The Other Woman Game

I have a game to propose. Read on to see how to play. It’s about recommending better movies to watch. And rewarding artists.

Miniature of the movie poster for The Other Woman, with Cameron Diaz looking all crushed and being glommed on and wrapped around by the other two leggy, smiley women.The new film The Other Woman is making heaping wads of blockbuster cash. Even though, evidently, it is nearly every kind of awful and sets women back thirty years. Linda Holmes produces a most scathing and informative critique of the movie that is a must-read (h/t Amanda at Skepchick). You can also see the trailer for the gist of the plot.

What struck me as I read that review is that I had seen this movie before. Except, in every single way Holmes points out this one sucked, that one didn’t, but did exactly the opposite of everything Holmes rightly complained about. It was as if a time traveler read her review, went back in time, and made the movie Holmes would have liked, based on her review.

That movie is If I Were You, starring Marcia Gay Harden, Leonore Watling, and Aidan Quinn (and directed by Joan Carr-Wiggin). Even apart from the fact that I have a major life-long crush on Marcia Gay Harden, I can vouch for the fact that this was a fantastic film, unique, funny, engaging, well-written, well-directed, and superbly performed. You won’t ever have seen anything like it.

The stock description reads:

After Madelyn (Academy Award Winner Marcia Gay Harden) and Lucy (Leonor Watling) meet by chance, they make a pact to fix their unhappy lives: they will only do what the other one says and ignore their own instincts. But Madelyn has a secret. She knows her husband is sleeping with Lucy, a much younger and beautiful woman. Madelyn’s plan backfires when Lucy, an aspiring actress, orders her to play King Lear in a very amateur production, with Lucy playing the Fool. Madelyn’s life is transformed in unexpected ways as, like Lear, she struggles with matters of mortality and betrayal, loyalty and love.

Yeah. That. Huh? Right. BTW, one of the best King Lear performances I’ve ever seen. By a woman.

Miniature of movie poster for If I Were You, showing Marcia Gay Harden poking her head through a red theatre curtain, and a picture of her character's husband's mistress below.Even though it’s about two women hand-wringing over a man (sort of like The Other Woman, only unlike The Other Woman, there’s just one other woman, and the man is likable enough to plausibly explain why both women want him), it still Bechdel tests well (although the trailer doesn’t). The story isn’t identical to The Other Woman (obviously…I mean, hello, the wife ends up playing King Lear), but it is similar enough that one can see that if someone who had all of Holmes’ concerns about The Other Woman decided to write a similarly themed film, they’d end up with something like If I Were You. Smarter, funnier, more compelling, more moving, more plausible (yes, even the playing of King Lear). No one is a caricature. The woman are different and well motivated and emotionally complex and have fuller lives than just the man they are after. The “other woman” is dumber than the wife, but believably so, and sympathetically. And the man isn’t a ridiculous wax-moustachioed sexist villain. (He’s just a so-so guy who cheats on his wife.)

This got me to thinking. How often does this happen?

  1. Big, major blockbuster film gets made and earns tons of cash, despite being a total piece of crap (predominantly that means: badly written, full of eye-rolling cliches, stereotypes, and unforgivable implausibilities, and probably insulting to millions of people).
  2. Little, barely-seen-or-even-known film very similar to it had already been made years before, which is an artistic achievement, with great writing, acting, and direction, that is in every way better than its awful mutant blockbuster twin (fraternal twin, since we aren’t saying the films are identically plotted, just similarly themed enough that most of what’s special about the bad one is in the good one, so if you accidentally burned one of them the world would be a better place).
  3. And the money goes to the crap.

I had a similar experience when I learned about God’s Not Dead, the deeply offensive, absurdly written garbage pile that is now the shame of Kevin Sorbo (in this case, the review to read is by philosopher Dan Fincke: in summary and in detail). Watching the trailer to that (yes, actually in a theater, having never heard of it before) I kept thinking (between bouts of Jen and I busting into laughter), “Wait, I’ve seen this movie before, only it didn’t go in the bullshit direction this one clearly is.” That movie is Salvation Boulevard, starring Greg Kinnear, Pierce Brosna, Jennifer Connelly, Ed Harris, Marisa Tomei, and Ciarán Hinds (and directed by George Ratliff).

