Knives Out (2019): Well obviously this was going to be my movie of the year. I’ve been on the RJ train for a few stops now. The thread I’m starting to see through most of Johnson’s movies is a desire to challenge his audience within the bounds of genre, because he likes surprises and he likes genre. Given the opportunity, he’ll subvert your expectations about plot rather than transgressing or calling out the bounds of the category; he challenges himself to offer perspective on the rules of the story without breaking them. “No deconstruction” is maybe his core constraint. Knives Out, even though it switches genres each time there’s an act break, is still very much an Agatha Christie-style mystery made by someone who loves Agatha Christie and wants to do right by her memory.
The other thing Johnson has to do every time is include one thing just to fuck with me. Here I am in an April flashback, grumbling tipsily into my telephone…
… about exactly the accent Daniel Craig sports for the entirety of this film. The thing is, I know Daniel Craig can do a believable American regional accent, because his West Virginia twang in Logan Lucky (2017) was solid! That makes the grievous offense of Benoit Blanc even more baffling.
I have only one operating theory about what led to this dialectic horror, and it’s not a strong one, but I like it anyway. If Blanc has a manner of speaking that… mostly… equates to a Louisiana drawl, and has a French name, it hints that his ancestors were Acadian: descendants of European colonists and indigenous people who were deported from their homes in a cruel forced migration, but into the United States, rather than out. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that this would draw a subtle line between Craig’s Blanc and Ana de Armas’s Marta Cabrera.
No Retreat, No Surrender (1986): An awful movie and the centerpiece of one of my favorite nights this year. I’ve had a fondness for Mystery Science Theater 3000 since I first became aware of it, back in the Comedy Channel days, but I was never a dedicated fan until late 2018. That’s when I started relying on marijuana and puppet wisecracks to deal with the loneliness and insomnia that came with the fourth year of my long-distance relationship.
There is a younger version of Brendan—one to whom this very blog regrettably attests—who would have some choice words for a self who turned to substances for emotional problems. Present Brendan has more than a few choice words for that guy in return. But there’s no need to start 2020 by airing our dirty laundry. The point is, I had a temporary problem with making the time when I felt down pass in a more pleasant way, and I am glad the law and some remarkably cheerful sales experts allowed me to solve it. It worked! And now I live in Chicago and I get to sleep safe-and-soundly next to my fiancée every night.
The hitch was that my very first experience with THC, years ago, had put me off it for most of the intervening period, because it made time pass much more slowly. I had never experienced chemically induced time dilation—except anesthesia, I guess—and even now that I’m more seasoned it can still wig me out.
And then I discovered the solution to my solution’s problem: the steady schedule of the Satellite of Love is the gentlest way to reassure oneself that time continues to pass, at both the hourly and the yearly scale. I watched a lot of MST3K while hovering gently above my couch, and it helped relieve my brain of the duty of relitigating the 2016 election when I woke up to pee at 3 am. It doesn’t hurt that I can now relate to the idea of making bots as an isolation coping mechanism.
All of which is to say that I count myself a devoted if not expert fan of the series these days and it was a happy coincidence that their live show came through Milwaukee the week after I arrived in Chicago.
It was pretty perfect. The only TV diasporant aboard was Joel, and this was purportedly his last live tour, but there was some good video action from Mary Jo Pehl and Rebecca Hanson, and I liked the rest of the cast very much. There were welcome surprises in the fictional basis of the show, too, like (spoilers!) GPC succeeding Gypsy so nobody has to say a word that hurts people anymore, and the hint that Emily Marsh (as Emily Crenshaw) might succeed Jonah Ray as host.
If I counted all the episodes of MST3K as “movies” in my list this year, it would be a lot longer, but also inaccurate because I invariably drift off before it ends. But this one got my full attention—and sobriety, as I had to drive to Milwaukee and back that night—and I was rewarded for it. It’s a different, effervescent, and engaging experience to be present in the room where it happens. I say that like I’m surprised about it even though I got a degree in live theater.
All right, sorry for being a pothead who talks about his cult basic cable entertainment for like eight paragraphs. One thing that dovetails with this entry is that I’ve noticed my favorite jokes in MST3K aren’t of the “insert a line” or “compare unexpected reference” variety—they’re the wry or exasperated bits pointing out fundamental filmmaking mistakes. Bonus points if Crow name-checks Roger Corman in a way that almost sounds fond.