My roommate, Rita, decided to punish me for not being lazy enough by making me watch Cats with her. I think she was looking for an excuse to rope me into it. Anyway, I knew I wasn’t going to like the movie, because I read the reviews and I saw parts of the Broadway play on YouTube. I actually went through a phase where I watched/ read bad reviews of this poor movie for fun. (What that says about me, I don’t know.) But, at any rate, I finally saw Cats, so I can have an opinion.
Let’s just say, I’m not a fan.
Cats is the 2019 movie adaptation of the Broadway play of the same name, popular in the 1980s. A recently abandoned cat named Victoria (Francesca Hayward) finds herself in the midst of a tribe of Jellicle cats who are having their Jellicle ball. One cat will be chosen by Old Deuteronomy (Judy Dench) to ascend to the Heaviside Layer, where they will be reborn into a new life. While cats sing and dance and make their case, an evil cat named Macavity (Idris Elba) kidnaps the participants for his own nefarious purpose. Meanwhile Victoria befriends Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson), an old glamour cat who has been ostracized by the Jellicles and wishes for acceptance and a better life.
If my summary makes it sound like Cats has a plot, I apologize, because it really does not. Cats is an excuse for song and dance--dance, mostly. Aside from “Memory,” the one song everyone knows, and “Beautiful Ghosts,” the new Taylor Swift song embedded in the movie, most of the songs are adapted from T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.” These poem-songs are whimsical, but don’t really have the emotional highs and lows. For most of the movie, the cats introduce themselves. The dancing is good, but, honestly, I don’t like dancing much, and I get bored of straight singing. I watch movies for stories. I like plot and character. This was why I was against watching the movie. I already knew there was not going to be a plot, and without a plot, why even bother?
It turned out I wasn’t as bored as I thought I’d be, but not for the right reasons. There were so many story errors and questionable artistic choices, that my writer’s brain went into overdrive analyzing the mistakes and trying hard to fix them. By the end I was alternating between screaming into my pillow and bursting into uncontrollable laughter. At least Cats made me feel something. I can’t fault the movie for that.
I was surprised to find that I had a free Sunday afternoon in August. But I did, so I went to Netflix and browsed my considerable “To Watch” list. The King caught my eye. The trailer evoked a sense of epic-ness, with politics and war and a character undergoing a personal transformation. The King came out in 2019, but I put off watching it, because it was the kind of movie I needed to be in the right mood to see. I was in the mood. I gave it a shot.
Prince Henry (Timothee Chalamet), known to his friends as Hal, does not want to be king. He despises war and despises his father, King Henry IV (Ben Mendelson), a man who sees enemies everywhere and has plunged England into civil unrest. Once his father dies, Hal takes up the crown, vowing to be a different sort of king than his father. However, his reign is quickly tested by a series of provocative gestures from France. With his loyal friend and military advisor Sir John Falstaff (Joel Edgerton) and with the taunts of the French Dauphin (Robert Pattinson) in his ears, the young King Henry V advances to war, where his rule and his character will be put on display on the fateful field of Agincourt.
I have seen historical epics screwed up so many times. But this movie got it right. I loved The King. It was the kind of movie that seemed tailor-made for me. One of the things I most appreciated was that it didn’t attempt to women by throwing in a tedious romantic subplot. I like romance, don’t get me wrong, but Hollywood screws up it up so often that I’d rather they didn’t attempt it at all. The few women characters who did show up in The King were insightful and unique and treated with respect. Most of the movie dealt with a very masculine and male-orientated culture--and I was perfectly fine with that.
Prince Hal is initially portrayed as a drunken, debaucherous prince, the insinuation being that he is unfit to rule. The trailer asks how this foolish, immature prince can be transformed into a respectable king. However, once I started to watch the movie, I quickly understood that it was not Hal's character that was in question. Prince Hal’s revelries are portrayed as a reaction to the violence that permeates Medieval Society. In these times, lords and princes did not stay cloistered in their castles; they fought and killed, in the battlefield, in the most intimate sort of way--Hal, included. Hal’s drinking is a kind of protest against his father’s rule, against the pointless death and killing, and against society itself. The old king calls Hal sickly and weak, and yet he turns out to be a damn good fighter. The nobles think he is shirking his responsibilities, and yet Hal will intervene when he deems it important. The problem is not Hal’s character; the problem is society. Society not only perceives Hal wrongly, it is, in fact, sick. Pointless feuds and violence are destroying the souls of its men, Hal’s included.
