The Vintage Gets Around to Batman Forever

Batman forever

Recently I received a lot of flack for watching the much beguiled Batman & Robin. It wasn’t just because I was making a bad decision in how I should spend my time, it was that I skipped over an important and questionably superior piece of the Batman mythology, Batman Forever. My friends who berated me for my discretion maintained strong adoration for the third installment in the series, so much so my compadre in superhero cinema, Mari, brought over her well-worn VHS copy and clunky VCR for a nostalgic viewing experience at my home (we had no way of hooking that relic up so we resorted to HBOGO). With a highly informed guide, I embraced this journey and returned to a simpler, less gritty DC universe for the 1995 hit, Batman Forever.

Structurally, Forever and Batman & Robin are nearly identical. One villain is already established and reeking havoc in Gotham. The former is Tommy Lee Jones as Two Face rocking some dope makeup and playing a Joker adjacent lunatic, already a better choice than Schwarzenegger’s uninspired Mr. Freeze. Then we witness the second villain’s origin story, here Jim Carey as fuck boy The Riddler who is dying to be the next Bruce Wayne. He and Uma Thurman both win me over as seductive masterminds (Carey cleans up well) and clearly on board with this wacky pursuit. The beats of fighting their sworn enemy Batman play out exactly the same but Forever just has better execution. Two Face has devil and angel henchmen played by some of my favorite actresses in thankless roles (Drew Barrymore and Debi Mazar) which at least is better than blow up doll Bane. Both films have the introduction of a new hero as well, once again Forever winning out with Robin (Chris O’Donnell) who witnesses maybe not gory but still the haunting demise of his acrobat family. I stated before that O’Donnell sells the plucky yet rebellious character in B&R better than Alicia Silverstone’s Batgirl who is Cher but if she traded shopping for motorcycles. O’Donnell’s 1995 wardrobe doesn’t age well with his single earring and bad boy 90210 get up but it supplied me with countless laughs.

 
Once all the characters are in place, the movie is the simple formula of villains hatch plot to take over Gotham and Batman must foil them. At least one thing to knock down Forever’s credit if it seems like I’m praising it too much is that this evil genius plan doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Riddler has this brainwave device that can look into people’s mind and extract their knowledge which, sure is pretty invasive but our villains don’t harness that resource for any kind of gain. It comes in handy once when used on Bruce Wayne to reveals that all he thinks about are bats, hence proof he’s Batman. I at least wanted Riddler to be able to have special powers or something epic caused by his invention. Obviously, these are less than perfect motivations than what we get from the previous films (Penguin running for mayor). I was very disappointed that Two Face was relegated to B villain status as Riddler’s machine made for the central focus. Tommy Lee Jones is a great hammy actor who I was so excited for from the start but then is downgraded to grunts and snarls as Riddler spits out his surprisingly sexual puns. It’s a shame to waste such good Jones. Aside from the villains which has always been DC’s biggest strength, the narrative arc is Batman’s growth as a pair/father figure with Robin but in all honesty, Lego Batman achieves this ten times better and with actual humor. Nothing in the series is quite funny and rather Schumacher’s goal is for it to be enjoyable for kids and then later to sell toys which this doesn’t do as blatantly. I haven’t even mentioned Nicole Kidman who’s forth billed because her character is essentially the poster of To Die For. Her role as Dr. Chase Meridian is as empty as all the other female parts because she goes completely goo-goo over the sight of the caped crusader. She beckons him with the bat signal and welcomes him in a slip. I’m not judging her for being thirsty but at least give her some other drive than sex because yeah, she’ll settle for Bruce. As for the man himself, I’ve avoided discussing the Bat because I’m not too impressed with Val Kilmer though he’s got the look of a playboy billionaire than anyone to come before or after him. He’s slightly more invested than Clooney but not much. It’s hard to blame him when his given such uninteresting material. Kilmer works better when eccentric and Bruce Wayne is a dry steak amongst the more juicy criminals.

