Don’t Look Now

Just an outright list of reasons to watch one of my very favorite autumn horror films, Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), adapted from the Daphne Du Maurier story by the same name. At time of posting, it is currently included free to stream with a Prime account, if you have access to one of those.

1. Don’t Look Now is unsettling and atmospheric and creepy and striking, but not due to jump-scares or gore. Of course everyone has different things they’re frightened by in movies, but for me at least, this is a horror film I have described as “not scary-scary, just eerie.” This is not a movie designed to make you cower with dread, it is a movie designed to make you keep asking softly, with disquieted wonder, “what the heeeck…”

2. It stars young Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie in capital 1970s Transatlantic bougie intellectual chic, playing a married couple who have recently lost one of their two small children in a drowning accident.

3. And they then go to VENICE, a city of water!! Obviously the haunting watery imagery is everything you’d want it to be. The reason they travel to Venice is because Donald Sutherland’s character is not simply one of cinema’s many architects, but specifically an architect who restores cathedrals. There could hardly be a better movie career. The combination of artistic, academic, and material know-how here…bellissimo.

4. Anyway it is of course, in the way all good horror movies are “really about” something, really about grieving.

5. I think there are three main components of my love for this movie: the filmmaking style, the setting, and the central couple. Let’s go backwards since we were already talking about them:

5. a. Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie are so good in this. More so than a lot of movie spouses these two actually feel like they’re married, and it’s partly what was scripted but so much of it just comes from their performances. It’s a relationship I always enjoy watching, whether they’re at odds as they struggle with the strain of their terrible loss, or being close and familiar and cute with one another in a very longstanding kind of way. I feel for and root for them, which is an important piece of investment to have in a movie that is only going to further and more strangely bedevil this pair as soon as they reach Venice.

5. a. i. (Don’t Look Now also features one of film history’s more infamous and influential sex scenes)

5. b. VENICE. I’m obsessed with the Don’t Look Now Venice, a sombre ghost city of little waves quietly lapping against stone, the bare, chilly streets with seemingly more pigeons in them than people. It is late autumn here, not the tourist season, the hotel they are staying at set to close for the winter as soon as they check out. It feels bleak and damp and old, perfectly enhanced by that particular taupe & cigarette smoke, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy palette of this period. This is a quiet, half empty Venice, haunting and haunted. If you watched The New Pope, think the Venice of Episode 7—an episode I am now super guessing might have been deliberately referencing Don’t Look Now. Or think the Bruges of In Bruges, which Martin McDonagh said he wanted to function the way Venice does in Don’t Look Now, a movie his references in numerous ways thematically, formally, and of course in the metafilmic moment where Clémence Poésy’s character directly names it as the inspiration for the movie that is currently shooting in the city. Bryan Fuller would also cite Roeg’s Don’t Look Now as one of the reference points of the loss-haunted Italy section that begins the third season of his Hannibal adaptation on NBC—though if we keep going, the amount of filmmakers who have been influenced by this movie is nearly numerous enough to become comical if listed.

5. c. And that is mostly due to the sheer calibre of film craft being deployed here. It is a movie of vivid visual symbolism without feeling overbearing, of experimental editing without feeling remote. Practically any scene in this could credibly be someone’s favorite, they’re all just that good. The way the shots are laid out, the pacing, the finesse with which a plot line that will in time be entirely interrelated with our story begins unfolding first as just a piece of background texture (god I’m so into that!)… The first time I watched Don’t Look Now I immediately watched it again, because I just wanted to appreciate it a second time.

7. “One of the things I love about Venice is that it’s so safe for me to walk. The sound changes, you see, as you come to a canal. And the echoes near the walls are so clear. My sister hates it. She says it’s like a city in aspic, left over from a dinner party, and all the guests are dead and gone.”

★★★★★

Bram Stoker’s Dracula

EXTRAORDINARY. WHERE TO BEGIN.

