One Thing I Like About Barbarian

Barbarian doesn’t just mock “Don’t open that door!” moments in horror movies, but explains why you would open that door. (No significant spoilers)

The whole point of my choosing “One Thing I Like” was to keep myself focused instead of spending hours rambling about something I enjoyed, and also to avoid reducing an entire work of art to the one thing that I think it “means.” But it’s backfired, somewhat, since now I tend to go into every movie or video game looking for the one thing I’ll choose to call out.

With Barbarian, I even went in with an idea of what it was going to be. I’m almost completely unfamiliar with Whitest Kids You Know, but I did know enough that the writer and director of Barbarian had experience with comedy. I went into that looking for signs of how horror and comedy so often overlap, and how many of my favorite (or at least most memorable) horror movies were made by filmmakers who also had a good feel for comedy. There’s a lot of overlap: both require you to be completely aware of the audience’s expectations and how to subvert them.

There is a lot of that going on in Barbarian, but I don’t think the comedy angle is the most interesting part of it, at all. I don’t think it’s spoiling much to say that I didn’t find it that funny — not in the same way that Malignant and Orphan: First Kill are darkly funny, for instance — but more satirical. That does keep it from being the type of fun, over-the-top horror movie that I’d expected based on what I’d been hearing, but it does make it a stronger movie overall. There’s a bit of weight to it.

What turned out to be the One Thing I Like about Barbarian is how it’s aware of all the expectations and assumptions of horror movies, and it subverts them not just to be clever or surprising, but to make a point.

Barbarian has a long list of horror movie elements that it sets up and then either inverts or expands on. I won’t say more than that, because even comparing them to “classic” horror movies would give too much away. But they’re so familiar at this point, an entire additional list of elements has evolved to counter-act them: the assumption that you can’t give the protagonist a cell phone or a car, for instance, without ruining the whole premise. Barbarian runs through almost all of them, to the point of often feeling like an exercise in setting up expectations and then knocking them down.

So there are several classic horror movie moments, where the audience is screaming at the protagonist “don’t open that door!” or “don’t go into the basement!” only for the protagonist to go ahead and do it anyway. What makes Barbarian so interesting is that it doesn’t just draw attention to them, like Scream, or come up with a self-aware justification, like Cabin in the Woods.

Instead, it introduces a character who does all the right things for a horror movie protagonist, but it still goes horribly wrong. And it gives us a protagonist who does open that door, and does go into the basement, not just because the plot demands it, but because it’s the right thing to do.

One Thing I Like About Confess, Fletch

A re-vitalization of Gregory MacDonald’s 1976 novel that somehow feels timeless

Confess, Fletch came out in 2022 (with seemingly no promotion from the studio), but one thing I like about it is that it feels timeless. It feels like it could’ve been released any time in the past 40+ years since the novel was released.

That’s kind of an absurd claim to make, since it’s by no means a period piece. It’s firmly set in the present. The very first (and last) line of dialogue sets it within the past 10 years, and Fletch spends most of the movie catching Lyft rides.1IM Fletcher might be kind of an asshole, but at least he knows better than to use Uber. And that’s before the movie explicitly references the pandemic, or Oxycontin addiction.

But I might be biased or overly nostalgic, based on the movie’s poster — and come on, that is a great poster — and my love of the first Fletch movie. Back in high school, I thought it was just fantastic, and I loved it enough that it led to a minor obsession with all of the Fletch and Flynn novels by Gregory Mcdonald.

The movie hasn’t aged very well, and I’m not sure how much of that was due to the huge disappointment that was Fletch Lives. If there’s anything good to be said about that movie, at least the tone-deaf Song of the South parody distracted from the first movie’s rampant, casual sexual harassment. When I was a teenager, I thought “Why don’t we go in there and lie down, and I’ll fill you in?” was the absolute ultimate in witty double entendre, which probably says a lot about the level of maturity the movie was aimed at. It’s still funny enough to be a classic, but it says a lot that the fantastic Harold Faltermeyer soundtrack, which dates it squarely in the early-to-mid-1980s, might be one of the least dated things about it in 2022. It also didn’t try too hard to be a faithful adaptation of the novel, since it was pretty clear it was just a vehicle for Chevy Chase to do comedy bits while the people around him acted annoyed or confused.

