Friday, May 29, 2015

"Best" Movies of the Year Part 3 (Boyhood, Theory of Everything, Big Hero 6)

More madness.  Part 1 here and scroll down the page for part 2.  Or you can just click here.

12 Years a Tool

With so many gushing critical interpretations of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood and so many steaming critical dissections of Michael Bay’s Transformers: Age of Extinction polluting the internet with their repetitive pull quotes, one would think that somebody would already have written an in-depth comparison of the “best” and “worst” movies of the year.  Boyhood and Transformers 4 have the same run time for one thing, both weighing in at a wearying 165 minutes.  Most would call this an ironic coincidence, for while Transformers is unanimously censured as “mind-numbingly” overdrawn and excessive, Boyhood’s “ambitious” and “epic” breadth of scope is the very thing in critics’ minds that elevates it above every other movie released in 2014. I wouldn’t call it irony so much as fate’s funny way of illuminating how alike two seemingly unlike things truly are.  If Boyhood had been loaded with special effects and seasoned with a couple racial or sexual jokes (no, the Transformers series doesn’t have any racist jokes; words mean things), it’d be virtually indistinguishable from the summer blockbuster everybody loved to hate, and probably be considered just as vacuous.

Transformers is universally criticized for the leanness of its 3-hour plot, the final act of which always boils down to an interminable, big-city brawl between good robots and bad robots who look more or less the same (OK, the Autobots usually have bright color schemes and consumer vehicle forms while the Decepticons are steel, military models, but if you weren’t paying attention during any of the movies in the series, you probably wouldn’t know that).  But as simplistic and lazy as the narrative timeline points are in a Transformers plot, Boyhood literally doesn’t have a plot because it’s an experimental, pretentious art project.  I was watching with a group of 3-5 other guys who came and went as the film dragged on, and one of them just kept asking when The Conflict was going to enter the picture.  We have a throwaway abusive step-father subplot, kids smoking and drinking and falling in with the wrong crowd, and the pervasive absence of irresponsible liberal Ethan Hawke from his family’s lives, but overall there aren’t any major problems, consequences, or resolutions that face the protagonist through his journey from little boyhood to older, college-bound boyhood.

Boyhood has no grander point than to be a slice-of-life picture comprised of individual snapshots of a character’s life, and in a way that’s a pretty audacious approach to storytelling.  Real life usually isn’t a wholly inspirational or wholly depressing sketch of a mountain, whereby someone’s whole story can be neatly diagrammed as one or two problem points on a line.  Lots of people we fancy “friends” enter our lives for brief spurts whom we’ll never speak with again after our common interests diverge.  I give Richard Linklater props for thinking outside of the traditional boundaries in filmmaking, but Boyhood doesn’t demonstrate its theory nearly as well as it should, which is why so many people think it’s so freaking boring.

I didn’t hate all the movie’s individual components.  Ethan Hawke plays his vehemently anti-Bush, foul-mouthed slacker really well at the beginning, and the scenes with him are arguably the most believable and emotional of the film, more so than Patricia Arquette’s many tear-streaked shows of falling apart on camera.  Then Hawke marries into a Christian, redneck clan of bitter clingers and his whole life is turned around for the better in one of the movie’s most sentimental and cheesy strikes of magical character transformation.  Nevertheless, I thought the way that Linklater lightly incorporated political changes – viz. the Iraq war and 2008 election – into the background was clever and brought a scope to the project that might have been lost if he just shot the whole thing over a year and tried to recapture America’s political landscape from memory.  The dialogue is a mixed bag, at some times sounding rough and realistic with pauses and grammatical hiccups that other writer-directors don’t account for, at others sounding like melodramatic, condescending Hallmark fare.  The absolute worst example is Ethan Hawke assuring his teenagers that he knows how many kids are  at their age and he doesn’t really care whether they do it themselves but just hopes they use proper protection when they do.  Granted that he’s not supposed to be an ideal father figure, but what self-respecting parent straight-up tells his kids that he’s totally cool with them committing coitus so long as they follow the instructions and wear a condom?  This is what people without kids of their own advise other parents to tell their kids.

In the end, Boyhood and Transformers are both meaningless escapism, dominated by individual scenes that don’t add into a functional whole with binding cinematic vision.  The only difference is that Boyhood openly acknowledges how fractured and nonsensical it is, while Transformers 4 revels in the stupidity that Michael Bay knows his audience shares.  The final shot is an awkward exchange between Mason and a possible new love interest (to be explored a decade or so later in Manhood), the two smiling and pontificating about how “the moments seize us…” and “time… is all around us” while watching their roommates clowning around at a distance.
So deep. And guess what knucklehead isn’t doing in this scene.*

If you think this is in any way profound and not a pseudo-philosophical homily, then you’ll probably enjoy Boyhood.  If, like me, you think that’s just a bunch of pretentious BS they teach you in art school, you’re better off waiting for the “Good” Parts Version to show up on FX or Hallmark.  I’m giving it two stars for the fun alternative hits soundtrack, Nicole, and reminding me of Mason at school.  Plus it took them 12 years to make!  Nothing has ever taken 12 years to make before.  Boyhood!


The Theory of Global Warming

I’m going to keep this one short and to the point: had The Theory of Everything solely been a story about some unknown, physically well scientist and his contributions to whatever field he worked in (“Cosmology”), it would have been a undercover, made-for-TV docudrama that everyone would dismiss for being boring and artificially sentimental.  The only reason this got any awards attention was because the subject is a champion of the Left struggling with an Important disability, so important that all socially conscious people last year were expected to thoroughly drench themselves in cold water for the sake of reminding people that it exists.  Every element of this is so calculated to extort critical acclaim that it’s really kind of repulsive. Scene after scene we’re subjected to heartbreaking images of Stephen Hawking’s body breaking down set to horrorshow sad musical themes, as when he tries playing croquet with his wife and shambles awkwardly across the grass while she inwardly weeps, or when he tries in vain to pull himself up the stairs and weakly reassures his two-year-old that Daddy’s OK.

