For All the Cows

Back when I had the delusion that I would have the time and energy for this (though I’ll never say never to the future), I had toyed with the idea of making a retrospective of reviews for Pride of Miami Cinema* Kelly Reichardt’s movies up to First Cow, which premiered Telluride in 2019 and was famously the last major US arthouse release this year before COVID popped its ugly head stateside and shut down theaters (a release I unfortunately did not catch). If I had been able to do so, First Cow may have very well turned out to be a much more appropriate stopping point than I expected.

God forbid that Reichardt never makes another movie again (especially if First Cow ends up maintaining its awards and critics’ circles momentum that makes me quietly hopeful that Oscar attention is in its near-future, which I imagine will boost her profile in much deserved ways), but it is kind of the prime example of all the things she’s been trying to work with throughout her career. Which is funny because the very quiet and unrushed manner in which its presents its narrative to the point that the themes are less spoken by the film so much as left there for the viewer to recognize and put together is probably one of those things it shares with all of Reichardt’s previous movies. She doesn’t particularly work with urgency, even in cases within her films where peril or stress is an active presence.

And like all but two of her other movies, First Cow gets to share the world of Oregon. Oregon that was, particularly, given an initial scene that reminds me very much of The Grand Budapest Hotel in the way it temporally divorces us from the story and characters. An Oregon that Reichardt – adapting with Jonathan Raymond his novel The Half Life – presents at the very beginnings of its 19th century colonizing. Like the last time Reichardt indulged in a period piece on life in Oregon-before-Oregon Meek’s Cutoff, she and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt box the environment in Academy 1.33:1. But where that one captured the frustrating hostility of the frontier in harshly washed-out colors and cracks, this time they have allowed some measure of warmth and amiability to the environment of old… capturing all the earthy colors with enough realism to prevent undermining the memory as something inauthentic while the frame fits Reichardt’s awareness of the characters’ placement in the shot relative to their relationships like a glove.

Both that spatial placement of characters as well as the comfortable soil-based color work provide an excellent enough setting for a story of two men finding each other in the world and developing a deep platonic love for another. Those two being Maryland transplant Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro) and Cantonese immigrant King Lu (Orion Lee), who meet briefly at first when Cookie finds King naked and hiding in the bushes from some vengeful Russians and Cookie is able to give him shelter within the tent he has separate the trapper team whom he cooks for, a team we can easily tell does not like Cookie very much and would betray King if they were aware of his presence. King of course slips away before they are any the wiser, but the two reunite later on within what appears to be the major camp in the area. From there they are able to bond over a variety of things within King’s shack on the outskirts of that society and eventually one of the things King learns about Cookie is that he has enough of a skill as a baker to take to market in the camp. Of course, the creation of their fast-selling oily cakes requires the procurance of milk and with enough caution, they are able to regularly acquire that ingredient by milking the only cow in the region late at night. This cow happens to be under the ownership of the Chief Factor (Toby Jones), who takes an interest to these popular baked goods.

There’s basically a lot to say about these conditions in First Cow – the obnoxious prioritizing of masculinity as a trait (introduced by the trappers’ antagonism towards Cookie), colonialism giving the image of sophistication without actually embodying that with dignity (best portrayed by Jones’ oblivious performance), capitalism’s reliance on exploitation and privilege and so many more things that even while shaping this mythic image of the beginnings of American society are observations that still remain relevant to this day. Not all of them as cynical as the ones I point out – alongside Lee’s presence as a co-lead, there is a charmingly small moment of him trying to communicate with an indigenous man that ends with the two of them finding a common language of Yiddish – and practically none of these are particularly stressed by Reichardt’s direction nor the way her and Raymond steer the story (I don’t know if Raymond’s novel is more explicit on these matters since I haven’t read it). They are just offhand elements of a world where the main source of solace is Magaro and Lee’s lovely chemistry together as friends. Not necessarily a perfectly ideal friendship – there’s the slightest implication that King is taking as much advantage as he can of Cookie’s friendship in a one-sided way – but one that feels sincere and deeply caring all the same, so that even in the most doubtful moments, we have that one early shot that transports us to this time period to remind us of how strongly bonded these two men are.

So outside of the central relationship, where does Reichardt particularly focus her energies on? Her love for Oregon, whether by the manner of the soft dark cinematography I mentioned before or the serene sound design letting us be aware of the life within the wilderness. And given that this is a place that Reichardt has spent most of her life and career in, her directorial hand at letting us live in that environment and takes advantage of its barely-present Western trappings to remind us of how the genre is at its best when functioning as synecdoche for America’s history while letting the story just shuffles along to its stopping point (maybe the one element that distinguishes First Cow from Reichardt’s other movies is that this does has a firm ending, albeit with an unorthodox placement). Reichardt’s marshalling of these skills she’s showcased before – the pacing, the aesthetics, and the thematic interests – with a confident simplicity is exactly what makes this feel like the ne plus ultra of her style to this date and I truly wonder where there is to go from here. But whatever her next movie is, I’m sure it’ll be likewise phenomenal without even trying.