You know maybe all the way at the actual beginning, because I had seen this movie before, but when I was 18, and for CLASS. Not a real class though, a fun wintertimes class as part of my college’s January term. It was called ‘Victorian Monsters’ and we read Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, and Dracula, and talked a lot about how the true monster was [insert social concept] all along!!, and also at one point were encouraged to give the 1992 Dracula a gander. The main sense memory I’d retained of it could probably be summed as “DRAMATIC,” all-caps, along with a vague recollection of my classmates, mostly other tiny freshman, being like, ahaha whaahahaat?, and our professor, this fantastic old woman who made her own ceramic jewelry, casually declaring that something this magnificently ludicrous and hornéd was the only valid interpretation of this material—rather foreshadowing the tone of what would later be my equally casually assured pronouncements about Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby.

But I don’t remember us talking all that much about Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, probably because again, this wasn’t exactly a hard-hitting academic course, the whole of Winter Study being designed to give both us and the professors a bit of a break for a month. This was the kind of class where I think our grade came from simply class participation and a loosely defined final project to just produce whatever the Victorian Monsters spirit moved us to. And clearly impacted by the sexual energy of this film, 18-year-old me wrote a dark slashy fusion fic combining Dracula and Frankenstein, well before I had the terminology to know that’s what I was doing. I got an A. The real project you should be excited about though was that of my friend Sean, who now does math for Google, who made AN ENTIRE BOARD GAME (out of card-stock and tape, mostly) where the objective was to escape Count Dracula’s castle, involving numerous meta-aware jokes about the literature. As soon as she saw it our professor was like hold up—this is the best shit I’ve ever seen—and immediately halted class (“class”) to play through Sean’s game in its entirety. 

The point is: I may have been kind of perfectly set up by that distant yet memorable college experience to finally rewatch the Coppola Dracula this year, now as an adult with the resources both mental and physical to truly appreciate what this baby has to offer while draped on my couch in the October night surrounded by taper candles. 

All of which brings me here to you to report that Professor Case was right: this Dracula rocks it totally.

For starters, the attitude this work has toward adaptation is one of my very favorites, where it takes care to include a good amount of arcane nerdy details right from the text, while on the other hand going completely off the shits in art direction and boldly adding a new plot element whole cloth—that nonetheless dovetails with and contextualizes plot points of the original story. It’s actually a really interesting adaptation!

It also rules because it is grand bloody-minded lunacy. The filmmaking here feels like you’re paging through an antic, lushly drawn storybook, for ~adults~. It is so strange and grotesque and sumptuous and Catholic, with all these unusual in-camera special effects that give it this hokey yet innately magical quality—a real stage magician was even contracted to advise on some of the visual tricks. Throughout I kept quietly exclaiming that it was like Jean Cocteau’s La belle et la bête yet technicolor, only to learn afterward that in fact that was very much one of the reference points! The other primary reference point I think we can just call “costume designer Eiko Ishioka,” the ravishingly brilliant artistic mind who also designed the costumes of Tarsem’s The Fall, and whom Coppola wisely let just fly free. “Bring me things that are weird,” he would reportedly ask everyone.

Relatedly, this cast. Exquisite marquise-cut gothette Winona Ryder paired with oddball dialect boffin Gary Oldman, sure, a sort of crazy-like-a-fox brilliance there actually. My poor angel Keanu Reeves staggering in exhausted after just shooting three or maybe even four other movies back to back, trying to finagle a British accent he has no comfort with, and turning in just the most bewilderingly out of tune performance, oh honey. The scene where you realize you’re watching Tom Waits as a bespectacled madman in a cell acting against Richard E. Grant, playing curiously against type as, relative to everyone else, kind of a normal man?? Normal and doctorly enough that I didn’t even recognize him until his second scene. Then, Cary Elwes. Cary goddamn Elwes as Lucy’s posh fiancé, a role he could do in his SLEEP, but that doesn’t mean we’re not elated to see him. Finally, finally, rather deep into the runtime, Sir Anthony Hopkins rolls in as fucking Van Helsing, in what I think might be the nearest performance of his to his eventual turn as Thor’s Odin, but specifically in Ragnarok, where Taika Waititi infamously once asked him to maybe tone it done just a tad.

