Black Adam, or, Welcome To The Rock

Black Adam seems like what you would get if you made a movie out of The Rock

On The Weekly Planet’s episode about Black Adam (spoiler: Mason thought it was fun, James thought it was thoroughly mediocre), they raised a question that I’ve wondered about a few times over the years: where is Dwayne Johnson’s Terminator, or Die Hard, or Rocky/Creed, or even The Chronicles of Riddick?

He’s a hugely profitable action movie star with seemingly limitless charisma, and even when he’s in an unambitious or outright bad movie, he’s usually the best thing in it. But unlike other action movie stars, he hasn’t been in a breakout hit that rises above the standard action movie template. Is he just too big a star now to be cast in movies that aren’t 100% driven by movie studio stakeholders? Or are the movies he’s in exactly the kinds of movies he wants to be making?

After seeing — and being pleasantly surprised by — Black Adam, I’m inclined it’s the latter. As with most movies starring The Rock, even without the disappointing track record of the DCEU involved, I went in with the lowest of expectations. But it turned out to be pretty solid and a lot of fun, always precisely aware of what it is and what it wants to do, but shifting or recasting the formula just enough to stay engaging.

To me, it seemed like what you’d get if you made a movie out of The Rock. Not just a movie starring The Rock, but if you somehow got the essence of his entire public persona, and transmuted it into a blockbuster superhero feature film.

It’s pretty well known that this has been a pet project of Johnson’s for over a decade. He was a fan of the character, he was cast way way back in the early days of the DC movies, and the project has been waiting for the timing to be right (by which I’m assuming: for the Shazam movie to come out, and for Zack Snyder’s dominance over the DCEU to fade) to finally get made. Even if you weren’t aware of that, though, the entire project feels like something that either he was closely involved in, or was specifically crafted around him.

It checks off all the items that I would imagine are required for a movie starring The Rock:

  • He gets to play the antihero with a heart of gold: a big guy with a gruff exterior and a tortured past who could destroy you without a second thought, but will somehow always come through and do the right thing.
  • He’s got a no-nonsense, tough guy rival (Aldis Hodge as Hawkman) who’s almost — but not quite — enough to take him on one-on-one, and their initial fights will eventually grow into a mutual respect.
  • It’s adjacent to the Shazam family, meaning it stays friendly to the audience of teenage boys who loved watching the WWE. Much of the story centers around a teenager who rides a skateboard and loves his mom and does sick kick flips.
  • The Rock gets to be a champion of the underdogs and the oppressed, even if he’s an unwilling one.
  • The Rock is ultimately more powerful than any foe; his greatest enemy is his own self-doubt.
  • There is an ever-present sense of humor — not just hipster deconstructionism or tiresome lampshading, but more like the tone of people who understand kayfabe down to the atomic level.

That last one is the bit that stood out to me. Having characters making wisecracks in dire situations is just table stakes for superhero movies these days, so that’s not enough to make something stand out. But the overall tone here is subtly different. In The Avengers, for instance, everyone is trying to out-wry each other, so the end result feels like an attempt to elevate the inherent corniness of comic books while still keeping it grounded. In Taika Waititi’s Thor movies, there’s an acknowledgement that all of it is completely absurd, so why not lean completely into the absurdity. And Ant-Man and Doctor Strange feel like action comedies: the comedy and the action coexist without really feeding off of each other.

But The Rock — and Black Adam by extension — has this unique ability to so thoroughly embrace and inhabit the corniness that he uses every single drop of it and comes out the other side unscathed. There’s not even the barest hint of self-mockery, because there’s no sense that he needs anyone to know that he’s above the material or aware of how silly it is. He’s The Rock; he doesn’t need to care what anyone thinks.

Case in point: my fiancé and I were swayed by Universal Studios’s seemingly constant advertisements for the Fast and Furious addition to the Studios’ movie tram tour in Hollywood. The “main event” turned out to be a rather forgettable sequence at the end of the tour, in which the characters — I mean, family — drag the tram on a dangerous, high-speed tour through Los Angeles. But the tour up to that point had an overlay to foreshadow that final sequence, which had characters from the movies appearing in scenes throughout on the different sets1All pre-recorded and shown on the tram’s overhead monitors. Johnson’s character was at Universal Studios trying to track down the iconic car of Vin Diesel’s character, trying to bring him to justice once and for all2At least, I think that was the premise? I confess I don’t like the Fast and Furious movies at all, and I’ve never been able to get into them..

