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Lucy in the Sky

Posted October 13, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

In July of 2006, Lisa Nowak flew aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery, responsible for operating the robotic arms of the shuttle and the ISS. But alas, that’s not what she’s best known for. Eight months later, Nowak drove to Orlando, where she assaulted and attempted to kidnap U.S. Air Force Captain Colleen Shipman — apparently, the both of them were romantically involved with one astronaut William Oefelein. While Nowak herself was still married to someone else, I might add. Last but not least, it was reported — and later denied — that Nowak had worn diapers at the time of her arrest, the better to make the road trip from Houston to Orlando without stopping.

This was exactly the kind of sordid, bewildering tale that 24-hour news networks live for, to say nothing of comedians and late night talk shows. For so many nights, the airwaves and tabloids were overrun with jokes that write themselves about the crazy lady on a cross-country revenge spree, stewing in her own adulterous madness and her soiled diaper. Ten years later, it might be worth looking back from our more progressive, feminist, all-inclusive viewpoint to see if maybe we were too hard on Lisa Nowak at the time (see also: Monica Lewinsky).

Remember, Nowak was a freaking astronaut. Only the best of the best are even considered for the years of intensive training it takes to board a space shuttle, and she went up there! What does it take for a woman to fall so far, to be driven so crazy, in less than a year?

So here’s Lucy in the Sky, a very loose adaptation of Nowak’s story. Natalie Portman plays the eponymous Lucy Cola, a fictionalized version of Nowak, who returns from a spacefaring mission and proceeds to steadily lose her mind. Jon Hamm plays Mark Goodwin, the handsome womanizing astronaut here serving as our analogue for Oefelein. The Shipman analogue is Erin Eccles (Zazie Beetz), a friendly rival astronaut competing with Lucy for a seat on the next mission.

Then we have Dan Stevens on hand as Lucy’s hapless husband, and Ellen Burstyn as her admirably stubborn grandmother. We’ve got Tig Notaro for a bit of welcome comic relief, and Nick Offerman making a brief yet noteworthy appearance as Lucy’s therapist. Rounding out the supporting cast is Pearl Amanda Dickson as Blue Iris, Lucy’s niece, another unfortunate victim of our main character’s downward spiral.

Last but not least is Noah Hawley, here making his cinematic debut as director/co-writer/producer. Hawley is primarily known for his TV work, particularly his ongoing work running the acclaimed FX continuation of “Fargo”. Hawley is also responsible for “Legion”, adapting a lesser-known X-Men character by way of innovative visuals and a lauded portrayal of mental illness.

On paper, this movie looks phenomenal. In practice, it’s a monotonous slog.

See, the event that made the news is only the climax, and Lucy’s first spacewalk is in the opening minutes. The hundred minutes in between are all about Lucy losing her mind because she saw the cosmos and went bibbledy over it. She saw just how small humanity is in the grand scheme of things, and now her life on Earth isn’t enough for her. Her husband can’t understand what she’s going through, so she runs into the arms of a fellow astronaut. She pushes herself past the breaking point to earn a spot on the next mission, because all that matters is going back up there.

Let’s review, shall we?

  • Our protagonist is played by Natalie Portman.
  • She’s married to Dan Stevens and banging Jon Hamm on the side.
  • She graduated high school and college at the top of her class, she’s a decorated Navy veteran, and she’s never came in second for anything.
  • She’s smart enough and tough enough to be one of the elite few who have actually been to space.
  • She’s going through the selection process a second time, which means that she’s able to use the training and experience that got her through the first time, an advantage that many of her fellow candidates don’t have.

Given all of this, there’s no way I could possibly sympathize with this character. I’m so sick and tired of movies about successful people who have everything they could ever want, only to deliberately throw it all away for no reason at all. I’ve lost all sympathy for protagonists with first-world problems, and “I have to work real hard to get into space a second time” may well be the most outrageous first-world problem I’ve ever heard. She accomplished something truly great at the outset, she touched the cosmos in the opening minutes, and she spends the rest of the film upset because she can’t go back up there. Fuck that noise.

To be clear, I want to acknowledge the mental health aspect of this. Lucy is going through an existential crisis because she saw firsthand how tiny our pale blue dot is in the grand scheme of things. It blew her mind, it broke her in fundamental ways, and now she’s chasing after that same high because she’s not thinking straight and nothing else feels significant anymore. I get that.

The problem is that Lucy is not the first one to go through this. She’s got a vast array of resources at her disposal, and she uses precisely none of them. NASA sets her up with a perfectly qualified in-house therapist, and doesn’t go to her job-mandated appointments. She’s got a whole community of astronauts who’ve been up there and know what she’s going through, and she doesn’t listen to any of them. Hell, that’s a crucial reason why Lucy begins her extramarital affair with a veteran astronaut, and when he gets to talking about all the stuff that Lucy’s going through and what she needs to do, she pushes it all away. And all things considered, it doesn’t look like Lucy is wanting for money or health coverage.

Lucy knows that she has a problem, she’s got so many friends and family members telling her she has a problem, she’s got every opportunity to address it, and she actively chooses not to. No sympathy.

But then the third act gets started, and a male colleague utters those two magic words: “Too emotional.” Where do I even begin?

First of all, again, Lucy already went up into space! She passed the test! She beat the system! SHE WON!

Secondly, yes, the “too emotional” phrasing is unfortunate. Yes, Hamm’s character is a womanizing dilettante. Even so, it’s been repeatedly and incessantly proven that she really is mentally and emotionally unstable for reasons that have nothing to do with misogyny.

The cosmos drove her insane, and she’s blaming it on the men in her life. Lucy is working herself to the bone, pushing herself twenty times past the breaking point, driving herself into psychosis, and she’s yelling about how she has to because women have to work twice as hard to get half as much. Lucy presents herself as a feminist firebrand while she loses her mind for reasons that have nothing to do with gender equality.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favor of filmmakers and storytellers making a feminist statement about equity and respect for women in the workplace. But here we have a protagonist using feminist arguments to justify all the terrible, awful shit that she does for totally unrelated reasons. It’s counterproductive, tone-deaf, and in fact it is actively harmful. FAIL.

On the flip side, at least the cast is fine. Natalie Portman turns in a remarkable performance, Pearl Amanda Dickson is a lovely new find, and all of the supporting players turn in solid work. But of course the real star is Noah Hawley, who presents us with no shortage of mind-blowing visuals. The changes in aspect ratio, the various cuts and effects, the close-up shots… all of it looks incredible.

When Hawley is using all of this razzle-dazzle to get us into the main character’s head, it works beautifully. When he’s using it to advance the story, we get contrived and ham-fisted visual metaphors like wasps and butterflies. I sincerely hope that somebody gives Hawley a script that makes the best possible use of his strengths, because this ain’t it.

Lucy in the Sky is a highly ambitious failure. There’s so much talent and effort in here, put toward a film that wants to make huge statements about mankind’s place in the cosmos and our psychological inability to comprehend how small we really are in the grand scheme of things. All of it wasted on a writer/director who doesn’t have enough visual tricks to convey those statements for two straight hours, so he has to settle for repeating the premise ad nauseam. And of course it doesn’t help that we’re stuck with a totally unsympathetic protagonist who actively sets feminism back 30 years.

With all of that said, I still can’t rule out the possibility that the awards campaigners might score a few nominations for Portman, Hawley, and maybe a couple of supporting players. If that somehow happens, the awards completionists should check this out on DVD. Otherwise, this is definitely one to avoid.

The Addams Family (2019)

Posted October 12, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

The end of WWII meant that a vast array of wartime shortages and rationings had been lifted, in turn allowing various companies to manufacture and sell new equipment for commercial use. It also meant the return of so many soldiers who would go home to their families and start the Baby Boom. Throw in the 1947 World Series, and suddenly every home had to have this new commercially available invention called the Television.

In short order, the sitcom — a long-established genre in radio — was adapted into this new medium. By 1964, we already had “Mary Kay and Johnny”, “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet”, “Leave it to Beaver,” “I Love Lucy”, “The Dick Van Dyke Show”, “The Flintstones”, and others. “The Brady Bunch” was right around the corner. Not just voices on the radio, these characters were seen on every television screen, visiting every living room in America on a weekly basis. More than anything else, these shows are what defined the squeaky-clean patriarchal modern nuclear family that is still more or less considered the default to this day.

Enter the Addams Family.

Yes, Charles Addams had created his series of cartoons all the way back in 1938. They’ve been a constant pop culture presence for the past eighty years through various films, TV shows, theatrical productions, and more. (To say nothing of the pinball game, a revolutionary best-seller worthy of its own article.) Yet it’s the 1964 TV show that is still the family’s most iconic portrayal, and likely the most responsible for the franchise’s enduring presence. Little wonder, as this iteration introduced that relentlessly catchy theme song.

More importantly, it makes perfect sense that the Addamses would flourish in the time and the medium in which the American family was most ubiquitous and clearly defined. The Addams Family had always been designed as a happy, loving, supportive family unit that just happened to have a peculiar taste for the macabre. Compare that to the petty squabbles of such materialistic and well-to-do families as the Cleavers, the Ricardos, and the Flintstones. Of course the satirical aspect of the Addams Family was at its clearest when they shared the airwaves with what they were satirizing.

Flash forward to today. Incidentally, a time of general nostalgia for the ’90s — the last great Addams Family heyday under Barry Sonnenfeld, Raul Julia, Anjelica Huston, Christina Ricci, et al.

While the notion of the “traditional” nuclear family is still quite prevalent, there are no shortage of other combinations and permutations. We’ve got step-relatives, half-relatives, same-sex marriages, interracial marriages, polyamorous marriages, kids born out of wedlock, couples cohabitating without marriage, adoptive and foster families, kids raised by their siblings or cousins, you name it. Our culture is slowly but surely starting to redefine the notion of family, steadily becoming more inclusive and accepting of other lifestyles and philosophies, even despite a more conservative culture that would rather maintain the simple and straightforward patriarchy.

It’s hard to say what this means for the Addams Family and their offbeat brand of satire. Are they outdated and obsolete, more relevant than ever, or right at the sweet spot in between? Either way, we were absolutely due to revisit the property. So get a witch’s shawl on, a broomstick you can crawl on — we’re gonna pay a call on the Addams family. *snap snap*

The movie is kind of an origin story, as it opens with the wedding of Gomez and Morticia Addams, respectively voiced by Oscar Isaac and Charlize Theron. Luckily, this is only a brief prologue, just long enough to establish the Addams’ mistrust of the world at large, thus augmenting the conflict and stakes. In general, Gomez and Morticia primarily serve as supporting characters for the arcs of their children.

Pugsley (Finn Wolfhard) is under tremendous pressure from his father, because there’s going to be a huge family reunion in which Pugsley has to perform and excel in a family coming-of-age rite of passage. Basically, Pugsley’s entire value as a man and an Addams rests on his ability to perform some kind of elaborate saber dance, while his talent and passion rest primarily in heavy ordnance.

Meanwhile, Wednesday (Chloe Moretz) is starting to take an interest in the outside world, after spending her first thirteen years inside the gated walls of the mansion. Long story short, she takes it upon herself to enroll in the local middle school, partly to learn about life outside the mansion and partly to terrorize other kids her age. And she gets to rebel against her mother in the bargain.

This brings us to Margaux Needler, voiced by Allison Janney. She’s a reality TV mogul who made her name off of redesigning houses to be shiny, plastic, and pastel-colored. Rounding out the cast is Margaux’s daughter (Parker, voiced by Elsie Fisher), who’s grown frustrated with Margaux’s workaholic domineering. Thus Parker befriends Wednesday, serving as a kind of arbiter between the two families.

