Armageddon (1998) Doesn’t Contrast the Small Scale Apocalypse Narrative of Last Night (1999), It Explodes It

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When Last Night played the festival circuit in 1998, critics made a big deal about how its small scale, intimate depiction of the Apocalypse was entirely antithetical to Michael Bay’s massive explosion orgy of the same year, Armageddon. Almost a decade later, it’s still an interesting point of contrast. There are obvious ways that an indie budget Canadian black comedy wouldn’t match up to a massive Hollywood special effects spectacle, mostly in terms of scale. Armageddon is packed to the gills with recognizable faces (Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton, Ben Affleck, Liv Tyler, Steve Buscemi, Owen Wilson, so many more), while Last Night boasts the muted star power of niche Canadian indie superdarlings like David Cronenberg & a before-she-was-minorly-famous Sarah Polley. Last Night saves money & energy by not at all addressing the mechanism for the world’s end, instead focusing on the personal reactions of a small group of people to the grief it inspires; Armageddon dedicates more than half of its bloated 150min runtime to blowing up an asteroid “the size of Texas.” Last Night limits its scope to the city of Toronto, while Armageddon attempts to span the entire globe (or at least a version of the globe where the USA eats up 60% of the terrain) and utterly destroys three major cities in the process. These financial & genre differences are to be expected from the get go, though. What’s really interesting outside the two doomsday films’ sense of scale is the relative blackness of their souls.

For all of Last Night‘s Gen-X cynicism & neurotic existentialism, it’s above all else a humanist story. We join the world well after it has accepted its impending communal death and although the film often chooses to laugh through the pain, it makes a point to celebrate the way characters, often strangers, comfort each other in their shared moment of grief. Armageddon is an entirely different kind of beast. The Apocalypse depicted in Michael Bay’s film is not a crisis that must be accepted & emotionally processed; it’s an obstacle that can be overcome by a tough son of a bitch American badass who blows stuff up real good. We first meet our supposed hero (Willis) launching golf balls at oil spill protestors & chasing an employee around his rig with his adult daughter. The black-hearted conservative fantasy continues when he & his rag tag crew of “roughnecks” (who at one point, no joke, self-describe as “a bunch of daddies”) are recruited to blow up the Texas-sized asteroid, because the pansy nerds at NASA just could not get the job done. So much of Bay’s film is outright despicable. Steve Buscemi’s asked to charmingly deliver a torrent of pedophile humor. Every depiction of a foreign country (who apparently all sit on their hands while America saves the day) is cartoonish in its culture-gazing, especially in the comic relief of its Chinese businessmen. One of the film’s many climactic crises is solved when a man violently tosses aside a trained female astronaut (with practically no dialogue) to bang on a machine with a wrench & yell at it until it works. Thousands of lives are lost as entire cities crumble, but less thought is given to casualties than to finding more space for yet another Aesosmith song or a lengthy assembling-the-team montage. Armageddon doesn’t muster one ounce of the compassion or the empathy of Last Night and often feels actively deplorable in its views on humanity, both political & spiritual. Still, I can’t shake the feeling that the film is worthwhile in its own right.

As ugly as Armageddon‘s hostile, conservative soul in its terms of narrative & dialogue, it’s an absolutely gorgeous film to behold. With the low attention span of a Hausu or a Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Bay’s camera carefully considers each kinetic set-up and somehow turns a succession of beautifully crafted shots into a rapid fire assault on the senses & sensibilities of its audience. The way Last Night understands basic human fears & intimacies and the way they galvanize in timed of widespread crisis is impressive, but I don’t think the film ever approaches Armageddon‘s attention to filmmaking as a craft. It’s not even a question of budget, either. Even when you ignore for a minute all of the CGI buildings and hand-built miniatures Bay can’t resist gleefully exploding every few narrative beats, he has a distinct touch as a stylist. I’m not sure McKellar can claim the same in Last Night. The intense colors, framing, and rhythms of Armageddon are far above the film’s intelligence level in terms of plot & dialogue and it’s fascinating to watch something so smartly beautiful used for such an ugly, evil purpose.

