Three Times Is Enemy Action.

A funny thing happened at the movies: We saw an actual movie! Then another! And a third! The Boy and I love weird, arty, indie flicks, but it seemed like the Anglo-American movie machine had completely forgotten how to make just a regular movie: A story about normal people trying to get along on life, presented with various obstacles they have to overcome.

These are movies that we liked and could recommend, generally—presuming the specific subject matter isn’t off-putting to you.

So, today, let’s look at Somewhere In Queens, Blackberry and What’s Love Got To Do With It?

Glen Howerton is sick of your sh…henanigans.

Somewhere In Queens is written, directed, produced and starring Ray Romano as Leo, the unimpressive son in a family of Italian American plumbers. (Insert Mario reference here, I suppose.) He’s a devoted husband to Angela (Laurie Metcalf), who basically lives in fear of the cancer she beat five years ago coming back.

But the story centers around Sticks, his awkward, super-shy son. Apparently, while his brother and dad sacrifice everything for the business, he put trying to help his son first, and he did this through basketball. His son gets up good enough that he’s spotted by a scout who arranges for a tryout (and a sweet but trampy girl who ends up his first love). The kid can possibly go to college instead of straight into plumbing.

Setting aside all the issues with college these days, this is a very traditional story of values and class clashes. Leo isn’t the brightest bulb and he goes too far in trying to protect his son, but you end up liking him. You kind of end up liking everyone, even Angela, whose character is challenging.

Interesting to note the story would still work almost unchanged if it had been a Jewish family. (This is why people think Joy Behar is Jewish. From a distance, all you get is “loudmouth New Yorkers”.) Point is, it does work and the main criticism people have it is that it isn’t particularly adventurous as a story.

Well, no, but if you’d asked me prior to this whether anyone in the current system could make this movie, I’d have said no. Romano is competent all around, obviously as the lead, but also the direction and writing. I’d go see another movie by him.

Introducing the girlfriend to the parents.

Blackberry! The exciting story of the nerds who invented the smartphone and the shark who made them successful.

Here’s another classic tale: A bunch of engineers invent an amazing thing and the business world is poised to screw them over. Enter the Shark. Glen Howerton plays Jim, who grabs the daydreaming engineers lead by Mike (Jay Baruchel) by the shorthairs and whips them into a productive team.

Howerton and Baruchel are terrific. Baruchel nails the sincere devotion to making things work that the best engineers display. Toward the end of the movie, he changes his hair style from a sloppy, careless, almost juvenile haircut to a slicked back look and we know he’s lost touch.

Howerton is tremendous, of course. He’s ambitious, unscrupulous, petty and egotistical — but he’s also the force that makes the whole thing happen. He threads that needle so well that when the FTC comes after him for some shady stuff he did to poach employees from other companies (to save the business), you’re really on his side.

Screw the FTC anyway. What’re they doing in Canada?

But like the engineer, you know he’s lost touch when he’s putting his acquisition of a hockey team over a critical business meeting.

I’m not much for nostalgia—in fact I loathe it—but I have to say the scenes of nerds playing a bunch of ’90s computer games over a LAN during the workday—references to Doom, Duke Nukem, Civ II, Dune 2000), to say nothing of movie nights featuring Army of Darkness, etc., actually got me in the feels. Good times before tech became a monster.

Nice work from writer/director Matt Johnson, who also plays the uber-nerd-second-banana to Baruchel’s wishy-washy but ultimately more grounded character. The actual Jim Ballslie has apparently said he enjoys the movie, and even though it’s wildly inaccurate people should go and have a good time and not sweat it. (Totally not what Glen Howerton’s character would say.)

Matt Johnson can’t believe Baruchel is even entertaining Howerton’s crap for a moment.

What’s Love Got To Do With It was perhaps the most surprising movie of the three. From the Bridget Jones people, it concerns Zoe (Lily James), a documentarian who is looking at arranged marriages. She grew up next door to a Pakistani boy, Kazim (Shazad Latif), who has decided at 32 to let his parents arrange a traditional marriage for him. She’s flabbergasted by this and we’re well set up for the two to get together—but the movie does a good job of convincing us this is impossible.

Kazim has a sister who married a non-Muslim, and she’s been excommunicated from the family. He’s determined not to do that and not having any luck finding a girl he likes (because he likes Zoe, obviously). Zoe is a mess. She’s a modern woman who tells her nieces classic fairytales about princesses who don’t need no man. She has terrible taste in men and is basically a loner, to the point where she literally lives on a ship.

But a funny thing happens on the way through this tale of a stronk, empowered wammen: the movie admits she’s a wreck.