Eddie Redmayne’s acting as Hawking is adequate from the first half; whether he gets any better once a computer starts delivering his lines for him is for others to judge as I didn’t burn time watching that long.  By no means does he give a more deserving performance than Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler, Michael Keaton in Birdman, Miles Teller in Whiplash, either of those idiots in 22 Jump Street, or any of the nonhuman actors in Dawn of the Apes, none of whom had the utility of mimicking a living person formerly documented on video and had to manifest a made-up, believable character using nothing but their imagination.  If The Theory of Everything proves anything, it’s that awards voters are completely oblivious to what constitutes a compelling story with lasting value.  The absolute best movies of 2014 – Interstellar, Whiplash, Birdman, Nightcrawler, and arguably Apes – were pieces of fiction, created by visionary and independent directors, which focused on topics that were neither “important” nor “just as relevant today as they were 50 years ago” but still succeeded in making much broader and deeper statements on the human condition than a handful of faux-biographical, temporal movies “based on ‘true’ stories” that shamelessly aimed to capitalize on social media headlines (not spending enough money we don’t have on veterans, black people not being able to vote for the Democrat party and/or getting beaten by the evil po-lice, homosexuals not being able to “marry” someone of the same sex without the illegal intercession of illiterate judges).

Stephen Hawking proposes that the beginning of time and formation of the universe can be explained by a single mathematical equation.  Needless to say he doesn’t find it in this film or much of anything else that will interest the average viewer.  If you liked A Beautiful Mind, you probably won’t like this film.  If you didn’t like A Beautiful Mind, you probably won’t like this film.

How To Train Your Flying Robot to Beat the Bigger Robot
I would rather be playing Skylanders.  Or watching Tron.

Big Hero 6 isn’t the worst animated film I’ve seen from the last few years, but it’s not even the third best that came out in 2014. I thought that Disney’s Frozen was pretty lame, but that movie at least retained my attention through the whole runtime.  Big Hero 6 is practically the most generic and uninvolving story Disney could have chosen for adaptation, complemented by an equally lifeless and blank inflatable white robot that I’m guessing didn’t pose many difficulties for the animators.  Some people think Baymax is really “cute” and exhibits the “Wall-e effect” of having really deep, expressive eyes.  If you felt any emotional attachment to the characters as they fought the bad guy or fixed the air leaks in their rubbery plating, all the power to you.
Humor in Disney’s 2nd best animated movie ever

I would write more about how vapid and meritless Big Hero 6 is, but the blind commitment of Disney and Marvel fanpeople is such that none of my words would have an impact.  People already hold animation to such a lower standard than live-action that it’s kind of a waste of energy to highlight in detail why a junky children’s cartoon is just that, a children’s cartoon; if it keeps the kids quiet and fixated on the television, parents are more than willing to turn off their brains and lavish the film with much higher praise than its screenplay deserves.  I don’t even hate Big Hero 6 (or Boyhood really) that much compared to some other beloved garbage; I’m just extremely apathetic towards its universe, to the point that I remember next to nothing from my single, half-engaged viewing some two months ago.  There were a couple pretty shots of the main characters flying through a city cloned from How To Train Your Dragon, one of the sidekicks had the dumbest superpower conceivable (I don’t recall what she did exactly – something about balls that make a sticky mess – but my friends and I agreed that it was useless), Baymax made a public hair joke, Fall Out Boy predictably recorded a bad original song, and it all ended in typical superhero movie fashion with a giant battle against the nanobot guy over who knows what.

Though none is without drawbacks, Dragon 2, Mr. Peabody, and The Lego Movie are all immensely wittier and more heartfelt than Big Hero, which aims as high as Pixar’s worst and surpasses them only in that its action scenes are halfway interesting and quite colorful.---

Aside from Selma Is In The Mirror and Foxcatcher, I did see most of the other awards movies and they were actually pretty good.  Unbroken was kind of mediocre, and I thought that Grand Budapest Hotel, while enjoyable and pretty to look at, actually had the weakest story out of the Wes Anderson movies I’ve seen, which either means that 2014 was a really lame year for film (it wasn’t) or the Academy finally cracked this year and decided to give the Wes Anderson cult a special nod just for their patience.  Oh well.  Is it better than just ignoring Wes altogether?  Who’s to say?

I’ve already written down my thoughts on Interstellar, have yet to organize them in an entertaining blog form, and would prefer to write more than just a page and a half on Birdman-Whiplash-Nightcrawler because they were all on the meatier side of cinema.  Then I have to review three recent theater releases, Half-Life 2, and Facebook, among other things.  But empirics and basic logic tell us we get more hits by writing negative (and usually contrarian) opinions, so I may just write about Facebook if I don’t have time for all that other jazz.

* I hate to admit it, but this is one of the few well directed scenes in the movie.  The way they nervously check each other out while trying to sound cool and blathering utter nonsense, awkwardly look away while smiling at how silly the other sounds, each steal a glance in turn, then look at each other again, then smile and look away in embarrassment, then shoot a momentary gleam of satisfaction towards the camera operator… it’s just so real.  Richard Linklater has truly created a masterpiece, flawless in every way.

