re Wrong: The Perfection of Pat Benatar Summed Up in in 5 Minutes and 18 Seconds
Note: I originally wrote this for the "Ms. Behaved" blog in 2012, but a recent googling indicated that the site no longer exists, so I'm republishing it here for no other reason than because it's a personal favourite of mine.
A group of women; exploited and abused. Forced to monetize their sexuality in order to survive the unforgiving realities of harsh urban life. Amongst them stands a tiny brunette runaway. Her time in the hall has aged her—she seems like she’s 30, not a teenager forced out into the real world by her intractable father (for reasons unknown). She looks around and sees the environment she works in and deems it unacceptable. She refuses to be pushed around any more. Spurred by the rough actions of their gold-toothed “manager” she snaps and the other girls instantly organize behind her in solidarity.
“Love is a Battlefield” is the greatest music video ever made. Many people—a large majority—may argue otherwise, but they are wrong, no matter how passionately they use such words as “ridiculous”, “dated”, “cheesy” and/or “stupid”. This 5 minute and 18 seconds of artistic excellence is impervious to their criticism for one objective, inarguable reason—Pat Benatar is awesome and anyone who says otherwise is an asshole who doesn’t even deserve to get it.
Few people were actually there to see it, but Pat Benatar cemented her status in pop culture history as the first solo artist to ever appear on MTV. Immediately after the station debuted with The Buggles’ a propos novelty hit, “Video Killed the Radio Star”, Benatar appeared—standing in front of her band in skin tight leather pants and cheeks so covered in rouge it bordered on kabuki-style performance art. She looked directly at us, took our measure and warned—with utter conviction—that we better run.
We better hide.
In a world of Blossom and Bubbles-esque pop stars, Benatar was the Buttercup the world so desperately needed. The tiny, dark-haired rock chick whose rarely seen smile was less an invitation than a taunting declaration—is that all you got? Fucker.
But that hardly made her unique. Many other female performers had blazed the badass trail, but unlike Benatar their musical appeal was based on grit and growls. They sang that way because that was the only way they could sing.
Benatar, though, sang that way because she fucking wanted to. On the same album she could go from the kick-your-ass rock of “You Better Run” and “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” to the angry apocalyptic wail of “Hell is For Children” and still pull off an amazing cover of Kate Bush’s ethereal classic “Wuthering Heights”.
But rather than praise for her obvious talent, many “serious” music fans at the time treated her with disdain and suspicion. For music to have merit, they claimed, it had to be “authentic” and authentic song-craft doesn’t come from trained musicians who have the ability to create any kind of music they please—it comes from damaged souls barely capable of creating breath, much less the messy, ragged tunes they manage to somehow produce.
“Authenticity” is the word the cool kids use to keep everyone else down. It’s specifically designed to keep out those with training and ambition—those who try to use hard work to rise above their station. It insists that everything you do be “real” even though “real” is a concept whose definition changes with every single person on the planet.
Pat Benatar was never “real”—she was awesome, because she wanted to be awesome, which meant that the people who listened to her music could be awesome too, if that’s what they wanted.
And that’s why the video for “Love is a Battlefield” is her crowning, signature achievement. It specifically defies the popular notions of reality and authenticity to create its own world, where its own rules apply and its message is thus—You don’t have to take that shit, if you don’t want to.
Conceived and directed by Bob Giraldi, the video famously revived the archaic practice of taxi dancing when MTV made it clear they wouldn’t air a video about actual prostitution. Rather than hurt the concept, this censorship empowered it. In one of Benatar’s previous songs, she once accused a lover of using “Sex As a Weapon”, but here she turns the tables and uses the skills she picked up from her oppressors to escape from them. It wouldn’t have been the same if she had to fuck her way to freedom.
The video embraces its most ludicrous elements (Benatar’s age, the ridiculous gold toothed “dancehall manager”, that one extra’s tight red shorts) and throws them into the context of the real streets of the city, which we see as she walks and sings her way through them. “Real” and “false” come together, all to serve the same purpose—so that we invest in the journey and celebrate our heroine’s victory, as short lived and bittersweet as it may be.
Played as straight “reality” and it would have been horrific—an urban nightmare of despair and exploitation. But thanks to the false notes found throughout its narrative, it is instead a tale of who we want to be, not who we really are.
And that is important. Those who insist that we only serve the “truth” (as they see it) do so to keep us dancing for dollars one song at a time. The last thing they want is for us to figure out that their “truth” is bullshit and all we have to do to break free is get together.
It is always darkest before the dawn.
-Old Mariner Proverb
Beware: Here There Be Spoilers
-Less Old Internet Proverb
If you were to ask me to pinpoint my favourite scene in any superhero movie, I wouldn’t have to think about it nor would I bother to offer the slightest pretense of thoughtful hesitation.
“Adam West trying to get rid of the bomb on the crowded pier,” I’d say immediately, meaning every word of it.
There is a giddy joy in that sequence that has never been replicated (even though Mr. Schumacher did give it his best—only to prove his best wasn’t quite good enough). It’s also—I believe—proof of my theory that far from being the childish embarrassment many Bat-fans believe that era of Batmania to be, it was actually the most sophisticated (live-action) version of the character we’ve thus seen. Adam West’s Batman remains the coolest of all the Batmans—the James Bond of Batmans, if you will—because (like Roger Moore—the best of all the Bonds*) he is the one who has to endure the most outright silliness, but never once suffers because of it.
As much as I enjoy the Nolan films (and I do), they don’t offer the same transcendent experience as Batman ’66 because they keep themselves a deliberate distance from their source material. West’s cool is effortless, while Nolan’s is that of the insecure teenager who has recently adopted a “cool” personal uniform in the hopes that no one realizes they’re the same jerk who got picked on the year before. There’s an element of adolescent self-loathing in those films that can’t be denied. Rather than embrace what they are, they try to stand apart, which only makes those moments that do reek of comic book contrivance all the more glaring.
So, given that Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is an indirect offshoot of the Nolan-verse, it makes sense for me to criticize it on similar grounds, but I can’t do it, because—even though it evokes a style of comic book storytelling I’m not a huge fan of—I came away from it believing that it actually celebrates that goofiness that draws me to West albeit in a diametrically opposed fashion.
Unlike Nolan, Snyder has made—for good or ill, depending on your point of view—a comic book film that is neither embarrassed about being a comic book film nor one that feels the need to justify it’s existence off the four-colour page. While Batman ’66 looked at the genre and saw the potential for whimsical comedy, BvS takes on its status as the pop mythology of our modern age. While Nolan’s films were essentially slightly elevated crime narratives featuring familiar characters, BvS serves as the beginning of something completely different—an unapologetic DC comic book universe filled with aliens, metahumans, billionaires and ageless Amazon royalty.
As dour as it may seem (and I say “seem” because I actually think it’s far less stern that many suggest), it avoids humour not out of a Nolan-like need to stay “cool”, but instead because it doesn’t feel as though it needs humour to justify its existence.
And I think that’s a valid approach.
