Bengal’s Vegas Cinema Deep Dive part 1 of 2

Thanks to the glory of the Gorillaz, I visited Vegas last weekend. Seeing them live for the first and maybe only time was quite something. I got a new white t-shirt of them over there to both commemorate the event and because a white shirt in the Vegas heat is better than a black one. Also, the black shirt I’ve got was wearing down and getting too tight.

I couldn’t help but take a break from 80s cinema for my retrospective series to focus on some recent Hollywood offerings about the city of “second” chances. All of them are from the 90s to today and in doing so removes some titles that were already waiting on my watchlist far in the future after I conquer everything in my 80s’ itinerary.

The second part will be two movies based or inspired by historical fact, seeing which is better at telling a history lesson and which is just the better film. These three explore the cool, the profane and the sad of what is known in English as The Meadows.

Ocean’s 11 (2001)

Image from IMDB (Release the Safe-Crackers.)

Steven Soderbergh is a man who, comfortably it seems, lives in two worlds. Ever since his breakthrough debut in 1989’s Sex, Lies and Videotape (which of course dear viewer I will one day tackle), the bald maestro has done many, many films. Some have been mainstream work that even attained critical and commercial success like the film here and others are movies which made so little money you’ve likely never heard of them.

My first time seeing a Soderbergh picture was 2017’s Logan Lucky and how fortuitous for me that that was my first film of his. It’s a heist film involving some West Virginia brothers breaking a southern-fried Daniel Craig out of prison so they can perform a break-in of the Charlotte Speedway during a Nascar race. It’s a Robin Hood tale with it’s players consisting of the proudly podunk, yet smart enough to know that the system has screwed them. They’re just about smart enough to perform a Danny Ocean play but on a smaller scale.

It’s an endearing little movie and proved prophetic for Daniel Craig’s future career choices of playing Dixie-accented figures like in Rian Johnson’s Knives Out. I don’t know if any film of his before Ocean’s 11 could be construed as heist picture, but as the general public is concerned, 2001 was the beginning of a more playful Soderbergh experience.

The early 2000’s was a good time to be that man. In 2000, he somehow found the time to make two blockbusters, Traffic and Erin Brockovich. He would follow up the next year with his interpretation of a Rat Pack flick from 1960. Frank Sinatra and his thick as thieves performer friends got involved in a heist picture that on paper sounds like it should be a classic of the era.

Imagine it, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin alongside eight others on a daring Vegas heist plan: Rob five casinos in one night. Sounds awesome, right? Well, apparently not, as the original Ocean’s 11 is not a film to write home about from basically all accounts. Aside from the Rat Pack presence, inspiring the concept of the first modern feature and there being a crew numbering 11, nothing about it is exceptional.

It seems evident to me that Soderbergh took a film maybe he liked as a kid, thought could be better and did just that. The remake stands a better chance of being remembered, respected even in the long course of time. It’s rare that a remake utterly eclipses the original but here we are.

Danny Ocean is played by an actor, who almost by design, was meant to portray a heist crew ringleader, George Clooney. It takes a lot to make the guy not charming or charismatic. It is sadly possible, as evidenced by Batman and Robin.

After leaving prison, with the board narrowly deciding that he won’t go back to his robbery wiles, Danny immediately starts canvassing to get a crew together for a job that’s more personal than just business.

He gets his number two from L.A. back, Rusty (Brad Pitt), and tells him that despite his recently concluded prison time and that he’s supposed to stay in New Jersey as part of his parole, he wants to rob three Vegas casinos in a single night. Fortunately, there is an underground vault where money that comes from those three casinos is stored. The establishments are all run by Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia), a mildly criminal business magnate whose as far as I can tell is actually on the level. His only vice really is that if someone screws him in any way, his retribution is quite disproportionate.

In order to make us not despise even like the heist crew, to want them to outright win, the victim of this supposedly victimless crime has to be on some level, unsympathetic or villainous. Only Terry is affected by his money being stolen so you don’t feel uncomfortable at the ultimately still criminal thing the Eleven pull off. This is more so for caper films where the crew gets away scot free, a more recent trend in the genre.

It used to be the case that the crooks would start to get what’s coming to them after the heist is successfully pulled off, their own greed and/or carelessness being their undoing. It lets the more morally minded audiences of yesteryear have it both ways: they get to enjoy a risky, even stressful break-in occur and then after it is gloriously accomplished, they still get the hammer of the law smacked on them, so the audience is reminded that as cool as that caper was, please don’t commit any crimes.

Outside of wanting to show how awesome a caper-man he is and I guess money in and of itself, why is Danny going forward with this super dangerous, seemingly impossible job? Well, his ex-wife Tess (Julia Roberts) is dating Terry and he still holds a candle for her. It’s not so much showing up Terry as ultimately he must not know for certain he pulled the caper, it’s just to impress his old flame, show her that he most certainly still has it, even after having served time.

Danny and Rusty assemble the 11 in a humorous, expectedly montage manner. Strangely enough, it can also come across like Seven Samurai or any film like Magnificent Seven that apes Kurosawa’s masterpiece: looking around for people to join a team on what could be a suicide mission.

One of the eleven is someone they already know: Frank Catton (Bernie Mac), a con man and actor whose good at drawing attention away from something more important, a must for someone who won’t just do it the forceful way, which in Vegas is essentially either a prison or death sentence.

The guy who gets them the financing and equipment is Reuben, an old friend of Danny who’s the only other member who has a personal stake: he lost his casino to Terry and wants some bloodless revenge. Won’t be the last time that Elliot Gould appears in my Vegas series.

Scott Caan, the late James Caan’s son, and Casey Affleck play Virgil and Turk, two mechanic brothers who play the getaway drivers. Eddie Jemison is Dell, the appropriately named tech guy. Don Cheadle is the cockney accented demolitions man and Shaobo Qin is a short, Chinese acrobat who goes from circus attraction to both genuinely impressive athlete and comic relief, often through his very flexible body.

Rounding out the eleven is Carl Reiner as the old con artist Saul who decides an almost certain to fail heist in Vegas is better than dogtrack betting. At least it will be entertaining for him no matter the outcome. Due to his advanced age compared to everyone else, he’s the one who appears the most vulnerable and even likely to die just for that reason.

The real life Reiner was in his late 70s in 2001 and still had the moxy for two more capers down the road. He managed to have a one line cameo in 2019’s Toy Story 4 before he finally cashed out the following year in 2020 at 98. This tangent is here because I was genuinely impressed by Reiner’s longevity after Ocean’s 11 made it look like this was a swan song role. For him, he was never too old for one last score, bless him.

Finally, MATT DAMON. Sorry, I momentarily envisioned his unflattering voice and appearence from Team America, which oddly enough the real man actually likes. Damon is the young rookie Linus picked up in Chicago by Danny Ocean. Despite his inexperience, his skill’s undeniable as he did manage to pick-pocket a guy like Ocean.

Due to Julia Roberts being prominently featured in the marketing and because usually there is a token female, I assumed Tess or someone else would take the place of one of the eleven. I actually thought Reiner’s Saul was going to die before the job began. Referencing Seven Samurai again, one of the seven dies before the big battle that closes out the movie. I thought Damon was supposed to debut later as no. 12 in the next movie. This uncertainty and getting everything mixed up sure helped with the drama of a job that you already know is going to succeed.

The inevitability that the heist will, 90% of the time, be pulled off doesn’t ruin the magic. You want to see how it’s pulled off, what tricks or on the spot actions are taken to make it work. More importantly, can the audience place themselves in the shoes of someone like Terry Benedict and believe that they got duped?

Despite being over 20 years old now, it really is great that I was entirely unspoiled to how this movie plays out. Let’s just say for your sake that the movie plays a con on you not unlike how in Redford and Newman’s The Sting, the finale fools both the main antagonist and the audience with one big sleight of hand. There’s a sleight of hand that Ocean and Co. pull off that I should have seen coming but was successfully prevented from predicting. The bastards got me good and I loved it.

How Soderbergh goes about with Ocean and his eleven eventually thirteen continuing to cleverly dupe both antagonist and audience remains a divisive topic. Ocean’s 12 released three years later is seen as the weakest of the now four contemporary Ocean pictures. Soderbergh on the other hand thinks the opposite and considers 12 to be the best of the three movies he made. I’m not curious enough to see if that’s true.

I’m not even curious enough to check out 2007’s 13 which was seen as better but the details of how Danny Ocean pulls it off that time has been taken to task as too ridiculous. Can’t honestly speak for the recent Ocean’s 8, where Sandra Bullock plays Danny’s sister, on any account other than I hear it’s just OK and that Soderbergh didn’t direct.

What I can tell you is that the first time is considered the charm and does as good a job as you can imagine making you understand why Clooney and Pitt aren’t just considered sexy Hollywood royalty but charming royalty. To preface way down my thoughts on the early works of Jim Jarmusch, this movie will put a spell on you.

The Hangover (2009)

Image from IMDB (Two of the three man Wolf Pack, encountering a very annoying problem.)

Just recently, I rewatched the Simpsons episode having Homer and Ned Flanders going on a trip to Las Vegas, all because the latter is worried he’s wasted his life being a totally square, unhip Christian man. On the one hand, he looks barely 40 at the age of 60 due to his pious lifestyle. On the other hand, he wonders concerningly what he’s been missing. Homer, despite normally despising stupid, lousy Flanders is actually happy to help him with his unusual life crisis.

Eventually, both Homer and Ned got so wasted that they forget a wild night that involves them both getting married to some strippers and their escapades eventually involve a tiger, a Mike Tyson parody and it all takes place in a joke version of Caesar’s Palace.

The Hangover is a story of two brothers and their two best friends going on a bachelor party trip to Las Vegas. As the title makes inevitable, a wild night is stripped from memory as three of the four wake up to find one’s missing. The hotel they groggily awake in is Caesar’s Palace and the following proceedings will include a tiger, one of them marrying having married a stripper (played by Heather Graham), and Mike Tyson.

My friends, what we have here is a case of what South Park famously called “SIMPSONS DID IT!” Or, The Simpsons already did it. Sure, there are more details to what should have been an unforgettable night for the four but man they just had to drink what is revealed to be roofies at the start of the night. A lot of those details would’ve been almost impossible to allow on the Simpsons.

Todd Phillips most critically successful movie was a sleeper hit in the summer of 2009. Only an abysmal Transformers sequel and Pixar’s masterpiece Up made more money that season. Before the Hangover came out, the idea of a drunken, crazy night with a destructive aftermath was already a concept. Again, the Simpsons. So, what made this take on the idea into such a cultural phenomenon, leading to two lackluster sequels and essentially launching the careers of Bradley Cooper, Zach Galifianakis and Ed Helms?

It was probably that this take leaned in on at being a comical mystery, seeing how far down the rabbit hole the three friends fell and for rewatch value, seeing how the pieces fit together before the credits show a chronological photo montage of the wild night.

It’s also the interplay of the three friends searching for the fourth. Bradley Cooper’s Phil is nominally the most mature and is revealed to be a dad by the film’s end. He is the most concerned with dealing with the problem as orderly as possible and when things refuse to go their way, grows the most aggressive. Ed Helms’ Stu is the put upon guy, with an overly controlling girlfriend and a real passive streak that comes with a lack of spine. The wild night reveals that he is a more decisive person when under the influence.

Maybe the most memorable of the Wolf Pack is Galifianakis’ Alan, a man-child who despite growing up with a loving brother can’t seem to mature fully into an emotionally adult person. For me, this is ironic considering that due to the beard Alan looks the oldest of the three or at least in appearence the least child-like. He’s the innocuous type of man-child, as he can’t even bring himself to swear like his friends.

What works about the humorous task of seeing the Wolf Pack learn about the night and figure out how to unscrew themselves is the balance between being not absurd enough or too absurd. Nothing about The Hangover is completely off the wall bonkers. It seems crazy enough to actually happen and that this is set in Vegas, a place notorious for wild, seemingly unrealistic events helps shore up plausibility.

It could be my bias in favor of the striped, orange animal, but seeing how the trio deals with the tiger in their bathroom is the most enjoyable obstacle they have to solve. It’s also the scenario that seems least likely for them to resolve because it’s a tiger in a Caesar’s Palace hotel room. How the tiger got up there is never explained and it is honestly better that is never revealed. We certainly know how the friends came across it and it ties into another famous obstacle: Mike Tyson.

One of the greatest boxers of all time is notorious for his behavior off the ring with an incident involving punching someone down some stairs being for many the standout moment. Now, while playing himself in an acting role, part of the humor is not only that the Wolf Pack got involved in a bad way with Tyson, but their fear that Tyson will physically hurt them, due to reputation. I ain’t spoiling if he does though considering this film’s blockbuster status, you likely already know.

The Hangover presents conventions of a stay in Vegas going wrong to comedic effect as intended but it also sometimes subverts what you think might happen. The reveal that Stu drunkenly married a stripper comes to a conclusion that some may seem coming and others won’t. I didn’t, for what’s it worth and it sometimes feels that The Hangover is almost satirizing the cliches of Vegas more than simply comically upping the ante about them.

Let’s get to the obstacle that I’m sure split people more than not on how funny or unfunny it was. Ken Jeong’s Mr. Chow works for the intended reason of being an eccentric Chinese mobster that the Wolf Pack got in trouble with. In terms of how actually funny he is, that is subjective even by the standards of comedy. Clearly, Phillips thought people liked Jeong as Chow since he’s around for the whole trilogy.

I didn’t like him though I could at least tolerate him. He is meant to be annoying for the Wolf Pack, further emphasizing how deep the problems they have go. My first real exposure to Ken Jeong was in the third Transformers movie playing a horribly grating and quite racist figure who calls himself Deep Wang. A person who has traded information with the Decepticons in secret, he gets up close and personal with Shia LeBeouf’s Sam in an infuriating comedy sequence that does at least end with him getting killed by a Decepticon.

I was actually cheering when he finally did die, albeit from an dumb interpretation of a fan-favorite Transformers villain. It was moments like Jeong’s contribution to Transformers where it felt less like another immature comedy skit and more like Michael Bay and writer Ehren Kruger were demonstrating spite on those hoping to have a decent film involving transforming, warring robots.

Jeong is never near as horrible in at least the first Hangover as he is in Transformers 3. He serves his purpose, acts as a genuine threat to our marginal heroes and once his role is done, it is done.

The Hangover’s success can also be best recognized for its interpretation that comedy should be about failure. We laugh at fictional characters making mistakes and suffering defeats over and over again. While this film is about the Wolf Pack stumbling their way out of a totally ruinous mess and actually triumphing, be honest with yourselves: your amusement also comes from seeing them in these messed situations and wondering how worse it will get before it does get better.

The Wolf Pack are not the most likable group of characters and thankfully them not always being sympathetic actually adds to the comedy at times. They’re just likable enough and that they ultimately make it out of Vegas with some dignity intact is a testament to one of the lessons that can be given out like a PSA message: Teamwork matters. One of the funniest moments is when the Pack have to win back some money so they can pay Chow in exchange for what they think is their missing friend.

