Film

The high price of seeing Godzilla Minus One

For the first time in a long time, I want to see a movie in the theater.  The film in question is Godzilla Minus One.  This is the first Godzilla movie I've wanted to see in years.  I'm aware that there are now two "monsterverses", one in the US and one in Japan and - unsurprisingly - the Japanese one is much, much better.

The trailers for it are captivating, and fan response overwhelmingly positive.  It appears to be a true "reboot," in the sense that it starts the Godzilla story over again, and is set in post-war Japan.  It also looks legitimately scary, because it focuses on people rather than just spectacular special effects.

Anyhow, as much as I'd like to see it, paying $22.50 for two tickets to a matinee is just nuts.  I'm much better off waiting for the DVD or streaming it. 

Yesterday I saw a news story that compared the ten items purchased at a grocery store in the movie Home Alone (which cost less than $20 in 1990) were $44 last year and $73 this year.  At some point, I'm going to have to mentally adjust myself to the fact that money is worth a lot less.  Coins are effectively worthless and $5 is the new single.  Barring a revaluation or crippling deflation, that's the new normal.

At that point $22.50 won't seem such a bad price, but before then wages are going to have to rocket up as well.  Since mine haven't, movie theaters are out of my price range.


Turning over a new leaf: Toxic Masculinity Tuesday

For a while I would note when various items posted over at bleedingfool.com, but I got out of the habit because they were becoming fairly common.

However, I'm making an exception because I've been invited to participate in a new features called Toxic Masculinity Tuesday.  The tongue-in-cheek title is a reference to the unabashed macho character of the films under discussion, and through a series of remarkable coincidences, I ended up penning this week's offering.

For those unwilling to take the click bait, I chose the 1991 Disney Beauty and the Beast, because it features multiple men who demonstrate strongly masculine traits, and these are taken as a matter of course.  Gaston is of course a bit over the top, but of all the Disney villains, he's probably the most liked by other people in the film.  He's actually a popular guy, he just takes things too far.

I intend to do deep dives in my entry, focusing on film noir and Golden Age movies.

Anyhow, it keeps me engaged in the absence of a new book project.


My eerily prescient take on the University of Michigan's football program

The University of Michigan's football program is making a lot of news these days, and none of it is good.  In October, an elaborate scheme for in-person scouting was revealed, and the school is under intense scrutiny both by the NCAA and the Big Ten Conference.  In addition, the FBI is already investigating other crimes which may or may not be related.

For those who don't follow sports, the core of the issue is that a yet unknown number of Michigan staff participated in a what was effectively a spying operation designed to capture the signals and plays of opposing teams.  The goal was to allow Michigan coaches to know exactly what plays were being called and have the perfect response ready at hand. 

Depending on who one asks, this is either only marginally useful, or decisive.  I'm in the latter camp.  From a military perspective, knowing exactly where, when and how an opponent is going to strike is a huge advantage.  Yes, one must still execute, but that's a lot easier if you know what is supposed to happen.

Sending individuals to observe or record these signals has been prohibited since 1994, and for good reason.  At that time, an arms race was breaking out across college football, and everyone was losing.  The wealthy programs chafed at the expense of paying people to go and obtain intelligence; the poor schools lamented their inability to compete, which compounded their competitive disadvantages.

As a result, the practice was banned, and all teams were provided with game film to review.  Some coaches continued to try to monitor play signals during the game, but this was far more difficult.

I mention this because three years ago I talked about All or Nothing, an Amazon documentary about the University of Michigan football program in 2017.   That year Michigan was expected to contend for the national title, but ended up losing to both rivals, and the sense of disappointment was crushing.  By 2020, the situation was even worse, with Head Coach Jim Harbaugh now winless against traditional rival Ohio State and having a losing record against arch-rival Michigan State.  Indeed, Harbaugh chose to hide behind Covid protocols to avoid a sixth consecutive defeat by the Buckeyes.

He was forced to take a major pay cut in order to keep his job.

What I did not know was that one of Harbaugh's responses was turn to a former Marine captain (and Annapolis graduate) for strategic insight - which included the illegal practice of scouting mentioned above.

