Critic v Trolls: Dawn of Hate Mail

The Aisle Seat went online in October of 1995. In the last three days, I’ve received more hate mail than I have in the last twenty years combined. The source of all this anger is my review of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Of particular irritation to the writers of all this hate mail is the beginning of the review, which was excerpted as my pull quote on Rotten Tomatoes:

“Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is one of the worst superhero movies ever made. It is worse than Batman & Robin. It is worse than Catwoman. It is worse than last summer’s Fantastic Four (or at least more disappointing).”

I didn’t mean it was a lot worse than those other films — they’re all terrible — but they had at least one or two elements that interested me on some level, whereas BvS had none. While I knew some people would strongly disagree with that sentiment, I wrote it for one reason, and one reason only: I really do think Batman v Superman is worse. I wouldn’t have said that if I didn’t believe it. Still, people accused me of making hyperbole, click-baiting, and attempting to piss off fanboys to drive up my web traffic. None of that was true.

The reaction to my review has been mystifying. People half my age have lectured me on comic books, despite the fact that I was into comics long before they were even born. I’ve lost Twitter followers. One person I have known and been friendly with on social media for years unfollowed me on Twitter and unfriended me on Facebook because of my review. That same creep then went on Twitter and said some things about me that were unkind and untrue. Angry readers have reached out to me via email, tweet, and Facebook message. I have been mocked and ridiculed in the forums of websites devoted to superhero movies. A couple strangers said I look like a child molester. People told me that I should kill myself. Why so many fanboys care so passionately about a bad review of a comic book picture is beyond me, especially given that there are so many important things to be concerned about in today’s world.

Do I care about getting flamed? No. I’m just glad people are reading my work and that it’s sparking debate. I don’t respond to trolls, except with the link to a hidden page on my site that attempts to humorously express my profound lack of concern regarding their anger.

Besides, troll rage is kind of funny, and that’s why I’ve decided to share a few pieces of hate mail here. (I won’t include the really dark stuff, which I may address later.) Below are actual messages I’ve received, unedited and unexpurgated, followed by some silly personal reaction to each of them. I’ve redacted email addresses, which are private. Twitter is public, though, so I’m leaving identities as they are. (Please do not harass anyone!) Enjoy!

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This is a fairly typical response — admitting the movie is flawed, but asserting its greatness anyway. And saying a review is bad simply because you don’t agree with it and are afraid to consider its ideas? Now that’s some hardcore bullshit.

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More bullshit? I’m starting to sense a theme emerging here. It reminds me of this scene from an old Mel Brooks movie. I guess I’m Mel and the trolls are Bea Arthur.

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Well, at least now I’m just writing the standard kind of shit. Is that an improvement?

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My entire professional credibility rested on this one movie? Why didn’t anyone tell me? If I’d known that, I would have given BvS four stars!

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I’m the worst critic ever? Do I get some sort of prize for that? A coffee mug, perhaps? Incidentally, this guy writes for a fanboy movie site. How well do you suppose he’d handle someone doing this to him? I bet I know.

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You got me. I watched a different movie. Warner Bros. cut together a special, sucky version of Batman v Superman just for me. And I would say that my horrible and negative mentality is one of my most endearing traits!

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10 gallons of bleach? I’ll stick with my beloved Diet Pepsi, thanks.

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Awesome! That’s exactly what I was going for in my review! Score one for me!

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Tyree was so incensed by my review that he reached out to me both on Twitter and via email. (He tried to fool me by using “Great article” in the subject line.) This message is a fabulous honor. There are literally tens of thousands of reviews linked to Rotten Tomatoes, maybe even hundreds of thousands. For mine to be the worst of them all…well, I believe that’s quite an achievement. I do have to ask one thing, though: How am I the idiot when Tyree 1.) says I should never write anything again, then immediately tells me to write something “without obvious bias”; and 2.) doesn’t know that it’s “an idiot” rather than “and idiot”? Kettle, meet pot.

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This one is my absolute favorite, and not just because of that ridiculous profile picture. First of all, he completely (and hilariously) misuses the word “prolific.” Second, he describes BvS as “realistic.” This is a movie about a guy who dresses as a bat and a flying dude from outer space teaming up to fight a giant monster. Third, he says Sin City is from the same publisher as Batman. Any serious comic book fan — and I consider myself one — knows Sin City was published by Dark Horse, not DC. Maybe I’m not the one who needs to “research the truth of the source material.”

There was a lot more hate mail, but these examples pretty well sum it up. Like I said, I’m thick-skinned, so my feelings weren’t hurt by any of it. However, there is something dispiriting about this mentality. When I was growing up, liking superheroes and comic books got you bullied. Kids who liked them were considered “dorks” and “nerds.” Now these things have moved into the mainstream, and the people who are heavily into them have become the bullies — threatening, ridiculing, and harassing those who fail to appreciate them in the “right” way. Superhero fandom was never meant to be like this, and those who go this route are an affront to everything comics are supposed to stand for. They are Lex Luthor or the Joker, but they erroneously think they’re Superman or Batman.

Life goes on, and so do movies. My review will soon be forgotten, replaced by whatever the next faux outrage is. The trolls will move on to other people. My heart goes out to the next victims.

A Modest Review of “Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice”

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Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice is the worst superhero movie ever made. Worse than CatwomanWorse than Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. Worse than Batman & Robin. It’s even worse than last summer’s Fantastic FourIt is an irredeemable piece of garbage that’s dark, moody, and no fun. Only a moron would like this incessantly stupid “film.”

Okay, I guess I should admit here that I haven’t actually seen Batman vs. Superman. I mean, I saw some of it, but I fell asleep about 20 minutes into the press screening. (I hate movies. Having to actually watch them all day is so cumbersome.) When I woke up, Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor was rambling about something boring, so I played Candy Crush on my phone until the movie was over.

Not that any of this matters. Marvel paid me $5,000 to pan the film, which they hope will be a box office flop. I wasn’t sure whether to accept the cash at first, but most of my fellow critics told me that they were planning to take it. (Have I mentioned that we have a super-secret cabal?) That being the case, I decided that I may as well get paid, too. Hey, I have a family to feed! You’d have done the same thing.

And really, I don’t need to see Batman vs. Superman to know it sucks balls. The writing is on the wall:

Ben Affleck as Batman – The dude from Gigli, Paycheck, Saving Christmas, and Pearl Harbor? I think this falls under the category of “bitch, please.”

Zack Snyder sucks – He seems like a guy who really loves comic books and superheroes, and wants to treat them with care. What a nerd! Snyder is the kind of guy I gave wedgies to in high school — and I was a frequent victim of bullying myself! (Note: This is why I became a film critic. Now I get paid to say horrible things about famous people who are better looking and more talented than I am. Fight the power!) One more reason Zack Snyder should never be taken seriously: Sucker Punch. Seriously, he gets a lifelong “fail” just for that thing.

I’m biased against DC – I admit it! DC is inferior to Marvel. Name one good DC superhero. You can’t! Batman? He’s a guy in a black suit with a car. It’s not like he’s a talking raccoon or a monosyllabic tree, for crying out loud! Superman? He’s strong and can fly. Big deal! Give me a guy with a flaming skull who rides a motorcycle over that dweeb any day! And Wonder Woman? She’s not as hot as Jessica Jones or Black Widow. For further proof of Marvel’s dominance, look no further than Ryan Reynolds. DC casts him and what do we get? That crappy Green Lantern movie. Marvel casts him and we get DeadpoolBoo-ya! DC also hires no-talent hack directors like Christopher Nolan (who couldn’t direct a good movie if Alfred Hitchcock rose from the grave and did it for him). Marvel, on the other hand, hires great directors, like Jon Favreau and Kenneth Branagh.