I don’t mean to imply that Armageddon needs to be reassessed as some kind of overlooked masterpiece. If anything, it’d full-blown camp spectacle. Details like the opening narration about dinosaurs and the unfathomably awful animal crackers seduction scene had me howling with laughter, when I’m fairly sure that was far from their intent. Last Night‘s joke about the world’s biggest (and presumably final) guitar jam playing Bachman Turner Overdrive’s “Taking Care of Business” was the only gag that got that big of a laugh out of me, even though I’d say that film is the one that “deserves” to be championed as a lost classic. Armageddon is much more firmly in the so-bad-it’s-good side of that divide. It takes everything touching, mysterious, and humanist about Last Night and explodes it into a mean-spirited spectacle of jingoistic hero worship & casual misogyny. And yet, I found myself floored by Bay’s disaster epic for the entirety of its impossibly bloated runtime, a reaction I certainly did not expect on this revisit. Last Night is the more artful, empathetic portrait of humanity in crisis and fulfils every desire you’d have for a small budget indie about the Apocalypse. Armageddon, on the other hand, refuses to be ignored as a remarkable achievement in its own right, even if it is the exact polar opposite of McKellar’s black comedy and, arguably, a loud exemplifier of the worst aspects of modern Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking. As deplorable as Armageddon is as a Death Wish-style conservative fantasy piece, I’ll never sarcastically deride its inclusion in the Criterion Collection again. I get its appeal now, despite my better judgement.

For more on December’s Movie of the Month, the apocalyptic black comedy Last Night, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film & last week’s look at its studio comedy equivalent Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012).

-Brandon Ledet

Masterminds (2016)

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threehalfstar

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It’s difficult to sell the potential enjoyment of a Jared Hess film to the disinterested, because the director’s work can be so aggressively quirky-for-its-own-sake & juvenile. Hess’s latest film, Masterminds, has been the most difficult sell of the director’s career yet, possibly in a very literal sense. His debut, Napoleon Dynamite, was a dirt cheap indie comedy that somehow stumbled into the kind of success that scores you decades-long merch sales in roadside truck stops & shopping mall novelty shops, despite being the director’s least interesting work to date. Titles like Nacho Libre, Don Verdean, and (my personal favorite) Gentlemen Broncos have mostly flown under the radar since, as have the projects of Hess’s wife & creative partner Jerusha. Not one of these examples has suffered the financial & distributive roadblocks of Masterminds, though. A harmless madcap bank heist comedy starring Zach Galifianakis & three Ghostbusters (Jones, Wiig, and McKinnon), Masterminds has struggled for at least two years to see the light of day. The film itself is very amusing to those already onboard with Hess’s lost-in-time awkwardness schtick, but also relatively unexceptional within the larger scope of his career. The fact that something so straightforward from Hess has taken this long to overcome its distribution setbacks (which included the financial collapse of Relativity Media), only to flop on its long-awaited opening weekend does not bode well for the director’s career at large. He can’t continue making these comfortable, mid-budget, non-flashy comedies and expect to survive in the current Hollywood climate, no matter how much I (and apparently very few others) happen to find them amusing. Not without bringing his content straight to VOD, at least.

I could make some sort of grand claim about how the virtue of honesty is what ties together the heart of Hess’s narratives or that his films are interesting in their application of a Wes Anderson visual craft to a gross-out Farrelly Brother aesthetic, but I’m not sure that’s what makes them work as comedies. What Hess brings to the table, besides the general quease of Sears family photo shoots, is the visual punchline. In Masterminds, the machinations of Zach Galifianakis’s hapless security guard being coerced into robbing a bank by his milquetoast seductress, Kristen Wiig, or her sleaze ball cohort, Owen Wilson, aren’t nearly as amusing as just the mere look of him. The Prince Valiant haircut, the full beard, the tight novelty t-shirts: Zach Galifianakis is the fashion version of a slapstick pratfall. Certainly, there are funny turns of phrase in the film (mostly delivered by Jason Sudeikis’s cold-as-ice contract killer) but no dialogue in the film made me laugh nearly as hard as just the distinctly awkward visual tableau Hess crafted with his vanity-free players. In many ways Kate McKinnon was perfect casting for this comedy style, as it’s the criticism she most often receives from her work in SNL. She doesn’t deliver jokes so much as that she is the joke, striking such a specifically strange, crazy-eyed image that no verbal play is needed to sell the humor. This might not be enough for some folks, but just the mere sight of her posing for wedding photos with Zach Galifianakis to an Enya song is personally all I need to guffaw.

