Friday, December 30, 2016

Rogue One: An Excessively Star Wars Story, and the 2nd Biannual Trailer Update

Belated, Obligatory Thoughts on Disney’s Latest

In the interest of full disclosure, I saw the first 20 minutes of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story a couple days after I saw the final hour and 40 minutes.  If this blunder in any way compromised my ability to experience the emotional arc of the film to its fullest and likewise compromised the integrity of my critique, then I will humbly retract this post, but for now I’m going to go with my gut and not give Disney the benefit of the doubt for obvious reasons.  I should also disclose that because of my work arrangement I’ve seen parts of this film what feels like a dozen times, so I’m probably better equipped than anyone except the people who edited it to talk about its faults.

Rogue One’s demure and clunky title reads like a disclaimer, apologizing for its own inconsequentiality as the first of many one-offs in the series that won’t be centered upon the troubled Skywalker family. Although it occupies the same universe, this outing is not a proper Star Wars film as we’ve come to identify one, or so it shouldn’t feel pressured to be.  Disney does admittedly eschew the opening title crawl and use of Jedi powers as a major plot device, but otherwise Rogue One looks and sounds very conservative and kiddish for something advertised as a realistic, grounded war film.  Director Gareth Edward’s contribution is muddled amidst the noise, making one wonder why the studio would even bother enlisting him based on his past work.  This is a far cry from the 2014 Godzilla in terms of tone, and even farther from his no-budget underground extravaganza Monsters, which utilized seamless visual effects as a backdrop for a tale he apparently found more interesting, that of two young people falling in love under trying circumstances.

Rogue One retains his aptitude for adding colossal CG elements into live-action shots, but tosses all the romance, something Mr. Plinkett notices has been drained entirely from Disney’s awkward, desexualized reworking of George Lucas’ property.  At least two moments in Rogue One would have warranted a kiss in other writers’ heads, but in this post-Skywalker, post-binary galaxy, male and female characters are forbidden to express anything beyond platonic affection for one another.  A weapon fires, a world ends, and two doomed rebels quaintly consummate their relationship with an innocent, chummy hug.  This coyness about depicting people’s natural biological urges is a logical progression of the corporation’s dedication to promulgating cheesy, ham-fisted Girl Power at the expense of whatever story it’s trying to tell.  As we’ve learned sufficiently from Frozen, The Force Awakens, and the Avengers movies to a certain extent, women don’t need men to be happy anymore, and they certainly don’t need men to keep them safe from mortal physical harm.  In case prepubescent girls (consistently Star Wars’ most militant fan base) missed this message the first time, Rogue One sees fit to replicate a scene from Force Awakens in which Finn attempted to help Rey fend off some thugs only to realize that she was quite capable of defending herself, thank you very much.  It’s 2016, people!  Women can join the Army and get blown up by an IED in Afghanistan for their country just like men, and they don’t even need to do as many push-ups to qualify for the honor.

Rogue One supposedly takes place in a galaxy far, far away, but it might as well be another plane of reality, which is basically the opposite of the reality posited in years past by Ex Machina and Her.  The A.I. characters in both films harness their simulated sexuality to control and comfort their respective human masters.  “What imperative does a gray box have to interact with another gray box?” asks Ava’s inventor of his partner at one point.  Most of Rogue One’s characters take after a gray box, with the ironic exception of a re-programmed imperial droid who hoards almost all the personality in the film for himself. Everybody dies, but what imperative do audience members have to cry over a gray box, even six of them?

Just as The Force Awakens and its marketing campaign felt like formulated responses to the Plinkett reviews, playing up the practical effects and simplistic, magical adventure of the series, Rogue One seems to have derived from the most idiotic complaints directed at Episode 7 and even at similarly budgeted franchise films.  When someone, perhaps understandably, yelled at J.J. Abrams about the lack of likable, inoffensive Asian characters in Star Wars, Disney heard the public outcry and wrote two into the next film, but forgot to give them any memorable traits apart from their fighting styles.  Rogue One is brimming with racial diversity, distractingly so I’d say, but the only hero whose name I could recall at the end was the white one.  I’ve seen the movie enough times now that I can tell a Saw Gerrera from a Cassian Andor, but for a while the former was just Forrest Whitaker with Goofy Accent, the latter more regrettably The Mexican Guy.  Donnie Yen looks in fine form briefly beating up a squad of stormtroopers, but he’s still just Donnie Yen to me, and it doesn’t help that Edwards quickly trades away his best asset as a performer for a sci-fi bow and arrow.