Alan gets cleaned up, dressed up and uses a guidebook about gambling to help beat the system and win the money. Though it predates it, Alan’s mental process at the game table is just like Sherlock piecing together the mystery’s clues.

It’s not the best comedy I’ve seen, it’s not the best film about Vegas I’ve seen. But it is a film that can be understood for why it was the surprise hit of 2009. Those with the right attitude will enjoy, maybe even savor this comedy with quite an attitude all its own.

Leaving Las Vegas (1995)

Image from Business Insider (The Unbearable Weight of Massive Hangovers)

Based on a novel from a young author who shot himself after learning his book would be made into a novel, Leaving Las Vegas is often considered one of Nicolas Cage’s best movies, proof that he is more than just his eccentricities or voice. The Academy thought so, they gave him Best Actor.

It’s a film that shows perhaps the best the utterly sad, unenviable side of Las Vegas. Or at least, for those who have and could live there. Cage’s Ben Sanderson is a drunk. A hopelessly, I mean hopelessly drunk man. He can’t write scripts for Hollywood anymore and his addiction, compulsion to drink has cost him his wife, kids and circle of friends. After getting a “golden parachute” pension from the workplace who shows uncommon pity on him, he decides to buy as much booze as possible, burns all of his personal belongings and drives to Vegas.

Why Vegas? Oh, it’s not to gamble, he has no reason to. Other than gambling, what is one thing that place has in great quantity? Booze. Based on my recent trip, I can confirm that in 2022, that is still very true. It might’ve been the first time I’ve personally encountered drunk people. I’m so sheltered.

There, he meets Sera, played by Elisabeth Shue. I know her as the girlfriend for Daniel-San in the original Karate Kid, the replacement for Jennifer, Marty McFly’s girlfriend in the Back to the Future sequels and recently in a very uncomfortable to watch role in the first season of The Boys. Here, she’s a prostitute who is able to get much free time to spend with Ben after her Latvian pimp Yuri (Julian Sands) gets whacked due to his poor turnout of profit.

Ben goes from being customer who really isn’t interested in her “services” to simply having someone to talk to in his last days. He intends to drink so much that it kills him. Overtime, the two start to become romantically involved in spite of one having a terminal connection to liquor and the other being a lady of the night.

As you could infer, they come together due to both being outcasts of society: one a failed screenwriter turned drunkard and the other a hooker. This and a little more causes their romance to blossom, but Ben says rather bluntly that she can’t expect him to be kept from his “drink to death” mission. No matter what, it will happen, no matter how much it hurts.

Nicolas Cage’s voice adds well to the sense of a person being hammered and then some. Even when sober, his voice has a certain lilt which suggests something is off. Anyone who has heard Nic Cage speak knows what I’m talking about. He’s perfect for the role as Ben is never sober, not once in the film. He’s clear-headed enough at times to socialize with Sera, to know how to push back verbally when he thinks he has to.

His performance did make me wonder about how often Cage actually drank, because makeup aside he does look and act like a drunk. It gets increasingly discomforting to watch because I started to wonder if Cage actually caused himself harm playing this role. Now, obviously there are certain parts where you can tell he wasn’t actually hurt. The end result of drinking to death can’t be replicated because you know you’re endangering an actor at that point. It’s like actors including extras who play Holocaust victims.

How much should be done to show the starved, weakened results of that genocide? You got to make sure the actors are healthy enough at the end of the day or really put in the movie magic to create the visual illusion of a person brought physically low by the holocaust.

Directed by Mike Figgis, there is an appropriately dreamy look to the film, helped along by Anthony Marinelli and Figgis’ own composition of the score. A jazz score that always underscores that this film will not head to a happy ending, even though the convention is that the drunk will be saved and sober up, helped along by the hooker with the heart of gold. Nope, real life is not often enough like that Hollywood ending and the real life plight of John O’Brien, the story’s writer, cements that.

This Vegas movie is not about Vegas, it is merely the backdrop to a man’s fall and a woman’s potential rise above her current lifestyle. The 90s’ filmgrain, which is quite thick, lends to this environment of forlornness, where every bright spot in Ben and Sera’s short time together is followed up by a reminder that none of this is going to last.

This sure sounds like a depressing watch and the film all but begins with the warning that don’t expect it to lighten up. I found it more sad than depressing. Maybe it was me knowing ahead of time that Ben was indeed doomed to the fate he had decided for himself, perhaps knowing eased that. Or I don’t know, maybe something more depressing in my own life actually made this an escape. A coolly filmed picture which better than any other movie in this series of mine makes you feel like you’re in Vegas, no matter the circumstances.

It’s not the best film about Vegas I’ve seen, but it’s the best set in Vegas I’ve seen.

Part Two: Coming this Weekend

More Marvel, more Problems: Reviews for Thor 4 and Ms. Marvel, guest starring The Boys Season 3 (Spoilers)

Image from Memphis Flyer (Two Thors, the rock guy from Neverending Story and a black, bisexual Valkyrie.)

San Diego was the place to learn about the future of the world’s biggest media series, the MCU.

Phase 4 is ending likely on a much needed high note with Black Panther 2. Phase 5 will open with Ant-Man’s third outing and will consist of two years like the current phase we’re in. Phase 6 will occur entirely in one year and will feature the new, hopefully improved Fantastic Four and the fifth and sixth Avengers. If nothing else, a sense of direction towards an ‘event’ level set of movies is welcome and very needed. If all turns out well, it might make reappraisal for the current set of films and shows we’ve gotten recently occur, for the most part. As for how they stand on their own, well….

My thoughts on Moon Knight and Doctor Strange 2 are already on site. Now, before She-Hulk and Black Panther’s return, let’s delve into two properties that are not exactly bad but endemic to an issue certainly discussed much in the past several months. If I could have it a different way, I would take people’s discussion over the state of a fictional universe and place that concerned passion over something far more meaningful by several thousands fold. Namely, a dying planet and the corrupt, sociopathic institutions that enable that slide downward. But you can’t always have what you want, even if it’s to the benefit of more than yourself. Anyway…..

Thor: Love and Thunder

I really wanna like Thor’s fourth, possibly last solo movie, though not final appearence. Conceptually speaking, Taika Waititi and Chris Hemsworth had the right idea with how to follow up both Thor Ragnarok and the titular character’s part played in Infinity War and Endgame. How it ends I’m genuinely quite fine with. You might agree but your enthusiasm for it’s outcome may not mirror your “agreement”. It resolves a romantic subplot that was seemingly abandoned for good with Thor and Jane Foster’s love story that was seen as too conventional for many. Natalie Portman agreed with that, hence why she was gone for a good amount of time. Then, a surprise cameo appearence in Endgame and the announcement that she was back as Jane Foster for Thor 4.

Recently in the comics, 2014 exactly, Marvel made the controversial decision to make one of Thor’s most enduring love interests, the mortal human doctor into a person who could wield the power of Thor, even taking on his Norse loverboy’s namesake, that itself being one of the sticking points for criticism. Wielding a new hammer distinct from Mjolnir, she basically became a new helmeted figure fighting the good, Scandinavian fight but it came with a catch.

Jane Foster had gotten terminal cancer and her chances of survival were expectably low. However, for reasons I could research right now but won’t, she become worthy of Thor’s power while also gaining some new abilities unique to her iteration. It even made her start speaking Shakespearean. As ‘The Mighty Thor’, it kept her cancer at bay but the continued use of her hammer would worsen the cancer. Don’t know Comic Jane’s current status or whether comic Thor has gone back to basics, but that is the comic book background to explain not only Jane’s cinematic return, but why Portman was convinced to return.

The dramatic romcom angle between Thor and Jane is one of Thor Four’s stronger aspects. Not only is it the unlikely return of something from the MCU you might have honestly forgotten, it helps reinforce that Thor still has a place to go in the increasingly unwieldy MCU. It ends both triumphant and somber, and yes, that movie Jane Foster shares the same cancer diagnosis should clue in those who have not yet viewed.

One of the big critiques of Love and Thunder was an element that went mostly uncriticized for Ragnarok, a distinct Waititi-like mix of seriousness and comic goofiness. While I can see why this tonal dissonance will turn off more than a few people (again, a main character has terminal cancer), my body’s response cannot lie as I certainly laughed at most of the humor. I did think that maybe, more than a few times a good joke or moment of humor that occurred could’ve been replaced for something more straight-faced. That being said, the standout recurring gag, the two giant screaming goats that Thor is gifted early on for “saving” an alien holy site never got old for me even though I was preparing myself to get sick of them.

It’s not just that actual goats really scream in that strangely human manner, it’s also a mythic in-joke that the Thor of legend actually does have two goats at his disposal. If you want to call the goats stupid, then blame the Norse people of over a thousand years ago for their involvement here. But they’re yet moments where the either Waititi, James Gunn or MCU brand humor doesn’t so much elicit a laugh as it does mild approval or not even a response.

This was evident most when Thor and his rock-man buddy Korg were hanging out with the Guardians. The Guardians themselves seem underutilized though again, this is not their movie. Star-Lord’s pep talk about the pain that comes with not so much loss but the pain of when you come to genuinely love someone and lose them was touching and certainly sets up something for next year’s Volume 3.

This in effect sets up Thor and Jane’s story and how in turn right after she returns to his life, he then learns that she doesn’t have much time left. That is, of course, right after coming to grips with his most beloved ex-girlfriend having his powers and his hammer. This leads to another amusing recurring gag involving his current weapon Stormbreaker, created with help from Groot in Infinity War, becoming jealous of Thor longing for Mjolnir back.

When I think back on it, Thor dealing with Jane’s return, potentially permanent departure and what comes after is the heart of Love and Thunder’s strength. The main antagonist, played by and with the same voice Christian Bale has for 85% of his roles albeit appropriate here, is almost another strength. As pointed out by others, including the fine Austin based people of Double Toasted, Gorr the God Butcher is good. But to paraphrase the Wonder Woman 84 villain, he could be better.

It’s rather surprising that the meaning of Gorr and his vendetta to kill all Gods hasn’t been the thing that has caused, ahem, “controversy” for Thor 4. The controversy as it happens comes from One Million Moms and their issue with both Valkyrie giving a bisexual kiss to the hand to one of Zeus’ ladies midway through, but also that Korg and his entire species are gay. Well, it so happens that Kronan reproduction happens in a manner that is not remotely sexual.

It’s about the most G-rated yet comically silly explanation for a type of procreation you could think up. But because it involves two male alien characters getting busy in any fashion, the most certainly 1 million of those moms are upset. Well, sorry to hear that. But, hey, it will be alright! The Supreme Court might soon remove Gay Rights up to and including bringing back anti-sodomy laws, so that should hold you over.

Anyway, I was surprised by how un-triggered people were by the movie’s commentary on worship of Gods and how Gorr responds to their promises in return for fealty being all BS, in the very first scene no less. Gorr, after losing his daughter and becoming the last of his species, comes across an oasis that is not actually a mirage. He finds his literally golden God lounging over there, with other Gods or God-equivalents just chilling. Gorr is confused as to why his God did not help his people, let alone him and his daughter in their absolute time of need. He has never broken faith.

The God rudely dismisses Gorr and essentially laughs at his plight and for falling for the lie he created that he would ever care about or for his creation. Unfortunately for those Gods, they had just killed a being that had a weapon capable of slaying them. Gorr takes up the sword in a fit of rage and kills his God, the others in turn flee. The God Butcher is born.

So you see, I’m wondering why Christians or news media folk who play up the “Christian Persecution Complex” like Tucker Carlson, haven’t had any conniptions over the supposedly anti-theistic sentiments of the latest Marvel movie. For many religions, namely Christianity and Islam, one of the selling points of being devout and faithful is that you will be rewarded with eternal paradise after death. Maybe because Yahweh and Allah aren’t any of the featured Gods in the movie, seeing as how lots of people actually believe they exist, they don’t appear, even in passing mention. Only mythological or whole-cloth made up Gods for Marvel’s universe apply here.

Yet, the critique at the heart of Love and Thunder’s opening sequence is a criticism of one major component of two of the biggest faith systems existing in the world today: be faithful and follow the teachings of the faith and you get not only an afterlife, but an awesome afterlife. Thor 4’s Gorr’s painful revelation seems to point towards it being a negative response to that aspect of faith. From where I’m standing, not only a good response but in this day and age, a timely one. How many Christians or Muslims show a lack of interest or concern with the cataclysmic consequences of climate change down the road for this very reason?

So long as Christians believe in Jesus as God the lord and savior, they will enter a never-ending Heaven. If that is in the cards for you, why bother insuring the temporary world you live in is protected or saved from ourselves? Even with future generations in consideration, why worry for them, so long as they believe like they do? To me, the promise of a better, permanent afterlife is one of the most dangerous and exploitable risks of religion. Indeed, not every religion necessarilly promises a heaven or even an afterlife. Buddhism from what I roughly know actually says it’s great that you won’t get one as Enlightenment in Death is comparable to cessation of existence. That oblivion under Buddhism is true peace.

This is indeed quite a tangent, but I wanted to delve into the surprisingly bold proclamations about religion and faith that a Marvel movie is making, seemingly out of the blue. Then again, there has to be a reason that Gorr, in both comic and on film, has a murderous hatred for Gods.

So, I’ve seen more supportive of Gorr than not, what is the problem? Well, the issue is that we don’t spend enough time seeing Gorr’s deeds as the God Butcher. Before the admittedly awesome encounter Thor, Jane and Valkyrie have with him in the Shadow Realm, the only time Gorr is doing or attempting his God-slaying on-screen is when he raids the New Asgard, run by Valkyrie in Norway. The principal heroes are all there to protect the city-state from Gorr. Gorr doesn’t kill any Gods save a few random Asgardians and he only succeeds in kidnapping the children of New Asgard including the never before seen son of the late Heimdall, Astrid. On that note, would’ve been nice to have established the kid before now, just saying.

All the other times, Gorr slays Gods off-screen and we get to see the aftermath of his destruction, such as when Thor and Korg investigate the death of a giant Snow-beast God. Maybe it’s because Taika wanted to focus more on Thor and Jane for understandable reasons, while also giving some time to where Valkyrie and Korg are at, but Gorr, for all of his significance, isn’t quite present enough. He’s certainly memorable, helped by where his story begins and where it ends. But for a film that was criticized for having too much of something, it also doesn’t have enough of another something.

Then, let’s deal with that dragon of an issue that is not necessarilly Thor 4’s fault alone. The oversaturation and overexposure of superhero content. While the general inconsistency of quality for Marvel’s Fourth phase is often viewed in a vacuum, it’s often paired with a growing sentiment that superheroes, mostly when it comes to the movies, are overstaying their welcome. What they’re doing for the most part isn’t enough anymore. The conventions and trends of a superhero story are becoming too familiar, even if still handled well.

We’ve reached the point of having a good number of media which satirizes superhero film convention, all the way to box office gold, as evidenced by Deadpool’s success. To be featured later, The television adaptation of The Boys is a satire and brutal critique of many things, and superhero storytelling and the culture that surrounds superheroes has proven to be a ripe, ripe target for three seasons and counting.

