So, here’s the thing. In December, I signed up to write all of AXS’s New Year’s concert previews. Not too long after I finished those, an editor asked me to take on all of AXS’s Valentine’s Day concert previews. Not too long after I finished those, I volunteered to help tackle some of the St. Patrick’s Day because I’m an idiot, I guess. I mean, I’ll probably change my attitude once I get paid–all the Valentine’s Day ones should hit, well, today, followed by St. Patrick’s Day next month–but what ended up happening every time was I had less writing time than I expected and ended up coming home from working full-time and spending entire evenings for days, in some cases over week, finishing the things. It wasn’t even that it was difficult work, it was just that some cities don’t have as much going on as others, so hunting down, say, five family-friendly St. Patrick’s Day events can take a long time.

I keep saying when I finish up that I’m taking a writing break for a week, but at this point, not even I believe me when I say that. I’m just grateful that the only possible holiday they could throw at me next is Earth Day, and I don’t think that’s a thing an event site cares enough about.

In the midst of all this, Terra started working at a crisis call center and wanted to spend one of her nights off seeing a movie, so I ditched an evening I should’ve spent writing to hang out with her and her new beau, this guy she’s been friends with for a little while that I always kind of thought had a thing for her. Well, with her husband turning into a colossal shit, one thing led to another, and bam, we go on double dates now.

Look, here’s the thing: it’s super easy to start comparing someone’s ex to their new significant other, and on top of that, hindsight is 20/20, as they say. I never had a problem with her husband–we actually got along pretty well–but this new guy, whose name is also Scott, just seems…so much better. He’s a good few years younger than us, meaning myself, Terra, and Paul, so there are some things that come along with that difference in age, but that’s been our only real complaint. He’s easier to talk to, he’s more friendly, he’s more compassionate, and so on. Her husband had this impatience and harshness to him, even pre-Navy, that this guy just doesn’t. He’s more fun to hang out with, and he seems to just be better for her, too.

So we met up in the South Hills. I made a pit stop to unload a stack of old magazines at Half Price Books and got like a whole two bucks for them, but hey, I’ll take it–better than the stack taking up much-needed space in my apartment, especially considering I never read almost all of them. I don’t even know how I got them, either, aside from Rolling Stone, which I know comes with certain Live Nation ticket orders. But I don’t know how I ended up with Better Housekeeping and Ebony. I have an unsubstantiated theory that it has to do with my FYE membership.

We grabbed a quick food-court dinner since car trouble had Scott and Terra running late. Now, I’ve never had to worry about a movie selling out pretty much ever, yet sure enough, when we went back to the theater, Split was sold out. After doing some Googling, we figured if we left fast, we could make it back to Washington for the next showing there, and we just barely made it–it was close to selling out, and we ended up not being able to sit together.

I guess the crowds were on to something. The reviews I read before going in were all positive, and honestly, I’ve really been rooting for M. Night Shyamalan to make a comeback. I really liked his early films–I’m even a rare fan of Lady in the Water, or at least I think it has more merit than people give it credit for–and after movies like The Village and The Happening, where the quality really started tanking, I felt he needed to take a break and get back to more basic storytelling that didn’t focus so much on a twist. I knew, and I think a lot of other fans and general moviegoers knew, too, that he was capable of much better, and I really hoped he’d come back with something good and not just kind of disappear. And I think he’s done it with Split. It has received some valid criticism, but it was entertaining to watch, appropriately disturbing, and just delivered a good trip to the movies. I was so happy for Shyamalan when I left that theater because he finally got one right. It’s got to feel good to have your movies go from being panned to get genuinely good reviews and ending up #1.

On another Shyamalan note, I also Netflixed the Avatar: The Last Airbender not too long before we went. Now, I hear that the problems with that movie have less to do with Shyamalan himself and more to do with the script and studio, which I totally believe, but that, too, was bad. It kind of stripped the show of everything that made it good and paired it with a whitewashed cast–with the exception of the villains, who were of course still brown, because Hollywood–and bad acting. The exception was Dev Patel. Good for you, Dev Patel.

