Sunday, December 28, 2014

#783. Seven Best Movies of 2014

1.) Interstellar
I've already called this one my pick for the year's best movie.  The reception otherwise seems to be lukewarm (the lack of Golden Globe nominations just one recent reminder), but that's the fickle public for you, after three huge blockbusters (The Dark Knight and Inception especially, and The Dark Knight Rises to a lesser extent, and perhaps now clearly the beginning of the cooling process).  This is Christopher Nolan's opus, in a career that seems already full of them.  What makes this so special is that it's the first time that the director has grounded his story less in flashy concept than the human drama that roots it.  All around it's Nolan pushing all of his instincts to the next level.  he was already among the elite.  Now he's making a bid for something greater.

2.) Winter's Tale
Based on the Mark Helprin novel, this is the second of three high concept movies that converged to make 2014 truly exceptional in that degree, movies that didn't merely suggest but demand their ideas take center stage.  Out of the three, it's no surprise that Winter's Tale ultimately proved the hardest to swallow.  This was Akiva Goldsman's directorial debut.  He's previously been known for his screenwriting, where no doubt opinions might rightly be split on his efforts (Batman Forever and Batman & Robin on one side, A Beautiful Mind and Cinderella Man on the other, say).  I think his true apprenticeship for this movie came from his time working on Fringe, a TV series that sought to challenge audiences with the same mix of intimate character work and the baffling events that surrounded them.  Obviously, the fact that it stars Colin Farrell made me interested to begin with, but Winter's Tale itself continues to fascinate me.

3.) Noah
Darren Aronofsky's sixth movie may be his best.  This is a bold statement, in that his previous movies have a great deal of critical approval behind them (starting with Pi and continued through Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler, and Black Swan).  Only The Fountain has stymied the critics to the extent Noah has, and that one fell through so many cracks I bet most people still haven't even heard of it.  Noah was always going to have an unavoidable profile, given that it's a biblical epic.  Sixty years ago this would have been an acceptable part of the mainstream.  Only this year have critics begun to speak of the controversial Passion of the Christ positively, and that one was released a decade ago to famously spectacular box office success.  The thing about Noah is that it's not "acceptable" by either mainstream or religious standards.  Aronofsky made an Aronofsky movie.  Anyone who saw Requiem will recognize its DNA in Noah.  Like Winter's Tale, Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly are featured.  Crowe does some of his best work in a career filled with exceptional acting, portraying a man tortured by what he believed has been asked of him.  I've experienced many different versions of this story, and I've been fortunate to experience several good ones.  This is definitely one of them.

4.) Locke
The only actor to appear in the whole movie is Tom Hardy.  Released early in the year, it received a little bit of attention given that fact, but it's been forgotten largely overlooked, and that's unfortunate.  After everyone discovered Hardy in Christopher Nolan's Inception, it became harder to overlook the actor's incredible ability to reinvent himself in each new role, which is to say, acknowledge his considerable talent.  He's not the first person to be the only actor in a major motion picture (a recent example would be Robert Redford in All is Lost, a kind of more subdued Castaway), but this is literally a whole movie of watching Hardy drive.  He takes a series of phone calls, and as they continue, the drama escalates, because the pressure of the situation builds.  This is a life that has already come undone, but over the course of the movie, it becomes obvious how.  It's quite remarkable.

5.) The Amazing Spider-Man 2
In a year filled with excellent superhero movies, it's the one that the fewest truly seemed to enjoy that is arguably the best.  Maybe I was biased, given how much I enjoyed director Marc Webb's earlier (500) Days of Summer, but this is the best Spider-Man movie yet, one that truly appreciates the complexities of Peter Parker's life and explores it in ways many comic books have tried over the years, but never to this emotional degree.   The villains are the one concession Amazing Spider-Man 2 makes to what most other superhero movies have done.  The rest of it is what it proves can still be done, if only filmmakers make the effort.

6.) Sin City: A Dame to Kill For
I liked the first one, but the second one is better.  Oh, it's better.  Critics have gotten audiences to agree with them that Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller have been collaborating on a glorified novelty act, one that is relentlessly misogynistic, but if that were the case, I wouldn't expect Eva Green and Jessica Alba to have been the best parts of A Dame to Kill For.  Green has been a bombshell of a different kind for nearly a decade at this point, blazing new ground in the mainstream since Casino Royale, and only recently has she begun to find roles worthy of her.  I suspect the best is yet to come.  Alba wouldn't get anywhere close to this kind of material from anyone but Rodriguez, which makes me anticipate the next time they work together.  Throw in Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Josh Brolin, and of course Mickey Rourke, and it's not just the way this one's presented that makes it so riveting, but what the characters in it are doing, which has less to do with shock value this time, with more emphasis on storytelling.

7.) The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Peter Jackson's likely last visit to Tolkien's Middle-earth is less compelling than its immediate predecessor, The Desolation of Smaug, but by the time it finds echoes from the first of the six-volume saga, The Fellowship of the Ring, it's clear the director made an effort to encompass the whole experience in more ways than one as he says goodbye.  Until Smaug, Fellowship was my favorite of the series, with its strong character work, anchored by the death of Boromir.  When Jackson first introduced Thorin Oakenshield, I thought he was a big to be a surrogate Aragorn.  But as it turns out, he was Boromir all along.  I haven't read the book since I was in elementary school, so had forgotten that Thorin's arc exists in it.  The changes Jackson did make in his three films, including the creation of Evangeline Lilly's Tauriel, are all welcome decisions as far as I'm concerned.

Friday, December 19, 2014

#782. Farewell to Craig and Geoff

Tonight marks the final episode of The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, and I for one am pretty sad about that.

I mean, who else in the history of late night television ever had a robot for a co-star?  Good ol' mohawked Geoff, I think I'll miss you most of all.

But seriously, Ferguson always looked like he was having a blast, and his enthusiasm was contagious.  Jimmy Fallon knows how to have a good time, and Conan O'Brien is a master of the absurd, but the rowdy Scot who once penned a memoir entitled American on Purpose, was perennially unheralded but always great, in an era of hosts clearly aware of tradition and usually overly constrained by it.  Ferguson always played fast and loose.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

#781. 2014 in Parentheses

This is a story that does not yet have an ending.

A little over a year ago, I moved back home.  Yeah, I was part of the financial crush that hurt a lot of people, but the reason I was needed was much more simple than that: my mother was dying.  She was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer in the fall of 2010, and it spread throughout the rest of her body in due order.  When I arrived last fall, she was still ambulatory, but that was a story that has since concluded.

She has deteriorated in regular intervals this year.  To say it has had a profound effect on me would be an understatement.  Everything that I have done over the past twelve months has been affected by her developing condition.

The first order of business, as I reported in my commentary a year ago, was to move my parents out of the house our family had lived in for thirty years.  The specter of her decreased mobility was present even then.  She couldn't walk up the stairs without terrifying those who witnessed her, and as such was the motivating factor for the move.  Falls seemed imminent each time.  At that point, they had not become a regular feature of her life.  This would change early in 2014.

When they began, they almost seemed harmless.  She was never seriously injured in any of them, unless you count the number of times her head struck the floor.  The day we had to have emergency services help us get her back up, we couldn't imagine, my father and I, that our evening would only grow worse when we got back home, after she was reoriented and evaluated at the hospital.  She couldn't climb the stairs to the house.  She had no power in her legs.  We struggled to help her.  I won't go into further details, but suffice to say at one point she became dead weight and lost all cognizance.  In some ways this was a mercy.  I looked into her face and saw someone I didn't recognize.

Last year I said I'd already experienced the worst moment of this whole ordeal, and I still stand by that statement, but it seems more hollow from this vantage point.  My sister's father-in-law helped us install a ramp.  She went from using a cane to a walker to what's called a transfer seat but by all appearances is basically a wheelchair, in rapid succession.  We started receiving assistance in the home.  It was only a matter of time before we could no longer adequately care for her in this manner.  A few weeks back she was moved into a nursing facility.