It also doesn’t dismiss arranged marriages. And—this really took me aback—when Zoe goes to look at having her eggs freed, the director of the clinic tells her, in essence, “It’s expensive, it’s painful, and it has a 1% chance of working, why are you so dumb as to believe all these tabloid stories about 50+ year old new moms?” I did not see those little hate facts coming.

In one of the more telling scenes, she discovers that her brother-in-law is cheating on her sister, and as a palliative to the overall miserable week she’s having she has a one night stand. (Apparently her go-to for bad weeks.) Of course, the next morning not only does she feel like crap, he’s on the phone with his wife. So she realizes her own behavior facilitates the very behavior she despises.

I mean, wow. The whole thing kind of impressed me with how it adhered to these specific characters making these specific choices with these specific consequences and stayed so strongly away from “We have to say this because we need women to believe they’ll be happier if they act like crappy men.”

The setup is that the producers of Zoe’s documentary turn down her first pitches because they’re looking for something light and they can’t think of a funny angle on honor killings. That’s how she ends up doing the arranged marriage thing. The producer guys are so smarmy, so spot-on trying to be the perfectly PC who-can-we-get-funding-from? spineless,  artless, gormless and yet utterly self-confident, they were my favorite characters. When the film is done and everybody in her life hates Zoe for having made it, they call her up on the phone and say something like “love the movie, brown stories, brown struggles…but white lens.” And they cancel it.

It felt so perfect, so utterly true-to-life. So, hey, maybe we’re all sick of this garbage. Then again, the movie was shot in 2021 and underwent some serious changes, so maybe there’s something going on there.

It wraps up perhaps a little too neatly, but I’m not complaining. It’s a romance, and it needs to tie things up, and there are actually only certain ways the genre is allowed to wrap-up. That’s fine.

James and Latif have good chemistry and apparently are longtime friends in real life. Emma Thompson is pitch-perfect as Zoe’s mother in a role written for her because the screenwriter always wanted Emma Thompson to be her mother.

Zoe and Kazim listen to an impromptu raga jam session in a scene which I haven’t actually figured out why it’s there.

To say that we were startled by three movies in a row that seemed to seek nothing other than to tell specific stories of specific characters is underselling our shock. Now, none of these films are burning up the box office. What’s Love Got To Do With It? broke $2 million (unlike the other two) but it’s unlikely to break $10M. And they all got excellent reviews and wide openings.

Interestingly, all three are listed as comedies. Comedy/Drama for the first two, and Romantic-Comedy for WLGTDWI? None of them are comedies. Someone, probably a marketing guy, decided somewhere along the line that if anyone cracks a joke in a movie, it’s a comedy. Queens has a sitcom-y foundation, full of wacky misunderstanding and plans gone awry, but it’s really very serious. Just because vulgar Italian-Americans having dinner is kind of funny does not make this a comedy. BlackBerry is clever and dark and you’ll get some laughs out of its wry presentation of the business world, but whatever the intentions of the filmmakers were, it’s not really a black comedy. It is by far the funniest of the three, though.

WLGTDWI? is reminiscent of Bridge Jones, understandably, but the character even more neurotic, or at least her neuroses are treated more seriously. This is not a romantic-comedy. The characters in a traditional romcom or even a genre romance, for that matter, can’t go around diddling other people. This is a drama about people in a modern, promiscuous world, and quite frankly, the damage that that promiscuity does, to say nothing of the betrayal the characters feel from absorbing the cultural narrative about love and sex. The characters are charming and human and there are many fun moments but no way in hell is this a romantic-comedy, much less a comedy-comedy.

Still, it’s strange to have three movies released so close together you don’t have to footnote with “Well, how do you feel about tons of feces?” or “It’s terrific, but it portrays the universe as utterly devoid of any kind of divine presence, which you may find soul-crushing,” or even just “Dildos play a prominent role.” (And since I’m way behind and haven’t written the reviews for the first two yet, I’m referring to Triangle of Sadness and The Banshees of Inisherin, respectively.

It all felt very…normal. Which feels weird in 2023.

Experiments In Terror

“Sometimes I write poems that fail and I call those experiments.” I don’t know where I picked that up from, but I have attributed it in my head to Robert Frost. I think about it a lot these days. The Boy and I go to a lot of movies and, invariably, most of the movies are “indie”. This isn’t a prejudice on our part: Modern American mainstream movies fail to do what is expected of them—primarily on a story level (which is why you hear me extolling the virtues of Korean, Japanese and Chinese pop cinema). But “indie” is a wide, nearly meaningless term, as it can encompass movies that are meant to be pop cinema (romcoms, action films, horror, war, etc.) that just don’t have the reach (due to budget or distribution concerns) of those in the Hollywood system.

