Boston, Hollywood: A Make-Believe City that Turns Good Men into Proud Criminals

mystic river

“New York City was basically a character in the movie!” This is something you may have heard actors, directors, or anyone else involved in a movie taking place in NYC, say during its promotional tour. It’s annoying. It’s a cliché. It hardly means anything. Yet we know what they mean when they say it: this movie takes place in New York and has that kind of classic “New York” feel to it. The buildings! The people! The taxis! The (ugh) energy! All of these tropes have been played out time and time again, but they seem to keep working on people because it fits the image that New York City has purported onto society. Los Angeles has done the same thing with their own image: if New York is the cool, grounded city, where regular folks are grinding away to “make it,” then LA is the glamourous city with ritzy parties, populated by movie stars and producers, and fancy premiers, where the champagne never stops flowing.

By all accounts, both of these cities are normal-ass places to live. There are rich people, there are poor people; there are people who love it and people who hate it; there are people who live there because there are lots of jobs and there are people who are obnoxiously proud of living there or having been raised there. The fabricated images we have of these cities mostly comes from how they’ve been portrayed in movies and television and act as an idealized version of themselves, filled with meaningless platitudes about what it means to live there: “Come to New York! If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere!”

It makes sense that a city would want to project an idealized fantasy of what life there is like, so that its residents can feel good about being from a “cool” city where all the “cool” people live, when in reality, they’re just places people live; nothing more, nothing less. All this is to say that these two cities aren’t even the most grating when it comes to portraying a falsified image of what life is like in your city. The city whose popular media image induces the hardest eye-rolls goes, without a doubt, to Boston.

By all accounts, Boston is no different from any other city in America. It too has poor neighborhoods, rich neighborhoods, plenty of normal people going about their day, some crime issues and much more. Just a whole bunch of stuff you would find anywhere else. But instead of opting for the more conventional image of “look how great this city is” that NYC and LA bludgeon the world with, Boston seems to have leaned its image into the idea that it’s a dangerous place to live, full of crime and that only the hardened natives of the city could ever handle a place like that.

It’s a bizarre act of self-mythologizing that seems to have mostly worked on the public through popular media. When people think of tough, dangerous, crime-ridden cities, they probably think of Detroit or Oakland, but also often include Boston, based on what they’ve learned from extremely popular movies like “The Town,” “Mystic River,” “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Departed.” In reality, Boston doesn’t even rank in most top ten lists of the most dangerous cities in America, based on the number of violent crimes per 100,000 residents.

So if Boston isn’t actually all that dangerous (at least not more so than most other cities), then why are the films that take place there (often written, directed or starring Boston natives) so hellbent on making the world think it’s an unpleasant place to live? Even the movies that aren’t focused on violent crime, still linger on a general ambiance of morosity, like the broken-family tropes and drug addiction scenes in “The Fighter,” the brooding, working-class elements of “Good Will Hunting,” and just the overwhelming and unrelenting sadness of “Manchester By The Sea.” For every “Fever Pitch” or “Ted,” there are five movies about Whitey Bulger, the mob or crooked cops.

What we seem to have here is an entire city experiencing a major bout of Napoleon Complex. Boston seems to think, for some reason, that it’s some kind of societal underdog and that many people don’t think of Boston as a “cool” place to live or visit on the same level as New York, LA or even Chicago, it has instead decided to pretend it’s proud to be less cool, and that not just anybody could handle living on its mean streets, full of criminals and honest-working tough guys who work with their hands. “Whatevah, you little sissies from LA could nevah handle these streets anyway. Why don’t you go back to your fahkin’ juice shops and your vegan restaurants while we pave our streets with our bare hands in the dead of wintah without any coats on. Fahk you.”

The opening text in Ben Affleck’s “The Town” (which is, by all means, a great, thrilling crime movie) actually quotes an anonymous man saying:

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This is the exact kind of self-mythologizing that Boston filmmakers seem to salivate over: this idea that their city is a terrible place to live, but also that its residents are proud of how awful it is there. “The Town” actually refers to Charlestown as the “bank robbery capital” of America, a superlative that has been heavily contested by its own residents.

So perhaps this isn’t the city of Boston with Napoleon Complex. Perhaps it’s actually the quiet self-mythologizing desires of a group of actors, directors, writers and producers from Boston that want to heavily imply how tough and street smart they are because of their Boston upbringing, without ever having to actually prove it. Matt Damon wrote “Good Will Hunting” about a genius boy from the wrong side of the tracks in Boston and despite actually being raised in Cambridge, MA, he probably wouldn’t mind if you just assumed he actually was a tough guy from a poor neighborhood in Beantown like his titular character.

I would never claim I’ve spent lots of time in Boston but I can tell you from the several visits I have taken there, that the city I’ve experienced could not be any more different from the city I see over and over again in movies. That’s not to say that my limited time spent there has allowed me to gather the “full” Boston experience but when someone visits New York or LA, even once, they’re bound to feel at least a few real-life traces of the fantasy that those cities project in popular culture.

