One Thing I Like About Eternals

Eternals is a defiantly humanistic adaptation of cosmic-powered source material

I didn’t like Eternals. It was overlong, meandering, and ponderous. Its action sequences were weightless in multiple senses of the word. It made baffling story decisions from the opening text crawl to the post-credit sequences.

I’ve lost interest in picking apart things I don’t like, not so much out of any vague push for “positivity,” but because there’s just too much good stuff out there I’d rather be concentrating on. But unlike some other high-profile projects that more or less evaporated after failing to live up to expectations1See: The Matrix Resurrections. Or better: don’t., Eternals left me with something. It was a hazy sense of well-being, a faintly optimistic feeling of global community and shared humanity. (More than just the general light-headedness that came from still being up at 3 AM after foolishly starting the movie at midnight).

In short: Eternals took a part of the Marvel library that was designed from the start to be grand and cosmic, and defiantly turned it into a gentler, more humanistic story. I might not think it was successful, but I can respect that it was so full of intent, especially considering the weight of the MCU machine behind it.

Because I’ve recently read Jack Kirby’s original The Eternals comics, and then Neil Gaiman and John Romita, Jr’s 2006 update, I can’t help comparing them with the movie version’s adaptation2I haven’t read any of the other Eternals comics, so I can’t really comment on the aspects of those that were used in the movie version.. In particular, there are two aspects of the comics that are done differently in the movie, and they end up saying a lot about what the movie was trying to do: one aspect is representation, and the other is the audience’s entry point into the story.

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    See: The Matrix Resurrections. Or better: don’t.
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    I haven’t read any of the other Eternals comics, so I can’t really comment on the aspects of those that were used in the movie version.

One Thing I Love About Spider-Man: No Way Home

One scene in No Way Home articulates what I love about the MCU, and also the One Thing I Hate about the movie. Lots of spoilers!

Pretty much everything that happens in Spider-Man: No Way Home is a spoiler, so I recommend avoiding reading anything like this until after you’ve seen it!

There’s one scene midway through No Way Home where I was taken out of the action for a second, and I had a minor epiphany, recognizing a huge part of what’s made me become such a shameless fan of the MCU, and why I think the formula works so well with this incarnation of Spider-Man in particular.

The set-up: Spider-Man has gone into a wooded area, tracking down a villain who’d been teased in an earlier fight scene. (And in the trailer). Because I can recognize the pumpkin bombs from the Sam Raimi movies, I know better than Peter Parker does what is about to go down. He’s got his friends talking to him and watching what’s going on via a cell phone duck-taped to his chest (a brilliant touch), and they have even less of an idea what’s about to happen. It’s a nice twist on dramatic irony, since it’s based not only on stuff that’s happened in the movie so far, but on the audience’s general pop cultural knowledge.

But then the scene subverts those expectations. And then keeps reinforcing and then subverting them, pulling in stuff we’ve seen from the trailers, previous movies, ideas foreshadowed by Doctor Strange, a general idea of how movies work, and so on. The whole sequence works a little like a horror or suspense movie, with that call-and-response of expectation and subversion. It ends up feeling like a dialogue between the filmmakers and the audience, relying not just on the story so far, but everything the audience knows.

Entries in the MCU are rarely just a live-action interpretation of a comics story, and rarely an entirely new story based on familiar characters. Instead, they’re more like remixes, taking multiple aspects of existing characters and existing storylines, and then recombining and rearranging them, to keep giving the audience that flash of recognition before turning it into a flash of discovery.

Even with characters that aren’t as universally known as Spider-Man, like the Guardians of the Galaxy or Shang-Chi, it still works, because it’s never drawing only from the comic books. It assumes that in addition to comics, the audience is also familiar with science fiction, martial arts movies, other entries in the MCU, and pop culture in general. In fact, it doesn’t assume that; it depends on it. A side effect of that is that the storytelling can’t be condescending, or too smug about its secrets and reveals. It always has to assume that the audience understands this stuff, and we’re on board with seeing it expanded and reinvented.

Explaining more of how that relates to No Way Home requires explicit spoilers, so I’ll put my short review here: it’s extremely well-done and surprising, and it’s a solid finale to the three standalone Tom Holland Spider-Man movies. I’m not as happy about what it means for the future of the character and the MCU in general, but even the parts I hated were well-written, performed, and perfectly integrated into the story. In other words: I hate what it did, but I like the way it did it. Now stop reading unless you’ve seen it.

Spoilers Below!

Movie List Monday: Unnecessary Animation

My favorite animated movies with details that don’t need to be there

When I mentioned trying to make “a Nick Park-style robot,” I’m not sure the reference worked, because I was specifically talking about the robot from A Grand Day Out. It’s one of my favorite animated characters, and the sequence where it wakes up and discovers Wallace’s picnic site might be my favorite moment in any animated movie.

