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.

  • 1
    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.

A List of Things I Like About Thor: Love and Thunder

Because there haven’t been enough people posting their opinions about this movie online

  • I like it better than Ragnarok. I don’t think there are any moments in Love and Thunder that hold up to the best moments of Ragnarok, but I think it works better as a movie overall, largely because it feels more confidently silly instead of trying to balance pathos and heavy metal while proving “a Thor movie can too be funny.”
  • Russell Crowe as Zeus was clearly there to have fun and felt he had absolutely nothing to prove. Ever since Endgame, I haven’t been able to make up my mind whether the MCU as a whole and Thor in particular are making fun of fat people, or if it’s just acknowledging that a physique like Chris Hemsworth’s isn’t natural (or even attainable) to most people and is every bit an active choice. Love and Thunder makes it even murkier, but at least Crowe seems to be delighted to appear in armor that highlights his “post-divorce” body1Which is 10,000x hotter than he was in Gladiator, if you ask me.
  • Tessa Thompson as King Valkyrie had to underplay her performance — as she often had to be the straight man2Ironically surrounded by absurdity — but she still managed to be a distinctive character who fit perfectly into this bizarre universe. The result was that she was powerfully sexy and attractive in just about every scene, even for an actor who is usually the sexiest person on camera without even trying.
  • The lighter tone worked overall because it made the darker subjects feel less like maudlin manipulation. Jane’s cancer story in the comic felt cheaper to me because it tried so hard to give the subject the gravitas it was supposed to deserve, which was then undercut by introducing a magic hammer. I felt the movie was actually more respectful by letting her be silly and over-enthusiastic about getting to be a superhero. It spun the premise from “real-world tragedy given a supernatural spin” to one about a character choosing what to make of her life.
  • The screaming goats were overused and yet they still made me laugh every single time.
  • The girl using her stuffed animal as a weapon was a little predictable and obvious but still worked 1000%.
  • Gorr the God-Butcher’s story didn’t give Christian Bale any opportunities to be funny, but it worked perfectly as a counterpoint to the silliness of the rest of the movie, emphasizing how increasingly cosmic-powered and god-like superheroes become disgusting when they act without integrity and responsibility.
  • It also meshed surprisingly well with Jane Foster’s story, bringing the idea back from “who would win in a fight?” or “who will be first to reach the magic MacGuffin?” to questions about why we do the things we do, and why do we exist at all.
  • It’s my favorite of the Taika Waititi projects I’ve seen3Apart from maybe the TV series of What We Do In the Shadows, which I love mostly based on the performances of the actors. Every time I see a project where he’s a creative lead, I’m left with the feeling that I wish I liked it more than I actually do. It often feels like the sense of freedom that makes his projects so appealing is combined with a lack of restraint. So jokes that don’t really land are given way too much screen time4As much as I like Melissa McCarthy, I wish they’d cut the entire rehash of the play in New Asgard, since it was no longer making fun at the self-seriousness of the first two Thor movies, but just saying “Hey look at these famous and semi-famous people we got to do cameos”, and the stories often feel disjointed in tone and weirdly flippant5The scene in The Mandalorian with the stormtroopers punching the bag containing Baby Yoda is a perfect example. In Love and Thunder, I think the shifts in tone were used for good effect: the silly stuff felt like it was poking fun at targets who deserved it, while more serious subjects were treated with enough levity that they felt authentic instead of maudlin.
  • 1
    Which is 10,000x hotter than he was in Gladiator, if you ask me
  • 2
    Ironically
  • 3
    Apart from maybe the TV series of What We Do In the Shadows, which I love mostly based on the performances of the actors
  • 4
    As much as I like Melissa McCarthy, I wish they’d cut the entire rehash of the play in New Asgard, since it was no longer making fun at the self-seriousness of the first two Thor movies, but just saying “Hey look at these famous and semi-famous people we got to do cameos”
  • 5
    The scene in The Mandalorian with the stormtroopers punching the bag containing Baby Yoda is a perfect example

Everything I Love About Everything Everywhere All At Once

Refusing to choose one thing I love in a movie that celebrates living in the best of all possible worlds.

