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The Beauty of Film: Exit Through the Gift Shop

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Exit Through the Gift Shop — Banksy (director). No director of photography or cinematographer is credited with the film, but if you have seen it, that makes some sense as much of the footage is shot by the subjects themselves, filming each other. As Banksy, or someone claiming to be Banksy, or acting as Banksy, is in frame someone else deserves some credit for this image. If you want to be more confused, watch the film and believe it. Then read the controversy surrounding it that made its Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary Feature come into question.

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Stalking in Film: Romcom or Horror

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A friend of mine¹ posted an article from the Guardian titled Study finds romcoms teach female filmgoers to tolerate ‘stalking myths’. The article is interesting from a practical standpoint but fails to address its powerful implications on the world of cinema. What resonated with me was when Ben Child referenced a major theme in film, to wit the “love conquers all myth”.  I think this can be put another way philosophically—the ends justify the means. We are so trained as an American audience to expect that final connection/resolution that there are only two possible outcomes: A. Happily Ever After, or the indie At-Least-They-Can-Suffer-Together Ever After; or B. Almost Getting Murdered By the Stalker/Suitor. These two are by no means exclusive of each other, particularly in the thriller genre, where the leading lady and the leading man may celebrate their survival with a smooch.

As tired and predictable as those outcomes are, they are also satisfying because they conform to our expectations. Many people complained about how Star Wars: The Force Awakens stuck too close to the original Star Wars, but consider how many more people complained that the prequels were not close enough to what they expected from a Star Wars movie. Film noir is one of my favorite genres, but thanks partially to the Hays Code it meant that the villain’s ending would certainly be an unprofitable one. As a literary genre crime noir has a world with right and mostly wrong, where one man abides by his code and gets the world back on track—except Chinatown, but forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown. Chinatown is the exception, since it is a masterpiece, but it is a deeply unsettling masterpiece, in part because the ending does not conform to rules of its genre. So when the audience leaves The Big Sleep or The Maltese Falcon they feel like their value system has been reaffirmed. For instance, imagine how upset an audience would be if all the toys die in a Toy Story movie.

Briefly, in a romantic comedy the structure is Act 1, Man meets Woman, but there is an obstacle. Act 2, Man and Woman start to fall in love. Act 3, new obstacle that challenges the budding relationship. Act 4, Man and Woman become a couple. For horror the structure is prelude, tangential character dies, then Act 1, meet group of characters, Act 2, characters are threatened by villain, Act 3, villain kills several characters, Act 4, the survivors survive and the villain dies (or does s/he…). A (romantic) thriller is basically a mishmash of romcom-horror. Any deviation from these formulae is naturally unsettling to the viewer, which often elicits a negative response, leading to fewer ticket sales and focus groups objecting to the differences. Thus the studios are financially incentivized to stick with their tropes.

I acknowledge that the good feeling that familiarity and satisfaction presents is pleasant, but there are certain detriments to these tropes. Much has been made of the moralizing in horror films where sexually open women get killed while the virgin survives.² In the horror/thriller dynamic one outcome of stalking is death, or at least having one’s life threatened. While that is pleasantly anti-stalking, think about what the villains look like. When the movie has a handsome stalker, like last year’s The Perfect Guy with Michael Ealy—the detective in Underworld: Awakeningthen it at least warns viewers (mostly women) to avoid stalkers. But that is in thrillers. In horror the stalker tends to be ugly.  The message from horror is often a puritanical one that both sexualizes women to the audience and condemns them for being sexual creatures, which reinforces the sexism and double standards in our society.

As for romcoms, there are various paths to the anticipated union at the end, and most of them provide similarly damaging messages. Option A is that the man wears down the woman so that she acquiesces to the man, shifting the power dynamic from her having the power of saying no, to him having conquered. Option B is that the man overcomes obstacles to win the woman, which generally devalues her relationship with everyone else. Option C is that the woman learns her lesson, which usually presents the working woman whose life is unsatisfying because she does not have a man, which in turn tells women that their value in society and their happiness derives from their relationship to men (and children). Option D is that the guy (repeatedly) saves the woman, who functionally has no agency. And those do not even address the ends justifying the means of true love validating the inevitable unions. The article provided some excellent examples, like hiring a private investigator, dumping your feelings out in an inappropriate situation, and “hounding…an ex-partner”. Other means are purchasing her through gifts and a lack of respect for her work, toying with someone’s emotions because of a bet, peeping into windows, interrupting weddings³, discounting the emotions of current unsuitable partners, cheating, and lying. The end message is that if characters A & B become AB, then whatever happened before AB was at least acceptable, if not necessary.

