November 2016 Movies, Pt. 1


Spy (2015)

Better than expected, based on the previews and Melissa McCarthy’s career trajectory, but not super great? At some point I should probably just accept that, despite the awesomeness that was Freaks and Geeks, I am maybe just not super into Paul Feig’s (and also Judd Apatow’s) post-Freaks and Geeks work.

Imperium (2016)

So, the premise of this is that Daniel Radcliffe is an FBI agent who goes undercover as a white supremacist to investigate a terrorist plot.  It’s pretty unsettling, and even more so in retrospect, as the alt-right/neo-Nazi/whatever-you-want-to-call-it movement gets more media attention. Definitely an interesting look at the various subgroups within that whole movement, in showing the members as humans existing in modern society and sort of getting at their motivations rather than treating them as two-dimensional villains. Like, it’s definitely not a sympathetic look at the movement–you don’t come away thinking “oh, maybe these guys aren’t so bad”–but we often dismiss those people (whether in real life or in fiction)  as just being inherently crazy and/or evil when the reality often is that they are people operating logically and consistently from a different Fundamental Truth than we are. In this case, it’s a totally unsympathetic and uncomfortable Fundamental Truth and it seems so obviously un-True that it’s hard to take seriously, but still.

(And how True-seeming are a lot of the Fundamental Truths that non-terrible people are operating from? I mean, yeah, the main difference there is that even if you think someone else’s Fundamental Truth is ridiculous, in most cases you can accept or at least overlook that because they’re not actually using it to justify hurting anyone, which certainly is not the case with the white supremacists.)

Also, the undercover situation is just so fucking tense—similar to The Departed, where you’re like fuckkk just extract yourself, dude, no job is worth this risk. But it also gives us Daniel Radcliffe with that super hot Man On The Edge vibe, so.

(But man, you really want a scene at the end of Daniel Radcliffe explaining himself to the acquaintance he yelled racial slurs at so as not to blow his cover, but no such comfort; I mean, I don’t know if such a scene would have made it a better or worse Film, it just would have been a relief.)

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

The pacing: Does this movie really need to be almost four hours long? Do any movies other than the Lord of the Rings extended editions need to be over three hours? Especially when even those are improved by fast-forwarding through every Gollum scene?

I mean, okay, the pacing may have some artistically beneficial effect in the first half–although unclear to me if it’s intentional, because I don’t know enough about 1960s filmmaking conventions to know what’s normal–in that the slowness and the long, long shots of tiny people on huge landscapes help capture just how ridiculously vast the distances these characters have to cross are. There are a lot of shots of figures approaching from the distance that are beautiful but also sort of stressful–you know there’s supposed to be something there, but it takes a few seconds to actually make out a dot in the skyline, and then a few seconds more for it to become a figure, and it’s like, “how long is it going to take for this person to arrive at the foreground? Is the shot going to cut to that, or are we just waiting in real time?” And now, even more than in the ’60s, it’s just hard to conceive of those distances and the waiting, so it’s probably effective. But so slow.

The second half sort of lost me, though. Maybe I’ll try watching it again from the Deraa scene without letting myself get distracted and start browsing the Internet in another tab.

The casting: something about Peter O’Toole’s face constantly seems off/inhuman? I think it has to do with the combination of 1960s makeup and 1960s filming techniques, because it’s the same thing I find super distracting whenever I see a clip of Star Trek: The Original Series. But it’s not a problem with Omar Sharif’s face, .

(Also man, one ships the hell out of Lawrence/Ali in this movie. Probably not in real life, since Ali is apparently not even based on a real person, and let’s not get started on the whole academic clusterfuck that is the actual T.E. Lawrence’s sexuality.)

The brownface: apart from the obvious, discussed-to-death issues concerning the offensiveness of brownface (to be clear, totally valid issues, but I don’t feel the need to rehash them), it’s also just super distracting and takes one out of the story. Especially when it’s, like, clearly Alec Guiness with a low-quality fake tan. And when there’s a whole climactic scene of Lawrence clawing at his own white skin, which would probably be a lot more effective if there weren’t also white people playing the Arab characters?

(I mean, yeah, the whole classification of Arabs as white or non-white is a complicated subject, at least in U.S. census terms, but for what this movie is trying to get across, there’s definitely a racial distinction, right?)

The soundtrack: yes.