As noted in the previous post, Harbaugh regularly spoke of "dark side energy," and using anger and aggression to get ahead.  This is clearly what happened, and the scandal is likely to bring long-term damage to both his reputation and that of the university.

There are also criminal implications.  Sports gambling is a billion-dollar industry, and vast sums change hands based on point spreads.  Over the past two and a half year, Michigan consistently defied this, leading to a considerable swing in who got what.  It is not unlikely that someone affiliated with the program knew and profited from this scheme, which stands next to the 1919 World Series in terms of corruption.

How it will play out is anyone's guess, but for those who paid attention, the roots of it were visible as far back as 2017.


Renfield - funny idea, terrible execution

I've been checking Amazon from time to time to see when the next season of Clarkson's Farm drops.  No such luck last night, but Renfield was available.  I wasn't interested, but my wife wanted to see it.

Renfield exemplifies what is wrong with modern film writing.  Even though the movie is trying to mock therapeutic culture in an over-the-top comedy, it comes across as preachy and labored.

The dialog is absolutely terrible.  Actual people do not talk anything like the characters, who sit passively while long, convoluted and utterly awkward monologues are thrown back and forth.  The sub-plot about the sisters in law enforcement was labored and forced, and drove away the fleeting memory of what fleeting laughs I had previously enjoyed.

The core issue is that this movie can't figure out if it's a comedy, or making serious social commentary.  It's possible to do both (Tootsie comes to mind), but it takes a slot of skill to pull it off.  Modern product staff simply can't get it done.

Put simply: know the kind of movie you want, and make that.  I got a sense that the writers were fighting among themselves as to whether this should be completely campy or have moments of serious drama.  The result was a scattershot pastiche that was tedious to watch.

Hollywood is clearly capable of making good movies.  Top Gun: Maverick is great, I've seen it four times at least, and it still impresses.  That is because the production crew knew what they wanted to make.  These folks are also likely from an older generation, who cut their teeth on better films.

My recommendation is that rather than see Renfield, imagine how you would have written the movie, because it will be better than the actual film.


Upon further review, Van Helsing is not that great

When Van Helsing first came out, I thought it was great, and naturally I bought the DVD.  A couple of nights ago I watched it again, and was quite underwhelmed.

My disenchantment is focused on two areas.  The first, and most obvious, is the overuse of CGI to create insane spectacles and daring escapes.  It was funny and over the top in 2004, but after a decade of superhero movies and the excesses of Star Wars, it's just annoying, a waste of screen time devoid of dramatic impact.  I've written before about how the constraints placed on prior generations of filmmakers brought about better quality, so I won't belabor the point.

Much more subtle is my dislike of the film's approach to theology, which is frankly awful.  I used to give it credit for having the Catholic Church be shown in a positive light, but it gets so much wrong and in so many ways, it's hard to sit through it.

Hugh Jackman's character is a generic jaded superhero, and David Wenham's friar is an amusing collection of friar/scholar tropes, but it hasn't aged well.  Even Kate Beckinsale (with her atrocious accent) left me cold. 

About the only performance that was still enjoyable was Richard Roxburgh's Dracula, which he eerily foreshadowed in Moulin Rouge.  That film has held up well, by the way.

The combination of steampunk crossbows and interfaith good guys was very much of its time, part of the hallucination that democracy was a universal and achievable aspiration. 

If nothing else, the film demonstrates that the most dated films are the ones rooted in a "modernity" that didn't last.

 

 

 


The secular-fueled religious revival

There's an unmistakable upturn in religious sentiment in the air.  The Catholic Church has (largely) cast aside its rainbow flags and tolerant language and is breaking out the holy relics and talking about the perils of hell again.

The Protestants are feeling it as well, and I've noticed that the various "geek culture" sites I follow (and write for) are talking more about faith and its role in entertainment.

In fact, The Chosen is releasing its fourth season in theaters before streaming it.

While Hollywood doubles down on heresy and sin, normal people are turning away from it.

I think a major cause in this remarkable turn of events is the way secular society has completely destroyed its legitimacy.  Growing up in the 80s, there was a certain sense that religiously observant people were boring and uptight and devout ones were a little bit mad.  The proper attitude was one of somewhat detached reverence, but not overdoing it.

