Categories
Retrospectives

Naked Lunch: Adapting the Unadaptable

It had been nearly four years since I watched David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch (1991) for the first time. I remember, upon finishing watching this film, high school me had been so enamored with what I just experienced that the next day I tried to read William S. Burroughs’ novel. I gave dozens of pages a shot, but since this was my first foray into postmodern literature, I was just puzzled with the scattershot and free-form prose of Burroughs. My takeaway though, was that it was incredible that Cronenberg was able to adapt something so unadaptable to film and pull it off so well in the way he did. 

In what starts out as most films do, through the establishment of main characters and a free-form jazz score coupled with art-deco aesthetics; this then morphs into a film about a slew of autobiographical problems that Burroughs faced in real life, that are thrust upon the protagonist, Bill Lee (Peter Weller). Drug use, homosexuality, and the creative process as a writer are the main themes that the film eventually manages to hone in on. The strange, Cronenbergian staples start with the introduction of an insect that talks through the mouth of an anus telling Lee to kill his wife, Joan Lee (Judy Davis) because she is a “secret agent”. It becomes such a Kafka-esque work that Kafka is even mentioned by Joan Lee. Also through Cronenbergian fashion, these various bugs and creatures are given an oozing and hyper-sexualized style and voice to them. This collaboration between Burroughs and Cronenberg was a perfect creative pairing for that reason. Videodrome took the idea of James Woods having moments of intimacy with pulsating Betamax tapes and televisions with faces on them and with Shivers (1975) he had already used the template of tying bugs in with sexuality. 

However, Naked Lunch doesn’t just make the bugs out to be these strange creatures just looking at trying to burrow their way into the minds of as many humans as possible, but as a creative companion, a writer can discuss their work with. The bugs, later on in the film are portrayed as typewriters for that reason, a product of Lee’s hallucinations on his drug-infused fantasies at some points, dictating to Lee what to write. The personal connection to typewriters humanizes these inanimate objects through the names that they are referred to throughout Naked Lunch. Tom Frost (Ian Holm) talks about how much he loves his “mujahideen”, the name given to his favorite typewriter. Burroughs himself was a heroin user and it is quite obvious that the insecticide in the film is a reference to that. The way that the insecticide is shot up intravenously and as the film progresses characters move onto harder drugs. The hardest drug coming from the secretions of the fictional reptilian creatures, Mugwumps. Their scaly and bony mien being one of the more impactful things from the film.

The film also has one of the most unreliable narrators I’ve seen in cinema. It is challenging to decipher which pieces of the film are actually tied to reality and which are inside the head of a drug-addict suffering from writer’s block, needing a fix in order to continue to construct. The far off city of Interzone (Joy Division were a fan of Burroughs’ work) that Lee flees to is when it fully becomes an unhinged meditation in the surreal. What Lee believes are smashed-up typewriter parts in a bag are seen by other characters to be just a collage of various pill bottles. During a discussion with Tom Frost, the synchronized sound coming from his mouth is dubbed over by other dialogue also spoken by Frost where he proclaims: “If you look carefully at my lips, you’ll realize that I’m actually saying something else. I’m not actually telling you about the several ways I’m gradually murdering Joan [Lee]”. The openness of the interpretation between fiction and reality makes Naked Lunch all the better, constantly throwing curveballs and depicting addiction as a sad, puzzling dimension of the human psyche. 

Cronenberg’s adaptation of Burroughs’ work attempts to be a transgressive and provocative work the same way the 1959 novel was. Unfortunately, there was not nearly as much discussion about the film compared to the novel. But for people that enjoy postmodern narratives that deconstruct the creative process such as Spike Jonze’s Adaptation (2002), then this is an enjoyable, Kafkaesque meditation in that wheelhouse.               

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Director Guides

Robert Rodriguiez’s Mexico Trilogy: a Great Introduction to a Great Director

Robert Rodriguiez may be one of the first auteurs that many people my age were exposed to. With many kids learning about his distinctive style from the first three Spy Kids films (2001-2003) and The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lava Girl (2005). However, I (and many others) soon realized that Rodriguez’s other projects were much different from his child-friendly features. Hyper-violent and over-the-top films. Such as the Spy Kids spin-off films about Danny Trejo’s character, Uncle Machete or the vampire film From Dusk Till Dawn (1996). However, the best way to track the evolution of Rodriguez as a director would have to be analyzing how his series of films in his Mexico Trilogy changed and evolved all marking as important indicators of where Rodriguiez was at creatively during the production of each of these films. 