 

Friday 5: Celluloid Heroes

 

  1. What movie most recently impressed you with its score or soundtrack? Deadpool. I know everyone talks about that soundtrack anyway, but whoever was in charge really deserves credit for the delightful use of Juice Newton’s “Angel of the Morning.”
  2. What movie most recently impressed you with its costumes or makeup? The only thing coming to mind is The Danish Girl, but I hesitate to say that because I know of, understand, and agree with the criticism over casting Eddie Redmayne instead of a transgender actress, and it just doesn’t feel quite right to praise it for its costumes and makeup as a result. I have some other thoughts on this that I’m having trouble articulating, to be honest, but they involve praising people for putting makeup on a cisgendered man as opposed to casting a transgender woman.
  3. What movie most recently impressed you with its scenic backdrops? The Revenant. It had some great shots of the setting and scenery.
  4. What movie most recently impressed you with its originality? We recently Netflix’d Rear Window, a Hitchcock film in which a man recovering from a broken leg is spending his time looking out his window and creeping on his neighbors and comes to suspect one such neighbor murdered his wife. It surprised us with how unpredictable we found it–we’ve both seen lots of movies and read lots of books and sometimes have a really easy time of predicting what will happen or where something is going. Consult our somewhat ill-fated Prometheus screening as an example. But we weren’t sure of how things were gonna go, which was nice on its own but also because it’s an older movie and you’d think we’d be able to see right through it. Not to mention the fact that it inspired plenty of remakes and copycats, so you know it was on to something.
  5. What movie most recently impressed you with its dialogue? Rear Window wins this one, too. This ties into characterization, as well, but with the two Hitchcock movies I’ve seen–this and Psycho–I’ve noticed a pattern of not sugarcoating people and their words or actions. The genre helps, too, but there doesn’t seem to be this tendency to have people always being polite. In particular, we liked how sort of rough the character of the nurse was and how they came through in her lines, but we did feel like everyone spoke in a very realistic way.

I made a stop over at my parents’ house again last Wednesday after a super fun gynecologist visit to once again take advantage of free laundry. I’ve been around there a lot lately mostly out of necessity, and as much as I don’t like making the hour-long drive, it has been nice to wash large loads of clothes for free or tackle towels and bedding without having to spend $4 to do it.

My mom was heading out drinking with her coworkers for the evening and invited me out with them, so I headed over and had some dinner and drinks with them. I’ve always enjoyed my mom’s coworkers, even when I was a teenager. They’re fun, and I don’t feel like I’m hanging out with people nearly twice my age.

On Thursday, Paul and I ventured out again to Row House Cinema in Pittsburgh, a little movie theater known for doing screenings of older movies that I’ve always wanted to check out. I usually pass on going because a lot tend to be on Thursday nights, and with Paul and I both working at 7 in the morning, we don’t like being out late–and late for us is past 9:30, our bedtime. But a former coworker he really liked, Ian, had two extra tickets to a screening of Nosferatu, with a Nosferatu beer included with admission. Paul’s been wanting to hang out with Ian since their project got scrapped and half the department got let go, and I’ve been wanting to watch Nosferatu, so it was a win-win.

Row House Cinema, first of all, is really cool. I see why so many people like it. It’s small, but it’s nice and has beer and great movie selections, like a whole Halloween series in October and V for Vendetta all day on Nov. 5. There were a lot of ads for upcoming screenings I’d really like to go to. I wish I would’ve gone sooner, and I’m definitely gonna have to suck it up in the future and go out on a work night, because it’s worth it. Besides, might as well while I can, when I’m young and childfree.

As for the movie itself, I really enjoyed it. My Netflix list has been totally out of control basically since I first got Netflix, and while I try to watch classic movies, there’s just so much out there and I have so many other things I want to do, not to mention obligations and things, that it’s tough to get to. I wish I could say I’d seen a full-length silent film before this, but alas, I had not. It’s not like I was expecting to dislike the format, but it held my attention much better than I thought it would. And in fact, some things impressed me–the picture had been restored, yeah, but I was still surprised by how crisp and clear it looked.

Nosferatu wasn’t a perfect movie–mostly, the pacing started to get a little odd as it got closer to the end–but it doesn’t feel fair to judge it too harshly when the medium was still so new. It also got a lot of laughs despite being early horror, but I’d say it was less because it was genuinely funny and more because it was a little campy, partly because of the silent format and the fact that so much is being done visually out of necessity. Facial expressions in particular were pretty entertaining, as they were often really exaggerated. I laughed at the absurdity of some things, like Nosferatu carrying a coffin through town in the middle of the day without a single person wondering what the fuck this creepy dude was doing carrying a coffin through town in the middle of the day. Or even just the general creepiness of Nosferatu just, you know, being himself.

That said, though, as funny as he was in some ways, he’s also still pretty creepy. I mean, he still looks creepy, for one, after all that makeup and special effects have brought to horror movies in the years since, and he certainly acts creepy. The story may be incredibly familiar and almost a trope now, but there’s still something that gets you about this guy creeping around a castle and eventually creeping around a town, staring across the street at the protagonist’s wife. It’s uncomfortable, even if you chuckle while it’s happening.