Several of the franchise’s actors were on hand to play their characters, but none of them really felt like they were putting in more effort than the barest minimum required for a theme park overlay. Ludacris came the closest, but there was still an odd sense that he wasn’t 100% aware of what the attraction was going to be or how the footage was going to be used. The Rock, on the other hand, nailed it. He swaggered into every scene, called people “stinkpickle” with a famously raised eyebrow, pointed directly at the camera, and generally seemed to be having a blast. And more importantly: understanding completely the tone not just of the Fast and Furious franchise, but of the Universal Studios backlot tour, which has its own peculiar flavor of thoroughly-embraced corniness.

I’m also reminded of the Jungle Cruise movie, which I thought remained in the realm of “thoroughly adequate.” So much of the movie relied on Dwayne Johnson’s charisma (and Emily Blunt’s, obviously), but it never felt quite like it understood how his charisma works. It checked off the boxes of “gruff antihero with a heart of gold and a mysterious past with a twist leading into act 3,” just like Black Adam, but it kept putting him in scenes that felt as if they were written by someone else with a vague idea of “action movie star” in mind.

I don’t think it’s any insult at all to Johnson’s acting ability to point out that he’s not at his best when he’s trying to inhabit a character.3At least, in a leading role. I’ve never seen Be Cool, but the clips I’ve seen suggest that when he’s given a side character and the chance to be goofy, he nails it. I feel more like his entire public persona is a character. The projects that best use his talents are the ones that let him meld an existing character completely with his own, like in the teleportation device from The Fly. The Rock is a character that he’s been working on and perfecting for decades; why would you throw all that work away and instead ask him to play a diminished version?

So I got the feeling that Black Adam was exactly the movie that Dwayne Johnson wanted to make. It’s unpretentious, sentimental, corny, often nonsensical or repetitive, occasionally predictable, and above all fun and appealing more often than not. Somehow, it comes across as both shrewdly and carefully constructed, but also heartfelt. It frequently winks at the camera, but it never feels like it’s ashamed of its corniness, or that it has to make excuses for it. In other words, it feels like The Rock.

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    All pre-recorded and shown on the tram’s overhead monitors
  • 2
    At least, I think that was the premise? I confess I don’t like the Fast and Furious movies at all, and I’ve never been able to get into them.
  • 3
    At least, in a leading role. I’ve never seen Be Cool, but the clips I’ve seen suggest that when he’s given a side character and the chance to be goofy, he nails it.

One Thing I Like About Werewolf By Night

Werewolf By Night wasn’t quite as bold as I’d been hoping for, but it pushed the limits of what you can do within the MCU

When I saw the trailer for Werewolf by Night, I thought that Marvel had finally abandoned the notion of making multi-billion dollar global entertainment product, and had become a boutique art house making stuff personally tailored just for me. It felt as personalized as a custom-recorded birthday card.

Since I consider myself one of the internet’s leading evangelists for The Beast Must Die!, I was getting hit with every single one of the right vibes. My only trepidation was that the trailer seemed to be pushing it directly into Universal Monsters territory, instead of making it a 1970s period piece.1Which would’ve been doubly appropriate considering that the Werewolf by Night comics are about as 1970s as you can get without a guest appearance by the Brady Kids. I was holding out hope, though, since the CBS Special Presentation-inspired opening, along with the narration, freeze frames, quick cuts, and fake film effects, all suggested that the movie might be kind of a mashup between 1930s-40s Universal and 1970s Castle Horror.

As it turned out, I was thinking too small. Werewolf by Night was stylistically better than either of those options, since it went for a mash-up of a bunch of different styles, instead of just a pastiche of a single one. There are stun batons, gramophones, and magic amulets, gothic architecture coexisting with art deco and brutalism. It ends up feeling timeless, as if it’s able to draw from a century of genre fiction instead of trying to emulate just one specific period.

