Blind Spot 55: ‘Private Benjamin’ or I Like the Army Parts

 

This month for blind spot I thought it would be fun to tackle a comedy with a little bit of patriotism and 1980’s Private Benjamin seemed like the perfect choice. It’s a film I have heard about for years but never gotten around to seeing. It is written by Nancy Meyers who would go on to write and direct many films including The Parent Trap remake, The Holiday and more. A lot of people put her on the same level as Nora Ephron but I disagree. Her films have cute moments but nowhere near the wit and charm of Ephron’s writing.

In Private Benjamin Goldie Hawn plays a woman named Judy Benjamin who is tricked into joining the army when her husband dies on their wedding night. As a pampered heiress she isn’t used to the rigors of the army and the film rings a lot of comedy out of her being a fish out of water in this environment. Hawn does a good job of making the diva-like Judy likable and much like Cher in Clueless we are rooting for her despite her popular girl trappings.

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Unfortunately this time in the army is only a small part of the film. The last chunk of the Private Benjamin devotes itself to Judy getting engaged to a french man named Henri (Armand Assante). The movie lost all of its bite and wit in these rather tedious sections. I did not care about this relationship and was itching for her to get back to the army where she was growing and becoming a better person. It really bummed me out that the movie took such a turn.

I also was not a big fan of the rated R material in Private Benjamin. I feel like it almost never made anything funnier and came off as gratuitous in certain scenes. In addition, a plot thread with Judy’s officer attempting to rape her felt like it belonged in a different movie. It’s like the film couldn’t decide if it was going to be a grounded story of women in the army or a silly romantic comedy with runaway brides and slapstick antics. Either is fine but you can’t pull off both.

For whatever reason I have found a lot of the comedies from the 80s don’t transfer well. I’m sure there is a piece that could be written about this but Private Benjamin was at best a mixed bag. I enjoyed the boot camp scenes but pretty much everything else fell flat. Evidently a remake with Rebel Wilson is in the works and that might be interesting. Hopefully it will be more successful than the recent remake of Hawn’s other iconic 80s film Overboard. We’ll see.

4 out of 10

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Blind Spot 53: ‘Lethal Weapon’ Review

I try to have a variety when I am setting up this blind spot series every year and since I did a trilogy of arthouse films in April with the 3 Colors Trilogy I decided to check off a blockbuster classic off of my list for May. This month I finally saw the 80s buddy cop film Lethal Weapon.

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Lethal Weapon was directed by Richard Donner of Superman: the Movie fame and is written by Shane Black who would go on to write and/or direct many popular films such as Predator, The Nice Guys and Iron Man 3. It stars Danny Glover as the world-weary cop who is paired with the mostly insane young cop played by Mel Gibson.

Obviously there are strengths to Lethal Weapon. It would not have made such an impact on its genre of films if it didn’t do some things right. Its biggest asset is the chemistry between Glover and Gibson. Their relationship isn’t easy but you believe their evolution as friends or at least trustworthy partners.

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I also enjoyed all the Christmas themes as it created a nice contrast between the darkness of the investigation and the brightness of the holidays. Shane Black also sets Iron Man 3 at Christmas so perhaps it’s a thing of his?

Unfortunately, my problem with Lethal Weapon is I did not love the script or the action. I haven’t enjoyed any of Shane Black’s scripts so maybe he is just not for me? The machismo in his writing is a turn-off and there’s a cynicism with how his characters treat each-other, which I do not connect with or find appealing. Other people seem to think it’s hilarious but again it’s not for me.

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As for the action I found it often dark, with strange lighting making it hard to see who was fighting who and what they were doing. Also the violence didn’t seem to do anything for the story, which made it feel gratuitous. In particular, an extended sequence where Murtaugh and Riggs are tortured didn’t help the narrative much and was mostly only there for shock value.

You also have to put on your 80s cap when watching Lethal Weapon because we have such a different attitude about police brutality and violence in 2020. Riggs spends most of the movie trying to convince Murtaugh that his method of killing the bad guys is the way to go. Today we’d certainly take a step back from that line of thinking!

Basically with Lethal Weapon you probably already know if you like it. I enjoyed the chemistry between Glover and Gibson and the Christmas setting was fun; however, the action and script didn’t do it for me. Take that for what you will.

4 out of 10

Frown Worthy

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Blind Spot 31: The Last Emperor

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This month for my blind spot pick I decided to take a look at a film that took home 9 Oscars including Best Picture and Director: 1987’s The Last Emperor. I didn’t know much about it going into the film except that it was a long and sumptuously mounted production. After viewing it, I agree it is long and sumptuously mounted but aside from those qualities, I wasn’t very impressed by it.

The Last Emperor was helmed by Italian director Bernardo Berlotucci and it feels European in its grand scope and leisurely pacing. It was the first Western film authorized by the PROC to be filmed in the Forbidden City in Beijing, so naturally all of the sets and locations are authentic and grand. It is completely understandable why it won Oscars for art direction, cinematography and especially costume design. The music by Ryuichi Sakamoto is also very strong.

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However, in many ways it felt like a foreigner telling a Chinese story. The Last Emperor is about the life of Puyi, the last Emperor of China. Evidently they based the screenplay off of Puyi’s autobiography, which is odd because so much of it rang flat and false.

To begin with, having all the characters speak English feels like an almost mocking choice. It takes you out of the scenes because this is supposed to be a serious movie and they are so obviously not speaking the right language. It’s one thing for an Indiana Jones movie to have accents but an epic masterpiece like The Last Emperor? Not so much. I guess you could make the argument it is in the traditions of old school epics like The Ten Commandments but those movies had stronger narratives to make up for the cultural awkwardness.

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Speaking of story, it boggles my mind that The Last Emperor won Best Adapted Screenplay because the narrative is very weak. We see many events happen to Puyi but I never felt sorry for him or invested in his character. For most of the movie he came across as a spoiled brat without much nuance or introspection. Towards the end he grows as a person as he is incarcerated by the communists, but I still felt distant and like I never truly understood him. We are told Puyi is the “loneliest boy on earth” but he just felt like the blandest.

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Some of the side characters are more interesting like his main wife Wanrong. She kind of has a lesbian relationship yet does seem to love Puyi and want him to succeed, which could have been interesting but it isn’t really explored in a satisfactory way. She’s a lonely character and I wish we got to know her better and have more time with her. Peter O’Toole is good as Puyi’s British tutor Reginald Johnston. He both kowtows and challenges the Chinese royal establishment, but even he could have been used more effectively and challenged more as a character.

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The frustrating thing is I can tell Puyi’s story is fascinating having gone from opulence to a puppet emperor to a prisoner and a common man all in one life. But the screenplay in The Last Emperor delivers that compelling story without any tension or emotional heft. It all landed like a thud and was really quite boring. I didn’t care about his character and the interesting parts were more like reading a textbook than watching a compelling narrative. It needed a Steven Spielberg type voice to come in with sweeping moments of drama and tension to sell the soapy dialogue and characters. That might have worked better.

I kind of wish they would remake The Last Emperor. I don’t think many are too attached to this version and there is a good story in there to tell. A modern filmmaker could have all the good qualities of this film but make it in Mandarin with a better, more compelling script and it could be an amazing film.

I can see why other people like The Last Emperor, and I do commend it for its production design, costumes, cinematography and music but it didn’t work for me as a movie. It was bland, culturally awkward and plodding. I’m glad I checked it off my blind spot list but it is definitely one I will never watch again.

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