El Mariachi (1992)

The film that started not only the trilogy but also Rodriguez’s career is also the most different of the three. The most famous part of El Mariachi would have to be the lengths that Rodriguez went to to cut costs on this production, costing only about seven thousand to make (not counting post-production costs). It does have an endearing low-budget charm to it, in the same way that Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981) does. It is also the only film in the franchise that is all in Spanish as well and has a completely different cast with Carlos Gallardo playing the titular character. Unfortunately, when compared to the other two in the franchise, it definitely lacks the needed polish in the action department that Rodriguez was later known for. But still, as a first-time director to break over a million at the box-office and get picked up by a large production company for a first feature project is wildly impressive. The shots are framed incredibly well, but the lighting is strange. Although Rodriguez using a wheelchair for dolly shots is genius and I would have never noticed if I didn’t read about him utilizing that strategy. If you are at all interested in El Mariachi I would also implore you to read Rodriguiez’s 1995 book about the production of the film, Rebel Without a Crew. Rodriguez’s latest film, Red 11 (2019) was shot on a $7,000 budget as well proving that the director still wishes to take on the challenge of low budget filmmaking.   

Desperado (1995)

Ideologically, Desperado may represent Rodriguez best out of all the films he has made, action cinema with a Mexican and Western underpinnings. This is Rodriguiez’s Evil Dead 2 (1987). A hybrid between a sequel and a remake of El Mariachi with a production budget of seven million instead of seven thousand dollars. Antonio Banderas replaces Carlos Gallardo as guitarist-turned-killer El Mariachi and fits into the role fantastically, bringing the charisma that the role desperately needed, including an iconic scorpion jacket. It is a rehash of the revenge-style plot of the first film but instead with a new foe, a cartel named Bucho (Joaquin de Almeida). The much more polished practical-effects heavy action turning into a main-stay of this era of Rodriguez’s films. Some of El Mariachi’s arsenal in Desperado reminds me of the weapons that Rodriguiez would create later in From Dusk Till Dawn and Planet Terror (2007) such as a guitar-rocket launcher. Many of the mainstays of the cast of Rodriguez’s subsequent projects such as: Steve Buschemi, Salma Hayek, Cheech Marin, and of course, Danny Trejo. 

The utilization of Catholic imagery in Desperado and Machete (2010) draw a lot of parallels as well. Not necessarily the utilization of themes of Catholicism but more so the aesthetics of Catholicism because it “looks cool”. In Desperado, El Mariachi goes to confession at a church after going on a killing spree. However, upon learning about Bucho’s other goons tracking him down he tells the priest before storming out that he will have to go to confession later “because where I’m going I’d just have to come right back”. Just one example of the great hyperbolic dialogue from this Mexsploitation film.

Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003)

The final film in the trilogy, Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003) adds a political layer to the film, with a corrupt CIA agent (Johnny Depp) and a plot to assassinate and overthrow the President of Mexico. Musician Enrique Iglesias plays a character too, in a very odd casting choice. The political themes are not as much as part of a large-scale message that Rodriguiez is attempting to speak on Mexican politics but more-so just an “upping of the stakes” in the final film of the franchise. Once Upon a Time in Mexico to me is seen as a prototype of Machete (2010). A grindhouse-esque juggling act with an ensemble cast of characters in it. Although the latter does it much better for the reason that it goes all in on the absurd. Once Upon a Time still carries the burden of tying up loose ends with other characters while simultaneously giving Banderas’ character a backseat to the handful of new characters. The film is also significant in that it was the first film to be shot in digital high definition, an interesting development for Rodriguez as a creator that was later utilized heavily in Sin City (2005). Unfortunately unlike Sin City, Once Upon a Time in Mexico is a messy and in many ways dated film, forgoing the practical effects of Desperado and El Mariachi for the more fashionable CGI at the time but executing it quite poorly. It may be a forgettable entry compared to the superior Desperado but in the greater purview of Rodriguiez’s filmography; it is seen as a stepping stone, a transitional period to greater things for him as a director.               