It’s become popular to criticize the MCU for its feeling of same-ness — a criticism it often deserves, as genuinely novel concepts so frequently devolve into people flying around punching or shooting lasers at each other. So the current phase of the movies and series have impressed me by how much they’re willing to draw from Marvel’s scattershot library. Is it just super-heroes, or is it a horror story, or sci-fi, or fantasy, or legal sit-coms? The answer is yes.

Werewolf by Night often feels like it’s pushing at the boundaries of the MCU, trying to see how much it can get away with while still fitting into the universe. Unlike a lot of the other MCU entries, it’s most interesting not when it’s showing us a new interpretation of the familiar, but when it’s adding a flourish that’s completely new.2Or at least, new to me. I’m even more unfamiliar with the horror/monster side of the Marvel comics than with anything else. I didn’t even recognize Ted, for instance, until it was pointed out afterwards. The main character Jack transformed completely from a WASP-y, long-sideburned teen into a Mexican man with face paint to honor his heritage. A wind-up, talking corpse. A somber man playing a flaming tuba, for some reason.

So I was a bit disappointed to see it just turn into a bunch of fight scenes, and to see that after all the build-up to the appearance of the title character as being the most fearsome monster of them all, he ended up being only like the fourth most brutal and scary character in this movie alone. But that build-up had so much pure style that I’ll gladly give it a pass.

One thing I like in particular about Werewolf by Night is how brazen it was about simulating old-school filmmaking techniques with all of the tools that a MCU-budgeted film in 2022 has available. It does lay on the affectations so thick that it sometimes feels like it’s trying too hard — film grain, rough cuts, reel change markers, overall the kind of stuff you might expect to see in an After Effects tutorial. But I think it all balances out to a feeling of near-campy enthusiasm. Harriet Sansom Harris, who’s never been less than awesome in anything I’ve ever seen, goes gleefully over the top throughout, so it sometimes seems like the direction is just trying to keep up to her energy.

And it results in a couple of really neat flourishes. The red of the bloodstone every time it’s shown, with the added bonuses of colored lens flares in a black and white movie. But my favorite is in a sequence where the werewolf is ravaging some generic bad guys in a hallway. The action is all in silhouette against a blinding white doorway that’s slowly closing, with the only other light being the occasional flashes of stun batons. It doesn’t show any of the monster or the violence close-up — seemingly a stylistic choice to preserve the mystery instead of a technical limitation, since they don’t hesitate to show Ted in extreme detail. As the carnage goes on, blood is splashed against the camera lens, obscuring more and more of the view. By the time it’s over, you can only imagine what happened.

Was it a visual effect, or a practical one? I don’t actually know, and that’s what I like about it. I’m so used to CGI being omnipresent in these projects that I tend to assume everything is done in post-production, and I’ve gotten harder and harder to impress. However it was done, it was done with so much style and thought to its purpose instead of simply its spectacle, that I stopped caring about how it was done. Instead of zoning out during the fight scenes, like I typically do, I appreciated the point of the scene: to suggest a new monster that was so fearsome, they weren’t even allowed to show it to us.

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    Which would’ve been doubly appropriate considering that the Werewolf by Night comics are about as 1970s as you can get without a guest appearance by the Brady Kids.
  • 2
    Or at least, new to me. I’m even more unfamiliar with the horror/monster side of the Marvel comics than with anything else. I didn’t even recognize Ted, for instance, until it was pointed out afterwards.

I, Too, Am An Adult With Very Strong Opinions About Mario Mario

Lazy dunking on casting Chris Pratt has revealed something I never fully appreciated about the franchise

For a minute, I was confused by how people were having such a strong aversion to the Super Mario Bros trailer, considering that Chris Pratt only has a total of two lines and some assorted grunts. Then I remembered the thing that I always forget about Twitter, which is that it’s all about being first, not about being insightful. People have been gearing up to scoff and/or be outraged ever since the first (admittedly weird) casting announcement, and it’s way too late at this point for anyone to say, “we will remain cautiously optimistic until we see more footage from this family-oriented animated feature film” I often forget how the internet works, and for that I apologize.