Arrival (2016)

Yes, good. Just: interesting plot, cool concepts, competently made. The big reveal at the end feels very earned and emotionally gratifying; often in this sort of movie the twist seems like it exists purely to shock and/or generate “whoa, what a mindfuck” comments from dumb people. It is not surprising that this is adapted from a short story (as opposed to a novel), basically?

Could have done with even more linguistics talk…

Naked (1993)

Huh. Not sure how I felt about this? The David Thewlis character is v. compelling–the accent, the body language, the sort of unexpectedness of his every action, where you’re never sure if he’s going to be completely unresponsive or start ranting or what–but all of the rape/almost rape scenes are hard to watch. They’re probably meant to be, but that’s just not the sort of quality I look for in movies. It’s also always just stressful to watch such self-destructive characters/drifter types going about their lives without safety nets or back-up plans.

Suicide Squad (2016)

I knew this was super poorly received, but I sort of thought there might be some level of hyperbole to the critical hatred? But wow, no, it is really, really bad. There are so many moments where you can tell that the filmmakers intend for a scene to be super badass and iconic–especially in terms of the musical cues–and it just Does Not Land, so rather than being kind of lame or boring or whatever, something about the lack of self-awareness in the disparity between the creators’ obvious ambitions and their actual creation makes those scenes really embarrassing to watch.

(And I don’t get where the people who think Margot Robbie almost saved the movie are coming from, because almost everything Harley Quinn says and does is super cringeworthy in the “haha I’m so random” early-2000s Hot Topic sense. Which is totally on the writing, and not Margot Robbie–maybe it would have been even more cringeworthy in someone else’s hands, but not sure if there’s any actress out there who could have made it work?)

Doctor Strange (2016)

Pretty indifferent to this on the whole?

The handling of the villainous plot hit on some pet peeves, although first we must note that Mad Mikkelsen with that hair and eye make-up = AMAZING, and the inevitable dad joke/Who’s On First bit when Kaecilius (Mad Mikkelsen) and Strange meet for the first time = AMAZING. Hannibal would be so proud:

KAECILIUS: Mister Doctor?
KAECILIUS: Maybe. Who am I to judge?

But right, there’s the thing these (blockbuster, mainstream, family-friendly) movies do. You have a villain with a sympathetic motive (immortality for everyone!) and a (implied, at least) tragic backstory, to show that your movie is, like, so Morally Complex. But since this is Marvel (and owned by Disney), you can’t make it too morally complex; you can’t have the audience seriously questioning the Good Guys or wondering why the heroes and villains can’t maybe compromise or talk it out. (Like, maybe the villain has a point, right? And what even is morality?) You can’t deviate too far from the traditional Hero’s Journey and Epic Battle formula, because you think that’s What The People Want. So you have the villain horribly kill someone, because that’s, like, irredeemable and the Ends Don’t Justify the Means and now the villain loses all credibility and we no longer question the hero’s pursuit of him. Or maybe in addition to that, have it turn out that there was a flaw in the villain’s plan all along that he missed by not reading the fine print, which means that in retrospect it didn’t matter if it was maybe not such a bad plan–which seems kind of cheap, because neither the audience nor the villain could have foreseen the consequences. And in this case, that doesn’t even seem entirely accurate, because given the Ancient One’s deal, clearly there was a way to achieve immortality/prolonged life by drawing on Dormammu’s power without being burnt to a crisp?

The whole Ancient One thing also irked; it seemed like they were going to go somewhere by addressing her hypocrisy w.r.t. the immortality thing, but that was just sort of hand-waved away in time for the Epic Battle scene. (And, like, I guess the message is that the Ends Do Justify the Means if you’re a Good Guy, but they totally Don’t if you’re a Bad Guy. Holy exceptionalism, Batman!) Super rich for someone who has lived for centuries (millennia?) to say that “Death is what gives life meaning” as if that’s a Deep Truth and not just some empty platitude that we probably would not be spouting if we actually had the choice not to die (but obviously most fiction that deals with immortal beings has to arrive at that conclusion so that we don’t come out of it feeling totally shit about the inevitability of death). But this doesn’t get addressed either! We’re just supposed to be like, yes, she’s so right, bad Mads Mikkelsen for trying to defy the natural order.

Blah blah blah the special effects are very pretty (some especially nice architecture porn).

I’ve been feeling pretty over Benedict Cumberbatch for the past few years, but he seems…fine for this? I don’t know enough about the character in the comics to have strong feelings about his onscreen portrayal. And Cumberbatch provides interesting example of the rare-ish male vocal fry in some of the scenes (distinct from his shaky American accent–more of a muttering to himself/trailing off thing).


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