When I was in high school, I saw a little movie called Gladiator. I loved it, but for all the wrong reasons. Rather than cheering for the (supposedly) heroic, stoic, and (in my opinion) boring Maximus (Russell Crowe), I found myself rooting for Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), the murderous, incestuous, and emotionally turbulent villain of the story. I knew he would lose, but I didn’t care. He was interesting, and, despite all the bad stuff he did, I still related to him far more than the hero. Thus began my fascination with twisted, crazy, creepy, villainous characters who more often than not take the form of pale-skinned, blue-eyed brunettes.
Joker is the origin story of Batman’s greatest foe, set in a realistic version of 1980s Gotham. In it, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a mentally ill man, working a menial job as a party clown and taking care of his ailing mother, Penny Fleck (Francis Conroy). He has dreams of making it as a stand-up comedian and idolizes talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Nero). However, a series of events leads him down the path of violence, chaos, and villainous glory.
Naturally, Joker was going to appeal to me. It’s a movie that takes the kind of character I always root for anyway and puts him in the spotlight. The fact that they got Joaquin Phoenix to star in it only made it that much more delicious to me. Before going into the movie, I was keenly aware of the supposed controversy surrounding the movie, about whether or not the Joker was the “patron saint of incels,” and whether this made Joker a movie we needed to watch or a movie to avoid at all cost. I watched it on Sunday of its opening weekend, and my reaction was, as usual, not the right one.
I thought Joker was fun. I enjoyed it. I was thoroughly entertained.
And because my reaction seems inappropriate, I feel the need to explain it. So here I go. First, and most obviously, I enjoyed Joker because Joaquin Phoenix did a heck of a job acting, and I was completely mesmerized by his performance. I could watch him over and over again. Second, I not only empathized with Arthur, I related to him, and there was no moment where he ever lost my sympathy. Third, within the specific context of this movie, moral justice is upheld—the wicked are punished, the powerless become powerful, and society achieves a warped sense of balance. In that way, the conclusion is emotionally satisfying.
I think it’s ironic that most of the fuss revolves around what the movie says about society, how it will influence society, and whether it’s important to society. Joker isn’t a movie about society. It’s a movie about the individual. Joker portrays an individual breaking free from society, with all the joys and pains that liberation incurs.
(Warning: The following analysis reveals key character deaths. If you have not seen Joker and want to be surprised, do not read ahead. You’ve been warned.)
My cousin, Nathan, who has good taste in movies (unlike me), recommended I watch Nightcrawler. He said the film was excellent, and Jake Gyllenhaal’s acting was superb. One day, while sifting through uncased DVDs at a thrift store, I found a copy of Nightcrawler for 25 cents. I triumphantly brought it back to my home. I was going to savor this movie, so I made popcorn, poured a glass of wine, and waited until it got dark. To kill time, I watched Jupiter Ascending, and let me tell you, it made for a weird double feature.
In Nightcrawler, Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is an unemployed man with loose morals and a huge business vocabulary. After a chance encounter on the freeway, he decides to pursue a career as a freelance crime videographer. He listens to police radios, races to the scene of a crime, tapes the gory footage, and sells it to a local news channels, headed by Nina (Rene Russo). Finding his calling, Lou intends to grow his freelance business, but to do so he’ll need to take greater risks and push the boundaries of the law.
Nightcrawler is tense, tense, tense, to the point I frequently had to stop the movie just to take a breather. It was well-crafted on every level: great acting, beautiful cinematography, complex characters, tight plot, and clear themes. Granted, those themes are extraordinarily dark and cynical--but damn if the movie didn’t know what it wanted to say and hammer in that point. It was a brilliant film that I never want to see again because it was just too hard to watch.
(Although I try not to include any major spoilers, my review does mention key details and give away the ending to Nightcrawler in a very general way. I recommend watching the movie first.)