The featured image on this post is my poorly-cropped version of the beautiful poster by James Jean on the A24 Films site.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a flawless movie, and the only negative thing I have to say about Everything Everywhere All At Once is the gentlest of criticisms: it has a perfectly understated vulgar gag early in the movie (involving a trophy on someone’s desk) that it then stretches out into an extended fight scene later on. The fight scene is very funny and hilariously juvenile — especially for committing to judicious pixellation over the entire fight — but I can’t help but wish they’d shown a little bit more restraint and just left it as a one-off.

But then, this movie isn’t about restraint at all. It’s about multiverses in the purest possible sense: every moment is filled with the spirit of We can do anything we want! The official synopsis is “the film is a hilarious and big-hearted sci-fi action adventure about an exhausted Chinese American woman (Michelle Yeoh) who can’t seem to finish her taxes,” which is about as good a description as Rotten Tomatoes’ listing the genre as “Sci-Fi, Comedy, Adventure, Fantasy.” It really is about everything, and choosing any one aspect of it seems too reductive.

One of the things I tend to love the most in narrative art is when the artist uses the form of the work to reinforce the theme of the work. Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi, for instance, which changes voice from wonder and discovery to melancholy to express an otherwise inexpressible sense of loss. So I’m especially impressed by how Everything Everywhere All At Once uses a genre-defying story of multiverses as a rejection of the idea of the multiverse. Or at least, how science fiction and fantasy stories tend to present the multiverse.

After it establishes its premise, it seems to explode into a story of infinite potential, with the freedom to do anything, show anything, and be anything. And even as it’s making full use of that freedom — combining family drama with slapstick comedy with superhero action adventure with martial arts with anime with science fiction with vulgar comedy with Wong Kar Wai romance with zombie movie — it’s asserting that it’s futile to value infinite potential over concrete reality. It seems to use the entirety of decades of global pop-culture, smashed together with chaotic excess, to present a simple idea about the value of simplicity, contentment, and kindness.

Of course, that’s reductive, too. The simplicity of that message becomes profound, rather than trite, only because it’s carried across layers of absurdity and action. The movie’s chaos never evaporates as nothing more as absurd excess, because just about every one of its bizarre ideas is given a simply beautiful twist. I never would’ve expected to find myself in tears at the sight of two women with hot dog fingers consoling each other, or a woman carrying a man on her back in order to rescue his magical raccoon.

I was in tears for most of the movie, thinking of lost potential, lost loved ones, and regrets over missed opportunities, but then it deftly reassured me that everything would be okay. We spend so much time focusing on what could have been that we lose sight of what was, and what we have now.

Everyone in the cast is brilliant, which is astounding considering how much it requires the cast to get it down to the atomic level. Ke Huy Quan and Stephanie Hsu in particular are amazing, never letting a moment feel false even as they’re surrounded by absolute absurdity. The movie seems to have been made for Michelle Yeoh, though, finally giving her a showcase for everything she can do. I’ve been a hopeless fan of hers ever since I saw Supercop, but it’s always seemed like even her best movies — and even movies like Wing Chun, which seemed designed to show off her talents — that they weren’t capturing the entirety of what makes her spectacular.

I also loved the soundtrack by Son Lux, which felt as free as the rest of the movie to incorporate anything and everything it had on hand. The music was rarely predictable but never drew too much attention to itself. I most appreciated how it incorporated hints of Debussy throughout, sparking a flash of recognition that swirled around before combining with everything else.

Barely related: I was completely unfamiliar with the work of the Daniels before this movie, and had never seen their amazing video for “Turn Down For What.” (Which features Sunita Mani, who has a recurring cameo in Everything Everywhere All At Once). It’s oddly relevant, because they both have performers who have to be game for anything in order to show us something we’ve never seen before.

I’ve never been as emotionally devastated nor as cathartically reassured on a moral, philosophical, and existential level by a movie with so many dildos and butt plugs.

One Thing I Like About The Lost Boys

I’m glad I waited until I was 50 to watch this teen vampire movie.

I was a junior in high school when The Lost Boys came out, but I never bothered to see it until tonight. It had such a heavy marketing presence — and general pop cultural presence — that I knew enough about it to get references to it, and I thought I knew the basic premise: what if St. Elmo’s Fire but vampires?