That’s one of the remarkable things about Confess, Fletch: it’s not just closer to the books2Or at least, my 30-some-odd-year-old memory of them, it gives pretty much everyone in the cast the chance to be funny. Hamm plays Fletch less like a charming asshole and more like an exasperatingly charming screw-up who somehow proves to be competent in the end. He’s very funny3I was the only person in the theater who laughed out loud when a cop says “around the corner” and Fletch asks, “Where the fudge is made?” Which does say more about my level of maturity than anything else., but it’s less like he’s always doing a bit than that he exists in a world where everyone is kind of weird and goofy. Annie Mumolo has a fantastic scene in which she’s basically giving a huge exposition dump of clues to the mystery, none of which you can pay attention to because of the chaos around her. And Marcia Gay Harden goes over-the-top with a character that absolutely shouldn’t work, but she somehow pulls it off.

Also, it’s got to be said: this is the perfect role for Jon Hamm, both because he clearly enjoys doing comedy, and because he’s one of the only actors who could make this character believable. It’s hard to believe that any real person could be as annoying as IM Fletcher and get away with it so often, unless he looked like Jon Hamm.

My only real complaint about the movie is that the mystery itself isn’t very satisfying. Honestly, although I’m pretty sure I read all the books, I can’t remember the plots of any of them except the first, but that’s kind of understandable since I read them so long ago. But I couldn’t really recount the actual murder in Confess, Fletch even though I just finished watching the movie about an hour ago. I can’t remember if it’s any stronger in the book. The only details I can remember about the books are that Fletch spends a lot of time in his car waiting for something to happen, and that Mcdonald seemed to include a lot of passages describing how Fletch found makeshift ways to shave4But then, I read them in high school, when that was still a novelty..

The main thing I loved about the books was that they all shared a similar plot device. At first I was reluctant to spoil it here, but one of the most remarkable things was that even when I knew it was going to happen, I could never predict exactly how it was going to play out. The books all had two seemingly separate mysteries that turned out to be connected by the end. And Fletch would seem to spend the entire story stumbling through the mysteries, reacting to people getting angry with him or wanting to kill him, until it was clear that he had a better handle on what was going on than he’d let on to anyone, including the reader. There’s some sense of that at the end of the movie version of Confess, Fletch, as you see various different plot lines getting satisfyingly tied up in one montage sequence.

So I guess what makes the movie feel timeless to me is my nostalgia for the books. It’s a cliche to say “they don’t make movies like this anymore!” but it’s pretty accurate in this case: it feels a bit like Knives Out, with a bunch of great performances in a somewhat old-fashioned murder mystery that succeeds on charm and cleverness more than anything else.

I don’t know why Confess, Fletch hasn’t been promoted at all — I probably wouldn’t even have heard about it if not for a tweet from Patton Oswalt — and am guessing it might have something to do with the shake-up at Miramax? In any case, I’m hoping that it can turn into something of a surprise hit, because it was hugely entertaining, and there are still nine other novels out there waiting to get adaptations as good as this one.

  • 1
    IM Fletcher might be kind of an asshole, but at least he knows better than to use Uber.
  • 2
    Or at least, my 30-some-odd-year-old memory of them
  • 3
    I was the only person in the theater who laughed out loud when a cop says “around the corner” and Fletch asks, “Where the fudge is made?” Which does say more about my level of maturity than anything else.
  • 4
    But then, I read them in high school, when that was still a novelty.

Literacy 2022: Book 11: Carmilla

A classic gothic horror story that can’t help but be compared to Dracula (but holds its own pretty well!)

Book
Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Synopsis
A young woman is stricken with increasingly severe nightmares and an unexplained illness after her father takes in a strange guest, a beautiful, beguiling, and oddly familiar girl named Carmilla.