*That wisely never returned to Miami once she could bail.

The Princess Bride

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I would love to hide behind the fact that I am still – 7 months later – not ready to say goodbye to Takahata Isao as the excuse that I was sooooooooooo tardy with this retrospective and this final entry is last-minute. No, I shall be transparent about the fact that a mix between laziness with this site and an overwhelming amount of real-world responsibilities arresting me with anxiety was why this 5-film goal took way longer to complete than I intended.

But the fact IS that I am not ready to say goodbye to Takahata and it’s frustrating not just because of how long its been since his death, but because with The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, Takahata pretty much made the perfect film with which to say goodbye to the world. Even while Takahata worked until the very end (as he had later as artistic producer for The Red Turtle, the latest of Studio Ghibli’s releases), it’s hard to imagine him not being aware that his age at 78 when the film premiered in 2013 and the large 14-year gap in between his last two films spelt the end of his directorial career. So he made it count in more ways than one.

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Let’s tackle The Tale of the Princess Kaguya outside of that context for a second, because it is an emotionally moving film even outside of that retrospect. Adapted by Takahata and Sakaguchi Riko from what is believed to be the oldest surviving Japanese prose monogatari “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter”, a bamboo cutter (Chii Takeo) discovers a tiny baby girl residing in one of the stalks he cuts down (this resembles a sequence in My Neighbors the Yamadas so well that I expect Takahata was planning this film for longer than the 14 years between) and brings her home to his wife (Miyamoto Nobuko), believing the child to be of a divine presence. The baby’s accelerated growth into a child and the discovery of gold and silks within more bamboo only furthers this belief on the cutter’s part, so in no time they make for a life of nobility in the capital with the girl they have since named Hime (Asakura Asi). It is much to her dismay that she must leave behind the rest of the village children she had grown with, including the strong and mature Sutemaru (Kora Kengo), and learning the sort of restrictions and demands a life as a princess forces upon her only adds to Hime’s blues, later to be re-named Kaguya by a priest.

The 137 minutes that make up The Tale of the Princess Kaguya are certainly not of a brisk sort (particularly a middle sort involving numerous unappealing attempts at courting the then adult princess start to drag in a repetition of punchlines), but it is nevertheless one that recognizes the ephemeral sweep with which this girl must live her life: growing and going through stages with barely enough time to recognize and adore this world she’s been brought into with the sparse and direct nature of storytelling that folklore grants itself. At the same time, Takahata and Sakaguchi import a lot of contemporary depth via Kaguya’s feelings on her drafted princess-hood, the deft inherent talent she has at the position fighting against her desires to live a normal human outside back in peaceful rusticity. Likewise, her adoptive parents have their own emotions driving the story: the bamboo cutter’s desperate resentment at his previous poverty and the denied legitimacy of his ascension among the upper class and the wife’s attempts to help Kaguya feel comfortable with this life without willing to sacrifice their gained wealth.

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This dichotomy and conflict is – as would be for any animated film, especially one by a master such as Takahata – a visual one just as much as it is a narrative one. Once again, Takahata’s valued minimalism where the image is just fading at the edges into white is utilized to shape the image into something like a painting, aided by the elegant and traditional hand-painting that makes up the animation style as though illustrations to a storybook. Moving illustrations with a vivid fluidity to them that rejects the formal roots of its aesthetic, particularly in a later sequence where we watch Kaguya zoom out of the palace and the city and into the field as a flurry of thick black lines in one direction, lifted by the romanticism Joe Hisaishi’s score elevates the tale to (shockingly his only collaboration with Takahata in their careers, even despite the fact that Takahata was the one who brought him to Studio Ghibli in the first place). Meanwhile, the forests are a very appealing bunch of watercolor greens and browns while the city goes for a muted white-based lack of personality that explains Kaguya’s lack of belonging in that place, without losing the grace of those hand-drawn lines that build up the image.

This is overall a scenario that affords a lot of different bittersweet observations about the human experience in such a limited time: the satisfaction of simple lives, the performative nature high-class society and its attempts to flaunt their wealth, the balancing act of parenthood where one must prove clairvoyent in knowing what’s best for their children, the certainty that things will mess up regardless, toxic men filling up more and more with hot air when they can not enamor a woman and going beyond their boundaries, women having no choice in their place in life and trying to make what they can out of the rapid changes thrown at them. All of these themes with wisdom and patience as the film scratches at them. Nothing within its observations on these matters is entirely positive, though it does afford a few respites of happiness where Kaguya can free herself an inch and it is heartbreaking when she must return to her princess status.

