Ahead on Differential

The blog arm of the Derek Godin Online Media Empire | derekgodin.com

The man, the myth, the legend

We all are born with a certain package. We are who we are: where we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised. We're kind of stuck inside that person, and the purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. And for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.

Roger Ebert, one of my film-crit heroes, died six years ago today. I owe Roger more than I care to admit. He was the first person I encountered who looked at movies as art objects. He wrote with warmth, clarity, and respect for the medium. He was smart and persuasive even when I disagreed with his conclusions (and seriously, if you're not locking horns with your heroes on a semi-regular basis, what the hell are you even doing?). He taught me to trust my gut. His work will always be a resource and an inspiration to me.

I really, really miss having him around.

#movies #obit

Harry Brewis (YouTube codename Hbomberguy), better known as of late for his “Donkey Kong Says Trans Rights” charity stream, has a deep library of good video essays about pseudoscience (he's not down with it), woke brands (he's also not down with it), and VHS tapes (he's down with it). And his latest one is a 45-minute reflection on the 1986 feature-length toy commercial The Transformers: The Movie, aka The One Where Optimus Prime Dies.

Brewis juxtaposes the light, sugary Saturday morning antics of the TV show (which, I insist on repeating, was a glorified toy commercial) to the darker, more nihilistic tone of the movie. He calls it the point in his life where he realized that all things die. It's not exactly a close reading, but it gets to the heart of why this movie is so beloved people or a certain demographic without chalking it up to pure capitalistic cynicism or multimedia brand loyalty.

There's a prevailing sentiment that nostalgia should be looked at with deep suspicion or even outright hostility. I do get that. At the risk of making outlandish statements that I can't possibly back up, nostalgia has poisoned the pop culture landscape. It's why we're stuck in an ongoing cycle of regurgitated IPs spearheaded by warring monopolies, or why grown men who bequeath sacred cow status to a fart comedy where Dan Aykroyd gets a blowie from a ghost derail actual-ass human lives with cries of “cooties!” Nostalgia is a tempest that provides its own teapot, only now that teapot is the internet, and we all have to live inside of it.

But nostalgia is also a useful lens through which to view the artifacts of our past. This is how Brewis frames The Transformers: The Movie: a not-great film that shines brightest when it leans into a kind of optimist philosophy, where “the power of leadership and hope and unwarranted positivity in a dark universe has successfully vanquished the pessimistic nihilism that encroaches upon us all when bad things happen in our lives.” Galaxy brain shit maybe, but still a fun, thoughtful, emotionally-engaging trip through the cultural detritus of the 80s. Also any excuse to jam arena-cheese titan Stan Bush or force of good in the universe “Weird Al” Yankovic is right on by me.

Speaking of Yankovic, Brewis's journey with The Transformers: The Movie mirrors mine with UHF. It was one of the first DVDs I ever owned and I played the shit out of it. I thought of it as little more than a series of goofy pop culture riffs that 0% of my peers got. Which obviously it still is. Now, a lot of those jokes haven't aged well (is there an actor who got a rawer deal in the 1980s than Gedde Watanabe?), but I still love this movie because there's a community-minded anti-establishment streak to it. Goofiness for the common good. Daring to be stupid, if you will.

#movies #youtube

Truer words have never been spoken

This Sunday, I had a conversation with my longtime friend and fellow Dim the House Lights co-editor Juan Barquin about writing and pitching. Pitching is a grind. Pitching is a hustle. Pitching is functionally a second job that I would get pennies per hour to do. Just elbowing my way to the table where all the editors sit would make a giant dent in my work-life balance (which is already kind of precarious, if I'm being 100% honest with myself).

And so I had an idiot's epiphany: just write for fun, you dingus. And dig this, genius: it doesn't even have to be about movies! It can be about music or wrestling or fucking occult horticulture if that's what grabs your attention that day. You can just write what you feel like writing because there's nothing more liberating than realizing that no one really gives a shit. Says the homie Austin Kleon:

Nobody’s really paying attention. This is the big secret. Even if you think you have an audience, nobody’s paying attention. It’s depressing at first, but once you wrap your arms around it, it’s liberating. Enjoy it. Have fun with it.