And of course, as a lifelong lover of horror movies, I was really glad to see such an iconic one. I quite enjoyed it, and I’d like to rewatch it one of these days now that I know what to expect. Sometimes, at least for me, movies are almost better enjoyed a second time around, when you have no expectations and can watch things unfold in a more relaxed manner.

It aged well, really. I mean, I don’t think audiences today find it very scary–except maybe for people who don’t watch much horror or scare easily–but it’s still entertaining.

I think what struck me most of all, though, was just the idea that a movie that’s nearly 100 years old is still considered a classic and hasn’t lost much of it’s luster, to the point that in 2016, it’s still being shown for Halloween and just about sold out–and with a beer named after it, too. It made me wonder what the filmmakers and cast expected when they did it and whether or not they thought it would even last this long, let alone still appeal to audiences. I think it’s something almost all artists now hope to achieve, at least on some level, but I’m not sure it’s something people thought about at the time.

So even though we got in late, Paul and I were both glad we went, and Ian seemed glad, too. We’re determined to try to do it again sometime, and I won’t lie, I’m kind of hoping Ian and his girlfriend become closer friends of ours.

Movie Review: Deadpool

Apparently, Deadpool broke some box-office records and shattered studio expectations. Personally, I take this as proof the studios aren’t as in touch with their audiences as they think they are.

In some ways, Deadpool is a pretty typical superhero story, what with a human being turned sort of superhuman and all. Wade Wilson works as a mercenary–not-so-typical–lives with his longtime girlfriend, and he’s diagnosed with late-stage cancer. He gets a mysterious offer from a man representing a group claiming they can cure him, with a few other bonuses, and he takes them up on it. But that’s where things divert a bit and the “typical superhero story” ends. The group puts its subjects under intense stress and pain in order to trigger mutant genes that’ll then kick in and do things like take care of Wade’s cancer and various other perks. In Wade’s case, he can also heal, and he’s also unfortunately disfigured. The head of the group, who is named Francis but calls himself Ajax, tells Wilson, who later takes the name Deadpool, that he’s able to fix this, but he ultimately leaves Wilson for dead in a fire engulfing their building. Oh, and the group actually takes its mutants and sells them to people to do with them as they please.

And so rather than being about superheroes trying to save the world, Deadpool is about a man who essentially was misled into a shit arrangement, ends up disfigured, and wants revenge–especially when Francis kidnaps his girlfriend. Yet it has much of what’s become typical and beloved about superhero movies, from tons of ass-kicking and action scenes to a healthy but not overdone dose of romance. Aside from some more atypical storylines, Deadpool also differs in its tone. It’s packed with dark, raunchy humor and a self-awareness that pokes at its genre just enough to make it funny for said genre’s fans without coming off as though those fans are the butt of the joke.

Honestly, I was pretty sold just in the opening sequence–we open with Juice Newton’s “Angel of the Morning,” and because I recognized the song, I laughed immediately. It plays over a beautifully constructed freeze-frame of Deadpool mid-fight with some of Francis’ henchman, while mock credits roll saying things like “some douche’s movie” starring “a hot chick” (Morena Baccarin, who Firefly fans will recognize as Inara and probably love here). Leading up to us going to see it, my fiancé would say things like, “I hope they didn’t just put all the funniest jokes in the trailers,” and although strangely, those jokes got the biggest laughs in our theater, they weren’t the best parts of the movie. In retrospect, the trailers do just what a good trailer should, and that is give you a really good idea of what you’re in for without telling you everything.

My only real complaint is the use of the flashback structure, just because I’m not a fan of it and the film could’ve easily been just as well-paced and good had it been told in a more traditional chronological narrative. But in the end, that’s just a minor complaint and a matter of taste more than anything.

So if you like dark, irreverent humor and superhero movies, you’re gonna like Deadpool. It’s a good time.

Movie Review: The Danish Girl

This review spoils the ending of the movie, so proceed with caution.

I know I say this a lot, but one of my favorite things about film, books, TV, or really any art is perspective–you’re seeing the world through a very, very specific lens, getting to see how that writer experiences it themselves. Frankly, I don’t just enjoy the perspective. I think it’s crucial. I guess that’s why studies have begun to show that avid readers tend to be more empathetic, and I wouldn’t be surprised if avid filmgoers, especially ones open to a wide variety of genres, are the same way.

The Danish Girl is based on the true story of Danish transgender artist Einar, later Lili, one of the first people to undergo a sex-change operation. To be honest, the movie isn’t a masterpiece, and although I enjoyed it, I didn’t love it. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think it wasn’t important or even moving–in fact, the film’s greatest success is its emotion and humanity.

