Tosses her head and flips her hair, she got a whole bunch of nothing there.

I would not make assumptions on the experiences of others based on my own experience, but this last rewatch of Amy Heckerling’s 1995 high school comedy Clueless had me realizing I fell into a trap of misremembering this movie just how scathing and antagonistic it is towards its characters and their lives. And in order to defend myself – as this was my third viewing of the movie – I suggest that this was a fairly easy trap to fall under. For just as much as it is a biting satire with deeper cuts to land than one would expect on first look, Clueless is also a really breezy and easygoing comedy with cinematographer Bill Pope supplying glossy visuals towards the home life and mall life of it bubbly Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone) while making sure to flatten any incident outside of there and an arc that does suggest an earnest core behind its superficial characters and the fact that any movie around the runtime of 90 minutes (Clueless being only 7 minutes over) is obviously the work of very nice people who only want what’s good for you.

But about 10 minutes into that runtime, Cher opens her mouth to give an argument about the Haitian refugee crisis and it is in there that Heckerling’s script begins to show its hand a bit as she goes to compare the struggles of these desperate refugees to her venal lawyer dad (played by an expectedly intimidating Dan Hedaya)’s 50th birthday dinner in Marie Antoinette-like fashion. The large amount of differences between a life-or-death situation for displaced people and a situation for her where the crisis is just that she had to accommodate wealthy guests who just did not RSVP in advance is not something stressed on by either Heckerling (who backdrops Cher’s speech with a patriotic musical score and punctuates it with the applause of her peers in the class, though the bemusement of her debate teacher) or by Silverstone’s comfortable performance in a Valley Girl skin with enough self-awareness to play further into the blindspots of Cher’s position rather than cover them, but Clueless trusts that such a reductive approach to the situation should be recognizable for any given viewer.

And as Clueless continues on to depict the “way normal life of a teenage girl” of Cher’s stature, we learn just how much of it is talking her way out of consequences, imposing on the lives of others, and quiet snobbery and ignorance, all of which portrayed with the same bright view of things as Cher’s internal monologue delivers her short-sighted but energetic observations with. None of Heckerling’s writing for Cher is malicious and there is often the implication that Cher wants to do the right thing, but the undertones of her motivations or methods are dark enough to have that bite towards a character we are still ostensibly meant to find pleasant if mockable company.

Which is just as appropriate given that Clueless is famously an adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel Emma, sticking to the events of the book extremely accurately. It remains fairly to the spirit of Austen’s judgmental look towards the higher-classed people for Heckerling to have this wry attitude towards the contemporary teen culture in which her script and direction transposes the material, which also triangulates Clueless into being a part of several different trends in popular culture: it started the trope of directly adapting (as opposed to be inspired by) contemporary works of literature to modern day settings. It particularly came at the exact peak of the Jane Austen adaptation craze that the BBC ignited in the early 1990s (in fact, a year later Emma would receive a straightforward adaptation this time written and directed by Douglas McGrath). And for my money, I think it’s one of the few Austen adaptations that gets the scoffing nature of Austen as a storyteller rather than the lavish costume dramas that look at the lives of their characters rosily because “old means prestige”. Perhaps that’s a perspective Heckerling was afforded from her choice of time and place to set Clueless.

But probably the most material of these trends since it’s the one Heckerling and company are dissecting and ridiculing is how Clueless arrived right at the beginning of the end for the Beverly Hills valley youth subculture’s place at the center of America’s attention (if you are like me and define the beginning of the end as “when Luke Perry left Beverly Hills 90210). A social trend based in the glorification of the status you were born into and the apparent merit of separating yourself from the have-nots, which is obviously just the perfect state of mind to apply to high school life (and costume designer Mona May particularly has a good time applying gaudy and loud outfits to Cher, Stacey Dash’s character Dionne, Brittany Murphy’s character Tai, and Elisa Donovan’s character Amber while dulling out the colors and stressing the ill-fitting nature of the outfits for guys like Breckin Meyer’s stoner skater dude). And perhaps less obvious but something that couldn’t help sinking into my mind during this rewatch, but Clueless also came fairly early into the time where Generation X and the youth of America was hooked and appealed into political involvement with things like Bill Clinton appearing on MTV, something I can’t help feeling Heckerling has a bit of pessimism about. Certainly Clueless is not a political movie by any measure, but Cher as a character talks about current events like refugees in such a frivolous or simply asks for a charitable cause to be involved in for appearances has quite a bit of connotation coming from the mid-1990s.

So what to do with this central character who is vapid as hell regarding the and the environment around her that facilitates the way in which she takes everything for granted and assumes that she knows best (after all, there is even a moment where Cher’s father praises her for manipulating her teachers into fixing her grades rather than earning them)? How does a movie knowingly give us these characters and still get away with a reputation for being fun and enjoyable?