Anyway, Margaux’s latest publicity stunt is the city of Assimilation, where everything is bright and happy and mass-produced. It’s an artificial town, made to sell her brand of McMansions on her show. Trouble is, she built the town by draining an especially large New Jersey swamp, thus lifting the fog that kept the Addams Family mansion safely out of view. Thus the Addams Mansion and the Needler empire are made unwitting neighbors, mere days before distant Addams Family relatives are set to descend upon the town for the aforementioned reunion. Hilarity ensues.

It can’t be denied that the premise is thin, the characters are one-dimensional, and the plot is predictable. It’s a shame that so many watershed moments don’t hit as hard as they should, a natural consequence of foregone payoffs borne of cliched setups. Hell, even when the setups are interesting, the filmmakers botch the follow-through. Some random neighbor gets lost in the mansion and it could’ve been a great running gag, but nothing comes of it. Wednesday meets a bully (Bethany, voiced by Chelsea Frei) and it’s built up to be this huge epic conflict, but the movie does jack-all with it.

Even the themes are cliched. There’s a lot about parenting, growing up, children growing into their independence and learning how to be their own people, non-conformity, and so on. Hell, the teaser implied some measure of commentary about “non-traditional” families (as I alluded to previously), but the movie proper never even hints at going there. Such a waste of potential.

Instead, all we get is stuff we’ve already seen umpteen times in so many other family films, but these are also themes that mesh perfectly well with the source material. Additionally, the filmmakers submit that the Addamses and the Needlers are simply two sides of the same coin, each of them putting pressure on their children to be exactly like them. That was a pretty bold step to take, even if the film leans on the side of the Addamses (the family that eventually agrees to tolerate their kids’ deviant ways). Oh, and everything is conveniently reset in the ending so the Addamses don’t have to actually change anything.

I’d also like to point out that Margeaux primarily works through reality TV and social media, using both to influence mob mentality and enforce her sanitized vision of civilized life. As a reminder, reality TV and social media weren’t really a thing in the 1960s, or even the 1990s. Thus the movie examines the franchise’s classic themes of conformity and social pressure in a distinctly 21st century way, thereby helping to justify this latest reboot. Not bad.

This is not in any way a subtle film, but let’s be real — the Addams Family was never much for subtlety. And again, this franchise has been around for eighty freaking years — trying to make something new out of something that’s been so ubiquitous for so long is a REALLY tall order. To wit: Batman and Superman have been around for just as long — how many times have we seen their respective origin stories done to death?

It also doesn’t help that the franchise was never all that deep to begin with. Frankly, it was miracle enough that anyone was able to get two seasons of a half-hour TV sitcom out of a one-panel cartoon series. But then, there’s a reason why we’re talking about the Addams Family and not the Family Circus right now: The characters.

This movie absolutely does right by its characters, and I cannot stress that enough. This family still has a fascination with the dangerous and the macabre, but what’s far more important, it never comes off as a quirk. They’re not trying to murder and maim each other for the sake of being contrary, they’re doing it because it’s their idea of playing with each other. There’s a sense that this family genuinely finds beauty and joy in the strange and unusual, and that’s easily the single most important factor in making this whole property work.

Of course, it also helps that this voice cast is positively flawless. Oscar Isaac, Charlize Theron, Chloe Moretz, Finn Wolfhard, Allison Janney, Nick Kroll, Bette Midler, Tituss Burgess, Elsie Fisher, Pom Klementieff… the list goes on and on. Even director Conrad Vernon gets in on the voice acting, wringing every last bit of comedy that Lurch is worth. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara, sharing a brief voice appearance as Morticia’s deceased parents. Yes, that’s even more hilarious than it sounds.

From Wednesday’s breathy monotone to Uncle Fester’s cartoonish squeal, every single voice is note-perfect. This doesn’t even sound remotely like a cast artificially packed with marquee names, it sounds like the freaking Addams Family! That said, I’m inclined to give less credit to Snoop Dogg — it could’ve been literally anyone voicing the high-pitched gibberish of Cousin Itt. Also, while Thing is of course mute, I want to give the animators all due credit for bringing such outsized personality to a disembodied hand.

Even when the filmmakers take liberties, it fits perfectly with what we know and love about the property. Easily the most prominent example is the mansion itself — now, it’s a former mental asylum in New Jersey, haunted by malicious spirits. The mansion is thus made a character unto itself, which makes all kinds of sense. Oh, and Lurch is now an escaped inmate from the selfsame asylum. Again, it works.

Then there’s the animation. I know it’s been a while since we’ve had an animated rendition of the Addams Family, but it makes all kinds of sense. For one thing, again, it calls back to the days when these characters existed in a hand-drawn medium. Also, the characters have a pet lion who could do far more in animation than live-action or photo-real CGI could allow.

Animation allows the set designs, prop designs, character designs, and all the various movements to be exaggerated in a way that live-action could never allow. The visual style is much creepier and funnier in a way that fits more closely to the Addams brand of off-kilter dark humor. Perhaps most importantly, because absolutely zero attempt was made at photo-realism, it sets the movie in a more heightened world where the Addamses could plausibly exist. Granted, while this helps to suspend disbelief with regards to how the Addamses are apparently indestructible, it doesn’t do much to explain why some random civilian just happens to have a goddamn functioning siege catapult ready to go at a moment’s notice.

That said, the only character design that really didn’t work for me was Parker. I get that the animators were trying to make the character into a middle ground between the Addamses and the Needlers, but she looks awful. Those two families are entirely different styles that are not the least bit compatible.

On a final note, there’s the iconic theme song. If you’re hoping the filmmakers found some way to make use of that theme song… well, let’s just say you won’t be disappointed. It’s sure a hell of a lot better than whatever pop-rap monstrosity got put over the end credits.

All told, I had a great time with The Addams Family (2019). Yes, the plot is razor-thin, with scenes and jokes nowhere near as effective as they should’ve been. Even so, I really want to give the animators and the voice cast all due credit for bringing the characters to such vivid life. While the themes and plotlines are all threadbare, and I wish the filmmakers had the guts to make any kind of statement about the modern non-nuclear family, the heart and funny bone of the franchise are 100 percent intact.

For such an old and well-worn franchise in a time and place far different from the world of 80 years ago, it’s no small accomplishment that this movie earns the right to exist. It’s frankly even more impressive that the filmmakers crafted a new iteration of the family that is distinctly their own, and yet recognizable as the Addams Family we all know and love.

For a quick and easy bit of Halloween fluff, shallow fun for all ages, this one gets a recommendation.

Joker

Posted October 7, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

I give you, the average man! Physically unremarkable, it has instead a deformed set of values. Notice the hideously bloated sense of humanity’s self-importance. The club-footed social conscience and the withered optimism. It’s certainly not for the squeamish, is it? Most repulsive of all, are its frail and useless notions of order and sanity. If too much weight is placed upon them, they snap. How does it live, I hear you ask? How does this poor, pathetic specimen survive in today’s harsh and irrational world? The sad answer is “not very well.” Faced with the inescapable fact that human existence is mad, random and pointless, one in eight of them crack up and go stark slavering buggo! Who can blame them? In a world as psychotic as this, any other response would be crazy!

Joker, “The Killing Joke”

Batman is a gargoyle. He watches over Gotham from high above, dressing himself in horns and leathery wings and demonic imagery. By contrast, Joker dresses himself in colorful and playful imagery. He’s more like a pedophile moonlighting as a shopping mall Santa Claus. A razor blade in a candy apple. A fatal crash on a rollercoaster.

Batman is a false monster, made to scare away and defeat the true monsters and threats. Joker is a false comfort, made to ensnare and destroy the pure and innocent. Batman inspires the courage to face down adversity and carry on through all darkness. Joker inspires fear and mistrust, the paranoia to look for any real or imagined danger in anything wholesome or friendly.

Of course both characters have gone through numerous wildly different incarnations and everyone has their own preference. But at their absolute best in any iteration, each character sits directly atop a razor-thin and perilous line. For Batman, it’s the line between tough and crazy. For Joker, it’s the line between funny and scary.

The two characters are eternally equals and opposites. Their conflict of order versus chaos is so legendary that each of them can only be truly and completely defined in contrast with the other. Thus a standalone Joker film makes about as much sense as… well, a standalone Venom film, come to think of it.

In fact, it makes even less sense, given that Eddie Brock’s motivations and origins are such a crucial part of who and what Venom is. Not so with the Joker, who neither wants nor needs any kind of motivation or backstory beyond pure chaos.

Alas, properly understanding all of this requires a level of nuance and insight that DC/WB has shown themselves incapable of in recent years. This was immediately obvious when they approved of Jared Leto playing the character as a tatted-up, nakedly aggressive, materialistic thug for all of five minutes’ screentime. To say nothing of the psychotic backstage fuckery that WB openly glorified, as if mailing dead rats and used condoms to co-workers wouldn’t get anyone else fired and arrested at literally any other workplace.

In any case, given the current and future WB/DC slate, it appears that the partnership is employing the “New 52” approach with their movies. By which I mean they’re jettisoning everything that didn’t work while trying to keep what did, pretending that the context isn’t totally different and all the previous backstory never happened. Jared Leto is off the roster and Harley Quinn is getting her own movie without her Mister J.

Enter Todd Phillips.

From the beginning, Phillips has been clear in stating that he wanted to make a standalone, character-driven, mid-budget comic book film. In theory, not a bad idea. God knows we need more mid-budget films in a time when the industry is polarizing into shoestring flicks or $100 million-dollar blockbusters. Hell, this might be a fantastic way for DC to set themselves apart by doing what Marvel couldn’t. At this point, it’s doubtful that Marvel could make a standalone film without a single greenscreen even if they wanted to.

(Reminder: Venom and Into the Spider-Verse are both Sony flicks, so they don’t count.)

Not a bad idea… except that Phillips wanted to make his mid-budget comic book movie experiment about the Joker. A dicey proposition, given the aforementioned points.

Moreover, Phillips made his name off of films like The Hangover, which worked precisely because they were intelligent movies about stupid people. His movies are all about taking the piss out of unsympathetic leads, and that has a short shelf life (as evidenced by the Hangover sequels). It certainly doesn’t help that War Dogs — his most recent film — had an inflated sense of self-importance to go with the drop-off in humor, both of which are reflected in Phillips’ recent social media rants about how comedy is impossible in the “cancel culture” of today. As if we’ve never gotten a single funny movie since Bill Cosby got indicted.

Then we have Joaquin Phoenix, our latest cinematic Joker. While an undeniably powerful actor, he’s also known to be an unstable presence and he’s had no shortage of public breakdowns and unprofessional behavior.

Case in point: Word has it that on the set of Joker, Phoenix would frequently walk off the set in mid-scene without any explanation to the cast and crew. Is any of this on par with the actively hurtful and arrogant behavior that Leto is known for? No, but I’d say they’re in the same class.

Topping all of this off is a heaping helping of bullshit generated by the kinds of people who truly and genuinely believe that Tyler Durden Was Right. The basic premise of the film (i.e. An insecure white man becomes a violent psychopath and lashes out against the world) pushed all sorts of buttons in the fraught sociopolitical climate of today, and DC/WB apparently saw no downside in stoking all the controversy for press. That’s not even getting started on the death threats and bad faith arguments from the most toxic and vocal of the DC stans.

(To be fair, most fandoms have their own breed of overzealous loudmouthed freaks. The Star Wars stans have been especially rabid lately.)

Our stage is set sometime in the ’80s, when a labor strike has literally buried Gotham in hot garbage. Various social services throughout the town are being cut and the poor keep getting poorer, so of course it’s seen as more than a little tone-deaf when Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) decides to run for mayor. Cue the timely themes of political/economic disparity.

Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a party clown who dreams of being a famous stand-up comic. Trouble is, he’s got a long list of mental illnesses and antipsychotic prescriptions, all of which make him generally unfit to function in society. For example, he’s got a Tourette-ish kind of condition, such that he laughs uncontrollably as a means of coping with stress and anxiety. That doesn’t exactly work well with the pressure of being onstage.

(Side note: How anyone this poor could afford to take seven medications at once, and stay on all of them without any visible side effects, is beyond me.)