Then there’s the pervasive jokey vibe that undercuts the film whenever it aims to be serious, probably forced in by Disney after the dreary Batman v. Superman underperformed on multiple levels and corporate bigwigs realized they could reap more money and acclaim if they just did away with any dark atmospherics and copied The Avengers.  Vader cracks a pun that had my preview audience dumbstruck, the rebels cut K2-SO off in the middle of a recurring Star Wars quote, and Yen’s habit of “praying” to the Force only serves to highlight one of the silliest aspects of George Lucas’ universe.  Lucas got a lot of flack in 1999 when he decided to scientifically expound the Force as “a microscopic life form that resides in all living cells”, a qualifier that fans saw as contradictory to both the spirit of Star Wars and the quasi-Buddhist ideas infused throughout the series.  Of course, it’s a whole lot easier to make fun of midi-chlorians than it is to admit that the Force has been kind of stupid from its inception, especially when one is caught up in nostalgia and unwilling to judge the original films without reference to their cultural impact. Rogue One wants to be The Empire Strikes Back to its own predecessor, a darker and more grounded take on Star Wars where soldiers, not mages, drive the plot, but every 15 minutes Donnie Yen butts in to remind viewers that they’re watching a kid-friendly fantasy film.  “The Force is with me and I am one with the Force,” he recites to himself ad nauseum, even calling upon the Force at times to shield him magically from enemy fire.

Speaking of which, stormtroopers still have terrible aim, the most competent actors still get all the villain parts, and everybody still has to read lame or forgettable lines.  Compelling dialogue has never been a strong suit of Star Wars – fanboys or the very young may quote, “I have a bad feeling about this,” or, “Luke, I am your father,” to each other to prove their nerd cred – and Rogue One isn’t breaking any new ground in the mundanity of its talking scenes.  Its peculiar problem is that there are so damn many of them.  As hilarious as the denouement of Revenge of the Sith is, the cast of that movie had it better than any poor, bored soul in Rogue One, which is jam-packed with imperial officers squabbling over something or another, Felicity Jones snapping at Diego Luna, and people explaining where they’re going and what they’re going to do before they do it.