Lili’s story is important to tell, and it’s important to see, especially for those who might not understand what it means to be transgender or who have some very disrespectful, nasty opinions on the subject. I may not have been wowed by the film, but there’s something poignant about watching such a personal story unfold, and it’s hard to watch The Danish Girl and not be struck by how crucial it is to let people live however they’d like. The film focuses on Lili’s struggle with her gender identity, of course, but part of that is seeing how happy Lili was to be able to live as a woman. It’s hard to object to something that brings someone such happiness, and the fact that Eddie Redmayne, who plays Einar/Lili, portrays it so effectively is a testament to his acting. This is actually the first Redmayne movie I’ve seen, and I was impressed. I’d love DiCaprio to win the Oscar for The Revenant as much as basically any other fan of his, but I have to be honest and say that not only does Redmayne deserve the win, but I actually think I’d prefer to see him get it. The two performances are very different, but something about Redmayne’s is much more moving.

I think party of that is the emotional depth of what’s happening, and maybe that’s where the movie fell just a little short for me–it was like there was a layer that maybe wasn’t fully tapped into, I don’t know. But this was as much about Lili’s marriage to wife Gerda as it was her experience being transgender, especially when you see how the couple interacts and what they go through. They start off happy and face some obstacles, of course, but you also see Gerda support Lili throughout. Gerda wants to do whatever she can for Lili, and she refuses to accept doctors’ suggestions that she’s mentally ill or has something wrong with her somehow. On the other side, you see how much Lili truly loved Gera. One of the best, most moving moments for me was when Gerda comes to Lili’s bedside after the first of two operations and Lili, writhing around and in pain, calms down and grins very genuinely when she sees Gerda. Again, it’s a testament to Redmayne’s acting–as well as Alicia Vikander’s, who played Gerda–that a very simple moment was packed with emotion.

Speaking of medicine, The Danish Girl also gave a brief but interesting glimpse at the era’s healthcare, both mental and physical. As Gerda and Lili try to understand just what Lili’s going through, they visit doctor after doctor–one tries radiation on Lili, one “diagnoses” her as a homosexual, and Lili peeks at another doctor’s notes and sees that he’s written “schizophrenic,” prompting her to slip out of the office when he steps away just in time to avoid being carried off in a straightjacket.

It’s also funny that with the state of modern medicine now in 2016, I went into this movie taking it for granted that the operation would go smoothly. I mean, logically, I should’ve known better, but I think that’s a testament to how far we’ve come that I genuinely didn’t consider anything less than a happy ending. Unfortunately, though, the final scenes of the movie were less than effective for me.

As one could probably predict, Lili dies of complications after the second of two surgeries. Gerda and a childhood friend of Lili’s return to where he and Lili grew up, with Gerda wearing a scarf Lili had bought for her earlier in the film, only to have Gerda insist she keep it for herself. Gerda now wears it as a kind of memento, which is very sweet, but as the two stand in the wind looking at the landscape, the wind whips Gerda’s scarf from around her neck and sends it flying through the air. Lili’s friend initially goes to catch until Gerda stops him, and the two watch it go. Personally, it was heavy-handed and a little cheesy, and I could’ve done without it entirely.

But despite the flaws in The Danish Girl, it is a movie worth seeing, not just for the story it tells but because the acting is excellent, from Redmayne in particular.

Movie Review: The Revenant

Warning: there are some spoilers here, so proceed with caution. I tried not to give away anything huge, but I do discuss the ending!

The plot of The Revenant might be as simple as it gets–after a man serving as a guide gets attacked by a bear, a few of the men he’s with and his son stay behind. And one of those men murders his son in front of him while he’s helpless to do anything, including speak, then leaves him for dead.

But I think the simplicity is what makes The Revenant work so well–in a lot of ways, it’s basically a survival story, and for as simple as it is, it’s actually really unpredictable. You don’t know how Leonardo DiCaprio’s character is going to get himself out of the various situations he gets into, or if he will at all. You don’t know where he’s going to end up, how he’s going to get there, and what he’s going to do. And that’s probably my favorite part about the film as a whole. It can be really hard to keep audiences guessing, especially ones who read a lot of books and watch a lot of movies and TV. When you’ve either read or seen it all, you’re almost never surprised, and maybe that’s why The Revenant excels in its simplicity. It also proves that “simple” doesn’t necessarily mean “predictable.”