So I was surprised to see that it’s not quite that. It’s more like: what if you mashed together St. Elmo’s Fire, The Goonies, and Fright Night, and made it 10 times hornier and cornier?

I should mention that I’ve never seen St. Elmo’s Fire, either, and I don’t plan to. I didn’t see The Goonies until a few years ago, and I’m convinced that you have to have seen it as a kid to appreciate it, because I thought it was dismal. I’m glad I waited until I was 50 to watch The Lost Boys, though, because I don’t think I would’ve been able to appreciate it back when I was in the target audience.

For one thing, I would’ve been hopelessly confused by how gay it is. I admit that at the time, I had kind of a confusing crush on Kiefer Sutherland without even a hint of irony, so I would’ve been convinced that it was all in my head and that I was “watching it wrong.” Now, it seems so obvious that they barely even bothered to make it subtext.

Ostensibly, Sutherland’s “David” and Jason Patric’s “Michael” were in a love triangle with Jami Gertz’s “Star,” but the movie’s really only interested in the chemistry between David and Michael. Star is barely even a character — not at all Gertz’s fault, since she’s not given anything to do besides be fought over and have vague, 80s movie euphemistic sex with. Meanwhile, David is constantly calling out for Michael and inviting him to get an earring and join him in his lair with his giant shirtless Jim Morrison poster and to become like him and to find out “what he is” and drink his blood and come party with him and sheesh get a room already, guys.

It’d be too simple-minded to see that Joel Schumacher directed it and just declare, “Welp, he made it gay.” There’s something a little more subtle in the tone of The Lost Boys that actually makes me respect Schumacher more than I did. The Lost Boys is absolutely not a good movie, but it does strike me as shameless, in the best possible sense of the word.

The movies I always associate with Schumacher are Batman Forever, which is just awful, and Batman and Robin, which is somehow even worse. There’s plenty to hate in those movies: nipples on the bat suit, the gratuitous shots of Robin’s butt, the Bat credit card, the roller skating, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr Freeze, Alfred Headroom, and I’m sure a dozen other things my brain has mercifully allowed me to forget. But the two things that I always found completely intolerable were Jim Carrey’s performance as the Riddler, and Uma Thurman’s performance as Poison Ivy, for reasons I could never figure out until I saw The Lost Boys tonight.

All the other stuff is awful, tone-deaf camp, but at least it’s sincere. The only charitable thing I’ve ever been able to say about those two Batman movies is that they seem like movies that Schumacher genuinely wanted to make. He thought Batman and its characters were silly, campy, brightly colored, full of bafflingly repressed sexuality, and outright rejected the idea that there was anything serious and gritty to be found in such an absurd premise. But Carrey and Thurman were both trying to go over the top of a movie that was already over the top. There’s an inescapable sense that they need you to know that they’re in on the joke, and they’re aware of how silly the whole thing is. It especially bugs me with Thurman, because I think she’s so great in Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, going all in with complete confidence that the audience is going to get it.

Sincerely awful is still sincere, and I think that deserves more credit than I’ve been willing to give. Even if the execution is painful, the basic idea is valid: movies are fiction, and we don’t have to take everything so seriously.

There’s one episode of Batman: The Animated Series where a bunch of kids are telling stories they’ve heard about the Batman, each story representing a different incarnation of Batman from the movies, TV, or comics, and each story presented in that incarnation’s style. One of the kids is a flamboyant boy who gets cut off by the other kids with a line something like “Nobody wants to hear your version, Joel.” At the time I saw it, I thought it was a clever, self-aware dig at the campiness of Schumacher’s movies. Now, though, I think it was just unfairly mean-spirited.

Back to The Lost Boys: it seems odd to say that it’s “its own thing,” since it’s so derivative of other 80s movies, and so much of it is formulaic. But it’s just weird in ways I didn’t expect. It bounces between genres, with each actor seeming to have a different idea of whether they’re in a horror movie, a romance, a family comedy, a teen coming-of-age story, or an action/adventure. The comedy bits aren’t particularly funny (the only genuinely funny line in the whole movie is the last one), the scary bits aren’t scary, and the sexy bits are hilariously un-sexy, but I respect what a swing it was to try to mash them all together. There’s nothing grounding it, but there’s also no sense that it needs to be grounded. It’s silly, but it doesn’t come across so much as camp as it does a confidence that movies are allowed to be stylized and silly. They don’t always need to be taken seriously.