I have no idea how or when the story ends.  We visit twice a day, and she has good days and bad days.  Our victories are counted in what she has managed to eat.  She is barely communicative at this point.  There are flashes of the person we knew, and then there are times when all she can say is a series of numbers, and then when all she can do is open her eyes long enough to acknowledge us.  Sometimes her voice is only a whisper.

Thanksgiving was spent with her.  We ate with her, and other residents, in the dining room.  Christmas, hopefully, will be better.  She says the only gift she wants is coffee.  Actually, that has been the most pleasant thing to come from the past year, discovering how such a simple thing can so reliably give her at least one happy thought.

I hope you understand if I don't tell you the ending.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

#780. Fifty-One Years, Twenty-Two Days...

Last month held the dubious distinction of being yet another anniversary in the assassination of John F. Kennedy, which has now crossed the half-century mark.  Someone at work turned up a copy of that year's Time magazine, dated November 25, 2013.  The issue carries two articles on this singular note in American history, David Von Drehle's "Broken Trust" and Jack Dickey's "Debunker Among the Buffs."

You may remember that I've written about the assassination here in the past, including on the fiftieth anniversary itself and in relation to Stephan King's novel 11/22/63.  To say the event fascinates me is about as good a way to put it as I can find.  I'm not exactly a conspiracy theorist.  For one, I'm probably half the age most of them tend to be, because those with the most vested interest were alive when it happened.

Time's coverage concerns the conspiracies.  Why is it, the magazine asks, we can't move past this, accept that what appears to have been the case was the case, that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, fatally shooting Kennedy from a perch in the Texas School Book Depository overlooking Dealey Plaza?

I'm not going to do an in-depth discussion here.  The whole reason I'm writing about it today at all is because of Time's articles.  Time is one of the most-respected names in print journalism, an institution that seeks to maintain the integrity and dignity of a medium that has been declared a dinosaur waiting for extinction.  I myself have read it casually for years and have generally respected its contents.  When I saw this copy in the break room, I was excited to have stumbled into the opportunity to read its perspective on the anniversary.

I wonder now if this were one of those instances where fate plays cruel tricks on us.

Neither article is well-reasoned, actually.  They are blatantly written from a skeptic's eye, outright dismissive of the idea they seek to explore.  I'm not indicting the whole magazine, but it's certainly sad to see such an important moment covered so cavalierly by a major media outlet of any form.

For one reason or another, the assassination became a touchstone; arguably it was more important to Kennedy's legacy than his thousand days in office or the handful of crises he handled or even the ambitious projects his successors helped see to fulfillment (given how monumental they were, the moon landing and civil rights, that's certainly saying something).  Historians debate how significant the man was, but there's no denying the significance of his death.  That much Time properly acknowledges.

Von Drehle purports to examine the various conspiracies that have been propounded over the years, but right away, he turns it into a sensation piece, describing the assassination itself as so shocking it can't be explained in words even today without causing trauma to his readers.  "I recently waded into the thicket of theories," he continues, "trying to understand the roots and fruits of this vast enterprise, which is part scholarship, part fever dream.  I got just far enough to see how quickly the forest can swallow a person up."

In other words, he admits that the task he set out to accomplish immediately overwhelmed him.  Time might have done everyone the service of assigning this piece to someone else.

The thing everyone knew about Kennedy while he was alive was the image of Camelot, the romantic ideal he embodied as a young President who by his very presence promised something new, an occupant of the White House fit for the emerging age of the media.  While his policies split the country down the middle, Kennedy himself and his wife Jackie seemed to have stepped out of a fairy tale, one that ended like one of the Brothers Grimm stories indeed.

The day he died, it became impossible to reconcile the way it happened with the outsize role he filled in the public imagination, and so, as Von Drehle argues, the public responded by creating a reality where the facts fit the fantasy.  Or in other words, the conspiracy theories began.

This is not the same as saying it's impossible to believe that anything but what the Warren Commission concluded could be true.  Unfortunately, that's exactly what Von Drehle says, without once more than flippantly dismissing and hardly addressing any other possibility.  This isn't responsible journalism, and not the way to mark what the magazine has already determined to be an enduring moment.  Dickey's follow-up is a shorter, and correspondingly condensed, version of Von Drehle's lead.  He talks about how he eagerly debates theorists, but not how and without admitting that he could ever be wrong.  There's another word for that, and it's not argument.

Even from reading a work of fiction like King's 11/22/63, a strong case can emerge that supports plenty of justification to believe the portrait of Kennedy's assassination is murkier than history seems determined to make it, even as King himself vehemently concludes in the orthodox view.  It doesn't take a conspiracy for an assassin to act.  Every other President murdered in American history was a fairly open-and-shut case.  What makes Kennedy different?  A journalist would have explored that.  Even if Oswald did act alone, that's what a journalist's article in Time should have done.

This is not the time to brush the whole affair under the carpet.  Those who were alive on that day still say, like my father, "We'll never know the truth in our lifetime."  That's how deep this goes.  It's not even about specific theories, but the belief that there is, bottom-line, a wider portrait to be had than the one we've been given.

It's not so crazy to think that way, no matter what Time apparently feels justified in implying.

Friday, December 12, 2014

#779. Mock Squid Soup: Pulp Fiction

via Wallpaper Vortex
The merry meeting of the Mock Squid Soup society has nothing to do with Marvel Comics and less to do with counterfeit cephalopods (what a horrible thought!), but does involve a dude named Mock and another dude named Squid and movies that they've selected and sometimes watched together, because they don't just know each other on the Internet but somehow still communicate here and not through social media invented this millennium (I kid because of the soup!).

This month they selected Pulp Fiction, which was released twenty years ago but only five and a half films ago from director Quentin Tarantino, who lately has built his career out of helping Christoph Waltz win Best Supporting Actor honors from the Oscars.

It's a great selection, one of the defining pieces of modern cinema, and I don't just say that because there have seemingly been whole careers for critics built out of trying to identify which filmmakers were inspired by it.  Personally, I'd recommend you watch The Usual Suspects, Smokin' Aces, In Bruges, London Boulevard, Seven Psychopaths (incredibly those last three movies star Colin Farrell, but no one has ever identified him as prime Tarantino material), but start at the beginning with On the Waterfront and maybe Casablanca.

Tarantino has been called the child of pop culture, but that's not really true.  He's a veteran of the video store era, back when people watched movies as a hobby, and there was no bigger aficionado than Tarantino.  Except maybe this was a kid who grew up in the '70s and spent the '80s dreaming of a way to pay his respects, because that's what his budding career looks like, the best way to summarize Pulp Fiction.

Everyone remembers John Travolta, Uma Thurman, and especially Samuel L. Jackson, but perhaps the most telling elements of the movie revolve around Bruce Willis.  And mind you, Pulp Fiction is basically a Western, born from the aftermath of Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name emerging and John Wayne dying and then later Eastwood's modern cowboy Dirty Harry, but with all the good guy glamour finally drained.  Pulp Fiction is a world of bad guys.  It's also a world without a defining war for the first time in the 20th Century, when such things came around every twenty years.  You can't be an American and not have thought about that.  But Bruce Willis is part of a new generation.  His character's great-grandfather fought in WWI, his grandfather in WWII, and his father, as memorably explained by Christopher Walken, in Vietnam.  Willis is a boxer, smack dab in the era when boxing began to become culturally irrelevant, Mike Tyson's career crumbling and nobody emerging to replace him.  This is also around the time when football began to take over with two Super Bowls dominated by, you guessed it, the Cowboys.