Of course, this puts it in stark contrast to Marvel’s superhero universe where—since the first Iron Man—comedy and drama have often been effortlessly intertwined in the films to various degrees. Many have been critical of DC’s apparent refusal to adopt this same model (seemingly ignoring how badly it failed when they tried it with Green Lantern), but doing so would leave it always feeling like an also-ran, rather than its own entity. To stand apart, the franchise can’t do what has already been done—it has to forge its own territory. And to do this it might as well embrace the fact that DC has always been the Der Ring Des Nibelungen to Marvel’s The Young & the Restless.
As fashionable as it has become to dismiss Snyder out of hand as a hack, it’s interesting to note that he is the rare director who has risen to blockbuster status on the backs of films that routinely deny audiences pat happy endings. One of the reasons Sucker Punch alienated audiences to the degree that it did is that it actually lived up to its title—delivering a conclusion that left viewers feeling as though they had been…well…sucker punched. Dawn of the Dead ends with the revelation that the protagonists’ escape was really just a delaying of the inevitable, 300 is the tale of a pyrrhic victory and Watchmen ends with the suggestion the peace created by the heroes’ sacrifice will be undone by the discovery of Rorschach’s diary.
Whatever you think of his work, Snyder isn’t a hack, but as much of an auteur that can exist in the major studio system today. Watching BvS, it occurred to me that it is (with all apologies to The Winter Soldier) the first comic book film that feels as though it could have truly come from the mid-70s. At times it struck me as possessing the same perverse authenticity of Robert Altman’s Popeye—another expensive comic book film that was so willing to be true to its own vision that it happily risked pissing off a significant portion of its audience.
When it comes to Man of Steel, I’ve frequently parroted the popular critique that I enjoyed it as a film, but not as a Superman film. That is to say, I agreed that Snyder’s voice might not have been reconcilable with my preferred expression of the character. I do believe that the film suffers from the same lack of conviction as Nolan’s Batman films, but rather than seeing BvS as a continuation down that same path, I felt that it fully accepted its version of the character in a way that the previous film didn’t (to the point of not even allowing him to be called by his name).
Now, is this universe’s version of Superman my ideal Superman? No, but I don’t feel like I have much right to complain too harshly about this because I’ve already seen several films that scratch that itch for me (he wrote including Superman Lives). That said, BvS’s version of the character at least felt closer to my Christopher Reeve/Brandon Routh ideal than Man of Steal’s. Also, who knows what’s going to happen to the character after he’s resurrected (I already said there would be spoilers, people!).
But as contrarian as my opinions have thus-far been, probably my most out-there opinion regarding the film is my estimation of Jesse Eisenberg’s performance as Alexander “Lex” Luthor.
I think it’s great.
Perhaps I would have felt differently about this if I hadn’t heard beforehand that he based his performance on his time spent with American Ultra screenwriter Max Landis, but having been armed with this info it allowed me to completely embrace his interpretation of the character—who serves as the film’s lone thread of meta-commentary.
Landis—for those unfamiliar—is a highly opinionated, extremely passionate embodiment of the fanboy archetype. He’s the guy who has spent his whole life dreaming up his own perfect versions of his ideal superhero stories. During interviews he throws out screenplay/story ideas with an almost reckless abandon—knowing that since none of them will ever be made, he might as well release them into the wild the only way he can. He is both highly glib and extremely serious at the same time—he understands the absurdity of the kinds of stories he wants to tell, but is helpless to their awesomeness.
Eisenberg’s Luthor evokes that same energy—he is the fanboy incarnate, compelled to instigate the battle of his dreams less because it serves his ends than because he knows it’ll be epic. He pushes as hard as he can for the story to be told the way he wants it to be told, only to see his plans crumble due to forces he cannot control. He is the member of the audience who has spent his whole life waiting to see BvS, but who isn’t prepared for it to not go exactly the way he’s planned.
And that—even more than his obvious tics and quirks—is why so many are going to reject his performance. In a post about American Ultra I wrote that (short boring story) was deleted from the One Perfect Shot site, I noted that a major reason male audience members feel compelled to reject Eisenberg as an action hero is not because they can’t identify with him, but because they can identify with him way too easily. They resent how his onscreen presence reminds them of their own fallibility and weakness. This effect is quadrupled in BvS, where instead of embodying the archetype of cold, calculating evil, he instead plays a childish son-of-wealth (not that different from Bruce Wayne when you think about it) who uses his innate advantages in an attempt to mold the world in the image he prefers (only not for justice and criminal ass-kicking).
He is a pure portrait of white male geek privilege. And we all know how that audience reacts when a less-than-flattering reflection is aimed in their direction.
Beyond this I found many other aspects of the film worthy of praise. Much eye-rolling has been had at the film giving us another depiction of Martha and Thomas Wayne’s murder, but I personally found this to be—by far—the most moving depiction of the event I’ve ever seen and one that pays off when the screenwriters smartly use the comic book coincidence of Batman and Superman’s mothers having the same first name to their narrative advantage. Holly Hunter, Jeremy Irons and Laurence Fishburne all had great moments in what could have been thankless supporting roles, while Amy Adams’ Lois Lane felt far more integral here than she did in Man of Steel.
And, of course, there was Wonder Woman. Many are complaining that she gets short shrift and/or is uncomfortably shoehorned into the narrative, but I—as one of the character’s most overt and unapologetic fans—actually felt she was well-served by the film.
She is the film’s one true ray of hope, but rather than that being a flaw, I see it as being a feature. Up above I quote an old adage, which I think is evoked by the film’s title. BvS serves as the dawn of something new and before that dawn there must be darkness. Wonder Woman, appearing as she does, is the first light in a film where all is grey. She says as much in the movie, telling Batman that she has avoided the world of man and its infinite horrors for a century, but now is the time for her to return.
And, honestly, I couldn’t be happier about it.
*Fight me. I will not be moved on this.
In which I get all shout-y, extolling the silly virtues of Roger Vadim's greatest triumph.
This isn’t a “best of” list.
We like to quantify things. We live for it. To stack things up and compare. Lists are fun and easy to read. A great way to pass a spare five minutes at work. Maybe we might even get the chance to become angry with a specific choice or with the order. In fact, it’s pretty much guaranteed, since if there’s one thing everyone knows, it’s what’s better than everything else.
But, seriously, how do you quantify a subjective experience? “Through criticism!” is the cry and I suppose that’s true, but too often it’s the lack of an “I” that bears out the flaws in the system. The problem is that subjective experience lives in the heart of our emotions and for many acknowledging the role our feelings play in our lives is a sign of weakness. To admit that a work of art manipulated us is to admit that we can be manipulated, so to fight against this the natural inclination is to deny our emotions and opt for “objective” clinical analysis instead. And clinical analysis has its place, but given the choice between feeling the joy of playing with a living, breathing puppy or knowing how that puppy works after I’ve cut it up, I know which one I’m sticking with. (The one that doesn’t result in a dead puppy.)