Miniature of movie poster for Salvation Boulevard, shows Pierce Brosnan above looking regal, Greg Kinear and Jennifer Connelly behind him smiling, and a giant bible below, standing upright, in which Greg Kinnear's character is being squeezed and suffocated.Again, Salvation Boulevard isn’t the exact same film. But it shares similar themes enough to be curious. For example, it centers around a debate over God’s existence between a caustic atheist professor and a Christian (in this case a big-money preacher), although this opens the film rather than serves as its climax. Likewise, the central character is a naive Christian struggling to deal with what’s going on through the course of the film, and comes to realizations and renewed confidence by the end. And there are several lesser themes loosely similar. But contrary to what God’s Not Dead does, which is deviate from every plausible reality and produce awful cliches and insulting caricatures (even of its heroes), Salvation Boulevard uses only a few and relatively minor reality-stretching plot points and even those it makes poignantly plausible, and then sends us on a ride that explores a world of religion and faith and loyalty and corruption much closer to reality.

It’s also funny.

(As you can tell from the trailer, but I say, don’t watch that, or read about the film, because  spoilers–just watch it not knowing what’s going to happen and let the plot twists surprise you.)

I think to “get” the game I have in mind, you have to at least read Holmes’ review of The Other Woman and watch the trailer to God’s Not Dead. Then puke. Then actually buy and watch If I Were You and Salvation Boulevard (both are available on Amazon instant video, as well as DVD; see links above). Then you’ll see what I mean. I’m not looking for movies that are exactly or even mostly the same, but that are enough the same that you can compare and contrast them fruitfully. Yet one is a major cash-earning pile of puke, and the other is a far lesser known masterpiece of good writing and acting. It’s a “Don’t watch that. Watch this.” kind of game.

How many movie-pairs like that can you come up with? This is something definitely worth crowdsourcing, because the lesser known movies by nature have been seen by too few people. You will have seen lots of those I haven’t. And so on. Maybe we can help reward actually good filmmakers who deserve to have their work seen and supported more, and send them a little royalty money, by boosting their signal just a touch.

So this is what I shall dub The Other Woman Game: bookmark this post, then post in comments (even if it is months or years from now) every time you think of a pair of movies that scores a hit according to the criteria set above, in the same way Salvation Boulevard pairs with God’s Not Dead and If I Were You with The Other Woman. That’s the challenge. Go!

I Am on Wired Magazine’s Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy

Logo for the Geek's Guide to the Galaxy, the title in 3D letters floating in a 1950s style cartoon version of outer space and Saturn.Bible scholar Robert Price and I were asked about our thoughts on the movie Noah on the Geek’s Guide to the Universe podcast, sponsored by Wired Magazine and hosted by David Barr Kirtley.

The episode (108) first features an interview with author Christopher Moore, who has been rewriting and merging Shakespeare tales from the perspective of different characters in them. This guy does a lot of interesting research for his fiction, and discusses that and how it led to the form of his latest book, The Serpent of Venice, a bizarre comedy-monster-bondage-erotica-horror novel blending Othello and the Merchant of Venice…not kidding, you might want to listen to this half of the show. They also touch on a lot of other things, like the aesthetics of hiding political values in fiction. They even talk about the Noah story a little (between minute 38:40 and 42:10), because Moore wrote Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal (which the host says is taught in seminaries, although that seems odd).