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Blog Genre Introduction

Time Capsule Cinema

I see cinema as a historical archive more than anything. Film exists in a vacuum of the time period it was made whether it is truthful or not of that era. However, there are also pictures that are more indicative of the era that they were created in than others. For example, you could really make something like Silence of the Lambs (Demme, 1991) in any time period as I don’t believe it to be culturally synonymous with the 90s, other than the sense that it was released in that decade. However, something like Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1984) could not be made today. I hear that phrase tossed around quite liberally these days. Along the lines of, “you couldn’t make Blazing Saddles (Brooks, 1974)today.” Which yes, surly comedy and culture are malleable and changes with time but you most definitely could still make Blazing Saddles for the most part intact. Fast Times, however, exists in its own world. A world where a kid who has “been stoned since third grade, where “DISCO SUCKS” is written on the wall of a baseball dugout, and where three girls at the same school have “cultivated the Pat Benatar look”. The pop-culture references, while contemporary at the time have aged like fine wine, and it makes for excellent insight into the growing up in middle-class America in the early 1980s.

Now I, a person born at the turn of the millennium am for one not an authority on the topic of an era that was fifteen times my senior. However, I can say that anecdotally talking to people about Fast Times, whether it be parents or former teachers they usually go, “I knew a Mike Damone growing up” or “I was more of a Brett Ratner”. The music especially is a big part of why this is an important time capsule of the era. Opening with “We Got the Beat” by the Go-Gos setting the scene at the mall, the social epicenter for the students of Ridgemont High. The Cars, Oingo Boingo, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers span across the multiple vignettes of growing up at this time. The effectiveness of Fast Times also functions so well because director Amy Heckerling and writer Cameron Crowe know exactly what type of movie it is. At the time, it was just a film about being in high school, not much else. When John Hughes made The Breakfast Club a year later, it came with a type of self-importance about what it wanted to say. Making a voice-over about the five archetypal characters the focal point of the message of the film. Fast Times has aspects of those five characters of course, but it makes it known that these are real people and not just caricatures. I think a lot of that authenticity comes from the source material as well. Based on Cameron Crowe’s novel Fast Times at Ridgemont High: A True Story (1981) (where he went undercover at Claremont High School in San Diego for a year) gives it that fidelity.

Another great example of what “Time Capsule Cinema” is would be the films of Hal Needham, such as Smokey and the Bandit (1977) and more specifically The Cannonball Run (1981). When watching The Cannonball Run in 2020 the film teleports you back to the era of the racing-obsessed subculture with a cast of stars to boot. The Ray Stevens’ song “Cannonball” played in the opening credits is a lovely country and synth-infused ballad that is only emboldened in its significance as Farrah Fawcett gets out of a sports car and spray paints a red X over the speed limit sign. The cast, packed with large stars such as: Burt Reynolds, Roger Moore, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and Jackie Chan definitely feel almost as if we are focusing on too many characters making for a bloated and uneven product. However, in hindsight, this makes the film a more excellent piece of Time Capsule Cinema. As the huge cast of characters are all drawn on Drew Struzan’s hand-drawn poster where the characters all surround a speed limit sign. The Cannonball Run poses an important question, however: does Time Capsule Cinema have to be good? Well of course it doesn’t. Something like Cameron Crowe’s gen-x/Seattle grunge-era film Singles (1992) would not be something I would consider “good” (or for that matter entertaining) cinema. But nonetheless, it can provide a catharsis for people who either experienced that subculture first-hand or wanted to experience it first-hand.

It may be suggested by some that documentaries would be a better way to experience an event through a historical lens and while that may be true with cultural “watershed” moments like The Monterey Pop Festival, the 1960 Democratic primary between John F Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey, or Agnès Varda interviewing The Black Panthers in 1960s Oakland. As shown in my examples, I believe that D.A. Pennebaker is probably the best documentary filmmaker at least when it comes to somewhat-recent cultural events. However, why I tend to disagree with the notion that documentaries are “better” examples of Time Capsule Cinema because in many ways, cultural relevance can be measured by the popular commercial films of the time than what a handful of people were doing at a specific time. Many more people are able to go see movies than say, go to Woodstock and narrative features are much more popular (the only documentary that has made over $100 million is Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)). The box office receipts surrounding a film like Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (Charles, 2006). Borat made about $262 million at the box office (on a $18 million budget) and its popularity provides utility to the shared sentiments of people during post- 9/11 Bush-era America. Reflective on how the various catchphrases of the titular Sacha-Baron Cohen character permeated through the popular zeitgeist (“my wife” and ”very nice!” specifically). And while the humor in Borat has not aged specifically well, Time Capsule Cinema allows the viewer to appreciate it as a historical document. Which is what I would recommend people to view something with that perspective more often.