Truthfully, it’s good to fight about movies. It’s fun. It’s a major reason why we rush to see them while they’re still fresh in the public consciousness. You don’t want to be one of those weirdos who wants to talk about a movie that came out all the way back in 2013. (That said, it’s wise to choose your moments. If someone is still in the full flush of rhapsodic bliss, it’s always a dick move to jump in with anything less than complete agreement. You’ll have time to disagree and express your POV later. It’ll wait. The world won’t end if you allow someone to be happy for five minutes.)
Anything that exposes the passion within us is a good thing, a great thing, a thing to be celebrated. But we don’t have to be jerks about it. So, that’s why this isn’t a “best of” list. Because I can’t honestly assert that any of these films are better than any of the films you would put on your list. This isn’t a definitive list of great films; it’s a catalogue of the movie experiences that hit me the hardest this year. The ones that reminded me why I love this art form as much I do. It’s a collection of all the wonderful emotions I felt at the movies in 2015.
It’s a happy list.
The Fury Awakens
Based on what I’d heard and the amazing trailers, I had high hopes for Mad Max: Fury Road, even though it was rebooting a franchise I didn’t have any emotional attachment to. Truthfully, it was one of my biggest pop-cultural blind spots, having only ever seen Beyond Thunderdome back when it originally came out. Obviously, I corrected this before going to see Fury Road, but I found myself strangely underwhelmed. I loved the initial weirdness of Mad Max (how had no one ever told me that it features a scene where his wife serenades him with a sexy sax solo?!?!?), but to me it felt more like a typical AIP biker movie than anything extraordinary. If I had no prior knowledge of the film and you told me it was set in a then-contemporary Australia, I’d have had questions, but I would have finally bought it. The Road Warrior surprised me because I had always assumed it was a film entirely composed of non-stop action set pieces, but that only really ended applying to the final act. And Beyond Thunderdome was Beyond Thunderdome. It had Tina Turner in it. So I kinda liked it.
But despite this, I went to Fury Road filled with genuine visceral excitement. I just got the sense this was going to be something special and it wasn’t simply because of the hype. I tend to be ambivalent about hype and am seldom swayed by it either way (there being—ultimately—no difference between wanting or not-wanting to see a movie because of it). There was just a sixth sense in this case. Thinking about it made my nose itch.
And that nose itching was completely fucking justified.
Around forty-five minutes in, I found myself moved to tears (my ducts spurred by The Splendid Angharad’s declaration that neither she nor her fellow prisoners would ever return to the slavery from which they were escaping) and from that point forward my eyes never dried. I was overwhelmed by a simple story told on an epic scale, filled with desperate barely articulate characters who’d had enough, who dreamed for more—who had hope, even though reality constantly battled to take it away from them.
I was witnessing a film that bore all the hallmarks of an action blockbuster, yet also maintained the themes of a low-budget indie. Was there a more explicitly political film this year? How else to explain the fact that so many members of the core desired audience responded to something so objectively “FUCK YEAH!!!” with a shrug and a “meh” than because they were not willing to embrace a film where the title male character is nothing more than a cog in a revolution against a tyrannical patriarchy? Even if they couldn’t articulate it, they had to sense that this movie wasn’t about them. It wasn’t for them. It didn’t give a shit about them. Either they bowed to the magnificence of Imperator Furiosa or they got the fuck out of the way.
I walked out of Fury Road exhilarated, overwhelmed and dehydrated. I left it certain that I had an experience I would not experience again this year, if not this decade.
My hopes were not as high for The Force Awakens, even though this WAS a series in which I could claim some investment. The first memory I can put an age to is my seeing the first film at the Twin Drive-In in the back of the Dombrosky’s station wagon. I was two and half. I mostly remember how good the popcorn we snuck in from home tasted, but there’s no doubt the experience sowed the seeds of my future movie fandom.
For years I slept on Empire Strikes Back bed sheets. Return of the Jedi was the first film I ever saw in the theatre more than once. Princess Leia ranked with Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman and The Dukes of Hazzard’s Daisy Duke in the trinity of strong beautiful ass-kickers who ignited my passion for such characters.
But I still kept my expectations measured. “I’ll probably like it,” I told myself. “And that will be good enough. It doesn’t have to be life changing. It can just be a movie.”
And that’s the attitude I took with me to the theatre. All I wanted was a pleasant two hours being reunited with characters I grew up with.
The last thing I allowed myself to expect was that I would relive my Fury Road experience.
Which is why I’m still reeling from the fact that that’s exactly what happened.
Watching TFA I was reminded how subversive these films are, the cute robots, aliens and fuzzy teddy bear antics disguising how much darkness they contain. Thinking about it, the series isn’t that different from the Mad Max films. The lives of those in the Star Wars universe are those of quiet desperation on extremely inhospitable planets, where everyone is at the mercy of a fascistic tyrannical order completely willing to commit genocide at a moment’s notice if it suits them. Rey is a survivor as much as Max Rockatansky and she too scavenges a vast desert wasteland. She just has a better chance of bumping into an adorable mechanical beach ball along the way.
The more I think about it, the more I find myself coming back to an offhand line spoken by Gwendoline Christie’s Captain Phasma. “Who told you, you could remove your helmet?” she asks the stormtrooper who will go on to become a young man named Finn as the story progresses. It’s meant to illustrate how the First Order rules by taking away people’s identities and reducing them to a faceless, nameless horde raised from birth to follow without question, but it also made me think about how so many people came to embrace Boba Fett as a character, even though in the movies he’s something of a joke—as cool as his suit is, it doesn’t stop him from being accidentally fed to a carnivorous sand monster by a blind Han Solo.
For many the relative incompetence of the films’ more iconic villains (a group to which we can now add Captain Phasma) is a flaw, but watching TFA I realized it’s what the whole damn thing is about. Cowards hide behind masks, because they allow them to appear stronger and more intimidating. What is Darth Vader really, but an old asthmatic burn victim? See him without his mask and you wouldn’t even cross the street to avoid him, much less run in the other direction.
The heroes are the ones who don’t look intimidating. Who people are apt to lookover or not give a second glance. A blond farm boy, a princess with a weird hairstyle, a short green imp, a seven-foot tall dog, a beeping rolling trashcan.
Add now to that list, a young woman who trades scraps for food and a young man who has no stomach for being an anonymous force of evil.
Sure, Rey’s legacy is that of a Jedi, so her destiny is that of a “chosen one”—an archetype sure to cause many a jaded eye roll—but who she is and how she is portrayed transcends this cliché and turns it into something special and that is what I think explains why I found her character so moving.
In retrospect, it’s easy to dismiss Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker. Especially in favour of a character as effortlessly cool as Han Solo. But I’d argue that without him A New Hope might’ve done all right at the box office, but we probably wouldn’t be taking about it today. And for precisely the reason that people criticize him now. As a blank slate, he allowed nearly every young boy who saw the film to imagine themselves in his place. Having grown up we all like to think of ourselves as witty rogues like Han, but at the time we all fought to be the one who played Luke—not only because he got the light sabre, but because the story was about him.
