The 1997 Odyssey miniseries is hokey, thrilling, and gorgeous

Need a little pick-me-up? The 1997 two part miniseries of The Odyssey is the most entertaining thing I’ve seen in ages. It’s now available for streaming on  Amazon Prime and on the Roku channel, and everyone I know who loves The Odyssey loves this production. 

Don’t get me wrong. Much of the movie, sets, effects, and acting, is hokey to the max. But it’s charmingly, enthusiastically hokey, and every minute of it is made with great love. 

Let’s start with the soundtrack. It is incredibly terrible, and some scenes may actually have been recorded inside a tin can. The incidental music is devastatingly synthetic and cheap sounding, like something from a video game. But then many scenes include people playing actual instruments, and are full of real music — tunes and sounds you can respond to as a human, but which also convey a thoroughly other time and place. 

The show is full of stuff like this: Big, balls-out, broad strokes and spectacle, peppered with startling touches of authenticity that must have come from a scholar or at least a deeply invested amateur. When Odysseus leaves his men at the door to the underworld, for instance, he mentions “the land of the dead” and they all make a reflexive ritual gesture of some kind that may or may not be ancient, but it sure looks both authentic and heartfelt. 

But the real secret of this movie is not that they get everything right. The secret is that they’re enjoying the hell out of it, and that comes through from start to finish. They have an awesome story to tell, and here it is:

Some of the scenes (the show was filmed in Malta, Turkey, England, and the Mediterranean) are clumsy and corny — there’s lots of churning water filmed to look like giant waves when it’s clearly not — but others are inspired.  Viewers are very familiar with movies that take a Cecil B. DeMille-style stab at vaguely barbaric grandeur, with everything pillared and gilded and exotically alluring. This movie also doesn’t hold back, and sometimes bites off more than it can chew; but here, the alien distance of ages is made coherent through dozens of details, the sounds, the fabrics, the hairpins, the utensils. The household gods, for instance, somehow look both sacred and naive, and you can see both that the characters are praying to them sincerely, and that they have built them themselves.

The Island of Circe is stunning and otherworldly; but Ithaca itself is the real island of a real person. I almost wept when Odysseus, still in disguise, first tastes the long-remembered cheese of home. You get a real sense of place, with well-beloved specific trees and blades of grass, and you can feel how much it feels like the entire small world to Odysseus and Penelope. Their tree bed is somewhat vague and disappointingly etherial, but the room where the suitor are slaughtered is real as real, part of an actual house.

Poseidon, as a rolling, roaring face in the waves, is hilarious and also hair-raising. In Hades, the special effects are ridiculous and yet terrifying.

Odysseus stalks right through patches of fire which were clearly pasted in afterward, and gazes in horror at eternally tumbling sheets of lava projected on the green screeniest of green screens. And yet . . . it works. It’s scary as shit in there, and you’re holding your breath the whole time as you watch, because of the fumes, and because you don’t want those shades of the hungry dead to get any closer. I wasn’t crazy about Christopher Lee as a crusty, cranky Tiresias, but I was willing to go with it. 

Which brings us to another miraculous virtue of this movie. The casting is really weird sometimes. Armand Assante as Odysseus? That is NOT how I have always pictured Odysseus. And yet, three minutes in, I was sold. Man has a presence, and he clearly feels bigger than he actually is. You can see why his crew adores him, and you can see how he kept on pushing, year after year, until he makes it home. When he finally lands in Ithaca draped in a red and gold robe with his hair combed and oiled, he is very convincingly the hero we’re still talking about thousands of years later.

Isabella Rossalini as Athena, with those eyes and that posture and that voice and that skin? Brilliant. Absolutely perfect. Bernadette Peters as Circe? Sure, why not? She gives it her witchy all. Vanessa Williams as Calypso? Sufficiently slinky. The guy who plays Hermes is a gilded weirdo zipping around awkwardly in the air, which seems about right. Greta Scacchi, who I’ve never seen in anything else, is a wonderful Penelope. I’d want to come home to her, too.

Her dialogue isn’t profound (none of the dialogue is), but she does convey a complex emotional life besides what you see, and she is grippingly beautiful and strong, and she looks her age. 

I wish they had included the scene where she tests him before she accepts him as her husband. That scene carries a lot of weight to counterbalance all the sex he has with various nymphs. But all the other elements are in place, and the homecoming absolutely hits the mark.

Above all, this production understands the Odyssey not as some kind of effete literary relic but as a really exciting adventure story full of fighting and monsters, with sexy ladies here and there, and a huge, endless love propelling the whole thing. And that is what the Odyssey is. I wouldn’t change a thing. 