Our panel starts at 42:52 and goes a little over an hour from there. We laugh a bit and talk about everything Noah. Whether it was a good movie. How far it deviated from the Old Testament story. Where on earth the changes came from, or what the point of them was. What myths are for and how best to react to them. Why Christians who repudiate the film might be showing their true colors a bit more than they intend. You’ll get all kinds of info and analysis from both of us on how the writers of the film took genuine germs of ideas from the apocrypha and Talmud about the Noah tale and expanded them with their own creative additions. Want to know why there are rock monsters? Or why Noah is a militant vegetarian environmentalist? Or where the idea of that exploding crystal came from? Or where on earth they got the idea of Methuselah burning a million soldiers to death by shoving a sword in the ground? Or how the film is actually more Christian than the Bible story itself? Sci-fi and fantasy geeks will be especially amused.

We also ponder what the aesthetic point might have been behind various decisions the filmmakers made (director Darren Aronofsky, who co-wrote with Ari Handel), and compare how they treated this story with how other films treat mythical tales that are safely pagan (and thus no one notices or cares when they change everything). We even touch on the criticism that went around (like Greta Christina wrote about a while back) that the casting might have been a tinge racist.

Near the end (starting around 136:41) we go a little into my work on Bayesian method and the historicity of Jesus, and an unusual new project Robert Price is involved in that is well worth learning about, and whatnot. Check it out!

Beyond the Black Rainbow…and Other New Films in my Amazon Store

Besides adding a Blu-Ray section, I’ve added five new films to my “Favorite Films” portion of my Amazon store. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s the backstory.)

  • Whip It (directed by Drew Barrymore), with my remark, “Google ‘Bechdel test’. This is how it’s done. Also the best roller derby film ever made. By far.”
  • Licence To Kill (directed by John Glen II), with my remark, “Really the best under-appreciated Bond film. And has Pam Bouvier, my favorite bond girl (not just beautiful but funny, capable, has real skills and actually calls bond out on his shit).”
  • Howl’s Moving Castle (directed by Hayao Miyazaki), with my remark, “Second best Miyazaki film ever [the first being Spirited Away]. Steampunk + magic + surprisingly moving story of friendship and self-discovery. You won’t ever have seen a film quite like this.”
  • The Whisperer in Darkness (directed by Sean Branney), with my remark, “The same production company nailed it again, this time producing another Lovecraft classic by mimicking a 1940s talkie,” referring to the entry now immediately before this one, the excellent Call of Cthulhu silent film.
  • Beyond the Black Rainbow (directed by Panos Cosmatos), with my remark, “This bizarre 80s noir scifi film is an artistic masterpiece, but requires multiple very careful viewings to see why (and to understand all the nuances of what’s actually happening).”

Cover of the DVD for Beyond the Black Rainbow. With a dominant color scheme of red, shows the silhouette of a girl running toward the viewer from a glowing and radiating pyramid of light, above whom is a man whose face is oddly hairless, and eyes black, and whose grasping right hand and scary dagger-wielding left hand looms many sizes larger above her, all on a background of pitch darkness. Title above reads: Beyond the Black Rainbow, a Panos Cosmatos Picture, in red over the blackness. Tagline at bottom in white reads The last of those requires a bit more explanation. It’s definitely now one of my favorite films, but for reasons that will be quite mysterious to someone who sees it for the first time and gets frustrated wondering what the hell. (It’s worse if you watch it in a lit room with background noise, then you’ll be totally confused and not at all in the right mood. So…don’t do that. Darkened room, quiet, no interruptions. Best viewed on whiskey at 1am.)

The most fascinating thing about Beyond the Black Rainbow is how superbly well it captures the entire feel of a 1980s noir scifi film–it’s literally made as if it were produced in 1983 (right down to the minutest detail of the cheesy faux-80s pop song playing incongruously over the closing credits, exactly as you’d find if this really had been made in 1983), while trying to top Video Drome, Warriors, and Repo Man for weird atmospheric but totally excitingly bizarre cult classic (while also not being at all like any of those films). The music alone is teleporting and evokes a feeling of odd nostalgia–as if you had seen this movie thirty years ago and had forgotten about it. But even such things as a shag carpet, a plastic faux-futuristic chair, the look and sound of a 1980s computer keyboard, are emphasized masterfully by the director to evoke the feel, the sights and sounds, even–I honestly have to say–the smells of that bygone era.

