Poor James Cameron: He tries to be woke and even the wokes hate him (AKA: Why Avatar 2 is trash)

Around the holiday season thirteen years ago, I reviewed the first Avatar film. I still think it’s one of the shittiest films I’ve ever seen, and I have no intention of seeing the second one. I am 100% certain that my favorite critic Mark Kermode is 100% right about it, when he says to Simon Mayo:

Avatar: The Way of Water is staggeringly boring. It’s so long, so ponderous, so utterly without wit or artistic merit. It’s a big thundering, lumbering, tech-driven, borothon. Two hours in, I was losing the will to live. It’s so dumb… I came out of the film, and the reviews were embargoed, though you were allowed to post reviews on social media. But I’ve come off Twitter because Elon Musk is an asshole. So all I did was text you some of my alternative titles for this film: Jurassic Water Park. Lord of the Water Wings. Rising Damp. Finding Emo. Ava-Sleep: The Way of Torture. Das Poop. Shite-anic.”

I’m sure that’s accurate, and the high critical approval on RT (78%) — and even higher audience approval (93%) — shows that all it takes to awe people these days are special effects. But special effects aren’t special or impressive in and of themselves. They’re simply to be expected as a bare minimum in a well financed action film. What matters is the story, and as I mentioned in my review of Avatar, the story was boring drivel, and so it only stands to reason that the sequel is as bad as Kermode says it is.

Then there’s the elephant — not mentioned by Kermode but by other critics — which I wrote about at length in my review of the first Avatar: the white savior trope. The first Avatar basically recycled the plots of films like Dances With Wolves and The Last Samurai. A moon was being mined for a priceless mineral, while the indigenous humanoids (the blue-skinned Na’vi) resisted the colonial expansion threatening their ecosystem, and one of the colonials came to see the error of his imperialistic ways, joined the natives and went bad-ass on his former friends. The idea that it takes a white hero to save primitive natives has been overworked to death in Hollywood, and it’s really just a hollow guilt fantasy about giving up one’s whiteness without really doing so. In the year 1990, granted, Dances With Wolves was a refreshing antidote to the conservative trash of the ’80s, and old racist movies like White Buffalo (1977), but it hasn’t aged well. It’s an unrealistic, patronizing, romantic depiction of the Sioux that practically glorifies them as saints, and it does so out of liberal white guilt. I hate to give wokes any credit — and I have no patience with those who see racism everywhere — but you don’t have to be woke or a flaming lefty to recognize the problems with white-savior narratives.

What about the sequel film? Cameron seems to have gone out of his way to pander to the wokes. He describes Avatar: The Way of Water as an environmental allegory about the perils of colonialism. While promoting the film he decried the “evils of testosterone”, and indeed (wait for it), that “testosterone is a poison that should be purged from your system”. He boasted that his film sets a new standard for feminine empowerment, because it features a six-month pregnant female warrior. (How this is empowering is unclear; a six-month pregnant woman should be taking care of herself for Christ’s sake, not throwing herself in the thick of battle.) This alone is enough to make an anti-woke like me avoid the film.

But shockingly, many wokes hated the film. Some have demanded a boycott for cultural appropriation. Of all the woke stupidities, the supposed sin of “cultural appropriation” is one of the silliest. But what about the white savior trope? Keeping in mind that I haven’t seen the sequel (and never will), the reviews suggest that Cameron side-stepped the white-savior trope this time (for the most part), but went even deeper into the pitfall of romanticizing the Na’vi as “ecological natives”. But the original-environmentalist fable is as problematic as the white-savior, reinforcing an image of native Americans that’s unhistorical and condescending. Like the white savior narrative, that can become a form of racism, however well intended.

Thus the tragedy: Cameron wants so desperately to be woke, but he (a) will never please the wokes whose purity standards rival those of religious fundies, and (b) blows it in ways that even anti-wokes like myself end up half-agreeing with the wokes (when it comes to white-savior and ecological native tropes). When you add to this that he is utterly incapable of telling a good story and can only serve up tech-driven spectacles, I say, please James, retire, and leave film making to your betters.

What to watch during Christmas season

Even to a curmudgeon like myself who looks less forward to Christmas than I did as a child, the mystery surrounding the holiday still pulls at me. Behind the crass commercialism is something powerful, ineffable, gleaned through imagery, decor, festivity, and song. My picks are unconventional, and you probably won’t find them on most Christmas-film lists; but they do have ardent defenders whom I have cited where relevant.

1. Fanny and Alexander. Ingmar Bergman, Swedish, 1982. If there’s one film only I could recommend for the Christmas season, it would have to be the Great Swede’s magnum opus. The first hour of Fanny and Alexander presents the most ecstatically joyous version of Christmas I’ve seen in a film. Not in a particularly “Christian” way, but in a family way, and the extended Ekdahl family is huge. The home is resplendent with shimmering decorations, ornaments, greenery, candles, crimson rugs, and sumptuous platters heaped with food. Everyone runs through the house singing a carol; there’s flirting and groping; and an old dude farts to entertain the kids. These scenes of warmth make it all the more tragic when the kids’ father dies, their mother remarries to an austere bishop, trading a lavish and warm lifestyle for the barren and cold interior of a repressive domestic hell. She and the kids are allowed to take nothing with them from their past, not even clothes, and the kids are over-punished and beaten for infractions. The film is a Dickens-like wonder — for my money, better than anything Dickens ever wrote — populated by ghosts and magical surrealism, the stuff of rare epic, weaved around a boy’s imagination that helps him cope with an abusive stepfather and the loss of joy. The Christmas party of the first act encapsulates joy in its purest form, and I enjoyed watching the film again last night (for my third time) in celebration of its 40th anniversary. (It was released in Sweden on December 17, 1982.) It’s being screened in UK cinemas this month, and you can watch the special trailer here.

2. Eyes Wide Shut. Stanley Kubrick, American, 1999. Why on earth did Kubrick set his film about sexual infidelity during the Christmas season, and fill so many shots with colorful lights and trees? According to Aquarium Drunkard: “Kubrick is using our notion of Christmas as a comfortable and familiar time of year – perhaps the most wonderful time of year – as a tool to disrupt us. The contrast between Christmas as a universally joyous occasion and the foreboding events that the Harfords find themselves in creates an uneasy juxtaposition. While the film deals with the complications of marriage and family, it does so by presenting us with backroom drug overdoses, child prostitution, and secret Illuminati orgies. We see Christmas trees and lights everywhere. But most of these seasonal decorations are within the confines of dark places: an after-hours jazz club, a prostitute’s dingy apartment, a seedy costume shop where a father sells his teenage daughter’s body. These are not places we associate with the joyous spirit of Christmas.” The critic also suggests that Bill Hartford journey is similar to archetypes like George Bailey and Ebenezer Scrooge. Just as Scrooge was shown alternate versions of what could’ve been and what will be based on his actions in a single night, Bill Hartford spends an evening in a sexually charged reality that seems like a dream, as he tries to find a way back to his wife Alice to reclaim the love that has been lost.

3. A Christmas Carol. Steven Moffat, British, 2010. Most of the Doctor Who Christmas specials are terrible, but there are two exceptions which place on my list. This one is a masterpiece of modern TV. It retells the Dickens classic better than most adaptations. The sets and lighting with purplish-black hues set a perfect tone, haunting yet mystical, and Michael Gambon as Kazran (the tormented Scrooge character) is one of the best guest performances of the series. As for the Doctor, he’s a wonderful bit of asshole as he tries to save Kazran’s soul by rewriting the man’s life. There’s no reason he couldn’t have simply gone back in time to prevent the Starliner ship from taking off in the first place, instead of jumping through hoops to alter a man’s life on the slim hope that he’ll change his mind and indeed his ways. But the Doctor will do things the hard way to bring out a little more kindness. And while he can’t stop Abigail’s foreordained tragedy — she must die — she at least gets in a final sky-ride with Kazran after preventing the devastating ship crash by singing.

4. Carol. Todd Haynes, American, 2015. If you won’t accept either Fanny and Alexander or Eyes Wide Shut as the best Christmas film of all time, then you should go with Carol, for reasons offered by the AV Club: “For anyone who likes to be horny and sad at the same time, Carol is like having a bit of a cold while laying in a room that’s a bit too warm and looking at a vintage snow globe, all while being a little bit gay. In other words, it feels like Christmas. Its first half takes place during the pre-Christmas bustle, dreary or dreamy depending on your mindset. What the movie understands, much better than time-honored classics like Planes, Trains And Automobiles or Home Alone, is the joy and the sadness of carving out a little moment of holiday cheer separate from the non-holiday drudgery of normal daily life. Carol tracks two lovers [lesbians in the 50s, no less] across the season, into the post-Christmas week where Carol and Therese’s relationship has gone past their first sexual encounter and into the real problems of life. Their love truly lives within the unbearable sadness of the day the Christmas tree comes down. Make no mistake about it, Christmas wants to hurt you.” Watching Carol is like being pulled through a looking glass and tasting forbidden love in an austere time at just the right time of year.

