Sunday, March 18, 2018

I, Tonya (2017)

"I, Tonya" is an examination into the real people behind the TV villains created by the mass media. This now surrounds us, but was relatively new in the early 90s, when the film took place. That era was when the 24-hour-cable-news heroes/villains thing started (Harding, OJ[1], William Kennedy Smith, Rodney King).

The criticism I've heard about this film is that it takes a too-jovial look into Tonya Harding's life and "The Incident" (Nancy Kerrigan getting hit on the knee). This criticism is absolutely not true. The film depicts a tragic life, and is consistent with this tone overall. It has some comedic moments, but mostly around characters other than Tonya, Jeff, and LaVona.

The main feeling I walked away with is always lurking under the surface of every Twitter frenzy of public-shaming: the masses piling onto some person don't know all of the facts about this person. The mob doesn't know what they've been dealing with, or anything about them really. In the film, Tonya (i.e. Margot Robbie, the Tonya character), addresses the audience directly to this point, and that the public abused her. She's right.

I also think the film is on-point about the classism around the story, and I was interested in the called-out classism within skating itself. In the film, Tonya got low scores due to this, until they had no choice but to give her high scores (when she landed the triple axel in 1991 [2]). I have no idea if this is true about her story of skating overall, but it fits. Tonya was made out to be the trashy villain in every news story at the time. And ultimately the film implies that Tonya got to go to the 1994 Olympics due to the ratings that she would garner skating against Nancy Kerrigan.

The acting in the movie is great. I have no idea if any of these people are true to the people they are playing, but Margot Robbie, Paul Walter Hauser, and, of course, Allison Janney are remarkable.

Whether or not the film is completely factual is of course up for debate, and something the actors themselves point out in the film. Even so, I think most people will walk away from this film feeling that Tonya Harding was herself a victim, and her life (or at least skating career) tragic.

JSS Rating: Good/Good. I highly recommend this film.

[1] - "The People vs. OJ Simpson" was also very good.
[2] - Here's the real-life video of Tonya landing the first US women's triple axel, which they end the film with.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

How Green Was My Valley (1941) vs. Citizen Kane (1941)

I've often remarked how the Oscars are a sham simply because Citizen Kane did not win Best Picture for 1941. Instead, How Green Was My Valley was the winner that year, and a few people have told me over the years that it won deservedly.... that How Green is actually the better movie. I had never seen How Green is My Valley so could never respond to this. Now I have.

I know it's been 75 years but as a public service, I'm here to tell you that opinion is crap. Citizen Kane should have totally won.

Let's first talk about How Green Was My Valley. It is not a bad movie. It's an okay movie. Not great, just okay. It's a fairly good movie with a lot of holes.

What best holds it up are the themes. Industrialization, unionization, forbidden love, the dream of a child having a better, more educated life than the parents. Many, many strong themes within this movie. And, in fact, I think it would have had more impact had it been in color. As a black-and-white movie, they had to overplay the smoke coming out of the coal mine to get the point across. Being told the valley was green and then it was not doesn't have the same impact as actually seeing it. Apparently that was in the cards -- filming in color in Wales itself -- but couldn't be done due to the war. It was filmed in B&W in LA.

I'm going to let loose on some spoilers now but I imagine 99.999% of you will never see this movie. I know this because Batman vs. Superman was a complete piece of garbage and still made $872 million at the box office. 

Where the movie isn't great is in the script and the acting.

First, as good as the themes are, there are too many themes being pushed into the movie. It's trying really hard to be an epic, and the time for character development suffers for it. Only Mr. Morgan is complex enough and really given enough screen-time to develop in the movie, but it falls short of doing so. He is never actually challenged in a way that forces him to change. Ultimately, he remains exactly as he is: working at the coal mine until he dies in an accident. And that's literally the end of the movie. Related and similar: Huw could be an interesting character. And the story is being told from Huw's perspective as an old man. But somehow we missed out on the other fifty years of his life, and the movie ends when his father dies. Though maybe that's the point, the other 50 years were nothing to him.