The script is minimalist and the shooting impressionistic, so you may have too watch the whole movie multiple times to understand what’s going on and what the point is behind every bizarre choice made by the director (and there are a lot of bizarre choices–this movie was made well outside the box of mainstream filmmaking cliches). But even on first viewing you’ll be stuck to your chair, mesmerized, wondering where on earth this is going and what on earth is happening.

The product description is apt but nowhere near captures the reality:

Held captive in a specialized medical facility, a young woman with unique abilities seeks a chance to escape her obsessed captor. Set in the strange and oppressive emotional landscape of the year 1983, Beyond the Black Rainbow is a Reagan-era fever dream inspired by hazy childhood memories of midnight movies and Saturday morning cartoons. From the producer of Machotaildrop, Rainbow is the outlandish feature film debut of writer and director Panos Cosmatos. Featuring a hypnotic analog synthesizer score by Jeremy Schmidt of Sinoia Caves and Black Mountain, Rainbow is a film experience for the senses.

I caught this by accident on uVerse On Demand some time back, where the preview was so weird and nostagia-evoking I just had to see the thing. My wife and I have been weirdly drawn to this film ever since. We later explored the net looking for takes on the film, which ranged from outraged disgust to fawning admiration for its genius (just look at the wild inverted-bell split in the Amazon customer reviews). Overall, I find the people who hated it didn’t understand it (and don’t have the patience for suspense). Whereas I’ve found more and more depth and genius to the film the more times I watch it and realize why the director did what he did at each particular moment, and what it was supposed to evoke or communicate. I love art like that. But it’s not for everyone.

Red Tails

Lucas’s new film is good but not excellent. There were elements of it that disappointed me. But it may be worth your support anyway. Here’s why…

Red Tails is a movie just released honoring the Tuskegee airmen, an often unrecognized unit of black fighter pilots in WWII. For those who don’t know the backstory, George Lucas (sort of?) wrote and produced it, and has been working for over two decades to try and make this film happen, because studios just weren’t interested (he ended up paying for it himself, and it wasn’t cheap). Why? Because, he was told, a film with an “all black cast” was assumed to be a loser at the box office, especially in the foreign market, and thus not worth the investment a major film like this requires.

Sikivu Hutchinson, writing for Black Skeptics here at FtB, gets you up to speed on this fiasco in Jim Crow Hollywood 101. Although one of the deciding factors causing studios to reject the film was apparently their belief that an all-black action film would flop in the foreign market, so it’s not just the fading ghost of Jim Crow America, but also the rest of the “We Used to Love the Atlantic Slave Trade” Western World and “Why Is Their Skin a Weird Color, What Are They Aliens?” Eastern World (oh, and I suppose we ought to add the “We Can’t Afford to Buy Your Stupid Movies Because of Your Agrosubsidies, Dumb Asses!” African market and the “We Have Our Own Action Movies With People of Color in Them, Thank You” Indian market, and so on, but I’m not a studio exec so I don’t know what supposed data they were looking at).

Other WWII Films to Compare

As for myself, I thought the movie might be awesome just because it was a WWII action flick; the fact that it was about the Tuskegee airmen was just a cool bonus. I was a little unsure, though, because ever since the 80s WWII movies either suck (Pearl Harbor, anyone?) or are beyond excellent but, as one might say, kind of dark. Das Boot, Schindler’s List, Valkyrie, Saving Private Ryan, Inglorious Basterds, Miracle at St. Anna, are all superb films, some are brilliant on almost every measure. But they aren’t exactly ra-ra, “heroes rock!” action flicks. Yes, Basterds had a bit of that (and some would say a bit too much of it, and that on the “um, that didn’t happen” side, but let’s be honest, we all love a good revenge fantasy now and then), but overall even that film was, let’s be honest, dark. So can we have more feel good WWII films? Sure, people die even in those. Sad things happen. It’s war. But the overall feel is not “excuse me while I go shoot myself,” but more in the “yay!” category.