How any of that makes sense: actually, pretty much the same way as the pretzel logic of Pulp Fiction, in which Willis shoots Travolta dead in the middle, apparently, of Travolta's adventures.  I can't possibly argue that Americans liked the idea of war.  By Vietnam we positively revolted it, and that's shaped our culture ever since.  We'd once again be stupid enough to let Hitler run rampage through Europe.  It's the idea of individuals running around doing exactly how they please.  Not exactly lawless, but the law of the land is chaos.  The boxer is free to go unscrutinized.  Tyson bites someone's ear off, everyone screams bloody murder, then forget that boxing is already a pretty brutal past time and then decide, hey! MMA looks like an acceptable alternative!  So then we embrace football, where chaos is definitely the law of the land, and by the time another war or two rolls around, everyone decides that we should end them as soon as possible regardless of whether or not our objectives are clearly identified let alone met, and yeah, so ISIS.

And crazy people running around with guns executing people.  I'm not calling Tarantino a visionary, but his hand was definitely on the pulse.  In his later movies, he worries less about tricks than he does explaining himself so that he can't be misunderstood with all that showmanship he's so good at, everything people expect from him.  And somehow, his message keeps getting lost.  I think Tarantino gets away with breaking rules because people ultimately decide, it's Quentin being Quentin, but like the old rock critics, they also proclaim that he's not as good as he used to be and they'll never make another like him.

Whatever that means.

All his good guys are bad guys, and there are huge pieces of his stories that are never told.  Ving Rhames already has a band-aid on the back of his head when we first meet him, chronologically and story-wise.  It's not quite as extreme as Brad Pitt with the giant scar on his neck throughout the whole of Inglorious Basterds, but it's also the visual equivalent of the story Travolta and Jackson share about the last time someone had the task of babysitting Thurman, the story Travolta has in the back of his mind through most of the movie, and by turns, the idea of the watch Willis inherited from three previous generations, and even the mystery of what's inside Rhames' briefcase that Jackson carries around throughout, what he refuses to give Tim Roth, because it belongs to someone else.

Because it belongs to someone else.  That's it, really, isn't it?  It's the idea of greed, and what some people are willing to do and what some aren't.  Twenty years and counting without a war at that point.  Everyone was waiting for the next shoe to drop.  And it seemed like it never would.  What does that say about us?  It's a heck of a responsibility.  Everyone talks about peace, but even Jackson wants to retire but to "adventures," which is to say no peace at all.  The idea of "pulp fiction" harks back to a time when we glorified the bad guys (who else do you think Jesse James and Billy the Kid were, guys who helped inspire this subject matter?).  Pointedly, until Willis kills his opponent in the ring, without even realizing it, without giving it a second thought because he desperately needed to save his own hide knowing that he's made a deal with Rhames to lose the fight, he's never killed anyone.  He kills several people after it.  He kills one person with a samurai sword (the whole idea of Kill Bill percolates throughout Pulp Fiction).  It becomes a farce.  Okay, the whole thing's a farce.

It's a movie with multiple narratives, like the later Traffic, Crash, and Babel, but strangely I don't know that Pulp Fiction is thought of in that way.  Like I said, usually as a Tarantino film, a Travolta film, a Jackson film (arguably, somehow, still the only movie to have truly appreciated having him in it), but not a Willis film.  But it is a Willis film.  Watch the later 16 Block.  You wouldn't have 16 Blocks without Pulp Fiction.  But it's all of these things, and it doesn't even start with Travolta or Jackson or Thurman or Rhames or Willis, but with Roth, who has the least to do with anyone else.  By the time he interacts with Jackson, at the end of the movie, Roth's presence has completely vanished.  He's the least important element, but he's also a crucial element.  What is it that belongs to somebody else but has crucial value to yourself?  It's the movie's unspoken riddle, the answer you don't even realize you were looking for.  Maybe this is a movie about life in general.  It's a topical movie, eternally so, without even looking like it's trying to be.  That's film-making.

Of course it changed everything.  It's not an easy movie to figure out, and so you have all these people trying, and failing miserably, to do so, and identifying all the wrong elements about what Tarantino's contemporaries did after its release.  You might as well say it's exactly the same movie as Forrest Gump or The Shawshank Redemption, which by the way it basically is.  It's just, Pulp Fiction has flare.

Just as Willis is routinely overlooked, there's also Rhames.  Do you even know Ving Rhames offhand?  You probably should, but the fact that you might not speaks about all the injustices Tarantino is really talking about, the little crimes we perpetrate against each other (a foot message, say) while focusing on all the bad guys shooting their guns all over the place.  That's why Jackson and Travolta seem to talk in trivialities, because Tarantino realized that suddenly it's no longer the big events happening, at that time, but all the mundane little moments that get to us.  We try and focus on everything else, but really, who are we kidding?  That's what Jackson is thinking at the end of the movie.  Harvey Keitel shows up and he's the only guy who can calmly talk people through a crisis, until Jackson, the only one who learns anything, replicates the fete.  Love and war.  It's the idea of breaking eggs to make an omelette.

Rhames, by the way, has appeared in all of the Mission: Impossible movies, and starred in the excellent Rosewood, another unusual Western.  He's still routinely overlooked.  I think Thurman as a brunette in Pulp Fiction causes a lot of people to forget she was in that, too, why it took Tarantino to collaborate with her again in Kill Bill for people to remark that she was still making movies and very much capable of turning heads (you know, or decapitating them), but somehow still like Pam Grier and Robert Forster in Jackie Brown, a couple of born stars who outside of Tarantino can't catch a break.

And you know who I realized seems to have adopted a lot of her persona from Thurman in Pulp Fiction?  Zooey Deschanel.  Obviously there are differences, but not as many as you'd think.  People tend to overlook her, too.  And she's as least as lethal a catch in (500) Days of Summer as Thurman in Pulp Fiction.

This is not my favorite Tarantino film.  Lately it's been whatever the newest one was, and that started with Kill Bill Vol. 2 and continued with Inglourious Basterds and currently rests with Django Unchained.  Because Quentin Tarantino is, ultimately, restless.  He's never happy unless he's challenged himself.  He's said that he's looking to retirement relatively soon.  He got angry after his script for The Hateful Eight was leaked, vowed he wouldn't make it as a result, but of course he will.  This is a guy who has probably spent his whole life telling himself stories.  You can see that in Reservoir Dogs, and even Death Proof.  That's why he's such a vital storyteller, because he believes in stories, the stories other people have told, and the ones he wants to tell as a result.  Some claim that he's nothing but a glorified rip-off artist.  I call him aware.  More and more, he's trying to make his viewers aware, too, cut through all the nonsense we like to tell ourselves (the telling scene in Django Unchained as Leonardo DiCaprio explains his version of why the black man is inferior, and the irony of Waltz explaining to him later that his idol, Alexander Dumas, was black).

Anytime you compare someone to Shakespeare, you have to have a really good argument, but you also have to remember, if it hadn't been for the folio of his works, Shakespeare likely would have been forgotten, and we wouldn't be sitting here explaining the eternal brilliance of him, either.  Tarantino, I'm convinced, is in Shakespeare's league. Pulp Fiction might be considered, above all else, A Midsummer Night's Dream.

And yeah, it's still cool, after twenty years.

Monday, November 24, 2014

#778. How is there a better film this year than Interstellar?

Interstellar is the best movie of the year.

There's no way there can be serious competition.  This is a filmmaker at the height of his powers, the culmination of everything Christopher Nolan has done so far in his career.  How does he top it?  That's the only question here.

Interstellar is Nolan challenging an entire generation, asking all the biggest questions mankind has ever had, and coming up with conclusions.  Time and time again, he's challenged audiences and then left them to come to their own conclusions.  Interstellar is different because this time, he presents his.  He wants to know whatever happened to the idea of human ingenuity, human ambition.  In some ways, only Darren Aronosky's The Fountain, a film that didn't offer answers, has ever even approached the scope of Nolan's achievement.  You've no doubt heard a parade of critics present 2001: A Space Odyssey as Interstellar's natural predecessor and obvious better, but that's exactly the idea Nolan is completely rebuffing in his film.