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There is one final observation The Tale of the Princess Kaguya has to give us before it ends and, while I don’t want to spoil it in detail, I can only say it is one about how hard it is to say goodbye to the world and the people who make up your world. Introduced at the very last leg of the film is an indomitable conclusiveness to all of Kaguya’s worries that also means a lot of sadness and emptiness in the lives of the bamboo cutter, his wife, Sutemaru, and everyone else that Kaguya cared for in her very short time on Earth, only accentuated by this abrupt obstacle. The beauty with which this is carried out – looking and sounding akin to a festive celebration rather than anything else – gives the promise of things feeling right by what’s occurring but the emotions behind the characters having to go through this and the fact that they are the ones we’re familiar with makes it all the more devastating despite this. It entirely ties up the bittersweet nature of the writing and the comprehensive manner of its plot as a portrayal of life itself, ending the film and Takahata’s career with a poignant final shot that feels as much of a tearjerking comfort as the titular fireflies in Grave of the Fireflies.

And having that moment be the one that sees Takahata off as a filmmaker only makes things feel like he was setting us up for that goodbye. It only seems fair to deal with his departure in as graceful a manner as Kaguya suggests one can. But, for a filmmaker whom I’ve never met that lived in a country I’ve never been to and so could only admire from afar, it can just be so hard to have to deal with the fact that he’s not going to make any more art for one to admire. In any case, I’m forever grateful to Takahata for what he did leave us with and they will continue to be my comforts in the years to come as life goes on.

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29 October 1935 – 5 April 2018

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With the sincerest apologies to Lu Saitta, who had been waiting on this review for a while ever since she answered a question correctly last summer (I ended up delaying it for a Halloween Mummy marathon that simply never happened), I dedicate this review to her and her unyielding patience (or ability to forget bad writers sometimes offer to write stuff for people).

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The Scorpion King‘s origins as a film in early 2002 are quite a doozy. It is not only a spin-off to the reboot franchise of Universal Studios’ Mummy movies from the turn of the millennium, it is a PREQUEL to the SEQUEL to the REBOOT of Karl Freund’s 1932 masterpiece. Less than a year had passed between the April 2001 premiere of The Mummy Returns and the April 2002 release of The Scorpion King, meaning that Universal Studios and WWF Entertainment fast-tracked the production of the origin story on a character who spent more screentime as CGI that already looked video game-like back then in the hopes that he would prove extremely popular in the wake of The Mummy Returns‘ success (not expecting it to make slightly less than its predecessor). This film is the purest form of synergy I can possibly imagine.

The Scorpion King made enough of a pretty penny for the studios to not regret making the movie, but it’s very likely not on the merit of the character’s appeal and more the actor who portrayed him. For The Scorpion King was essentially THE role that began building Dwayne Johnson’s future movie star status from his acquired superstardom as a wrestler for WWE (formerly WWF) under the ring name The Rock, the name which the actor was billed as*.

Now, despite the mercenary intentions that animated the production, there’s little conflict in me declaring The Scorpion King the “best” of the four Mummy reboot films (ignoring the multitudes of Direct-to-Video releases WWE milked), but that is not a tall order. It already has the significant upgrade of moving from the dashing enough and overeager but still out of his league Brendan Fraser to The Rock, who hadn’t yet harnessed his full charisma as a screen persona but is remarkably confident at being a brawny barbarian given that it only requires fierce and mean looks while swinging and grappling no different than he did in the ring. He plays right along with the sword-and-sandals set he’s inhabiting, aided largely by the fact that this time he actually gets to be in the movie with his legs attached.

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Yes, the Rock’s just the right sort of arch tan-muscled masculine tower in which to build a very boilerplate story of The Scorpion King’s original identity: Mathayus (The Rock, duh!), last of the Akkadians after witnessing his brothers’ betrayal and slaughter during their mission to assassinate the warlord Memnon (Steven Brand)’s sorcerer that’s been ensuring his conquest of Mesopotamia. This mission is only further complicated by the discovery that the mark is in fact an attractive sorcerESS given the obvious name of Cassandra (Kelly Hu) and, after 30 minutes of escaping and taking another go at killing her without being distracted by her beauty (made harder Mathayus by the fact that his second ambush happens to be while she’s naked), discovering her to be a hostage of Memnon and decides to escape with her into the hot desert sun without much of a plan except to stay as far out of Memnon’s grasp as possible and smolder at each other, despite Cassandra’s clairvoyance promising certain doom for Mathayus’ valiant actions.

