Friday, December 18, 2015

851. I have seen The Force Awakens (SPOILERS)

I have seen Star Wars - Episode VII: The Force Awakens.  And I love it.

A storytelling geek like me, and not just a Star Wars geek, is bound to love it.  It's cyclical in the best tradition. 

That's all I will say before I again warn you I have SPOILERS in mind as I continue talking about it.

The least spoiler I can say is that it's very reminiscent of Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean movies, in a good way, mind you, because I loved them, especially the original trilogy (the fourth is basically for anyone who might want to just experience one of them, because it's mostly unrelated).  I say this not just because Daisy Ridley's Rey ends up reminding me of Keira Knightley's Elizabeth Swann, but because of a few other elements besides, like the pirates hideout (more or less) where our heroes meet Lupita Nyong'o's Maz Kanata, which clearly evokes a similar haunt from the Pirates films.  The treasure hunt, so to speak, is right out of them, too.

You'll find, in my Episode VII label, two previous posts I've written concerning my speculations and expectations, which ended up being exactly what happens in the movie (from a certain point of view).  I loved that.  I thought Kylo Ren being revealed right away to be Han Solo and Princess General Leia's son was brilliant.  Because it probably sets up something even greater, which is how the movie ends, very strongly suggesting that Rey is Luke Skywalker's daughter.  It's a strong twist, and an ode, to the original trilogy, in two different ways.  First is pretty obvious.  The second is that the big fight in this new trilogy will be between the offspring of the original heroes, who often were at odds with each other anyway.  And still are, come to think of it.

I love how John Boyega's Finn transforms from a stormtrooper to reluctant hero.  He helps make the whole thing more rich than any previous Star Wars (yes, I just said that).  I love how Han Solo continues the tradition of veteran hero dying in the opening film of a trilogy (even if I'm sad to see him go).

J.J. Abrams is once again true to form.  (Big Red Ball 'O' Doom?  Check.  Greg Grunberg?  Check!)  I've been fascinated with his work since Lost.  (Also, hello, Ken Leung!)  He's got such a strong creative track record at this point, it's only appropriate that he next gets to become the next Christopher Nolan, a guy with the ability to unleash big ideas on the big screen as big as he wants.  The next Star Wars is in very good hands with Rian Johnson (check out Brick and Looper right now!).  So it's great that Abrams got to set the ball rolling, and will be able to what he wants now.  Because we are all in for further treats.

The best part of The Force Awakens?  That it's got its own massive payoff, from the lightsabers duels Ren fights with Rey and Finn after killing Han to Rey's meeting with Luke.  This is the best ending of any Star Wars.  It's dramatic payoff that's so good you don't even care that they just destroyed another Death Star-type weapon and completely downplayed it in favor of the human drama.

The worst part?  Carrie Fisher's acting.  But there's always a stiff actor somewhere in Star Wars.  The good news is, the saga is always filled with enough spectacle where it doesn't matter, from the originals to the prequels, to a whole new trilogy. 

And it's just beginning...

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

850. Box Office: Star Wars Episode I - The Phantom Menace

The year was 1999.  Once again, Star Wars was the most hotly anticipated release of the year.  It went on to become the most successful release that year.  And then to become known as one of the most maligned movies ever.

How is that even possible?  Not every huge success remains popular.  It's strange, it really is.  You look back historically and it's virtually unthinkable.  Going back just twenty years, and there's not a single such success, the top draw of the year, that went on to become unpopular.  The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T. (1982), Return of the Jedi (1983), Beverly Hills Cop (1984), Back to the Future (1985), Top Gun (1986), Three Men and a Baby (1987), Rain Man (1988), Batman (1989), Home Alone (1990), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), Aladdin (1992), Jurassic Park (1993), Forrest Gump (1994), Toy Story (1995), Independence Day (1996), Titanic (1997), Saving Private Ryan (1998)...These were all cultural touchstones of varying degrees, and to varying degrees still relevant and beloved today.  (Quibble about, say, Three Men and a Baby, but it doesn't really matter.) 

After The Phantom Menace?  In fact, immediately after, How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000), suffered the same fate.  It happened again to Spider-Man 3 (2007).  It's time to stop blaming Jar Jar Binks and do some actual analysis.

It's worth starting with Star Wars itself.  Return of the Jedi was widely panned by fans, too, and for the same reasons (Ewoks being indisputably the original trilogy's Jar Jar Binks).  Over time, fans forgot how little they actually liked the last one, and got caught up in the anticipation for the next one.  Why's that, exactly?  Because it took that long for anyone to come up with another blockbuster idea.

From the moment of A New Hope's release in 1977, Hollywood started scrounging for the next big thing.  That's how we got Superman and Star Trek on the big screen.  For the entirety of the '80s, however, big hits looked nothing like Star Wars.  Go ahead and look at the films that topped the box office during that period again.  To find anything remotely resembling the modern era, you have to look at Batman (1989) at the end of the decade.  And then you'll see that there was still no real follow-up for the next decade

In fact, if you look at the '80s and the '90s, you'll find that Hollywood embraced one aspect of the Star Wars phenomenon: its family-friendly atmosphere.  With variations (commonly, action), the formula was eventually adapted so that it was thoroughly safe for kids, kind of like how Disney had such a long string of hit animated films, including the latterday surge in this period as typified by Aladdin (1992) and Toy Story (1995).

It should have been very little surprise that Jar Jar happened at all.  Or was attempted at all.  Or the filmmakers believed he would happen, up until they started hearing the public's vitriolic feedback.

But what Star Wars really accomplished, in 1999, was to finally force everyone else to take event movies seriously, the way everyone assumed Hollywood had starting in 1977.  What were the most popular movies thereafter?  Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001), Spider-Man (2002), The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), Shrek 2 (2004), Star Wars Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (2005), Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2006), The Dark Knight (2008), Avatar (2009), Toy Story 3 (2010), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (2011), Marvel's The Avengers (2012), The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)...In fact, until American Sniper (2014), which snatched victory from another Hunger Games installment at the last minute, every top release since Phantom Menace has been part of a major franchise, with minimal overlap.

In addition to everyone complaining that there are no original ideas anymore (which is always ridiculous), what this means is that Star Wars finally created it own competition, by finally bringing back the concept of mass anticipation.  It took years.  It took about two decades, really.

And it produced the phenomenon of mass disappointment.  Films flop all the time, but it took The Phantom Menace for a hugely successful movie to flop, metaphorically speaking.  Suddenly even a movie people couldn't stop seeing could be nitpicked to death.  And that's what the discussion surrounding Phantom Menace has really amounted to all these years.  Nitpicking is what fans do.  When you produce a culture where fans are no longer a limited phenomenon, you end up with something as absurd as what happened to Phantom Menace.  Now, people just assume it was a bad film, no matter how closely it resembles the same exact tendencies as every Star Wars before it. 

I could go on about the film itself, which I've long admired, if not counted among my most favorite movies.  Hollywood keeps trying to retain the goofy element in these blockbusters, no matter the fan reaction.  That's why Jack Sparrow propelled the Pirates of the Caribbean films to great success, and why Iron Man and his fellow Avengers usually take things tongue-in-cheek.  Anytime a blockbuster tries to play things straight, even the fans are disgruntled.  Which makes it all the more ironic that they continue to insist that Jar Jar was a horrible, horrible mistake.  Hey, you wouldn't have him without C-3PO in...all the other ones.

So here we stand at the precipice of another hotly anticipated Star Wars release.  The question we have before us is: will the fans allow themselves to enjoy it?  The answer could very well define the next twenty years of filmmaking...

Friday, November 27, 2015

849. Cephalopod Coffeehouse November 2015

Returning to the squishy Cephalopod Coffeehouse, hosted by Armchair Squid and presented the last Friday of every month (except Smarch), I wanted to talk a little about Dave Barry.