5. Inside. Julien Maury & Alexandre Bustillo, French, 2007. Here’s the horror film of my list, and I give the floor entirely to Ghouls Magazine: “No horror film better epitomizes the spirit of Christmas than Inside (À l’intérieur), a movie about a widowed pregnant woman who is stalked by a mysterious intruder hellbent on removing and kidnapping her baby on Christmas Eve. It starts with death and ends with birth. Sarah is a young pregnant woman who has lost her husband in a gruesome car accident. On Christmas Eve, she tells her loved ones, ‘I don’t give a shit about Christmas. I’d rather be alone.’ Unfortunately, she doesn’t get her Christmas wish. The unnamed home invader breaks into Sarah’s home, and the two women battle for Sarah’s unborn baby. There are pregnancy films, there are horror films, there are even many pregnancy horror films, but Inside combines the mysteries of pregnancy and the female body, an unorthodox and complex villain, and the visceral shocks of The New French Extremity movement to create an unforgettable blood-spattered Christmas movie.”  If you want Christmas horror, forget all the American crap like Bad Santa, and instead come Inside to be truly terrorized.

6. Last Christmas. Steven Moffat, British, 2014. The other exceptional holiday special for Doctor Who, and a story that’s both terrifying and heartbreaking. You don’t expect it from the first ten minutes, which seem childishly absurd as Clara confronts Santa Claus on top of her roof. But this is indeed the “real” Santa Claus (not a robot or alien), and he works perfectly: as a manifestation created by the subconscious to wake people up from their dream prisons. This allows Moffat to stay true to the stereotype of Santa Claus while also poking fun at it through the thoughts of the dreaming victims. And those victims, including the Doctor and Clara, need every ounce of sympathy and outside help. Even though 98% of what we see in this episode is a dream (Clara’s dream, to be precise), it’s a dream that kills unless the dreamer succeeds in waking up and throwing off the face-hugging crab. The dream crabs are, to me, the scariest aliens seen in Doctor Who since the weeping angels. Visually, they are the facehuggers of Alien, “Inceptionized” to weaponize dreams against people as they feed on the host’s brain — until Santa appears and encourages them to wake up. The juxtaposition of a fairy-tale figure with lethal horrors tumbles into a work of sheer emotional artistry. At heart the story is about Clara: the death of her boyfriend who she can’t let go of, and her attachment to the Doctor who she still needs.

7. Batman Returns. Tim Burton, American, 1992. The Batman films of the 80s and 90s haven’t aged well in the post-Nolan era, with the exception of this one. Burton’s sequel is so weird and hyper-demented, and the fact that it’s set in the Christmas season accentuates the perversity. We get a Penguin who lives in the sewer and schemes to dump kids into toxic waste. We also get the treat of Michelle Pfeiffer, the best Catwoman of all time, who reeks of perversity with every hiss and sultry breath. Some have called the film an outright assault on kids, but it’s really about broken adults searching for peace and acceptance. Burton painted a canvas of such hurt and pain — going well beyond what he did in his ’89 film with Jack Nicholson’s Joker (who definitely hasn’t aged well) — that it’s still too much for some people, but I think it speaks in the way a Batman film should.

Self-Censorship: Why ’80s Films Are So Awful

Breezing through Quentin Tarantino’s new book, I stumbled on his perfect, absolutely perfect, summation of everything wrong with ’80s films. This is stuff I’ve been saying for years, though it’s often fallen on deaf ears to those who maintain that the ’80s were actually a great time for movies. Tarantino spoke briefly to the issue on Bill Maher’s show last year, but in his new book he expounds at length, and I will cite him at length:

“After growing up in the anything-goes seventies, the eighties marked a play-it-safe decade, like that other horrible decade for Hollywood movies, the fifties. But the eighties were even worse. In the fifties you could claim that it was a repressed society that imposed restrictions on Hollywood, their movies, and their artists. But in the eighties the restrictions Hollywood imposed on their own product were self-imposed. The harshest censorship is self-censorship. And it doesn’t always come from the big bad studio either. Many filmmakers watered down their own vision right from the beginning.

“When it came to artists whose film work was of an uncompromising nature in the eighties, you had David Lynch, Paul Verhoeven, Abel Ferrara, Terry Gilliam, Brian De Palma (sometimes), and David Cronenberg. And that’s it. Yeah, there were one-offs. John Carpenter’s The Thing. William Friedkin’s Cruising. Robert Harmon’s The Hitcher. Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark. Michael Cimino’s Year of the Dragon. Hal Ashby’s 8 Million Ways to Die. Jim McBride’s Breathless. Clive Barker’s Hellraiser. But, Hellraiser aside, these directors were usually punished for their perceived transgressions, by the press, the public, and the industry.

“The curse of eighties cinema wasn’t just that they wouldn’t let you shoot somebody jerking off to Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace. It was that the complex and complicated lead characters of the seventies were the characters that eighties cinema avoided completely. Complex characters aren’t necessarily sympathetic. Interesting people aren’t always likeable. But in the Hollywood of the eighties likeability was everything. After the seventies, film went back to the restraints of the fifties. Back to when controversial films had to be drained of life, changed, or turned into morality plays… And if you did make a movie about a fucking bastard, you could bet that fucking bastard would see the error of their ways and be redeemed in the last twenty minutes. Like, for example, all of Bill Murray’s characters.” (pp 118-121)

For the exceptions to the rule in the second paragraph, Tarantino uses some examples I’ve used (Lynch, De Palma, Cronenberg, Bigelow, Friedkin, Barker), and I find the omission of Martin Scorsese to be telling. Even Scorsese watered himself down in the ’80s. The director of Mean Streets (1973) and Taxi Driver (1976) wouldn’t return to that kind of form until the ’90s, with Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995), etc. Instead he pumped out comedies and the godawful Last Temptation of Christ (1988). The only decent thing Scorsese did in the ’80s was the black comedy After Hours (1985).

I would even add qualifiers to the legitimate exceptions. Take David Lynch. Yes, he made a masterpiece with Blue Velvet (1986), but it may betray a bit of self-censorship. For all its unremitting darkness and shocking perversity, it ends in a way that no other David Lynch film does: with a happy ending. Almost a fairly tale ending, in fact, with the bad guys dead, Jeffrey and Sandy in each others arms in the parents’ home (see more below on the theme of the nuclear family), and Dorothy Valens liberated from terror and abuse, happily reunited with her little boy who had been held hostage.

None, absolutely none, of Lynch’s other films has anything close to a happy ending like this (not even the G-rated Straight Story), and many of them are downright nihilistic. Eraserhead (1977) ends with Spencer breaking under pressure and killing the baby he never wanted. The Elephant Man (1980) ends with Merrick dying in bed. Wild at Heart (1990) just ends on craziness. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) ends with Laura Palmer being brutally murdered by her father who had raped her repeatedly. Lost Highway (1997) ends at square one, with Fred trapped helplessly in a cycle of crimes for which he is falsely blamed. Mulholland Drive (2001) ends with Diane hating and killing herself. Twin Peaks: The Return (2017) ends on that final shot of Laura Palmer screaming, terrorized out of her mind, when she realizes who she is. If Blue Velvet is a dark film, it at least gives the audience an exit massage.

I’m not suggesting that Blue Velvet’s ending is deficient or lame. Happy endings can work when they feel earned, and it certainly feels earned in a film as suffocating as this one. I’m just not sure that’s how Lynch would have ended it had he made Blue Velvet in any other decade. Maybe it was self-censorship on a subconscious level. But I suspect that even a pure artist like him may have wanted to throw his viewers a bone in an era when subversive films were widely frowned upon.

Other Points

I would add two points to what Tarantino says. First, I would extend his list of exceptions to include a bunch of films from the early eighties (1980-82), which are essentially seventies films at heart: The Shining (1980), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Raging Bull (1980; good Scorsese), Escape from New York (1981), The Evil Dead (1981), Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981), Conan the Barbarian (1982), Blade Runner (1982), and Pink Floyd’s The Wall (1982). All of these films are excellent, and may as well have been made in the seventies — unlike some of their sequels in the mid or late 80s (Return of the Jedi, Evil Dead 2, Mad Max 3, Conan the Destroyer) which were feces.

