V
I think most people have read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, right? It usually gets assigned in high schools, and as a result, most of the familiar tropes of Orwell’s nightmarish vision of a totalitarian state are ingrained in our culture: telescreens broadcasting propaganda, a police state violently crushing all dissent, and of course, the corruption of language to control the population’s thoughts.

Orwell didn’t invent these ideas, of course; he merely extrapolated the methods he observed being used by dictators like Hitler and Stalin into the future, resulting in one of the seminal works of 20th-century literature.

V for Vendetta reimagines what Nineteen Eighty-Four would have been like if Batman had been there.

Is that a bit flip? Maybe you think so now, but let’s look at how this film begins: we have pretty young damsel Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman) walking home after curfew in a crumbling, futuristic London when she is attacked by government security agents known as “Fingermen,” who, upon finding a damsel, immediately propose to put her in distress. Already this movie is off on the wrong foot with me.

But then, the hero of the piece enters the scene: V (Hugo Weaving), a mysterious terrorist or freedom fighter wearing a Guy Fawkes mask, who rescues Evey from her attackers and then proceeds to give the following melodramatic speech:

Voilà! In view, a humble vaudevillian veteran, cast vicariously as both victim and villain by the vicissitudes of Fate. This visage, no mere veneer of vanity, is a vestige of the vox populi, now vacant, vanished. However, this valorous visitation of a by-gone vexation, stands vivified and has vowed to vanquish these venal and virulent vermin vanguarding vice and vouchsafing the violently vicious and voracious violation of volition.

He goes on like that for a while longer, and then takes Evey to the rooftops of London to watch as Old Bailey is demolished while the 1812 Overture plays over the public address speakers.

Okay, I can accept this character is a terrorist with a flair for drama. I can even accept, although it’s logically impossible, that he managed to miraculously time his rescue of Evey so that they could be on the roof at the stroke of midnight on November 5th.

But why the 1812 Overture? Why is a piece of music written by a Russian to commemorate the Tsar’s defeat of Emperor Napoleon I’s Grande Armée being used by a man who is supposedly fighting to liberate England? Why not use something from the English Civil War? For that matter, wouldn’t he see Napoleon’s defeat as a bad thing? A victory of the Tsarist aristocracy over a People’s Army?  V is really much more like Napoleon then he is like Guy Fawkes, but that’s for later.

I know the reason the filmmakers used the 1812 Overture, of course: it’s because it’s a great piece of music, and it works well dramatically. But it feels contrived–an empty spectacle, lacking earned emotional weight. In truly great cinema, the filmmaker’s hand is invisible; the spectacle must arrive organically.

Anyway, later that day (?) Evey goes back to her job at the TV station. It’s not exactly clear to me what she does–apparently she’s some kind of assistant for a variety program hosted by Gordon Deitrich (Stephen Fry). She takes delivery of a bunch of boxes which prove to contain more Guy Fawkes masks, and soon after, V launches an attack on the television studio.

Meanwhile, police detective Finch (Stephen Rea) is working to figure out who attacked the Old Bailey, and from security camera footage, realizes Evey may know how to find V. He races to the television studio, but in the confusion of V’s attack, fails to capture him or Evey.

V takes over the airwaves and broadcasts a message to the people, condemning the government of High Chancellor Sutler (John Hurt):

[W]hile the truncheon may be used in lieu of conversation, words will always retain their power. Words offer the means to meaning, and for those who will listen, the enunciation of truth. And the truth is, there is something terribly wrong with this country, isn’t there? Cruelty and injustice, intolerance and oppression. 

And how did this come about? V addresses that as well:

I know why you did it. I know you were afraid. Who wouldn’t be? War, terror, disease. There were a myriad of problems which conspired to corrupt your reason and rob you of your common sense. Fear got the best of you, and in your panic you turned to the now high chancellor, Adam Sutler. He promised you order, he promised you peace, and all he demanded in return was your silent, obedient consent.

Finally, he tells the bewildered citizens his demands:

I ask you to stand beside me one year from tonight, outside the gates of Parliament, and together we shall give them a fifth of November that shall never, ever be forgot.

And with that, V departs, leaving a bunch of captives clad in Guy Fawkes masks. A policeman attempts to stop him on his way out, but Evey distracts him. The policeman punches her, but V knocks him out and takes the unconscious Evey to his secret underground lair.

Yes, his secret underground lair, full of priceless art, luxurious furnishings, and various other trinkets which V has acquired over the years. And here we must ask: exactly how scared can you be of a government that, for all its Orwellian bluster, can’t find a flamboyantly-dressed terrorist who resides in a maze of tunnels underneath their own capital city? I mean really, this would just not happen on Big Brother’s watch.

V explains that he needs Evey to stay with him for the entire year, until next November 5th. If she leaves, she could be captured and tortured to give the government information on his whereabouts. Evey gets mad at V, and then immediately forgives him. Evey does stuff like that–her psychology is based purely on the dramatic needs of the scene she happens to be in.

V then enlists Evey’s help in a campaign of murderous revenge against various people in the government–the host of a propaganda talk-show is first on his hit-list, followed by a sick, perverted priest. Evey continues her policy of doing random things and tries to get the priest to help her, but he doesn’t, because he really is a vile, twisted monster. V kills him, but Evey runs away and back to Deitrich’s house. Deitrich welcomes her and confesses that he, too, is a subversive whose activities the government would not look kindly upon–he owns a Quran and a collection of homoerotic photos.