As much as I was enjoyed Hal and his journey, my favorite character was, hands down, his loyal friend, Sir John Falstaff. Falstaff, more so than Hal, plays the role of a drunken fool, but he has an inner strength and wisdom born of hard-won experience. Falstaff has shades of Uncle Iroh, from Avatar: the Last Airbender, which I say with the highest respect, because Iroh is one of the few characters I not only love, but aspire to be. The beating heart of The King is the relationship between Hal and Falstaff, and I would absolutely take their friendship over any contrived and shallow romance.
The first half hour of The King is a lead-up to Hal becoming king, and it serves to inoculate the audience into Medieval society. Some people may find this slow, but I was fascinated by this glimpse into a very different culture; it reminded me of why I loved history. I did have a bit of trouble understanding dialogue, which could be due to the sound quality on my TV. I remedied this by turning on the subtitles. The dialogue, by the way, is peppered with modern curse words, but on the whole, I think it did a good job of giving us the flavor of the era while still being relatable. The King felt Shakespearean but translated for a modern audience.
Once Prince Hal becomes King Henry V, the plot builds to the Battle of Agincourt. Now, I don’t consider this a spoiler, because The King is historical fiction, and so it seems fairly obvious that the event that made a famous person famous is going to be addressed. But if you are sensitive to spoilers, I will make it now known that I will be discussing an event that takes place toward the end of the movie.
I really hadn’t intended to watch this movie. Honestly, I’ve hardly been able to watch any movie without the dog interrupting and whining for attention. But I do still watch movie review shows on YouTube, and as I was watching the John Campea show, he raved about “Husavik,” the final song from Eurovision. I decided to check it out. The song was pretty. I started watching other YouTube videos of Eurovision songs. Then I got curious. Eurovision was out on Netflix, it was free, and it was not a movie that required my undivided attention. At last, I decided to check it out.
Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga is a light comedy about Lars and Sigrit, a singing duo that go by the name Fire Saga who hail from a small town in Iceland. Lars (Will Ferrell) dreams of winning the Eurovision song contest in Europe and proving himself to his father. Sigrit (Rachel McAdams) supports his ambitions but would prefer to marry Lars and live a simple life in their hometown. When they find themselves unexpectedly representing Iceland in the Eurovision Song Contest, Sigrit meet a flirtatious Russian singer named Alexander Lemtov (Dan Stevens) who encourages her to find her voice. But Lars’ jealousy and ambition cause cracks to form in the group and may just cost Fire Saga their chance at winning.
As I said, I watched the movie mostly because of the songs, which are really catchy and surprisingly good. I ended up grooving to “Double Trouble,” Fire Saga’s official entry into the Eurovision Contest. I wanted a full version of “Volcano Man.” And even though Alexander Lemtov’s “Lion of Love” has some of the cheesiest, cringiest lyrics, I can’t stop listening to it, because let me tell you, the man can sing. Sprinkled in are glimpses of other country’s entries, and they sound like real songs you’d hear on the radio. I know it’s a comedy, but the only reflection of that genre are a couple of silly lyrics and a vague 80s or 90s over-the-top vibe. I’m no music critic, but I fell in love with the songs and binged on them hard.
But what was the movie like?
I found Eurovision amusing and pleasant. It was set in a world where you knew that nothing too horrible could ever happen, and that was nice. I enjoyed the fluffy escapism. I didn’t find it laugh-out-loud funny, but I grinned at a few gags involving a gaggle of American tourists, a bit of dark humor with a ghost, and some elves who may or may not have been extreme in their measures to ensure the couple got to Eurovision. There were some crude instances of sexual humor that I didn’t find funny, but these were few and far between.