Second, I would point out the paper written a decade ago (2011) by Chris Maltezos, The Return of the 1950s Nuclear Family in the Films of the 1980s. He writes:

“As the 70s progressed a notable shift in cultural perception would occur: a growing antagonism toward the liberalism of the late 1960s and early 1970s: hippies, anti-­war protests, sex and violence on television, sex education in schools, forced busing, welfare spending and legalized abortions… [leading] to a dissatisfaction which precipitated Reagan’s more nostalgic, optimistic vision for the 1980’s. This political and cultural shift veered away from the countercultural movements of the 1960’s and early 1970’s, harkening Americans toward patriotism, unity and traditional family values.”

That’s basically where the 80s self-censorship (that Tarantino speaks of) came from. The importance of the nuclear family in particular seeps through even in the exceptions. I already mentioned Blue Velvet. Take also Near Dark (1987). I still think it’s the best vampire film of all time, but it does have an “80s happy ending” that rubs me wrong: Caleb and Mae are given blood transfusions by Caleb’s father, which reverses their vampirism and makes them human again; the implication is that Mae will live happily ever after with Caleb, under the same roof with his father and little sister. That ending rings false, and I doubt Bigelow would have written it if she had made Near Dark in the ’70s or ’90s. Caleb and Mae would have remained vampires, tragic loners, and never seen again by Caleb’s family.

Then there is Aliens (1986), which I don’t count as exceptional though many people still (incredibly) hold it up as a superior sequel. It has aged poorly for many reasons, one of which is the happy ending of Ripley and Hicks and Newt escaping alive — Ripley clearly functioning as a maternal figure for Newt. Contrast this with the ’70s Alien and the ’90s Alien 3, both of which have a nihilistic edge and certainly no “family values” baggage. Aliens is really just Alien on steroids, a crowd-pleasing blockbuster.

Anyway, Tarantino’s book is worth reading cover to back. It’s film criticism by an actual filmmaker, with the wit and snap we love him for. He writes much as he speaks, in a free-associative manner, going from one topic to the next sometimes without warning, but always keeping you engaged about films you know and those you’ve never seen.

Film Picks of 2022

My end of the year roundup. Tár is the masterpiece; The Northman my adrenaline rush; Pinocchio a revision that moved me to tears; Kimi a sleek paranoid thriller; The Batman a comic hero dipped in Se7en; Enola Holmes 2 my guilty-pleasure rom com; Emily the Criminal a solid effort from a first-time director; Glass Onion pure fun; X a ’70s-style exploitation-slasher; Vortex my suicide pill; Prey my surprise from an otherwise rotten franchise; and Operation Mincemeat the hidden gem.

TÁR - Official Trailer [HD] - In Select Theaters October 7 - YouTube
1. Tár, Todd Field. 5 stars. Field hasn’t made a film since Little Children (2006), and as excellent as that one was, Tár is a masterpiece. It’s Cate Blanchett’s best performance (even better than Carol), as she plays a maestro in Berlin who rises high and falls low. The cost of ambition and power is depicted on an epic scale that I haven’t seen since There Will Be Blood (2007). There’s so much to unpack (I examined the cancel culture scene), and I respect Field for engaging identity politics and power imbalances without preaching to the audience. Tár is artistic, not political, and lets the viewer wrestle with the issues and with Lydia Tár. She has given me my quote for the year through her ridicule of a woke student: The narcissism of small differences leads to the most boring conformity. And another one on top of that, which is as much a self-indictment: In order to better ourselves, we must sublimate our ego and even our identity.

Trailer 'The Northman' Tampilkan Alexander Skarsgård, Anya Taylor-Joy hingga Björk dalam Pertempuran Viking yang Cadas - Semua Halaman - Hai
2. The Northman, Robert Eggers. 4 ½ stars. There’s no compromise in this Nordic adaptation of Hamlet, which drowns the viewer in codes of revenge and family honor. Here we have Prince Amleth intent on avenging his father and saving his mother, only to find in the end that his mother wasn’t worth a tinker’s damn of his efforts. He does find some salvation in a slave-woman named Olga, who happens to be a sorceress. Myth-wise this film is the inverse of The Witch, in which pagan beliefs were marginalized by the Puritan Christianity of 1600s America. Here in the 900s of northern Europe, Christianity is an outlier mentioned only in passing, and Nordic polytheism is the norm. That sense of Nordic doom — that Ragnarok is what everyone lives for — never lets up. If you want Hamlet meets Conan the Barbarian, then this film is for you.

Pinocchio' review: A reimagined story is beautiful but comes with too many strings attached | CNN
3. Pinocchio, Guillermo del Toro. 4 ½ stars. This rewrite of Pinocchio is extremely liberal but far more in touch with the dark spirit of Grimm than anything Disney and the copycats cranked out. (And it certainly puts to shame the other Pinocchio film that came out this year directed by Robert Zemeckis; avoid that one at all costs.) Del Toro sets Pinocchio in the time of fascist Italy, completing his “trilogy”, as he calls it, of fascist-themed horror fantasies. It’s no accident that those three films — The Devil’s Backbone (2001), Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), and this one — are his very best, as he blends the following themes in the context of childhood terror: Europe between the two world wars, the rise of fascism, and the land of the dead. Pinocchio is killed quite a bit in this version, and returns to life (only to watch his loved ones eventually die), and it’s a very moving film that deals with the question of death, underscoring how life only has meaning once you realize how fleeting it is.

Kimi, an Entertaining if Minor Slice of Pandemic Life – Film Epoch
4. Kimi, Stephen Soderbergh. 4 ½ stars. The best Rear Window-like film I’ve seen in a long time and Soderbergh’s best film since Contagion (2011). The first half keeps us inside the apartment of an agoraphobic woman during the Covid pandemic. She works for a big tech company by reviewing audio files from the incoming data streams from Kimi devices (like our Alexa devices) and making corrections to the software when Kimi doesn’t understand what the customer is saying. One day she hears a woman being murdered in one of the audio files, and tries to tell the big-tech bosses, but it turns out they want to sweep it under the rug — and kill her to keep it all quiet. Once that second half kicks into gear it doesn’t stop for a moment, turning the compelling bottle-drama into an equally compelling thriller.

The Batman (2022) | MUBI
5. The Batman, Matt Reeves, 4 ½ stars. This is Batman meets Se7en, with the serial-killing Riddler we deserve after Jim Carrey’s slaughter-job in the ’90s. The cinematography is stunning (the best in any Batman film) and the score genius (the best music in any Batman film), and the ugly clandestine world of payoffs, informants and rank corruption is just what a superhero film needs to be taken seriously for a change, especially after the absurdity of Ben Afleck. No doubt this film is setting us up for even more — and I am dying to see what kind of Joker Reeves will give us. After Chris Nolan, I didn’t think there was any point in more Batman films, but this proved me wrong.

6. Enola Holmes 2, Harry Bradbeer. 4 stars. Enola’s first outing was dull and unfocused. Her second is solid and moves at a fluid pace. Even breaking the fourth wall (which I normally hate as a cinematic device) works; it makes us feel like we matter to Enola, and Millie has just the right chops to deliver these lines effectively. The mystery is rather convoluted, and it’s easy to lose sight of how the mystery is being solved (my public service cheat sheet may be of assistance here), but you may want to watch the film twice, and it definitely rewards repeat viewings. Not just to wrap your head around the clues and details, but to savor Millie’s performance. (Some of her reactions and facial expressions are utterly priceless.) Sherlock is also used quite well. If this turns into a franchise that repeats the spirit of this sequel rather than the first film, then I’ll probably become a fan.

Emily the Criminal - Movie Review - The Austin Chronicle
7. Emily the Criminal, John Patton Ford, 4 stars. Shades of Victoria (2015): a decent woman gets pulled into a world of crime by a genuinely charming guy, and as much we hate what they do, they are easy to warm to as people. That says something even more so for Emily. Victoria helped rob a bank; Emily participates in credit card fraud. The former is a victimless crime; the latter really hurts people. But there’s more of a point to Emily. Namely, that if it’s impossible to enjoy life through respectable means, people will chase it by other means. Victoria was happy and just got caught up in something she naively volunteered for. Emily lives under the weight of unpaid student loans, an unfortunate criminal record, and a shitty job as a contract employee that she can’t escape; her other job interviews go nowhere. This is my edge-of-the-seat thriller for the year. It’s a suspenseful, thoughtful, and honest effort for first-time director Ford.