Chances are if you know Dave at all, it's either from his retired humor column or the Harry Anderson sitcom Dave's World (where I was first introduced to the hilarious Patrick Warburton).
I ended up reading three Dave-penned or Dave-related books in the past month:
  • Peter and the Starcatcher - The Annotated Script (by Rick Elice)
  • The Worst Class Trip Ever
  • Live Right and Find Happiness (Although Beer is Quicker)
The first one is the script to a play adapted from Dave's series of Peter Pan prequels he co-wrote with Ridley Pearson.  I think a lot of people sought a new series of books to read after getting into Harry Potter.  The Starcatcher books were mine, thanks to my love for both Dave Barry and Peter Pan.  When I first heard about the stage adaptation I could only think how appropriate it was, as J.M. Barrie's original Peter Pan adventures were chronicled on the stage.  To finally experience the result, in any format, was a considerable pleasure.  Obviously a lot of heart was put into the production, and because the script came with notes, I got to find out how it all came together.
Worst Class Trip Ever was Dave's most recent work of fiction, released early last summer.  As with the Starcatcher books it's aimed at young readers (although that hardly stopped me).  And as with his other works of solo fiction, it's a madcap adventure.  His first novel, Big Trouble, was adapted into a movie starring Tim Allen.
Live Right and Find Happiness is Dave's latest book of humor, in the style of what you may have read when he was regularly reprinting his columns and/or releasing entirely original work.  Both these last two were released in a year where I needed someone like Dave Barry to lighten the mood.  Just knowing they were there helped me, and to read them was even better.  Live Right features a slightly more reflective Dave, a slightly more mature Dave that has been emerging in his more recent work. 
I'll remain a fan regardless, but these were hopefully books that represent Dave's path to enduring cultural relevance.  As someone who lives mostly in the printed word, and who bypassed the ways later humor writers made their names, Dave sometimes seems like he got lost in the shuffle.  But he's a treasure, in ways other humorists could only dream about.  Compared to the ones on TV or in the movies, his appeal will need little translation in the future.  Dave's becoming timeless.
At least as far as I'm concerned.  He'll always be one of my treasured writers.  And easiest recommendations.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

848. Kylo Ren is Luke Skywalker's Son!

Everyone knows that classic moment from The Empire Strikes Back: Luke Skywalker has just endured a grueling lightsaber duel with Darth Vader, who caps off lopping off the young Jedi's hand by revealing a terrible secret, declaring, "Luke, I am your father."

It forever defined the Star Wars legacy for some, right up there with the roguish charm of Han Solo and the timeless wisdom of Yoda.  How could the prequels ever compare with that?  Well, The Force Awakens may be taking a page from the original trilogy's playbook...

For months fans have endlessly speculated on the absence of Luke from the trailers.  They began suspecting that he was secretly the masked Kylo Ren, who has already been announced as being portrayed by Adam Driver.  But what if the truth is somewhere in the middle?

In a write-up for Entertainment Weekly, Ren is described this way by Driver: "[He] wasn't loved enough or felt betrayed."

Ironically, fans have been wondering about the lineages of two other characters, the so-far singular-named Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega).  Rey could very easily be a Skywalker herself, or a Solo.  Still, Ren would be by far the more intriguing twist.  After all, we knew Anakin Skywalker by a different name originally, too.

In the films, unlike the many spinoff books and comics, Star Wars has always been a generational saga about the Skywalkers.  The Force Awakens could very easily continue that tradition by revealing the Vader-obsessed Ren as, in fact, his grandson, and the estranged offspring of Luke. 

The unseen hero of the original trilogy in all the released trailers could be hiding new scars from further tragedies.  Or all this could be a further fever dream of a hopeless devotee.  That would be appropriate, too...

Monday, November 23, 2015

847. Godzilla (1998)

The first big flop I remember experiencing was 1998's Godzilla.  From the duo of Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin (Stargate, Independence Day, and my personal favorite, The Patriot), Godzilla earned the wrath of fans even though technically it was a hit, and has struggled to find any love since.

I was in high school when it was released, and there was endless chatter about it.  Then people saw it and all the chatter went negative.  I only just saw (some of) it on TV the other day.  My immediate reaction was, Wow, this is a Matthew Broderick movie.  Broderick is in many ways one of Hollywood's throwbacks to a bygone era.  (Every time George Clooney is sold that way, the movie tanks.)  He hasn't really been relevant since The Producers.  No, not the subsequent film adaption, but the smash Broadway run that helped revive the spirits of New Yorkers post-9/11.  And in truth, Broderick has always been a tough sell outside of the '80s (Bueller?).

He sticks out like a sore thumb in Godzilla.  Most criticism of the movie centers on the monster itself, but as far as I could tell, it's Broderick who dominates.  I confess that Godzilla is one of those franchises/cult favorites that I've never managed to get into (in fact, I've never seen any Godzilla movie all the way through).  As far as I can tell, Godzilla doesn't have as much of a story as, say, King Kong.  It seems to be pretty much, Giant Monster stomp stomp stomp.  And...that's it.  Allegory for the dangers of nuclear power, sympathy for tall lizards.  But very nebulous otherwise. 

So what's the big hook?  I don't know. 

It seems to me that the movie might have been more successful if it featured Jean Reno in the lead role rather than as a supporting character.  Back in high school I thought of the movie more in terms of Hank Azaria than anything else, except in the parts I saw on TV, there was very little Hank.  (Everything's better with Hank Azaria.)

Were/are mass audiences really beholden to Godzilla lore?  Or was it simply that Broderick's presence was too jarring?  This was prime tall lizards time.  Jurassic Park and its first sequel, The Lost World, had been captivating audiences.  Maybe it was that Godzilla itself seemed benign compared to dinosaurs (plural) run amok.

Strangely (and maybe this explains far too much about me), I kind of want to watch the whole thing to find out if it really was Broderick who spoiled most of the fun...

Monday, November 16, 2015

846. The Theory of Everything, in silent mode...

I haven't made too fine a point on this in my blogging, but about a month ago I moved again.  Along the journey, I rode a bus and selected the movie we'd watch when no one else piped up.  I selected The Theory of Everything, the 2014 movie about the young Stephen Hawking.  I hadn't seen it previously.  Also, I neglected to pack earphones.

So while I watched the movie, I didn't exactly hear it.  Which means my understanding of Eddie Redmayne as an actor remains his performance in Jupiter Ascending, where he portrays a somewhat effeminate elitist who's squabbling with his siblings over the fate of Earth.

Redmayne's Hawking won him the 2015 Best Actor honors at the Oscars earlier this year.  He's making news again for his transgender role in the upcoming The Danish Girl, and I'm just wondering...Does his voice sound like it does in Jupiter, or is it completely different?

It's funny, because in Hawking he famously plays someone whose voice was robbed from him and somewhat lost to history.  If not for reminders like Theory, it might be tempting to believe Hawking always communicated via computer.

Lately I've been attaching video to virtually all of my posts.  Sometimes it's nakedly because I wanted  an excuse to see the video myself.  In this instance, it's because I want to see Theory's trailer, and finally hear some of the movie. 

It's funny, watching movies in less than complete form.  When I worked at a movie theater, I'd catch snatches of movies all the time, or sometimes in silent mode when I snuck through the projection booths upstairs.  (Stealth, I hardly know thee!)  It's funny, and also interesting.  It's easy to forget that the incomplete experience can be just as rewarding as a full one, can inspire thoughts that never would have occurred to you otherwise.

Such as, what does Eddie Redmayne sound like, anyway?  Wouldn't it just be perfect if he doesn't, in the final analysis, sound anything like Stephen Hawking?

Hey, let's find another video or something...

Friday, November 06, 2015

#845. The Films of Quentin Tarantino

Admittedly, I came somewhat late to appreciating Quentin Tarantino.  I remember the releases of Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, hearing about Reservoir Dogs, and yet I didn't start watching him until the release of the two-volume Kill Bill.  I was in college at the time.  These are days when you buys posters for movies like Kill Bill, so of course it was perfect timing.  Since then I've become convinced that his later movies, Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, are arguably his best work, even as I've worked toward loving his earlier ones as much as the fans who helped popularize Tarantino.

Now, he's got a new movie, The Hateful Eight.  So, a retrospective in video:

Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Pulp Fiction (1994)
Jackie Brown (1997)
Kill Bill, Vol. 1 (2003)
Kill Bill, Vol. 2 (2004)
Death Proof (2007)
Inglourious Basterds (2009)
Django Unchained (2012)
The Hateful Eight (2015)
But where would we be only with trailers?
And without all the music?

Friday, October 30, 2015

#844. Box Office: Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas

Initially released on November 17, 2000, Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas went on to earn $260M at the box office and was the top drawer that year (two other 2000 releases ended up with a gross of $200M or greater, Cast Away and Mission: Impossible II).  At the time, critics hated it.  Historically, it was among the last of Jim Carrey's last big hits (Bruce Almighty followed).

So how does a movie go from being extremely popular to a cultural afterthought?

Being a Christmas movie, The Grinch (as it's sometimes called) is bound to have more seasonal appeal than something you'd watch at any other point in the year.  Some people like to watch the same movie obsessively, which is part of how any movie gains traction.  There are plenty of demands on your attention at the holidays, which limits how often you'll watch any one movie during that time.

Beyond that, The Grinch has two big draws (other than director Ron Howard): Jim Carrey and Dr. Seuss.  If The Grinch proved hard to remember fondly, The Cat and the Hat, released in 2003, proved the limits of live action Seuss, especially storytelling that adapted freely from the source material, was reliably hard to please.  In short, Seuss has proven, in recent years, to be a truly sacred cow.  Later animated adaptations Horton Hears a Who! (featuring the voice of Jim Carrey) and The Lorax, had far less trouble finding sympathetic viewers.