The screenplay by Stephen Sommers (who directed the previous Mummy films), William Osborne, and David Hayter (HEY KIDS, SOLID SNAKE!) meanders with betrayal towards its desire to fit enough plot and qualify as a feature without wanting to give unnecessary depth to its characters (it is somewhat dedicated to reminding us of Memnon’s formidability, probably because Brand has to pretend to give the Rock a good fight), but – barring the fact that Mathayus could have learned everything he learned about Cassandra well before the things he had to go through – it gets to where it needs to be without wearing out its welcome. There is the irresistible observation that placing this is the 2800s BC and identifying Mathayus as an Akkadian implies the events of the film to lead into the Akkadian Empire, but his name is Mathayus instead of Sargon and there’s the ahistorical claim that he’s literally the last survivor of the race. And the setting of the film being in the Biblical city of Gomorrah, famously destroyed long before by God in the Book of Genesis. And the fact that the Mummy Returns presented The Scorpion King as a bloodthirsty ruthless tyrant and here he’s a charmingly scrappy rogue. But y’know, I’m feeling generous.

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The Scorpion King also makes the significant upgrade of replacing the computer-effects-dependent glutton Sommers. Now, we have Chuck Russell who doesn’t have much in the way of control of tone (see also: The Mask and Dreamscape) but luckily The Scorpion King doesn’t demand much in the way of shifting tone. It’s essentially a middle-tier feature-length episode of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, swashbuckler all the way down with occasional indulgence in extra badass star vehicle (and one I’d say Russell qualified for based on the Jason and the Argonauts-esque skeleton battle at the end of A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors). Sure, there’s a tiny bit of comic overtones but they’re mostly pulled in by the quicksand-like gravity of the wily horse thief sidekick Arpid (Oscar winner Grant Heslov and if you’ve seen The Scorpion King, you do not need me to tell you that the Oscar was not for Acting), pushing them to the side of a scene rather than making them interrupt any of the action. Even before The Rock was an ACTOR, you could hardly upstage the dude with a clown.

Russell’s main strength is competently putting together setpiece after setpiece until the movie runs out of time (see also: The Mask and Dreamscape) and The Scorpion King bats a decent enough average to breeze on its 92 minute runtime as Russell’s shortest film. Not that some of them aren’t ruthlessly cut to confusion, such as the middle sequence where Mathayus returns to Memnon’s stronghold and escapes with Cassandra (somewhat a big setpiece made out of smaller setpieces, including the most blatant Indiana Jones rip-off in a franchise that spent most of its time ripping those movies off). But the grand majority of them have a Raimi-esque theatricality to them based on how “oh this really metal thing happens where the swords are on fire” and “then this really metal thing happens where he tosses a guy in the way of a tomahawk”. It’s all in the service of making The Rock look cool and having a coherent or interesting style is merely incidental. If there is to be one major highlight, I would say it’s a battle during the escape in which Mathayus leads the guards into a cave during a sandstorm, using the limited shafts of light and a panning soundtrack to impose on the viewer the same sort of frightened confusion towards our hero’s guerilla tactics as the head guard while his men are effortlessly killed (there is one “Are you fucking kidding me?” moment where a guard gets swallowed by quicksand and then ANOTHER idiot guard steps into the same quicksand after seeing the guard die that way and no surprise at HIS fate).

So, is the movie successful at being quality entertainment? I don’t know. The seams are pretty much there. This movie looks its budget, with less characteristic production design than its predecessors and much dodgier CGI including a sequence where The Rock steps through a wall of fire and it separates as though it were a curtain. But Russell makes quick, tight work out of a script that doesn’t entirely know where it’s going and the Rock is one of several archetypes portrayed by a capable cast (including Bernard Hill as an absent-minded professor and the late Michael Clarke Duncan as the big burly rival turned ally). It all feels barely adequate to me and I’m hardly going to look back on it after tonight, but y’know the saying about one’s person’s discardings is another one’s treasures. That is how artifacts get made, even ones from the early 2000s.

*You will notice that some folks such as myself who grew up in that wonderful time in the 1990s have trouble shaking off calling him by The Rock, even though he’s moved on from that brand. I think I mark the line at being born in 1998 as my sister was and strictly refers to him as Dwayne Johnson without much recognizing him for his wrestling origins.

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Float On

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My main problems against the idea of Andrés Muschietti’s smash hit horror film It were things that weren’t out of the control of the people making the film, but it doesn’t reflect my feelings on the movie outside of the context of its source material. Those problems were inherent in the producer’s decision to split the giant tome of Stephen King’s perhaps most popular book into two movies and to move the time periods from 1950s and 1980s to 1980s and (I’m guessing for the inevitable second film) 2010s. It is impossible to miss the logic behind both decisions: production costs* and narrative integrity of a modern classic. But it means you lose the pointed criticism of Rockwellian Americana nostalgia by taking away the very basis of said nostalgia and it means that the second movie has to do a lot of hard work cut for it to accomplish narrative momentum – something both the miniseries’ adult storyline and frankly the book’s don’t do well without cross-cutting – or give depth on the theme of trauma and memory without deferring to clunky stock footage from the predecessor.