Monday, May 25, 2015

"Best" Movies of the Year Part 2 (American Sniper, Imitation Game, Princess Kaguya)

Continuing our viciously critical breakdown of all the most applauded movies released in 2014.  Part 1 here.

Missed it by that much

For a movie striving to honor the greatest recorded sniper ever to serve his country, American Sniper doesn’t serve viewers the greatest in much of anything.  I suppose it’s commendable for bulldozing over the silly, historically inaccurate Ferguson PSA that came out a week before, but other than putting that tripe in its proper place it doesn’t offer anything of significant value for film, for fans, or for the deceased Chris Kyle. Like Lone Survivor of two years before, it’s altogether passable as a contemporary Rah Rah America crowdpleaser or Navy Seal recruitment tool, but as a war movie it’s certainly not going to be remembered and appreciated for its artistry twenty years from now.  In fact, pretty much everything director Clint Eastwood tries to do in Sniper was accomplished much better by Peter Berg in Survivor, which wasn’t recognized for any major awards but nonetheless made for an exponentially more entertaining ode to America’s soldiers, which leaves us with many more meaningful questions than the infamous “snubbing” of Selma’s director or lead actor.  This is where I was originally going to make a snide and wholly ignorant remark about the Academy’s propensity towards honoring washed-up film legends and those within their elitist clique over younger, more popular visionaries, but then I realized that it was just as uninformed a remark as those we’re already well attuned to hearing every damn awards season, and if there’s one thing we can’t stand at the Files, it’s uninformed remarks about politics.

American Sniper – The Good Parts Version

I don’t want to harp on Sniper too much because it’s really not a bad movie.  Bradley Cooper gives an admirable albeit simple and rather boring performance as the equally admirable and simple and boring Kyle, who stands resolute under the most horrifying of circumstances and never rises above being a kind of white stallion of American exceptionalism.  The most intense scenes of the film, broadly featured in its ad campaign, depict Kyle sternly weighing the necessity of shooting a woman or child to protect his men. This – it goes without spoiling too much – he eventually does when it’s apparent there can only be two outcomes, but Eastwood doesn’t really make a follow-through effort to show the impact this has on Kyle’s conscience, other than having him give a firm rebuttal to his partner, who happens to be an immature, hyperviolent gamer soldier the like of which we’ve never seen before in a war movie.  Later on the script tries to touch on Kyle’s post-traumatic stress disorder (which he may or may not have had), and while I liked the relatively understated way Eastwood chose to portray this, relying more on jarring everyday sounds and Cooper’s acting than on obtrusive visuals and dream sequences (take that Mad Max), it still feels like the creators are just checking off ingredients for a story based firstly on a tagline – “No soldier comes home unscathed.” – and secondly on the life of the man Chris Kyle, who’s basically present to prove the truth of the tagline.  One will walk away from Sniper knowing that Kyle was a killing machine of the highest caliber but having little understanding of Kyle as a husband, a father, a patriot, a conservative, or anything else besides a humble Texan who picks up a pretty woman at the bar and would unhesitatingly give his life for his country.

As for the war itself, Sniper offers superbly realized if heavily edited scenes of urban Iraqi devastation and mostly succeeds in conveying the tension that soldiers within such contested, claustrophobic warzones would have experienced.  For all their reliance on video-game “scope cam”, the fight scenes don’t get dull and Eastwood smoothly manages the conflict’s transition from cramped interiors to rooftops overlooking desolate streets.  The movie sounds spectacular in a theater setting when gunfire is spitting from every angle, and you won’t be looking at a whirring power drill the same way for some time, but Eastwood is also aware of when silence would be more effective.  When Kyle takes out the made-up, rival boss sniper from a mile away at the end of the picture in a triumphant feat of summer blockbuster glory, one could hear the softest of snores rising from the aisles, followed by the most half-hearted of extorted applause.

American Sniper entertains in moderate doses when it’s not obviously trying to yank audiences in one emotional direction or another, and it certainly deserves the many distinctions it received for technical achievement, but if you asked me whether I’ll remember it in a year, let alone a month from now, there’s a multitude of other war dramas that’ll stick with me much longer than this.  For horror and bleak meditation on the inhumanity of man, there’s Apocalypse Now, for insanity and immersion there’s Full Metal Jacket, for grit and havoc there’s Saving Private Ryan or the more recent Fury, for ethical intrigue there’s Courage Under Fire, and for pure balls-to-the-wall action you have something like Lone Survivor or 300, but American Sniper doesn’t stake a claim as the best in anything.

With all that negative stuff said, you should still totally buy a DVD for yourself and all your liberal friends who’ve crammed their heads full of unmitigated lies about Kyle’s character and statements.  (He never said that he took pleasure in killing brown-skinned people. He did say that “the enemy” were savages and, “I only wish I had killed more.  Not for bragging rights, but because I believe the world is a better place without savages out there taking American lives.  Everyone I shot in Iraq was trying to harm Americans or Iraqis loyal to the new government.”)  Winning America’s culture war will take perseverance and the courage to shoot down low-information misconceptions wherever they emerge, but with the help of half-rate propaganda films like American Sniper, someday we shall prevail.

A Trailer Review
Moby Dick movie by Ron Howard – Oh, brother.  I hated the real version of this movie.