Some other points:
* Star Wars’ scores under Disney’s domain have been bland and dated and need to evolve to counteract the staleness of new Star Wars products.  John Williams in the prequels did an excellent job retaining and revamping familiar themes while introducing completely new earworms that complemented the maturing tones of the films (Duel of the Fates, Anakin and Padme’s love theme, and the multiple eerie songs reflecting corruption and darkness in Episode 3).  There is no reason why composers on the new films can’t do the same, but Disney so far has been shackling itself to an “epic” and indistinctive sound as if in fear that veering too far off a path well-trodden in the 80s will cause their project to implode.  The last couple years have seen an incredible outpouring of inspired and fitting scores – Sicario, It Follows, Interstellar, Ex Machina, Under the SkinTurbo Kid, and Dredd to name a few –, and doling out the Star Wars franchise to a diverse range of directors seems like the perfect excuse to let a similarly diverse group of composers offer up their ideas.  Instead, everyone Disney’s hired thus far, including John Williams, has been cruising on aping Vintage Williams.
* Early on Mads Mikkelsen’s character says something like, “You say you want to create an empire of peace, but all I see is terror,” to which Krennick says, “Well, you have to start somewhere.”  What does that even mean?
* When Krennick runs into Jyn on the bridge to the communications satellite thing and asks, “Who are you?” she answers, “You know who I am; I’m Jyn Erso, daughter of…”  This line doesn’t make any sense because it’s the first time Krennick has seen her in the movie and because we have no indication that he was ever concerned about Galen Erso having a child.  It’s almost as if the writer just shoved, “You know who I am!” into the script because he thought it sounded like a cool, plucky thing to say and wasn’t concerned about the logical basis for it.
* Characters in the movie are generally endowed with more knowledge of what’s going on than they should realistically have.  For example, when the Middle Eastern-looking guy gets killed by a grenade, the Asian gun mercenary looks up at the distant explosion, frowns solemnly, and seems to undergo a renewal of purpose because his friend just died. However, things are blowing up all around him, radio chatter is chaotic, and there’s really no way of knowing who all died in that explosion, so why does he act as if he knows?
* The camera-man obviously thinks that audiences are stupid and need important lines to be singled out by movement for their comprehension.  Example: when the rebels are being captured by the stormtroopers and Jyn stupidly throws out her family heritage and the camera zooms in on her to make you go, “WHOA!  She’s the daughter of Galen Erso!  This changes everything!”
* I don’t get why Tarkin is in the movie, and neither does anyone else as far as I can tell. Knowing the actor is dead was a constant distraction.
* I watched this a couple days after seeing Hacksaw Ridge, which is by all measures a better-made film, and the action in Hacksaw Ridge makes the most violent scene in Rogue One look like a leisurely stroll through a video-game Wonderland.  Hence, whenever I hear anyone trying to characterize this as a darker, grittier, or harder-hitting Star Wars movie, I can only scoff.  This is what doing Disney’s marketing for them looks like in practice.
Like every other blockbuster in 2016 except for that Tarzan movie, Independence Day 2, and any DC Comics movies, Rogue One has excellent CG effects, and its greatest asset as a film may be its transience, which optimists may call replay value.  Because of my job I’ve walked in on certain scenes from this over and over again, and even though my brain says I’ve already seen Rogue One, I always feel like I’m experiencing something new.  That’s the magic of Disney for you.

The Author’s 2nd Biannual Trailer Round-up (only for those seen in the theater, hence Kong: Skull Island, Dunkirk, and Alien: Covenant didn’t make the cut)

Ben-Hur – There was a remake of Ben-Hur earlier this summer.  It was about as big a failure as you could expect.

The Edge of Seventeen – This trailer didn’t do anything for me and made the film look like John Green junk, but the movie itself was OK.  I may comment more on it in an end-of-year movie roundup I may or may not write for the Files.

King Arthur: The Legend of Whatever – This is a well-edited trailer in that it takes all the coolest special effects shots from the movie and cuts them to a throbbing, chain-mail-clinking song, but I predict this is going to go the same way as Snow White and the Huntsman.  Guy Ritchie makes entertaining albeit forgettable films and this will be a fine, 5/10 addition to his filmography.

Deepwater Horizon – Another true-story disaster movie in which I have literally no interest.  Hollywood will always keep making these, and people will always keep watching them.  Mike Stoklasa sums up my feelings on these movies perfectly in less than two minutes.

The Great Wall – I want to see this movie for the pretty colors and Zhang Yimou’s direction and the action.  I don’t want to see this movie because of Matt Damon, whom some dumb producer is banking on to sell a $150-million production.  Newsflash, Hollywood: The Martian would have made a lot of money regardless of who was cast in it.

The Magnificent Seven, again – If this isn’t the fakest, most contrived-looking western I ever seen… holy on the range, Batman, it’s this year’s Lone Ranger!

Dunkirk teaser – Well, there’s not that much to go off of, is there?

Valerian – I’m getting strong Jupiter Ascending flashbacks from this, only with the awful hula dancing actress from Suicide Squad.  Hopefully Luc Besson has the good sense to recognize how goofy this movie looks and run with it.

Moana – I wasn’t all that pumped up for this based on the brief ad I saw before Arrival, but I’ll talk more about Moana in good time.

Manchester by the Sea – This was a very accurate and honest condensation of a very prototypical, lackluster indie drama.