It was a gloomy Saturday afternoon, and I had notes to type, so I scanned Netflix for a movie to put on. I wanted something that would not be involving, something that could function as background noise. I spied Jupiter Ascending. I had never seen the movie, but I knew its reputation--oh, boy did I know. A $176 million dollar bomb by the Wachowskis, it was eviscerated by critics and audience alike. I had already read a long and snarky, point-by-point summary of it and seen enough parodies to know the general plot, so I figured it wouldn’t take up too much of my attention.
I should have known better.
Jupiter Ascending is the story of Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), a poor Russian immigrant living in Chicago, who finds herself unwittingly caught up in a power struggle that spans the universe. A powerful race of advanced humans have discovered a way to keep themselves young and beautiful forever by using other humans to create an immorality serum. This is a lucrative industry, with the Abrasax family “seeding” planets with humans and “harvesting” them when the population reaches its peak. Earth currently belongs to Balem Abrasax (Eddie Redmayne), the eldest of three siblings, who plans to decimate Earth’s population in the near future.
But there’s a wrinkle. Jupiter Jones is the genetic match of the now-deceased matriarch of the Abrasax family, the matriarch’s “reincarnation,” so to speak. As such, she can stake a claim to the Earth--provided she can survive the plotting of the three Abrasax siblings. Aided by Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), a genetic “splice” of human and dog DNA, Jupiter Jones learns what makes her special (her genetic code), finds love, and learns to appreciate the miserable life she has on Earth.
Jupiter Ascending is an uneasy mixture of Star Wars and Twilight, with a dash of 2001: A Space Odyssey and dollop of Cinderella. It has way too many ideas and most of them are under-baked. It doesn’t know what it wants to be or what it wants to say. Without a core to hold it up, it stumbles from one incident to the next. The characters are cardboard-thin. Jupiter gets the most development and the most sympathy, but also spends most of her screen time being a damsel in distress, getting tricked, and/or trying to flirt with Caine using cringe-inducing banter. The action and cinematography have the glossy competence of a Hollywood blockbuster, and the sets and costumes are absolutely beautiful. It’s not good, but it’s also harmless and forgettable fluff.
What ended up tearing my attention from my typing and forcing me to watch the film was not so much the movie itself, which, for all its explosions, was pretty boring. No, it was the meta question: “What went wrong?” Because skimming the surface of the film, it seemed like a pretty standard movie. A high concept idea, generic action set pieces, a forced romantic subplot, pretty visuals. About midway through, I started getting into it. I wouldn’t say it’s a good movie, but it’s a movie I had some affection for, unlike, say, The Meg, which I found generic, dull, and unambitious. Yet Jupiter Ascending was ridiculed and reviled. Why?
(From this point on there will be spoilers. I will not be doing a point-by-point summary, but I will give away the ending. You have been warned.)
After being burned by Legion, I decided to watch a horror movie that I hoped might turn out to be good. I went with The Ritual on Netflix, which has a 73% on Rotten Tomatoes and a pretty nice trailer.
Four friends, grieving their lost buddy, go backpacking across the Scandinavian Mountains. One falls and hurts his ankle. The men to decide to go off the trail, taking a shortcut into the woods. Weird things happen. A dead animal, impaled on high on the branches, drips blood. Strange letters appear on the bark of trees. Something is about to go horrifically wrong.
The Ritual is well-crafted and beautifully shot. The actors all do a good job of making their characters seem believable. They’re everyday blokes who find themselves in an increasingly horrific situation. I bought into the premise from the start, and because of that, for the first half hour of the movie, I was genuinely unsettled and frightened. But the longer the movie went on, the less it scared me.
On a purely visual level, the antagonist is unique, creepy, and even occasionally beautiful. But the story failed to develop the antagonist’s motivation and mythology. This caused the final act to collapse in on itself. The Ritual turned a simple premise into a complicated, muddled mess. It remained beautiful and well-crafted until the very last shot, but by then, I had stopped believing in it. I left the movie with mixed feelings and vague sense of disappointment.
Why is that though?
