One Thing I Love About Dune

Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is the best adaptation of a book I only know via adaptations

I’ve never read Dune, but for years I’ve felt like I know enough about it to get the general idea. From the needlessly awful 1984 movie, from reading National Lampoon’s Doon, and just decades of nerd cultural diffusion, I had a rough idea of the overall plot, the major themes, and why it was so influential.

I also knew that it was impenetrable and basically impossible to adapt. It’s set in the far-off future, over-stuffed with lore about different cultures and future technology, heavily influenced by psychedelics and incomprehensible visions, and focused on grand-level, intergalactic, machiavellian political schemes. It’s all a melange (so to speak) of guilds, great houses, witches, prophecies, ornithopters, fremen, stillsuits, and sand worms. I was perfectly satisfied to stay safely on the outside: aware of it as a cultural landmark, but without the need to dig any deeper.

But I had some time to kill, so I saw the new adaptation directed by Denis Villeneuve, and I really, really enjoyed it. So now I’m left wondering if I have to become a fan.

There’s so much that it does well, and so much of that is interconnected: a bunch of wise choices that aren’t that remarkable on their own, but all work together to make this an excellent adaptation.

One moment in particular isn’t all that noteworthy in terms of the overall plot, but it encapsulates so much of what I like about this adaptation: Duke Leto and Lady Jessica are in their bedroom, not long after arriving on the planet Arrakis, sharing a moment together while surrounded with a sense of doom over what’s to come the next day. As Jessica massages his forehead to help him sleep, Leto says, “I should have married you.”

Here’s why I think that brief scene is so remarkable.

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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.

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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.

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.

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.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Really Enjoy Malignant

My fraught history with horror and James Wan’s wacky new movie.

When I was around 12 years old, I spent the night at my friend’s house to go through a right of passage: seeing my first modern horror movie. The first three Friday the 13th movies were playing back to back on HBO, and we stretched our sleeping bags out in front of the TV to watch all of them. I remember being so proud of myself by the time the last one ended! I’d discovered that the movies weren’t nearly as scary as I’d been imagining from their reputation, and were in fact just goofy fun. I’d conquered my fears!

Then we turned out the lights, everyone went to sleep, and I experienced another right of passage: the first time I stayed awake until sunrise. Every time I glanced out a window, I saw Jason peeking in. Every time I closed my eyes, I pictured Jason crushing a guy’s skull with his bare hands, or slicing a guy in two while he was doing a handstand. It seemed like forever until everyone else woke up and I could grab my sleeping bag and nervously power-walk back to the safety of my own bedroom.

The reason I mention all of that is because it will never not be weird to me that there’s an entire genre of movie — an entire genre of entertainment — that I can experience and have absolutely no control over my reaction to it. It’s an unpredictable physical reaction to what’s usually an intellectual activity.

Now, I assure you that I’m not actually an alien, sent to Earth to learn to live like the hu-mans. I understand that for as long as there have been horror movies, they’ve been sold in terms of a physical reaction: “pulse-pounding,” “spine-tingling,” etc. I know that that physical reaction is a crucial part of the appeal for some people.

But man, what a drag, when you want to be the type of person who can casually watch horror movies or play horror video games. Or when the rest of the US seems to want to make Halloween happen earlier and earlier this year, and I’m inundated with footage from haunted house events and I’m left feeling like Jews must feel from November to January. Imagine if I couldn’t make it through romantic comedies without being overwhelmed with anxiety that I’d pass out!

Which is a real possibility. Certain scenes in Un Chien Andalou and Audition made me experience what felt like a gray-out: tunnel vision, ringing in my ears, and a light-headedness that left me unable to process what was happening. I can’t handle the sight of blood, either, fake or real. Both are something that I thought I could just man up and eventually get over it. But after 50 years and the past several years spent as a frequent guest in hospitals, I’ve seen a lot of blood and feel no closer to being able to mind-over-matter it. (I hope I never have to see a dialysis machine ever again; it’s such a perversion that they actually look like ICEE machines created by Satan).

Continue reading “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Really Enjoy Malignant”

One Thing I Love About Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

There’s a ton of fantastic stuff packed into Shang-Chi, but my favorite was choosing an antagonist who’s In the Mood for Love

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was compelling enough to get me into a theater, which is good because Disney insisted on releasing it in theaters only, while we’re still in the midst of learning about the impact of the Delta variant. Good job, Disney! (Kudos to the Alamo Drafthouse in SF for requiring proof of vaccination on entrance, and of course having lots of space in between the seats).

Still, the movie was worth the effort and the trip, stuffed full — overstuffed, even — of different movie genres they wanted to absorb into the MCU. Why not combine 30 years of Hong Kong and Chinese cinema into one movie, and throw another Ant Man in, while they’re at it?