The other script aspect that's downright disturbing, but a norm for the time, is the need to put in whimsy. I feel like this was fairly common in the 30s, and it happens a few times in this movie. If you've watched any of that era's movies, you can probably picture it. In this movie, it's done at completely inappropriate times. Men were just killed in a coal mining accident -- including one of the main characters of the movie -- and as a rescue crew is being formed -- including the son of the main character -- one of the other characters whimsically says how he's a coward and will hold the jacket of another headed into the mine. Srsly, WTF?

As far as the acting goes, really only Walter Pidgeon shines as Mr. Gruffydd. He neither won nor was nominated for an Oscar -- Donald Crisp did for Mr. Morgan.

Citizen Kane.

Both of these movies are similar in that they share a life as told through flashback. Kane dies at the beginning mumbling something about Rosebud and a reporter tries to get to the bottom of it. Huw kicks us off reminiscing about the green valley he lived in and his life as a boy.

Except only one of these movies pays off and has meaningful character development along the way. Kane rises, falls, destroys lives, isolates himself. The real pay-off for Kane is that he dies embracing a moment that he alone has any knowledge of, and is lost forever when the sled is burned, the reporter not having discovered the meaning of "Rosebud". Kane would be remembered by the world for everything he had done in the decades after sledding, but the thing he cherished about his identity was that memory.

That's powerful. Now compare that to everything I just told you about How Green is my Valley. There is no payoff -- nothing for us to learn. Just lives and goings-on. It's okay, as I said... but not better.

Everything else is better with Kane as well. The acting is better, cinematography. Music is a toss-up, both were good.

The most stark difference: one of these movies was revolutionary. Kane is what movies ended up aspiring to be. How Green was my Valley was what movies once were.


I'm still left puzzled by why Kane only won one Oscar. Was it because John Ford? Some other politics? Or just because Welles was a newcomer, as was similar when Pulp Fiction should have won Best Picture in 1994 [another post for another time]?

But I'm not alone in this. Many articles have been written. Kane is not my favorite movie of all time, but I do think it's possibly the best film ever made, especially when you put it in the era in which it was made. (Although "why citizen kane" autocompletes on Google to "is so great" and "is so overrated")

JSS Rating:
 Citizen Kane: Best/Good movie (they tried to make a good movie and it was one of the best)

 How Green was My Valley: Good/Good movie (but not even remotely close to Kane)

ps - This is the second time on this blog I've reviewed a John Ford movie (the first was The Searchers), and I have to say, I must not be seeing the general appeal. I realize he was one of the most prolific and highly regarded directors of all time, but the movies of his I've watched just haven't been that great. I'll have to do "Grapes of Wrath" next.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Motel Hell (1980)

There are a few notable delineations worth making in our humanity's timeline. The birth of Christ, for example. The Magna Carta in 1215. Or 1980, not because it was the year John Lennon was shot, or Ronald Reagan won the presidency. But because it's the year Motel Hell was released.

Motel Hell predates Cabin in the Woods (2012) or Scary Movie (2000), but the premise is the same: making fun of the horror genre. Unlike the others, Motel Hell's intentions aren't made obvious for much of the movie. Cabin in the Woods keeps you guessing about outcome, but the comedic tone of the movie is established in the first scene. Scary Movie's intentions are known from the poster, or trailer. Motel Hell is a deadpan Steven Wright to Scary Movie's frenetic Robin Williams.

If one didn't catch on from its over-the-topness, then only one of the last lines of the movie truly tips its hand -- this whole thing was a send-up. Anyone watching it as a serious movie probably would have turned it off much, much earlier. The movie is grotesque and bizarre if a viewer doesn't attribute it to parody early on (and is still grotesque and bizarre, even as a parody!)

Highly recommended if you enjoy the horror genre and parodies of it. Other than attire, it's not at all obvious this movie was made 36 years ago. Horror movie tropes remain the same throughout all of these years. No wonder the genre is so tired.

JSS rating: Good/Bad movie. It's an exceptional B-movie. Why didn't I watch this years ago?!