Hell, Hollywood has been abandoning more of its own movies, particularly since the lockdowns, rather than gamble on the costs of distribution and marketing.

Which leads us to that most repulsive of modifiers, “art”. An “art film” can be succinctly described as “a movie no one wants to see”. As James Madison’s Phone pointed out, historically, the Academy Awards were given to big hits. In recent years, they’re almost exclusively art films. Some of you may recall my lament last year that while I enjoyed many of the movies I saw, I couldn’t think of any that I wouldn’t highly qualify before recommending.

Hey, look, it’s an Art movie!

But just as mainstream movies fail, art films have their own traps they fall into. I’ve heard people complain, for example, they don’t want to see romcoms or an action flick because they know how the movie is going to end. This is, of course, absurd: Everyone knows Hamlet dies, Elizabeth Bennet gets married, Carrie murders everyone. Try to get a surprise ending every time and you end with M. Night Shyamalan.

This compulsion to be different and unexpected is the main trap of the art film. The most common one we’ve seen is “movies that, rather than pick an ending, just stop”. An “arty” love story will take you that crucial moment where the character has to make THE choice and then just roll credits. It isn’t necessary to spell things out, of course, but if the audience not only doesn’t get to see the climax of the story but you’ve also given so little information about the characters that the audience can’t enjoy figuring it out, you’ve failed.

Horror is a great vehicle for experimentation. Horror movies don’t have to make sense. They can effectively mess with traditional movie pacing. They can leave questions unanswered. Since survival is the common thread among all living things, they don’t need elaborate character development. They benefit inordinately from marketing. They’re cheap to make and they can become unreasonably popular. Being cheesy isn’t necessarily a barrier to success.

And now that you’ve read this, I’ll finally get to my recipe for chocolate chip cookiesmovie reviews. I’m going to contrast four movies today: The first two of are being hailed as arty, experimental films.


One hour and forty minutes of…this.

Shot for $15,000 and raking in a cool $2 million at the box office, Skinamarink is the latest blight our neighbors to the north have visited upon on. The title comes from a once popular Canadian kid show. What’s it about? It’s about 100 minutes of staring at walls. When we came out of the theater, the concessions guy said, “Yeah, that movie is dividing people.” The Boy and I had the identical reaction: “Really?” This has irked The Boy so much that he’s been trying to find anyone to go to bat for it (who wasn’t stoned while watching it).

I encourage you to watch the 100 second trailer, even though it is a lie. It’s cut to make it look as though something happens. But that 100 seconds more-or-less encompasses the entirety of action in the film, which is sixty times longer and actually holds each of the shots shown for minutes on end, with no movement whatsoever. The story, which I defy anyone to get from the actual contents of the movie, is that a couple of kids wake up to find all the windows and doors in their house are gone. Some sort of entity has done something to their parents.

There’s enough here for a ten-minute short. Twenty, if you’re as patient as I am. There’s an atmosphere here. The audience has to do all the heavy lifting in order to rescue fear from the boredom, and the movie trips over itself making that nigh impossible.

The kids, for example, don’t act like pre-schoolers. There’s some talk of food but not much. (We’ll get to the time issues in a moment.) Their parents, or simulacrums thereof, are in the movie briefly. But nothing changes the kids’ tone from “walking around the house whispering” mode.

The house is completely cut off from the outside world. About three days into the proceedings, the kids decide to use the phone. The phone works! They talk to 9-1-1! What are we supposed to make of this? A demonic entity turned a house into a box, removed the plumbing, but not the phone wires? Somewhere out in Toronto, there’s a house just sitting in the middle of its block with doors and windows gone like we’re in a Luis Buñuel movie?

About time: One of the lies in the trailer is the “coming soon in 19732023″ gag. But it’s not 1973. 1993, maybe. The kids are constantly watching (public domain) videotapes. A minor point, perhaps, but why? Could you not make up your mind what time period it was? An hour into this nonsense, we get a “SIX MONTHS LATER” card. And nothing else changes. Our children have gone six months without food, without light, without human companionship and they’re completely unchanged. The whole thing could have (and should have) taken place in a very short time period.

Overall, the central conceit of this movie strikes me as bogus: In a found footage movie, which this comes across as, there are gaps and oddities due to the fact that the characters are experiencing what’s happening. You only get part of the picture because your cameraman is involved in the proceedings. This movie just says “We’re aiming are camera at a doorjam for three minutes. Write your own movie here! Enjoy!”