Glass Onion' Is Actually About Living in the Age of Musk, Ye and Trump - POLITICO
8. Glass Onion, Rian Johnson. 4 stars. Knives Out was a tough act to follow, and while Glass Onion doesn’t measure up it still is very good. The mileage comes from contemporary relevance: powerful loathsome billionaires. Says a Politico reviewer: “The rich are not only evil; many of them are preternaturally stupid, their legitimacy propped up only by the deference of those around them. The result is an allegory for all of us living with the omnipresent Elon Musk, Donald Trump and Jeff Bezos.” Ed Norton plays the role of a stupid undeserving billionaire (Miles Bron) to perfection, that it actually ruined the mystery for me. I knew in my gut from the start that whoever was about to be killed on his private island, this piece of shit would be the murderer. Yet it didn’t matter. The fun of this film, unlike Knives Out, is less in the mystery solving, and more in watching Benoit Blanc lecture all these over-privileged jerks while secretly working against Bron with the sister of his victim.

X | Ti West On His Thoughts On 'Elevated Horror' And On The Making Of X And The Upcoming Pearl [Exclusive] - LRM
9. X, Ti West, 4 stars. The great Ti West has landed a feast of slasher sexploitation that I was pleasantly surprised by. A group of young filmmakers go to a remote cabin to make a porno film. Things start well; there’s fun and sexual advance; then a homicidal sex-crazed hag has other ideas for the group, and everything explodes into mayhem and slaughter. West understands the technique of slow build and how crank up a mighty uncomfortable tension. It’s set in the year 1979 and is a throwback to the hard-core horror films of the 70s, though the themes of female sexuality and empowerment are better done and less cliche. In the hands of most other directors, X would have been probably just okay, but West elevates X into something quite exhilarating.

Vortex review: Gaspar Noé's split-screen dementia drama is a grind
10. Vortex, Gaspar Noé. 4 stars. I follow Gaspar Noé’s films religiously, because whatever subject he tackles (extreme violence against women in Irreversible, out-of-body experiences in Enter the Void, acid trips in Climax), he really makes me think, since he never pulls punches and always taps into an arresting style. In the case of Vortex he use split-screen to portray a Parisian elderly couple concurrently suffering the indignities of old age — He in denial, She losing herself in dementia. If you love Noe, you’ll love Vortex, and if you hate him, well, you may hate him more than ever this time around. The film is dedicated to “all those whose brains will decompose before their hearts”, and it’s as depressing as it sounds.

Predator' Prequel 'Prey' Gets 2022 Release Date - Variety
11. Prey, Dan Trachtenberg. 4 stars. The Predator franchise is awful (I never even liked the original), but Prey redeems it by thinking outside the box and sending the alien after Native Americans in the early 1700s. A young Comanche healer wants to be a warrior, but as a woman she’s saddled with healing duties to the ridicule of most of the men. The film of course is about her proving herself against the alien predator where the men fail abysmally, but never once does it feel like woke or gender preaching. It’s a great film, and if you’re new to the franchise, you may even enjoy it more than I did, having no baggage from the other garbage installments.

Operation Mincemeat' review: Colin Firth and Matthew Macfadyen star in a delicious true tale of World War II espionage - CNN
12. Operation Mincemeat, John Madden. 3 ½ stars. In the stew of World War II dramas and thrillers, is it possible to do anything new? Yes, actually, and Operation Mincemeat does it by portraying a British intelligence operation that was so absurd in its conception but historically accurate, so you know what you’re watching is largely real. The Brits took an anonymous corpse, invented a character for it — “Captain William Martin” — with a detailed and romantic backstory. They filled the corpse’s jacket with “confidential documents” suggesting that the Allies were about to invade Greece and Sardinia (as opposed to Sicily, the actual target), and then arranged the body to wash ashore off the coast of Europe, where hopefully “Captain Martin” would end up in Axis hands. The film’s success lies in focusing on the romance between two of the intelligence officers, Ewen and Jean, which is filtered through the intricate love story they invent for their corpse; Operation Mincemeat ends up being an unrequited romance as much as an espionage thriller, and I must say a pretty damn good one.

Tár: Film of the Year

Earlier this year I named The Northman the film of the year, but that was premature. The honor goes to Tár, which I managed to see over Thanksgiving week-end, and then watched it again two days later. It’s Todd Field’s best effort as a writer-director; it’s Cate Blanchett’s best performance of all time (yes, even better than Carol); the kind of film you indulge by losing yourself in for two and a half hours, wishing for five more. It’s also a film that’s very easy to mistake — as I did on first viewing — as being based on a true account. So I’ll say upfront that Lydia Tár is a fictional character. You don’t need to wonder about what liberties have been taken for sake of drama. Her sociopathy is built from the ground up.

Lydia is a maestro — the first female conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic — who rises high and falls low. Her story is essentially about what greatness does to someone who achieves it. The cost of ambition and power is depicted on an epic scale that I haven’t seen in a film since There Will Be Blood (2007). A Vox reviewer noted the comparison as well. Oil tycoon Daniel Plainview ended up alone and miserable, much as Lydia does when she’s finally ousted from the Berlin orchestra and can only get a job teaching and conducting in the Third World:

“Their lives aren’t perfect matches, but the same principle applies: that they’ve clawed their way up a mountain composed of dead and wounded bodies, and perch atop it with a shiny, composed facade. It’s only through cracks in the veneer that you can glimpse the real person. They are ruthless and bitter and brilliant. Their teeth are always on edge, their jaws always grinding. That Lydia is a woman only adds to it all; she’s not meant to have gotten here in the first place.”

There’s so much one could say about Tár, but I’ll look at one particular scene that has gone viral. People are calling it the “cancel culture scene”, in which Lydia instructs a woke student (named Max) to let go of the ego in service to the music. His problem? He resents (wait for it) having to learn Bach, because “white male cis composers aren’t his thing”. To which Lydia derisively says:

[Lydia] “Don’t be so eager to be offended. The narcissism of small differences leads to the most boring conformity.”

Max sputters that he does like Edgard Varèse. Lydia’s scorn continues to roll over:

[Lydia] “Oh, well, then you must be aware that Varèse famously stated that jazz is a negro product exploited by the Jews. That didn’t stop Jerry Goldsmith from ripping him off for his Planet of the Apes score. It’s kind of a perfect insult, don’t you think? But you see, the problem with enrolling yourself as an ultrasonic epistemic dissonant is that if Bach’s talent can be reduced to gender, birth country, religion, sexuality, and so on, then so can yours. Now, someday, Max, when you go out into the world, and you guest-conduct for a major or minor orchestra, you may notice that the players have more than light bulbs and music on their stands. They will also have been handed rating sheets — the purpose of which is to rate you. Now, what kind of criteria would you hope that they would use to do this? Your score reading and stick technique or something else?”

Max says nothing.

[Lydia] “All right, everyone. Using Max’s criteria, let’s consider Max’s thing, applied to Anna Þorvaldsdóttir. Now, can we agree on two pieces of observation? One, that Anna was born in Iceland. And two, that she is a super-hot young woman. Show of hands? All right, now let’s turn our gaze back to Max and see if we can square how any of those things possibly relate to him.”

Max gets up and leaves, calling Lydia a “fucking bitch”.

[Lydia] “And you are a robot. I mean, unfortunately, the architect of your soul appears to be social media. If you want to dance the mass, you must service the composer. You have to sublimate yourself — your ego and, yes, your identity.”

If only more teachers had this sort of backbone. But while Lydia’s scoldings are appropriate — especially her parting blow about the ego — the irony is that she will end up letting her own ego destroy her. Her colossal ego is established in the opening scene: in an interview on stage she declares that as a maestro she has the power to stop and start time. (“You cannot start without me, I start the clock… Sometimes my hand stops, which means that time stops.”) Her woke students may be morons, but that doesn’t mean she’s a hero or “good guy”. You’re not supposed to cheer for anyone in Tár, even those you may want to cheer for in the heat of the moment. You’re supposed to be unsettled by everyone; think Little Children (Field’s last film), in which every character is pathetic. Tar‘s characters aren’t that bad, but they are full of mess, and Lydia most of all. Her habit of grooming female students for sexual favors finally catches up to her.