For me, Eurovision was at its most sweet and heart-warming when it told the tale of a small town girl who finds her voice on the big stage. I connected to Rachel McAdam’s Sigrit early on, in a scene where she brings biscuits and alcohol to cute little houses in the green hills, where the elves live. Sigrit asks the elves to help them get into the Eurovision song contest, so that Lars can fulfill his ambition and they can hopefully have a life together. She is so earnest and adorable… and who doesn’t love elves? She won me over, and I was rooting for her.
Typically, my plans for the 4th of July include hanging out with my family, eating hot dogs and hamburgers fresh off the grill, and making some kind of red, white, and blue dessert. But with COVID-19 raging, I was only able to do one of those three things, i.e., stick some strawberries and blueberries on a store-bought vanilla cupcake and call it a day. From my quarantined apartment, I called my family to wish them a happy Independence Day, ordered a pizza, and watched Hamilton on Disney +. It seemed like the most patriotic thing I could do.
Hamilton tells the life story of Alexander Hamilton, one of America’s founding fathers, who is most famous for co-authoring the Federalist papers, setting up a national bank, and dying in a senseless duel. In this musical play, Alexander Hamilton (Lin-Manuel Miranda) is an immigrant who is “young, scrappy, and hungry” and sees the America Revolution as a way to make a name for himself. Unlike his friend Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.), who advises him to “talk less, smile more,” Hamilton is vocal about his beliefs, and his gutsiness lands him a position under George Washington (Christopher Jackson). With his loyal wife Eliza (Phillipa Soo) by his side and famous friends, Hamilton rises to the heights of political power--and starts to self-destruct. As his fateful death draws near, what will his story be and who will be the one to tell it?
I can’t deny Hamilton was well-done. The music, the dance, the spectacle--it is beautifully crafted, it is impressive, and it hits your emotions hard. But it hit me in a way I didn’t expect, and that’s really what I want to write about. After watching it, I raged, I cried, and now I am going to rant. This is your warning. I have strong opinions about the role of women in Hamilton, and I am going to express my opinions.
But first, I want to talk a little about what the play actually is. Hamilton is a big, splashy Broadway musical first and a historical fiction second. It’s not meant to be a critique of history; in fact, I would go so far as to label it a revisionist fantasy. It reinterprets American history through a modern lens, not unlike how certain Shakespeare productions reinterpret their source material. This makes history recognizable to a modern audience, and because we recognize it, we can relate and empathize. Although it includes some politics, Hamilton is, for the most part, about the men who struggled through impossible odds to create a new country. It is a personal story set amid an epic backdrop.
In other words, my kind of story. I enjoy a good epic. Hamilton makes a conscious choice to cast people of all colors and races in roles that are historically White. I find this refreshing and inclusionary. I know that some critics have said that, in this environment, simply re-casting the Founding Fathers doesn’t go far enough; we need to look more critically at American history. That may be, but I think I understand what the play’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, was trying to do. I remember, in high school, I would grapple with history, trying to make sense of it and see myself in the people who changed the world. Lin-Manuel Miranda obviously saw himself in Hamilton, an immigrant, who, through ambition, intelligence, and hard work, was able to leave his mark on American culture.
I don't think there's anything wrong with this. This is, after all, art, and art does not always have to be accurate. It can be fun. Hamilton is trying to be fun. It’s like kids playing dress-up. It has that joyful feeling of imagination, the boundless possibility that you can do anything and be anyone you want. And I like that feeling. As the play progressed, I found myself getting swept up in a patriotic fervor. When the Battle of Yorktown raged and Americans toppled an Empire, I felt proud, I felt happy. I thought, I am this and this is me, and I am America. In this moment, I felt bonded with my country.
And then I glanced in the background of the stage and saw the women walking back and forth like ghosts. That’s when the sour feeling hit me. I realized not everyone is included; women don’t get to have fun. Yes, women are present in the play, but they’re all love interests, and moreover, love interests to Hamilton. A few background dancers are women, but they are not given names or songs. They are like the real women in history, I suppose, living and dying and doing their part to change the world with no name and no fame and no glory. “Who tells your story?” the music asks, but for women, the answer is, “No one.”
The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra is an Example of (Intentionally) Bad Writing That is Very Good
The world is sort of crazy, I’m busy with my writing, and the movie theatres are closed. For these reasons, rather than seeking out new movies, I’ve been re-watching some of my old favorites, especially comedies. One such movie wearing out my DVD player right now is a very strange and obscure cult flick called, The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra.
