I mowed and weed-eated my yard today. A small accomplishment I know, but one that felt good. Our house is a wreck. The garden lays fallow save for a few wild strawberries that have come back from last year's planting. Though we spend most of our weekends at home, we just can't find the energy to do much of anything. I know I'm not the only one who feels this way as my social media feeds are filled with people in similar situations. One of the odd things about this virus and the quarantine is that so many of us have more time on our hands and yet it has robbed us of the drive to do anything productive. The one thing I am doing is watching movies, which is nice since I like to write about them. Here's what I watched this week.
I read the book this was based upon many years ago. My memories of the specifics are now vague. But my impression of the book is like my feelings towards the film which I just watched yesterday - it has a good premise but is flawed in the execution. I'm a big fan of detective stories and I love the idea of setting one in Russia in the 1980s, even if the details are probably nothing like how things actually were in Russia during the 1980s.
Three bodies are found murdered, with their faces cut off in the middle of Gorky Park in Moscow. Militia officer Arkady Renko (William Hurt) is tasked with solving the murders. He must tread lightly because it immediately seems like something the KGB was involved in and they are already gunning for him from a previous case in which he tried to arrest one of their agents.
Lee Marvin is an American businessman who deals in sable furs. He has powerful friends in the government. He might have something to do with the murders. He's Lee Marvin; he probably had something to do with the murders. Brian Dennehy's in it too. He's another American, a cop whose brother was one of the murdered in the park. There are a lot of Americans in this film and Brits. They all speak English in the film with hardly an attempt to even effect a Russian accent. That's a little distracting at first, but you get over it.
The love interest is played by Joanna Pacula. She's Polish, which isn't Russian but it's closer than the rest of the cast. She might hold the key to the whole case but she's so paranoid she'd rather trust those guaranteed to hurt her then Renko who might be able to save her.
It was directed by Michael Apted who does a decent job. He keeps things moving. There's something off with it, but I can't quite pinpoint what that might be. I felt the same way about the book. I think the story just never quite gets me there. The parts never quite connect. There's enough to like that makes me recommend it. I really do love the idea, especially setting a crime story in Russia allowing for lots of little details that differentiate it from the standard police story fare. I just can't help wishing it were a little better than it is.
I loved this film when it came out. I think I saw it twice in the theater and bought it on DVD. I have very distinct memories of talking about Russell Crowe with my sister when it became a big hit - both of us were trying to prove ourselves the bigger fan because we liked him after we watched The Insider or LA Confidential or some such thing. I don't remember the last time I watched it but it has been at least 15 years or so. With our internet being spotty due to everyone staying home and streaming things due to the Corona virus, I decided to pull this out and see how it holds up.
Mostly pretty well, I'd say.
If memory serves, this was early in the film movement where action scenes started becoming a muddled mess. Suddenly, everyone decided that it was more impactful, that audiences would feel more in the moment if action scenes were shot with handheld cameras and the edits were quick and furious. Ridley Scott sticks to a more solid camera base, but the edits are still fast and the shots tend to be close up. Making many of those scenes confusing and headache-inducing. But when he pulls back and allows us to see what's actually going on, it can be quite thrilling.
The story is historic nonsense of course but it's still pretty interesting. The plight of a Roman general who becomes a slave and then a gladiator is well done. I'm less interested in all the Joaquin Phoenix stuff. I think this is the first film I really noticed him in. He's good, but there is too much of his story. I get it, the Emperor is a bad dude. Do I really need multiple scenes of him lusting after his sister?
Russell Crowe is excellent and Ridley Scott gives the story enough heart to boost what would be a pretty dumb action flick in anyone else's hands. The backstory with Crowe's wife and kid is pretty slim, but Crowe's performance and the way Scott shoots his memories make it quite impactful.
I pretty much missed out on the Disney revival in the 1990s, at least in theaters anyway. I'm not entirely sure why. They started coming out in the latter years of my high school career and continued through my college days. I went to the movies a lot back then so I don't really know why I didn't see them. I eventually did catch up with most of the true classics - Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, The Lion King, etc., - but never bothered with some of the late-era ones. Again, I don't know why. I've been trying to catch up with them now that they are all on Disney+. I caught Mulan earlier this week and then I sat down with Hercules. It was better than I expected.
The first half feels like a Superman origin story. Super powerful kid falls from the sky, is raised by kind farmers, struggles to be accepted, then goes on a quest to become who he really is. That's not a complaint, just an observation. I wonder if the comics took their inspiration from Greek Mythology.