If it were just one or two or even three movies that have visualized Boston in such a bleak palette, it wouldn’t be something worth noticing but when at least 15 mainstream films in the last 25 years have all made a specific point to see it as such, one can’t help but scratch their head and ask why. Of course there are stories that merit this kind of tone, such as real-life events like “Spotlight” and “Patriots Day,” but why does a fictional, crime thriller like “The Equalizer” and it’s even grittier sequel need to take place in Boston, especially when it’s based on an 80’s TV show that took place in New York City? Why make the specific choice to move it to Boston? One practical reason could be that it’s cheaper to film in Boston than New York and while that’s true, they also could have chosen any other city in America. Why can’t “The Equalizer” kill faceless thugs with a nail gun in Minneapolis? The reason is likely that there is an unspoken, yet generally accepted understanding that Boston is filled with crime and that it’s easy to swallow the idea that Denzel Washington needs to pulverize every generically evil person living there.

There’s a chance that it wasn’t always destined to be this way. Perhaps after the unexpected, smashing success of “Good Will Hunting” in the late 90’s, Hollywood immediately started looking into more scripts about crime and poverty in the Boston area; if it worked once, why wouldn’t it work again? If audiences kept lining up to see these movies and they kept getting showered with awards each year, why would they stop making them?


Academy Awards Given to Recent “Boston” Movies

Good Will Hunting – Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor
Mystic River – Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor
The Departed – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Adapted Screenplay
The Fighter – Best Supporting Actress, Best Supporting Actor
Spotlight – Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay
Manchester By The Sea – Best Actor, Best Original Screenplay


The issue for me always comes back to the general attitude of the Bostonians. Taking a look at a bloated movie like “Live By Night,” about Prohibition-era Boston, director and star, Ben Affleck, plays Joe Coughlin, a character who can only be described as “a badass war vet, who wears dope clothes, and doesn’t mind killing people in his way.” As you can guess, Coughlin gets caught up in the gritty, yet badass world of illegally distributing alcohol, even though his father is a POLICE CAPTAIN. It really just screams like the most ideal character a Boston actor would want to play: a badass dude who finds himself deep in the world of crime. It makes sense that Affleck would salivate over a role like that… hey let’s check to see who wrote the screenplay and dreamed up such a perfect Boston character: Ben Affleck.

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A perfect example of when someone comes up with a movie poster and then tries to build an actual movie around it.

As if that couldn’t be more on the nose for how Bostonians seem to idealize themselves and how tough their city is but how damn proud they are of that fact, the opening monologue delivered by Casey Affleck in “Gone Baby Gone,” a movie about a kidnapping in one of Boston’s poorest neighborhoods, literally just spells it out for the viewers, just so that there are no misunderstandings:

I always believed it was the things you don’t choose who make you who you are. Your city, your neighborhood, your family. People here take pride in those things, like it was something they’d accomplished. The bodies around their souls, the cities wrapped around those. I lived on this block my whole life. Most of these people have. When your job is to find people who are missing, it helps to know where they started. I find the people who started in the cracks and then fell through. This city can be hard. When I was young I asked my priest, how can you get to Heaven and still protect yourself from all the evil in the world. He told me what God said to His children, “You are sheep among wolves. Be wise as serpents, yet innocent as doves.”

Cutting through the gelastic pretention of that monologue, you’re essentially left with the same thesis of “people from Boston are cool and proud because this city is hard to live in. Fahk you; you just don’t understand.”

Maybe this just all seems like a fantasy that’s been carried out by Ben Affleck with some help from his brother, Casey and old pal, Damon, but the attitude has been purported in plenty of other popular films as well. Perhaps all of this traces back to the obsession over “Whitey” Bulger and his crime ring in the south of Boston. His Irish mob was put on screen in attempted detail in Scott Cooper’s “Black Mass” (a movie that wants to glorify him so badly without being accused of doing so that it essentially just kind of whispers to the audience, “pretty cool dude, huh?”) and more famously in a highly fictionalized version in Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed.”

Even thinking about “The Departed” makes me a little uneasy, and not just because I can visualize frat boys still going nuts over the opening riff of the Dropkick Murphys’ “Shipping Up to Boston” in 2019, but because this movie is likely the biggest perpetrator of Hollywood pushing the false narrative that Boston is, above all else, a tough-as-nails place to live. Where movies like “Good Will Hunting,” “The Town,” “Gone Baby Gone,” or “The Fighter,” attempt to approach the gritty Boston ambiance with some nuance (and they’re all better movies for it), “The Departed” uses it as its cool selling point; an entire movie that centers around the idea that you should watch it because it’s “cool,” and it’s “cool” because it’s about crime in Boston.

While “The Departed” could have taken some time to apply some realism to the situation it placed itself in or even go a step further and try to deconstruct the myth, it instead turns Boston into a crime-fantasy theme park, where it’s common for people in bars to horrifically maim each other over nothing, police officers to beat the shit out of each other on a regular basis and half a dozen people can murder each other without there being any real follow-up from law enforcement, because hey… that’s just Boston for ya. There is literally a full scene in this movie where Leonardo DiCaprio’s character cuts up someone’s face with a coat rack for a few minutes and it hardly matters at all. Jack Nicholson’s cringeworthy opening monologue essentially states that the only life choices for the citizens of Boston to make are whether to be a cop or a criminal…

This movie went on to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. It’s stunning to see such a glaringly pulpy final product masquerading as something of grand intellect from one of cinema’s most celebrated directors, but I suppose the conversation surrounding Scorsese’s loss of nuance over the years, causing his movies to celebrate the thing they set out to critique, is a conversation for another day. The point is that millions of people saw it, then saw that it was rewarded by the Academy as a stunning achievement in filmmaking and saw that it was also embraced by the city of Boston, thus solidifying the city’s false narrative.

