A Movie For The Rest of Us

The other day, for reasons having more to do with a desire to get out of town than anything else, I found myself watching Bad Moms at the Rialto Theatre in Lancaster, New Hampshire.  And I am here to tell you that this is a movie that is far better than it needed to be.  (My expectations going in were low, mostly because it was billed as coming from the team that gave us the – in my opinion – entirely unnecessary bro-comedy The Hangover.)

The second screen at the Rialto used to be the storefront next door, until the theatre acquired it and retrofitted it with a screen and modern theatre seating for about 45 people – a much smaller venue than the main theatre (which has old-school seats that date from the Fifties, or possibly even the Thirties, and also has the largest screen north of Franconia Notch), but a cozy one.  When I was there, the house was sold out, and the theatre operator said afterward that it had been selling out every night.

Counting my husband/co-author, I think there were three male persons in the audience.  The rest of us were female, with all age ranges represented (somewhere, the Triple Goddess must have been laughing with delight), arriving not just as singletons, but in whole gaggles.

And make no mistake – we, and not the guys, were the film’s target audience.

If most movie critics are dissing this movie . . . well, I think it’s pretty fair to say that they are not this film’s target audience.  After all, it doesn’t serve any of their usual purposes: There’s none of the explosions-and-excitement of an action flick; it doesn’t get you seriousness-and-sensitivity points like the cinematic equivalent of a literary novel; and it’s definitely not most guys’ idea of a date movie.

Bad Moms is, in fact, the distaff equivalent of a bro-flick (sis-flick? maybe.)  If the narrative arc of your typical bro-flick involves one last wild irresponsible fling before settling down into respectable-but-boring adulthood, the narrative arc of a sis-flick would appear to feature a breakout from respectable adulthood into a wild irresponsible fling.

(This trope is older than you’d think.  In the 1700s, the lord’s wife ran off with the raggle-taggle gypsies,O,  and if in some of the earliest versions she and the gypsies all met a bad end, it wasn’t long before the story took on a more cheerful configuration.)

What makes Bad Moms more than just a funny movie, though, is the hard truth at its core:  The modern world does its best to set moms up to fail.  It’s not acceptable for a mother to be adequate at the job, getting the maternal equivalent of a “gentleman’s C” if at the end of the day the kids are fed, washed, healthy, and out of jail; it’s not even enough to finish with a solid B+.  In the school of modern motherhood, it’s straight A’s or nothing.

Obligatory writing reference:  The funniest humor almost always has a piece of hard truth at its heart.  That’s what gives the humor its weight and striking power, like a snowball with a rock in the middle.

Bad Moms knows a true thing about modern motherhood, and calls it out for the rigged game that it is – and that is why all us moms at the Rialto laughed out loud and kept on laughing.

So We Saw the New Ghostbusters Today

Short verdict: Haters to the rear. It’s a good movie.

It’s not just a good movie, it’s a good genderflip AU, in that it doesn’t just paste the guys’ names and roles onto some female bodies actors and call it a day, it actually asks itself things like, “If this basic character type had been born, raised, and socialized female, what would she be like?” and “What sort of public reception would these people doing these things get if they were four women and not four men?”

So the Venkman character as played by Melissa McCarthy is not the at-least-50%-charlatan that Bill Murray’s version was; and the four ghostbusters, instead of getting citywide acclaim after their initial successes, are treated in the media (with the connivance of City Hall and Homeland Security) as being either frauds or delusional or both.

An all-male remake would have just been putting a new coat of paint onto the chassis of an old classic; by going with a true genderflipped version, the creative minds involved managed to take their inspiration from the old classic and use it to say some new things. And the haters were right to be scared of it, because – in its lightshow-with-explosions kind of way – it’s pointing a mocking finger at the very sort of male privilege that they’re so obnoxiously, and anxiously, defending.

So yeah, go see it. And stay through the credits.

Sometimes I Go to the Movies

Yes, I did see the new Star Wars movie, and yes, I liked it.  But I’d like to take a moment to talk about the other movie I saw recently, which didn’t get nearly as much media attention:  In the Heart of the Sea.  Jim Macdonald and I made a six-hour round trip (not counting the movie itself and a dinner afterward) down to Hanover NH and back in order to see it,  because it wasn’t showing anywhere closer and probably wasn’t ever going to be.  A based-on-a-nonfiction-book film about the fate of the whaleship Essex isn’t going to pull big audiences into the movie theatres at a season when they could be watching heartwarming dramas or the triumphant return of a major franchise, but if In the Heart of the Sea could be said to have a target audience, my husband/co-author and I are it.