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So there’s some concrete evidence this isn’t a landmark piece of cinema but the reason I’m writing this whole review anyway is to retroactively confirm that it is better than B&R. Burton is at least on as a producer for Forever which may be why it’s limited to only one butt shot and that there are no extreme sports included. The quality overall is better. All the sets look professional and I like the inclusion of a real location for city hall. There’s one scene in which Robin explores the seedy part of town that includes the neon graffiti that permeates all of B&R and I applaud that there only that scene to remind me of the paintball arena sets that I despise so much in the sequel. Batman Forever has a little more self-respect than the garbage fire that was to follow. Due to my backward choice in viewing, it gets rated on a curb, working in its favor but that doesn’t make it a masterpiece. I wouldn’t trade it in for any Burton or Nolan work. But better than Batman v Superman? Now that’s a conversation worth having…

The Vintage Revisits: Batman&Robin

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Wow, how Batman can go off the rails when put in the wrong hands. I recently rewatched the 1989 Tim Burton Batman and was blown away by its bold style, dark humor and everyone’s level of commitment to this heightened universe. I know Nolan gets all the credit for making the gritty, realistic Batman, but I don’t need him to exist in my world. Burton’s vision of a 1930’s cartoonishly drawn Gotham works because the peril feels real and the visuals are corrupting. Jack Nicholson’s disfigured Joker with his plasticy face that is more creepy as a normal skin tone or the two bit crooks Batman encounters in the opening who look like Tommy in Trainspotting post-AIDS are really disturbing. I was so impressed that the first swing at making a Batman movie post Adam West cult classic TV show, managed to still have that childlike appeal of a comic book but have this sinister edge. After the well-earned success of this blockbuster, sequels were bound to follow and the bar was set insanely high. You may ask why I decided to jump all the way to the end of this quadrilogy bypassing Batman Returns which has the incomparable Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman and penguins with bombs strapped on their backs and then Batman Forever a movie I’ve never seen so I can make a comment on how great the villains are and ending up at the notoriously panned nail in the coffin that is Batman & Robin. Is it because it was all that was available at the library? Who’s to say but there is some small connection I have to this forlorn entry. While I didn’t see it upon release when I was the ripe age of 5 (the target demo) I did have the coloring book which made me aware of the characters and broad design of the feature. Twenty years later the images in that book pay off and I saw that world animate in front of my eyes, and boy is it a shit show.

Joel Schumacher is definitely the person I’m gonna blame for all of this. Taking over the reigns from Burton, there is a huge visual and tonal shift that accounts for the downfall of this film. The stories are always the same, Batman comes up against some big baddies, usually two wackos that got their powers from falling into a vat of fill-in-the-blank and their plans for overtaking Gotham must be squashed. Because of the simplicity, it all comes down to the execution. Burton’s color pallet was hues of black and when there would be splashes of color like in the Prince scored Balloon Parade it really pops. That’s why the Joker’s white and green face is so striking because it’s contrasted against a black backdrop of the city. Here, Schumacher takes that cartoon element and runs with it more literally. Every set is painted in heavy neon. The movie never feels dark because there’s so much neon light pouring in at every angle. Just looking at the poster itself, it’s very honed in on the fact that if Mr. Freeze is around, everything is super blue or Poison Ivy, it’s painfully green. He then also tweaks the tone to fit that brightness. Gone is the disturbing grossness you get with a creep like Penguin. Every inch of this movie has to be bubbly, big and kid friendly. All the henchmen do extreme sports which relegate our heroes to having to fight on roller skates, motorcycles and sky diving surf boards. It’s a clear reminder at how lame extreme sports are but that they were studio shorthand for “cool” in the late 90’s. All the sets look like cheap paintball arenas compared to the well crafted, gothic scenery of Burton’s landscape. As someone who loves a hand built, practical set I found myself cringing at locations like the artificial icicle lair and Poison Ivy’s Audrey Two puppet.