NOTHING in Francis Ford Coppola’s gothic romance is toned down, and bless it for it. Dracula, like Shirley Jackson’s Hill House: not sane, is a darkly fantastical tits-out vampire operetta on a fever dream scale, and I can’t believe I haven’t been watching this ornate night-tale every Halloween since Winter Study.

★★★★½

Little Shop of Horrors

Medium to light spoilers here, by my standards, though I am careful to avoid going into detail on the different endings

The thing about Alan Menken music is that I am INSTANT GOOSEBUMPED. And I didn’t know that in Little Shop of Horrors, I would have the opportunity to be goosebumped by Alan Menken compositions in a Howard Ashman penned non-Disney property, very much a non-Disney property, music & lyrics by Menken & Ashman coming right out the gate with a Greek chorus of ‘60s gals singing to the camera about how you better look out, because things are about to get WILD.

Oh my god I loved Little Shop of Horrors! Every choice is delicious. A space-scroll Voice of God prologue about an eclipse— putting an elevated train in downtown New York City just for the hell of it— Ellen Greene’s breathless smitten squeaks— the way Rick Moranis swings his arms as he long-strolls down the sidewalk in his flashback— “Oh my gosh it’s peculiar!”

It’s so jokey, it’s blithe it’s stylized it’s a musical, but yet I felt real affection for these people, and that’s what I ask for in my comedies. Characters to be strange and funny but also engender genuine pathos in me as they topple around this incredible set of Skid Row, Fantasy New York, that they built entire on a huge soundstage, because you can leave the off-Broadway theater but the off-Broadway theater doesn’t always leave you, and neither do we want it to sometimes!

Although in fact, those elements did transpire to give this movie a curious place in film history, as part of the select club of those with alternate original endings. This was actually one of the few things I did know about Little Shop of Horrors beforehand, because I was so fascinated when I read this that it embedded in my brain even though I knew nothing else about the show. The story goes: when they played the movie for test audiences, the ending from the stage show, which had been a hit with the theater crowd, went over terribly at the test screenings. The theory of the movie’s director, puppetry legend Frank Oz, is that the more fatalistic (in…every sense) ending was easier on the theater audiences, because they got to see those characters they loved again when the actors came out for the bow, got to cheer them a farewell—a moment they didn’t get from the movie version. There is a further fascinating theory that the nearest corollary film has to what the curtain call gives theater audiences psychologically, is the blooper reel, but that’s another story. In our story, Oz and Ashman write up a new ending, a happier one, and this plays much better and is what the movie is released with in cinemas in 1986, and subsequently on VHS, where the movie’s popularity really takes off.

The footage of that original conclusion was still out there though, and in 2012, a Director’s Cut of Oz’s Little Shop of Horrors with the stage musical ending fully restored was officially released by the studio. When I streamed Little Shop of Horrors (HBO has it at time of publishing), the entire Director’s Cut version was linked to the theatrical release as a “special feature,” so I was able to watch the shorter theatrical cut first, and then go on an extended journey with the more macabre ending I OBVIOUSLY preferred, being who I am. But beyond just my taste for stories that end very um, finally, the ending that this show was originally written with, to no surprise, has just gobs more thematic & narrative resolution. It is better in absolutely every way!

I’m avoiding specificity for those who haven’t seen any version of Little Shop before, but a few of the elements that are perfectly brought to fruition (PLANT PUN INTENDED), include:

The premise of this story, which I cannot believe I am just now getting to: a sincere, be-shambled flower shop worker buys a small unusual plant he finds on the street, and thanks to a prick on his finger from a rose thorn (!), discovers that the plant eats human blood. The whole notion of this man Seymour—a wonderfully endearing Rick Moranis, no matter how dark his storyline gets—feeding this plant with his own blood is a concept I found frankly RIVETING, on its own merits but also for its intriguing position near but askew from the classic vampire story. The nature of the power differential and the motivations here are different from how how your usual Dracula-type tales go, but there are echos of the visual motifs and attendant emotional elements in things like seeing little bandages multiplying on his gradually more enervated fingers.