It turned out to be a good movie, if not a movie to most people’s taste – very pretty to watch, with a haunting musical score, and it didn’t leave Macdonald muttering about nautical inaccuracies. (At one point near the beginning of the film, the sailors see a squall line approaching like a solid black wall on the horizon. “Does it really look like that?” I asked Macdonald in a whisper. “No,” he said. “It looks worse.” After which we get a truly impressive storm-at-sea sequence.)

I must confess that I, as a lit geek with a fondness for Moby-Dick, and a certain amount of awareness of its sources and analogues, did do a bit of muttering. For one thing, the whale that rammed and sank the whaleship Essex was not a white whale. That was a different whale, known in the sperm whale fisheries as Mocha (not Moby) Dick.  I’ll give the folks who did the CGI whale points, though, for depicting it as the actual Mocha Dick was supposed to look–not a solid white whale, but a mottled white-and-light-brown one, sort of a pinto effect. I expect that the CGI artists did their research in the same historical source material where Melville did his.

I did wince a bit, though, at the recurring “[N] days stranded” captions during the post-sinking portion of the film. Because you can’t be stranded in a small boat on the open sea. Being stranded requires being left or cast up on a strand — a seashore. (If somebody puts you there deliberately, you are marooned.) If you’re in a boat, you’re either adrift (if you aren’t at least attempting to make progress in some direction) or at sea (if you are, however desperately.)

Not that I’m picky about such things….

Zombies, Pandemics, and Other Disasters

The Walking Dead is, of course, the standout show of the current televised post-apocalyptic lineup. What makes it good is that the showrunners have discovered how to convince the American viewing public to sit still for an extended meditation on the various approaches to living a moral life – or at least surviving – in an imperfect world: For every so-many minutes of debate by the characters on morality and philosophy, throw in an equal or greater number of minutes of zombie-smashing and gunfire. The genius lies in the show’s ability to determine just how long viewers will sit still for philosophy before a zombie needs to shamble up out of nowhere and go rarrrgh! (Also, they have figured out that philosophy is a lot more palatable when coming from bikers with biceps. Which is probably a sentiment that Plato could have understood.)

Fear the Walking Dead is a limp noodle by comparison, mostly because all of the characters are operating on a stupidity level that makes me wonder how they survived before Southern California started sliding downhill into chaos. You know that things are bad when the junkie older son of the viewpoint family is one of the few people exhibiting sporadic flashes of intelligence and common sense. (Oh, and Ruben Blades is doing a thankless job of portraying the only other character with more depth than a wading pool. I hope it leads to better roles for him in better shows.)

But the show that I have a sneaking fondness for is the post-pandemic-apocalypse drama The Last Ship. It doesn’t have the groundbreaking quality of The Walking Dead, nor the trainwreck-in-progress morbid fascination of Fear the Walking Dead. What it does have, though, is a refreshing change from the usual Hobbesian post-apocalyptic universe, where all it takes is a couple of weeks without hot water and electricity for the world to collapse into a war of all against all that’s fit to warm a social Darwinist’s heart. In The Last Ship, people aren’t just taking the breakdown of civilization-as-we-know-it passively. They’re all working, in their different ways, to restore order and government and the social contract. Hell, even the bad guys on the show are trying to do that thing — they’re just doing it wrong.

And frankly, I think that for all the tempting darkness of the Walking Dead future, the idea of people banding together and striving for the restoration of order is the more realistic vision.

Links to the Past

Writers of historical or alt-historical fiction are always in search of pictorial references for people and places of times past.  Still pictures are good (and for most of history, they’re all that we have), but for over a century now we’ve had moving pictures, as well – and the internet, bless its digital heart, preserves them and displays them for us at our command.

Herewith, a trio of links:

London street scenes, 1927, in color: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qgxki8_R968

Street scenes from Berlin and Munich, circa 1900-1914, also in color: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B-m9A8mY-U0

Driving around New York, 1928.  This one’s in black and white, and is a staged comedy short, but the backgrounds are the real thing.  (And it’s amazing how long some of the visual high-speed automotive tropes we’re still seeing in film and television have been kicking around.): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lkqz3lpUBp0

I love the internet.