An Imitation of a Man

The Imitation Game is a dramatically acceptable HBO-level biopic about brilliant mathematician Alan Turing’s gayness and the horrible sentence he received from Britain for admitting to it.  As others have pointed out, the movie is woefully inaccurate historically but it doesn’t really matter because the filmmakers obviously elected to emphasize stigma towards homosexuality over the realistic depiction of historical events, going so far as to deliver the story in flashbacks structured around a hokey, made-up investigation into Turing’s past.  Wikipedia has almost a full four pages roasting The Imitation Game on everything from trivial details such as Keira Knightley’s casting to more egregious errors like the commanding authority placed on the codebreakers’ shoulders and Turing’s clich├ęd representation as an antisocial, misunderstood genius.

Some people will shrug these failures off as “artistic license” or say the movie’s meant to be “entertainment, not a documentary”, which is all well and good until they start heaping accolades and praise on a film they admit completely botches its “true story” and really does nothing more than entertain them.  Why don’t we dole out best picture or screenplay awards to “stupid” big-budget pseudo-histories like Pearl Harbor or 300 or Kingdom of Heaven?  Because they’re stupid and heavily dramatized and made to entertain?  The Imitation Game is just as stupid and inaccurate and manipulative as any of those movies and should be judged by the same standards.  If you find it entertaining, that’s completely alright and I envy you for it.  I personally find 300 to be a very entertaining and well-made movie even with its ridiculous fantasy elements, ludicrous portrayal of King Xerxes, and the treason plot unbelievably thwarted by Leonidas’ queen.  The difference between 300 and The Imitation Game is that Zack Snyder wasn’t selling his movie as a faithful adaption of Herodotus’ account, whereas Morten Tyldum and screenwriter Graham Moore rigidly hug the “based on a true story” label while throwing truth to the wind and assuming that imbecilic moviegoers and critics won’t give a damn, which they did not.  From the scene where young Turing runs outside to see if his boyfriend is returning to school, frantically scanning all the students coming in, to the part where the officials threaten to take apart his machine and his codebreaking buddies say something like, “You’ll have to go through us too,” The Imitation Game is relentlessly, unarguably stupid and formulaic.

It’s a well-acted kind of stupid, to be sure.  Benedict Cumberbatch is great per usual, though his performances in Sherlock and Star Trek are both much more memorable (I have no immediate plans to see the Hobbit or Slave movies).  Here he just seems like a tool for promoting a rudimentary message of Diversity or tolerance or whatever, to the end that he actually gives a moving, Oscar-worthy, and mostly illogical plea to his interrogators for intellectual diversity, because computers think differently from people, and that’s OK.  Keira Knightley is just fine, though she’s graced much better gay movies over her career, particularly Bend It Like Beckham, which had undeniably cheesy caricatures of socially conservative parents but succeeded in making a more sympathetic homosexual character than this haughty biopic tries to draw.

Benedict Cumberbatch’s deep and powerful speech

The Imitation Game ultimately does a disservice to Turing’s and the other uncredited scientist’s achievements because the filmmakers were so obdurate about making a socially important drama that’d vacuum up critical acclaim; so they zeroed in on the man’s sex life and consequent persecution, neglecting or severely dumbing down the science of his contribution, his cooperation with other individuals, and the impact that breaking Enigma had upon the war effort.  Turing’s homosexuality was undoubtedly integral to his life (and possibly to his death, which may or may not have been suicide) and it’d be shortsighted for the movie to ignore it, but to make it the most remarkable or defining aspect of his legacy is equally shallow. There’s a much more thought-provoking and philosophically intriguing dimension of the war that’s only skimmed over in Moore’s script, that being the impracticality of acting on the translated codes without running the risk of alerting Germany that their system had been busted.  The Cumberbatch crew settles for logistically weighting each scenario – the number of lives at risk and strategic value of given targets – and making net-beneficial decisions accordingly, which raises a lot of tough ethical questions about Utilitarianism, whether the sanctity civilian lives can ever justly be abrogated in war, and I sound like I’m in debate again.  Ugh.  Kritikal press on inhuman jargon.

There’s a handful of decent gay movies (X-men 2), a bunch of bad gay movies, and a lot of fine movies with characters who happen to be gay.  Just so with overtly Christian movies, which all too often turn out trite and moralizing even though many secular movies manage to implement well-refined Christian characters to the benefit of the narrative (see Fury, Hellboy, and let’s throw Halo ODST in there for the halibut).  The Imitation Game could have been a great historical drama about a gay character but just ends up a mediocre, hardly historical, and overdramatic gay movie.  For a less political tribute to Turing’s discoveries and more sophisticated treatment of the way computers think, watch Ex Machina, and by the time you do, you may properly appreciate what’s bound to be a spoilery review from your own Author.  Go watch Mad Max too.  There are too many good movies in theaters right now for you to waste your free time watching a stupid and disappointing movie on video.

Princess Kaguyaaaaaawn

The Tale of Princess Kaguya is playing on the TV as I type, but no one in the room is watching it.  One of us is editing a video, another’s playing solitaire on the phone, a third has just admitted that he “doesn’t really care for it”, and the fourth has made the gracious error of calling attention to a self-indulgent pile of eastern art crap which would otherwise be forgotten in spite of beating out The Lego Movie and Mr. Peabody and Sherman for an Oscar nomination, whatever that’s worth.  The whole thing is supposed to look like a moving watercolor painting, which is cool for about twenty seconds – maybe thirty in the scene where Kaguya runs through the forest and sheds fifty layers of clothing – but short of any meaningful story or intriguing characters undergirding the frankly ugly visuals, what you’re left with is a really boring, really pointless 140-minute refashioning of a fairy tale you or may not have found frivolous were you familiar with it in the first place.  Did the Academy give this a shout-out merely to ensure that a token Japanese representative was in the running for an award?  If so, there are far better animes in film and television than Kaguya.  Or were they simply adhering to a long-standing idolatrous infatuation with the environmental socialist Hayao Miyazaki who founded Studio Ghibli and directed one of the dumbest animated movies ever to fool the critics (Princess Mononoke)?---

More on Friday including Boyhood!!

