Monthly Archives: January 2023

Snow days

Unfortunately, I have to take another break from updates for a few weeks. There’s a lot going on that I have to take care of. But I hope to be back in better shape in February. Enjoy the snow!

Pearl Harbor (2001)

*. Pearl Harbor has caught a lot of flack (to use an appropriate metaphor) for having what is considered one of the stupidest lines in movie history. As the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor and chaos reigns, ace pilot Danny Walker (Josh Hartnett) exclaims “I think World War Two just started!”
*. Of course, by December 7, 1941 World War Two had been in full swing for a couple of years, and most historians today would backdate it even further. And while I’d cut the character of Danny some slack by saying it’s clear in context that he means the Second World War has come to America, it’s still surprising he expresses himself this way as we’ve seen him watching newsreels of the war in Europe and Asia, and we also know that his best buddy Rafe McCawley (Ben Affleck) is fighting overseas flying for the RAF. But no matter. For Danny the war has just started, and that’s what counts.
*. In other words, I really don’t think it’s quite as stupid a line as it’s accused of being. That said, Pearl Harbor has plenty of genuine native American dopiness to spare. But why? Tora! Tora! Tora! came out in 1970 and is widely credited for its historical accuracy and (a Japanese-American co-production) balance. Then thirty years later Hollywood came out with this confection, which makes a hash of history and is filled with jingoistic applause lines. Had America gotten dumber as well as more nationalistic? Note that this movie came out just before 9/11, so all the rah-rah stuff wasn’t in response to that.
*. Some of the change was just Hollywood being Hollywood. And with Michael Bay at the helm you can take what you think that means and double it. There is a story built around a romantic triangle, with Danny and Rafe vying for the love of beautiful nurse Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale). In contrast, I think there was only a single speaking female part in Tora! Tora! Tora! (the flight instructor, who was a real historical figure). The other big change here is the happy ending, because after the attack on Pearl there’s an extended second half that deals with the Doolittle raid. Because let’s face it, you couldn’t end a movie on such a downer note as the U.S. Pacific Fleet sinking in shallow water. Even the producers of Tora! Tora! Tora! knew that was going to be a tough sell, and it was.

*. Finally, there’s lots of CGI action and things being blown up. This was state-of-the-art in 2001, and still looks OK in the usual artificial sort of way today (though the planes seem to me to be flying much too fast when we’re in the cockpit). But of course today you can also play games online that are equally impressive visually. Personally, I was more impressed at the propeller rolling across the tarmac after the plane explodes in Tora! Tora! Tora! than I was by any of the pyrotechnics here.
*. I don’t know, but video games might even come with better dialogue too. What we get here is sappy True Romance stuff alternating with Men in Combat cheer lines. When Danny and Rafe take to the skies in their P-40s the dogfight is punctuated with lines like “We’re ain’t gonna let these sons of bitches get home!” “How do you like someone shooting back at you?” “Come on! Come on!” “Oh, I’m on your ass now!” “Yeah! I got one!” “Whoa!” and “I got you, you son of a bitch!” Meanwhile, Cuba Gooding Jr. brings the fire down below playing a ship’s cook who’s not allowed to fire the big guns (boo!) but then gets his chance when the Japs attack (yay!).

*. Now I don’t doubt that people in the heat of battle say things like this, but they aren’t meant to be realistic here so much as to provide the action equivalent to a sitcom’s laugh track. You’re supposed to pump your fist along with all this action, and for all I know audiences did. Even the sailors cheer along in cutaway shots, and FDR gets up out of his wheelchair in the ultimate act of courage and defiance. Mein Führer, I can walk!
*. Twenty years later I don’t think this movie registers in people’s minds much at all, having joined most of the rest of Michael Bay’s forgettable output. The only thing that impresses is the handsomeness of Hartnett and Affleck, who, to give them their due, never looked better. But at just over three hours this is a trial to get through, stuffed as it is with corn and claptrap. It did good box office though, which brings me back to the only really interesting thought I had watching it: were audiences getting dumber? Or was it just our movies?