Additionally, Arthur lives in a run-down apartment where he cares for his invalid mother. Between that parental stress and genetics, we can chalk up family as another reason why he’s unstable. Naturally, his love life is non-existent and he doesn’t have much in the way of friends. But what really matters most about Arthur is that he just wants to make people laugh. He lives to smile and dance and bring joy to others, no matter how many times (figuratively and literally) he gets knocked down and beaten by a cruel and unjust world.

I’ll remind you that this is an origin story for the Joker. You know, the same villain who beat Jason Todd to death with a crowbar.

To make a long story as short and spoiler-free as I can, Arthur gets himself embroiled into a flashpoint in the conflict between rich and poor. As a direct result, clowns become a rallying symbol for revolution and anti-fascism (not unlike the Guy Fawkes mask of V for Vendetta, another DC/WB property). Thus we have the distinct possibility that Arthur Fleck isn’t the actual Joker, but simply the figure who inspired the actual Joker (a concept suggested by the recently closed “Gotham” TV show). However, as the film obviously makes no explicit point of this, I find it far more likely that Arthur really was intended to be the actual Joker.

You know, the same one that sexually assaulted Barbara Gordon after crippling her and kidnapping her father.

I want to give all due credit to Joaquin Phoenix in the lead role. His performance is genuinely transformative, and his screen presence is absolutely magnetic. It genuinely is compelling to watch Arthur descend into homicidal madness, driven by the corruption and evil that plagues Gotham and ruins his life. Therein lies the problem.

I firmly believe that it’s more important to understand a character than to sympathize with them. Just look at The Punisher, Walter White, Travis Bickle, or yes, even the Joker. Some of the best villains and antiheroes in pop culture history are so iconic precisely because they are strongly motivated to do terrible things for clearly understandable reasons.

The filmmakers don’t seem to comprehend this distinction. It’s not enough for us to understand where Arthur Fleck is coming from, he has to be such a well-meaning put-upon loser that the filmmakers clearly intended for him to be a sympathetic figure. So is this a “Macbeth” kind of drama that follows the tragic downfall of a once-sympathetic character? Well, not really. It’s actually rather confusing, as the visuals seem to glorify the Rise of Joker while the score is loaded with foreboding tones. It sends a lot of mixed messages, but the filmmakers seem to typically lean on the Joker’s side.

This is most especially obvious in the climax, when Arthur gets into the subjective nature of comedy. Three people get shot to death on the subway in cold blood and he thinks it’s hilarious. Millions of others all throughout Gotham are getting killed or injured as riots burn the city down, and he thinks it’s beautiful.

Clearly, the filmmakers understand the philosophy and methodology of the classic comic book villain. But given the context of the movie (and Phillips’ comments outside of the film), the filmmakers don’t seem to understand that this exact philosophy is precisely what makes Joker a VILLAIN. It’s one thing to agree with the notion of comedy as subjective — it’s quite another to agree with that notion in the context of a character who takes it to such barbaric extremes that it’s what makes him one of the most gleefully immoral and unrepentant mass murderers in the entire DCU and all of comic book history.

Basically put, this is a movie about a man who tries to be a ray of sunshine in a dark and cruel world, learns how to find humor in the darkness and cruelty, and therefore becomes a monster every bit as awful as the world in which he lives. It makes for a deeply repugnant film. It’s also the only way a solo Joker film could’ve possibly ended up.

Without getting too spoilery about it, the film concludes with yet another portrayal of the Wayne Family murders, one that directly ties the Rise of Joker with the origins of Batman. However, this only happens in the film’s closing minutes and it’s treated as basically an afterthought. The movie itself never explores how Bruce Wayne and Arthur Fleck were both shaped by the exact same criminal forces that corrupted Gotham, yet one sank below and made the problem worse while the other rose above and pushed back. Without the crucial counterpoint provided by Batman, all we’re left with is the Joker’s philosophy that people are inherently evil, capable of no beauty or joy save for that in chaos and destruction. It makes for a deeply misanthropic film, which would be enough of a caveat if it didn’t keep mistaking the Joker for a tragic misunderstood hero instead of a villain.

And shit, that’s not even getting started on the “mental illness” angle. Yes, the lack of available mental health resources is a mitigating factor, but the genetics angle (as presented) makes it highly unlikely that Arthur could’ve been receptive to any kind of help. Thus the movie makes a very strong case that Arthur was already inclined toward homicidal mania because of his various mental problems. In terms of portraying mental illness onscreen, that’s problematic at best, and at worst… DAMN.

Speaking of problematic, there’s the matter of our female characters. Arthur’s mother (Penny Fleck, played by Frances Conroy) is also mentally ill, but it’s played as more of a plot device than any kind of deep-seated character trait. Likewise, the love interest Sophie Dumond (Zazie Beetz) comes off as more of a plot device or a cardboard cutout than any kind of actual person or character. Though she does get a neatly tragic twist going into the third act, this is still a pathetic waste of a perfectly good actor. Ditto for Robert De Niro, painfully miscast as a late night talk show host whom Arthur idolizes, but of course De Niro’s been phoning it in for years. Still, at least the bit parts are all played by rock-solid character actors. (Shea Whigham, Bill Camp, Brian Tyree Henry, and Douglas Hodge are all particular highlights.)

Even so, it has to be repeated that Joaquin Phoenix works wonders, greatly assisted by the camerawork, editing, and production design. Yes, it was rather distracting how much Gotham looked and acted like 1980s New York, but that’s hardly a new comparison. (Hell, the real-life NYC has been nicknamed “Gotham” for decades.) It really was impressive how detailed and grungy the whole production was, nicely fitting with the ugliness of the story itself. But then again, the story concerns itself with anti-fascist demonstrations, domestic terrorism, revolution against the One Percent, going viral, all of which were either completely non-existent or far less prevalent forty years ago. So much of this would have made more sense in the modern day, why not set it in the modern day?

Even before Joker was released, social media had it pegged as a film made by and for the moviegoers who thought that Fight Club and Taxi Driver really were nihilistic works with sympathetic lead characters. I would add that it’s also a film made by and for those who point to Joker and Harley Quinn as a model relationship. It’s frankly disturbing how the filmmakers look at all the reasons why Joker is one of the most infamous and terrifying villains in pop culture history, and present them as reasons why he’s the hero we need and deserve in these modern times.

Yes, the lead performance is phenomenal, and it’s obvious that everyone behind the scenes put in a ton of work toward a well-crafted film. If anything, that only serves to make the film even more unpleasant to sit through. Also, as someone who loves superhero cinema, I’m honestly insulted by how the filmmakers show such outright shame at the prospect of making a comic book movie, with only the bare minimum of perfunctory fan service.

Everything about this movie is ugly, and the ugliness is the point. Not recommended.

Abominable

Posted October 1, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

Given the recent conclusion of their tentpole How to Train Your Dragon franchise and their recent acquisition by Comcast, Dreamworks Animation is in a peculiar spot right now. Granted, animation has an especially long turnaround time and the studio still has many films in active production, so it may be a while before the effects are tangibly felt. Even so, this feels like a shaky time for the studio and there’s the very real question of what the future will look like for them.

(Side note: I’m really, really not a fan of the new Dreamworks Animation bumper. I long for the charming simplicity of the iconic Dreamworks bumper, as opposed to the incoherent clusterfuck that Comcast turned it into.)

So here’s Abominable, written and directed by Jill Culton, formerly a storyboard artist and Head of Development at Pixar under John Lasseter (*ahem*). Reportedly, Culton had been hard at work on developing the film since 2010, right about the time when the Shrek franchise wrapped up. It’s perhaps worth noting that Culton left the project in 2016 — replaced by Tim Johnson and Todd Wilderman — until Culton came back on as the sole director at some point before 2018.

The point is, this movie already had a tumultuous development behind the scenes, even without the corporate shake-ups. It’s also a brand-new IP and Dreamworks’ second Chinese co-production with Pearl Studios (the first being Kung Fu Panda 3), and there are no marquee names in the cast. So just what exactly did we end up with here?

Well, our protagonist is Yi (Chloe Bennet), a teenage girl living in Shanghai. Her father recently died and she’s barely ever at home, spending every waking hour of her summer doing various odd jobs all over town. It’s not immediately clear why she’s working so hard or what she plans to do with the money, but we do know that her father had a passion for travel and Yi dreams of a massive cross-country hiking trip all over China. I’m loathe to spoil precisely why Yi is working herself to the bone, but suffice to say the money’s got nothing to do with it.

The point is, we know straight away that Yi is a feisty tomboy who doesn’t fit in with kids her age, but she doesn’t feel sorry about it or make any excuses for it. She keeps her head down and does the work, so much so that she comes off as distant, and she feels bad about that — especially where her surviving family members are concerned. She’s immediately sympathetic, and it helps that Chloe Bennet’s voice work imbues the character with ample charm.

Anyway, Yi eventually crosses paths with a yeti, later nicknamed “Everest”. Long story short, Everest broke out of a secure facility somewhere in Shanghai and Yi found the poor guy hiding on her rooftop. Thus Yi sets out on an adventure to return Everest to his home in the Himalayas while running from the corporate mercenaries looking to recapture the yeti. Hilarity ensues.

Unwittingly roped into this journey are Yi’s neighbors, the cousins Peng and Jin. Peng (Albert Tsai) starts out as a sympathetic little fat kid who really loves basketball but sucks at it because nobody else will play with him. Alas, the character quickly grated on my nerves, far too loud and annoying for anyone’s good. Though his hyperactive nature makes him an ideal playmate for the young and rambunctious Everest, so that’s nice.

As for Jin (voiced by Tenzing Norgay Trainor, whose grandfather was incidentally one of the first to scale Mount Everest), he’s very much a shallow city boy. He keeps his clothes and hair impeccable, he’s obsessed with posting selfies, and he’s got more girlfriends than he knows what to do with.

That said, we can see early on that Jin’s pride is tempered by a sense of humor (especially when he’s flirting) and while he may tease, he never outright offends or injures. So he’s not really a bully per se, just a preening jackass. As the film progresses, he’s the constant naysayer and the last one to give up on going back to the city. He’s also a prominent source of comic relief, as the film takes no shortage of pleasure in taking the piss out of him at every opportunity.

And what of our villains? Well, Eddie Izzard is on hand to play Mr. Burnish, the crooked old billionaire hell-bent on looting and pillaging the planet and all its wildlife. We’ve also got Dr. Zara (Sarah Paulson), Burnish’s senior zoologist, set on capturing Everest alive. I want to give the filmmakers credit for putting both of these one-dimensional villains on a very clear track, only to take an unexpected sharp left turn without feeling cheap.

Alas, while that reversal was a pleasant surprise, it wasn’t enough to make these characters the least bit interesting or three-dimensional. It certainly doesn’t help that Izzard and Paulson both turn in voice performances far, FAR below what we should’ve come to expect from either of them. In point of fact, the voice acting is pretty spotty across the board — Chloe Bennet is easily the best of the cast, and even she has a few rough spots.

Before going any further, I feel like we have to address the elephant in the room: Dora and the Lost City of Gold, another movie about a non-white teenage girl on a globetrotting adventure, racing to protect something magical and unique against violent greedy assholes. And both movies came out within months of each other. (Seriously, Dora is still screening at the multiplex where I saw Abominable.) So how do the two stack up?

Well, as much as I loved Yi, Isabela Moner’s lead performance blows this one out of the water. Also, Madeleine Madden’s arc in Dora was pretty much exactly the same as Jin’s in this movie, which doesn’t help the comparison. Furthermore, while Jin’s character wasn’t as eminently hateable, Madden got the more three-dimensional character and thus the more engaging arc.

Dora was much more coherent in its world-building and overall tone. The movie was very clearly built from the ground-up to be an Indiana Jones riff, while Abominable doesn’t have such a clear-cut reference point. That said, both movies have phenomenal production design, with huge sweeping vistas that properly evoke the wonder of exploring faraway lands.