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Every Mother's Reaction to the New Taylor Swift Video

So the new Taylor Swift video dropped two nights ago at the Billboard Music Awards, which means that all that anybody’s going to be talking about on the internet for the next couple days is the new T. Swift video, so naturally we just have to join in distracting the masses from stuff that matters.  But maybe we can take this as a teachable moment, about gender roles, femininity, the collaborative process, and society’s declining standards for artistic self-expression.  From the initial teaser posters plastered all over social media to the video’s bombastic, explosion-packed conclusion, it’s clear that Taylor Swift has embarked on a very elaborate and ostentatious makeover of her entire public image, which is entirely within her freedom as a financially independent adult but leaves one wondering what if anything she values in the new image over the old one.  We asked a married mother of two young Swifties what she thinks of Taylor Swift’s evolution as an artist and a role model for the next generation of women. ---

I’m Misty Reeus and I’m a die-hard converted fan of Taylor Swift.  Incidentally, this is the very reason why I’m so offended by the direction that Taylor has taken over the last 18 months of her career, culminating of course in the atrocious and vulgar music video released last night.  After treasuring and watching all of Taylor’s previous videos a hundred times or more with my daughters Cady and Hannah (10 and 8 years old, respectively), I’m afraid I won’t be showing them the latest video by someone who has formerly been a responsible exemplar of female dignity and moral fortitude.  No, Taylor Swift apparently wants to go the way of many fallen Disney Stars before her, quickly degenerating into the next Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, Lindsay Lohan, Amanda Bynes, and other role models gone wrong.  From here on out the only prescription Swiftamine that my daughters and I will be taking is the old, country-girl-next-door Taylor Swift, before the secular media and our decadent culture of carnality corrupted her from an icon of female grace into just another self-objectifying, unobtainable plastic cover girl.

Perhaps I should start by noting what the heinous video in question did really well.  The whole concept of cramming a ton of “celebrities” and cultural references into one mega video is pretty brilliant from both a marketing and a creative standpoint, encouraging multiple viewings, shot-by-shot playback, and group analysis just to ensure that you’ve correctly acknowledged and identified all the bullpucky that’s happening on-screen.  You’ve got a bit of the Watchmen introduction here, some leather-clad Sucker Punch-like girls there, a lot of visuals blatantly taken from Tron: Legacy, The Hunger Games training room, Leeloo from The Fifth Element, a smattering of Sin City, any Michael Bay production at the end, and a bunch of other stuff like the snow warriors or the pair in the hallway at the end that I just didn’t get because I’m a busy, stay-at-home mother and don’t have time for reading silly comic books.  Every aspect of the production from the CGI to the costume design to the title graphics editing to the color palette is spectacular, and inasmuch as the purpose of “Bad Blood” was to convey a sense of hugeness and make Swift’s inaugural “King of the world” address even more overstated and boastful than that of King James Cameron himself, it has “succeeded” marvelously.  The video feels massive, sometimes stupidly so with the inclusion of people who are downright obnoxious in any other context (Selena “*itches of Waverly Place” Gomez & Lena “I love Planned Parenthood because they were there when a made-up college Republican raped me” Dunham) but whose presence we’ll tolerate just this once because we’re all Swifties at heart.

It doesn’t hurt that the music is also really good.  Aside from the art of Lecrae and TobyMac, I don’t know much about hip-hop and prefer to listen to more wholesome, safe-for-the-whole-family material around my daughters, but Kendrick Lamar’s first verse complements the song perfectly even if the second doesn’t really work with the musical progression, and the remix deftly avoids becoming just another Pitbull-esque guy rapper-girl singer radio jam about shaking booties and getting down on the dance floor (don’t tell my daughters that I compared Kendrick’s lyricism to Pitbull’s; they don’t think I know who either of those people are, and just between you and me Kendrick can roll all over Pitbull’s hiney any day).  I think that Swift’s producers cranked the bass track up to ten for this edition, and while I tend not to like heavy programming in songs because Kendrick raps, “These beats of a dark heart use bass lines to replace you,” the whole arrangement sounds wondrously complex for an electro-pop tune.

With that said, I don’t know what the holy heck Taylor Swift was thinking when she planned this video.  I know that we women aren’t supposed to criticize each other for the way we dress and yes, feminism means you should be able to wear (or not wear) whatever you want in public without being disturbed or nonconsensually approached for your apparel, but from the very first scene Taylor’s clearly pulling no punches in going for the full harlot look, and it doesn’t get much better as the video moves along and she dons several midriff-bearing outfits along with high heels and the kind of eye makeup that’s practically screaming, “Come and get it.”  My daughters have always looked forward to reading the weekly People Magazine just to see what Taylor’s wearing and until now I would freely encourage them in their research, knowing that Taylor is very conscientious about the way she presents herself to society and to men whose eyes may cause them to stumble.  Apparently I was wrong and Taylor has become just as promiscuous and classless about her fashion as her peers.  I suppose I could have seen it coming if I had paid attention to the twerking “dancers” in “Shake It Off”, all the 1950’s bathing suits, or the Victoria’s Secret show either of the times that Taylor sang for that, but I always try to avoid watching programs that I know will feed my daughters glamorized images of unrealistically tall and skinny supermodels, clad in most unflattering attire.