It’s not that these are necessarily bad movies either. Quite a few of them are really good (“The Departed” is not)! There just doesn’t seem to be any discernable reason for Boston to portray itself in Hollywood as the ‘edgy city that you could never understand unless you were born and raised there,’ other than a bad case of middle child syndrome. If places like LA, NYC, NOLA, SF and Austin are going to be so sought after by the masses then just pretend like you never even wanted people to like you; just act like people can’t handle how hardcore you are.

The thing is, people love Boston! For some reason though, if they can’t be #1 then they don’t even want to play. It’s a strange inferiority complex, as if the city is looking at the rest of the country with the stink-eye, saying “what you think you’re bettah than me? Fahk you.” Instead of boasting about everything the city has going in its favor, it has instead chosen to build a false mythology of crime, crooked cops, unending self-loathing and pain.

But has it? Perhaps it’s just the fantasy of a few Hollywood folks from the Boston area… we outsiders may never know for sure. This isn’t a condemnation of these movies; “The Town,” “Gone Baby Gone,” and “The Fighter” are all A+ movies, but why must people (no matter where they’re from) pretend that there is something the rest of the world just doesn’t know about where they come from?

Every town, city and neighborhood in the world has its unique problems, quirks and issues but when you constantly insist that one of them defines the area when it doesn’t at all… it just feel disingenuous.

Movies viewed as research for this post:

The Fighter
The Departed
Gone Baby Gone
Ted
Ted 2
The Town
Good Will Hunting
Spotlight
The Heat
Shutter Island
Black Mass
Patriots Day
Fever Pitch
Live By Night
Stronger
The Equalizer
The Equalizer 2
Manchester By The Sea
Mystic River
Last Flag Flying
The Social Network

Good Will Hunting: Watching a “Classic” for the First time, 2 Decades Late

 

matt damon and ben afflect in Good Will Hunting

I recently had some time off of work and wanted to see if I could fill in a few of my cinematic gaps. Everyone has some gaps: one of those movies that has been deemed a “classic” that everyone but you has seen and you get shamed as soon as you admit that you haven’t seen it, even though they probably have gaps of their own that they aren’t admitting to.

Anyway… one of these gaps for me had always been “Good Will Hunting.” I’ve had ample opportunities to watch it in the past, but I just never had the urge to. I felt like I’d seen it already from the onslaught of references to it that are dropped in casual conversation. In fact, hearing people drop “my boy’s wicked smaaahhhht” into conversation every time someone says something marginally coherent probably deterred me from watching this movie more than anything else for all these years.

I knew the gist of the story: a genius boy would rather hang out with his bonehead Boston friends than help change the world so now he has to go to therapy in order to squeeze out some emotional scenes that could land him an Oscar nomination. Cool. I get it.

So now that I’ve actually seen it, did it work? Is it harder for a movie to win you over if you’ve been told for 21 years that it’s one of the greatest of all time?

The answer is simple: I thought it was okay.

Yeah, being told this movie is incredible for two decades did not do it any favors. Part of the reason it became so iconic right off the bat in 1997 is because it took everyone by surprise. A pair of fresh faces in Damon and Affleck, Boston movies not really being a “thing” yet and the emergence of the Mirimax machine all came together to deliver a whallop on audiences that they never knew they wanted. If this movie comes out in 2018, it makes a few million at the box office and becomes just another Oscar-bait, feel-good movie that gets nominated for a couple awards and then is never thought about again but because it came out of nowhere in ’97, before movies of this ilk had taken over, it became a smash hit, made stars out of Damon and Affleck and snagged Robin Williams an Oscar.

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“Dude we fahkin’ made it in Hollywood!”

Here’s the thing though, watching it for the first time now, isn’t as impressive. It’s great that this movie gave us Damon and Affleck and they should be immensely proud of what they’ve accomplished but looking at this without nostalgically-tinted sunglasses, this is pretty run-of-the-mill Mirimax fare. It’s easy to get caught up and identify with Will Hunting because deep down, we’d all like to believe that we have some super special talent that separates us from everyone else (when in reality we don’t). I think people get a little self serving and believe themselves to be intelligent for watching and appreciating this movie which is crammed full of scientific jargon when in reality those are script flourishes and what we are really watching is a pretty standard melodrama about a tough-guy, boy-genius, and his sensitive therapist.

A little more nuance would have been nice. We get it, Will Hunting could have any incredible job in the world but doesn’t want one. How do they communicate that he’d rather just be a nobody from Southie? He literally works as part of a fucking demolition crew. “I don’t wanna wear a suit and crunch numbahs all day with a bunch of fahkin’ nerds. I just wanna break things with my fahkin’ hammah and drink beers with my buddies.”

Faulting the script of first-time writers kinda feels like a cheap move and it is, but couldn’t someone they worked with pause and tell them that some of it might be a little on the nose?