Pros

  • Lesbian vampires! (Kind of)
  • Predates Dracula by 20 years, and is also much easier and engaging to read.
  • Starts out strong with a moody castle, a lonely narrator, a strange and scary encounter in the night, and then what feels like a queasily uncomfortable romance.
  • Has a very 1800s take on vampires: less powerful than the modern versions, fewer weaknesses, more mysterious and dangerous with a less-defined set of rules. And all with the confidence that they can be dealt with by a bunch of well-educated upper-class men using science.
  • Does a fantastic job of exploring the seductive aspect of vampires, without ever needing to become too lurid or too graphic.
  • It’s pretty short, but is still literary enough to count against my book challenge!

Cons

  • The story kind of peters out, with the climax treated more or less like an afterthought.
  • Still has, long sentences, separated by commas, as does much of the writing of the 1800s, where the point, as it were, of a sentence, can be lost.
  • Lots of intriguing details seeded earlier in the story are left hanging by the end. Who exactly are the various other strangers who were in the company of Carmilla?
  • Difficult to tell how much of the story has lost its power due to over a hundred years of vampire stories following.

Verdict
Very interesting for those of us who were excited by the potential of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but disappointed once we actually read it. It’s probably readable and enjoyable even for contemporary readers (like me) who find Victorian novels to be a slog. But you can also see why Dracula became the definitive vampire novel, as Carmilla has a bunch of components of a great story that doesn’t feel quite complete.

Department of Pettiness, Young Adult Literature Division

I demand retroactive credit for biting my tongue for so many years.

It has been extensively documented how the author JK Rowling has decided to make sure her legacy is not “obscenely wealthy writer of a much-beloved series of books for young adults,” and is instead “obscenely bigoted whackadoo actively using her platform to make young-adult and adult-adult lives completely unnecessarily miserable.”

I’m not even a fan of Rowling’s, and I still spent far too long trying to give her the benefit of the doubt, and to see things from her perspective. Even when it was clear that she’d crossed the line into irredeemable, I tsk-tsked at the tragedy of someone who could’ve been such a strong force for good, instead being radicalized by opportunists exploiting her feminism to use her as a high-profile mouthpiece for their anti-trans bigotry. Such a shame, I thought, that she’s so attached to a simplistic idea of feminism, and so thin-skinned that she decided to run from criticism into the open arms of the most dangerously hateful and disingenuous people in the United Kingdom. I was too attached to the idea of her being easily-manipulated that I ignored all the evidence that she was actually an egomaniac with a dangerously large megaphone she could use to broadcast a hateful message to millions and millions of people.

But that’s not what this post is about. This post is how I’ve always thought the Harry Potter books were pretty bad, but I was always too polite to say anything.

See, now it’s fashionable to point out that they’re not very good. Or to point out all the depictions of races and species and sexual orientations1More accurately, lack of depictions, I guess that are “problematic,” arguments which have varying levels of believability but which all ignore the larger point, which is that the books aren’t very good.

The first few are pretty readable, which is different. I went to a Borders on the release day for one of them2The third one, maybe? The Goblet of Magic or something? I’m not trying to be cute; I legitimately can’t remember the titles of them., and it was exciting to see so many kids waiting in line, excited to read something new. It reminded me of the days in elementary school when the Scholastic Book Fair orders came in. I happily bought a copy and took it home, and my intention to “just check out the first chapter” quickly turned into my reading the first 100 pages or so without even realizing it. I have, in fact, read all of the books, and although the later ones turned into absurdly over-long and poorly-plotted slogs that were actively unpleasant to read, the first few were paced pretty well.3Apparently, after you get to a certain level of multi-millionaire, you stop having to listen to editors.

They’re also very savvy at marketing, devoting pages to describing things in the wizarding world that kids and adult fans both would be dying to buy. That’s a compliment, by the way: I think planting the ideas for stuff like chocolate frogs and gross jelly beans is a genuinely clever case of listening to and adapting the kinds of things that kids really want, instead of just crassly building a fiction around a toy line.