While all this has been going on, Finch has been pursuing his own, much better, storyline. He has been uncovering connections among V’s victims, and traced them all to an experimental facility called Larkhill, where government prisoners were subjected to cruel and ultimately lethal experiments with biological weapons. This is further confirmed when V kills a doctor who experimented on him at the facility.

Meanwhile, Deitrich, for some insane reason, does a sketch on his television show mocking Chancellor Sutler, which prompts the police to raid his house. Evey escapes momentarily, but is knocked unconscious and dragged to a prison where she is tortured and her head shaved.

While imprisoned, she finds a note hidden in a small hole in the wall. It’s from a young woman named Valerie, previously imprisoned for being a lesbian. She recounts the rise of Sutler’s fascistic party and their murder of her partner. Evey takes courage from reading Valerie’s words, and refuses to submit to her captors, even when they threaten to kill her and offer her freedom in exchange for information about V.

At last, Evey is released from her cell to find that she’s actually back in V’s subterranean bat-cave! Yes, all along, it was V torturing her, as a test of her loyalty, as well as, he claims, a way to free her from fear. By losing her fear of death, Evey is now liberated! Or something.

This is stupid. First, it makes V seem less like a freedom fighter and more like just another gangster, almost as bad as the people he’s fighting. And second, it once again forces us to consider the question of “How the Hell has the Government Not Noticed V’s Fake Prison Adjacent to His Underground Art Museum?”

Meanwhile, Finch has pretty much pieced together the mystery of Larkhill. The biological weapon being tested there was a deadly virus, which then-Secretary of Defense Adam Sutler deployed against his own population in order to induce panic. Blaming the attack on terrorists, Sutler then used the promise of restoring order to lead his party to an overwhelming majority. Meanwhile, the upper-management of the Larkhill program enriched themselves by controlling the distribution of the vaccine.

Finch’s faith in the government is shaken by this. (Why he ever had any faith in this blatantly corrupt horror show is less clear.) Meanwhile, V is busy setting up dominoes on the floor of his secret lair to fall into an intricate mosaic of his “V” logo. Seriously, there’s a scene like that. It’s a metaphor, I guess.

V then distributes Guy Fawkes masks all across London, inspiring the increasingly discontented populace to rise up. Sutler responds with a heightened police and military presence to fight the angry mobs.

Once again, we reach November 5th, and Evey finds V and learns his ultimate plan, which is to send a trainload of explosives rolling into Parliament.

Yes, a train. Somehow there is an un-patrolled train tunnel leading into Parliament that the supposedly intrusive police state knows nothing about. These people aren’t totalitarians, if only because “totalitarian” is derived from “total,” and their control over the public is clearly not total. This state’s power ends at the ground, and anything that goes on below that is the Wild West.

V tells Evey that it’s up to her to pull the lever that will send the bomb-filled train on its way. He says that both he and the regime he is destroying are part of an old world, and the people who outlive both will make a new world. “They deserve to make that choice,” he says. I actually liked this bit. It’s a nice illustration of the philosophical concept of thesis -> antithesis -> synthesis.

V heads off to confront Chancellor Sutler, who has been betrayed by the head of his secret police. V then kills them all by bringing knives to a gunfight. (Only in Hollywood, folks.) However, in a small sop to plausibility, he sustains mortal injuries in the process.

He stumbles back to the train station and dies in Evey’s arms, telling her that he had been living for revenge every day until he met her, at which point he fell in love. It’s not really clear why–there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about her. On the other hand, since V has presumably been living alone in the catacombs all this time, you can see he would have been susceptible.

Evey loads V’s body onto the train and sends it on its way. Meanwhile, a huge mob of citizens wearing Guy Fawkes masks storm the military barricades surrounding parliament. The soldiers, with their government decapitated, stand down, allowing the crowd to surround the building and watch as it is blown to pieces, again accompanied by the 1812 Overture. Finch finally catches up with Evey, and as they watch the building explode, he asks her who V was. She replies, “He was all of us.”

One big problem I have with this film is that despite the omnipresent Guy Fawkes imagery, it seems only dimly aware of who Guy Fawkes actually was. V is fighting a religious extremist government; Fawkes was a religious extremist. And he was kind of a screw-up, judging by what a catastrophe the Gunpowder Plot turned out to be for him.

The film tries to draw on a lot of historical material to give it weight, but it doesn’t understand the historical context of its own references. The 1812 Overture was one example; another is V’s repeated references to The Count of Monte Cristo. V spends the lonely hours in his base of operations watching the 1934 film adaptation of the novel by Alexandre Dumas. V identifies with the protagonist’s quest for revenge.

Here’s an interesting factoid about The Count of Monte Cristo: the protagonist is sympathetic to Napoleon, as was Dumas himself. Quite frankly, if you want an example of someone who successfully led a movement to destroy a failing government and replace it with one that was at least semi-functional, Napoleon is a much better example to follow than Fawkes.

I know my loyal readers are wise to me, and will say I only think that because I’m an unreconstructed Bonapartist. Well, it’s a fair cop. But there are other historical figures who fit much more closely to the mold of what V is trying to accomplish. Oliver Cromwell was a religious zealot and a murderous thug, but at least his revolution succeeded for a while. Another possible model would be Alexander Kerensky, who arguably did what V does at the end of the film, giving the people a choice in their future. (In Kerensky’s case, the people did not choose wisely.)