Well, to start with, Silverstone and the rest of the cast are really amiable company (especially Murphy, who is nonstop adorable even in the brief moment where she gets to act as a heel). Silverstone has a deft handle of Cher’s slang and takes care to modulate the amount of ignorant bliss Cher has to still let it wallop when she has a sober epiphany about the guy she had a crush on being gay or realizing she can’t talk her way into passing her driving test (the reckless driving being one of the more direct areas where Heckerling suggests danger to these kids’ airheadedness while still allowing it to have the sort of wacky tone as any other comedy). The characters themselves treat their interpersonal conflicts as small things that come and go, such as the invisible nature with which Amber will be a source of disdain for Cher or Tai and then turn around and still hang out with them at the Galleria. Outside of Jeremy Sisto’s Elton, the only source of downer energy is from the snarky presence of Paul Rudd’s Josh and that’s the same character who evidently has most of his head on his shoulders with his engaged college life and his confident sense of direction. And he still gets to be effortlessly likable on the basis of being baby Paul Rudd.

But what’s most impressive about Clueless trying to have its cake and eat it too is that because Cher’s harmful influence towards is nowhere near the magnitude of, say, a Ferris Bueller, we do cheer for her to find love and have her friendship with Tai and to get things… kind of figured out without actually really changing as a person. And the manner in which she accomplishes these things gets to keep dark undertones – like the pseudo-incestuous nature of the final pairings or the conversion of an innocent personality unbeknownst them – that can linger in our heads while the movie cheerfully grins and insists that this is a happy ending. Clueless is the type of movie that is having a good time and if you go “wait, what a minute?”, you’re telling it anything it doesn’t know but it asks that you play along and get with the vibe. And by golly, it works.

You Think This Is a Game?

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I didn’t get to review Central Intelligence from 2016 before and that’s a hell of a shame. Because it was, not shitting you, my most-watched movie of 2016 by a lot. And this isn’t some “Oh my god, I can’t escape it” or “man, this movie won’t stop being on tv all the time” (although most of my watches of that movie were impromptu on HBO). No, Central Intelligence was a movie I fucking loved, warts and all. I left it with an unhidden appreciation for Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (who I already was in love with since I was a kid) and Kevin Hart (who I always suspected since Think Like a Man had a knack of comedy as a straight man foil, but never had much area to impress me until Central Intelligence). Central Intelligence was hella casual comfort food for me during a mostly blegh and uncertain year so I might be biased on that front, but it also helped me recognize a dynamic sort of friendly chemistry between the two actors I would not have expected and got me ready to appreciate whatever was next for their careers.

If my unapologetic love for Central Intelligence is the decision that causes anybody who reads this blog to decide I don’t know shit about movies, so be it. I promise I didn’t open with this to weed out my enemies about this film. Instead, I wanted to just establish that if there’s any such audience for Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle – the 2017 sleeper hit sequel to the 1995 original, once again co-starring The Rock and Hart – I’m it. I sat my ass right down on this seat because I was looking forward to another screwball go ’round between those two actors. What a pleasant surprise to me when it turns out that they are outstaged by Jack Black and Karen Gillan in the movie, but to explain that, I may as well outline the plot first from Chris McKenna’s script.

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Like the last film, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle opens with salvaging itself from cries of blasphemy in having the famed decrepit board game be retconned into a video game… it actually transformed into one. After a teenager named Alex (Mason Guccione – and while I don’t think who plays him as an adult is eventful to be a surprise, it certainly surprised me. All I will note is that I love how Alex’s visual admiration for Metallica was a cue for our identification of the character and, lest you forget what is the namesake of this blog to begin with, it got a lot of points by me) in the late 1990s declares board games to be no longer cool and the sentient game thereby turns itself into something to accommodate Alex’s tastes and lure him into a disappearance.

20 years later in 2016, four stereotypical teenagers straight out of a low-effort high school picture all find themselves in detention for cheating in the case of the bookish nerd Spencer (Alex Wolff, man those Naked Brothers are sticking around, aren’t they?) and his former friend and now uncertain jock Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), mouthing off to her gym teacher in outsider Martha’s case (Morgan Turner), or just taking a phone conversation in the middle of her class in superficial popular girl Bethany’s (Madison Iseman). And lo and behold, the very Jumanji game is located in the school basement which their detention takes place and they unwisely turn it on, ending up sucked into the game like Alan Parish in the last film, but this time we actually see the world of the game. And as a new twist, they have been embodied by their avatars. And my interest in the movie is in the reverse order.

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For, you see, The Rock, Hart, Black, and Gillan are those avatars – Spencer has become the brawny explorer Professor Smolder Bravestone (Johnson), Fridge his meek zoologist valet Dr. Franklin “Mouse” Finbar (Hart), Martha has turned into the gorgeous combat-ready Ruby Roudhouse (Gillan), and Bethany into the obese cartographer Professor Shelly Oberon (Black). And in addition to all of the actors having something of a blast in their respective Republic Adventure Serial role, all of them are able to embody some form of their younger counterpart’s personalities so as to be recognizable to us: Johnson’s boyish anxiety at his predicament and wonder at the things he’s capable of doing in Bravestone’s body, Hart’s grasping at confidence even despite the good height advantage Johnson has over him, Gillan’s adolescent surliness (as well as a hilarious montage in which she has to practice the most ridiculous sexy strut to show how ridiculous she feels trying to fit into a gender role), and Black’s, like, everything. Black is ridiculously brilliant at playing femininity frequently and turning that into self-deprecating horror at the middle-aged man Bethany has become and the uninhibited infatuation she has with Bravestone or later the already-taken fifth avatar of Jefferson “Seaplane” McDonagh (Nick Jonas – so we have TWO alumni from young boy bands in the 2000s and yet nobody thought to put him in the same scene as Wolff). Guess who that one is?

