MOVIE DIARY 2018 is back once again, this time with TWO movies from this year! Can you believe it?? My guest this week is longtime internet pal, Robbie Dawson! I've been a fan of Robbie's for a while and I think you should all follow his Tinyletter, pls listen. It's one of my favorite music-centric newsletters, a real treat!
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)
SPECIAL GUEST WRITER: ROBBIE DAWSON
I saw Priscilla for the first time in college or high school - I can’t quite remember, but I can picture it on a laptop screen in a dark dorm room. I saw it again last weekend, in a theater this time, in what must have been some kind of Pride Month themed screening, though I don’t think I saw it advertised that way. It was mostly how I remembered: bright, fun, tonally out of its mind, a little shoddy, and with some big blind spots.
The movie is a road movie, and thus largely incidental. Three drag queens, among them a trans woman who seems to have stopped performing at some point in the indeterminate past, drive a bus from Sydney to Alice Springs. There’s a gig there, and also one of them has an ex-wife, it turns out, and also a son. (Spoilers, I guess.) They cause a ruckus in half-dead rural towns, the bus breaks down in the desert, one of them finds love along the way - you get the general idea.
Among our heroes (all played by cis straight men, a fact that’s easy to write off given when this was made but that should be mentioned), only two of them really have a story here. Hugo Weaving’s Tick/Mitzi has the ex-wife, and Terence Stamp’s Bernadette has the love interest. Guy Pearce, as Adam/Felicia, has… being hot. Which, honestly, should not be underestimated! He is extremely hot in this!
He also has some moments where he is threatened with sexual violence, one in flashback and one in the present narrative. The former ends in a punchline (that didn’t land for me), and the latter is treated as a moment of actual seriousness. Which really sort of gets at this movie’s tonal deal. It brushes off some tragedies while taking others completely in earnest, only to return to jokes right after. It’s a mode of operating that can be fun, if the jokes land, which enough of Priscilla’s do, but certainly not all.
The biggest stinker here is Cynthia, played gamely by Julia Cortez, who it turns out also played Rita Repulsa in the Power Rangers movie. This role has about as much subtlety, except here she’s supposedly playing an actual human woman. She’s an Asian woman with a thick accent (played for laughs) who’s married to Bob, Bernadette’s white Australian love interest. At one point, one of our girls refers to her as a “mail order bride,” though it turns out she’s not - she’s a con artist, of sorts, having tricked Bob into marrying her so she could come to Australia. And we see that he’s a pretty shitty husband to her, and there’s some tired stuff about her being a stripper with a ping pong ball act, and then she leaves him, in a moment that maybe we could feel good about, if this were a movie that were on her side, except it’s clear the whole time that the movie is not on her side. It’s on Bob’s. He’s the fourth main character, and she just disappears, having been scored the whole time with this insulting, gong-heavy music. It’s the nastiest, most mean spirited note in the movie, and you could excise the whole thing without losing anything at all.
But then, somehow, on top of all the plot stuff, good and bad, there are moments where the movie loses track of reality entirely and devotes itself only to sublime entertainment. The shots of Guy Pearce atop Priscilla (Priscilla is the bus. Did I mention that?), yards and yards of fabric trailing behind as he lip syncs to arias, are iconic for a reason. And it sneaks into mundane moments too, occasionally. Sometimes it feels like someone is hovering just above the frame, sprinkling fistfuls of glitter down in front of Hugo Weaving as he step-ball-changes wigless on the dunes. The full drag numbers we see have a hint of unreality to them as well. Choreography and delicate, bizarre floral headpieces are produced out of thin air. The climactic number, set to top five perfect song of all time “Finally” by CeCe Peniston, features so many impossible costume changes that you assume at first it must be a montage, but it is certainly not. All of it is riveting and joyous.
And that's why the movie has survived as a classic, probably, despite all the ways time has soured us to it. It’s a fun film about gay people that takes us seriously without asking anybody to tone it down. There aren’t very many of those! So it was nice to laugh along with a full theater, even if we wriggled anxiously in our seats together too, and walking out the dominant mood was “I wish they made more things like this, but without the bad parts.” Which, who can argue with that.
Robbie Dawson is a website boy and writer in Brooklyn.