***

It being The Odyssey, it’s pretty violent and sexy, so I’d probably show it to kids age 14 at the youngest, depending on the kid. People get graphically ripped to shreds and eaten and stabbed, and there are some very slinky outfits and steamily suggestive scenes. I mean, it is The Odyssey. 

In defense of THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST

Nobody:
Me: Sure, as a Jewish Catholic who has a reputation for resisting pop Catholic trends, I’d love to tell you what I think about The Passion of the Christ.

Here, I will focus on two criticisms: Its ultra violence, and its antisemitism; and why I think it’s worth watching. I don’t know, I felt like getting yelled at.

It it gratuitously violent?

Yes and no. No doubt some viewers reveled in the sadistic violence and graphic gore; but I’m also quite sure others came for the gore and saw more than they bargained for. But I don’t think the violence was just a hook to trick gore-happy viewers into an edifying movie. It was also a way to express how unanswerably outrageous the crucifixion, the murder of God, really was.

Gibson is far from the first to depict the passion and death of Jesus in grotesquely heightened terms, because if we have a hard time grasping the spiritual horror of what happened, we can at least feel the corporeal horror, and go from there. It’s not necessary to depict the crucifixion this graphically, but it’s not illegitimate or inherently inappropriate; and it does have a purpose other than to feed viewer’s blood lust.

For instance: After the notorious interminable scourging scene comes a heart-stopping aerial view of Jesus’ blood splattered all over the courtyard. An impossible amount of blood. Pilate’s wife comes out with a stack of fresh linens and tremblingly offers them to Mary and Mary Magdalene, and the two climb down on their knees and begin to carefully mop up every drop. An impossible task. That scene is responsible for a permanent change in my thinking, transforming the phrase “precious blood” from a pious nicety into a central reality that changed how I approach the Eucharist.

The violence may simply be too much for many viewers. But I didn’t see any violence that was there simply for the sake of showing violence. It was an ordeal to watch, and it was supposed to be.

Is the movie antisemitic? 

I mean? No, but actually yes. Yes and no. Mostly. . . . (heaven help me) no.

Mel Gibson assuredly is antisemitic. After an outcry, he did cut a “blood oath” scene from the original version; but declined to meet with the ADL, basically saying: Look, I hope you get over this not-being-Catholic thing someday. Newsflash: The man is an asshole. But my policy is to evaluate works of art on their own merits as much as I can.

Most accusations of antisemitism in the movie seem to fall into two categories: Things that were probably intentional, but which the average viewer (which I am) wouldn’t pick up on; and things which you can interpret according to your own baggage.

In the first category, intentional but missable, includes details like the sign on the cross. Sr. Rose Pacatte at NRO says:

That Gibson was making a conscious choice to reject and negate Judaism is indisputable when we see the sign on the cross. “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” is written only in ecclesial Latin and Aramaic. He rejects the Greek as detailed in John 19:20, and Greek was the common language of the Roman Empire at that time. Thus, according to Adlerstein, Gibson creates “a tension between Aramaic/Hebrew; he does not create a bond but severs it.”

and

One [viewer] mentioned the tear that fell from the cross and the earthquake, which is significant because the scene shows the destruction of the temple at the time of Jesus’ death, but the destruction did not happen until A.D. 70. According to Gomez, this scene points to a “replacement theology,” upholding the mistaken medieval idea that Christianity (Ecclesia) has replaced Judaism (Synagoga). The brokenness visible in the temple evokes the brokenness of Synagoga. In other words, it’s a “dig” at Judaism that does not appear to be there by accident.

I just plain didn’t notice the historical discrepancies, so if these details were attempts at antisemitism, they failed.

It’s harder to deny that Gibson portrays the Jews using offensive stereotypes, and shows the apostles as some sort of “high Jews” or “white Jews” by portraying them as separate from the others.

But . . . the Jews who crucified Jesus were the bad guys, and the ones who didn’t betray him did make themselves separate. I understand the dangers of feeding stereotypes, but how is a moviemaker supposed to portray evil without signaling to the viewer that it is evil? You tell me. The High Priests were concerned mainly with retaining power; Judas did sell out Jesus for money; the Jews who insisted on Jesus’ execution did reduce their faith to a bunch of ritualistic formalities which were threatened by his new commandment. These evils portrayed are what Jesus came to get rid of. To refuse to depict them would be to refuse to depict what actually happened. There isn’t a lot of nuance in character among the Jews who condemned Jesus because it’s not that kind of movie. The good guys don’t show a lot of nuance, either.