The movie mostly hinges on the scenes between Damon and Williams and some with Damon and Minnie Driver. The therapy scenes are fine for being as predictable as they are, “hah, dude if you think I’m gonna open up to you, you’re fahkin’ dreaming.” [10 scenes later] “Holy shit, doc. You tricked me into opening up to you and made me fahkin’ cry. You know what? You’re all right, you little fahka.”

His scenes with Driver are promising, if not a little underdeveloped. They either need to devote a little more time to their relationship or scrap the whole thing and just let this movie be the sausage fest that it’s trying so hard to pretend not to be. She’s good though! She deserved a better career! Someone get Minnie Driver back in the game!

If there’s one aspect of this movie that truly worked like a charm, it’s my man Ben Affleck. Affleck sweeps through this movie with total ease. The man is a movie star. He just is, he always was and he always will be. Obviously he can play a bonehead Bostonian in his sleep but he’s just got that Affleck charm that works so well. The scene where he shouts “RETAINER” at the corporate suits might have been the only time in the whole movie where I actually reacted out loud. And his famous “everyday, I come up to your doorstep and hope you’re not there…” blah blah blah scene is actually really good! I was so worried about it the whole movie because I loved him the whole time and I knew it was coming and thus far, none of the “classic” scenes had worked on me the way I wanted them to yet, but then, BAM, Affleck rocked me right in the face. He doesn’t ham it up, he just stands there and fahkin’ tells it like it is, very understated. What could have very easily been some eyeroll-inducing, actor-y monologue that only ended up in the script because Affleck was like “hey, I need a scene where I get to act too,” was actually the most nuanced scene in the whole movie.

The problem is that the movie doesn’t really have much to say. It feels a little bit like Damon just wishes he was this boy-genius so dreamed up this movie where he got to be one. But do we learn anything from all this? What’s the message? Life is all about finding an equitable balance between going on dates, breaking things with your sledgehammer and doing your genius research? What do you want from me Damon? I don’t think you want anything from me. I think you just want me to think of you as a cool guy who is just like Will Hunting.

So is the movie an incredible watch if you’re viewing it for the first time over two decades later? No, not really. It’s pretty good. I totally see why it made the splash that it did and I’m glad we got Damon & Affleck from it; still bummed we didn’t get more of Driver after it though (but some of that may be tangled up in the gross Harvey Weinstein spiderweb of it all). The movie does work as a whole but when you already have a sense of what you’re gonna get from it, it’s hard to be truly “wowed” by the material. None of this is the actual movie’s fault though.

In the end, I just want to see more of Ben Affleck doing goofy, bonehead Ben Affleck things while maintaining a heart of gold.

The Dark Knight Rises is the Best Christopher Nolan Batman Movie (This is not a Hyperbolic Hot-Take; This is the Truth)

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I’ll be completely honest, I was never all that into Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. I thought the movies were fine and wholly entertaining, but it always bothered me that the greatest modern film director was spending so many of his prime years making Batman movies.

After Inception came out, I was so jazzed on Nolan, I didn’t know what to do with myself. Inception was the work of someone who had a very specific passion (dreams) since they were a child and spent decades making it happen. Do you know how often “passion projects” end up being a director’s shittiest work? For every Inception or Almost Famous, we have to put up with an endless lineup of dumpster fires like This is 40, Aloha, Super 8, After Earth and so on. But Inception worked so well; I thought Christopher Nolan could do anything (and based on what you think of Interstellar [it’s great] he either can or can’t but that’s a discussion for another time.)

Unfortunately, I became completely deflated when I found out he was doing yet another Batman movie to follow up Inception. So two years went by and I saw The Dark Knight Rises. Once again, I was definitely entertained from start to finish but wasn’t blown away like I was with Inception. But back then, after I first saw it, on the car ride home with my friends, who were complaining about the ridiculous issues they had with the movie, I thought to myself, “I think that was pretty good…”

The Dark Knight Rises has been plagued over the years by fanboys breaking down every single small element of the movie that might not make sense: “How did Bruce Wayne get back to Gotham after escaping the pit??” “How can there be a program that deletes your entire electronic history??” “How would Bane know his entire convoluted plan would go off without a hitch??”

Seriously? The fanboys who worshiped the previous movie about a man who dresses up as a bat, and fights a criminal wearing clown makeup, suddenly have issues about the minutiae of the plot?

The Dark Knight Rises is a massive movie and constantly has five or six story mechanics churning all at once. If anyone can handle this, it’s Christopher Nolan, and while detractors of the movie say he didn’t, he did. He absolutely fucking did.

I re-watched this movie twice in the last few years and it blows me away with every line. I couldn’t believe how important re-watching it was. It is easier to wrap your head around Inception on a first viewing than it is to wrap it around The Dark Knight Rises on the first bout. Every single line, for the first two thirds of the movie, are absolutely essential to what happens later on; everything that is said, is said for a reason and is setting up something to come later. It honestly can be a little exhausting at times. My girlfriend (yeah, I have a girlfriend AND write about Batman; we live in a paradoxical time), stopped the movie about 12 times to regroup and ask me what was going on and why people were saying what they were saying (does it count as mansplaining if she asked me to do it?).