When I first bought my dot-com, my modus operandi for Ahead on Differential was to make it “like Kottke, but shittier.” So far I have done a piss-poor job of jumping over even that low bar, but I endeavour to at the very least give it a shot from here on out. Obviously longer film stuff will still be at Dim the House Lights, but everything else will go here.

#meta

Poster for Dark Star

The first hint is right there in the poster copy: “The Spaced Out Odyssey.” The photo beneath the tagline, of a body on ice with electrodes affixed to its face, would normally evoke chills. But in context, we understand that a face frozen in a rictus of dulled pain visually rhymes with what being gacked out on primo bud looks like.

Dark Star, directed by John Carpenter and co-written by Carpenter and Dan O'Bannon, premiered on 30 March 1974 at the Los Angeles International Film Exposition. At the risk of being glib, it plays like a stoner Alien (not surprising since O'Bannon strip-mined Dark Star for parts for his Alien script), similarly concerned with the existential tedium of being a working stiff on the final frontier. But it is above all else Carpenter's weed-dad opus, a heady, rambling, pseudo-philosophical cosmic yarn about mental entropy that for no short amount of time prioritizes a slapstick set piece featuring an alien that looks suspiciously like a beach ball. This movie would slot in nicely on a shelf next to Star Trek: The Motion Picture on VHS or a dog-eared copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

There isn't really much competition for Dark Star's weed-dad title belt in Carpenter's oeuvre; after his debut, his movies almost immediately became leaner, sharper, and more sinister. The only real challenger for the crown is They Live, with its EC Comics-indebted anti-authoritarian, anti-consumerist sci-fi phantasmagoria. And if there's two things weed dads hate, it's the Man and how the Man tells 'em what to do, man. But there's too much ire and fury in They Live for it to be Carpenter's weed-daddest movie. The key moment of political discourse in They Live is Roddy Piper beating the dogshit out of Keith David so he can make him wear his false consciousness-obliterating sunglasses. The key moment of political discourse in Dark Star is when a Bill Ward-looking motherfucker raps with a bomb about phenomenology to keep it from exploding. Far out.