Marvel is sooooooo much better than DC, and I’d say that even if they hadn’t just paid me five grand to trash their competitor’s film. I mean, they gave us the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where everything is connected! DC is just trying to copy their winning formula because they have no good ideas of their own. Does anyone in their right mind really think Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice is going to be better than Marvel classics like Thor: The Dark World or Iron Man 2? Only slobbering DC fanboys, I can tell you that! And they’d think Mortdecai was a good movie if it had the DC logo slapped on it!

So yeah, Batman vs. Superman sucks and is only for brain-dead idiot fanboys who live in their mother’s basements and have eggs as their Twitter avatars. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go write my rave review of Captain America: Civil War, which I won’t actually see until late next month.

Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice rating: (Zero stars out of four)

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Speed Zone: The Forgotten Cannonball Run Sequel

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Quick –  how many Cannonball Run movies were there? If you said two, think again. Most people remember the 1981 original, which starred Burt Reynolds, Farrah Fawcett, and Dom DeLuise. It was a huge hit that spawned a sequel, 1984’s much-maligned Cannonball Run II. (“This is the movie equivalent to phoning it in,” said Roger Ebert in his half-star review.) A lot of people remember that one, too, in part because it reached new levels of cash-an-easy-paycheck atrociousness, more or less killing the public’s interest in the franchise. And maybe that’s why very few people recall that there was a third Cannonball Run movie. On April 21, 1989, Orion Pictures released Speed Zone, which was alternately known as Cannonball Fever. If it’s possible to make a movie on this subject that’s even worse than Cannonball Run II –– and Ebert thought it was, awarding this one a rare zero stars — Speed Zone is it.

Initially conceived as The Cannonball Run IIISpeed Zone required a title change when Reynolds and original director Hal Needham opted not to return for another round. The premise is that surly Washington, D.C. police chief Spiro T. Edsel (Peter Boyle) wants to stop the scheduled auto race from his city to California. He arrests all the competitors prior to the start of the event, leaving the sponsors scrambling to find new drivers. The only options are a ragtag assortment of goofballs. There’s a timid parking lot attendant (John Candy), riding with the hot girlfriend (Donna Dixon) of his bully (Eugene Levy). There’s a hitman (Joe Flaherty) and the guy he’s been sent to kill (Matt Frewer). There are two MIT graduates (Sheri Belafonte and Flash Gordon‘s Melody Anderson) who have developed high-tech gizmos to give racers a competitive edge. And there are the millionaire cheaters (the Smothers Brothers) who managed to escape the mass arrest. Tim Matheson and Mimi Kuzyk play TV reporters also competing in the race, under the guise of covering it for their station.

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Speed Zone also boasts a number of celebrity cameos, including Brooke Shields (who won a Worst Supporting Actress Razzie Award for her role as herself), Alyssa Milano, John Schneider, veteran character actor Lee Van Cleef, Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis, and NASCAR legend Richard Petty. Most notably, Jamie Farr cameos as the Sheik, the character he also played in the two previous Cannonball Run installments, making him the only actor to appear in all three.

There’s not much plot in Speed Zone. It’s essentially a series of barely-connected scenes in which the characters either engage in bizarre bantering in their cars or attempt to outsmart each other through a variety of dirty tricks. The level of humor in the movie is often lowbrow. In one of the lamest jokes, a Frenchman on an airplane offers Tom Smothers his peanuts, but it sounds as though he’s saying “penis,” leading to some homophobic confusion. Other times, the comedy is just plain goofy, with no real point. Boxer Michael Spinks, for instance, emerges from a store holding a box of wine under each arm. Upon seeing his car accidentally demolished by two of the Cannonball participants, he squeezes the boxes so hard that they spray.

Other jokes aren’t really even jokes at all. Speed Zone thinks it’s funny to have cars abruptly swerve, change direction, drive in reverse, or crash into something. When it gets bored with that, it stages an elaborate sequence in which a jet plane carrying the Smothers Brothers leaves the runway and begins driving on the road. Really, the only time the movie even hints at approaching actual comedy is in the scenes between Candy and Levy, who bring a well-honed SCTV touch to their interactions, and between Candy and Dixon, who is delightfully ditzy as an aspiring actress. Everything else is dead weight.

Speed Zone was written by Michael Short, the older brother of comedian Martin Short and a former SCTV scribe. It was directed by Jim Drake, a sitcom director (Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and Gimme a Break!), whose only previous feature film experience was helming 1987’s Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol. He never made another theatrically-released movie. (Drake later did eight episodes of the Disney Channel show The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, among other TV gigs.) What they deliver is a choppy, inconsistent film that often feels assembled from the deleted scenes of other movies. Speed Zone lurches awkwardly from one unfunny moment to the next, culminating with an end credit sequence in which all the cast members drive bumper cars. By that point, we’re quite ready to bail.

Speed Zone opened opposite Pet Sematary, the Dolph Lundgren vehicle Red Scorpion, and the Jeff Bridges/Drew Barrymore drama See You in the Morning. It debuted in 10th place, earning $1.4 million on 1,195 screens. (It was handily beaten by the 19th weekend of Rain Man.) Second weekend box office dropped by 62%. There was no third weekend. Speed Zone earned a grand total of just over $3 million during its brief theatrical run. To say reviews were unkind would be an understatement. The Washington Post’s Hal Hinson called it “scarily unfunny,” adding that “it does something that I thought was virtually impossible — it makes us nostalgic for the previous two.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, Speed Zone has long been out of print, which is another likely reason why so few remember its existence. The picture was released on VHS back in the day, but has never been available on DVD or Blu-Ray, making it difficult to find. There is, however, a YouTube upload that’s of semi-decent quality.

One suspects that those involved are quite happy Speed Zone has faded from the public’s memory. Surely, none of its makers or stars would consider it among their finest achievements. That said, it’s nonetheless a true late-’80s curio — a throwback to a time when movies still occasionally assembled name actors, paid them for a couple days of work, and tossed the half-assed results onto cinema screens across the country.

As for Burt Reynolds, passing on Speed Zone proved to be one of the few smart career choices he made in the era. If only Candy, Levy, and everyone else had followed suit.