2001 came at the height of the era Nolan is addressing in the movie.  It was originally released in 1968, a year before the moon landing (a crucial plot point in Nolan's vision), and represented not only the high point in writer Arthur C. Clarke's career, but also, arguably, director Stanley Kubrick's, an experience that completely redefined "scope" in storytelling in any medium.  Its conclusions, though, were muddled, "cosmic" if you want to be generous.  Interstellar is littered with echoes, and so that certainly made the job of those critics easier, and their conclusions were easiest of all: critics always prove conservative.  They went with the older model.  They're exactly who Nolan is looking to refute.  In 2001 a mysterious monolith appears and leads to a journey into the unknown, and the unknown remains the unknown, which is certainly a message in itself, but has no real scientific impetus behind it.  It is instead a symbol of all the hope of its era, when everything seemed possible.

We know, however, that all that hope led only to one disaster after another.  The Cold war continued.  The Vietnam War continued.  Nixon resigned the presidency.  Race relations remained unresolved.  Politics only became messier.  The Middle East exploded.  You name it.  And science has been reduced to the toys you play with instead of interacting with other people.  We've become increasingly self-centered.  And we have no ambition.

The next time films had an epic vision, it was Close Encounters of the Third Kind, another film that left the ending somewhere in the viewer's imagination.  Which is fine.  Spielberg returned to aliens with E.T., and then his grandest ambitions in A.I., a movie that was dismissed as his poor imitation of Kubrick, who'd initially conceived the project.  I never agreed with that assessment, but it does acknowledge how Spielberg failed to nail his ending.

Terrence Malick, in The Tree of Life, and Duncan Jones, with Source Code, delivered a pair of game-changers, mind-widening wonders that were generally overlooked.  J.J. Abrams is the next filmmaker ready to take a crack, but so far his greatest projects have been on television, Lost and Fringe, the latter of which was something like an answer to its predecessor, the one disgruntled fans were looking for but failed to follow.  Super 8 was called a Spielberg film.  After Star Wars, what else can Abrams do?

Nolan, meanwhile, has been tackling one epic vision after another, starting small and always branching outward.  From Memento to The Prestige to Inception, and his deepening of superheroes in the Dark Knight trilogy, he sought to challenge himself and his audiences, help each other grow.  With Interstellar he's finally delivered his thesis.

Interstellar is about ambition and love, about science and about progress, about the past and the future, and certainly the present.  It's a human adventure most of all.  He wants to know why we stopped being explorers, started letting setbacks get in our way, and why we no longer embrace big stories.  Gravity was the last time we went into space at the movies, but it wasn't about the possibilities of space at all, but about its tragedies, like Apollo 13.  Ridley Scott turned the Alien franchise back to its origins with Prometheus, but was scoffed at when he left the story unfinished, another Matrix where humanity is left to fight yet another battle, look to settle another score just when it seems victory was already attained, that happy ending found.  "They" in Interstellar is "us."  This is what M. Night Shyamalan has been trying to say for years but never found the words.  Nolan did find them.

Interstellar does what Source Code only did if you figured out what really happened.  Nolan has done away with riddles.  And he does it with gusto.  Great acting.  Great visuals.  Great storytelling.  Great music.  And a conclusion.  Not an implication.  A statement.

Any serious observer, any real movie fan, will admit that Interstellar has done the impossible.  Sometimes the best films are intimate journeys.  This time it's truly epic, in every sense, what filmmakers have been trying to do from the very start.  Give us a truly magical experience.  Many have tried.  Nolan succeeded.

It's the best movie of the year.

Friday, November 14, 2014

#777. Mock Squid Soup: Space Battleship Yamato

via Star Advertiser
The Mock Squid Soup society is meeting again to discuss Space Battleship Yamato, a 2010 Japanese movie based on a 1970s anime.  As always, Mock Squid Soup is, astoundingly, presented by a couple of people named Mock and Squid, but not by a mock squid.  That would just be silly.

This is the first selection of theirs that I had not previously seen.  I scrambled for a few weeks attempting to find a copy, and when all else failed I did what people have done for thousands of years: bummed it off the Internet for free.

A large swath of Space Battleship Yamato is right up my wheelhouse, which is to say it features significant portions of spaceships going boom! boom! boom!  I have an incurable knack this kind of movie, and an even worse impulse to like the result regardless of its overall critical merits, which include things like what everyone else says about it.

But Space Battleship Yamato has a secret weapon in that regard, in that it's not generally known among American audiences, who tend to hate even the things they like.  So I was pretty safe this time.

The thing about this movie, however, is that it owes more to fan films than to Hollywood.  That's okay.  I've watched my share of foreign productions.  In my first year of college there was a standing date when a new one would be screened every week (or whatever the interval was), movies like Earth (1998), The King of Masks (watch for the teapot!), and Dancing at Lughnasa (in which Meryl Streep convincingly plays Irish!).  

I've watched plenty of Japanese movies, too, including a bunch of anime, far too little Kurosawa, and probably the most similar experience to Space Battleship Yamato, the trippy Versus.  But I would probably call the most relevant experience Clint Eastwood's Letters from Iwo Jima, the movie that made its predecessor Flags of Our Fathers instantly irrelevant in comparison.

If you've never seen Letters, you should correct that as soon as possible.  Outside of Tora! Tora! Tora! it's probably the only movie a classroom should screen regarding the Pacific Theater during WWII.  Ken Watanabe leads a cast that explores the face of the enemy in such a way that you can't help wondering...these guys were the enemy?  WWII wasn't exactly known as that kind of war (but then, what war is?), and no matter what Quentin Tarantino did with Inglourious Basterds no one will ever manage that with the Nazis (except, Christoph Waltz!), so that's a heck of an accomplishment.

Space Battleship Yamato is sort of that kind of experience, in that it relates the Japanese perspective of WWII via allegory via aliens and spaceships.  Watching it, you probably don't even realize the bad guys are essentially those dastardly Americans.  Although you have to admit, it's probably wrong to say "those dastardly Americans" so flippantly when you think that the only use of nuclear weapons in warfare on record was in fact by Americans on the Japanese.  Twice.

This is a grim movie in a lot of respects.  The actors talk almost uniformly in solemn tones, which makes for tough listening after a while (if you're looking for something other than one-note performances, this is not the movie you're looking for).  Putting the story in its proper context (the historic Yamato was Japan's last best hope for glorious victory, so to make a futuristic one carry the same role and to actually accomplish it is not just science fiction but wish fulfillment in a way you probably hadn't thought of before; it's not all Godzilla over there in terms of the national post-nuclear psyche) takes a lot of the wind out of its escapist sails.

I think I would have to watch it again to quit worrying so much about its implications and just lose myself in the experience.  But in all seriousness, that goofy captain's hat has got to go.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

#776. The 24th annual PWI 500

Okay, so my readers can ignore this one.  It's time once again for me to pretend anyone actually cares when I blog about wrestling!

And it's time, once again, to talk about the PWI 500.  This is the annual list Pro Wrestling Illustrated compiles of the best wrestlers in the world.  For as long as I've been blogging here, I've been commenting on this list, now hitting its twenty-fourth year.  I value this effort a great deal, but I'm always hoping the magazine will take its responsibility more seriously.  This year is no exception.