Take The Avengers‘ Black Widow and Hawkeye. In the movie they acknowledge that they have killed lots of people. Now they work for the protagonists and as an audience we root for protagonists. They probably committed lots of murders! Like James Bond level murders, but do we seek justice for them through prison? No, and that is kind of messed up.

Throughout this essay I have used both pronouns or the one associated with the gender that predominantly plays a certain role. That is where much of the sexism and stalker acceptance comes from—women are the ones who are the victims in thrillers/horror movies and the targets of affectionate stalking in romcoms. There are exceptions to every rule, but I am confident that my archetypes are accurate.4

This leaves us with a final question, is there another way? Of course there is, but I hold out little hope that they will overtake the massive genre film industry in Hollywood. Some examples come to mind, Dumb and Dumber is more comedy than romance, but it manages to have neither protagonist wind up with a woman. Notting Hill does not have any real negatives like I have discussed above, thus a predictable romcom can be done without feeding the kindly stalker narrative. Maybe the key is to have a non-threatening leading man. Really the only one that branched off was Dumb and Dumber because there was no joyous union, no happy ending. So it can be done in a fun, profitable way. Cinema should show a broad swath of values, not just the 19th century puritanical ones. So long as Hollywood insists on offering very limited roles for actresses I do not see the glamorization of stalking in romantic comedies to end.

 

¹ Margaret Weirich
² Read any review of It Follows, which does not punish the characters for having sex.
³ Marrying the “wrong person” as a theme is both condescending to the bride(groom) and disrespectful to her/his choices.
4 As a counterpoint, horror films also tend to be the most progressive in terms of female autonomy and survival. But generally those films have one strong female character, not many.

Training Day

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Every review of this movie focuses on Denzel Washington’s heel turn into an Academy Award for best actor. Well this review will not comment on that.

****½

It is a good sign when the movie begins with Ethan Hawke’s Jake Hoyt saying, “Uh, yes sir. And that’s exactly why I signed up, and I just wanted to thank you for the op…” Then Detective Alonzo Harris–Denzel Washington–hangs up on him. What Hawke does not say, what director Antoine Fuqua does not have him say is, “portunity”. In a cheesy movie when someone gets hung up, he or she will finish the word/sentence for laughs. Then there is the requisite pause for the anticipated laughter. That sets the tone for a movie whose characters and issues do not take the easy way out.

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Officer Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke) looking ill at ease in a bad house in a bad neighborhood in bad L.A., in the not bad movie Training Day (1999).

The locations in this movie were excellent. Fuqua makes Los Angeles a character in and of itself. While Hoyt tries to survive this day of training, it seems like LA would rather have him dead. Maybe it is because Hoyt is white, suburban, and naîve that I found him easy to identify with. Or maybe Fuqua just did a great job, or the screenwriter, David Ayer–The Fast and The Furious–wrote a universally relatable character¹. I will say this for Ayer, his writing credits suggest he had a fully formed world of cops and robbers set in late 1990s LA in his head for years and years. Ignoring that his first film credit is U-571, he starts Fast; then gets to Training Day, which went darker and more realistic; he makes S.W.A.T. and it must have chafed at him to take 1970s schlock and having to put it into his LA; then come(s) Harsh Times, probably the darkest of the lot. Finally Ayer is seemingly done. Seven years pass and he returns with End of the Watch which again has cops and drug dealers, morality and survival and you know where it takes place; he follows this up by finally leaving LA to do a Schwarzenegger version of End of Watch called Sabotage. He is like the J.R.R. Tolkien, but instead of Middle Earth he has South Central L.A. Perhaps Woody Allen’s New York word be more appropriate, but the LA death count probably falls in the middle.

Moving into the realm of secondary characters, Scott Glenn—Capt. Bart Mancuso of the U.S.S. Dallas in The Hunt for Red October—plays Roger, the guy who has been there and done that. I am a mark² for Glenn, although I did not sing his praises in the 250 best underrated actors article I occasionally link to. Tom Berenger though? His best work can be found either as the star of Major League or in the epic Gettysburg. Giving bit parts to Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dré was kind of jarring, especially since I had forgotten about their presence in the movie. Young Eva Mendes—The Other Guys—was really good too. Young Terry Crews had no lines but he looks so similar 14 years later.