When Filmmakers Throw Hissy Fits

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This weekend, Gods of Egypt bombed at the box office, earning just $14 million on its opening weekend. Considering the film cost a reported $140 million to make, that was not good news for anyone involved. On Sunday, the film’s director, Alex Proyas, took to Facebook to address his movie’s failure, utilizing an all too familiar approach: he blamed critics. Here’s the full text of his statement:

NOTHING CONFIRMS RAMPANT STUPIDITY FASTER…
Than reading reviews of my own movies. I usually try to avoid the experience – but this one takes the cake. Often, to my great amusement, a critic will mention my past films in glowing terms, when at the time those same films were savaged, as if to highlight the critic’s flawed belief of my descent into mediocrity. You see, my dear fellow FBookers, I have rarely gotten great reviews… on any of my movies, apart from those by reviewers who think for themselves and make up their own opinions. Sadly those type of reviewers are nearly all dead. Good reviews often come many years after the movie has opened. I guess I have the knack of rubbing reviewers the wrong way – always have. This time of course they have bigger axes to grind – they can rip into my movie while trying to make their mainly pale asses look so politically correct by screaming “white-wash!!!” like the deranged idiots they all are. They fail to understand, or chose to pretend to not understand what this movie is, so as to serve some bizarre consensus of opinion which has nothing to do with the movie at all. That’s ok, this modern age of texting will probably make them go the way of the dinosaur or the newspaper shortly – don’t movie-goers text their friends with what they thought of a movie? Seems most critics spend their time trying to work out what most people will want to hear. How do you do that? Why these days it is so easy… just surf the net to read other reviews or what bloggers are saying – no matter how misguided an opinion of a movie might be before it actually comes out. Lock a critic in a room with a movie no one has even seen and they will not know what to make of it. Because contrary to what a critic should probably be they have no personal taste or opinion, because they are basing their views on the status quo. None of them are brave enough to say “well I like it” if it goes against consensus. Therefore they are less than worthless. Now that anyone can post their opinion about anything from a movie to a pair of shoes to a hamburger, what value do they have – nothing. Roger Ebert wasn’t bad. He was a true film lover at least, a failed film-maker, which gave him a great deal of insight. His passion for film was contagious and he shared this with his fans. He loved films and his contribution to cinema as a result was positive. Now we have a pack of diseased vultures pecking at the bones of a dying carcass. Trying to peck to the rhythm of the consensus. I applaud any film-goer who values their own opinion enough to not base it on what the pack-mentality say is good or bad.

There are a number of problems with what Proyas says. First, he’s wrong. Without critics, smaller films like Room and Spotlight would have trouble getting notice amid the tentpoles and franchises Hollywood tends to focus on. Further, he accuses us of going online to see what other critics are saying, then simply following suit. Critics are the first people to see a movie. When we post our reviews — often on or before opening day — there is nothing out there to compare them against. There is no “status quo” at that point. And the assertion that all his movies have gotten bad reviews is absurd. Many critics, myself included, gave positive notices to The CrowDark City, Knowingand I, Robot.

His biggest mistake, though, is in saying that critics are “less than worthless” people who audiences don’t pay attention to, and then turning around and blaming us for the commercial failure of his film. If the public doesn’t listen to critics, then how are bad reviews the culprit? You can’t have it both ways.

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There are plenty of people Alex Proyas could blame for the failure of Gods of Egypt (which, in full disclosure, I have not seen). He could blame the studio marketing department for making it look like another lame Clash of the Titans/300 retread. He could blame audiences in general for giving their money to the third weekend of Deadpool and generally ignoring his film. Or, he could blame himself for making a movie set in Egypt and casting it with white actors, including Scotsman Gerard Butler.

But no, he blames film critics. And he’s not alone. After the failure of Cop Out, Kevin Smith famously barred critics from screening his future films, saying that anyone who didn’t “create art” was not qualified to assess it. After the dismal failure of The Lone Rangerstars Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer bitterly accused critics of “gunning” for the movie. More recently, Kill List director Ben Wheatley echoed Smith’s claims, saying, “Talking about other peoples’ stuff is weird. Why aren’t you making stuff? And if you aren’t, why should you really have a voice to complain about things until you’ve walked mile in someone’s shoes?”

There’s nothing wrong with filmmakers feeling a little stung by bad reviews. There is, however, something wrong with acting like a whiny baby about it. For instance, if Alex Proyas really, truly believes that critics did wrong by his film, why didn’t he defend it? You’ll notice there’s nothing in his Facebook post to counter critics’ claims. It’s just random insults and name-calling. Ditto with Smith and Depp/Hammer.

Filmmakers really need to — pardon the expression — grow some balls if they’re going to publicly respond to critics. Cinema is fundamentally about analysis, exploration, discussion, and debate. Everyone sees a movie in their own unique way. Critics, love them or hate them, work on writing carefully considered reviews, with the intention of discussing movies in an intelligent, articulate manner. Filmmakers should respond the same way, not the opposite.

Imagine how valuable it would be for someone like Alex Proyas to counter the claims of those who panned Gods of Egypt – to explain why he, as the craftsman, believes they’re wrong. That kind of discourse between film critics and director would undoubtedly enrich everyone’s understanding of the work. You would get an in-depth look at the intersection of artistic intent and objective evaluation. There would be more consideration of why certain choices were made, what the intended effect was supposed to be, and why the director used particular methods to tell the story. The point/counterpoint would be fascinating, leading to a fuller appreciation of the movie in question, regardless of any flaws it may have. It might even make initially ambivalent audiences more interested in checking the picture out.

Alex Proyas, Kevin Smith, and others like them have had the opportunity (not to mention the public forum) to defend their works, but instead they resorted to immature You didn’t recognize my genius, so therefore you suck! vitriol. Despite what some would say, critics can totally take a little criticism themselves. Tell us why we’re wrong! Explain to us what we didn’t “get,” or why we looked at the film the wrong way! Have a dialogue with us!

If filmmakers did this going forward, it could open up a whole new — and wonderful — way of engaging with their work. And that would benefit everyone who cherishes the power of cinema.

Ten Awesome Forgotten ’90s Movie Songs

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Having already looked at some of the most Awesome Forgotten ’80s Movie Songs not once but twice, it seemed like a good time to jump ahead a decade. The ’90s weren’t always the best time for movies — the ratio of junk to classics is probably at least 3-to-1 — but music continued to be well-used onscreen regardless. Everyone remembers Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” from The Bodyguard, Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” from Titanic, and Bon Jovi’s “Blaze of Glory” from Young Guns II, to name just a few examples. What follows below are ten other awesome ’90s movie songs, ones that have not made the same long-lasting impact. (Note that hip-hop’s move into the mainstream during this era is reflected quite well.) Some are one-time hits that don’t get played on the airwaves anymore, while others are tunes that should have been hits but weren’t. All are terrific, and I hope you enjoy discovering or re-discovering them.

“Part of Me, Part of You” by Glenn Frey (from Thelma & Louise) – The late Eagle Glenn Frey knew a thing or two about writing movie music, having famously contributed “The Heat Is On” to Beverly Hills Cop. He also performed “Flip City” for the Ghostbusters II soundtrack. In 1991, Frey wrote and sang “Part of Me, Part of You” for Ridley Scott’s feminist road-picture Thelma & Louise. While perhaps not his best-known song, it is one of the best he ever recorded. The composition speaks to the strong bond between the film’s two main characters, played to perfection by Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis. As for the movie, it not only retains its power, but in some ways is even more relevant today than it was then.

“C U When U Get There” by Coolio (from Nothing to Lose) – Nothing to Lose was a mid-level hit in 1997, earning $44 million, largely on the strength of the odd couple casting of Martin Lawrence and Tim Robbins. The film was released by Disney’s Touchstone Pictures division. Their Hollywood Pictures arm had great success with the Michelle Pfeiffer inner city education drama Dangerous Minds and its Coolio theme song “Gangsta’s Paradise,” which remains the rapper’s best-known work. Perhaps having him contribute “C U When U Get There” to Nothing to Lose was an attempt to recapture the magic. It almost did, hitting #12 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. (“Gangsta’s Paradise” went all the way to the top.) People don’t seem to remember this one as clearly, though, and that’s a shame, because in its own way, it’s every bit as good.