I thought it was excellent, and a little more focus, plus some more breathing room between sequences, would’ve made it perfect. As it is, you just have to settle for several fantastic action sequences, tons of CGI spectacle that somehow managed to be genuinely thrilling, and several of the most preternaturally charismatic performers the world’s biggest movie franchise can attract and afford.

Ever since I first saw her donkey-kicking fools on top of a speeding train in Supercop, Michelle Yeoh has been my favorite part of anything she’s in. Simu Liu is so handsome, ripped, adept at both action sequences and light comedy, and so effortlessly charming, that he might as well have been genetically engineered to lead an American mega-corporation’s attempt at creating a new kung fu franchise. In fact, there’s not a bad performance in the movie, which is remarkable considering that everyone has to shift constantly between action and comedy with little warning.

So it’s saying something that even with all of that going on, the performance that stood out to me as exceptional was Tony Leung’s as Shang-Chi’s father Wenwu.1Also I just saw on IMDB that he and I have the same birthday, which is rad.

It took the movie into a direction I hadn’t expected at all, making it feel more substantial than a super-hero blockbuster take on a kung fu movie. Explaining why would require spoiling some of the surprises of the movie, which would be a shame, since I was surprised that it even had the capacity to surprise me.

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Movie List Monday: Movies That Made Me Gay

Hollywood has a lot to answer for.

When I logged back into Letterboxd for the first time in a year, I was surprised by how many lists of LGBT movies there were on the site. Looking over the contents, I was reminded of the disconnect between what most people think of as “gay movies” vs what I think of.

I have to say I’ve been pretty unimpressed by mainstream movies I’ve seen about or targeted at gay people. Part of that is that I just don’t like romances unless they’re romantic comedies, and gay romances in movies are hardly ever allowed to be anything other than tragic. The rest is that the movies either target such a specific subsection of the “culture” that I have nothing to relate to, or else they’re so corny and amateurish that I wonder how they even got produced. I’ve heard Moonlight get universal praise, and some positive things about Call Me By Your Name, but I honestly can’t work up enough interest to see either one. And apart from that, it seems like any gay projects good enough for mainstream exposure are either 1) starring straight actors in a story about how much it sucks to be gay, or 2) aimed specifically and exclusively at the Jonathan Groff demographic.

So I took it as a challenge to come up with a list of what I think of when I hear the phrase “gay movie.” (And not the adult kind). It’s the mainstream movies that felt transgressive when I was watching them, because I felt sure that I was watching them in a way I wasn’t “supposed” to be. It felt weird and isolating when I was an adolescent, but as an adult, it makes me feel even more part of a kind of community: meeting dozens if not hundreds of other people who had exactly the same feeling of I must be the only person in the world with this weird crush growing up.

And I should mention before anyone gets the wrong idea: of course the title of this list is only half serious, and it’s offensive to suggest that something as complex and personal as orientation is arbitrary enough to be changed by watching a movie. Everyone knows that it actually requires the more long-term, repeated exposure of a TV series, like Buck Rogers in the 25th Century or CHiPs.

The Empire Strikes Back
My obsessive hero-worship of Han Solo as a 6-to-9 year old turned into something else when I got older. Han walking off the Millennium Falcon after landing on Cloud City was my Ursula Andress-in-Dr No moment.

The Man Who Would Be King
I didn’t even know about this movie until I was a freshman in college, and my roommate had the poster hanging on his wall. I was already a huge fan of Sean Connery’s after Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but watching this one felt different. It made me a lifelong evangelist for the friendly mutton chops, for one thing, and I make sure to keep them in the rotation for myself. It was also a better vehicle for a confused young man with a secret crush than…

Zardoz
I don’t remember when I first saw this, but I do remember that I spent the entire time feeling like I was watching something I shouldn’t be. Sean Connery with a mustache and a long braid wearing what was essentially a diaper with bandolier straps and thigh high boots was funny, sure, but it was a nervous laughter on my part. “Heh that sure was ridiculous, huh? I think we should watch it again a few more times, though, to be sure.”

Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
The scene with Bob Hoskins as Eddie Valiant alone in his apartment with Jessica Rabbit (the “Dabbling in watercolors, Eddie?” scene) is the quintessential example of something that made me feel like a total weirdo as a teenager, but once I got older, I met so many other guys who had the exact same reaction that it’s practically a right of passage. It’s probably still a weird crush for a 16-year-old boy to have, but at least it’s one I’m comfortable with now.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
It started with a spectacular musical number and then had Indiana Jones without a shirt for much of the rest of the movie. Come on.

Bull Durham
When I first saw this movie, I thought everybody in the cast must be the sexiest person who ever lived. I don’t think I’d ever seen a movie with so many grown-ups who were so unabashedly and insatiably horny before. I can pretty much guarantee that I’d hate it if I watched it now, but in high school, I had the poster on my wall and everything, and I may or may not have blown it kisses like Laverne and Shirley did with their Beatles stand-up in the opening credits.