Jim Carry built a career on outsize characters.  On the surface, The Grinch was a natural vehicle, and for the first time, Carrey even had a shot at being lost in the character.  Whether the end results describe a failure on that front or not, it's hard to deny that later films allowed Carrey less experimentation than what he'd done before The Grinch.
realm of mugging, or overacting.  Carrey had grown increasingly comfortable in his career.  He

There's a curious line all actors face, whether or not their faces contort to the extremes Carrey's can.  At some point, they reach the  even floated with full respectability in the dramatic turn he took for The Truman Show.  And while the later Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is considered a career-best for him by critics, audiences largely stayed away, and both did for The Majestic

It could be very well that it was Carrey performing a familiar character.  Previously, for the most part, he'd been creating them, with the exception of The Riddler in Batman Forever.  For The Mask, you'd have to be a comic book geek to know its printed origins.  Critics were again impressed with his Andy Kaufman in Man on the Moon, but audiences seemed less confused than intrigued by his stepping into a real-life figure who famously blurred the lines.

For The Grinch, he was stepping into the green fur of an icon.  Maybe it was simply that it looked like, finally, it looked like we'd seen all his tricks.

Jim Carrey remains one of my absolute favorites, and The Grinch is for me a fascinating experience.  I like seeing new versions of familiar stories.  Not everyone does.  In the end, maybe that's it.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

#843. The 2015 PWI 500

Every year Pro Wrestling Illustrated releases its PWI 500, ranking the best wrestlers in the world (and a few hundred others).  And every year I complain about the results.  Well, not this year.

In a strange way, I think it's because of TNA's increased instability.  As one of the editors discusses in a commentary, this was an issue last year, too.  And this year's top star from the promotion reached only #18, and that would be Lashley, the one-time second coming of Brock Lesnar.  With fewer and fewer eyes on its product, TNA has had the chance to gamble on Ethan Carter III (#30) for whatever future it has left, while seemingly spending just as much time showing what its apparent successor Global Force Wrestling might be able to do better.  (At this point it's become difficult to remember who is a TNA guy and who GFW.)  Bobby Roode (#22), Kurt Angle (#25), Eric Young (#33), Drew Galloway (#37), Jeff Hardy (#47), and Austin Aries (#50) all had impressive years with TNA, and were rewarded for it.  The problem is, none of them really pulled away.

(You'll note for the record that out of TNA's seven top finishers, five have previously competed for WWE.  Samoe Joe, #46, competed for TNA during the grading period, and then made his WWE debut for the NXT brand.  Some fans criticize TNA for being apparently reliant on WWE personalities.  But WWE wouldn't be what it is today if it hadn't raided all the best available talent in the '80s.  Slightly different story.  But still, exactly the same.  In baseball, someone can play for the Red Sox and then the Yankees, and the world does not technically end.)

Taking TNA somewhat out of the equation left WWE with a lot of ground to cover.  Technically, the top wrestler in the ranking this year, Seth Rollins (you know how little PWI thought his name would sell copies when this was one of those covers that went out of its way to obscure who exactly would take first), is about as "weak" a champion as anyone TNA fielded.  Rollins, no matter how great, is a transitional champion.  He's not the top guy because of his overwhelming popularity, but because he can get the job done until WWE can position someone else to take that spot.  Still, he was absolutely the logical choice on PWI's part.  Normally the magazine goes with whoever came out on top at WrestleMania, and managed to stick around as champion for a lengthy amount of time.  Rollins certainly did that, but had already been a standout before that despite his utility status.

WWE had wanted Roman Reigns to be the top guy, but realized he wasn't ready.  Rollins was.  So they went with Rollins.  Reigns still landed #4 on the list, which might be considered somewhat generous.  The problem is that there were so few viable champions to list in the top ten.  Brock Lesnar was ineligible for his limited schedule (despite being ludicrously dominant during the period and arguably the most popular attraction in wrestling today).  John Cena, the 500's only three-time top ranked wrestler, took #2, and he was the only other world champion during the grading period.  That ranking was generous, but nothing to complain too much about.  Even Randy Orton (#6) and Rusev (#8), who clearly benefited from a somewhat limited field, are more acceptable than similar ranking in years past (here I'm think of Bray Wyatt taking sixth in 2014, only to rank #21 this year, which on the whole is exactly where he should have been last year, too).

Rounding out the top ten are A.J. Styles (#3), Shinsuke Nakamura (#5), Jay Briscoe (#7), Alberto El Patron (#9), and Kevin Owens (#10).  Owens probably made an excellent case for ranking higher than he did, making a tremendous impact in both the WWE and NXT rosters during the grading period.  Compared to his year, the other guys were practically also-rans.  Styles has been impressive wrestling in Japan, which has shown far less reluctance putting him in the spotlight than TNA ever did.  But he's been slow to be relevant anywhere else.  Time will tell if his recent winning of a title shot in ROH finally lands him the last piece of gold he'd need to complete a remarkable career before a potential jump to WWE and/or NXT.  (One can dream.)  Nakamura is PWI's annual Japanese star tossed into the top ten.  For whatever reason, Hiroshi Tanahashi (#11) keeps getting left out.  Briscoe has been with ROH from the start, and has come into his own as one of its leading faces (or, heels).  This is recognition he fully deserves.  El Patron, as PWI itself references, is in the same spot as Styles, soaking up love around the wrestling community if not actually being given the opportunities he could easily handle.  Even Lucha Underground didn't make him champion.  Still have no clue why.

Prince Puma (#16), was that promotion's pick instead.  As good as he is, being champion didn't give him near the same profile as El Patron, or Johnny Mundo (#32) for that matter.  Johnny Mundo is the former John Morrison.  I'm glad he's found a new spotlight.  I'm no longer obsessed with his needing to be a promotion's champion.  But it wouldn't hurt.

Personally, I would have ranked Dolph Ziggler in the top ten.  But PWI is probably gunshy, given how many times WWE has backed away from pushing the guy as far as he can conceivably go, even though Ziggler has been on the right trajectory since last November.  I'd also have liked Dean Ambrose (#13) in the top ten.  I mean, you could substitute Randy Orton at least, right?  Ambrose scored multiple major card main events during the grading period.  He's all but the second coming of Steve Austin.  PWI will be kicking itself a year from now.

On the other hand, Neville (#15) is ranked too high, Jay Lethal (#17) too low.  But there are so many spots.  I wish Sami Zayn (#23) could have done better, but he's lost a lot of time on the shelf.  He can easily climb higher next year.  Finn Balor (#28) is another excellent representative of the NXT generation.  I'm surprised Sheamus (#42) ranked so low.

But as I said, these are quibbles.  This was a good ranking, given that the whole field is in massive transition.  TNA is sliding downward.  ROH can't seem to decide if it wants to put in the necessary work to improve itself.  NXT has been called the hottest thing in wrestling.  Lucha Underground looks like its closest competition.  And WWE probably wishes Daniel Bryan (#14) had not gotten a concussion, or any of his other recent injuries.  A year ago, he was the one who started the next wrestling renaissance.  Now he'll be lucky if he isn't left behind.  And Rollins is forced to do what he can, however brilliantly, until someone else takes his spot.  Which is inevitable.

But who?  This was the kind of PWI 500 a real fan loves to see.  Everyone's scrambling.  Everyone wants to be the next big star.  Let's see who succeeds next year, because by then, I think we'll have a definitive answer.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

#842. Trank and Trank, What Is Trank?

In 1941, Orson Welles released his magnum opus, Citizen Kane.  In later years it became famous for topping critics lists as the best film of all-time.  At the time, it ruined his film career.  He developed a reputation as an enfant terrible, so full of himself that he sabotaged his own career by making it very difficult for anyone to work with him.  Oh, and audiences even today, generally speaking, don't really get him.

I'm not saying Josh Trank is Orson Welles, but history seems to be repeating itself all the same.  After the surprise success of his 2012 movie Chronicle, Trank became Hollywood's latest wunderkind, which led to the latest big screen adaptation of Fantastic Four, which famously just bombed.  Word is he was hard to work with, and this reputation cost him a shot at directing a Star Wars movie.

Now, my defending Trank at all, or the would-be merits of Fantastic Four, would seem to be true-to-form (my own sister told me today I can find a way to like anything), which is to say, if it's considered bad I'm probably the guy who will argue that it's good.  I mean, I'm the guy who likes the most infamous superhero movie bomb, 1997's Batman and Robin.