The question is, does the movie say “These men did something evil” or “These Jews did evil Jew things”? This is why I say it depends what you bring to the movie. If you’re an antisemite and you want to know why Jesus had to die, you’ll see that the Jews killed him because Jews are bad. If you’re not an antisemite and you want to know why Jesus had to die, you’ll see what kind of people rejected Jesus: Those who want power. Those who want money. Those who value order over truth. Those who are cowards. Those who are cruel.

So Mel Gibson and his pals may be saying, “This is what Jews are like,” but I don’t think that’s what the movie is saying, unless you’re specifically looking to hear that message. It’s the same with the Gospels themselves. If you read the Gospels shallowly, you’ll think they’re a story about how the Jews betrayed Christ. God knows many have read the Gospels this way! But if you read the Gospels with an open heart, you’ll see it’s a story about how we all betrayed Christ. So the movie gives you what you’re ready to get from it. It would be easy to watch the movie in 2019 and recognize, for instance, the College of Cardinals among the crowd of grasping, preening, vicious high priests willing to sacrifice an innocent victim to retain their power.

It’s also hard to make the case that the movie blames only the Jews for Jesus’ suffering, when the gleeful sadism on display is clearly a Roman thing. When Caiphas sees the scourging, he winces and turns away.

However, it’s weirdly pro-Pontius Pilate, which bothers me a lot. Pilate is a cultivated man who’s been assigned to a fractious backwater, and he has Jesus tortured and executed with great reluctance, to keep the mob at bay. That’s in the Gospel, as far as it goes. But the movie adds a scene where Pilate basically tells Jesus, “Look, I feel really bad about this” and Jesus basically says, “Hey, I see who you’re working with here. Don’t worry about it.” That scene is inexcusable, and makes the biggest case that the movie is antisemitic.

So, with these issues, why watch it?

It’s so freaking interesting. So outlandish and bold, but somehow never heavy-handed. Do you know how difficult it is to make a movie with a scene like the scourging scene and have people remember other scenes besides that one?

Gibson doesn’t take the easy way out in any scene. It’s a long movie, but the pacing is great (the scenes that feel long are meant to feel long). Herod is crazy, and weird, and sad. Judas devolving is so terrifying. Veronica is so appealing. The moment with Simon of Cyrene is gripping. Satan is scary as shit. Some people think it was just dropped in for spooky-ookiness, but Steve Greydanus says:

At certain points this androgynous figure is depicted in opposition to the Virgin Mary — but never more arrestingly so than before the pillar, where there is a kind of anti-Marian vision that I will not describe, except to say that it is so bizarre and grotesque, yet ultimately meaningless, that it seems to come straight from hell.

Works for me. I have never seen a depiction of Satan that works better.

Filming it in foreign languages was brilliant. Brilliant. When you’ve been a christian for a long time, it is so very hard to hear the familiar words of the Gospel as new. And it is so very ticklish to figure out what accent you should speak in when you’re playing Jesus! The solution? Put it in words that almost no one understands, and let subtitles, with their layer of psychological remove, work their magic. Or just let the visuals speak for themselves.

Best of all is Mary. Her face and the way she carries herself, and the way everyone keeps coming to her for help. This Mary was a major revelation for me, and helped me see a warmth and strength that’s missing from . . . really most depictions of Mary in art of any kind.  When Jesus is in prison and she comes to find him, you’re so glad they have each other.

And then the resurrection scene. (I had a little larf to myself when IMDB sequestered a plot synopsis that described this scene, warning that it included a spoiler. Boo!) It’s not corny. It’s not lame. It’s glorious, and terrifying, and it redeems everything you have endured during the rest of the movie.

Must you see this movie? Of course not. There is no movie a Catholic must see. If we’re not required to believe in Fatima, not required to pray the rosary, not even required to be literate to be practicing Catholics with a genuine relationship with God, then we can certainly make our way to heaven without having seen The Passion of the Christ (or Unplanned, or Fireproof, or God’s Not Dead, or Here Be Dragons, etc. etc. etc.). Movies are just movies, and you don’t have to come up with some particular reason to dispense yourself from seeing them.

But Passion is different from other movies that Catholics tend to guilt each other into watching. It doesn’t just carry a Positive Message that We Should Support; it’s a great work of art, and because of this, it at least can be tremendously powerful spiritually. Good for Lent; good for a Lenten retreat.

