Embracing the Melodrama Part II #100: Pearl Harbor (dir by Michael Bay)


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“And then all this happened…”

Nurse Evelyn Johnson (Kate Beckinsale) in Pearl Harbor (2001)

The “this” that Evelyn Johnson is referring to is the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  You know, the date will live in infamy.  The attack that caused the United States to enter World War II and, as a result, eventually led to collapse of the Axis Powers.  The attack that left over 2,000 men died and 1,178 wounded.  That attack.

In the 2001 film Pearl Harbor, that attack is just one of the many complications in the romance between Danny (Ben Affleck), his best friend Rafe (Josh Hartnett), and Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale).  The other complications include Danny briefly being listed as dead, Danny being dyslexic before anyone knew what dyslexia was (and yet, later, he’s still seen reading and writing letters with absolutely no trouble, almost as if the filmmakers forgot they had made such a big deal about him not being able to do so), and the fact that Rafe really, really likes Evelyn.  Of course, the main complication to their romance is that this is a Michael Bay film and he won’t stop moving the camera long enough for anyone to have a genuine emotion.

I imagine that Pearl Harbor was an attempt to duplicate the success of Titanic, by setting an extremely predictable love story against the backdrop of a real-life historical tragedy.  Say what you will about Titanic (and there are certain lines in that film that, when I rehear them today, make me cringe), Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet had genuine chemistry.  None of that chemistry is present in Pearl Harbor.  You don’t believe, for a second, that Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett are lifelong friends.  You don’t believe that Kate Beckinsale is torn between the two of them.  Instead, you just feel like you’re watching three actors who are struggling to give a performance when they’re being directed by a director who is more interested in blowing people up than in getting to know them.

Continuing the Titanic comparison, Pearl Harbor‘s script absolutely sucks.  Along with that line about “all this” happening, there’s also a scene where Franklin D. Roosevelt (Jon Voight) reacts to his cabinet’s skepticism by rising to his feet and announcing that if he, a man famously crippled by polio and confined to a wheelchair, can stand up, then America can win a war.

I’ve actually been to Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.  I have gone to the USS Arizona Memorial.  I have stood and stared down at the remains of the ship resting below the surface of the ocean.  It’s an awe-inspiring and humbling site, one that leaves you very aware that over a thousand men lost their lives when the Arizona sank.

I have also seen the wall which lists the name of everyone who was killed during the attack on Pearl Harbor and until you’ve actually been there and you’ve seen it with your own eyes, you really can’t understand just how overwhelming it all is.  The picture below was taken by my sister, Erin.

Pearl Harbor 2003If you want to pay tribute to those who lost their lives at Pearl Harbor, going to the Arizona Memorial is a good start.  But avoid Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor at all costs.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #99: Pay It Forward (dir by Mimi Leder)


Pay_it_forward_ver1Speaking of crappy films…

Listen, I’m not going to say too much about the 2000 film Pay It Forward because it’s such a terrible movie that I feel like writing too much about it would be like the equivalent of having sex in It Follows.  Seriously, you talk too much about Pay It Forward and you’ll end up with some sort of shape-shifting demon following you around, doing you favors and demanding that you do three more favors for three other people and then those people have to do three more favors and pretty soon, everyone in the world is doing favors for everyone and…

AGCK!

Okay, okay — I know that probably doesn’t sound too bad to some people.  “People being nice to each other!?  What could be wrong about that?”  Well, watch the damn film and find out.

In Pay it Forward, Haley Joel Osment plays a creepy little kid who basically “saves” the world.  At the end of the film, he’s violently murdered and the entire population of Las Vegas gathers outside of his house with candles.  His mother Helen Hunt is truly touched that everyone was so moved by Haley’s mission.  That said, if Haley had never decided that everyone should pay it forward, he probably wouldn’t be dead.  I mean, let’s just be honest here.

Before he died, Haley was challenged by his social studies teacher, Kevin Spacey.  Mr. Spacey challenged an entire class of 7th graders to come up with an idea that will change the world.  (Honestly, don’t 7th graders already have enough to deal with?)  Haley’s idea is that he’ll do a favor for three random people and then those three people will do three nice things for three people and then…

BLEH!  God, I hate this movie!

Anyway, Haley gives money to a homeless man and then that homeless man keeps a woman from committing suicide and then that woman does something nice for Angie Dickinson and then somehow, this all eventually leads to some rich guy giving Jay Mohr a car and telling him to “pay it foward.”