Pirates of the Caribbean clip that’s posing as a trailer – Ugh. Note to Disney: stop casting the boring guy from the Giver movie in things, and stop making Pirates movies unless you let George Miller direct it and go full R-rating.

Split – M. Night Shyamalan, James McAvoy, the girl from The Witch, and the D.P. of It Follows all in one freaking movie?  I am so watching this opening night so no one can possibly spoil it for me.

Phoenix  It’s a found-footage movie with a purposefully mysterious ad campaign designed to provoke curiosity, except it didn’t for me.

Collateral Beauty – This is destined to be another classic mainstay in ABC Family’s Christmas programming rotation.

A Cure For Wellness – I was really impressed by this the first time I saw it, sucked in by the creepy, somewhat Kubrickian visuals and nebulous premise.  On repeated viewings its effect has started to wane on me, but it’s still a fine tease for a February horror movie that’ll probably end up being blah.

A Cure For Wellness trailer 2 – This is a really bad trailer, but on the bright side I no longer have any interest in paying for this blah.

Office Christmas Party – This movie has Abbey Lee from Mad Max: Fury Road, one funny scene where Jennifer Aniston bullies a little girl by pretending to call Santa, and no redeeming qualities apart from those.  More like The People’s Party of SNL.

Allied – The first half of this trailer was way too much déjà vu with a too young-looking Brad Pitt shoved into yet another World War II movie, but when the twist came up along with the tone shift from romance to thriller, I was hooked.  It’s too bad the movie itself turned out just OK.

The Bye Bye Man – Calling an 11% on Rotten Tomatoes for this teen girl-oriented scary picture.

A Dog’s Purpose – This looks like one of these 90’s live-action Shaggy Dog-type movies brought back from the grave.  In other words, it’s a movie for nobody.

Passengers – I wouldn’t have remembered seeing this if I hadn’t recorded that I had.  More on the movie later in the potential end-of-year roundup.

A United Kingdom – A terrible, cloyingly awards-baiting advertisement for what may be a good movie.

Going In Style – This kind of reminds me of that Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman movie about the old-timers going to Las Vegas to party, crossed with the Ocean’s Eleven movies or what I imagine them to be.  It doesn’t look so good.

The Shack – Oh boy.  Here comes this year’s low-budget, evangelical-pandering sensation that’s going to win the hearts of all my undiscriminating friends and further entrench the woeful stereotype that Christians don’t know how to make good movies.  At least Sam Worthington is getting work again after Avatar, which means he won’t have to beg for housing or food.

Patriots Day – I do wish Lionsgate was doing more to push the soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.  There’s no way to tell as of now, but based on The Social Network and Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, it’s probably the best thing Patriots Day has going for it.

Wonder Woman – This is going to be a clustercuss of a storytelling and contain a lot of unnecessary, unfunny humor just like Suicide Squad, but at least the Amazon action looks kind of cool, if heavy on the green screen and slow-motion.

Spider-Man: Homecoming – Not being attached to Spider-man or enamored of either previous screen versions, I can’t say I was all that psyched to see Take 3 on the character, but this doesn’t look that bad. Incorporating Tony Stark as a mentor figure could be an interesting departure from his now irritating personality, given they don’t force him in too much, and it was extremely refreshing to see a superhero trailer cut to a fun MGMT song instead of stock Hans Zimmer drum beats and booming sound effects.  I also like that they got someone just out of high-school to play Peter Parker instead of a more famous guy in his late-20s.  If Marvel keeps this story small and focused on Spidey’s teen issues instead of some mutated villain-of-the-week who wants to destroy New York City for some reason, then I can probably get behind this.

Logan – This trailer is already a classic, having usurped Inception as the go-to template for fan edits on Youtube.  At first I wondered if Old Man Logan would be better paired with the Nine Inch Nails version of Hurt, but revisiting it over and over has convinced me that the Johnny Cash cover is the only way to go.  What an amazing and emotional use of one of the last songs recorded by an amazing artist.