If you’re going to show it to anyone, know your audience. As described above, it could fuel antisemitism in those susceptible to antisemitism. But it doesn’t automatically deliver that message; and it could genuinely spur true spiritual growth.

It’s not for kids, for goodness’ sake. It’s not for people who can’t endure violent movies. Don’t make anyone watch it. But if you can stand some gore, and if you are yearning to feel more engaged in a story that has become stale with retelling, then don’t be scared away from this movie, thinking it’s just torture porn or propaganda. It is an ordeal, but a worthwhile one; and as a work of art, it’s a great.

***

P.S.
I deliberately didn’t read Steve Greydanus’ reviews of the movie until after I finished writing. I don’t always agree with Greydanus, but he gives lots of illuminating analysis here.

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WONDER is sappy and predictable. Take your kids anyway.

When the dog died, I said to myself, “They are gonna run out of trowels if they keep on laying it on this thick.”

It’s not really a spoiler to reveal that the family dog dies halfway through “Wonder.” There can be no true spoilers in “Wonder,” possibly the most predictable movie ever put to film.

But that’s okay. It doesn’t set out to be Chekov. “Wonder”has a simple, specific goal in mind: to remind children (and adults) that kindness matters; that people are not always what they seem; that we all need mercy sometimes; and that strength and goodness ripple outward. And it achieves that goal.

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine.

Movie image: www.wonder.movie

Don’t you realize comedy is a matter of life and death?

In honor of Mel Brooks’ 91st birthday, I’m re-posting this essay (slightly modified) from 2015. Mazel tov, Mel, and thanks for everything.

***

In 2015, one Jeffrey Imm organized an angry protest against the production of Mel Brooks’ The ProducersImm’s complaint was that the show makes fun of Nazis, and therefore doesn’t pay proper respect to the horrors of the Holocaust.  As Walter Hudson points out in PJ Media, “The irony of protesting fascism with a blanket declaration of what can’t be laughed at appears to be lost on Mr. Imm.”

It’s not really worth arguing beyond that. If you’re a soldier, you use a gun to fight evil. If you’re a writer, you use words. If you’re a comedian, you use jokes. Especially if you’re a Jew. That’s how it works.

Spaceballs, Men in Tights, and Dracula are unwatchable. The problem with these movies is that Brooks tried to skewer genres that he didn’t especially care about; whereas his funniest movies (including High Anxiety, Young Frankenstein, and Blazing Saddles) target something he loves and admires. And that’s where Mel Brooks really shines: when he’s in love. And this is a man who is in love with life.

His exuberantly ridiculous jokes catch you up in his love of life, dick jokes and all. The jokes that “make sense” aren’t what make the non sequiturs and the fart jokes forgivable; they’re all part of the same sensibility.

Life is funny. Even when it’s awful (what with racism, and Nazis, and murder, and stuff like that), it’s kind of funny. Especially when it’s awful. Especially when you’re suffering.

In The Producers, Brooks isn’t just “making fun of Hitler.” At the risk of over-analyzing humor, Brooks doesn’t just tease Hitler; he robs him of his power. He subsumes him.

This is obvious in The Producers, as Brooks deftly works the play-within-a-play angle, telling the world: this is how you do it. When you are a comedian, you make people laugh, and that is how you win.  People gotta do what they gotta do (and that’s why Max Bialystock won’t ever learn).

We’re all producers, and the worst mistake we can make is the one  Bialystock and Bloom made: when we don’t realize what kind of show we’re putting on.  In Brooks’ best films, he knows exactly what kind of movie he’s producing, and his glorious openness is what makes them so disarming. It’s what makes us laugh at things we don’t want to laugh at; and laughing at those things is what robs them of their power.

An even better example of how Brooks annihilates the enemy without losing his soul is in the somewhat underrated To Be Or Not to Be, where Brooks and his real-life wife Anne Bancroft play a pair of two-bit entertainers (“world famous in Poland”) who bumble into a plot to rescue a bunch of Jews from occupied Poland.

The movie is not great, but one scene makes up for everything else. The incompetent theater crew is trapped in a darkened auditorium full of Nazis, and the only way to shepherd the crowd of Jews out of town is (work with me here) to dress them up as clowns and parade them out of the theater right under the enemy’s noses. Against all odds, it’s actually working, and the Nazis are deceived — until one poor old babushka, her face pathetically smeared with greasepaint, freezes. It’s too much for her: so many swastikas, so many guns. She can’t make herself do it, she’s weeping and trembling, and the audience realizes something is wrong.

