One Thing I Like About Barbarian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One Thing I Like About Confess, Fletch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

One Thing I Love About What We Do In The Shadows

The series that makes me like the relentlessly unlikeable

Sometimes I feel like I’m missing out, because there are two closely-related sub-genres in comedy that I just can’t tolerate: ones based on a character looking stupid or awkward, and ones where the comedy comes from how awful and unlikeable the characters are. The “Driver’s Ed” sketch from I Think You Should Leave is one of the most brilliantly funny things I’ve ever seen on television, but I can barely make it through an entire episode of that series.

So it’s a little surprising that What We Do In The Shadows has been one of my favorite series for three seasons, and so far the fourth is looking like the best one yet. The characters are so relentlessly awful but you can’t help but be fascinated by them, even if you’re not outright rooting for them to succeed. (Or at least, not to die permanently).

I liked the movie What We Do In The Shadows even if I didn’t love it; the concept was obviously brilliant enough to carry on indefinitely, but the execution felt a little bit like an improv sketch without a punchline. I felt like there wasn’t quite enough material to live up to the premise.

Now I’m wondering if part of that is because it feels like the movie was holding back. One of the remarkable things about the series is that it just doesn’t need to go as hard as it does, every episode. If I’d been in charge of it, I would’ve probably been satisfied that I’d assembled one of the best casts ever — you can tell you’ve got a bunch of actors operating at their peak when Matt Berry sometimes comes across as the most understated one — and been confident that they can take the pronunciation of one word, or one glance at the camera, and make it the funniest thing on television. Natasia Demetriou as Nadja gets my vote for MVP of the show, but everyone gets a chance to be fantastic. There’s an episode where Kayvan Novak as Nandor has to impersonate each of his male castmates, and it wasn’t until the end of the episode that I realized he’d been doing the impressions; they were so dead-on that I just assumed that he must have been lip-synching to the other actors’ VO.

And even with that cast, they’re excessive in how many new things they try to cram into the series. Make a haunted doll a recurring character? Face-map one of the main actors onto the body of a baby or a toddler for an entire season? Casually include practical-effect sirens, werewolves, orcs, and fairies for one-off jokes? Make a series of period-accurate drawings, paintings, tapestries, and engravings showing the past lives of the characters over hundreds of years, each of which will only be on screen for a second or two? Why not? It often seems like the only rule during production of an episode is that no one ever responds to a request with “no.”

But I’m also now wondering whether the movie feels as if it’s holding back because it insists on having a sympathetic protagonist. The joke of Taika Waititi’s character is that he’s kind of a hapless creature of the night, guiding the documentary crew through the story and presenting all of the weirdness as if it were normal, everyday business in New Zealand. Every one of the characters in the TV series, though, is given every opportunity to be vicious, petty, arrogant, selfish, vindictive, callous, bloodthirsty, pathetic, and just irredeemably horrible.

And yet, you get as invested as they are in whatever their petty desires are from episode to episode. For a while, it seemed like Harvey Guillen’s Guillermo was intended to be our relatable protagonist. But even at the beginning, they included plenty of scenes with him cutting up dead bodies and stuffing them into dumpsters. As the series has continued, they’ve made it more and more clear that he’s choosing to be a part of all this. It’d be foolish to go along with his self-delusion that he’s the “normal” one who’s holding onto his humanity.

I don’t think this would work at all if it were in lesser hands. They know exactly how to push every one of the characters as far as they’ll go and then pull your sympathy just at the last moment. It’s pretty amazing, and I’m still not entirely sure how they do it. But I love watching these characters who have each proven themselves to be completely irredeemable, and I’ll keep hoping they never stop being awful.

One Thing I Like About Nope

Nope is kind of a mess, and that’s my favorite thing about it

While waiting to see Nope, I’ve been watching the promo videos and interviews to stay sufficiently hyped up, and so I’ve seen and read a lot of gushing praise of Jordan Peele and the movie itself. Peele is frequently and breathlessly called a “visionary,” and the movie is described with all sorts of review blurbs calling it a love letter to the Hollywood blockbuster and a direct successor to the works of Alfred Hitchcock and Steven Spielberg.

I don’t know how much I agree with that. That’s not a slam against Peele, who I like a lot, or Nope, which I enjoyed very much. It’s more that treating the movie with too much reverence — even for marketing purposes — misses out on a big part of what makes the movie unique. It’s an imaginative, well-crafted, and thoughtful movie that is still completely accessible.