In conclusion, there may be some variance of quality in the films discussed in this piece and there can even be a debate over what qualifies as Time Capsule Cinema to different people. The only criteria for Time Capsule Cinema are that the film must take place in the era it was produced. A film can take us to a certain period with the contemporary design choices of the time and that is what makes it so magical (a recent example for me was my viewing of Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966)). Using this information will help develop an extra critical lense when viewing a film can aid in a higher understanding of not just the film but also history and time itself. So now, go forth and experience the past!      

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Uncategorized

The Beauty of the Mundane in Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi

Koyaanisqatsi builds up to a visual and audible crescendo. Making it one of, if not the best marvels of film I’ve ever seen. Godfrey Reggio’s visuals speak for themself well enough to formulate a clear thesis without any dialogue other than the word “koyaanisqatsi” chanted a few times. Reggio’s film opens with sweeping shots of the natural beauty of Horseshoe Canyon in Utah. As it progresses, however, it becomes less and less about nature and more about the human impact on this planet. High-speed time-lapses full of vibrant color and thousands of people are impressive in scope and scale, however, it is still troubling to watch. This all comes from the perspective that is chosen to display these images. The birds-eye-view reminds me of the factory scene in Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) showing people as cogs in a machine but as a current and genuine aspect of the rhythm of the world.

The word koyaanisqatsi means “life out of balance”. A term coming from the Hopi people of Northeastern Arizona. This dictionary definition at the end is really all there is given on an explanation to what the film really is about. Reggio has gone on to say “Koyaanisqatsi is not so much about something, nor does it have a specific meaning or value…Art has no intrinsic meaning. This is its power, its mystery and hence, its attraction.” I think this quote encapsulates a lot about why this film is so impactful to me. Because it allows us to look within ourselves and process what exactly the editing and Philip Glass’ music could mean. Reggio, taking inspiration from Soviet montage cinema and the avant-garde popularized the poetic documentary sub-genre. Where emotion is felt in the most animalistic way. To me, the scintillating allure of consumerism is a large part of the movie, people all living and rushing around in a country with all different problems and different lives inhibiting a “peaceful chaos” in this world. Most faces are seen as a blur or are even too small to see. One of the few times where we see a clear shot of the faces of people (that is not archival footage of television personalities like Lou Dobbs or Ted Koppel) is the blank stares of six women working a casino. This fourth-wall breaking scene almost feels frozen in time compared to the erratic goings on of the rest of the footage used, isolated in their own personal bubbles, like all of us.

On top of these visuals, the music in Koyaanisqatsi is just as important. Philip Glass scores the movie with a measured and minimalist cadence to what is shown on the screen. Making the movie, at least on first viewing quite enthralling just for the beautiful melodies. The usage of traditional instruments, as well as electric ones, is much in line with what the film is about with its commentary on industrialization. 

While Koyaanisqatsi may represent many things to many people, as was Reggio’s intention, to me it represents an analysis of the aesthetic beauty of the mundane and the underlying horror of it all.     

Koyaanisqatsi is available to stream on Youtube for free.

Categories
Blog Retrospectives

On Kundun – Scorsese’s Forgotten Spiritual Journey

To start this month’s retrospective analysis of Martin Scorsese’s films, I decided to watch a smaller project in the director’s seven-decade long portfolio. In 1997, Scorsese released Kundun with minimal fanfare, not even making back one-fourth of the twenty-eight million dollars it cost to make. Marty’s follow-up to the violent and corrupted world of Las Vegas was a film about the story of the early life of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama as well as the persecution of the Tibetan people by Mao Zedong.

What makes Kundun at home with other films that Scorsese has made is the religious themes. Scorsese, a Catholic has made movies distinctly about Christian beliefs and morality, the most obvious two being Silence (2016) and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). However, in Kundun, Scorsese acts as a respectful messenger to the trials, tribulations, and culture of the Tibetan Buddhist people.