Friday, April 08, 2016

Hacker Movies

Hacker movies.
There really haven't been a ton that were focused on the hacking. Sneakers, WarGames, Swordfish, The Net. We don't count The Matrix as a hacker movie, right?
And of course, Hackers.
It's kind of odd that few of these movies try to understand the details of the core premise--that is, using a computer. It's like making Bull Durham without understanding the rules of baseball.
Which brings me to the point of this post: Mr. Robot is the best computing-centric entertainment there's ever been. And yet it's on some rando cable network that I haven't watched since USA Cartoon Express went off the air. Why is this?
Hacking is a niche topic. I mean, yes, here in 2016, everyone uses computers and VirtualBoys and Zunes every day but the idea of watching people in movies create drama with ssh commands is... well, pretty niche. So hacker movies don't end up caring about that stuff because, let's face it, no one casts Hugh Jackman and Halle Berry to see if they use curl commands correctly. The production budget of that movie was $102 million dollars. It won't make its money back if the plot isn't entertaining to a wide audience, and technical topics like trying to crack WEP don't matter.
This brings me to the point of the post: we're really living in a new golden age because niche themes like this have an outlet. They can have solid entertainment made for them. It's cheaper and more viable than ever for a show like Mr. Robot to be made and distributed effectively. Quality horror is another genre. Mainstream is all Paranormal Activity 5 ... the indie stuff you find on Netflix is quality like The Babadook.
Anyway, I'll leave you with this clip, which includes a nice little dig at Mr. Robot itself. This show, and so many other shows on "tv" these days, are rocking it.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Trainwreck (2015) vs. Unforgiven (1992)

One of the things that's bothered me about Judd Apatow's comedies is how bitter they seem. I've felt this way about everything he's done since "The 40-Year-Old Virgin". None of the movies ends up being funny or enjoyable. But why, what makes them so bitter-seeming? And what is Apatow trying to achieve?

I finally put it all together it in this scene where Amy (the prota-gon-ist, I guess) is watching cheerleaders with her doctor boyfriend. He explains that they work hard, and he treats them for injuries. Her response was this:

The snarky commentary throughout the movie -- and really, all of Judd Apatow's movies -- makes comedy at the expense of characters who are not deserving. Compare this to classic comedies such as Real Genius or Ghostbusters. The person being made fun of in those movies (and actually yes, it's the same actor -- William Atherton), had established themselves as a real jerk! So it's completely enjoyable when one of our proto-...prota-gon-ists makes fun of him.

"Well... you could believe Mr. Pecker."

So let's dig deeper. What is Apatow trying to achieve?

The Anti-Hero

You, Flock-Of-Seagulls. Remember Jules?

Jules is a bad man. He kills people and works for a crime boss. And yet we root for him in the movie. Why? He is the Good.. at least within the confines of the film. And Pulp Fiction defines the boundaries of Good and Bad within the film very well. Bad seems to take the form of unsophistication in Pulp Fiction. Lesser thieves. Jules is established as a protagonist when he and Vincent are sent by the boss to collect from unsophisticated thieves. And it's just their job, the other guys are lazily eating Big Kahuna Burger at 8am, having stolen from Marsellus Wallace.

Given Quentin Tarantino's love of dialogue, Jules even clarifies his position in the movie when he meets up with Pumpkin and Honey Bunny in the coffee shop.

"See, now I'm thinking: maybe it means you're the evil man. And I'm the righteous man. And Mr. 9mm here... he's the shepherd protecting my righteous ass in the valley of darkness. Or it could mean you're the righteous man and I'm the shepherd and it's the world that's evil and selfish. And I'd like that. But that shit ain't the truth. The truth is you're the weak. And I'm the tyranny of evil men. But I'm tryin', Ringo. I'm tryin' real hard to be the shepherd"
Pumpkin and Honey Bunny had already established themselves as low-life stick-up artists at the beginning of the movie. Jules is the higher authority. Well-dressed, well-spoken and well-employed (by a crime boss -- the tyranny of evil men). He is trying to reform the lesser criminals. Importantly, by the time he says this to Pumpkin, Jules has already explained that because of the miracle at the apartment (the bullets did not touch him and Vincent), he wants to quit the business and roam the earth like Caine from Kung Fu. And so we root for him.