Anyway, these are concerns I’ve had with the production, still have long after seeing the film, and I wouldn’t mention them if I didn’t think they’re valid, but that’s not the movie itself. Talking about the movie itself is recognizing that it’s a pleasant and enjoyable experience depending on which angle I’m coming from.

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King’s childhood half of the novel is brought to life by a draft of Cary Fukunaga and Chase Palmer’s script redone by Gary Dauberman following the disappearance of 7-year-old Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott) one rainy October night in 1988 as he left to float a paper boat made by his older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher). The following summer shows that Bill, who suffers from a stutter, is still affected by his lack of answer for Georgie’s well-being but we know the full story because we watched as Georgie lamented his boat’s departure into a storm drain and peeked in to find the grinning ghostly visage of Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård), who deliberately lures Georgie into a shockingly violent end.

Meanwhile, Bill and new kid Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor) are independently noticing an accelerated amount of disappearances happening in their town of Derry and slowly The Losers’ Club, an alliance of young outsider kids, prepares to fight against Pennywise’s historied terrorizing of the town.

Here’s my main gripe with It: I think it’s a bad horror movie on the constructed elements. Its scare scenes are not only repeated setpiece remakes from Muschietti’s breakout short film Mamá kid looks behind him or around the corner to face a deformity and get chased out of the space – telegraphed frequently by Benjamin Wallfisch’s obnoxious score, but the first hour or so of the film keeps feeling busted in pacing by arranging itself as occasional, nearly unrelated first act vignettes of these jump scare moments as each member of the Losers’ Club encounters Pennywise at least once until they meet each other**.

But Skarsgard IS scary. Taking a different approach to King’s monster than Tim Cutty’s 1990 miniseries performance, Skarsgård adopts an exaggerated stance like he’s a big sock puppet or balloon animal extension of some other bigger monster. His clowniness feels like a costume, right down to the primal growl underneath his floaty voice. He’s so off in presence that it’s impossible not to feel threatened by his stare, a broken attempt to warmly make contact with his prey disorganized by the fantastic eye movements Skarsgård provides. Even underneath a sheen of CGI, Skarsgård’s screen presence creeps in as the sole motor to the horror angle of It.

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Whereas It can still work phenomenally well as a movie about a group of kids growing brave in one terrifying summer instead. Not that the script does them any favors – Mike (Chosen Jacobs) and Stan (Wyatt Oleff) are practically hosed on paper with how much character is removed, though Oleff himself has one of the best heart-breaking freakout moments late in the film – but the actors themselves are so full of personality that they’re able to embody the puerile, excitable youthfulness of 1980s kids in a genuine unfiltered way. Sure, the way loudmouth Richie (Finn Wolfhard) doesn’t shut up and keeps making dumb sex jokes bemuses me as much as his hypochondriac foil Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), but it bemuses me in the way that all kids from the 80s do and it feels honest.

It may be contradictory to what It‘s attitudes on nostalgia are, but that’s nevertheless its strength – portraying small-town childhood memories in warm timelessness (aided significantly by Chung Chung-hoon’s soft outdoor cinematography, doubled down on darkness in the horror moments). The cast of It makes that movie, breaking out of shallow characterizations to provide lived-in relationships and friendships that not even the best writing could provide. It even deviates away from the notoriously bad final beat of the book to something more innocuous. This despite the fact that the only character that’s fleshed out well is tomboy Beverly Marsh in how much screentime is dedicated to her sexually (much more explicit here than in the book) abusive homelife and so it’s no shock when Sophia Lillis comes out with arguably the best performance in the movie, one where all her fears and anxieties inform every second of her screentime and she’s able to use that as a basis on every emotional decision. Personally, my favorite is Taylor, whose attempts at casually hiding his sense of dislocation in the new town and consciousness of the evil within it come off as kind of charming. Plus, his ability to visually emote the crush Ben has on Bev is so adorable.

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But anyway, the town of Derry as a location is built on the cast’s response to it. Muschietti and company don’t really do much to help us feel like people are disappearing around us because we don’t have time to know the town before it jumps into spooks mode and its personality feels only slightly less anonymous than the cobble of locations in Stranger Things, but it still feels grounded in time enough to have some tangible atmosphere as living memory***. And I mean, that’s where the darker moments in the kids’ lives gets to have some real punch: interrupting their camaraderie to divide them emotionally is what helps It work out its main premise of small-town horror, despite the handicaps the movie gives itself.

It could be a much better horror film (I honestly yearn for the alternate universe where Fukunaga stayed on as director – though there are elements of the script that had to go), but as an adaptation of a moment in a boy’s life where he has to face the anxiety surrounding him, there’s little improvement possible.