I don’t think the filmmakers ever quite made up their minds about the age-old question asked of every fictional character: what’s their motivation? V’s motives are murky: he talks a lot about symbols and ideas, and how his masks and theatrical terrorist acts symbolize some idea or other. But when we find out he’s seeking vengeance against specific people in retribution for things they did to him, he seems less like an idealist and more like somebody who’s been wronged and is looking to get back at the people who wronged him.

There’s nothing wrong with either story. Stories about idealistic freedom fighters can be good. Stories about people seeking revenge for some wrongdoing can also be good. But by trying to be both, the end result is that V seems almost as hypocritical as the government he’s trying to destroy. That idea itself could be quite interesting. “He who fights with monsters…” etc. But the film doesn’t explore that either. It suggests we’re supposed to view V as unambiguously heroic, as Evey, the on-screen proxy for the audience, does–despite the fact that she is almost certainly suffering from Stockholm syndrome.

It took me years to finally watch this movie all the way through. I’d start it, get fairly deep into it, and then get so irritated I’d have to stop. Part of it may have been the dialogue, which takes a lot of words to say a little. People frequently say things like, “Can I ask you something?” to which the other character replies, “Yes,” and then they go on. Fat like that ought to be cut from a script.

But despite this, I wouldn’t say I hate this movie. It’s not what I consider a good film, but it is interesting. It has a cult following, and it’s easy to see why: it’s weird and offbeat and a bit subversive. There is a wealth of promising material here, but it’s not utilized as well as it could have been.

And yes, I know it’s based on a graphic novel, and no, I have not read it.

KOThis is a modern take on a classic mystery setup: an older gentleman (Christopher Plummer) is murdered in his country estate, and there are plenty of suspects, each with possible motives for committing the crime. Into this atmosphere comes detective Benoit Blanc, (Daniel Craig) a master detective who has been hired to solve the crime. In addition to this mystery, he also is faced with a related question: who hired him in the first place? To aid him in solving the crime, he enlists the help of Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), the deceased gentleman’s nurse, who has an uncontrollable physical reaction to lying.

There are a lot of things I could say about this movie—about the eclectic cast of suspects, each one of which is unique and interesting, or the absolutely brilliant dialogue, or the intricately woven, well-paced plot and satisfying resolution. And then there’s Craig’s incredible performance as Blanc, which would be a showstopper by itself. The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous, and, I’m pleased to report, makes full use of the color palette, as opposed to that washed-out greyish-blue that’s so prevalent in modern movies. 

Honestly, I could go on at length about so many things in Knives Out, but it would feel like taking a beautifully assembled jigsaw puzzle apart piece-by-piece to do so. The beauty of it is in the full effect of the finished product, and audiences deserve to see it all fall into place in the film’s own time. This movie is so fresh, so energetic, and so much fun to watch that it doesn’t need a critic’s eye to analyze or interpret. It’s just a good old-fashioned detective yarn that’s a pleasure to watch. 

One thing I will say is that this is how you do an homage to a particular style or genre of story. If you like the classic murder mystery tales, you don’t need to “reboot” or “modernize” Poirot or Holmes; you just need to tell a good story of your own that follows the same principles Christie or Doyle used. That’s what Knives Out is, and it’s wonderful. One of the best movies I’ve seen in years.

WTF posterAh, interminable wars waged by hegemonic powers in the Middle East! They’ve been the cause of unfathomable amounts of human suffering for centuries, but on the other hand, we’ve gotten some really good movies out of them. Lawrence of Arabia, The Beast of War, The English Patient… maybe it is home to the graveyard of empires, but it sure is good for showbiz.

All right, maybe I’m being a bit cynical and snarky here, and that’s something I try to avoid doing, but Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is a war comedy-drama, so there’s inevitably a gallows humor quality to it.

The film follows journalist Kim Baker, (Tina Fey) who quits her desk job writing news scripts to cover the United States’ invasion of Afghanistan.  She’s embedded with the Marines, and, after initially being perceived as a bumbling civilian, gradually wins the respect of the unit and its commander, as well as veteran reporter, Tanya Vanderpoel. (Margot Robbie.)

Slowly, Baker gains the trust of important officials in the Afghan government, and, with the help of her guide and translator Fahim, (Christopher Abbott) gains a better understanding of their culture. She also starts a romantic relationship with journalist Iain MacKelpie (Martin Freeman) after breaking up with her stateside boyfriend. 

Ultimately, Baker is forced to use all her wits, contacts, and knowledge of Afghan politics in order to save not only her career, but her lover’s life. And she is forced to come face-to-face with the horrors of war, as she interviews a young soldier badly-wounded after an IED attack.

WTF1
This poster looks more like the kind of film I expected.

I went into this film with low expectations. I like Tina Fey and Margot Robbie, but wasn’t expecting it to be anything more than “Liz Lemon goes to Afghanistan.” And that’s what it seems like at first.

But over the second half, nuances emerge. The characters show unexpected depth and nuance. As I said, I’ve always liked Fey’s comedy, but I gained new respect for her skill as a dramatic actress. As the CineMuseFilms review put it, “she nailed her part” by not playing it solely for laughs. Billy Bob Thornton is great as the commanding Marine officer, and Christopher Abbott’s performance is absolutely fantastic. His character’s friendship with Baker is one of the highlights of the film—frankly, I found it to be the real emotional core of the story, much more so than the romance thread. 