So the one thing I like about The Lost Boys is that it gave me a new respect for Joel Schumacher. I still don’t really like what I’ve seen of his movies, but I respect that he was working within a formula but still managed to make movies that feel like movies he wanted to make.

One Thing I Like About Encanto

Encanto managed to tell a straightforward story without feeling too simplistic

First of all, I’m proud of my joke, which goes like this: Will I still enjoy Encanto if I haven’t seen 1 to (n-1) Canto?

Anyway, one thing I like about Encanto is that I got to watch it on Disney+. I was wrecked by the end of this movie, and I’m kind of tired of having emotional breakdowns in public movie theaters. Magic of cinema, sure, I’m all for it I guess, but I’m 100% behind home streaming for first-run movies1As long as the studio takes that into account when negotiating contracts with their actors who’ve been a prominent part of several of their films for almost a decade, instead of, say, being a multi-billion dollar company hypocritically trying to shame actors for being greedy during a pandemic..

But that’s not the main thing I liked about the movie. There are actually two more things about Encanto that I liked a lot, and I was having kind of a hard time choosing which one was the most worth writing about. Then I realized that they’re both aspects of the same thing: the storytelling is straightforward, direct, and earnest, but without feeling simplistic, maudlin, or juvenile.

One example of that is the song “Surface Pressure.” I came into the movie after missing the first 30 minutes or so (I since went back and watched it), right as that song came on. I knew the basic premise of the story, and I already knew a surprising amount about the characters just from being on The Internet. I’d seen videos of people doing covers, and I was aware that the song “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” had become a meme, and I’ve seen lots and lots of musicals Disney and otherwise, so I thought I knew what the structure of the movie was. A song as confessional as “Surface Pressure” must come late in act 2 or so, after we’ve gotten to know the characters but then — twist! — we go deeper and learn more about the characters’ mental state.

So I was pleasantly surprised to see that this was more or less Luisa’s introduction. Or at least the most dialogue she’s had in the movie up to that point, by far. She goes from being “I’m the sister who’s strong” to having an entire song explaining exactly what stresses she’s under. The question “what’s bothering Luisa?” only lingers for about 5 minutes, tops.

The reason that pleasantly surprised me is because movies so often treat that kind of directness, even in musicals, as being too on-the-nose or too simplistic. You can’t just have characters who are self-aware; that’s basic! You’ve got to let the mystery and intrigue stretch out, so the audience can see the character’s arcs playing out as they happen. But here, Mirabel talks to characters, and they immediately tell her exactly what’s on their minds, what their crises are, what they’re dealing with.

It’s almost as if Mirabel’s magical gift is being able to listen and understand what other people are going through.

The other example is that the movie has no villain. Family animated movies have evolved past fairy tale storytelling — and even when they do tell fairy tales, they can focus on aspects of the story that make them feel contemporary — but they still often feel juvenile because of their need to make every conflict about good guys vs bad guys. I still say that the one thing that keeps Up from being a flawless movie is that it spends so much time building its characters and organic, interesting conflicts, then just turns it into a movie about defeating the villain.

Encanto does have an antagonist, but they’re not motivated by greed or evil; they’re motivated by love. The reason the characters can be so direct about their internal struggles is because the movie isn’t about finding out what’s wrong. Everybody knows what’s wrong, and they just don’t know what to do about it. The conflict is driven by the completely understandable belief that it’s the family’s duty to be stewards protecting the miracle, forgetting that the entire reason the miracle exists is to protect the family.

Even though Encanto is full of characters saying explicitly exactly what they’re thinking, that doesn’t mean that there are no layers to it. It has three metaphors that are carried throughout: the casita itself, the candle representing the family’s magic, and the butterfly. I really like that the first two are made explicit as soon as they’re introduced — another case of being direct and skipping any unnecessary obfuscation — while the butterfly quietly lives on Mirabel’s shoulder until the climactic song about finding protection in each other and then needing to break out of that cocoon.

