There is a lot to be depressed about these days, when it comes to the movies. Nothing is going to save us from Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell. Whitewashing continues to be an aggressive practice in the film industry, to the point where the producers have to deny they may have tried special effects to make Scarlett look more Asian.
Meanwhile, AMC briefly considered the notion of allowing texting in movie theaters. They have since backed away from the notion as though it is literally a bag of flaming dog shit (you can certainly make the case that it is), but don’t get your hopes up. This idea will make a comeback. If you’re the kind of person who finds solace in the movie theater, your days are numbered. That is, if you’re even still patient enough to take your chances on whether or not your fellow theater patrons are going to be decent fucking human beings. I don’t know about you, but I’m finding it harder and harder to tune people out. A recent screening of The Witch was such a disaster, I almost committed a felony.
I guess if you’re watching Batman v. Superman, whose mediocrity is legitimately haunting my goddamned soul, it doesn’t really matter if people won’t shut the hell up. The abysmal, tediously self-important cinematic Justice League jumpstart has D.C. and Warner Bros taking two roads simultaneously. On one hand, they have to pretend that they’re still really glad they hired Zach Snyder to direct a bunch of these movies. Then again, they’re also scrambling to give future releases a slightly lighter tone. They will of course swear that’s not what they’re doing. It doesn’t matter. My suspicion is that D.C. and Warner Bros will miss the point of why so many people were turned off by Batman v. Superman. I have no evidence to back this up. I just don’t have the best feeling in the world about it.
The summer isn’t giving me a lot to feel encouraged about either. With that, I’m at least willing to believe that my mood about everything else is influencing this. Could be a thing. I honestly have no idea. Can’t be bothered to loan it any deep thoughts.
But it’s stupid to be depressed about these things. There are indeed some minor silver linings to all of this stuff. The whitewashing conversation you can find in various articles and discussions online is one of the best conversations about such a thing that I have ever seen. Whitewashing may continue to be a thing, but the fact of the matter is that people aren’t putting up with it anymore. Ask the geniuses behind Gods of Egypt. In fact, check the stats on any movie from the last five years that received a significant amount of whitewashing criticism. They tanked at the box office. You can’t say that the bad press didn’t play a role in that.
And yeah, Batman v. Superman might be a tragic waste of time, but Captain America: Civil War looks so freaking good. Marvel continues to give the super hero movie genre essential credibility.
And yeah, movie theaters might be on the way out, but they’ve been on the way out for years. Besides, it doesn’t change the movies themselves. It doesn’t change the fact that there are so many different ways to watch movies. In this day and age, it’s not that hard to recreate the theater experience. It’s not exactly the same, but you can drink. If you’re the kind of person who wants to go blow for blow with Tony Montana, you can still do that in the comfort of your own home. You can have a setup that’s going to look and sound amazing. You don’t have to bother dicking around with movie theaters.
And guess what? It’s not even summer. We’ve still got like two months of spring. Calm down.
Christ. Even I’m depressed by everything written above.
Sorry about that. Let’s start over.
Hail, Caesar! (2016): A-
Having now watched the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar! twice, I still can’t really tell you what it’s about. The part of me that suspects that Joel and Ethan are forever in trolling audiences/critics/self-important film scholars mode also believes Hail, Caesar isn’t supposed to be about anything. You really can’t say. The Coens aren’t going to get their stories straight on our account. As usual, they prefer to watch people scramble to find meaning and sense in a strange, half-rambling visit into Hollywood circa 1950s. It’s possible that there is nothing to be found. The Coens simply wanted to talk about an embattled studio head (Josh Brolin). They also wanted to feature a vapid, aging movie star (George Clooney), and a weary veteran starlet (Scarlett Johansson, in a performance that reminds me that even after this disturbing Ghost in the Shell debacle, she’ll remain a good actress).
Then there’s more. Twin gossip columnists (Tilda Swinton), a bizarre story about communism (featuring Channing goddamn Tatum, of all people), and a western star (Alden Ehrenreich) being suddenly and aggressively groomed to play a romantic lead in a “prestige” picture. That features a director played with perfect fussiness by Ralph Fiennes. We also watch as Ehrenreich’s good-natured, good-hearted western star is paired up with a young actress. There are a lot of characters that march across this cheery, claustrophobic atmosphere of fast talking and painted backgrounds. There are just as many stories going on. Does it mean anything? I honestly don’t know. I’m not smart enough to tell you if the Coens are messing with us again or not. Either way, Hail, Caesar is extremely, weirdly watchable, even as you’re waiting for the chaos to make sense. It is funnier more often than not. There is also an interesting, subdued savagery to many of the stories and characters. The intentionally pronounced caricatures lead you to suspect that maybe you were wrong. Maybe, the Coens aren’t messing with us. There is indeed deeper meaning beneath this film. Could be. Either way, I’m not bored.