Anyway, while those five are indeed the most enjoyable and entertaining of the bunch, the cast of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is still filled with the sort of pop-up appearances that would only amuse me in something this frothy like Rhys Darby, Bobby Cannavale, or William Tokarsky popping in as extremely novel Non-Playable Characters (Darby especially is phenomenal at the rigidity and looped enthusiasm that makes his character feel like a program rather than a person, Tokarsky is just right at home with other exotic or dangerous looking mugs in a bazaar).

Of course, that’s the cast and they’re doing heavy lifting to provide a movie more fun than the rest of it allows. All my apologies to the usually extremely talented director Jake Kasdan, but the adventure movie he’s intent on crafting all around these performances doesn’t feel nearly as propulsive or engaging as one would hope. This is especially going to be the case when your cards are against you in structure (once again, the high school drama framing the video game narrative is kind of unfortunate, though at least it’s not as overstuffed as its predecessor film) and visual effects (which the previous film beats this sequel at and you will remember that I used those special effects AGAINST Johnson’s film). There’s obviously a possible argument that the effects are supposed to be unconvincing and cartoonish and not grounded and that just doesn’t stop these hippos and elephants and bugs from making my eyes water (the bugs though – at the control of Cannavale’s updated hunter villain Van Pelt – get to feel crawly enough to be effective).

So, fuck the adventure. Don’t come for the adventure, it’s episodic and you can feel each story beat thud in how it’s put together and the characters’ development in their personalities is shoehorned in. Come to hang out with four extremely funny personalities bounce off of each other while meeting with the demand of having to play young again and having a joy doing it. And I know I’ll be back the next time any of these four decide to collaborate once again. Maybe the Rock can bring them all back in his inevitable Fast and Furious spin-off.

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I’ve Got a Blank Space, Baby, and I’ll Write Your Name

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It’s really really tough to approach Death Note with an open mind, though I try, and I don’t mean it in the same way everybody else does. Much as I am indeed a fan of the original manga and anime series revolving around the notebook that can kill any person whose name is entered on it, it is simply as a casual one and I was more than open to a new take of the story. But I’ve never really been fond of Adam Wingard’s style of horror (of which Death Note is only cursorily such) and while I’m interested in what he could do without his partner-in-crime Simon Barrett at the pen, teaming him with Jeremy Slater – writer of the disastrous Lazarus Effect – is something I’d imagine to be an even worse scenario than Wingard/Barrett. And the result feels emblematic of the problems I have with both authors.

Slater’s is easier to identify, the guy has such an impatient want to do everything possible at once with a story that he can’t actually recognize his limitations or streamline them into a singular narrative. To be fair, this is one of my biggest problems with the original Death Note source but this adaptation is much more concentrated being in 101 minute form and so it stares at me in the face harder. The movie will glance for two seconds at infamous serial killer “Kira”‘s cult-like following and then forget about it for an hour. Or leap a whole step in developing the relationship between Light Turner (Nat Wolff, a grievous Achilles heel for the part) and Mia (Margaret Qualley) enough that we could buy it as anything more than puppy love that stemmed out of their involvement in the “Kira” murders and vigilante justice partaken by Light’s Death Note. There’s an even bigger leap with the animosity between Light and detective L (Keith Stanfield) as L confronts Light with nothing more than circumstantial evidence despite the movie insisting he’s smarter than that.

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The biggest sign of Slater’s inability to make a decision on what he wants Death Note to be is the fact that it starts off feeling like it’s ready to turn into an irreverent gore-a-thon at the first death, a messy decapitation, and the few following after, but suddenly (and you can pinpoint exactly when the moment is because it fades to black right before) wants to be a seriously cliched mystery thriller of wits between two characters where Light is simply not compelling enough to make it an interesting fight (L on the other hand has moments that seem like a whiplash of logic on paper but Stanfield valiantly makes them work as much as possible – there’s only two scenes where I think he fails).

Making it even less interesting is Wingard’s unfortunate inability to treat the material with anything more than an attitude that “this is a ridiculous premise so we’ll just make it all seem dumb”. His continued insistence on treating his films with a detached sense of irony (as is the case in You’re Next and The Guest) only leaves me as a viewer with a frustrated lack of obligation to give a shit about Light’s struggle to stay ahead of the investigation running after him and Mia, headed by his father (Shea Whigham, the only other good presence in this movie besides Stanfield, this time by embodying his own arc about a father desperately trying to keep his son in his life). I don’t think it’s an accident on his part to focus more on Light/Mia than Light/L and make the former relationship so absolutely unbelievable in its lack of chemistry or sincerity to do anything more than make a punchline of its extremely contrived and conventional third act, but it is a big mistake that invalidates the hour and a half I spent watching. The glibness might have been tolerable early on when full of splashy gore effects for every sudden death, but at its climax, the movie ends up infuriating.