They’re just about to uncover the whole plot, when the quick-thinking leader of the troupe looks the Nazis straight in the eye and shouts merrily, “JUDEN!” He slaps a Star of David on the old woman’s chest, takes out a clown gun, and shoots her in the head. POW.

And that’s what saves her. That’s what saves them all. The crowd roars with laughter and keeps their seats while the whole company flees. Juden 1, Hitler 0.

The same thing happened to me. Again, work with me, here!

Depression and despair have been my companions ever since I can remember. Most of the time, if I keep busy and healthy, I have the upper hand; but one day, several years ago, I did not. The only thing that seemed reasonable one day was to kill myself, and that was all I could think about. The longer it went on, the less escape there seemed to be. I was trapped, and there was too much darkness. I couldn’t pass through it.

Spoiler alert: I didn’t kill myself. I’m still here. There are many reasons for this; but one stands out in my mind, because it’s so stupid. Out of nowhere, I suddenly thought of that scene in Brooks’ 1970 film The Twelve Chairs. I barely remember this movie (we try not to have a lot of Dom DeLuise in our house, out of respect for my husband)  but the plot was some ridiculous, convoluted story of someone trying to do some simple thing, and his situation just gets worse and worse. At one point, everything has come crashing down around the hero’s ears, and there is no hope.

So what does he do? He responds by running around in circles on the beach and screaming, “I DON’T WANNA LIVE. I DON’T WANNA LIVE.” And that’s the line that popped into my head.

So guess what? I laughed. Just a little giggle, but it helped. It was a little shaft of light, and it helped. I still had to pass through the dark room full of the enemy who wanted me dead, but someone who was on my side had slapped a Star of David on my chest, made me a target — and once I was explicitly made into a target, I could survive. It was all a joke. It was a circus, and I knew I would survive.

Suddenly I knew what kind of show I was in. It was a comedy, not a tragedy after all, and I was going to make it out of that dark room.

I don’t know how else to explain it beyond that. Mel Brooks saved my life, fart jokes and all. “I don’t want to live, I don’t want to live!” made me want to live, a little bit. That’s what kind of movies he makes.

MOANA review: Even the chosen one has a choice

Early on in the animated movie Moana (2016), the Polynesian chieftain’s daughter has an adorable pet pig who’s always getting into amusing scrapes. You think, as a seasoned Disney audience, that you’ve identified the heroine’s big-eyed, wordless sidekick.

But then Moana just sails off without her pig, and she accidentally and reluctantly acquires a brainless, completely un-cute chicken for a sidekick instead.

This switcheroo feels like a deliberate nose-thumb to predictable Disney tropes. Moana’s constant companion often provides comic relief, but not as a cutesy break from the story. Instead, she has to break away from her own concerns and preserve him from death countless times, because that’s the kind of person she is. And so we get our first clue that Moana is not your typical Disney princess.

Here she is as a baby:

She wants very much to pick up the beautiful shell that is being pulled back out to sea, but makes herself protect the baby turtle, instead. She’s rewarded not for who is she is, but for what she does.

And so the movie departs from typical Disney fare in a more important but less obvious way than the chicken sidekick. It’s instantly established that she’s a strong, determined, spirited girl who is different from the rest, and she’s going to end up disobeying her father and achieving something remarkable, a la Ariel/Belle/Pocahontas/Mulan/Et Al, setting herself apart from the people who want her to stay home, be good, take no chances, etc.

But! While Moana does disobey her father, she has an excellent, self-sacrificial reason for doing so. In fact, she has the same goals as her father has, and she ends up achieving what he has taught her from babyhood that it’s her duty to achieve.

So this is not yet another story where Ms. Lovely Rebel flips her hair at the patriarchy and is rewarded handsomely for betraying everyone who loves her. Instead, she is a good, loving daughter who follows her calling, rather than following her heart. Melanie Bettinelli goes into this refreshing theme in more detail. Obedience is good, but it’s in service to something greater, and sometimes you have to just go serve something greater more directly.

Which leads me to another appealing theme in Moana: There’s a lot about being chosen and being special and having a mission and fulfilling your destiny; but every single character also very clearly has free will, along with being chosen to act. Everyone makes a choice: Maui makes several choices; even the grandmother says, as she gets her (later significant) stingray tattoo, “I hope I made the right choice.”

Moana decides at one point that she can’t or won’t go on any further, and returns the magical whatsit to the ocean. She quits and tells the ocean to choose someone else. And the ocean accepts it.

