During a worldwide pandemic, sudden amnesia is striking people and forcing them to start new lives completely removed from their old existences.

And then I went to the movies!

The thing about Apples, a Greek movie, is that apparently filmed before the Mass Formation Psychosis of 2020. The Boy and I were intrigued by the premise and since he’s out of town, I went to see it on my own.

Everyone adapts to the pandemic in their own way.

Our protagonist Aris sits alone, depressed, in his apartment, mostly in the dark with just enough flashes of the news to give us the necessary background on the amnesia thing. And after a while of this he gets on a bus, and by the time the bus gets to the end of the line, he’s forgotten who he is.

Since no one picks him up or identifies him, he’s placed in the hands of bureaucrats who have a system to handle the amnesiacs. The process involves doing normal things and taking photos of it: He goes to the park. He goes to the store. He goes to a party. He has casual sex.

How to do lifelike things without enjoying them.

They tell him up front “you’ll never get your memories back”. Sure enough, everyone he meets with the same condition has forgotten everything forever. This includes whether or not they like apples. That is, their amnesia goes down to the memories of what they like and don’t like.

Now, where do you go with this intriguing premise? Turns out, nowhere at all. There’s a semi-twist that was obvious enough to me from the get-go (if not the trailer) that I’m not convinced it was meant to be a twist. Like, normally a filmmaker would do some sleight-of-hand to explain why the thing that was just thoroughly detailed didn’t apply, but this just goes right ahead and says, “Yeah, we said it and it means exactly what you think it means.”

Ride a tiny bike. Maybe that will help.

Which is fine by itself. The problem is the movie feels like half a movie. Not that you don’t feel all ninety minutes of it. Just that the denouement feels like it should lead to something more. Our hero basically ends up where he started.

There may have been something more, something deeper in the metaphor of the apples, but I actually ended up feeling like that whole bit (which was fine as a story element) was pseudo-profound. That is, something that didn’t really have any great significance but was stuck in there to make you think that it did. I see that the director Christos Nikou worked with Yorgos Lanthimos on Dogtooth and this does kind of have that Yorgos feel. But for whatever reason, it did not resonate with me.

It was at least less frustrating (and substantially shorter) than Memoria.

Oh, look, it’s the title of the movie!

Maverick: Top Gun

OK, let’s put our cards on the table: The ’80s were really stupid, and nowhere was this more clearly reflected than in the cinema. Except maybe the politics. And the music. Oh my God, and the fashion. The fashion should probably be at the top of the list. Did I mention the politics? I did? OK, let me mention them again because: dumb.

Hollywood had discovered, thanks to Spielberg and Lucas and Corman, that it was still possible to make money at the movies. The trick was to make movies that people wanted to see. The Shark and the Space Wizards and what-not made execs realize that their tastes weren’t perfectly in line with the moviegoing public—i.e., the people whose money they wanted. Nowhere was this more prevalent than in the action movie, which could be downright jingoistic even with a vein of ’60s counter-culture anti-Americanism running through them.

This was true of 1986’s Top Gun at first, too. “Mixed” reviews and a modest opening gave way to one of the biggest box office hits of all time, and the first video to sell a million copies, which is a big contributor to its staying power. Someone got the bright idea to cross-promote it with McDonald’s and sell it for $20 rather than $40-$60 (the going price for a recent movie on VHS) and a classic was born.

Jet! (Ooh ooh ooh ooh ooh ooh!)

Director Tony Scott was a master of style and…yeah. Style. And Top Gun oozes style. For characterization, it rests heavily on the talent of its young crew (Cruise, Kilmer, Edwards) who are so macho, nobody at the time so much as hinted at any homoerotic overtones in the volleyball scene. For plot, there’s hardly any, and it veers into the goofy. It’s hammy and ham-handed, and it all kind of works in that ’80s way.

I wasn’t, therefore, really clamoring to see Top Gun: Maverick. Consistently, however, I heard nothing but good about it. And on and on. Damn movie is still playing! It’s in its third freaking month and is #3 at the box office this weekend! That’s nuts! (Update: And it is now the only film to be #1 on both Memorial Day and Labor Day!)