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Let alone how much of the movie feels like Wingard is ashamed of his work, what with the matter of having Ryuk (motion-captured by Jason Liles; voiced by a disappointingly neutral Willem Dafoe), the Shinigami Death God attached to Light’s Death Note, be forced into a corner as much as they can to cover up the effects work and having almost no involvement in the plot proper except to be a red herring. And then there’s still the matter that this is aesthetically one of the least interesting things Wingard ever made. Despite a nostalgic light opening montage and a wonderfully gruesome middle aftermath setpiece, almost everything else in the high school scenes is shot flatly beyond arbitrary Dutch angles. It’s ridiculously boring to look at otherwise and the most only other inspired moments in the film aesthetically are retreads of better scenes in Wingard’s filmography (the climaxes of The Guest and Blair Witch, both I’d daresay the only great moments in his career and both better movies than Death Note). The only time it gets to feel like it has personality is with needle drops that undercut the moment so abruptly it just reminds me of Wingard in the studio, giggling “this is such a dumb story”.

It may be a dumb story, but you made it. You directed it. You made decisions that establish its lead character as a totally idiotic fool and took it in terrible creative directions when there were obviously better paths to take. Being surprised that Death Note is being ripped apart for a movie where it feels like the director didn’t care whether it was good or bad is like being surprised when you drop dead after writing your name in the Death Note.

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There’s No Place Like Homecoming

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There is a beautiful moment in Spider-Man: Homecoming, perhaps my favorite moment in the whole film where the youngest-looking incarnation of Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) yet is trapped under a hell of a lot of rubble after a building collapsed on him in an image nearly reminiscent of the famous cover of Amazing Spider-Man #33 (something I doubt was unconscious on the part of the mothership company Marvel themselves finally getting to co-produce the superhero after all of these years). And there’s obviously no way Spidey won’t make it out of here but for once Holland breaks away from his otherwise joyously bubbly and bright performance as the young kid to start crying for help under the weight and selling the threat of his crushing death, before getting to see his makeshift Spider-Man mask under a puddle of water with his reflection filling out half of the watery darkness, thereby recreating another famous Spider-Man image halving Peter’s face and the Spidey cowl as one. And it’s a very inspiring and self-reflective moment for the character that assures both Parker and the audience and gives him the resolve to get himself out of this situation.

And the movie redundantly ruins this wonderful moment with a hamfisted voiceover reprise of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr. both literally and metaphorically phoning his performance in) saying “if you’re nothing without this suit, then maybe you shouldn’t have it.” Which is not only a shitty misfire of tone in its condescending wording, even if it’s an attempt to re-establish the message, but it’s also emblematic of exactly how I feel about Spider-Man: Homecoming. It’s not exactly a classic in the sense of Raimi’s works, but it’s a movie with its own strengths that could stand on its own if only the Marvel Cinematic Universe would kindly stop butting in every once in a while.

I do have to give Spider-Man: Homecoming (and that title keeps me just shuddering at the unnecessary shade of Marvel Studios towards Sony Pictures) some credit. As would be common sense, producers Kevin Feige and Amy Pascal, director and co-writer Jon Watts, and the dizzying six man revolving door of the writing team knew that it would be completely unnecessary and redundant to re-establish the origin story of one of the most famous superheroes of all time and yet Homecoming feels every bit like an entry tale for our favorite webslinger. And it wouldn’t be able to do that without the greater context of the Avengers and how Spidey is THIS close to earning Stark’s approval and joining them, but I wonder if it would be a bad thing if we didn’t have that?

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It just feels so ultimately divorced from the truly stellar element of Homecoming: the “friendly neighborhood” aspect. Holland is so boyishly charismatic and engaging within the part that just having him interact with anybody – the people on the streets in which he helps out, the A.I. in the suit Tony Stark gifts to him, the overabundance of high school friends that doesn’t fit my idea of “outsider” Peter Parker but certainly gives us a lot of charming high schooler material – is not only wonderfully entertaining, but reverses the scope of the whole MCU and gives a sense of tactility to the community sense of localized superheroes, a concept that doesn’t really come to play anywhere else in the MCU except their Netflix series.

The entire cast is the best salesman on this premise: Holland wrestles eagerly with this sense of anonymous celebrity, Michael Keaton as the villain Victor Toomes has a sense of frustrated blue-collar workaday escalation to his aggression (his one big EVIL moment where he kills a man on-screen is undercut by him mistaking the weapon he used and I don’t think it’s an accident that Keaton sells that surprise very well). Donald Glover, in a two-scene cameo, essentially delivers the tired inconvenience you’d expect New York would have facing alien forces and consistent destruction. The strength of Homecoming is in the smaller human elements, those touches of a living city underneath (even if it’s Atlanta playing New York City in a conspicuous way). It is no accident that the best setpiece in the whole film is a comical one of Spidey finding it very hard to swing webs in a suburban residential area and forced to superpower-Ferris-Bueller his way around, a wonderful moment of character and geography.

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It is unfortunately the ONLY great setpiece, which is a shame because anybody who has seen Holland at work on stage knows he’s certainly the most athletically capable of all of the screen Spider-Men. But Watts and editors Dan Liebental and Debbie Berman just don’t give him his due, never finding a true rhythm to the moment whether it’s a bank robbery, a jet heist, or scaling the Washington monument and never finding dynamic ways to represent the high-flying physicality of Spidey the way Holland’s hollerings do so, nor does it bother to cover up its CGI much beyond the “night time means no lighting to see it”. And that’s really disappointing for a climax as restrained as this film’s.