Before I get into my reaction, I want to repost comments I made to PWI's blog when it issued its own statement on the difficulty of putting the list together (here).  They said that the PWI 500 is as difficult a thing to do as ranking the year's best actors.  This is what I said in response:

As far as actors go, evaluating/ranking them would probably look something like this: Tabulate the numerous awards and nominations they've received for the year. Tabulate the box office/ratings. That second tabulation alone gives actors who haven't gotten awards and/or nominations a shot. By that point, you've already got a good sampling. Then go deeper. Look at what people have been saying that isn't necessarily reflected in awards/nominations/box office/ratings (a good recent example of that would be Tatiana Maslany from Orphan Black, whose name always comes up from disappointed fans because she's been overlooked by the awards/nominations again). Then look at how much work the actor has done in the past year (popularity within the industry itself), how much they have lined up for next year.
It seems like sometimes some of these considerations aren't taken into account in the higher slots for the PWI 500. Some years you've blatantly determined no big name fits your criteria for a whole grading year, so you've gone with someone you like (here I'd single out RVD, but there have been other cases). Some of it has to do with the kayfabe nature of PWI. We all get that PWI still wants to maintain the illusion of what we watch is basically real, but in doing so you end up shortchanging a lot of excellent work, rely more heavily on some of your criteria than other indicators. That's my evaluation, why I sometimes get upset at your choices.
Overall, we all appreciate the undertaking. It's incredible, it really is, the best single thing the whole wrestling industry gets done for it year after year. 
It's just, it would have more credibility if it were also the one time of the year you...break kayfabe. Recognize the talent all the way around. Just a thought.
The blog editorial was published in the PWI 500 issue itself, along with a different one looking at the lack of Japanese talent reaching the top of the list.  Never mind that a clear bias has always been given to WWE even before WCW and ECW closed shop in 2001.  Other than the extremely suspect top ranking of Dean Malenko in 1997, Sting's win in 1992 was the only instance until A.J. Styles in 2010 where someone other than a WWE won the honor.  In fact, nearly every top pick has been the guy who had the WrestleMania push, and whenever that's been within WWE itself, the PWI 500 has had to look for someone else to top the list, hence why in 1997 when Shawn Michaels threw everyone's plans out of whack PWI scrambled to find an acceptable alternative, eliminated all the likely candidates, and ended up with Malenko, who never even came close to main event status, let alone in 1997.  To keep the acting analogy in play, it would be like calling Adam Sandler the best actor of any given year, even in 2002, when his best-received role in Punch Drunk Love nonetheless completely failed to alter the course of his career in the perception of critics.

Speaking of 1997, the editorial about Japanese wrestlers, which uncomfortably and unexplicably suggested a possible bias has something to do with the lingering effects of WWII (to borrow the Miz's line, Really?), no matter how Stanley Weston might have felt, that idea just doesn't wash.  It explains how Bret Hart, Undertaker, Hulk Hogan, Shawn Michaels, Dallas Page, and Steve Austin were all eliminated from consideration "due to injuries or key losses."  Again, really?  Keep in mind the list is published in the fall and so generally covers the period from one summer to the next, meaning that the 1997 PWI 500 covered mid-1996 to mid-1997.  Here's what the years of those wrestlers actually looked like in very broad strokes:

  • Bret Hart - Had been away for much of 1996 following the loss to Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania XII.  Came back for November's Survivor Series with a win over Steve Austin...Lost in a title match against champion Sid at the next PPV...Was one of four competitors at the Royal Rumble involved in the finals that were later contested...Won the WWE championship in February...Quickly lost it...Defeated Austin again at WrestleMania XIII in what was instantly considered a classic match...Formed the new Hart Foundation...Bottom line for Hart's year is that it really wasn't worthy of consideration for the top honor.  He had better years before and after this particular grading period, including an extended championship run just after its conclusion.
  • Undertaker - Lost to Mankind (Mick Foley) at Summer Slam 1996...Defeated Goldust at the following PPV...Defeated Mankind in a "Buried Alive" match...Defeated Mankind again at Survivor Series 1996...Defeated the Executioner...Lost to Vader at Royal Rumble 1997...Was one of the final competitors at the same event in the finals that were later contested...Defeated champion Sid at WrestleMania XIII for the title...Successfully defended it against Mankind, Steve Austin, Faarooq (Ron Simmons), and Vader...Bottom line for Undertaker's year is that arguably he was the most worthy, even by PWI's own standards, of being ranked first that year.  Instead he ended up sixth.
  • Hulk Hogan - Formed the New World Order...Defeated the Giant (Big Show) to become WCW champion...Defeated Randy Savage to retain...Lost to Roddy Piper in a nontitle match...Defeated the Giant to retain...Defeated Piper...Lost the title to Lex Luger...Bottom line for Hogan's year is that it was downright criminal for PWI to have significantly downplayed everything he accomplished.  He was ranked 55th that year.  Really!  It's insane.  That's what leads people to question the credibility of the list, impressive as it is.
  • Shawn Michaels - Defeated Vader at Summer Slam 1996 to retain the WWE title...Defeated Mankind to retain...Defeated Goldust...Lost the title to Sid at Survivor Series 1997...Defeated Mankind...Reclaimed the title from Sid at Royal Rumble 1997..."Lost his smile"...Battled Steve Austin to a draw...Bottom line for Michaels' year was that it clearly continued the success of the previous one, in which he'd topped the list.  Clearly a few bumps, but any grading period with two separate championship reigns should be taken seriously, even if there were shenanigans that followed.  He dropped to 18th instead.
  • Dallas Page - Defeated Chavo Guerrero...Defeated Eddie Guerrero...Lost to Eddie at Starrcade 1996 in the finals of a tournament to declare a new U.S. champion...Lost to Scott Norton...Defeated Buff Bagwell...Defeated Randy Savage...Lost to Savage...Bottom line for Diamond Dallas Page this year was that it was clearly his breakthrough campaign as he helped WCW fight the NWO.  But this could not have been a serious name to toss out in contention for the top spot.  His career improved thereafter, but there's nothing here that would remotely warrant consideration.  Except for the fact that he ranked 4th on the list that year.  For some reason.
  • Steve Austin - Defeated Triple H...Lost to Bret Hart at Survivor Series 1996...Defeated Goldust...Technically won the 1997 Royal Rumble...Lost to Hart at WrestleMania XIII...Defeated Hart...Lost to Undertaker in a WWE title match...Had a draw with Shawn Michaels...Bottom line for Stone Cold this year was that this was what his career looked like right after his King of the Ring breakthrough and before the 1998 explosion.  PWI had always been hot on him, even in the WCW years when WCW clearly wasn't (a rare instance of PWI recognizing talent despite how it's used), so it's no surprise that it leaped on the bandwagon before the bandwagon actually arrived.  But there's no way he warranted serious consideration.
I don't follow Japanese wrestling closely, so I don't know how Mitsuharu Misawa's year compared, but that was the guy the editorial talked about as being the closest shot yet at having someone from that country top the list.  PWI is always giving a token high placing for a Japanese star but rarely has adequate coverage in the magazine itself to justify it, except in the wrap-up reports from several back-of-the-issue columns.  The magazine can be considerably sloppy in acknowledging even its own enthusiasm.  A TNA wrestler known as Gunner today was once identified, when he was known as Phil Shatter, as a potential star by PWI itself, but can't catch a break in the magazine now that he has an actual opportunity.

Which leads me to what I really wanted to talk about concerning this year's list.  After some consideration I decided PWI was right to give Mr. Anderson a relatively low ranking, but its explanation as to why was baffling: "Renewed his TNA contract last year, but it must have included a secret clause prohibiting him from being relevant in 2014."

Really?  In the first half of the grading period Anderson helped end the Aces & Eights arc by defeating Bully Ray in a feud.  2014 has seen him feud with Samuel Shaw, an up-and-coming prospect whose feud with Anderson has so far helped shape his career, and has since gone on to feud with...Gunner.  Not only was Anderson crucial in the formative development of someone's career, but he's helped open the door to giving Gunner something distinctive to do, which presumably is what everyone's been waiting for, especially PWI.  I just don't get it.  If Anderson himself, back when he was known as Mr. Kennedy in WWE, had gotten similar treatment, instead of a slapdash beating-numerous-former-world-champions push and then extended feuds with Undertaker and Shawn Michaels, his career would probably look a lot different today.  I'll always champion the guy.  Main event personality with an in-ring talent that was never given a chance to be taken seriously.

