Sunday Smackdown: Aquaman vs Shang-Chi

Two movies, four worlds, one winner

I really, really enjoyed Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. I think Simu Liu is a revelation, everything with Michelle Yeoh is automatically interesting (even if not necessarily good), and it did a phenomenal job of bringing a martial-arts-and-magic based hero to the MCU without losing the character moments that make the MCU work in the first place.

I surprisingly enjoyed Aquaman. Not nearly as much as Shang-Chi, but more than I’d expected, which was none enjoyment. For a while, it’s been my example of how modern cinema is failing me: even as big, dumb spectacle, it didn’t have enough draw to compel me to go to a theater. But after watching it on HBO Max, I was pleasantly surprised. It still felt as if it were made up predominantly of the Zack Snyder version of the Justice League, combined with a movie exec in 2016’s idea of what bros want from a super-hero blockbuster, combined with Geoff Johns’s idea of what bros want from a super-hero comic book.

But there were enough moments of self-aware goofiness, and a willingness to poke fun at itself, that made it a lot easier to let everything else wash over me. If this were a “One Thing I Like” post, I’d choose the scene in which a bunch of guys approach Aquaman to start a bar fight. It captured exactly the tone I liked seeing peek through the rest of the bullshit that’s too insecure and defensive to let comics and comics-inspired properties just be fun.

Shang-Chi and Aquaman have more aspects in common than just “blockbuster super-hero movies built around lesser-known or disrespected characters from the comics.” Both of them establish that their main character is of two worlds, and both of them try to build up to a climax in which the hero is going to have to bring together both of his worlds to overcome his obstacles.

Continue reading “Sunday Smackdown: Aquaman vs Shang-Chi”

Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: Bring Me to Torn

What could be worse than an earworm? Two earworms!

The only thing worse than getting an earworm is getting it in the form of a mash-up. This week I’ve had “Bring Me to Life” by Evanescence drilling its way through my brain, and I made the mistake of listening to the version sung by Goofy (by ProZD) and then that got stuck in my head.

And because viruses mutate, over the week, this has gotten merged with “Torn” by Natalie Imbruglia to form a horrible, millennium-spanning Aussie Pop/Nu-Metal hybrid:

Wake me up!
I’m all out of faith
Can’t wake up!
This is how I feel
Save me!
I’m cold and I am shamed, lying naked on the floor

Edited to add: I hadn’t heard any mash-ups of these songs before, but of course it’s not surprising at all that they already exist. The best one I’ve found is “Bring Me Torn Life” by Jed K.

Movie List Monday: Double-Naught Seven

Do you expect me to make a list of my favorite James Bond movies?

As long as I’m making claims about what I want to see in a James Bond movie, I should list the double-naught seven entries that I think pull it off the best. I should probably acknowledge that I’m not a big enough fan of the franchise to be familiar with all the lore and such, and people who are lifelong Bond fans will be either bored, outraged, or both, to see a list that includes the most often-cited entries plus one that’s not even officially in the series.

007. For Your Eyes Only
I don’t like any of the Roger Moore movies that much, so I’m really only including this one because it’s the first Bond movie I ever saw. I don’t remember much about the movie apart from Greece and mountain climbing, but I definitely remember having the title song by Sheena Easton on a 45 record that I played constantly.

006. The Living Daylights
This one mainly coasts on Timothy Dalton’s charisma, but I think it works in terms of giving the series a much-needed late-1980s update. It did set the precedent for trying to over-correct the franchise’s silliness, but at the same time draining it of anything that made it stand out from other stunt-heavy action movies. I think the saving grace is using a cello case as a sled, which is exactly the kind of entertainingly dumb stunt a Bond movie needs.

005. Diamonds are Forever
This one is almost inexcusably goofy, and Las Vegas is way too mundane to be an interesting setting for a Bond movie. But you have to award points for the name Plenty O’Toole, and for having the villains be a pair of creepy homosexual sadistic assassins. Mr Wint and Mr Kidd are brilliantly awful, two of the most memorable characters in the entire series. I can’t give Fleming, or really anybody involved with the series in the early 1970s, the benefit of the doubt to assume the characters were intended as a sardonic comment on James Bond’s habit of making self-satisfied quips after subjecting people to gruesome or violent deaths.