Field is able to engage identity politics and power imbalances without lecturing the audience, and that’s a rare feat in film these days. He has no interest in favoring a particular side or viewpoint, which makes Tár artistic, not political, and lets the viewer wrestle with the issues. It doesn’t judge Lydia or any other character. It trusts the viewer’s intelligence. I’m still drinking glasses of wisdom from it, but I’m taking these two Lydia-lines as my quotes for the year: (1) The narcissism of small differences leads to the most boring conformity. (2) In order to better ourselves, we must sublimate our ego and even our identity.

Rating: 5 stars out of 5

How the Clues Unfold in Enola Holmes 2

I already explained why Enola Holmes 2 is a much better film than its predecessor. Here I outline how the clues unfold. My gift to those who complain that it’s sometimes hard to follow how Enola puts the pieces together.

1. Enola is hired by Bessie Chapman to find her older sister Sarah. While searching the Chapman house, Enola

  • finds in the trash a paper fragment with the date “12 March” written on it
  • learns (from Bessie) that Sarah’s job was at the Lyons Match Factory, and that the foreman accused of Sarah of thieving

2. Given the thieving accusation, Enola proceeds to the factory, where she breaks into the boss’s office. Inside the office she

  • sees old match models with red tips instead of white;
  • sees ripped pages from the register and concludes that Sarah stole these papers;
  • overhears a discussion of high-ranking people who are panicking about someone stealing from them and extorting them (Enola will later learn these people are Henry Lyon the factor owner, William Lyon his son, Charles McIntyre the city treasury minister, and Mira Troy the secretary of McIntyre)

3. Enola is suspicious of Mae (who lives at the Chapman house with Bessie and Sarah), and so follows her at night to the Paragon Theater, where Mae works a second job. At the theater, Enola

  • learns that Sarah also worked a second job here as a stage performer
  • learns that Sarah had a lover who sent her letters, that he was apparently a “wealthy gentleman”, and Enola finds one of the letters with a cryptic poem; the signature is a flower drawing, which Enola thinks is a poppy
  • wonders if Sarah ran away with this man, or from him, or was abducted by him

4. While stalking Tewkesbury the next morning, she deciphers the love poem, which reads “28 Bell Place, Whitetower”. She goes to that address, where she

  • finds the front door ajar and the place inside a mess; on a table is a jar with red powdery material and flies buzzing around inside, and another jar with white powdery material and dead flies inside
  • finds Mae stabbed; Mae dies pointing to a piece of paper in her pocket, with music on it titled “The Truth of the Gods”
  • tells Superintendent Grail that she’s looking for Sarah Chapman, and learns from Grail that he is also looking for Sarah, as she is wanted for theft and blackmail
  • flees the police when they try to arrest her

5. Enola hides at Sherlock’s place, where she

  • learns that Sherlock’s case involves government officials sending money to someone in the system; they are separate filings from five different bank accounts going via the Treasury into one private bank; the five banks are all south of the river with no clear link between them; Sherlock’s theory is that someone is bribing, extorting, or blackmailing his client; he has only one lead: a week before the first money transfer, there was a break-in at the treasury office, by a man in a taper crown hat, who took a document that the treasury office won’t talk about, evidently containing some sensitive information
  • explains to Sherlock the case she has taken on involving Sarah Chapman; she shows him the love poem (he figures the address “28 Bell Place, Whitetower” immediately) and they both suspect that Sarah was kidnapped by this mysterious lover; she also tells him that Grail claimed that Sarah had stolen something and was into blackmail; Sherlock then leaves to investigate Mae’s murder site at 28 Bell Place
  • browses a newspaper and sees an ad for the Match Maker’s Ball that evening, to be hosted by Henry Lyon (the match factory owner) listed at 12 Marchmont Square; she realizes the fragment she found in Sarah’s trash (“12 March”) isn’t a date but this address, and wonders why Sarah would be interested in attending a ball for the wealthy; the newspaper says that Henry Lyon’s eldest son William will be there leading the first dance, and in a flash of intuition she realizes that the flower signature on Sarah’s love poem isn’t a poppy but a sweet William, and she deduces that William Lyon is Sarah’s “wealthy gentleman” lover/abducter, and that’s why she was going to the ball (meanwhile at 28 Bell Place, where Mae was killed, Sherlock finds a taper crown hat hanging on a rack; he looks out the window and sees Lyons Match Factory, and wonders if the factory is the link between the five banks south of the river; he begins to suspect a connection between his case and Enola’s)

6. Enola decides to attend the ball to confront William Lyon. At the ball, she

  • sees the same four people she saw back at the factory meeting room, who were panicking about being robbed and extorted (Henry Lyon the factor owner, William his son, Charles McIntyre the city treasury minister, and Mira Troy the secretary of McIntyre); she tries to talk to William but cannot do so without a chaperone
  • meets a woman named Cicely, who seems to be romantically drawn to Tewkesbury
  • meets Mira Troy, who gives Enola some friendly advice on surviving in a man’s world, and who encourages Enola to pursue her intentions with William
  • asks Tewkesbury to teach her how to dance so she can find the socially acceptable opportunity to speak to William
  • arranges to dance with William, and becomes 100% sure that he is Sarah’s lover/abductor when she compares the “W” from his dance-card signature with the “W” in one of the words in the love poem
  • is arrested and taken away by the police, when waiting in the library for William to come and explain his relationship to Sarah

7. Meanwhile, Sherlock realizes that the blackmailer he is after is “Moriarty”, when he converts the original account number in his money laundering case to its corresponding alphabet of English language.

8. Enola gets thrown into prison, but is rescued by Eudoria (her mother) and Edith; they are chased by the police but end up beating the shit out of them.

9. Enola goes to see Bessie and advises her to leave the home because it’s not safe. While at Bessie’s house she sees red and white powder in some of the plant jars. She

  • learns from Bessie that the factory match tips changed from red to white two years ago, exactly when the “typhus epidemic” started
  • remembers the jars where Mae was killed — the flies that were still alive in the jars with the red powder, and the flies that were dead in the jar with the white powder — and realizes that the powders were the ground product of the old and new match tips
  • sees cheese on the floor with white powder on it, and a dead rat close by, and realizes that Sarah “fed” the rats not because she “had a heart for them” (as Bessie had told her) but because she was trapping them
  • deduces that Sarah had found out the real reason why the factory girls are getting sick and dying — because of the cheap white phosphorus used in the match sticks — and that this is the information that Sarah stole from the factory office

10. Enola rushes to Tewkesbury’s home to share her revelation with him — that Sarah found proof that the phosphorus is killing girls, and the factory owners are trying to cover it up as typhus, and that someone is going to kill Sarah — but Cicely drops by unannounced. Enola hides and Cicely says to Tewkesbury that she needs to speak to him about “a relationship”, and then Tewkesbury tells her to come back at another time. Enola, at first, thinks that Cicely wants to fuck Tewkesbury, and is enraged, but Tewkesbury insists that Cicely’s interests are pure business: at the ball she had told him that she was working on a bill to change factory law in order to fight corruption. Enola then

  • realizes, in a flash of intuition, that Cicely is Sarah and that she and William were indeed in love, planning to expose the people, led by William’s father, who were profiting off the low-grade phosphorus; that’s why William invited Tewkesbury to the ball; he and Sarah needed a Lord’s help to expose the corruption — a lord like Tewkesbury who speaks up for liberal causes

11. Enola and Tewkesbury go to the match factory to find more clues. At the factory Enola encounters Sherlock, who tells her that he believes his case and hers are connected. They find William murdered in the factory meeting room. “Sarah’s love”, says Enola. “My thief in a taper crown hat”, says Sherlock. William is the one who stole a document from the treasury office. Enola

  • suggests that William stole the document not just from the treasury office, but from the office of Lord McIntyre in particular (Sherlock is impressed at her deduction, for McIntyre of course is his employer), and that the document is proof that Lord McIntyre and Henry Lyon have been conspiring together (changing the match formula to a cheaper phosphorus to make more profits) and that McIntyre has been secretly profiting from the company
  • suggests also that Lord McIntyre killed William, but Sherlock dismisses that theory, showing how all the clues in the murder room (of Lord McIntyre and Henry Lyon’s presence) have been planted by someone to mislead them from the true villain — someone who had just as much to lose with that document being stolen; someone who knows what Lyon and McIntyre are up to and is blackmailing them
  • finds a piece of the same sheet of music that she found on Mae’s dress when she died; Tewkesbury says that “the Truth of the Gods” probably refers to the Paragon Theater, since the top row of seats is called “The Gods”; Enola deduces that the top row of sheet music is a map of the top row of theater seats, and “X” marks the spot of something important