Though the arrangement does quickly start, ahem, growing (I’LL NOT STOP, apparently), and in what is in sound and structure absolutely the seduction song of the musical, the plant, which we should mention he has named Audrey II, after his coworker crush—wacky willowy genius Ellen Green, voice work insane—develops a hell of a baritone and begins cajoling him with the Jareth the Goblin King tack of promising to be your slave if you’ll only do what they say and sacrifice things to them. “Feed me, Seymour,” Levi Stubbs drawls, “Feed me aaallll night long.”

The pronounced psychosexual undertones introduced from really the moment Audrey II first started doing anything have definitely graduated to FULL OVERTONES by the time we meet eager masochist Bill Murray, who appears midway through to have a one-sided yet transparently erotic experience at the hands of sadistic dentist Steve Martin, but I’VE SAID TOO MUCH ALREADY.

Anyway perhaps the worst thing about the way I’ve structured this review, is that it’s only here at the end that I bring up that ultimately this musical is an overt allegory for the evils of capitalism. With everything that has come before that line there is really no way for that to not sound like a joke, but it is in fact true! Audrey II, a “mean, green” menace, represents capitalist enterprise growing ever bigger feeding off the blood of the people, and whose greatest weapon is in convincing you that you that your own path to success is only through becoming complicit in its growth and helping it drain those around you. But again, I’ve already said too much..!

So if you’re looking for a creature feature this October, watch Little Shop of Horrors, the charming, kinky, 94-minute (depending) plant-based dark comedy whose second song is a banger about economic disparity! It’s great!!

★★★★★

I’m Thinking of Ending Things

SPOILER ZONE

I wish this could have just been a weird poem movie. GOD I wish this could have just been a weird poem movie. I was so down for this as a loopy, uncomfortable, open-ended horror film loosely about the idea that you can never go home again, and also you should break up with your boyfriend. Just a disjointed nap nightmare you have on your parent’s couch on Thanksgiving weekend. That would have been cool with me! Love when things make me say “What!” out loud twenty times in an hour, not wanting an answer!

But no, I’m Thinking Of Ending Things had to go and answer things. Based on a 2016 novel, I have since learned, this movie turns out to have something between a twist and a thesis, and more annoying than either: the eventually unavoidable fact that despite being our protagonist, Jessie Buckley is just a figment of Jesse Plemons’s imagination, and it was all about the neuroses of one sad, bad man all along. To his credit Charlie Kaufman doesn’t present this as a ‘gotcha’ surprise, mostly because it’s not really presented at all. For me I just got to a point, probably somewhere in hour two, where I just had to accept that there was just no other conclusion I was going to be able to come to. That this whole movie we had been driving down a snowbound one-lane road in the dark, and the turnoffs I was still looking for were never going to come.

I think mostly I found the imaginary girlfriend more artistically frustrating than necessarily misogynistic. Because she is the anti-manic pixie dream girl, rather in the mode of Kate Winslet’s character in Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. She spends a lot of time mulling in voice-over about how she’s not really getting anything out of this relationship and how, say, she feels like her role in it is to just prop up a man through letting him be associated with her own accomplishments through the mere fact of dating her. Well-observed. And again, she’s definitely the main character here, it’s her point-of-view and narration that we receive, the film has absolutely been about her. So then the ending is confusing, and I don’t mean because of the Oklahoma! performance—it’s emotionally confusing to have to spend the last 15 minutes recalibrating to prioritizing this guy and his feelings instead. For instance, now that we have to accept that he has just dreamt her up, then are we supposed to retroactively feel respect and sympathy for his self-awareness that he could so accurately imagine these previous two hours’ worth of damning indictments of his own shitty attitudes? All my whats shifted to much less enjoyable whys; ironically, the less inconclusive it got the more I wondered what was the point of all this.

