Tuesday, June 28, 2016

870. The Blockbuster Numbing Effect

There've been plenty of people who wondered what was to happen to the superhero movie, once the bubble finally bursts.  More often than not, the answer is that it'll go the way of the Western, that it'll gradually lose all relevance in the popular culture.

I don't know about that.  I think of superhero movies in terms of the sci-fi genre.  Once that box exploded, with Star Wars, it became very hard close up again, in a way that Westerns haven't really experienced since the end of their heyday, when they held a virtual monopoly on the public's imagination.  Half the reason superhero movies exploded in the new millennium was because Hollywood finally figured out how to duplicate Star Wars' blockbuster model.  Suddenly, there were hot new franchises all over the place, of viable endurance and massive popularity.

The problem, if anything, is to keep superheroes from becoming like horror movies.  Horror movies have long had their sway with audiences.  In the '80s they took on new life with a slew of franchises.  The problem is, horror films became increasingly hard to translate to wide audiences, unless a true breakout occurred, which does continue to happen.  The thing is, no one thinks of horror movies as dominating the box office, the way they did in the '70s, before Star Wars.  Tastes change.  Something will replace superhero movies as the hot new thing, but superhero movies won't go away, like Westerns have for the most part.

The problem will be in finding the balance that prevents them from appearing too insular.  In this age where the massive Avengers franchise exists, this can seem like a ridiculous dilemma, because eight years and over a dozen films later, no one's arguing that it's tough to keep track of what happens in these movies, because they're designed to operate independently, with little need to know what happens in any one film.  You can watch one of them and simply expect a good time. 

That's it, really, the expectation that you don't need to invest too much into the experience.  Anytime a blockbuster goes beyond that expectation, barriers begin to form, and opinions sharply decline in their generosity toward the film.

It's not that difficult to see how this tracks.  Everyone loves Star Wars, because the original movies were filled with romantic breeziness.  The second one, The Empire Strikes Back, deepened the story just enough so that fans thought it was a worthy follow-up to the original.  By the time the prequels were made, however, you suddenly needed to know so much more, such as why it was at all important to care about the little boy Anakin Skywalker.  It wasn't simply a matter of expectations, but having to invest in the material something beyond sheer enjoyment.  In fact, under circumstances like that, sheer enjoyment becomes the last thing possible.

Where superhero movies started looking for something other than entertainment was the misleading success of The Dark Knight, which proved to be a spectacle for reasons other than Batman's adventures, but the spectacle of the unexpected performance from the late Heath Ledger, whose death alone brought attention to the movie.  People loved Spider-Man as a lovable sadsack, and because watching him swing through New York City was a life-affirming exercise post-9/11.  They didn't particularly want the Goth dorkiness of Spider-Man 3 or Marc Webb's deeper analysis in the Amazing Spider-Man films.  Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice has proven a powderkeg precisely because it tried to be operatic instead of just a big dumb fight between its title heroes.

These ambitious superhero movies have their place, but they'll never be as popular as the lighthearted, irreverent material that continues to dominate the box office.  You try for anything else, and people will just crap all over it, because this is not the kind of stuff they want to think about.  They go to the movies to escape.  That's how hits are born, the ones that are still fondly recalled years later.

Hollywood has developed a new problem, in that there are so many movies with blockbuster expectations, they can't possibly all end up blockbusters, and suddenly there are more and more blockbuster box office busts.  This can't at all be surprising.  The more demand you make of your audience, the more careful you'll have to be to find it, because otherwise, it simply won't be there.  It's the blockbuster numbing effect.  What otherwise might have become a generation's defining movie memory will have been lost in the shuffle, simply because you didn't expect it would be so difficult to get lost in the story.  Sometimes, it really is.  The hit movies are the ones that make it look easy. 