There’s one dialogue between Fahim and Baker in which he warns her that she’s becoming addicted to the adrenaline rush of mortal danger. It’s a moment of real tension in their friendship, and a dramatic turning point in the film.

I mention it because addiction to the thrill of war was also the theme of the film The Hurt Locker, which is about a bomb disposal squad in Iraq. That film won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2010. Personally, I found Whiskey Tango Foxtrot to be a vastly superior war film compared to The Hurt Locker, and this more economical portrayal of the same basic theme is only one of many reasons why.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot has humor, but never at the expense of characterization. It shows both the horror and the heroism that every war entails. It ended up being a far more thought-provoking film than I was expecting. I’m now curious to read the book on which it was based, The Taliban Shuffle by Kim Barker.

Tank_girl_poster
Sometimes the most fun movies are the ones you stumble across purely by chance. I happened to be flipping through the channels the other night, and this came on. 

It starts with an animated sequence narrated by a woman named Rebecca (Lori Petty) and the post-apocalyptic world she lives in. She tells us about “the Rippers,” a race of underground monsters that menace the struggling population, which has been largely deprived of water ever since a comet struck the earth. The majority of the water is controlled by a corporation called Water & Power, and run by a sadistic psychopath named Kesslee. (Malcolm McDowell)

The film switches to a live action sequence in which Water & Power thugs attack Rebecca’s home, killing her lover and kidnapping a young girl named Sam. The goons also capture Rebecca and torture her in the Water & Power prisons.

Rebecca befriends a fellow prisoner, a jet pilot/mechanic called simply “Jet Girl,” (Naomi Watts) who is repeatedly harassed by Kesslee’s second-in-command. Rebecca and Jet Girl escape after a Ripper attack on Water & Power; Jet Girl in a jet and Rebecca in—of course—a stolen tank, which she soon decorates according to her own punk-y tastes:

Tank and girl

Together, they set out on a quest to find Sam, which takes them first through a surreal brothel, complete with an ensemble performance of a Cole Porter song, and then to the lair of the Rippers themselves. 

The Rippers turn out not to be monsters, but rather a race of genetically engineered human/kangaroo crossbreeds. Created by the army to be the ultimate soldiers, they prove to be a friendly group of eccentrics. Though initially suspicious, they grow to trust Rebecca and Jet Girl, and ultimately they join forces for a final showdown against Kesslee and Water & Power.

I won’t spoil whether the heroes rescue the little girl from the hands of the over-the-top, eminently hate-able bad guy, or whether Jet Girl gets to serve the second-in-command his richly deserved comeuppance, or whether they are able to end the monopoly of Water & Power and the drought. But perhaps readers will guess the answers to all these when I say that what amazed me most about the movie was that—despite being a combination of live-action and surreal cartoon animation, despite the bizarre set design, despite the male love interest being part kangaroo—at its heart, it’s just a good old-fashioned tale of frontier justice.

It’s tough to make something weird and unique that is still compelling. Most well-worn tropes are well-worn because they work very well. Telling a story that is both innovative and yet follows a good, solid three-act plot structure that will satisfy an audience is hard to do, and Tank Girl does it.

I’m amazed I haven’t heard about this movie before now. It’s a funny, entertaining action film—Tank Girl’s one-liners are great, and most of the supporting characters have humorous lines as well. The film never takes itself too seriously, but it has an earnestness underneath all the silliness. Petty’s performance really encapsulates it: she seems cynical, snarky and sarcastic 90% of the time—but when she’s trying to save her young friend, there’s genuine concern in her eyes. 

Interestingly, the film is directed by a woman, it features a woman in the lead role, another in the role of the sidekick, and the main plot concerns the two of them trying to rescue a little girl. Recently, there has been a lot of call for female-directed, female-led action movies, and yet I’ve never heard people mention this one, made all the way back in 1995. The film was neither a critical nor a financial success at the time, but it deserves to be re-evaluated. I think it might be more relevant now than it was in the ‘90s. 

Wait—what’s that, Wikipedia article for Tank Girl? You have pertinent news?

“It was reported in September 2019 that a reboot of the film was in early development.”

AAAARRRRGHHHH!!

Okay, time for one of my rants… 

Look, movie people: you don’t need to reboot things all the time. The point of movies is that… follow me closely here… they record images to be presented again at a later date.

I agree with the sentiment that a Tank Girl movie released in 2020 or beyond could be a hit. What I don’t agree with is the idea that you need to make a whole new one. Just take the existing one, which probably most people have not even heard about, and re-release it in theaters.

Now, I get it: the special effects in Tank Girl are unmistakably those of a mid-‘90s low-budget film. Nobody is going to mistake it for a modern Marvel movie or anything like that. But so what? The aesthetic is unique, and screams “’90s Punk stuff.” Why mess with that? 

And yes, I know there’s a comic book that it’s based on, and presumably a new film would attempt to be more faithful to it, and incorporate more of the undoubtedly rich and nuanced lore of the Tank Girl universe.