It’s also a film with a lot of emotion, and it’s very much a revenge film–and that’s probably then only predictable thing about it. Because of course a man who witnesses his son’s murder is gonna want to go after the man who did it. But that motivation isn’t necessarily obvious from the start. Initially, DiCaprio’s will to live seems to stem from, well, being human, but as we see him go along, it becomes abundantly clear he doesn’t care about survival so much as he does getting even. We see him scribbling things in rocks and in snow, and it’s not until later in the film that we see he’s writing, “Fitzgerald killed my son.” I took this as a twofold message. One, he wants to live to go back and make Fitzgerald pay. Two, if he doesn’t, he’s put what happened in writing, and if someone from his original party sees it, they’ll know.

And naturally, all this means it’s a pretty emotionally raw film, too, packed with intensity and grit. It’s graphic, but not excessively or distractingly so–while I complained before about Tarantino’s Hateful Eight feeling gratuitous, The Revenant instead feel realistic. I was cringing because I could imagine how painful it would be to, say, pack a hole in your neck full of gunpowder then ignite it to cauterize the wound.

The acting was all excellent, too, and as amazing as DiCaprio was throughout, some of the best moments were when the group realizes he’s alive and naturally is not too pleased to learn what happened, leading up to a huntdown of Fitzgerald.

The ending seems to be open to interpretation, which I also loved but know some people really hate. Personally? I think DiCaprio died.

Movie Review: The Hateful Eight

Full disclosure: I haven’t actually seen all of Tarantino’s other movies. Of the ones I have seen, Reservoir Dogs is my favorite.

Hateful Eight opens with bounty hunter John Ruth and his bounty, Daisy, crossing paths with fellow bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren. They’re all headed to the same town to claim their bounties–Warren with some dead bounties, Ruth with his alive so as to get the pleasure of her being hanged–when they run into the alleged sheriff of the town they’re off to. In the middle of a blizzard, they stop at Minnie’s Haberdashery, where four other men are already hunkered down, and then Tarantino’s fun begins.

Warren notices something is off pretty quick–for one, Minnie, her husband, and the rest of the haberdashery staff aren’t there. A man claiming he’s been put in charge explains that they’re out visiting Minnie’s family, but Warren isn’t buying it. And as the film progresses, we see Warren notice some things that are a little off and express his suspicions and his reasons for them pretty openly, and before long, it becomes pretty clear that people aren’t quite who they say they are.

And this is where my love of Reservoir Dogs comes in–while the plot itself is pretty different, some of the major themes and conflicts are the same. People are lying about who they are and what they’re doing, and by the end, the film turns into a bit of a whodunnit. It’s fun and interesting, complete with some plot twists, but something about it just falls flat. For me, I think part of it is structure and narrative device. The film is split into “chapters,” which actually work really well. The catch is that in the middle of the movie, Tarantino decides to backtrack a bit and show the audience something that was happening in the midst of a graphic monologue from Warren (we’ll come back to that later). And this is accompanied by a voice-over narration that hasn’t been employed in the movie elsewhere until this point, and I think it’s unnecessary. This setup could’ve been done a totally different way, sans narration, and still be incredibly effective. In fact, I’d argue leaving out the narration and spelling out what happened would’ve made for a more shocking, more interesting twist. I mean, as an audience, exactly what happened would’ve become pretty obvious one way or another later.

And what’s surprising about this is that Tarantino generally isn’t the type to spell things out for his audience, nor is he the type to tone things down. The closer the movie gets to its ending and climax, the more gore Tarantino gives us. And while I don’t have a problem with gore per se, there were times when it felt gratuitous. That monologue of Warren’s that I mentioned? Although it’s pretty clearly a setup to piss off another character and didn’t really contain anything horrible for a 2016 moviegoer, I found it distracting. It felt like something tossed in mostly for shock value–same with most of the visual gore and violence. I even joked that it’s like Tarantino gets a nasty, violent, graphic scene in his head and builds a plot around it, although that does minimize the writing and plot of this a bit because it’s not at all poorly written or plotted. It just feels like Tarantino really, really wants to make a mess, and maybe make people uncomfortable in the process. That said, this is kind of to be expected from Tarantino, and between the gore and the plot twists and the somewhat nonlinear storytelling, it’s typical Tarantino. It just doesn’t quite get on the level of a lot of his past work.

But the cast does. Everyone is excellent, and a lot of Tarantino regulars are back. Warren is played wonderfully by Samuel L. Jackson, and Jennifer Jason Leigh was an impressive Daisy. My favorite, though–and here comes Reservoir Dogs again–was Tim Roth. I love him, and I’m glad to see him in a film again.

Bottom line: liked it but didn’t love it. It’s worth going to see, especially if you’re a Tarantino fan because you like to see blood everywhere.