Tangentially related: I keep going back to all of the internet memes about “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” and videos covering “Surface Pressure,” and realizing how I’m at least a couple of decades too old to be able to navigate modern social media. I can’t imagine being able to set up a camera and earnestly sing into it and then release it to the public without cringing. I can’t watch the short videos without being suspicious of exactly how many of them are “genuine” and how many are just part of a viral marketing campaign. Don’t people worry that they’ll look gullible or foolish for being taken in by Disney marketing?

But then, worrying about being taken in by marketing is an extremely Gen-X anxiety to have. I find it reassuring that there are people who don’t particularly care whether something they enjoy is coming from a “paid influencer” or not; all that matters is that they’re enjoying it. And there’s nothing to be lost by being fearlessly earnest and direct. The people who would turn up their nose at it were never going to like it in the first place, and as for the people willing to engage, telling or showing them exactly what’s on your mind and what you love is the best way to engage with them.

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    As long as the studio takes that into account when negotiating contracts with their actors who’ve been a prominent part of several of their films for almost a decade, instead of, say, being a multi-billion dollar company hypocritically trying to shame actors for being greedy during a pandemic.

One Thing I Like About Murderville

The new Netflix series is a semi-improv comedy that avoids almost everything I hate about improv comedy

I’m really enjoying the new Netflix series Murderville, which is surprising, because I don’t like improv comedy.

Actually, that undersells it: I hate improv comedy. It makes me profoundly uncomfortable. It combines social awkwardness with people desperately trying to be funny, creating a Saw-like nightmare scenario that I’d usually do just about anything to escape. And the fact that the people who like it seem to really like it just makes it worse. My discomfort over improv made me dislike The Adventurer’s Club at Disney World, which on paper seems like it should’ve been the coolest thing that ever was.

The premise of Murderville is that Will Arnett plays a hapless detective who gets paired with a new rookie detective each week. Everyone has a script except for the rookie, who’s played by a different celebrity guest star, and who has to improv their way through all the scenes and put the clues together to guess the killer at the end of the episode. None of the mysteries so far have been at all challenging, but the prospect of someone having to keep a scene going while simultaneously paying attention to clues is where the comedy lies. Especially when the scenes are constructed specifically to mess with the guest star — forcing them to eat hot sauce, do the Harpo Marx mirror routine, go undercover with an embarrassing name, or explain death and murder to a little girl.

It’s a combination of absurd comedy (I keep being reminded of Childrens Hospital, partly because of the tone but mostly because it’s the same production company, and many of that series’s actors keep showing up in Murderville), prank show, game show, and improv. It’s such a brilliant concept that I was disappointed to learn that it was based on a British series with the same premise.

Disappointed because I was imagining yet another case of a genius British TV series being clumsily adapted for US audiences in a way that robs it of everything that makes it special. Luckily I found this hilariously snobby review in The Guardian, which trashes Murderville for doing exactly that. The writer describes the Netflix version as “torturous cringe”1And few things make me cringe more than seeing an adult writer use “cringe” in that way., then goes on to list the aspects of the original that were changed for the US version.

And in every single case, it sounds to me like the change was infinitely for the better. For one thing, Murderville casts celebrities who are used to doing comedy (and Marshawn Lynch, who’s awesome in his episode because he seems game for anything) instead of B-list reality TV stars and pop singers — apparently, the charm of the original was in being able to mock “self-ironising” media personalities for being awkward and uncomfortable?2I have to say that the line “Perhaps, the US doesn’t quite have the same depth and diversity as celebrity Britain, so it can’t cast the sort of self-ironising, famous-yet-normal types who made Murder in Successville such a pleasure.” is just chef’s kiss in its pure insufferableness. The writer notes that both versions have sequences where the guest has to wear an earpiece and do everything that Will Arnett’s character tells them to do, but the US version fails because it’s done in front of other actors, instead of forcing the guest to embarrass themselves in front of people who aren’t in on the joke.

Most telling, though, is how the writer faults the US version for breaking the inviolable rules of improv. Guests look at the camera, Arnett tries to steer scenes back on track, and everyone breaks character and starts laughing “far too often.” Which I mention because that’s the One Thing I Like most about Murderville: it embraces the moments when the actors crack up.