#movies

  1. Adopting a cute little tabby cat named Ruby.
  2. Doubling down on being away from Twitter and starting my very own Mastodon instance, laserdisc.party.
  3. Starting a brand new long-term movie podcast with my friend Michelle where we put the IMDb Top 250 in a bracket and work out which one is best, single-elimination style. It's called Middlebrow Madness and it's great fun to do.
  4. The podcast actually gave me an excuse to rewatch a handful of masterpieces: Paper Moon, Unforgiven, Sherlock, Jr., Modern Times, Spirited Away, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Paths of Glory, Howl's Moving Castle.
  5. David Fincher's Gone Girl. I made the key mistake of watching this on Valentine's Day.
  6. Listening to “Plastic Love” by Mariya Takeuchi pretty much first thing at work every day.
  7. Turning 30. Had a smoked meat dinner with friends and loved ones. It was sweet.
  8. Mandy. My most anticipated film of the year, my favourite film of the year, and one of my favourite films of all time. Also the late, great Jóhann Jóhannsson's score for this movie is the stuff of drone-metal nightmares, it rules so hard.
  9. Attending the Fantasia International Film Festival as a badged member of the press for the first time. I swear I'm gonna frame that pass and lanyard and put it on my wall. Also everyone at Dim the House Lights put in incredible work: Michelle on The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot, Chris on Cam, Ross on Cold Skin, and yours truly on Relaxer.
  10. The aforementioned Dim the House Lights, the brainchild of me and my pal Juan, still going strong and nearly old enough to go to kindergraten.
  11. Live music! Seeing They Might Be Giants, one of my favourite bands of all time, at a tiny-ass venue with about 200 people there. Seeing The War on Drugs close out the Jazz Festival with a sea of fans.
  12. It was a good year for phone gaming. Florence knocked me on my ass. I sunk many hours into Pocket-Run Pool. Donut County was incredibly fun.
  13. Becoming a patron of the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Quebec.
  14. The Jon Bois/Felix Bierderman team-up Fighting in the Age of Loneliness, an Adam Curtis-esque five-part documentary about the history of mixed martial arts. While I'm here I should also mention Bois' Chart Party video about March Madness and his output on Dorktown.
  15. Now that I think about it, SB Nation has been consistently putting out some of the best stuff on YouTube. Shout out to their shows Beef History and Rewinder.
  16. Going to an orchard and eating apples fresh off the tree.
  17. Sorry to Bother You. I can't believe something this off-the-wall and incendiary made it to multiplexes.
  18. Using what little handiness I have to turn a ribbit cage into a rat mansion. Thank you, extra-large roll of chicken wire from Canadian Tire!
  19. Doc Destructo (a.k.a. one half of the awesome WCW podcast The Greatest Podcast in the History of Our Sport) going long on the failed 90s fighting game Tattoo Assassins. Also his follow-up video on ill-advised FMV erotic thriller nightmare Tender Loving Care was the first Great Thing I saw in 2019.
  20. Ignatiy Vishnevetsky on the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.
  21. Spencer Hall on Anthony Bourdain (RIP).
  22. Two podcasts from the Ringer network of products: one is The Watch (Chris and Andy are some of the most thoughtful people out there regarding pop culture) and The Rewatchables (fun civilian film-crit, curating what is basically a canon of “cable movies”).
  23. Finally buying derekgodin.com and making my own little Web 1.0 homepage.
  24. The Daily Beast's Jeff Maysh on the criminals that rigged the McDonald's Monopoly game for over a decade.
  25. The Strategist's list of the 100 greatest pens.
  26. Tarot apps: the Golden Thread Tarot, the Mystic Mondays tarot, and the Kawaii Tarot.
  27. Gizmodo's Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan on the legend of the Doves type
  28. Watching so much Night Court while between jobs that I ended up using its theme song as my ringtone. Also it turns out I only really watch TV when I'm unemployed.
  29. Losing my job but getting a better job in the same field.
  30. Ty Segall's fantastic cover of Hot Chocolate's “Every 1's a Winner.” Here he is with his band playing it on Jimmy Kimmel Live. Actually, all of Freedom's Goblin was great.
  31. A nice spring jaunt to the city of Rimouski.
  32. Continuing the lineage of the American Band Championship Belt.
  33. Finding a pair of leather Chuck Taylors at a thrift store that fit my clown feet.
  34. The legalization of recreational marijuana in Canada.
  35. Flying Lotus and Claire Denis in the Criterion closet.
  36. A Star Is Born. Just about as perfect as a Hollywood drama can get. And “Shallow” fuckin' bangs too.
  37. The ongoing excellence of the All Fantasy Everything podcast. I wrote about it a little bit here.
  38. I got paid actual-ass American money to write about Basic Instinct. Shout out to Juan for getting me the gig.
  39. Eating at Denny's for the first time. They sure do know their way around a milkshake.
  40. The Ringer's Brian Phillips on Facebook.
  41. The Marvin Visions typeface.
  42. Windows96's excellent vaporsynth concoction One Hundred Mornings.