Anti-heroes as powerful as Jules make people uneasy by design. My dad, for example, hated Pulp Fiction because "it made you root for the bad guys." So let's talk about a really bad guy and why we root for him.

William Munny

William Munny has killed dozens or hundreds in the West, including women and children. Throughout the movie, he explains how he's now sober, and he did all that when he was drunk and barely remembers it.

But really none of that matters. Once Ned is put out in front of the saloon with a sign on him, Munny grabs the booze and reverts to exactly the same way he always was. Here, have a drink, Will:

So basically he's not the reformed person we heard about all movie, he's right back to the cold blooded killer.

Some important things still allow the audience to root for him even when this happens.

#1) Ned was innocent (at least relatively so, within the context of the movie)

Although Ned was in on the plot to kill the cowboys, he couldn't pull the trigger on his Spencer when it came time to do so. Even though Ned was originally part of it, he was trying to leave because he didn't want to be a part of it. So revenge makes some sense here.

#2) Little Bill

Little Bill is presented as Bad in the movie pretty clearly. Everyone hates Bill. He beats Ned to death with a whip. Bill reinforces that Munny is actually Good, within this movie at least.

But interestingly, his evilness is tempered by another character. The Duck of Death:

In his original review of Unforgiven -- in which he gave the movie 2.5 stars (!) -- Roger Ebert commented that English Bob was a superfluous character because he never met Munny in the movie.

English Bob actually has an important role in the movie which is to make Little Bill not seem as bad. The Duck of Death is not only a braggart but someone who murders for minor reasons, as discussed in the jail with the writer.

This, and Bill's wanting to build a house and settle in Big Whiskey give us just a little bit of sadness when Munny gets revenge on Bill.


So now we've talked about some successful anti-heroes in the history of film (if not the two most successful), let's bring this blog post home and talk about why Trainwreck fails to make Amy a good anti-hero.

Many of the themes parallel with Unforgiven, for example:
  • Munny was a drunk killer.
  • Amy is a drunk killer.
  • The death of Munny's wife changed him (before the movie), and Ned's death reverted him (during the movie)
  • The death of Amy's father ... really seemed to have no direct effect on her.
But where Trainwreck fails is very simple. In Unforgiven, Munny is quickly established as Good compared to the cowboys, and then that image is furthered against Little Bill. We have to wait 117 minutes into Trainwreck to see Amy become a decent person relative to anyone else in the film. And it's just not enjoyable as a result. There's nothing, and no one, to root for. Most of the movie, I was hoping that Bill Hader's character would just ditch her. 

Judd Apatow's made a lot more money than I have making movies, so maybe I don't know what the hell I'm talking about. But it would be interesting if he could ever make a movie where the main characters are someone to root for. Start by putting an antagonist in the movie that's both relevant to the plot and worse than the main character. Trainwreck fails at all of this.

JSS Rating: Bad/Bad. It's supposed to be a bad movie and guess what... it is!

Thursday, August 13, 2015

John Wick (2014)

John Wick is one of Keanu's best movies (Matrix, Point Break being the others), and one of the best of 2014. On the surface, this movie has plenty of red flags for being a terrible, by-the-numbers action flick. It's the first-time directorial debut of a stuntman! Keanu's best is behind him! It's not based on a comic book!

Instead, it harkens back to the heady days of 80s action movies like Commando, Predator, Robocop, Demolition Man, Die Hard.

Why, why is John Wick so good? I think I can explain a couple of key points. 

(Minor/early-film spoilers)

#3: Rated-R.

I can't say this enough: PG-13 spoiled the action and sci-fi genres. All of the movies I mentioned above are rated-R. Most rated-R movies these days are not popcorn action. They are horror or adult themed drama. The popcorn action flicks are all PG-13, and the action and content is aimed at teens, not adults.