It’s incredibly expressive, using only its hands. And it’s burned into my brain as the image of “endearing robot”; even though I haven’t seen A Grand Day Out in years, I was just futzing around with a modeling program and subliminally tried to copy a pose from that character exactly.

What I like best about that whole character, though, is that everything that makes it special is so unnecessary. It could’ve been a more conventional retro-sci-fi-robot design, and the story would’ve worked just as well. It was a choice to make it a completely silent coin-operated robot, and it’s never explained because it doesn’t need to be. Any more than it needs to be explained why the villain in The Wrong Trousers is a penguin.

The thing that made me aspire (and fail) to become an animator was that the best animated projects have a density of imagination and design that you don’t get in live action. Of course there are meticulously-designed live action movies, but with animation, it’s a necessity. There’s not a single thing on screen that hasn’t had at least one person spending hours thinking about it.

As much as I love Frozen, for instance, I still think it’s part of a trend of modern animation in which efficiency is key. By that I mean that everything on screen is in service of the story, or at least in service of a particular gag. The stories are pretty great, the gags are funny, and the character designs are appealing and often perfectly animated. But I rarely get the sense that there’s a detail or a moment that’s unnecessary, that exists solely because an artist wanted it to.

Here’s a list of some of my favorite animated movies, and the moments of unnecessary imagination that make them stand out. (Note that I’ve mostly lost track of animation in the past several years, and I still haven’t seen most of the Laika movies, Kubo and the Two Strings in particular. They tend to feel more free than the tentpole Disney movies in including details just for their own sake).

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One Thing I Like About No Time To Die

Daniel Craig’s last Bond movie makes self-reference into a celebration

Back when I begrudgingly picked Spectre over Skyfall as a better James Bond movie, I hadn’t seen No Time to Die. I said that I’d heard that the latest movie was even more self-referential than Spectre is, and I couldn’t imagine how that was possible.

Now that I’ve seen it — I made sure to watch it a couple of months after its theatrical release, so that I both missed seeing it on a big screen and had the privilege of playing big-screen prices to rent it — I’d agree that it is even more self-referential than any of the others. But instead of just going through the motions, it feels like a celebration of the franchise.

I think No Time to Die is the easily the second best of the Daniel Craig Bond movies, after Casino Royale. The problem is that the first half was on track to be my favorite of any of the Bond movies. It’s two hours and forty-five minutes long, and it really does feel like two Bond movies smashed together: the first is absolutely fantastic, but the second just descends into the same kind of muddled mess as the last three. Repeating the same old story beats to try and bridge the way into the final act, which is a journey into a supervillain lair filled with plot developments that just don’t make sense.

But this is about the positives! And even as the plot starts to fall apart, the movie nails the tone throughout. It feels like the only one of the Craig movies that fully embraces being part of the James Bond franchise, instead of poking fun at it or trying to turn it into something deeper and more mature. There are stunningly gorgeous locations, impressively over-the-top stunts, three disfigured villains, beautiful women kicking ass, and double-crosses piled on top of double-crosses. Bond even (finally?) makes a lame quip after murdering a guy.

The movie’s front-loaded with great, genuinely tense action sequences: one in a flashback, a blockbuster of a sequence in Italy, and then another in Cuba bringing multiple agents together. That last one is the one that brings in Ana de Armas and Lashana Lynch, giving them guns and plenty of opportunities for stunts, so that it’s not just Craig getting all the action. Ana de Armas is just as great as all the buzz had led me to believe, but I wish Lashana Lynch had been given more to do. It mostly feels like she’s there for no reason other than to escort Craig out of the franchise.

Those sequences flow together so well that it had me thinking the entire series has been like a machine learning algorithm: iterating on the James Bond formula (and throwing the Jason Bourne movies into the dataset) repeatedly until it got everything right. No Time to Die seemed to be incorporating something from every incarnation of Bond — not just the cars and the “shaken, not stirred” martinis, but everything. The cars and the Caribbean locations called back to Connery, the henchman Cyclops to Roger Moore and Jaws, the doomed love affair to Lazenby, the sequence with Felix Leiter back to Dalton’s version, the over-the-top stunts back to Pierce Brosnan (I guess?), and the production design (plus the mentions of Vesper Lynd) to Skyfall and Quantum of Solace.

And those are just the references I picked up on. I got the sense that the entire movie was a celebration of the movies. Not just the culmination of Daniel Craig’s run, but of the entire series.