The documentary In Search of Kundun (Wilson, 1998)provides a lot of background for why this film works so well, while it had so much going against it on paper. The Dalai Lama had a hand in the story and the production of the film. Even though Kundun was shot in Morocco, the Dalai Lama was able to re-create a lot of past home of the Tibetans. While promoting the film on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, Scorsese talked about how he wanted to make sure only Tibetan Buddhists were cast in the film and no major Hollywood actors were used to avoid the white savior complex. (Ironically, the film was released a few months before the Brad Pitt/Dalai Lama film Seven Years in Tibet.) On the BBC program, The Film Show, Scorsese described Kundun as “nonaction” in the way the story was presented, giving it a “spiritual rhythm”. The film’s structure feels poetic in a way, considering the way that it tells the story of the life of the Dalai Lama, skipping ahead through history, to important parts of the Dalai Lama’s life or the people of Tibet. The Dalai Lama is depicted as a strong and brave leader but also humanizes him as a character. Not going the easy route and making him infallible.   

Kundun’s strongest aspect is the visual component. Roger Deakins’ cinematography, with a red and gold color palette, makes for an exquisite looking film. Phillip Glass scores Kundun and there were moments where the music, paired with Deakins’ cinematography reminded me of Koyaanisqatsi (Reggio, 1982); Glass’ seminal work. Unfortunately, Melissa Mathison’s script is what holds the film back from being in the higher echelon of the Scorsese canon. A lot of the dialogue seems overly simplistic or unnecessary, like the need for moments of obvious foreshadowing. This is not to say that there are no standout moments in the script, however, the aiding of Glass, Scorsese, and Deakins can not be understated.

“The Dalai Lama has not yet returned to Tibet. He hopes one day to make the journey.” are spelled out on the screen at the end of Kundun; as the Dalai Lama looks towards the Himalayas from his new home of India. It is heartbreaking that he and the people of Tibet have still not been able to make that journey almost twenty-five years later. Scorsese’s passion for telling the story of the oppression of the Tibetan people in a respectable manner is also a testament to him as a director and why he is revered by many.  

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Blog Reclamations

Under the Silver Lake: Nihilism in the Golden State

Spoilers From Under the Silver Lake and Vertigo below

The phrase, “Beware the Dog Killer” painted on a store-window is what opens up David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake (2018). The shot, however, is framed so the audience reads the words backward, turning the word “dog” into “god”. Sam (Andrew Garfield) meets three people at an indie film screening. The screening is located in a Los Angeles graveyard populated with dead movie stars, directors, and musicians. The gravestone that the three are leaning on, however, is no other than Alfred Hitchcock. This symbolism presents itself as David Robert Mitchell’s thesis of the film on the disposable and nihilistic attitudes of Hollywood and life in general.

Sam (Andrew Garfield), as the noir protagonist in Under the Silver Lake, is a great choice because he is the trope of the womanizing detective of the classic Hollywood noirs. However, instead of existing in the fantasy-world that those characters do, he exists in the real world. He is not seen as a cool, suave Bogart-esque detective, but as a depressing, sex-obsessed loner that spends his days engaging in voyeurism and playing video games. Despising and hating the homeless, even though he is close to losing his apartment for not paying rent. Sam can be seen as a twenty-first-century version of Johnny (Jimmy Stewart) in Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958). The man who spends all his time searching for a woman that is unattainable in many ways but their egos can not let that be the case. Believing that it is their duty to protect and look out for the women they have attached themselves to, for their own selfish reasons. The fragility of Johnny drives him to force Judy (Kim Novak) to alter her appearance to look as close to Madeline as possible. Dying her hair and buying Judy the same clothes that Madeline wore. Johnny’s obsession with Madeline and the sudden realization that Judy and Madeline are the same people drives Judy to fall to her death from the bell tower. Like Sam, his obsession brings him nothing but misery and a feeling of abandonment. 