I have to say I didn’t really notice exactly how well it worked until my favorite moment in the first episode, in which Conan O’Brien is having to improvise a story to a group of women in order to “maintain his cover.” The whole scene is set up so that the actor he’s playing against is feeding him lines to force him to slip up, and he’s clearly in his element, doing basically the same stuff that he did in the unscripted segments on his show, reminding the audience that he was a comedy writer long before he had a talk show. He delivers the punchline to his story, and it cuts back to the actor cracking up before immediately turning her head to hide her laughter from the camera.

That cut is what makes it stand out — if the point were to make a funny scene, they could’ve ended on the punchline and edited around the laugh, but they deliberately chose to include it. The point wasn’t just to construct a comedy scene; the point was to show the joke land. The series seems eager not to show people being embarrassed, but to show people having fun.

It goes both ways, too: earlier in that episode, Conan and Will Arnett are interrogating a magician played by David Wain. Wain keeps doing magic tricks, and Arnett keeps losing his shit over every one, which has Conan cracking up. I wouldn’t expect everyone to know who David Wain is, but if you do, it changes the whole feel of that scene: it’s not the prank show implied by the premise, but three comedians trying to make each other laugh. There’s a similar moment in the episode we watched tonight, where Kumail Nanjiani tries to goad Arnett into doing a racist impression of a Pakistani person, and Arnett seemingly side-steps it at the last minute.

Again, the setup makes it seem like the goal is to put Arnett in an awkward position to embarrass himself, but that’s not really the case. It’s actually just giving Arnett an opportunity to be spontaneously funny, to let audiences see that spark of creativity that’s impossible to get with heavily-rehearsed material. If nothing else, having such a heavily-edited format allows the producers to emphasize the moments they want to: either go the Reality TV route and assemble the show for maximum drama and embarrassment, or take the Murderville route and show everyone getting the gag and having fun with each other.

I get improv comedy well enough to know that that spontaneity is the whole appeal, and that trying to force spontaneous moments into happening is almost always a mistake — no appearance of Debbie Downer on SNL was ever as good as the first one, where Rachel Dratch was looking at her castmates in desperation, trying to keep things on track while simultaneously knowing that the sketch was turning out to be so much funnier than anything that could be scripted. SNL is always hoping for moments like those — with Bill Hader as Stefon having to read jokes he hadn’t seen before the live airing; or Kate McKinnon looking for signs that someone else on stage is about to crack up, and then doing everything she can to get them to break character — but the show is stuck just hoping those moments happen, because it’s not something you can force. SNL kind of has to pretend that the point of the show is to go smoothly, even though some of its most memorable moments have been the ones where something goes wrong.

So I really like that Murderville splits the difference between scripted comedy and improv, allowing for spontaneous moments while still having a script and editing to keep things from going too far off the rails or falling flat. I really like that everyone’s in on the joke, even if not everyone’s in on the script — the only people who are being put on the spot are people who chose to be. It seems like the entire show is built around seeing actors having fun, and hoping that rubs off on the audience. I’m sure that to some people, having everyone in on the joke would make it seem like Murderville is too safe or doesn’t have that edge that awkwardness and discomfort and embarrassment bring to comedy, but I hope those people will grow out of it eventually.

And in case it sounds like I’m being anti-British, I’m definitely not. I’m just ragging on that one writer for The Guardian. In fact, there’s a great example of what I’m talking about in one of my favorite moments from Taskmaster: I won’t completely spoil it, but early in the episode, the contestants are given a task to do on cue, but the cue isn’t given to them until much later, at the worst possible time. Greg Davies says that it seems like one of the moments in the series that made James Acaster genuinely angry. Acaster says, “Well at the time I was pretty furious, but I was also thinking: ‘Ah, this’ll be good.'”

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    And few things make me cringe more than seeing an adult writer use “cringe” in that way.
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    I have to say that the line “Perhaps, the US doesn’t quite have the same depth and diversity as celebrity Britain, so it can’t cast the sort of self-ironising, famous-yet-normal types who made Murder in Successville such a pleasure.” is just chef’s kiss in its pure insufferableness.

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.

Continue reading “One Thing I Like About Eternals”
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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.