There’s a tendency among cinema studies types and eager film buffs making video essays to treat the works of Hitchcock, and increasingly, the “classic” movies of Spielberg, as case studies in The Ineffable Art of Cinema, forgetting that they were at least as focused on The Joy of Going To The Movies. It’s the same mindset that sees “crowd-pleasing” as derogatory1The thing that annoyed me so much about Martin Scorsese writing op-eds about how Marvel was killing cinema was his revisionist history about how much Hitchcock was making art for art’s sake instead of “franchise pictures,” which makes Hitchcock sound like an insufferable auteur instead of a director who frequently talked about his responsibility to the audience.. Both Hitchcock and Spielberg made movies with audiences in mind, always conscious of how best to manipulate them. (In a good way).

After seeing Get Out, Us, and now Nope, I feel like Jordan Peele isn’t so much carrying on that tradition as responding to it. That’s largely based on Key and Peele, which always had segments that felt as if they were coming from people who loved movies and were having a blast being able to use a whole production crew to make their own. That’s the vibe I get from Peele’s movies: they’re not just made with the audience in mind; they always feel like Peele wants to be right there in the audience watching them with us.

So when I say that Nope is “kind of a mess,” I don’t mean it as a bad thing. Just that I think the enthusiasm and unrestrained creativity come through more than anything else. It doesn’t feel like it was made with, for instance, Spielberg’s economy of storytelling, in which everything that’s not essential to the core story is excised early in the process. But it’s also not like Quentin Tarantino’s digressions or extended references or rambling dialogue, which don’t really fit into the story but still feel like essential elements of the style2The thing that made me think of Tarantino was Jupe’s extended story about a fictional sketch on SNL starring Chris Kattan. It seemed weird and overlong and clumsy, and I’m still not quite sure how much of that feeling was intentional.. Instead, Nope feels like it’s been over-stuffed with ideas, back-stories, and extended lore. It feels like the result of a brainstorming process where ideas that didn’t quite fit weren’t rejected, but instead worked over and hammered on until they fit.

And it does all fit, somehow! A lot of the movie feels like a sequence of weird or unsettling images mixed with subplots that are weird or unsettling because they feel so incongruous, but they all eventually settle down into two main thematic threads: the need to coexist with nature instead of trying to control it, and people’s obsession with fame and spectacle. By the end, the two ideas play off of each other in a way that’s left open to interpretation3Hence the depressing over-abundance of too-literal NOPE ENDING EXPLAINED! videos on YouTube. and is much more nuanced than you’d expect if it were nothing more than a pastiche of summer blockbuster, horror, and sci-fi cliches. Ultimately I was left with an inexpressible feeling of the value of experiencing and sharing instead of achieving and controlling.

Even if I’m just talking about one thing I like, I don’t want to make it sound like the value of Nope is all in the ideas and not the execution. The performances from the leads are great, especially Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer as polar opposite siblings: one a force of pure charisma and the other a force of near-silent, stubborn integrity. There’s a ton of fantastic art direction and character design, images that will be as unforgettable as Us‘s scissors and Get Out‘s tea cup. And I’m not at all knowledgeable about cinematography, but even I could appreciate how the bulk of the movie was set at night and so perfectly captured the feeling of a night outdoors.

But ultimately the thing I liked best was that it felt like a big, tangled mess of disparate ideas and images that a filmmaker was so excited to finally get the chance to share with us.

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    The thing that annoyed me so much about Martin Scorsese writing op-eds about how Marvel was killing cinema was his revisionist history about how much Hitchcock was making art for art’s sake instead of “franchise pictures,” which makes Hitchcock sound like an insufferable auteur instead of a director who frequently talked about his responsibility to the audience.
  • 2
    The thing that made me think of Tarantino was Jupe’s extended story about a fictional sketch on SNL starring Chris Kattan. It seemed weird and overlong and clumsy, and I’m still not quite sure how much of that feeling was intentional.
  • 3
    Hence the depressing over-abundance of too-literal NOPE ENDING EXPLAINED! videos on YouTube.

One Thing I Love About Baymax!

The Baymax! series on Disney Plus proves that being positive, uplifting, and inclusive doesn’t require reducing yourself to a bland, deflated, mess.