The humor of Masterminds is, in the film’s own words, “dumber than a suitcase full of buttholes.” The “based on a real story” failed bank heist plot is amusing, but indistinct. Stray lines about a “fart transplant” or why boobs don’t bleed milk are certainly funny & Jason Sudeikis’s sociopathic assassin is hilariously out of place in this world of naïve dummies, but the film isn’t particularly memorable for any verbal or narrative touches. It’s Hess’s deft with the comedic image, whether McKinnon posing in a hideous wedding dress or Galifianakis chowing down on a goo-filled tarantula, that makes Masterminds a weird, dumb delight. It’s doubtful that Hess can continue to get away with constructing those awkward tableaus in perpetuity, given the lukewarm reception each of his films have received since his surprise hit debut (and his worst film to date, in my opinion), but for now I’m enjoying the weirdly wonderful results. Anyone else should be able to tell at a quick glance if they’re also going to be onboard, considering the visual nature of the director’s humor.

-Brandon Ledet

Zoolander 2 (2016)

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threehalfstar

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It’s been fifteen years since the release of the original Zoolander, which seems like an awfully long stretch of time before deciding the world needs a sequel. A lot has happened since 2001, including (perhaps least importantly) a major turnaround on Ben Stiller’s fashion world comedy’s cultural cache. Zoolander suffered mixed-to-negative reviews upon its initial release, but has since grown a strong cult following that seems too large to even consider “cult” at this point. I even remember personally going into the theater prepared to hate Zoolander‘s guts as a grumpy teenager & being wholeheartedly won over as soon as the explosive Wham!-soundtracked gas station gag in the first act. The funny thing about Zoolander‘s fifteen-years-late sequel is that it’s on the exact same trajectory for long-term cultural success as the first film. The reviews are dire. The box office numbers are hardly any better. However, the dirty little secret is that Zoolander 2, while being nowhere near as perfectly inane as its predecessor, is actually a damn fun time at the movies. Nowhere near every joke lands in the film, but it’s smart to flood you with enough impossibly idiotic humor that you’re bound to laugh at something, maybe even more often than you’d expect.

In order to justify its own existence, Zoolander 2 has to undo a lot of the happy ending denouement of the original. Former male models/makeshift political intrigue heavies Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller) & Hansel (Owen Wilson) must again start from the bottom. Hansel has been horrifically scarred & is experiencing growing pains with his in-effect wife, an orgy of weirdos. Derek’s own wife has passed away due to his own failures as a businessman & custody of his son has been revoked by the state due to his total lack of parenting skills in areas as basic as “how to make spaghetti soft”. In order to reclaim their estranged familial relationships & earn back their rightful place on top of the fashion world, Hansel & Derek have to repair their irrevocably broken friendship, putting aside the narcissism that plagues them both so deeply. Obviously, the plot doesn’t matter too much in a comedy as aggressively vapid as this, but I do think there’s something oddly sweet about Zoolander 2‘s central bromance that wasn’t nearly as fully realized in the first film. Derek & Hans really do need each other. They’re entirely codependent in their joint efforts to understand a world that doesn’t make sense to their tiny, uncomprehending minds. It’s a fascinating, even touching companionship even if it is an assertively brainless one.

Zoolander 2 does have an Achilles heel, but it’s not exactly the first place you’d expect. The film sidesteps most concerns about being late to the table in terms of following up its original iteration by making the outdated, past-their-prime cultural irrelevance of the its protagonists a major plot point. The redundancy of a second film following the same protagonists as they transition from male modeling to a life in political intrigue is also avoided by adding concerns about familial bonds and, absurdly enough, radical Biblical interpretations & quests for immortality into the mix. Where the film gets a little exasperating is in its never ending list of cameos & bit roles. Even in the film’s trailer swapping an appearance by David Bowie for the much lesser musical being/tabloid fixture Justin Beiber felt like a weak trade-off (although Bieber is actually far from the worst cameo on deck; his time is brief & fairly amusing). The film is overstuffed with both celebrity cameos & SNL vets dropping in for a dumb joke or two. Will Ferrell was a welcome return as the impossibly wicked megalomaniac Mugatu, Penélope Cruz was charming (not to mention breathtakingly gorgeous) as a secret agent for INTERPOL’s fashion division, and current SNL cast member Kyle Mooney proved himself to be a stealth MVP as a double-talking sleazebag hipster piece of shit who’s ironically stuck in the nu metal 00s (an archetype he always nails without fail). These are just a few faces in a sea of many, though, and the nonstop torrent of names like Kristen Wiig, Willie Nelson, Fred Armisen, Katy Perry, and whoever else felt like walking through the film’s perpetually open door did little for Zoolander 2 except to make it feel a little sloppy & out of control.