It’s pretty obvious that what makes Batman so great are his villains and it has been stated already that it often stands as the best way to judge a Batman movie. I definitely wouldn’t want to have this movie solely be judged by its heroes because they’re pretty abysmal. George Clooney taking over the role filled first by Michael Keaton then Val Kilmer, the salt and pepper haired gentleman seems less than thrilled to be taking on the iconic caped crusader. Clooney sleepwalks as Bruce Wayne made only more clear by the high energy, chipper demeanor Chris O’Donnell brings to the boy wonder. The newest edition to their crew is Alicia Silverstone as Batgirl and she’s never been the greatest actress to begin with but when saddled with dialogue only written in quips, she can not sell the contrived lines like “watch and learn, little boy.” The quips and puns are a staple of the campy Batman era and are in full swing here as that is only way Mr. Freeze and Poison Ivy know how to communicate. Mr.Freeze is the central villain with his diamond robbing needs and character motivation of trying to find a cure for his cryogenically frozen wife. Schwarzenegger has the natural build for a super villain but due to the goofiness of the environment, he never feels like a threat, just a rogue agent of the Blue Man Group. Poison Ivy (played by Uma Thurman) becomes the nastiest of the baddies mostly because she’s a woman and her transformation from nerdy scientist Pamela Isley to a vivacious seductress in a coded sexual awakening makes her be fit for ultimate punishment. Antiquated sexual politics strikes again! Uma Thurman is by far is my MVP because she’s having a grand time delivering every line with a slice of ham. Least valuable player goes to Bane who is played by a luchador Stretch Armstrong which is one of the most disappointing characters I’ve ever seen put on screen. Once you’ve had Tom Hardy do it right, you can’t turn back,

From the word go, my reaction to this was “is this a joke?” It literally begins with ass shots of Batman and Robin suiting up. I wish I could say that the juicy homoeroticism continues throughout but it’s just this weird note to kick off the action. This is a children’s movie that starts like a gay porn. It’s so hokey and the campiness isn’t fully embraced by the cast and ontop of that is overshadowed by the obvious angle that this movie exists to sell toys. It’s caught in such a limbo of intent. Lost Boys is a better example of Schumacher’s ability to make a children’s film that can balance the camp and the darkness while appealing to a broader audience. Batman & Robin dissolved the 90’s incarnation of Batman, only reviving its credibility with the animated series then getting a second chance with Batman Begins. I find myself enjoying the muddled mythology and vicissitude of Batman’s on-screen history which all pays off in Lego Batman. Suprise! Didn’t expect this review to be a ploy to praise Lego Batman but that’s the kind of chaos the Joker would unequivocally approve of.

The Vintage Revisits: The People Under The Stairs

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Now no longer a Moviepass member, podcasts predominantly dictate my film watching decisions. The Next Picture Show podcast, run by former Dissolve critics, upon the release of Get Out in March paired it with Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs. While Stepford Wives is the more direct link, they chose the 1991 adventure horror for its racial themes which are very specific to its era. It’s still an odd choice because as much as I love Wes Craven, he is a hit or miss kind of guy. People Under the Stairs falls somewhere in the middle, not the masterpiece of Scream or the trashy mess of My Soul to Take. It’s unique that it’s not particularly scary and more satirical. At the same time being told from a child’s perspective as he tries to escape the maze of a boobytrapped mansion, it becomes a weird violent Home Alone alternative. Within this genre mishmash, there’s a lot to dig into even if it’s not all fully realized.

In the black slums of Los Angeles, a 13-year-old Fool (Brandon Adams), his sister and sickly mother are about to be evicted from their dilapidated apartment complex by their evil white landlords. Family friend Leroy (Ving Rhames) enlists Fool’s help to rob those same landlords who are reportedly hoarding mounds of gold in their creepy house in the suburbs. The robbery goes sour fast and Fool finds himself trapped in a house that’s more concerned with breakouts than break-ins as there are cannibals in the basement, a mute in the walls and a porcelain doll of a daughter being tortured in her own bedroom. This is a film filled with so many strange details, it’s difficult to cover in a brief summary. What’s important to know is that the landlords referred to as Man and Woman in the credits are Reagan era allegories and they’re into some fucked up shit. Podcasters Tasha Robinson, Keith Phipps and Scott Tobias found the metaphors quite blatant while for me as the credits rolled I turned to my boyfriend and said: “what were the people under the stairs supposed to stand for?” It’s a very clear generation gaps as Craven’s film is preying on the 80’s conservative, moral standards of the Republican-run government who preach purity but happily disenfranchise minorities. This shines clearest with the performances of Man and Woman played in extremely broad strokes by Everett McGill and Wendy Robie who are dolled up to be incestuous surrogates of Ronald and Nancy Reagan. Their greediness and racism which is more overt than the white liberals in Get Out are very real for that time especially when the LA riots would happen only a year later.