I can’t say it feels less like a product than Marc Webb’s time with the character, but it also is a lot more fun with it. Sure, the aggressively eager-to-please nature of having every character that isn’t Mac Gargan (Michael Mando) be able to perform a quick gag seems kind of insincere, but it’s nothing less than platonic. Spider-Man may have found himself in a new prison confined to being another stepping stone to the next Avengers movie, but he seems to at least be having fun there and he’s got great company, so there’s no big problem. It could be worse.

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Now THAT’s What I Call a Fiasco

Note: Anybody who can tell me what famous Spidey moment the title of this review comes from wins my eternal respeck.

Other Note: This is re-do of a previous review from when I first saw this movie in 2012 because maaaaaaaaan, it’s not only too long, but a godless mess of a ramble.

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Spider-Man, like any comic book icon, is a versatile malleable figure. He means different things to different people, they have a different idea of what his defining trait may be, and many artists and writers have put in different contexts and styles just to twist his imagery around as much as Batman. Now for some people, their idea of Spider-Man’s defining trait is that he is a unrelentingly quippy sort and that means that Andrew Garfield was (until Tom Holland thankfully disabused them) the best screen Spider-Man. And for sure, Garfield might have been able to foreground the sarcasm of high schooler Peter Parker behind the mask (though claiming Maguire’s Spidey wasn’t humorous and full of levity is an outright lie – he was directed by Sam Raimi, the creator of one of the quippiest heroes cinema has been blessed with), but he’s not my ideal Spider-Man because I have a different concept of the defining trait of Spider-Man.

That trait being he’s not a complete piece of shit*.

To be fair, Garfield did not go full throttle on making Spidey a despicable son of a bitch. That happened in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. But rest assured, when it comes to his first go in the red tights for Marc Webb’s (a director’s title I’m all but certain feels ceremonial) The Amazing Spider-Man, there is nothing to his performance that feels living beyond his sarcasm and his casual ability to look like him and co-star Emma Stone (as the doomed first love Gwen Stacy) have some kind of affection for each other. This is definitely informed by the fact they were, at the time, in a relationship and not any of the giggling dialogue afforded to them by co-writer Steve Kloves (he focused on that side of the script most while co-writers James Vanderbilt and a definitely begrudgingly returning Alvin Sargent worked out other areas). Beyond that, his Spider-Man is a empty mass of high school cool tropes that seem out of the ordinary for the character except in a desperate attempt to mangle some protagonist to a desperate film.

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The Amazing Spider-Man is not as bad as I thought it was on first watch. It’s clear Webb and his studio puppeteers (this movie and its sequels have studio interference fingerprints all over it) was not flailing around, but it’s a soulless product. Time passing by, especially in the face of all the Sony leaks and the eventual entry of the character into the MCU, has only shown that this was Amy Pascal and company trying to hold tightly to the character by implying the promise of a further movie franchise, with the subplot on Peter’s parents (something that always alarmed me as so dismissive of Martin Sheen and Sally Field’s potential in the roles of Uncle Ben and Aunt May), the deliberately illogical overshadow on a hologram of Norman Osborn, the terribly out-of-place mid-credits scene, and so on. It’s like Iron Man 2 in those self-reflexive attempts of foreshadowing, except less confident and without the charisma of Robert Downey Jr. to guide us through it. And that’s what really gets under my goat about what “universe-building” has done to this decade of popcorn cinema: it leaves us with only half a story.

The Amazing Spider-Man feels like the bare minimum of what you need to create a plot (with half of the beats already done to more emotional effect in Raimi’s first film) where the content goes no deeper than “Peter becomes Spider-Man to avenge his Uncle’s death, battles the Giant Lizard that Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) has become, and courts Gwen.” You’d only need one more sentence to throw in “Gwen’s police captain father George (Denis Leary) is a bigger dick than Spidey and wants to arrest him, because something something vigilante.” Nothing about it has the same explosion of personality Webb’s earlier debut (500) Days of Summer got to have and everything is just calculated to get this movie out in time to hold tightly to the Spider-Man property and make it seem like it’s still relevant.

Actually, there is some kind of tone in it but it’s obnoxiously self-serious. It almost feels as parodic as Spider-Man 3 except without the parody. Underlit scenes in alleys and sewers, attempts to make Parker’s isolation a lot gloomier than Raimi, even the costume went like three shades down in darkness. There’s nothing that gives me less confidence than realizing the aesthetic for The Amazing Spider-Man could go hand-in-hand with Trank’s Fantastic Four and not thank my stars Kevin Feige rescued a sinking ship. The only true moment of inspiration comes from when Parker begins his ascent as Spider-Man and we witness his playground treatment of New York in first-person camera. But that’s the only place for fun in The Amazing Spider-Man‘s world and it’s back to making superhero movies feel like an obligation in one of the most disappointing moments in the genre’s history.

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*There are many defenders of Garfield that sit on the thesis “Spider-Man is supposed to be a dick, Maguire was too nerdy”. Same as the Tobey Maguire crying meme, I flat out ignore such an asinine complaint and suspect they never picked up a comic in their life, let alone a Spider-Man one.

