Wednesday, April 18, 2018

"Constantine" - "It's not always like it is in the books."

I’m pretty loose with my reasons for picking which movies from my collection to write about, but an upcoming concert and a YouTube video I recently watched will have my next few entries a bit more focused. Let me explain. First off, I’m going to see Bush this week (thirteen-year-old me is pumped...hell, thirty-three-year-old me is pretty pumped too...nostalgia!). In case you didn’t know, Gavin Rossdale is the lead singer of Bush, but he also dabbles in acting, and Constantine is his highest profile role. I just felt like watching this again before seeing them live, so I can feel like I’m seeing a band and  Hollywood star at the same time, even if the acting didn’t exactly work out for him.

Second, I went down a YouTube rabbit hole a few days ago and ended up on a video (by one of those movie channels like watchmojo, looper, cinefix, etc.) about critical disappointments that are actually good. As you can guess, Constantine was on there, which surprised me a bit, since I (for no reason in particular) assumed this movie was generally hated/ignored. I saw it as a sign that I must re-watch it and write about it. I also got fuel for a number of future articles, because it turned out I owned most of the movies discussed in the video. So in the next few weeks, expect articles about William Friedkin’s later work (Bug, The Hunted, Rules of Engagement), The Book of Eli, and Knowing. But for now: Constantine...starring Hollywood superstar Gavin Rossdale!

Constantine was a bit of a rarity for me when it came out. It was based on a comic book, but I knew next to nothing about the source material. I’m not much of a comic book guy (I like them, but movies have taken up most of my dork budget), but I’m pretty knowledgeable. Somehow, Hellblazer flew under my radar. So I went into Constantine to see a Matrix-style action movie about angels and demons. I wasn’t disappointed. It didn’t blow me away or anything, but I remember thinking it was overall a cool movie.

Cut to 2018. When I looked for this movie in my collection, I was worried that I had actually sold it years ago because it wasn’t in my comic book movie section. I know I didn’t know the source material, but I even keep Road to Perdition, Ghost World, and A History of Violence next to Thor and The Dark Knight and whatnot. I was relieved (?) when I found it in my sci-fi section. That just shows how little I considered this a comic book movie, which might be why I liked it then, and still like it now. But knowing it’s a comic book movie allowed me to appreciate a few things about it.

For one thing, Constantine is a rated R comic book movie. That was lost on me the first time. Granted, it’s a tame R that by 2018 standards could possibly pass as PG-13, but still. I do wish they had leaned in on the R a bit more and made a truly disturbing film.

The R rating was there to set the tone. This movie is not shy about its influences. The basic equation of it is The Exorcist + The Matrix + Chinatown = Constantine. The first two make sense. Constantine is an exorcist, and Reeves was just coming off The Matrix sequels. But Chinatown? Constantine is mainly a detective film, actually, so Chinatown is a pretty good reference point. The marketing department obviously thought this as one of the posters is very similar to Chinatown’s. It’s an odd combination, but it makes for a pretty interesting film, tonally.

I’m all about tone and world-building (which is why Blade Runner 2049 was my favorite film last year), and Constantine works for me on that level. This movie went so far in creating its underworld that it hardly bothers with the real world. I found that refreshing. Instead of getting twenty to thirty minutes of Rachel Weisz’s character being convinced what was really going on, we get one scene and the movie never looks back. Normally a film of this kind leans on the two world concept for laughs or to show just how different the two worlds are, but Constantine is confident enough in its other world to stay there throughout.

If the visuals and action were a bit more interesting, I would consider this an unappreciated gem. But, especially by 2018 standards, the CG is plain and relied on too heavily. The scenes in Hell are simply uninteresting. The demon design is kind of freaky, but overall those sequences lack imagination. It’s easy to see how director Francis Lawrence ended up making I Am Legend, another promising film with disappointing CG. As for the action...well, there isn’t much, despite the film trying to look like The Matrix. And that’s fine, since the action is a bit too slo-mo heavy anyway. The tone is enough for this movie, if only they did something truly interesting with the visuals. I would have loved to see what they would have done if they needed to use a practical set for Hell.

The surprisingly strong cast makes up for the uninspired visuals and action. Reeves may not look like his comic book counterpart, but he’s comfortable playing a sarcastic prick. Weisz is good, as usual. Shia LaBeouf is only mildly annoying in a sidekick role that is identical to his role in I, Robot, but it makes no sense for him to be in this movie when the source character is an adult who is more equal than sidekick. They should have left the character out entirely, and for a large chunk of the movie, they do just that. Djimon Hounsou is perfectly cast as Midnite, but like Tilda Swinton, Peter Stormare, and yes, Gavin Rossdale, he isn’t given enough to do.