Because of all this, the plot is obviously very convoluted, but damn if it doesn’t work so well. This movie is patient as hell. I’m sure the studio had issues with the fact that viewers don’t even see Batman in the suit until about 40 minutes into the story but the fact that Nolan fought for that, is a testament to his storytelling prowess. When Batman finally shows up on his motorcycle, flies his Bat-Airplane and beats the shit out of faceless goons with Catwoman, you can’t help but accept that it was all worth the wait.

What works so well about this movie is that we had not yet seen Batman be challenged physically. Batman Begins brought him face-to-face with fear. The Dark Knight introduced chaos that would test his morality. But The Dark Knight Rises makes him reconcile with the idea that there will always be someone out there who is stronger than him; someone who can break him. Bane is easily the best villain in this trilogy. Not only does he have the smarts to take down Gotham and Batman, but he also has the muscle to do it without breaking a sweat.

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This is a perfect opportunity to talk about the scene. You know the scene. Bruce prematurely goes into the sewers to stop Bane before his plan can progress any further. Bruce gave up being Batman for years but knowing that he never came across a thug he couldn’t pulverize, he figures Bane will be no different. When he challenges Bane, he comes to the unfortunate realization that Alfred tried to warn him of: Bane has the fiery, fighting passion that Bruce once had but has long since abandoned it.

What we are treated to is the best fight scene in cinema. I am not being hyperbolic. The whole thing is executed perfectly because it looks like it wasn’t planned. We are currently living in a world where fight scenes are so expertly choreographed that they end up looking more like a rehearsed dance routine, than a fight. Don’t get me wrong, it’s thrilling to watch Captain America take on The Winter Soldier on the streets of Washington, in a scene that stunt coordinators clearly spent weeks putting together, but Batman’s fight with Bane is something completely bulkier and somehow better. The fight is so effective because it’s honest about what it is: two muscle-headed guys slowly slugging their fists at each other. The sound effects in this scene are a bit over-the-top but that’s only to service how brutal this fight is supposed to be. Every punch, crack, tear and gasp can be heard.

Bruce does a great job of holding his own in the fight, which is another testament to Nolan; it would be less heartbreaking if Batman took on Bane and immediately got absolutely destroyed. The fact that Bruce can land so many brutal hits but somehow still end up on the ground, getting his face mashed in, makes us even more devastated. And because of this, it’s all the more satisfying at the end when Batman beats the shit out of Bane once he knows he has to break the mask first.

Many critics of this movie say that it gets too rushed in the final act and I suppose that might be valid but it’s also why I love it. The final 40 minutes of this movie are clunky, bombastic and all-out ridiculous and when I watched it, all I could think was, “finally…” Keep in mind, these are movies about a billionaire who nocturnally fights crime in a bat costume, so what works so well about this movie is that it actually leans in to the absurd, comic book-nature of it all. Yes, Batman is going to fight a giant man who can feel no pain, amidst an army of police officers going to war with prisoners and then he’s going to stop an atomic bomb from killing everyone… oh and by the way, he also has a flying Batmobile now. This is all objectively great and it all works. Not only does it work but it has emotional heft to it; the moment where Catwoman offers to help Bruce escape the city because he’s given Gotham everything he as to offer and Bruce responds, “Not everything; not yet,” still sends chills down my spine. The audience collectively has the same thought: Holy shit. Christopher Nolan is gonna crucify Batman for our sins.

The Dark Knight is definitely a tighter and more thoughtful movie, but it leaves me wanting more payoff. Batman kicking around the Joker a little bit at the end is not nearly as adrenaline-inducing as him punching Bane, square in the face, and saying “tell me where the trigger is… then… you have my permission to die.”

If The Dark Knight is a somewhat strong guy with perfectly sculpted abs, then The Dark Knight Rises is a dude who can deadlift a refrigerator but still has a 3.6 GPA.

You’re Watching the Wrong Movies on Airplanes

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A friend of mine recently told me that she loves movies but hates going to the movie theater (groan). When I asked how she stays up-to-date on the current state of cinema so well if she eschews the theater, I was expecting the normal answer of piracy but I was pretty shocked and disappointed to hear her response: she watches nearly all new movies on airplanes.

While I am a firm believer in the idea that every movie is meant to be viewed in a theater (yes, everything: comedies, action movies, thrillers, dramas, etc…), I understand that when a screen is shoved in your face for 6 hours as you fly back to New York from San Francisco, you’re probably going to watch a movie to kill some time. Action movies will look awful on a small screen and if there are any intense scenes involving airplanes, those will get cut, R-rated comedies are heavily edited for inappropriate content, and prestige dramas are also scrubbed clean of any Puritan social faux pas.

So, for the longest time, I always argued that you should watch something you’ve already seen and liked but haven’t watched in a while. Doing this means you won’t be too interrupted when the person next to you gets up and goes to the bathroom and then returns to their seat in 56 seconds*, if something is edited, it won’t really bother you because you know exactly what you missed, action scenes matter less because you’ve already seen them in all their theatrical glory before and those tense dramatic movies won’t have the tension cut in the middle of a pivotal scene by the pilot making an announcement about turbulence.