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*Though it seems like even on that end, the movie skims the price tag. There’s a hilarious tweet of a guy nitpicking a single Lego block used in the background, but I’m thinking of a character beat of a wide shot towards a wall of tampons that all have noticeably 2016 packaging. Incidentally, talking about this in public with a friend led to an eavesdropping teenager who asked how I’d recognize that and we (alongside another eavesdropping woman) subsequently informed him that he’ll come to the day when his girlfriend sends him for tampons.
**The miniseries is inferior to the film in most ways, but they at least got this structurally downpat by making each initial encounter a kid had with Pennywise function as an extended flashback of trauma after they receive Mike’s call.
***Most especially aided by the fact that the movie removes all the cosmic elements of the novel – which work well for the book but seem overkill as a cinematic story – and makes the terror localized into Pennywise. But from what I understand, Chapter Two has intentions to involve the cosmic elements. Ugh.

Be Our Pest, Be Our Pest… Put My Patience to the Test

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I don’t know if we feel safe with identifying the very beginning of this exhausting span of Live-Action (or Photorealistic CGI) remakes of their animated classics as 1994 with Stephen Sommers’ The Jungle Book, 1996 with the Glenn Close vehicle 101 Dalmatians, or 2010 with Tim Burton’s nightmare version of Alice in Wonderland. In any case, despite being really impressed with the Jon Favreau version of The Jungle Book and David Gordon Green Lowery’s version of Pete’s Dragon last year, I think Bill Condon’s remake of Beauty and the Beast has proven to be enough to exhaust me from wanting these things to happen again, no matter how many Donald Glovers you cast as Simba. It’s not a fatigue things where there’s too many of them (I mean, there are, but one was already too many), it’s a “THIS MOVIE IS FUCKING BAD AND POTENTIALLY THE WORST OF THE REMAKES SO FAR GIVE OR TAKE A REWATCH OF BURTON’S ALICE IN WONDERLAND THAT WILL NEVER FUCKING HAPPEN” thing.

I am aware I may be overreacting, given that Beauty and the Beast is a movie that I can find very few problems with and one of my favorite Disney movies of all-time (hence a contender for one of my favorite movies of all time outright), but I can’t think of any which way that most of the changes made to the story or aesthetic of the original animated film could be assumedly directed towards the good end of things. Like for real, the times when the movie isn’t being totally offensive to my eyes are how it just tries to or Ewan McGregor as the candelabra Lumiere actually displays campy swagger within his scenes, thus invigorating energy into the sloggish film just from his own voice acting (the design of the character… ehhhhh… we’ll get back to that.

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This film has entirely drained me of my willingness to sacrifice time and energy to provide a prose review so I’m opting to just rush this as quickly as I can by listing all the things about this movie that I either very much enjoyed (for there are indeed things that I enjoyed that tried – but failed due to overwhelming circumstances – to dull the pain of watching this) and by listing everything about it that I fucking hated. I will not forgive this movie for the following items:

  • Dan Stevens has been on a roll already from Downton Abbey to Legion to even a star-making performance (in a perfect world) in The Guest, a movie I otherwise dislike. He’s not in The Cobbler enough to let that derail his career, why the fuck would you dare to ruin his stride by giving him the rubberiest beast face one could ever see and morphing his voice? This is an unfair way to tarnish his legacy!
  • Speaking of the visual aesthetic of the thing, all of the characters who are transformed into frightening looking frigid items that inspire more shock and body horror fear than the sort of magical wonder Beauty and the Beast as a story should aim for? In some cases, like Lumiere, the physicality of the thing is outright ghastly and devoid of a way to match the personality to the look (which is why I enjoy animation so much). Is this deliberate? I hope not because it just shows contempt for the whole concept. Like, this screenshot from Twin Peaks is essentially the vibe I get from every single physical design of the house staff:

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And yet their voices are so cheerful.

  • Speaking of the aesthetic, did Sarah Greenwood’s unicorn shit all over the fucking set and they couldn’t clean it up in time? This castle of the beast is a garish gold! The provincial town is fine if still lost in time, but who looks to these movies for temporal identity.
  • If you’re going to have a cast of singers, this isn’t La La Land where they’re meant to feel like real people. They better damn well sing and I will never EVER FUCKING EVER forgive director Bill Condon for having an autotuned Emma Thompson throw her Lansbury impersonation to perform a Daft Punk rendition of Beauty and the Beast. Let alone Emma Watson sounding like T-Pain overdubbed her.
  • Josh Gad’s self-aware post-modern performance would be welcome in a movie that’s obviously supposed to feel like a parody of Beauty and the Beast and even then… the stuff he says is just not funny. There has never been a comedy actor that’s made me more conflicted than Gad.
  • Tim Rice is not Howard Ashman. Because Ashman was a God and Tim Rice is a terrible lyricist. So please, stop using Rice’s fucking songs. “How Does a Moment Last Forever” and “Evermore” do not remotely compare to “Gaston”, “Beauty and the Beast”, and “Belle”. Not to mention the visuals of those numbers are just fractured and not nearly as sweeping as the original.
  • More importantly somehow the movie thought “Daddy Issues” was the answer to making the Beast seem a much more interesting character and ignoring complaints Stockholm Syndrome. Instead it makes The Beast seem so petulant and it’s inconceivable how the brand new “feminist” version of Belle would be even remotely attracted to him.
  • The consequence of all this is padding a fleet 86 minute fairy tale to a 129 minute overgluttonous grotesquerie.