004. Goldfinger
I wish I could be too cool for school and say that Goldfinger didn’t do anything for me, and pick a more obscure Bond movie that you’ve probably never heard of in its place. But come on, this had everything you want from 1960s Bond and a gang of lesbian burglars led by a woman named Pussy Galore. When I first saw it, I didn’t know that Ian Fleming was always making up bullshit like the idea of sumo wrestlers pulling their testicles up into their body, so “skin suffocation” seemed fascinating and dangerous instead of nonsensical.

003. Never Say Never Again
This early 1980s remake of Thunderball wasn’t the first Bond movie I ever saw, but it was the first one that got me interested. I understand now that it’s not a great movie, but as a 12 year old, I was shook. It seemed like such a grown-up movie, except the grown-ups were doing things I liked, like playing video games and making juvenile jokes about piss. I was fascinated by Barbara Carerra’s scenery-chewing villain and Sean Connery’s toupee. I’d forgotten about the overalls, which threatens to be the most embarrassing thing in a franchise in which the lead character is “disguised” to look Japanese.

002. Casino Royale
Until all the hype around the new movie being finally released, I’d forgotten just how good Casino Royale actually is, and especially how good Daniel Craig is. I think what sets his version of the character apart is that he acts like he doesn’t give a damn about looking cool. He plays Bond as an assassin, not a suave action hero. What’s funny is that ever since this movie was released, I’ve been complaining (ad nauseam) that they didn’t reboot the Bond franchise by making it a period piece set in the Cold War. Thinking back on how much of it is distinctly of its time — with parkour and Texas Hold ‘Em and a theme by Chris Cornell — it seems like they managed to make a period piece after all.

001. Thunderball
The underwater sequences go on way too long, and while I don’t doubt they were remarkable for their time, they just don’t read well. It’s the 1960s fight choreography that already seems impossibly slow and clumsy to modern audiences, but slowed down even more because it’s underwater. Everything up to that point, though, is classic Bond movie. An exotic location, beach adventure and casino intrigue, S.P.E.C.T.R.E., and a really stupid jetpack.

Sunday Smackdown: Skyfall vs Spectre

When you like a worse movie better than a better one

Let’s try yet another intermittent weekly series on this blog: pitting two pieces of art or entertainment against each other to decide a “winner.”

All of my parasocial friends on YouTube and the rest of the internet have been optimizing their SEO by talking about James Bond movies to capitalize on No Time To Die. Even if I felt comfortable going to theaters again, that movie is around two hours and 45 minutes long — somebody on Twitter more clever than I am called it No Time to Pee — so I’m not going to be seeing that until it comes to streaming services or cheap rentals.

The movie looks interesting, but Black Widow and Shang-Chi both satisfied my action-spectacle-on-a-big-screen quota for 2021. Honestly, the most compelling part of the movie for me is Ana de Armas, who I thought was fantastic in Knives Out and is so preternaturally beautiful that it’s hard to believe she isn’t a digitally-created person. I like Daniel Craig a ton, and the only reason he’s not my favorite James Bond is because the Sean Connery movies exist, but honestly, I’d much rather see him in Knives Out sequels, except where they find an excuse for him to spend most of the movie with no shirt on.

And while Craig is pretty great, the movies post Casino Royale have been pretty disappointing. Skyfall has been near-universally praised as one of the best in the series, but I was so turned off by it that I didn’t even bother watching Spectre until last night, as a compromise: if I can’t watch the new Bond movie, I’ll watch the new-to-me one.

So I was pretty surprised that I kind of enjoyed it. To be clear: it’s absolutely absurd, even frustratingly so in parts. But then, that’s true of almost all of them. I think the franchise is best when it leans into the absurdity, with the important qualifier that everybody in the movie has to act as if the absurdity is genuinely cool. That’s why Roger Moore came across as too silly, and Pierce Brosnan came across as too eager to be in on the joke, while Sean Connery could be in situations that were ludicrous and even downright offensive, but still somehow retain an aura of cool.