But last year I started doing something that I think might be even better than watching something I’ve already seen. I was on a flight to Puerto Rico, scrolling through the 80-something movies they had available and came across something that seemed interesting to me and I had an epiphany: you should always watch PG-13, 2000’s-era romantic comedies on airplanes. It was so simple yet so elusive. These are movies that I’ve never watched before and in any other situation would never willingly sit through, I don’t care if they get interrupted by announcements or other airplane-related distractions, the romantic scenes are so vanilla that there’s nothing to edit out, the comedy is tame enough to be left in and because humans are subconsciously more mentally vulnerable on airplanes, your emotions are more extreme, thus the lame jokes seem funnier and the final emotional payoff feels more satisfying than if you were watching the movie on TBS over the weekend.

My girlfriend (yeah, I know girls; no big deal) could not have been more perplexed as she saw me chuckling along with the predictably tame hijinks of “Bride Wars” on a flight last year and again this past weekend as I got visibly fired up watching Matthew McConaughey chase Kate Hudson to airport at the end of “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.” All of a sudden when I had nothing else to do and my life rested in the hands of two pilots I couldn’t see, I became engrossed in the meaningless clichés and platitudes that the 2000’s-era romcoms championed themselves on. Suddenly, poor portrayals of “boys bein’ boys,” date nights gone wrong and sassy roommates seemed like pretty entertaining fare for a movie.

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A friend of mine told me he watched “Dunkirk” on a plane once and said he didn’t see the big deal about it. Maybe it just wasn’t his cup of tea; It’s entirely possible that he wouldn’t have seen the “big deal” about it even if he saw it on the big screen but he did himself and the movie a complete disservice when he decided to watch 2017’s largest cinematic spectacle on a 5-inch screen while someone next to him got up to take a crap every 35 minutes; not to mention a third of the film takes place in dogfighting airplanes, which is heavily edited for airplane viewing.

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Even something profoundly mediocre, like the recent Resse Witherspoon flop, “Home Again” kind of came around and worked for me in the final scenes while watching it in the sky. I don’t think I would even enjoy watching “Dunkirk” on a plane (mostly because I’d fear Tom Hardy would be seconds away from blowing me out of the sky); I had the choice to watch it just yesterday and I thought to myself, “no thanks.”

Don’t try to catch up on the movies everyone was talking about a few months ago on the plane. If you truly care to watch it, find a way to watch it at least on your TV at home. No one wants to hear your thoughts on your bastardized airplane viewings of “Call Me By Your Name” or “The Shape of Water.” But I will happily listen to your hot takes on your airplane viewing of “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past.”

 

*(side note: when someone next to you goes to the bathroom and you pause the movie, should you even un-pause it while they’re gone? They’ll be back so quickly and then you have to re-pause the movie so they can sit down again. It hardly seems worth it but I do it every damn time.)

Why Are You So Mad That Star Wars is Changing?

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This isn’t something I really thought I would or even want to write about but in the wake of recent events, it seems like the right time to do it. When it comes to Star Wars movies, I’m completely indifferent. I don’t have particularly strong feelings about them in any direction. Having said that, being indifferent to Star Wars somehow makes me a “hater” because of how much its rabid fanbase comparatively loves it. To me they always seemed like okay movies; I saw them when I was a kid but didn’t connect with them all that much, so I don’t have this burning nostalgia for them in my heart that others who really grew up on them do. I thought lightsaber battles were cool but that was about the extent of it.

Star Wars rarely seems to break into the realm of legitimately “good” movies. What works for Star Wars is that it is incredibly imaginative and because of that, they have a giant impression on children, who (and I know this hurts, fanboys) are the target audience for these movies. Yes. Star Wars, at its core, is a movie for kids, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The reason fanboys get so angry about Star Wars is their refusal to accept that. They enjoyed it when they were kids but they are not kids anymore, so when this franchise deviates from the established formula that they are nostalgically comfortable with, they throw a fit.

This isn’t all Star Wars fans. I am sure the vast majority of them are well-adjusted adults who have no problem with the franchise changing beyond Luke fighting Darth Vader. The problem is, well-adjusted people don’t make the news. No one wants to hear about people who politely enjoy things. Unfortunately, a loud minority of racists and misogynists are going to make the news every time, no questions asked. These are the folks that don’t want change. Change is different. Change is scary. Change is hard to embrace. It’s much easier to eat at McDonald’s every night because you know what you’re getting and that’s the same mentality that has driven these Star Wars fans insane; it’s as if McDonald’s changed their menu and that is unacceptable to them. So they have decided to viciously attack something they claim they love very dearly.

Just take a look at what has happened only in the last few months: Kelly Marie Tran (who was wonderful to watch in The Last Jedi) had to leave Instagram due to awful vitriol from “fans” of Star Wars; director, Rian Johnson has received numerous death threats for making The Last Jedi not fit smoothly with what is expected, no demanded, by the “fans” in a Star Wars movie and now there is a boycott of Solo, the newest movie, because these “fans” hate Kathleen Kennedy for trying to tell new stories within this universe. The message is clear and I’ve said this loooooooong before all of this ridiculous backlash took place: these fans do not actually want “new” Star Wars movies, they just want the same ones over and over again with a slightly new coat of paint to keep it a little fresh. They want it the way it was when they were kids; if it isn’t exactly like that, then it is not Star Wars.