Out of all the obstacles that Fool faces in the house, the titular people under the stairs are the least imposing which is what contributes to the flaws of this film. If I were to rank the threats it would go Mommy Dearest Nancy Reagan, simpleton Ronald Reagan in a gimp costume, the Cujo Rottweiler named Prince, abject poverty and lastly the Romero-esque zombies lurking in the basement dungeon. The Reagans are enough of a menace with the Woman’s bitchy white woman stares and the Man IN A FULL GIMP LEATHER DADDY GET UP running around with a shotgun hunting down a child. They are more effect villains due in part to how the film is shot. The initial breaking and entering is a daytime occurrence and a majority of the story takes place in an afternoon. This isn’t a dark and shadowy mise en scene, there’s a lot of light pouring through windows, a reminder that there is a world outside of this prison. Because of that choice, the powder-faced mutants in the basement look cheap and silly because we can see them too clearly. The Reagans look like normal people but behind closed doors are the ones to fear.

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So we’ve got the political commentary, the parts that are intended to be scary but then this is also a poorly planned children’s film. I know not all films with a young protagonist have to be then geared towards children but even with murder and cannibalism, the tone has a playful energetic mentality that would appeal to a 13-year-old audience. It’s that Goonies spirit of treasure and adventure but misplaced here when there are more grounded stakes. Yet at one point when Fool and the mute Lost Boy, Roach (Sean Whalen), are being chased by Prince, Roach releases a trap door that shoots the dog down two floors and through the kitchen that might as well be accompanied by a slide whistle. Craven wants to have his cake and eat it too by making a Little Rascals and a Dawn of the Dead crossover but gets so muddled when you have this little kid saying the word “fuck”.

I know Wes Craven is a director capable of making horror movies with deep seeded messages. I consistently return to Last House on the Left, a brutal rape/revenge narrative but with clearly expressed commentary on 60’s counterculture and the Vietnam War. I respect his interest in branching out and wanting to talk directly about race but being a white man doesn’t make him the best candidate to do so. This kind of winking at the camera tone he would nail down a few years late with Scream. I wouldn’t say The People Under the Stairs is a failure (Ving Rhames in a movie is nothing to scoff at) yet the social awareness lacks a deep comprehension and the metaphors come off as half-baked in a 2017 perspective. Of course, the curiosity I end this review on is, is Vampire in Brooklyn any better?

Revisiting and Reanimating Pet Sematary Two

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This year alone, I’ve been taking on the pointless and often unfulfilling task of watching 80’s horror movie sequels. My consumption has included the surreal weirdness that is the Phantasm series which incarnations span decades and the Friday the 13th saga which is the same movie over and over again except the original work is objectively awful and the only halfway decent entries are the campy ones. All this is prelude to say watching Pet Sematary Two made for a more fascinating experience than any other sequel I’ve slogged through. While I can’t find proof that the follow up script to the wildly successful Stephen King adaptation was a repurposed one, Two deviates greatly in style and ambition. It’s more surreal, gory and exploitative surprising considering it’s Mary Lambert returning to direct.

This may be a case of making a sequel no longer beholden to a stringent source material, the filmmakers were allowed to run a little wild. The film begins at a Tim Burton-esque gothic castle where a red headed woman in a white slip cautiously walks down some narrow stairs, just as she begins to reach for something, skeleton arms pop up from the ground and the director yells “cut!” This opening prologue sets up the death of Renee (Darlanne Fluegel), actress/ mother of 13-year-old Jeff (Edward Furlong)/ ex-wife of veterinarian Chase (Anthony Edwards) which forces the boys to return to the small town of Ludlow, Maine for a fresh start. The structure of escalation is similar to the original film, first an animal death this time Jeff’s friend Drew has his dog shot by his abusive stepdad Gus (Clancy Brown). The boys bury the large K-9, Zowie, at the Indian burial ground and after it returns and eventually attacks Gus on Halloween when he is wailing on his stepson, the boys repeat the burial ritual and then they have an undead Frankenstein of a stepdad on their hands. Yes, this is level of crazy this movie is functioning on. Gone are the days of baby Gage cutting Achilles’ tendons of old man Fred Gwynne, now it’s a motorbike tire to the face.