  43. JANK CITY. My friends and I get together and play Magic: The Gathering, except instead of playing good cards, we draft those 100-card repacks you get from the dollar store. It's the best thing.
  44. Semi-related: the New Yorker's Neima Jahromi on Magic: The Gathering's 25th birthday.
  45. Also semi-related: some of my pals opened up a game store! Shout out to the crew at the Silver Goblin.
  46. Still semi-related: MtG Arena going intop open beta.
  47. Joining a union.
  48. The ass-whipping delivery device known as The Night Comes for Us. These Indonesian stunt teams are something else. I gushed about this movie here.
  49. My conversion to the church of Bulk Barn.
  50. I got an owl kigurumi for Halloween and I'd be lying if I said it wasn't one of the more comfortable garments I currently own.
  51. The always wonderful Austin Kleon on third spaces.
  52. My friend Anastasia's borscht recipe.
  53. You Were Never Really Here. A startling piece of direction and performance.
  54. The I Don't Even Own a Television podcast. This is where bad books go to get dressed by by two smart, thoughtful dudes.
  55. The vegetarian poutine from Copper Branch.
  56. Onra's Nobody Has to Know, which is a continuation of my love of City Pop and... I guess “beat tape-core?” For my money, “Love Triangle” is the standout track.
  57. Desert Bus for Hope. Great community, great stream, great cause.
  58. I tried streaming video games a couple of times. It was fun!
  59. Jon Hopkins' Singularity. House music to wake up in the desert to.
  60. Leaning heavily into the side shave as my default haircut.
  61. Good show notes for podcasts.
  62. The infinite vaporwave radio station known as VaporFM.
  63. Plex has been a gamechanger in the way I watch stuff at home.
  64. Support the Girls. Between this, Results, and Computer Chess, Andrew Bujalski has made three of my favourite movies of the past five years.
  65. Taking longs walks.
  66. The great Dan Olson had a hell of a year, the crowning achievement of which was his three-part, 160-minute “lukewarm defence” of the film adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey. (You can start with part one here.) His video on the use of metaphor in Annihilation is also quite good.
  67. Gritty, the freaky-looking mascot of the Philadelphia Flyers, becoming a weird leftist icon.
  68. Cooking with new cookware.
  69. The Cannes cut of Sergio Leone's swan song Once Upon a Time in America.
  70. The New Yorker's Hua Hsu on Environments
  71. Budget Bytes, the web site that has basically fed me and my family for the last few years.
  72. GQ's Zach Baron on Brendan Fraser.
  73. Jenny Odell's mind-melting article in the New York Times about sketchy Amazon storefronts.
  74. Captioning mistakes.
  75. The Secret Broadcast, a podcast that emulates numbers stations.
  76. Beefing up my copy editing shelf.
  77. Mission: Impossible – Fallout. I love silly spy shit and wackadoo stunts. That fight in the bathroom is a thing of beauty.
  78. Related: Tom Cruise and Christopher McQuarrie lay the smackdown on motion smoothing.
  79. My ninth anniversary with Steph.
  80. Stephen Thomas Erlewine on “Weird Al” Yankovic.
  81. Going back and jamming a bunch of episodes of The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson.
  82. Evan Puschak, aka Nerdwriter, put out the video that made me go back and watch all those Late Late Show episodes, which was released in 2015. But he put out a lot of videos this year that I liked, including ones about Rowan Atkinson and physical comedy, the armchair puzzle book Masquerade, and the use of film grain in Mandy.
  83. BlacKkKlansman. Exactly as fiery and polemical and excellently directed as I had hoped. Also features one of the most surprising needle drops of 2018. See if you can find it!
  84. The One Song Only podcast. Kanye X bracketology.
  85. Discovering this fantastic mini-set by the Moog Cookbook from 1996.
  86. Getting reacquainted with the Merlin Mann Podcast Universe, specifically the superlative trifecta of Back to Work, Do By Friday, and Roderick on the Line.
  87. Joining a fantasy hockey pool for the first time.
  88. The Verge's What's in Your Bag? feature.
  89. Becky Lynch cementing her legacy by brawling her way through a busted nose.
  90. John Carpenter's Starman. I can't believe it took me this long to get to a movie by one of my favourite directors, starring two of my favourite actors, all of them in their prime.
  91. A great holiday meal with my coworkers at La Khaïma in Le Plateau-Mount Royal.
  92. First Reformed. It is one Paul Schrader-ass Paul Schrader movie, with a career-best performance by Ethan Hawke.
  93. John Mulaney's hilarious comedy special Kid Gorgeous at Radio City.
  94. Paste's Graham Techler on the Blank Check podcast and the intersection of comedy and criticism.
  95. Long, empty days at work where all I really had to do was listen to Tatsuro Yamashita's double live album Joy over and over again.
  96. Making this list of my 200 favourite albums.
  97. Upgarde. Strudy, violent B movie fun. More of these, please.
  98. Collider's Matt Goldberg on the importance of movies on physical media.
  99. Gizmodo's 100 Websites That Shaped the Internet as We Know It.
  100. The RetroWeatherChannel Twitch channel, which pairs vintage Weather Channel bumpers with everything from period-accurate cuts to vaporwave to smooth jazz to ambient to Chet Atkins.