She was the chosen one, but she still has a choice herself, and she is free to crap out, which she does. (Spoiler: She later changes her mind, and Does the Thing after all, and it’s awesome.) The ocean helps them and sometimes outright saves them, but they have to do a lot more helping of themselves, by deciding to be who they are meant to be.

It felt, for an animated Polynesian myth, an awful lot like how life really works.

Just as Moana discovers that she can fulfill what her father has taught her while still disobeying his explicit command (like her ancestors, finding new islands while keeping her home in mind), she learns that her mission is somewhat different (and quite a bit harder) than she originally thought. She thought she just had to fulfill the letter of the law, act out the myth, and the rest would fall into place. Turns out she has to get a lot more involved than that. This, too, felt a lot like real life.

And if we’re going to talk about the message that young girls are receiving from their cartoon heroines, I thoroughly endorse this one: Yes, you have a vocation, and yes, you need to follow it. No, that doesn’t mean everything will automatically sail smoothly toward your happy ending. At one point, Maui is horrified to find that Moana doesn’t actually know how to sail. She draws herself up and says, with feeble bravado, “I . . . am self-taught.” Yeah, that’s not good enough. Following your heart will only take you so far. You have to not only know what your goal is, but you have to learn how to get there.

This theme of free will choices leads up very neatly to the astonishing and tremendously satisfying climax of the movie, when Moana confronts the great lava demon and reminds her that she, too, has a choice.

Hot damn! That scene is so good (the above clip is only a little bit of it). Best animation I’ve seen in a long time, and very moving.

Other things I liked:

The plot was coherent, and the several themes worked well together. The only messy, unnecessary part was the coconut pirate scene. Seemed like a blatant bid for toy sales; and my old brain couldn’t understand what it was seeing, with all that hopping around and things exploding. But it didn’t last too long.

The heroine had a very pleasant singing voice. Not too nasal or brazen. This almost never happens, and I was very grateful.

All of the characters were likeable and interesting. This almost never happens, and I was very grateful.

It was weird. I don’t know much about Polynesian mythology, but the story was odd and occasionally harsh enough that I suspect they didn’t mess with the myth too much.

There’s no love story, at all. It’s just not that kind of story. The kid is maybe fourteen years old, and she has a lot going on. No boys need apply at this juncture.

A few minor complaints: The pacing was a little off. Some scenes were rushed and cluttered, and others were a little repetitious; but overall, it moved along well.

The mother was incredibly bland. They might as well have done the traditional Disney Dead Mother thing. She does explain her husband’s motivation for cracking down on Moana, and she helps her pack for the voyage, but anyone could have done that. This is a minor complaint, and is probably me projecting.

Several scenes throughout the movie captured something so exhilarating and joyful, I was amazed. The vision of her ancestors is a thing of beauty:

It is a captivating and rejuvenating movie. See it!

Might be scary for younger kids, depending on how sensitive they are.

A few mini reviews: Michael Kiwanuka, Tom Wolfe, and vampires

 

Here’s how we’re entertaining ourselves these days:

Watching:

What We Do In the Shadows (2014)

Currently streaming on Amazon Prime. A funny, grisly, low-budget mockumentary following modern-day vampires who share a flat in New Zealand. I actually conked out before I could see the last twenty minutes or so, but it kept me giggling throughout, especially the parts where they meet a pack of werewolves (not swearwolves):

Looks like we’ve got another phrase entering the family lexicon. Not for kids or sensitive viewers. Goofy and gross and a little bit sweet. Features a few of the actors from Flight of the Conchords (which I still haven’t seen).

Reading:

Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe

Reading again after many years and wondering if there’s any way this book could have been written in 2017 without rioting. Wolfe is merciless to everyone, of course, black or white, rich or poor, connected or unconnected, but man is he merciless. Change.org would have had his head on a pike.

Anyway, the writing is better than I remembered – self-indulgent, but he deserves to be indulged. Reading it is like shamefully, hungrily working your way through an entire platter of eclairs all by yourself. I was blown away at how he allowed the facts of the central event to unfold gradually over the course of hundreds of pages, letting cowards and manipulators tell more truth than the (relatively) innocent. Should be required reading for any number of reasons.

Listening to:

Michael Kiwanuka’s latest album, Love and Hate (2017). Here’s one of the best songs, “Cold Little Heart”

His voice just tears me up. He sounds like a faithful man who’s being tried. The whole album is fantastic, and the producers (including Dangermouse) keep you on your toes.

Tell me what’s getting you through the week!