The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra has the feel of a bad, black-and-white monster movie from the 1950s, though it was made in 2003. A scientist named Dr. Paul Armstrong (Larry Blamire) and his wife Betty Armstrong (Fay Masterson), the wife of a scientist, are searching for a meteor made of a rare metal known as atmospherum. Dr. Paul Armstrong, a scientist who studies rocks, hopes to use the meteor to do science and better all of mankind through science for the benefit of all. (This is an example of the kind of intentionally repetitive dialogue that riddles the movie.)
Meanwhile, evil scientist Dr. Roger Fleming (Brian Howe) hopes to find and revive the famed Lost Skeleton of Cadavra in order to rule the world. Meanwhile, a married pair of aliens named Kro-bar (Andrew Parks) and Lattis (Susan McConnell) crash land their rocket and can’t get home. Meanwhile, the aliens’ escaped mutant rampages through the woods. Roger learns he can only revive the skeleton through atmosphereum. The aliens learn they can only fix their ship through atmosphereum. Everyone collides on the atmosphereum and hijinks ensue.
The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra is a movie you can really only appreciate if you’ve seen lots of bad movies, particularly bad monster/ sci-fi movies from the 50s. I did not have this background the first time my uncle showed the movie to me, and as a result, I was perplexed and sort of bored. It just seemed like a bad movie. However, after watching several episodes of Mystery Science Theatre 3000, I came to truly understand what bad movies were, making The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra seem like a brilliant parody and also, surprisingly, a pretty good movie on its own merits.
Tucker & Dale Vs Evil: Crafting Characters You Care About Vs Characters You Hope Will Die
Reading The Snow and the Darkness put me in a bad mood, so I decided to watch Tucker & Dale Vs Evil to cheer myself up. It’s a comedic riff on a hillbilly slasher movie, and it’s available on Netflix right now. I’ve watched it before, and I really love it, because it's clever and funny and leaves me feeling good.
When a group of college kids travel deep into the Appalachian Mountains for a camping trip, they encounter a couple of hillbillies who occupy a creepy-looking cabin. It seems like the perfect set-up for a horror movie. However, the hillbillies turn out to be harmless. Pragmatic, beer-loving Tucker (Alan Tudyk) and hopeless romantic Dale (Tyler Labine) just want to renovate their “vacation home” and go fishing. When Dale rescues college student Allison (Katrina Bowden) from drowning, a series of misunderstandings lead the remaining college kids to believe that Tucker and Dale are psycho killers. Soon the bodies start piling up in violent, gory, and hilarious ways.
Tucker & Dale is a kind of a parody movie, and I, personally, love parodies. They play with the conventions of genre, which I’m always a fan of. But whereas some parody movies are content to rest on laughs and not really bother with a story (I’m looking at you Scary Movie), Tucker & Dale Vs Evil delivers a well-written tale with fleshed out characters and plenty of heart. Also, it’s funny. Really funny.
The humor, as I see it, comes from two major sources. The first is that the college kids, through a combination of misunderstanding, bad luck, and extreme stupidity, end up killing themselves and each other. This is played for laughs, and it works because the deaths are so extreme, they’re ridiculous. However, this humor is predicated on shock value, and it becomes less and less effective as the movie wears on.
Fortunately, the second kind of humor is more consistent, as it relies on the charms of Tucker and Dale. They’re pretty funny from the start, but it’s their reaction to the extreme circumstances that’s particularly hilarious. Tucker and Dale are horrified and confused by the profusion of college kids “killing themselves all over [their] property.” This humor never lessens because it is rooted in character. It also helps that the actors are funny, especially, Alan Tudyk, who has excellent comedic timing.
The humor peaks in the middle, during a brutally gory and hilarious scene, where two college kids manage to kill themselves right near Tucker and Dale. Our two heroes first react in shock and horror, and then come together to try and figure out what’s going on. They decide that the college kids must have some sort of suicide pact and realize that the dead bodies are going to make the two of them look pretty bad. Right in the middle of cleaning up, a cop arrives. It’s a scene that’s genuinely tense, and watching Tucker and Dale squirm is oh-so-delightful.