Cle Sloan (as Bone) and Terry Crews, plus Hawkes, in Training Day. I wanted to use a photo of Eva Mendes, but I do not think that I have posted particularly revealing photos before on here.

Cle Sloan (as Bone) and Terry Crews, plus Hawkes, in Training Day. I wanted to use a photo of Eva Mendes, but every one online looked too hot for this post.

This cautionary tale is actually a cautionary tale disguised as a cautionary tale. If that sounds confusing, think of it as a movie that says karma is a bitch, but also an elephant, since elephants seemingly never forget. To paraphrase Yoda, to learn, sometimes, you have to forget what you already know. Simultaneously, you have to hold onto the truth inside yourself, even as you are told that your truth is a fiction, or that it will become fiction soon enough. Because if you do not choose wisely, you will wind up beaten or dead…at least in David Ayers’s LA.

 

¹ I cannot remove my bias. Even when I strive for objectivity my concept of objectivity is impacted by my personal bias.

² A mark is a term for a fan, particularly in pro wrestling. It also can mean a sucker, in both wrestling, confidence schemes and gambling. Used in a sentence, “Or thought I was a mark [be]cause I used to hang with Eazy [E].” – Dr. Dré, Fuck Wit Dré Day from the album “The Chronic”.

 

The Beauty of Film: Lincoln

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Lincoln — Janusz Kaminski (cinematographer) & Steven Spielberg (director). I love the lighting and the color in this shot. I should list Amy Andrews as the key costumer too for this one. Notice how the audience for President Lincoln is entirely Black, while his own whiteness gets obscured by the angle, costume and lighting. This Spielberg guy might have a career in the movies some day.

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Kung Fury

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***½

What are you going to do?

My job. I’m gonna go back in time to Nazi Germany and kill Hitler once and for all.

What the hell did I just watch? So many references. So many parodies. So 1980s. I do appreciate references and accurate satires. This 30 minute movie does not feel like a 30 minute movie. Based just on the look, and excluding the content, I would not have expected to learn that this was a Kickstartered movie.

Hackerman (Leopold Nilsson) hacking time so Kung Fury (David Sandberg) can surf back to the past on his keyboard. 2015 Lampray.

Hackerman (Leopold Nilsson) hacking time so Kung Fury (David Sandberg) can surf back to the past on his keyboard. 2015 Lampray.

The star/writer/director is David Sandberg. He appears to know Kung Fu, but it is difficult to really tell in this amalgam of Miami Vice, Tron, Weird Science, Rambo 3, Zee Terminator, Marvel Comics, Superman (if only through unsubtle product placement), 2001’s Hal, Knight Rider, Transformers, He-Man/Sheera, norse mythology, VHS tapes, and Heavy Metal (the movie). I pride myself on getting references and even I had to look up several of these. There are others, but it felt intellectually dishonest to present them as my own here. That is correct, in this review I just used the phrase “intellectually dishonest,” but do not worry, the next line has “Kung Führer” in it.

While some reviewers might highlight how Hitler—yeah, the Kung Führer—was portrayed by Jorma Taccone from The Lonely Island, I loved recognizing Björn Gustavsson—Spy, Rayna’s final guard who gets mocked mercilessly by Melissa McCarthy. He even showcased his amazing ability to unsuccessfully stop himself from crying while embarrassed mid-argument! So if you want to see that scene you should watch this movie. If you liked the shows on Adult Swim, then you should watch this movie. If you find modern alt-comedy confusing and frustrating, then steer clear.

The Mummy

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**½

The language of the slaves. I may have use for you. And the rewards will be great.

And the best quotation from the ride is, “Your end will be my beginning.”

To be cruel or to be kind? If I were speaking to someone who worked on the film I would certainly be polite and focus on the positives. On the other hand, people like biting reviews. I do want to say that I generally enjoyed watching the movie, in a National Treasure sort of way.