Perhaps more importantly, Dora was repeatedly and emphatically a story about family, friendship, teamwork, coming together, etc. While that’s a crucial part of Abominable, it’s also very much a movie about environmentalism, self-confidence, perseverance, and so on.

Abominable is much more shallow in its treatment of themes, preferring to cast the net wider instead of deeper. Yet by virtue of the premise, the various themes dovetail together and support each other so elegantly that even a surface-level treatment is enough to do the job. Even better, by keeping it more subtle, the film doesn’t come off as quite so preachy.

That said, I’m sorry, but Dora was funnier. By a wide margin. Abominable tries its best to crack a few jokes, but most of them are thrown off by rigid comedic timing and the aforementioned lackluster voice acting. We’ve also got the “whooping snake” running gag, too random and pointless to really get any proper laughs.

By contrast, Dora was a far more effective comedy… well, partly because James Bobin proved himself to be a more capable comic director. But more importantly, Dora did not take itself the least bit seriously. It was highly self-referential, in many ways a loving parody of the source material, which allowed the filmmakers to make all manner of goofy and nonsensical jokes.

Abominable takes itself more seriously, but it also takes more time to slow down. There are significant stretches in which the characters are not in any immediate danger, and more time is taken to learn more about them and their struggles. As a direct result, this movie has far more heart to it.

This is greatly assisted by the central relationship of Yi and Everest, and of course the studio of How to Train Your Dragon fucking crushed that. I could point to any number of cases in point, but my personal favorite is the musical aspect. You see, Yi is a prodigious violin player (it’s a whole thing with her dad, I won’t get into it here) while Everest summons a kind of nature-based magic with rumbling low hums. Thus the tenor of Yi’s violin meshes with the bass of Everest’s hums and the two literally create magic together. It’s a beautiful and frankly ingenious way of showing the chemistry that these two have.

But as long as we’re on the subject, I found myself frustrated by the open-ended nature of Everest’s magic. There are so many times when I found myself asking why Everest would possibly need help getting back home when he can literally move freaking mountains. Mercifully, the film is good enough to paper over this, explaining that the yeti’s magic grows more powerful the closer he gets to home. That still doesn’t quite explain everything, but it’s a great deal better than nothing.

On a final note, the film’s Chinese setting perhaps deserves further mention. On the one hand, I’m all in favor of greater representation in media and it means a lot to have so many Chinese actors in the cast. Hell, this could very well be the first female Asian protagonist in an animated film since freaking Mulan!

With all of that said, I don’t know that the Chinese setting really added much to the film. I didn’t come away from this movie feeling like I had learned anything new about a totally different culture like I did with The Farewell or Crazy Rich Asians. None of the characters (except maybe Nai Nai, played to the cheap seats by Tsai Chin) acted in a way that would’ve been out of place in an American-set film, which is kind of a red flag. Still, at least the film went all-out in portraying the nation’s beauty. The cityscapes and natural landmarks alike are all gleaming with polish.

Though that “light show” plot point at the end of the first act was a straight-up deus ex machina. Seriously, what the hell?

Everything about Abominable boils down to this: It’s simple, but it works. The character designs are simple, but they’re beautifully expressive. The animation is nothing groundbreaking, but it more than gets the job done. The characters themselves are simple, but they’re played and written with so much heart I couldn’t help but love them. The plot is simple, but there’s such an infectious sense of wonder that I still had a lot of fun on the journey.

There isn’t much about this movie that’s new or unpredictable, but it’s just enough to make something exciting and deeply heartfelt. While it’s not exactly a must-see game-changer, I’m happy to give it my stamp of approval. Check it out.

Ad Astra

Posted September 26, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

I’ve been doing this for a long time, folks. Coming up on eleven years now, which is pretty much my entire adult life. That’s a lot of time to see a lot of movies come and go. I’ve seen overhyped movies crash and burn, I’ve seen critical and commercial darlings fade into the ether. I’ve seen legions of fans slobbering over the next blockbuster franchise entry, only to consume it, excrete it, and immediately begin screaming for the next entry.

After all of that, I’ve simply become too jaded to do advance hype anymore. The last time I recall getting completely and totally stoked for a movie, we got the pompous, boring, butt-ugly clusterfuck of Macbeth (2015). But then I heard about Ad Astra.

It’s a hard science fiction film about space travel, the cast is phenomenal from top to bottom, and the trailer kicked all kinds of ass. This looked exactly like the kind of movie I wanted to see more of after leaving The Martian back in 2015. I genuinely regretted that I couldn’t see this one opening weekend because there was seriously, absolutely nothing about this movie that I wasn’t stoked to try out.

I’m still not entirely sure what I was expecting, but it sure as hell wasn’t this.

Our stage is set in a near future, in which humanity has placed its hopes in the search for intelligent alien life to find solutions to our problems. Thus commercial space flight is commonplace, we’ve built colonies on Mars and the moon, we’ve built giant communications towers extending straight up through the atmosphere, and we’ve apparently figured out artificial gravity. Faster-than-light travel still isn’t a thing, though.

Oh, and we have guns that work in the vacuum of space. No word on whether they’re laser guns, gas-powered, or if they’ve invented some kind of gunpowder that ignites in a zero-oxygen environment. Whatever.

Anyway, a lot of this progress came courtesy of Dr. H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), the first of this new breed of astronaut, who went farther into space than anyone else had at the time. Then McBride led the Lima Project, an expedition to Neptune with the goal of continuing the search for alien life without radiation interference from the sun.

Flash forward to about 30 years after the Lima Project dropped out of all contact. Our story begins in earnest with The Surge, a massive power blackout that affected the entire Planet Earth. Long story short, the bigwigs of the US government have concluded that the Surge was likely caused by an antimatter reaction, not unlike the antimatter reactor that powered the Lima Project. And wouldn’t you know it, the Surge came from somewhere around Neptune.

So now Clifford McBride and his associates may be directly responsible for a chain reaction that could mean the destruction of our solar system. Naturally, the Lima Project’s exact coordinates have to be found and contact has to be made before any further action can be taken. To accomplish this, the PTB go to McBride’s son (Maj. Roy McBride, played by Brad Pitt), now a respectable and decorated astronaut in his own right. That said, this whole mission is wrapped up in so much secrecy that Roy immediately figures out there’s something else going on.

Thus Roy begins on his Space Odyssey through the moon and Mars on his way to the furthest edge of the solar system. There are a couple of action sequences, though only the moon buggy chase with pirates is any fun. (Seriously, with that description, it had better be.) There’s a little bit of horror here as well, but it’s pretty much entirely limited to one jump scare — probably the best jump scare I’ve ever seen in my life, but still.

No, the bulk of the plot concerns Roy untangling the secrets and conspiracies he’s found himself a part of, thus reckoning with his place in the grander scheme of things and the cause he’s given his life to while also coping with extreme paranoia. And of course Roy also has to deal with revelations about his father, bringing up his own daddy issues and emotional baggage, to say nothing of the sins and responsibilities he unwittingly inherited from his dad. Oh, and we can’t forget the automated psych evaluations — at least half the movie is comprised of dialogue and voiceover in which Roy talks to a machine about his current mental and emotional state.

Yes, this is very much a spacefaring psychological thriller, joining a long cinematic pedigree from 2001: A Space Odyssey right up through High Life. Of course, the crucial difference is that those movies spoke in abstract and psychedelic images, overflowing the senses until we’re as discombobulated as the characters. This movie, by comparison, is far more literal. For better or worse, you’ll never see legions of cinephiles across the decades arguing with each other over what the film means.

No, this movie is so thoroughly rooted in hard science that with very few and subtle exceptions, everything in this movie was made to look like it could be invented within the next 10-20 years. The filmmakers show a clear reverence for science and space travel, plainly visible in every last painstakingly detailed corner of the production. But what’s really fascinating is that this reverence for space travel comes packaged with a deep cynicism towards humanity.

Consider what a spacecraft needs just to send people up without killing them. Even setting aside the food and water, the craft still needs so much equipment for air recycling, septic treatment, temperature control, radiation shielding, and God knows what else. Outer space is the most hostile place imaginable, filled with so many environments so wildly different from the tiny blue speck we evolved to live on — how could we expect to live for very long out there, and why would we want to?

Moreover, humans are inherently social creatures. So much so, it’s been proven that solitary confinement can wreak havoc on the human mind. If we can barely survive being stuck alone in a prison cell on Earth, how could any lone human possibly fare inside a tin can floating through the infinite void of space for any extended length of time? For that matter, are we really so social, so deathly afraid of being alone, that we have to continuously reach out to other galaxies in search of anyone else?

All of this is why currently, we only send up the best and the brightest, and becoming an astronaut takes years of training. So what happens when commercial space flight happens and the bar is so drastically lowered that pretty much anyone can go up there? Can you even begin to imagine the risks and ramifications of some panicky, short-sighted, underqualified company man behind the stick of a goddamn space shuttle? And as for the passengers, what do you think they’ll do when they get to the moon? Will they treat it with any kind of reverence, or strip it down for resources and put up shopping malls while we kill each other for more real estate? You know, like we’ve done with every square inch of the planet we’ve already got?

I previously mentioned The Martian, another work of hard science fiction all about the wondrous beauty and fatal terror of outer space. The difference is that The Martian was all about the ingenuity and resilience of mankind, showing how we can overcome any obstacle and reach any star through courage, persistence, creativity, and teamwork. By comparison, Ad Astra submits that humanity is flawed in such fundamentally deep-seated ways that we may never be worthy of exploring the cosmos. It’s not a message I agree with personally, but the point is elegantly made.

It’s a good thing the cast is so insanely overqualified, because the supporting cast has basically nothing except the actors playing them. Liv Tyler is a fantastic example — as Roy’s estranged wife, she has basically nothing to do but play a beautiful and forlorn image. Which she does superbly well, to be fair. Ruth Negga and Donald Sutherland are basically playing plot devices, so it’s a mercy that they have enough charisma to hold the screen. Tommy Lee Jones probably has more screen time than the rest of the supporting cast put together — and most of that is in recorded archival footage! — but damned if he doesn’t make every last instant of screen time count. All the other no-names in the supporting cast might as well be wearing a bright red shirt with a sign saying “I WILL DIE OR TURN TRAITOR.”

But of course this is Brad Pitt’s show from start to finish, turning in what may well be his most dynamic, magnetic, vulnerable performance since the one-two punch of Fight Club and Seven. It could’ve gotten so incredibly boring and pretentious, repeatedly listening to the character’s inner thoughts and ramblings for minutes at a time, but Pitt keeps it engaging. His physical transformation over so many months of space travel is impressive, and he’s got a compelling way of showing so many roiling emotions under a tough and placid surface.

Ad Astra is a movie that tries to balance the unknowable infinite grandeur of outer space with the stubborn frailty of mankind. Between writer/director James Gray and star/producer Brad Pitt, the two of them have that balance totally nailed. The supporting cast is less than memorable, but they serve their purpose well enough without distracting or harming. The film’s cynical and somewhat misanthropic message may turn away some filmgoers, and the pacing can make the movie feel considerably longer than its two-hour runtime. Even so, I can’t possibly deny that it’s a thoroughly engaging, thoughtful and intelligent, superbly made film.

This one might be worth the IMAX treatment, folks. Definitely check it out.

Hustlers

Posted September 23, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

For those just tuning in, I recently produced From the Ruby Lounge, a live theatrical show set in a fictional Portland strip club. After many years of research and development (plus my life savings, to say nothing of the blood, sweat, tears, and body hair shed by everyone involved), the entire run of my play oversold and the reviews were phenomenal.

So naturally, I had some thoughts about Hustlers. I had so many thoughts about the movie, I had a whole blog entry written up before I had even seen it. And of course I had to wait to see it so I could watch it with some of my former cast and get their opinions.