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And because I am absolutely generous, I will also list everything I like about this movie’s existence.

  • The costumes are good in a cosplay contest winner sort of way. Nothing truly expressive, but Jacqueline Durran obviously wants to emulate the original in the most theatrical manner and gets the job done.
  • Ewan McGregor gives a fun vocal performance as Lumiere just chewing up scenery without even being physicially on-screen and his chemistry with Gugu Mbatha-Raw lights things up enough (pun intended).
  • McGregor, Mbatha-Raw, Stanley Tucci, and Audra McDonald have the most hilariously fake accents I’ve ever heard and put so much character and personality in their limited screentime that I would have much rather THEY were the stars of the movie.

And that’s it. None for Gretchen Wieners. Fuck this movie.

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Hail to the King, Baby!

What a world to be alive in when there are at least four versions of Army of Darkness. Count ’em, four of those fuckers! I’ve only seen three – the theatrical version which I own on DVD *ahem* in a special manner (I’ll get into it at the end of this review), Sam Raimi’s preferred director’s cut which I don’t own yet because I suck, and the television cut which is the first time I watched it on Sci-Fi sorry Syfy back when watching that channel wasn’t anywhere near punishing – but I also know of an international cut. And given that Army of Darkness is one of the most fun movies that has ever graced the earth, even if I still prefer its two predecessors in the Evil Dead series, that makes it a wonderful world when you could get a slightly different experience like Douglas Adams edited this movie rather than Raimi and Bob Murawski. If it were a perfect world, my preferred cut would be the first half of the director’s cut (which actually tightens up the crazy windmill scene where Ash deals with a bunch of mini versions of him in a manner only Ash could be excused for) up until Ash faces his evil version, the theatrical cut starting from his line “Good, bad, I’m the guy with the gun” (absent from the Director’s cut because even Raimi can be a fucking idiot) and go all the way down to the end, for reasons I will go into later on as well. But the world is wonderful enough where we have both. Maybe one day I’ll make an editing exercise of this, Soderbergh-style.

Still I dropped that bomb earlier about how, despite never ceasing my adoration for Army of Darkness as the one movie I am most likely to pop into my DVD player more than the other two films in my Blu-Ray player, I still consider those The Evil Dead and Evil Dead II the superior pictures. For one, those two previous movies actually still have that raw “we made this” sense to them that the studio production of Army of Darkness simply lacks… though Army of Darkness clearly eschews hiding that to embrace the fact that it is a great big adventure. It’s moving the adventures of Bruce Campbell’s Ashley J. Williams into a new fucking direction and it’s an absolute blast for that.

The other thing is that, maybe, as a result of Raimi and crew now having made into Hollywoodland and getting to make Army of Darkness there with that Universal Studios money, Army of Darkness‘s storytelling is less ambitious. It is not as dedicated to making a genre picture as its two predecessors (it is inarguably out of the horror genre – even the presence of living moving skeletons in the film is more Harryhausen tribute in swashbuckling adventure form rather than even the slightest effort at being spooky in even the obvious fun sense) and it’s less thematically sophisticated – taking basically the bare premise of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (as it’s obviously an unofficial adaptation of) and removing all Twain’s wit to make room for Raimi’s Three Stooges inspired slapstick sensibility. Which is fine, better you work with what you know than what you don’t know as well… nobody really likes Evil Dead II for its clever dialogue play, but because of Ash’s visual suffering.

Ash’s suffering has now taken a brand new turn here. He’s not stuck in one creepy wooden cabin anymore, but – as we last left him in the end of Evil Dead II – he and his Oldsmobile ARE still stuck somewhere he’d rather not be in. He’s in the Middle Ages, briefly enslaved in a misunderstanding yet still clear asshole move by Lord Arthur (Marcus Gilbert) until Ash is able to prove himself a bit more of a top dog than Arthur by killing two Deadites – the possessed undead creatures from the franchise – which have been giving our 14th Century boys a bit more trouble than they’ve wanted. The Wise Man (Ian Abercrombie) recognizes Ash through his “boomstick” and chainsaw as a prophesied hero who would “fall from the sky” to rid our Medieval fellas of their Deadite scourge, but of course Ash is reluctant to get involved in the quest to find the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis in the far end of the land and bring it back to them until The Wise Man also states that the book will of course be able to send Ash back to his own time and his deadbeat job at S-Mart that he misses so much.