Continue reading “Sunday Smackdown: Skyfall vs Spectre”

Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: Pop Songs 89

These next ones are the first song on their old albums

I was a freshman in college in 1988, and I had a CD player and two CDs: Fleetwood Mac’s Greatest Hits, and Green by REM. It’s odd how even now, over 30 years later, the opening of “Rhiannon” transports me back to that dorm room, when I had no clue what I was doing but was still arrogant and optimistic enough to believe that I did.

And because I had those two CDs on constant — and I mean constant — rotation, I’m sure the opening of “Rhiannon” means something very different to my poor roommates and our neighbors. We had a downstairs neighbor who was straight-up obsessed with the song “Jane Says” by Jane’s Addiction, and would play it in a constant loop, to the point where that beginning bass line sends shivers up my spine to this day. I hope I managed to instill in them the same dread over the beginning to “Pop Song 89.”

Later I would go on to UGA, where cosmic justice was delivered to me in the form of having to hear “It’s The End of the World As We Know It” at least twice daily by the REM-obsessed youths of Athens, after I’d kind of gotten tired of them.

The video for “Pop Song 89” must’ve had a lot of horned-up UGA undergrads extremely twitterpated, seeing as how it had a long-haired Michael Stipe dancing shirtless in harlequin leggings (along with three also-topless women, which was likely stated to be a bold statement about the hypocrisy of American prudishness about the human body but was more likely just an excuse for Michael Stipe to dance shirtless in a video).

Movie List Monday: Yes, the one in Los Angeles

Considering how much the film industry loves to make movies about itself, they haven’t done much to sell me on their home city

The first time I went to Burbank, I realized two things: that the version of Los Angeles I’d been sold all my life wasn’t entirely accurate, and that more than any other city — even Manhattan! — I’d been sold a version of Los Angeles as a place I needed to know about.

Even the versions that were critical of the city were still stressing the idea that you needed to know about LA so you could make fun of it. After several trips over the last 25 years or so, including an extended stay last week where we explored some neighborhoods, I feel like I’ve got a better idea of the city. Not as much as a resident would, but much more accurate than a Randy Newman video.1I always just assumed that that song was sardonic, but now it just sounds “love-it-despite-its-faults” sincere, which makes me hate it even more. Some of the movies that formed my opinion of the city are just too solipsistic or too stylized for me to appreciate anymore, but here are the ones that got at least one aspect right:

E.T. The Extra Terrestrial
I’ve read that E.T. was Steven Spielberg’s ode to childhood, and the San Fernando Valley wasn’t meant to be a specific place so much as “The Suburbs.” As a kid, I was just struck by how much cooler and more exotic the California suburbs looked than my own suburbs; the whole thing was alien. Now when I drive around the valley, it has a sense of familiarity from a childhood that wasn’t mine.

Drag Me to Hell
This is locked in my memory as a distinctly LA movie, but I couldn’t recall any details of the plot that demanded it be set in Los Angeles. Now, though, it seems an essential part of the story, not just a generic setting: it has to be some place large enough to have multiple cultures commingling, and hostile or careless strangers with little sense of community. It has to have enough history, and distinct enough buildings, for its magical seance sequence. And its main character has to be visibly middle class: better off than some, but definitely not “rich” in any sense of the word. In that sense, it’s as LA as it gets.

Drive
I don’t think of this as a particularly romantic version of Los Angeles, but it somehow does an amazing job of making the ugly and banal parts of the city seem exciting and interesting. I remember the ads for this movie being all about fast cars and nightclubs and neon, while the reality was mostly apartment buildings, garages, and strip malls. To me, this most felt like a classic film noir in the way it made low-to-medium-density sprawl seem mysterious and exotic.

Blade Runner
For all the futurism that Blade Runner throws at us, the only two aspects of 21st century Los Angeles that came true were the influence of Asian cultures and the overall sense of people feeling defeated and replaceable. I think it’s darkly hilarious that it shows a dystopia of soul-crushing skyscrapers shooting jets of flame into the night, and streets soaked with constant rain, while in the real 2021, people in LA are practically begging for more water and more building density.