So let me just say upfront that I have seen Fantastic Four and can say, it's not great, but it's hardly terrible.  If anything, it's a revelation.  It's something to build on.  And in terms of the Marvel template it actually pushes the narrative forward, something that's seemed impossible ever since the release of 2000's X-Men, which immediately set the classic Marvel tone of underdog superheroes overcoming ludicrous odds through sheer scrappiness and ignoring what weirdo misfits they always are.  In a lot of ways, Marvel took this template from Edison's long overshadowed rival, Tesla, and somehow found a way, repeatedly, to change the narrative, to unparalleled success.  I mean, every single time, unorthodox science saves the day!  From Peter Parker to Bruce Banner to Tony Stark, and even the mutants of evolution, these are people making the impossible an everyday feel-good story, even when they're monsters.

The Fantastic Four, by the way, started the Marvel phenomenon, and as the first big successes at creating modern monsters.  Look no further than Invisible Woman herself, Sue Storm, aping one of the classics quite blatantly.  Of course, her brother Johnny, the Human Torch, always did it more spectacularly (he was the breakout and indeed only crowd favorite from the two previous movies in this franchise), and his own template was a Marvel original.  And the Thing, well, he's a sideshow freak that only the modern era could dream up, and with all the popularity to show for it.

Standing at the center, though, is Reed Richards, Mister Fantastic.  Trank's movie puts him squarely in the center, a science geek who has an incredible breakthrough that proves irresistible (eventually).  His predecessors (or successors) in Parker and Stark have nothing on him.  But this gift comes as a curse.  You could say that this is what Trank's movie is all about.

And in turn, you could say that the movie is incredibly meta.  Because no one emerges unscathed from the attempt to dramatize Reed's struggle for recognition.  At one point, Sue tells him that his goal was to become famous.  Reed counters that what he wanted was to be taken seriously.  By the end of the movie, he's taken his place among the rest of the team.  And by all accounts, this was a movie whose production was very much the product of a, er, team effort, whether Trank liked it or not.  (Although I'd love to see his version, some day.  You can see the seams that were ripped apart to create this one.)

There seems, at any rate, a restlessness at the heart of what we have now.  Trank has no better luck with child actors than the old adage that used to promote them as hard to work with as animals (or maybe that was babies, or directors like Welles), and that's a drag at the beginning of the movie, and the obligatory fight at the end feels rushed (I'd have waited, personally, to reach a climax with Doom later, in a sequel or two, but I'm a Star Wars baby).

No, where you see Trank's hand is in the character of Ben Grimm, the Thing, who's a childhood friend of Reed's, whose part pre-transformation is minimalist, but once rock-sized can barely wait to take up the screen.  Only Johnny Storm, as usual, can compete visually (and they absolutely nail that visual).  Grimm is like Trank's stand-in throughout the movie, the lurker, who is absolutely essential but can be misinterpreted if you're not paying attention.

Watching Reed go where no Marvel scientist has gone before, beyond the dreams of superheroes, is not only ripped straight from the comics but a step in the right direct for movies fifteen years in the spotlight that have rarely taken risks.  There's a formula they tend to follow, and that formula has proven incredibly popular, in the original Spider-Man trilogy, the Avengers cycle, obviously, and to a lesser but sustained extent, the X-Men saga, the one that has tried the hardest to make a statement and keep moving along its original trajectory of social allegory.  There have been misfires, too, and smaller triumphs (everyone tends to forget the original Marvel breakthrough, Blade), but suffice to say, Marvel has emerged as a formidable force at the movies, challenging if not supplanting DC's traditional dominance with the one-two punch of Superman and Batman.

DC's big guns have endured reinvention a number of times at this point.  What Trank manages above all else is to help begin that process over at Marvel.  I will always be a supporter of Marc Webb's nuanced take on Spider-Man, but what Trank does is something perhaps more remarkable.  He goes a step further than refining an approach.  He attempts a new one.  Actually, he nails that much.  As far as I'm concerned, as an origin alone, Trank's movie has set the new bar for the Fantastic Four.  If Trank himself can't build on it, I hope at the very least it won't be forgotten.  It's a touchstone.  In an era of movies where scientists are unquestionably heroes, and space movies adore disaster, if Fantastic Four had been anything else, I think it would have found a more appreciable audience.

I mean, it was a tall order to begin with, for Trank.  I don't even think Christopher Nolan nailed his first time out with superheroes.  I was and am again a huge fan of his prior to 2005's Batman Begins.  And I don't think anyone thought he nailed it with that one, except in changing the message from Batman and Robin.  It wasn't until The Dark Knight that Nolan became a true household name, and a blockbuster machine in his own right.

Fantastic Four began to look like it was going to become another Interstellar, and in a way it did.  Interstellar was Nolan's latest movie, a space disaster movie.  For every Gravity there is a Prometheus.  (We'll see how The Martian does.)  This was the one that broke the bubble Nolan had created around himself.  He pushed a little too far, for both critics and audiences.

Moviegoers wanted something a little more simple, a little more rousing, than what Trank delivered.  Never mind anything you know about how the movie was created.  Famously, Titanic was supposed to be as disastrous as, well, the Titanic's maiden voyage.  Don't pay attention to a reputation.  A reputation only means something until the message changes.  I mean, Citizen Kane ruined Welles' career.  Great art tends to do that.  But today, a masterpiece.

Fantastic Four isn't great art.  But it didn't have to be.  Trank aspired to greatness.  The evidence is there.  And it's something that can be used as a foundation.  History should be so kind.

Monday, July 27, 2015

841. We need to talk about Bill Cosby

We need to talk about Bill Cosby.

No, not in the simplistic sense that we've been talking about him.  And listen, I have every reason to take the allegations against him seriously, because I've been affected by this sort of thing personally.  It is never acceptable to take advantage of someone else that way.  But it's also never acceptable to gloss over the facts.  And there are certain facts about Bill Cosby that are being lost in the narrative being constructed around him today.

Remember the last time people talked about Cosby?  I bet you don't.  The thing is, he had finally become a social crusader.  After decades of Hollywood entertainment, being known for a succession of television series and as a stand-up comedian, Bill Cosby stood up in a different way, and attempted to address the problems facing the black community.  Not as they stood in the 1960s, the last time there was serious discussion in that regard, in the realm of civil rights, which was necessary in a different way.  This time, Cosby was addressing the problems in the black community itself.  This is an article about that.

He even released a book about it.  And this was years before the series of sensational police confrontations that drew national attention to race relations all over again.  Curiously, I've seen very little about any of this in the blogging community, at least the tiny corner where I happen to reside.  That's exactly how these things happen.  We actually like boxing ourselves into tiny little corners, isolating ourselves from the greater world, pretending that these things don't affect us.  But this is a national conversation, and it behooves us to participate.  We fear alienating each other, but that's exactly the problem, because we live in a culture that thrives on alienation, because there's very little connection between these segments of the population, these millions of segments that exist within the millions of inhabitants within the United States.  We have, in many ways, fragmented to a far greater extent than ever before in our history, which by the way is riddled with fragmentation.  You may or may not recall that even at its founding, during the Revolutionary War, there were those who were fighting, and those who called themselves Loyalists, who supported the British cause.  Which is to say nothing about the Native American population, never members of the official population, much less the slaves who belonged even to some of the Founders.

The transition from slavery to the population at large was a long and difficult one for black Americans, and for years we patted ourselves on the back because we had finally established what seemed like true social equality.  I don't know about you, but I never stopped hearing grumbles about Equal Opportunity.  Cosby existed, it seemed, completely outside of this whole conversation, much the way Willie Mays did in the Jackie Robinson era.  Mays was criticized then.  Cosby didn't seem relevant at all.  He starred in one of the most successful sitcoms of all time, and represented as a result what the culture thought as one of the greatest triumphs of the further integration of the black population into everyday American life.

If only.  And this is strange, too, because Cosby didn't start out his life on the national scene with The Cosby Show.  His first brush with fame was the mid-60s adventure series I Spy, where he starred opposite Robert Culp, and nothing was made of this interracial dynamic.  He next focused on Fat Albert, arguably his most famous creation.  The Cosby Show lasted for nearly a decade and at that point, when he had reached middle age, that was the end, more or less, of his popular career.  Ghost Dad was an abysmal failure at making him a movie star.  He continued landing TV projects, but the culture had moved on, somewhat reluctantly, from him.

So he changed his focus.  It's worth remembering how Cosby began life before we move on with this discussion.  His father was absent during Cosby's formative years, living a military life during WWII.  At this point, we ask ourselves, how much of an impact did that have on the young Cosby?  Because when we look at the legacy of The Cosby Show and his later message about the crucial importance of personal accountability in the black community, the further question must be, Was Cosby affected for the worse or the better by this absence?