But it’s become a pet peeve of mine when people say that the books have been ruined by the author’s revealing herself to be kind of an a-hole, since I can assure you that they all came pre-ruined. They made little sense even before the ripped-straight-from-a-mediocre-videogame reveal of the “horcruxes.” Any mystery elements were insultingly shallow, depending on big twists based on ludicrous anagrams, or over-complicated backstories revealed at the last minute.

Quidditch is a dumb game that makes no sense, by any measure, unless you acknowledge that it’s designed only to give the main character a heroic moment where he can win the game all by himself. But that applies to the plotting of every single one of the books, too: they don’t make any real sense, but are just collections of scenes intended to make the main character a hero without ever doing much that’s particularly heroic.

Also, there’s an awful lot of ALL-CAPS YELLING! in both internal monologues and external dialogue, of the kind you’d expect from fan fiction but not from international best sellers. Just pages and page of it. I feel like even when I was an over-emotional teen with highly unique problems and ideas that nobody else in the world was even capable of understanding, I would’ve reacted with, “Jeez, take it down a notch.”

But I always figured that it’d be really churlish of me to mention any of this stuff, considering so many people seemed to be enjoying it. And it would seem to be deeply hypocritical, considering how much time I’ve spent trying to defend “low art” or art “for kids” as having just as much merit as anything else someone might choose to engage with.

To take two things that I’ve enjoyed a lot as examples: it would be pointless snobbery to say that if someone found something impactful and personally meaningful in, say, WandaVision; that that’s shallower or less valid than someone having a meaningful connection with Piranesi. That doesn’t mean that the TV series is as deep or as nuanced as the book, which would be a pretty indefensible argument. It just means that the connection is what’s important. We should be encouraging people to be finding these moments of connection and inspiration wherever they can, instead of telling them that they’re doing it wrong. Or worse, acting like something that is “higher art” is going to connect with everyone the same way that it does with us. Reading The Catcher in the Rye had me sobbing at my desk in high school, but I know plenty of people who didn’t like it at all, and it would be stupid to claim that they’re somehow “wrong.”

So I’m not here to be dismissive of anybody’s personal connection to the Harry Potter books, because there are obviously many, many readers who consider them formative.4Like the Chronicles of Narnia were for me, even though I’d still insist that those are also much, much better-written and more innovative, beyond any personal connection. But I would like people to back off on the claims that they’re objectively good or innovative books, instead of just objectively popular. Some of us recognized all along that they’re not very good, even for books aimed at juveniles. And we’re just juvenile and petty enough to want retroactive credit for not being joyless chodes about it when so many seemed to be having fun and enjoying themselves.

  • 1
    More accurately, lack of depictions, I guess
  • 2
    The third one, maybe? The Goblet of Magic or something? I’m not trying to be cute; I legitimately can’t remember the titles of them.
  • 3
    Apparently, after you get to a certain level of multi-millionaire, you stop having to listen to editors.
  • 4
    Like the Chronicles of Narnia were for me, even though I’d still insist that those are also much, much better-written and more innovative, beyond any personal connection.

One Thing I Like About She-Hulk: Attorney At Law

Watch me take a few hundred words to say “Tatiana Maslany”

Some people online tried to turn it into A Big Thing when Mark Ruffalo compared the MCU to Star Wars, saying that the MCU lets different projects have different voices, while with Star Wars you’re always getting the same thing. I was happy to see that it failed to drum up that much publicity, since it’s a pretty uncontroversial observation: Star Wars is mostly tonally consistent, while the MCU tends to be more experimental with styles and genres.1That all have identical, interchangeable fight and action scenes of people flying around and shooting lasers and punching things. 2Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

That’s most evident with She-Hulk: Attorney at Law. There have been two episodes so far, and the first episode had a training montage, a little bit of comical fighting, and then a climax with exactly one punch. The second had no action scenes. I was impressed that Marvel was unapologetic about making Hawkeye an action-comedy, but She-Hulk seems to have taken that even farther. They’ve gone all-in on being a comedy series.