“Blood From a Stone” by Stacy Earl (from Untamed Heart) – Stacy Earl should have been a superstar. She scored two Top 40 hits in 1992: “Love You All Up” and “Romeo & Juliet.” Her music was very similar to what wildly successful (but less talented) singer Paula Abdul was doing. Yet for some unknown reason, Earl had an unfairly short-lived pop career. In 1993, she released her last mainstream single, “Blood From a Stone,” which served as the theme to the Christian Slater/Marisa Tomei tearjerker Untamed Heart. The song went nowhere, despite being typically catchy and beautifully sung. These days, Stacy is a mother and an adoption advocate, as well as an occasional singer of Christian music.

“White Men Can’t Jump” by Riff (from White Men Can’t Jump) – The 1992 Wesley Snipes/Woody Harrelson basketball comedy White Men Can’t Jump is still fondly remembered by a lot of people. How many can sing the eponymous theme song, though? A shining example of the musical style known as “New Jack Swing,” the tune, which only went to #90 on the charts, was performed by the New Jersey vocal group Riff. They had a few minor R&B hits in the early ’90s, but never really made the kind of impact that Boyz II Men and New Edition did. Still, their uber-catchy beats worked perfectly for the film. One listen and this will be stuck in your head all day.

“Almost Unreal” by Roxette (from Super Mario Bros.) – Swedish duo Roxette took the music world by storm in the late ’80s, with ubiquitous hits like “The Look” and “Listen to Your Heart.” In 1990, they went all the way to #1 with their biggest smash, “It Must Have Been Love,” from the Pretty Woman soundtrack. (It was Billboard’s #2 song of the year, just behind “Hold On” by Wilson Phillips.) Roxette were then asked to record a song for the Bette Midler witch comedy Hocus Pocus. They delivered “Almost Unreal,” a song in which the words “hocus pocus” are prominently sung in the chorus. For whatever reason, the folks at Disney decided not to use it in that picture, Instead, it became the theme for another Disney production, the videogame adaptation Super Mario Bros. That “Almost Unreal” was not one of Roxette’s biggest chart successes is undoubtedly tied to the commercial and critical failure of the movie that spawned it. However, band members Per Gessle and Marie Fredriksson have also publicly dismissed their work in interviews, with the latter calling it “not one of our most inspired moments.” I beg to differ. Give it a listen and see if you love when it does its hocus pocus to you.

 

 

“The Color of the Night” by Lauren Christy (from Color of Night) – You may not know her name, but you definitely know the work of Lauren Christy. She was part of the writing/producing team known as The Matrix. Their hits include Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated” and “I’m With You,” Jason Mraz’s “The Remedy,” and Liz Phair’s “Why Can’t I?” More recently, Christy has co-written tunes for Kelly Clarkson (“I Forgive You”) and Jason Derulo (“Breathing”). Unsurprisingly, she once took a shot at solo stardom. That came in the form of “The Color of the Night,” a sultry ballad recorded for the justly forgotten 1994 Bruce Willis thriller Color of Night, a lame attempt to recapture the psycho-sexual vibe that turned Basic Instinct into a phenomenon a few years before. The tune was nominated for Best Original Song at that year’s Golden Globes. The movie, on the other hand, was given the Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Picture.

“Money Can’t Buy You Love” by Ralph Tresvant (from Mo’ Money) – After achieving stardom on TV’s In Living Color, Damon Wayans jumped to the big screen with Mo’ Money, a star vehicle he also wrote. The movie is about a con man who steals from the credit card company where he works and eventually finds himself tangled up in criminal forces much larger than himself. Mo’ Money got poor reviews, yet earned $40 million on a $15 million budget. Continuing In Living Color‘s tradition of showcasing R&B and hip-hop music, the film had a soundtrack that included Janet Jackson, Public Enemy, Color Me Badd, and New Edition’s Ralph Tresvant, whose “Money Can’t Buy You Love” remains an irresistible earworm.

“Life in Mono” by Mono (from Great Expectations) – True story: In late December 1997, I fell asleep in front of the television with MTV on. I dozed through several hours of music videos that night. Then they played Mono’s “Life in Mono,” which had been released in advance of Great Expectations, a modern adaptation of the famous Charles Dickens novel starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Ethan Hawke. My subconscious registered the song and immediately woke me up. It had such an incredible sonic ambiance that my system was forced to pay attention. (The only other time this happened was in the ’80s, when Peter Schilling’s “Major Tom [Coming Home]” similarly roused me from a flu-induced nap.) To this day, I can’t hear the song without remembering that magical moment. Two interesting bits of trivia: 1.) “Life in Mono” was reportedly used in the movie at the behest of co-star Robert DeNiro, who heard and loved it; and 2.) Great Expectations was directed by Alfonso Cuaron, who later went on to win the Best Director Oscar for Gravity.

“Addams Groove” by MC Hammer (from The Addams Family) – This is probably the movie-est movie song on the list. In a true example of Hollywood “synergy,” rapper MC Hammer, who was a huge star in 1991, was hired to write and perform a song specifically for The Addams Family, a high-profile big screen version of the popular TV program that was slated for a cushy Thanksgiving weekend release. As much a piece of promotional material as it is a song, “Addams Groove” is nonetheless a cheerfully silly work, one that cleverly incorporates snatches of Vic Mizzy’s famous show theme. The accompanying music video even features the film’s stars. The Addams Family was a blockbuster, pulling in $191 million and spawning a sequel several years later. “Addams Groove,” meanwhile, went to #7 on the pop charts. It turned out to be MC Hammer’s final top ten hit.

“Identify” by Natalie Imbruglia (from Stigmata) – “Identify” is a weird song. It is sung by Australian pop singer Natalie Imbruglia, best known for her annoyingly chirpy hit “Torn.” It was co-written by Billy Corgan, leader of the alt-rock band Smashing Pumpkins. And it was recorded for the 1999 religious horror movie Stigmata, starring Patricia Arquette as a woman who inexplicably develops the wounds of Christ. If that’s not an odd combination, I don’t know what is. Yet despite not really liking Imbruglia, Corgan, or Stigmata (or it’s final third, at least), I have never been able to get enough of this song. It has a haunting quality — lots of minor chords and unusual progressions — that I find hypnotic. When it played over Stigmata‘s closing credits, I got chills that the film itself didn’t quite give me.

There you have ten awesome forgotten ’90s movie songs. Any of them particularly ring a bell for you? I’ve already got enough for a follow-up list, so be on the lookout for that in the future, along with another installment of the ’80s version.

 

 

Ten More Awesome Forgotten ’80s Movie Songs

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Last year, I published a list of Ten Awesome Forgotten ’80s Movie Songs. It was intended to celebrate one of the greatest decades for mainstream motion picture entertainment, as well as the strong connection shared by films and music during that time. To my pleasant surprise, the piece proved quite popular. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one with this particular obsession.

There were far more than ten to choose from, though, which meant some really great tunes got left off. This could mean only one thing: a sequel needed to be put into the works. Below are ten more terrific songs that, for one reason or another, never made the impact of Ray Parker Jr.’s “Ghostbusters,” Huey Lewis and the News’ “The Power of Love,” Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone,” or any of the other seminal ’80s movie themes. I hope you have fun discovering or re-discovering them.