Daisy Ridley’s performance as Rey isn’t anywhere as raw or clumsy as Hamill’s. In fact, it’s one that allows viewers the rare treat of seeing a future movie star appear to us fully formed and already worthy of our attention and adulation. But watching her I found myself envisioning a generation of young girls fighting for the chance to play Rey—to be the hero of the story who doesn’t need to be rescued, who thinks for herself, who fights back, who tells the boy she doesn’t need him to hold her hand. Because she can do it all on her own.
TFA isn’t life changing. For us old enough to have already had our lives changed. It’s a different story though for those who are now the age we were when the original trilogy appeared. This is a move that will spawn a million dreams. That will inspire. And it does so without any cynicism, no matter how cynical the mere existence of any billion-dollar franchise may inherently be.
Sure we know the story. But we knew the story the first time. It doesn’t matter because it doesn’t belong to us anymore. It belongs to them. And now it belongs to more of them than it did before.
And, I’ve got to say, I’m jealous that their version is better than ours.
Call Me Enemies
This year I got to live out one of my life dreams and spent a week in New York. I love big cities. Especially ones that appreciate that the world doesn’t end at 9 p.m. And as a movie lover it was a joy to actually walk around in the one I’d probably seen depicted more than any other. But, I’m not much for sightseeing. The landmarks I did see I saw because I stumbled upon them along my random travels. “Oh,” I’d think as I walked past a famous building, “there’s Carnagie Hall. Practice, practice, practice!”
So, I didn’t see the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty or Ground Zero. But I did go to the IFC Cinema three times.
Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly.
I made it a priority to find this theatre when I learned that it would be showing the new movie by my favourite current filmmaker. Who you might recognize from his role as the dude in that 80s John Candy talking horse picture.
Bobcat Goldthwait’s films should be—by all rights—the stuff of immense cult fandom, but oddly it appears to be only his first—and, by far, worst—film that’s achieved that kind of attention. Since Shakes the Clown, he’s amassed a feature filmography filled with small films that take on initially shocking subject matters (a woman whose past contains that one inexplicable moment when she performed oral sex on her pet dog, a man who exploits the accidental death of his son in order to live out his dream of being a respected writer, a man and a teenage girl who go on a killing spree spurred on by other people’s thoughtlessness and rudeness) but fills them with characters so human and relatable that we root for them despite the atrocities they may commit.
Perhaps the best anecdote that describes watching a Goldthwait film comes from his commentary on Stay (aka Sleeping Dogs Lie), where he describes what happened at a festival screening of the film. The movie opens with the main character casually (and without any explanation or justification) admitting to her spontaneous doggie blowjob, and one woman in the audience was audibly repulsed and demanded that her friend leave the screening with her right then and there. But her friend refused to go and the woman reluctantly stayed. By the end of the film, Goldthwait’s daughter nudged her dad and pointed over to the woman. She was weeping—moved to tears by the film’s final scenes.
“Yeah, you cry bitch,” Goldthwait’s daughter joked to him as they noted the woman’s transformation from revulsion to whole-hearted acceptance.
If there’s a better four word summation to describe the experience of watching a Bobcat Goldthwait film, I’ve yet to come across it.
Which brings us to Call Me Lucky, a sometimes laugh-out-loud funny documentary about a comedian who was repeatedly raped and nearly killed by a stranger when he was a young child. But more importantly it’s a film about a person who uses their pain and despair not to lash out (although—on stage—Barry Crimmins lashes out plenty) but to make a difference and help others.
Cinematically, Call Me Lucky is nothing special—a typical documentary featuring people talking—but the story it tells is a heartfelt, emotional one that features a climax worthy of any piece of Hollywood Oscar bait. Originally Goldthwait wanted to make it as typical biopic, but—spurred on by cash donated by his best friend, Robin Williams—he went this route instead and proves himself to be an incredibly versatile and remarkable filmmaker.
He made this bitch cry three times before the credits rolled.
The other doc I saw in New York was Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville’s Best of Enemies, which is another cinematically unremarkable talking heads film, but one I could watch on repeat 100x over.
It tells the tale of the series of 1968 debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley on ABC during the Democratic and Republican conventions. For the first time two of the country’s most significant public intellectuals would be given the opportunity to debate the issues in front of a large national audience, but even though they were chosen for their obvious ideological differences, it was their genuine and sincere hatred for each other that fueled the debate and created a sensation that would go on to change how the partisan divide would be addressed in the media over the decades to come.
It’s a portrait of two passionate, brilliant men with enormous egos who had a gift for words it's hard to find today. It’s a tale of good versus evil (where you have to decide which side is which based on your own personal values and philosophy) without a clear winner and where we’re left wondering if maybe the fallout was too large a price to pay. Not just for the combatants, but for a society where differences in political opinion now feel like taking sides in a war where any attempt at compromise is seen as a defeat and where “winning” has become more important than doing the right thing for everyone.
Best of Enemies proves that watching truly smart people argue can be as thrilling as watching gifted athletes throw punches and that the consequences can be just as devastating. The lesson I took from it is that sometimes the smartest thing a person can do is decide not to let loose with a devastating witticism and choose instead to try and listen. Except this is a lesson you’re unlikely to learn when—as was the case with Buckley and Gore—you’re often the only person in the room worth listening to.
Joy & Marmalade
A few years ago I wrote an article for xoJane about how much I enjoy the act of crying. It’s something I embrace and am oddly proud of despite how abhorrent many people find it. In that article I mentioned what happened when I saw Brad Bird’s Ratatouille, which up to that point held the record for my most extreme emotional breakdown. (It was the scene where the evil food critic was suddenly reverted back to his childhood that did it to me.) Well, now I think it’s at least a tie, since I pretty much had the same reaction when Bing Bong did what he did to save Joy.
As clever as Inside Out is conceptually, I find myself most moved by its depiction of a young girl who doesn’t want to surrender to her negative feelings, even though they’re totally justified. I’ve seen some criticism that insists Riley feels like an automaton rather than a living-breathing girl, but I have no idea where that’s coming from. For me she was as real as any non-anthropomorphic Pixar character ever has been. And I found her inner and outer journey profoundly moving.
Paddington, on the other hand, didn’t make me cry, but it did make me laugh. A lot. And hard. Of all the films I saw in 2015, none could claim to be more charming. Despite being totally centered on an expensive CGI digital creation, the film reminded me of my favourite mid-century British comedies, as it featured the wit and cleverness that made the best Ealing films so perfect and timeless.
In one case you have a bittersweet film about a character who personifies the feeling of joy and in the other you have a film that invokes that feeling as perfectly as you can ever imagine. Either way, that's a pretty great night at the movies.
Love is Pain
My two favourite love stories of 2015 (he wrote not yet having seen Carol) include an art house ode to 70s euro-softcore eroticism and a stoner-action flop whose negative critical reaction leaves me totally mystified.