And Jay’s a reporter!

So, naturally, he starts to work his way backwards on the chain of good deeds.  Along the way, he meets a prison inmate who has been converted to Pay It Forwardism.  “This is going to change the world!” he tells Jay.  “I’m even getting the brothers in here in on it!”

By the way, there’s exactly one person of color in Pay It Forward and he’s a prison inmate who thinks that other inmates will want to do random favors for each other.

Oh, but Haley has to do two other favors!  So, he sets Helen Hunt up with Kevin Spacey and when he catches his teacher coming out his mom’s bedroom, Haley gets really, really excited and … well, it’s pretty creepy.

At first, Helen thinks that Kevin thinks that she’s not smart enough to date him.  When Helen asks him point blank if he thinks that she’s dumb, he responds by giving a really long monologue about the time that his father set him on fire.  Kevin does not mention what his father was attempting to pay forward…

And then Jay shows up in town and interviews Haley and oh my God, Haley’s going to change the world!  Yay!  But then Haley spends his third favor trying to protect a kid (played by Degrassi‘s Marc Donato) from some bullies and ends up getting stabbed to death.

But fear not!  Along with that candlelight vigil, we also hear an anchorwoman breathlessly reporting that there have been reports of “Pay it Forwardism” across the country.

Now, there’s a lot of negative things that I could say about Pay It Forward but … well, I kinda already did.  Pay It Forward pops up on TV a lot and there’s a lot of idiots who always get excited about it.

Here’s my fear concerning the whole Pay It Forward idea.  It seems like anybody can just do anything and then go, “Pay it forward,” and suddenly, you are obligated to go do three favors.  You may be running late.  You may have other things you need to do.  But no, you’ve been told to pay it forward and now, you have to!  Because of one creepy little kid who wanted his social studies teacher to have sex with his mom, you have now been inconvenienced.

There doesn’t seem to be any rule about how big of a favor anyone actually has to do before they can smugly order you to “Pay it forward.”  Think about this.  You’re trying to get a Coke from a vending machine but all of your dollars are all crumbled up and the machine won’t accept them.  You’re about to give up and go home when suddenly, a stranger walks up and deposits three quarters in the machine and punches a button.

He tosses you a grape drink.  You wanted a Coke but, because you’re nice and you think he was selflessly trying to help you out, you smile and say, “Thank you.”

“Pay it forward,” he replies before walking away.

Well, now, you’re screwed, aren’t you?

Now, suddenly, you have to go find three people who need a favor.  You didn’t want grape.  You wanted a Coke and, even if you had never gotten that Coke, it would not have been the end of the world.  But, because you were polite and said thank you, you are now obligated.

As you look for people to help, it occurs to you that stranger really didn’t care about whether you wanted a Coke.  What he cared about was completing his third favor so he could actually get on with his life.  So, no, he wasn’t trying to help you or trying to make the world a better place.  Instead, he was just trying to free himself of a nagging obligation.

So, after a long search, you’ve finally found your three strangers and you’ve done your three favors and you’re finally free of your obligation.  And then suddenly, another stranger runs up and tosses you the keys to one of those stupid looking Smart cars and yells, “Pay it forward!”

SERIOUSLY, IT NEVER ENDS!

Don’t tell me about paying it forward.

Just leave me alone and let me drink my damn Coke.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #98: American Beauty (dir by Sam Mendes)


American_Beauty_posterWhat crap!

I know, I know.  “American Beauty is an incisive satire that looks at the stifling conformity of American suburbia with Kevin Spacey giving the definitive portrait of the male midlife crisis and blah blah blah blah blah blah.”  Listen, American Beauty is a terrible film.  I don’t care if it won a lot of Oscars, including the 1999 award for best picture.  American Beauty is a shallow film that, at its worst, is deeply misogynistic.

American Beauty tells the story of two people.  They’re married.  They live in the suburbs.  They have a teenage daughter who is a cheerleader.  They pretend to have the perfect life but actually, everyone’s extremely unhappy.

WOW!  OH MY GOD!  PEOPLE ARE SECRETLY UNHAPPY IN THE SUBURBS!?  MY MIND IS BLOWN!  WOW, NO ONE’S EVER HAD THAT THOUGHT BEFORE!  OH.  MY.  GOD!