X-Rated: The Greatest Adult Movies of All Time (2015)

*. The title might be parsed. Great adult movies? Have there been any, unless we make that judgment strictly relative? And of all time? When do we start? With stag films? Nudie cuties?
*. For the question of when we start the answer is obvious: with Deep Throat, Behind the Green Door, and Devil in Miss Jones. These were the three films that made porn chic in the early ’70s. But what was porn chic, anyway? Did it really amount to much, or have any lasting impact? I don’t think so.
*. Then there’s the question of whether any of these movies are great. Or even good. My own feeling is that very few of them are. I do think Behind the Green Door and Devil in Miss Jones are at least worth a look. After that, however, I don’t think any of the titles ranked here are even of historical interest. Maybe Café Flesh works as a kind of futuristic social allegory. And Andrew Blake is a director with an erotic eye (Hidden Obsessions is the Blake title they go with in this listing). But after that, there’s nothing.
*. We may well ask what makes a porn film great. Given its function, shouldn’t it just be sexy? So how impressed should we be at the vain attempts at comedy in so many of these movies? In their reworking of various influences? Or their ability to waste a (relatively) big budget on cheesy effects? Doesn’t all this stuff just get in the way? Did anyone think Star Wars XXX: A Porn Parody was either sexy or funny?
*. The almost sad thing is that it really appears as though some adult directors try. Brad Armstrong, one of the directors interviewed in this film, says that if you cut the sex out of his movie Flashpoint it would still be decent entertainment, with a “B-movie vibe.” Oh, Brad. No.
*. This might have been a decent little documentary, but it’s really just an industry showpiece. Produced by Paul Fishbein of Adult Video News, which may explain why they keep talking about how many AVN awards some of these movies won. Or maybe there’s just no other metric available for judging which of these movies is the best. But are there no real porn critics? Al Goldstein was one of the few who seemed to take the role seriously, and may have even invented the job. But he didn’t end well.
*. Directed by Bryn Pryor (whose porn name, Eli Cross, comes from Peter O’Toole’s character in The Stunt Man). One of Cross’s adult titles makes the list. Or perhaps more than one. I wasn’t taking a lot of notes. Hosted by performer Chanel Preston, who does well enough with her clothes on.
*. Some of the interviews with vets are OK, and Jacky St. James provides a rare spark of personality and intellect. But nothing particularly insightful is said. Commentary by current porn stars also seems pretty pointless. As I say, it’s just an exercise in self-congratulation. There is no discussion of what makes a film erotic or of changing tastes in these matters, no historical or political context, no critique of the industry, or even acknowledgment of such critiques.
*. Still, X-Rated did make me think. The porn industry has tracked new technologies closely, from peep shows to VHS to the Internet. But given how completely it has adapted to the latter, is there any future in porn features, the kind of movies celebrated here? It may be, as Preston says at the end, that in the sort of fare offered up on various tube sites what we’re seeing is “a return to the loops and vignettes” that started it all. What place does film criticism have in responding to any of this? Little to begin with, I suppose, and less and less all the time.

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead (1990)

*. The oddest factoid I turned up when doing a bit of research into this title, which I first saw during its original release run, is that it received a “zero stars” review from Roger Ebert.
*. Huh? I could understand not liking Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead, but it’s still a long, long way from Freddy Got Fingered and Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo. I mean, Roger even gave Battlefield Earth half a star. Sure, he gave Walker the no-star treatment too, but what I mean is that he wasn’t in the habit of nuking decent flicks.
*. I’m beginning with Ebert’s surprising rating because of the way his review worries over the question of “What went wrong?” The answer isn’t simple. He likes the play and has nothing against its adaptation here and the direction by Tom Stoppard. He likes the cast. Finally he settles on the idea that it was a bad idea from the start: “I think the problem is that this material was never meant to be a film, and can hardly work as a film.”
*. I can see where he’s coming from, but I don’t think this cuts it. I don’t think this is an entirely successful adaptation of the play, and it may be that it was an impossible job putting it on film, but I think it’s easier than this to identify where it goes wrong. It’s too slow on its feet, especially given the nature of the dialogue, and the visual gags that Stoppard introduces, if they even rise to the level of gags, are pretty dull. Rosencrantz watching the paper boat rise and fall with the water level in his bath? What was the point of that?