The Duke of Burgundy is an exceptional film. Funny, sexy and sad, it delivers its desired style in a way that renders it utterly unique. As familiar as it may seem to those who enjoy pretentious European porn of a certain period, you come away from it knowing you’ve never seen anything like it before.
But it’s the humour that has stuck with me the most. Few films can make me almost weep with laughter with a gesture as simple as a character pouring herself a glass of water. It’s a film that forces us to confront the inherent absurdity of our sexual desires in a way that never feels prudish or shaming. Instead, it simply presents the realities of the situation in a way almost no other film has.
Of course, the situation is deliberately fantastic, as the film depicts a sadomasochistic relationship that takes place in a world without men and where the chief form of recreation/entertainment comes in the form of lectures about butterflies. It sounds like a satire, but what makes it work is its complete sincerity. Writer/Director Peter Strickland never once gives us an excuse to dismiss what we’re seeing as a lark. We’re expected to take the drama of the situation seriously, which makes it all the funnier and more moving.
It’s a film where a character can get sincerely excited at the thought of owning a human toilet and come off as adorable rather than a monster. It asks us to acknowledge the ridiculousness of our desires and shows how difficult it is to base love around a fantasy that requires constant vigilance (and many glasses of water) to keep going.
It’s also the most gorgeous movie I saw all year (again, I’ve yet to see Carol).
Currently American Ultra has a 44% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and has even appeared on some critics' worst of the year lists and yet here it is among my favourites of the year. I wrote a whole essay that attempted to explain this and would link to it here had it not been deleted from the site it was posted on (I’m looking into it), so I’ll sum up: American Ultra is an amazing love story that succeeds by virtue of the incredible chemistry between its two leads, but that love story is obscured by a premise many took issue with based solely on the advertising and by the fact that the actors playing the two leads invoke feelings of unwanted recognition and distrust based on the previous films they’ve appeared in.
I’m convinced that the majority of the negativity shown to the film is because of what the critics and audience were sold rather than what they were given. And what they were given was the best love story of the year (I will get around to seeing Carol, I promise).
This happens a lot with movies and the only corrective is time. Eventually people will figure out what’s going on in American Ultra and recognize that it’s so much more than a stoner rip-off of the Bourne movies. That it’s a film about two people who don’t need anything else other than each other and who—despite the outrageousness of their situation—love each other in a way that feels truly authentic.
Every interaction between Stewart and Eisenberg felt completely genuine, which made the despair he felt at the thought he might be keeping her from realizing her potential all the more moving. At the same time we knew he was right and she probably could do better than some wake & bake convenience store clerk, while we also could see the sweetness he possessed that would allow her to ignore his faults.
Add to this a fun plot, some bloody violence and Connie Britton and I’m left with a movie where I don’t give a fuck how annoying Max Landis may be—it deserved to do a lot better than it did.
Okay, I’m nearly 4000 words into this, so let’s just capsulize the rest.
Spy: I was worried about the upcoming Ghostbusters reboot. Not because I took any issue with the gender reversal (I think it’s a great idea), but because I had yet to see a Paul Feig/Melissa McCarthy joint that I actually liked. Bridesmaids had one funny scene (that I didn’t even think was that funny) and The Heat didn’t even have that. Fortunately that changed with Spy, which clicked in all the ways those two other films stalled. Also, the world needs more Rose Byrne.
The Martian: A great movie about people working together where the only real conflict is the situation, but it was the disco soundtrack that put it over the top for me.
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation: All hail Rebecca Ferguson! In a year featuring many strong female characters, Ilsa Faust ranks among the most awesome.
Trainwreck: I want to see LeBron James get the fucking Oscar. The scenes between him and Bill Hader rank among the funniest of the year.
The Big Short: You hit me like a Moneyball!
Kingsmen: The Secret Service: Best anal sex joke of the year? I don’t know, but it’s the best use of “Freebird” since The Devil’s Rejects, that’s for sure.
He Never Died: A flawed film, but Henry Rollins performance was probably my favourite from any dude this year.
Ok, that's enough from me about 2015. I don't care where you go, but you can't stay here.
Here, for my own amusement, is an online gallery of every vintage poster currently in my collection.Read More
On March 5, I had the opportunity to deliver a presentation at Edmonton NextGen's 21st Pecha Kucha night. For those unfamiliar with PK, it's a slide show format created by Japanese architects in which the presenter has to deliver a complete lecture over the course of 20 slides that are displayed for 20 seconds each. The goal is to create a presentation that speaks to each slide while also delivering a larger overall message, which is much harder than it sounds
For my presentation, I chose a subject matter near and dear to my heart--bad movie musicals. My friend Prasann Patel was kind enough to film it for me and I've chosen to upload two versions of the piece. The first is the live performance video, while the second consists of just the audio from that performance and the slides, for those who want a better idea of how Pecha Kucha works.
I had the good fortune to perform that night at a venue owned and operated by the company I work for, so a week later I found myself performing it again for my coworkers, who seemed to like it even more than this appreciative crowd had.
Presented without comment.
In Otto Preminger’s 1944 film, Laura, a police detective played by Dana Andrews falls in love with the woman whose murder he is investigating. Though he knows he’ll never meet her, the combination of other people’s stories of her and the gorgeous portrait that hangs on her wall prove impossible for him to resist. It’s a romantic (albeit borderline creepy) premise, enlivened by some unexpected twists and turns, and made wholly believable by the fact that Laura—the object of Andrews’ desire—is played by Gene Tierney, who may just have been the most beautiful movie star in the world at that time.
Looking at her photographs, it’s hard to draw a specific bead on her appeal. That’s because no two ever seem to look alike. As distinctive and unique as her features were—Tierney possessed a chameleon’s ability to transform herself into whatever a film or photograph required. Those amazing cheekbones and charming overbite were always there, of course—nothing was ever going to take them away—but what ties all of her photos together is something beyond the gorgeous totality of her face.
It’s the fact that no matter how she’s dressed, made-up or posed, you get the sense that you’re actually looking at a candid photograph of someone who truly looked like that ALL OF THE TIME. Even dressed as an exotic fantasyland princess, she gave the impression of someone who really existed and you could possibly meet someday. She was one of the few actresses in the history of cinema who made her physical perfection seem entirely plausible.
Only 24 when Laura was made, Tierney’s rise to movie stardom was one of those things that seemed pre-ordained by birth. When she was still just a teenager, she joined her parents on a movie studio tour during their first trip to California. There they were seen walking together by Russian director Anatole Litvak, who was so taken by her preternatural glow, he offered her a screen test right there on the spot. Her conservative father refused the offer, but the idea of becoming an actress so appealed to her she eventually got him to agree to allow her to pursue a stage career back home on the east coast. Within just a few months she was appearing in her first Broadway play.
By the age of 20 she found herself back in Hollywood, where her screen test so impressed studio executives she was allowed a privilege only previously bestowed upon Ingrid Bergman. Both were deemed so naturally radiant they were allowed to be filmed and photographed without makeup, which was as unheard of then as not needing Photoshop is today. Beyond Laura, she impressed critics and audiences in a series of movies also destined to become beloved classics, including Heaven Can Wait, Dragonwyck, and—my favourite—The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. In 1945, her portrayal of a psychotically obsessed wife willing to resort to murder to protect her marriage in Leave Her to Heaven won her an Oscar nomination and proved that she was more than just a pretty face.