The voice cast is mostly terrific. Danny DeVito is great fun as Philoctetes and James Woods seems to be having a blast as Hades. I love that the Greek chorus was turned into a gospel choir. I'm not sure if I dislike Hercules the character because he's boringly written or if Tate Donovan's voice work wasn't up to the task, but he's the worst character in the movie named after him. I also dig that Megara the love interest is really working for Hades. That's not exactly a new trope but it's nice to see it in a Disney movie. And it was cool to see the male hero willing to give up his eternal life as a god for love.
All in all, a very decent Disney film.
I Know What You Did Last Summer
I was a bit too young in the '80s to have watched all the classic slasher flicks in the theater, but I devoured them on cable television. As the '80s turned into the '90s, the genre grew stale and I grew up. Heading to college in 1994, my own sensibilities were changing and I was becoming a burgeoning cinephile.
It is hard to stress how crazy great Scream was. It took a dying genre, subverted it and reinvented it at the same time. It understood the tropes of the slasher, had characters call them out, meta-fashion like, and yet was a really good version of the genre all the same. It was a huge hit so naturally all kinds of copycats came out as quickly as they could make them. Most of them didn't understand what made Scream so good in the first place. Take I Know What You Did Last Summer. Written by Kevin Williamson, who also wrote Scream, it has many of the superficial things Scream had - a young, beautiful, hip cast; a soundtrack full of classic rock covers by then super hip bands; a crazed killer; and just enough violence. But director Jim Gillespie has none of the finesse of Wes Craven and the Williamson script isn't nearly as clever or self-aware.
Yet, I have really fond memories of this film. Scream was a strangely popular film on my ultra-conservative Christian college campus and so lots of folks who normally wouldn't come near a horror movie were excited by this film. Including a cute girl I was into. She invited me to go with several of her friends so of course, I said yes.
We saw it in a small town in Alabama. It was one of those theaters that used to be a one-screen movie house but had been divided down the middle to fit in two screens. It was terribly small and the walls were so thin you could hear the other movie playing. It was a bad movie, but I sure did enjoy sitting next to that girl.
Randomly decided to watch it again this week. It is still bad, but fun in a cheeseball way. The plot makes no sense, the scares are pretty weak, and I have no idea why Freddie Prinze, Jr. was ever a star. But it has Jennifer Love Hewitt in her prime and Sarah Michelle Gellar whom I will always love and its got enough dumb horror charm to make it worth a watch. Every two decades or so.
.After watching I Know What You Did Last Summer, I just had to go back to the movie that made it possible. As noted, I was a big fan of the slasher genre growing up in the late '80s and Scream just blew me away. To have a film that was as thrilling and good as Scream that also winked at the audience and had characters discussing the type of movie they were in felt revolutionary. This was before social media and fan forums dedicated to every type of niche and subgenre you can think of. I was a poor student attending a small, religious school that loved movies that the majority of the student body would have prayed over me for having watched. Scream seemed to get me. It spoke my language.
That is embarrassing to type now, especially as Scream inspired countless other horror films and made meta the new normal, but at the time it was true. Watching it all these years later, I'm happy to stay it still mainly holds up. It no longer feels revolutionary and there are parts that don't work at all, but it is still really entertaining, smart, funny, and exciting.
The Skeet Ulrich character is a lot more skeevy than I remembered. Complaining that your girlfriend won't put out when she's still grieving for her murdered mother and who is currently being stalked by a serial killer is pretty gross even for a character in a horror movie from the 1990s. Characters make completely and utterly ridiculous moves, like a police deputy inviting the tabloid journalist along with him when he's checking out a lead. Or the fact that the police enforce a 9pm curfew throughout the town yet somehow doesn't mind when half the high school throws a party at some kid's house. That's par for the course for this type of film and I can't tell whether or not those decisions are part of the meta-commentary or just bad writing.
Not that it matters. Scream has lost some of its sheen over the years, but it is still a hoot to watch.
The Lemonheads - It's a Shame About Ray
While we are reliving my high-school and college days, here's a song from that very sweet spot. The Lemonheads were my band for a brief period in 1992. That's when they released It's a Shame About Ray and I tore that album up. I remember my copy of the CD had all the lyrics to the songs printed out in the little booklet but they were all mixed up. I spent several hours one evening listening to each song line by line, pausing it, finding the lyric in the book then writing them all down in the proper order.
The thing is that's the only album I ever loved by them. I bought Come On Feel The Lemonheads which came out the next year. But that album felt rushed - like they were cashing in on the popularity they found with It's A Shame About Ray. Or like they threw together a bunch of scraps they had laying around. I liked several songs but as a cohesive album it fell flat.
This was before high speed internet and bit torrent and being able to download every album from your favorite band so I wasn't able to afford their back catalog. Then I went to college and moved away from alternative rock. But It's a Shame About Ray is still a great album and I bring it out from time to time when I need a dose of nostalgic alt-pop.
This video comes from a David Letterman performance. Dig that fur coat Evan Dando is wearing!