Everyone gets to Act in this, capital A, so there’s that at least. Unfortunately this ultimately frustrated me too though, because the reason why they all get to Act is because they’re all playing flights of fancy, even this Jesse Plemons is just an imagined form of the older one—Jake, he at least does have a name I can use—and because the whole thing is a warped daydream of continually changing scenarios where no one’s really real, there’s little consistency in any of the characters. They’re by nature mercurial and unpredictable and actors seem to enjoy being able to play in this way, but I don’t know, watching things that heavily feature these kinds of roles has become more and more taxing to me in recent years. I don’t particularly care about a character’s big emotions if I have no understanding of how they got there due to the inconstancy of their internal landscape, because the work would rather keep surprising you with a character’s behavior than let you develop empathy for them. And the reason why I find I’m Thinking of Ending Things uniquely frustrating in this regard, is that Jessie Buckley (smartly) plays her role like maybe she would want to be someone we could get to know, but is prevented from it by the fact that she’s been imagined by this guy who keeps rebooting her demeanor and interests like he’s trying on different shirts.

Anyway. The things I most enjoyed were all the parts that were the most stylized and (therefore?) most free of the baggage of trying to be about something, my highlights of those portions being:
– dream ballet obvi
– the fake film within the film being directed by ROBERT ZEMECKIS—surreal, mystifyingly mean, surreal again, and by that point I’d rapid-cycled into hysterics

★★½

Rope

Bullet journal of my rewatch of Rope (1948), which I’ve decided is my favorite Hitchcock because that feels like me.

– the EXTENT to which these two are a couple, god watching Hays Code gays makes me feel HIGH sometimes

– you know they’re really unhinged because now they’re drinking champagne out of martini glasses in the middle of the afternoon

– registered homosexual John Dall said I will be playing an evil queen

– but this distinct, dysfunctional, now deadly relationship where everything that’s going on has to be kept just below the surface….the drama here, it’s tenfold

– the DOOR SHOT, the WILDLY FUN SWINGING DOOR SHOT. I let out a little yell!

– what makes this movie so good is that it’s got it all: the suspenseful creepy plot where fancy mid-century boyfriends murder their old schoolfriend and then invite his friends & family over ~just for the aesthetic~, and the bold artistic conceit of styling it like it was all shot in one real-time take, and, dark puns

– oh Janet has now entered the chat, girl you are a fantastic addition

– Jimmy Stewart has just lit his cigarette by picking up an entire taper candle—J Stew has ARRIVED

– it’s been ten years since I first saw this but it is ultimately going to resolve as an anti-eugenics movie right?

– god I love a classical unity, now we’re watching night gradually fall outside the floor-to-ceiling windows! the color shifting, the little lights in this soundstage model of the city coming on…! the craftsmanship, wonderful. the changing clouds were made of spun glass, enchanting

– Phillip’s playing changing with the tension of the dialogue and Rupert’s sly adjustments of the metronome, again, the CRAFTSMANSHIP

– every time we return to Farley Granger looking just miserable….chef’s kiss

– aannnd it IS an anti-eugenics movie, whew we made it

– oh, oh yes, this sublime waiting business as the camera slowly pulls back like a curtain fall—Brandon just silently fixing himself a drink, Phillip sitting down to play piano.. this spooky doomed posh bitches energy! absolutely

★★★★½

My Own Private Idaho

When Gus Van Sant started giving me breaks to time-lapse photography of clouds over the countryside to indicate breaks in the mental landscape of his narcoleptic protagonist, which occurs in the very first few minutes, I realized I had missed an important piece of information about My Own Private Idaho: that it was avant-garde. I knew it was a key entry in queer cinema, but films earn that designation for showing queer lives, not for necessarily making the bold ass artistic choices frequently beloved of the queer community. But when they do, we get things like a shot of an old wooden barn being dropped from a height and smashing into boards on an empty blacktop road to indicate a character’s orgasm, and that’s only the second scene!