(Note: I would’ve loved to include a screenshot from the series illustrating what I’m talking about, but someone at Disney or Apple or Google finally disabled the ability to capture stills from Google Chrome, just like it’s already disabled on Safari. It should be covered under fair use and is nothing but free marketing from fans voluntarily promoting stuff online, but hey, go off. You wouldn’t screenshot a car!)

I liked Big Hero 6 a lot, even though it always felt like an electric ball of potential energy that was never quite able to resonate with me. So much of what I liked about it was deliberately constructed to make people like me like it: the character design of Baymax, the cross-cultural future-present world-building of San Fransokyo, the action/comedy tone, all made to appeal to the part of me that’s still a teenage nerd1Which, let’s be honest, is all of me..

But even though you could already see the multiple variants of Baymax figures on toy shelves even while the film was still running, it didn’t feel crass or manipulative to me. Instead, it reminded me of the early “blue sky” phases of a project, when everyone is throwing out tons of creative ideas, all building on top of each other, with no obligation to streamline or focus. In fact, the attempts to focus all of that energy onto a Disney Animated Feature story are the parts that didn’t quite work for me. I vaguely remember an attempt to use family tragedy as the instigating event for the story, but even as someone hard-wired to respond to those stories, I didn’t feel like it was authentic. And to this day, I wouldn’t be able to give a synopsis of the movie’s plot. Ultimately I felt like the movie was so many fantastic ideas without enough heart to hold them all together.

So the new Baymax! series is essentially the opposite. Each episode is a charming story concentrated to its 11-minute-long essence. It uses all the world-building that’s been established, but doesn’t dwell on any of it — it assumes that you’ve either seen the movie or its action series spinoff, or maybe it just assumes that the audience will be able to get it without any lengthy explanations needed.

Instead, it takes a recurring premise — Baymax steadfastly helps someone who thinks they don’t want or need his help — distills the story down to its basic beats, mines as much comedy action as it can out of it, and then the kicker: delivers a resolution to the character’s story that feels completely earned.

None of it feels schmaltzy, maudlin, or formulaic, partly because the stories are too brief for extended moments of manipulation, but also because the series has the confidence that it can move you without resorting to tear-jerking moments.

And also because it so often treats Baymax not as the hero but as the antagonist. One episode about a food truck owner with an allergy is filled with shots calling back to the Terminator movies, with a panicked hero trying to escape a robot in relentless pursuit. That wry sense of humor is what lets the series be so relentlessly positive and inclusive, without its feeling trite or performative.

It’s such a brilliant idea to take all the components ready-made for an action-comedy adventure series and turn them into a series of charming and uplifting animated shorts. It feels to me like all of the creativity and imagination that went into Big Hero 6‘s world-building finally found the kinds of stories that work perfectly within its world.

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    Which, let’s be honest, is all of me.

One Thing I Love About Ms Marvel

Apart from possibly the best casting in any MCU project, the thing I like best about Ms Marvel is the same thing I liked about Hawkeye

At the time I’m writing this, I’ve seen the first five episodes of Ms Marvel on Disney Plus1I believe it’ll be a six-episode series, so only the finale is left.. I’ve been surprised by how much I enjoyed it; I can’t really think of a better word to describe it than delightful.

I admit that I initially assumed that it would be little more than a victory lap for the MCU2Kind of like Rogers The Musical combined with some nods to Muslim-American culture that could either come across as pandering or inert. Instead, there’s a real feeling of enthusiasm, excitement, and pride that comes through.

It’s what makes the series work, since it would frankly be underwhelming if it were nothing more than an MCU super-hero origin series: the pacing is weirdly disjointed, as stuff just seems to happen instead of flowing together in a clear chain of cause-and-effect. But the disjointed pacing in most MCU projects seems to be the result of trying to cram in big action set pieces at predetermined intervals, while here it’s reversed. In Ms Marvel, it usually feels as if they’re trying to work backwards from a predetermined set of character moments, while fitting everything into a set of 30-minute episodes.

But those character moments work largely because the performances are so good. Iman Vellani as Kamala Khan is so perfectly cast that it’s almost absurd; Marvel has released making-of featurettes that describe how Vellani was at least as big a fan of Captain Marvel (and Ms Marvel, and the comics in general) as her character is, and it comes across as completely genuine.

I’m also really impressed with Zenobia Shroff’s performance as her mother Muneeba Khan. Her character is given so many opportunities to evaporate into clichés, but she manages to feel genuine and sympathetic throughout. Any story about a teenager coming of age is going to have scenes where the parents are antagonists, but even when she’s set up to be the main obstacle, there’s a sense that you can understand why she’s doing the things she does. It would’ve just come across as “hyper-protective immigrant mom” had she not been able to convey a genuine sense of compassion.