That’s my biggest problem with this movie this time around. It seemed like all of these characters had much more to do but got cut down to keep it at two hours. Rossdale, in particular, seems like an afterthought. He turns out to be responsible for the deaths of two of Constantine’s allies, but he has all of two minutes of screen time. I wonder if he was just that bad at acting or if it was to save time. His performance didn’t seem bad. He tends to menacingly whisper more than speak, but he definitely conveyed a demonic smarminess, which, I believe, was the goal.

The supporting roles ended up feeling more like cameos, but I wanted to spend much more time with all of those characters. I didn’t bother watching the deleted scenes on my “deluxe edition” DVD because I can only justify devoting so much time to this movie, but I can only assume these characters had at least one more scene each. If not, they should have.

Speaking of devoting too much time, I’ll wrap this up. Don’t worry, I’ll still do my signature rambling random thoughts for this movie, but I’m going to go back to making that a section I add at the end. I like Constantine, but I don’t know why I bought this. I literally only watched it again because of that YouTube video and because of an impending Bush concert, and I will likely never watch it again. I would sell it, but who would buy it, especially since I lost the mini-Hellblazer comic book that came with it? Oh well, at least I know now that it belongs in my comic book section, not the sci-fi section.

Random Thoughts

“It’s not always like it is in the books.” Keanu says this about halfway through, and I think it is only there for fans in anticipation of the bitching about how he doesn’t look like the comic book character.

There’s a great bit of product placement when Constantine looks at a Chevy billboard soon after getting a cancer diagnosis. The ad reads: “Time is running buy a new Chevy.” First, I wonder if Chevy knew this was going to be the placement and were on board with it. Second, I appreciate product placement that doesn’t hide. Ads exist in the real world; what’s wrong with a character looking at one? That seems more natural than Constantine clearly getting into a Chevy multiple times.

Definitely only own this because it was during my “must buy one DVD a week” phase.

DVD extras really hammer on why Keanu doesn’t look like Constantine. “It just didn’t look right…” What they mean is, “he wouldn’t look enough like Neo.”

Yes, I watched some DVD extras, but I just couldn’t bring myself to watch the promised 18 minutes of deleted scenes.

Producer Laura Schuler Donner claims this was in the pipeline even before the first X-Men (even though this came out five years later) as evidence that they were committed to the story. But I think this movie only exists because of The Matrix.

Richard Corliss compares this to Blade Runner in a blurb on the box! What?!

Had no idea this was Francis Lawrence’s first film. Honestly, it’s quite impressive, both that he was given such a big first film and the overall style of a first-time filmmaker. And I actually think the CG is better in this film than in I Am Legend.

Peter Stormare might be the most interesting version of the devil I’ve ever seen.

Gavin Rossdale’s half-melted face legitimately disgusted me.

I kind of crapped on the film’s CG and whatnot, but there are a couple cool moments. I liked when Constantine chased Rachel Weisz through the building. And bits here and there (grabbing the hospital bracelet as dozens of demons grab him, shining a light to drive off a horde of demons, kicking a crab directly into the camera [seriously, I like that for some reason]) were decent.

Kicking a crab is a good place to stop. Next week: The William Friedkin PTSD Trilogy - Rules of Engagement, The Hunted, and Bug.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Why I Like "Weird" Movies

In my last article about NewsRadio and TV series in general, I pointed out that I liked that show so much because it was a relaxing watch. I could watch episodes out of sequence or even not pay attention to them at all and still enjoy it. I wouldn’t call the show junk food, but it’s not something I feel the need to focus 100% on. There are plenty of films I feel the same way about (and will certainly write about plenty of them on this site in the future), but for the most part, my favorite films are the ones that require focused viewing. Often, a film that needs you to pay attention to it is called “weird.” The movies I’m going to discuss aren’t exactly weird in the traditional sense (but weird is subjective, so technically, everything can be weird), but have been labeled as such because they aren’t easily digestible.

It feels a little hypocritical to write about NewsRadio and praise it because I don’t have to pay attention to it, and then turn around and write about how my favorite movies are the ones you have to focus on. It all comes down to the location of your viewing, though. TV is...TV. You usually watch it in a distracting setting: your home. When I watch TV, it’s rarely the only thing going on. I’m hanging out with my wife, watching my daughter, doing dishes, cooking, doing laundry, checking e-mail, etc. In other words, all kinds of things are going on that keep me from focusing on the show I’m watching. Hence, my favorite show is one that allows for distractions. With movies, the intended viewing location is a dark theater that prohibits (or at least attempts to) talking and cell phones. In other words, films are made to be seen on a giant screen with no distractions.