Setting aside that the movie is just a goofy, from a technical standpoint, as the original, it’s so much better than the original, it’s—well, it’s almost dangerous (to quote the original) because it shows that a reboot/remake/sequel/whatever can be really good and successful. Even if, in 2022, we (or at least I) completely lack the ability to believe “there’re some bad foreigners we need to blow up” but just like in the original, the foreign threat is just a MacGuffin for our characters to test their mettle.

The premise is that Maverick, now testing ever faster jets even while the Air Force is more interested in drones, has to be called back to Top Gun to train the new recruits for a special mission. There he meets back up with old issues, especially Goose Jr. (ably played by Miles Teller), Penny (with Jennifer Connelly being an excellent choice to replace Kelly McGillis) and of course Iceman (Val Kilmer).

Connelly has just the right presence for the movie and role.

Not only that, did you ever notice that the Top Gun cadets are jerks?

Heh. The sort of behavior they engage in is what we call toxic masculinity today, with the only real twist here being that it’s not even remotely exclusive to men. There’s a nice bit of subtlety here: At first, you’re looking at Cruise and Connelly, and the other older actors like Ed Harris, Jon Hamm, Charles Parnell who, even in small parts, seem to be acting circles around the younger actors, who are kind of glib and callow and—say, that’s exactly how the cast of the first movie was!

Even though they don’t necessarily get a lot of screen time, they get some motion as far as their characters go, and by the end, they’ve all developed into characters to some degree richer than anything in the original.

Cruise famously still looks young, but in my opinion, not terribly so and so much the better for him. He’s still got the smile and swagger but it’s tempered by so much life experience. Although he can and does look vital when he needs to, he can look like the weight of the world suddenly dropped on him. His character is still reckless but not inconsiderate (which is a neat trick). He’s an anachronism, and he knows it, and that brings a genuinely fascinating dimension to his character. The movie spends some of its nostalgia points wisely by taking its callbacks and adding that thirty year spin—such as Maverick escaping out the window from Penny’s bedroom, only to be caught by Penny’s daughter.

Nice shot. Age can be an actor’s friend.

Val Kilmer doesn’t get a lot of screen time and, due to his vocal issues, does most of his acting via text. But I thought—and The Boy agreed so I don’t think it’s a nostalgia thing—that he was just a powerhouse in his big scene. The way that is handled is remarkably effective, and Kilmer is still up to the task.

It’s a series of well-made choices, which is just rare in this kind of big-budget filmmaking. And it builds up so much good will that by the time you get to the final act—a true homage to the dumb, goofy action tropes of the ’80s—well, it pretty much had won me over and sucked me in, even as I’m chuckling at how outlandish it is.

Does it make sense to call a movie humble, especially when the movie is about very un-humble people? It felt genuinely humble and humbly genuine, down to the opening where Cruise thanks the audience for showing up to the theater. A common trope today is “Why go to the movies when the people who make them so clearly hate me?” And this movie doesn’t hate anyone. It’s genuinely feel-good.

Domestic box office-wise, adjusted for inflation, it will be in the all-time top 30. Worldwide, where adjusting for inflation is too complicated, I guess, it’ll finish in the top 5, maybe higher—without a Chinese release. Some people think Hollywood will learn something from that; I think Hollywood’s thinking “Hey, we could’ve earned another $250M, if we didn’t piss off the Chinese Communists!” I’m not actually sure what the hell there is for the CCP to object to, but catering to them doesn’t seem to produce better movies. Hell, sometimes they just laugh at you when you cater to them.

While it’s way better than the original, I do think it’s somewhat over-hyped. (Not that I blame anyone involved for hyping it. It’s a huge victory over lockdowns and ennui.) But you know, I haven’t seen the original since it came out and still don’t particularly care to. But I’ll almost certainly watch this again.