 In Sam’s apartment, his walls are covered with movie posters of classic Hollywood films like Dracula (Browning, 1931) and Rear Window (Hitchcock, 1954). When going over to Sarah’s house, the two of them watch How to Marry a Millionaire (Negulesco, 1953) and the poster is prominently featured in Sarah’s room. Pop culture and film encompass many frames of the film. This is the film for the QAnon and pop-culture-obsessed era that we now live in. Sam’s friend, (Topher Grace) comments that there is a “generation of men obsessed with video games and secret codes” and that “we crave mystery, ’cause there’s none left.” Characters, including Sam, look up to people like Kurt Cobain and James Dean because of the martyr-like status that these people have achieved. Dying tragically in the prime of their careers and leaving a body of work solidifying them as icons. When Sam is led to “the Songwriter” (Jeremy Bobb) he unveils that he has created many of the iconic songs and pop culture of the past decades. The rebellious music of Nirvana that Sam held so dear to his heart is just the work of a man that has no emotional connection to the music. Bringing into question, what is it that makes people appreciate art? Is it usually the finished product or is it the story behind that finished product? At the end of the film, when Sam finally manages to find Sarah, she has now been indoctrinated into a cult and will die underground in as bunker in exchange for an eternal afterlife. Sam’s main obsession, the woman he has was infatuated with, is going to die, most of the pop culture that he held dear to his heart is nothing but a lie, and he is to be evicted for not paying his rent. He does not have anything to show for all this time he took uncovering a mystery other than the belief that life is meaningless.

The main leitmotif of Under the Silver Lake is the song “Turning Teeth” by the fake band Jesus and The Brides of Dracula (played by the real band the Silversun Pickups). The band’s song foreshadows a few hints about the secrets in the movie. The lyric: “Tunneling beneath the skin of the city we live within” is an allusion to the underground bunkers of the cult in the movie that Sarah has joined. When Sam violently interrogates Jesus, the lead singer of the band about the puzzles and codes in the song. Jesus finally admits that he did not write the song, and “the songwriter” was the one who must have implanted the message in the song. Throughout history, have tried to find secret messages in religion, who knows if Jesus would even approve of the amount of over-analyzation the Gospel has been given over centuries and if Jesus was even conscious of these hidden messages or if they exist at all. Another song that explains a lot about the underlying plot of the film is the R.E.M. song“What’s the Frequency Kenneth?” (1994) which is played at a dance club that Sam goes to with the Balloon Girl (Grace Van Patten). In interviews when discussing the meaning of the song, R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe has said “I wrote that protagonist as a guy who’s desperately trying to understand what motivates the younger generation, who has gone to great lengths to try and figure them out, and at the end of the song it’s completely fucking bogus. He got nowhere.” That, in essence, is the plot of David Robert Mitchell’s film, the belief that there is a greater conspiracy or a greater question in life only to find out that whatever that greater puzzle is, it is unattainable. A comforting fact or a horrible truth that the things that you did care about don’t matter. Maybe the reasons why people don’t attempt to find this secret out is because the truth is too much to take.

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Blog Streaming Reccomendation

Palm Springs – A Vacation From Uncertainty

In this quite unpredictable year as far as films are concerned, Palm Springs (2020) has been the best film (out of the nine feature films) I have seen so far in 2020. The plot is not something of the utmost originality. Movies about people stuck in a time loop, popularized by the Harold Ramis/Bill Murray comedy film Groundhog Day (1993) have created many variations in their own right, including this year’s dreadful psychological drama Horse Girl (2020), a horror-comedy with Blumhouse’s Happy Death Day (2017), or a thriller with Run Lola Run (1998). The plot of all of these movies is connected through the concept of reliving the same period of time again and again but with varying tonal differences. So then, what makes Palm Springs rise above the rest of this niche micro-genre? Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti are what move the film past just having a gimmicky premise. In these ninety minutes, these characters dabble in not only the comedic but also the philosophical, and while it isn’t anything necessarily groundbreaking it helps provide good spacing between outlandish gags.

Would I (or anyone for that matter) care that much about Palm Springs if a global pandemic had not happened? Probably not. It is a lovely little film, but the notion that it would break Hulu’s streaming records in the same way it did I would find to be rather incredulous. This is many ways that could be seen as the Tiger King (2020) for the indie-crowd. This is not a criticism however, just a mere observation. Palm Springs as a cultural flashpoint in this summer’s barren release schedule can also have a lot to do with how poor the offering of films on streaming services has been so far. With Netflix’s The Last Days of American Crime (2020) garnering a rare zero percent critic score on Rotten Tomatoes and Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga (2020) receiving a lukewarm reception at best. Palm Springs manages to rise above the more or less derivative content that streaming services have been releasing to create a well-shot, crowd-pleasing comedy and I think in this time of uncertainty, this was the perfect answer to our worries.