“All For Love” by Nancy Wilson (from Say Anything…) – Cameron Crowe’s directorial debut is widely considered one of the greatest teen romances ever made. It details the attempts of insecure slacker Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack) to win the heart of Diane Court (Ione Skye), a highly-driven girl he perceives to be out of his league. After enduring a betrayal by her father, who has embezzled from his place of employment, Diane realizes that, for all his aimlessness, Lloyd is the one person she can unfailingly count on. The final scene finds them on a plane to England, where she is going to study. Lloyd is deathly afraid of flying, and in this moment, Diane gets the opportunity to support him, just as he’s supported her. Together, they wait for the seatbelt light to go off – a sign, she tells him, that everything is okay. It finally dings, the screen cuts to black, and “All For Love” by Heart’s Nancy Wilson (Crowe’s then-wife) begins playing over the end credits.

“The Best Man in the World” by Ann Wilson (from The Golden Child) – Nancy Wilson’s sister and fellow bandmate Ann also did some movie music in the ’80s. “Almost Paradise,” her 1984 Footloose duet with Loverboy’s Mike Reno, was a top ten hit that spent 13 weeks in the top 40. In 1986, her voice once again graced the big screen with “The Best Man in the World,” the theme from Eddie Murphy’s The Golden Child. Perhaps one of the reasons this catchy song isn’t well remembered is because the movie that spawned it was poorly reviewed and not as financially successful as Murphy’s previous works, Beverly Hills Cop and Trading Places. In fact, it was really his first stumble as a leading man. Still, Wilson has always had an amazing set of pipes, and anchored by a trademark ’80s synth-bass, “The Best Man in the World” gets your toes tapping.

“Into the Night” by BB King (from Into the Night) – The late BB King had a long, illustrious career. That soulful voice could make anything sound amazing. King had lots of hits, but when news broke of his passing in May of 2015, I immediately wanted to listen to “Into the Night,” the bluesy song he recorded for John Landis’s mostly-forgotten 1985 comedy about an insomniac (Jeff Goldblum) running for his life following a chance encounter with a jewel smuggler (Michelle Pfeiffer). For my money, it represents a genuine legend at his finest.

“Seven Day Weekend” by Jimmy Cliff and Elvis Costello (from Club Paradise) – Harold Ramis directed and/or wrote some of the most beloved comedies of the 1980s, including Stripes, Ghostbusters, and Caddyshack. His 1986 comedy Club Paradise is not his finest work. (Ramis has said that he was mid-divorce during its production, and consequently not at his comedic peak.) The story of an injured Chicago fireman who uses his disability money to retire to a small Caribbean island, Club Paradise boasted an all-star cast that included Robin Williams, Rick Moranis, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, and the great Peter O’Toole. Unresolved script problems didn’t give them much to work with, though. Comedian Harry Shearer, who did a rewrite, was so appalled by the final product that he had his name taken off the credits. Today, Club Paradise has a small cult following, but largely remains a great example of extraordinarily talented people coming together to make a turkey. The song “Seven Day Weekend” by Jimmy Cliff and Elvis Costello remains its greatest asset.

“Nothing in Common” by Thompson Twins (from Nothing in Common) – “Hold Me Now.” “Doctor, Doctor.” “King For a Day.” These are some of the biggest hits from Thompson Twins. One of their most emotional songs, however, was the eponymous theme to the 1986 Tom Hanks/Jackie Gleason comedy Nothing in Common. The movie was about a man dealing with his difficult father, and the song reflects some of the story’s themes. Singer Tom Bailey’s vocals have an especially haunting quality. Whether or not he identified with the events of the plot is unknown, but there’s no doubt that he gives the tune its hard-to-deny kick.

 

 

“Coming to America” by The System (from Coming to America) – Eddie Murphy had far more luck with this 1988 comedy than he did with The Golden Child. It was a huge hit that continues to maintain its popularity. The System — best known for their top 5 smash “Don’t Disturb This Groove” — performed the title tune, cleverly incorporating a short sample of the National Anthem in its chorus. Despite the movie’s success, the song never really caught on, peaking at a lowly #91 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Just try to get it unstuck from your head after giving it a listen, though.

“Romancing the Stone” by Eddy Grant (from Romancing the Stone) – Romancing the Stone and its sequel, The Jewel of the Nile, made almost the exact same amount of money at the U.S. box office ($76 million vs. $75 million). Musically, however, the sequel outperformed the original, spawning Billy Ocean’s hit “When the Going Gets Tough (the Tough Get Going).” The original’s theme, performed by “Electric Avenue” singer Eddy Grant, is equally catchy. The difference most likely lies in the fact that, despite commissioning it, the producers of Romancing the Stone only used the guitar part in the film, thereby preventing audiences from truly discovering the composition. The song also did not appear on the soundtrack album. Let’s take a moment, then, to give this bouncy number its proper due.

“Ruthless People” by Mick Jagger (from Ruthless People) – Mick Jagger is rock-and-roll royalty. He’s also long been associated with movies, thanks to documentaries like Gimme Shelter and acting performances in films such as Performance and Freejack. He also recorded the title tune for 1986’s Ruthless People, a kidnapping comedy from the directors of Airplane! The movie did very well at the box office, giving stars Danny DeVito and Bette Midler great roles and launching the career of Bill Pullman. For some reason, though, it hasn’t held up. It doesn’t come immediately to mind when recalling the big comedies of that era. This would probably be a fun one to revisit on DVD. For now, we’ll just revisit Jagger’s percussion-heavy song.

“I’m the Burglar” by Sly Stone (from Burglar) – Sly and the Family Stone are one of the biggest R&B/funk groups of all time. Their songs continue to resonate, thanks to numerous rap artists sampling them. Leader Sly Stone also did some solo work, including recording the title song for Whoopi Goldberg’s 1987 comedy Burglar, which teamed her with Bobcat Goldthwait. Goldberg plays — you guessed it — a burglar who becomes a wanted woman when a dead body is found in a home she robbed. She then has to use all of her thieving skills to clear her name. If you don’t remember this movie, don’t feel too bad about it. A box office flop (only $16 million), Burglar isn’t even available on DVD or Blu-Ray. (The DVD has been out of print for years.) I saw it opening weekend in 1987 and don’t recall it being that funny. Sly Stone’s song, on the other hand, always stuck with me in a way the movie itself didn’t. Take a listen:

“Feel the Heat” by Jean Beauvoir (from Cobra) – Jean Beauvoir was a former bass player for The Plasmatics, a punk group known for outrageous onstage antics. (Google them if you’re unfamiliar.) After a stint with Steven Van Zandt’s group Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul, he went solo. His song “Feel the Heat” was reportedly hand-selected by Sylvester Stallone to serve as the theme for his cop thriller Cobra. With its pulsing bass line and overall badass vibe, it was a perfect fit. The tune didn’t get any further than #73 on the pop charts, but it still sounds fairly current, which is a feat in and of itself. Beauvoir currently oversees a Norwegian children’s program called City of Friends that is broadcast around the world.

So there you have ten more awesome forgotten ’80s movie songs. I hope you enjoyed them! I’ve got more, so look for another installment down the road. 