The Fifth Element (25th Anniversray)

I was wondering to myself when I wrote this up: Was Luc Besson ever very successful? Wiki says The Fifth Element “was a strong financial success, earning more than US$263 million at the box office on a $90 million budget.” That’s worldwide, which means I think by today’s standards $270M would be considered “break even”, right? $90M plus $90M for US advertising plus $90M for the rest of the world. I dunno: Researching things from the dawn of the Internet is challenging. The only thing I could be sure of is that critics have never much liked Besson.

But the further we get away from a movie in time, the better we can evaluate it on its own merits, apparently. Whether it’s It’s A Wonderful Life or Sleeping Beauty or The Big Lebowski, some films take time to appreciate. And, of course, some films that were hits at the time don’t age that well. So where does The Fifth Element fit in the scheme of things? Overblown? Underappreciated?

I’d say: yes and yes. What worked about the film in 1997 still works today. The performances, the set pieces and the little moments, the score, the production, the set design, the art design, the sound design, the music—as a feat of filmmaking, it’s still quite remarkable. It’s a bit over two hours and feels epic, like there’s a cast of thousands (with two or three dozen listed on the credits). It does successfully what Lucas—not to pile on the guy—never managed with the prequels: It feels alive, futuristic, alien, operatic.

Ian Holm is in this. As is John Neville. And Luke Perry. All living the “no small parts” axiom.

Most of the stuff that didn’t work back then still doesn’t work, though I for one care a lot less (about what doesn’t work). There is not a lot of there there. For each cool scene, e.g., you are left with a bunch of questions about how what you saw makes sense in any context at all. In our futuristic police state, e.g., three or four different groups try to pass themselves off as Korben Dallas and his wife. This raises no security flags whatsoever. In fact, we witness a scene early on with Dallas in his apartment being rousted by cops who of course have access to his photo, but none of the people pretending to be Dallas make any attempt to look like him while collecting his galactically-famous prize.

It’s a good scene. Just like Gary Oldman is a great villain who is literally evil and a one-man-evil-band on a—well, speaking of Sleeping Beauty, he’s about Maleficent level. He employs millions, maybe hundreds of millions, and he can casually fire bunches of them for no real reason. He doesn’t answer to anyone. He is essentially a exemplar of Evil Corporate Guy. Just like Bruce Willis’ Dallas is a paragon of Tough Guy, who can walk into a room full of warriors and just shoot the leader between the eyes—the leader that the warrior race utterly depends on but also apparently take no pains to protect.

Hey, that’s another great scene. Makes no sense at all.

There is no honor among arms dealers.

The movie puts cool ahead of anything else at every moment and…you know, that’s okay. Amongst a host of dumb, mega-FX summer flicks, it stands out for still being entertaining.

Willis and Oldman are in top form, and it may be the best role Milla Jovovich ever has played. (Although what exactly she’s playing is unclear.) But her delivery of the language she and Besson invented is really perfect and I feel like subsequent roles she’s had haven’t really put a lot of great words in her mouth. She also gets a great range of emotions to display and comes off very likable.

Back in the day, I found Chris Tucker’s androgynous Ruby Rhod nigh-unbearable. He’s dialing schtick up to ten and yet, by today’s standards, he doesn’t seem all that outré.

Still obnoxious, not really outré.

It does sorta make you wonder why Valerian was such a stinker. A lot of people blame the two leads, but they’ve both gone on to turn in respectable performances elsewhere. The mysterious “chemistry” one’s always hearing about? I mean…did Bruce and Milla have chemistry here or were they just two charming and hot people? Dunno.

I do know that the universe of The Fifth Element feels more real to me, and looks better than its 20-year-newer predecessor. On the other hand, it may just come down to Besson. Making movies is hard, the movie business is hard, and it takes a lot out of people. Almost nobody who was hot in the ’90s is still hot now. (Tom Cruise and Milla Jovovich, basically.)

I would say that this movie, rather remarkably, is more or less just the same experience as it was back then. Weird, really.

Am I the only one that thinks Milla is 1000x better looking when she’s NOT in a movie?