Of course, I watch movies much more often at home than in the theater, so I love plenty of junk food movies. But my favorites are the ones I saw in the theater that rewarded my attention. The best compliment I can pay a film is that it held my complete attention even though I watched it at home.

I believe this love of complex films that require focused watching leads people to think film critics/buffs are snobs who don’t like “normal” movies. But when you watch movies every day, either for fun or work or both, you tend to appreciate the more nuanced offerings. To continue the food analogy of junk food, think about eating in general. If you eat the same thing every day, you’ll be fine with it, but never impressed. But if you get a new meal, even if it’s worse than what you usually get, you’ll appreciate it just for being different. That doesn’t mean a movie is automatically good because it’s odd; it just means it’s more interesting. And when you watch movies every day, interesting is pretty damn important.

Maybe movies aren’t your thing (just like some people don’t care that much about food), and watching any movie is entertaining because it’s a rare activity. That’s fine, but just realize that critics and dorks like me are going to roll our eyes if you think the latest Transformers was awesome and you don’t even know who Paul Thomas Anderson is. Now that I look at that sentence, I realize that it is a bit snobby, but so be it. The “weird” films are simply better because they move the medium beyond entertainment into the art realm.

Before I get into a few examples, I want to focus a bit more on what weird means to me. Weird is anything that is not predictable. It’s anything that aims to be different. The movies I love that I call weird are not really all that weird. These movies are all popular among most movie buffs and critics. They are also films that are fairly easily explained if you pay close attention. I am aware that there are truly weird films out there that are meant to be more poetry than film. I don’t like movies like that. I need my weird to be entertaining, and, more importantly, I need my weird to be able to be deciphered in a slightly definitive way. That said, here are the “weird” movies and filmmakers that immediately come to mind.

Darren Aronofsky is the first filmmaker to come to mind for a couple of reasons. First, in a recent interview on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, Aronofsky flat out said he makes “weird” movies. Second, mother! is a recent film that many have deemed too weird because it received an infamous F Cinemascore from audiences. I loved it, of course, because it’s the perfect type of weird for me. On its surface, it is weird. It’s a film that was marketed as romantic thriller (I guess?) but ended up being a completely allegorical film about the environment, artists, humanity in general, etc. Anything that is completely allegorical is going to be a bit weird, since allegory typically requires exaggeration to fit whatever actual point the filmmaker is trying to make. What makes mother! stand out to me along with a few other films (such as Drive, Bug, The Cabin in the Woods, or Spring Breakers) is that people wouldn’t be disappointed with these films if they hadn’t been lied to by the trailers. Of course mother! is weird if you go in thinking it’s just another Jennifer Lawrence movie when, in fact, you’re about to see a Darren Aronofsky film.

I watched mother! completely expecting it to get increasingly insane because I knew Aronofsky wrote and directed it. It’s not that he doesn’t make “normal” movies (The Wrestler is a very straightforward film); it’s that his films are so varied that you know he’s not going to repeat himself. In other words, he’s going to make something interesting. I sat in that theater expecting a puzzle, so I focused on every detail possible. This might seem like homework to some, but this is how I wish I could watch every movie. This is why the theater is such an important part of the process. I’ve watched mother! at home and still enjoyed it, but nothing compares to that viewing in the theater. Before I move on, I just wanted to point out that my favorite Aronofsky film (and his weirdest, in my opinion) is The Fountain.

Next up is Yorgos Lanthimos, writer and director of two of my favorite films in recent years: The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer (I also loved Dogtooth). Lanthimos makes different movies, but his style makes them weird. His characters deliver some of the most absurd and childishly direct dialogue in such a deadpan manner I can’t help but laugh. And I think that is his intended effect. I consider his films to be comedies despite their disturbing nature. Comedy and oddness go hand in hand since they are both so subjective.

Comedy brings me to another favorite filmmaker of mine: Paul Thomas Anderson. An argument can be made that most, if not all, of Anderson’s films are comedies, despite the super serious appearance of most of them. It’s no stretch to consider Boogie Nights or Punch Drunk Love comedies, but you wouldn’t initially think There Will Be Blood, Phantom Thread, or The Master are comedies. But I think they are. They are weird comedies, sure, but they are comedies. Watch the jail scene in The Master and tell me that’s not meant to be funny. Every scene that takes place in Eli Sunday’s church in There Will Be Blood is absolutely meant to be funny. And I consider Phantom Thread to a warped romantic comedy, which is to say it’s my all-time favorite romantic comedy.