(Warning: From this point on, I will be a LONG, scene-by-scene summary, that will SPOIL every plot point of the movie. If you haven’t seen The Ritual, read on at your own discretion.)
I thought I liked bad horror movies, but it turns out not all bad horror movies are created equal. Some I just hate.
Back in 2010, while living in a small town in Japan, I saw the trailer for Legion. In a small, greasy spoon diner, a group of strangers find themselves in thrust into the apocalypse. An old woman turns into a demon and attacks them. A fallen angel declares that humanity’s only hope is a pregnant woman’s baby.
This seemed like an interesting premise. But the movie scored dismal reviews (19% on Rotten Tomatoes) and a pretty poor opening ($17 million, for an eventual $40 million domestic, $67 million worldwide). That’s a pity, I thought, and moved on. But I have a weird memory which can inexplicably remember obscure movie trailers from 9 years ago. So when Legion popped up on Netflix, I thought I’d watch it.
I am so glad I didn’t see this in theaters.
There are few bad movies which have actively pissed me off as much as Legion. I absolutely hated the anti-hero, fallen angel protagonist, who managed to be both holier-than-God self-righteous and a soulless, compassionless jerk. The antagonists were non-threatening cartoons with no brains. The ending was anti-climactic, and the themes were a mess. Legion spouted faith while ripping out its foundations. It sacrificed a basic understanding of good and evil in an attempt to be edgy. This movie did not know what it wanted to be and juggled action, fantasy, and horror set-pieces that might look cool, but had no tension, suspense, or emotion.
It wasn’t that nothing worked. There were characters I liked, there were ideas that could have been developed, and certain elements did genuinely hold my interest. However, the story as a whole was so muddled and soulless, it soured even the parts I liked.
(Warning: From this point on, I will be giving a SUPER LONG point-by-point summary of the movie and spoiling everything. If you feel you must watch the movie first, go ahead. Personally, I don’t recommend it.)
It’s officially summer. I want to relax and watch movies. But not necessarily the Hollywood-appointed summer blockbuster. In fact, not necessarily good movies. For whatever reason, I’m in the mood to dig up some older, more obscure, potentially bad horror movies.
Hey, I like bad horror movies. I watch Mystery Science Theater 3000. I’ve seen “Manos” the Hands of Fate over twenty times. My tolerance is pretty high. Heck, sometimes if I watch them often enough, I end up liking them. They may not be perfect or even make sense, but there is something that draws me in.
So I picked up a copy of The Apparition.
The Apparition is a horror movie that came out in 2012. It bombed in theaters and was eviscerated on Rotten Tomatoes. The problem with The Apparition isn’t that it’s offensive or graphic or horrific. It’s not. It’s also not scary or emotional or interesting.
The Apparition is a lot of nothing. The plot, characters, and setting are so thinly drawn they disappear into vapor. If there’s a concept or meaning driving this movie, director/ writer Todd Lincoln didn’t choose to share it. In spite of this, I kind of enjoyed it. It was like playing in an empty cardboard box. Sure, there wasn’t much to look at on the surface, but if you use your imagination, it could be anything you want it to be.
(Warning: I will now be writing a LONG point-by-point summary of the movie and spoiling every plot twist. If you want to see the movie first--and you can find it--you may want to hold off on reading this article.)
Warning: Spoilers for Wreck It Ralph 2 and Signs
There’s a moment toward the end of Wreck It Ralph 2: Ralph Breaks the Internet, when an insecurity virus picks up Ralph’s insecurities over Vanellope potentially leaving him to live in the Internet game Slaughter Race. The virus creates a horde of mindless, needy Ralph doppelgangers, who chase Vanellope and the real Ralph. As they are racing away, Ralph looks at the army of monsters and says something to the effect of, “Huh, from this angle I can really see how destructive my insecurities can be.” The delivery suggests it’s a joke, a wink at the audience.
This moment broke me.