12. Sherlock, Enola, and Tewkesbury go to the Paragon Theatre and search the top row of seats. They

  • find (a) the contract between Lyon and McIntyre that William stole for Sarah; and (b) the papers from the factory register that Sarah stole, which lists the names of all the girls who died from the cheap phosphorus
  • are confronted by Cicely, who reveals herself to be Sarah, as Enola supposed; Sarah explains that she, Mae, and William wanted to expose the factory owners and their associates who profited at the cost of young girls’ lives; and that she needs Tewkesbury’s (a lord’s) help in exposing these monsters
  • are interrupted by several policemen and Superintendent Grail, and a massive fight ensues; Enola ultimately manages to kill Grail
  • are then confronted by Lord McIntyre (who Sherlock summoned), Inspector Lestrade, and Mira Troy; Sherlock realizes that Mira Troy is Moriarty and that she has been the one blackmailing McIntyre and Henry Lyon; when William stole the contract, that threatened to cut off her money train, so she hired Grail to retrieve the document; when she learned that Sarah, William, and Mae were on the verge of exposing the factory, she ordered Grail to kill them all to keep her blackmailing scheme under wraps; Mae was killed first, then William, and Sarah was hunted by Grail in vain; Troy is arrested and taken away, but Lord McIntyre burns the evidence to avoid further suspicion against him

13. The next day, Sarah, Bess, and Enola ignite a strike at the factory, revealing the real reason for the girls dying. Tewkesbury gets McIntyre arrested for being an accomplice to Lyon’s activities. Sherlock sees in the morning news that Mira Troy has escaped police custody. Enola sets up a new office at Edith’s shop.



Enola Holmes 2: A Surprising Improvement for Sherlock’s Sister

The Match Girls Strike, led by Sarah Chapman, was the first ever industrial action taken by women for women. It improved their working conditions forever.

Those words play over the closing credits for Enola Holmes 2, which I enjoyed considerably more than the first Enola film. (Apparently I’m not alone: on Rotten Tomatoes the first has a 70% audience approval, while the second has an 85% audience approval.) Don’t mistake me, it’s still the same animal — a silly comedy at heart — but accepted on its own terms, it entertains in a way that the first film doesn’t, and on a variety of levels. The historical backdrop of the Match Girls Strike (1888) is done justice without sermonizing or politicizing the film into something tiresome.

For those who don’t know, the strike occurred in the Bryant & May Match Factory of London, where women and girls suffered horrible working conditions — long working hours for dirt pay, which was often docked even more for petty reasons like being a few seconds late or using the bathroom. They were also exposed to the health dangers of white phosphorus (which the matches were dipped in), and many of the girls suffered a form of necrosis called “phossy jaw.” The factory owners suppressed the health hazard by claiming that a typhus epidemic was going around, deliberately refusing to report phosphorous poisoning among the women and girls. One of the workers, Sarah Chapman, finally organized a walkout: 1400 women and girls took to the streets to protest their working conditions, and the strike contributed to the growth of the union movement in England.

Enola Holmes 2 is set three years before the historical strike (in 1885, for whatever reason) and uses the Match Girls event to frame a mystery — Enola’s first mystery that she is hired to solve. The film starts with her setting up shop to be a private detective like her brother, and no one takes her seriously (the prospective clients laugh at the sight of a young girl detective, many of them seeking business with Sherlock instead), but eventually a young girl comes in and hires Enola to find her missing sister. The young girl is Bessie Chapman, who works at the match factory with her Sarah, and Sarah has mysteriously vanished. Enola takes the case, and before she knows it becomes the prime suspect in a murder of one of the factory girls. The thrill ride never lets up, and as you might expect it becomes pretty ridiculous at times, especially when Enola is thrown in jail but her mother and Edith break her out with explosives — the most eye-rolling absurdity I’ve seen in any film this year. Admittedly, this event is followed by one of the best and most hilarious scenes which sees Enola, her mother, and jujitsu-master Edith beating the shit out of police officers to the blazing chorus of Handel’s Messiah (the scene can be watched here). Again, if you accept the comedy on its own terms, Enola Holmes 2 has, for the most part, a tight and compelling enough plot to keep you hooked.

Which is more than I can say for Enola Holmes 1. The only thing that film had going for it was Millie’s performance, and it’s just as good this time around, as we see her play the opposite character of Eleven from Stranger Things — wildly uninhibited, overconfident in herself and her abilities, and thoroughly unable to shut up. But now the focus is on the main mystery, not Enola’s family baggage, which means that Sherlock (and briefly, Enola’s mother Eudoria, for the prison break) supplement the story with substance rather than dominate it with melodrama. And Sherlock is used well this time, as he and his sister come to realize that the cases they are each working on intersect; it doesn’t even feel that contrived.

The blend of humor and intrigue hits a high point at the ball which Enola attends to smoke out a suspect (who turns out to be virtuous, not villainous, and eventually ends up dying for it), which she does by arranging to dance with him — a difficult task, as practically everyone at the party thinks she should be chaperoned as a minor, and she doesn’t even know how to dance on top of that problem. This leads to her quasi-boyfriend Tewkesbury (whom she denies her obvious affection for) giving her a dance lesson in a bathroom, and the relationship between the two is handled much better than in the first film, where the romantic tension was too overwrought.

It says something when a film can exploit themes of oppression and sexism while never losing sight of the most important parts (artistry and entertainment), and Enola Holmes 2 milks those themes just right, even to the grand reveal of Sherlock’s arch-nemesis. Moriarity is the black woman, Mira Troy, who — much like Enola — weaponizes Victorian sexism to become an unseen or underrated force. Men don’t take her seriously, and pay for that mistake. I’m sure we’ll see more of Mira Troy in Enola Holmes 3 (of course there will be a third) and I’m looking forward to it. Yes folks, I’m actually warming to this series, and I much enjoyed seeing Sherlock’s sister having an impact on the English union movement.

Tony Scott Tribute

Tony Scott died ten years ago (in August 2012), and so this tribute is way overdue, prompted by some recent rewatches. No director could elevate a popcorn flick like Tony Scott. His camera work, avant-garde techniques, and the mileage he got from talented actors made his films aesthetic as much as thrilling. I think he was superior to his brother Ridley, who had two masterpieces in him (Alien and Blade Runner) but a lot of stinkers too. Of Tony Scott’s sixteen films, I don’t think any of them are bad (though some are mediocre), and I consider the following six to be his best, and they all have high rewatch value. I’ve seen each of them anywhere between three and seven times. I should note that I’m not the biggest Denzel Washington fan, but Scott used Denzel incredibly well — in no less than five of his films, and four of them place on this list.

1. Deja Vu. 2006. Among the cinematic enjoyments that handle time travel intelligently, Deja Vu is especially impressive for not even being a sci-fic film. It’s a crime thriller incorporating a sci-fic element, which it then turns on a man’s obsession for a dead woman — basically this is Tony Scott meets Vertigo. The woman in question was abducted by a domestic terrorist who took her vehicle, killed her, and then bombed a passenger ferry boat, killing hundreds more. Enter the FBI, who have a special “surveillance” program which looks 4 days and 6 hours into the past, by using several satellites to form a triangulated image of events (or so they say). The FBI uses this program to solve crimes, in this case by looking into the past to try to identify the terrorist. They recruit ATF agent Doug Carlin (played by Denzel), who quickly figures out that this “surveillance program” is actually a time window — a gate into the past, from the present point to 4 days and 6 hours ago — which the government only stumbled on by accident. Doug becomes hell-bent on changing the past, by saving the woman who was abducted and killed, and in the process stopping the bomber before he kills more. The action and thrills are worth the price of admission, but the heart of Deja Vu is Doug’s obsession with Claire. He’s convinced she can be saved though the FBI team of scientists insist that changing the past is impossible. The model of time travel used in Deja Vu is the multiple timelines model, meaning the past can indeed be changed, and the logistics are executed flawlessly.