Before I move on to my last filmmaker, I have to bring up David Lynch. While I love Blue Velvet and like Lost Highway, for the most part I am not a big fan of Lynch. But you can’t bring up weird filmmakers without discussing him. I suppose I’m not as big of a fan because some of his work is so impenetrable, or at least, I just don’t get it (Inland Empire was just a waste of my time). But he has his fans. I’m just not one of them.

The all-time weird filmmaker for me is Stanley Kubrick. As I’ve been writing the entire article, his films aren’t really that weird. Kubrick just has a style and a way of telling a story that usually requires close attention. Also, his films are largely open to interpretation. Eyes Wide Shut is among my favorites for this very reason. I have different thoughts about that movie every time I watch it (and I watch it at least once a who’s the real weirdo, right?). Maybe that’s because I’m a slightly different person each time, but I like to think that it’s more about what a talented and interesting filmmaker Kubrick was that he was able to create a film that could seemingly evolve with each viewing.

I’ll finish with what has become a bit of a trademark for these articles: a rambling paragraph followed by a short summation. This rambling paragraph will cover other filmmakers or films that I love and are considered weird, but for whatever reason, didn’t come to mind at first when I planned this article. All of these could have easily been included in the article in much more detail. Nicolas Winding Refn. Martin Scorsese, especially his recent Silence. Werner Herzog, especially his work with Kinski (which I eventually plan on devoting an entire article to), but also my favorites: Bad Lieutenant and My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done. Denis Villeneuve, even though his films have become increasingly popular, I think he’s retained his weirdness. Walker with Ed Harris. Terrence Malick, though I do not care for his post-Tree of Life work. Titus. Southland Tales. The Box. A Scanner Darkly. Synecdoche, New York. A Serious Man. The Coens in general. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Ravenous. I’ll stop now, but just know that there are countless examples, and I’ll never be able to think of them all, and I most certainly left off something or someone so obvious that I will be tempted to return to this article and add it (I’ll let you know if I did that here - I added Fear and Loathing and Ravenous after scanning my collection one last time).

As I stated above, none of these films or filmmakers are actually all that weird. They just demand attention, and they reward that attention. Unfortunately, that means they are “weird.” But I’ve always liked weird. And with so many ways to get a film made today, the weirdness will never stop, and I’ll never stop seeking this weird shit out.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

"NewsRadio" - Or Any TV Series, Really.

As I look through my collection, there is one large section I (mostly) regret: full seasons of TV shows. This article is going to be about one series that I actually bought twice: NewsRadio. But it could have been about any number of shows, such as Battlestar Galactica, Family Guy (the first six seasons), Futurama, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Deadwood, Game of Thrones, Space Ghost, Sealab 2021, Arrested Development, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Kings (Remember that show? It ran for one season on NBC, and I bought it. Why?!), etc. It’s not that I’m embarrassed that I own any of these shows (well...Kings), it’s just that it’s largely pointless in the age of streaming. I rarely buy seasons of shows now (aside from Rick and Morty, and I bought the first season of True Detective when I found it for $6), but 10+ years ago, the main way to rewatch your favorite shows was on DVD. Now, though, it seems silly to deal with all of those discs when you can just get on Netflix, Amazon, HBOGO, on demand, Hulu, etc. and binge-watch a show.

There are exceptions to this, and NewsRadio is one of them. I’m not sure why, but I’ve only ever seen NewsRadio available for cheap/free streaming on Crackle, and even then it was only select episodes. NewsRadio is my favorite TV show of all time. I watch the series in its entirety at least once a year. I needed to buy the complete series again because some of the discs I originally owned were too scratched to watch (I could buy the series digitally on Amazon, but it would end up costing nearly $70 while the DVD of the complete series is just over $20 right now). I’ll try to explain why I love this show so much in the following paragraphs, but I want to point out a couple more reasons to still own a TV show.

With NewsRadio, I have to own it if I want to watch it at all. With a show like Rick and Morty, I want to own it so I can watch it unedited. I find the show more enjoyable when I can actually hear all the cussing. With True Detective, I wanted to watch the bonus features, plus I may not always have HBO, so it’s nice to have a backup plan.

In general, it seems weirder to own a season of TV than a single movie. A movie is a minor commitment. A TV show, especially a network show with 20+ episode seasons, takes time. And time is something that is in short supply when you get older and have kids. So why do I make that major commitment to a show like NewsRadio even now? For one thing, I’m nostalgic for that period: the 90s. I was ten years old when the show debuted, and I was just discovering sarcasm, which is the main character’s primary form of communication. It was, and still is, a very smart show. But more than anything, and like any other great show, the characters were well developed and seemed like real people by the end of the show. Star Phil Hartman’s death before the final season made this even more evident as the characters mourned him in the first episode afterward, and it truly felt like a memorial both for the actor and the character he portrayed. NewsRadio was like The Office if it had been less sentimental, less serialized, and made in the 90s.