 

 

 

SPIES LIKE US 30th Anniversary

Chevy Chase famously left SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE after just one season to pursue a movie career. He maintained attachments to many of his fellow “Not Ready For Prime Time Players,” though, sometimes appearing with them in films. The co-star he went on to collaborate with most often was Dan Aykroyd. Both had small roles in the ill-fated CADDYSHACK II, and Chase starred in his pal’s directorial debut, the equally ill-fated (and, some would say, criminally misunderstood) NOTHING BUT TROUBLE. There was even a brief Chevy cameo in Aykroyd’s 1988 comedy THE COUCH TRIP. Their best cinematic team-up, however, remains their first. Released on Dec. 6, 1985, SPIES LIKE US was a hit ($60 million), but not a blockbuster. Reviews were mixed-to-negative. And yet, unlike more than a few pictures the two stars made in that decade, it has stood the test of time. Now celebrating its 30th anniversary, SPIES LIKE US remains a comedy that fans gush about whenever its title is spoken. The rather unlikely manner in which the movie was assembled is no doubt a huge part of the appeal.

Chase and Aykroyd play, respectively, Emmett Fitz-Hume and Austin Milbarge, two hapless individuals duped by the fictional Defense Intelligence Agency (or DIA) into acting as decoys so that no one will realize they’re trying to hijack a Soviet missile launcher. The guys think they’re real-deal spies on a mission of global importance. In reality, they’re being counted on to act incompetently so that the real mission will remain covert. Eventually they get wise to the scheme. The movie ends with them becoming actual heroes by recalling a missile that’s headed right toward the United States.

SPIES LIKE US had all the right pieces in place: a talented comedy director, writers who fundamentally understood how to craft a joke, and two stars who knew one another’s comic rhythms almost as well as they knew their own. Aykroyd penned the original story with former SCTV star Dave Thomas, while the noted writing team of Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (SPLASH, NIGHT SHIFT) helped him shape the screenplay into the joke-filled romp it became. Signing on to direct was John Landis, who’d established himself as a maestro of anti-establishment comedy via ANIMAL HOUSE and THE BLUES BROTHERS.

It was a diverse and talented group of people coming together. That, perhaps more than anything, is what makes SPIES LIKE US both notable and enduring, not to mention a little out of the ordinary. The film melds a lot of different comic styles and voices. Chevy Chase specializes in physical humor, such as the famous sequence in which Fitz-Hume fakes a panic attack to disguise the fact that he’s cheating on the Foreign Service exam. A later scene, wherein the pseudo-spies are put inside a G-force simulator and emerge with their faces contorted, is also classic Chase. Aykroyd, meanwhile, is known for a more cerebral, dry style of humor. Jokes about Milbarge’s wonkiness are certainly of his devising, as is the whole concept of decoy spies becoming embroiled in a very real nuclear threat. Because the two stars were experienced working together, they knew how their styles could – and should – mesh. The chemistry between them permeates every frame they share.

Ganz and Mandel, meanwhile, were pure, well-seasoned gag writers who came up through TV sitcoms such as HAPPY DAYS and LAVERNE & SHIRLEY. Sitcoms, of course, typically require several jokes per minute that earn laughs while still advancing the week’s particular story arc. Ganz and Mandel specialized in crafting punchlines with a real zing that felt authentic to the moment. Many of the movie’s note-perfect one-liners undoubtedly sprang from their minds.

And then there was John Landis, who not only wrangled everyone’s individual sensibilities, but also added his own. Landis gives SPIES LIKE US his usual clean, unfussy style, often using the camera as an impartial observer. He doesn’t like to trick up his shots too much. Given the frequent absurdity of the onscreen antics, he doesn’t need to; the straightforward style helps keep everything in balance. Landis also adds a sub-layer of humor. As a treat for film buffs, he casts other directors in supporting roles. Among them: Frank Oz, Terry Gilliam, Ray Harryhausen, Martin Brest, Sam Raimi, and Joel Coen. The movie’s premise involves covert operations, and Landis stages a covert operation of his own.

The magic of SPIES LIKE US lies in the fact that it really shouldn’t work, and yet it does. Most comedies, when they succeed, do so because there’s one primary voice shaping the humor or guiding the comic viewpoint. In this case, that “voice” was actually a blending of multiple voices, each with a distinct tone.

Taking that idea to an even further extreme is the movie’s offbeat story structure. SPIES LIKE US plays very heavily on Reagan-era nuclear fears and Cold War tensions. Its climax involves a potentially real disaster that could start World War III, something that audiences were legitimately afraid of in 1985. (In an interview with the Daily Telegraph, Aykroyd said, “One day we got a call from a representative of the United States Department of Defense because their satellite had spotted our rocket and called the Norwegian government. They thought a Soviet rocket had been secretly moved into Norway, so the producers had to clarify that this was a fake. Thus a major international diplomatic incident was averted.”) While the theme is dark and heavy, the movie wraps it inside something completely opposite: an updating of the old Bob Hope/Bing Crosby “Road to…” pictures. SPIES intentionally adopts the form of that series, with the characters ambling along on a trek filled with wacky adventures, beautiful women, and an eventual happy ending. Nowhere is the formula nodded to more obviously than in a scene where Bob Hope himself wanders through the frame chasing an errant golf ball.

Because it’s a mish-mash of approaches, some critics and audience members were understandably put off by SPIES LIKE US. However, that exact same quality is what makes others so irresistibly drawn to it. The movie’s comic rhythms are unpredictable, often blindsiding the viewer with a left-field joke, a kooky plot twist, or a weird character moment. This quality sets it apart from many of the other comedies of its day. Toss in a terrific theme song from Paul McCartney and you’ve got one of the most distinct, weirdly funny movies of that decade – one that is still eminently watchable thirty years later.

Now, won’t you gentlemen (and ladies) have a Pepsi?

Copyright 2015 Mike McGranaghan

You Can’t Please Everyone: Fandom in the Modern Age

We live in an unusual time, movie-wise. On any given weekend, there’s probably at least one new movie coming out that’s based on an established property, be it a comic book or novel, an old TV show, a videogame, or some previously-existing film. Studios want to make projects with a built-in fan base, and they will go to great lengths to appease those fans. Marvel, for instance, has turned fan-pandering into an art form with the creation of its Cinematic Universe, which ties all their films together. There is no logical reason to have Falcon cameo in ANT-MAN except to explain why Ant-Man will be in the next Captain America film, a branch of the MCU that Falcon is already part of. Marvel simply knows fans love that sort of thing.

Studios are usually so desperate to earn fan approval that they bend over backward. It’s no real secret that potential casting choices for big movies are “leaked” online to see how the public will respond. This is why you often see stars saying they have “never been approached” about these roles they’re supposedly up for. The rumors are simply to gauge whether the fans will give a thumbs-up to a possible selection. If they do, the actor might actually receive an offer. If not, someone else mysteriously becomes the new consideration. Comic-Con has also proved a vital testing ground. Studios trot out the casts of their as-yet-unfilmed projects or debut early footage, hoping they will be met with enthusiasm. More than once, course corrections have occurred after the crowds at Hall H expressed displeasure.

Fan revolt is nothing new. In 1988, fans flooded Warner Brothers Pictures with angry letters after it was announced that Michael Keaton – an actor known primarily for comedies like BEETLEJUICE and MR. MOM – had been cast in Tim Burton’s adaptation of BATMAN. (Keaton ultimately proved them all wrong.) When a then-unknown Robert Pattinson was cast as Edward in the eagerly-awaited TWILIGHT, the so-called Twi-hards went into a tizzy. Once they saw the final film, they embraced Pattinson, although, as a whole, they never seemed interested in seeing him in anything other than a TWILIGHT picture. Similarly, producers of FIFTY SHADES OF GREY were smacked with an online petition demanding Dakota Johnson and Charlie Hunnam be replaced as the leads in favor of fan-preferred picks Alexis Bledel and Matt Bomer. Hunnam eventually dropped out and was replaced by Jamie Dornan. Johnson stayed. The film was a hit, if not exactly a blockbuster.