The answer, I would argue, is more complicated than the current narrative would suggest, even as it neglects to look at the man beyond the current controversy.  His reputation and his accomplishments, indeed his entire voice is being threatened with total erasure.  I think this is wrong.  What he did was wrong, too, but needs further examining.  Desperately.

What Cosby himself was saying in later years, in effect, was that children need fathers. Without fathers they lose direction.  For most of his life, Cosby seemed like nothing at all had gone wrong with his life because of his absent father.  But when you look at the importance of fatherhood in The Cosby Show, you may come to a different conclusion, too.  This was perhaps the last great sitcom to celebrate the notion of fatherhood, which at that time was coming under fire by the evolving popular culture.  Married...with Children and later, Family Guy, began sending a different message.  The Cosby Show was the last time fatherhood was presented as a paragon of virtue in the household.

And yet what do we say about The Cosby Show now?  That it was a Bill Cosby vehicle.  And in fact it was, his last great platform to say something substantial to the culture around him.  Because the next time he spoke, nobody listened.  And, I would argue, he angered the black population he was seeking to help.  Because the very thing he sought to champion, personal accountability, has completely left the conversation in the current climate.  There has been no one arguing what he argued, just a few years ago, when Cosby's last days of popularity vanished in an instant.  Once he stopped being funny, nobody cared what Cosby had to say anymore.

All along, while taking the allegations seriously, I questioned the timing of bringing them up again.  Look around you and you'll find race relations charged as they haven't been in decades.  There have been no leaders, however, to emerge to try and make sense of it.  We live in a culture where everyone has a voice, but most of us feel like saying the same thing, and we don't much think about what we repeat.  And that's a shame and that needs to change.  When we have conversations at all, they're more argument than anything, ignoring and vilifying the other side.  There's very little intelligence in any of it.

What I'm saying is, someone became interested in silencing Cosby.  Whether in retaliation, because in a lot of ways he was one of the pillars of the black community and was easy to take down because of unrelated issues, or because he would have been voicing things in this climate that were not a part of the emerging message.  Yes, Black Lives Matter, but as Cosby had argued, they're as subject to accountability as anyone else's.

The other side of Bill Cosby worth talking about, which has been and needs to be addressed, is what he was doing to women for decades.  But also, what women were doing to themselves.  Yes, he was wrong, but those women should never have put themselves in those predicaments to begin with.  Their fathers failed them.  This is not me arguing, blame the victim.  But this was a man who had been famous for decades.  That's the other point of reminding you about I Spy.  Because while everyone remembers The Cosby Show these days, it seems everyone's forgotten that he was famous well before it.  What does prolonged fame do to someone?  It affects them, naturally.  Cosby wasn't just famous for one thing, but for at least four career successes, three TV shows and his stand-up.  He was married through all of it, by the way.

And yet, for whatever reason, woman after woman, because of that fame, kept presenting themselves to him.  Not to submit themselves to some wicked appetite, but ultimately, it was a temptation Cosby couldn't turn away from.  The thing is, these women were drawn to a famous figure.  Regardless of their motivations, this becomes, at least in part, a cautionary tale about fame.  Not just about what Bill Cosby did, but what led to it to begin with.

There have been various comments made that the Hollywood community knew, more or less, what was going on, and other comments that of course Hollywood knew, because that's what Hollywood does.  But is it really a Hollywood thing, or a cultural phenomenon?  This is what fame attracts.  Any time a male music act attracts crazed admiration from young women, that's what's happening.  It's completely irrational otherwise.  When you remember the reaction Elvis Presley provoked, or the Beatles, or One Direction, you should hopefully understand Bill Cosby a little better.

The problem is, figuring out how to equate, in your mind, Bill Cosby with Harry Styles.  There just seems to be too vast a disconnect.  But there it is, all the same.  Harry Styles didn't do what Bill Cosby did, but he's in exactly the same situation.  And that's what Cosby was trying to talk about concerning the black population, too, this issue of accountability.  The father figure of The Cosby Show doesn't seem capable of what Bill Cosby did anymore than you can envision Styles taking advantage of one of his fans, drugged or otherwise.  The Bill Cosby who was a comedian doesn't seem to have had any problems you might have associated with an absentee father.  He seemed far too well-adjusted, too successful.  But the successful Bill Cosby didn't emerge right away.  He was someone before he was a comedian, before he was famous, decades before The Cosby Show.  Yet at the height of his fame, he chose to address fatherhood, its incredible responsibility, as the important subject he viewed it to be.  Because he knew firsthand what happened when the father isn't there.  It negatively impacts a life.

He saw the black population losing its accountability, spiraling out of control, losing all its cultural momentum, the more fathers disappeared from the black community.  Cosby would have been the voice saying that it wasn't the police but the victims who should have been examined in all these shootings, questioning why they were in that position to begin with, not blaming them but asking why that scenario happened at all, not blaming white cops and ingrained racial problems, but looking further.  Questioning.

He knew this because he saw the flaws in his own life.  If you were to ask Bill Cosby today, instead of accusing and condemning him, he would be repeating that same message.  He tried to do what he could when he could.  This despite his own flaws.  What I'm asking now is, Are we going to lose his message because of the man behind it?  Or learn from it, and continue to learn from Cosby himself, because this seems like the last opportunity we'll ever have.  Because we seem poised to stricken Bill Cosby from the record.

And that would be a mistake.  That's why we need to talk about Bill Cosby.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

840. Star Wars, "a 1977 space movie"

I've been reading a survey of war throughout recorded history, and came across a reference to the 1980s missile defense program, which was famously nicknamed Star Wars in honor of the popular films.  At that time, it was probably embraced with a laugh.

From today's vantage point, we can begin to consider a different context.  As a longtime lover of literature, I've constantly had to confront the notion of historical impact.  Many of the stories we read today come from days long past, and they've transcended their original contexts.  The origin of The Iliad has particularly interested me.  This is a presentation of the Trojan War, written centuries after the fact, credited to a man named Homer, who has undergone considerable skepticism over time.  Did he even exist?  Is it a matter of convenience that we ascribe The Iliad to him?  The existence of Troy itself was in great doubt until Heinrich Schliemann discovered its ruins.

Fans today quibble about Star Wars in every way possible.  They question George Lucas every time he revisits Han Solo shooting Greedo.  A hundred years from now, if anyone is still talking about Star Wars at all, will they even care?  This is the sort of thing I think about.

Will it become a footnote, the way the military survey handled it, or will history be kinder, the way we presumably view Star Wars now in relation to the outdated missile defense system?  Does Lucas continue to be a visionary every time he tweaks his own work?  Because in time, if Star Wars endures at all, it will be revisited.  We're seeing new creators entering into the saga for the first time even now, something that was previously unthinkable (until you consider Lucas didn't direct the second and third movies).

Film is such an interesting topic.  We've seen multiple formats emerge in preserving it for home consumption.  Critics have routinely touted the early movies as enduring classics.  I've been wondering about that.  Some film-makers (Orson Welles) seemed to grasp the enduring nature of the medium, while others (the vast majority) were fine with the limits of their age, which become more and more obvious over time.  As an art-form, film has been nascent, and there's no other way to describe it, the youngest of the arts by far, something that was initially slow in development, but has taken great strides in the blockbuster age, the very era that has routinely seen critics bemoan the end of serious cinema.  Imagine if ambition were a crime in art.  So long, Da Vinci!

The better and more consistent the technique, the better films are in general.  If the medium becomes worthy of an enduring legacy, does it in fact become something that can credibly be envisioned as still being done in a hundred years?  And if then, are they still holding all the old movies as untouchable, the way some people today like to think of them?

Which is to say, is Star Wars as we know it truly sacred?  Or can multiple versions truly compete?  Fans, many of which are the original fans, consider Star Wars untouchable today, even by George Lucas himself.  In times to come, if it truly is untouchable, which is to say enduring, it will have to be more malleable.  The original versions might endure, but there will have to be others, if not to replace to originals, then to justify them.

Or it really will become a footnote in history, "a 1977 space movie."  Just another forgettable cultural ephemera.  History marches on!   

Monday, July 20, 2015

839. Superman: beyond good and evil?

Next year we'll get to further the conversation about Zack Snyder's Superman, once Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is finally released.  Snyder's Man of Steel has been endlessly debated as being too dark, too unrepresentative of Superman in, ah, his best light.

Which prompts the question: What is Superman in his best light?  Those who consider Snyder's Superman as too dark insist that the character should be beyond ordinary human pettiness, that he's a paragon of virtue, much like the old mantra of "Truth, Justice, and the American Way" always suggested, or the nickname pegging him as the Big Blue Boy Scout.  After years of one-dimensional but crowd-pleasing movies based on Marvel comic book superheroes, Snyder's Superman is uncomfortably associated with Christopher Nolan's Batman (two out of three with titles literally including the word "dark," apparently just so there was no confusion).