What was once niche or unprofitable, the deconstruction and critique of the superhero, with Snyder’s Watchmen film and the Kick-Ass movies, is now both making money and getting more than a few people talking. It is now exciting to talk about where superheroes conceptually fail or why they can’t get better or evolve once more. Whether they even should evolve is another question, but here familiarity breeds contempt and we are very, very familiar now. On my calendar for the rest of the year, four things are superhero based. When it comes to what Marvel expects you to watch just next year alone, it’s the following:

-Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania

-Secret Invasion

-GOTG Vol. 3

-Echo

-The Marvels

-Loki: Season 2

-Ironheart

-Blade

-Agatha: Coven of Chaos

-Daredevil: Born Again

That’s ten things in one year and six of them are shows. People have already been complaining about the load of content to watch for this phase alone, currently over 50 hours. This is irrespective of how good or bad this content will be, but does it not feel like too much to process, to keep the complicated picture in place? Once, the MCU would give two things a year, then three. That was good enough for both audiences and critics.

Starting in 2021 with its fourth phase, Marvel asked you to consume nine entries of the MCU. If nothing else, Marvel and Disney are exacerbating a growing concern for the genre, making eventual burnout if not a possibility an inevitability. Some have already tapped out. Now Avengers Endgame was perhaps meant to be a stopping point for those who were already inclined to want a stopping point. But then again, having the next MCU entry release a mere two months later with Spider-Man: Far from Home might have confused that possible intention of there being a “stopping point.”

When it comes to how Thor: Love and Thunder addresses a concern that Marvel Studios should be aware of, just look at the second weekend drop, of 68%, to suggest if not an impending death in attendance, a withering enthusiasm for what Marvel has in store. Now, based on what I thought of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’s teaser and even what I think of the conceit behind next month’s She-Hulk: Attorney at Law, there is still a chance to recapture that enthusiasm. The reveals at SDCC 2022 and that there is a direction to look at does mean if nothing else, there is something potentially dynamic on the horizon.

Thor: Love and Thunder is fine. In some areas, I like it, in others I almost love it, like that Shadow Realm sequence. All that said, I feel more approving of last May’s second Doctor Strange. It was darker, more daring, and had visual and stylistic choices which made it feel like not the same filmed thing we have grown weary of over the years. It took chances and while it also recieved a muted reception and a second weekend drop only a percent less bad than Thor’s, I believe the reasons for Stephan Strange’s divisive second solo outing were mostly different than Thor’s. The fourth Thor feels more indicative of much of the growing frustration with where both Marvel and superheroes are at this moment in time.

The visual set pieces were across the board more visually arresting and imaginative in execution for Multiverse of Madness than Love and Thunder. In spite of the very kind words towards the Shadow Realm sequence I’ve given, a lot of the other set pieces don’t feel as fresh or as rewarding. The opening fight Thor and the Guardians have with basically Fragglerock aliens wasn’t as fun as it should’ve been. It was there, more than anywhere else, where I felt that accusation of Love and Thunder being an inferior Ragnarok was real.

Thor: Love and Thunder seems destined less to be seen in its entirety again by me on Disneyplus and more to be watched through in parts, checking out the moments that really worked over those that either didn’t or not well enough. I suspect that is a diagnosis I will give to the next MCU entry up to bat.

Ms. Marvel

Image by Deadline (Fangirl Ascendant.)

My relationship with Kamala Khan, the most recent one to take on the mantle of Ms. Marvel, the first being Carol Danvers, is complicated. I would’ve liked and read more of her series which began in 2011, if I didn’t find the artwork so unappealing and honestly kind of ugly. It’s hard to describe why I didn’t like it but it reminds me of how butt-ugly John Romita Jr’s style is, especially on display in the comic book version of Kick-Ass. I’m sure that later on a different, possibly better (for me) art style took over but it not only stunted my exposure to one of Marvel’s newest mainstays, it also made it harder to appreciate what good was in those original stories.

Of course, the live action show doesn’t have that problem, though it does reference the comic series’ art in the closing credits. In this framing, its much easier to appreciate what makes Kamala Kahn potentially one of the “leading” figures of the MCU going forward, seeing as how the early maypole characters like Tony and Steve are certainly gone now.

Iman Vellani, despite being a first time actress, acts like she’s been a veteran actor for years. She encapsulates Kamala Kahn so well because she is almost certainly playing herself. If that is actually not the case behind closed doors, consider me fooled.

More than Oscar Isaac’s dual personality duties in Moon Knight, Vellani’s Kahn carries Ms. Marvel through the rough patches or elements that have sadly become an expected factor of the Marvel Disneyplus experience. It starts exuberant and so confident in it’s direction, that you and by that I mean I didn’t care when it ventured into territory that could reasonably be called “Disney Channel” adjacent.. Even when it starts to feel a little too close to the tone of Tom Holland’s Spider-movies, I still didn’t care because Kamala Kahn is executed so well. I could forgive and even mildly appreciate much, but not all.

The thing that makes Kamala Kahn/ Ms. Marvel stand out despite it all and the inevitable comparisons to Peter Parker or Miles Morales is that she is an in-universe fangirl of superheroes. She is a nerd who drinks deep the well of information and knowledge surrounding her world of real life superpowers and individuals. The poor girl would be shattered if she lived in The Boys’ universe. Of all the heroes, she idolizes most the girl power superhero of Marvel: Carol Danvers/ Captain Marvel. She’s such a fan, she makes excuses or rationales for the very issues most have with this interpretation of the already contested comic book figure.

I’ll go out on a limb and call her a better character overall than Carol Danvers. That’s…actually not a controversial opinion to be honest. When I think about Brie Larson’s take on Carol Danvers, I respect more than like how she has been handled. For those who complain about her being the perpetual frowner of the MCU, even more than her actually more cheerful looking comic counterpart, the point is that she is encompassing attributes of male comic characters that are either not even noticed or mocked if its gets a little too much, i.e. “emo” or “angsty.”

The point I’ve accepted about the Larson Carol Danvers is that she is defiantly herself, powers or no powers. Nothing will talk her down from that. Hopefully, next year’s The Marvels, which will be featuring Kamala, will actually take time to explore her more, something that none of her appearances outside of her first movie have deigned or had time to do. But I won’t lie: I’m more eager to see more of Kamala and the returning from Wandavision Monica Rambeau than Carol. I’ll let that ill thought-out gaffe of hers at the end of WV slide for now. Look it up online to know what I’m referring to there if you don’t.

Kamala’s interest bordering on obsession with Danvers and Marvel’s superheroes is just one of the two primary factors of Ms. Marvel. The other is the typical teenager growing up pains colored in by her admittedly very liberal Muslim upbringing. For one, the only time Kamala is told to cover her head with something is during mosque. The rest of the time, none of her family remotely cares that her whole head is uncovered. I take it on faith ironically enough that the Middle-Eastern American showrunners and Vellani’s own life experience explains this aspect of generally Progressive Islam on display.

It’s important to remember that like Christianity and most populated enough religions, there is a sizable number of strains to Islam. Despite what the era of the War on Terror might infer to you in Islamic practice, or what the horrifying extremes nations like Saudi Arabia practice, there is actually a lot of variation in expectation for the role a Muslim is expected to play in life. The roles of women can actually differ considerably depending on the interpretation that is given to the Quran.

Much is the same with the Bible and they’re passages of the Bible, non-contradictory passages mind you, that say a good number of things against general assumptions modern day Christians, namely many American Christians, have made in favor of being biblical. They’re is also stuff that modern Christians that I am very glad for all our sakes don’t practice. This conscious or unconscious cherry-picking of what or what not to follow in biblical faith, is by Ms. Marvel’s account, no less true for Islam, especially when it comes to Muslims living in North America.

In fact, now that I think about it, Kamala’s own relation with her Muslim faith is actually not a component of her story arc. Muslim culture, not necessarilly how to follow the will of either Muhammad and Allah, is at center stage, but when it comes to how belief colors the actions that lead Kamala on, it really isn’t a factor. There seems to be a general truth to this approach as plenty of people who live under religious households or self-identify as a certain religion, will not necessarilly paint a lot of their life course under it strictly or otherwise.

In that respect, Kamala very much comes across to me as a “secular” Muslim, which does sound like an oxymoron, but it’s an oxymoron that seems to be alive and well in the real world. Considering my own thoughts on religion, religiosity and so forth, it’s very much for the best that is the tact they’re going for with the MCU’s Kamala Kahn, which mirrors the comic version.

Of course, living in a multicultural place like Jersey City, with Manhattan just over the water, means that Kamala can’t help but be exposed to many different worldviews. She can’t be closed off even if her parents wished, which they don’t. They’re revealed to have been Bon Jovi fans in their youth on that note. Her best friend is a white as white can be nerd called Bruno who certainly mirrors Peter Parker but is destined to stay the Ned to Kamala’s Peter.

Around the midpoint, the aspects that make Ms. Marvel not quite the best Disneyplus Marvel show it could’ve been seep in. The introduction following her harnessing of powers of the two principal antagonist forces, The Department of Damage Control, given its more FBI-like feel in Spider-Man: No Way Home and the Clandestines, a group of superhuman beings also known as Djinn. Damage Control is the much expected, superpower police force that was bound to come into being in a world like the MCU’s Earth are better than the frankly underwritten and underexecuted Clandestines, led by Nakia (No relation to the Black Panther character).

They start off promising, not only to help explain why this version of Kamala has her powers (deliberately, controversially different than the comic explanation), but also to explore an idea that Shang-Chi last year first posited: alternate/pocket dimension worlds with entry points hidden throughout the planet. How they go about with explanation and what it leads to, leaves more than a little to be desired.

It leads to a trip from Jersey City all the way to Karachi, Pakistan. While it does give an informative look into the circumstances that lead to modern Pakistan’s strained birth, in connection with the fall of British India, that might be quite intriguing stuff to the uninformed, it does once again fall on how… half-baked the results can feel.

Whether it’s the consequences of a TV budget (some of the CGI is baaaaad), or whether this was actually the best format to tell this story, not unlike Obi-Wan’s own Disneyplus experience, I started to feel a little cut off from what made Ms. Marvel stand out in a good way. The action sequences, more so in the Pakistani locations, are less compelling than the ones that are back home in Joisey. How the Clandestines face up against the inexperienced Kamala and her scarved ally Red Dagger can be honestly kind of embarrassing.

Meant for a younger audience or not, the Clandestines’ sense of danger fades more and more as the season goes on to the point where they make bone-headed mistakes that are laughably stupid. Also, the motivations of the last surviving Clandestine at the end, Kamran (who of course Kamala crushes on) are more than a little confusing or hard to fully accept. Still, not as bizarre as what Reva was doing at Obi-Wan’s conclusion.

Ms. Marvel, like Thor 4 and Obi-Wan, ends in a place that makes you feel fine about the end result. How it got there is a lot harder to fully process one way or another. I for one am getting increasingly tired of Disney not really flexing their money power levels when it comes to their TV entries for the MCU. You and I both know that more money can and should go into making the shows be as well-budgeted in presentation as the movies.

This is especially true when it comes to the upcoming She-Hulk. The first trailer’s CG, which is a must considering not one but three Hulk-like characters are in the show, was seen as wanting. The second trailer, premiering at SDCC, showed off CG effects which were better. The expressiveness of the green characters is commendably present. Considering Kamala’s presence in next year’s The Marvels and how in time she might prove even more valuable to the MCU’s survival than at first, having her debut appearance be more polished would’ve helped.

Disney’s attitude towards poor Kamala might differ from Marvel’s, including Kevin Feige. The debut episode of Ms. Marvel aired the same day as Obi-Wan’s fifth. This, along with other factors, including a sizable portion of bitter and/or bigoted Marvel fans, resulted in the lowest numbers for a Disneyplus show. Online bad-mouthing, regardless of the more complex picture of the show’s quality led to scoring on sites like IMDB that are certainly not up to snuff not just with critical opinion but mine. As it stands in late July 2022, the IMDB score is 6.2 out of 10, actually higher than its rating while the episodes came out.

Please, if you’re inclined, share your honest thoughts about Kamala’s entry to the MCU. Earnestness of online opinion aside, Kamala Kahn and us should both be grateful that she has nowhere to go but up. Considering the cosmic place of Carol Danvers, she will go high indeed.

The Boys Season 3 (Huge spoilers in particular here)

Image from CNET (Audience surrogate Hughie and Soldier Boy, America’s Ass…hole.)

The third Season of the superior version of Garth Ennis’ vitriolic send up of superhero..anything is the most definitive proof that the tightrope balancing act it’s performing has been perfected. It is gross, it is beautiful, it is mean, it is warm, it is provocative, it is thought provoking. It hits more than almost any other piece of contemporary media at addressing the frightening circumstances of the modern world today, let alone for America. It’s an irreverent, to put it so lightly, satire of current superhero popular culture and what it means to us, why we follow it no matter what it might actually be prescribing.

It’s greatest feat, which might be the best showcased by this season, is it’s pitch perfect attack on “corporate wokeness.” As you might’ve guessed, I am not an anti-woke person, far from it. I’m only against it when it’s poorly or so bluntly executed it does a bad job of communicating its points in a relatable manner. The most recent season of DC’s Young Justice has suffered from this, when it was actually doing a pretty good job being “woke” in earlier seasons. In terms of media that does “dreaded” wokeness so well you might not even realize it’s happening, check out the newest She-Ra show and Disney’s The Owl House. The latter is so fantastic, you might have a hard time even believing it’s under the Mouse’s control.

The Boys is not anti-woke. It very much is. It’s against the cynical “wokeness” of corporations that make profit out of civil and human rights issues, namely LGBT rights. The Boys airing in June, which is Pride month, was almost intentional. Real life corporations put out all the rainbows and LGBT iconography to show their support. I am not saying that no one who works in any of those companies aren’t true believers in representation or rights. It’s often the creators, the artistic people within those places that actually show off their uncynical support through their work.

Getting back to the Owl House under Disney, it is created and showrun by Dana Terrace, a bisexual woman. She actually had to fight with Disney higher-ups to allow her bisexual and other LGBT subject matter to be showcased in the show, up to and including the main character and her love interest. Disney, whose board I’ve heard is actually pretty conservative, actually yielded because they reportedly admired Terrace’s stubborn determination. That, and they looked at where the polls were leaning to greenlight Terrace’s creative vision.

That’s the thing about “corporate wokeness” and why it’s actually insidious. If the polls somehow went in the opposite direction regarding gay rights and representation tomorrow, would those same companies still hold water for Pride? No, they would then change their tunes to fit with what the viewerbase supposedly supports by the charts. No actual conviction, no integrity. Sure, there will still be individual examples of people working under those corporations who will still fight for that representation no matter the direction of the wind. Because, to people like Dana Terrace, it deeply matters to them in a way that profit can never account for. That is at least my hope, and The Owl House’s earnest quality leads me to believe as such.

Vought, the monopolistic company that among other things runs the real-life superhero team, The Seven, would flip their tune on a dime if America changed their minds. The manipulation of the masses is a key feature of Season 3, as Homelander, the terrifying yet really sad deconstruction of Superman, becomes a Trump like figure. Near the Season’s beginning, after losing his girlfriend Stormfront (who happened to be a long-living, superpowered literal Nazi), decides he’s had enough of inhibiting himself for the sake of corporate image or fear that how he really feels will make the world hate and fear him.