I couldn’t help but draw slight comparisons to The Nightmare on Elm Street Franchise in the fear and aversion to sleep that Sarah (Cristin Milioti) undergoes because, as soon as you fall asleep the day resets. However, the nightmare in this is not a burnt-faced child murderer but the fear of reliving the same day. The day, in particular, being Sarah’s sister Tala’s (Camila Mendes) wedding. This all happens through because Nyles (Andy Samberg) shows Sarah a magic cave that traps someone in the “time-loop” as soon as you enter. The biggest strike against the film is the plot device of the “magic cave”. There is not much explanation for why the cave has this ability but it just kinda…does. Many of the other tropes of these types of movies are played out, such as the almost-slapstick ways that the characters commit suicide in an attempt to escape their situation. Thematically, however, the film is all tied together through the wedding that Nyles and Sarah are trapped at; using it as a way for the leads to face their emotional insecurities. Palm Springs never goes it too much dramatic territory, the brevity of the runtime does not allow it to digress too much either. Just a good script, two solid leads, and good cinematography is what made me enjoy this film so much and I think the universal appeal and ease-of accessibility make it a must-watch for anyone looking for good summer fare.

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Blog Retrospectives

Lumet’s Serpico – An anti-policing polemic

Mild spoilers for Serpico below

            In Sidney Lumet’s Serpico (1973), the titular character is seen as the moral center of the film. A cop who ends up becoming entrenched in controversy among his colleagues for upholding the oath taken at the beginning of the film. The films of Sidney Lumet stress the recurring theme of the importance of ethics and morality in American society. Whether it be a fair jurisprudential system in 12 Angry Men (1957) or ethical journalism in Network (1976). All three of these Lumet films are connected through the integrity of the characters to uphold their responsibility to others to do the right thing. It is no more obvious of a motif however than in the true story of the rogue New York cop.

            At a vending machine in a subway station in Serpico,the phrase “God wants you in church often” is written in graffiti. Its prominence is shown by the framing of the expression taking up one-fifth of the screen. Vandalism is frowned upon in society, some may even call it “sinful”, but yet the usage of graffiti is contradictory in the sense that it encourages the reader to go to church. In a way, this play on morality mirrors Frank Serpico’s (Al Pacino) clashes with fellow law enforcement. NYPD officers in Serpico are supposed to be arbiters of “justice” but as shown throughout the film, most of the cops do not care much about what criminals do as long as the compensation is decent enough to look the other way. Serpico however, does not fall for it. “Don’t tell anybody I’m a cop” he tells his girlfriend, Leslie (Cornelia Sharpe) at a party, “Frank, let’s face it. Who can trust a cop who don’t take money?” Tom Keough (Jack Kehoe) asks Serpico. These negative attitudes are reflective of what the NYPD had become. Serpico however, strives to change that. The sense of dualism in the film is shown through the two worlds that Serpico lives in: one being the counter-cultural epicenter of Greenwich Village and the other, working on the force. Serpico is ridiculed by fellow officers for reading books on ballet and even accused of being gay for not falling in line with the hyper-masculine culture of the NYPD. Although, Serpico does not let these pressures from work interfere with his livelihood in Greenwich Village, at first at least. However, as time progresses the state of his employment also affects other things in Serpico’s life, most notably the relationship between his girlfriend, Laurie (Barbara Eda-Young). This creates a rift between these two worlds eventually leading to the police force becoming the exclusive focus of his life.      

Serpico is a grimy and dirty film that reflects the authenticity of the era that it was made. New York, looks like an urban hellscape, with many abandoned buildings and litter-filled streets. Two years later, Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon (1975) also gave a similar feeling of desperation to the Big Apple. Built into Lumet’s portrayal of New York, is the concept of “The American Dream” the emblematic belief “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.” (James Truslow Adams, 1931). Both Sonny Wortzik (Al Pacino) and Frank Serpico are products of the idyllic belief in this dream, however, they both are pushed to the brink of hopelessness in different ways. With Sonny robbing a bank and Frank nearly being shot and nearly killed by another cop. Two sides of the same coin, Sonny as the criminal and Frank as law enforcement. But, when organized crime is given a pass by the police, who is there to turn to for the unjust and unfair problems of these institutions? In the beginning, Serpico truly believes that he can fix the NYPD from the inside until, near the end of the film when he reaches the conclusion that “The whole fuckin’ system is corrupt!”. A poignant truth that rings true to law enforcement nearly fifty years later.      