All of that works together towards what I think is the one thing I like most about Ms Marvel, which is essentially the same thing I liked about Hawkeye, which is that it has a tone and focus that go beyond just being a super-hero origin story. Kamala Khan is a character even more obsessed with super-heroes than Kate Bishop was, but these series don’t accept “super-hero” as a genre on its own. Hawkeye was an action-comedy that frequently called back to the MCU, while Ms Marvel is a coming-of-age story about a Pakistani Muslim-American teenager that uses the supernatural not so much as the focus, but as the thing that helps her define herself.

Part of that is knowing what the target audience is. This feels like a show about a teenager that isn’t necessarily targeted at teenagers, but designed from top to bottom to be something that teenagers can watch with their families. That means that the crises are kept mostly in the realm of things that a girl in high school in Jersey City would be concerned about, with the destruction of the entire world3Because this is still an MCU super-hero story, after all being treated as a backdrop for more personal stories.

I spent a lot of the series thinking that I was enjoying it, but I was just barely included in the target audience, but as the series has progressed, the more I’ve been convinced that it is at least partially aimed at people like me — white Americans who don’t know much about the experiences of American immigrant families, and only the most basic details about non-European history.4And distressingly little about non-European present. I don’t know how much, if any, of the series was actually filmed in Karachi, but seeing even the MCU version of it was more than I’ve ever seen of Pakistan in the media. I’ve picked up the barest hint of basic info about the separation of India and Pakistan, but I either never knew, or I’d forgotten, how much of the conflict was driven not just by British colonialism, but by divisions between Muslims and Hindus. Obviously I’m not claiming that I’m now an authority, but seeing even this much presented in an accessible format is more than I’ve gotten before.

I’ve read criticism from the original Ms Marvel comics writer, lamenting that the TV series chose to change Kamala’s powers from the body-stretching/shape-shifting ones in the comics to something “shiny and sparkly.” I can see both sides to the argument, as I understand it. I like the TV origin story much better than the comics I’ve read — even if The Inhumans hadn’t been such a disappointment, tying Kamala’s origin story to that instead of something more rooted in Islamic mythology would’ve been a huge missed opportunity. Also, even if the body-stretching imagery looked good — and it rarely looks good even on feature film budgets, much less in a TV series — it would make Kamala seem more like a junior Reed Richards than a hero inspired by Carol Danvers.

But there is an extremely important idea from the comics that has undeniably been lost in the TV translation: in the comics, when Kamala first gains her powers, she almost subconsciously takes on the form of a more Westernized version of beauty. It takes a while before she’s comfortable presenting herself as a Pakistani-American teenage girl with a big weird fist, because she’s spent her entire life being barraged with imagery that suggests she’s weird and different. Ironically it’s kind of a shame that the TV version of Kamala comes across as more confident than her comics counterpart — she’s often insecure, and often feels like an outsider, but in the TV version, it’s more because of her nerdiness than her ethnicity or heritage.

To be fair, the TV series does hint at that, with a scene in which obnoxious white kids give her alcohol at a party, but it’s pretty brief. Most of the series presents Kamala and her family as part of a sizable Muslim community that welcomes non-Muslims, instead of portraying them as an isolated enclave surrounded by people who see them as outsiders.

I’m obviously not qualified to say whether that’s an entirely positive change or not. It does have the effect of making me feel even more like I intersect with the target audience, though — the comics felt as if they were made to give Muslim and South Asian teenagers in general a character whom they could directly identify with, from someone who understands what their experiences are like. The TV series often feels more like it’s intending to show non-Muslims like me what a different culture is like. I do wonder if it would seem too simplistic, too juvenile, or too didactic for teenagers who’ve already grown up in that environment, but I can only say that I’ve loved seeing the portrayal of a culture that’s not my own, but inclusive.

  • 1
    I believe it’ll be a six-episode series, so only the finale is left.
  • 2
    Kind of like Rogers The Musical
  • 3
    Because this is still an MCU super-hero story, after all
  • 4
    And distressingly little about non-European present. I don’t know how much, if any, of the series was actually filmed in Karachi, but seeing even the MCU version of it was more than I’ve ever seen of Pakistan in the media.