Much to his surprise and eventual joy, many people love the things he’s saying, even as it leads to a cult of personality developing. A moment from the first season, that deliberately echoes George W. Bush’s words at Ground Zero, was the birth of an alarming seed that is flowering by this point of the series. It’s bad enough that Homelander is Superman without the humble upbringing that keeps him down to earth and decent. Now, the people of the modern world eat up his words, many of them lies or half-truths, because it rings true to them. Much like the prior and possibly future President of my nation.

The titular Boys, lead by Karl Urban’s quintessentially South London Billy Butcher, are a mostly unpowered group of agents whose role is to either clear up superhero messes caused behind the scenes or to outright neutralize Supes that have gone bad. Due to Butcher’s fraught history with the reality of superheroes, his end goal is ideally the end of all superheroes. But if he can’t have that, killing Homelander will do.

That’s a problem for the Boys considering that one of them is superpowered, the mute Kimiko, who was kidnapped and forced to have superpowers through Compound V, the man-made drug Vought created and administered into the global population in secret and without anyone’s consent. I don’t know which came first, this plot idea, but the Ultimate Marvel universe controversially revealed in the much despised Ultimatum event story that the Mutants of that Marvel continuity were all the byproduct of the U.S. government trying to replicate the super soldier serum that made Captain America, not the X-gene being the next step in human evolution.

Let’s just say that what really did not work out in the end for Marvel Comics really works out in the Boys. That a soulless corporation slowly created their own age of superheroes on the unsuspecting populace fits perfectly in line with the show’s philosophy. It also makes the more sympathetic, maybe even actually heroic Supes more interesting. Starlight is the one supe who in general avoids reaching the “grey” zone of most superheroes in The Boys’ universe.

She comes the closest this season of actually falling down the rabbit hole that leads other once optimistic and idealistic supes like the Wonder Woman-like Queen Maeve, Flash-like A-Train and Aquamanesque The Deep into cynical, desperate celebrities. Thankfully, a moment mid-season has her finally throw her hands up in the air and let go of the celebrity angle to her superhero life. She broadcasts to the world the truth about Vought, about Homelander, that she will no longer be Starlight to anyone or anything. She will be Annie Jones, her real self, come what may.

The Boys’ perspective on superpowers, if they were real, and what would actually happen, mirrors a line of thought that last year’s The Falcon and Winter Soldier brought up. Steve Rogers being the continually good person he was, despite the power the super soldier serum gave him was a reflection of the idea that the serum didn’t just give the guy super strength and agility. It enhanced what he was, made him more of who he already was.

When it is used by someone who does not share Roger’s morality or ideology, John Walker, the man who will be U.S. Agent, he turns not to be worthy of that power and abuses it almost immediately. That the MCU show does not stick the landing in that subject matter in the end, among other flaws, is not what matters. What matters is that The Boys picks up that idea and does it, what’s the word oh right, justice. Annie Jones started as a good person, and had less of an impulse to fall for the same vain things as other members of the Seven, especially A-Train and Deep. Queen Maeve has undergone a slow but steady redemption, to actually fight in secret against the corrosive nature of Vought and Homelander, even at the risk of her own life. Her ultimate goal, if it’s even possible, is to leave it all behind, maybe get back with her girlfriend.

Kimiko undergoes a personal revelation about her extremely violent powers and how it relates to the surprisingly sweet-natured relationship and romance she shares with Frenchie, the Boys’ weapon-master. What she once despised she comes to begrudgingly like, no matter how visceral it is. That it can let her protect the people she loves, predominantly Frenchie, has her come to a conclusion that was purposefully meant to let people like myself feel conflicted. Hughie, the audience surrogate, undergoes a similar crisis where he does not have the powers to protect Starlight, whom he is in a loving relationship with. When he is given the chance, offered by Butcher, to gain temporary superpowers for a day, he takes it without a second thought.

Butcher, a man who is shown to have every reason to be suspicious of those with power, figurative or not, allows himself to take Temporary Compound V. It gives him a fighting chance to actually stop Homelander, but he’s also putting his own values on the line on the process. Aside from Temp V unsubtly being like a dangerous drug that hurts you the more you take, it also best reflects the philosophy of superpowers enhancing who you already are, for better and more so for worse.

Butcher knows he’s not a good person. While he believes he does bad things for the right reasons, he yet realizes it’s still bad. Maybe he’s convinced himself, not unlike Stephen Strange up until a point, that his way is the only way. A really heart-breaking flashback sequence we witness shows that a lot of the bad aspects of Billy Butcher are the result of his abusive father.

Hughie on the surface seems like a far better person that Butcher, maybe even a guy who would be worthy of superpowers. His deep insecurities, and that his desire for power comes from misplaced lack of trust in his relationship with Annie/Starlight dooms his use to be bad. All of this ties into the very essential understanding that the reason we should be glad superpowers don’t exist is because most humans cannot handle that power. An argument could be made that humanity has not evolved or will never evolve to wisely use power as we know it now. Perhaps our species is falling down the path to self-destruction this century because our minds cannot properly harness power conceptually, at least not for long periods of time. Despite the show yet arguing that a select few like Starlight and maybe Kimiko can handle it, the argument is still against that power. Those two are the exception to the rule.

Even more than Homelander, no one embodies this concept better than the Captain America parody Soldier Boy. Jensen Ackles’ excellent performance as the Boys’ star spangled man echoes Chris Evans’ take, giving it a slightly more Texan slang, perhaps referencing the actor’s Texas roots. His outfit deliberately mirrors the MCU Cap, and his disheveled, bearded appearence recalls Rogers in Infinity War.

Soldier Boy is not solely a unrelenting stab at the “patriotic superhero” concept that basically began with Captain America back in the 1940s, he is possibly the best showcase of Falcon and Winter Soldier’s idea done well. This is John Walker truly without restraint. Before becoming Soldier Boy in the 40s, the guy was a douche, sharing many of the bigoted and contemporarily unwelcome attitudes of a person at the time. Actually, he might actually be douchey even for a guy from the 40s. Revealed as a silver spoon kid, he had less reason than most of the time to even try to be gentlemanly.

This in turn is not just an inversion of the Chris Evan’s variant, but is also another callback and improvement to Ultimate Marvel, in this case their more “realistic” depiction of Captain America, as written by Mark Millar. Millar is actually comparable to Garth Ennis, though Millar tends to do more “tame” stuff than Ennis from time to time. It would be news to me if Ennis ever did anything that went below a Mature rating in his works.

Soldier Boy is a supe from the past who was captured by the Russians during the Cold War. Unlike Cap America, Soldier Boy can actually go toe to toe with the Superman level Homelander. Even though it would never really happen, Superman would wipe the floor with Steve Rogers. Not here. He also has Wolverine-like long life, being essentially the same age today as he was in the 1940s. Butcher and the Boys risk a lot trying to break Soldier Boy out of his cryofreeze prison below Moscow. Once back in America, Butcher basically makes a deal with the devil: Help Soldier Boy with some loose ends and in turn he will help end Homelander.

Those loose ends involve his old team, Payback, who actually were responsible for him getting taken by the Reds in the first place in the 80s. Why the betrayal? Because he was f**king horrible to his team, being the toxic masculine figure he is. One of his old team-mates is Black Noir, a current day member of The Seven and the masked, mute supe undergoes an existential crisis upon learning of his return. He resolves it in possibly the looniest way imaginable. In that, it involves toons only he can see in his shattered mind.

If the amount of text alone for this section is any indication, The Boys handles an exceptional amount of content to parse through, all of it exceptionally well. I could bring up A-Train’s cynical use of his skin color to try to promote black rights, when it’s really about self-promotion. I could delve into the Deep’s own insecurities leading to his betrayal in time of good things he stands for over the fear yet respect he has for Homelander. The African-American member of the Boys, Marvin/Mother’s Milk/M.M., is reconciling his mix of fear and hatred for Soldier Boy, who did his family horrifically wrong growing up with the utility Butcher sees in bringing him along as a secret weapon. That’s not even counting his strained relationship with his ex-wife who has married a middle-aged, bespectacled schlub who begins to fall for Homelander’s rhetoric and how it affects his cute, growing daughter’s own life.

Then, there’s finally Ryan, the son of Homelander whose mother was Butcher’s wife and true love, Becca, who brought out the best in him. A recognition of who Butcher believes himself to be causes him to distance himself unwisely from the kid, who is in hiding from his awful father, following a mutually sorrowful end to Becca that happened due to Butcher and Homelander’s one-on-one war.

Left alone by Butcher, Ryan, who has the powers of Homelander, is now is running the terrifying risk of being like his old man. Homelander became a messed up figure due to being an artificially created person born in a lab with an uncaring, unnurturing environment. By season’s end, Homelander finds and offers Ryan to join him. With Butcher having left him, Ryan accepts. The last scene of the season involving Homelander and Ryan at a rally in the former’s honor ends with one of the most bone-chilling final shots I’ve seen from media in a long time. It recalls a moment from the MCU, actually one of the most iconic.

It recalls the final scene of Avengers: Infinity War, where after Thanos’ hard fought, hard cost victory in wiping out half of all life in the universe, he sits down at his retirement hut, looks out at the sunset and initially sports a morose visage. But it slowly turns to a smile, knowing that all his sacrifice was worth it, in his own twisted perspective. The Boys’ third season ends with Ryan watching something his father does in front of a crowd and then the crowd cheers and claps. What Homelander did was horrible, as you would expect and the crowd decided after initial shock it was great. Ryan goes from a concerned frown to a small smile. History does not repeat, it rhymes.

That’s not every thread worth mentioning, even now. There’s still Congresswoman Neuman, who I would bet strong money is meant to be a multifaceted critique of AOC. An AOC who has in secret, in my opinion, the scariest superpower in the entire show. What she is about is worth exploring all by itself. But much like sentiment about the superhero genre today, this is starting to overstay its welcome.

Against all odds and in spite of the utterly profane and honestly boundary-pushing humor The Boys proudly displays without any shame, this show and what it stands for is anything but overstaying its welcome. No matter how terrible, no matter how ugly the things it will show me in the coming years, The Boys remains one of the most necessary pieces of entertainment being made today. Only a weak stomach and deeply embedded personal bias will keep you out of its diabolical vacuum.

Next time: maybe, maybe not more 80s’ glory.

Bengal’s 80s Retrospective part XII

I should delve into the latest stuff happening this year like the fourth Thor, the third season of The Boys, maybe even some games I’ve come around to completing. Part of me even wants to talk about the astonishingly great reimagining of all things, She-Ra. A show that manages to be appealing to a straight white dude while also nailing the pursuit of “girl power” without becoming heavy-handed. Again, I’m referring to She-Ra. It also just happens to have one of the most emotionally satisfying endings I’ve experienced in a long time, while somehow leaving itself open-ended.

It’s also quite a treasure trove of joy for those who can appreciate LGBT storytelling and relationships like I do. It might be a bit harder to enjoy it as an American, knowing that LGBT rights may well be on the way out in a depressingly regressive political period through an authoritarian, anti-majority opinion Supreme Court. With that in mind, I will continue to likely torture myself, cursed with that knowledge, as I started watching another acclaimed cartoon show right after with a gay love story included, The Owl House, courtesy of Disney. As far as I know, the one place where on gay representation, the House of Mouse walks the walk and talks the talk.

So, after (maybe) depressing you with all that, let’s talk about four more films from a time where if nothing else, we had a lot more time apart from the present day hellscape of the 2020s’, even if a lot of the setup for said hellscape was being established at the time. Let’s get another Bollywood classic out of the way, 1985’s Babu.

Babu (1985, India) (Featuring a ramble about international media’s handling of progressive or not so progressive subject matter)

Image from cinemaazi (Have a poster, in lieu of a screenshot not available on Google Images.)

Films of other nations have been called or are indeed morality plays. America has made some, certainly. Nigeria from what I know is all about their motion pictures explicitly being tales with a moral learned at the end. India’s Bollywood industry, hardly the only major film industry for the nation, with entirely different languages boasting their own, such as the Tamil and Telugu tongues, just can’t seem to get enough of them, at least as far as the 80s’s period would inform me.

In spite of poverty or the lack of many first world utilities that are essentially a given in most parts of the States, India especially in presentation has always struck a balance between appearing behind the times and yet also of the times. I get that I’m watching Indian cinema that is around 40 years old give or take and plenty has happened since but I make the point that Bollywood takes India’s fears and insecurities and finds a way to address them, often with several dance numbers.

While involving stories about morality that may or may not be connected with Hindu beliefs and teachings, these 80s’ Bollywood flicks address then and maybe even contemporary societal and political ills. While I couldn’t call the political/cultural prescriptions of these movies on quite the same level as American progress, they do seem more progressive and even outright challenging of societal assumptions everyone has to some degree about India.

It appears to me that often the media of a country can be more progressive or more willing to challenge the status quo than not. Japan is a fantastic example. While there is plenty in Japanese popular culture that serves to remind one of not just cultural difference but a distinct “not quite based enough” attitude compared to something in America or Europe, there are just as many examples of their popular culture flying in the face to varying degrees to Japan being a “socially conservative” nation.

A lot of Japanese media features material that I would not call socially conservative. Female characters in positions of power, outright criticism of Japan’s modern political situation among other things. The layout however is complicated, as issues of female representation continue to be a thorny aspect of Japan’s cultural expression and in some ways they’re still catching up. Depictions of gay or trans people in Japanese media I’ve consumed can leave much to be desired. Transphobia is a particularly frustrating strain I’ve witnessed.

On that note, India is a country which has it’s continuous hang-ups, often religiously inspired, when it comes to its treatment of gay or trans people. Whole-ass pieces of media, like games featuring gay characters, are banned over there. And yet, as Babu here proves, Indian entertainment has a long-standing tradition of challenging tradition. Take for instance, the caste system.

While not explicitly mentioned, the titular character is part of a lower class in the caste system. I do not know or remember the levels of the caste system or what power or lack thereof one has over the other but it is made clear that the rickshaw driver that is our hero is not on the same level as other characters. I could be entirely missing the point over what Babu is saying but if nothing else the applicability resonates.

In what I imagine is Mumbai, Babu pulls people along the many crowded streets with a rickshaw cart. I was surprised at rickshaws being something in India as I assumed they were a uniquely Chinese form of transportation. Then again, this is just a grown man pulling someone in a cart, not very complicated. The story occurs over several decades as we see the once young Babu grow into an old man, with terminal sickness following suit. A little girl and her family also change with the times.

At first, Babu simply helps the rich family with their commute but after the patriarch of the family dies, it leaves the little girl and her mother poor and forced to live in a run-down home. This alone acts, I almost guarantee it, as critique of how for many Indian citizens the financial security of a whole family is dependent on just the man and if the man goes….

Out of the Samaritan kindness of his heart, Babu starts supporting the wife and her daughter, as she grows into a teenager and then a young woman. The girl is called “Pinky”. No, really. Eventually, as Pinky grows into maturity, the matter of her education and eventually marrying a guy takes precedent.

