We continue our third season of Ten Movies, delving deeply into the cinematic oeuvre of Jennifer Lopez. In this week’s episode, we watch the modern-day fairy tale ‘Maid in Manhattan’, in which a heroic working-class Latina single mom falls for a rich, handsome prince who appears to be suffering from a brain concussion.
The further we get into our Jennifer Lopez season, the more dismayed we are by the quality of her body of work. She’s really great in this role – a plucky, streetwise maid [in Manhattan] who is accidentally mistaken for a member of the ruling class by a wealthy politician – but the movie itself was disappointing.
On the one hand, it has potential beyond your bog-standard romantic comedy. It’s framed more like a fable – a retelling of the Cinderella story – which (somewhat) relieves the unrealism that obtains in romantic comedies. Plus it has an incredibly strong point-of-view on class – the divide between the haves and the have-nots is constantly referenced and illustrated in the film, with the movie firmly on the side of the multi-racial proletariat.
Yet the romance at the heart of the movie falls painfully flat, largely because of Ralph Fiennes as the handsome, wealthy, Kennedy-esque Prince Charming character. He’s just terrible. Hemal felt he was miscast and doing a straight-up bad job at being, you know, charming, while Brian felt the screenwriters had simply forgotten to give his character any motivation for upending his entire privileged life beyond “Hey, that’s a hot maid! [in Manhattan]”.
You’ll have to watch and see for yourself, but we fear – sadly – you will agree.
We’re watching the films ofworld-renowned triple-threat entertainer Jennifer Lopez for the third season of Ten Movies. This week on the podcast: the sexy 1998 thriller ‘Out of Sight’ – directed by the acclaimed and prolific Steven Soderbergh and starring the eternally handsome George Clooney alongside our gal.
We had high hopes for this one. Not only is Soderbergh – a master of the cool, witty heist-movie vibe – working with two ridiculously attractive leads, the supporting cast includes Don Cheadle, Catherine Keener and Albert Brooks, alongside podcast favorites Steve Zahn and Ving Rhames. All doing a caper! Come on!
But despite that pedigree and generally high marks from critics, we did not love it. It’s not really all that sexy, since Clooney kidnaps Lopez at gunpoint and gropes her and we’re supposed to believe that revs her engines. Was kidnapping sexy in 1998? Probably not.
The movie also feels disjointed. Soderbergh would go on to make airtight stylish crime capers – like ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ and ‘Logan Lucky’ – but at this early stage of his career he definitely didn’t have the formula perfected. Sometimes it’s a stylish crime caper and sometimes it’s a violent neo-noir comedy in the vein of the Coen Brothers. And sometimes it’s just a straight-up late-90s crime thriller, like all those moves where Morgan Freeman’s a rogue detective or whatever. All perfectly acceptable registers, but discordant when combined into a single film. It was hard to know what the tone was supposed to be from scene to scene. Is this brutal murder supposed to be upsetting or darkly comedic?
Anyway, give the episode a listen and see what you think. Are we judging too harshly? Also, Brian and Hemal were sharply divided over the work here of Steve Zahn, perennial Ten Movies fave. So be warned.
For the third season of Ten Movies we’re watching the films of Jennifer Lopez. Though today she is acclaimed, celebrated and beloved, in 1997 she had yet to star in a major film. Her first big role was Selena, the true story of the Mexican-American pop singer whose meteoric rise to fame was cut short by her tragic murder at the age of 23.
So here’s the thing. The story of Selena is important, one about Americans whose stories are not often told, especially in such a positive, celebratory way. However, the movie of Selena is … not great? There’s some stellar performances, especially Edward James Olmos as Selena’s father, and Jennifer Lopez really makes you believe that Selena was a world-class performer.
But the movie was made with so much reverence for its subject that it becomes an extended exercise in hagiography – it’s the canonization of a saint. On the one hand, it’s easy to see why, given that her family – who had just lost their young, beautiful, talented daughter – was closely involved and what she represented to so many Mexican-Americans and other Americans from Latino backgrounds.
On the other hand, it makes it tough to judge this solely as a feature film. But judge it thusly we must, here at the distant remove of 2020.
Are we wrong in our criticisms? Or are they, perhaps, simply beside the point? Join us and see.
For the third season of Ten Movies we’re watching the films of Jennifer Lopez. You may know her as J Lo, or Jenny from the Block, but back in the day she was a young actress looking for a place to shine and one of her earliest roles was the giant snake horror-thriller Anaconda.
Is the giant snake movie any good? Well, Hemal and Brian did not entirely agree on the quality of the film as a work of art, but did agree that if you like giant snake movies on the whole, you will be pleased with Anaconda. They also both enjoyed the work of Jon Voight, who plays a malevolent, supercilious villain. (Sounds like maybe he’s kind of a malevolent, supercilious person in real life, so there’s some real verisimilitude here.)
The film also stars a number of other supporting actors who would go on to do good, or at least recognizable, things, including Ice Cube, Owen Wilson, Eric Stoltz and – despite Hemal’s reluctance to admit it – Kari Wuhrer.