Anyway, the husband is named Lester (Kevin Spacey).  Lester’s a loser.  He narrates the film and he’s played by Kevin Spacey so you’re supposed to think that he’s really this great guy who deserves better but honestly, Lester’s a whiny little jerk.  He’s upset because, now that he’s an adult, he misses being a teenager.  Life hasn’t turned out the way that he wanted it to.  Boo hoo.  As I said, Lester is kind of whiny but the film treats him like he’s an enlightened truth seeker.  In order to keep the audience from realizing that Lester is a loser, the film surrounds him with one-dimensional stereotypes.

And really, Lester is the ultimate male fantasy.  Everything that he says and thinks is wise.  His every thought and feeling matters.  To its discredit, the world has failed to recognize that Lester’s vapid thoughts are worthwhile.  Lester quits his job and finds employment working in fast food.  Lester fantasizes about fucking his daughter’s best friend (Mena Suvari).  Lester starts to smoke weed with his teenage neighbor (Wes Bentley).  In real life, Lester would just be another pathetic guy having a midlife crisis but, in the world of American Beauty, he’s a seeker of truth,

Anyway, eventually, Lester gets shot in the back of the head and dies but that doesn’t keep him from still narrating the film.  You just can’t shut him up.

Meanwhile, Lester’s wife is Carolyn (Annette Bening) and wow, is she evil!  Get this — she actually tries to keep the house clean, is obsessive about her job, and wants her family to eat dinner together.  Oh my God, so evil!  She ends up having an affair with Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher) and, when they have sex, we’re supposed to laugh at them because they’re so cartoonishly loud.  And when Lester catches them, the audience is expected to applaud and say, “Way to go, Lester!”  The film ridicules Carolyn’s affair but it idealizes Lester’s sexual fantasies.  Lester’s determination to be independent and do what he wants is presented as being heroic.  Carolyn’s determination to have a life that does not revolve around her pathetic husband is presented as being villainous.

And why is that?

Basically, it comes down to the fact that Lester has a penis whereas Carolyn has a vagina.

American Beauty is probably one of the most misogynistic films that I have ever seen, one in which men are exclusively victims of all those unreasonable and untrustworthy women.  Whiny loser Lester is presented as being a hero.  Ricky, the next door neighbor played by Wes Bentley, spends his time going on and on about the beauty of an empty bag and we’re supposed to see some sort of higher truth in his pretentious blathering.  Meanwhile, Carolyn is portrayed as being a shrew.  Lester’s teenager daughter (Thora Birch) is a spoiled brat.  Lester’s sexual obsession, the cheerleader played by Mena Suvari, is presented as being a suburban seductress but, in the film’s eyes, she’s partially redeemed when she suddenly admits to being a virgin.

(The film seems to think that the revelation that teenagers lie about sex is truly shocking.  This is one of those films that makes you wonder if the filmmakers have ever hung out with anyone outside of their own small circle of friends.)

One huge subplot deals with Ricky’s father, a military guy played by Chris Cooper, mistakenly believing that Lester is gay.  And, honestly, American Beauty would have been a better film if Lester had been a gay man and if, instead of buying a new car and getting a crappy job, Lester had dealt with his identity crisis by coming out of the closet.  Certainly, a lot of Lester’s anger would have made a lot more sense if he was a man struggling to come to terms with his sexuality as opposed to being a man who just doesn’t like his job and is upset that his wife no longer has the body of a 17 year-old.

(We are, of course, supposed to be shocked when Cooper suddenly reveals that he himself is gay.  But, honestly, the film’s plans for Cooper are obvious from the minute he first appears on-screen and dramatically squints his eyes in disgust at the sight of two men jogging together.  Cooper is a good actor but he’s terrible in American Beauty.)

It would have taken guts to make Lester gay and, at heart, American Beauty is a very cowardly film.  It attacks easy targets and it resolutely refuses to play fair.  So desperate is it to make Lester into a conventional hero that it refuses to let anyone around him be human.  As a result, a talented cast is stuck playing a collection of one-note stereotypes.  No wonder a lot of people love this film — it makes you feel smart without requiring that you actually think.

American Beauty was written by Alan Ball and directed by Sam Mendes.  Both Ball and Mendes have subsequently done far better work, which is good because American Beauty is a terrible movie.  The script is a pretentious mess and Mendes never seems to be quite sure what exactly he’s trying to say from scene-to-scene.

American Beauty did win best picture but who cares?

It’s a crappy film.