There were thing I loved about Zoolander 2 & things I easily could’ve done without. The film’s Looney Tunes physics & complete disinterest in stimulating the intellect felt entirely in tune with the original’s sensibility. The vaguely transphobic joke about Benedict Cumberbatch’s androgynous model All in the trailer is not at all improved by being expanded in the movie. Even though Hansel & Derek are close-minded imbeciles who believe things like fat = bad person, their treatment of All is an uncomfortable mixed bag at best & mostly just distracts from the film’s better realized gags. Many of the celebrity cameos & bit roles equally feel like a waste of time that could’ve been better step, but Zoolander 2 decisively aims for a quantity over quality M.O. & by the time the film finds its stride far more of its jokes land than fall flat. I spent most of Zoolander 2‘s runtime laughing heartily, which might as well be the sole requirement for a movie this militantly irreverent to succeed as a finished product. It’s not the best comedy in the theater right now (that would be Hail, Caesar!), but it’s also not the worst (*cough* Deadpool *cough*) & I could easily see myself watching/enjoying the film multiple times in the future. If nothing else, that’s a far better experience than I expected based on its early reviews, which is pretty much how this whole ordeal worked out the first time around in 2001.

-Brandon Ledet

Shanghai Noon (2000)

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threehalfstar

(Viewed 8/15/2015, available on Netflix)

Shanghai Noon is an entertaining buddy romp that presents the Wild West through a unique lens. The main character is neither white nor American. I’d say that Shanghai Noon makes for a post-modern Western movie that deconstructs the genre, though I would hesitate to say that this is an intentional subtext, even as the movie delves into the treatment of Chinese laborers on the Intercontinental Railroad. Jackie Chan stars as Chon Wang (say it out loud . . .), trying to rescue the damsel in distress, and Owen Wilson sidekicks as Roy O’Bannon, an outlaw with an image problem.

It’s a funny and energetic movie. I trust Jackie Chan implicitly with action and humor, and he delivers. Owen Wilson brings his regular brand of self-aware goofiness and performs solidly here. The main humorous setup is along the vein of Culture Clash at the OK Corral with a side helping of Buddy Comedy, and I think that it works out well as Chon Wang explores the tropes and narratives of the cinematic Old West and Roy O’Bannon tries his hardest to not learn anything about himself.

Shanghai Noon utilizes Jackie Chan’s kinetic brand of physical humor to great effect, leaving you both impressed and laughing. He and Owen Wilson make a successful odd couple, and their relationship is the most important one in the movie. It’s clear that O’Bannon thinks that he’s the protagonist, and it’s important to his characterization that he keeps this perspective even in the face of massive evidence that he is indeed the sidekick. I wonder if there is subtext here that captures the feelings of non-Americans in a wider sense, that Americans think that everything is about them.

The romantic relationships fall weirdly flat though, as Chon Wang accidentally marries a nameless Native American woman (while blackout drunk, not ok, all right?) who silently follows the boys around and keeps them out of trouble, then eventually takes up with O’Bannon. At the end of the movie, Princess Pei Pei inexplicably falls in love with Chon Wang and presumably gives up her life of royalty to live in a frontier town as a sheriff’s wife. This romantic side is so strange to me because the women are presented as powerful on their own, and then just seem link up with the men because it makes for tidy ending. The Native woman takes on the classical Western roll of the Man with No Name and saves the day time after time as Chon Wang and O’Bannon bumble along. Princess Pei Pei is noble, strong, courageous and self determined as she tries to balance her own desires and her role as a leader. Were the romantic subplots really necessary?

I’d recommend this movie on its own merits as fun and entertaining, perfect for a bowl of popcorn and not having to think about anything. I think that you could also work it into any list of Jackie Chan movies since it’s a good example of an American production that fully utilizes his skills in both action and comedy. It would also be of particular interest to anyone looking at deconstructive or post-modern Westerns, or looking at comic Westerns as a genre.

-Erin Kinchen