But Tierney’s fairy tale existence proved short lived. Her first child with fashion designer Oleg Cassini was born with severe physical and mental challenges after she contracted German measles during the pregnancy. Forced to send the child to an institution, her guilt was compounded when she was approached by an autograph seeker who told her the story of the one time they had met before. It was during her only visit to the Hollywood Canteen—a club set up to entertain servicemen and women during WWII. The woman and her entire barracks had been quarantined with measles at the time, but they had snuck out to go to the Canteen just so they could all meet their favourite movie star.
It was a horror story straight out of pulp fiction, which is probably why Agatha Christie borrowed it for the back story of a character in her mystery novel, The Mirror Crack'd.
Not long after that, Tierney found out that her father—now also her business manager—had squandered her money with bad business deals and left her bankrupt. Born into a family with a history of mental illness, these major misfortunes eventually led to a series of breakdowns that resulted in repeated institutionalization and several suicide attempts.
By the mid-50s, her career was essentially over (though she would occasionally act all the way until 1980). Her personal troubles seemingly robbed her of the legendary status many of her contemporaries enjoyed, but then—after her death from lung cancer in 1991—Laura proved remarkably prescient.
Dana Andrews just had one painting* to fall in love with, while movie buffs and fans of old school Hollywood glamour have thousands of photos and 38 movies to do the same. Watching those films and knowing the sad story of the actress who helped make them great, it’s impossible to not want to go back in time and try to protect her. But none of us can, which leaves a bittersweet feeling only made better by the certainty that her legacy outlived her suffering and that what was pretty in the past remains pretty in the present and will stay so long, long into the future.
*Which was actually a photograph, since none of the paintings produced for the film managed to satisfyingly replicate Tierney’s beauty to Preminger’s satisfaction.
This essay originally appeared on xoJaneUK, but has since vanished into the Internet ether when it was reabsorbed back into the mother site. I'm posting it here because I'm proud of it and want it to live on.
This is a sad story. A sad story about a beautiful woman whose gifts were so abundant she couldn’t take them seriously. Model, actress, musician, author, screenwriter, she did it all, but none satisfied her as much as her one true passion—the addiction that eventually killed her.
The thing is, though, you don’t have to live long to be an icon. Just ask James Dean or Marilyn Monroe. All it takes is one project that lingers—one that forever sticks in the memories of those who’ve experienced it.
Zoë Lund (nee Tamerlis) was still just a teenager when Abel Ferrara cast her as the title character in Ms. 45—a revenge drama that transcended the limits of its low-budget exploitation roots through the unique combination of Abel’s gritty boho-arthouse sensibility and Zoë’s wordless performance as a young woman who pushes back after being pushed too far.
Thana is a young seamstress, struggling to make a living in New York’s garment district. Her difficulties are compounded by a condition that has left her completely mute—leaving her largely defenseless in a city that often forces its citizens to possess a strong voice. She learns this the hard way one terrible night after work.
Grabbed by a man in a mask, she is unable to scream when he attacks her in an alley. In shock, she makes her way home, only to find a different man waiting for her, armed with a gun. He tries to rob her, but she has nothing to steal. As he assaults her, she is able to knock him down and kill him with an iron. Forced to dispose of his body, she takes his gun and realizes that she has found the voice she never had before.
And with it she tells the men of the city just how angry she really is.
Ms. 45 is a film that takes its Death Wish plot and deliberately turns it into a despairing-yet-triumphant feminist lament. The film makes it clear that Thana’s experience has driven her insane, yet also suggests that’s an entirely appropriate response for the world she lives in. When she takes her newfound gun out onto the streets and uses it on the men who seek to exploit her sexuality for their pleasure, we aren’t asked to recoil in horror. Instead, Abel and screenwriter Nicolas St. John seem to be asking why hasn’t someone done this before?
For this to work, it is imperative that Thana (whose name is a direct allusion to Thanatos, the Greek god of death) is someone we sympathize with and the brilliance of the film—and Zoë’s performance—is that we feel this empathy despite her inability to say a single word.
Iconic is a huge word. Especially for a low-budget film most people haven’t seen. But it’s the only one that fits when describing the impact Zoë has as Thana. Robbed of words, it’s a performance we can only experience through our eyes and what we see is extraordinary to behold.
As Thana, Zoë possessed the kind of sad, ethereal beauty we associate with the likes of Isabelle Adjani and Gene Tierney—burnished by sharp cheekbones and impossibly full lips. As her avenging alter ego, she predicted the dominating anonymity of the Robert Palmer video vixens, with their red lips, slicked back hair and cold, unforgiving eyes. Without words, Zoë makes this transition utterly believable and transfixing. This is best seen in the scenes between her and her boss. Before her transformation, we cringe as she meekly accepts his harassment; after, we smile knowingly when she accepts his invitation to be his date to a Halloween party—she now has all the power, he just doesn’t know it yet.
A true cult film, Ms. 45 was not an immediate success, but rather one whose reputation grew because people who saw it had to talk about it. Three years after it was released in 1981, Zoë got her second chance to star in a movie, this time in a role that required her to play two different parts.
Special Effects was written and directed by Larry Cohen, a cult filmmaker (It Lives, The Stuff, Q: The Winged Serpent) who has a reputation for coming up with inspired ideas that he usually ruined with lazy scripting and poor production. In it he cast Zoë as a wannabe starlet who is murdered on film by a fallen director played by Eric Bogosian, who then finds a lookalike to take her place in the movie he decides to make around the snuff footage. As the starlet, Zoë’s voice was dubbed by another actress (speaking in an unconvincing southern accent), meaning it wasn’t until an hour into her second movie that audiences finally got to hear her distinctly New Yorker inflections.
Unlike Ms. 45, Effects proved to be a forgettable effort and marked her last starring role. She appeared in an episode of Miami Vice and a short-lived TV drama set in an insane asylum, before focusing her sights behind the camera. Reteaming with Abel, she co-wrote what still remains his most famous film—1992’s Bad Lieutenant. She also agreed to appear in the film, playing the woman who helps Harvey Keitel’s title character freebase some heroin. It was a role she’d spent years researching.
It’s hard to see the same woman who once played Thana in the film. A decade older, she’s still beautiful, but gaunt and brittle. The already thin frame she displayed throughout Special Effects now looked sharp and disconcertingly bony, belying the true face of the era’s obsession with “heroin chic”.
Zoë was unapologetic about her addiction. She wrote at length about heroin and advocated and romanticized its effects. She worked on unproduced screenplays about famous junkies such as John Holmes and Gia Carangi, which meant she could harbor no illusions about how her life was probably going to end.
By 1999, she was living in Paris when her heart stopped working. She was 37. News of her death was eventually reported on various websites. These obits were mostly short and perfunctory. There wasn’t a lot to say.