Babu essentially works himself to death over the course of the movie. Any of the money he earns through his hard work to help support himself or maybe ascend the ladder of Indian life he puts towards Pinky and her mother. In spite of having no blood relation to Pinky or her family, he basically becomes a new surrogate father for the girl.

This apparently acts as commentary on the nature of surrogate parenthood in India. Family, on a biological level, is a deeply important aspect of Indian life and this film is nowhere near the only to showcase that, as if there was any doubt. Based on the implication of this movie, surrogate parenthood appears to be if not taboo close enough to it. I don’t know why that has to be the case over in India. Whether the Caste system is tied into what is and is not appropriate to be a parent, I don’t know, but Babu’s blunt expression of somber regret over India’s position on the issue seems to suggest it is a tradition in some way.

Eventually, as age causes Babu’s beard to turn white, his illness grows worse. He soon becomes incapable of being the rickshaw driver he once was. He could get treatment for it but again Pinky comes first. Always.

In his last days, near the end of the surprisingly short (for Bollywood) run of the movie, Babu starts wearing a robe all black with a red stripe white on both ends. I could not help but think of the color layout for Mass Effect’s main character, Commander Shepard, whose outfit consists of blackish grey with a red and white sigil that runs down his/her armor’s left arm, representing them being part of N7, which is humanity’s space military’s version basically of the Navy Seals.

I would end my observation on how these two completely unrelated pieces of media have an arbitrary connection my autistic ass noticed, but I thought about how, by Mass Effect 3, the end of Shepard’s story in the Mass Effect series, in most cases, the story ends with their heroic sacrifice. They must make a decision that in 3 of 4 base scenarios, will involve them not reuniting with their friends and potential love interest. Whether they did it for their own ego or because it was just what they had to do, tailored of course in how you build Shepard to reflect what you want them to be, most players will have Shepard make the mortal choice at the end out of love for those that followed him/her through thick and thin.

Like Shepard for the most part, Babu does what he does entirely for the benefit of someone else. His last moments are at Pinky’s wedding, for which due to not being blood related to her, he was not allowed to attend. He comes anyway and the whole wedding crowd regrets that he was not officially invited, as he had done more than most to earn the right. Make no mistake, the whole thing is very melodramatic almost to a comical level with Babu’s near endless incurable cough of impending death.

Maybe that’s a consequence of my considerable exposure to many dramas or the conventions therein. Or maybe for the Indian audiences of the 1980s, what for me is somewhat overblown melodrama is just drama. I mean, again, Babu passes away at the wedding, all dramatically like, but still the point, let alone the political point is made. Of course, I played the music on my iPhone that occurs during Shepard’s almost certainly fatal, final action from Mass Effect 3. About half of it really lines up well with the emotions of Babu’s ending, even with no sitar involved. Here it is for context to listen to, if you want to.

Again, I wouldn’t have bothered if it wasn’t for the serendipitous choice of Babu’s robes to wear in his climatic final moments.

So, yeah, would I recommend Babu? I haven’t not recommended any of the Bollywood films so far but it might have been the melodrama but I was the least enthusiastic for this film compared to the earlier ones I’ve brought up in the retrospective series. It’s shorter length for the time-conscious readers is a bonus so keep that in mind. If you have any Indian friends, be sure to let them know about these particular entries I bring up and see how closely it reflects their own stories involving India and Indian life.

Ragtime (1981)

Image from MUBI (James “Jimmy” Cagney’s final role as turn of the century New York Police Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo.)

Shortly after I was convinced to watch by my family 70s’ classic The Sting, the Robert Redford/Paul Newman blockbuster that acted as nostalgic throwback to the 1930s (Plenty of fond memories indeed from the Great Depression), I decided to put on my 80s watchlist a film I had initially turned my nose up at: Milos Forman’s Ragtime. What compelled me was the Sting’s use of two “ragtime” classics by Scott Joplin, “The Entertainer” and “Solace”. It threw me for a loop due to me being quite familiar with that music.

“The Entertainer” is often played in today’s internet meme culture as music that stands in for something really old, often with a silent film aesthetic. “Solace” however was more surprising due to it being the loading screen music for Bioshock Infinite, a game set in the ragtime period of both the public domain music it uses and Ragtime the movie itself.

Have a listen.

In case you didn’t know, Scott Joplin was an African-American composer who managed to create this widely used, widely loved music during what is called in no uncertain terms “The Nadir of American race-relations.” Wanna know what’s worse, I assumed that Joplin was a white guy who wrote all of this. I had no way to know unless I did a google search, but the reason I was surprised was that I thought it wasn’t until the 1920s’ when African-American musical voices recieved recognition, from the likes of Duke Ellington and of course Louis Armstrong. Before those two Jazz legends came to attention, Scott Joplin made enduring musical history when society supposedly would’ve shut the whole venture down back then.

Ragtime, based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow, features a prominent character called Coalhouse Walker Jr, who basically in some respects is not unlike Scott Joplin. Coalhouse is played by Howard Rollins, who died at only 46 from lymphoma. Coalhouse starts off as a piano player using music similar to Joplin though those works of Joplin I mentioned do not feature here, perhaps due to association with The Sting. Funnily enough, it would more appropriate here than in The Sting, due to ragtime not having been in vogue in the 30s’.

Like Rollins, Joplin died early at 48. I can imagine that simply being a black man in that time and place made it not an easy life. I don’t know how closely Coalhouse Walker Jr. is meant to reflect Joplin as a very different fate awaits him, one even more tragic if sadly not surprising.

Ragtime, the book and movie, is historical fiction. In that, actual historical events are intermeshed with entirely fictional ones. The most important real life event is one I had no idea actually happened until I was told it had, a moment which made me scream “HOLY SHIT” when it happened early in the film. For one, Ragtime is a “PG” film before the PG-13 rating was created. A lot of PG films I’ve watched recently for this retrospective contain material that would either warrant PG-13 or an R.

The real life incident that Ragtime features is the murder of the architect Stanford White, best known for creating the Arch at NYC’s Washington Square, by the Millionaire Harry Kendall Thaw. This was a big deal at the time and I believe was the first murder trial to be called the “Trial of the Century”. Heh, just you wait, 20th Century….

The killing as depicted in the movie is graphic, something that would warrant an R today. The wife of Thaw, Evelyn Nesbit (Elizabeth McGovern), soon becomes a scandalous figure over her behavior following her husband’s actions, making publicity out of the trial and helping pump herself up. Gotta say, this seems eerily prescient to nowadays if the portrayal of Nesbit here is remotely accurate.

A fictional, upper class white family from New Rochelle, New York soon becomes the maypole of sorts for the events that occur going forward in Ragtime. The family never gets first or last names and are called by the familial titles: father, mother, older brother, younger brother, etc. Older brother is the stand out member played by the unmistakable Brad Dourif in not only an early role but a non-villainous role if that can be fathomed.

He becomes involved first in Evelyn Nesbit’s life due to an infatuation he has with her, which almost leads to sex but does lead to PG-approved full-frontal female nudity. It was a simpler time. Eventually, the selfish, dare I say it sociopathic behavior of Evelyn pushes Older Brother away and he then becomes focused on an issue concerning the whole family.

A black baby is found in the family’s garden and soon after the mother is brought to the home. One of the police men who brings the mother to the family is played by Andreas Katsulas, the Hungarian-American actor who will one day portray G’Kar, one of the best characters on Babylon 5. The mother and child are Coalhouse Walker Jr’s girlfriend and daughter, who he is then given an emotional reunion with.

The problem with describing Ragtime is that these interconnected characters are all part of a story that spans a good amount of time. I must mention a major development involving racist behavior directed at Coalhouse that begins tying most of the cast together including Dourif’s Older Brother. He volunteers to help Coalhouse and his black acquaintances in an all-but-suicidal attack on the system, which gets James Cagney’s Commissioner Waldo involved in an anarchist bomb attempt of a historic Manhattan library. One of Coalhouse’s militant friends features an early and I do mean early appearence by Samuel L. motherf***ing Jackson.

Mother and Father, played by James Olson and Mary Steenburgen, attempt a go at a peaceful resolution that gets Booker T. Washington (Moses Gunn) involved. While the plot seems to coalesce around the library situation, side events involving Mandy Patinkin as an early filmmaker and Nesbit as film actress among others seems to be sideshows that don’t necessarily appear to matter.

Much like the novel, it appears to be a book chronicling through both fiction and non-fiction, a time and place. The film begins with actual silent news reels of figures like Teddy Roosevelt and Harry Houdini interspersed with fictionalized moments. Having Coalhouse’s vendetta following tragedy borne out of racism become a focal point was I suppose a way to make a point about early 20th century America clear. Say what you will about all the cool stuff, all the things the gilded age/ ragtime period of the United States you might find appealing and worth remembering for curiosity’s sake if nothing else.

This 1981 movie was about reminding us of how distinctly bleak a period it could be for many of its players. About how complicated it is to be both nostalgic and yet honest towards a bygone era. To maybe learn from the past so we improve the future. About how the events of the early 20th century bore out the world that existed in 1981 and today even. Or maybe Doctorow and by extension Forman just wanted to make/ adapt a story about an era that intrigued them and in turn hopes to intrigue you.

There are so many other faces that Ragtime gives us a grand preview of on top of the ones already mentioned: Jeff Daniels, Debbie Allen, Star Trek: Voyager’s Ethan Phillips, Jeffrey DeMunn and Fran Drescher. There’s already by then familiar faces like Kenneth McMillan (The first guy to play Baron Harkonnen for Dune), Pat O’Brien, Norman Mailer, Richard Griffiths (Uncle Vernon), Michael Jeter and Jack Nicholson in a cameo role I wholesale missed.

Give it a watch and I wonder if your takeaway will be anything close to mine. Speaking of Jack Nicholson….

Reds (1981)

Image from IMDB (Making their “Marx” on the world.)

Here’s a fun fact to set the mood: Warren Beatty and Ronald Reagan were friends, due to them both being Hollywood guys and in spite of what I can gather is quite a gulf of political opinion. Reagan might be the President best known for being anti-communist and yet, within his first year in office, Beatty convinced him to watch a three hour movie all about American communists/ communist sympathizers where the sympathies of the movie are unambiguously on those Yankee Reds. They may be flawed, but it is never a question of conviction on their parts.

Not only did Reagan sit through a movie I imagine he was politically revulsed by, it was even a movie, PG or otherwise, which depicts sex in a manner he would straight up call “pornographic” if my perusal of “The Reagan Diaries” is any indication. If I could, I would perform black magic to go back in time, transmogrify into a fly and be on a wall in the White House so I could hear Ronnie Reagan’s thoughts on the movie to director/star Warren Beatty. Oh man.

My pro-Reagan parents have also seen the movie. In fact, it was the movie they first saw on their Honeymoon. In a time when America voted in Reagan, Reds actually did pretty well at the box office, earning $40 million in 1981 money and receiving mass acclaim which made it nominated heavily at the Oscars, albeit losing to Chariots of Fire, another early 20th century historical drama, best known for the oft repeated Vangelis slow-motion-running-on-the-beach music. In terms of sheer engagement, Reds is better than Chariots of Fire. I was honestly bored through most of it with the latter.

So, what made many proud American patriots, including my just married conservative parents spend three hours with Jack Reed and Louise Bryant, those godless commies? Could it be the somber manner in which it ends, not with communism triumphant but instead with communism perverted, twisted into the authoritarian fashion that became sadly fashionable to countries that proclaimed themselves communist? Neither Reed nor Bryant end the movie feeling as if their ideology has won out.

As for my own political identity, that is something I haven’t quite pinned down though part of me thinks it’s a waste of time to try to identify as a certain single thing when some other parts of my political beliefs wouldn’t gel with that “thing” in question. Am I leftist or left-leaning? Yes. Socialist or at least favorable to many socialist ideas or prescriptions? Yes. Anarchist, at least when it comes to governmental hierarchy? Dunno, but I wouldn’t necessarilly say “nay” if it was enacted and/or attempted. Communist? Well, maybe I would be OK with actual communism happening and working if it ever did so.

Since it hasn’t, I would take the alternatives or something like the alternatives over it. Beatty’s Reed makes a point towards a Soviet official late in the movie that what the new Soviet Union is doing or becoming is not communism or what communism should be. That same official would later be purged when our boy Stalin came into power.

It might’ve been an extended cut I was watching but intercut with the movie are these talking head interviews with elderly witnesses who were around in Reed and Bryant’s time. They give their Rashomon-like perspective and memory on who the two of them were like and the time and place it was to be a left-leaning person a century from today. I almost wondered if those interviews weren’t done in the early 80s as it looked a bit more modern, almost like it was done more recently like the early 2000s’.

Jack Reed is the man who wrote the controversial Ten Days that shook the World, his novel that acted as his perspective on the October Revolution as it happened. An American bearing witness to the death of the Tsar system and the birth of the Soviet Union. Warren Beatty, who honestly looks like Pierce Brosnan here due to his giant cheekbones, does a great job encompassing a man who if nothing else is passionate, endlessly passionate.

He dreams that a post-capitalist world is not only close but possible in the United States. Of course, the foregone conclusion that he is quite wrong from the audience’s perspective is played to maximum effect. Diane Keaton’s Louise Bryant acts as the comparatively less zealous but no less committed Feminist author who believes that Marxist thinking goes hand in hand with increasing women independence. Keep in mind that this film is set in the decade that would actually give women the right to vote and by extension is a time where such strides were successfully occurring for Bryant’s cause.

The two meet in Portland and it should be remembered that Oregon’s largest city was not considered a left-leaning hub in America whatsoever back then. Jack Reed being the kinda guy he was is denoted by him coming from, of all places, Portland. If a guy like Reed came from Portland today, it would be read as “whatever.” While not exactly matching ideologically, the two certainly are close enough and their connection, heartfelt as it is, should make even the not politically sided viewer feel no small part of sympathy.

This is in of itself might be the most controversial aspect of Reds (assuming it was), but the good nature and good intentions of our duo of leads in conjunction with their communist beliefs is the heart of the movie, beating ever so red. The third character, as you can see from the header is Eugene O’Neill, played by Jack Nicholson.

I’ve come to recognize, having been exposed to much more of Jack, that his style of acting rarely changes, no matter the role. And yet somehow his relative one-notedness has not been a detriment, not really. I saw not too long ago a film that will make it onto this retrospective later, Terms of Endearment. Jack’s almost constant snarky/smarmy voice is ever present, even if the intention behind the performance is different. It does play up the idea that in Burton’s 89′ Batman, we weren’t seeing Nicholson play the Joker, we were seeing Nicholson play Nicholson, just a lot more misanthropic/psychopathic. Almost a spiritual successor to Jack Torrance from The Shining.

I had heard of Eugene O’Neill before Reds. He’s best known for created the plays The Iceman Cometh, Ah, Wilderness! and Long Day’s Journey into Night. All of those works that defined him were made after the period in which Reds is set and it’s safe to say that O’Neill probably had the least sad outcome to their life of the leading three.

I understand that artists, big thinkers and philosophers hob-knobbed with all sorts of people back in the day and maybe even now, but I had no idea that O’Neill was ever associated with two of the best known American Communists. O’Neill is sympathetic to what Reed and Bryant are fighting for, but befitting his body of work, he’s much more of a realist about the chances of their dream coming to life in the kind of world like the United States.