25 for 25 – Hard-Boiled Gumshoe

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Full Disclosure: If there is ever going to be a movie that makes me highly jealous, it’s Rian Johnson’s Brick. It’s not just the sort of movie I wish I wrote, it’s the sort of movie I wish I had made.

Which is more true than you think, since I spent a portion of my senior year in high school trying to re-adapt the script which I found online (and with Johnson’s knowledge and blessing) as a sort of therapeutic exercise and a chance to stretch out my filmmaking skills and while that never came to fruition or completion, the creative ideas that I came up with about the script are still so stuck to my mind that I usually picture them first when I think of Brick before I think of anything. Anyway, here we are today with Johnson directing the new Star Wars film and the most-acclaimed Breaking Bad episodes and me just kicking myself for never using that correspondence to try to work as an production assistant or something.

C’est la vie, because no matter what, once I actually watched the movie for the first time after scrapping the whole thing (I think it’d be around 2011 or 2012, half a decade after the film premiered), it ended up being a compelling, enjoyable work of neo-noir high school drama and the worst part of all is that it actually feels kind of effortless in Johnson’s strapped-cash lo-fi yet aesthetically interesting direction. Like TV shows like Veronica Mars are eager to showcase their detective yarns and while I haven’t watched Riverdale, I can’t possibly imagine that sort of movie not trying hard.

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Johnson’s film is relaxed and unassuming in a way neither of those two works could be, despite being no less heightened (maybe even more heightened) in its noir trappings than certainly Veronica Mars at least is. The very dialogue of the movie is not the sort of talk a high schooler goes through, all sharp and angry snaps with old-school hard-boiled crime novel slang, the kind that would make language feel dangerous back in prohibition era but now just feel dated in a very classical way. Which is very easy to do when your movie is essentially Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon.

This is not a secret Johnson hides or is even ashamed of. In interviews, he’d openly state The Coen brothers’ own pseudo-adaptation of Hammett’s works Miller’s Crossing as the biggest influence on Brick, Hammett’s book is the blueprint, no question. The character relationships, the dialogue, the plot structure, entire scenes are verbatim taken from the book and they just change phrases like “arrest me” or “administrative hearing” to “suspend me” or “parent-teacher conference” to fit the context.

In case, that Maltese Falcon slip doesn’t let loose the plot: Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt back when he was making interesting indie and pseudo-indie role choices and as a result giving the best and most challenging performances of his career) gets in contact from his long-estranged ex-girlfriend Em (Emilie de Ravine) where she sounds completely frightened and stressed, but when he tries to ask what her call is about, she uses phrases and terms that Brendan can’t make heads or tails of, though Em is not intending to be cryptic. Clearly, trouble is up and Brendan tries to get a pulse on it but before he gets half an idea, she’s killed. And now Brendan’s hanged up on trying to find out who put her on the spot to for that bullet, getting himself embroiled in the drug trade of the elusive Pin (Lukas Haas) and a femme fatale Laura (Nora Zehetner) who is so obviously tangled in this without Brendan being able to figure it out at first.

Now you can’t tell from that very small synopsis, but when you watch the movie, if you know your noir, you can map it out: Em is Miles Archer, Laura is Brigid O’Shaughnessey, there’s a missing brick of heroin that’s essentially the Falcon MacGuffin itself, the very self-aired Pin is Gutman, the hot-head enforcer Tug (Noah Fleiss) is the young gunsel by Gutman’s side, Em’s current druggie boyfriend Dode (Noah Segan) gets slapped about enough he’d have to be Joel Cairo. But while Brick can’t hold a candle to John Huston’s masterpiece adaptation, Johnson really isn’t trying to.

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Brick uses Hammett’s book as a launchpad for having and eating its cake at the same time. Most high school movies, even the ones that are entirely generous to their characters’ viewpoints like the John Hughes works, they have a narrative context that high school is itself this little microcosm of behavior, that the characters are in their own world separated from reality. And Brick is no different, essentially establishing that from the very first hallway locker scene with a ring of the school and keeping that going in almost entirely setting itself at Johnson’s former high school in San Clemente, California and Richard Roundtree’s authoritative vice principle popping to remind us that the weight given to these situations are not really much once they leave school, let alone the way they talk barely jiving with high school lingo* in the early 2000s (I was still in middle school in the year of its 2005 Sundance premiere and was just a month away from going to high school when it got its 2006 US release). And yet they still have oh so much weight and part of it is just the hardened dignity the cast provides every single one of their roles (except Haas knowingly establishing the Pin as an absent-minded pathetic and disappointing figure from the moment he goes into a tangeant about bats and horses; it’s also not for nothing that the only parental figure we see is for the one character that’s obviously in his 20s compared to all the teenagers).