That was also, as it turns out, not the only important piece of information I had missed before watching this. I know that at one point in my life I had stumbled over the detail that My Own Private Idaho was loosely adapted from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2. I say stumbled over because I did not pick up this information and carry it along with me from that moment. Instead, a combination of realization & recollection broke over me like a splendid sunrise somewhere around the point Bob appeared, and I at last put it together that Keanu Reeves wasn’t being given odd little monologues just as part of the art, but because Keanu Reeves was specifically playing rent boy Prince Hal, quasi Shakespeare-sounding-like dialogue with his homeless Falstaff and all. I WAS GONE.

Not that I wasn’t already gone for this movie, I was gone for it even before the cut to Scott holding sleeping Mike in his arms like an alt Portland Pietà on the steps of the elk sculpture downtown, though I can tell you that would have done it.

I was gone for My Own Private Idaho because it was eccentric but emotionally earnest, and 1991 enough for things like living skin mag covers to land more experimental than twee. Something of a low-fi Velvet Goldmine but about street hustlers in the Pacific Northwest. And even at its greatest aesthetic extremes, there’s always something raw and vulnerable in those central two performances, particularly in what lovely, lost River Phoenix is doing in his portrayal of someone who is narcoleptic but also tired, the spit-shined performance he sometimes drags on for his trade never effectively covering the scuffs and bruises of his Richard Siken longing. But there is also something tender and open at the heart of Keanu Reeves’s luminous beauty, even when he’s being a bastard—it’s the quality that makes him such a good casting for Prince Hal. There’s a shared sincerity in the souls of these two young actors, a certain honesty that helps lend the whole project its scuzzy sweetness, while that tragedian backing lets us feel our sadness as part of a tradition old and grand and classical, which is kind, really.

Listen, is it flawless, does everything always work? Probably not! And I was at first going to leave half a star of room out of a sense that maybe I should, [gentle voice] go easy.. But then I remembered the way Van Sant did the sex scenes in those cuts of breathing tableaus and about had an artistic heart attack all over again, SO:

★★★★★

Dogtooth

I’ve got this new thought I’m rolling around regarding Yorgos Lanthimos movies. Having seen four now, I think you can view each of them as him trying on different boundaries for the scope of his Weird World.

In Dogtooth (Κυνόδοντας, 2009), the weird world is precisely and clearly delineated by the fence bordering the property that the family lives on. What defines this world is an arcane and expanding set of rules and explanations for reality that the parents have forced upon their cloistered children, who know nothing else. We meet a few people from outside this family, and they seem a bit Yorgos-y (the deadpan), but they very clearly do not live in the same false reality that the children do, so they are still absolutely outwith the Weird World.

In The Lobster (2015), the weird world seems to be the entire world—scope expansion maximum. What defines this world is that those who remain single for too long are sent to a center with a bunch of other single people to try to find a partner, and if they fail, they are turned into an animal. There’s the hunting part too, but that could be considered part of the rules of the smaller, subset world of The Hotel. And we do meet people from outside that facility, in a very plot-relevant way! But, notably, they still exist within the larger weird reality with the animals thing.

In The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), the weird world is…a social circle? The few people we see outside of the family and their friends seem relatively regular (for Lanthimos). Interestingly, this time we don’t start out with any specific rules that define things, however, Barry Keoghan’s character begins to impose rules of sorts on the family as the story progresses. Why and how any of them have gotten themselves into this weird world is perfectly unclear though and honestly I think that makes this one more excitingly surreal than any of the other Yorgos Lanthimoses on this list, and perhaps relatedly, it’s my favorite of the Big Yorgos ones I’ve seen (where he is both writer and director).