This secular view has been completely discredited.  One can't call religious people nuts and in the next breath declare biological sex irrelevant to athletic competition.  One can't wave the banner of science while punishing skeptics for demanding more exacting research.

It's now no longer unusual to talk about people being moved by demonic impulses because it's the only logical explanation. 

Look at the current state of Yard Sign Calvinism.  People who had "No Blood For Oil" and "Give Peace A Chance" now howl for Russian blood.  Or Jewish blood.  The point is: they want blood.

The language of tolerance and inclusion has been replaced with militancy and threats.  Again, one might well call that demonic.

None of this is new.  G.K. Chesterton wrote at length about the irrationality of "rational" people.  It's just stunning to see it up close and taking root so quickly.


Why isn't the Disney version of Hercules the actual version?

It's axiomatic that when Disney would do an animated adaption of a fairy tale for folk legend that it would be simplified and softened.  In a word:  "Disneyfied."

When Disney decided to tackle the story of Hercules in 1997, this posed a serious problem, because like all Greek heroes, he's got some serious flaws.

The reinvention of him as the beloved son of Zeus and Hera (hah!) who was tragically stolen and condemned to mortality by Hades (wonderfully voiced by James Woods) was about as far as one could get from the source material and still have a link to it.  The film works because it's in part a send-up of Disney itself, mocking toys, tie-ins and theme parks as Hercules becomes successful and famous.

But this does raise and interesting question, which is why Hercules (and the Greek gods in general) were so nasty.  The conventional (secular academic) view is that they represented the extremes of human behavior, outsized versions of our vices and virtues.  Thus, they regularly intrigued with one another, committed rape, incest and murder, yet also rewarded virtue and conveyed wisdom.

In short, the gods were fickle and it was best to take nothing for granted.

That being the case, if the gods were supposed to provide moral lessons, why weren't they more moral themselves?  Surely they could have been 'written' as exemplars of honor, dignity and restraint - which were virtues the pagans understood, though they did not always follow them.  Chastity was valued in pagan societies, as was marital fidelity, yet the gods honored these more in the breach, which encouraged those human who had the ability to do so to emulate them.

After exploring the Lord of Spirits podcast (which I had to quit, alas), it occurs to me that another explanation was that the Greek gods were in fact fallen angels, just as the Bible says, and that having rebelled against God, they were incapable of showing self-restraint.  They understood the divine virtues, but being in a state of rebellion, had little incentive (or will) to follow them.

This is a common human behavior, and the "downward spiral" is a real thing, one that I think everyone has seen happen.   Bad choice piles upon bad choice, countless opportunities to turn things around are wasted and eventually immersion in sin locks the unfortunate soul into a collision course with damnation.

Happily, there are also redemption stories, where people recognize where they are headed and make a needed course correction.  I'm an example of that. 

There is a key difference between humans and angels, however.  Having rebelled in the actual presence of God and knowing Him fully, the fallen angels cannot repent while humans still can.  There is no halting their spiral to the abyss.

All of which is to say that the Greek gods were who they were because they could be no other after their rebellion.  One can fault Disney for self-pedaling their depravity, but in fact anyone who was moved by the film to convert to Greek paganism would quickly learn how savage that faith really was.

 

 


The Flowers of War: a disappointing movie about faith without much faith

I came to watch The Flowers of War through a rather convoluted course of events.  I'm not even sure how I stumbled over it.  I might have been browsing 80s movies and followed the breadcrumbs from Empire of the Sun through Christian Bale to The Flowers of War.  Alternatively, I might have been looking to see what Bale had done since the Batman films.

Having found the IMDB page, I was curious, but cautious.  The film is about an American mortician (Bale) trapped in Nanking during the Japanese assault and subsequent (gruesome) sack.  He, a handful of Catholic schoolgirls and a collection of prostitutes end up being holed up in the Nanking cathedral, and the only remaining priest has died.  Bale's character impersonates a priest in an attempt to protect them.

The trailer makes it seem as though Bale will have a conversion, becoming the thing he pretends to be.  Maybe the prostitutes will convert as well!