But as I was getting more baffled and annoyed at people getting so worked up over nothing, I started to realize something that I never fully appreciated about the Mario series: Miyamoto and Nintendo DGAF. Or rather, they care deeply about the right things, but don’t particularly care about the things people on the internet expect them to care about.

Because pretty much all of the Mario games show such a great amount of care and attention to the smallest details — all of the main-line ones, definitely, and most of the side games, even including many of the licensed ones — it’s easy for me to take for granted that they’re obsessive over the same stuff that I’d be obsessive over, if I were in charge of a hugely profitable, long-running, global franchise: world-building, character development, continuity, and so on.

What’s weird is that I’ve kept thinking of them in those terms, even though there’s absolutely zero evidence in any of the games or licensed material. Each of the games1Except for the direct sequels, like Mario Galaxy to Mario Galaxy 2 takes place in a different universe. Many of the characters and settings are recurring, but new ones are constantly being introduced and old ones re-imagined. Everything is based on the central mechanic of the game — he’s got a magic hat! he’s got a spray gun! he can turn into a cat! he’s in 3D! — and, like 1984, is treated as if it’s always been that way, of course: “King Koopa has always been at war with the Mushroom Kingdom. Mario has always been able to jump through star gates between tiny planets.” Mario has been doing multiverses since before it was cool.

Granted, it’s not the most insightful epiphany I’ve ever had, but it gives me even more appreciation of the brilliance of the franchise than I had before. If Miyamoto and Nintendo were as precious with Mario and the associated characters as some people expect them to be, obsessed with lore and continuity, it would’ve quickly become a soulless, repetitive, and predictable run of decreasingly inspired sequels. Instead, they’ve generally shrugged about the sanctity of the characters2As long as they’re generally family-friendly, and true to a basic set of personality sketches even less detailed than the Disney characters’. and only insisted that the games themselves be imaginative and polished.

Instead of being overly fixated on a style bible, they’ve allowed the characters to be re-interpreted in dozens of different (and highly marketable!) ways. Why shouldn’t they play tennis together, or golf, or race go-karts? Why can’t they have plumbing side-jobs as doctors or ghost-hunters or typing instructors? Instead of being overly possessive of their “classic” assets, they made two whole games just giving you all the pieces and inviting you to remix your own games. Instead of being risk-averse with casting, they agreed for their flagship character to be played by a professional wrestler, and a British guy.

I initially thought it was weird to cast Chris Pratt as Mario, but in retrospect that was a dumb reaction. Why not cast a personable movie and TV star with experience doing comedy in both live action and animation as the lead in your animated family action comedy? Mario actor Charles Martinet (who is also prominently credited in the trailer) is extremely good at suggesting a ton of character with just the occasional “it’s-a me!” and “okey dokey!” but that specific voice would be hell of grating over an entire feature film. And having Mario stare blankly and silently while the surrounding characters are all energetic and interesting would just rob Mario of any personality; he’d end up Gordon Freeman-ed.

So to sum up: I think the new movie looks pretty neat and fun, and I’m more interested in it than I was before. I think Nintendo’s handling of the Mario characters is even more clever than I did before. And a lot of people on Twitter seriously need to chill out, go outside, and touch some mushrooms.

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    Except for the direct sequels, like Mario Galaxy to Mario Galaxy 2
  • 2
    As long as they’re generally family-friendly, and true to a basic set of personality sketches even less detailed than the Disney characters’.

A Few More Things I Like About Barbarian

Still thinking about a horror movie that probably wasn’t intended to be quite as thoughtful as I made it sound. Minor spoilers.

Very cool alternate official movie poster for Barbarian from Bloody Disgusting

When I wrote about the movie Barbarian, I may have been so eager to avoid spoilers and to compare it to my expectations that I misrepresented what the movie’s actually like. I’m still going to avoid spoiling anything specific in the movie, but I will be talking more about its tone and what to expect, so if you’re planning to see it, I really recommend avoiding this and going in cold.

I made it sound like the movie’s not very scary (it is, and there are at least two scenes of extremely graphic violence), and that it’s not particularly funny (it is, and there’s a pretty long1No pun intended sequence that’s straight-up hilarious).

