Showtime Free Trial Week

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND

While this movie was sitting next-up in my queue, I watched a quiz show where one of the questions asked what, in the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the first and second kinds of encounters are supposed to be, so thanks as ever to British panel shows for always coming through for me. Particularly as this turns out to not ever be defined in the movie itself, just one of of many things about this Steven Spielberg feature I found surprisingly strange and almost kinda arty.

So come for the strange sci-fi I guess, sure—stay for cartographer Bob Balaban translating for SCIENTIST FRANÇOIS TRUFFAUT. It just kept happening and I was never not over the moon about it! No space ship required!! I didn’t even know Truffaut WAS IN THIS. He is!! Just appearing in areas with his little science fists on his hips, looking at phenomena. Richard Dreyfus is also around, but I want to throw his character into a river, and 1977 Spielberg apparently feels the same about all women, so, Truffaut & Balaban are really all we have. When they get especially excited sometimes Truffaut starts breaking into English phrases for the Americans, for emphasis, and Balaban, not noticing, just keeps translating but now into French. Totally lost it at this, my friends.

I also got a kick out of learning how very many shots from Stranger Things are Close Encounters references. It’s many! Spielberg chose to film a ton of the night scenes on sound stages and it’s such a choice, the starry sky always looks like a planetarium and the light sources are totally unnatural. Early on I got very excited over the idea that this whole thing might be a movie of lighting. One time a friend told me about a theory of story (very simplistic but that’s how theories get their use sometimes), that says that most works prioritize one of three things: Character, Plot, or Setting. Setting tends to be more rare, and I was completely down for this to be a Setting movie, creating a narrative mostly through use of light, if it had actually stayed that way.

My ideal version of this film is two-thirds the length (I don’t believe this is a two hour and fifteen minute movie, sorry Steven), mostly the parts at night, and stays in that odd, indie film kind of space of the first 45 minutes where it seemed there was no real main character, that we were just sort of moving from incident to incident. And it’s at this point that I realize I’m just reverse engineering this into The Vast of Night, an alien arrival movie definitely inspired by this one that I ultimately prefer in every way, except for how it does not feature a legendary and cute auteur of the French New Wave in an inexplicable acting role.

★★★½


DESERT HEARTS

An independent 20th century queer romance with a happy ending that I did not find unbearably cheesy! It’s a real movie, with characterization and storylines and footage of people driving in the desert—cinema things.

And the set-up is interesting: do you remember that fun fact about how back in the 1950s, married women could move to Reno, Nevada for six weeks to establish residency, and then were legally allowed to get a quick divorce without having to bring their husbands into it at all? That’s the premise here, and the movie doesn’t over-explain this, which is nicely respectful to its audience. Especially as some other elements are indeed served up to you on a silver trope platter, most centrally a restrained English professor who wants to finally make her own life meeting a ~free-spirited~ younger woman who wears jean shorts and lives in a little cottage where she makes pottery. Hello to you, sweet obvious lesbians!

What I liked about Desert Hearts though, is that while of course these two fall in love, theirs is not the only female relationship in this film. Kay has a close friendship with a fun coworker who seems to play a big part in her life, and then has a very interestingly complex mother-figure relationship with the woman who mostly raised her, who in turn develops a complex relationship with Vivian, her boarder for these six weeks.

It’s also fun for being a double period film: set in the midcentury but very much made in the 1980s. I did enjoy the not infrequent neon lighting in this, befitting the film’s cover art, with the title glowing Janelle Monáe pink against the big desert sky.

★★★


THE BIRDCAGE

I was drinking limoncello when I started watching this, but there’s still no excuse for the way I reacted like a rockstar was walking out at the completely unexpected reveal of “Emmanuel Lubezki” in the opening credits. The sunny sweet South Beach fantasy land he creates in this!! All warm and cheery and pastel! I want to live in that kitchen with the morning light coming in, making coffee and breakfast..! I want Agador’s job, basically.

Anyway, what is The Birdcage? The Birdcage is a very ridiculous drawing room comedy about how the best people in the world are middle aged gay Miami dads. This movie was made by straight people, but is extremely pro the homosexual agenda, and spends its whole time taking the hets to task. The actual motivation for the plot makes no goddamn sense because there is no world in which if you trick your future in-laws about who your parents are for exactly one dinner then you’re in the clear forever, but we just have to accept the premise and moooove on. The film absolutely does not intend for you to think too hard about it, because if you did you’d have to come to the conclusion that the kids are monsters who both tormenting their parents for no reason, and as they’re each portrayed as inherently well-meaning and loving and just trying their darn fool best to get through this, I’ve decided it’s one of those plots where it’s just Happening, through no one’s express choice. Comedies are like sometimes.