#top100

Mandy, or Nostalgia as Cinematic Language

It's getting to be list season very soon, and while there are a bunch of movies that are in the running for my big gold belt that I have not seen yet (I'm looking at you, The Night Comes for Us), I sincerely doubt anything will knock Mandy from the throne. It's no secret that I am in the tank for this movie (wrote a glowing review of it and everything). After watching the equally mind-melting Beyond the Black Rainbow in 2011, I was excited to see what writer/director Panos Cosmatos had lined up next. My patience was rewarded with what is not only my favourite movie of the year thus far, but a surefire first-ballot entry into the Head Film Hall of Fame. There's rad bugfuck details stacked floor to ceiling, but it's also a film of cosmic sadness and great warmth (Nicolas Cage gets to be wild and tender in this).

And it looks fantastic. Cosmatos and director of photography Benjamin Loeb (Hello Destroyer, King Cobra) saturate the frame with bold colours, evocative lighting, and glorious phantasmagorical excess. The always-perceptive Evan Puschak over at The Nerdwriter released a video last week diving into the film's style by examining its use of grain as an aesthetic signifier. What has come to be an analogue fetish object in a digital age, Puschak explains, is delpoyed by Cosmatos as a tool rather than as a reference. Even though Cosmatos' pool of images is easy to parse (70s/80s Euro-trash, sci-fi paperbacks, prog rock album covers, back issues of Heavy Metal), the way he creates his visual tableux are unbound in time and inextricable from the story. “Style over substance” doesn't hold water as an argument when the two are so deeply intertwined.

I can't wait for number three.

(via The Nerdwriter)

#movies #youtube

I found a couple of orphaned capsule reviews in the Dim the House Lights archives and decided to put them here.

The Errand Boy (Jerry Lewis, 1961) What you first notice is Jerry Lewis' eye. He has a gift for cock-eyed mise-en-scene, staging and blocking that feels familiar and yet is somehow... off. The second thing you notice is his pronounced goofiness, the yelling, the fodder for cheap jokes and bad impressions. Sure, this is silly as hell, but not really the work of a master. But then you get to the scene in the elevator, a comedy high-wire act, the tension and claustrophobia contorting Lewis' face as his character Morty Tashman tries to keep this whole interaction as close to a normal as he can. Then you get to the boardroom orchestra scene, as simple and as elegant a formalist gag as they come, and you realize that yes, you are indeed in the hands of a virtuoso for whom the gag is king, yes, but the craft is the crown. But the best gag is the throughline: this is literally a movie about Jerry Lewis wreaking havoc on the Hollywood machine from the inside. Self-aggrandizing, sure, but also self-deprecating: only in a system this ill-calibrated can a clown like him become a cultural force, a fitting mantle for auteurism's holy fool.

The Ladies Man (Jerry Lewis, 1961) Jerry Lewis' other 1961 film has a set-up not wholly dissimilar to that of a second-tier porno: a jilted college grad (Lewis) becomes celibate and gets a job at a handyman at women's boardinghouse, where he is at the beck and call of dozens of sexy ladies. The story is by far the flimsiest aspect of the film, playing second-fiddle to the real stars of the show: sumptuous colours, opulent dollhouse-like sets, and brilliant choreography. Lewis the director is in top form, trading in the claustrophobia of The Errand Boy for lush, lilting movements that tinge his work with the surreal. There are the usual Lewis shenanigans on display: mispronunciations, mugging, chaos on a set. The gags land and fall flat in roughly equal amount, but they are all executed with equal brio. After all, Lewis is not one to half-ass things. Case in point: the magnificent dance sequence he shares with dancer Sylvia Lewis (no relation), who is introduced suspended from the ceiling from a black cotton cocoon. The pair then engage in a chase/dance while Harry James and his band kind of just appear from behind a wall, decked out in white like big band angels, and just start to wail. A jewel of a film.

#movies

Zach Gage is one of my favourite game designers currently working. Calling him just a game designer feels reductive; his own chosen title of “conceptual artist” is closer to the mark. But while he's not creating a clock that plays a Super Mario Bros. speedrun at a clip of one frame per second for 25 years or a screensaver that pulls questions appended with “asking for a friend” from Twitter to bemusing/wistful effect, he's making some of the funnest, stickiest mobile games out there.