Cliques and gangs are just a staple of modern high school and have been since before I went to high school. It’s not something to scoff and pretend doesn’t happen and most importantly there is a murder at the very center of it of a very troubled girl (and that’s only the first murder; the body gets a boost by the finale). And while Johnson’s script cares very much about this matter as does Brendan (and visually gives it infectiously moody lo-fi shadows accented by his cousin Nathan’s score), potentially the most cold-souled person in the whole movie (Gordon-Levitt gives him a harsh jaded cynicism that is very unproportional for any teenager and easily explains why he’s always the most hated person in the room, but obviously it’s an attempt at Humphrey Bogart cool that also makes him fascinating and in control), it also establishes the lack of awareness on the school’s part, let alone the police. That’s possibly the most nihilistic approach you could ever provide for a high school movie, where there are no adults to care even if you disappear for a good week and you barely have enough time to sleep, let alone go to class.

Anyway, I’m making it sound dark and serious and I think that’s essential for explaining how Rian Johnson’s Brick made understand just how versatile noir is as a genre template for application, because Johnson’s that smart of a writer and that inspired as a director, but it’s also incredibly fun to watch somehow through this darkness. It’s one of the most deliberately funny non-comedies I’ve ever watched and I know that’s tough to believe but the way Johnson stages Gordon-Levitt beating information out of Segan is its own screwball comedy there, Meagan Good as the vampish ex Kara stands out as such an outrageous and dangerously sexy cartoon that you can’t help wishing she had more screentime, Brendan’s deflections of Roundtree like a Howard Hawks film, football jock Brad Bramish (Brian J. White) is a punching bag acting how every picked-on kid in high school must have imagined their big dumb quarterback bully (it also has to be said how both that character and Brendan are exaggerated caricatures of high school tropes and noir tropes and yet it’s obvious Brendan is cool to the movie but not to the crowd and Brad is cool to the crowd but not to the movie).

Rian Johnson wants you to fun with Brick more than he wants to find it dark and he’s capable of pulling it off without removing any what makes it a compulsive mystery. If that’s not a sure sign of his tonal skills and the ability of noir to at once darken and ridicule subjects within the same context (something he experimented with later on in the 2012 time travel noir Looper), then I don’t know what is.

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*The very moment I decided to can my version was when a collaborator during pre-production complained that “people don’t talk like this” and trashed the whole script. It was seriously discouraging to have a guy so thoroughly miss the point.

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The Bitch Is Back – Mean Girls (2004/wri. Tina Fey/USA)

Yesterday was October 3rd. I don’t know how much that matters to most of you, but a throwaway joke from Mean Girls makes that relevant to me. And I did review Mean Girls a long time ago for a little bit of blogging I’d rather not revisit in my mind, but I am willing to take some time to get my head out of that horror pile (because even for me, believe it or not, that sort of regimen is exhausting) to briefly make a quickie for Mean Girls. And this will be a quickie, because in my first review for the movie, I found I had very little to say and this time around, I think I have even less.

We can at least start with this absolute simple fact: It is the most quotable movie of my generation. I’m not sure how snuggly I fall into this generation, but I know I’m in it. When the movie came out, I was in middle school. I deliberately avoided it because I was a middle school boy. I was not into chick flicks, thinking them to be thinly girly without any real cool stuff like gore-thirsty serial killers (Freddy vs. Jason being one of my middle school pursuits) or wacky crazy cops who happen to also know how to use a gun making heads splatter (Bad Boys II was another one). Testosterone meant quality to me, not writing, not acting and especially not high school girls.

But I could not avoid all the girls in the hall quoting Mean Girls all the time with their “On Wednesdays, we wear pink” and “you go, Glen Coco!”. And it stuck around me into high school to have such an influential presence on people – the fact that a lot of kids around me ended up wanting to create their own cliques specifically based on featured ones in the movie makes me note that the point of the movie went over their heads like the hip hop stars who idolize Tony Montana – that once word went around a bit at the time the movie came out that I was Algerian, people began saying “Oh so you’re from Africa, like Lindsay Lohan in Mean Girls” and began addressing me as “Africa”. Ok, this movie got me compared to Lohan and made my school life feel like a much more juvenile form of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, I’m definitely not going to be interested in it now.

And I wasn’t so much. Until college when a girl I was close with finally convinced me to sit down and watch it with her. I pretty much approached it as blankly as I possibly could and it seems to have been appropriate, honestly.

To best of my ability to sum up the plot in a rush: After having been home-schooled in Africa all of her life by her zoologist parents, Cady Heron (Lindsay Lohan) returns to America and takes her first step into high school and easily witnesses the division between students – but first by accidentally embedding into two particular groups…

First, the outcasts Janis (Lizzy Caplan, who maybe because I watched too much Lizzie Maguire, I mistaked for Lalaine initially. Anybody else remember her? No? That’s ok, Masters of Sex looks good) and Damian (Daniel Franzese) take a liking to her. Then, Regina George (Rachel McAdams) and her group The Plastics (Amanda Seyfried & Lacey Chabert) and, upon really witnessing how distasteful George acts towards students, makes a plan with Janis and Damian to ruin the Plastics in the school. Except that Cady begins taking a liking to her supposed “fake” friends and her interests become torn between the two warring groups.

Huh, y’know, it’s funny how I mentioned Yojimbo because I think I accidentally made the movie sound just like if Sanjuro had a crush on one of the gangsters and wore pink.