There are dozens of ways that could’ve gone wrong3And it’s only two episodes in, so it still can, I guess.. I’ve tried reading John Byrne’s She-Hulk comics, but I always bounce off of them, because they’re in a voice that sounds like John Byrne, not like Jennifer Walters. It’s a kind of comedy that’s pretty common in comic books and video games, where it’s written for an extremely specific audience of comic book readers or video game players. (And to be clear, I have 100% been guilty of writing like that!) And the MCU is usually more successful when they try to be wry or clever than outright funny; their attempts at comedy have been inconsistent at best.

But what has been consistent in the MCU is fantastic casting, and that’s most evident in the She-Hulk series. Tatiana Maslany so completely and thoroughly understands the assignment that she manages to make even the clunkiest dialogue4I really didn’t go for the whole “Steve Rogers is a virgin” gag as much as Marvel wanted me to. at least a little charming. This material could very easily have come across as too broad or too try-hard, but she approaches every single scene not as if she were an actor doing comedy in a Marvel series, but as Jennifer Walters. She’s a character that doesn’t take much of what’s going on in that world all that seriously, but still exists completely and totally in that world.

Even when she’s breaking the fourth wall, which is kind of a requirement for She-Hulk at this point, but could have been insufferable if any other actor tried it. It feels like the tone of the show is deliberately broad, but she still manages to seamlessly go in and out of a scene, even ones that seem to be begging for her to mug and wink at the camera.

My favorite example so far: in the second episode, there’s a phone conversation between her and and her cousin, where she’s trying to explain why she’s taking the case of a man who tried to kill him, way back at the start of the MCU.5I’d thought The Incredible Hulk was officially in the MCU, but it’s not on Disney+ at least in the US, so I guess it’s tied up in some kind of rights issue? Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner explains that it’s fine, he doesn’t hold any grudges against the guy, and “that was so long ago, I’m a different person. Literally.”

It’s a pretty solid gag, a pretty funny bit of self-awareness aimed at people who’ve been following the MCU on a casual level.6The gag is that Ruffalo’s character was played by Ed Norton in the movie where all of The Abomination’s origin story happened. The scene cuts back to Maslany, who says “Ha!” at the camera before sailing right back into her conversation. And I think she just nailed the delivery: acknowledge it’s a B+/A- gag, and then move on.

It’s not all broad comedy and winking in-jokes. I liked that they cast Cousin Larry as her dad, and he lives completely within a family sitcom, while Steve Coulter as her boss gets a few of the funniest lines delivered completely straight and sour-faced7“I truly do not care who your paralegal is”. And Josh Segarra as “Pug” struck me as instantly hilarious, even though I can’t explain why beyond the fact that every single line delivery sounded like an unnecessarily weird and 100% correct choice. Maslany’s got to play against all of that, matching everybody’s energy to make all these weird shifts in tone flow together, while still nailing her own delivery.

To be honest, when I heard they were casting her as She-Hulk, I thought it sounded like a bit of over-kill. You don’t really need an actor that good to be in what appears to be a light and goofy comedy series. Now after seeing a couple of episodes, I’m realizing I was wrong. Having an actor that good is the key to making it work at all.

  • 1
    That all have identical, interchangeable fight and action scenes of people flying around and shooting lasers and punching things.
  • 2
    Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
  • 3
    And it’s only two episodes in, so it still can, I guess.
  • 4
    I really didn’t go for the whole “Steve Rogers is a virgin” gag as much as Marvel wanted me to.
  • 5
    I’d thought The Incredible Hulk was officially in the MCU, but it’s not on Disney+ at least in the US, so I guess it’s tied up in some kind of rights issue?
  • 6
    The gag is that Ruffalo’s character was played by Ed Norton in the movie where all of The Abomination’s origin story happened.
  • 7
    “I truly do not care who your paralegal is”

Literacy 2022: Book 10: Zombie Spaceship Wasteland

Patton Oswalt’s psuedo-memoir in essay format

Book
Zombie Spaceship Wasteland by Patton Oswalt

Synopsis
A collection of essays, some purely comedic, others a kind of memoir about Oswalt’s suburban nerd childhood and early career as a stand-up comedian. All are loosely themed to the idea of “Why is Patton Oswalt like that?”