The opposite, basically, is true of Bray Wyatt, the would-be successor to Jake "The Snake" Roberts who without the benefit of the massive push he's received for the past year would be a nobody, and certainly would have been laughed out of PWI's own offices if suggested for a top ten finish in this year's list.  A great gimmick, but he's nowhere near that great a talent.  Daniel Bryan claimed the top spot.  I'm more than okay with that.  Good, obvious choice.  But PWI's twisted logic left CM Punk off the list.  Left Brock Lesnar off the list.  Nonsense.  Only Roman Reigns of the former Shield faction cracked the top ten, when all three of them (including Seth Rollins and especially Dean Ambrose) should have warranted it.

I appreciate that PWI puts this thing together every year, but it just seems like it drops the ball in too many ways to have the credibility it ought to have.  Wrestling has a hard enough time being taken seriously.  Having what's now the only publication taking its own responsibility so flippantly is unacceptable in 2014.  This is a list that has been compiled for nearly a quarter century now.  There should be no question about how to do it, and do it right.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

#775. Rolling Stone 1217

Last month I read Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, etc.), which among other things got me thinking about investigative journalism.  At work recently I saw a copy of Rolling Stone with Robin Williams on the cover, referencing of course his death last August, and so I had a look at the magazine, a complete issue, for the first time in ages.  Back in high school (would this have been the last time Rolling Stone was actually cool, or just the last time I myself was paying attention?) I read it all the time.  Rolling Stone, in case you've never read much less heard of it, is a rock 'n' roll magazine that's also known for Peter Travers' movie reviews, music reviews, and yes, investigative journalism.  Mostly, it's a magazine that took rock pretty seriously about taking an alternative approach to life, not so much what we consider alternative today (because the thing the '80s did to alternative music and alternative everything else was, apparently, irrevocably split it so that it's increasingly uncommon for any one person to experience all or most of what there is out there; sucks culturally to be so splintered and isolated, but at least there's a lot of diversity!).

The Williams story is itself pretty interesting, since his own history in Rolling Stone is probably indicative of the arc his life took.  There's reference to the three other cover stories he merited, and they came from 1979 (circa Mork & Mindy), 1988 (Good Morning, Vietnam), and 1991 (Awakenings).  Post-1991, you could say, Williams went a little too mainstream, which is that odd period of public life after you've become famous (Mork & Mindy) and you somehow stay there institutionally for a little too long (the '90s seemed to be unforgivable success for Williams, including the sonic id of Aladdin, Mrs. Doubtfire, and even Good Will Hunting; it seems strange, since given his track record with the magazine and how The Birdcage was ahead of the road-to-LGBT-community-culturally-accepted era, you might actually have expected that to have rated a cover, too; although even his early '00s stretch of dark roles, including One Hour Photo but for me, more significantly, Insomnia with Al Pacino and Christopher Nolan, didn't merit much more than an oh-that's-interesting reaction).

Williams was undoubtedly uniquely talented, but he definitely fell victim to our increasingly fragmented society, which is also why most of the movies that are wildly popular these days are event movies and movie stars are the people who manage to be cast in lots of them (which is actually good news for Tom Hardy but also a major reason Samuel L. Jackson is among the top-earning stars despite pretty much never starring in his own movies).  Used to be, movie stars were defined by their ability to make any of their releases the latest event movie.  Williams was one of the early victims, critics suddenly finding it very easy to completely overlook whatever he was doing.  I remember Man of the Year in particular, in which he basically plays Jon Stewart running for president, and the only thing anyone said about that was how Williams was far too mainstream to pull off Jon Stewart.  That would have been an absurd statement at the height of the Rolling Stone covers era (which was ironically right before Rolling Stone stopped caring).

The rest of the issue has compelling material, too, which is why I decided to write about it here, getting back to Larsson's ideas in his trilogy  Larsson himself was Swedish, so everything he had to say about investigative journalism should be understood to reflect Sweden directly, but crusading journalists were huge news in the United States at one time, thanks to Watergate.  I still don't quite understand the Watergate scandal.  I mean, I get that Nixon was officially exposed as, I don't know, incredibly paranoid.  I guess he was also exposed, I don't know, as a politician working on getting reelected?  (Oh no!  They stole campaign secrets!  It reminds me of the "scandal" I keep hearing on sports radio about the Patriots being "exposed" for stealing play calls during their incredible championship run in the early '00s.  I mean, who doesn't?  All this is really about is trying to bring down a team or a president you don't like.  Well, congratulations.)

The last time there was serious investigative journalism in the US was during the Clinton presidency.  I don't know if you remember, but that wasn't just a time where we joked about inhaling or what the dude was doing with personal assistants and getting impeached for it or even Primary Colors, but there was huge paranoid right wing talk about all the people the administration was eliminating behind the scenes.  That was the whole reason the Democrats officially declared war on the Republicans, why they hated Bush even before he officially became president (when is it ever acceptable to make fun of someone because they have a penchant for misspeaking? but that's all you heard for years about the guy, until people made it official to declare Iraq the new Vietnam, which is to say even before the war began), and how Obama (it's true) became president (because he declared most smoothly that, basically, he wasn't Bush, something he began uttering, and if you click the "politics" label you'll see I even remarked on that at the time, in 2004).

But you don't hear anything of that concerning Clinton's legacy these days.  The latest smear journalism we've gotten was the Chris Christie Crisis.  I don't mean to turn this whole blog into a political quagmire (which is why I don't generally talk politics), or declare one party to be better than the other (the truth is, they're pretty much equal, except on the issues they zealously defend without really thinking about them, and are as such convenient smokescreens for their constituents more than anything).  No, instead we're headed toward Hillary officially being president (it kind of seems inevitable at this point, although I guess we'll see in two years), right after the last time anyone heard from her was how she probably wouldn't run because, you know, health scare.

The irony of all that is that one of the stories I want to talk about is exactly about the ridiculousness of US politics, and how the platform you're reading from is bound to try and gear its perspective, come hell or high water (but enough about Chris Christie!) based on its political bent.  It's Tim Dickinson's feature entitled "Biggest Tax Scam Ever," which if you can believe it exposes big corporations of being incredibly greedy.  Shocking, I know!  I'm of the mind where we're basically at the point where we need a modern equivalent of the trust-busting, monopoly (but not the game Monopoly) era that saw the end of the big businessmen of a different age (Rockefeller, names like that).  You'd think the Great Recession and everything everyone knows that led to it would have already led to this, but I guess not.  The problem is, except for a few names, most of the big businessmen of this era are completely anonymous.  You know geeky Bill Gates, but there are so many others you just don't.  Anyway, Dickinson explains how corporations exploit tax loopholes that allow them to hide the vast sums of their fortunes on foreign land.  He even goes so far as to detail how these practices began (in the Clinton era), but goes on to blame Bush for the bulk of it (because, Republicans!), and tries to paint Obama in a sympathetic light ("we're working on that!") even though the problem has only gotten worse under him.

Nice work, Dickinson.  But I don't think Sweden will sweat your work.  I don't think anyone will.  Maybe things really do work differently in Sweden, but I think Woodward and Bernstein were the last time anyone worried about journalists in the US.  I find that to be a problem.  Where's the worth of public accountability if everyone who works so hard to screw everyone else (oh wait, I think I just identified the problem...) can so consistently get away with it?

There's also an article about LGBT teens who end up homeless because their parents threw them out.  This is a legitimately sad one and perhaps the only real piece of journalism in the magazine.  Curiously, as I noted early, we're in an era where society has acknowledged more than ever before (at least in modern times; curiously the whole reason Oliver Stone's brilliant Alexander landed to such popular opposition was because it featured the title Great one in a time when people were openly bisexual) that LGBTs exist, so I don't know why there isn't greater support for these outcasts.  I mean, why are they even outcasts at all?  You would think a country that successfully (although it seems less and less so sometimes, after public outcries over Trayvon Martin and Ferguson) learned from the Civil Rights era would be more culturally accepting, but then, we still have a huge problem with immigration even though we're a whole country of immigrants.  (Seriously, my hometown newspaper, the Sun Journal, for some reason had a whole article about immigrants who for one reason or another chose not to apply for citizenship; I understand that newspapers, like magazines, face greater opposition than physical books and therefore will try anything to try and reclaim readers, which Sun Journal has clearly been trying to do in recent months, but they need to make a little more sense than that article did, considering it chose for examples people other than anyone who was actually relevant to these particular immigration times, which for instance in Maine in particular is Somali-heavy.)