Join us as we discuss this cinematic work, its impact on the culture, its relative wokeness in casting a Latina in a starring action role 20+ years ago and what it tells us about Ms. Lopez and her place in the American popular canon. Also we talk about the various ways the snake ate people. There were a lot.
Prior to beginning our interrogation of the American culture through the oeuvre of Ms. Jennifer Lopez (and prior to the existence of this website), we did a season on the films of Matthew McConaughey.
Here’s what we watched:
A Time to Kill
The Wedding Planner
Reign of Fire
How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days
Dallas Buyers Club
Dazed and Confused
Each episode is, of course, a masterwork of insight, humor and rigorous Marxist analysis – as is our wont. You may especially enjoy our discussion of the turgid adventure flick ‘Sahara’:
You can find this complete season (plus our ground-breaking Keanu Reeves season) on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher and wherever fine podcasts are sold
What did we discover about Mr. McConaughey? Tough question! We went into the season thinking “That guy has made a bunch of movies, some of them pretty good” and emerged still basically thinking that. He’s got more range and talent as an actor than maybe you’d give him credit for, though his forte is really dramatic roles. The dude’s made his share of rom-coms and action movies, many of them beloved, but few of them particularly good.
Mostly we came away seeing McConaughey as particularly and emphatically American. In most of his roles he exudes confidence – brisk, self-assured, silver-tongued – even when it’s unearned. He’s frequently shirtless, and has perfected the fine art of being sexy but non-threatening. “Hey, baby, let me push that strand of hair back from your forehead.”
Programming note: Alert readers will spot not ten, but eleven movies in that list. We agreed early on that ‘Dazed & Confused’ was not properly a McConaughey film, as his role is quite minor. But despite that movie being 27 years old, people still associate him so strongly with it (“All right, all right, all right”). It was far and away the movie people asked us about, so we decided to discuss his role in our end-of-season wrap-up episode. Honestly, it’s not like we have so many fans we can afford to ignore any of them.
Keanu Reeves. Beloved and deeply familiar, yet somehow still enigmatic.
But why? And how? Keanu has been a consistent part of our cultural consciousness since Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure came to the cineplex in 1989. His star has waxed and waned since then, and let’s be straight – he’s made some real stinkers. But he’s come through that thirty-year stretch in remarkably good odor and is enjoying a new moment of adoration. A Keanuissance, if you will, and not the first.
In 2019, we decided to add one more podcast to the overfull trough with Ten Movies. Our first subject: Keanu Reeves. We would watch ten iconic Keanu movies and hoped that in doing so we might unearth something about the dark, quotidian heart of America. Mostly we did not. But we did arrive at five reasons why people love Keanu Reeves.
Keanu’s Three Great Strengths: Unflappability, Likability, Hair
In the best Keanu movies we watched, we identified three key strengths. Unflappability, likability and hair.
Keanu does unflappable really well. Sometimes he says “whoa” in a low voice. Sometimes it’s all in the eyes. But from the almost comically imperturbable assassin John Wick to the alert but tranquil Jack Traven from Speed, when something dramatic and crazy happens, Keanu stays cool.
He’s also really likable. Which doesn’t seem like an acting choice, necessarily. But while Forrest Whitaker or the late Philip Seymour Hoffman might repel or attract us in a role by truly inhabiting a character, Keanu’s gift of impossible likability is something rarer and stranger — the stuff of movie stardom.
And hair? The man has incredible hair, and — in his best roles — his hair tells you what’s up. In the Matrix, Thomas Anderson starts with boring officer worker hair, only to reveal stubbly dystopian future hair when he comes gasping out of a tub of goo. And then, as he masters the mysteries of the Matrix? Gun hair. If his gung-ho demeanor and ridiculous name didn’t clue you in that Point Break’s Johnny Utah was a straight-shooting lawman, his Midwestern football player hair would. And Ted (Theodore) Logan’s floppy mess says “I am about to drop out of high school” clearer than any report card.
Keanu Does Kung-Fu, and He Means it
Keanu is a supremely gifted (and hard-working) physical actor. He’s at his best when he’s running or kicking or leaping onto a moving object. In roles that require our hero to convey inner landscapes, his talents flag. But when he’s propelling a movie forward by doing stuff, he’s in his element.
At first, this may sound like damning with faint praise. You know, he’s not a real actor, but he’s a good action star. But the more we watched Keanu’s films, the more we came to appreciate what his brand of physical acting can convey onscreen. In Speed, he’s jumping on that bus (And then back off! And then back on!); in the Matrix he’s walloping bad guys; in Point Break he’s skydiving and surfing and chasing bank robbers. And you always believe, as a viewer, that the character is really doing these things.
As a people, we tend to treat action movies as second-class fare. It’s fine for pork chop night, but it’s not, you know, cinema. People fan themselves when Daniel Day Lewis lives in a shack with no heat or stops taking baths for a role, but here’s Keanu, up at 4 am for MONTHS practicing kung fu so that shit will look bad-ass and legit onscreen. That’s the real deal.