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Reclamations

The Cat in the Hat

It can get a little derivative fawning over films that have already gained swaths of recognition. As in, I feel like it is almost a little unneeded for me to write another essay about why a film like Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) is so significant and well crafted. Therefore, I am currently writing this giddy with excitement to talk about Bo Welch’s Cat in the Hat (2003), a film that was (and still is) widely panned by most people and I’m here to tell you why that should not be the case.

Myers’ role as the Cat in the Hat is the most principal aspect of what makes the movie function. In the sense of the cannon of Myers-related films of the 90s to early 2000s, this fits right in. The admiration of Myers as a physical comedian is also detrimental to enjoying The Cat in the Hat. The Austin Powers series of films, which ended with Goldmember (2002) one year prior. Seem like precursors in the way they handle genre conventions while satirizing them. Austin Powers parodying the James Bond–franchise and The Cat in the Hat parodying Seuss’s writing and world-building. At the center of this is Myers joke delivery in both being very similar.  

Welch, originally an art director, and production designer has not directed another film since. This is a shame because as far as how the film looks and feels, he knocks it out of the park. As far as getting that Dr. Seuss but simultaneously Wes Anderson vibe, it’s a weird combination, but it fits. The palette of bright green and pink Three-time Academy Award winner Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki as director of photography is a big part of this too. Lubezki went on to do cinematography for Terrance Malick’s Tree of Life (2011) on top of his three Oscars for his work on Gravity (2013), Birdman (2014), and The Revenant (2015). I don’t want to go as far as saying this deserved an Oscar nomination but with Lubezki’s impressive resume I’d say this is another good display of his ability behind the camera.

Welch did fail in one major part though, this is not a children’s film at all. In fact, I remember at the age of four I was outright terrified of this thing. Mike Myers as the Cat in the Hat is something that should not be shown to children at least under the age of eight, and Thing One and Thing Two, kids should probably be even older to see. What about the source material? Some may say. It doesn’t matter, the source material is just a vehicle for the surrealist comedy to unfold. The other live-action Dr. Seuss film adaptation, Ron Howard’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000) pales in comparison because it is Jim Carrey as the Grinch attempting to be funny while telling a straightforward version of the book. There are no detours, just a by-the-numbers retelling of a classic Christmas story. That’s what makes The Cat in the Hat such a great watch though. The simpler things in life are Mike Myers as the Cat in the Hat calling a garden tool a “dirty hoe” before smiling at the camera in a smug fashion, which ironically is just such so dumb yet hilarious joke. Or the Cat’s hat being used as a euphemism for an erection. Why is it that it is so funny when after The Cat in the Hat gets hit in the crotch, the film cuts to a dream sequence of the Cat swinging in a dress to “Easy Like a Sunday Morning” by Lionel Richie? Because it makes absolutely no sense at all. These are just two things put together and somehow the lack of cohesiveness makes it ironically brilliant. As time progresses, the humor in The Cat in the Hat feels more modern and in tune with the layers of irony that a lot of modern comedy uses. Myers seems to make a mockery out of the whole thing, allowing Sally and Conrad’s (Dakota Fanning and Spencer Breslin) house to be his own playground of hellish chaos. While yes, the children’s book had that aspect in it too; Seuss did not have the courage to add in a mock-cooking show where The Cat in the Hat violently threatens a clone of himself in a sweater named “The Guy in the Sweater Who Asks All the Obvious Questions” with a machete.

In conclusion, if you have or have not seen this film, I would recommend giving it another look. You will laugh at the sheer absurdity of Myers’ performance and how it has become very much in tune with the modern comedic zeitgeist. It is not perfect, it doesn’t even have a clear message, but it is a quick 82-minute watch that provides fodder for quotable moments and jokes. It also is a product of a bygone era of bizarre live-action kids films (like the CGI-horror abomination known as Kangaroo Jack (2003)). A friend of mine put it best when saying that, “like Apocalypse Now (1979), The Cat in the Hat is a slow descent into madness”.