To be kind…the cast for this movie was excellent. Brendan Fraser–Rick–is not well regarded, but he has shown in movies like The Quiet American that he really has acting chops.  Rachel Weisz hides much of her skill behind a zany character here–Evy. Her resumé is weaker than I thought, but The Constant Gardener was very good. John Hannah, Evy’s brother, may not be a family name, but he did a great job as Dr. Gerard in the excellent episode of Poirot, “Appointment with Death.” That was a great episode—Tim Curry was in it, I believe. It was more a movie than an episode. Arnold Vosloo does a good job as the Mummy/Imhotep. My favorite role of his career is as the Mummy in Universal Studio’s The Mummy’s Revenge, which is a great ride. Kevin J. O’Connor plays Beni and makes him seem what was once called “ethnic”. I do not know why this American was cast as such. I did like the part where he speaks Hebrew, that is probably the highlight of the movie—see the above quotation. Note, there are not many women in this movie, which is too bad. Anyways, Jonathan Hyde seems respectful towards Egyptian history and culture, so I do not know what he was doing in this film. He was also very entertaining in Anaconda, as the English jerk. But the two gems in the rough are Erick Avari and Corey Johnson. Avari was #127 on IMDb’s Top 250 Underrated Actors—here is my take on that. And Corey Johnson has memorable roles in Bourne SupremacyUnited 93, and Captain Phillips. Oh and I almost forgot Patricia Velasquez, since she is really only in the first scenes. But she was Marta #2 on “Arrested Development” and looks amazing as Anck Su Namun.

See? Totally gorgeous.

Patricia Velasquez as Anck Su Namun in 1999’s The Mummy.

Plus, in some ways this was a better movie than Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull—mostly in that it was not a big disappointment. It was fun to watch with friends while eating traditional movie theater snacks. And lastly, the soundtrack was fine.

To be unkind…what the hell is with the premise of this movie? High Priest Imhotep falls for the Pharaoh’s wife, Anck Su Namun. That name appears to be, and Google agrees with me on this, Ankhesenamun. Maybe you know her better as Ankhesenpaaten, or maybe you know her better as King Tut’s queen/half-sister. So Imhotep wanted her. But he died 1300 years before her birth. What does that make her, a Tomb robber? Does it make him a millennial cradle robber? Having done some research I have learned that this was not the fault of this movie, but in fact of the 1932 classic Mummy.

If I did not lose everyone with my take on the love story, then I will proceed to more cogent criticisms. First, what was with the image quality in this movie? It intercuts from movie quality film to what appears to be home video. The home video might actually have been higher quality or some higher frame rate, but as it was thrown in only occasionally throughout fight scenes, it was jarring and took me out of the movie repeatedly.

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Rick (Fraser) fights while Beni (O’Connor) runs at the Battle of Hamunaptra. 1999 Universal Pics. The Mummy. It looks good too, unlike the next home video type shot.

Second, the lame jokes with no sense of priorities. The library shelves falling down was visually interesting, but then it never gets cleaned up. When Rick is to be hanged the jokes keep coming and haggling ensues while his dying body kicks. Men being on fire or left to die on ship also gets played for laughs. The tone of the movie jumps from that distasteful irreverence to wanting us to care about the characters. See what I just did there?

Third, both sides have terrible plans. Just awful plans, which they abandon, especially if the plan actually happened to be working. In the words of the Mummy’s wiki, “[Imhotep] proclaimed that as Evelyn died, his lover would live, and he would become invincible. About to stab Evelyn with the dagger, he was interrupted by Jonathan, who had found the Book of Amun-Ra.” Let me highlight that logically, IF Mummy stab down, then Mummy invincible. No qualifiers. All he needed to do was stab, instead of stopping to listen and then goofing off for five minutes. True, if the book of Amun-Ra were used correctly, the Mummy would have been screwed, and lo and behold, he was eventually, but just stab her! She is tied to the altar!

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Stab! Stab! Stab! I could find no good images, so this screenshot used to sell replicas must do.

Four, what was with the ten plagues? While they occurred in Egypt they had nothing to do with Imhotep. The Pharaoh was not even a Ramesses in this story! Yet everyone in the movie just thinks that this Mummy coming back to life will parallel the plagues visited upon Mitrzayim by God, to punish and warn the Egyptians.  And there was no plague of mind control! Boils do not explain mind control!

Well, the important thing is to look on the bright side and be glad that the Mummy was dead at the end and the heroes were safe. The end. Wait, what? There was a sequel? Sequels?? Well there must be a silver lining, at least tell me that this franchise helps jumpstart Dwayne Johnson’s non-Rock career?  Speaking of which…anyone have a copy of The Scorpion King I can borrow? I have not seen it since it was in theaters. Now hit that sweet Godsmack theme Scorpion King had!

The Beauty of Film: A Bridge Too Far

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A Bridge Too Far —  Geoffrey Unsworth, BSC (cinematographer) & Richard Attenborough (director). Everyone sees the Panzer tank and the PIAT (Projector, Infantry, Anti Tank), but please note how the handle of the umbrella is still in frame lower left.

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