Once upon a time we had those movies, albeit often wildly fictional: Kelly’s Heroes, The Dirty Dozen, Force 10 from Navaronne (all had a token black guy…who duly got killed; except in Force 10, where he’s only mortally wounded, demonstrating real progress in racial relations; until you notice he wasn’t depicted on any of the promo film posters, despite being Carl Weathers, hardly a nobody…). And of course there have been plenty of WWII-set pieces…that had nothing much to do with war per se. Like Victory, two of the Indianna Jones films (Raiders and Last Crusade), The Keep … (notice we are descending into even wilder fiction here). But they also used to write really heroic, sometimes even delightfully comic, WWII movies that, I have to say, would never get written today for some reason. I’m thinking of flicks like Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, Father Goose, and Operation Petticoat.

Red Tails: Bad News First

I name all of these so you’ll know what my point of reference is as far as what counts as a really good WWII flick (don’t make too much hay out of any omissions; there are tons of classics I haven’t seen). Red Tails doesn’t make this cut. And that’s mostly because George Lucas wrote it (the credits say two other guys did, but on The Daily Show he described himself writing it, and IMO either he did, or clones of him did, because it’s very Lucasy). George Lucas is kind of a shit writer, IMO, and the worst when he tries to write “for kids.” He talks down to kids. He apparently thinks kids are stupid. When I was watching Red Tails there were several scenes were I was pulled out of the film because of some stupid dialogue he’d put in (or allowed in, if he was just supervising the script; indeed the very first lines of the film will worry you as far as their dumbness…all I can say is, it gets better…mostly). Later I realized why that stupid, unrealistic dialogue was in there: he wants parents to take their kids to go see this movie, and he thinks kids are too stupid to follow realistic dialogue (as my wife said to me afterward, the opposite is the case: she learned how to speak and understand better by watching as a kid movies that were written for adults; but this is a guy who thinks kids loved Jar Jar Binks).

Still, there were really only three or four scenes that were that bad. The rest was at least decent, especially when the black performers were on screen (the cast is not devoid of white people, it just doesn’t have any in lead roles). But here I think the rest of what was wrong with this movie is that the director (Anthony Hemingway) kind of phoned it in whenever he was shooting white cast members. In almost every scene with a white person in it, their performance sucked. It looked like he always printed the first take, when a real director would stop and tell them, “Okay, you’re delivering your lines fine; now perform the lines. Okay, take two…” In contrast, the black actors performed solidly throughout, even R&B singer Ne-Yo, who was great, producing one of my favorite characters and adding something different to the film I’m sure would have been lost if they’d gone with someone else.

(I should also add my usual peeve about all contemporary cinema, that I’m sick of the over-use of CGI in movies today; it’s lazy and unconvincing and destroys most of the awe movies once could produce. I liked it back when we actually made movies, and not cartoons that we try to pass off as movies. But this is a minor point. I know it’s unrealistic to expect some real movie magic and actual aerial stunt work, especially when he wasn’t even getting funded properly, but I really do want to see real movies again some day. So, complaint registered. Moving on…)

Red Tails: Now the Good News

It’s a decent work of historical fiction that’s fun to watch in the classic sense. You will learn a lot about what went on and what they accomplished and how they were perceived at the start of the war and how that changed by the end of it, which is all in broad outline accurate. There’s humor and heroism. And it’s miles better than any crap film like Pearl Harbor. Note that I can’t compare Red Tails here with the 1995 HBO movie The Tuskegee Airmen starring Laurence Fishburne, which covered the same unit, not only because I haven’t seen it (although now I am inspired to), but because it was not a studio released film; indeed, the fact that it was not is an example of what’s wrong with Hollywood (and accordingly, as I don’t have premium channels like HBO, I had never heard of it until researching this post today).