They use as justification that Superman's origins include the famous adoption by a kindly Kansas farmer, who instilled in him good old American values.  All this is very curious, however, because Superman's appearance in Man of Steel is in response, in many ways, to another ongoing debate entirely, to whether or not the character is still relevant at all.  America has been at the reluctant forefront of the globalization idea for decades at this point.  To say "...and the American Way" has been a part of Superman's legacy that has undergone as much reconsideration as Star Trek's "...where no man has gone before" (revised in The Next Generation to read "where no one has gone before").  So whose values does Superman represent?  If we remove one part of the equation, where does the rest end up?

Actually, Superman's comic book counterpart has been examining that for years, mostly in obvious but interesting ways.  One of the most famous examples is Superman: Red Son, in which the rocket from Krypton lands in Soviet Russia instead of Kansas.  Interestingly, even though he becomes a Communist dynamo, Superman is still a hero with exceptional morals.  If not Jonathan Kent, then who?

The question here is really the classic nature versus nurture.  Superman's nature is actually pretty straightforward to analyze, not because of his alien origins but his awareness of them, his emerging abilities and what they mean about how he'll be able to interact with the world around him.  Superman is a story about an outsider.  This is what the best writers understand.  That he chooses to help rather than hurt is an example all its own, and because he's the most famous superhero, by default Superman has always represented superheroes as a whole.  But at the character's heart is something more complicated than that.

Defensive mechanisms always spring from ideas that are at first rejected by society as a whole.  Tim Burton's Batman rejected Adam West's, went completely the other way, just as Joel Schumacher's was crafted as a response to Burton's, and Nolan's as a response to Schumacher's.  Bryan Singer's Superman was meant as a continuation of Richard Donner's, the rare instance of accepting rather than rejecting (which isn't odd at all, since Singer's X-Men movies were patently created as allegories for the gay community, and his later visits have been to reintegrate new interpretations with the old) something that has come before.  And yet, Snyder's Superman was clearly a rejection of Singer's (even while it was a continuation of Nolan's work).

Marvel's characters are only just beginning to see reinvention come into play (even though the Hulk took three tries to reach popular approval).  Spider-Man's second cinematic life was rejected mostly because his first is still roundly celebrated.  The Fantastic Four have gotten a reboot because their first appearances were deemed unsatisfying.  Daredevil has gotten a new incarnation.  You can imagine how poorly it'll go when Iron Man is played by someone else for the first time.  Can you say George Lazenby?

When Snyder focuses on the effect Superman has around him, lets us see how the world develops around him, we see the character from an entirely new perspective.  Superman normally is depicted as nearly instantly formed, everything he needed coming from his Smallville upbringing.  He's seen as Moses to some people(rocket for a basket), and Jesus (another obscured development of a savior) to others.  Yet he's just a comic book character, and he only means as much as the stories he's in, the impact he's allowed to have.  If he's presented as "just" a great heroic figure, then he becomes just another action hero.  Movies have plenty of those.  What they don't have is Superman, one whose presentation is as confident as his legacy in the culture is to date.  Later generations, you may need reminding, won't know or care what we thought.  If the material doesn't speak for itself, Superman will slip into oblivion.

He has a chance to become something greater.  Snyder recognizes that.  He has a chance to embody everything his character suggests.  If reduced to mere functionality, he's nothing.  That's the simple truth.  What does he say about good?  What does he say about evil?  Superman becomes a hero, in Man of Steel, because he doesn't have a choice.  He feels compelled.  He can do a thing, and so he does.  He rescues people.  His father, Jonathan Kent, cautions him to be fearful of the reaction.  Because people fear what they don't understand.  He'll be hounded.  Nolan had his Batman hounded, too, but that was because he really was just a man.  He could be chased.  So inevitably, he would be.  The consequences are different, however.  Batman was always subject to human laws.  Superman isn't.  He transcends all of them.  In time, this is something everyone is bound to discover.  He's more than a man.  He's an idea.

People tend to try and make every fictional character from the past to be a real person.  They want to find the historical Robin Hood, the historical King Arthur.  Or they want to make real people into fictional characters.  They say Homer didn't exist, that Shakespeare didn't.  People can be funny.  They want Superman to transcend the one thing he shouldn't, which is internal logic.  If presented with a given set of circumstances, despite variations, the end result is a man who becomes Superman.  He's more than a superhero.  If you believe that your life can have an impact on the world, you will believe in Superman.  But to have that chance, you have to overcome great odds.  So does Superman.

To achieve that, you have to overcome great obstacles.  In Greek myth, Hercules (to be completely accurate, Heracles) had to undergo a series of legendary labors.  This part of his story is thrilling.  Less so the part where he's murdered by his ex-wife.  Yet without that murder, the story is incomplete.  You can't tell Superman's story properly without delving into the dark.  Because otherwise he doesn't have a chance to shine.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

838. Self/less review

The first thing you should know about Self/less is that it is a movie about our growing cynicism with science.  The second is that it is hugely infused with second life imagery.  The third is that it is less a remake of the 1966 movie Seconds and more like a response to it.

The fourth, and probably first, is that it is a film by Tarsem, and the fifth and probably second, is that it stars Ryan Reynolds.  But because Tarsem doesn't have much of a popular reputation, and Reynolds frequently struggles to have a good one, and because critics are lazy, Self/less "is" a remake of Seconds.  Obviously.

You may have noticed that people have gone crazy in their ideas about dieting.  Because of the obesity epidemic, everyone wants to figure out ways to make themselves thin, eat "healthier," the latter I put in quotations because a lot of what is considered in that light has dubious merit at best but anyone is willing to believe because we've let the art of science run away from us.  And this just in, too: climate change!  This is something we've been talking about for decades, literally decades, but every time someone wants to sensationalize it again, they'll act as if we haven't.  In personal experience, I know that we've obliterated the mill industry that polluted much of our waterways, and we've seen dramatic results from that (the Androscoggin River used to be known for having the kind of fish you'd normally have found in early seasons of The Simpsons), and that's just one example of actual results from the efforts of environmentalists over the years.  But still we hear only mindless doom and gloom.  The people who are all for the doom and gloom message are happy to hear the climate change mantra.  The people who aren't are usually assumed to be the ones causing it.

I'm not hear to talk about climate change, however, but Self/less, but it's appropriate to sidetrack a little because this is a movie that clearly very few people have bothered to understand.  Go back and read how I began this review for starters.  It should provoke thought.  It's designed to provoke thought.

The plot concerns a real estate tycoon (it's no wonder that critics have particularly, and without any real merit, savaged this character, because the only real estate tycoon anyone knows these days is making hash work of his current presidential campaign) who is dying of cancer and looking for some reassurance.  He's approached by a man who tells him he can start all over again with a new body.  Naturally in his desperate straits the real estate tycoon ends up accepting the offer.

In most reviews, the real estate tycoon is described as a thoroughly unpleasant man.  I don't see that in Ben Kingsley's actual performance.  I see a man struggling to cope with his illness with as much dignity as possible.  I see the straight-backed posture others have noted as a symptom of that.  I see the man's questioning as a setup to how and why he begins to question the program that gives him his second chance.  He's unsettled by the whole thing the first time he gets a glimpse of what's really going on.  I see a man who pushed so long and so hard all his life that he never gave his actions a second thought.  But he's about to.

Some critics argue that Tarsem is a director who doesn't really know what he's doing.  He came up through music videos, and there's a special feature in the original home video release of his first film, The Cell, entitled "Style Before Substance," which is what I assume has become his reputation ever since.  Except Tarsem has generally mastered his stories to a superior degree.  As far as I can tell, he knows exactly what he's doing.  Which can be intimidating.  I suggest that critics who think he doesn't are more used to open-ended stories.  Because Tarsem's conclusions are usually pretty definitive.  In The Cell, for instance, Jennifer Lopez plays a psychologist who helps find the intended final victim of a serial killer, and finally has a breakthrough with the boy she was treating previously.  In The Fall, the suicidal stuntman learns how to live again.  In Immortals, the hero dies but his son rises.  In Mirror Mirror, Snow White lives (I contend this last one was Tarsem's desperate bid to be understood in the easiest context possible, which was complicated by the fact that Snow White and the Huntsman was released around the same time).

How does Self/less end?  As with an M. Night Shyamalan movie, perhaps that is a necessary thing to talk about, because otherwise you end up talking about anything but the complete story, and there have been reports that because the real estate tycoon seems so selfish, that the whole movie is better off being called that instead.  But it's called Self/less for a reason.  It reminds me very much of how Source Code ended.  I thought and continue to think that Source Code is brilliant, but Self/less comes to as different conclusions as it does in relation to Seconds.