*. I should jump in here and say I don’t hate this movie. In fact, I think it’s pretty good. It has a lovely, frosted look that perfectly walks the line between naturalism and the theatrical. The three leads are all excellent, Richard Dreyfuss surprisingly so. He strikes just the right impish note. The editing is a bit rough in places but the photography is first rate. And the play is still the play.
*. It’s a play that was almost twenty-five years old at the time. I wonder how Stoppard felt about going back to the work that was his breakout hit. I suspect he wasn’t very sentimental about it. On taking on the role of director (to date it’s the only movie he’s helmed), he remarked that “It just seemed that I’d be the only person who could treat the play with the necessary disrespect.”
*. Usually I’d consider that a good thing, but as I hinted at in what I said about the pacing I think this is a production that is, in the end, too solemn. It needed a lighter touch. Stoppard’s dialogue, for example, has the effect of making you feel like you’re always a step behind. I think this is intentional. But here it’s too easy to keep up.

*. A large part of the way the play works is by exploiting the friction between the almost slapstick nature of the comedy and the musings on death and the meaning and purpose of life. I’m not sure it’s all that profound in the end, basically just using the metaphor of the stage to show how we find ourselves thrust into various roles in life that we’re forced to go along with, losing ourselves in the process, and that some people just aren’t very important in the grand scheme of things, supporting actors in a greater drama. Still, it makes you think about where the boundaries of the world’s stage lie.
*. I can’t think of a better example of this than the game of Questions that plays out like a tennis match. Some reviewers objected to this being too obvious, but the thing is I always remembered this scene as having them actually playing tennis while they volley questions back and forth. I was, I think, confusing the scene with one from another movie, but still for nearly thirty years I had a memory of an imaginary game of tennis that I never actually saw. There is something in this more than natural, if philosophy could find it out.

The King’s Man (2021)

*. Horrible. Just horrible.
*. The first two Kingsman movies — Kingsman: The Secret Service and Kingsman: The Golden Circle — weren’t groundbreaking classics, but they were somewhat distinctive in their blend of wildly over-the-top, retro spy shenanigans mixing lowbrow humour with hugely indulgent (in terms of both budget and violence) action sequences. Whatever you thought of them, it did seem as though they’d set up a franchise. You knew what you were getting with a Kingsman movie.
*. That is, until this bloated piece of junk finally crawled into cinemas, over two years after its original release date. There had been something like eight postponements, mostly due no doubt to the COVID-19 pandemic, but I also suspect that the studio might have known they had a turkey on their hands. Eventually, however, the bomb did go off, leaving the franchise now in ruins.
*. I can’t understand what happened. Matthew Vaughn returned to direct, and shared the writing duties as he had in the first two films. So you’d think there’d be some continuity. But everything about this movie is different. Different, and worse.