Mean Girls is not CINEMA!!! by any means. It’s just a really fun movie to watch, which also happens to be a little bit smarter than it originally lets on. And it does this without necessarily needing to subvert genres like other well-written high school films like Rian Johnson’s neo-noir Brick or Robert Rodriguez’s horror The Faculty carries other genre baggage to parallel high school tropes. No, instead screenwriter Tina Fey uses the book Teen Queens and Wannabes by Rosalind Wiseman as her little spine. That’s right, the starting point of this sarcastic as hell movie was a self-help book. And maybe it’s just to beat the book into the shape of a movie or because Fey might have know that sometimes self-help books just don’t fucking know a damn thing about people (maybe I’m just being a mean… boy?), but Fey decided to take a more Cameron Crowe-esque approach to adapting the book to a screenplay by using her own personal experiences to actually pad the shape of the story into something actually worth a watch without feeling too preachy or moralizing. It also helped give the book a more grounded reality based on it, though that reality gets undercut by how completely Saturday Night Live farcical the movie’s humor gets (producer Lorne Michaels is in fact best known as the primary runner and executive producer of SNL). Amanda Seyfried, who stands out most as the comic relief and does outstanding with it, is the main source of this undercutting… as hard as that pains me to admit.

But the script works for the most part. It’s funny, it’s aware, it’s smart, it’s not holding too many punches back and it moves pretty smoothly until a very Good Vibes ex Machina resolution to the movie’s plot that isn’t entirely adequate for how severe the movie makes out the growing separations between Cady and company. It’s pretty much a tie-up ending just for the sake of getting everything over with once they realize they can’t be funny anymore. That’s fine, I’ll bite. There’s also some extraneous characters that could have either been embedded a little bit more into the conflict as a mediator or just about done with to make it a jungle filled only with high school students, namely the principal (Tim Meadows) and Coach Carr (Dwayne Hill), all of which have some scene they get to steal, but none of which really feels more than a distraction from the point of the film. And then there is Tina Fey’s character, Ms. Norsbury, who is clearly only there to play as the all-knowing all-wise teacher who, in one scene, begins to lead all the students into a “kumbaya”-esque resolve at the gym for one another’s fights, long before she feels like an active presence in the students’ lives. Which bugs me when a writer barely puts him or herself into the film and then ends up just being that one person who knows the answer to everything for the movie to be happiness and rainbows again. Whatever, maybe that’s just me. It’s a scene I was glad to have very harshly undercut by a line by Damien that will take you aback in laughter, I promise.

But it doesn’t help that, save for Seyfried and a very surprisingly subtle despicable McAdams, all the other actors are just about good enough to pass off for their characters but still being caught acting. Lohan, caught right before her career took an unfortunate plummet, lets herself be the surrogate of the audience by really just touching on the few emotional beats are necessary. Meadows, Caplan, Chabert and Fey in the meantime only play to their regular screen personas in the most cookie-cutter fashion. We get some pretty loopy points from the obvious BFF-of-Fey Amy Poehler that I kind of don’t know whether to laugh at or go “Oh why, no wonder Regina is so fucked up” and almost everyone who is not Franzese is completely disposable (including Neil Flynn in a fruitless role as Cady’s dad just to give the movie some sense of parental presence, I guess, since Poehler sure as hell ain’t giving that).

I said that the screenplay was the movie’s biggest strength. But that doesn’t mean it is the movie’s only strength, though. Director Mark Waters was chosen to overlook the film’s production and honestly, he was quite the inspired choice. From 1997’s The House of Yes onward till this year’s Vampire Academy, Waters has pretty much made his mark as a director who specializes with directing female actors and facilitating their emotions and conflicts on screen, especially in a younger setting. He’s certainly not as good at this as, say, Ingmar Bergman, but of course, Bergman is always reaching too high. I’m actually pretty much kicking myself right now for bothering bringing up both Kurosawa and Bergman into an article about Mean Girls. Shit, Salim, get into the groove.

But like I said, in spite of cinematography not really being a factor (or called for, can you imagine lens all over this movie or filters? It’s look like Brian De Palma’s Carrie except less scary and more huh?), Waters at least knows how to establish a lively environment for the young actors to really use as a basis for their classroom dramas, bringing out the different colors in everybody’s peachy outfits and a light-hearted parody-zone of kids bantering about silly things like proms to allow for jokes and humor to seep in without going “wait, this all pretty sober and serious a moment ago.” It certainly feels more like high school and less like a soundstage (*cough*BoyMeetsWorld*cough*), a college (*cough*10thingsihateaboutyou*cough*) and a library (*cought*buffythevampireslayer*cough*) without trying really covering itself in some realistic shadow like Brick or the John Hughes films would. It’s bright, it’s almost blinding in the hallways and that’s because all the students are supposed to be bright and chipper ideally, until we get to hearing them talk about each other in their backs and all.

Alongside Waters’ direction and Fey’s wit, the movie passes along pretty great and makes for a pretty entertaining movie that, if you don’t at least learn something about how life is when you’re young and how almost every little thing seems like the end of the world at that age (or really any age), you’ll at least come out smiling and start bothering people senselessly by just randomly spouting lines like “Oh my god, you can’t just ask people why they’re white” or “She doesn’t even go here” or “one time she punched me in the face… it was awesome” or…

… Fuck it, man, I swear to God, these quotes are goddamn contagious.