Keanu Seems a Genuinely Decent Fellow
We love movies, especially big-budget Hollywood movies. But learning about a celebrity movie star offscreen is a proposition with almost no upside. The culture machine packages these handsome, charming people for you to consume in a bewildering variety of ways. They’re on Instagram, they’re on the Late Show, they’re in your magazine and on your phone, smiling and winking and having a laugh. But none of that makes you enjoy the movies any more, and can easily make you enjoy them less. Plus a lot of famous people are jerks, or worse.
Refreshingly, Keanu doesn’t seem to be a jerk. He has no social media accounts and he visibly dislikes doing press. He’s famous enough that there’s plenty of material about him out there, but he doesn’t seem a willing participant in any of it except the actual movies that he makes.
Even better, the further along Keanu got in his career, the more he put his leverage towards shining a spotlight on other people. He made ‘Man of Tai Chi’ because he wanted his friend, the stuntman Tiger Chen, to be the star of a movie. He sought out his favorite fight choreographers to direct ‘John Wick’, even though the studio was skeptical. He drove a motorcycle from Canada to Florida to make sure River Phoenix read the script for ‘My Own Private Idaho’.
Looking at Keanu’s better movies, as well as some of his real stinkers, one theme emerged strongly: Keanu cannot be made to fit the movie. The movie must be made to fit Keanu.
At a certain point in his career, Keanu was a bankable movie star. He seemed to be a leading man in the style of Brad Pitt or Kevin Costner — handsome, reliable, successful. But in movies like ‘The Lake House’ or ‘Hardball’, where he’s playing these traditional leading man roles, he’s just not very good. In the roles where you can’t imagine anyone else, like ‘John Wick’ or ‘The Matrix’, he’s gold. But in roles that someone else could have easily played, he’s ho-hum.
Again, going into this project, this seemed a weakness of Keanu. Okay, well, sure, he just has a limited range. But the more we watched, the more we came to appreciate his essential strangeness when it came to these sorts of roles.
As Americans, we’re fed a steady diet of cliched, nutrient-free entertainment. Hero cops and soulful divorced dads and honorable lawyers looking for justice no matter the cost. It’s not as if Keanu is above these roles. He’s certainly tried them. But when he’s stuffed like a pig into the familiar chute of the by-the-numbers wannabe blockbuster, he’s simply not very good. And, as viewers, we grew to appreciate that. Maybe he doesn’t want to do it, or maybe he’s unable to do it. He’s resistant to bad filmmaking at a reflexive, almost molecular, level.
Keanu Believes in Movies
It may strain credulity to think of Keanu Reeves as some kind of principled auteur. Just glance through his filmography and you’ll find plenty of indifferent, forgettable or downright terrible movies. We even watched a few of them. (Hemal loves ‘The Lake House’, but it’s terrible.)
But in his brightest moments, Keanu chooses to do movies that bring something new into the world. The best example, of course, is ‘The Matrix’. Twenty years after it came out, it’s hard to remember ‘The Matrix’ as challenging or ground-breaking. But it was. It created a visual language for action that has been so widely imitated it feels cliche. And it used the vehicle of a Hollywood blockbuster to treat seriously ideas about the nature of reality and the nature of self; a weird, epic, Marxist, Buddhist, kung-fu movie with trenchcoats and Laurence Fishburne.
Another film we watched was ‘Man of Tai Chi’, Keanu’s debut as a director. He also plays the villain. Interestingly, it’s not a commentary on kung fu movies or a twist or a take. It’s just a kung-fu movie, an old-fashioned genre flick. Keanu takes it seriously; no flashy cuts, just wide shots of people actually doing spectacular hand-to-hand combat.
We did not watch the entire Keanu filmography, because that is simply too much Keanu. Instead, we concentrated on his best-known movies, interspersed with a few lesser works that we thought might offer some insight.
Below is a short recap of each Keanu movie we watched, linked to the podcast episode about it. We didn’t create a ranking system, as that would have been disrespectful.
Point Break: If you’ve never seen this, watch it immediately. It is ridiculous and super.
Speed: The movie for which the descriptor “white-knuckled thrill ride” is most true. You remember it as a perfectly enjoyable action movie but you’ll end up saying “Oh SHIT!” at least once every ten minutes.
Hardball: Ugh, this one is just awful. Don’t even watch it.
My Own Private Idaho: Deeply strange. Hemal loved it and Brian disliked it but still wants you to watch it.
Man of Tai Chi: Do you like kung-fu movies? If so, you will probably like this one.
John Wick: Stylish. Dark. Violent. America’s favorite murderous assassin.
The Matrix: Twenty years later, this movie is still straight-up enthralling. Hemal didn’t like re-watching it, though she grudgingly gave up the props. Brian watched it twice in two days, despite having seen it ten times already.
The Lake House: Hoo boy. The most divisive film on our list. Also probably the best episode of our Keanu podcast. Man, though, this movie is not good.