Thursday, June 23, 2016

869. Person of Interest comes to an end

I thought I'd observe the airing of the final episode of Person of Interest, which was broadcast on Tuesday night.  In this era where the flashiest, or just most comfortable, programs get all the attention, Person of Interest set a new standard for network television.  On the heels of hits like Alias, Lost, and Fringe, CBS acquired this latest idea from J.J. Abrams, who developed it with Jonathan Nolan, expanding on concepts Nolan had originally conceived along with brother Christopher Nolan in the blockbuster The Dark Knight.  In an age of terrorism and surveillance scandals, Person of Interest explored the nuances of both in surprisingly personal ways, expanding from an initial focus on tech savant Harold Finch and his pitbull John Reese to include the likes of Root and Shaw, as well as police counterparts Carter and Fusco as they worked on the behalf of the Machine, and later against the corruption of its doppelganger Samaritan. 

This was a show I was eager to watch when it debuted in the fall of 2011, which just happened to be when I lost all track of regular TV viewing.  When CBS begrudgingly dumped the final season this year (I have no idea why the network became so grumpy about a show that had been one of its biggest hits in recent years), I took it as a chance to catch up and pay my respects as it concluded its story.

It never disappointed me.  From the return of Shaw (following the unexpected death of Carter, Shaw's apparent demise was one of the moments that registered in the mainstream media, in part because of her budding relationship with Root) to the closing moments of the brilliantly orchestrated finale, in which the whole reason these characters were fighting was spelled out (because human lives matter, which in any other hands would have come off as a trite message indeed).  This was a whole series that bucked the trend of providing easy answers about its weekly mysteries, famously giving the group clues leading them in the direction of people who could be victim or perpetrator.  In an age where we've steadily lost our trust in others, Person of Interest struggled to affirm that it can still exist.

This was a 9/11 drama ten years in the making, exploring the world that resulted from the worst catastrophe of the modern era, and coming up with a hopeful message.  That may not be what everyone else is saying, but that doesn't matter.  Thank goodness Person of Interest did.  This was a TV classic, folks.

Monday, June 20, 2016

868. Ted Mosby is very happy right now!

Cleveland native Ted Mosby is really happy right now.  I mean, he geeked out when LeBron came back home, and now there's a championship to celebrate.  Life doesn't get much better, right?

(The preceding was brought to you by a dedicated fan of How I Met Your Mother.)

In all seriousness, congratulations to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, celebrating Cleveland's first championship win in fifty-two years, defeating the Golden State Warriors in an epic Finals rematch, and LeBron winning with Cleveland.  I'm not a huge basketball fan, only insofar as anyone mildly interested in the '90s craze will be today, but I can always appreciate a sports superstar winning the big one (unless their name is Peyton Manning).

Monday, June 13, 2016

867. The End of Anicetti, the 155th of Big Bethel

I'm not going to talk too much, but I felt it was important to mark the retirement of Frank Anicetti, who for years continued his family's (a hundred years' worth) legacy at the Kennebec Fruit Co. in Lisbon, ME.  Frank's the one who helped initiate Lisbon's annual Moxie Festival, and he was featured in Stephen King's 11/22/63.  Earlier this year he started toying with the idea, and now it seems he made it official.  He's a true icon in that town, and I hope this year's celebration of Moxie remembers that.

Somewhat conversely, I was a part of a different kind of history on Saturday, when the 155th anniversary of the Battle of Big Bethel was commemorated in my backyard.  I've been living in Hampton, VA, for about half a year now, and it's been interesting to observe the plaques and memorials so close to home.  I imagination it should always be interesting to have history near you like that.  It's not the first time, and it probably won't be the last.  This time, it just happens to include the present conditions of a battlefield that's dubbed the first planned land engagement of the Civil War.  Hampton is already very near the "Historic Triangle" in Virginia (Williamsburg, Yorktown, and Jamestown).  Anyway, there was a ceremony, and I stopped by to hear some of what was said.  The speaker compared the battle to Bunker Hill, which was certainly an interesting thought.  (When I took the historic trip of Boston my freshman year of college, I visited Bunker Hill.) 