The Commuter (2018)
***SOME SPOILERS AHEAD, IT'S NOT ANYTHING YOU WOULDN'T HAVE FIGURED OUT ANYWAY BUT, YOU KNOW, HEADS UP***
I don’t know that I have a whole lot to say about this one. It’s another action dad movie from Liam Neeson, we all should have a good idea of where this is going. He’s a good father. His family will be in danger. He’s going to have to hurt some people to protect his family. Sure, that’s fine. This is the one where it all happens on a train.
There’s something reassuring about how reliably fine these Liam Neeson action dad movies are. There are variances from movie to movie, sure, that’s expected and necessary, but the core of these things are the same: a question about how far he’s able to go to protect his family. I think it’s interesting that it’s never a question of how far he’s willing to go with these movies. His will is never in doubt. It might be cool to see if there’s a line in the sand that he’d be unable to cross to protect his family though. Or I guess he’d definitely cross it to protect his family, he’ll cross any line, but it might be interesting to see what kind of thing would make him hesitate and really question if he’d even be the same person after he crossed this particular line. It certainly isn’t killing people. That’s built into his character and our expectations of these movies. We know he’s going to wind up killing someone, maybe many someones, and he’s still going to come out the other end a good and loving father. What else is there that could, if not challenge his action dad character, then at least force him to interrogate his principles as an action dad?
That’s sort of the question that The Commuter is attempting to answer, but I’m not sure that the trappings of the action dad genre allow the movie to answer the question. In order to save his family, Neeson needs to kill an innocent witness to a big scandal on this train. We see that he resists having to kill this innocent person, and by the end of the movie he’s managed to save his family and make the people responsible for all of this pay, which seems like kind of like having your cake and eating it too. I’d be interested to see what the movie would’ve been like if he’d chosen his principles over his family or if it went the other way and he chose to murder someone for his family, but I guess committing to either of those directions would throw it well outside the realm of the action dad power fantasy genre. Committing to a direction with real consequences that would cast the action dad in a less than favorable light is kind of antithetical to the fantasy that these movies offer— that you, an ordinary father, can use your smarts and your strength to keep everyone close to you safe at no cost to yourself or your soul, and you’ll be loved and respected for doing whatever it takes to keep your family safe.
Friday Night Lights (2004)
Let’s get this out of the way first: The TV show is better. The TV show has more time and room to explore the players and the people who surround them, particularly with regards to the women. Do any women have a meaningful role in the movie? Connie Britton’s there to smile and support a beleaguered Billy Bob Thornton, Winchell’s mentally ill mom is there to make you feel for Winchell by being a weight around his neck, Amber Heard is… in the movie. But I guess I get it. The movie’s got to move fast and be punchy, so these looks into the personal lives of the players and the coach end up feeling abbreviated, especially if you’re coming to it with the knowledge of what the TV show was able to accomplish. You get the sense that Peter Berg maybe wants to just give us the emotional bulletpoints and have us fill in the rest. In effect, what it feels like we get is a smattering of highlights/lowlights both on and off the field. The TV show gives you an opportunity to really live with these characters, while the movie chooses instead to give us the signifiers for why we should feel for these characters without every really feeling the need to explore the situations too deeply. The movie doesn’t have time to do that, and it also doesn’t really need to. The moments that we spend with the players and the people in their lives off the field are really impactful and the movie trusts you to be emotionally intelligent enough to get it.