 

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #97: Elizabeth (dir by Shekhar Kapur)


Elizabeth_Poster“I am no man’s Elizabeth!”

— Queen Elizabeth I (Cate Blanchett) in Elizabeth (1998)

I have to admit that I always feel guilty about the fact that I love movies about British royal history.  After all, I have roots in Northern Ireland and I was raised Catholic.  If anything, I should refuse to watch films about British royalty on general principle.  I should be writing more reviews of films like Bloody Sunday.

But I can’t help myself.  Whether it’s because I enjoy looking at all of the costumes or I just have a thing for movies set in drafty old castles, I have a weakness for films about British royalty.  (And I will also admit that I sat through the entire royal wedding and I have a bit of a girlcrush on both Pippa and Kate Middleton.  As I said, I just can’t help myself.)

Of course, some of it definitely has to do with the fact that I’m an unapologetic history nerd.  I am fascinated with how people lived in the past.  And, of course, anyone who shares my obsession understands that, when it comes to history, there’s both the official story and the truth.  The official story is something that’s passed down over the centuries.  It’s what we learn in school.  The truth, however, is always far more obscure.  The truth is what historians piece together from what little gossipy evidence has managed to survive the passage of time.

We all know that the official story of Queen Elizabeth I is that she was England’s greatest Queen, she defeated the Spanish Armada, and she never married.  She was the “Virgin Queen,” forsaking love to serve her nation.  That’s the official story but is it the truth?

That’s the question at the heart of the 1998 Best Picture nominee Elizabeth.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  I’m not arguing that Elizabeth represents the truth.  Historically, the film is messy and full of speculation that is less based on evidence and more on the desire to keep things cinematic.  But still, Elizabeth is an interesting film specifically because it takes a historical figure and dares to suggest that she may have been human before she became an icon.

Cate Blanchett gives a great performance in the role of Elizabeth.  When we first meet her, she’s a somewhat silly girl who is less concerned with politics and religion and more concerned with her boyfriend, Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes).  Elizabeth is also the protestant half-sister of Catholic Queen Mary (Kathy Burke).  Mary is planning on ordering Elizabeth’s execution but dies of stomach cancer before she gets around to singing the order.

Suddenly, Elizabeth is Queen of England.  Young and insecure, she is, at first, manipulated by advisors like William Cecil (Richard Attenbrough), who pressures her to marry the cross-dressing Henry III (Vincent Cassel) of France.  Meanwhile, the Pope (John Gielgud) signs an order calling for Elizabeth’s death.  Catholic nobleman Thomas Howard (Christopher Eccleston) and mysterious priest John Ballard (Daniel Craig) conspire to assassinate Elizabeth.  With even Robert Dudley giving her reason to distrust him, Elizabeth discovers that her only ally is the enigmatic and ruthless “spymaster,” Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush). It all ultimately ends in a sequence that basically transports the finale of The Godfather to the Elizabethan era.

I really should not like Elizabeth.  It’s undoubtedly an anti-Catholic film, though it’s nothing compared to the histrionic anti-Catholicism of its sequel, Elizabeth: The Golden Age.  But I can’t help myself, I enjoyed Elizabeth.  It was impossible for me not to relate to Cate Blanchett’s passionate performance.  (And there was just something so incredibly hot about the way Joseph Fiennes, with his intense eyes, would stare at her.)  When you ignore the film’s protestant bias and just concentrate on the performances and the gorgeous production design, you can’t help but love Elizabeth.

“Airboy” #1 — Comic Creators Behaving Badly


There’s no other comic on the stands quite like James Robinson and Greg Hinkle’s waaaaaaayyy post-modern take on “Airboy” !

Trash Film Guru

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Remember Joe Matt’s Peepshow? At the height of the early-’90s autobiographical comics craze, Matt pretty much blew the whole thing up by going places even the most honest and/or foolhardy (depending on your point of view) of his contemporaries would dare venture — mostly by being probably a bit too forthright about the depths of his porn addiction, but he also wasn’t afraid to show what a self-centered, one-sided prick he could be in relationships, and frankly I found that far more candid and unsettling than watching him jerk off for page after page (after page, after page — in fact, Matt himself shared a funny story on facebook a couple of years back about meeting Guillermo Del Toro after a movie premier and Del Toro, upon their introduction, remarking to him that “I’m not sure I want to shake this hand”). The end result of all this, near…

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