Winter 2021 – Week 1 in Review

Hello everyone, and welcome to 2021! Last year was an abject horror show, but things are already somewhat looking up in my country, and presumably the world doesn’t have a second plague in store for us. On a more personal note, I had already written this entire goddamn Week in Review post, but then wordpress decided “save draft” is more of a suggestion than a demand, so I’m banging most of it out again. I hope the first week of your new year is going a little more smoothly than mind, but if not, hopefully my rambling reviews can offer some relief. Let’s dive into 2021’s first Week in Review!

With a great deal of the Dreamworks catalog available on Hulu, my house took a look back at their short-lived traditional animation era, before the mega-success of Shrek killed that division for good, and shifted their priorities to sassy animals with opinions about Starbucks. As it turns out, there’s a pretty good reason Dreamworks shifted from sprawling, Disney-aping 2D epics: in spite of their ambition and sincerity, the movies of that time generally weren’t very good.

The Road to El Dorado is the shining exception, and generally the film folks remember most fondly from this era. Though it’s blessed with an excellent script and great art design, the film would be nothing without the absurd vocal chemistry of its leads, played by two of the most roguishly charming men in film history: Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branaugh. In spite of Kline’s Tulio ultimately falling for another woman, the film is entirely about the relationship between these two men; it is their exuberant friendship that spurs it forward, it is their mutual sense of hurt feelings that inspires the film’s emotional low point, and it is their reunion that gives it a happy ending. They’re charming as hell, and while same aged CG lessens the impact of the film’s final act, it’s still a delightful exploration of a deeply loving relationship.

After El Dorado, we also watched The Prince of Egypt and Spirit, and were met with a vast wave of disappointment. Lacking most of El Dorado’s charming human element, they both felt self-serious yet underwritten. The Prince of Egypt is forced to work overtime in order to encompass the whole story of Moses, but the story of Moses isn’t really designed to be a compelling, family-oriented adventure. Moses himself becomes less and less relatable over time, and by the time we hit the plagues, he’s not even really sympathetic – we see more of his violence than Ramses’ slavery, after all. Meanwhile, Spirit barely even possesses a narrative, is headlined by a clearly checked out Matt Damon, and relies heavily on PS2-era CG for most of its visual setpieces. In spite of totally respecting these films’ strangeness and heavier, anti-Disney ambitions, I can’t consider either of them successes as movies.

The one thing that did strike out to me, after watching all three films, was the consistent prioritization of intimate male-male relationships, to the point where it felt like all three possessed an obvious queer reading. In El Dorado, this subtext is more the actual text; the story would not change in any way if Chel weren’t in the script, and all the emotional turns center on how much Miguel and Tulio care about each other. They try to accommodate each other’s well-established preferences, share lots of inside jokes, feel deeply hurt when they think the other doesn’t care about them – in all the ways that matter, they are in love, and it is their love that makes the movie great.

However, with that framing in mind, Prince of Egypt and Spirit felt like very different films. In Prince of Egypt, the sole meaningful relationship is between Moses and his adopted brother, Ramses. They are again the only two who are allowed any interiority – Moses marries, but he marries in a montage, to a woman who has no personality. All the hurt, all the pain, all the love of the film stems from the fondness shared by Moses and Ramses – it is their story, and once their tension as people who care about each other fades, the film deflates entirely.

By the time we got to Spirit, Dreamworks’ prioritization of male-male intimacy was something I was actually looking for, and I was not disappointed. Once again, the film introduces a female love interest who has basically no personality (literally none of the horses except for Damon-horse can talk), and who merely appears whenever the protagonist needs a good “me and my wife” photo op. Instead, the film’s wildly charged tension (“I will tame this horse!”) is all applied to male-male relationships: first the Damon-horse’s abuse at the hands of a confederate soldier, and then to his fond, mutually supportive relationship with a Native American man. Though he runs off with his horse wife in the end, even his final thoughts are about how he’ll “never forget that boy.”

I’m not really sure what to do with this read (a read which I am ashamed to admit applies just as easily to Shrek, also produced around this time), but it’s something that came through loud and clear in these watches, from films produced in a time when proudly gay relationships would never show up in children’s films. I’d like to think this trend, obscured as it was by the films’ overt narratives, helped some audiences work through or accept their own feelings, be they romantic, or simply the kind of honest male-male intimacy our homophobic culture consistently disparages. And it’s also a reminder that even messy art, art which I wouldn’t necessarily call “successful” in a traditional narrative sense, can still have something important and personal to offer.

Along with all the Dreamworks, we also checked out Once Upon a Time in China, a kung fu classic starring Jet Li in peak form. The film is framed like an epic western, with the incursion of American and British envoys evoking that common western sentiment of a beautiful land being corrupted by modern civilization, and a group of heroes out of touch with the times they’re in. Jet Li struggles to maintain his dojo and militia, squaring off with local gangs, foreign officials, and the city’s own police, while a young would-be apprentice takes odd jobs to make ends meet, and meets up with a kung fu master who’s just as destitute as he is.

The scale of the film is tremendous, and the set design is fantastic as well. Jet Li battles through elaborate European-style parlors, winding city streets, and enemy strongholds brimming with ladders and scaffolding to exploit. With fight sequences equaling the highlights of the classic kung fu era, remarkable production values from start to finish, and an ambitious story that sticks every single landing, Once Upon a Time in China is simply a must-watch for any kung fu aficionados; a flawless example of the form, that consistently illustrates the wild invention and clear physical conversations of martial arts cinema.

Finally, my house turned back to our horror investigations, checking out David Cronenberg’s classic The Fly. The Fly is centered on a brilliant scientist played by Jeff Goldblum, who designs a teleporter that ultimately ends up fusing his DNA with that of a common housefly, prompting a monstrous transformation. All I really knew about the movie was “Jeff Goldblum becomes a fly monster,” so I expected that scene to be some big reveal at maybe the two-thirds point. Instead, I got blindsided by the Full Cronenberg Experience.

Where other horror movies would likely shy away from some act of grotesque gore, letting the characters’ reactions tell us the story, The Fly has no compunctions about showing us, say, a baboon who’s been turned inside-out while still alive. The film’s effects and makeup are convincing and horrific, and watching Goldblum slowly lose himself is an agonizing process. I can personally attest that my stress dreams have started to incorporate some of The Fly’s monstrous ideas, so if you’ve got a stomach for body horror, I’d say it’s a worthy pick.

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