L.A. Confidential
Los Angeles has a ton of fascinating history that no one seems to be particularly interested in, except for how it pertains to clothes, cars, and architecture. Everyone invested in the city seems to want it to exist in a perpetual present, with a theme-park-style callback to interesting buildings completely removed from their actual context. The question of whether L.A. Confidential is “accurate” is completely irrelevant; just by existing, it’s one of the most inherently Los Angeles artifacts there is. Overlong, filled with celebrities riding a wave of fame, spending tens of millions of dollars to present a lurid, fantastic version of itself.

La La Land
This one also sells you a fantasy version of LA, and it’s really the charisma of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, not Los Angeles, that wins you over. But the parts of LA that it’s selling happen to be the parts of LA that I actually like, so it works for me. The Griffith Observatory really is one of the most beautiful places anywhere. Some of the best places in the city are tucked away in an ugly strip mall. The city’s large enough that you can be a total nerd about a topic and find an entire subculture devoted to it. And it certainly feels like you can wander into a random nightclub and run into someone you haven’t seen in years.

Demolition Man
The satire in this movie is about as subtle as you’d expect from a movie starring Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes, but I also kind of feel like they nailed it. Sandra Bullock is the soul of the movie and the source of all its charm, as well as feeling like one of the few people who understood that it was an action comedy. But what charmed me the most were the idea of a Los Angeles that’s sprawled out to absorb San Diego, obsessed with fast food and product placement, and controlled by a fascistic police state that sells itself as a peaceful utopia.

Movie List Monday: It Was a Graveyard Smash

My favorite monster movies

I’m usually a hard-line no-talk-of-Halloween-before-October person, but all the horror nights videos and monster cereals have won me over. Aggressive marketing wins again!

So to stay in the spirit of the season, here’s a list of my favorite movies about monsters, and why I like them.

Aliens
Possibly the best monster movie ever made. When I first saw it, I already felt like it was going to quickly feel dated, but somehow, every time I’ve seen it over the years, it’s felt contemporary. I’ve always liked Aliens more than Alien, but I’ve gone back and forth over which is “the better movie,” as if that matters. At the moment, I think that Alien ramps up conceptually — alien ship to eggs to chest-bursters to Ash to MOTHER to the climax — while Aliens recognizes early on it can’t surprise audiences in the same way, so it ramps up in tension and plot stakes.

The Beast Must Die
I mention this 1970s British werewolf mystery every chance I get, because it’s got so much style. It looks like a Hammer horror, but was produced by a company that had a similar aesthetic and the ability to attract some remarkable talent to gimmicky schlock. This one is a mash-up of And Then There Were None, The Most Dangerous Game, and a monster movie. It’s got the wonderful “werewolf break,” in which the movie stops at the climax to let you reconsider the clues and decide once and for all who the werewolf is.1The climax of the last episode of Sam & Max was a shameless rip-off of this gimmick. The only thing keeping this movie from being a classic is that it’s not very good, but I still love it.

Cloverfield
All the Bad Robot easter eggs are kind of insufferable now, but you can ignore that they’re there, and this is still the best modern take on a kaiju movie (I say confidently, having never seen Shin Godzilla). At the time, I was eager to find more depth in it, by pointing at all the things it said about video games and first-person perspectives and our dependence on smart phones and excessively documenting everything that happens, but all that ignores the simple fact that it does an amazing job being a movie about a giant monster attacking a city. The scene with Marlena behind the curtain is still one of the most memorable in any movie.

Kong: Skull Island
I’m still confused by a job interview I had where they mentioned my review of this movie as if I’d trashed it, because I thought I was pretty positive. It’s not deep, and it feels aggressively focus-grouped, but it’s got a cast over-full of super-talented actors and an art direction that is unstoppable. I do think that it would’ve been better if it had been its own weird outlier, instead of part of such an orchestrated attempt at franchise-building, because it’s got so many good concepts and such great style. It just feels like a bunch of great ideas got sanded down to the point where it was clever and entertaining but fell just short of being classic.