*. Technically this is a prequel, taking us back to the years of the First World War, a conflict that was hatched by a bitter Scot going by the name of the Shepherd (Matthew Goode) with a raging hard-on for independence. He lives on a mesa somewhere with a bunch of goats and a stable of agents who have infiltrated the corridors of power all over the world. These agents include such historical luminaries as Rasputin (who also had a prominent role to play in Hellboy, evidence of his oddly durable place in the annals of villainy), Mata Hari, Gavrilo Princip, and even Vladimir Lenin.
*. Opposed to this secret society of international shit-disturbers is the pacifist Orlando, Duke of Oxford (Ralph Fiennes). Orlando is, in turn, assisted by his box-checking sidekicks Polly (Gemma Arterton) as the sassy lady who can talk back and kick ass, and his Black butler Shola (Djimon Hounsou), who doesn’t talk back and who will take a bullet for his titled lord, should the need arise (and it does).
*. Orlando has a wife and son but the wife is killed in the opening sequence while Orlando is visiting one of Kitchener’s concentration camps in the Boer War, which was kind of depressing. And then his son, who we were starting to like, is killed in the trenches in the Great War, which is even more depressing. And so, duty calls and the Kingsman outfit is born.
*. I don’t know where to begin explaining how much I hated this movie, or even if I should bother. But for starters, it’s at least an hour too long. Instead of just being pure insanity, like the first two movies, the script is full of leaden lines delivered portentously and the plot is a mash of actual historical events retold as part of the Shepherd’s conspiracy. So we get the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo, Rasputin “healing” the son of the tsar, and the Zimmerman telegram all explained in ways that don’t make any sense, even if you accept tossing history to the wind.
*. To take just one example: even after the Zimmerman telegram is decrypted America still won’t enter the war on the side of the allies because President Woodrow Wilson is being blackmailed with a video that had been made of Mata Hari giving him a lap dance in the Oval Office. I mean, this is just stupid.

*. Where are the laughs? This movie has no sense of humour at all. The only scene where I even thought they were trying to be funny was the awkward and creepy bit that has Rasputin massaging Orlando’s leg before turning into a whirling dervish. At least I think that was trying to be funny. And it sure wasn’t.
*. Instead of laughs we get a painful rehash of how awful the First World War was, with a ponderous reading of Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum est.” Which isn’t even on point because that poem is about a gas attack, which is something we don’t see here. Otherwise, even the trenches of the Western front are presented in the usual prettified style, and the heroism of Orlando’s son is underlined in bold in headline type, all of which sort of undercuts Owen quite a bit.
*. To dilate on this point just a bit: Orlando’s arc, and it’s the same arc the film travels, takes him from being a conscientious pacifist to someone who glories in war. As he vanquishes the Shepherd at the end (throwing him from a cliff after the Shepherd mocks him for being a namby-pamby peacenik) he declares that now he can become the man his son would have been. That is, a military hero. Then the dirty filmstrip is destroyed and America joins up to fight and there are cheers and exclamations of how “We’re going to war!” Yay!
*. But even this naked jingoism isn’t the most alarming political message the film carries. Apparently the Shepherd isn’t just anti-British empire but anti-the toffs who threw him off of his family farm. And he’s the villain. He chums around with the likes of Lenin and Hitler because Scottish independence is on the same level as the Russian Revolution and the Nazi takeover in Germany. Not surprisingly, all his operatives are lower-class losers raging against the system. The point being that there is a natural class order (not to mention a gender and race hierarchy) just as there is a natural international (imperial) order, and to go against any of this means you’re not just wrongheaded but pure evil. Hard to believe a movie like this existing in the twenty-first century, but here we are.

*. Look, if a movie wants to be pro-war (and pro-empire, and pro-Victorian class structures) that’s fine. But then why all the stuff about war being so horrible? And why introduce Polly and Shola just to have them be such stereotypes?
*. Orlando’s son is killed at the front (for the crime of impersonating a Scot), which sends his dad into a tailspin. But Polly is there to stir him out of his funk with the usual clichés and by tendering her resignation. Orlando then rises to his feet, as the music rises, and says he won’t accept her resignation but he will accept a very strong cup of tea. The music soars! Polly smiles! Because you know what a strong cuppa means in Britain. It means he wants to fill Polly up with a new heir! And also save the empire. Maybe both.
*. What a dull, stupid, cliché-ridden, politically obnoxious mess. I can’t imagine wasting $100 million on such crap. Something is very wrong with the movie business.
*. One can only hope this is the end of the line for the franchise, at least if they don’t have anything better on tap. And since a mid-credit sequence introduces us to a young Adolf Hitler, who is going to work together with Lenin to . . . just trash everything for no good reason at all . . . it seems they did have a sequel in mind. From the looks of it, that might turn out to be the worst movie never made. Let’s hope.