Those cases worked out from a box office perspective, but generally speaking, it can be extremely risky to piss off the fans, who feel a sense of ownership toward their beloved properties. We’ve seen two recent examples where failure to appease the base led to catastrophe. Josh Trank’s FANTASTIC FOUR, to the dismay of comic book loyalists, changed the manner in which the titular heroes obtain their superpowers. Less enlightened fans were additionally outraged that one of the characters, Johnny Storm, was now being played by a black actor, Michael B. Jordan. The movie’s $56 million take is widely considered a disaster. Scathing reviews didn’t help, but critics don’t usually make much impact on fan-driven films such as this. Large swaths of the base likely opted to stay away because they didn’t approve of the changes.

An even more telling example can be found in Universal’s JEM AND THE HOLOGRAMS, which is based on a popular ‘80s cartoon show and toy line. Dedicated fans were ecstatic upon learning there would be a movie adaptation. Then the first photos and trailer hit the internet, and it became painfully clear that the filmmakers were going to be something less than completely faithful to the source material. This led to a full-on boycott, which played out on multiple Facebook pages, among other online hangouts. The end result: the $5 million-budgeted film won’t even earn half that in its theatrical run.

All of this begs the question: How much power should fans have over the course of these movies? As terrible as it was (and believe me, it was abysmal), JEM AND THE HOLOGRAMS at least felt like it had an idea behind it. The filmmakers clearly wanted to explore the power of the internet to make a person famous. They may not have given audiences the Jem story they were used to, but doggoneit, they gave them something. AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON, on the other hand, was a massive hit that offered no surprises. Moreover, it often felt, as most Marvel movies do, like a commercial for future Marvel movies. Sure, it was largely fun, but it never once had the courage to color outside the lines.

And this is where the problem lies. Fans typically want something that fits into their preconceived notion of what a property is. They seek cinematic comfort food. We’re all guilty of it. This impulse, however, may have the effect of shutting the door on movies that are more challenging and ambitious. When filmmakers feel they have to work within a very defined, fenced-in area, true art is stifled. Sometimes really spectacular entertainment is produced within these confines, but at what cost? Not every creative decision, safe or risky, pays off. Aren’t they worth making, though? Don’t the most special films come about because someone inherently defied the norm or made a deliberately unexpected choice? These are the very qualities we revere in directors like Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson, yet when they’re applied to our favorite properties, we tend to reject them – or at least display obstinance toward them until we’re proven wrong.

Cinema is fundamentally about making the viewer experience something. Allowing the target audience to dictate that experience not only creates the risk of bland movies, it creates the risk of breeding apathy. Yes, films based on existing properties have some responsibility to stay true to the source material’s spirit. (Why even adapt something if you don’t intend to be at least a little faithful?) But giving the fans too much power makes them oddly apathetic, because people don’t demand anything more than what they’re already comfortable with. That is in no way a knock on fans; it’s just an acknowledgement that intense love of something inherently makes us resistant to change.

If Shakespeare’s plays can be interpreted a hundred different ways, so can a superhero story, an old cartoon show, a popular young adult novel series, or anything else. A black actor can play a traditionally white character. An unpredictable actor can be cast over an obvious one. An origin story can be updated. By allowing ourselves to be open to adjustment and alteration, we deepen our relationship with the source material. Having our preconceived notions challenged causes us to engage with the property more fully and to explore our fondness for it in greater depth. We need the boat to be rocked from time to time.

Fandom is a wonderful, beautiful, meaningful thing. Allowing that fandom to be less rigid and more fluid will help keep it healthy and thriving, and that benefits audiences and filmmakers alike.

Copyright 2015 Mike McGranaghan

Depression in Alex Ross Perry’s QUEEN OF EARTH

 

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Alex Ross Perry’s QUEEN OF EARTH opens with a dramatic close-up of Catherine Hewitt (played by Elisabeth Moss). She’s been crying so hard that mascara is running down her face. This long, unbroken shot is a perfect visual representation of the pain Catherine is feeling inside. She talks to an off-screen boyfriend in a hurt, angry tone. It’s clear that she is in the process of having her heart broken and is struggling to deal with it. Eventually, the film cuts to a brief shot of the man who is devastating her, but then it goes right back to Catherine. We are encouraged to look into her eyes, to see the raw emotion pouring out. From these opening minutes, QUEEN OF EARTH establishes its willingness to examine the very nature of depression without the eventual feel-good sheen a lot of Hollywood movies awkwardly try to put on the subject. This is one of the most vital films ever made about how it feels to be depressed.

Catherine, it turns out, has suffered two blows. In addition to getting dumped, her beloved artist father died not too long ago. Now devoid of the two most important men in her life, she turns to best friend Ginny Lowell (Katherine Waterston) for support. The two women go to the latter’s family lake house together for a week of intended recovery, but it doesn’t go as planned. Ginny ends up allowing a neighbor, Rich (Patrick Fugit), to hang around. Catherine resents his intrusion into what is supposed to be an exercise in female bonding, which leads to conflict with Ginny. QUEEN OF EARTH intersperses this plot with flashbacks to the summer before, when Catherine thoughtlessly brought the now ex-boyfriend to the lake house while Ginny was the one going through a difficult emotional time. This leads to the question of whether Ginny is intentionally trying to antagonize Catherine in retaliation, or whether the two simply don’t know how to truly be there for one another during times of crisis.

Most movies about depression deal with the things you can externally see: staying in bed, crying, suicide attempts, etc. QUEEN OF EARTH is notable because it looks at the more internal stuff. For example, right out of the gate, the film shows a recognition that people who are depressed often feel alone. Catherine’s boyfriend and father, by different means, have both left her, and Ginny’s seeming use of Rich as a way to retreat leaves her without her best friend. She seeks some sort of connection with others who cross her path – including a guy she finds passed out in the woods – but nothing fills the void. Perry very wisely has Catherine and Ginny drift apart before our eyes. In the movie’s signature scene, the two women have a nine-minute conversation, filmed in one perfectly-executed extended take. Catherine starts off talking about her woes, then Ginny hijacks the conversation, expounding on things that have caused her pain in the past. She is oblivious to the fact that her friend was baring her soul. This sequence conveys the alienation of depression, the feeling that even those ostensibly closest to you are somehow just out of reach, or unable to fully understand the depth of your misery.

Music also plays a big part in the way QUEEN OF EARTH explores its central topic. The score (by Keegan DeWitt) often sounds like something out of a horror movie. One brief scene, in which Catherine, Ginny, and Rich canoe across the lake, is scored so ominously that you half expect Jason Voorhees to emerge from the woods and hack somebody’s head off with a machete. Sonically, the use of eerie music underscores the idea that, when you suffer from clinical depression, even the most mundane of moments can feel terrifying. This effect is accomplished several times throughout the film, almost subliminally making the audience feel the ever-present sense of undefinable menace that overwhelms Catherine and anyone else living with this particular mental anguish.

Finally, and most importantly, QUEEN OF EARTH understands that depression is often misunderstood by those not afflicted with it. We know that Catherine is suffering. Those around her, especially Rich, just don’t get that fact. Over the course of the story, Catherine is told that she’s “a spoiled brat” and that she’s just feeling sorry for herself. These are refrains that depression sufferers know all too well. People mistake a clinical condition for self-pity, or suggest that someone can merely “snap out of it.” The idea that it’s beyond the individual’s control is something too many folks can’t conceive of. This is one of the main reasons why a mental health stigma exists to this day.