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It’s mind-bending to think about. You have an imaginative franchise that takes place across a vast galaxy of planets and all you want to do is keep going back to Tatooine and the Death Star?? It wasn’t interesting at all to see an old and bitter Luke Skywalker? You just wanted him to come and save the day, yet again? How is that interesting at all? You had three whole movies of that exact thing already.

A friend once said to me, “but that’s not who Luke Skywalker is; he would never act like that.” Why not? He’s fucking made up. They can make him do whatever he wants. It’s not like they completely bastardized him; he didn’t grow a tail and breathe fire… a bad thing happened to him and they explained why that made him bitter. What’s the disconnect? You are absolutely allowed to not like it; you can even hate it, but you cross a line and make a complete fool of yourself when you threaten to assault anyone who was involved in making that creative choice.

You don’t own Star Wars. Nobody does (well, Disney does). Toxic fandom is nothing new. These are the same kinds of people that sent Damon Lindelof death threats because they didn’t like the finale to Lost. I get it, you love these properties and franchises and you get nervous about them being tampered with; you have an idea in your head of how they should play out and you get angry when it doesn’t go that way. But don’t you want to be surprised? Don’t you want to say, “wow, I never saw that coming!” If you perfectly guessed how an entire movie or TV show will play out, aren’t you upset that you knew the whole thing before it even started? You should want to be surprised. You should want to see new faces and new situations. I know you like The Force Awakens because it rehashed all the Star Wars tropes you already loved but do you really want to keep seeing the exact same movie over and over and over and over again for the next 50 years?

Kubo and the Two Strings is the Kind of Movie We Need More of

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Kubo and the Two Strings has a lot going for it: breathtaking visuals, an easy-to-follow story, a lovable underdog hero and a stacked voice cast. But before I even saw it, I knew it would flop at the box office. I think there’s something about Laika’s animation style that doesn’t sit right with the general public. Audiences are used to the squeaky-clean stylings of Disney, Dreamworks and Pixar. Laika’s animation is not only stop-motion (which could turn off some viewers) but it also just looks a little grimier, but that works in its favor, especially for creepy fare such as Coraline or The Boxtrolls, but somehow in Kubo, that grime brings out a natural beauty in the production design.

The plot is incredibly straightforward and basically plays out like a video game. Kubo must journey to find a magical sword, breastplate and helmet, each one guarded by some sort of “boss” he needs to defeat or outsmart to ultimately take down his grandfather, the Moon King, in the final battle. If Kubo is defeated, the Moon King will take Kubo’s eye (he already took one at Kubo’s birth) and become immortal. Along the way, Kubo will be joined by his two sidekicks, Monkey and Beetle, and will also have to battle with the Moon King’s two henchmen at various points in his quest. There’s not much more to it than that; it isn’t all that different from a Legend of Zelda video game structure.

A straightforward story can be great though; of course it can be immensely satisfying when something complicated, like Inception, comes together in a grand finale, but not every movie needs to shoot for that. Kubo is content to tell Japanese folklore in the exact manner it needs. If anything, I would have loved for the quest to go on even longer. Show me a few more boss battles and adventures. It feels like as soon as the three main characters start to click, we enter the climax and have to start saying goodbye.

Charlize Theron and Matthew McConaughey are both great in their roles as the antithesis of one another’s personality. It’s really fun to hear McConaughey play a goofier role than we’ve seen from him in the last few years; it took me a while to remember that he has good comedic timing. How could he not after a string of rom-coms in the mid-2000’s? (Spoilers) He is so effective as a man-turned-beetle that the moment his character finally remembers who he once was, right before he bites the dust, is a genuinely touching bit and works infinitely better than any of the ham-fisted, tear-bait nonsense from Inside Out (go ahead, disagree. You’re wrong).

There are a few standout scenes, from a visual standpoint, that come to most people’s minds when reflecting on the movie: the giant skeleton battle is pretty thrilling and the final sequence where Kubo takes on the Moon King alone is a dazzling spectacle but the grandest of all is the series of events on the water. The animation of Kubo crafting a large ship out of leaves using his strings (I forgot to mention, Kubo has magic strings that can manipulate small objects) is a marvel and then it leads right into one of the film’s most expertly choreographed combat scenes between Monkey and the Moon King’s evil twin daughters as Kubo’s ship collapses. It’s incredible to watch and remember that it’s all stop-motion. Perhaps the most chilling of all during this sequence is while the battle above the water rages, Kubo must steal the magic breastplate from a giant sea monster with hundreds of giant eyes that attempt to hypnotize him until he drowns. This sceneis legitimately chilling to watch as Kubo goes lower and lower into the ocean and the number of eyeballs on him multiplies. The movie never quite recaptures the sheer magnitude of spectacle from those scenes but they alone are worth watching it for.

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Some controversy about the whitewashing of the cast erupted as the movie was released and I think those concerns are legitimate, considering this is a classic piece of Japanese folklore but I applaud director, Travis Knight, and the whole Laika team for handling the material with so much affection. At the very least, the movie we are presented with is a great watch and comes from a place of earnestness, even though this may not have been a story for white folks to tell.