The comedy’s easier to explain, since it was just a case of my hearing the buzz around the movie and expecting it to work like Malignant or Orphan: First Kill: where it goes over-the-top with its horror elements to the point of highlighting how absurd it all is. Instead of that, Barbarian‘s funniest moments are all character-based. They present a character with all the familiar components of a horror movie setup, and then show them behaving exactly like those characters would.

It’s really clever, for a couple of reasons: first is that it doesn’t just rely on absurdity that evaporates as soon as the novelty wears off. There’s a satirical edge to all of it. The theme of selfishness vs self-interest, and the things that we owe to each other as people, comes through loud and clear even though the movie isn’t banging us over the head with its message. (I don’t know that I’d call it subtle, but it does expertly avoid having any of the characters explicitly summing up the idea in dialogue).

The other reason it’s so clever is because the comedy is built almost entirely on the last hour or so of the movie being scary and suspenseful as hell. Taking advantage of expectations, showing someone opening one increasingly scary door after the next all while the audience is screaming at them not to — that’s such a well-known element of horror movies that even the parodies and meta-commentary deconstruction of it is decades old at this point. Barbarian is so good at playing on this suspense that it doesn’t just have it both ways, it has it three ways: it’s genuinely scary, it builds to an extended comedic payoff, and then it uses it to make a point.

“Don’t go into the scary basement!” seems universal enough: it’s pretty good advice for anybody to follow, even if you’re not aware you’re in a horror movie. But Barbarian quietly emphasizes the idea that it’s not actually that universal. Some people have to be constantly on the lookout for potential horrors everywhere, while others can be fearless because they’ve lived their whole lives without facing any consequences for their actions.

The comedic payoff only works as well as it does because the movie is so good at building suspense, which goes back to my reaction that it “wasn’t very scary.” That sounds like a knock on the movie, but it’s actually an acknowledgement of how adept it is at pumping the suspense for all it’s worth, while sparing the horror to be doled out at just the right time and in just the right amount. The more I think back on Barbarian, the more I appreciate how good it is at showing only what it needs to show, leaving the rest to the audience’s imagination.

The movie’s trailer was so good at implying a third act which would be over-the-top horror and ultra-violence. Which, of course, was the entire point: the dread of what you might see is so much more powerful than the movie showing it to you in lurid, extended detail.2So much of that horror is so effectively suggested by a bloody handprint on a wall, and a set of VHS tapes with short, suggestive labels. I think I’ve been steeling myself for haunted-house season, which is the opposite, relying on cheap thrills and leaving absolutely none of the horror implicit. Barbarian, on the other hand, is remarkable for its restraint.

Thinking about the ways Barbarian builds suspense and delivers horror, I was reminded again of my whole argument about the way The Walking Dead series of games worked. I keep insisting that the branching narrative is the least interesting aspect of those games, even though that’s where all the focus was. The game’s own marketing promised “the game tailors itself to the choices you make,” and several players complained that the choices were often “meaningless,” since the same thing happened no matter what choice you made. But that puts all the focus on the outcome instead of the choice itself. I think that the thing the series did so remarkably well was set up situations in which the horror was in having to make the choice, when there are no good outcomes.

I was reminded of all that while reading a review of Barbarian, which suggested that there were several moments that didn’t make real-world sense, but were dictated by the plot and premise of a horror movie to happen. I disagree. I think that it’s full of moments that make it stronger than the over-the-top wacky horror movie than I’d expected. We get to see one character doing the “right” things that a person in a horror movie should be doing, and it’s clear that they’re awful and motivated purely by self-interest. And we see another character repeatedly choosing to do the “wrong” thing for a person in a horror movie, but she does it because it’s the right thing to do.

One other unrelated thing I really like about Barbarian: the music. There’s a fantastic bit at the very beginning that suggests the horrors of being outside in the neighborhood, versus the safety of the car. And throughout the rest, there are several sequences that vividly reminded me of the fantastic soundtrack to Suspiria — familiar enough to evoke a memory of it, without being a direct reference.