...I didn't really mean to deviate greatly from what this blog is usually about (although I think I've done enough of this kind of talk where it isn't completely unusual), but.  Larsson.  Blame Stieg Larsson.  Which is okay, although also hugely unfortunate, because he's dead.

To lighten the post up a little, the issue also has a ridiculous interview with Ariana Grande, who apparently has seen demons  Or something.  When I first heard "Problem," I thought it was kind of dumb.  But it's not so bad.  So, "Problem":

There's also a really positive review for the latest Maroon 5 album, plus recommendations for fall movie releases, plus my favorite article, detailing the imminent release of Bob Dylan and the Band's complete Basement Tapes sessions from 1967, an apparently fruitful, mythic, and nearly lost slice of Dylanalia.

I don't if any of this makes you want to read Rolling Stone (also, Almost Famous and the career of Cameron Crowe, which is oddly reflected in a tribute to Charles M. Young), but I figured it was worth writing about.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

#774. Standing on the shoulders of Giants

Anyone who's familiar with my baseball interests knows none of my favorite teams made it to the World Series this year, but I was still more than pleased with the outcome.  I'd been rooting for the post-season sensations Kansas City Royals up until they reached the World Series.  Baseball is a game of momentum, and they blew away all their competition to that point.  But I quickly realized the edge belonged to the San Francisco Giants, who last night won their third championship in five years.

Thanks to a guy named Madison Bumgarner.

This was an ace who powered through three games of the World Series, starting two and finishing out the last four innings in the final game, and he became a whole story unto himself, and that's the sort of thing you relish.  By that point, who but Royals die hards wanted a different outcome?  How was anything less than victory possible?

Watching something like this is a reminder of what makes baseball special.  It's a game of determination, but it's also a game of patience.  These days, what was once celebrated as America's Pastime is more often dismissed as something about as exciting to watch as bowling or golf.  But who will argue that watching Bumgarner making history was anything less than thrilling?

Baseball is what happens when everything goes right.  It's a chance for things that are normally screwed up elsewhere to actually work.  Things like teamwork.  Things like believing in each other.  things like faith in the face of despair.

Watching World Series in the new millennium has been a consistent display of this.  As a member of Red Sox Nation, the so-called "curse" that lasted eighty-six years ended and then we got three championships in ten years, and each of those teams matched the model the Giants exhibited last night, and I think the same is true of just about every team that has won since 2001, starting with the Arizona Diamondbacks.  I think of the "rally monkey" Angels of '02, or the Cinderella Cardinals in Tony La Russa's final season as manager in '11.

It's hard not to be happy for Bumgarner and the Giants, winking Pablo Sandoval and everyone else.  Better luck next time Royals.

And hopefully one of my teams will win next year!

Friday, October 10, 2014

#773. Mock Squid Soup: Unbreakable

Mock Squid Soup is a film appreciation society brought to you by people actually named (on the Internet) Mock and Squid.  They are both deeply disturbed.

No, actually, all the characters in Unbreakable are.  As is director M. Night Shyamalan.  As are the fairweather film fans who quickly thought he was completely untalented the moment he was no longer flavor of the month.

Let's start our discussion with Shyamalan!  His popular career began with the surprise late-summer 1999 blockbuster The Sixth Sense, which famously had a twist ending.  Apparently if you have something like a twist ending with all your films (or, you know, have something like personal style) this is a sign of creative bankruptcy.  If I sound flippant about it, it's because I never understood that.  As far as I'm concerned, the man's a genius, easily easily one of the best filmmakers of the past fifteen years at least.  I think part of the reason people cooled on him so quickly was because of Christopher Nolan's rise at around the same time.  Shyamalan seemed to come out of nowhere (he didn't; actually, his first movie, Wide Awake, is a charming family movie) whereas Nolan's career had a chance to build in increments, from the widely respected but cult-sized Memento (although again, there was an earlier film: Following) to blockbusters like The Dark Knight and Inception.  Both are craftsmen who tend to focus on journeys where the intensity can be about emotion instead of bluster.  But while Nolan's audience had a chance to build up, Shyamalan's only had the expectation of eventual disappointment.

A slight simplification, but that's my view.

His third major release, The Village, may have been the movie where everyone took their later impression of him from, a movie that changes everything you thought you knew about the story without any real clues to prepare you.  Strangely, he rebounded popularly with Signs, but was never able to recover after that.  Lady in the Water is a terrific fable.  The Happening was never even given a chance, dismissed instantly as just more of his nonsense.  I liked The Last Airbender.  I still have yet to see After Earth.

Anyway, it isn't all Shyamalan worth considering about Unbreakable.  There's also Bruce Willis, who was also the star of Sixth Sense.  This was a period of career renaissance for Willis, where he could break away from his action persona for a change and find real success.  His two collaborations with Shyamalan were the peak of this period, and for me personally his career highlights (others still swear by Die Hard, although that's a franchise that has finally died.  hard) aside from the inspired lunacy of The Fifth Element.

There's also Samuel L. Jackson, who like Willis was turning a popular corner, and who unlike Willis has continued to parlay this period to great success, possibly because he figured out how to keep it going.  (Seriously, would anyone mind seeing a solo Nick Fury movie at this point, or does Captain America: The Winter Soldier technically count?)

Both of them were in Pulp Fiction, by the way.  I think people tend to forget Willis was in that, but of course everyone remembers Jackson's scripture-quoting hitman. They should work together more often.  (It didn't work out so well when Jackson reteamed with John Travolta in Basic, although there's at least one scene totally worth watching for having them together again in it.)

Remember the kid from Gladiator?  He's in here, too.  I think it was an odd choice for Shyamalan, because the kid kind of looks like Haley Joel Osment.  Same general hairstyle.  May have been an unconscious thing people held against the director.

Robin Wright!  Who doesn't love Robin Wright?  Her career is probably one of the least needy ones in Hollywood.  It's always a pleasure to find her in a movie you're watching.  You might consider giving The Conspirator a shot if you're looking for something new.

Besides all that, Unbreakable is also a superhero movie, and as a 2000 release (same year as X-Men) just on the cusp of that actually being a very good thing.  It's probably one of the reasons the public started liking them so easily.  It's part of a holy trinity for me, along with Hancock and The Dark Knight, as the best superhero experiences yet featured on the big screen.  Like Hancock, it's a rare modern original effort, rather than an adaptation from comic books.  Like Dark Knight, it's a movie that takes superheroes completely seriously.

It's an absolute favorite of mine, featuring a number of absolute favorites behind and in front of the camera.  For me, there's nothing but plenty to love.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

#772. The Next Generation cast recasts themselves

At the Destination 3 Star Trek con in London, the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation reunited.  (Read about some of that here.)