But here’s the thing: no adaptation can ever be 100% faithful, so it’s pointless to try. Make an adaptation, see what it looks like, and then move on to the next thing. I’m not saying you shouldn’t try to improve on a concept, but when did the idea of a “spiritual sequel” become extinct? 

Because there’s definitely room for more action comedies about wisecracking women fighting their way across surreal dystopias. Who wouldn’t enjoy that? But that doesn’t mean you should make the same one over again. Make a new one. 

This is why I don’t watch more movies—a week ago I didn’t know Tank Girl existed, and now here I am complaining they might do a reboot of it.

Anyway, the point here is that it’s a surprisingly good film. It does have a lot of swearing and a few sex jokes that might put some people off. (Most of these are through implication and innuendo, rather than anything explicit.) The violence is stylized, in typical action movie form. And the animation sequences can be so rapid I could imagine that they might cause some viewers to become nauseated. The film is rated R, although I kind of suspect that today it would be PG-13. It’s fun, it’s weird, and it has gunfights and tanks and cheesy one-liners. What else do you want from an action movie?

BtK vs DGo ahead, say that title out loud. (Okay, maybe not if you’re in a public place.) “Billy the Kid vs. Dracula.” The words seem intrinsically strange together, and become even more bizarre when you know that William Bonney, the famous outlaw known as “Billy the Kid,” was shot to death by Sheriff Pat Garrett in 1881, 16 years before Bram Stoker published his Gothic novel of vampire horror, Dracula. 

Now it’s true, Stoker’s vampire was based on Vlad III Dracula, who lived in the 1400s and thus—if he had been an immortal vampire, which most reliable historians seem to feel he wasn’t—might have found his way into a showdown with the famous outlaw.

But as the film begins, it quickly becomes clear that these details do not matter after all, because Billy the Kid isn’t really Billy the Kid—the film apparently is set in some sort of alternate history in which Mr. Bonney abandoned his outlaw ways, did not run afoul of Sheriff Garrett, and instead became foreman at a ranch, where he is engaged to marry the young daughter of the ranch owner.

Careful students of the craft of storytelling may here ask the question, “Why did the writer choose to tell a story about Billy the Kid in which Billy the Kid does not act like Billy the Kid, but somebody else altogether different?” Careful students of the craft of storytelling are advised to take a stiff drink before going any further, because it is also worth noting that the vampire is not once referred to as Dracula throughout the entire film. 

So, it’s Billy the Kid vs. Dracula, except Billy the Kid isn’t Billy the Kid, and Dracula isn’t Dracula. All quite clear? Smashing! We proceed.

The film begins with the vampire, (played by John Carradine who portrayed Dracula well in the surprisingly decent film House of Dracula) descending upon a family of German immigrants traveling by wagon in the American west. He bites the young daughter of the group, but is warded off at the sight of a crucifix.

Later, the nameless vampire comes upon a stagecoach, carrying wealthy travelers towards their ranch, where, he learns, their beautiful niece Elizabeth resides. He is much taken with a picture of young Elizabeth shown to him by the travelers. When the coach stops for an evening, the vampire attacks a young Native American woman camped nearby, sparking the rage of the rest of the tribe. They assume it to be the work of the stage coach’s occupants and retaliate by killing them—allowing the vampire to assume the identity of the ranch owner and Elizabeth’s uncle, Mr. Underhill.

Meanwhile, William Bonney and young Elizabeth are playfully shooting tin cans and flirting with each other, much to the annoyance of the previous foreman, who watches jealously from afar. Apparently, being foreman also entails being Elizabeth’s lover, since apparently Billy took both positions from him at the same time.

Realizing that Elizabeth’s uncle Mr. Underhill is due to arrive in town soon, Billy rides off to meet him at the saloon. He arrives just after the vampire, posing as Underhill, has come to the saloon and taken a room. Moments later, the immigrant family arrives, still shaken by the earlier vampire attack, and are horrified when their daughter recognizes “Underhill” as the vampire who attacked her. However, he is somehow able to convince them that he is not a vampire, and, as a gesture of goodwill, allows them to take his room for the evening while he follows Billy to the Underhill ranch.

But of course, this is all a diabolical trick, and the vampire returns that night to finish the job on the poor immigrants’ daughter. Meanwhile, Billy and Elizabeth ponder the idea that there is something odd about her uncle, although what it is they can’t quite put their fingers on…

Dracula

What could it be?

So, after much riding back and forth, Billy getting into a brawl with the ex-foreman, and the old immigrant woman’s attempt to keep the vampire away failing, Elizabeth is carried off into a makeshift lair the vampire has created in an abandoned mine. Billy rides there furiously, ignoring the town doctor’s advice that to defeat the vampire, he must drive a stake through his heart. Instead, in typical outlaw fashion, he tries to gun him down with his revolver. But the bullets have no effect. 

Okay, look: I know it’s absurd to complain about logic in a film called Billy the Kid vs. Dracula. But I can’t help myself. Bullets are just fast-moving, miniature stakes, right? So why shouldn’t they work on the vampire? Now, you might say, “Well, they didn’t hit his heart, so it didn’t work.” I could buy that… except that then Billy throws his gun at the vampire and hits him in the face and knocks him down!

Seriously, what is this? If being hit with bullets didn’t hurt him, why should being hit with a much slower-moving hunk of metal? I know, you all are thinking I’m being Comic Book Guy at this point, but I have a reason for talking about this, and it’s not because I’m one of those people who is going to go off and start a petition demanding that Billy the Kid vs. Dracula  be remade with proper consultation of a period firearms expert and a close-quarters combat specialist.