Image result for crimson tide denzel washington and gene hackman
2. Crimson Tide. 1995. I’ve seen Crimson Tide so many times that it probably qualifies as my favorite popcorn flick. It does for me what The Fugitive does for others. In place of Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones are Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman. Captain Ramsay (Hackman) is the captain of U.S. nuclear missile submarine, and Lieutenant Commander Hunter (Washington) is his freshly-arrived executive officer — more cautious and less trigger happy when a crisis like the Cuban Missile breaks out. Watching Ramsay and Hunter go at each other is a treat, as they each keep gaining the upper hand when Hunter leads (yes) a mutiny against Ramsay aboard the sub. Another big plus to Crimson Tide is the dialogue, some of which was written by Quentin Tarantino, though he is not listed in the credits. Tarantino was called in by Scott to “finesse the dialogue” after doing such a kick-ass job in True Romance (see #3 below), and the results are entertaining; I’m sure that Ramsay and Hunter’s argument over which breeds of horses are what color, and what country they come from, is from Tarantino’s pen. Most importantly, Scott doesn’t allow us to choose between Ramsay and Hunter too easily. Both men get their asses torn by the Admiral in the epilogue: Hunter led a mutiny aboard a naval submarine, right in the middle of a Russian torpedo attack; Ramsay violated nuclear launch protocol. Both men acted appallingly, and yet each can be viewed as acting in the American people’s best interests from where they stood.

Tony Scott and Quentin Tarantino's True Romance Getting 4K Restoration
3. True Romance. 1993. Clarence and Alabama are a fabulous romantic duo written by Quentin Tarantino and directed by Scott for an excessively violent tale with morbid humor. The lovers end up in over their heads with drug dealers, and manage to stay alive through stupid perseverance and unconditional devotion to each other. The musical theme (“You’re so cool”) is an infectious piece of scoring, played at all the right moments that makes you actually believe in the triumph of pure love. The final scene on the beach is a well earned epilogue; interestingly, Scott managed to improve Tarantino’s script by providing a happy ending that works. Usually I prefer dark endings, but Clarence and Alabama, after being hammered by bruising and bloodshed, have this coming. There is so much good acting on display, from the infamous interrogation of Clarence’s father (played by Dennis Hopper) by the ruthless cutthroat (played by Christopher Walken), to the sadistic beating of Alabama by the thug (played by James Gandolfini), to the epic standoff and shoot out at the very end. There’s also an early Brad Pitt who does nothing more than sit around the house stoned out of his mind. Remember, this was a year before Pulp Fiction, and in some ways I consider True Romance Tarantino’s real breakout after Reservoir Dogs. Scott directed it, but the film feels about 80% Tarantino.

4. The Hunger. 1983. Exactly one decade before he wowed audiences with True Romance, Scott landed his first film which was an utter box office failure. It was around the same time his brother Ridley made Blade Runner, and The Hunger was similarly concerned with the desire to prolong life. Ridley and Tony had recently lost their older brother to skin cancer; Blade Runner and The Hunger were respective ways of working through that loss. But unlike Blade Runner, The Hunger failed to impress, judged by many to be overly artsy and self-indulgent. It is overly artsy and self-indulgent, but in a good way, and like other ’80s films that were outside the mainstream, it has aged to a cult classic. There’s gothic and post-punk music ahead of its time (Bauhaus, most notably, with the awesome Peter Murphy) that fits the vampire theme. Frankly I consider it one of the best vampire films ever made. The Hunger is about the fear of getting old, the loss of sexual appetite, and a person’s terror in letting go of youth. Watching it today in my 50s affects me totally differently than it did forty years ago; it’s a very sobering film. The scene where John (played wonderfully by David Bowie) has accelerated into an old man (after 200 years of vampire youth) and the eternally young Miriam is holding him in her arms, is heartbreaking.

This Action Movie About A Runaway Train Is A Masterclass In Filmmaking
5. Unstoppable. 2010. Aside from an asshole CEO, there’s no human antagonist in Unstoppable. The villain is the runaway freight train, which is more than enough. The train carries explosive cargo and becomes an effective missile barreling ahead at 70 miles/hour straight to Stanton PA, as two hostlers (one of them played by Denzel of course) engage in a wildly desperate plan to stop it. That this is based loosely on an actual event in Cleveland OH is pretty scary. There is the usual fast-paced camerawork, raw energy, and frenetic cutting, on top of searing dramatic conflict (again, despite the lack of villains) as the company’s CEO pulls every incompetent strategy out of his ass while threatening to fire the two hostlers who have the best chance at stopping the train. There were at least six cameras always rolling during the shooting of this film, to capture the helicopters and chase vehicles at all the right angles. And it wouldn’t be a full-fledged Tony Scott film without Denzel playing a working-class hero; in a sense this is quintessential Denzel. Unstoppable may well be the king of popcorn flicks. It was Scott’s last film before suicide and a remarkable achievement, getting plenty of critical praise.

A very necessary tribute to Denzel Washington and an underrated masterpiece, Man On Fire | JOE is the voice of Irish people at home and abroad
6. Man on Fire. 2004. If you don’t count Quentin Tarantino’s gems, Man on Fire is probably my favorite revenge film. Granted I’m not a fan of the genre, so that’s not saying much. Revenge films tend to be cliche, giving audiences a license to go on a moral holiday — to applaud vigilantes who take down scum in the most violent ways, and feel (hollowly) righteous for it. Scott tried his hand at this in 1990, with a film he called simply Revenge (Kevin Costner starring), but it was a mediocre effort. In 2004 he tried again with Man on Fire — and lit the screen on fire with one of the best films of his career. Using Denzel Washington to play Creasy was a stroke of genius; you don’t expect Denzel to be serious about blowing away a pregnant woman with a shotgun, and fully intent on taking the kidnapper’s whole family apart piece by piece. At least three things set this above the usual revenge fair. (1) I was really convinced that the little girl (Pita) was dead. The revelation that the kidnappers still have her alive almost stopped my heart like it stopped Creasy’s. (2) Scott raises the stakes with patient storytelling, and really making us like Pita and Creasy. It takes a full hour (in a two and a half hour film) before the kidnappers abduct Pita. In that first hour, Man on Fire is a character drama showing a little girl’s impact on a man who has largely given up on life. Revenge films usually initiate the catastrophe too soon, before we get to know much about the victim. (3) Creasy is killed in the end as he must be, to make saving the girl feel earned, but also to atone for his outrageous slaughter. He trades in himself for Pita, and the killers have their way with him. Man on Fire is about a man being robbed of a precious salvation, which must end in the death of anyone remotely connected to the crime, and then his own demise.

If You Could Live (or Relive) Two Years in the Past

Here’s an interesting exercise: If you could go back in time and live out two full years in America, any two years between 1913-1992, what would they be? In other words, sometime after all continental states were admitted to the union, but before the World Wide Web was made public. My years of choice are 1925 and 1973.

The Year 1925

The mid-twenties in general were a time to be alive. It was the ultimate decade of peace, prosperity, and freedom. Presidents Warren Harding (1921-23) and Calvin Coolidge (1923-29) kept the nation out of war and needless costly foreign intervention. They raised the standard of living for millions. Technological advances and mass production made consumer goods affordable, and the spread of electrical power created a demand for appliances. Many people could buy cars, yielding a new world of paved roads and stores. New York became the largest city in the world, overtaking London. Child mortality rates dropped across the nation. Money was spent lavishly on public education. Women were now able to vote, giving the country 26 million new voters. People danced the nights away, to the latest music on radio. There was Prohibition, which was bad itself, but yielded the benefit of the black market with bootlegging and speakeasies; in effect the price of booze went way down. If there was a decade I could visit during the first half of the twentieth century, it would be the 20s hands down, and the particular year I choose is 1925.

Here are some of the note-worthies of 1925.

Great Books. Some say the greatest year for books was 1925. Books like An American Tragedy and The Great Gatsby were hugely influential.

The First Motel. Hotels had been around since 1794, but the first motel opened in California in 1925, located about halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. It charged a rate of $1.25 per night. Motels hinted that car culture would soon take over the American way of life.

Gitlow v. New York. This year the Supreme Court made a landmark ruling: that the right of free speech protects a person from state interference as much as federal interference. The Court had previously held, in Barron v. Baltimore (1833), that the Constitution’s Bill of Rights applied only to the federal government, but Gitlow reversed that precedent and established that while the Bill of Rights was designed to limit the power of the federal government, the denial of these rights by a state government constitutes a denial of due process which is prohibited under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Pierce v. Society of Sisters. In this year the Court also held that children did not have to attend public schools. States that made such a requirement were acting unconstitutionally.

Scopes Monkey Trial. In the summer of 1925, the Scopes Trial was all the rage — staged deliberately to attract publicity. Tennessee upheld a law prohibiting the teaching of evolution in public schools, and fined Scopes $100, although the state supreme court overturned the ruling on a technicality. The nation would have to wait until 1968 for SCOTUS’s substantive ruling: that banning evolution violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, since the bans are primarily religious. But the Scopes trial itself was a benchmark in forcing the question of whether or not evolution should be taught in public schools.