So ultimately, I think I did Barbarian a disservice by emphasizing the satire and suspense, making it sound like some bland, high-minded thought experiment. It is pretty scary and often very funny. I was just surprised by its having something to say on top of the horror.

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    No pun intended
  • 2
    So much of that horror is so effectively suggested by a bloody handprint on a wall, and a set of VHS tapes with short, suggestive labels.

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.

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    IM Fletcher might be kind of an asshole, but at least he knows better than to use Uber.
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    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.

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.

One Thing I Love About Prey

The new Predator movie is set 300 years ago in the Comanche nation and is fantastic

I’d been seeing so much praise about Prey, the new Predator movie streaming on Hulu, that I was sure that it wouldn’t possibly be able to live up to the hype. I was mistaken.

It’s really, really good, and that’s coming from someone who doesn’t consider himself a fan of the Predator series1I realized tonight that I don’t think I’ve ever seen either of the first two all the way through, even though I’ve seen enough of each to get the idea. They’re also streaming on Hulu, so I should probably correct that ASAP.. It’s a great screenplay for a great story: perfect in scope, delivering exactly what you’d want from an action/suspense movie like this, but with a core story and characters that you can actually get invested in.

I love the way that new ideas and new plot developments are introduced and interleaved — this is the type of story where you know essentially what’s going to happen from the start, but it’s presented so well that it never feels obvious or undeserved. There are lines of dialogue that you know full well are going to get a dramatic callback later on near the climax, but the movie stays one step ahead of your predictions, and puts the callbacks in different places.

And even though you think you know how it’s all going to play out, the movie manages to play with those expectations in interesting ways. It absolutely doesn’t lack in tension — there’s one particularly tense moment that plays with your expectation of what’s going to happen, then cleverly sidesteps it with a punchline.

Anyway, the One Thing I Like about the movie is something that seems fairly inconsequential, but affects everything: the main cast of characters, who are all Comanche in North America in the 1700s, speaks mostly in contemporary American English. They frequently use words and phrases in Comanche, presumably for ideas of great significance or which are otherwise translatable, but the bulk of the dialogue is modern, conversational English.

It probably says more about my expectations of how Hollywood treats Native American characters than anything else, but I was pleasantly surprised. Based solely on the still images I’d seen, I was expecting that they’d be speaking in heavily-accented English with an attempt to affect the 1700s dialect. Or that it would be completely without dialogue, making it like an extended art movie. Or that it would be entirely in Comanche2You can, in fact, watch an all-Comanche dub of the movie on Hulu..

Some of those might’ve been interesting, some would most likely have been awful, but to a modern English-speaking audience, all of them would’ve been othering. This movie is told completely from the perspective of its Comanche characters, and our easy familiarity with them subtly stresses the idea that they were real people. Not like the alien depictions we’re used to seeing from Hollywood — which usually reduces Native Americans either to ruthless savages, or noble savages. The characters here are smart, occasionally funny, clever, and have a set of skills that makes them uniquely capable of standing a chance against super-powerful alien hunters.

There’s another interesting layer to the way the movie uses language, but it requires minor spoilers. If you haven’t seen Prey yet, and you’re a fan of the Predator franchise in the slightest (or just a fan of tight, interesting, well-scripted, mid-budget action or suspense movies) then I highly recommend it.

Continue reading “One Thing I Love About Prey”
  • 1
    I realized tonight that I don’t think I’ve ever seen either of the first two all the way through, even though I’ve seen enough of each to get the idea. They’re also streaming on Hulu, so I should probably correct that ASAP.
  • 2
    You can, in fact, watch an all-Comanche dub of the movie on Hulu.

The Ineffable Subtleties of “Ow! My Balls”

I get annoyed with a vlogbrother and defend a movie I thought was just okay

Well, I’ve already broken my pledge several times over: not only did I start a new Twitter account, but I’ve gotten to reading it habitually and even actually writing replies to strangers1But deleting them quickly afterwards. Maybe there’s still hope?.

What set me off today was this tweet from Hank Green:

The movie “Idiocracy” is, at minimum, implicitly pro-eugenics.

And I mean, come on, man. It’s tough because I usually like (and occasionally really like) Hank and John Green; and I think they’re generally a force for good on the internet, both for helping make complex topics accessible, and for encouraging kindness, charity, and perpetual learning.