Best of all, it was the first one I’ve seen in forever that felt like it knew what it was. These movies have been so dour and so expensive for so long, that any time they embraced the silliness of the Bond franchise, it felt like a clumsy mis-step. No Time to Die seemed to get that the series is best when it’s clever, fun spectacle. When the movie is fully aware of its own absurdity, but Bond and all the characters surrounding him are treating it like the entire world is truly in jeopardy and that they’re all essentially super-heroes capable of taking care of it.

Also, the movie is so adamant about being contemporary that for the first time, I’m re-thinking my opinion that future installments should be set in the Cold War. Q isn’t just played by a gay actor, but specifically mentions having a man over for a dinner date. Paloma plays up her own naivete and enthusiasm (and is, obviously, preternaturally gorgeous), but is in absolutely no danger of being seduced by Bond. Nomi isn’t just presented as a competent agent with her own sense of Bond-like vanity and self-confidence, but her identity as a black woman isn’t just treated as incidental, either — a villain boasts to her that he’d be able to wipe out everyone of the “West African diaspora,” and it doesn’t go well for him at all. And Moneypenny has been completely transformed from a lovesick secretary to someone who respects Bond for being able to get the job done, more often than not.

No Time to Die feels like a series that’s finally matured enough to have fun with itself. It’s acknowledging that it can no longer treat homosexuals and non-white people as exotic oddities, or women as either sexy victims or femme fatales. But more important than that, it recognizes that Bond as murderous lecherous super-hero isn’t the core of what makes the franchise. It’s not just trying to re-hash the past, or over-correct for the past, or pretend to be anything that it’s not. Much of it has the spark that makes for the best Bond movies: spectacle, travel, memorable henchmen, and over-the-top action.

Star Wars and Focusing on the Wrong Thing

Getting closer to a Grand Unified Theory of what makes something “feel like Star Wars”

I like to think of myself as a reasonably well-adjusted adult, but every once in a while I get a flare up that reminds me I’m still an Extremely Online Nerd in my soul. Tonight’s episode: getting irrationally angry about Rogue One out of nowhere.

Okay technically not out of nowhere. I was trying to think of how to handle the issue of plugging cables into the Star Wars-inspired computer I want to build, which seemed like a distinctly un-Star Wars thing to be worried about. Everything in Star Wars just works — or more often, doesn’t work for dramatic purposes — without spending even a nano-second thinking about stuff as mundane as cabling or fuel sources.

Then I remembered that the climax of Rogue One has the team both trying to find a particular file in a file system, while simultaneously trying to get a cable to reach a socket. And I mean come on.

Over the years, I’ve settled into a more mature attitude towards Rogue One after my initial nerd-rage: accepting that it has both the best production design of the entire franchise, and the absolute worst plot and characterization of the entire franchise. (Except for K2SO, which I attribute mainly to Alan Tudyk). I’ve already complained about how the entire movie undermines its own protagonist, but if I’m being honest, the thing that bugs me more is that it doesn’t “feel like Star Wars” to me.

Which is also my main issue with The Last Jedi. That movie’s grown on me a lot, although I’ve still got some issues with how it handles the characters. But the biggest problem I have with it is that so much of it just doesn’t feel like Star Wars. The stuff with Rey and Kylo Ren is mostly fantastic, but the bulk of the plot is a pointless and futile digression onto a space casino, and the Resistance fleet running out of fuel.

The plot of a Star Wars story should never revolve around something as mundane as fuel. A broken hyperdrive? Sure! A lack of fuel? Garbage. Again, that’s Battlestar Galactica, not Star Wars.

A broken hyperdrive doesn’t make sense; the Millennium Falcon shouldn’t have been able to travel between planets without it. The reason it works in The Empire Strikes Back is because to the characters, it’s as mundane an obstacle as any other broken piece of equipment, roughly the equivalent of a flat tire or a broken air conditioner. But to the audience, it’s still fantastic.

JJ Abrams gets this, I think, but takes it too far. The Force Awakens built its climax around a “thermal oscillator,” which is nonsense, but is just enough of a McGuffin to drive the action. If anything, he spent too much time with a bunch of adults standing around a table, talking about nonsense as if it made sense. That’s Star Trek, not Star Wars.

And The Rise of Skywalker, along with all its other issues, takes it way too far in the other direction. It’s not that Emperor clones and thousands of planet-killing Star Destroyers, or even the “Force Dyad” or whatever they called it, need to be explained; they do need to be justified, though. There’s no sense of building up to it. It’s just thrown at you as an immediate threat, trying to raise the stakes without “earning” it.

Comparing all the good and bad Star Wars stories I’ve seen and read over the years, I think that the main thing driving the whole Star Wars aesthetic is that it’s impossibly ancient. Technology that’s thousands of years ahead of our own is already thousands of years old by the time our stories start.