The reason is because it’s an important lesson for anyone who writes fiction: there are bound to be illogical things in any work of fiction. That’s a given. If there weren’t, it wouldn’t be fiction. But the important thing is that the logic must be internally consistent. We get to make up our own rules for our fictional worlds, but they must never conflict with each other. 

All right now, where was I? Oh, yes! So, Billy then stabs the vampire through the heart with the doctor’s stake, and releases Elizabeth from the spell the creature placed on her. He then carries her out of the mine, in the words of Wikipedia, “presumably to live happily ever after.” I love that use of “presumably.” Like, we think they’re going to live happily ever after, but who knows? It could be they’ll realize that they’re just two very different people who happened to get involved in this weird vampire business, gradually grow apart, and eventually come to the point where they argue over petty things like who should do the dishes before finally realizing that they need to go their separate ways.

So we’re 1,097 words into this review and you’re wondering, “Berthold, why are you even writing about this random lousy 55-year-old movie?” 

The reason is very simple: I’m fascinated by the Weird Western genre. I like westerns for the desolate desert landscapes and their frequent use of themes of loneliness and revenge, and of course, weird supernatural horror was my first love in fiction, and the combination of the two will always interest me. And so while I’ve made a huge amount of fun of the film, it’s nonetheless, in its own odd way, significant as one of the first Weird Western films. 

I mentioned the title at the beginning because I honestly think that a competent storyteller could make something interesting out of that. Make Billy the Kid be honest-to-God Billy the freakin’ Kid, the ruthless outlaw who boldly escaped from a New Mexico Jail, and have him encounter a vampire while on the run from the law, somewhere in the gorgeous New Mexico landscape. A skilled writer could spin all kinds of compelling yarns about death, murder and revenge out of that.

But, instead we got a move that shows a vampire strutting around in daylight! For shame!

That’s okay, though. They say that once you invite the vampire in, your fate is as good as sealed. And since early Weird Westerns invited the vampires west, it’s paved the way for all sorts of interesting stories to follow.

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Image via IMDb

A couple weeks ago, Pat Prescott blogged about this film. It’s his go-to escapism movie. I’d heard of it, but prior to Pat’s post had never known much about it. Then I saw it was directed by the same guy who made the science-fiction adventure Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, which I enjoyed, and Lucy, which was at least decent. Honestly, I was surprised I hadn’t seen this already, because it sounded like exactly the sort of film I’d enjoy.

And I did. I thought it was better than Valerian. It’s almost impossible to summarize–it starts in Egypt in 1914, when aliens land at an archeological dig site and reveal that they have devised a weapon to combat an ancient evil when it arises every 5,000 years. It requires earth, wind, water, fire and a mysterious “fifth element.” They take this fifth element–which looks like an Egyptian sarcophagus– aboard their ship, telling the human priest who guards it to pass the key on to his successors for when the evil is due to rise again in 300 years.

Fast forward 300 years, and the evil has indeed arisen in the form of a giant, growing orb in space, gradually increasing in size and engulfing everything in its way. From there, the film is a wild ride featuring the fifth element herself (Milla Jovovich), who turns out to be a woman named Leeloo who possesses unnatural strength, an ex-soldier-turned-flying-taxi-driver named Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis), who helps her in her fight against evil, an over-the-top DJ (Chris Tucker) who I initially found incredibly annoying, but by the end thought was funny as hell.

There’s also a blue-skinned opera singer, a race of bloodthirsty shapeshifting monsters,  Dallas’ nagging mother, and best of all, the main antagonist, Jean-Baptiste Emmanuel Zorg (Gary Oldman), an evil businessman who seems like a cross between Ming the Merciless and Jerry Jones.

All these characters find themselves battling to find the stones that symbolize the other four elements, beginning with a flying car-chase and culminating in a huge shootout inside a glitzy space resort. And of course, along the way, Leeloo and Korben wind up falling in love.

It’s a good old fashioned, light-hearted sci-fi adventure romp with plenty of humor, excitement, and memorable characters. I loved the futuristic, cyberpunk-ish sets, costumes, and art design. And (because I’m sure you all just have to know) the weapon props were excellent, from the Mauser pistol used in the opening scene to the all-in-one super-gun manufactured by Zorg.

Now it’s true that the computer-generated effects look pretty weak to the modern viewer. But remember, this was 1997, and for the time, they weren’t bad. The gunfight in the resort was especially good. It looked downright gritty.

The Fifth Element (1997)
Does this look kinda silly? Sure; but it’s also unique and stylish. (via IMDb)

Is it a deep, thought-provoking tale, rich with allegory, complex characters, and biting social commentary? No, it isn’t. But so what? Not every film should be that–sometimes you just want a fun little story with likable heroes, bad guys you love to hate, memorable scenes, and plenty of funny lines. The Fifth Element definitely has all that. I’m so glad Pat posted about; otherwise I might never have seen it.

Star_Wars_The_Last_JediYes, it finally happened. I watched it.

As some readers may recall, I was, shall we say, not impressed with the first film in the Disney Star Wars series, The Force Awakens. It was so bad that I had no interest in seeing any of their subsequent efforts.