But even if the humor declines somewhat after that second act, the story continues strong. As the college kids decide to “fight back,” Tucker and Dale struggle to survive. One college kid, meanwhile, is morphing into the titular evil. Will Dale find the confidence to become the hero and win the affections of the girl? Will Tucker ever get to have a beer and enjoy his vacation home? I won’t spoil the ending, but it is a happy one.
Now as I was watching this flick for the hundredth time, I was thinking that, in order to be effective, Tucker & Dale has to make us care for the title characters very deeply and not care about the college kids at all--and it has to do both at the same time. As a writer, I find this a fascinating study. How do you make an audience care for certain characters? Likewise, what makes an audience stop caring to the degree that they actively root for the characters’ deaths? I have my theories.
I had been wanting to see 1917 since the fall of 2019, when a critic compared it to The Lord of the Rings. That was all the sell I needed. I had to wait until after Christmas for it to expand into theatres. But the holidays brought chaos to my personal life, with moving on the one hand and sinus infections on the other. The Oscars came and went, and my life still didn’t calm down. Finally I said, “To hell with it,” and bought a matinee ticket for a Tuesday showing in the middle of February.
1917 is World War I drama done in (seemingly) a single shot. Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and his friend Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) are sent across no man’s land to deliver a message. Colonel MacKenzie is leading two battalions into a trap, and Blake’s brother is among those at risk. Although the territory they must cross seems, on paper, to be deserted by the German army, it is fraught with many perils, as they encounter boobytraps, snipers, and challenging terrain.
1917 struck me as a mash-up between an action-adventure video game and a “best of” compilations of the horrors of World War I, with moments of poignant human drama thrown in. This sounds like an insult, but I don’t mean it to be. I liked the movie. However, I was ambivalent about the use of the single shot gimmick.
On the one hand, I marveled at how they managed to make this movie. They couldn’t have just built several miles of trenches, a village, a river, and a patch of woods in a studio somewhere. Could they? Even if they did, can you imagine coordinating all the actors, all the extras, all the stunt doubles, all the props, and all the cameras? If everyone didn’t hit their mark exactly right, the whole thing would fall apart. I left 1917 wanting to watch a documentary about the making of the movie, just to see how it was done.
On the other hand, constantly thinking about how the movie was made distracted me from the story being told. In most movies, I don’t think about where the camera is positioned or what it's doing, but here it was all I could think about. It almost felt like the camera was its own character, like a first-person video game avatar or maybe a documentary crew recording this incident. But the cinematography was so beautiful, so smooth, so perfectly able to capture excitement and emotion, it made it very clear that everything was staged. No matter how realistic the details, the world of 1917 is inherently artificial.
I know nothing about cars or racing. However, I noted the positive reviews and Oscar nominations for Ford v Ferrari, so when the movie popped up in the dollar theatre, I was willing to give it a shot. I went to see it with my dad, who also has no interest in racing, but trusts my taste in movies. It turned out to be a pleasant Sunday matinee.
After Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) gets his ego gets bruised by Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone), the American industrialist decides to build a car to win the famous Le Mans race. He enlists Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), who agrees to build a winning car if he can have Ken Miles (Christian Bale) as his driver. However, when Ken Miles rubs the advertising department the wrong way, the vice president tries to have him removed. Battling both technical problems and bureaucratic impediment, the two men work together to try to win the Le Mans ’66.
If Ford v Ferrari did nothing else, it taught me an appreciation of racing. I had thought that the race car builder and the race car driver were separate jobs, but the two overlapped quite a bit. For example, Carroll Shelby, the builder of the car, did actually drive the Le Mans race--it’s what drew Ford Company to him. Ken Miles worked a day job as a mechanic and offered valuable feedback and suggestions for the design of the car.
The movie also gave me a new perspective of why races might be popular, necessary even. The Le Mans race was, in this case, a test of the engineering of the car and the skill of the driver. Such a test means pushing the boundaries. Every setback, every problem, every solution that brought up a brand new problem, all led to that glorious moment where all that hard work came together to show off something new.