It’s so ubiquitous that characters should rarely even comment on it. That’s my “in-universe” explanation for why none of the computer panels or spaceship controls have labels anywhere; it would be as absurd as putting instructions on door knobs or cabinet handles.1I admit I do like the theory that everyone in the Star Wars universe is so dependent on droids that they’ve become illiterate, though. It’s also why I think the Imperial aesthetic “reads” as evil and unsettling even when you don’t have Darth Vader walking around in it: it’s all so clean and shiny that it literally feels unnatural.

The reason I think it’s important, instead of just a source of Strong Opinions for Nerds, is that it forces (no pun intended) Star Wars stories to be about characters, along with ideas about spirituality and magic. They are, deliberately, silly fairy stories, but dressed in trappings that make them resonate. The sci-fi elements are there to make the fantasy stories feel contemporary.

Looking back on my reaction to The Rise of Skywalker, I’m surprised that my opinion hasn’t changed all that much. I did go back to the theater to see it a second time, and watching it as “Star Wars I can watch on a big screen” instead of “conclusion of a decades-long series that’s been hugely important to me for as long as I can remember” made it a lot more fun. It’s entertaining in the moment, but falls apart at any attempt to put it into a larger context. And whether it’s good or bad, it doesn’t change the enormous potential of Star Wars as a setting for stories.

Both officially sanctioned by Disney-owned Lucasfilm, and even better, the infinite number of stories not set in the Star Wars universe, but inspired by it. Star Wars is a specific aesthetic, and I’m no closer to being able to define it than “I know it when I see it.” But more valuable than that is the idea of freely picking and choosing from elements of pop culture — sci-fi, westerns, samurai movies, swords and sorcerers, WWII movies — to make stories that are about more than just their setting or their aesthetic.

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    I admit I do like the theory that everyone in the Star Wars universe is so dependent on droids that they’ve become illiterate, though.

Sunday Smackdown: Ghostbusters (2016) vs Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021)

Two movies enter the arena, each with a different idea of what made the original Ghostbusters work. (Some spoilers for Afterlife)

At this point, there have been three attempts to make a movie follow-up to Ghostbusters that captured everything that made the original such a classic. None of them have managed to do it.

But it’d be unfair to be too critical of them for that, since the original Ghostbusters was such a once-in-a-lifetime confluence of ideas, execution, and timing that it’s impossible to pick the one trait that made it such a classic. Back in 1989, when I was feeling so betrayed by Ghostbusters II, I probably should’ve kept in mind how completely surprised I had been by the original.

I’d gone in expecting it to be another Meatballs or more likely, Stripes: a movie built around Bill Murray’s charmingly lecherous, rebellious, screw-up persona that somehow became an engaging action comedy. It was only after the opening sequence, with a genuinely scary library ghost, that I realized this wasn’t “just” a comedy.

If the decades of behind-the-scenes accounts and making-of stories and frequent retellings are to be believed, that dichotomy was present in the project from concept all the way through to filming. Dan Ackroyd supposedly had a concept that went all-in on the lore, and Harold Ramis and Ivan Reitman came in to steer it back towards family comedy. I’m skeptical that it was as clear-cut as all that, but it is evident in the movie, which has way more plot and world-building than a comedy needs, even in the golden age of movies that 1984 turned out to be.

(Case in point: possibly my favorite line in the movie is when the under-appreciated MVP of the whole project, Rick Moranis as Louis Tully, is foretelling the coming of Gozer the Traveler. From IMDb: “Then, during the third reconciliation of the last of the McKetrick supplicants, they chose a new form for him: that of a giant Slor! Many Shuvs and Zuuls knew what it was to be roasted in the depths of the Slor that day, I can tell you!”)

So any attempt at a follow-up inevitably has to decide what it was that made the original work so well. Ghostbusters (2016) decided that it was a special-effects-heavy comedy featuring SNL alumni as wacky, hapless outcasts crackin’ jokes while bustin’ ghosts. Ghostbusters: Afterlife decided that it was a lighthearted supernatural adventure whose strength came from its characters and their discoveries.1Ghostbusters 2 decided that Ghostbusters had made Columbia Pictures a lot of money, so bringing back the entire cast with more studio interference and a smaller budget couldn’t help but recapture lightning in a bottle.

Honestly, neither one is wrong. But neither one is quite able to encompass everything that made the original work, either. Is it better to be entertaining in the moment but ultimately forgettable? Or to be more earnest and emotionally resonant at the expense of much of the comedy and action?

Continue reading “Sunday Smackdown: Ghostbusters (2016) vs Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021)”
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    Ghostbusters 2 decided that Ghostbusters had made Columbia Pictures a lot of money, so bringing back the entire cast with more studio interference and a smaller budget couldn’t help but recapture lightning in a bottle.

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.

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.

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    I 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.