The gay dads are played by Robin Williams, in one of his genuinely lovely turns, and Nathan Lane, the more comic and silly half of the pair but also even more heartbreaking at times. Williams owns a drag bar next to the beach called The Birdcage (titular club!), his partner Lane is the starring act, and the person whose job I want is their hapless maid-of-all-work, Hank Azaria, who in one scene is wearing a muscle tank that just reads “STRAIGHT LOOKING.” I was a bit exasperated with myself over how readily I was buying Hank Azaria as a gay Guatemalan, as he is neither of those things, but then I looked him up and discovered Azaria comes from Thessalonian Jews and grew up speaking an obscure Spanish dialect written in Hebrew characters, and have decided he gets a Hispanic pass for 1996.

It feels like it’s been a while since I watched a comedy I respected. Haha wow that’s a harsh sentence, but true! But what I mean is: this is the kind of script with jokes built in to not only the dialogue but the way the scenes unfold, and I was so pleased with so many of these joke moments. From quips to sight gags to little actorly bits, this was really just firing on a lot of comedy cylinders for me. Man guys, trying to talk about things that are funny makes them sound so dry, huh! This movie really isn’t, and while it could have been pretty wince-inducing given the content, I skipped right over into just loving it. Camp Canon. Did you know there are THREE rare or original Sondheim songs in this, one of them performed by Christine Baranski? God, the gay pedigree…

★★★★


ISHTAR

When I made my list of what I was going to watch out of Showtime’s present catalog, I actually had no idea that I would be double-featuring a Nichols and a May—serendipity. Ishtar is notorious for being a Worst Movie Ever punchline, but I’d heard it was actually unfairly maligned, possibly due to sexism toward its writer/director, and as box office returns definitely do not always equate to quality, thought I’d give it a watch.

And parts of this oddball comedy did work for me! Especially the struggling songwriters portion in New York, which would feel like a full Simon & Garfunkel parody if Simon & Garfunkel weren’t mentioned several times. I was struck by how actually very sweet this movie is—Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty are genuinely tender and supportive with one another, and honestly it was really nice to watch.

Then they do go off to Ishtar (#comedy plots), and it started its process of losing me. This is MILES from the worst movie ever made, but I think the fact that it gets weaker as it goes probably hurt it considerably, as it’s easier to forget the more fun and funky stuff at the beginning the further you get away from it. It also suffers from some of the Lawrence of Arabia problem of having a fair amount of its politics in the right place, but really falling apart when it then goes and whitewashes the casting of the people in the country the westerners are betraying.

Warren Beatty repeatedly expressing his wish that he could be as attractively small and craggy-looking as Dustin Hoffman was always endearing though. More men complimenting each other on their appearance in movies pls.

★★½

Bad Education (2020)

I really liked Thoroughbreds when it came out a couple years ago. I liked it so much that when I found out this new movie called Bad Education was not a remake of Pedro Almodovar’s wild La mala educación, but something with Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney about a Long Island public school embezzlement scandal, the additional fact that it was Thoroughbreds director Cory Finley’s sophomore feature is what made me think oh, I bet I could have room for two Bad Educations in my life. I have definitely been curious to see what this guy gets up to next.

The answer turns out to be something quite unlike the arch, high-stylish presentation of Thoroughbreds, and entirely great. Most of those dark artistic flourishes have been left on their shelf this time, and it turns out he doesn’t need them at all: this is just such a solid, entertaining movie about fraud and lies and school board members. I was so happy the entire time I was watching this. It is remarkably well constructed—the way the drama builds on itself without calling too much attention to the process is simply a joy. I LOVE A MOVIE WTH REVEALS. PLURAL. Some movies will drop second or third act secrets on you simply for the surprise, where that’s just the way they’re trying to goose the energy of the plot. And some movies are like Bad Education, where each surprise suddenly causes you to recall an earlier scene in a brand new light, and you’re just pointing energetically at the screen while yelling, “Oh! oh!”