Weird Tales and Adventure (“The Camp-Fire”). The pulp magazines became wildly popular in the 20s. Weird Tales — still regarded today as the most important and influential of all fantasy magazines — had launched its first issue in 1923, and in 1925 began publishing an issue every month. Adventure Magazine, started back in 1910, had grown so popular by the 20s that its letters page, “The Camp-Fire” (not to be confused with the youth development organization by the same name, that also started in 1910), had become a major cultural phenomenon. The Camp-Fire featured editorials and fiery discussions about all sorts of topics, usually about whether or not the author had the right facts in his or her story. Historical accuracy, geographical accuracy, the kind of weapons the characters used — all of these and more were debated with passion. By 1924, a number of Camp-Fire Stations — locations where Adventure readers could hook up — were established across the U.S. and even in other countries. In 1925 one of the Camp-Fire’s most fiery debates was over the character of Julius Caesar. The writers often embellished their lives, reinvented themselves with outlandish fictions (even in their bio sketches); some were con artists. By 1925 Adventure was unquestionably the most important pulp magazine in the world, let alone the U.S. I’d love to live in 1925 as a subscriber to Weird Tales and Adventure, and as a Camp-Fire freak.

Drag Balls. The tradition of masquerade and civil balls (“drag balls”) goes back to 1869 in Harlem. By the mid-1920s, at the height of Prohibition, they were attracting thousands of people of different races and social classes—whether straight or gay. We tend to think of Stonewall (in 1969) as the beginning of the gay rights movement, but decades before that, Harlem’s drag balls were part of an LGBTQ nightlife-culture that gave us gay and lesbian enclaves. What fun. Only after the Depression would this libertine culture fall out of favor, as many would blame this cultural experimentation for the economic collapse.

The Year 1973

The early 70s were gloomy and nihilistic, but that’s what generated so much artistic creativity and cultural progress. Disillusion, cynicism, paranoia, and frustrated rage coalesced in the ’60s aftermath, yielding introspection and existentialism. Films were about dirty cops, shady leaders, conspiracies, isolation, and loneliness. Rock lyrics were about individuals trying desperately to connect to others, to themselves, and to the world around them. The dress and hair styles were awful, granted, but aside from that, it was a groovy period. The best year in particular is 1973. I was alive that year, but so tiny and young that I remember nothing about it. I’d love to go back and live out the year as an adult.

Here are the note-worthies of 1973:

The Exorcist. The best and scariest film of all time is released. I’d give anything to see this masterpiece on screen when everyone was fainting in the isle and running from the theaters.

The Godfather. The epic film wins Best Picture, becoming the new Citizen Kane.

Selling England by the Pound. The best album by the best band of all time. Or at least, Genesis was the best band while Peter Gabriel was involved.

Dark Side of the Moon. The most important album by the most important band of all time. Even if The Wall is Floyd’s best, Dark Side’s influence can’t be exaggerated.

All in the Family. The best episodes — meaning the most offensive and insanely hilarious ones — from the best TV sitcom of all time come from the late part of season 3 and the early part of season 4, which spanned the year of 1973: “Archie Goes Too Far”, “Archie Learns His Lesson”, “The Battle of the Month”, “We’re Having a Heat Wave”, “Henry’s Farewell”, “The Games Bunkers Play”, “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Wig”, to name the very best episodes.

Abortion. Roe v. Wade was a problematic ruling, but the result was at least good, guaranteeing a woman’s right to an abortion.

The Paris Peace Accords. After 16 years, American involvement in the Vietnam War ended. Peace at last.

The War Powers Resolution. The congressional resolution (vetoed by Richard Nixon but then overridden) limits the president’s ability to initiate or escalate military actions abroad. It states that “the collective judgment of both the Congress and the President will apply” whenever the American armed forces are deployed overseas. Many presidents since then have failed to comply with this resolution, and for the worse.

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders. The American Psychiatric Association declares that homosexuality is not a mental illness or sickness, and removes from its manuals the listing of same-sex activity as a disorder.

The Endangered Species Act. The most comprehensive legislation enacted (in any nation) for the protection of endangered species.

Happy 40th: Conan the Barbarian

Conan the Barbarian is a special film for me. Released on May 14, 1982, it was my first R-rated experience in a theater, and did a wonder on my youthful sensibilities. Between scenes of graphic sex — especially Conan’s coupling with a vampire who goes rabid on him at the moment of orgasm — and a deluge of gore, I was utterly stupefied, and if not for the subject material which interested me, would have probably taken days to recover. Conan threw me into a world of lust and brutality I was so unprepared for at age 13, but it also felt like a real-life Dungeons and Dragons game. This was high adventure in which thieves robbed the temples of evil priests, rescued their victims, battled giant snakes, and stumbled on forgotten swords held in the clutches of cobwebbed skeletons — the kind of scenarios I fantasized about daily when throwing the 20-sided die.

Today it holds up well — astonishingly well, in fact, when compared to inferior PG cousins like Willow, Krull, Legend, and of course the abysmal sequel Conan the Destroyer. The ’80s gave fantasy such a bad name that I came to view Conan the Barbarian as a one-time exception in a genre flooded by cliche and hollow characters, and not until Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings would I be forced to revise my opinion. The first fifteen minutes alone make clear that Milius is about serious business and refuses to pull punches, as the young Conan witnesses his entire people slaughtered in a village raid, and his mother decapitated as he clings to her. Battles are so violent that the film feels like an historical epic instead of fantasy, as if Hyboria were exactly as Robert Howard intended: a mythic version of the ancient world, like Middle-Earth.

The film in fact anticipates Lord of the Rings in some interesting ways, but most fundamentally with the score. It is no exaggeration to say that Basil Poledouris’ compositions are amongst the most powerful ever written for any film, and this is agreed on by critics who aren’t terribly wild about Conan. Thundering brass and Latin chants roll over grim battle sequences, while variations of the main theme play at just the right moments, and a gothic choir creeps in almost unnoticeably on the slow melodies. Then there is the waltz, one of my favorite pieces, for the orgy scene: the redundant movements fit perfectly over the sex, cannibalism, and Thulsa Doom polymorphing into a snake, and puts me in mind of Ravel’s Bolero. I still listen to this soundtrack as much as I do Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings, and am floored by how much talent Poledouris was able to poor into such an obscure project.

The acting performances are the film’s only liability, but not in a major way, and in Schwarzenegger’s case his poor talents actually work for him. His barbaric role demands little more than grunting out one-liners, swinging a sword, maiming foes, punching camels, and fucking women, and his Austrian accent somehow, amusingly, fits just right in this context. Dialogue is used frugally throughout the film in any case, so Conan’s companions (cast more for their athletic than acting talents) don’t come off terribly bad either. But James Earl Jones is genius, and he completely steals the show as Thulsa Doom, the high priest of Set based on Thoth-Amon from Howard’s books. Jones oozes malevolence with all the trappings of a hippy cult leader, hypnotizing with a stare, and commanding loyal followers to jump to their deaths on a whim. The snake theme is milked for all its worth, and considering production values of the early ’80s it’s a wonder how convincing the giant serpents are. Doom even shoots snakes from his longbow, and one of them of course kills Valeria, pushing Conan completely over the edge in his hunger for revenge.

In terms of its treatment of source material, Conan has been a bone of contention, pleasing and displeasing fans of the Howard classics in equal measure. Most everything is pastiche (Valeria is an acrobatic thief more like Belit instead of Howard’s pirate; the high priest of Set is named after a sorcerer who never even met Conan), distortion (the god Crom invites prayer-challenges and has a jovial side reminiscent of our viking gods, unlike Howard’s Crom who disdains all prayer as weak and is completely cheerless), or invention (Conan’s early years on the Wheel of Pain). As one who never got around to reading Howard’s books until much later, none of this could bother me, but my best friend knew Howard inside and out and loved the film as much I did. I’ve always believed that strict adaptations are too stifling (and again Lord of the Rings is instructive), and anyone with a good ear knows that the name of Thulsa Doom cuts deeper than Thoth-Amon.

For all it’s gravity and grim outlook, Milius’ film is not without humor. Conan praying to Crom and telling the god to fuck off is priceless. So is his punching the camel’s face. My favorite line is his answer to the question, “What is best in life?” You have to imagine Schwarzenegger’s Austrian accent for the full effect: “Crush the enemy, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of the women!” My friend and I got more mileage out of that ridiculous saying than it deserves, and it pretty much sums up Conan better than anything I can think of.

Rating: 5 stars out of 5.


This review is reposted, with some modifications, from a blogpost I wrote in 2011.