Marcel The Shell With Shoes On

A young boy and his grandmother who have been separated from their family enlist the help of a documentarian to reunite. There’s a concise capsule review for you of Marcel The Shell With Shoes On, which elides only that the boy and his grandmother are, in fact, shell creatures.

Marcel and his grandmother in their garden.

Over a decade ago, future ex-spouses Jenny Slate and Dean Flesicher-Camp created the whimsical Marcel for a series of shorts and a couple of children’s books. In this feature, a newly single Dean (played by Fleischer-Camp) discovers the shell creatures at his AirBnB after splitting with his girlfriend, and decides to make a documentary about them.

Dean’s backstory is lightly told, mostly as the curious Marcel probes the reluctant filmmaker about his situation, and is one of the many light and artful touches to a story that could have been twee and insufferably shallow. Slate provides the voice of Marcel, and back in 2010, this was her first voice-acting role and would lead to a robust voice career (“Bob’s Burgers”, Despicable Me, The Secret Life of Pets, and most famously as Bellwether in Zootopia) augmenting her somewhat desultory acting career (My Blind Brother, Hotel Artemis, Venom).

The Shell Clan watching TV in bed.

The focus here is on Marcel who is, of course, very cute. As we’re introduced to him, we discover his modes of travel (inside a tennis ball, for example, for high speed movement, and putting honey on his shoes so he can walk on walls and windows), his means of support (formerly snacks from humans, now a garden), and his relationship with his elderly grandmother Connie (Isabella Rossellini). Apparently, long ago (Marcel is not good with time, which sets up some good gags) the owners of the house split up and in a rage the man dumped all the contents of a drawer into his bag and left.

Marcel and Connie were not there because they were early to the shell family’s weekly viewing of “60 Minutes”.

After a series of entertaining sight and verbal gags—Marcel is not sarcastic or caustic, but he is very pointed in his questions—Dean lights on the idea of making Marcel a YouTube channel to see if anyone can help him find his family. This section of the film is fairly interesting commentary on the utility of Internet fame, where Marcel discovers that his main interest to the “influencer” world is as a prop to their self-aggrandizement.

Ultimately this leads to attention from “60 Minutes” and the real prospect of reuniting with his family.

There’s your story: Short, sweet, cute, but also showing how the struggles of life are universal: We deal with dreams, loss, friendship, family, fame, and all from the perspective of a one-eyed shell.

You really have to admire Marcel being willing to risk compromising his integrity by appearing with Stahl.

I almost didn’t go see it. The whole “60 Minutes” bit and lionization of Lesley Stahl made me wonder if there wouldn’t be some other messaging in there. But there isn’t really: It’s a simple story, well told. And it’s a fairy tale, so I don’t mind that it takes place in a semi-functioning world (unlike our own) where journalists actually do fearlessly seek out the truth. Stahl’s earnest recreation of her interviewing style as she talks to a stop-motion-animated shell only highlights the absurdity of our current establishment.

It’s weird to have this as a consideration for a children’s movie, but this is where we are. (It recalls to me somewhat my experience of Ghost Writer, where in order to avoid seeing a movie about anal rape, I had to go see a movie by Roman Polanski.) But Marcel is probably saved because it’s a passion project for Slate and Fleischer-Camp, who I’m sure they’re reliably left (and Slate starred in the pro-abortion film The Obvious Child) but a good artist tells a good story first and foremost, and this simple adventure is a good story—a hero’s journey that understands the hero has to have some troubles and overcome obstacles and so on.

After a limited release, the film took off, sorta, and ended up with about $7 million at the box office. (DC’s Super-Pets, by contrast, has made $70 million—but on a budget of $90 million, which is a tad higher than Marcel, and with much less interesting results.) I was amused to see the Chiodo Brothers name on this for the animation—I know them best for Killer Klowns from Outer Space, Robocop, An American Werewolf in London—but they’ve been around a long time and have done plenty of family fare as well (Elf, “Goosebumps”).

I suspect the film will really take off in streaming, but it hasn’t shown up on any services yet.

Dean Fleischer-Camp with ex-wife Jenny Slate.