But then I started to hear things about The Last Jedi. It’s controversial and polarizing. The alt-right is griping that it’s full of preachy progressive politics. There are hundreds of YouTube videos made by angry fans complaining about multiple aspects of the film. At the same time, I also heard elements of the film’s plot compared to the game Knights of the Old Republic II, which I consider the greatest Star Wars story ever, and one of the best works of fiction I’ve ever experienced.

This sounds like fodder for an interesting review, I thought. Could be a lot to talk about here. I enjoy writing reviews, and I am no stranger to unorthodox opinions on Star Wars movies, whether it’s my hatred for Force Awakens or my defense of the prequel movies. I wondered how I would react to this most divisive Star Wars film.

Well, there certainly was no lack of things to talk about. This is going to be one of my signature long, sometimes meandering reviews, so settle in for the long haul and prepare to read my thoughts on The Last Jedi.

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Anton Ego from the movie “Ratatouille”. Image via IMDb

My most viewed posts on this blog, not counting one anomaly, are my reviews of movies, books, video games, etc. So I thought I’d talk about how I write them and, more significantly, what I think an effective review should do.

The easiest way to begin is to categorize reviews by usefulness. I based the idea on Paul Graham’s disagreement hierarchy.  Reviewing something isn’t exactly the same as arguing, but they are related in the sense that both should be about working to improve something, so there is a fair amount of overlap.

[In the following x = any movie, book, game etc. being reviewed.]

Tier 1 – The Most Useless Review

“This x sucks. I hated it. Why would anyone think it was good? What a terrible piece of work.”

This review is useless to everyone except the reviewer. It does not explain what the flaws with the x were, nor does it even give us an idea of what the reviewer looks for in xes.

Note that a really good writer can dress up a useless review very nicely, so much that you might think it’s a useful review. For example:

“x is a piece of unmitigated tripe, the likes of which I am sorry to have ever had the displeasure of enduring. It is a blot on the [whatever x’s genre or medium is] landscape.”

This sounds kind of funny and clever, but it doesn’t say anything helpful.

Tier 2 – A Mostly Useless Review

“I loved this x! It’s the best one ever. Everything about it was terrific.”

This is close to being as useless as a Tier 1 review. In fact, I was originally going to group it as a Tier 1, but then I realized that there are two important differences. First, while a Tier 2 might be useless to everyone else, if I read a Tier 2 review of something I made, it would at least make me happy.

And secondly, if somebody wrote a Tier 2 review about one of my books, it would be more useful to me than a Tier 1, because if I know someone liked something, I can figure out how to produce more things they’ll like by sticking to that formula. Whereas with a Tier 1, I have no idea how to produce something they will like. It’s completely useless feedback.

That said, while a review like this is mildly helpful to the creator themselves, it’s useless to all other consumers. They have no way of determining what was good about the x in question—all they know is this reviewer liked it for some reason.

Tier 3 – The Diagnostic Review

“I liked the parts of the x with these characteristics. I didn’t like the other parts with these characteristics. The second half was stronger than the first. It reminded me of y at times, but lacked its [some element of y]. Fans of z will like it.”

This is getting somewhere. This review tells us some specific elements about the x that they thought were good or bad, and provides a reference point that we can use to start to form an idea of what x is, and what type of audience it would appeal to.

This is an informative, workmanlike review, and if I write a review this good, I feel like I’ve done my job. But there is still one higher form to aspire to:

Tier 4 – The Corrective Review

“The central flaw of x is its [some characteristic], which could have been fixed by the following adjustments.”

Or, if it’s a positive review:

“What makes x work so well is its [some characteristic]. This separates it from [other things in x’s genre or medium] to make it truly effective.”

The best type of review not only diagnoses what is good and/or bad about an x, but states why these elements are there, what could be done to fix them if they are bad, and how to replicate them if they are good.

The best review, in other words, not only tells you the negatives and positives of x, but provides sketch blueprints of how to make more and/or better xes. If it’s a bad x, a good review tells you what went wrong and how to fix it. If it’s a good x, it tells you how to replicate its goodness.

Not surprisingly, Tier 1 reviews are the easiest to write and Tier 4 reviews are the hardest.

Also, it’s important to realize that context matters. Sites like Amazon encourage short reviews, and on average a Tier 1 or 2 will be much shorter than a Tier 4. A Tier 4 is an extended argument, in that you have to make a series of statements that follow one another logically.

Realistically, I think a Tier 3 is the most you can ask for from anyone who isn’t a professional writer or trying to become one.  Tier 4s take too much time. The most useful Amazon reviews I see are all Tier 3s. My eyes glaze over when I see a really long Amazon review, so even if it’s extremely helpful, it probably isn’t worth posting there.

On blogs or sites dedicated specifically to criticism, it’s a different story. On my blog, I feel like I have license to go on as long as I need to make my point.  (You may have realized that already.)

One thing I noticed once I started thinking about this is how many professional reviewers are only capable of writing Tier 1 and 2 reviews, albeit dressed up with five-dollar words and clever turns of phrase. How are they getting away with this? Well, people don’t read professional critics solely to get information, they also read them to be entertained. And nothing is more entertaining than a well-written negative review.¹

This is dangerous. There’s a strong incentive to write negative reviews, because they tend to attract more attention and comment. And if you’re focused on being negative, you’re very likely to lose sight of the thing that makes a Tier 4 review: ways to make the x in question better.