Pros

  • A variety of formats, including a short comic story, change up the tone and prevent it from becoming a repetitive memoir in short-story format.
  • The alternating stories give a more complete idea of Oswalt as a person: here’s a story about me or my family, here’s an example of what I find funny. It’s kind of like a comedy routine with behind-the-scenes segments.
  • If you’re a fan of Patton Oswalt’s style in stand-up comedy — hyper-literate, nerdy, earnest, raunchiness — these essays are like extended segments from one of his performances.
  • The essay giving punch-up notes on a (fictional) wedding comedy script is a highlight.
  • I’ve seen from Oswalt’s work that he has a genuine love of stand-up as an art form, he loves the process of perfecting the wording and delivery of a joke, and he loves seeing how comedians innovate with their performances. This was the first time that I got a real sense of why he likes it so much, without its being too “inside baseball.”

Cons

  • Even when you know 100% without a doubt that a writer is in no way homophobic, it turns out there is a limit to how many times you want to read them ironically using slurs. For me, that was about 2/3 of the way through this book.
  • Being a stand-up comedian still sounds miserable to me, even though I have a slightly better understanding of why people are so passionate about it.
  • I’ve liked Patton Oswalt forever because he’s always seemed to strike the right balance of being earnestly enthusiastic about stuff while still being openly critical of laziness, falseness, and cynicism. But this book did still feel like total immersion in the Generation X mindset and reminded me how grateful I am that the 90s are over.
  • The two appendices, with Oswalt writing in the “voice” of bad writers over-enthusiastic about movie treatments and reviews, came across as distractingly snobby and more rambling than entertaining. I ended up saying “Yes, we get it,” and skimming over them.

Verdict
As funny as one of Patton Oswalt’s comedy albums, but more personal and more introspective. I just read a friend’s review of the book that speculated this would probably work better as an audiobook, where the lines are improved by Patton’s specific delivery, and I agree 1000%.

One Thing I Like About Orphan: First Kill

This prequel to a 13-year-old movie has no right to be as much fun as it is. (Spoilers for both Orphan movies in the second half)

A few days ago, there was a flurry of buzz about Orphan: First Kill on social media, and I was dead convinced that it had to be some kind of viral marketing campaign. I had a hard time believing that many people even watched the movie, much less were excited about it.

But I was still hooked on the potential enough to watch it with minimal investment while I was doing other stuff. (The prequel and the original are both streaming on Paramount Plus). And I’ll be damned if I didn’t enjoy the heck out of it.

I had never seen the first movie. The poster was all over the place for a while, and the premise seemed pretty straightforward: evil little girl going around killin’ folks. It seemed to just blend into all of the other Blumhouse-style horror movies that were all over the place in the late 2000s, and I wasn’t particularly interested. I read the plot synopsis on Wikipedia, said, “Huh,” and then forgot all about it.

The prequel starts out feeling like it’s going to be more of the same thing, this time with the premise of the “franchise” already spoiled, making you wonder what’s the point of a repeat. But before too long, it starts pulling in some older-style horror movie twists, suggesting that yes, they’re well aware of what the audience is expecting.

Then, just as it seems to be settling back into its formula, it pulls out the One Thing I Like, transforming into what’s practically a different movie. Unfortunately, it’s also the One Thing I Can’t Say Anything About Without Ruining It, so I’ve got to put the rest behind a spoiler break.

I will say that I really enjoyed it, and definitely consider it worth watching, even if you haven’t seen the original, but you know the original’s “twist.” No, I don’t think I could call it an intricately-crafted masterwork, since I don’t even think I’d claim that it all makes sense. But I thought it was a lot of fun. Anything beyond that is a spoiler, and it’s absolutely worth going in unspoiled!

Continue reading “One Thing I Like About Orphan: First Kill”

One Thing I Like About Last Night in Soho

An over-saturated experiment in style that was much more entertaining than I’d expected.