Amusements for the Coming Solstice

I could have saved this for posting a bit closer to the day, but by that time we’re going to have a house full of people and I’ll be lucky to get up a few sentences griping about punctuation trivia.  That being the case, herewith a few of my favorite winter-holiday stories and characters from both written and visual media:

  • The visit from Saint Nicholas at Christmas in Nazi-occupied Holland in Hilda Van Stockum’s The Winged Watchman — I read this one when I was a kid, and it helped start me off on my ongoing fascination with history and the people who were part of it.
  • Father Christmas in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, whose arrival with gifts for the Pevensie children signals the end in Narnia of “always winter and never Christmas.”
  • The New Year’s feast at Camelot that kicks off Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  For those who feel up to tackling the thorny Middle English dialect of the original, there’s a text on-line here. My co-author and I liked it so much, in fact, we wrote our own short story about the events of that particular Arthurian feast, “Holly and Ivy.”
  • The third-season Christmas episode of Supernatural, for the way that it combines the Winchester brothers’ childhood memories of The Worst Christmas Ever (everybody has at least one of those in their memory book) with the sense of impending doom that hung over all the episodes of that particular season, and still manages to finish up the episode on a warm, if bittersweet, note.
  • The first Die Hard movie.  (Of the others in the franchise, we will not speak, except to say that I’m happy Bruce Willis has a long-running franchise to keep his own Christmas stocking full.)  Underneath all the blood and explosions, it’s a romantic comedy for the Christmas season . . . how often, after all, do you get a rom-com where the hero is literally willing to walk barefoot over broken glass for the sake of his one true love?

Hold the Cheese

This past weekend we saw Pacific Rim, and — unsurprisingly — I have some thoughts about the movie.

At this point, I don’t think it counts as spoilery to say that the plot of Pacific Rim involves using giant armored fighting robots to defend against monsters invading Earth through a dimensional rift in the Pacific Ocean.  As concepts go, it’s exceptionally well-suited for a treatment featuring  a heavy layer of cheese — consider, for example, what Michael Bay did with a similar premise in Transformers.

Michael Bay, though, is the King of Cheese, and Guillermo del Toro, the actual director of Pacific Rim, is something else altogether.  The man who directed Pan’s Labyrinth may do genre, but he does not do cheese, and Pacific Rim is more than just a loud and flashy mecha-and-monsters movie.  At the same time, it doesn’t for a moment pretend that it’s something else —  the film is dedicated to stop-motion animation artist Ray Harryhausen and Godzilla director Ishiro Honda, for heaven’s sake, and contains references and shout-outs to more famous monsters and monster-fights of film and legend than can be conveniently listed here.

What keeps it from being cheesy is that it takes the initial admittedly silly premise–that the obvious and appropriate response to monsters invading from the deep is to construct giant armored robot suits to take them down in single combat–and plays it straight.  It never goes over the edge into parody; and it never gives the audience that “look at how clever I’m being” smirk.  It does give the audience moments of genuine beauty in the midst of all the action (I don’t think there’s an accidentally ugly image in the whole film.)

In short, the movie respects both its audience and itself, and that’s the best way I know of for all art, and not just film-making, to avoid turning into a pot of Velveeta fondue.

Unnecessary Endings

Thanks to the magic of home video, I finally got a chance to watch Spielberg’s Lincoln — which is not, despite its title and its director, a sprawling epic biopic.  It’s actually, for the most part, a tightly focused docudrama about the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, in which Abraham Lincoln employs every political tool in the book, up to and including bald-faced lies and outright bribes, in order to secure the crossover votes in the House of Representatives necessary to bring about the abolition of slavery.  The story ends with Mr. Lincoln leaving a gathering of his political associates in order to join Mrs. Lincoln for a night out at the theater, in a lovely moody shot of the President walking down a darkened White House corridor toward the lighted doorway at the end.

Unfortunately, the movie goes on for several minutes after that.

We get the assassination — well, actually, we get an audience at a different performance in another theatre being told that the President has just been shot.  (I suppose this was meant to be clever film-making, but it felt to me like a bait-and-switch.  Mileage, of course, may vary.) We get Mary Todd Lincoln weeping at the deathbed.  We get “Now he belongs to the ages.”  We get a final Inspiring Voiceover Montage.  And I’m damned if I know why the movie needed any of that stuff, unless it was for the historical enlightenment of the three or four people in Outer Mongolia who don’t already know that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated while watching a play at Ford’s Theater.

The whole thing reminded me of another movie with an equally unnecessary ending — First Knight, the Arthurian film with Richard Gere as Lancelot and Sean Connery as King Arthur.  Except for the assumption that any woman in possession of her right mind could possibly prefer Gere to Connery, First Knight was a perfectly serviceable film adaptation of Chrétien de Troyes’s The Knight of the Cart, and would have worked just fine if they’d left it at that.  But the film-maker stuck a Mort D’Arthur sequence onto the end of it, presumably because nobody involved trusted the audience to remember what was going to happen a few years down the fictional road.

One of the good things about being in the business of making novels and short stories instead of films is that we can get away with putting a bit more trust in the intelligence — and the literacy — of our audience.

Of that vintage, at least. Perversely, as Gere’s gotten older he’s acquired a kind of sleazy shopworn charm that is attractive in its own right. But I digress.