The Ice Pirates
The most embarrassing entry on a list that includes Zardoz. Even as a teenager, I could tell that this movie was terrible, and I loved everything back then. But Robert Urich’s character was designed to be a pastiche of all the character types popular for movies in the early 1980s, which also happened to be a combination of everything that turned on a young gay nerd really into sci-fi and fantasy.

Big Trouble in Little China
I don’t even think this one is all that weird; I think it’d be weirder to leave the movie without having a huge crush on Jack Burton and Gracie Law. Seeing this and The Thing around the same time had me wondering if my last words on my death bed were going to be the same as Walt Disney’s.

Movie List Monday: Labor Day

A pro-Union list of movies for this Labor Day

As somebody who was growing up as anti-union backlash was giving way to decades of full-blown Reaganism, I feel like everybody in my generation had already started to take for granted all the benefits of the labor movement by the time we entered the workforce. And as somebody who’s spent most of his career working in the game industry — which desperately needs to be unionized, but is bafflingly resistant to it — I’ve never been a direct member of a union, but of course I’ve spent my entire professional career enjoying the benefits of unions. For instance:

9 to 5
I loved this movie as a kid, but I think the full weight of the feminist message was probably lost on me. Which is probably my mother’s fault, because I had no perception of a world in which women weren’t smart, independent-minded, and capable of anything they wanted to do as a career, so the movie was more or less preaching to the choir. But even if you’re having to work for a sexist jackass, the entire concept of the eight-hour day is thanks to unions.

8 1/2
This movie is about Federico Fellini’s frustrations making his ninth movie, with Marcello Mastroianni as a barely-fictionalized stand-in for Fellini, and the events of the movie refusing to distinguish between what’s really happening and what’s in Fellini’s imagination. I thought this was a masterpiece of post-modern cleverness back when I thought post-modern cleverness was the highest thing you could achieve. The title of this movie has nothing to do with the eight-hour work day, but it’s nice to be reminded that if you did work 8 1/2 hours, that extra 30 minutes could be considered overtime.

Week-end
Another classic I likely never would’ve seen without film school, this one is Jean-Luc Godard making a show of his mockery of filmmaking, bourgeois urbanites, politics, activists, and maybe all of humanity? Maybe most known for its long sequence showing a never-ending traffic jam that gets more and more silly as it goes on… until reaching the cause of the traffic, a gruesome, fatal crash. That mentality carries throughout the film, combining violence, gore, and absurd humor. It’s a satire of western civilization but doesn’t make explicit that the only reason western civilization has the concept of a weekend as separate from the Sabbath is because of the work of labor unions.

Joe vs the Volcano
Even in the 1980s, when I had a much higher tolerance for on-the-nose earnestness, I felt like this movie was a little too much. But I didn’t really enjoy You’ve Got Mail, so this was a great celebration of how much I liked both Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks. The story is an allegory for Hanks’s character breaking out of his dull existence and finding his spark in life, and the misery of his work environment made more of a lasting impression on me than anything else. “I’m losing my sole” was a pretty on-the-nose pun, but it’s still the first thing I think of whenever I start to suspect that my job is taking advantage of me.

Working Girl
Kind of similar to 9 to 5, but this one is more classist and a little less explicitly feminist because the evil boss is a woman (Sigourney Weaver playing a villain that I actually liked better than the hero). Of course, the larger undercurrent is that patriarchy works partly by pitting women against each other, as Weaver and Griffith are both fighting for Harrison Ford’s approval, so maybe it’s even more feminist? Anyway, this movie remains fascinating to me because I still have no idea how self-aware it is. It’s got some of the worst dialogue, even by 80s standards (“I am not a steak. You cannot order me.”), and a lecture I saw from the screenwriter suggested that he wasn’t interested in subtext or any kind of layers at all. But that last shot, showing one corner office in a sea of thousands and re-contextualizing the entire “victory” of the movie — I can’t tell if it’s actually as sardonic as the ending of The Graduate, or if I’m just reading too much into Mike Nichols’s directing credit. Anyway, the title is a double entendre comparing secretaries to prostitutes, in a way that manages to be insulting to both. The 80s were not kind to unions, but movies like this at least helped keep the idea alive that workers were as crucial to a business as executives.

Bring it On
Another weird movie with a baffling tone: simultaneously a predictable, fatuous teen movie, and a self-aware satire. It puts its cheerleading teens in a high school called “Meat Ranch” without comment. It’s directed by Peyton Reed of the increasingly good Ant-Man movies and a couple of fantastic episodes of The Mandalorian, so of course its self-awareness is intentional. I love any movie where different people on set at the same time each thought they were making something completely different. For several years, I had myself convinced that I couldn’t possibly be gay since I enjoyed a movie about sexy young female cheerleaders so much, which is a poignant story about the power of denial. The best character in this movie is Isis, played by an actress who always knows what she’s doing and is always in on the joke, Gabrielle Union.