The Office is a good comparison for another reason: I love it but also consider it disposable entertainment. That’s what I usually look for in a series that I re-watch. If I’m rewatching NewsRadio or The Office, it’s while I’m doing something else. I can do dishes, laundry, cook, write, browse the internet, etc. while an episode plays, and if I happen to have not paid attention to a single second or an entire episode, no big deal. Whereas if I’m rewatching something like Battlestar Galactica (which I’m in the middle of on Amazon Prime right now), even though I’ve seen it before, I feel compelled to pay attention to every moment. That’s a testament to the quality of the show, but it’s not exactly relaxing. NewsRadio is my all time favorite relaxation show.

The show so nice, I bought it twice.

It truly is the cast that does it. Dave Foley, Phil Hartman, Maura Tierney, Vicki Lewis, Khandi Alexander, Andy Dick, Stephen Root, and Joe Rogan became so comfortable in their characters that it was just nice to sit back and watch them play off each other. Like most workplace comedies, it’s nice to sit back and feel like you’re watching them all hang out.

When the show first aired, it was my first experience with edgy television. Sure, by today’s standards NewsRadio is incredibly tame, especially since it has a laugh track. But for the time, it had a bit of edge I had never seen before. Also, the creators were pretty rebellious about the typical gimmicks expected of such a show. The will-they/won’t-they plot between Foley and Tierney was immediately addressed rather than drug out for seasons. Sure, they used their relationship for plot lines throughout the series, but at least it wasn’t a Ross-Rachel/Jim-Pam thing. And when the network wanted a tie-in story to go with Four Weddings and a Funeral, they wrote an episode about a rat funeral. The crazier episodes were great, as well. There were a few hallucinatory episodes like when everyone has a crazy memory of why Catherine left or when they were all losing it because of a heat wave. But they also had in episode that took place in outer space, and there was an episode that took place on the Titanic.

But it all comes back to the cast, and for me, the force behind the show was Phil Hartman. He was already, and still is, my favorite cast member from SNL, but NewsRadio solidified how hilarious he truly was. His typical persona on the show was an overconfident prima donna, but it was when he flew into a rage that cracked me up the most. His outburst at Andy Dick during the smoking episode it easily my favorite moment from the series.

Of course the show suffered after Hartman’s death, but season five isn’t as bad as many remember it. Sure, Jon Lovitz’s character is annoying (what Lovitz character isn’t?), but there are some great episodes from that season, my favorites being the one with Smatthew (Smart Matthew) and “Stinkbutt” (a phrase I use nearly daily...don’t judge me). Also, the creators had a feeling that season five would be the last (this was actually a yearly concern for them), and they went for broke with the wackiness. Aside from the aforementioned episodes, there was also an arc that revealed Stephen Root’s character was possibly (probably) D.B. Cooper. This is even crazier when you take into account that it was revealed in a previous season that he was also Deep Throat.

It’s impossible to fully convey just why this show speaks to me so much, but I will finish up by listing in no coherent order my favorite moments and lines from the show as they occur to me with no context whatsoever. “Gizzizah, my dilsnoofus!” “Rocket Fuel Malt Liquor, DAMN!” The fact that Bill’s real first name is Evelyn (which is also my daughter’s name, which I now think was a subconscious choice, on my part). “If what you’re saying is true, then I still don’t care.” Jimmy James: Macho Business Donkey Wrestler. “So just zip your sniveling lip and HAUL YOUR SKINNY ASS OUT OF HERE!” Stinkbutt. Goofy Ball. Matthew’s moustache. Toby Huss and Tone Loc as the guards. Bill’s hatred of midwestern niceness. Bill’s increasingly disturbing childhood, including crunchy sandwiches and doughnuts. “All my sweet bitches hard at work.” Okay, I need to stop this, but I could seriously go on for another five hundred words or so, but I’ll finish with the line that hooked me when I was a kid: “You’ve got more paranoid fantasies than Stephen King on crack!”

I think everyone has a show like this that they love. Mine just happens to be Newsradio. As for buying entire seasons of shows, maybe I'm wrong. Streaming is convenient right now, but it looks like every network or production company is wanting to start their own service, so maybe one day DVDs will be the easiest and cheapest way to watch a show again. I'm probably wrong and most of my collection will likely collect dust until I throw it out in the distant future. But I'll always hang on to my NewsRadio DVDs.