Give me Badass Ninja, made for about the same budget, but with one-hundred times more conviction.

Enys Men

I found the ’70s styles amusing.

Here’s a movie that genuinely takes place in 1973, was shot on 16mm film, and uses many of the conventions of 1973 filmmaking, where the film crew’s top priority was minimizing their carbon footprint. Well, fuck.

This is a genuinely arty film, full of interesting shots and homages to one of the most melodramatic periods of cinema, scattered images of varying degrees of spookiness, and an incomprehensible narrative. Strike that: An incomprehensible narrative would’ve been fine, this is a non-existent narrative. A woman lives on the lighthouse island of Enys Men and observes lichen. (Which, now that I put it that way, strikes me as how someone would parody an art film.) Sometimes there’s a girl in the house with her. The girl is her. We know this because they say the same words at the same time and the girl is only there sometimes which is impossible because it’s an island with nowhere to go, etc. The later “reveal” that they’re the same person comes across as “well, duh”.

This is emblematic of the whole movie: Who is there and who isn’t? Were there people on the island before and she’s the sole survivor? Is she dead? She drinks a lot of tea for a dead person. What’s the deal with the miners? Did they burn witches? Did the witches get together and burn everyone else?

To avoid the trap of falling into a clichéd narrative (which all the aforementioned things would be) Enys Men opts for giving you no narrative at all. Again, very “arty”. In some ways, this a bitterer disappointment than Skinamarink because it’s all potential and there’s a lot of skill here (where Skinamarink is just a guy aiming his video-camera at the ceiling).

The Lake

Uh…most of the time it looks better than this.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have this little Thai creature feature called The Lake. This is a movie that tries very much to be in the genre throwing in the tropes of the cranky rural fisherman who discovers the monster, the hero cop who’s alienated from his daughter, the heroic young college students who save the day, the “or is it?” ending that actually seems to indicate we’re in the middle of a series somehow, etc., but it never develops anything in to a proper story. Mostly, it’s got The Monster.

And unlike most creature features, The Monster is actually pretty damn good, with the filmmakers mixing practical effects with CGI. It’s hit-and-miss, sure, as this stuff always is, but the production values are overall very professional. When the Thai figure out the basics of storytelling, they’ll be a force.

Terrifier 2

She looks like an angel, kicks ass like an angel.

If you were to ask me what the best movie of 2022 was, I might, in all honesty, say Terrifier 2. This movie fits squarely into the slasher genre, and into the specific subgenre of splatter. As reference points: Halloween is a slasher movie but not a splatter movie. Halloween 2 is a slasher and a splatter.

I don’t really like splatter movies. While I have come to appreciate the artistry of some of the films (and it’s hard not to love the creative bravura of Tom Savini, e.g.) I tend to avoid movies that I think are just going to revel in gore. I only saw this film because the buzz was strong.

And this movie hits the mark: If you like the splatter subgenre, this movie is for you. It delivers on everything it promises, then runs for another half-hour and delivers a transcendent deconstruction of the slasher genre. If you can tolerate splatter without really enjoying it (like me) this movie might still blow you away.

It starts with a murder, naturally, by series villain Art The Clown (played by the amazingly talented David Howard Thornton), but you immediately sense that something else is going on. It’s so over the top and so public, the movie takes on the air of a fairy tale or fable. (And what are slashers if not fables?) The gore here and elsewhere is so beyond the pale and so beyond what scolds would call “unnecessary”, it’s like a dance number in a Gene Kelly musical.

The Final Girl, Sienna, played by Lauren LaVera is the perfect counterpoint to Art, gradually becoming aware of his existence, his demonic quest to kill, and becoming a rival to him, first in the traditional slasher way as the scrappy survivor trying to protect her little brother, then in a metaphysical way. LaVera, who is a trained martial artist, plays the part so convincingly that as the movie veers into its fourth, unexpected act, it genuinely transcends its own genre.

Grossing $13M on a $400K budget, it embraces its narratives, its genre tropes, and goes whole hog. The energy is like the first two Evil Dead movies, and one can see shades of young Sam Raimi hanging from the rafter with his camera to get the shots he wanted in director Damien Leone’s hiding under the bed and working the bellows for a pair of disembodied lungs. The three of them: Thornton, LaVera and Leone make a powerful team.

In Conclusion

I like arty films and I don’t regret seeing Enys Man or even Skinamarink (much). But like Picasso drawing a stick figure of a bull, I suspect that the most successful experimental movies are going to come from those who have mastered the basic tropes and genres and narratives first.