Alex Ross Perry has taken a wise approach. Rather than making a standard-issue drama about the subject, he opts for something quite different. QUEEN OF EARTH often feels like the first hour of an old exploitation picture – the part with all the slow-burn buildup and mounting dread. We wait with anticipation to see what will happen between these two women, who seem so competitive in the imaginary race to determine whose problems have been worse. The difference is that Perry offers none of the release you’d associate with exploitation fare. No one dies, and there are no sudden bursts of violence. By the end, Catherine has neither conquered nor succumbed to her depression. She just moves forward with it, prepared to see both bad days and good.

During a recent screening of QUEEN OF EARTH at the historic Campus Theatre in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, Perry discussed his choice to tell this story with female characters. He pointed out cinema’s long history of using women to portray breakdowns, adding that “men having a breakdown becomes THE SHINING.” While that remark was clearly tongue-in-cheek, he’s got a point. Gender stereotypes persist, and audiences have become accustomed to seeing men onscreen handle inner turmoil (be it anger, fear, or sadness) via aggressive means. In having two female leads, QUEEN OF EARTH allows us to focus on the things happening under the surface, rather than subconsciously waiting for violence to occur.

Elisabeth Moss co-starred in Perry’s previous film, the delightful LISTEN UP PHILIP. The director told the crowd at the Campus that a movie such as QUEEN OF EARTH “couldn’t have come about without a relationship with the performer.” In other words, he knew what Moss was capable of, and she understood what he was attempting to do with this story. The result is a first-class collaboration that digs deep into the subject of depression’s most insidious qualities.

It’s amazing that a movie about such a dark subject can play so thrillingly and vibrantly.

 

Copyright 2015 Mike McGranaghan

The Two Sides of Bobby Dupea: Remembering FIVE EASY PIECES

When you think of the movie FIVE EASY PIECES, what comes to mind? Odds are overwhelming that you picture the scene in which Bobby Dupea (played by Jack Nicholson) gets into an argument with a waitress in a diner because she will not allow him to make substitutions in his order. It ends with Bobby telling her to hold the chicken between her knees. Even if you’ve never seen FIVE EASY PIECES, you probably thought of that scene. It’s one of the most famous in cinema history for a reason. Bobby’s quip to the waitress is funny, and the moment ends with him dramatically clearing the table. People often site this brief sequence as exemplifying all the anger and disillusionment Bobby feels, and which the film itself addresses.

But here’s the thing: that is not the quintessential scene in FIVE EASY PIECES. If we’re going to talk about the very core of this film, we need to look at a scene that comes much earlier.

When director Bob Rafelson first introduces us to Bobby Dupea, he’s working as an oil rigger. He comes home filthy at the end of the day to be with his girlfriend Rayette (Karen Black). Rayette is what you might charitably call a little tacky. He doesn’t treat her very well. Bobby likes to go over to best friend Elton’s trailer to drink beer after a hard day. Sometimes they go bowling or cheat on their girlfriends together. From everything we can see, Bobby is a blue collar kind of guy, and quite possibly a real asshole.

Then the scene occurs. Bobby and Elton are in the car. They get stuck in a traffic jam. In front of them is a flatbed truck carrying a piano. Bobby hops out of the car, jumps onto the truck, and begins playing a beautiful piece of classical music. He gets so caught up in his performance – or maybe just doesn’t want to stop – that he keeps playing, even after the truck begins moving again. In this precise moment, we realize that we don’t know Bobby Dupea at all. The real theme of FIVE EASY PIECES emerges right here.

Bobby, it turns out, has reinvented himself. As the story progresses, he returns home to Washington state in order to visit his ailing father, at the behest of his sister Partita (Lois Smith). Far from the product of a blue collar upbringing, he comes from a very wealthy, artistically-inclined family. Partita and brother Carl (Ralph Waite) are both accomplished musicians. There is a visible appreciation of culture in the home. Now back in his original element, Bobby reverts to his former self. Gone are the greasy blue jeans and denim jackets, replaced instead by button-down shirts, sweaters, and blazers. His hair is more neatly combed. Family members begin referring to him as “Robert.” His whole demeanor changes, too. Bobby starts carrying himself in a more proper way that somehow simultaneously feels natural and uncomfortable for him. Even more telling, he puts the moves on Carl’s girlfriend Catherine (Susan Anspach), a woman far more sophisticated and worldly than Rayette. This is not the oil rigger anymore. It is the man we saw playing piano on the back of a truck.

FIVE EASY PIECES is about many things, but perhaps nothing more than a man desperately attempting to construct a version of himself that he can live with. Interactions with his father and siblings suggest that Bobby never measured up in this cultured, well-to-do clan, so he invented a new personality – one that was intentionally the exact opposite of what he was bred to be. When Rayette shows up unexpectedly at the Dupea home, Bobby is deeply embarrassed by her (despite briefly defending her honor when she is insulted by a snooty party guest) and by his family’s unspoken recognition that he is living “beneath” himself. There is a climactic scene in which Bobby finally opens up to his father, who doesn’t acknowledge the emotional outpouring. He then leaves to return home with Rayette.

Or at least that’s what we think. (And this is a great big SPOILER ALERT.) The last scene of FIVE EASY PIECES finds them stopping at a gas station in the middle of nowhere. Bobby hands Rayette his wallet to pay for gas and food while he uses the restroom. Upon emerging – and away from where she can see him – he hops into the cab of a tractor-trailer after a short discussion with its driver. In a long, unbroken, utterly devastating final shot, the truck pulls away, leaving Rayette wandering around, looking for the now-absent Bobby. It’s a fascinating ending, in that Bobby’s action can be read as either cruel or merciful. Abandoning Rayette may seem mean, or perhaps he simply realizes that he’s no good for her and wishes to spare her any further hurt. Either way, we know that Bobby Dupea is still searching for himself, and this iteration of his identity has ultimately been no more fulfilling than that of “Robert.” His search continues, somewhere else down the road.

FIVE EASY PIECES is so powerful because it steadfastly refuses to pass judgment on Bobby. The film simply observes what he does. Rafelson and screenwriter Carole Eastman (under the pseudonym Adrien Joyce) allow the viewer to decide how sympathetically to view Bobby, if at all. This quality marks it not only as an American classic, but also as one of the best films ever made about the torturous act of soul-searching. Movies about characters trying to find themselves typically end with a success; FIVE EASY PIECES leaves Bobby Dupea in a place that’s possibly even less certain than where he was at the outset.

And it all begins with that scene at the piano, when Bobby’s past bursts through his present, revealing that it still exists in spite of his efforts to bury it. The heart of this character lies right there. Cinema is filled with magnificent entrances: Harry Lime abruptly revealed by an errant light to be hiding in the shadows in THE THIRD MAN, Darth Vader emerging from a cloud of smoke in STAR WARS, Hannibal Lecter standing motionless before Clarice Starling in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, etc. To this list, we should add Bobby Dupea jumping on a truck to play a piano. We’ve been watching him for twenty minutes at this point, yet it’s the first time we’re truly seeing him.

It’s a classic moment that deserves to be what we remember when we think about FIVE EASY PIECES.

Copyright 2015 Mike McGranaghan