Before I go any further, I want to make it perfectly clear that I am not an expert on strippers or the strip club industry. I am in no way an authority on the subject. To claim otherwise would be an insult to the actual strippers who’ve found a way to live with the physical and emotional stresses of their job, and how to make a profit from all those challenges. Hell, to call myself an expert would frankly be an insult to those of my cast and crew who put themselves through a year and a half of pole dance classes, exhaustively researched the strip club industry, hit those moves night after night, and built up an impressive collection of callouses and bruises. There are some things you can really only learn about by doing it, and stripping is one of them.

That being said, this has still been a pet cause of mine for most of my adult life. I’ve done the research, I’ve learned a ton of hard lessons, and I’ve been called out on many hundreds of mistakes. I may not be the real thing, but I know the real thing when I see it. And these filmmakers very clearly did their homework. It’s hardly perfect, however.

Easily the most important caveat is that this film should in no way be construed as a definitive portrayal of life and work as a stripper. Every stripper gets into the profession for their own reasons, and every stripper has their own experiences and methods, so of course no one film will be accurate to everyone in the industry. Perhaps more importantly, there’s the matter of setting.

The film is set in New York City, and I absolutely guarantee you that a strip club in NYC will be nothing like a strip club in Miami. Just as neither one of them will look anything like the strip clubs in Houston or LA or Chicago. All of those clubs will be operating under totally different state and county laws, to say nothing of the totally different cultures between the cities. Even within the same city, any two clubs will have different rules, dancers, clients, theming, management, and a million other factors that guarantee a totally different experience and different working conditions for the dancers.

(Case in point: In my hometown of Portland — famously the strip club capitol of the USA — the neighboring strip clubs of Acropolis and Casa Diablo II are so radically different that they’ve become infamous for their bitter long-running feud.)

But I digress. I could talk about this all day (and have, multiple times, in fact). So let’s get to the movie and come back to this later, shall we?

Hustlers comes to us from writer/director/producer Lorene Scafaria, late of Seeking a Friend for the End of the World and Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist. (Also, as part of the cast for Coherence, she helped to semi-improvise the script for whatever the high holy fuck that was.) The movie is “inspired by” a New York Magazine article written by Jessica Pressler, a fictionalized version of whom is played by Julia Stiles in the film’s framing device.

Our protagonist is “Destiny” (Constance Wu), who just started stripping at a prominent New York City club. She strikes up a friendship with veteran dancer “Ramona” (Jennifer Lopez), who takes the baby stripper under her wing. Flash forward to the 2008 financial crisis, and all the lucrative Wall Street clients are suddenly fewer and stingier. Thus Destiny, Ramona, and their fellow dancers have less tip money to go around, and they can’t find a job elsewhere due to sky-high unemployment rates (to say nothing of the stigma against strippers).

Long story short, Ramona hatches a plot. She, Destiny, and a handful of other dancers (primarily Mercedes and Annabelle, respectively played by Keke Palmer and Lili Reinhardt) go bar-hopping to meet wealthy Wall Street douchebags. They proceed to drug said douchebags with a combination of ketamine and MDMA (!!!), then drag their semi-conscious asses to the club, where they basically rob the rich douchebags through credit card theft.

Let’s break out the checklist, shall we?

  • Based on or “inspired by” a true story? Check.
  • The protagonist gets obscenely wealthy through some criminal enterprise? Check.
  • At least one “party” scene involving drugs, alcohol, loud music, flashy clothes, and/or gorgeous women at least partially nude? That’s a great big Triple-Check.
  • The story ends with the protagonist going down for her crimes and losing everything? Check and mate.

Yes, we’ve got yet another movie in the ever-growing ranks of the “Filthy Stinking Rich” subgenre, alongside The Wolf of Wall Street, Pain and Gain, War Dogs, American Made, The Mule, White Boy Rick, blah blah blah. This movie is definitely part of that larger trend and the plot is structured in much the same way, but there are a few crucial differences.

To start with, these are strippers. Their entire MO means dressing in skimpy outfits, seducing men, dragging them back into the club, and stealing their money under the pretense of a hard-partying night. Thus the second and third points are fused together in a way that I’ve never seen in the genre before.

Moreover, that third point is typically the “payoff”, in which our main characters get to have an impossibly great time with all of the money they’ve come into. Because the genre has been so male-centric up until now (seriously, take another look at that list), the payoff has typically manifested as hedonistic testosterone-driven coke-fueled fantasies of nude women and bottomless alcohol. Compare that to this movie, in which the typical strip club atmosphere isn’t a rare day in paradise but just another day at the office for this cast.

(Side note: Seriously, the most prominent male in this entire cast is a one-off celebrity cameo appearance and I don’t think he even has a line. No, I’m not spoiling who it is.)

As such, the “payoff” scenes are considerably more subtle than drugs and debauchery. It’s mostly comprised of so much shopping, though the characters might also be buying new clothes and makeup for their work. We also get numerous scenes of characters paying off debts, buying new (admittedly luxurious) apartments, and taking care of other necessities. If the movie has an equivalent to the “orgy” scene (ie: the scene in any other Filthy Stinking Rich movie when the characters are at the height of cash-drunk frenzy), it’s probably the Christmas scene. Yes, we get a scene in which the main characters and their families are treating each other to expensive gifts, trading stories, posing for group photos, dancing in the living room, and so on. The most extravagant display of wealth in the entire movie, and it’s our main characters treating themselves to a lavish Christmas get-together. Think about that.

This brings me to what may be the single most important thing this movie gets right: The sisterhood between strippers. While the characters may have their petty squabbles and they are all clearly competing for dollars, they’re all still sharing a cramped dressing room for so many hours at a time. It’s a stressful job, they’re all living as a mistreated and misunderstood underclass, and they all confide in each other because they’ve got nobody else to go to. There’s nobody else who could possibly understand what strippers are going through except each other, and there’s nobody (except maybe the bouncers) willing to step up and help them when the going gets rough.

Take it from experience: When somebody sets out to portray strippers in an honest and authentic light, this is a huge, HUGE sign that the cast and crew are on the right track. Of course every stripper will have different perspectives and histories (one of my own consultants was insistent that stripping is a cutthroat career and everyone’s only out for themselves), but by and large, the strip club industry is such a tight-knit community that it’s often more like a family. I can’t possibly overstate how important that is, and the filmmakers absolutely nail it.

What might be even better is how incredibly diverse the cast is. The movie features dancers of every skin color imaginable. We’ve also got all manner of body types, from the rail-thin Madeline Brewer to the curvy Cardi B, to freaking Lizzo. A wide variety of dancers is crucial for any strip club, and it’s great of the film to show that. Moreover, it’s important to note that “sexy” is not any one skin color or body type. Any woman can get onstage, take the pole, and own her body to the adoration of a paying audience, if they have the courage and fortitude to do so.

As one character points out later in the film, all of us are getting exploited in some way or another already. Women in particular are under all kinds of pressure to smile and look pretty and degrade themselves for men with money, so why not do it on their own terms? Stripping can in fact be an empowering feminist act, and it’s good of the film to portray it as such. Even if the criminal angle poisons that well a little bit as the film unfolds.

Which brings me to another important point: While the filmmakers are sure to convey the righteous anger of our characters (ie: robbing from wealthy assholes who got rich from robbing others, drugging Wall Street rats who are already coked up, using the marks’ own misogyny against them, bringing street justice to those who never had to face any other kind of accountability for their misdeeds, etc.), we’re never allowed to forget that our posse is playing a dangerous game. The drugs can be too effective. Their marks can pass out or even die.

Time and again, we see that these women are perfectly capable of handling themselves when things are going according to plan, and unpredictably panicky when things go sideways. None of these women are murderers (much less hardened criminals), nobody wants anybody seriously hurt, and none of them are willing or able to do jail time over this. What’s more, they’re all varying shades of greedy. Some want to milk the clients for all they’re worth, others are afraid of the risk that a newly bankrupted mark will go to the cops or stop coming entirely. That means finding new marks and bringing in new conspirators, every one of which is a new unknown factor that could send everything belly-up.

This is imperative, because the film makes it clear that even for strippers, drugging patrons and actively stealing from them would be considered out of line. It’s not all strippers or even most strippers who would abuse and assault their patrons in this way, just these few outliers who eventually got arrested for their crimes. And of course it also helps the tension in a big way.

Speaking of which, the movie also introduces dancers who are brought in specifically to perform sexual favors for the wealthier clients as a means of driving up post-Recession revenue. Again, this is framed in a context that makes it absolutely clear that even in the industry, this is not normal or acceptable. It’s not even strictly legal, as heavily implied by how the characters talk about it in hushed tones.

(Side note: One of my former Ruby Lounge actors pointed out the near-certainty that these particular dancers may have been brought in by the local mafia and could very well be trafficking victims. I bring this up because the movie never goes into those details, and it’s likely a more prominent risk in NYC clubs than anywhere else.)

Let’s move on to the most important relationship in the movie: Destiny and Ramona. The two of them are literally thick as thieves, and it’s genuinely compelling to see the both of them develop into ride or die sisters-in-arms over the course of the film. Especially since the framing device makes it perfectly clear that the two of them eventually have a falling out, and Ramona — the mastermind of this whole operation — is inherently untrustworthy from the outset. Thus we have underlying tension, with the persistent question of how and why these two will fall out.

I want to give all due credit to Constance Wu. She carries the film like a bona fide champion, and her performance here is superbly transformative. I can’t possibly give her enough credit as the movie’s protagonist and the audience’s window into this industry. In point of fact, I don’t think there’s a single dud in the cast. Julia Stiles makes for a solid and reliable framing device, Wai Ching Ho is positively adorable, Cardi B and Lizzo are both a riot, Keke Palmer turns in a remarkable supporting role, and Lili Reinhardt is sweetly endearing (most especially in her running “nervous puking” habit). Every single actor in this picture — down to the lowliest walk-on role — makes an impression and gets at least one memorable line or moment.

But of course this is Jennifer Lopez’ show. By virtue of her larger-than-life character and Lopez’ own colossal screen presence, Lopez thoroughly dominates every scene. She turns in a powerhouse performance here, thoroughly and completely proving herself to be a phenomenally underrated actress. (Seriously, was Second Act only nine months ago?)

With all of that said, I’m sorry, we’ve got to talk about her big introductory pole dance number.

Remember, Ramona is supposed to be the top gun of this strip club. She’s the best connected, most experienced, most in-demand dancer, the one that all the clients want to see and all the other dancers want to be tight with.

Yes, J. Lo’s ass has been pop culture legend for two decades. Yes, she’s performed on all manner of stages all over the planet, to say nothing of her long trailblazing history as a provocative fashion icon. Yes, even at 50 years old, she is still sexier than most women half her age. Lopez could make it rain dollar bills on any given night just by stepping out onstage in a g-string, that is no fiction and you know it.

But her pole dancing sucks. It might be good enough for most people who’ve never been to a strip club, and the filmmakers try to make it look flashier with so many editing and lighting tricks, but trust me, folks. Her pole dancing sucks.

Here, let me show you something. This is Athena Aura Nova, my co-director/pole dance instructor/industry consultant on From the Ruby Lounge. Athena was Miss Nude Oregon 2005, the NW Top Female Entertainer of 2006, and a Pole Erotica Portland finalist in 2010 and 2011, among all her many other accolades and accomplishments over two decades in the local strip club industry. This is the level of prestige and experience that Ramona supposedly has. That clip shows the kind of pole dancing you’d expect from such a seasoned veteran dancer at a packed club during primetime. By comparison, if any stripper showed up at 10pm on a Saturday night with Lopez’ routine, I’m pretty darn sure she’d be pulled off the schedule and relegated to a Tuesday night immediately.