Deep Rising
The credits for this include “Famke Janssen as Trillian St. James” and “Leanne Adachi as Toilet Lady,” which tells you 90% of what you need to know about this movie’s tone. It’s the movie Stephen Sommers released the year before he hit it big with The Mummy, and it’s got much of the same tone without the same budget. This is another one that I have a hard time calling “camp” because it doesn’t seem to care whether the audience knows it’s in on the joke. But it is deeply, unapologetically silly. If you’ve forgotten (or never saw) the trailers, this is the movie where the aforementioned Toilet Lady gets sucked right down through the toilet by the monster.

Tremors
All the promotion around the new Dune movie made me realize that I haven’t seen Tremors since the 1990s. While I’m still such a huge fanboy of Star Wars and the MCU, I am conflicted that blockbuster franchises have made it harder for movies like Tremors to exist — goofy, fun, outliers that still have enough passion behind them that they don’t feel like throwaways. SciFi original movies2Or was it already “SyFy” by that point? were always trying to make the next Tremors, but it was the perfect example of trying to catch lightning in a bottle. (And it’s discouraging that the franchise itself has had the same problem, as far as I can tell). I feel like the only way you’d see a project with this level of commitment these days is as a Netflix movie, and while I’m sure it would be well-produced and entertaining, assuming you could find it in the first place, I’m skeptical we’d still be thinking of it 30 years later.

The Thing
Speaking of movies that I haven’t seen in too long, I’m overdue for a rewatch of The Thing. This has long been my go-to example of a movie that I love but can’t watch again, because the gore was too much for me. (I own a copy in at least two formats by this point). I see clips now, though, and it’s perfectly 1982-level effects: truly horrible in a way that makes you admire their creativity, but far enough removed from reality that I’m able to remember “it’s only a movie.” My mind still boggles at the kind of imagination that could come up with the defibrillator scene.

Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: Do You Remember

September 21st… that’s today!

There’s only one tune appropriate for this Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: “September” by Earth, Wind, and Fire.

For his final September 21st video, Demi Adejuyigbe made a short film about a guy who started making videos for fun until it became an annual obligation to the point where he enlisted the help of friends in TV and movie production to go all out with multiple sets and choreography and secure the song rights instead of having to use a heavily remixed/amateur version and also getting a shout out from the members of the band.

Once again, he’s used the video to promote charity donation, this year emphasizing three immediate causes: protecting access to safe abortions in Texas, recovery in New Orleans after Hurricane Ida, and campaigning for responsible climate policy.

Try to remember to donate if you’re in a position to do so! Hey, that reminds me of a song. I was unaware that Harry Belafonte had done a fairly well-known version of “Try to Remember” from The Fantasticks, which is nice to discover. I’ve liked the song ever since I had to sing it for an audition once1I did not get the part., but every version I’ve ever heard is almost cringingly white, like it’s not incidental but they’re leaning heavily into the whiteness of it.

Movie List Monday: Spooky! Scary!

Scary movies I enjoyed, because I’m a very brave person

Coming to terms with the fact that I’m bad at horror movies, I wanted to think of the ones I’ve seen that worked as intended: scary fun. That means no mention of The Cabin in the Woods or Drag Me to Hell, because as much as I love them, they didn’t scare me. It also doesn’t include The Exorcist, which even as a Protestant, I think is the outright scariest movie I’ve seen, but is the opposite of fun.

And I should probably acknowledge again that I’m absolutely not a connoisseur of horror movies, if only because I avoid anything that seems to emphasize gore, sadism, or torture. But I did enjoy these, at least!

Scream
The sequels went too far in the self-aware direction, but I think the first one hit exactly the right balance between deconstruction and old-fashioned teen horror movie. The opening is perfect, because it’s genuinely scary at a level that the rest of the movie couldn’t possibly maintain — but of course, you spend the rest of the movie wondering if maybe it could. I’ve mentioned a few times that I saw this in Novato, CA at a theater running a “tightwad Tuesday” discount night, so the theater was jam-packed, mostly with teenagers. It was one of the best movie-going experiences I’ve ever had, the audience screaming and yelling at the screen at exactly the right times.