What is most troubling to this film that it takes the road less traveled and opts for maximum amount of violence towards animals. As proven time and time again the sanctity of animals and our emotional response when cute furry beings are under threat is very strong. We all know the horror cliche of the villain killing the family pet and then intensifying. The animal body count of Pet Sematary 2 is three kittens, a dog and at least a dozen rabbits. Not to mention the egregious scene of Chase calling a fellow vet and that guy is operating on the skull of a dog. Not pleasant! Sure, pull on our heartstrings but no one wants to see that much animal cruelty.

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While those horror attempts are a bit misguided the dreamlike instances are what make this a stand out sequel. The influence may have come from the mangled patient that haunts Louis Creed in the original work, the visions here manage to be more nightmarish as the hybrid dead mom-head of dog combo visits both father and son (for dad it’s in an unsettling sexual context). Most of the scenes are given some sort of unnatural lighting to dissociate from reality but it becomes muddled as we embark on the finale with the narrative going off the rails with Gus making his own undead army that includes Renee so he can “fuck her”. Her reincarnation seems more for Jeff’s benefit as Furlong’s performance becomes Oedipus meets The Omen that made me question if I’d missed the scene indicating this lascivious and malicious change in character. Of course, I didn’t, this movie is coo-coo bananas but it keeps winning me back with melting faces and heads exploding.

Pet Sematary Two is everything you want from an unnecessary sequel. It has just enough budget to make decent effects but 90’s enough to give it that straight to video quality. The quality of the actors is most impressive especially after all the Friday the 13th movies which is real no names amateur hour. Furlong was hot off of T:2 and Edwards and Brown are terrific character actors. My reason for seeking this movie out was on a recommendation by Andrea Subissati on The Faculty of Horror and while I thought it a weird choice, my tastes tend to align with her’s (except when it comes to Buffy). This doesn’t hold a candle to the original but you can’t expect it to. You have to view it through a lens of studio capitalism that demanded the churning out of a sequel to squeeze money from a profitable name. In that light, it’s way better than it has any right to be and a sufficient late night curiosity viewing with a friend. There are worse ways you could spend a Monday night.

The Vintage Revisits: Gaspar Noé Before He Was Gaspar Noé

I know awards season is off to a hot start with La La Land sweeping the Globes and Ryan Reynolds and Andrew Garfield kissing their way into our hearts (still doesn’t effect my feelings on Silence). With all the noteworthy movies of 2016 I have left to see (c’mon 20th Century Women, get on that wide release) I’m also embarking on an exploration of French cinema thanks to the birthday gift from my boyfriend Steven of Alex West’s academic genre book “Films of the New French Extremity”. West (co-host of one of my favorite podcasts The Faculty of Horror) covers a lot of ground starting with a brief history of France then honing in on the early 90’s cinema that pushed the limits of sex and violence on screen, how that blossomed into a booming horror subculture in the early/mid 2000’s and how it changed cinema both in France and abroad. The first movies the book tackles are the early works of divisive director Gaspar Noé. While most are familiar with his shocking piece Irréversible, West breaks down his previous works, a 40 minute short Carne and its full-length sequel I Stand Alone. Before reading this chapter I watched these two films, ready to take a dive into a filmography I never thought I’d traverse.

Carne (1991)

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Gaspar Noé is a director known for pushing the boundaries of what one is comfortable watching. This short of extreme cinema juxtaposes the forbidden delicacy of horse meat (known as Carne) with the taboo subject of incest. The story follows a butcher specializing in said meat who is left to raise his only daughter, when she hits puberty his lust rises to the surface. Since it’s from the perspective of the butcher the content is treated so nonchalantly that it makes the French seem like real perverts. I appreciate the style of the yellow saturation, hard edits and nontraditional angles. It often comes off as pretentious but you have to admit, it grabs your attention. Not for the faint of heart, the intense visuals included horse slaughter and vaginal birth. Carne doesn’t sway me toward admiration for Noe, I respect his unique cinematic language. He always presents something interesting whether or not I can stomach it.