It’s actually a true story that Bad Education is telling so well, and if you’re not well-versed in this 2002 financial scandal (the same year Lady Bird took place, incidentally, for your high school fashion reference point), I highly encourage you to not read up on it in advance, and just let this movie unfold the drama for you. The screenplay was actually written by someone who was a student at the Roslyn middle school when this story broke, which I find very charming. This is semi-secretly just a movie about student journalism, and honestly I love that. The whole thing is exactly my flavor of stakes. There’s a bit early on where the young reporter character is getting copies of some school business documents, and notices that one of the ceiling tiles is discolored and slowly leaking while the camera just pushes in on it. It’s one of those moments where I holler “NICE SYMBOLISM,” and mean it—it’s so obvious, but exactly the amount of Fun and Foreboding for me not to resent it in the slightest.

“Fun and foreboding” really is it. For a movie that primarily takes place in pedestrian, blandly lit interiors, the sense of danger some of these scenes have is fucking off the charts. There’s one scene in a diner where I thought I was going to have get up and do some jumping jacks or something just to work off my mounting nervy energy. And that scene wasn’t even strictly criminal, but another, related element! Either I would have an actual heart attack were I to watch something like Wolf of Wall Street, or Bad Education just always has its tone perfectly in hand. I’m leaning toward the latter. And it’s an intelligent movie too, thoughtful about what it actually looks like when you justify immoral actions to yourself, with some bonkers ethical arguments that I found really thrilling to slip down like a poorly maintained waterslide, courtesy of the marvelous acting stylings of Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney. They’re both so good here at creating a sensation a lot like that when watching The Favourite, where so much of the experience is trying to get a handle on where your character loyalties even ARE at any given moment. A ride!

Also like The Favourite is that this contains my current favorite non-dance-film dance sequence that I’ve seen in a new movie so far this year, which is a very special competition for me, as well as another FLAWLESS closing credits needle drop with an opening that sounds deceptively score-like until it resolves into a pop song with hilariously on-the-nose lyrics. I let the entire thing play through.

Anyway I pitched this movie to my friend who’s an accountant, and also all of you.

★★★★

Apocalypse Now / Da 5 Bloods

The first note I jotted down while watching Apocalypse Now, in the first minute while music and helicopters and explosions woozily began to fill a previously quiet jungle canopy, was: “Oh unfortunately this is a Movie.” I felt unfortunate about it because I could tell I was going to spend the next two and a half hours in the waves of that war movie push & pull—is it so disturbing that it can be none other than anti-war? or is it so beautiful that it can be none other than pro-war? 

Francois Truffaut, reportedly, perhaps apocryphally, once remarked that all movies about war are inherently pro-war. It’s something I’ve considered. Something I think about a lot with this is the idea of grandness. If an anti-war movie is small and drab, I suspect it’s easier for the horror it is depicting to be universally seen as a condemnation of conflict. I think the problem is in bigness. If a war movie is depicting horror at scale, if it expresses its anti-war sentiments through the grandiosity of the atrocities, in the number of dead bodies or the size of the bombs, I suspect it’s easier for it to slip into serving to inspire instead of instilling dread. Apocalypse Now portrays the Vietnam War as a meaningless and cruel exercise in essentially the torture of a people, which in turn tortured many of the people sent to commit these actions. And, some contemporary American soldiers have said that they were shown this movie to get them excited for war before being shipped out to Iraq. I was really harrowed by Apocalypse Now, but I also completely understand why those anecdotes are out there. It is a very grand movie.

Things I knew about Apocalypse Now in advance: that it was loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness, the story of a journey up the Congo River to find a mad Englishman that I’d read in our colonialism unit in high school; and that Brando was in it, eventually. Things I did not pay any attention to before hitting play: any of the rest of the cast list. When we first saw his face right-side up, my brain, completely forgetting all relevant first names, asked me with polite confusion: “Is that…Mister Sheen?” It was. Except for, as I learned later, when it was actually his brother Joe Estevez. Let me tell you, if you are the kind of person who loves wild production tales and do not already know the saga that is this one, boy can I recommend it! It is just chockablock full of outlandishness and disaster.

I’m really interested by the extreme troubles they had behind the scenes, because the product of all of this is a very surreal and upsetting film, and I do wonder…would it have been as much what it is without being itself born of an experience drawn out and traumatic? Yet astonishingly, all the changes and scrapped plans hasn’t resulted in a film that feels disjointed to me. For most of its considerable runtime, it just flows along. Sorta like a nightmare, sorta like a river. I never once doubted it as a movie—until the end, when a certain part of my brain (not the Sheens-recognizing part) suddenly piped up, “Hey wait a minute.” This is the part of my brain that was created in high school English class, where you do things like read Heart of Darkness. This is the part of my brain that analyzes narratives.