The bit I'm focusing on centers on some of the cast's ideas about who could step into their roles.  Some of them I like and others are off-kilter.  Here're the results:
via Trek Core
Jean-Luc Picard
originally portrayed by Patrick Stewart, who chose:
via The Guardian
Tom Hardy

Right off the bat we have a compelling situation here.  Hardy, of course, had his breakout role in Star Trek Nemesis as Shinzon, a clone of Picard.  It was the role that made me a fan of Hardy, but fans tend to hate the film and for everyone else it was the start of a long delay in Hardy's popular film career.  In 2014, Hardy's name means something completely different than it did in 2002.  Does that change anyone's mind about this casting?  Or was Stewart merely bucking what was even a trend among his castmates at the con in continuing to knock Nemesis more than a decade later?

via Bardfilm
originally portrayed by John De Lancie, who chose:
via Deadline
Sacha Baron Cohen

Truly inspired.  While better known for provoking audiences than starship captains, Cohen has become a reliable comedic presence in films as a costar, whether in Talladega Nights or Les Miserables.  Chances are Borat would prove a challenge even to Picard, though.

via Trek Core
originally portrayed by Brent Spiner, who chose:
via Daily Inspiration
Tilda Swinton

Leave it to Spiner to go with the most off-beat choice.  Swinton would redefine the role any number of ways (in some ways the Borg Queen's dream come true from First Contact!), and that's not a bad thing.
via the Geek Twins
Deanna Troi,
originally portrayed by Marina Sirtis, who chose:
via Marie Claire UK
Mila Kunis

Another one that would redefine the role, certainly, although Troi has often been targeted for criticism that Next Generation's original approach might be seen as increasingly dated.
via Trek Core
Beverly Crusher,
originally portrayed by Gates McFadden, who chose:
via Breitbart
Michelle Obama

via Technology Tell
Jessica Chastain

These are some interesting choices from McFadden.  The first could be interpreted any number of ways, the second casting about for a famous redheaded actress.  Chastain happens to be one of the finest actors working today.  Either way this would be bound to elevate Crusher's routinely low stature in the cast.
via Star Trek
Tasha Yar,
originally portrayed by Denise Crosby, who chose:
via Huffington Post
Charlize Theron

Another choice that seems to have been made for reasons that aren't necessarily reflected for anything but appearance.  But Theron would undoubtedly, like Obama or Chastain, greatly elevate an anemic character.
via Krypton Radio
Miles O'Brien,
originally portrayed by Colm Meaney, who chose:
via ABC News
Colin Farrell

Good man, Colm.  This would be awesome.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

#771. Goodfellas

Recently, at the prodding of Armchair Squid, I rewatched Martin Scorsese's 1990 mobster opus Goodfellas.  This was going to be my chance to reconsider it.  I'm a fan of Scorsese, whether from his early classics (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) or the string of early-millennium efforts (Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed) that seemed to revitalize his career, so watching one of his films isn't exactly a tough proposition, but I hadn't thought as highly of Goodfellas as critics tend to, including Squid, the first time I saw it.  Mostly my impression was of leading man Ray Liotta, and much as Squid had been telling me, his family issues.

Seeing it again was to remember that Scorsese had done something like his most recent film, The Wolf of Wall Street, already.  Wolf, if you'll remember, was criticized for glamorizing the excesses it presumably sought to present as a cautionary tale.  That's what Liotta's narration does in Goodfellas, too.  Even by the end of the movie, he's lamenting life in witness protection as lacking the snap he'd so eagerly embraced as a boy and subsequently lived in for the next few decades of his life.  Supporting players Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci play the characters Liotta's can't be if there's to be any sympathy involved, although curiously De Niro is relatively subdued through the proceedings, as if the character knows as well as everyone else that De Niro used to be Scorsese's muse, the way Leonardo DiCaprio would eventually become.  Liotta?  For his first standout performance it was a tough act to follow, and he never really did.  The closest he ever came was Joe Carnahan's Narc.  In a way, that's all you need to know about Goodfellas, too.

Which is to say, maybe it overplays its hand a little.  Maybe it lacks, say, a certain subtlety.  The later film Donnie Brasco is basically a study of everything Goodfellas chose not to do.  I happened to rewatch Casablanca around the same time, and that's certainly a study of what Goodfellas chose not to do, too. 

Scorsese could have rubbed his gangster's itch the way he did in Mean Streets, the one where De Niro leaves his first real impression, as an obnoxious punk who's a rough edge version of the character Liotta plays.  If Goodfellas is all about family, then Mean Streets is the movie it would have been if, say, the lead had been Pesci.

It's tough watching Goodfellas from the perspective of someone who admires the Scorsese of Taxi Driver, or Raging Bull, or The Departed.  Like any director, like Quentin Tarantino for instance, who's always trying to help his characters make their way through impossible situations, Scorsese has a theme running through his movies, characters who maybe don't realize how much trouble they're in and barrel forward despite the consequences (but sometimes reconsider).  It's harder to like the work when he errs toward the unapologetic, as he does in Goodfellas, which is exactly like The Godfather Part II but without the grandiosity. 

I wish there was a moment like in American Gangster (Ridley Scott is always exploring idealism and nightmare colliding) when Denzel Washington decides to play ball with Russell Crowe, but Liotta is so busy, for the whole of Goodfellas, reveling in the life that seemed to be so carefree (except for things like bullets and dead bodies and nagging wives), even when his crew scores a major heist that in another context would have been a movie itself (Ocean's Scorsese), it's tough to even think about the life these characters (it's important to remember this is all based on real events) are actually leading, even though you never forget for a moment who they are.

What does a movie like Goodfellas say about Scorsese?  Is he warning his audience or gleefully enjoying the mayhem?  But it's also Scorsese and pizzazz working hand-in-hand, a little bit of narrative showmanship, the kind of experience only someone who'd done this sort of thing before and would again could get away with, and I think that's what people love so much about it.  Maybe it's not an experience to be taken solely for what it is, but to be considered in the mob canon, or even the Scorsese library itself.  It'll never come close to being my favorite movie, in general or among Scorsese's, but I can appreciate it for what it is.  It's just one of those experiences that leaves me wishing it had done things differently.  But if it had, it wouldn't be Goodfellas.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

There Are No Secrets On Betazed

Deanna isn't even in Starfleet the first time she meets Will Riker.  He's come to Betazed on assignment, and she's asked by her mother to be his personal liaison, help him become acquainted with the planet, keep him out of trouble.  The trouble, it would seem, would stem from Deanna's mother herself, whether in mind or body far too much for the uninitiated to handle, and even for those who have known her for years.  But it's more so that he won't notice everything else that's wrong with the planet.

Which is to say, everything.

To put it mildly, Betazed's best years are behind it.  By the time it was awarded membership in the Federation, it was a planet in cultural decline, so in fact the only reason it petitioned in the first place was to try and recapture some of the old glory.  Because there are no secrets on Betazed, and this has become a problem.

You see, Betazoids are empaths.  They can read and project thoughts at will, speak through each other's minds, and generally get along with a level of intimacy that would be unsettling on any other world.  Deanna's mother is the prototypical Betazoid.  As the leader of the last of the great houses, Lwaxana Troi took it upon herself long ago to do everything in her power to reverse the decline.  She lives in defiance of the truth, and is happy to do so, by the way.  After all, there are no secrets among Betazoids.

Which is why Deanna's father was human, totally devoid of all Betazed's gifts, the reason Deanna herself can only sense emotions rather than thoughts (although among her own people she remains perfectly telepathic).  The idea, her mother quickly seizes upon, is to build on the initial attraction Deanna can't possible hide from her concerning Riker.  It's obvious to everyone, even the other species Betazed has made a state policy of enticing to visit and if at all possible stay forever.

Yet Deanna hasn't just fallen in love with Riker, she's made a critical decision.  She is going to leave Betazed forever.  This is the opposite, actually, of what her mother hoped to achieve, the idea being to make it better, easier, for people to stay.

Yet, more and more, they aren't.  The younger generations have taken all the wrong lessons from what their elders have tried to accomplish.  They're forgetting Betazed.  On a world like this, memory is everything, and losing anyone is to lose a part of everyone.  Lwaxana Troi especially.

Fortunately, she has a few tricks up her sleeve.  Betazoids are among the cultures that still believe in arranged marriages, and Deanna had hers in order a long time ago.  She's just experimenting, or so her mother believes.  All that's about to happen is harmless, really.  Nothing to worry about at all.

If need be, Lwaxana Troi will rescue her daughter, and if she can't dissuade her from this career in Starfleet that is suddenly more interesting than even Riker, then she will follow Deanna into the stars.  She's been there before.  What could possibly go wrong?

She doesn't attempt to keep any of these thoughts from her daughter, but Deanna is constantly distracted, the kind of girl who concerns herself with ideals more than reality.  What kind of Betazoid is that?

Maybe there ought to be some secrets after all...


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