(Side note: Every single one of my Ruby Lounge actors went through a year and a half of pole dance training in prep for the show, and I saw each of them perform multiple times. Any one of my actors could’ve done every pole trick seen in this movie and more. If I’m lying, I’m dying. My lovely and talented cast of community theatre actors from a shoestring independent stage production could’ve taken freaking Jennifer Lopez to school. This gives me no small amount of amusement and pride.)

That said, pole dancing isn’t really a huge part of the film. (Probably for the best.) Rather, most of the strip club screen time is given to the private dances, showcasing the misogyny, harassment, and even outright assault that strippers may have to deal with when its just them and the client. I can’t speak from any firsthand experience as to how authentic it is overall, and of course different clubs and locations will have different types and frequencies of entitled pigs. Even so, based purely on my own research and what I’ve heard from my contacts in the industry, I’m sad to say that pretty much all of this checks out. At least these scenes serve as a handy demonstration of what strippers have to put up with for their paychecks, and we get a handy guide for how not to act at a strip club.

On a miscellaneous note, I want to praise the design team for this movie. The sound design is stellar from top to bottom, with crystal clear mixing in the club scenes and all sorts of neat flourishes in the back half. I was thoroughly impressed with the lighting and costuming designs, and the camerawork had just enough shaky-cam to feel immersive without feeling overdone. Brilliant work.

So is Hustlers a good movie? Absolutely. It’s a worthy entry in the “Filthy Stinking Rich” subgenre, but with more than enough twists to stand out from the pack. There isn’t a single dud in the cast, the production design is awesome, and I applaud the filmmakers’ efforts at portraying strippers in an honest and authentic light. It’s a bold, solidly made, well-researched movie about a subject that desperately needs more and better exposure in mainstream media.

However, the most important test for this movie will be in what change ultimately comes from it. Will this inspire audiences to see strippers and sex workers in a more sympathetic light? Will we see more mainstream pushback against the harmful stigmas and stereotypes against strippers and sex workers? Is there any hope we can repeal FOSTA/SESTA so that actual strippers, sex workers, and nude models can have a voice online without fear of getting censored or silenced, while Hollywood movies with half-naked A-list actresses get advertised every which way on every social media site? Time will tell.

On a final note, I want to reiterate that nothing I say in this blog entry should supplant or supercede the word of any actual sex worker with an opinion on the film. I’m sure that many strippers will have differing and/or conflicting opinions on the film, but they are the ultimate authority on this subject and their firsthand opinion should be respected above all others.

For a more authoritative look at life as a stripper, I recommend “Striptastic! A Celebration of Dope-Ass Cunts Who Like Money” by Jacqueline Frances, the same stripper/comedian/artist/activist who consulted and cameo’d in the film. I also strongly recommend “Magic Gardens”, the memoirs of the legendary Portland stripper Viva Las Vegas. “The Dancer Diaries” by Andy Norris is a work of fiction written by a non-stripper, but it’s also very good.

Hustlers (preface)

Posted September 21, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

In case you missed it, I recently closed a full production of my magnum opus, my passion project, From the Ruby Lounge. I put six and a half years (plus my life savings) into researching and developing this dramatic workplace comedy set within a fictional Portland strip club. My cast and crew put themselves through two years of pole dance training, beauty treatments, and immersive research into the local strip club industry before we even got to rewriting the script.

Our pole dance coach — later, our co-director — was an eighteen-year veteran of the local strip club industry. One of our actors was formerly a professional dominatrix. We hired a makeup artist and a PA, both of whom were actual current strippers.

We oversold every night. We got spectacular reviews. We raised $3,300 for SWOP Behind Bars.

We were boycotted by two different sex worker advocacy groups.

To be clear, we got the approval of every local sex worker who actually came to see the show. If anyone bought a ticket and came away unhappy, I never heard about it. Even so, we got called out online because it was a production about strippers being produced by a straight white male. (Never mind that both directors, my stage manager, my entire cast, and most of my crew were female.) More to the point, nothing less than a production made entirely of, by, and for local strippers would ever be authentic enough or empowering enough for these select few advocacy groups.

Obviously, I didn’t agree, because I still produced the show. But I still understood where they were coming from. Society has become so inundated with half-truths, misconceptions, and outright lies about sex workers, of course it would be hard for any civilian (read: “a person who is not a sex worker”) to sort fact from fiction. For that matter, it would be so much easier for an audience to take the portrayal seriously if they knew it came from actual strippers.

I could learn all about house fees, the industry rules and laws, all the precautions in place against stalkers and abusers, and everything else that the dancers in my city would ever think to tell me, but it would only ever amount to booksmarts. I could never really know what it’s like to audition for a club, taking off my clothes onstage for the first time. I could never know what it’s like to go onstage sick, or on my period, or even after a really bad day at home, knowing that absolutely everything — inside and out — would be plainly visible to the patrons. I’ve never swung my entire body weight around a pole for several hours straight. I’ve never had to live with the stigmas and stereotypes of this profession.

There are so many highs and lows and conflicting emotions that come with this job, things I could never convey to the audience because I personally have never felt them. Which is why I brought on the best damn cast and crew I ever could’ve dreamed of. That was our job as storytellers, we took it seriously, and we did everything we could to do the subject justice.

So of course I was always going to see Hustlers. Perhaps more importantly, I was going to pay close attention to the film’s reception from my cast and crew, from my connections in the local strip club industry, and from strippers on social media and in the news.

On the one hand, it’s a movie with an extremely diverse cast. We’ve got the Puerto Rican Jennifer Lopez, the Taiwanese Constance Wu, several African Americans, and even the white Julia Stiles. The racial diversity is to be applauded, but the movie is far more notable for putting women front and center. In addition to the majority-female cast, the writer/director is female, and a good chunk of the producers are also female.

It’s a movie about female strippers in which the male voice is pretty much wholly absent, something practically unthinkable in mainstream cinema. Moreover, Cardi B — who famously started out as a stripper prior to her current rapping/acting career — is in the cast. Jacqueline Frances — a prominent stripper/comedian/activist/artist — was on hand as a consultant, she got a cameo appearance in the film, and she’s done multiple interviews with national media outlets about the film.

On the other hand, this is still a movie (based on a true story) about strippers who set out to swindle the greedy Wall Street execs who destroyed our economy and got away with it. Yes, there’s an appealing “Robin Hood” element to the story. Yes, it’s true that strippers can be assertive in selling their services.

(Fun fact: Strippers have to pay house fees before they even get onstage, plus they have to share tip money with the DJs and bartenders and other staff, plus they have to process their own income taxes as independent contractors. All of which means that strippers could bust their asses hustling for tip money all night without breaking even.)

But doesn’t the basic premise reinforce the image of strippers as predators? Does it play into the stereotype of women as seductive swindlers, taking money from gullible and horny men? This is a very important question, because it’s literally a matter of life or death.

To repeat: The stigmas and stereotypes against strippers literally cost lives. I am not even remotely joking.

This is why strippers can’t find work or get a loan, even after leaving the industry. This is why strippers are unable or afraid to tell their friends and loved ones about their job. It’s why strippers are disowned, ostracized, or abused when they do. This is why strippers are stalked, harassed, assaulted, or even killed, and it’s why there’s virtually no hope of legal recourse for those victims.

Sex work is the only industry in the world in which the women make more money than the men. Stripping in particular allows women to work on their terms and on their schedule. So the next time you see a stripper onstage, there’s a good chance that she’s a mother, a student, a caregiver, an employee at another job, or somebody else who badly needs a lot of money and flexible hours like no other job can offer.

Or maybe that same stripper started at her job to feel empowered. Maybe she wants a job that allows her to get onstage, feel sexy, and take advantage of the patriarchy that insists she stay young and beautiful without ever making a buck off of it. I couldn’t possibly list all of the reasons why women take up stripping — they are literally as many and varied as strippers themselves. And every single one of them deserves to have a safe workplace, treated as a fellow human being, just like anyone else.

Which brings me to the malicious absurdity of FOSTA/SESTA.

Ostensibly a law aimed at pedophilia, sex trafficking, and other illegal perversions, the law in fact does absolutely nothing to stop the underground activity of sexual criminals. Instead, the law has been most effective at penalizing strippers and sex workers engaged in legal and harmless business between consenting adults. Thus strippers and sex workers are conflated with sexual criminals, consequently treated as criminals when they did nothing illegal or wrong.

In my experience, this very important distinction is why strippers and sex workers HATE being called “legitimate”. There are no “legitimate” sex workers, there are only sex workers and criminals.

More importantly, this online crackdown has deprived sex workers of many vital communication means. It’s become so much harder for sex workers to warn each other about hazardous patrons and places, once again making their job more dangerous for no reason at all. Moreover, their social media profiles are suppressed or even banned outright, severely limiting their ability to reach patrons, network with others in the industry, establish their brand, sell their product, or say much of anything online.

Actual strippers and sex workers are getting silenced online at an alarming rate, and many prominent social media sites are now hostile to them. Yet these exact same social media sites will autoplay umpteen advertisements 24/7, telling people to go see Jennifer Lopez play a stripper on so many millions of screens nationwide. The fake strippers get Oscar buzz and millions of box office dollars while real strippers get censored as they hustle all day for pocket change.

Regardless of the film’s quality or authenticity, that is a SUPREMELY shitty hypocrisy.

I still haven’t seen the movie and I can’t comment on its quality firsthand — I’ve been waiting to see it with some of my friends in the cast and crew. But if this movie and this blog entry accomplishes nothing else, I hope you’re encouraged to take a closer look at everything you think you know about strippers. These are powerful, intelligent, hard-working, beautiful people who’ve been made by society into a persecuted underclass.

By all means, go see them perform and marvel at the acrobatics on display. Ask them questions about their profession — strippers are not the least bit shy, and they’ll be happy to clear up any misconceptions about their job. But at the very least, remember to be a decent human being and treat them as such. Stick to your state and local laws, and the rules of your specific club.

Lastly, please don’t forget to pay them for their time. Sex work is work, just like any other job that demands a constant cheery attitude in spite of crappy customers, family drama, or whatever else is going on. If receptionists, waiters, and call center representatives all get paid for that, the least you could do is pay strippers for their time and courtesy as well.

I’ll see Hustlers and get a review up soon.

Good Boys

Posted September 17, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

Watching the trailer for Good Boys, I felt a terrible sickening feeling at the thought of reliving such a godawful point in anyone’s childhood. Yes, I very distinctly remember acting like a little prick in the sixth grade, pretending I knew more than I did and playing along with everyone else’s delusional fantasies to the same. Acting like the king of the hill because I’d made it to the final year of elementary school, as if everything else after that would be a cakewalk.

I really, REALLY didn’t want to watch a movie that got a few easy laughs from that godawful stage in development, but the film stuck around in theaters longer than expected, so let’s see if there’s anything in here worth writing home about.

Our story is centered around three boys — the so-called “Bean Bag Boys” — who’ve known each other their whole lives. The de facto protagonist is Max (Jacob Tremblay), who’s very much a romantic. He’s not even interested in sex so much as he’s interested in kissing, holding hands, and so on. Of course, those first few steps of intimacy can be even harder than actual sex, especially for kids growing up in the #MeToo era. Even kids nowadays know better than to try anything without consent, even if they’re still clueless about how to ask for it.

Next up is Thor (Brady Noon), the unfortunate target of toxic masculinity. He’s very much a theatre kid at heart and he’s got a great singing voice (supposedly — the film didn’t quite sell me on that), but he suppresses all of that so he won’t be a bully target. Thus Thor tries to dress tough, gets an ear stud, and makes a huge show out of drinking (or rather, sipping) beer. He’s the devil on Max’s shoulder, to Lucas’ angel.

Lucas (Keith L. Williams) is a kid who’s deathly afraid of doing anything wrong, terribly afraid of consequences that will follow him for the rest of his life. As a direct result, the kid is a panicky, hopeless blabbermouth incapable of telling anything but the whole unvarnished truth, even if it gets him in trouble. Especially if it gets him in trouble. On top of all that, Lucas has just been informed that his parents are getting a divorce, and of course it’s eating the kid up because he’s worked so hard to keep anything bad from happening.