I wasn’t expecting to like Last Night in Soho as much as I did. Before its release, it seemed to be getting a ton of buzz and promotion, and then it just kind of disappeared. I assumed that must mean the movie was a disappointment.

And I can understand people being disappointed, if they were watching it as the type of mystery/thriller that could work on the strength of its screenplay alone, no matter who was directing it. I went in expecting it to be a case of “style over substance,” and I ended up enjoying it a lot, for exactly that reason.

It doesn’t have the energy, inventiveness, or reckless abandon as Scott Pilgrim vs the World (by far my favorite Edgar Wright movie, and one of my favorite movies overall), but it is recognizable as coming from the same place: a filmmaker with an unabashed love of music and movies and a desire to share and celebrate all the stuff that inspires him.

I’m not quite as big a fan of Wright’s work as My Demographic would suggest — I liked but didn’t love “The Cornetto Trilogy”, and Spaced remains baffling, since on paper it seems like it should’ve been my favorite series ever, but I bounced right off of it. But one thing that’s common to all of them that I’ve seen1I haven’t yet seen Baby Driver is that they feel unapologetically like fan letters.

In Last Night in Soho, the objects of affection are 1960s London and giallo movies. But even more than Suspiria — which I think is the only “genuine” giallo movie I’ve seen — it reminded me of Malignant, which came out around the same time and feels like a “companion piece,” in case you’re planning a double feature2And is a lot more fun, honestly, if you haven’t seen it and can only choose one of the two.. They’re not even in quite the same genre, since Soho is much more a mystery/thriller, of the kind they used to make in the late 1980s with titles like Lethal Obsession or Consequences of Passion, than a full-on horror movie. But they are both examples of filmmakers who earned the luxury of making a movie mostly for themselves, broadcasting their inspirations right out in the open with little attempt to hide them, and giving the entire project their personal voice.

And they both require the audience to just go with it. Last Night in Soho is a lot more subtle in telling you that it’s not meant to be taken entirely seriously, even though it starts dropping hints in its first scene with suggestions of the paranormal. (Malignant starts out with a hilariously gothic castle in Seattle (?) and an over-the-top medical procedure, cluing you in from the start that things are going to be wacky). But everything in Soho is dialed up just a little too high — Ellie is a bit too into the 60s, the cab driver is a bit too leering, Jocasta is just too relentlessly an intolerable C-word, Terrence Stamp’s old man absurdly too sinister, Diana Rigg’s landlord too curmudgeonly and old-fashioned to be taken as anything other than a stock character.3How brilliant was that casting for Stamp and Rigg in a 1960s London throwback, by the way?

It gets more overt in the first dream sequence, which feels like the sequence that the entire movie was built around4And which it never quite lives up to again, unfortunately.. The entire room is saturated with red or blue light, which lets you know that the filmmakers have seen Suspiria, and the blinking is in time to the song playing on a record player, which lets you know it’s an Edgar Wright movie. What follows is a gloriously romanticized version of 1960s London, presented by someone who clearly believed the lights, fashion, music, cars, and just style of that period was both impossibly magical and also a little sinister.

The highlight is a meticulously-choreographed spectacle of mirror effects, character introductions, banter, dancing, actors switching positions, and tons of directorial flourishes. It’d be easy to point to it as the prime example of style over substance, but of course it’s not; it’s the “mission statement” of the entire movie. It lets the audience feel why Sandie was so optimistic and enchanted with London, why Ellie became so obsessed with her, and why Wright was so taken with all of it that he wanted to make this movie in the first place.

But while it’s my favorite sequence, it’s not what I thought made the whole movie distinctive. That’s in the rest of the movie, the sequences that don’t work as well, but show (what I assume are) Wright’s interests throughout: music, pubs, being a young person in London, and yes, hordes of the reanimated dead. I can understand the complaint that none of it feels “real,” that a lot of the third act is repetitious, or that the movie feels like a pastiche of its inspirations instead of an attempt to build on or reinvent them. But to me, it all felt like it came from a genuine love of those inspirations and an earnest desire to share that enthusiasm with the audience.