Gage specializes in taking well-worn casual game mainstays (word puzzles, chess, solitaire) and twisting them in small, clever ways. Often these are simple mechanical tweaks; Really Bad Chess gives players one king and 15 other random pieces to duke it out with, while Sage Solitaire elegantly splits the difference between classic Klondike and poker. His latest game Pocket-Run Pool is his version of an arcade-style billiards game, with rotating pocket multipliers and three lives (i.e. scratches) to clear the table. As with all of Gage's work, Pocket-Run Pool is dirt-simple at first glance. But continued play will reveals a game of surprising depth; the constrained rack (10 balls instead of the usual 15) and the novel scoring system both give a new strategic angle to the kind of game I'd kill hours on in the bad old days of Windows 98. Ever since I bought it, I have found myself chaining game after game after game, and before I know it, 45 minutes have passed. That's about as good an endorsement you can give a mobile game.

#games

[NOTE: I wrote this in May, intending for it to be part of a bigger thing, but that bigger thing never happened, so here it is all by its lonesome.]

You may not be able to place Graham Gouldman's name, but you definitely know his work. Gouldman, who turned 71 on Wednesday, is the co-founder and bassist of 10cc, one of the great British bands of the 1970s. His bandmates Kevin Godley and Lol Creme, the true-blue weirdos of the group, get a lot of the glory, but Gouldman's contributions shouldn't be downplayed. I mean, dude co-wrote the immortal “I'm Not in Love” and played one of my favourite bass lines of all time on the bridge.

One of the pillars of the 10cc sound is pastiche, but they weren't just lampooning or parodying pop music. They were twisting their forms and conventions into weird art-rock shapes. Doo-wop, teen tragedy ballads, 70s boogie, progressive rock, adult contemporary: you name it, 10cc warped it into something unique. In a way, they're the ancestor groups like Ween, albeit a lot less puerile and aggro. Gouldman currently tours with a skeleton of the mighty band that once was, and the group hasn't put out new material in nearly 25 years, but 10cc's initial '73-'76 run is full of treasures, and Gouldman was a core component of them.

#music

The eagle-eyed among you might remember that I made a blog a while ago praising the genius of Canadian animator Richard Williams, and I fear I'll be repeating myself in that respect over the course of this play-by-play. Williams was the animation director on Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, a sly, skilful melding of film noir and cartoon slapstick. If you want to see what makes Williams's work here and elsewhere so breathtaking, I recommend watching the video linked in the blog post I referenced earlier, or even seek out the Recobbled fan cut of his never-finished magnum opus The Thief and the Cobbler. But if pressed to describe his work in one word, it'd be fluid. For all the movie magic employed to create a seamless live-action/cartoon world, the fluidity of the animation is the linchpin. But the animated half of the film is just, well, half the story. The other half belongs to Robert Zemeckis.

Robert Zemeckis is cursed with the gift of gimmickry. Few directors are as adept at using special effects as storytelling devices as he is, but his sturdy, Spielberg-esque directing chops are often held hostage by the whims of the effects he employs. This has sometimes led to catastrophic results, most notably his late-period uncanny valley hat trick of The Polar Express, Beowulf, and A Christmas Carol. But here, he directs with a unique kind of precision; he manages to make incomplete frames feel full. Zemeckis strikes a delicate balance between leaving just enough room for the toons to exist in and making the blocking overly lax. To the credits of both Zemeckis and Williams, the illusion is maintained throughout, and 30 years on still stands as the apex of this branch of mixed-media filmmaking.