He certainly wouldn’t mind if their dream came to reality, but he tries his best, especially with Louise Bryant, to rein in their expectations. Something about Eugene works on her, as they have an affair while Reed is out covering Woodrow Wilson’s re-election campaign.

If there is a fourth lead, it would be Maureen Stapleton’s Emma Goldman. She is a fascinating figure to me as she went possibly further than Louise in marrying her feminist ideals with left-leaning belief. She is considered an important anarchist figure and you should probably know that political anarchism doesn’t necessarilly mean “Destroy everything cause freedom”, more an elimination of hierarchal structures in society that perpetuate an unequal and by extension, oppressive society. Considering America’s history alone with slavery, segregation and the place of women or anyone who wasn’t a white male, it’s easy to see where she came from.

I was first made aware of Goldman due to, what else, a Bioshock game, Infinite again in this case. The revolutionary figure of Daisy Fitzroy, who wants to tear down the white supremacist, American exceptionalist beautiful nightmare of the flying city of Columbia, is based off of her, but not entirely. She’s also like Harriet Tubman, if Tubman more distinctively followed Marx and had a hankering to do more than abolish slavery in America.

How many people my age became aware of life and the politics of the early 20th solely from video games like Bioshock or Red Dead Redemption? How many found out from perusing a book or watching a documentary? Possibly fewer than not, but then again, the internet gives anyone easy access to verifiable information.

As the years pass and Reed and Bryant grow closer, eventually resulting in marriage, which comes as a surprise to most, as people thought Louise’s ideology would have her resistant towards the practice, they eventually start hearing about rumblings of revolution over in the Russian Empire. The catalyst that might’ve well led to the Tsar’s collapse? Them getting involved in the First World War. As history tells us, in spite of the considerable numbers of the Russian army (almost always a constant throughout time), the Germans are better equipped and with more state of the art weaponry.

Unlike the notorious Western Front, it was mostly a lopsided affair on the East, ironically enough considering what the Eastern Front would end up being for the sequel. The Russians got curb stomped, again and again and again. The people of Russia, who weren’t in a great place to begin with before the Great War, got in an even worse predicament. Food and water became distinctly scarce, even by the standards of the era. What did Russia have to show for all the effort? Embarrassing defeats writ large.

Under those conditions, it seemed highly unlikely that the Tsar wouldn’t be taken out of power by some force eventually. The country essentially collapsed and Lenin, sent back home by the Germans themselves, took advantage. Reed and Bryant found themselves in the right place and the right time, in St. Petersburg (then the capitol) to witness what they thought was the culmination of their dream. If it was happening in Russia, why not America? The film cuts to intermission right as it seems a happy ending for our couple is at hand.

Then, the other half happens. The West, having seen what happened over in Eastern Europe, starts to crack down on anyone Red or Red-sympathetic. The first Red Scare begins. Reed attempts to organize himself in the American Communist party but infighting, some helped along by government moles on the inside, causes things to fall apart.

Even worse, as Reed heads back to the newly formed Soviet Union, having to wade across the vast Finnish-Russian tundra because normal means of transportation have been blocked, he gradually develops typhus, that will by the end, claim his life. Before you say this is too spoilerific, well this here is a historical fact. You’re just as likely to know Jack Reed’s fate via an internet search or maybe in school.

What perhaps made Reds palatable to the American public of the early 80s’ was that it was about the rise of the authoritarian communist system coming into power, not the communism that Reed, Bryant or Goldman wanted or intended. In one very noteworthy moment, as a weary from typhus Reed is addressing a communist gathering in Baku, he learns afterward on the train back to Russia that the translator for his English was saying something entirely different from what he was speaking. Seeing how the officials of the first “communist” nation betray him so deeply through that act kinda tears into what Beatty has been trying to say himself as the director.

They’re many leftists, communist or not, who view the Soviet Union not only as not communist, but a betrayal of its ideals. The Soviet Union carried with it many of the hierarchical even monarchist foundations that had plagued the Tsarist era. Internal corruption was soon a factor that would one day become terminal in the 1980s’. Chernobyl itself is the defining example of that rot, a rot that Reed saw for himself growing in his final days. In other words, you come up to a leftie, you will likely hear them detesting the Soviet Union and Mao’s China for that matter.

Based on what I know, a Leftist who will uncritically defend nations like the Soviet Union and Mao’s China are called “Tankies”. They will play defense for Marxist-Leninism, Stalinism and Maoism, the philosophies that doomed those countries to be what they were. Jack Reed and Louise Bryant, based on what Beatty’s Reds says, would not stand for them, and neither would I.

It is rather crazy that a film like Reds was successfully made and even sold to the public to help show two distinctive sides of what a communist is or is not. It would be hard pressed I imagine, to be made and released today. But then again, the opening of this entry might’ve already disproved that. It would certainly be more attacked, fear mongered over today, in the internet age. If nothing else, Reds is all about perspective and what happens when good or useful ideas are twisted and essentially hollowed out by the same people who’re supposed to uphold them.

The question is then this: what hope of a better future do we really have if humanity perpetually undercuts it’s own progress, it’s own attempts at something different, possibly preferable? That’s a disquieting message more in tune to the 2020s than the 1980s.

Eye of the Needle (1981) (UK)

Image from Haphazard Stuff (I might just have to add Donald Sutherland to the handful of mustached men that I, a straight guy, think look attractive, along with Selleck and Reynolds.)

Return of the Jedi is to many the last good Star Wars film, especially if you are of a certain age. To others, it’s the first bad one. To some, one of the few good threequels, to others just another one on the long list. It ended the legendary Star Wars film series for 16 whole years. While George Lucas is notorious for how more involved in the production than he officially was or meant to be, it was yet directed by Richard Marquand, a Welsh director whose life was tragically cut short merely four years after Episode VI’s release.

One thing that Return of the Jedi maintains notoriety for, whether you fall in the camp of loving or hating it, was that it was more intentionally kid-friendly than the first two movies. The dominant reason?

Image from Warped Factor (The Care Bears go to Nam’.)

These guys make many like myself wonder so wistfully about the original idea for ROTJ involving the Wookies taking the place of the indigenous resistance who assist the Rebels against the Empire. Having Chewie’s race take center stage in what could’ve still been the grand finale for Star Wars would’ve been more fitting and epic. It would connect an established character more closely with the narrative and hell, could’ve actually addressed one of Jedi’s biggest criticisms: giving Han Solo more to do or have more stake. Sure, fighting the Empire for his friends on top of his love Leia is something, but it still can’t help but feel like less than he had in the first two episodes.

With the Wookies over the Ewoks, Han would’ve also been fighting on his best friend’s home turf and could’ve given a better lee-way for the original idea to have Solo commit a heroic sacrifice. But instead, wo got this internet meme as compensation. It’s a good one, no lie.

Image from Giphy (Apologies if this doesn’t play, but you’ve seen this film 40 times so you know the moment.)

So the guy who directed the most kid-pandering Star Wars film (before the Prequels) first directed an R-rated WW2 spy thriller. It was Eye of the Needle in fact that convinced Lucas to hire Marquand. Here, there’s murderous violence, a sordid love affair between a lonely married woman and a seemingly quintessential British gentlemen who is in fact a master German spy with an expected ruthless streak. Let’s just say the love scenes between Sutherland’s Henry Faber and Kate Nelligan’s Lucy Rose are not something you would expect from the guy who would direct Ewoks gallivanting in a forest. Well, I guess that means the guy has range? Sort of like how Alfonso Cuaron, the guy behind the sexually explicit Y tu Mama Tambien not only made a Harry Potter movie, but the best one all told.

Farber has been spying for years in Great Britain ever since the Second World War broke out. He is among the best in his class of German field intelligence, essentially a genius in espionage. He learns about a feint the Allies are using for their eventual invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe and that Normandy will be the landing zone.

In his attempt to get to a U-boat off the British coast, an incident along the way following escaping British forces on a train has him wash up on the Scottish coast. A radioman lives with his wife and son near the coast and recovers him. Because this is Donald Sutherland we’re talking about, no one remotely expects him to be a Nazi spy, in spite of the state of the world. I would be fooled.

While the guy does have a time table, to get in contact with the U-boat so they can get him out of dodge and inform the Third Reich command of where the Allies will land, he becomes infatuated with Nelligan’s Lucy. Of course, it is quite mutual. What makes her temptation more evident is that her husband David (Christopher Cazenove) was handicapped in a car accident, the very day they were married. The guy’s frustration with being unable to fulfill his duty as a soldier for King and Country has soured the marital relationship.

Along comes a guy with the deepest British eyes fathomable and well, barring that she has a young boy who might learn about the two of them, it comes as no surprise that an affair occurs. Now, of course comes the expected tension of when she learns the terrible truth about Henry and what he is trying to do. It’s predictable but is carried because it is Sutherland’s stone cold portrayal of Faber that makes it so frightening.

There is then the extra drama that comes from whether Faber himself can go as far as he normally goes to keep his cover and complete his mission. There is the telling ambiguity to how much Faber comes to care for Lucy, how much of it is love and how much of it is lustful possessiveness? Considering what he does to the husband, well…

You basically know what you’re getting with Eye of the Needle and here it is more than acceptable, strangely enjoyable in spite of the beats in play. Like with Reds, there is the foregone conclusion that Faber won’t complete his mission. But how will he fail? Will Lucy and her son survive and will they be unscathed in the process? It ends on a note that despite being triumphant in the sense that, surprise, the Nazis lose, it still feels sad due to the circumstances of what Lucy put herself through with an unwitting affair with a Nazi agent. But had she refused Henry’s advances and stayed faithful, would that instead have doomed her to being quietly “taken care of” when no one was looking?

In the spy games, nothing is certain. A video game I’m fond of once asked if “Love can bloom on the battlefield.” Of course, this is not a conventional battlefield, and up until the end, only one player is aware that it is. But, in spite of it all, did love still bloom? I can’t say that it was a love that redeemed.

Bengal’s 80s Retrospective part XI (De Palma Deep Dive) (Yup, spoilers)

In this rendition of the seemingly infinite amount of entries required to get through just the 80s phase of my movie catch up collection, I will be looking at three films from New Hollywood legend Brian De Palma, known both lovingly and derisively as the world’s biggest Hitchcock fan. The fourth film seems like De Palma but is actually directed by Paul Schrader, a collaborator with Martin Scorsese best known for having co-written Raging Bull.

Dressed to Kill (1980)

Image from Film Forum (What was shocking in 1980 will be depressing in 2022.)

Of the three De Palma films to showcased here, Dressed to Kill might simultaneously be the best and yet the worst at the same time. All for a reason which might not have been all that noteworthy back in the day. It’s for a reason that even De Palma himself has admitted makes him feel a little uneasy and even apologetic.

It’s all tied to the reveal of who the killer is in this murder mystery. I should be grateful that this is also a well-crafted, well-filmed, well-paced and even most things considered well thought out R-rated tribute to the master of suspense at the end of the day.

De Palma’s Body Double, to later be featured, is meant as an ode to Hitchcock’s Rear Window, one of his most copied works though I would dare say Body Double is indeed inspired, not a copy like D.J. Caruso’s Shia LeBeouf vehicle Disturbia. If I was to reveal what movie Dressed to Kill takes influence from, it would give the game away too early and to really dig into this flick, I will eventually. Then again, the title itself all but acts as a spoiler if you know Hitchcock. You kinda should know the baby faced maestro, he’s the guy who coined two enduring names for plot devices, the macguffin and the red herring, among other lasting tenets of cinema.

Dressed to Kill starts as a story of a middle aged woman, Kate, living in Manhattan, played by Angie Dickinson. After being declined into entering into an affair with her therapist played by Michael Caine( infidelity or not, this is still Michael Caine), she then has a one night stand with a mysterious person she meets at an art museum. She learns after the night together that this stranger has some STDs and runs out of the apartment into an elevator where a blonde woman with a razor is waiting to do her in.

There was one witness to her demise, a high end call girl called Liz (Nancy Allen) who was, as befits Hitchcock storytelling, at the wrong place at the wrong time and flees before the killer can get her too. Also like a certain Hitchcock title, the focuses shifts from Kate to Liz, on account of the former having died.

I should note ahead of time that Allen’s Liz is treated surprisingly, even for the time, as a sympathetic, likable figure. More than just the “Hooker with the heart of Gold”, she is one of the two central characters after Kate’s murder. Because she is a call girl rather than a “Woman of the Night“, she is paid quite well for her services, some that are hinted to not always be exactly sexual, and has an impressive Manhattan Penthouse that would give the friends from Friends pause.

The other protagonist is Kate’s teenage son Peter (Keith Gordon), who is more interested in spending time with his pet invention based projects as well as some interesting plot related hobbies with regards to snapshot photography. I’m not certain if autism was well understood by the early 80s, I know it would take awhile and is still an issue when it comes to consistently decent portrayal of those on the spectrum like last year’s ill-advised Music.

Rain Man, eight years after Dressed to Kill, would be considered a landmark picture in regards to autistic representation, enough to make that film the biggest movie of 1988. It still receives flak, fairly or not, for presenting either the myth or exaggeration that autistics are all savants in a particular field, barring the social and behavioral hang-ups. Peter from Dressed to Kill is remarkably a more realistic depiction, if intended, of someone high-functioning autistic like myself. Socially awkward and restrained, has obsessive interests which makes it difficult to look into other new ones and often has a frustrating insistence to stay to a schedule that reflects those interests. Again, I kindof saw myself in Peter.

Of course, once his mother gets killed, he can’t help but take interest in that murder getting solved and it just so happens that his particular set of skills can help both him and Liz solve the mystery and save their lives. After all, their connections to Kate make them targets. It’s also quite nice that no tacked on romance happens between Liz and Peter. On one hand, one is teen age, the other isn’t. On the other, Pete possibly being on the spectrum might make him reluctant to go that far anyway. Besides, they’ve got no time for love.

As Liz and Peter’s increasingly perilous investigation goes further, with Caine’s Dr. Elliott, Kate’s therapist, and De Palma regular Dennis Franz’s Detective Marino getting involved, it all crescendos into a revelation that is perhaps not that shocking in terms of who dun it. I clocked it as soon as I recognized that the disguised blonde woman killing Kate in the elevator looked very familiar. It didn’t help that I went into this movie knowing De Palma’s admitted love for Hitchcock. Besides, this all culminates into discussing why Dressed to Kill, a great murder mystery drama, might be tainted by some extremely unfortunate implications by contemporary standards.

So, first of all, if you didn’t already piece it together by my summary or better yet have already seen the movie (It is one of De Palma’s more profitable movies), Michael Caine’s Dr. Elliott is the murderer in drag but it goes beyond even that. It is all but stated that Elliott is a trans woman on top of that. To further paint this as connected to transgender, Dr. Elliott pre-reveal watches a TV interview of a trans person discussing their sex change.