We are all (shudder) Willie Scott

On this day in 1984 Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom first spilled its guts to the world. I was ten years old, and the movie stole my heart, as it were — and I can’t decide, to this day, if that’s a good thing or not.

It’s a tremendously ugly movie, and I say this as a more-or-less fan. The first Indiana Jones movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), was of course fraught with peril and casual cruelty, and it had its gross-out moments. But it’s relevant to the spirit of Raiders that, as the avenging spirits stream out of the ark and melt the bad guys’ faces off, Indy shouts, “Marion, don’t look at it. Shut your eyes, Marion. Don’t look at it, no matter what happens!”

There’s no such warning in Temple of Doom. The audience is caged face-down and lowered with fiendish leisure into a pit of grossness and visual torment, from bugs galore, to chilled monkey brains, eyeball soup, and snake surprise:

to the turbaned thug getting bloodily squashed between the belt and the crushing wheel, to, of course, the terrified victim screaming as his heart is torn from his chest before he’s slowly lowered, alive, spreadeagled, and face down in a cage to meet his death by lava.

Good grief, really dark stuff. The central plot revolves around child slavery (because that’s entertaining) and dwells extensively in a truly hellish underground nightmare world, where children toil and scream under the whips of the brutal guards in an endless midnight of sweat, fumes, and torchlight.

A Mentalfloss article from the movie’s 30th anniversary explains:

In retrospect, [Lucas] and Spielberg attributed the extremely dark themes in Temple of Doom to their respective marriages that had broken up . . .

What they had in mind was so dark, in fact, that Raiders of the Lost Ark screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan turned down their offer to pen the second film. “I just thought it was horrible. It’s so mean,” Kasdan said later. “There’s nothing pleasant about it. I think Temple of Doom represents a chaotic period in both their lives, and the movie is very ugly and mean-spirited.”

The movie is all the more painful because it offers no likeable characters — no breezy Marion, no heartily faithful Sallah, no endearing Dr. Jones Sr., and only the cringeworthy Short Round as a foil, giving Indy no supporting friendships to highlight his more human side. The minimally talented Kate Capshaw as Willie is the squeamish, sequined, shrieking heroine you love to hate, except they forgot to put in the part where you love her.

Which makes the movie all the more more painful when, as a kid, I pondered over and over what I would do if I were in Willie’s pointy-toed shoes. She’s so spectacularly unsympathetic; and yet, good grief, it would be hard to stick your hand into that crevice crawling with oversized, squirming bugs. That scene became a kind of touchstone for my developing conscience, and I constantly interrogated myself, “Could I do the right thing if I had to? Even if it was covered with bugs???

Not gonna lie: When she picks her way through the nameless slime and cobwebs of the tunnel and groans to herself, “Ooooooh, gawd, what is thissss?” — Willie c’est moi, even unto this day, like when I’m trying to figure out what is clogging up the car seat so the buckle won’t buckle. I also feel sorry for her, against my will, when Indy and Short Round are heartlessly playing cards and assume she’s just being hysterical, when she’s actually being haunted and tormented by all the terrors of the jungle. Running back and forth and shrieking like an idiot, and nobody will even turn around? I’ve been there. Boy, do I resent being made to sympathize with this flossy-haired nothing doll.

It was Spielberg who suggested the creation of the PG-13 rating specifically for this movie, because it was too rough and gross for kids, but it’s no adult film, either. It set the standard for a certain type of film which has threatened to overwhelm the movie industry ever since: Appealing to the vanity of young teenagers (I’m old enough to watch some really grown-up stuff! Like evisceration, and boobies!) while satisfying the basest instincts of that same crowd, larding the story with scenes that genuinely adult audiences have no use for.

Nevertheless. This supremely exploitative film that continually punishes its audience and which positively glitters with insults against Indians, the Chinese, women, and even elephants is entirely bought and paid for by one of the most glorious scenes of homecoming ever put to film. Feast your eyes as every last child comes home and is folded in his parents’ loving arms:

It’s not that, as a viewer, I really want to be reeled in with a whip like that. I’d rather be treated with a little more respect throughout, thanks, instead of being jerked around for an hour and half and then getting a giant smooch at the end.

Oh, well. I guess I sympathize with Willie after all. Dammit. I don’t know if Indy redeems himself, but the movie sure does; and at this point, I stop complaining.