Stop-motion animation doesn’t really exist in any mainstream kind of way anymore. This year alone, we saw Early Man flop at the box office and Isle of Dogs, while a wonderful movie, isn’t something built for mainstream audiences. It would have been great for Kubo and the Two Strings to take off at the box office and show people that great animated movies don’t have to come from Disney or Dreamworks. They don’t have to pander but can challenge. Travis Knight and his team have moved on from animation (at least for now) to helm the Transformer’s spin-off, Bumblebee. While this is a bummer for the future of stop-motion, it may be a glimmer of hope for the Transformers franchise… but that’s not exactly what I’m interested in from such a unique voicein filmmaking right now.

Primal Fear – Can a Movie So Stuck in the 90’s be Enjoyed Today?

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High school is a pretty good time to start watching Edward Norton’s hot streak of movies from the mid 90’s to the early 2000’s. They’re often very serious and not all that subtle. That’s a perfect combination for a high school-aged kid; you get to watch adult movies that deal with mature themes that don’t run too deep so that you don’t miss any real subtext. Norton hit the apex of this with Fight Club: the ultimate high school movie. It has big performances, enough pseudo-intellectualism to kill a liberal arts student and a crazy fucking twist. Even at age 16, I was able to look at Fight Club and think to myself, “Nah. This is a piece of shit.”

No matter how some of his movies turned out, Norton is an undeniably magnetic performer. He can play intensity with ease, as many dramatic actors can, but also slip into softer characters with just as much success (something over-acclaimed actors like Leonardo Dicaprio and Jack Nicholson are genuinely terrible at). The movie that allows Norton to flex both of those muscles is his big screen (and Academy Award nominated) debut in 1996’s Primal Fear.

Norton plays Aaron Stampler, an altar boy accused of murdering an Arch Bishop in Chicago. Richard Gere plays the lead character, Aaron’s lawyer, and honestly gives what should be hailed as one of his career’s best performances, but gets overshadowed by Norton’s meatier supporting performance (ain’t it always that way?). What we get, is a relatively standard courtroom thriller with just enough twists and turns in its pocket to keep you interested, buoyed by powerhouse performances.

What struck me as I re-watched it for the first time in at least 5 years is just how 90’s it is. Yes, there are the shaggy haircuts, parted down the middle, the goofy-looking suits and actors like Maura Tierney (who isn’t given enough to do) and Laura Linney (who should have rocketed to fame after this) to remind us that this movie was made right in the thick of the 90’s but there are also some indescribable features that place us in that decade. Maybe it’s the music cues, maybe it’s just the general swagger people held back then, I’m not sure, but if you showed this movie to someone without any prior knowledge, it’s likely they’d guess it was made somewhere between 1994 and 1998.

So, does it hold up, despite being undeniably 90’s? To be honest, I’m never quite sure what “holding up” means. Yes, there is the direct interpretation of, “is it still a good movie, all these years later,” but everyone seems to have their own take on what it means. It’s definitely dated but I also think it still works. The performances aren’t any less captivating today and the story structure still works well enough. So, if that’s the case, what would have to happen for a movie not to “hold up?” Short of new social and societal revelations, I see no reason why a movie should work in one decade and crumble in another.

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Primal Fear’s biggest asset is its performances and characters. Gere’s Martin Vail actually has layers that go beyond the normal “hot shot lawyer” archetype, not many layers… but layers nonetheless. Even the supporting players, like Andre Braugher have backstory that doesn’t smack you in the face. For a blunt courtroom drama about a sociopathic murderer, there is a fair amount of restraint at play.

Of course, Norton runs away with the movie, thanks to his character’s mid-story revelation of multiple personality disorder, but the snappy dialogue between the rest of the characters keeps you watching almost as much. There’s a certain composure these actors hold, that keep them from getting bogged down by some of the cheesier lines they’re forced to spit. And the quippy banter? As always, when quippy banter is done right, it’s nothing short of delightful.

Tommy: That’s the worst bullshit story I’ve heard in my entire life.

Martin: Now it’s our bullshit story.

I was talking about this movie with a friend once who said it was the perfect kind of movie to remake in the modern era. At first, I was intrigued by the idea, maybe giving it a new coat of paint could revitalize it for a new generation. Throw Bradley Cooper into Gere’s role, stick Scarlett Johansson in Laura Linney’s place and find a fiery new talent for Norton’s role… why not? But then I firmly stood against the notion. Beyond the fact that studios don’t make movies for $30 million anymore, this movie can’t be remade now because it would be trash. It should have been trash in the 90’s but it isn’t. Thanks to the right talent all coming together, the material is elevated to something much better than it had any right to be. Leave it alone. Don’t touch it. Look what happened to Total Recall, another clinically 90’s movie. When they tried to update it for the modern era with new actors, all of a sudden it became clear that it was the talent involved that made that cheesy movie work, not the convoluted story.

After watching it again, it became clear to me that Primal Fear doesn’t really have anything to say. It boils down to being an entertaining-as-hell film adaptation of a murder mystery novel you would probably see sitting on your grandma’s coffee table, with a menacing ending that I legitimately never saw coming (at age 16, at least). To me, that’s fine. Maybe not every movie has to be a musing on what it means to be human or what makes someone crazy (maybe we’re the crazy ones!!). Some movies can just be about a killer in a courtroom. Nothing wrong with that.