Midnight Special (2016): A+
Granted, Midnight Special is only the fourth film from writer/director Jeff Nichols (his fifth film Loving is to be released this fall), but at this point, the man can’t do wrong in my eyes. Midnight Special continues the collaboration between Nichols and Michael Shannon. You can find him in all of Nichols’ films. Here, he’s joined by surprisingly good performances between Kirsten Dunst (between this and the second season of Fargo, I may just become a fan) and Joel Edgerton. You’ll also spot Adam Driver and Sam Shepard in supporting roles. They round out a cast that emphasizes Nichols’ talent for finding the best actors possible for his human, often troubled characters.
The best performance in the film might just belong to young Jaeden Lieberher as the “gifted” child, who may or may not be an extra-terrestrial. The movie opts for story and character over special effects, but this is very much rooted in the science fiction genre. It just happens to be a much smarter breed than what we’ve gotten used to. This spiritual cousin to John Carpenter’s Starman is a beautiful, necessary reminder of what genres like sci-fi and horror are capable of, in terms of their flexibility. If the last few major releases from science fiction left you feeling a little bummed out, Midnight Special should restore your spirit nicely.
Ned Rifle (2014): C+
Ned Rifle may well be the last film Hal Hartley ever makes. One of the darlings of 90s indie filmmaking has become more or less invisible, over the course of the past few years. Before Ned Rifle completed the trilogy Hartley begun with 1997’s Henry Fool and 2006’s Fay Grim, Hartley had made only one feature and several short films in this decade. None of it has gotten very much attention. Neither has Ned Rifle, to be honest. That’s too bad, as it presents a satisfying, suitably strange conclusion to the story of Henry Fool, Fay Grim, Simon Grim, and Ned himself.
Ned is the son of Henry and Fay. The film focuses on his religious upbringing, his sympathy for his movie (still in trouble from the events of Fay Grim), and his desire to murder his father (the delightfully sleazy, unhinged Thomas Jay Ryan). Ned Rifle takes us through these events, dropping in on characters like Simon (James Urbaniak, who continues to prove how incredibly underrated he is), while introducing new people like Susan (excellent, unsettling, and occasionally hilarious work from Aubrey Plaza). Your ability to enjoy Ned Rifle is going to be fairly dependent upon whether or not you’ve seen the other movies in Hartley’s long-standing, ultimately worthwhile trilogy. If you’re willing to make the time investment, Ned Rifle should appeal to you for the most part. While its treatment of subjects like child molestation might make you a little uncomfortable, if you already know how Hartley tends to handle weirdoes with sad stories, then it won’t be much of an adjustment for you to just go with the flow.
Ned Rifle reminds us that Hartley is still a compelling, unique voice in film. It’s a shame he doesn’t seem to be all that interested in doing more. While this movie is far from perfect, it is still a memorable visit to one of the strangest writer/directors in recent history.
White Lightning (1973): C-
With a very good documentary on the relationship between Burt Reynolds and Hal Needham currently making the rounds, it’s not a bad idea to revisit some classic Burt. This is can be particularly worthwhile to those of you who have seen recent pictures of Reynolds, and wonder how much longer he has to go.
If you’re a really big fan of Archer, then you’ve probably at least heard of White Lightning, as well as its sequel. While Needham didn’t work on this particular film, it is a rather entertaining time capsule. It captures an era of the south that actually still insists in certain places. I’m talking about the one in which there are random races, a lot of moonshine, and people sweating themselves half to death, no matter what time it is. It’s also a product on an era in which Reynolds was emerging as one of the biggest movie stars in the world. Of course, he would go on to squander this with a long, long array of mediocre projects. At this point, he was still paying attention to his projects. It shows with White Lightning, which is essentially a deep south revenge/undercover snitch drama, with Reynolds, longtime friend Jerry Reed, and Ned Beatty giving the strongest performances. While the movie is a little on the painful side of things at times, in terms of its slowness, and the ending is stunningly anticlimactic, it’s a good little drive-in flick. Reynolds can still make for a captivating hero at this point, and there is no denying the strength of the car chase scenes. The film also offers a rich, almost other worldly atmosphere.
White Lightning is one of Archer’s favorite Burt movies. Watch it for yourself. It’s not hard to understand why.
Night of the Creeps (1986): B+
If you’re like me, you’re going to inexplicably want to marathon a bunch of silly horror movies this summer. If that’s true for your plans for the coming warmer months, make sure you include the cult classic Night of the Creeps on your schedule. I don’t know why I waited so long to watch this film, but it’s a surprisingly enduring, endlessly fun horror-comedy. The connections to 50s horror cheese, science fiction, zombies, alien invasion flicks, and even the slasher genre are obvious. What works for Night of the Creeps is that it finds the right balance between humor and genuine dread. No one is ever going to accuse Night of the Creeps of being too scary, it does manage an impressive, unexpected creepiness.
However, for the most part, Night of the Creeps’ story of slug-like creatures turning a small town into a battle royal of death and chaos is played strictly for laughs. To that end, it casts the movie well, particularly with b-movie veteran Tom Atkins as the guy you ultimately can’t really trust to do anything properly. The movie gets its moments of possessing a serious tone from the attention to creating characters you’re genuinely going to like. When they’re in trouble, which occurs often throughout this well-paced movie, you genuinely hope they’ll survive. That’s a rare feat for 1980s horror. It’s at least one of the reasons why the movie continues to be worth its search for new patronage.