I Stand Alone (1998)

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After praising Carne for its art house creativity and reminding me what I appreciate about Gaspar Noé, its full length follow up I Stand Alone is more of what I hate about him. In this sequel, Noé duplicates the same camera movements, color pallet, etc as he continues the story of the destitute butcher. Carne had a third person perspective as it documented the aging horse meat butcher who after assaulting a man he thought molested his daughter, loses his shop, all his money, and right to see his daughter and once released shacks up with a barmaid. The 40 minute short ends with him and his now pregnant lover relocating in the hopes of starting a new life. I Stand Alone picks up immediately but now with a first person perspective as the entire film is spent listening to the stream of consciousness thought of this butcher. It turns out his prospects were not a rosy and unable to find work in his field he feels suffocated by his new wife and her mother and seething with hate he decides to return to his hometown to reclaim what was once his.

 

If these particular themes were dormant in Carne, particular French concerns grow as the scope of the narrative enlarges. Carne while very French is a more intimate and niche as a depiction of perverse, forbidden fruits whether is be horse meat or incest. Here, the Butcher serves as a greater representation as France itself which especially in 2016 America can also ring true. The Butcher is a fifty-year-old straight white man who is accustomed to everything going his way because just like America, the country was built to serve that demographic. With a criminal record and no job, his privilege has been stripped along with his independence and respect. He becomes a ball of hate as he blames everyone around him for his misfortunes. He hates his wife for being the breadwinner so he beats her, he hates the Arabic man who has taken over his shop (though most of the town seems open to being racist) and he hates the manager of the slaughterhouse who won’t give him a job and decides he should kill him because he’s “a gay.” The Butcher feels he’s done everything right and that he deserves his place in society to be restored, unable to accept the changing of the times.

 

As much as I appreciate Noé’s sharp social commentary, I can’t say I enjoy spending 90 minutes in the head of a misogynistic, homophobic bigot. It was bad enough before I had to hear him wanting to sleep with his daughter. I emphasize the stream of consciousness aspect because for the entire run time there is this unbreaking voice over of this man pontificating about all the injustices and what he plans to do about it which he babbles on and on about. It’s so repetitive and if you took out the VO, it’s mostly scenes of a guy walking down the street and sitting in his room. There’s little of anything interesting happening and you’re stuck listening to the racist Trump supporter type talk himself in circles. Noe “spices” up the third act when the butcher has reached a boiling point in his hopelessness and decides a proper last hurrah before he murders the man who won’t give him a job would be spending the day with his daughter. Then commences a horrific dream sequence as he imagines a brutal resolution where he consummates with his daughter and attempts a murder/suicide which even as a fantasy fails terribly. Sure this drama is more exciting than “old man sits alone ranting” but it’s neither feel good cinema nor the fun fucked up Tarantino stuff we’re used to in the states.

 
I Stand Alone is the sequel you never ask for and dearly wish it didn’t exist. I have no doubt Noe made this piece as a deromanticizing of French culture. He shows the hideous beast filled with mistrust, xenophobia and raw hate lying under the surface of a country known for love and beauty. The Butcher constantly proclaims his adoration for Paris believing he is a true Frenchman but the city we see is dreary and bankrupt. Noé achieves what he set out to depict but that doesn’t mean it’s something I want to watch. It’s the duality of the objective to subjective opinions I struggle with as I’m writing, the same dualities in which one can view the beauty and strife of France but much like the Butcher sees what he wants, I shall interpret this movie as the queasy and toxic narrative that is. I hope to not encounter it again anytime soon.

 

The Vintage Revisits: Mulan

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Like every girl from the 90’s, I grew up with Mulan. Though not having seen it in maybe a decade, I still could recite many of the lines and of course sing along to all the songs. Disney post renaissance is often known as a subpar period. I categorize Mulan as still in a sweet spot before things really went south with Treasure Planet and Home on the Range. Sandwiched between Hercules and Tarzan, there’s still remnants of similar animation from the former (lots of swirly cloud designs) and the music that would show up in the latter (Mulan’s run away sequence is scored with synth that evokes Genesis). It very much comes off as a product of other products, building from tropes they know that work which is often why that if you didn’t grow up with this movie, it gets lost in the sea of pre-CGI animation. I realize there’s some nostalgic talking here but it’s got that Disney magic with gorgeous animation, catchy songs and some attempt at diversity that makes it more than worthwhile.