Credit must also be given to the actors, the conduit through which an audience experiences the work, and thus the most liable to wreck the illusion. The voice cast is anchored the legendary Mel Blanc, rounded out by a murderer's row of cartoon lifers, and bolstered by the smart stunt-casting of Kathleen Turner as Jessica Rabbit. The live-action cast had it rougher. They had to act against puppets and props and disembodied voices, and no actor had to do it more than the late, great Bob Hoskins. But the legendary English actor was no one's first choice to play Eddie Valiant, the alcoholic private dick with a distaste for toons. In fact, he wasn't even in the top 10. According to Wikipedia (a dubious source, I know, but bear with me), Harrison Ford was Zemeckis' first-round pick, followed by Bill Murray and Eddie Murphy. And then Chevy Chase, Robert Redford, Jack Nicholson, Sylvester Stallone, Wallace Shawn, Ed Harris, Charles Grodin, and Don Lane. A few of those might have worked, but there's a lot of cultural baggage that comes with casting, say, Nicholson in a movie that riffs heavily on Chinatown. Harris may have worked as well; go back and watch Knightriders for a clinic on portraying rumpled masculinity as both earnest and silly. But casting Hoskins was a coup: his blunt features, raspy voice, and boxy build make him credible as a tough noir-era gumshoe, and him standing 5-foot-4 makes the 6-foot-1 Christopher Lloyd's Judge Doom look even more like a towering, ominous force than he already is.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is part of the cycle of late 80s-early 90s kids' movies with the power to traumatize. I say the following without exaggeration: Christopher Lloyd should have been on every Academy ballot for Best Supporting Actor for his work on here, and nearly everything he does in the film is nightmare fuel of the highest order. He murders an adorable cartoon shoe in cold blood in his first scene. The climax of the film, which I won't spoil here because I'd like for you to get the full effect if and when you do see it, is fucked up. I rewatched this movie shortly after my 30th birthday and I still think it's fucked up as a grown man.

Dear America was fucked up too, but in a more subtle, insidious way. The film's structure is simple: celebrities read letters home from soldiers in Vietnam over amateur video footage, presumably shot by those same soldiers. This isn't new territory for the war documentary; it isn't even new territory for writer/director/producer Bill Couturié. In 1982, Couturié co-directed Vietnam Requiem, a TV documentary made for ABC News's Closeup about the post-traumatic stress disorder in Vietnam vets that netted the Alphabet Network a Peabody Award.

Couturié's resume is full of similarly socially-conscious work, both as director and producer; he won an Oscar in 1990 as the producer of Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt, which was about the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. He has continued to chronicle the effects on war on soldiers. The one major outlier in his filmography is the Matt LeBlanc-starring baseball-playing chimp movie Ed, which he directed and produced. It was a massive bomb, no one liked it, and Couturié hasn't made a fiction film since, in Hollywood or otherwise.

As with WFRR, Dear America's beating heart is its form. Having people read letters over footage they or someone like them shot is a dirt-simple and highly effective way of telling this particular story. The beginning of the film is all smiles and surf music, a parade of fresh faces blissfully unaware of the horrors awaiting them in Southeast Asia. And I do mean fresh; I knew that the average age of touring soldiers in Vietnam skewed young, but I didn't know that it averaged out at 19. As the film goes on, and as the conflict keeps metastasizing, the plight of these young men grows more dire, the tone becomes more grim. The speed with which the switch flips from “patriotic naivete” to “existential hell” is whiplash-inducing.

The great Francois Truffaut once said that there's no such thing as an anti-war film. Now I'm just some dude on the internet, and who the hell am I to disagree with one of the great humanists of French cinema, but I believe the opposite to be true. War is such an abhorrent concept that any depiction of it will make it look terrible. Telegeny doesn't negate evil. Often it even amplifies it. The brief scenes of combat in Dear America are harrowing, and the cumulative effect of the footage and narration is decidedly anti-war. The final pivot, a flash forward that concludes the film, is the perfect emotional crescendo, until Bruce Springsteen's “Born in the USA” starts playing over the end credits. Now the fact that this song, along with the also-used-herein “Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival, has become a kind of lazy anti-war shorthand is not this film's fault. But time hasn't been kind to on-the-nose music cues, even if they were fresh and bold once upon a time. But this is a minor gripe regarding what is overall a solid piece of work.

There's something uniquely perverse about this tournament pairing, a documentary about the horrors of war and a movie where a cartoon rabbit does pratfalls. As with the previous round, tournament namesake Roger Ebert gave both of these movies the full four stars, citing both as exemplary in the respective idioms. And as powerful and moving as Dear America is, the level of technical mastery and boundless creativity of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is what puts it over the top.

The winner: Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

#movies #ebertcup1988