Fearful of science, and replete with second life images, but they all appear to be incidental.  As with all of his movies, you have to pay attention to what Tarsem is doing.  Once the real estate tycoon has gotten his new body, he is temporarily relocated to New Orleans, a whole city of second life images.  After Katrina, it's far easier to see it that way, because even in its foundations it's a city about reshaping the landscape.  It's also a sequence that is in some ways an answer to Birdman, a movie suffused with jazz.  But it's a sequence that reclaims jazz, and reminds you, subtly, how jazz began, and yes, how it was repackaged for later consumption.  Jazz, you may or may not know, began as an expression of slave culture, the same as the blues.  It's one of the most remarkable artistic achievements of American culture, but in order to be accepted by American culture, it had to be introduced by white people to the masses (this is not to say the greats didn't include Louis Armstrong or Sarah Vaughan or many other great black performers), so that it also gave birth to big band and swing music, rock and roll, dance, hip hop.

Which is to say, if you understand why there's jazz in the movie, you understand Self/less itself a little better.

There are many other such images in the movies, and it's all very deliberate without being too forceful.  More like being artful, in a way that Tarsem hasn't been in the past, so for me, although I will likely continue to consider The Fall his masterpiece, Self/less represents a considerable artistic evolution for the director, a show of further creative confidence.

The story, meanwhile, does in many ways mirror Seconds, a movie that does in fact seem to have been the source for a lot of its material.  But if you research and/or see Seconds for yourself, you will discover a movie that perhaps explains better than presents Self/less.  The villain in Self/less, in particular, might find a better presentation of his methods in the earlier movie, because at first it seems like the action in Self/less is otherwise a random manifestation to energize the movie.  And yet the villain has carefully chosen subjects for his program so that they will be able to present themselves as formidable physical challenges, including the one the real estate tycoon was provided.  If the real estate tycoon had been anyone else (the villain repeatedly tells him that he asks the wrong questions, but this is a mistake on the villain's part; it's not the questions but the answers that matter), he would have ended up like the character played by Derek Luke.

And let's talk Derek Luke for a minute.  And Ben Kingsley.  And Ryan Reynolds.  These are all actors with a proven record of taking roles that speak directly to what Self/less is trying to say.  Luke became famous for starring in Antwone Fisher, which among other things was Denzel Washington's directorial debut.  Luke's casting was one of the things that helped define the movie, because it was clear that Washington had found, well, another actor much like himself, and Luke's further career so far has helped prove that.  (He's also played Sean Combs, who has constantly reinvented himself, in Notorious.)  Although while watching Self/less, Luke reminded me of Mos Def, who has gamely attempted to reinvent himself as an actor over the last decade after starting off in hip hop.

Anyway, Kingsley's career speaks for itself.  He's a known chameleon.  As far as I'm concerned, this is one of his few recent roles where he's allowed to reclaim his dignity (which as to the role itself, is an irony).  So let's talk about Reynolds.  Critics remembered that he's also got The Change-Up in his credits, in which he swaps bodies with Jason Bateman.  As far as I'm concerned, the relevant connection is, rather, Smokin' Aces, the first time I saw Reynolds as a force to be reckoned with.  Normally dismissed as one of the many movies trying to recreate Tarantino, Smokin' Aces reveals in its conclusions a second life puzzle, and forces a dramatic decision much like the one Reynolds once again embodies in Self/less, to end a series of morally reprehensible decisions when a spy's life is considered more valuable than his son's, and Reynolds decides the whole thing is as crazy as the assassins who have swarmed the preceding events (watch those guys for a Chris Pine performance that's unlike any other you've seen to date).

For me, all of that boils down to a movie that is far more interesting, and better, than anything you have previously heard about Self/less.  Since it's quickly exiting theaters, this will be a movie you will have to rediscover later.  Which is actually appropriate.  As for why all the vitriol for Tarsem from critics, I assume it's because industry insiders like him, and not the outsiders like critics.  But they'll come around.  That's only appropriate, too.  Second chances, right?

Monday, July 13, 2015

837. Tarsem and the challenges of genius...

A couple weeks back Alex Cavanaugh took a light-hearted dig at Tarsem based on his critical record at Rotten Tomatoes.  Cavanaugh was talking about the then-upcoming release of Self/less, Tarsem's latest movie that in fact ended up having a poor opening release this past weekend.  True to form, critics didn't like Self/less anymore than Tarsem's four previous films, calling it a shameless ripoff of John Frankheimer's 1966 movie Seconds at best.

See, I have a problem with this because I happen to think Tarsem is a genius.  This isn't the first time I've talked about him (most recently in my Gladiator/300/Immortals discussion, which itself was my first reaction here to Cavanaugh's comments).  But how can I consider Tarsem a genius when everyone seems to think he's anything but?  Well, for starters, this is exactly the reception geniuses tend to receive.  Melville's Moby-Dick famously was an epic flop that wasn't rediscovered for decades.  Orson Welles saw his career fall apart after Citizen Kane.

And yeah, Moby-Dick and Citizen Kane even today are hardly universally acclaimed, insofar as anyone who doesn't particular consider themselves a connoisseur finds them difficult or pretentious.  But the acknowledgement of genius is not a universal distinction.  If it was, there wouldn't be such a hard time identifying it in the first place.  There's a reason why students slog through Shakespeare, because you have to be able to understand something in order to appreciate it.

Yeah, I'm tossing Tarsem into the likes of Melville, Welles, and Shakespeare.

His first film was 2000's The Cell, the last movie Jennifer Lopez made before her emerging music career destroyed all her critical credibility (somehow).  Today it would be an artful episode of Criminal Minds.  This is a movie that's like The Silence of the Lambs combined with The Matrix, or perhaps most accurately Tarsem in his best comparison, channeling Christopher Nolan's Inception years in advance.  Inception is another movie critics who want to dismiss it will say there were other movies with similar ideas.  Anyone who says they don't like something because they saw a similar idea before, no matter how similar, cannot be taken seriously.  If you cannot distinguish form from content, or content from form, you are not being critical.  You're going the easiest possible route, to not being critical at all.  Comparison, at its best, is about seeing contrast in its best light, or its worst, not for the mere fact of a similar idea.  I mean, you could take literally anything you personally have ever loved, and thought insanely original, and come up with a hundred other similar ideas.

Anyway, it's funny, too, about originality, because if you want to go that route, you could even compare that distinctive psychopath from No Country for Old Men, Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh ("Call it, friendo.") and notice that Vincent D'Onfrio's Carl Stargher in The Cell not only has a similar hairstyle, but a whole background the starkness of the Coen approach (which is how No Country succeeds, by the way) can't even approach, much less in terms of depth.

What Tarsem achieves in The Cell, most of all, is the beginning of his distinctive voice.  No, not the visual voice, which is what anyone who knows or bothers to know anything about him will talk about, but his storytelling.  This is where the complete concept is considered, and tellingly, very few critics ever talk about the complete concept.  They earn their paychecks by picking up on one aspect, and try to define the entire movie by it, the way Self/less is endlessly discussed in relation to Seconds, or other body-swapping stories.

I haven't seen Self/less yet, but conceptually one of the criticisms that bothers me most is how Ryan Reynolds doesn't evoke the speech or mannerisms of Ben Kingsley.  And why would he?  It's Kingsley's mind that has been transplanted.  On a basic level, I can see what people are talking about, but when you think about it, the physical and vocal quirks Kingsley presents are the last things that embody the character he portrays.  It's the mind, the thoughts, the thought process: these are the elements of Kingsley's character that are transferred.  Everything else is supplied by Reynolds' host body.  Which, by the way, quickly begins to assert its previous host.  Having Reynolds act and speak like Kingsley would be a far worse gimmick, all the way around, than whatever you might think of the concept of the film itself.

Speech and mannerisms are a direct extension of experience, experience rooted in the body and the environment around you.  A person who grew up in the fishing communities of Maine (where the "Maine accent" comes from) but whose parents were English, wouldn't speak with a British accent but a Maine one.  A person who grew up with one kind of body wouldn't suddenly suddenly change their posture if they lost their memory.  Posture is an unconscious act, just as an accent is.

So why again would Reynolds magically start behaving exactly like Kingsley?

Tarsem's storytelling voice is all about awareness.  His most telling movie is also his most brilliant, 2008's The Fall, about a stuntman who tries to commit suicide, and ends up recovering in the same convalescent home as a precocious little girl, who won't leave him alone.  So he begins telling her stories.  Immediately the viewer is aware that the stories as depicted in the film are what the girl imagines, not as the stuntman does.  If you persist in confusion over this, please note the changing look of the stuntman's hero, who are various points looks like the girl's father (I like to compare The Fall to The Wizard of Oz, another movie that borrows familiar characters for additional roles) or the stuntman himself.