The ending of Apocalypse Now is wrong. That’s a bold statement for me to make to Mr. Coppola, but given that he seems to have had maybe half a dozen endings over the course of both production and post, I think he might at least acknowledge that’s a possibility. Heart of Darkness is an ingenious literary inspiration for a movie about the American side of the Vietnam War, I completely support this artistically and thematically. The movie expects you are likely to know that story, so I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that at the end, we do find this Kurtz at his compound at the end of the river, amidst the most surreal moments yet. It’s very powerful! And then, I think this movie shifts more fully into Conrad’s Heart of Darkness with a Vietnam War inflection, then where it had been, as mostly about the Vietnam War with a Heart of Darkness inflection. And then it just stays there, for a while. My last note reads: “we spent soooo long in the Temple of Doom though.”

So, ‘Nam film homework completed, I then watched Spike Lee’s new film Da 5 Bloods, which references Apocalypse Now in the setting of a highly disquieting & apparently real bar in Vietnam themed on Coppola’s movie, at least one flashback helicopter shot, a riverboat sequence set to Wagner’s ‘The Ride of the Valkyries’, and length. 

To begin—I do not believe that any fictional work about a terrible thing must be a somber dense drama in order to be a morally justifiable project. I think there is space and even need for a variety of tones and approaches in engaging with the gruesome things that haunt humanity. And I also do not believe that any fictional work about something multifaceted has to be about all of those facets. If Spike Lee wants to make a chatty adventure movie about the experiences of a group of Black veterans of the Vietnam War, I am not going to say that’s fine but make sure it’s also about the Vietnamese experience of the American War, too. His movie doesn’t have to be about everything, and I think he is allowed to use this deadly conflict to examine issues from it that are specific to the group of people he’s interested in, setting the other ones aside. 

But I do want him to make sure that the limited appearances of the people that his movie is not about, do not fall into racist caricatures. And I don’t think he did a great job with that. And I think it is a bit morally dubious to make a movie today, in full knowledge that what happened in Vietnam was a horror of American interventionism, that seems to be trying to “win the war this time”—exactly as some of the characters in this film describe the Rambo series early on, before they too proceed to go about bloodily shooting a bunch more nameless Vietnamese people. Again. 

Those are my main intellectual issues with Da 5 Bloods. However, messy thoughts and problematic politics are features of many great movies that still have lasting artistic legacies and cultural worth due to being so interesting and well-made as pieces of cinema. C.f. Lawrence of Arabia last month, c.f. Apocalypse Now, just above! Actually I think it could be argued that the amount craft with which something is put together is, justifiably or not, a really big part of what can take it from being regrettable to being a “rich text.” It all depends on how you choose to mount a production of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, you know?

And, regrettably…I do not think Da 5 Bloods was very well mounted. I am so sorry to be so bold to Mr. Lee this time! But oh man, what happened here! The script, the blocking, the editing—all I found bizarrely clumsy. Just as an example, from the first scene so as not to spoil anything: the four remaining Bloods are all arriving simultaneously at their hotel in Ho Chi Minh City, and are embracing in the lobby; then from a shot of the four men standing together remembering their fallen brother Norman, we awkwardly cut to one of them now suddenly standing several yards away at the check-in counter, where he reaches into his bag and pulls out a photograph of young Norman, and announces as he walks back, as if he just found it: “Hey, look what I found.” What, no. No, what? Spike, you are way too good for something this amateurish! Every movie is allowed a few clunky moments, for sure, but the problem is when they’re frequent, and these were too frequent for me. 

And so, I just wasn’t able to get on board with Da 5 Bloods. But good on Jonathan Majors getting a featured role in this starry a project, and congratulations in advance to Delroy Lindo for his well-earned Oscar nomination.

Lawrence of Arabia

Lawrence of Arabia was nominated for ten Oscars at the 1963 Academy Awards, and won seven of them. It deserves every one of those, and I can’t figure out how it got them. I cannot figure this movie in any way, it is so fascinating and gorgeous and homosexual and deranged. It’s approaching four hours long, with an intermission card and a fucking overture for the first five minutes like you’re about to watch a light opera and need to know all the musical motifs, and honestly sure that’s not invalid, but that’s such an ask, baby, (David Lean is “baby” in this scenario), who said yes? I obviously did, said yes yes yes, but even I can’t always be relied on to do so! Because I had actually watched this once before, over ten yeas ago, and that time had just emerged with the takeaway “long character study in the desert!” and not much more than that.