But that’s such a shallow and disappointing take that it seems like it was carefully formulated to irritate me as much as possible. It’s not even that I’m a particularly big fan of Idiocracy — I thought it was fine but not particularly deep or memorable past its core premise. Which, it pains me to have to explain, was satire. It’s as much “pro-eugenics” as A Modest Proposal is “pro-infanticide” and “pro-cannibalism.” And it’s not even that subtle about it.

We shouldn’t have to be explaining satire to grown-ups. And of course, I realize that “No but you see it’s actually satire!” has become the go-to defense whenever anyone says or makes something that makes them look like an asshole. But just because it’s been mis-used so often is no reason to throw out the concept altogether.

Maybe what’s needed is the YouTube IDIOCRACY EXPLAINED! approach, complete with an attention-grabbing thumbnail with big red circles and yellow arrows2I tried my best, but couldn’t figure out how to make the arrows with the latest version of Photoshop before I lost interest in the gag. I guess I shouldn’t have gotten my graphic design degree from Costco.. How about we start with the opening, which sets the tone and makes one thing clear almost immediately: The movie is making fun of everyone.

The “High IQ” couple isn’t being put forward as a role model. They’re self-centered and petty. As the woman explicitly says that they don’t want to have children with “the market” the way it is, they’re shown against a background of increasingly fancier and more expensive homes. (While the children of the “Low IQ” couple lives in chaos and disarray). To spell it out: it’s a criticism of socioeconomics, not genetics. One couple is too focused on accumulating wealth for themselves to be willing to devote any of that wealth to children.3On IMDb, at least, they’re credited as “Yuppie Wife” and “Yuppie Husband,” and if you believe that Mike Judge was pro-Yuppie and was advocating having more of them in society, then I don’t know what to tell you apart from “watch literally anything else that Mike Judge has made.”

And even if you can’t let go of the over-literal extremely-online mindset, and are still convinced that Mike Judge and Etan Cohen were sneaking in a sincere pro-eugenics manifesto and disguising it as a silly comedy, then you could consider the entire rest of the movie. The whole story is about a thoroughly average person who’s forced to make an effort for the first time in his life, because he’s held up as superior to everyone else by a completely arbitrary metric. The movie makes fun of the whole concept of intelligence and wealth as signifiers of actual aptitude. It’s chastising early 2000s society for racing to the bottom, settling for the least amount of effort, and appealing to the lowest common denominator.4And yes, we are all aware that we saw exactly that play out in the late 2010s, everybody can stop saying “it was a documentary!” now.

I hate it when people act like there’s one correct interpretation of any piece of art, but I mean, again: this movie is not that subtle. Which is why it’s so frustratingly ironic to see this movie in particular hit with such a shallow and dismissive analysis, since it’s so stridently criticizing us all for settling for less. It shows what happen if we keep lazily declining to engage with anything of depth, until we’re all buried under trash.

There are a couple of reasons this set me off. First is that I spend too much time online. I’ve seen too many examples of people gradually (and eagerly) descending into idiocracy, since so much of online media favors immediate engagement over thoughtful consideration. Blog posts like this one are an anachronism, and I feel very silly as I’m writing it, because it’s just not cool in 2022 to be devoting so much time to anything so inconsequential.

Instead, they’ve been replaced by explainers: web articles or video essays that aim to take everything from topics in social or natural sciences to the current most-SEO-friendly movie release, pick all of the meat off of them, and encapsulate them into an easily-digestible conclusion. The Green brothers in particular were among the first to popularize the short-and-accessible explainer format, and in a lot of cases, I think they’re great. I appreciate it when someone can take a complex topic and present it so that understanding the basics is easily accessible without scolding me for not already understanding the basics and still acknowledging that there’s much more complexity than can be easily explained.

But while it’s great for sciences and history, it’s just deadly for art and entertainment. The art itself is the explainer.