I’m going to take a guess at my readership here and assume that everyone is familiar with Explosions In The Sky’s score for the TV show and movie, but for those who aren’t I guess I’d describe it as uh... the most emotionally manipulative music I've ever heard? Whenever those guitars start seeping their way into a moment I start shaking my head because I know, I fucking know, what’s going to happen: I’m going to vibrate with anticipation, I’m going to feel crushed, my heart is going to soar, I’m going to feel however Explosions In The Sky wants me to feel and no amount of preparation or intellectualization is going to stop it. So much of this movie is carried by its score. The two are inseparable, and it’s a large part of why these looks into the lives of these people hit so hard despite feeling so brief. This is a movie that knows how to wield its unsubtle music to its full potential. The music choices are seemingly obvious, but no less effective, even in the case of the non-Explosions In The Sky needle drops. The montage set to Public Enemy’s “Terminator X” is the perfect introduction to superstar in the making Boobie Miles fucking up his opponents with sheer physical talent and a pure belief in himself and his body. The part where Iggy Pop’s “Now I Wanna Be Your Dog” comes in right after a halftime look at both teams on their knees praying the “Our Father” is like the movie soundtrack equivalent of a Bugs Bunny “Ain’t I a stinker?” moment. My personal favorite is Refused’s “New Noise” accompanying Winchell and Billingsley as they strap on their helmets and emerge from the tunnel to run out onto the field for the State Championship. The way the camera makes a movement with each guitar moment, the way they seem to speed up as momentum in the song builds, then that explosion in the song as each team tears through their banners, and then the pure bedlam on the field as the camera cuts to their opponents, with their huge school band, their tough looking cheerleaders, their giant players barking in defiance, it’s all so overwhelming and intoxicating. The music, combined with the quick cuts and slow motion, takes you right there onto the field, the chaos and spectacle of it all just overtaking your senses. This is what movies and sports are about! LET’S WATCH IT RIGHT NOW AND LOSE THE CHAMPIONSHIP:
***THERE ARE SPOILERS IN HERE SO WATCH OUT***
I thought this movie was really scary, which I think is a first for an A24 horror movie for me! So much of their horror output lately has felt like these moody prestige pieces that are like “PeOpLe ArE tHe ReAl MoNsTeRs Do YoU gEt It??” so it was nice to see something that just plain scared me (sorry if A24 movies have scared you, no offense). Looking back at it, I’m not sure all of it holds up, but I had such a fun time watching it that I’m not sure I care all that much.
Toni Collette plays Annie, a woman who recently lost her mother. She doesn’t feel too sad about it as she had already begun to distance herself from her before her death. Annie describes her mother as being secretive, having secret friends and keeping secret rituals, and she also later reveals a history of mental illness in the men in her family. Her father starved himself to death and her brother committed suicide after he accused their mother of trying to “put people in his body.” Just as she’s coming to terms with her grief (or unsettling lack of it), Annie’s thirteen year old daughter is killed by her older son in a tragic accident, which sends her spiraling. The rest of the movie is a steady uncovering of family secrets and trauma that culminates in some violent events brought on by what amounts to a supernatural phishing scam.
The ending seems to be the main point of contention for people who had a problem with the movie, which I get. I liked the ending fine enough, but it’s true that it’s kind of a weak homage to Rosemary’s Baby (1968). [Sidenote: has there ever been a horror movie where the elderly weren’t sinister creeps trying to pull one over on the young and vital?] I didn’t mind the ending, I kind of liked the sense of inevitability that it brought to the movie. I think it really stuck us with the idea that no matter what Annie tried to do there was no escaping this grim fate for her and her family, and I think that recasts the movie in a different kind of horror. Watching Toni Collette come unraveled in her desperation is amazing, particularly when she allows her dark feelings of resentment toward her own son bubble to the surface.
As the movie is playing out, the horror comes from the revelations of what’s been going on behind the scenes of Annie’s family life, the idea that someone or something has a hold on you and your loved ones and that it’s your fault because of something deep down inside you that is awful and wrong. Then the ending allows you to take the idea a step further and consider that maybe there was never any escape, that Annie and her family were trapped all along and there was never any hope for them. I think we even get a little taste of that idea of Annie being unable to escape her fate in that part where she’s trying to explain to Gabriel Byrne that she’s connected to their daughter Charlie’s haunted notebook, that the only way to stop all of this is to burn the book. She’ll burn along with the book, but she’s prepared to sacrifice herself for her son and her husband. When he refuses, she throws the book into the fire herself, which ends up setting Gabriel Byrne on fire, which is such a big Fuck You to her conviction that she had figured out some set of rules that could save her family, and in effect a proclamation that there’s no escape. Mileage with horror movies varies from person to person of course, but something about knowing you’re cosmically trapped is very unsettling to me, at least.
I’m aware that the horror of being “cosmically trapped” is in the same family of “PeOpLe ArE tHe ReAl MoNsTeRs Do YoU gEt It??” so lest you think I’m being a hypocrite about all this, I will say that there are some pretty viscerally upsetting moments that happen in Hereditary, particularly the motif of decapitation. I think before this movie I’d felt a bit desensitized to the idea of decapitation thanks to season after season of things like Game of Thrones doling out decapitations like LinkedIn invitations, but the judicious and disgusting variety of decapitations in Hereditary has masterfully reinvigorated my distaste and my spiritual disquiet concerning the uncanny and violent image of a head separating from its body.