To the film’s credit, the depiction of this interview is not at all to suggest you should mock or fear this trans person, regardless of the details of the sex change. The framing of this moment suggests either neutrality or possibly sympathy. Perhaps it is De Palma going so far as to state that no matter your takeaway of my killer antagonist being a trans psychopath, not every trans person is a monstrous murderer to be feared.

Even then, when I consider how, based on present day statistics, transgender individuals in America are not only among the least violent demographics we have, there are also one of the most prone to violence committed upon them. That’s not even accounting for the suicide rate, all but stemming from a society or at least local social circles which struggle or refuse to accept them.

Don’t get me started on how there is, as of this writing, a loathsome roll-back on what rights they do have in certain parts of my nation, let alone more and more rhetoric that is meant to demonize and scapegoat them, all to fulfill rotten prejudices and to deflect from discussing far more pressing actual dangers to the country’s survival. Take for instance, how in the wake of our latest avoidable mass murder, this go around including elementary school children and their teachers in Texas, some outlets made the erroneous (or perhaps knowingly deceitful) statement that the shooter was a trans person.

So, yes, in light of the current climate, and on basic matters of human decency and empathy, Michael Caine playing a trans, cross-dressing murderer who masquerades as the vengeful wife of the STD filled man Kate slept with can be hard to fully accept, no matter De Palma’s current day opinions and that hey, at least it wasn’t demonization of all trans people. By the standards of 1980, that actually is quite commendable. Maybe.

Nevertheless, I feel weird about my albeit confident recommendation of watching Dressed to Kill. I already brought up all the high points, including some areas where this movie might actually be less problematic than not on certain subject matter. It’s certainly a great demonstration of De Palma’s skill as a drama director. In how he molds and bends Hitchcock’s style of both filmmaking and storytelling into something that remarkably ends up being his own. He certainly shows us Hitchcock through the end of an R-rated, gritty atmosphere that was mostly impossible in the master’s time.

Then again, the film that Dressed to Kill clearly takes most from, Psycho, was a movie that broke boundaries in what Hollywood could or could not do back in 1960. Many of the some concerning handling of subject matter that Dressed to Kill has been critiqued for was presented twenty years earlier, the same disconcerting conclusions that now look woefully outdated when we know or wish to know the truth as it is now.

Blow-Out (1981)

Image from MUBI (John Travolta, in his first strong period, probing for sound effects until…)

De Palma was more than just showing off his style of Hitchcock. While that certainly applies to the film he did after Dressed to Kill, there are shades of other filmmakers given his style. Like Francis Ford Coppola and the most significant film he made not called Godfather or Apocalypse Now, The Conversation.

Travolta plays Jack Terry, a sounds effect artist for an independent low budget film studio based out, of all places, Philadelphia. They mainly do slasher films, which was experiencing its greatest hey-day at the time, thanks to Carpenter’s Halloween and Sean Cunningham’s Friday the 13th.

At the moment in the film he’s working on where the killer, in first person view, is about to get his female victim in the shower, the screams they have on film just aren’t cutting it. So, he’s tasked by the movie’s producer to go out into the big wide world in Philly and find a sound more appropriate for that scene. While out at night in a park, Jack here’s something not meant for him to hear. The titular blow-out he records followed by tires screeching an a limousine careening over.

He gets to where the crash is and wouldn’t you know it, Nancy Allen’s back! Not that surprising when you learn she was married to DePalma at the time. She’s the sole survivor of the crash and was driving with, aw shucks, the governor of Pennsylvania, George McRyan, and even better, it’s election season and he was the favorite for the presidency. HMMMM.

Turns out Allen’s character Sally is a call girl, just like last time. In spite of the sympathetic portrayals of women with such professions, I’m starting to wonder if De Palma and Allen split up because the hubby kept making the wife into an escort. That, in and of itself, is actually a criticism some have with De Palma, continually making movies where women are prostitutes with the risk or follow through of violence or worse placed upon them.

The presidential candidate having a call girl is just one layer of the conspiracy that Jack Terry suddenly finds himself in. For instance, the circumstances of the crash sure are suspicious on its face. Like for instance, could Terry find in the recording an additional sound that might indicate a gun-shot, one responsible for the blow-out? On top of that, the people that end up being responsible for the assassination of the Governor are now hunting both Jack and Sally, but specifically the latter.

We go from a witness to a serial killer’s work to a political hit-job, literally in this case, with poor Nancy Allen again stuck in the middle. To better separate from Dressed to Kill, we soon see for ourselves the audience who the killers are and their motives and planning for their deeds. It’s now a matter of protecting Sally and proving the conspiracy behind McRyan’s death. Dennis Franz here plays Manny, a sleazy additional witness like Jack, who actually filmed the crash while he was out and about, not unlike Zapruder. However Manny is all too happy to sell the film to the conspirators not just to protect his ass but for some money on the side.

It becomes a matter of a sound effects technician, hardly a secret agent, trying to protect an innocent woman, prove an assassination and keep himself from death as the lead assassin, Burke (John Lithgow), menacingly hunts them down through the many streets of Philadelphia. It culminates in a chase where Sally tries to meet up with Jack during a city celebration, starting at 30th St Station, going through a light rail and eventually ending up at a harbor, with either Jack or Burke moments away from either succeeding.

The film’s conclusion, in which Jack fails to save Sally from Burke, is part of the reason for Blow-Out having a far poorer box office than Dressed to Kill and for initially having a lesser opinion from critics. De Palma would have box office success again right after with his controversial version of Scarface but it would take time for audiences and critics both to warm up to De Palma’s Dressed to Kill follow up.

Nowadays, the film as a whole has been positively re-evaluated, some considering it among De Palma’s best, one of them being Quentin Tarantino. In all fairness, the downer ending was actually set up from the start. After all, Jack’s producer wanted him to find the best scream for the movie and Sally’s fate provided it in the end.

Aside from providing more of De Palma’s love for Hitchcockian storytelling, it can also be seen as a film about De Palma’s own relation with film-making and the processes he goes to for his art. The main protagonist being a movie sound technician, like Star Wars’ Ben Burtt, helps accommodate the notion of this being a more personal title. Namely, the idea that an artist would be willing to use material which might come from an inappropriate place for the sake of a work. Maybe it’s a commentary on De Palma’s own marriage with Nancy Allen, which would end in 1984.

Maybe he was growing concerned with how people would view him putting his significant other into film roles with not the most uplifting of purposes or outcomes. Maybe Jack Terry’s depressed, self-loathing state by film’s end is permission from De Palma to say that if you dislike me for my work, for what I put in it, go ahead. I don’t mind the heat. Maybe, every now and then, I could use it.

Body Double (1984)

Image from TCM (Nope, not Richard Gere on the left, yes, Melanie Griffith on the right.)

Due to having inadvertently viewed two De Palma films back to back, I decided to just make the next selection about the man and went forward with a film from him I meant to watch later. His 1984 Body Double might be even more explicit about the Hitchcock connection than even Dressed to Kill. Here, it’s not just one but two of his films that are given the De Palma touch: Vertigo and more obviously Rear Window.

In all fairness, it also connects to a theme that is more De Palma than not: an interest in voyeurism and why we, no matter our backgrounds, are drawn to it. It gets meta when you consider De Palma has stated that the act of viewing movies is itself voyeurism. Of course, all the actors and actresses know that someone is going to watch what they’re doing on the screen, that’s the entire point. But, the fictional characters don’t know that and never will, not unless they break the fourth wall. Unlike anyone here, Deadpool can see you watching him. And he’s just peachy about it.

Hitchcock’s Rear Window wasn’t the only film with aspects of exploring voyeurism as Psycho and Vertigo also feature it in some way. Rear Window, with James Stewart’s wheelchair bound photographer watching his neighbors out of sheer boredom, starts to draw some amount of leeriness from the audience. Sure, his behavior soon involves him investigating a possible murder, which in turn puts him in danger following one of cinema’s most famous “oh shit” moments.

But he also watches moments that really should be left to his neighbor’s privacy, like a honeymoon couple who just can’t get enough of the other’s body. I mean, I know Hitchcock loved trolling censors with innuendo like the very last scene from North by Northwest but man I’m still wondering how our boy Alfred got away with the implication of, admittedly a married couple, getting it on a lot in a 1954 film.

This being a 1984 De Palma movie, there is less innuendo and more of, how should I put it, what you see is what you get. There is nudity, there is sex, there is one hell of a music video that snuck itself into a murder mystery. More on that later, my friends.

But you get the sense that the titillation you see here is part of an almost meta-observation on audience desires and how the camera isn’t just serving the filmmaker as it is the likely audience. Ironically, it’s a film about deception, about how maybe what you see actually is not what you get as it turns out. That cinema by design is about cleverly lying to you.

Jake Scully, played by Craig Wasson (who might as well be a body double himself for Richard Gere), is an actor whose career is put on the line after he suffers claustrophobia while filming a vampire sex comedy. Dennis Franz returns as that film’s director. Following his leaving the production from that psychological break, not unlike James Stewart’s titular vertigo from another Hitchcock production, and after he finds his girlfriend sleeping with someone else, he flunks out of a casting call and meets a strange man played by Gregg Henry. His role, spoilers, is on hindsight not unlike Strangers on a Train.

Out of supposed sympathy with Jake’s state, he allows him to stay at his swank future-home on a hill, with an observation deck-like window showing the valley below. Yes, the place does remind me of Troy McClure’s home from the Simpsons, right down to the interior detail. The stranger, Sam, is going on a business trip and is letting Jake watch the place while he’s out. There’s a telescope that allows him to see just about anything below, especially when a resident in an apartment down there at night dances nude, apparently unaware anyone could be watching. Jake of course gets a real kick out of that.

The music that plays while Jake watches the woman from afar is fantastic and can be enjoyed for its atmospheric peak 80s snyth feel without the context. It’s actually better without context as it can do more than just represent the sensuality of the sequence. Like much great music, it’s purpose is adaptable and is no less true here.

Eventually, however, as a film inspired by Hitchcock is want to do, things take a turn for the worse. During one session of watching the nude woman dancing to herself, suddenly MURDER happens and like the last two movies, our nominal hero finds himself embroiled in a mystery where nothing really is at it seems. Some twists and turns you can certainly already seem coming, like the stranger Sam not being on the up and up, and others are genuinely surprising. Melanie Griffith’s role in the story is part of the latter thankfully.

Griffith plays Holly, not a call girl this time, but a porn star appearing in a bunch of straight to private channel or VHS films that, for us the viewing audience, never go beyond an R-rating in terms of material. Funnily enough, maybe as part of a joke, the porno stuff we see Holly doing is pretty tame. Befitting De Palma’s kind portrayal of women in unsavory professions, Holly, while abrasive to Jake only due to the admittedly off-putting way he goes about explaining her role in the conspiracy, is ultimately not a character he wants you to look down on.

Like I would think most actual porn stars, male or female, it’s a job, one that involves if you could believe it some measure of genuine talent. In the film’s world, Holly is one of the best in the business. Once you get past her Jersey accent, not a bad person to know in general. Her role is where the Vertigo side of things really come into focus, such as her unknowingly playing a wait for it….body double for the woman Gloria , who Jake thought he was viewing through the telescope.

Why the conspiracy? Why this deception that Holly herself was put through? Unlike the last two movies, I won’t give away the whole game, as this film has the most upbeat even playful way it wraps up, as if to say that De Palma wants to both stress you out and give you a fun time in his own telling of Hitchcock’s stories, now with as heavy a sheen of that 80s’s magic as you could imagine.

Before I wrap up this section, I’ve gotta talk about the music video section, a moment where the movie basically stops dead for a somewhat brief but all-encompassing endorsement for one of the 1980s’ most significant one hit wonders: Frankie goes to Hollywood.

In order to get in contact with Holly over the mystery surrounding Gloria, Jake goes all the way to the porno studio where Holly works. The only way the producer will let Jake get in contact with Holly is if he participates in a shoot of her latest work. Fortunately, Jake’s already an actor and gets the part as a nerdy guy who wants to meet Holly in the video. It then leads to a music video rendition of the one song everyone knows from Frankie Goes to Hollywood: Relax.

In spite of the very suggestive lyrics, which made the song and the band controversial at the time, Relax is such a ubiquitous song with the era that even material which doesn’t have a shred of sexual content down the road uses this song. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, which uses more than a little from De Palma’s Scarface, has the song in the game’s acclaimed radio selection, which might contain a near perfect sampling of 80s’ hits to give a lay-person an idea of the period’s music.

Of course Grand Theft Auto notoriously has sexual content in it, but the use of Relax ingame can have nothing to do with that, simply listening to its sick beats while driving recklessly or not through its send up of 80s Miami. Another game, which has no sexual content really at all, Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, used the song to promote that game’s rendition of the “Zombies” mode, which had a tongue in cheek rendition of all things 80s, set in a theme park with a selection of music including Relax, all hosted by the man, the myth, the legend, DAVID HASSELHOFF.

All that being said, Relax as featured here in a music video with the band itself, certainly uses the sexual context of the song. It can be watched divorced from the film and it’s plain fun that way if you can stomach the subject matter like myself. But within the film it serves as another reminder of the film’s preoccupation of not just cinematic deception, but knowing deception.

Body Double has all the serious subject matter of De Palma’s earlier works but with an arresting sense of fun and in some areas even adventure weirdly enough in comparison. The film’s final scene, which plays over the end credits, is the best reminder that De Palma wanted you to have fun more than ever while also considering the food for thought he presented. Not just over his own appetites, but what potentially are yours.

Speaking of Richard Gere….

American Gigolo (1980)

Image from SARTOISM (Bill Duke and a pretty Man.)

Let’s set the mood.

The theme for Paul Schrader’s directorial debut comes from Blondie and the mesmerizing vocals of Debbie Harry, last featured on this retrospective for animated cult classic Rock n’ Rule. It should be noted that American Gigolo was not my first exposure to this particular Blondie hit. It was last year’s surprisingly great Guardians of the Galaxy game, from the makers of the recentish Deus Ex titles.

That’s the great thing about music, even some that have intended purposes from its creators can be made adaptable for more than one interpretation. In GOTG 2021’s case, it’s part of Peter Quill/ Star Lord’s jukebox of mostly 80s’ hits onboard the Guardians’ vessel the Milano. It’s played automatically after Peter and the Guardians have a heated meeting with one of his old flames, an alien police officer and as it turns out potential mother of his daughter.

In exchange for freedom following an illegal incursion the Guardians take in a no-fly zone part of the galaxy, she reluctantly allows Peter to go in search of credits (legally) to pay the fine. Blondie’s Call Me blares amusingly after this unexpected reunion as the puckish roguish heroes wonder what to do next.

In the context of American Gigolo, for which Call Me was written for, it’s pretty straightforward. Julian Kay, played by a young Richard Gere, a decade away from another movie of his involving sympathetic prostitutes, is a male escort. Like Nancy Allen’s character from Dressed to Kill of the same year no less, he is a high paid, high living courtesan who, wouldn’t you know it, doesn’t want to use his rockin’ body for this profession much longer.

The interesting thing about American Gigolo is how not actually explicit it is in spite of the subject matter, for the most part. There is implication of sex, of course, often pre and post the acts. The most R-rated the movie gets is the language and violence. For those who I guess are more squeamish about certain areas of sexual activity, there is a sequence at what very much looks like either a gay or S+M/ leather club. That sequence is much like a similar moment from the original Matrix, where the main character visits the club but only to meet someone for information.