So what about Red Tails? Should you see this movie, and encourage others to as well? Your call. But let me play advocate: (a) it’s at least an okay movie (7 out of 10, and from me that’s saying something since most films these days don’t even rate a 5 for me); and (b) it will teach you shit about history you might not have known but would love to learn. And I don’t just mean the issues (or for some uninformed people, even mere existence) of black combat pilots in WWII, but, especially cool for a historian of technology like me, the fact that the Nazis invented jet aircraft and fielded a fleet of jet fighters during the war, and we had to fight them with ordinary prop planes (maybe someday I’ll blog about one of my old pastimes, weapons tech, and the fact that pretty much everything we fight with now was invented by the Nazis, including the automatic assault rifle, shoulder-launched rocket, and guided missile…and yes, jet fighters), and (c) it will flip the bird at the white-ass studio execs who wouldn’t pay for or to distribute this film because “no white people are in it.” They think white people won’t go see it because they aren’t in it (and it’s always supposed to be about us, see).

It would be worth it to prove them wrong. I’d certainly hate to find them feeling “vindicated” by the movie’s failure. Because studio execs are neurophysically incapable of registering a film’s quality at all, they won’t realize it failed (if it even does) because of the writing or directing, so they will think it’s because no white actors were in the lead parts. It’s this stupid false inference that has driven practically the whole industry since 1980. That’s why when one studio comes out with a hybrid talking vampire shark movie, every studio comes out with a hybrid talking vampire shark movie, because “obviously” that’s “in” now (rather than judging what to do based on whether a script is actually just good).

Next Move

If, however, you rankle at paying to see merely average movies just to learn stuff and support a cause, but you want to see what was actually the first all-black-lead WWII action movie, then rent Miracle at St. Anna (directed by Spike Lee). That got panned by the critics (mostly because Spike Lee didn’t direct it like a “Spike Lee” film, as critics had pigeonholed him, but actually demonstrated his skill and versatility as a director and made something quite different), and fans of “constant action” war movies hated it because it had a lot of boring “talking” and “emotion” and shit, and other people hated it because it was a little confusing and requires you to actually follow everything and be intelligent. But it actually rates as one of my top most favorite WWII films (in the “dark” category, that is), rivaling even Saving Private Ryan.

Why? Well, you might get it if after watching it, you have the balls to then watch it again, now knowing what happens and thus what all sorts of things really meant earlier in the film (the imaginary-friend scene with the boy in the barn will make you cry…once you know what was really going on in that scene). And if you have an eye for the decisions a director makes (editing, getting performances from the actors, where to put the camera) and just overall matters of quality (not much CGI here). It will also teach you about history (a central atrocity that occurs in the story is actually a true story). And it has literally the most intriguing opening scene of any war movie ever made (yes, even beating Saving Private Ryan). I know one critic who said it sometimes played too much into black stereotypes, but in fact it demonstrates how blacks themselves in the 1940s could play with those stereotypes, while some of them were based on cultural realities of the time, and in fact you actually get as much diversity of character among the men as you would in any “all white” WWII film (so if you don’t notice that, then you are the one obsessing on stereotyping…and I wonder if that was kind of Lee’s point).

Anyway, that’s an excellent film, and thoroughly anti-Lucasy (which does mean, not for kids). But what I want now are good, action-fun WWII films. Like Inglorious Basterds with an all-black infantry unit; or Operation Petticoat style antics in an all-black motorpool unit near the front lines (“When the air raid started he just took off. All he said was ‘In confusion, there is profit!'” … if you didn’t just laugh, you either have no sense of humor, or you haven’t seen Operation Petticoat recently; one of those is easy to remedy). Why not? The potential would be awesome. If you want to see that happen, though, you may have to start small and go see Red Tails. Then studios will start listening to pitches for similar films, and inevitably something awesome will get made that never would have otherwise.

In other words, maybe we should make Red Tails the next hybrid talking vampire shark movie.