When faced with a choice between being helpful and being entertaining, critics feel a strong pull towards being entertaining. I’m guilty of this myself—writing a scathing but unhelpful review is way more fun and more rewarding (in terms of page views and comments) than writing an extremely useful review.

I’m not saying you can’t be witty and entertaining when you write a review, but that you should be careful not to lose sight of the larger goal. The job of an x critic is to figure out how to make good xes and avoid making bad ones.

Looking back at reviews I’ve written, I’m not sure that I’ve ever achieved a Tier 4. Probably the best one I’ve done so far is this review of Planescape: Torment. I say it’s the best because it’s the only one where I figured out why I liked it so much as I was writing the review. I felt like by writing it I was finally solving a mystery I’d been trying to answer since I first played the game in 2010.

This brings me to a final point about Tier 4 reviews: writing one will probably mean going over the x in question more than once. Maybe I’m just slow on the uptake, but I usually have to read/watch/play something at least twice before I can give a useful review of it. This is another reason Tier 4s are so rare.

Footnote

1.Mark Twain’s brutal review of James Fenimore Cooper’s novels is a good example of this.

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From left: Auda Abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn), T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) and Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) in “Lawrence of Arabia”. Image via IMDb

I’ve referenced this movie many times on this blog–I’ve quoted lines from it, hailed its timeless themes, and in general sung its praises at every turn.  And yet, I’ve never done a proper post about it.  Well, I intend to rectify that now.

Of course, you might think it hardly seems necessary. The movie is practically legendary at this point. It’s been referenced in scores of other movies, its influence can be seen in the work of directors like Kubrick and Coppola, and of course, its subject matter remains relevant to the politics of the Middle East to this day.

And yet, for all that, critics don’t really get Lawrence of Arabia.  They still can’t understand what makes it great. Fortunately, I’m here now, and can tell them.

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I thought Oliver Stone’s JFK would be the weirdest movie I ever saw about the Kennedy assassination, but Jackie has surpassed it.  I went to see it again, thinking I must have been mistaken in my first impression.  The film can’t possibly be as bizarre as I remember, I thought. I must have just misunderstood it.

I didn’t.

I did get a few lines of dialogue slightly wrong in my original review, but as it turned out, the lines were even stranger than I remembered.  In Jackie’s frenzied query about the caliber of the bullet, she not only says she thinks it’s a heavier round “like soldiers use”, but also like those used for deer hunting.

Also, her aide doesn’t say “build a fortress in Boston and disappear.” He says “Disappear. Build a fortress in Boston.” Not appreciably better.

I talked to someone else about this movie, trying to work out what it was all about. She had an interesting interpretation: that the Journalist and the Priest who Jackie talks to aren’t meant as literal characters but as representatives of Journalism and Religion.

This would explain why these characters don’t have names; they are just “the Journalist” and “the Priest”. It also explains why their dialogues with Jackie seem so surreal. The Journalist, in particular, is way too rude to her–I don’t think a journalist would speak like that to any interview subject, especially not the President’s widow. But if he’s representing Journalism in general, Jackie’s perception would be that Journalists are incredibly rude.

Interpreted this way, the dialogues aren’t two characters talking; they are philosophical exercises meant to examine Jackie’s relationship to the institutions of the Press and the Church. And by extension, it makes sense to guess that most of the rest of the movie is her interaction with another institution: the Government.

If you watch the movie this way, you get the sense that Jackie is extremely disenchanted with all three of these.  That’s sort of what I meant when I wrote the movie was subversive–major institutions appear useless or untrustworthy.

All that said, I’m still not convinced that this is the way to interpret the movie.  Besides which, I’ve never been a big fan of allegories, and this one–if indeed that is what it is–is still ham-handed.  A piece of drama must work first as drama, and only then can it have allegorical or symbolic meaning.  The dialogues in Jackie are not smooth dialogues, no matter how much philosophical depth they may have or aspire to have.

But I don’t want to just give a short-attention span dismissal and say, “Oh, the script is rotten. Sad!” Because while it gets almost all the micro-level details of dialogue wrong, there is one very macro-level idea that it gets right, and that is the use of images and symbols (e.g. JFK’s funeral procession) to create legacies, and to shape the perception of history.

A few other observations:

  • The soundtrack didn’t seem as bad this time, although I still thought it came in too loud at inappropriate times when silence would have been better.
  • The scene where the Priest sums up his reflections on Life and Death is very strong, largely because it is the late John Hurt delivering the lines.  Great actor. R.I.P.
  • I said this before, but it’s worth repeating: all the acting was great, which was especially impressive given the problems I’ve mentioned with the dialogue.
  • Have I mentioned I have some issues with the script?

Lastly, I don’t get why people are calling this a “biopic”.  It isn’t one. A biopic should give you a sense of who a person is, and how they evolve over time.  Jackie takes place over a very short time frame, and it deals with a woman’s reaction to a tragic and shocking crime that had few historical parallels. That’s fascinating subject matter, but it’s not a biopic because it really doesn’t give you a larger sense of who Jackie was or what her life was like.

I’m not complaining about that.  I think this was a far more innovative thing to do.  I’m just saying they shouldn’t be calling it a “biopic”.  It’s more of a historical drama, on the order of Julius Caesar.

That’s all for now.  I might write more later.  This movie has limitless potential for discussion.