 

The strongest aspect that differentiates it from past Disney films is that Mulan is not a princess. I appreciate the message of subverting gender norms especially as a seven-year-old tomboy in ’98 although as unfeminine as I was/am, I wanted to be Meg from Hercules more than Mulan. Because it’s a kids movie, it hammers home Mulan’s “otherness” pretty hard in the first act. That becomes more laborious and on top of that the movie is trying to inform the young audience with a rudimentary knowledge of Chinese culture specifically the notion of honor which is repeated ad nauseum in the exposition. I can forgive the clunky set up because you still get to spend most of it with the main character and actress Ming-Na Wen who brings such life to the protagonist. She balances sweetness, innocence and vitality as the character progresses. Also in this introduction we get Mushu which is a very obvious rip-off of Aladdin’s Genie. While Eddie Murphy does a decent job as the dragon scamp, it’s in no way as hysterical as Robin William’s iconic ad-libs that make the Genie one of the greatest Disney characters of all time. The efforts pale in comparison of what the filmmakers were going for but I like the ways in which they work Mushu into the journey through basecamp and the battlefield both helping and hurting Mulan’s situation. The supporting cast once in the Imperial Army is the most spirited with the trio of Ling, Yao and Chien-Poa who I guess are added comic relief on top of Mushu. Harvey Fierstein as Yao, the least Asian of them all, still makes me smile.

 

In a more woke era almost twenty years later there’s more to question about the accurate representation of the Chinese in this movie. I’m the last person who should have any say in this as a white person but it’s a predicament for me of do you choose to appreciate that Disney made some effort into telling a non-white story or do you criticize that they didn’t try harder in diversifying the behind the scenes creators (majority of the creative team is caucasian). It takes a very simplistic view of China i.e. its decision to put so much emphasis that it’s a culture of honor and women hating but it’s 500 AD when all cultures devalued women. It’s also a simplistic depiction of the nomadic Hun people that fight the Imperial Army. The choice to make the villains noticeably Mongolian but with black eyes and a gray skin pigmentation is quite bold. The central villain Shan Yu is voiced by Miguel Ferrer which immediately disassociates that character from feeling anything close to Asian, maybe for the better.

 

PC-guilt aside, there’s still so many things to appreciate. I’m a sucker for traditional animation and this film is filled with some fantastic designs. It’s really elevated by the blending of CGI and animation for the sequences such as the mountainside battle with the Huns with sweeping ariels of stampeding soldiers, also the wider shots of the Emporer’s palace in which the extra dimensions emphasizes its grandness. I can’t hammer home enough how much I love the songs by Matthew Wilder and David Zippel. “I’ll Make A Man Out of You” is a bonafide training montage song worth being listed next to the greats of “Circle of Life” and “Whole New World” and for real, Donny Osmond does a perfect BD Wong impression. I also find the song “A Girl Worth Fighting For” not only fun but extremely emotionally effective when the lyrics are cut off by the destroyed of a village. Mulan is often an underestimated movie much like the main character herself. By appearance or reputation, it may seem light or harmless but when given a chance it packs one hell of a punch.

A Post Election Dick

Michelle Williams And Dan Hedaya In 'Dick'

A peek behind the curtain: for my usual Thursday blog posts, I watch the decided movie the weekend before and do my writing on Wednesday. This past Sunday, Cinefamily did a very feminist and patriotic screening of the 1999 teen comedy Dick This seemed like the perfect film today write about post-election; girl power, bad ass blondes etc. I hadn’t ever entertained the idea that I’d be writing this piece under very different circumstances. I live in the bubble of Los Angeles with like-minded millennials so the reality of Donald Trump being elected president sounded like a farce. The past 24 hours I’ve been at a loss for words, feeling as if I’m in an alternate timeline from Back to the Future Part II. To my fault, I’m not a very political person. I get most of my news from BBC Africa so I’d describe myself as someone who looks at things from a global scale. I leave for Senegal on Saturday (a trip I planned before the election results) and I’m going to have to explain my country’s decision to every taxi driver, tour guide and shop owner I meet. When I visited Ghana last year and people found out I’m American, they’d smile and start cheering “Obama!” I don’t want to imagine what they’ll say to me now. Something much worse and in French.