Which leads to another thing that set me off: I’m wondering how much I’m culpable in all this, since I tend to be such a proponent of accessible media. (By which I mean accessible to interpretation. I’m also a strong believer in accessibility for people with disabilities, but I’m not as vocal a proponent of it as I probably should be). I love writing about the MCU and Star Wars — and invite anyone who claims it’s shallow or juvenile to piss right off — because it’s fun and easy. They’re designed to be widely accessible but still have just enough depth that they don’t end up feeling like empty calories.

So I’m all over it when someone wants to point out easter eggs or bits of lore that I’m not enough of a True Superfan to have recognized, but I can feel the soul seeping out of my body when that turns into “explaining” the show or the movie itself. Especially when it just restates the most obvious interpretation of a work. Usually, this stuff isn’t all that ambiguous, so all you’re doing is restating the obvious in a much less elegant way.5One of the things I like about Nope is that it throws out a bunch of ideas and fits them altogether, leaving the overall theme just ambiguous enough to allow for multiple interpretations. I saw somebody had made an explainer video for the shoe in the Gordy’s Home scenes, which just restated the most obvious things then insisted that everybody else was wrong and that this was the “real” meaning of the scene. Don’t be like that guy.

I guess like everyone else who’s ever entered middle age and seen the culture being increasingly driven by younger people, I can’t escape the anxiety that they’re doing it all wrong and ruining everything. I’m generally for the resurgence in earnestness and rejection of unnecessary irony, but not if it’s at the expense of having everything dumbed down and over-simplified.

I get that there’s a lot more noise than there ever has been, and it’s increasingly hard to have patience for people who won’t just say what they mean. There’s a preponderance of people out there actively lying, obfuscating, and disingenuously arguing about things for malicious intent.6I really wish people would stop trying to engage with anyone complaining about women or marginalized people in media. Whether you’re trying to make a point or just dunk on them, you’re not accomplishing anything because they’re always being made in bad faith. All you’re doing by engaging is helping them make basic kindness and common sense seem like something still subject to differing opinions and debate. In fact, I spent some time wondering if Hank Green were pulling some kind of prank with his tweet, but a) that doesn’t seem like his style, and 2) it doesn’t really do anything with the idea, because there’s no twist apart from restating the satirical premise of the movie and calling it a “hot take.” (If that were indeed the “joke” then… okay I guess?)

But if it means that there’s no obligation to analyze a creative work at any level apart from what it says on the surface, and that there’s no obligation to consider whether your first interpretation might not be the one correct interpretation, then we’re heading towards shallower and shallower art. It starts with people believing that the “Twin Pines Mall” becoming the “Lone Pine Mall” in Back to the Future is some delightfully obscure easter egg that only a select few had picked up on. Continue for a few hundred years, and you get “Ow! My Balls!”7But on the brighter side: fewer thinkpieces and blog posts like this one!

  • 1
    But deleting them quickly afterwards. Maybe there’s still hope?
  • 2
    I tried my best, but couldn’t figure out how to make the arrows with the latest version of Photoshop before I lost interest in the gag. I guess I shouldn’t have gotten my graphic design degree from Costco.
  • 3
    On IMDb, at least, they’re credited as “Yuppie Wife” and “Yuppie Husband,” and if you believe that Mike Judge was pro-Yuppie and was advocating having more of them in society, then I don’t know what to tell you apart from “watch literally anything else that Mike Judge has made.”
  • 4
    And yes, we are all aware that we saw exactly that play out in the late 2010s, everybody can stop saying “it was a documentary!” now.
  • 5
    One of the things I like about Nope is that it throws out a bunch of ideas and fits them altogether, leaving the overall theme just ambiguous enough to allow for multiple interpretations. I saw somebody had made an explainer video for the shoe in the Gordy’s Home scenes, which just restated the most obvious things then insisted that everybody else was wrong and that this was the “real” meaning of the scene. Don’t be like that guy.
  • 6
    I really wish people would stop trying to engage with anyone complaining about women or marginalized people in media. Whether you’re trying to make a point or just dunk on them, you’re not accomplishing anything because they’re always being made in bad faith. All you’re doing by engaging is helping them make basic kindness and common sense seem like something still subject to differing opinions and debate.
  • 7
    But on the brighter side: fewer thinkpieces and blog posts like this one!