Long story short (Too late!) the plot gets going when Max gets an invite to a party with the popular kids. Even better, Max’s crush (Brixlee, played by Millie Davis) will be there, and the party will feature a kissing-intensive game of spin-the-bottle. In trying to learn how to kiss in preparation for the event, Max and his friends steal his dad’s expensive drone so they can spy on a teenage neighbor (that’s another long story). The drone goes awry and hilarity ensues.

Right off the bat, the film deserves recognition for its highly diverse cast. Two of our white main characters have a black best friend, Max has a massive crush on a black girl, the most popular kid in school (Soren, played by Izaac Wang) is an Asian boy, and the whole issue of race is so subtle that it’s barely even a factor.

As lowbrow as this movie gets, the filmmakers never once get into racial stereotypes for the sake of humor. What’s more, though our raunchy sex comedy movie is about three inseparable middle school boys, there is not a single homophobic insult or gay joke in the entire picture. What we do get, however, is a running subplot about a band of social misfits banded together into an anti-bullying support group.

This is unmistakably a modern story about growing up as a pre-teen boy in modern times. These kids were raised to accept those from different cultures, sexualities, and walks of life. Their parents have easy access to divorce, birth control, and whatever crazy sex toys might indulge any bedroom fantasy. And of course the kids have the internet to provide all the sex education they’re not getting from their teachers or parents.

Which brings me to the next point: Some things never change.

Now in the Internet Era more than ever, unlimited access to information doesn’t always come with the wisdom to use it. A search engine is borderline useless without the slightest idea of what to look for, and it can be misused just like anything else. Pornography (with very few exceptions) is not intended as sex ed, and the results can be actively harmful if used as such. Moreover, old-fashioned foolishness is no less stupid or pervasive simply because of new technology — Peeping Toms have been around long before the invention of the drone camera, for instance.

Even with all of their 21st-century comforts, these are still pre-teen boys. They’re still hopelessly ignorant and constantly defeated by how much they’re not even aware they don’t know. Yet for the sake of their popularity and their own self-esteem, they can’t show any sign of weakness or any hint that they don’t know what they’re doing. Thus the boys keep getting themselves in way over their heads, no matter how many times it bites them on the ass.

It certainly helps that we’ve got the aforementioned late-teens neighbor Hannah (Molly Gordon) and her girlfriend Lily (Midori Francis). The two of them are recurring antagonists who occasionally pop up to try and recover some drugs the boys stole from them. (Yet another long story.) More importantly, they serve as an important foil to the Bean Bag Boys’ bumbling. The film needed that college-age counterpoint to show the boys just how young and stupid they really are, while also showing the ways in which some people never really grow up at all.

This brings me to the film’s primary source of comedy. It’s not the humor about drugs or sex or alcohol, and it’s not about the gross-out gags relating to sex toys or grievous injuries, though all of those are a part of it. No, the real source of this movie’s humor is in our main characters’ crippling lack of nuance.

A bunch of kids hanging out in someone’s basement isn’t just a party, it’s the greatest night in the history of ever. A girl isn’t just a crush, she’s his future wife. If anyone does drugs even once, they’re a junkie and a menace to society. If you’re not the most popular kid in school, you’re a loser that nobody will ever want anything to do with. Committing even the slightest misdemeanor or even having a permanent record means getting branded as a criminal pariah for all eternity. The way things are right now is how things will always be forever and ever.

These kids are so young, so hopelessly ignorant of how little any of this will matter in a decade or two, that every event is treated with cataclysmic importance. They have no idea how big the world really is, so (on a subconscious level) they think the entire world revolves around them.

On one level, this works as a subtle thematic portrayal of life as a preteen. On another level, these hopelessly extreme and ignorant reactions lead our characters to escalate any given scene, driving any given situation further and further out of control until we reach absurdly comical heights.

That said, there are quite a few moments when the characters face no consequences for their actions, even though they really should. Seriously, that “crossing the highway” stunt (seen in some of the trailers) should have made local headlines at the very least. I can’t give too many other examples for fear of spoilers, but there’s one example I’ve got to talk about.

The central driving force of the second act is in replacing the stolen drone so Max doesn’t get grounded and therefore barred from attending the party. This is the character’s primary motivation, to keep from getting grounded so he can attend the party. To make the story as short and spoiler-free as I can, Max does eventually get himself grounded. And then he immediately goes to the party like nothing happened. Thus the movie breaks its own plot into a million pieces. FAIL.

Then again, it’s obvious that plot was never a huge priority with Good Boys. The filmmakers were clearly focused on making a raunchy sex comedy about growing up as an ignorant hormonal teenage boy in a more enlightened and permissive modern age. That certainly comes across, though your mileage will definitely vary with regards to how much juvenile humor you can tolerate.

More importantly, we’ve been buried under so many coming-of-age movies in the past several years, this one needed much more to stand out. Right off the top of my head, I can tell you the film isn’t as funny or intelligent as Booksmart, it’s not as bold or heartfelt as Eighth Grade, and it’s not as modern or hip as Love, Simon. Hell, even Blockers (half of it, anyway) was a better comedy about teenagers on a sex-and-drug-fueled spree.

(Side note: Speaking of Booksmart, this makes the second coming-of-age movie I’ve seen this year that features a slow-motion getaway set to “Nobody Speak” by DJ Shadow, feat. Run the Jewels. Not that I’m complaining, but seriously, what the hell?)

It’s not a bad film, just an okay one. In a time when the multiplexes are still saturated with quality material, and in a genre with so many far superior films in recent memory, “okay” is sadly not enough to warrant a recommendation.

It: Chapter Two

Posted September 16, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

Right off the bat, the title should inform you that It: Chapter Two was never built to stand on its own. If you have no functional memory of the previous 2017 film or the Stephen King source novel (preferably both), or if you have no interest in either, don’t even bother giving this one your money or time.

Stephen King’s “It” is an 1100+ page monster of a novel, structured in such a way that it constantly flashes between two time periods, following our main ensemble of characters as teenagers and grown adults. To address this, the filmmakers (led by recurring Annabelle screenwriter Gary Dauberman, director Andy Muschietti, and his sister/business parter/producer Barbara Muschietti) split the source material into two films, with each movie taking place in its own time period.

The obvious benefit to this is that the story now unfolds in a more straightforward and coherent chronological manner. The unfortunate downside is that thematically, the movie depends heavily on parallels between past and present. In many poignant ways, this is a story about distant childhood memories — some are better left forgotten, some are a great comfort to rediscover, and none of them (no matter how distant) ever truly cease to exist. Though we can (and often should) work to grow beyond our past, the past is always there nonetheless.

The bottom line is, flashbacks were unavoidable. Even with all the groundwork laid in the first movie, the second movie frequently cuts back to the teenage years of our cast. Mercifully, the filmmakers included a lot of really sweet transitions to take us seamlessly between the two periods, launching us into the mindsets of the characters as they flash back to yesteryear. The filmmakers even brought back the first movie’s cast (Jaeden Martell nee Lieberher, Wyatt Olef, Jack Dylan Grazer, Finn Wolfhard, Sophia Lillis, Chosen Jacobs, and Jeremy Ray Taylor) to shoot some new footage for the flashbacks, thankfully before too much time had passed for any of them to age out.

Alas, putting the two sets of actors side-by-side does not do any favors to our adult cast (James McAvoy, Andy Bean, James Ransone, Bill Hader, Jessica Chastain, Isaiah Mustafa, and Jay Ryan). Don’t get me wrong, the adult cast is loaded with seasoned veterans and there’s not a slouch in the bunch. Even so, the teenaged cast had much better chemistry, they gave more spirited performances, and they did a better job of selling the whole concept of Pennywise. Which makes sense, given that Pennywise’s entire MO was built around scaring and murdering children.

Speaking of Pennywise, my opinion of Bill Skarsgaard’s rendition hasn’t changed from the first movie. This interpretation of the character is so consistently buried in makeup and VFX that it would make precious little difference who’s playing the role. As I said in my review of the first entry, “In the miniseries, the actor owned the role. In the film, the role owned the actor.”

Furthermore, we’ve already spent over two hours with this character and the Losers have already killed him once. We’ll have spent five hours with him by the end of this movie, and that’s not even counting however long it took you to get through 1100 pages if you read the book. We know what Pennywise is after and we know how he operates. We know when he’s going to kill, we know how he’s going to kill, and we know when he’s just fucking around with his intended victims. And for that matter, we’ve seen enough of the filmmakers by now to know their style of horror and their sense of timing.

Case in point: Early in the film, Pennywise attacks and kills a young girl with a large facial birthmark (played by Ryan Kiera Armstrong). The whole sequence was a lot scarier the first time I saw it, when Pennywise killed Georgie Denbrough at the start of the first movie!

All of this familiarity leads to a movie that is thoroughly not scary. While there are a lot of freaky and unsettling visuals (this interpretation of the fortune cookie scene is really fucked up), that doesn’t translate into legitimate horror when we know exactly what’s coming and where the serious threats are. That goes double for the horror sequences in the “teenage years” time frame — alternately showing the kids in mortal danger and alive 27 years later doesn’t make any lick of sense.

Worst of all, the filmmakers try to compensate for all of this with jump scares. Lots and lots of jump scares. It gets very old very fast, to the point where it isn’t even scary so much as obnoxious. At one point, when a character asks if they should be running from some creepy shit happening, even Bill says “It’s Derry, I’ve gotten kinda used to it.”

That’s another thing that got on my nerves: The self-referential comedy. There isn’t very much of it, thankfully, but we do get a running gag in which a chagrined Bill is confronted with the repeated feedback that he can’t write a decent ending to save his life. We even get prominent speaking cameos from Peter Bogdonavich and Stephen King himself, rubbing it in that Bill is a wonderful author whose endings are crap. It was a cute little dig at King the first time, but after the tenth time, it got to be a kind of obstinate apology. Like “Yeah, we know this movie is going to be crap compared to what came before and you won’t be happy with the ending. Deal with it.”

Let’s move on to our other antagonist, Henry Bowers (played as a teen by the returning Nicholas Hamilton, and as an adult by Teach Grant). Yes, Hank the Tank inexplicably survived the first movie, hell if I know how or why. While the character is a suitably creepy presence, he’s somehow even less effectual than he is in the source text, which is to say that he’s thoroughly useless. In an overstuffed film in excess of 150 minutes, the filmmakers could have and should have let Henry Bowers die in the first film.

To be clear, the movie did make some wise cuts. Beverly’s husband (Tom, played by Will Beinbrink), makes a token appearance at the start, but his nonsensical and useless appearance in the third act was cut. Ditto for Bill’s wife Audra (Jess Weixler) — sorry, I know her ride down the hill at the end is iconic, but there’s just no way of translating that to the screen in a truly effective way.

Easily my favorite alteration — and by far the most consequential — was altering the Ritual of Chud. Now, the ritual involves each of our main characters going out in search of some item that holds special sentimental value to their childhoods. Thus they all have a legitimate reason to split up and get into spooky misadventures at their old childhood haunts. Nicely done.

Additionally, the Ritual of Chud is no longer described as some absurd and convoluted crap about biting tongues and trading riddles. It’s a battle of wits, pure and simple. A nice, straightforward way of explaining that It draws its power from psychological manipulation, and can only be defeated through imagination and sheer force of will. Trouble is, there’s still no way of actually demonstrating that or fully explaining it without looking like cliched hackneyed tripe. Noble effort, though.

Another wonderful change is that the giant spider is not described as It’s true form. Rather, the deadlights are It’s true form, and the spider is simply another form of the shapeshifter that the deadlights act through. A clever fix, and a great deal less lame. On a similar note, though turtles are still a recurring visual motif, the grand cosmic turtle was cut for good. Probably for the best.