Nope, it's a muddled plot that seems to be based on a survivor's reminiscence of the Rape of Nanking. 

The Japanese are universally portrayed as murderous, rapacious and treacherous, which isn't out of line with their behavior at the time. 

What I found particularly interesting was the depiction of the Nationalist Chinese forces, who were appropriately wearing German M35 helmets and armed with Mauser rifles and Czech light machine guns.  These guys were a pleasure to watch, the the Chinese commander was a veritable John Rambo in terms of slaughtering the Japanese.  I much enjoyed this revisionist take. 

But the bulk of the film moved slowly, and uncertainly.  Bale's character is a lapsed Catholic who never utters a prayer or crosses himself.  He is shown in the pews at one point from a distance, and the narration describes him as praying, but despite all the harrowing circumstances, the schoolgirls never reflexively resort to prayer, nor does Bale try to lead them in it. 

As the peril increases, no one references God, it's all about deception and tactics. 

That's why I regard the film as a failure and a disappointment.  It was made in 2011, and I'm assuming the PRC played a role in its production.  This would explain the void where faith should have been.  Had I paid for a ticket, I would feel ripped off.  As it is, I liked the KMT John Rambo, and feel sorry for Bale, who seemed to struggle with what he was supposed to be and where the film was supposed to go.


Too clever by half-elf: Dungeons & Dragons No Honor Among Thieves

Over the weekend I was cajoled into watching Dungeons & Dragons: No Honor Among Thieves

I did not enjoy it.

The problem was that I wasn't sure if I was watching a satire or a serious adventure film.  There were plenty of obvious laugh lines aimed at D&D players, and yet the pacing and general structure of the film indicated that I was also supposed to take it seriously.

This was impossible, because as the film itself demonstrated magic and do almost anything, and no sooner would this assertion be declared false than magic would in fact solve whatever problem was at hand.

This goes back to my repeated critiques of super-hero films and now Disney Star Wars, which is that if there is all this non-stop action, when am I supposed to find time to care about the characters?

The more wild and improbable (and unrelatable) the setting gets, the less invested I become in the outcome, because everything appears arbitrary and random.

At that point, if the good guys win, it won't feel like they earned it, they just happened to turn over the right card (or the game was fixed from the start).

This problem becomes doubly acute when the plot is built around a bank heist.  In the real world, I know that locks, walls of steel and massive doors covered by cameras present formidable obstacles.

But in the D&D world, there's probably a spell to circumvent all that - and then a spell to stop that spell, and a spell to the stop that spell, etc. 

As I said, arbitrary and random.

There's also the setting, which has no meaning to me.  Oh, I recognized some of the references from the game, but there's no overarching story of D&D World like there are of Narnia or Middle-Earth.

It's just a tale from the Land of the Knee-Walking Turkeys or something.  The Princess Bride felt far more grounded in that respect.  It make jokes about the genre, but not at the expense of destroying one's immersion in the story.  The fact that it was a story within a story actually amplified this effect - as Fred Savage became more invested, so did we.

Fans of the film have suggested that the digressions, asides and so on represent the course of the game, and in that case, I'd have loved to see a bunch of nerds sitting around the table arguing about what will come next.  Then we'd have to real tension because the story would finally be anchored in some sort of consistent reality.

Instead of being arbitrary and random.


The Duellists - a great, intense little film

While I continue to crawl my way through the Ford Madox Ford biography, I'm also digging back into Joseph Conrad and came across his short story The Duel.

I then recalled that an excellent film of it had been made in 1977, The Duellists.  This was Ridley Scott's first movie and it's excellence gave a huge boost to his career.

The film is an excellent adaptation of a very Conradian tale - a rational, intelligent officer who inadvertently offends a hot-headed comrade and then is forced to fight duel after duel with him against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars. 

The film moves efficiently through the timeline, which runs from 1800 to 1816, and the costuming and atmosphere is superb.  The duels themselves are brilliantly choreographed.

It is also an example of using weapons to tell a story and the contrast between The Duellists and the decline and fall of lightsabers in Star Wars is pretty stark.

In short, it is a tight little movie of the kind that simply cannot be made today.