In The Favourite (2018, and written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara this time), the weird world is lighter than the others, and is the British aristocracy. This is fun. We meet a few people outside the noble class and again, they’re weird (no one in a Lanthimos is not!), but they’re weird in a way distinct from the way the court is. This is because, and again this is so fun: because courts have rules! This is the Yorgos Weird World applied to an existing weird world structure in our own reality, and it goes really well and I think that’s a big part of why everyone liked this one so much. The Favourite was a bit different than his others, in several fundamental ways, but it was a really fine marriage and that was certainly part of what I found so keenly enjoyable about it.

Anyhow, Dogtooth. The strictest of the lot, yes I’d say even more than the one where single people are turned into animals. And the most sadistic, yes I’d say even more than the one where a boy is terrorizing a family. And I think it’s all because of the parents’ ability to cross the boundaries of this Weird World. Turns out that is the most disturbing concept Yorgos Lanthimos has presented me with yet.

★★★½

Bill & Teds

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) was released into this world the same year I was. I grew up on it playing on basic cable in the ‘90s, and these days actually own it on DVD, a gift from a friend at some point in high school. I love Bill & Ted. And so I was a little nervous to rewatch it this year to be honest, now as an adult with a Letterboxd, which tells me it has been eight whole years since I last saw it.

But you may have caught that tense: I LOVE Bill & Ted. Presently! Still & always. In fact I might even love Excellent Adventure more now. Because watching it as an adult (..with a Letterboxd) in 2020, this time I really noticed just how unusually sweet this movie is, in a year where I have perhaps been more primed than ever to be grateful for kindness.

If you have never seen Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, the premise is ornate but the stakes very simple: Bill Preston and Ted Logan are best friends, seniors (I think) in high school in San Dimas, California, in the late 1980s. And for some reason, their terrible two-person garage band Wyld Stallyns is destined to someday unite the planets and bring about universal harmony. The problem though, and the time-travel paradox engine that powers the story, is that our affable dim-bulbs are currently failing their history class, and if they don’t get an A on their final presentation, Ted’s dad is going to send him off to an Alaskan military school (this joke destroyed me this time around), breaking up Bill & Ted, the band, and ALSO the existence of this most excellent future. So the future sends a representative named Rufus (comedian George Carlin, easily the biggest name in the cast at the time) back to the late 1980s in a magical time-traveling phone booth, and the boys proceed to use this technology to travel throughout history gathering up notable figures in an effort to craft the best history presentation ever.

The DNA of this plot actually seems to bear some genetic sequences in common with the original Star Trek series, now that I think about it: completely outrageous circumstances, but with this innately schoolish bent. 

The result is a goofily absurdist, laid-back adventure comedy that for some reason they kept a pure PG. Although they have what would seem to be an unmistakable stoner energy, Bill & Ted are never remotely alluded to partake in either drugs or alcohol, and beyond their cheery loyalty to the number ’69’ and an adolescent confusion over Bill’s hot young stepmom, their only love interests are a pair of chaste medieval princesses whom they readily fall to trying to woo in respectful knightly fashion, mostly through acts of bravery and reciting poetry. In fact, their unique vocal patter often gives them the impression of already being figures somehow unstuck in time, speaking in an parlance that combines irregular California surfer dude speak with a vocabulary and sentence structure that often veers oddly archaic, to entertainingly poetic effect. “Billy, you are adapting to the oddity of time travel with the greatest of ease!” they’ll compliment their first historical companion Billy the Kid, whom they politely address as “Mr. the Kid” upon first meeting him. It all creates a movie that is endlessly quotable.

And that’s aided of course by the indelible performances of the young leads, 22- and 23-year-old Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves, just two fresh-faced and puppyish children of God, my Doofuses of Light. They are so dumb and so sweet, containing not an ounce of smarts or malice in their souls. They never fight, they care about each other deeply, and they’re always looking out for those around them, consistently tending to the well-being of the “personages of historical significance” they pick up on their travels. They’re part of the branch of the himbo family tree that would produce Stranger Things’ Steve Harrington farther down the line, with Keanu’s gift of ’80s hair absolutely. Bill & Ted are the earnest, unironic heart of their earnest, unironic catchphrase, Be Excellent To Each Other, and Party On Dudes!