The sweathouse spirit quest from the book was liberally adapted here. Instead of the kids going on a weird hallucination trip, it’s been assigned to the adult timeline, and with only two of the characters undertaking it. Mercifully, the group sex scene from the book is never even tangentially referenced in either time frame. Both good choices.

Bill’s amusement park encounter with Pennywise is a film original, the culmination of his efforts at saving a young boy (played by Luke Roessler) who lives in Bill’s old house. Yes, it’s another extension of Bill’s everlasting grief for the loss of his younger brother, though I guess the filmmakers had to keep that going so the subplot could be resolved in a genuinely sweet way.

Stanley still dies before he ever sets foot in Derry, but the filmmakers came up with all sorts of clever and heartfelt ways to keep Stanley involved even after death. Nicely done.

Still, there are two changes made that really get under my skin. First, the climax of the book features Derry getting torn to shreds. The fight with It causes Derry to get ripped apart like a goddamn Roland Emmerich set. It was such an awesome spectacle in the book and I’m supremely disappointed it didn’t get shown onscreen. Speaking of which, while I understand how the concept of an entire town corrupted by a shapeshifting monster into acting like shitheels might have been a difficult concept to translate to film, omitting it entirely might have been preferable to half-assing it like the filmmakers do here.

But by far the biggest change — and this is the dealbreaker — is that after the climax, the surviving characters remember everything. In the book, it’s kind of a huge thematic point that the characters start to forget everything and move on with their lives as they move further away from Derry. The story has to have that bittersweet ending, or the themes about aging and nostalgia fall apart. It’s such a damn shame that one lousy and totally unnecessary artistic decision keeps this vital part of the story from sticking the landing, especially after all the work the filmmakers did to try and build it up, but it’s all half-baked and flimsy without that ending.

It: Chapter Two feels perfunctory more than anything else. It’s like the filmmakers couldn’t do Part One without also doing Part Two, so they went ahead with it in the hopes of getting a strong ending out of this source material. It’s a really tall order to try and make a satisfactory ending out of so much incoherent world-building in the novel, to try and keep Pennywise scary over five straight hours of cinema, and to adapt so many abstract concepts into a concrete visual medium. I can forgive some of the missteps in adaptation (especially given some of the smarter cuts that they made), but I can’t forgive the film for whiffing the nostalgia-based themes when this cast and crew should’ve knocked it out of the park.

This film needed to be a worthy payoff for five hours of sitting through two movies, to say nothing of the admission dollars spent and the two years of waiting between movies. Alas, the end result is nowhere near so rewarding, but at least it’s not bad enough to retroactively ruin the first movie. I can give this one a rental recommendation if you loved the first film and you really want to know how it ends. That said, if you like the story and characters that much and you’re willing to put so much time and effort into experiencing it, just read the book instead.

Blinded by the Light

Posted September 12, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

Musical biopics are all the rage right now. By taking the tumultuous life story of a beloved pop culture figure and cramming it into the boilerplate biopic format, these films can cash in on nostalgia and chase Oscar gold with ease. Though I don’t think it would be entirely fair to lay this at the feet of Bohemian Rhapsody Rocketman was already long in development when that movie hit, and we got Straight Outta Compton a good three years prior — I think it’s safe to assume we’re going to see a lot more of them trying to ride those coattails.

So here’s Blinded by the Light, fictionalizing the teenage years of journalist Sarfraz Manzoor (the protagonist here is named Javed Khan, played by Viveik Kalra), who’s seen Springsteen in concert 150 times. It’s immediately obvious that this is only very loosely based on any actual life story, yet the film still claims “inspired by a true story” biopic status. And of course Springsteen’s music features prominently throughout. Thus the filmmakers cash in on the musician biopic trend without actually making a musician biopic (see also: Yesterday and the Mama Mia! sequel).

Our protagonist is a Pakistani Muslim teenager growing up in the UK. His coming of age begins in earnest when he finds an interest in Western culture (specifically the music of Bruce Springsteen), to the immediate disapproval of his overbearing family, who insist that he immerse himself in Pakistani culture and values to the exclusion of all else. Thus our main character has to grow into his own while being torn between his family and his passion.

Who made this movie, again? The same writer/director/producer who made Bend it Like Beckham? Yeah, I thought it sounded familiar.

To be entirely fair, there are some key differences. Probably foremost among them is that this film is set clearly and firmly in 1987. While this of course means that the ’80s nostalgia is prominent from the opening credits onward, this also puts us squarely in the Margaret Thatcher regime. Cold War tensions are running high, unemployment is skyrocketing, and any Muslims and/or people of color are in constant danger from all the white nationalists running wild. All of this should sound familiar, and it gives many scenes a timely punch.

It also directly impacts the plot in a huge way, as Javed’s father (Malik, played by Kulvinder Ghir) is laid off early in the first act. He’s still the patriarch who rules over his family with an iron fist. He’s the only one in his family who’s allowed to have any kind of opinion. Everyone in the family has to work hard so that he can pay the bills and put food on the table. And yet of everyone in the family, he’s the only one not making any money. It’s certainly not for lack of trying or love for his family, but it’s still a rank hypocrisy on his part, and a crippling blow to the fragile ego of a man for whom control is everything.

It certainly doesn’t help that Malik doesn’t think of writing as an actual career, he doesn’t approve of anything American, and he doesn’t want any Pakistanis drawing attention from all the dangerous racists out there. Contrast this with Javed’s gradual development into a legit writer, making money and speaking his truth to the world. Yes, it’s easy to see where Malik is coming from — he’s a product of his generation and his sacrifices as an immigrant, and the filmmakers do everything they can to sell the threat of Neo-Nazis within the confines of a PG-13 rating. Even so, the movie is explicit in taking Javed’s side on pretty much everything.

While this intra-family conflict does have some deeply moving beats, it also makes for an uneven plot. It’s easy to lose track of where Javed and Malik are in terms of their relationship, because it tends to whiplash from one status to another, depending on the needs of the plot. This is especially prominent in the thoroughly broken third act, in which the father and son inevitably reconcile without either one of them truly earning it or getting to that point in any plausible way.

In the climax, Javed states that he’s very much like his father, but doesn’t make a convincing argument as to how. We see a lot of Malik being stubbornly miserable without his son, but we don’t see anything of vice versa. And when an olive branch to the family is finally extended, it doesn’t come from Javed, but from his love interest (more on her later), who had absolutely no reason for doing so at that point in the story. Far too often, these things simply happen because it’s a two-hour film and the story beats have to be hit like clockwork, regardless of what makes sense in the moment.

While the film is great about Javed’s conflicts with his family, his heritage, and his crippling lack of self-confidence, there are way too many times when the movie lets him off too easily. It’s frankly absurd how many great opportunities simply fall into Javed’s lap because he’s supposed to be that darn great at writing, and how many times he gets out of all trouble just by throwing Bruce Springsteen lyrics at any given problem.

Even in those times when Javed is taken to task, it comes with some major caveats. A prime example comes when Javed skips out of his sister’s wedding to buy Bruce Springsteen tickets. On the one hand, as a character rightly points out, who does that?! But on the other hand, it’s Javed’s money and he has every right to decide what to do with it. And if spending it pisses off his uptight family, so much the better. Thus the film sides with Javed, perhaps more than it really should have.

Another great example concerns a subplot with Javed’s childhood best friend (Matt, played by Dean-Charles Chapman). There’s a rift between them because Matt plays in an ’80s synth-heavy pop band while Javed is obsessed with the ’70s rock stylings of Bruce Springsteen. Eventually, Javed has to get his head out of his ass and accept that synth pop is no less valid as a musical genre, and is indeed every bit as worthy because it speaks to Matt like Springsteen speaks to Javed. In the middle of a movie so wildly obsessed with Bruce Springsteen, coming from a character obsessed with the musician to such an unhealthy degree, it was good of the movie to comment on that.

The unfortunate drawback is that this subplot only works if Javed and Matt are lifelong best friends. And these two actors just aren’t selling it. Maybe it’s because the two of them have so little chemistry, maybe it’s because they don’t have enough screen time together, maybe it’s because we see so little of them having fun together, but this relationship simply does not work.

Speaking of which, let’s circle back to the love interest. Eliza (Nell Williams) is a teenage firebrand with a passion for liberal activism. She barely makes any kind of impression. All the character’s politics can’t make up for a lack of personality. Williams is clearly trying her hardest, but she’s got no screen presence and her chemistry with Kalra is nowhere near where it needed to be.

Luckily, there are some legitimately solid talents in the supporting cast. Rob Brydon appears for a brief but welcome bit of comic relief as Matt’s father. Hayley Atwell is on hand as Javed’s writing mentor — it’s a thin and cliched role, but Atwell is playing it with all her heart and soul. Aaron Phagura does pretty well as the Pakistani who first introduces Javed to Springsteen, though his costume is doing most of the performing for him. Meera Ganatra gets a couple of small yet brilliant scenes as Javed’s mother.

Then we have the real MVP: Kulvinder Ghir as Malik Khan. This could’ve so easily been a cliched one-note character in a movie already full of them, but Ghir has the character nailed from start to finish. It really is impressive how Ghir keeps the character sympathetic, making his pain and fatherly affection known at all times without ever losing sight of his pride and hypocrisy. It’s amazing work.

And what of Viveik Kalra? Well, he does a pretty decent job on his own. He’s entirely capable of carrying a film, and he serviceably portrays the character through every step of a long and dynamic (if boilerplate) development arc. Trouble is — as I’ve already stated a few times — he’s cinematic Teflon. Save only for Ghir, he’s got no chemistry with anyone else in the cast.

Oh, and there’s Bruce Springsteen music in this picture. I should probably get to that.

To start with, there’s the fact that Springsteen is an American with rock music out of the ’70s. This makes him an outsider to ’80s-era Britain, every bit as much as Javed himself is an outsider. Yet great art is timeless and universal, making statements that apply across all times and places. Not that I’m comparing Bruce Springsteen to Shakespeare or Dickens, you understand, but that’s implicitly what the film does.

On the one hand, I totally get the theme of art transcending barriers, serving as a bridge between cultures. On the other hand, there’s one point when a character asks if a white guy from New Jersey can ever really speak for Pakistani Muslims in the UK, and the question is brushed off. In a time when greater cultural representation in media is such a hot button topic, it seems tone-deaf to ignore the question so brazenly. Then again, this is a movie about Pakistani Muslims written/directed/produced by a Pakistani Muslim woman, so maybe the film is making a statement on the topic simply by existing.

More importantly, there’s the matter of Springsteen’s music and why it means so much to our protagonist. How it teaches him valuable life lessons, why it speaks to him so strongly, how it motivates him to be a stronger and more confident man. All of this is expertly sold by the film.

Unfortunately, the filmmakers didn’t have time to answer a very important question: Does Javed Khan have any personality or identity to speak of, aside from his love of The Boss? Yes, the film could talk for days about how Springsteen’s music gave Javed the strength to break free and figure out who he is, but that doesn’t count for much when we never really get to see who he grows into. If he’s nothing more than a slavish devotee of Bruce Springsteen, is that really any better than being a slavish devotee of his dad?

Blinded by the Light is harmless. At its best, the film is genuinely heartfelt and uplifting. At its worst, the film is merely threadbare and cliched. While the lead characters are rock solid and there are a lot of fascinating themes here, too many supporting characters are thinly developed and too many potentially wonderful thematic points are half-baked. That’s not even getting started on the disjointed plot or that wreck of a third act.

It’s disappointing how the movie spreads itself so thin that it has to rely on well-worn cliches and played-out story beats to serve as a shorthand. It’s a damn shame the filmmakers overextended themselves in trying to craft an Oscar contender when it easily could have (and should have) been a two-hour piece of cinematic late-August comfort food.

I’m sincerely glad I didn’t give the movie a shot until the first run had played out, because no way was it worth opening ticket prices. It’s absolutely worth a second-run viewing or a DVD screening, though.