To those of you who will inevitably try to shame me for shaming Taylor for shaming her fans by dressing like an s-l-u-t, why are you telling me what I can or can’t say about another person’s behavior?  Why don’t you write your own letter to the Author explaining why you think that Taylor Swift’s new skintight, Sucker Punch-inspired wardrobe is a very appealing showcase for her feminine physique and should be replicated in the fashion statements of all her younger, mini-Swifts?  What gives you the right in your mind to tell another person what they can write on the internet?  It’s not your internet, it’s certainly not your blog, and unless you’re capable of articulating a contrary opinion as well as this article does my own, saying that I shouldn’t argue this point of view without saying why is kind of pointless and lazy and unintelligent.  The greatest thing about the internet is that people can write whatever they want to on it without worrying about whether it’s the “right” thing to say; the internet is an open arena of ideas which roots out uncompetitive ideas by its nature. This is why I laugh whenever any of you interject, “Misty Reeus, Misty Reeus, you can’t say that,” because I obviously can.

A gruesome photo from the “Bad Blood” video.

Coming back to the video, I’m also disappointed that Taylor and her girlfriends think they have to fight like men in order to be equal with men.  Not a single woman is present in “Bad Blood” without a weapon or an armored suit of some sort, which is just as offensive and sexist as making an action movie without a single woman in an armored suit.  I think Miss Swift and her (bad) blood frenemy Gomez wanted to get the idea across that they’re not just little girls anymore and they’re playing with the big boys now (i.e. Lena and Kendrick), but did they really need to punch and kick and bazooka each other or any of their actress-model minions to make that point?  Why is there a character named Mother Chucker or Cut Throat in the video? Was it really necessary to pin Ted to the wall with a knife so that teddy blood graphically spilled out of his throat?  Did Taylor ever question the director about the kind of message this will send to her legions of adoring and imitating fans?  Why should women act so catty and ill-tempered towards one another when history has shown us the amazing things that women can accomplish as a team?  By creating a video that glorifies hostility and pugnacity over friendship and harmony and love, Swift is essentially broadcasting to all her fans a faux-girl power pablum that women need to be just as destructive and violent and mean as men to measure up to them.  In reality, by making all the women in the story/trailer/porno thing as masculine and hardened as the Iron Rita from Edge of Tomorrow, Taylor has stripped the female identity of anything that made it uniquely powerful or desirable in the first place.

In the fantasy universe of Bad Blood, women can do all the things that men can do but nothing else.  Gone is the elegance, the modesty, the sophistication, the youthful innocence that Taylor Swift embodied before she got the whole 1989 video series into her head (and wrote that horrible song 22), and gone are all the higher qualities that led so many girls (and a couple boys I know) to fall in love with her.  Guys didn’t dream of dating Taylor Swift because she had a big sword or boxing gloves or Black Widow ninja acrobatics but because… I don’t really know why.  I guess she just seemed like a really honest, relatable, kind-hearted, down-to-earthen person who respected herself and thereby made it easy for everyone else to respect her as well.  By the same token, my daughters don’t look up to Taylor because they someday want to go to war or fight a bunch of comic book gladiator biker ladies.  The rest of the world wouldn’t have that either, as there are only about a dozen countries which allow women to serve in military combat roles.  Acknowledging that our good Lord Jesus endows women with separate skills and stations than men isn’t sexist or degrading; it’s the most empowering admission we can make.

Unfortunately, from now on the only music videos we’ll be watching in this house are vintage Taylor, the I Knew You Were Trouble goat remix, and anything by Lindsey Stirling, who has never let me down yet. Taylor has taught my girls a lot of valuable lessons about life, such as how to look more feminine by grooming and painting their faces with commercial, mass-produced cosmetics, how people shouldn’t base their self-worth on what others think about the way they look, or how one shouldn’t hesitate to discontinue a relationship that’s clearly going nowhere in the long run, but I’m afraid this video marks the end of our relationship until Taylor once again realizes she has a responsibility to set a good example for the young and impressionable Swiftie community.  Some people may challenge my discretion as a parent for putting so much faith in celebrities to teach my children good manners and moral right from wrong, as if they have any sort of obligation to conduct themselves decently just because they’re public figures and a lot of people happen to hold them in very high esteem.  I mean, you can’t print that!  Just, no… These people also probably think I used to let my girls watch Disney Channel or its gosh-awful sitcom equivalents on Nickelodeon, but they’re dead wrong because I never let Hannah or Cady watch the Disney Channel because none of its series had any good role models.

I originally fell in love with Taylor Swift because she was different and took her job as a role model seriously, but now she’s just churning out the same vapid pornography I’ve been trying to shelter my daughters from all their lives.  You’ve changed, Taylor.  I don’t know you anymore.  And you’re going down a path I cannot follow.

Taylor Swift's weirdest video.

Taylor Swift's best video.

Editor’s note: Despite giving room to Mrs. Reeus’ thoughtful thoughts, the Author believed the Bad Blood video was both stupid and awesome – and sometimes stupid awesome – and he enjoyed reviewing it a dozen times in the process of proofing Misty’s writing.  If he had to marry Taylor Swift, though, he’d much rather marry the Taylor Swift of Red or Speak Now or Fearless than the Taylor Swift of Bad Blood, Hey.  He just wishes that the real Taylor Swift would please stand up.