Friday, June 10, 2016

866. Mock Squid Soup - June 2016: What Dreams May Come

Every month various bloggers come together to celebrate movies with the Mock Squid Soup society.  This month I'll be talking a little about 1998's What Dreams May Come.

Released a few months prior to one of Robin Williams' last big hits, Patch Adams, this was a big artistic statement about death that kind of landed with a thud, and has never quite recovered.  I kind of figured this was my kind of movie from the start, but for whatever reason I've only just sat through the whole thing.  Call it confirmation bias if you like, but yeah, I loved it.

What Dreams May Come is the story of a man who dies and discovers the afterlife is an unexpected window into not only the way he lived, but his family as well.  He appears in a full-scale version of a painting his wife made years ago (honestly, this is one of the great pieces of artistry in film, without any danger of overdoing it).  He eventually meets his son and daughter, who appear into different, and surprising, guises.  They both died in a car crash years earlier, and the grief sent their parents in different directions as they struggled to cope.  After Williams dies, his wife commits suicide, which ends up informing the rest of the movie.

I don't know, I think this movie was simply released at the wrong time.  Culturally, we'd stopped accepting the Christian view as the dominant outlook on life, and so a movie that accepted a generally Christian view of the afterlife couldn't have been received comfortably.  The same thing happened because it was a Robin Williams movie, because critics had kind of decided they were over him.  His supporting turn in Good Will Hunting was basically the last time they liked him (other than a few later roles, in One Hour Photo and Insomnia, where he played psychopaths, which was about as far against type as he could get).  Critics also didn't particularly care for Cuba Gooding, Jr., whose own Oscar win (Jerry Maguire) marked the only time they liked him (despite a lot of good work following his breakthrough, including the equally critically hapless but no less brilliant Instinct).

Chances are you won't be thinking of whether you care about a Christian view of the afterlife, or whether you always liked Robin Williams or Cuba Gooding, Jr.  If you've seen What Dreams May Come for yourself, what did you even think about it?  Was it a movie you found easy to dismiss because it seemed so easy to dismiss?

For me, I always liked how bold it was, unafraid to take a look at the moodier side of Williams, which in dramas usually meant he had a beard and acted solemn (this was a good mode for him; see Awakenings, for instance).  Like Patch Adams, though, Williams was able to bring out his playful side in What Dreams May Come.  It may not have been a mistake these two are often seen paired together in home video release.  These are human portraits.  Where Patch Adams played up the comedy, What Dreams May Come plays up the tragedy.

(Fitting, for a movie that in its title alludes to Shakespeare.)

To watch it was to see how intricate the story was, too.  The reveals of who two of Williams' guides are, and why they chose these guises, are just two of the wonderful surprises in the story, which never really flirts with the obvious risk of melodrama for this kind of movie.  It's all pretty frank, and by the time we meet Max von Sydow, even wonderfully fantastical, in a way we'd have to wait for the later Harry Potter movies to see again.

Me, because of the literary tradition with Dante's Divine Comedy, I like to believe that a culture's current impression of what the afterlife looks like is a window into its soul.  I don't know what the immediate reception of What Dreams May Come says about that, but the film itself bridges more than breaks the gaps that have formed between different circles of our society, and I think you only need to see it to believe that.

This is not a story about faith.  It's the story of humanity, broken and then mended, and perhaps found.  I think it's pretty profound, and worth considering as one of the great artistic statements of the last hundred years.

Thursday, June 02, 2016

865. X-Men: Apocalypse, otherwise known as the best X-Men movie yet

The thing about setting benchmarks is that it can be a terrible burden.  Earlier this year I determined that Captain America: Civil War was the best Avengers movie yet.  It sent a new benchmark for that franchise.  And yet, it's not as good a movie as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (which is not the best Superman or Batman movie, an honor that still resides with The Dark Knight) or, as I have now determined, X-Men: Apocalypse.

Apocalypse is the sixth movie in the X-Men franchise, not counting three spin-offs (two for Wolverine and one Deadpool), and it completes the second trilogy while rounding out as a statement for the whole series to date.  It does so brilliantly, by learning all there was to learn from the previous entries, something Civil War did before it, too, but because there was more substance to build on, the achievement is greater.