Watching Ms. 45, you see the debut of an exciting, charismatic and almost impossibly beautiful performer, but that wasn’t who Zoë Lund wanted to be. She had other things on her mind. We can choose to feel robbed for what might have been or grateful for what we got.
My instinct is to opt for the latter.
In the Blood
Ava and Derek are both recovering drug addicts, but their future seems bright now that they have found each other. While he comes from wealth and privilege, she was raised by a psychotic outlaw who taught her how to defend herself and survive at all costs. At their wedding, his father tries to convince him to make her sign a prenuptial agreement, but Derek refuses--saying he'd sooner be disowned first.
At first their honeymoon seems idyllic, but things turn dark at a nightclub when a local pimp takes a liking to Ava and starts a flight where she quickly proves how dangerous she can be when she and someone she loves are threatened.
The next day, the two of them go out zip-lining. Ava hates it and begs off from going any further after her first attempt. Derek continues, only to have his harness break before he makes it all the way across. Ava finds him still alive in the forest and an ambulance is called, but when she tries to get in it, she is told she cannot ride inside for "insurance reasons" and is given the card of the hospital he is being taken to.
Ava gets to the hospital only to find out that a Derek Grant hasn't been admitted to it or any other local hospital. The local police not only seem reluctant to help, but think that she likely killed him for his money. Desperate to find him and to learn the truth, Ava takes the violent skills she learned from her father and proceeds to beat a bloody path of rescue and revenge.
Of all the kinds of movie stars there are in the world, the action hero is the most inherently cinematic. Comedians can be funny onstage or on records; sex symbols can radiate their sensuality in photos; serious actors can seriously emote in plays or anywhere where the ability to recite dialogue and prose is an asset--but an action star truly depends on all that cinema has to offer to become the superhero the genre demands.
They rely on the skills of their directors, cinematographers. editors and--especially--stunt people to achieve their iconography, but that doesn't mean they are merely puppets--just the opposite. You can't MAKE someone a great action star. It's in their bones. You can see it in them. You can always tell when an imposter is thrust upon you.
It has nothing to do with acting. Very few of the truly great action stars have ever been adept at dialogue and those who are usually stumbled into the role, like Bruce Willis or Liam Neeson. In some cases it's purely a matter of physique--Arnold and Sly being the best examples of this--but more often than not the quality that separates the wannabes from the greats is this--the greats know what it's like to get punched in the face.
Charles Bronson was only 5'8", but he looked like a man who would keep getting up no matter how many times you tried to knock him down. When he went after punks in the Death Wish series, he was more silent, relentless and frightening than any terminator from the future. He was a man possessed, filled with darkness and ready to embrace the worst aspects of his humanity for the sake of his mission.
Gina Carano is also only 5'8", but she--unlike Charlie--is also a very beautiful woman. In interviews she comes across as shy and normal, but this is at odds with the fact that she first became famous because she is extraordinarily skilled at hurting people.
I've never followed MMA and couldn't tell you the difference between a Strikeforcer or an Ultimate Fighter. This is why Carano's career as a breakout ass-kicker was completely unknown to me the first time I ever saw her--when she was billed as "Crush" in the short-lived network attempt to reboot the syndicated 90s American Gladiator phenomenon. Despite this, I instantly saw her as someone special. Even though she wasn't much bigger than the contestants she was pitted against, she stood out as someone unique and exceptional. She had a physical credibility that was louder than anything she could say.
And clearly I wasn't the only person who noticed this. Steven Soderbergh saw it too. He had the screenplay for Haywire written specifically for her after seeing her interviewed on television--in much the same way he made The Girlfriend Experience after becoming intrigued by a young porn star named Sasha Grey.
Despite being heavily influenced by the action films of the 80s, Soderbergh's instincts are far too tasteful and cool to ever resort to out and out pastiche. This explains why Haywire ending up being more a mediation on the nature of such films--one that tailored itself to stand apart as singular even while it attempted to tell a story we'd seen hundreds of times before.
And though its pretensions left some genre fans frustrated, there was no denying how well the film showcased the attributes that brought Carano to Soderbergh's attention. But it did beg the question of how she would fare once she started working with other filmmakers who lacked his skill, taste and attention. People noted the lengths he went to put her in the best possible light--limiting her dialogue, keeping her character stoic and (most significantly) digitally lowering her natural speaking voice in the sound mix.
The general assumption was that she would be set adrift into the same world of dreary low-budget DTV/Netflix films where so many of her male action predecessors now dwell. And--on the surface--it would appear that her second starring feature, In the Blood, is exactly that--except that beneath that surface there's something far more interesting than its current 44% score on RottenTomatoes would suggest.
Directed by former My Science Project star John Stockwell, In the Blood features several of the tropes found in his previous work--the exotic tropical locations of Blue Crush, Dark Tide and Into the Blue, as well as the xenophobic western-distrust of brown foreign people depicted in Turistas.
In terms of plot, the film most immediately conjures up recollections of the Taken franchise (with additional shades of Breakdown and Roman Polanski's Frantic), but switches tradition by placing a male character in the role of the loved one who needs to be saved by the unrelenting, unforgiving badass whose past has made her perfectly suited for this exact situation.
Many might roll their eyes at this gender swap, but I don't consider it insignificant. There is a marked and undeniable difference in how this world regards men who look like Liam Neeson and women who look like Carano, and within the expanse of this disparity there are tensions that make these films as different as they are the same.
I've seen several critics who have been taken aback by the level of Carano's ferocity in the film, arguing that at a certain point her lack of mercy makes her unsympathetic. Many viewers will surely be disturbed by the bloody footprints her sandals leave after she has compelled a crooked cop to cut his own throat with a box cutter rather than have his young sleeping daughter awakened by a gunshot.
Yet her actions don't feel out of place within the context of the plot and--especially--the genre, where mercy is inevitably compromised in the name of the mission. Carano using a shovel to split open another crooked cop's face is no more violent than Ryan Gosling stomping a thug's face to oblivion in Drive, yet it packs a harder, even more visceral punch.
Films haven't regulalrly conditioned us to expect such brutality from a female protagonist and those that have often resort to a degree of visual hyperbole that allows us to dismiss what we're seeing as a fantasy. In Kill Bill, Uma Thurman's Beatrix Kiddo decimates dozens and dozens of sword-wielding gang members in the House of Blue Leaves, but the onslaught of decapitations and arterial sprays is played more for laughs and ultimately feels more akin to Monty Python and the Holy Grail than The Wild Bunch. Compare this to the much briefer bar fight in In the Blood, where Carano throws bottles of beer, smashes a cocktail glass against another woman's face and breaks a man's arm using a fighting hold viewers have actually seen her employ in real life combat. In this case we aren't given the luxury of willful disbelief--instead we get the sense we're viewing something that could actually happen if you pissed Carano off enough.