The stuntman's whole reason for telling his stories is to ingratiate himself with the girl, so he can trick her into giving him pills so he can try and complete his suicide.  This is pretty horrible, but that's not the end of the story.  It's the girl who forcefully insists on a happy ending, changing the stuntman's story when he reaches a bitter one so that it does.  It's bittersweet and heartbreaking and uplifting in the best possible way, a movie of such insight into the human condition, so casual and breathtaking that I've never understood why even the critics had a hard time embracing it.

But it's because it's a challenge.  Critics don't like challenging movies.  I made peace with that long ago.  They say they do, but they really don't.  Critics are easy to manipulate, even though they say the movies they hate the most are the ones that try to manipulate.  What they love most is the ability to join a bandwagon before the public does.  In most instances, except when they want to join a public bandwagon (always the most harmless and least critical ones, such as calling the most innocuous superhero movies superb, as they did with The Avengers), they try their best to like movies they know the public won't (see: the Oscars most years).

And you would think Tarsem would be someone they'd love.  But he started out with The Cell.  If he'd started out, as Christopher Nolan did, with Memento (though Nolan's first film was actually the little-seen Following), something that was relatively modest in its ambitions, he might have had a shot.  Instead, he turned out to be another Terry Gilliam.  Critics sometimes pretend to like Gilliam, but more often than not dismiss him for the same reasons they dismiss Tarsem.  It's one thing to be Tim Burton and to throw the idea of the artist all over the screen, but Tarsem and Gilliam, as incredible as it is to believe, are more subtle than that.  Gilliam's Brazil, the one that made and broke his career, is in the end a fever dream of existential angst.  This is the kind of thing Charlie Chaplin used to do, and even Chaplin struggles to be accepted as the genius he was.  A devoted following, no matter how loud, must still be acknowledged for its limited scope.  Chaplin never won an Oscar (he received honorary ones in 1929, at the first one, and 1972), the same with Welles (likewise an honorary Oscar, in 1971).  Tell me how that's even possible.

In The Cell, Tarsem's awareness is about as plain as it can get.  That's what hunting psychopaths is all about, and certainly the dream sequences.  In 2011's Immortals, Tarsem deals with a depiction of Greek mythology that goes beyond the variety seen in either version of Clash of the Titans, where mankind's relationship with gods, and vice versa, is the source of the struggle, not incidental to it or some kind of game.  There's a crazy king running around who seeks to "end the reign of the gods" by unleashing their predecessors, the Titans, so they can be wiped out once and for all.  Zeus decides this is a bad thing, but tells his fellow gods to stay out of the conflict, even while he actively encourages the human champion, who never learns who the old man was who guided him.

It's very much a movie that you have to pay attention to in order to fully comprehend.  I suspect a lot of people are more distracted than they'll admit.  A movie that demands your attention, especially one that looks like it'll be a mere visceral experience like Immortals, is instantly frustrating, because it plays against expectations.  Yes, Immortals is dominated by its images, and knowingly so, but to judge it only on those images is to miss the whole.  And this is a movie with something to say.

Tarsem's next movie, 2012's Mirror Mirror, is far more direct in its social commentary, and perhaps even more confusing, as it casts perennial audience favorite Julia Roberts in the role of the villain, the evil step-mother of Snow White, who usurps a kingdom and gleefully embodies evil without overacting.  This is a playful movie, but its form of the Tarsem awareness archetype is in pushing Snow White into a position of strength from her original position of weakness, all but completely hidden away until she begins to assert herself.  And that's pretty much the summary of Tarsem's instinct, too.  In all of his movies, a true self is struggling to emerge.

I realize that it's not Cavanaugh's job to defend artistry.  But it was shocking to see him so dismissive, regardless of how much snark he tends to use in his movie remarks, of a talent I consider in such high esteem.  Because that really is the general estimation of Tarsem.  And I'm a little tired of it.  What I'd like is to be pleasantly surprised, to hear about someone liking Tarsem, being as wowed by him as I have been, consistently, and in a variety of ways (which itself is a considerable part of why I'm still so wowed by him).

I look forward to seeing Self/less.  I probably won't get to see it in theaters, but when I do catch it, I'll let you know what I think.  When I judge a movie, I'm judging the whole thing.  For me, a good movie is not defined by a good ending, but a good ending can help make a good film.  A good movie has everything: a good story, good directing, good acting.  Tarsem brings all this together with considerable regularity, and makes it work in concert, the way all good directors do.  I like him, in the end, for the same reasons I like Nolan, I like Tarantino, I like Shyamalan.  He's someone who looks at film-making as a full-on artistic possibility, a challenge to embrace with each new project.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

836. Moxie Day 2015

Every year Lisbon Falls, Maine, becomes something other than a bedroom community when it hosts its annual Moxie Day festival.  For thirty-three years, one of the original soft drinks, still tasting more or less how it did originally (when they were marketed as medicine, if you can believe it), is thrust into the spotlight along with the town that's also home to the Kennebec Fruit Co. (the Moxie Store) and Frank Anicetti, third generation owner and a hundred years later.

This year's celebration (if you listen to Anicetti, the town seems to be trying its best to sabotage Moxie Day) seemed like a step back from years past.  The parade (a half dozen years since Klingons have appeared!) was fine (my nephew, like every does, loved the crazy Kora Shriner carts), though Main Street looked like it was kind of going through the motions, except for my favorite part of the festival, which is the library book sale.  Last year's was a true shadow of its former glory, but they seemed to make an effort to return to the glory days, meaning I came back with a good haul:

  • Dave Barry, Is Not Taking This Sitting Down
  • Bernard Cornwell, The Bloody Ground
  • Umberto Eco, Foucault's Pendulum
  • Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex
  • Robert Graves, The Golden Ass
  • Mark Helprin, Freddy and Fredericka
  • Brad Herzog, States of Mind
  • Carl Hiaasen, Basket Case
  • Elizabeth Kostova, The Historian
  • Naguib Mahfouz, Palace Walk (The Cairo Trilogy I)
  • Dorothy Parker, Complete Stories
  • Spider Robinson, Time Travelers Strictly Cash
  • Salman Rushdie, The Moor's Last Sigh
Which for me represents a considerably nice bounty.  I've been a big fan of Dave Barry for years.  I think I've read this particular book, but somehow didn't have it in my collection.  I just mentioned to comment-maker Pat Dilloway the other day how I wanted to read Cornwell.  I've read Umberto Eco before, but not one of his best-known books like this one.  Middlesex is one of those books I knew of thanks to working at Borders.  The Golden Ass, to be clear, concerns Greek mythology.  It is not porn.  Helprin also wrote Winters Tale, which was later adapted into a movie I love.  Herzog famously published his book after appearing in the early days of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? (according to Savage Garden, Regis Philbin).  Hiassen was Florida's original signature literary genius, before Dave Barry moved there.  I used to have The Historian before it failed to survive the 2013 purge (details explained elsewhere on that), so to have it again and have a chance to actually read it is nice.  I earmarked The Cairo Trilogy as something I wanted to read a little while back.  Parker is one of those writers I knew about but hadn't had any real exposure to her actual work.  Spider Robinson has one of the best names ever.  Armchair Squid just read Moor's Last Sigh, and I've been a fan of Rushdie since reading The Satanic Verses, so reading more is always a welcome opportunity.

I also visited an indoor flea market in town for the express reason of finding out whatever happened to a comics and games shop that had just opened last Moxie Day on Main Street, but was gone by the time I had a chance to visit again just a few weeks back.  Of course they transplanted.  But the best comics in the flea market weren't being sold by these guys, ironically.  Still, those guys were there yesterday (Moxie Day) and completely did not understand when I tried to explain my surprise about how their fortunes have changed in the past year.  I mean, there are some quick turnarounds in small business (I applied to work at a new used bookstore in Colorado Springs and didn't get the job, but the store was out of business within a few months anyway), and strategically they did a very smart thing.  I have no idea why it looked like they still weren't properly settled at their new location.  Or why the flea market was surprised that very few people were visiting them (it's not a terribly visible location, and there wasn't any other Moxie-related activity going on in that part of town, and they didn't have any presence on Main Street, and they didn't have any big signs advertising themselves in front of their own building...the list goes on).  

Last year I got my first-ever orange Moxie t-shirt, and coincidentally it was up in the rotation (I have a t-shirt rotation), not that I wasn't going to wear it anyway, so I felt like a faithful member of the celebration this year, walking around all morning with it on.

Hopefully the town pulls itself together and starts helping the event fire on all cylinders again.  I guess there's been a lot of thought about ancillary activities like concerts and various new locations around town to host events throughout the three-day festival, but to lose sight of the main event, and its central setting, is kind of missing the mark. 

And bring back the Klingons!


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