And I couldn’t figure out why, for the longest time. All I knew was that I felt an irrational sense of rage, growing stronger and stronger. Then, this morning, while pondering it in the shower (because this is what apparently occupies my mind first thing in the morning), it occurred to me that this line marked the moment when my suspension of disbelief broke.
So what’s the big deal with suspension of disbelief?
Velvet Buzzsaw (out on Netflix) is what you get when you mash a satire of the art world with a straight-up horror movie. In it, a treasure trove of art made by a mysterious dead man is discovered by an ambitious gallery receptionist named Josephina (Zawe Ashton). When art critic Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal) deems the work to be “the next big thing,” everyone scrambles to cash in. Unfortunately, the art is cursed and soon the paintings begin killing off anyone who gets their hands on it.
The movie is weird, but I liked it. Perhaps, because I like art. I’m not someone who studies art in depth, but I do go to museums and galleries and take an amateurish pleasure in all the weird paintings, sculptures, and displays, some I get, some I don’t, some that move me, some that don’t. What is art? What is the artist trying to express? I don’t know, but I like it. Velvet Buzzsaw is filled with art that harkens to that off-color sensibility, from a hobo superhero robot to an audio experience of whale sounds to the ghoulish cursed paintings themselves.
The movie creatively tries to mash genres, which I appreciate, even if I found the horror aspect of Velvet Buzzsaw a little lackluster. There’s blood and gore, but the deaths weren’t particularly scary or suspenseful or shocking--aside from the very last death, which I found gruesome and a little surprising.
Fortunately, the satire elements are stronger. The movie breaks down how art is bought and sold, speculated on and commodified. Art critic, Morf, determines whether art has value or not, casually tearing down any art that doesn’t meet his standards. Gallery owner, Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo), uses underhanded tactics to secure art and keep it scarce to up the value. Art advisor Gretchen (Toni Collette) buys pieces for her millionaire client and browbeats museums into displaying it for “tax purposes.” The process is incredibly cynical. The art may have started as pieces of genuine emotion and fascination, but they end as luxury items, whose value is determined largely by perception.
I wrote a complaint about Beautiful Creatures and how it failed to appeal to my “inner teenage girl,” and one of my criticisms was that it didn’t have any “hot men” in it. But this complaint sort of made me uncomfortable, because: A. It seems shallow and B. Who’s to say Beautiful Creatures didn’t have a hot male lead? It’s not as if there is one type of “hot.” What appeals to one person does not appeal to the next.
Continuing the trend of bad paranormal romances, I also watched The Covenant on Netflix, which was an equally terrible story, but, as I was telling my friend Rita, if it got nothing else right, at least it knew to cast “hot” guys. I ended up feeling more affection for this bad movie, because at least it knew its audience and tried to cater to them.
But this got me thinking. If you’re reading or watching something in the YA fantasy romance genre, do you feel you’re owed a hot male lead to fangirl over? After all, a lot of the appeal of fantasy and romance and books and movies in general is to have something you desire but aren’t likely to get in real life, be it an adventure, superpowers, or a “hot” romantic prospect. If an adventure book doesn’t provide you with a good adventure, doesn’t it fail to deliver on its promise? If a romance doesn’t provide you with a hot lead, does it, too, fail to deliver the goods?
I have a confession. I liked Twilight.
It was not a perfect book or movie, but what it did really, really well was appeal to my inner teenage girl—this creature that still resides deep within me, buried underneath all these intellectual thoughts and theories of stories, that just likes what she likes. The writer part may gnash my teeth at the poorly paced romance, but the teenage girl side loves the thought of a beautiful guy stopping a car with his bare hands to save me.
When the studios got their hands on Beautiful Creatures, they all but announced that they were hoping for the “next Twilight.” A $9 million opening weekend and $19 million domestic total made it clear they didn’t succeed. Thanks to Netflix, I finally got the chance to watch the movie and after the credits scrolled I was dumbstruck with confusion. “Who was this movie made for?” I asked myself out loud.
Writer. Critic. Dreamer.