The topic of note at that club is so Julian’s pimp Leon (Bill Duke) can further convince him to go into sides of the business he isn’t comfortable with like homosexual services. Fear not, audiences of 1980, Julian is quite straight. He even gets a loving girlfriend who further compels him to leave the job behind.

That being said, the main conflict is that after an assignment he’s given by Leon in Palm Springs, to give service to a wealthy man’s wife, after the job it turns out she was MURDERED. And gee, who could possibly have been framed in this situation?

It goes from a film that honestly sounds like a spiritual predecessor for Magic Mike to a murder mystery where a member of society we generally look down upon like prostitutes, male or otherwise, has been wrongfully pinned for a truly heinous act.

It deals with an idea that can be just as applicable for the more expected “female” variation on the oldest profession. While some can take this job with grace, like again Nancy Allen’s Liz of Dressed to Kill, some will just find it demeaning or a waste of their…natural talents so to speak. It’s not so much condemnation of prostitution as it is sympathy with both the physical and societal strains of the job.

Giorgio Moroder, the composer of Body Double, worked alongside Blondie to compose the distinctive and catchy score for American Gigolo. Regardless of its contemporary purpose, it yet acts as an effective time capsule to the time and the place that was 1980 America, especially in L.A. Moroder has been called “The Father of Disco” and Blondie’s earlier work was often described as a fusion of both rock and disco, though I have a hard time really hearing the latter part.

I would not call American Gigolo’s soundtrack truly disco as it doesn’t sound anything like what you might imagine the genre to be like Bee Gees or Village People. Then again, Moroder was an Italian composer known for European disco, not American, so maybe therein lies the difference.

In spite of some subject matter that might leave more than a few cautious (again, the movie is called what again?), it’s not that hardcore in spite of Gere admittedly breaking taboo at the time in being the first mainstream actor to bare all in one moment. It really is an atmospheric murder drama, where the focus is more on solving the mystery and survival than showcasing the tenets of this side to American pleasure-seeking.

The moment that sticks out to me is a section where Julian returns to his pad and it has been combed over, either by the police or possibly someone more nefarious. With varied colored lights seeping through the blinds, he sits on the counter and just thinks about what he can do next, all while Moroder’s low-key music quietly yet vividly sets the mood. No matter the context of the moment, it makes me feel just chilled out while watching and listening to that scene, even if Gere’s Julian is doing anything but.

Can’t forget to mention a moment that made me watch at long last a 70s’ classic that released the year before. Julian catches up to one of the people he thinks that might’ve framed him for the murder in Palm Springs. He pins him to the wall of a movie theater with his arm, interrogating him. The mook in question is pinned to a giant wall display for none other than Walter Hill’s The Warriors. I don’t know the behind the scenes reasons for this endorsement of the controversial gang classic. Maybe Schrader and Hill were friends and he was showing his support by this blatant marketing. The film was being produced as The Warriors opened in 1979.

So, maybe, Schrader thought why not and gave a promotion to a film that in time would be considered a quite quotable, overall classic of sorts let alone time capsule in its own way to the time and place it was made like American Gigolo. Can I dig it?

I. CAN. DIG. IT.

So, yes, I would at least give both The Warriors and American Gigolo a try and see where you end up. If you can’t take it, you can’t take it. If you can, you’re in for two distinct types of cinematic rides.

NEXT TIME: contemporary stuff catch up almost certainly.

Unfortunate Sons: A review of Da Five Bloods

Spike Lee's Da 5 Bloods Honors the Valor of Black Veterans ...
Image from Vanity Fair (A father and son, the past and present, in a very serious moment.)

There is no uniform experience to how anyone experienced the Vietnam War. Yes, that is perhaps true of all conflicts, big and small, and events not related necessarily to war, but Nam’ was a nefariously special case.

Whether you were American, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian or some other national demographic tied into the affair, some things overtime were made consistently clear as takeaways, others not so much.

Whether or not you view America’s involvement as having any discernible justification, it is hard not to also agree that it was a tragedy. Even the ultimate victors, North Vietnam, suffered millions of losses and much ruin in driving away the United States through a campaign of outlasting rather than outdoing.

To make matters worse, Vietnam would suffer another brutal conflict following unification, in what Ken Burns’ acclaimed The Vietnam War documentary considered Vietnam’s Vietnam.

Much has been documented about the bitter histories of many American veteran. Their experiences have become cliches. The PTSD flashback, the paranoia from patrolling out in the jungle, having a child with a Vietnamese woman, the loss of confidence in the country they serve, taking drugs to offset the despair of their situation. All true yet never the full picture.

There are some veterans, more retroactive than not, who have come to find pride in what they did. These soldiers consider that they did the best they could’ve in a scenario where their commanding officers failed them and as well as get through it with some sense of prevailing honor.

Does that justify the conflict for me? No. America committed war crimes, some that literally blew up in their own soldier’s faces like napalm and Agent Orange. Even more sickeningly, my country has not truly learned the lessons of all that led to and happened half a century ago in Indochina as the War on Terror and its endless theaters in Afghanistan, Iraq and beyond can attest.

There is one demographic of American veteran that has had a even less rosier view of the war and perhaps less positive reevaluation: The African American soldier. Despite the intolerance and bigotry the black serviceman faced in World War II, at least some comfort came in that war ultimately being something that did need to be fought. Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, Fascist Italy: either they go or we do.

It’s bad enough that direct military involvement in Vietnam was predicated on a lie through the Gulf of Tonkin incident. It is worse that the freedom and democratic institutions that many American GI was drafted or volunteered to presumably protect was not something that the African-Americans had.

Yes, The Civil Rights act passed by LBJ was in effect before direct military action began in 1965. Enforcing it while bypassing centuries of bigoted thought on the matter meant that for the black GIs, it was a real question of what exactly they were potentially laying their lives down for.

Spike Lee’s latest movie, in his blunt manner, is about that and what legacy came from that sacrifice. What reward, however late, should be given to the African-American GI for serving a country that was not willing for so long to return the favor, let alone back in the day.

Consider surviving and returning home with the horrors and pain of the war lingering and realizing your country was not much better off than you left it and just as willing to hate you as the enemy combatants back in the fight.

Spike Lee ties in the psychological trauma of PTSD with the underlying pain of being a second class citizen in a society that supposedly strives to have no such thing on paper. The titular five “Bloods” are a group of aging black veterans who have reunited and initially gone back to Vietnam to both cope with the past and enjoy the country in a far more peaceful manner.

In the sprawling, quite beautiful metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City,formerly Saigon and renamed after the face of their wartime enemy, the Bloods are back and happy to see each other. The camaraderie between the Bloods, consisting of Paul (Delroy Lindo),Otis (Clarke Peters),Eddie (Norm Lewis) and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) is a special glue that holds up the film and their interplay is infectious in raising spirits. When they’re not arguing.

There is a deeply personal and not exactly lawful reason for their return. I listed four bloods when there is supposed to be five. The fifth, the group’s squad leader from back in the war: Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), didn’t return home.

On an assignment to recon a downed cargo plane deep in the jungle, they discover a container filled with up to $20 million dollars in gold bar in today’s currency. Normally, they would call the Huey helicopter and take the gold back to base. But why should they? For all that they and their race has suffered, their ideological leader Norman says, at the hand of the white authority, why should they?

Instead, why not hide the gold where they found it, claim to their superiors that nothing could be salvaged from the wreck and then once the war passes, go back and take the gold back home discreetly? Finally, distribute the wealth to the African-American community. Why wait for the rewards the American system promises when they can take it for themselves?

Sadly, Norman never gets to see the Bloods reunite following the war and it takes roughly half a century for that reunion. There is still a fifth blood, however tenuous the four might consider it, that joins them on their treasure hunt. Paul’s estranged son, David.

Once their journey back into the country begins, so does Spike Lee rather divisively start bringing attention to the influences of this movie. The two films that Lee openly admitted to use as inspiration was Apocalypse Now and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

For starters, the night club that the Bloods visit to celebrate their reunion is literally called Apocalypse Now, with the exact same font as the original movie’s title. Once they head down the Mekong river on their quest, not unlike how Martin Sheen’s character began his nightmarish search for Col. Kurtz, what should play but Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.”

As for Treasure of the Sierra Madre, the group’s overall demeanor and actions upon acquiring the gold is clearly meant to echo the 1949 classic’s commentary on how riches like gold corrupts the mind and can make friend an enemy.

However, there is one moment later in the film where Da Five Bloods basically copies, word for word, the most famous line of dialogue from the original film. I won’t say what it is, in case you haven’t yet seen Sierra Madre. But if you’ve heard of that movie, then you almost certainly know what scene I am referring to.

Are these moments cheap on Lee’s part? Are they cute callbacks or the director being overly honest about where he’s drawing from? To be fair, the use of “Ride of the Valkyries”, based on how it’s framed with what is happening onscreen could be seen as a joke rather than serious callback or copying. It didn’t bother me, but I can feel why others may not be so kind to Lee about that.

However, some of the overall themes of those two works are expressed quite beautifully and with some measure of subtlety, especially from the likes of Spike Lee. The madness of what war does to people and how it may inflame what is already burning in a person’s soul, like Apocalypse Now.

How an initial desire for populist justice, in the case of the Blood’s racial demographic through acquiring the gold, can devolve into personal thirst for avenging individual slight, as is the case with Paul.

Paul is more or less the main Blood and the one who has the most severe ghosts from the war. He was closest to Norman than the other three, clearly has taken in what the war showed him and perhaps had him do the hardest and an awful concoction of trauma, loss and utterly bitter resentment towards his poor station in life due to racist treatment makes him an at times frightening figure.

Paul is the one for which the allure of the gold bars has the starkest reaction on and he is the one who makes the Bloods journey back a bloodier, more morally uncertain affair than originally intended. The presence of a son who wants to help him and his conflicted emotions on whether he can truly love him back is the core of the suspense that Lee cultivates best in the last act.

Da Five Bloods, for all its intentional meaning, is wise to let some things be up to the observer rather than be painstakingly laid out, as Lee has been criticized for doing in the past.

Perhaps his most famous, beloved movie, Do the Right Thing, is the best example of Lee allowing moral and narrative ambiguity to take over for the best effect. The famous conclusion, where Radio Raheem is notoriously killed, if not murdered, by the police, sets off a riot which destroys the pizzeria that is the nexus for the film’s events.

Main character Mookie, played by Lee himself, is the spark that leads to the restaurant’s destruction. He throws a trashcan through a window which leads the rioters to focus their wrath on the building rather than Sal and the family that owns and runs it.

While Lee later clarified that Mookie threw the trash-can as a deliberate act of vengeance rather than to save his boss and fellow employees, the framing of the moment is executed just so that both audiences and critics have come up with divergent theories on why Mookie did what he did and of course, if it was the right thing.

Are what the Bloods doing, by superseding both American and Vietnamese law through their gold heist, the right thing? Even if they have genuinely good purpose for the gold, perhaps even being outright owed it, is it still the right thing?

As Paul’s own story arc proves, our human nature and our depth-less capacity for violent resentment can upset not just the best laid plans but the intentions behind them.

Lee, whether it be in Da Five Bloods or in other works, manages to make his work ultimately matter and feel real in terms of getting his message across. The Bloods are likable yet flawed individuals with time and its various trials and regrets weighing heavier on them than even the gold in their backpacks.

It may take some time for you to piece together all that Lee has to say in Da Five Bloods, in how it incidentally relates to the pressing matters occurring as of this writing or in the grand scheme of things.

It’s ultimately more meaningful to watch, if to understand and appreciate that someone with talent has something to say and it is better said now more than ever than risk letting it never be said at all.

 

 

Now comes the Days of the King: A Review of Black Panther

Image result for black pantherImage owned by Marvel and Disney Studios and from Comic Book Movie

 

T’Challa( portrayed by Chadwick Boseman) is the main protagonist of his first solo feature film, but it is not so much a story about the newly anointed King of his African hermit nation. It is rather a story about the mantle itself, the throne and all that comes with such power and its use. For a good portion of the film, that mantle is challenged by one of the MCU’s few great villains, Erik Killmonger (Micheal B. Jordan), a man who brings an understandable but still radical and destructive vision of Wakanda’s power. It is an old yet relevant tale of what anyone, white or black, male or female, does with power and how that power’s use must evolve with the passing of time.

T’Challa, having brought to justice the man who killed his Father and prior King/Black Panther in Captain America: Civil War, is now next in line of succession. He doesn’t believe he is ready, emotionally and politically, for the role of taking his people into the uncertain horizon. He has many friends and family still in his home to guide him. His mother,Ramonda( Angela Bassett), sister and tech master, Shuri (Letitia Wright), bodyguard and general, Okoye (Walking Dead’s Danai Guirra), spy and former girlfriend, Nakia (Lupita N’yongo), border guard and childhood friend, W’Kabi, (Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya) and spiritual advisor Zuri, (Forest Whitaker). All these friends and yet it still seems too much. He would much rather just be the warrior in the job description than the rest that comes with the title.

Black Panther challenges the ethics of Wakanda despite its thousands of years of isolation successfully making them, along with their exclusive source of the alien mineral vibranium, the world’s most advanced nation. A balancing act of humility and arrogance that is as hard for our hero to confront as the mirror image he faces in Killmonger. It is best to keep what exactly Killmonger desires under wraps until one has seen the movie, as the antagonist’s journey nearly trumps the protagonist’s.

The performances are all outstanding, making this new slice of Marvel’s cinematic universe feel convincing yet fantastical, as is the core ingredient of the studio’s success. Boseman, Jordan, Wright and Guirra, as critics had suggested earlier, are the stars of the show and are the most enjoyable to witness onscreen, though Andy Serkis’s Afrikaner mercenary Ulysses Klaue, first seen in Age of Ultron, and a long running Black Panther foe in the comics, is delightfully silly in how he so happily goes off the deep end in comparison to everyone else’s relative stoicism.

The expected action sequences, are quite good with a chase in Busan, South Korea and an epic melee on Wakanda’s vibranium mound at the end, evoking the warg battle from The Two Towers. You’ll know what I mean by that when it arrives.

What makes Black Panther so successful, in spite of being Marvel’s eighteenth film thus far, is how it takes a scenario and cultural aesthetics, ranging from its soundtrack, gloriously traditional African with a subtle mix of instrumental hip-hop, to the visual color that represents the continent’s style, makes all of that work without feeling insensitive. Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) goes all the way with the style and never looks back out of fear of stepping on the eggshells.

It’s a new look for not just Marvel but the blockbuster. It tackles the touchy themes of race, historical bigotry and the cycle of violence that comes from retribution from centuries of unfortunate abuse. Racism and/or cultural division and uncertainty, from both sides of the aisle, are the true enemy of the movie, and it doesn’t pull half measures in its exploration, nor does it wham you with it like an anvil. It’s the sweet spot that all good films of this caliber Coogler has targeted and he has also made it a good superhero adventure for all to enjoy. Long live days of the King, may they be blessed.