And like that, after courting one of the beauties there (Embeth Davidtz) like he didn’t days before have to kill his old girlfriend, Ash is now off on his quest to save the day and get back home.

This is obviously the Ash show, even if we have a wider cast of characters now. Everybody is just moving out of Campbell’s way as he delivers annoyed, snarky sarcasm every single step he has to take, but with a newfound certainty and undertones of grizzledness to his fatigue that wasn’t in his hysterics during Evil Dead II (though the scene where he is stuck in a windmill with the night’s effects messing with him still harkening slightly back to the sort of torture he had to go through in the second film) that frankly make him… there’s no other word for it…. a badass. He’s totally rude (my favorite delivery of a line in this movie is a nearly unnoticeable throwaway: as he’s being congratulated by the peasants in his return, he is so done with this shit that he tells one of them off-hand “Get the fuck out of my face.”), he’s much more of an asshole than he ever was in the series, he totally thinks his life is bullshit at this point, but he’s also maybe the most badass here than he ever has been in the series. And Campbell’s ability to still make a character so blatantly dismissive yet charismatic as an adventure hero this time around promised great things for that show the following year The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. that only three people in the world watched (seriously, I’d recommend it).

And it’s not like Campbell doesn’t have a bunch of studio sets and big budget stuff to keep him in the moment anyway, as Raimi begins to expand his toybox of techniques he’s learned between the previous Darkman and here, to the continued effect of cartooniness from Evil Dead II (except in a more appropriate playing field now). Some are kind of easy to catch, like the superimposition used for the mini Ashes scene, but they’re all really bubbly and the artificiality of it is only a minor annoyance. I can’t get mad at catching the claymation bones of a villain as he has a thrilling swordfight with someone. I can’t get too angry at Raimi’s camera movement trying to hide the fact that Ash’s final Oldsmobile battle rig isn’t moving when just the introduction of the thing in the fighting zone is bombastic enough to get me going “Yeah!”. That ending battle between the knights and the undead is chaotic and everywhere and I love it all the more for that, especially when it can still make clear the stakes and location of all the major players. The movie takes care of just the bare minimum of what it needs to and you can either enjoy the ride or take a hike. It’s not that long anyway, it’s a brisk 81 minutes, so stop your whining.

Of course, unlike The Evil Dead or even Evil Dead IIArmy of Darkness is so light and frothy that we never once have the idea that anything will go wrong and Ash will fail. So I don’t feel I’m spoiling anything by pointing out the biggest major difference between the theatrical cut and the Director’s cut which is their endings. In both versions, Ash drinks a potion the Wise Man makes him to have him sleep through time, but in the Director’s Cut, Ash drinks one drop too many and ends up waking in an apocalyptic future rather than the time he came from. It definitely is more in line with both Twain’s novel and how the Evil Dead movies before it ended with their own “Ash is still in deeper shit” moment, but I can’t say I’m fonder of this ending that what Universal mandated for their American release of the film.

Which is Ash getting back to his time just fine and suddenly saving the day again from a Deadite at S-Mart with all the confidence and cockiness a hero needs to make a battle against a demon seem like an effortless inconvenience. It maintains the humor, the grandeur (hell, it translates it and transforms the mundanity of an suburban department store into a fucking battleground), and of course, the badassery that makes me absolutely love the movie entirely. Every line Ash has here is a quip and we just keep loving him more and more. I wish it wasn’t edited and shot in a discontinuous manner that felt like Raimi was begrudged to make this ending (the Deadite never really gets a final blow so much as just dies). But it’s still totally awesome and the movie ending on any other note than Ash having just reholstered his shotgun, telling a girl to “Hail to the King, Baby!”, and making out with her would have been an outright tragedy, I don’t care how dark the Director’s Cut ending would have been.

It’s way too good to be King.

And of course, a King Campbell was in my eyes. I hadn’t seen Evil Dead II yet in high school and obviously his performance in The Evil Dead was too bland and cookie-cutter to be stand-out, so it is his Army of Darkness performance that really made the guy shine in my eyes making him my favorite actor as a teenager as I kept watching a movie or tv show that would be on the air if he even had the smallest appearance (bad move since that meant I sat through The Love BugMcHale’s Navy, Man with the Screaming Brain, etc. the poor guy’s been in a lot of stinkers) and always having a blast to see him on-screen no matter what he was doing.

So back to the manner in which I own the DVD. Well, since I live in Miami for a while where Burn Notice was filmed, my mom found out they were filming right outside her workplace, so I talked my way out of work that day, arranged to meet with my friend there, snuck on set and well…

Photo on 10-27-15 at 4.39 AM #2

Hail to the King, Baby!