And I suspect that it's this authenticity that disturbs some viewers. Carano's background makes it harder for us to deny the plausibility of her actions. Unlike Angelina Jolie in Salt or Wanted, Carano's presence has a density that makes us wince every time it's inflicted upon someone--regardless of how much they deserve it or not.
Which is why I feel like the question mark hanging over Carano's acting career can be justifiably erased. While the quality of her films is going to vary, I believe what she brings to the genre is too interesting to be ignored or dismissed. She is literally too powerful a presence to be denied.
And her performance in the film suggests she might end up becoming a much better actor than anyone might expect. Though some of her line readings here are a bit clunkier than one might like, she also excels in quieter moments that require her to show her emotions rather than express them. Her increasing fear and desperation as she travels from hospital to hospital in search of her missing husband is palpable and totally convincing.
More often than not the moments that don't work fail because they've been poorly scripted and staged. An important scene at the restaurant where she and her husband meet the character who will set the entire plot in motion is cringe-worthy in its awkwardness, especially since the film can't disguise the fact that the only reason the character introduces himself to her is because the film can't officially begin until he does. It's so poorly thought out that not even Meryl Streep and Daniel Day-Lewis could make it work.
The film is also betrayed by its use of digital video. While many filmmakers working today have managed to do great things with the technology, In the Blood's early scenes look too much like something you would see in a low-budget cable TV drama than a present-day feature. Gradually this inauthentic gloss fades once the film starts using darker and grittier tones, but those first 20 minutes definitely dig a hole the movie has to spend the rest of its running time climbing out of.
But its biggest failure comes in an ending that hinges on what can only accurately be described as "Danny Trejo ex machina". Not only does it come out of nowhere and feels completely unjustified, but--for the sake of a happy ending--robs Carano of her agency and control over the situation. It's the only moment in the film where she is put in the position of having to be saved and it feels like a betrayal to the character and what she has gone through. Given what we've seen her do, it's impossible not to feel cheated when Machete suddenly appears and allows her to escape back to her comfortable life without consequence.
A better film might have still allowed Ava to get away with what she did, but it would also have required at least some degree of personal sacrifice.
As a low-budget B-movie action film, In the Blood is not without its many flaws, but I found it surprisingly compelling once the action began. As ludicrous as it often was, I never doubted its star, which in an effort like this makes it more the exception than the rule.
And while I expect Gina Carano will appear in much worse films as her career goes on (and hopefully many betters ones as well), I look forward to seeing them all because there is no other action movie star like her working today and--with all apologies to you Cynthia Rothrock fans out there--probably never has been.
A few weeks ago, Erin Fraser and Matt Bowes asked me to co-curate their screening of Barbarella - Queen of the Galaxy, which was to be the 3rd film of the 3rd season of their Graphic Content series, devoted to comic book cinema.
My duties would be two-fold. First, I would have to write an essay about the film, which would appear on the website, and, second, I would have to join them as they introduced the film at the screening.
Because I am not the sort to half-ass these things, I decided not to attempt to pull an extemporaneous intro out of my butt and instead wrote what amounted to a second, shorter, essay. And since I quite like it a lot and it seemed to get the desired response, I thought I would post it here for your entertainment.
There are certain films that are timeless—made with a sophistication that feels as right and relevant today as it did when the work was originally created.
Barbarella is NOT one of those films.
In fact, Barbarella is so much a product of a specific era that there was really only like an 8-month span in the entire 20th Century where it could have ever been created. And it is to our good fortune that the universe aligned in such a way that it did in fact actually happen.
Barbarella is not just dated. It is transcendently dated—to the point that it actually ends up lapping itself and achieves its own special kind of timelessness. It’s like an ancient mosquito frozen in amber, but in such a way that if you tried harvesting DNA from the blood in its belly, you wouldn’t be able to recreate anything, because nature can’t find a way if there was never anything natural to begin with.
This film is a monument to the artificial, in a way that the 1970s auteurist wave tried its best to make sure never happened again. And it mostly succeeded, because even though there are examples of films that have tried to rise up to this level, almost none of them get beyond the point of homage and pastiche. Barbarella, though, is the real deal.
It is the genuine fake article.
And how did this happen? Was it planned or a glorious accident? The answer, of course, is that it was both and that is what truly makes it wonderful—the synthesis of the canny and the campy. You are going to laugh watching this film, because it is very funny, but sometimes you are going to laugh with it and sometimes you are going to laugh at it and often you’re going to find it difficult to determine which you are doing at any given time.
Now, traditionally, we would assume that the director Roger Vadim was responsible for all this, but the problem is that there’s a very good reason why he is best remembered today as a dude who hooked up with some of the most beautiful women in the world and not as an amazing filmmaker and that’s because he was not an amazing filmmaker. In fact, there are signs that he wasn’t even a good filmmaker. His best films are saved by two basic factors—interesting screenplays written mostly by other people and really, really beautiful women.
In the case of Barbarella, that screenplay had as many as 8 people who worked on it, but the most important of these is the only one who is actually credited on-screen with Vadim—Terry Southern. Now, Terry Southern was one of the defining comic voices of that era, best know for his work with Stanley Kubrick on Dr. Strangelove. It’s safe to say that every time you find yourself laughing with Barbarella, he’s the one responsible.
And it is interesting to note that prior to working on Barbarella, Southern once co-wrote a novel called Candy that was a parody of Voltaire’s Candide. It was about a young beautiful innocent who meets a series of strange men, who she proceeds to have lots and lots of sex with. A famously terrible film version of that novel was made the same year as Barbarella and Southern did not write the screenplay for it—Buck Henry did. So it may be a coincidence that Barbarella is also about a young beautiful innocent who meets a series of strange men, who she proceeds to have lots and lots of sex with, but I personally like to think of it as a kind of cinematic FUUUUUUUUUUUUCK YOOOOU!
In the piece I wrote for the Graphic Content website, I specifically mention the behinds the scenes folks primarily responsible for the aspects of Barbarella that make it a work of both deliberate and accidental genius—but I only have 90 seconds left to talk, so I’m now going to focus on how hot Jane Fonda was in 1968.
Jane Fonda was REALLY HOT IN 1968. She would have been 30 when this movie was filmed and when it was being made no one could have any idea that she would go on to become one of the most culturally significant figures of the past 50 years. More than just a movie star, she has managed to successfully ride in the middle of the zeitgeist throughout every decade of her fame.
And you would think that because of this she might look back with shame at a film as strange and silly as Barbarella, but Jane Fonda is too awesome for that. When she’s asked about it in interviews you can see a special twinkle in her eye. She doesn’t back down or shy away from it. Instead she tells her interlocutor about how many men over the past years have come up to her and said how much of an impact their posters of Barbarella had on them during their adolescence.
BECAUSE JANE FONDA WAS REALLY HOT IN 1968!
And that hotness has been captured here forever in a silly, wonderful film that will stand the tests of time, because it is so utterly of its time. This movie is a snapshot of a moment that never really existed—a history that never was. There wasn’t a single second in recorded time when this movie wasn’t ridiculous and because of this it is special in a way so few films are.