The subsequent sequel, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991), was coincidentally released the same year my sister was born this time, but I guess it must have not gotten the same amount of play on cable in my childhood, because I had only seen it once before this year and didn’t remember much of it. Bogus Journey was going to be my test actually, of whether my affection for Excellent Adventure was just because of how long I’d already loved it. Unfortunately though that test would prove INCONCLUSIVE, because I don’t like Bogus Journey much on its own merits! And that is because, quite simply, it’s meaner than Excellent Adventure. More of the humor comes from confrontation this time, because this one introduces forces of actual malevolence to battle (something the first film actually entirely lacks). Bogus Journey also greatly ups the stakes, as instead of just trying to pass a class, Bill & Ted are now literally fighting for their lives—and again, by extension, the entire future—after being killed by evil robot versions of themselves early on and subsequently going on a (bogus) journey through Heaven and Hell.

The bright spot though has got to be William Sadler playing a parody of Ingmar Bergman’s Death from The Seventh Seal, a joke even more wackily esoteric than the first movie setting Napoleon Bonaparte loose in a waterpark called Waterloo. And, again quite like what happens with Napoleon, the initial concept deepens into actual character development, which is rewarding.

Now, nearly 30 years later, a third film resolves this set into a trilogy. Entitled Bill & Ted Face the Music (a good title), our titular duo are now middle-aged dads, and finally confronting the driving conceit of all of this: that these cosmic Fools who aren’t even that good of musicians are supposedly going to save the universe with their music. Fundamentally, I don’t think this series was ever supposed to actually address this, and just leave it as the charmingly silly and actually wonderfully hopeful joke of Rufus turning into the camera as they jam at the end of Excellent Adventure, and apologetically assuring us: “They do get better.”

For this reason I can never wholly approve of Bogus Journey, which tries to half address this, or Face the Music, which directly takes it on. That said, the solution that Face the Music comes up with is pretty cute and almost a little elegant in how it finds an answer through redefining the parameters of what we now learn was a (self-fulfilling? well aren’t they all) prophecy. And this film’s plot, which sees Bill and Ted encountering progressively older and messier versions of themselves as they try to hunt down the song that’s going to change the world, also allows for something ALMOST deep about each of their relationships to their selves, which I was not expecting from this franchise. However, the core of Bill & Ted was always their relationship with each other, and Face the Music knows that well.

I feel like I need to especially single out Alex Winter, who was coming back from a retirement from acting here, and feels like he never stopped playing Bill in the interim. He so completely recalls his younger performance as Bill S. Preston that I wonder if his ebullience as Bill is part of what makes Keanu Reeves actually feel almost a little stiff playing Ted again. That could also possibly be due just to physical stiffness from age, because the actor playing his daughter Billie (yes they named their babies after each other, my heart) does such a phenomenal young Keanu homage in this, really showcasing how much of the Ted ‘Theodore’ Logan energy is this low-tempo springiness of movement.

The addition of the adorable Billie & Thea was definitely a highlight for me, as was seeing Kristen Schaal (!) as Rufus’s daughter. Face the Music definitely attempts to be somewhat of a corrective of the previous two movies with regard to actually having female characters, even though it does kind of make the continued non-characters of their princess wives stand out more than you’d like. There was probably a whole doubling down here on the bigger shenanigans and stakes direction that the second film started (why do franchises always think they have to continually up the stakes! smaller stakes are more emotionally engaging, folks), and the joke concepts were not infrequently a bit more Bogus Journey than Excellent Adventure, which would not be my preference, but did I tear up at the very sincere musical climax? Oh you bet. And at one point in Hell when Bill and Ted are about to head over to try to make amends with their disgruntled former bandmate Death, one of their kids reminds them, “Be sweet!”, and that right there really is what I love best about Bill & Ted.

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure★★★★½
Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey★★
Bill & Ted Face the Music★★★

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.

★★★★