So how do I tie this in with the movie Dick? I wasn’t alive in 1972 and I’m no historian but at that time, America had the smell of doom, similarly falling apart. Most notably, we were stuck in an unwinnable war that was killing men faster than we could send them and with the Watergate scandal, the country was betrayed by those in the highest entrusted power. Those issues and the general climate of sexism is at the center of this movie about two 15-year-old Betsy (Kirsten Dunst) and Arlene (Michelle Williams) who find themselves in the wilds of the corrupt administration after witnessing the Watergate bugging. The film’s tone is able to look back with a more upbeat perspective rather than the bleak nihilism one might have felt while it was happening. This is a movie packed with loud, colorful costumes by Deborah Everton, a best-of disco soundtrack and satirical performances by premier sketch comedy actors including Will Ferrell, Dave Foley and Harry Shearer. Writer/Director Andrew Fleming turns the turmoil of the 1970’s into a hilarious spectacle as these two girls unbeknownst to the public and even themselves, change the course of history. It’s an escapist, popcorn flick but with this poignant, educational undertone. And there’s Ryan Reynolds to boot!

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It’s quite bizarre that this movie was made and not surprisingly a flop because it’s an unlikely intersection of genres with politics and teen comedy. The more successful films of that year would be She’s All That, American Pie and 10 Things I Hate About You, none which you would imagine prime for an All The President’s Men mash up. Yet that’s why this movie is so great, partially because it’s combining the unlikely but that it’s not underestimating its audience. This is a movie about underestimation, especially towards women. Betsy and Arlene are seen by men as giddy empty-headed girls and the opening presents just that. As Nixon’s men break into the Watergate complex where Arlene lives, the two girls are up late writing into a contest to win a date with pop idol Bobby Sherman. Arlene dictates her puppy love to Betsy who is inept with the typewriter. While they sneak out to mail the letter, they run into G. Gordon Libby (Shearer) which provokes the administration to “deal” with the teens, making sure they don’t comprehend or tell anyone what they saw. The men in power quickly assume they have nothing to worry about with the ditzy youths who are more interested in walking Checkers and baking cookies that Nixon (played by Dan Hedaya) and his cabinet speak freely about their criminal acts in their presence. The plot is all leading up to the administration’s incorrect perceptions biting them in the ass as Betsy and Arlene become the notorious “Deep Throat” informants that break the Washington Post story and force Nixon’s resignation. Even with knowing the outcome of the narrative, you’re excited for these girls to deliver the ultimate fuck you to the men in suits who rule their lives. What I like is yes, they are ditzy but they’re not dumb. Dunst and Williams light up the screen with their bubbly presence and are such believable teens with their naivete of the world but they mature in the course of the film and for sure Arlene grew up to be a boss politicians. Just like many of the youths of that decade, the older generation looked at them as stupid potheads who would amount to nothing but they protested and fought back. In this movie those sentiments are compacted into high spirited, roller skating young women.

Watching a comedy like Dick that has the 20/20 hindsight and sense of humor to make light of what was an equally scary moment in America’s history makes me hope we will be able to do the same in thirty years. That’s hard to envision because the state of affairs right now already is larger than life. Dick is an obvious exaggeration but life as it is November 9th, 2016 feels impossible to heighten. Betsy and Arlene’s emotional arc is very similar to mine yesterday. It began with blissful ignorance that the world was fine then the harsh realization that there’s a lot of hate and lies that were right in front of me. I want the grand finale elation of a giant banner that exclaims “You Suck” which is how a lot of us feel right now. I try to look at everything in an African standpoint but the world is so surreal right now listening to Zimbabwe’s massive inflation and failing economy, the human rights violations in Somalia and the continued political protests in Burundi, it doesn’t sound too farfetched for similar ripples to occur here. If I can recommend a movie during this trying time, Dick is not a bad way to go. Revel in bell bottoms, flower power and ABBA for an hour and a half. It will help to take the edge off.