Friday, May 15, 2015

"Breakfast at Tiffany's": Boys Only Want Love If It's Torture

A quintessential work in the canon of anti-feminist cinema, Breakfast at Tiffanys openly ponders whether modern women and men can merely be best friends without the burden of binding commitment.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Avengers: Age of Terminator

“The city’s flying, we’re fighting a robot army, I have a bow and arrow – nothing makes sense.” ~ Hawkeye on Avengers: Age of Ultron

It’s hard to find a single starting point where Marvel’s latest hero-stuffed behemoth goes straight downhill, but one of its biggest foils is that it just doesn’t make any sense.  Whether judged as a standalone story or a continuation of its forerunners, Avengers: Age of Extinction is an incoherent and occasionally chaotic sequel in which beloved characters act oddly with no clear motivation, scenes cut in the most inconvenient of locations, and one struggles to form the slightest emotional attachment to any of the urban scenery that’s wrecked by countless dispensable Iron Man drones.  Sure, Cap and Thor still have some cool combo moves, Tony Stark is never short of sarcastic quips, and there are a lot of pretty explosions to gawk at, but good special effects are par for the course in 21st century action movies, and Avengers 2 fails to develop on the first film in any way besides throwing new characters into the plot and hoping we care at all about their growth from bad to sort of good.

Given that a lot of Marvel fanatics actually care about these crossover movies and rather wouldn’t inadvertently spoil the entire plot for themselves (while reading as much about it as they can online), I’ll issue a rare, up-front caveat that this is not the review these people are looking for.  Spoilers abound.  With that said, Avengers 2 doesn’t have nearly the concentration of Avengers 1, and by the twenty minute mark it’s already lost its understanding of at least three main characters.  The movie opens with an attack on the bad guys’ compound in some snowy forest that’s designed to introduce the Russian twins – “enhanced” supervillains endowed with super-speed and hallucination-generating/force-pushing/robot-crushing/eye-glowing powers – as well as to set up a running joke about Captain America’s prudishness that all the Avengers appear to think is hilarious.  Iron Man naturally infiltrates the fortress first and finds Loki’s scepter waiting underneath one of the gigantic alien fish things from the first movie; one might fall into the trap of thinking said fish thing will be reanimated to impact the plot at some later point, but it’s only a giant red herring baited to deceive us by the Scarlet Witch, i.e. director Joss Whedon, not Elizabeth Olson, who hasn’t a drop of ginger blood inside her.
The real Scarlet Witch

If the airborne Chitauri battering ram has any bearing on the story, it’s in convincing Tony Stark that he needs to invest in a planetary, A.I.-based shield against future alien invasions.  Why Stark, inventor of the Jericho missile, textbook playboy billionaire narcissist, and firsthand witness of the monumental atrocities man is capable of committing against himself, suddenly acts so keen on thwarting the extraterrestrial conquest of people he can’t stand to begin with is a question best left to Whedon himself, though it’ll have to pass for a plot starter since S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Nick Fury presumably already learned the “Man wasn’t made to meddle” lesson from last year’s Winter Soldier.  At any rate, Stark and Bruce Banner concoct the brilliant scheme of creating a super-A.I. through merging JARVIS’ intelligence with whatever power resides in Loki’s stick.  The result is Ultron, a malicious, appropriately sardonic, wisecracking robot voiced by that guy from the “Blacklist” show who’s probably stoked to be starring in a quality, high-profile program for once in a long while.

After crashing the Avengers’ party at Stark Towers and spouting off some epic-sounding, made-for-trailer nonsense about strings, Ultron escapes through the internet, starts building an army of mindless slaves, and dedicates himself to the extinction of the human race, because evolution only comes through trial and tribulation, or something.  If this sounds like a story that you’ve seen before, it’s probably because you have seen it before, just as recently as last year in that Johnny Depp movie called Transcendence.  Except you haven’t seen Transcendence.  Forget I mentioned it.  Notwithstanding that movie we shall not name, Ultron simply isn’t a very original villain, borrowing extensively from the Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol baddies who want to strengthen humanity by nuking the lot of them, the misguided computer in I, Robot that thinks mankind can’t be trusted with its own survival, and many other murderous machines from cinema that were created for good but twisted their programmed purpose into effecting unimaginable evil.

To its credit, Avengers 2 doesn’t just rehash the message of teamwork that permeated Avengers 1 and it clearly wants to say something about “man creating the thing he dreads”, which is a strong, unexplored idea in an era when politicians manufacture actual crises on the daily in response to hypothetical crises that our great, great, great grandkids may someday have to address.  It’s just a shame that the movie loses that theme in too many hectic battles and that the characters responsible for giving life to Ultron never express any remorse for making the very life-threatening thing they dread.  There’s a general lack of manifest consequences and regret in Avengers 2 that may have been shaved off for the director’s cut on DVD: e.g. Banner mopes to Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. Black Widow, about the world finally seeing the Hulk as the rage-fueled wrecking ball he is, but we don’t actually see this fear for ourselves, only getting to take his word for it. Along the same line, there seems to be an anti-Avengers movement of sorts brewing at the beginning of the movie in the tradition of The Incredibles or Watchmen, but Whedon never revisits this aspect of the universe he’s building, nor does he attempt to create reconciliation between Stark and the twins, who lost their parents to one of Stark’s weapons but inexplicably abandon their thirst for vengeance and team up with their blood nemesis when they discover that Ultron plans to kill them together with the rest of the human race.  Avengers 2 is so desperate to stuff every preexisting character into the framework – even minor ones like Falcon or Steve Roger’s girlfriend for just a scene – that it inevitably overstretches itself and leaves its mass of supporting characters dangling in strings of a negligent editor’s design.

There’s a bunch of other stuff that doesn’t flow naturally from the movie’s precursors. For one, Whedon wants us to believe there’s this ongoing romantic tension between Banner and Romanoff even though the last film set no precedent for this attraction, Scarlett Johannson is fifteen years younger than Mark Ruffalo and way out of his league, and Black Widow has already seemed to have a thing going with either Captain America or Hawkeye.  “It’s just like Budapest all over.”  “You and I remember Budapest very differently.”