John Wick is the antithesis of this trend. Kingsman and Escape Plan are others.

#2: The normal life of a hitman

One thing that's very entertaining about the movie is that the life of a hitman has rules, and casualness. The Continental hotel he stays at (in the Flatiron Building), designed for hitmen and with rules for hitmen. The casual calls for body pickups and such. It adds a level of unexpected introspection into his life, and the life of a hitman.

#1 The dog.

The most important character in the film is the dog, Daisy.

First rule of filmmaking: never kill a dog. In this movie they do, in the first 10 minutes.

Why should you never kill a dog (as a moviemaker)? Dogs aren't actors playing a character. They're innocent, cute dogs. When they die, it destroys the emotions of humans watching the movie. Daisy the dog is innocent, and dies at the hands of horrible men. Furthermore, the filmmakers rub it in your face doubly so by showing that Daisy's dying move was to crawl over to be near John while he was knocked out. The tragedy depicted is unbelievably harsh.. in less than 10 minutes! How does it recover?

And yet the movie not only recovers, but excels. The rest of the movie is revenge. For Daisy The Dog (well, and the wife who gave John the dog). So not only do you want John to live and get the bad guys, but you want him to get total revenge.

One additional note on this. Every character in the movie except for the dog-killer is sympathetic to John and in disbelief that someone would kill John Wick's dog -- even if they themselves are trying to kill him in order to get money. It's pretty twisted, and yet very human, and just makes the movie that much more interesting and entertaining.

JSS RATING: Good, Bad movie. They were making a B-movie, not Citizen Kane, and it was a good movie.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Analysis of Teenage Movies from the 80s

If you ask someone on the street for the best Teen movie of all time is -- especially if they're, say, over 35 -- chances are they're going to pick one of many movies from the 80s that could fit in that category.
  • Say Anything...
  • Better Off Dead
  • Footloose
  • The Outsiders
  • Fast Times at Ridgemont High
  • Heathers 
And of course the John Hughes classics:
  • The Breakfast Club
  • Pretty in Pink
  • Sixteen Candles
  • Ferris Bueller's Day Off
  • Weird Science
Being ancient now, when I rewatch these movies, I see them in a whole new light. For the most part, most of these movies have a common thread: adults are caricatures of idiots and assholes.

Consider Breakfast Club. The parents all make a very quick appearance at the beginning. You've got BMW dad, nerd kid mom and Wrestler dad. All do their out-of-touch caricature thing within the span of about 15 seconds. Wrestler dad tells his son not to screw up his scholarship.

And then it's time for the kids to do their coming-into-adulthood thing, amongst each other, in the face of the jerk principal.

If you run down the list, most Hughes movies in the list fall into this mold. The parents are out of touch caricatures, and the other adults are jerks and idiots that are getting in the way of the kids' road to maturity. The only major exceptions are Pretty in Pink and, potentially, Weird Science. Though Chet, the grandparents, and the biker gang all sort of negate any good-will that Lisa brings into the picture for the sake of adults.

This mold is used for other examples as well. Better Off Dead and Heathers, for sure.

But now I want to bring to your attention the counterpoints: the Cameron Crowe films in the list.

Say Anything and Fast Times are very unique in that there is one prominent adult in either movie. In Say Anything, it's Mr. Court. In Fast Times, it's Mr. Hand. And they are multi-dimensional. Both of them. They're not caricatures, they change their opinions of people and develop over the course of the movie. There are a few extra adults but they're mostly normal (exception: Mr. Vargas).

And very importantly... the only parent we see in either movie is Mr. Court. His relationship with Diane is the most important between any two characters in either movie. And the scene where Diane confronts Court with his lying is beautiful, fantastic acting by Mahoney. A dimensional character.

[BTW, I've racked my brain trying to think of a parent that shows up in Fast Times without rewatching it right now. I am almost positive the only case is Stacy's mom as she says good night.]

So this is one of the reasons that Say Anything and Fast Times end up being at or near the top of my list among these. They create a microcosm of being a teen, and focus on the important relationships with an adult, and don't make those characters a joke.