This time, I spent the two nights I was watching Lawrence of Arabia absolutely hype on CINEMA. Everything made happy. Every shot made me want to say something like “Aauh!” Every choice was like a new crazy gemstone tossed into my hands. “What do I do with this!” I cried at Lawrence of Arabia, and in response it would just dump another handful on me.

Let’s go over some of these!

Lawrence of Arabia is loosely based on significant events in the life of British Army officer T.E. Lawrence, who was indeed a rather larger-than-life figure in the real world, but has here been transmogrified into a deeply cinematic creation that exists somewhere beyond and askew from his namesake, a blonde English cryptic birthed like Venus from the turbulent suds of culture and empire. Lawrence of Arabia was played by unknown 29-year-old Peter O’Toole in only his second film role, a fact I cannot deal with so we’re moving on. The whole time I was watching him there was some other performance occasionally niggling in the corner of my mind, but I just couldn’t figure out who it was. Until literally as the closing credits were rolling, I finally got it: I think the only possible comparison to Peter O’Toole here would have to be Jude Law in The Young Pope.

But here it’s 1916 (or so) in the Middle Eastern theatre of the First World War, and as none of the British staff in Cairo knows what to do with this lanky blue-eyed madlad who quotes obscure stuff at them, Lieutenant Lawrence is sent into the Arabian Peninsula on a vague mission to simply go say hello to a certain Prince Faisal, an Arab leader the British are trying to collaborate with to oust the Ottomans from the area. Over the course of the film, Prince Faisal, at one time as real a person as T.E. Lawrence, will be presented as the only good politician in this whole mess, significantly more moral and likable than Lawrence’s fellow British officers, who are roundly portrayed as condescending, lying vipers who will and do betray him. However, wrinkle: Faisal is played by British actor Alec Guinness in brownface. This is just one SAMPLE of the variety of ways in which this movie refuses to ever let you orient yourself (pun intended!) in what seems to be, at once, a whitewashed colonialist fetish object engaged in a harrowing indictment of the ‘white savior’ narrative. Lawrence of Arabia, what do I do with this!

Personally, I’ve come to the decision that this movie’s political mayhem is just part of the spice of it all, just another thing that kept me riveted with wonder at what was going on here. I mean, this is, technically, a sweeping war epic, in which the battles given by far the most time and emotional oxygen are between men and stretches of desert. This is a sweeping war epic except it isn’t even, really, it’s an epic of psyche and landscape set against strife. And even then, if you wanted to you could ignore all the history and half the plot and watch this movie wholly as an exercise in cinematography and editing, which are breathtaking at every turn, rightfully legendary. You could watch Lawrence of Arabia merely as a costume study and still lose your mind simply at how much story is being told in the fit of fabric on bodies. 

And, there is also that David Lean, director of Brief Encounter, decided to be, quote, “very daring at the time,” and go, as my friend Lily put it, FULL ROMO on a dynamic love story between Lawrence and Sherif Ali, a composite character invented for the film, but this time actually played by an Arab actor: the lovely Omar Sharif in his first English-language role. I wish I could say something intelligent about Omar Sharif in this, but honestly I spent such a considerable portion of this film’s very long runtime just weakly sobbing “your EYES!”—his eyes. His eyes?? And while it’s certainly not that this movie needed saving or something when Ali literally gallops into it out of the desert haze, dramatically draped in black and intrigue, but when he does so, ho boy he immediately fires up the interpersonals in a new direction. A brief summary of ‘Aurens’ and Ali’s first interaction:

Lawrence: “Fuck you. Strong letter to follow.”
Ali: “Yeah how about I steal your compass about it, prettyboy”
Me: “Oh yay”

Beginning in antagonism is a classic of the romance genre for a reason, because it gives you such a long ramp of developments for a relationship to build into, and this one goes so many places you want as well as several I guarantee any LOA-newbies haven’t even fathomed right now. I think one of my favorite permeations of their love story is a later period I’m going to describe as having kind of a Hamlet & Horatio quality. It’s all just TREMENDOUS, baby, thank you! (David Lean is still “baby” here)

In conclusion. There is so much…going on, in Lawrence of Arabia, that I fully understand why audiences keep coming back to it time and again, earning it that vaunted Classic status not in spite of, but because it is so fascinating, and gorgeous, and homosexual, and deranged.