Granted that she and Hulk are both social outcast types who view themselves as cold, sterile monsters capable only of killing and destruction, but is there anything forecasting their romance in the Marvel lore beyond that possible bonding ground?  Halfway through the movie we get to meet Hawkeye’s formerly nonexistent wife and kids, because apparently he wasn’t sophisticated enough a character as the lone wolf marksman with a mysterious past.  It sure makes Scarlett’s choice a lot easier.

Nick Fury might have entered at one point and most everyone in the theater applauded to see yet another familiar face, though his five-minute presence would be as disposable in the long run as the Stan Lee cameo, the one or two shots featuring War Machine, and the random Asian scientist they added for whatever reason.  Thor seems fairly detached from all the proceedings, going off on a separate adventure entirely and rejoining the fray every now and then to force-lightning something.  Quicksilver’s only reason for being in the movie is to make some cool slow-motion sequences and die at the end in a barrage of gunfire that should realistically blow him to pieces but merely stains his costume with a lot of red spots; his sacrificial demise is about as moving as Jazz’s in the first Transformers.  Hence the only truly important heroes we’re left with are Iron Man, Hulk, Black Widow, Captain A-swearica, and this new purple guy “Vision”, who shows up as the wise and noble counterpart to Ultron, talks with the voice of JARVIS, and dramatically hands Thor’s hammer back to him in one of Whedon’s most squandered ideas for a scene. What could have been a subtle and potent symbol of Vision’s worthiness to wield the power of Thor comes across as shallow and forced because we’ve only known the character for a brief three minutes, there’s no proof of his goodness aside from his own testimony, and the other actors try too hard to sell the drama by putting on looks of shock and awe.

Having harped on Ultron’s faults for more than two pages now, I still can’t in good conscience discourage any of its target viewers from going to see it.  If you’re looking for a twisty, intelligent, well-focused story, you’re better off just re-watching The Winter Soldier, which had much superior action to boot, and even the simple band of five in Guardians of the Galaxy exhibited clearer character progression than these smaller-scale guardians, but if all you want to see is a bunch of professional badarses smashing hundreds of robots to pieces for the greater good of humanity and cracking jokes about it in the process, Avengers 2 will probably satisfy that desire.  I could nitpick about the camera being more herky-jerky and close-up than in the first film, but by and large the action is very impressively staged and Whedon still throws in a couple long spinning shots that are obvious throwbacks to the greatness of Avengers 1.  I also appreciated many of the comedic visuals sown throughout the lighter moments, such as Thor boasting in the industrial base of how he’s impervious to the witch’s enchantments while the camera smoothly pans left to a totally out-of-place Asgardian hall.  Even though I didn’t buy the spontaneity of their relationship, I liked Black Widow pushing Banner off the cliff because she “needed the other guy”, I liked the eerie Black Swan-reminiscent glimpses into Black Widow’s past, I liked that Jeremy Renner had the gall to call Black Widow a “slut” in an interview, and I liked that so many people blew up on Renner for describing a nonexistent character with arguably slutty characteristics as a slut, because apparently you just can’t call anybody a slut or a whore anymore because that’s sexist against women according to people who aren’t sexists at all.

Overall I enjoyed myself at Avengers: Age of Extinction, but as my friend laconically summed the movie up, it’s just the same damn thing all over.  If you’re 17 or older, go watch Ex Machina instead.  If you’re not 17 or older, get someone who is to watch Ex Machina with you and he’ll thank you for it later.  Full review of that forthcoming.

Trailer Reviews
Ant-Man – Unsurprisingly looks just as pathetic as its title would imply.  “Is it too late to change the name?” Um, yes it is, Paul Rudd.
Fant4stic – On the one hand, I really liked Miles Teller in Whiplash.  On the other hand, the story looks terribly generic, blue-screen backdrops are strewn all over the place, and no one wants another Fantastic Four movie.
San Andreas – Appropriately enough, a trailer about a CGI city falling apart priming me for another movie about CGI cities falling apart.
Jurassic Park 4 – Why is the T.Rex’s head always out of frame?  Why is Star Lord riding a motorcycle through the jungle alongside the friendly velociraptors?  Why was this even made?
Mission Impossible 5? – The motorcycle chase scenes look pretty cool, but we already saw those in the second movie, and the hand-to-hand fight scenes just seem so oooordinary to me after experiencing both Raid movies and Ip Man, but that’s the price you pay for watching foreign action films.  What is Alec Baldwin doing here?
Aloha – Actually an Ex Machina trailer, because the Avengers crowd would have no interest in seeing this whatsoever.  I had to watch this a couple times to figure out what’s going on.  Bradley Cooper works for the Air Force, I think, and he has Emma Stone in his back pocket but still wants to reunite with his ex Rachel McAdams, who broke up with him because he was a “workaholic” and was starring in way too many movies.  John Krasinski and Danny McBride probably provide comic relief, Alec Baldwin yells at people just like in real life, Cameron Crowe directs, and Bill Murray is a wise and elderly speaker of truths about life. It’ll probably try to make us cry.
No Escape – Owen Wilson and his family go to an unspecified Asian country to reboot their lives and land themselves right in the thick of a warzone.  Lots of people will get shot by military-style assault weapons of war in this tonally strange action-disaster-drama movie hybrid from Progressive producer Harvey Weinstein.
I’ll See You In My Dreams – If you liked The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, you’ll love I’ll See You In My Dreams.