The Others
A throwback to classic ghost stories that just nailed the tone. I remember being creeped out from beginning to end, even though I could tell pretty early on what was going to happen. This one deserves classic status.

Final Destination
This was originally pitched as an X-Files episode, which is apparent from the tone and the structure; it feels very reminiscent of the best standalone episodes. The inclusion of the unintentionally creepy song “Turn Around, Look at Me” was a brilliant touch. Really, the entire series of movies is based on a gimmick, but what a fantastic gimmick: show the audience a dozen different ways a person can be killed, and then spend minutes letting them imagine all the different scenarios, letting them all play out in their head. The first and third in the series — the ones with Glen Morgan and James Wong’s direct involvement — are still the best, and extremely underrated as clever suspense movies.

Resident Evil
I’m not a big fan of the rest of the series, and I’ve been critical of Paul W.S. Anderson’s other movies enough that I think I might have been unfair. But I unapologetically love just about everything in this one. The laser murder hallway is my favorite, a sequence that set up a threat and then kept raising the stakes brilliantly. It set the tone not just for the rest of the movie, but for what I expect from horror/action movies going forward.

Ghost Ship
Let’s be honest: this is not a very good movie. It’s not even particularly scary; I remember there being a couple of good moments, but the bulk of it is kind of a slog. But that opening sequence is fantastic. It felt like they were setting the bar for how far this movie was going to go, in terms of how many people they’d kill off at once. The CG wasn’t at all convincing, but it still did exactly what it needed to do. I wonder if part of the disappointment of the movie is due to the fact that it can’t possibly live up to the beginning.

10 Cloverfield Lane
I’m not sure if this one is technically classified as “horror,” but I sure watched it like a horror movie. Meaning: filled with dread over what I was going to see next, but too invested to leave. One of the many remarkable things about this movie is that John Goodman’s character here is essentially the same as Walter from The Big Lebowski, reminding us that it was only bowling and Judaism that kept him from being completely horrific.

Literacy 2021: Book 22: Artificial Condition

Second in the series of books about a rogue Murderbot that’s indestructible yet socially awkward

Book
Artificial Condition by Martha Wells

Series
Book 2 in “The Murderbot Diaries”

Synopsis
A rogue SecUnit — a semi-organic robotic construct that refers to itself as a “murderbot” — sets out on a mission to learn why it went rogue and killed all the humans it was assigned to protect. To gain access to the planet where the incident happened, it takes on a contract to protect three naive humans trying to get their property back from an unscrupulous mine operator.

Pros
Smart, clever, and efficient writing; the first two books in the series are more like novellas in length, but are so confident in their voice that they don’t feel too short. Writing the stories from the perspective of Murderbot, which is impervious to violence but dreads social interaction with humans, is an effective, implicit analogy for being on the autism spectrum, or just social anxiety. Its inability to interpret social conventions is treated as part of its character, and sometimes even a liability, but never a weakness; the character is still practically a super-hero. The future that the Murderbot lives in is unforgiving and in a lot of ways, dystopian, but the stories and the characters never devolve into cynicism or nihilism: characters often do the right thing, simply because it doesn’t make sense to do otherwise. I was really impressed with the concept of an AI that can only process fiction by experiencing someone else’s reaction to it. A clever throughline through the books so far is how AIs and robots need to escape to entertainment media to relieve stress.

Cons
World-building usually takes the form of corporate NewSpeak style terms, and it makes it difficult to tell what exactly the book is talking about: is that the name of a robot, a device, a company, or an entire planet? Character interaction works a lot better than action sequences; few of the descriptions of locations were vivid enough for me to get a clear picture of what the place looked like, and descriptions of action tended to jumble together into a bunch of words waiting for a resolution. One of the characters was of a fourth gender with its own set of pronouns, which was somehow just as annoying in fiction as it is when people try to do it in real life.

Verdict
A clever, contemporary, and unassuming science fiction series in which the analogies are apparent but never feel ham-fisted. Structured like sci-fi action episodes, they remind us to have empathy for neurodivergence.