For me, it's always about substance.  Like Batman v Superman's nod to Excalibur, a genre film that broke new ground and helped set the tone for what was to come, Apocalypse makes a big deal about how a few of the characters go see Return of the Jedi, which sets off a similar conversation.  Most viewers will take away that Bryan Singer is still annoyed at what Brett Ratner did with X-Men: The Last Stand, the finale of the first trilogy, the previous two having been directed by Singer before he attempted to move on with 2006's Superman Returns (that was the whole period when the early millennial fascination with superheroes was either going to die or evolve, and you can see for yourself what happened).  And maybe Singer is, but the greater point is also how crucial Apocalypse is to the second trilogy, and how its story is reflected in Return of the Jedi.

If there's a weakness to the film, I would call it blockbuster hangover, which is something that began with Independence Day, the need to have as much destruction as possible in the story, most of which is usually unnecessary.  Putting that aside, we can look at the story itself.  Apocalypse assumes the role of the Emperor.  That's all he basically is, an evil presence forcing moral decisions on the main characters.  The key players, as always, are Professor X and Magneto.  This has been the case since the start, because of the initial casting for these roles with noted British actors Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, whose performances helped drive interest in the series even as their roles tended to be lost in the shuffle of other character conflicts.

Ironically, it was in Ratner's Last Stand where they truly began to drive the plot, with the character of Jean Grey caught between them.  Apocalypse, if anything, might be seen as Singer's version of Last Stand, but with all the history of the film series behind it.  With First Class and Days of the Future Past having put such a heavy emphasis directly on Professor X and Magneto, Apocalypse had to deliver, make a thesis of the conflict between them, and decide, once and for all, if they were truly worth rooting for.

This is why I say the X-Men have been doing what Batman, Superman, and the Avengers only just got around to, all along.  Apocalypse helps prove that, in elegant fashion.

So many opinions that you have to wade through have already made predetermined judgments about certain aspects (critics hate long genre series; they were complaining about Harry Potter movies even as fans were still rabidly buying the new books, as if they would have no way of keeping up with the mythology).  A lot of the people who will tell you Apocalypse is a failure have joined the camp that says only Disney/Marvel can do it right, and that you have to have a fairly light tone to make a superhero movie. 

Apocalypse is the bold statement this franchise has been building toward from the start.  When Singer first made an X-Men film, he built his vision around the gay community, where he saw the most obvious mutant analogy.  Yet in Apocalypse, you can see where he has expanded that vision.  Black viewers can see these X-Men as analogous to their struggles, too, which have been plastered all over the news for the past few years, all over again.  The struggle never ends.  And that's the point of these X-Men movies.  The way to respond, in this franchise, comes down to whether you will reject the greater community (Magneto) or attempt to join it (Professor X).  Tellingly, Mystique is the one straddling the line and drawing the sides closer, once again.  It may also be relevant to note that, along with Rogue, it's Mystique that was left depowered in Ratner's Last Stand.

The confidence Singer brings to these movies today is totally different from the tentative, if bombastic (driven by the early love affair everyone had for Hugh Jackman's Wolverine), steps he took in his first two movies.  It's best understood in the Quicksilver scenes, which have stolen the show in two movies now.  It's in how he allows Magneto to be human, not in a forced way, as has been the direction in other movies, but as someone we don't need to be reminded was born in the Holocaust (but this time, it doesn't seem exploitative to remind us, again).  It's in how he allows Quicksilver to avoid telling Magneto that he's his son.  That's the Usual Suspects version of Singer I've been looking for all along, the one capable of withholding information, for the good of the story, the characters, and the audience.  Because it makes everything better.

This is how it's done, folks.  For all those still upset about the second Star Wars trilogy, you now have a genre franchise with two trilogies, where you can hopefully see how the last in them rounded out the story, in hugely appropriate fashion.


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