(Warning: While there are no explicit spoilers, I am going to discuss some of the themes that occur throughout the movie. Some spoilers may be implied, if you read between the lines.)
The Sunday after Thanksgiving, I decided to do a double feature of Queen and Slim and Knives Out. After the emotional wallop of Queen and Slim, I had ten minutes to shake myself off, use the bathroom, grab a popcorn and soda, and ready myself for a lighter, funnier flick.
When eccentric millionaire/ mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) dies from a slit throat, it appears to be an open and shut case of suicide. But private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) has been hired to investigate. As he interviews the various family members (Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Colette, etc.) secrets are unearthed. It seems every person in the family has a reason to want Harlan dead. The only one Benoit can trust is Harlan’s kindly nurse, Marta (Ana de Armas), who has a visible aversion to lying. But Marta has a secret of her own.
I wanted to see Knives Out, because I liked what Rian Johnson did with The Last Jedi. When I heard that his new movie was a murder mystery in the vein of Agatha Christie novels (my all-time favorite mystery writer) and the 1985 movie Clue (a film I practically memorized in high school), well, count me in. Good reviews and an all-star cast did nothing to diminish my interest in the project.
I have to say, Thanksgiving was the perfect time to see Knives Out. It is the ultimate “family feud” movie, which will make you either relate to the craziness or feel grateful for your own family. The characters were just grounded enough to feel real, and just exaggerated enough to be funny. The actors were clearly having a ball, and that joy translated to their screen. It was fun to see a bunch of rich hypocrites get their comeuppance. Knives Out was a solid film.
It was not exceptional. It was funny, but not hilarious. It was good, but not great. I mean, considering the praise it was getting, I sort of expected more. For me, though, the biggest problem may have been the mystery. Knives Out was advertised as having the feel of an Agatha Christie novel, and that was true. It was very Agatha Christie-like. Too Agatha Christie-like.
See, I’ve read many of Agatha Christie’s novels, enough to pick up on the general patterns. Therefore, I figured out where the story was going. It didn’t surprise me. In fact, I thought it was pretty obvious.
(Warning: I’m now going to brag about how I solved the mystery, so there will be SPOILERS ahead! Read at your own risk.)
After Thanksgiving, I did a double feature at AMC: Queen and Slim in the morning, and Knives Out almost immediately after. I’d never done a double feature, but I didn’t have much choice. Too many good movies come out in the holiday corridor and I don’t always have a spare Sunday to sneak out and see them.
Queen and Slim came on my radar, because I saw the trailer--online or in a theatre, I can’t remember. Queen and Slim is an R-rated romantic drama about a black couple who become accidental criminals and must flee the law. Right away, I liked the characters and the tense situation they found themselves in. The film fell off my radar for a while but came back when the reviews came in and some of my favorite movie pundits recommended the movie.
The movie doesn’t waste time. It begins with a woman (Jodie Turner-Smith) and a man (Daniel Kaluuya) going on an awkward first date. Their names aren’t given until the very end, so I’m going to go off the title and call the woman Queen and the man Slim. Queen is a defense lawyer whose client just received a death sentence. She is guarded and aloof. Slim is an amiable, warm, religious man. The date does not go well. As Slim tries to drop Queen off, he gets pulled over and aggressively searched by a racist cop. Queen tries to record the cop on her cell phone, but the cop shoots her in the leg. A heated fight breaks out between Slim and the cop. Slim grabs the cop’s fallen gun and shoots him, half in defense, half by accident. The cop dies. Before the title card officially drops, they are on the run.
My first reaction, fresh out of the theatre, was that Queen and Slim had a lot of elements that reminded me of a good fantasy movie (my favorite genre), even though it clearly wasn’t fantasy. Queen and Slim was an unexpected journey which ripped the characters out of their normal lives, brought them to interesting places and people, forged deep bonds, and forced them to contemplate deeper meanings of existence, destiny, and legacy. It was Romantic with a capital R. Not only did Queen and Slim fall in love, they expressed what love meant to them as individuals so beautifully and poetically, it made my heart twist.
(Warning: Although I try not to spoil anything in particular, I do mention details that take place halfway through the movie. If you are sensitive to these thing, you may not want to read.)
Writer. Critic. Dreamer.