  • 1
    I haven’t yet seen Baby Driver
  • 2
    And is a lot more fun, honestly, if you haven’t seen it and can only choose one of the two.
  • 3
    How brilliant was that casting for Stamp and Rigg in a 1960s London throwback, by the way?
  • 4
    And which it never quite lives up to again, unfortunately.

Literacy 2022: Book 9: The Westing Game

A light children’s mystery novel

Book
The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

Synopsis
In his last will, an eccentric multi-millionaire summons a group of seemingly unrelated “heirs” to solve a puzzle to find his murderer, the prize being the inheritance of his fortune.

Pros

  • A light-hearted mystery story that seems like it might be well-suited to its target audience of around pre-teens.
  • Fairly progressive for a children’s book written in 1978, with some anti-racist, anti-ableist, anti-classist, and pro-feminist ideas taken as a matter of course without being too strident.
  • Doesn’t shy away from presenting the adult characters as real, flawed, people, but also works to provide satisfying endings for everyone that feel earned.
  • Keeps the feel of a murder mystery while staying almost entirely free of actual violence.

Cons

  • Must’ve felt very contemporary at the time, but seems like it would be too dated for kids to relate to now. (Especially all the references to stock market trading).
  • Impossible for me to tell if the two central puzzles were intended to give a flash of recognition to younger readers, but felt frustratingly obvious for me as someone reading it 40 years “too late.”
  • The implications of the puzzles aren’t revealed until long after you’ve figured out the solution, because information is withheld until the last minute.
  • Flirts with some more mature ideas for its adult characters, but they’re still so shallow that it doesn’t feel like there’s a genuine ethical or moral arc for any of them.

Verdict
Feels a bit like a novella-length Encyclopedia Brown mystery, where everything revolves around one or two puzzles. This definitely feels like a children’s book instead of an “all ages” one; it’s difficult to tell if I’d have enjoyed it if I’d read it when I was in the target age range for it.

Literacy 2022: Book 8: How To Be Perfect

Michael Schur’s light and conversational introduction to key ideas in moral philosophy

Book
How To Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question by Michael Schur

Synopsis
Michael Schur increases his own personal wealth by writing a book based on the research for which he’d already been compensated by NBC to make The Good Place.

Real Synopsis
A light and conversational introduction to the concepts behind some of the major “schools” of moral philosophy, including virtue ethics, deontology, utilitarianism, consequentialism, ubuntu, and existentialism.

Pros

  • Extremely accessible (almost to a fault). Reads more like a series of blog posts than a book about moral philosophy.
  • Every topic is explained as simply as possible, but still with the sense that the implications are being mentioned. Schur points out where each field is useful and what are its main criticisms and failures.
  • Unlike every other book on philosophy that I’ve read (which is not many), uses concrete examples (although many of them are hypotheticals) and refuses to get bogged down into the types of details that philosophers care about but aren’t suitable for practical use.
  • Opinionated and personal. Schur often describes what he likes or doesn’t like about an idea, and how he has or hasn’t applied it to his own decisions.
  • Describes the topics not as academic, but as tools we can use to make ethical decisions in our own lives.
  • Stresses the idea of our ethical behavior in terms of the things that we owe to other people, which is a really nice way of thinking about it.
  • Schur just seems like a nice person who’s perpetually conscious of trying to do the right thing and bring that sense of optimism and kindness into the real world.

Cons

  • Over-uses footnotes for comedic effect.
  • Can come across as a little try-hard in the beginning until it settles down.
  • Extensively quotes two of my least favorite articles ever posted on the internet, but at least he manages to paraphrase one in a way that gets rid of my main objections to it.
  • Describing his entire career path as, ostensibly, an illustration of how much of our success is based on luck, was fine but just on the edge of being too much talking about himself for me to be entirely comfortable with.

Verdict
Feels like a much less dry and more accessible version of the lessons Chidi probably gave to Eleanor in The Good Place. Carries on the optimistic, kind-hearted secular humanist feeling of that series, always emphasizing that the actual goal is not to be perfect, but to never stop trying to be.