A Man For All Seasons (1966)

The extended award season, finally receding into the future haze of “What won for best song in 2023?”*, always tends to pique me: What is great? From school, you’d get the idea that “great” is what a professor dozens or hundreds of years later thinks about your work. And however vile academics are today (and however mediocre they’ve historically been), we have both Shakespeare and Bach today because some academic recovered them from fickle pop culture. If someone can dig up your work hundreds of years later and people can still embrace the aesthetic, that’s a measure of greatness.

However, I do think there’s great “in the moment”. Tons of, e.g., ’80s culture was the right mood (as the kids say) for the time. This is true of every era, of course, and what’s remarkable about the ’80s is that a lot of the stuff dismissed as ephemera at the time still holds up today—in contrast to the late ’60s/early ’70s, which was absolutely convinced of its own immortality and is the very definition of “cringe” today.

From a narrative standpoint, however, a great story (by my lights) is the one that tells the tale that truly is eternal which brings us to A Man For All Seasons, 1966’s Best Picture Oscar winner.

Jordan Petersen, the early years.

The Flower (a recent convert to Catholicism) had been wanting to watch this for some time, and we finally did. It is as great as I remembered it being, but it also maps perfectly on to the recent struggle against the lockdowns, the whole red vs. blue pill, and the dangers of going against The Cathedral (in a practically literal sense). It is odd to see a movie you know well and love and yet be shocked into wanting to check the copyright to see if it was actually made yesterday.

Of course, it couldn’t have been made yesterday now, could it? (Maybe during the Trump administration, so they could metaphorically make him the villain, like they did with Bush and The Lives of Others.)

Directed by Fred Zinneman (High Noon, From Here To Eternity, Oklahoma!) who won directing and producing Oscars, based on a play by Robert Bolt (Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago) who also won an Oscar, this is the story of Sir Thomas More, who stood against King Henry VIII’s decision to split from the Catholic Church in order to secure a divorce—and who expects his adherence to the law to protect him as Henry’s sycophants (and Henry himself) try bullying, cajoling and finally tricking him into breaking the law. Anything to get his agreement, which only seems to be important because he won’t give it.

“You ever looked into the Pope’s eyes? They’re like a doll’s eyes!”

Successful, respected, principled, we seem More lose all his worldly goods, we see his family turned against him (at least insofar as supporting his principles), we see him jailed and finally railroaded with an outright lie in a court of law. And, in a scene that is apparently close to historical truth, we see him executed. (Spoilers on a 500 year old event?)

Here, More is not even expressly going against Henry VIII: He’s simply not going with him, and that is enough to spur the escalating madness. Throughout the movie, More (who is not naive) is increasingly red-pilled, as he realizes if the King wants you dead, you’re dead, law be damned. Throughout, his friends and allies are imploring him to be reasonable, because it’s better than the alternative. (Relevantly, the issue of “right” or “wrong” isn’t really at play here, except in the sense that Henry feels he’s in the wrong, and he can’t feel that he’s the wrong.)

Paul Scofield won the acting Oscar (but he didn’t show because he figured he would lose to Richard Burton, who turned down the More part). Charlton Heston lobbied for the role and appeared in the 1988 version (which I find unwatchable). The cinematography—Technicolor, before they started muddying the colors too badly for “realism”—and costumes are great and also won Oscars. Robert Shaw (Jaws) lost best supporting actor.

Making the staff feel guilty.

A young John Hurt—his first role in a big movie—plays a would-be toady to More. Leo McKern, Wendy Hiller, Orson Welles, Vanessa Redgrave (who would go on to star in the Heston version), and Susannah York round out the cast.

Historical realism? It probably ends with the costumes (and the execution scene). More’s actual track record was not one of tolerance, with any number from three to eight heretics being burned at the stake during his reign as chancellor, according to modern historians. At the same time, revisionism is so endemic, I wouldn’t believe George Washington didn’t cut down the cherry tree if I weren’t his alibi for the night.

But realism is not the point: Bolt’s More is aspirational. He is what we should all be. Principled and willing to work within the system to the extent that it doesn’t compromise his principles.

If Bolt had specific events in mind, it also doesn’t matter, because it works so well today. (Contrast with Spartacus where Dalton Trumbo shoehorns his anti-McCarthy speech into the mouths of literal slavers.) It’s the universality of this premise which is great: We will always be impressed on to conform and to compromise even our most fundamental beliefs, it seems like. With More we have a role model.

*“Naatu Naatu” from RRR.

Orson Welles, 1958, needs a fat suit for “A Touch of Evil”. Orson Welles, 1966…pure Welles.