Old movie review: ATTACK THE BLOCK is perfect

Here’s my review of Attack the Block, a sci-fi thriller from 2011, from the producers of Shaun of the Dead. The review is from 2013. I apologize for re-running two posts in a row. It’s been a difficult couple of days, and I would appreciate prayers if you’ve got ’em! Thanks. 

Here’s the set-up:  a gang of no-good inner city kids terrorizes the neighborhood, mugging a young woman at knifepoint.  But before they’re through with her, something streaks down from space and crashes into a car.  They don’t quite know what it is, but it’s aggressive, and they kill it.  Full of swagger and machismo, they drag the corpse of whatever-it-is to the most secure place they know:  the apartment of a local drug dealer.  They think all they need to do is figure out the best way to cash in on their luck and success. But things are about to get more complicated.

Here’s the trailer:

As British filmmakers seem more free to do, they cast actors who look like real people.  If this had been an American film, the teenage girls lounging in their bedroom would have all been professionally made up and dressed like models.  But in this movie, some of the girls knew what to do with their hair, and some of them didn’t — just like real girls.  Ditto for the apartment interiors:  none of them looked like stage sets with a few messy areas thrown in stimulate gritty realism.  They just looked like actual crummy apartments.

And ditto for the characters themselves.  There was a refreshing lack of stock characters.  In an American movie, you could have pegged, within five minutes, which characters were going to live and which would die.  You would be able to tell that the privileged, white, pothead poseur with the fabulous head of hair was going to get it, because he deserves it, because he’s driving his daddy’s fancy car and so on.  But — spoiler — all that happens in this movie is he gets hit in the nose with a baseball bat because he’s not paying attention, and it’s kind of funny.

In the course of the film, the ringleader, Moses, undergoes a small but pivotal transformation:  he discovers how to channel his natural toughness and charisma from something desperate into something valuable.  He begins with a stunted moral code — that we’re responsible for ourselves and for the people on our block, and that’s it — and emerges as a true hero . . . or at least as a young man who has the makings of a real man.

Moses and his followers aren’t presented as rough diamonds or noble savages whose morals poignantly and ironically transcend that of the bourgeois upright citizen (although I was afraid that that’s where the movie was headed).  They really are bad kids doing bad things — some of them with no parents to guide them, but some of them just looking for a thrill.  At the same time, their little gang (with its armory of fireworks and cavalry of mopeds) really does have a moral code.  For comparison, we see what true evil does look like, when the drug dealer, High Hat, commands his second to head unarmed into peril. Moses’ friends, on the other hand, are constantly on the phone with each other (with the pathetic detail that they’re constantly fretting about how many minutes or texts they have left), and they never doubt for a minute that they will come to each others’ rescue.

At one point, when it seems like things couldn’t get any worse, Moses admits of the dark suspicion that the aliens invading the block are just another plague inflicted on them by the authorities to keep the black man down — just like drug addiction and AIDS.  Everyone stews with this for a moment.  And then they all laugh, just because it just sounds kind of stupid.  And yet later, when the true heroes of the day are being carted off to jail, someone remarks something like, “Aw, you guys are always arresting the wrong people!”  And yup, it’s true.  There’s no grand, cohesive injustice against the poor and downtrodden; but they do get downtrodden — just like life.  The film deftly avoids Being About Something, which makes it all the more compelling when it is true to life.

Is Attack the Block free from formula?  Not at all.  It’s a pretty standard issue sci-fi action thriller flick.  And yet it does something brilliant:  all of the characters have clearly been raised on standard issue sci fi action thriller flicks and video games.  That is part of the subtext, such as it is, of this movie:  these are kids who have been raised by TV, and don’t even realize that there’s more to life than the thrills and platitudes they’ve seen.   They are clearly imitating what they’ve seen a thousand times on screen.   And yet their behavior completely appropriate, because they really are being chased by horrible, ravenous aliens down dark streets and smoky hallways!  This layer of removal, as the kids imitate fiction, makes it possible for the filmmakers to deliver thrills and chills, without sacrificing any of the realism that makes you care about the characters.

All around, Attack the Block is an entertaining, solid, nicely crafted little movie that gave me something to think about, without getting all thinky about it.

This movie is not meant for kids.  It uses profanity freely (although that becomes something of an inside joke later in the script), it’s intense and scary, it has a few quick scenes of gross-out gore, and it shows lots of people doing drugs.  But if you are an older teen or an adult who can tell the difference between a movie that shows certain behaviors and a movie that condones and promotes certain behaviors, then you might really enjoy Attack the Block.  (There is no sexual content to this film, unless it slipped by me somewhere in the heavy accents.  They do take some getting used to!)