Cars 3 – This 50-second snippet features the most immaculate and detailed animation I’ve ever seen from Pixar, such that I doubt it’ll even be in the final cut.  Let’s hope that they prove my doubts wrong, not that I give a crap about a movie called “Cars 3”.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – I laughed a solid three times over two minutes.  If the movie makes me laugh five times that and the characters grow somehow (literally and figuratively in Baby Groot’s case) over the course of it, consider me a satisfied nerd.

War for the Planet of the Apes – Are they playing it kind of safe selling this as the biggest and darkest Apes film yet?  Yes.  Does it bug me that Caesar now speaks English just as articulately as the humans?  Yes.  Did this get me excited to see a war for a planet of apes?  Also yes.

Transformers: The Last Knight – I know well how foolish it is to get optimistic about the prospects of any new Transformers movies, but I see several promising signs here.  For one the lead girl doesn’t appear to be depicted as a sexpot, which would be a huge advancement for Michael Bay if it holds true.  Having Optimus Prime trade blows with Bumblebee for whatever reason also makes for a positive change of pace after four movies straight of killing Megatron, Decepticons, and whoever the bad guy in Transformers 4 was.  On a more concrete level, the blending of in-camera explosions and CGI looks fantastic as usual, which is one of the few things Bay consistently does right contrary to his critics.  In the last two movies, unfortunately, it was about the only thing he and his writers did right, and he did it right for an hour and a half at a time, which made it wrong.  On a side note, playing super slowed-down, distorted versions of The Flaming Lips or any other recognizable band doesn’t make a trailer sound more epic, only silly.

The Fate of the Furious – I will watch this on DVD just to hear Dwayne Johnson say, “I will beat you like a Cherokee drum,” and more lines of that ilk.

xXx: Return of Xander Cage – Who in the world is Xander Cage, and why are we getting two Fast and Furious movies in the same year?

Smurfs 5 – This was a pre-Moana trailer and I wasn’t really paying attention.

The Lego Batman Movie – My main worry with this is that the makers are trying so hard to replicate the insanely high joke rate of The Lego Movie that they’ve neglected both the social commentary which made the original great and, more importantly, a plot.  Still, I had no expectations whatsoever of The Lego Movie, so hopefully this will surprise me in the same way.

Hidden Figures – This is gonna suck.

Beauty and the Beast – The bad news is that it’s starring U.N. Ambassador Emma Watson, which means there’s no way in heck I am paying to see this even if the makeup/effects and set design look good.  The good news is that pretty much every scene is in the trailer and I already know the beast turns into a man, so I don’t have to see it.

Fist Fight – Stuff I learned from this trailer: 1) Meth isn’t a gateway drug, it’s the finish line. 2) Ice Cube from N.W.A. can be a high-school teacher. 3) Possums are a pussy animal. 4) This is going to be a fun time-waster when it eventually comes to FX with all the swearing awkwardly dubbed out.

Get Out – I can’t tell if this is supposed to be a serious horror film or a black people comedy for Tyler Perry fans, but I can tell that it’s going to stink.  This is seriously one of the most annoying and abrasive previews I’ve seen in the theater, and that it has the gall to reference Evil Dead 2 makes it all the more deplorable.

John Wick Chapter 2 – I didn’t even like John Wick, but I will definitely be patronizing this film unless it gets less than 50% from critics and zero recommendations from Red Letter Media.

Live By Night – Much though it pains me to say any movie written, directed, produced, and acted by multicultural beta male Ben Affleck actually looks good, let alone a gangster one that’s been done to death, I do think this looks pretty good.  Then again, any fool can stitch together some overhead nature shots, vague tough guy dialogue, and rapidly edited fighting to make something look more exciting than it really is.

Gifted – Octavia Spencer + know-it-all kid + talking down to audiences about kid being super smart + indie dialogue + custody battles = SUCK.  Also, trailer editors need to stop cutting off characters in the middle of saying, “Holy shit,” which has become something of a cliché by this point and has the effect of annoying both people who are offended and people who are not offended by swearing.

Fifty Shades Darker – Mock me if I end up being wrong, but I think most of the first movie’s financial success can be traced to misleading media hype, a.k.a. #FakeNews, and the sequel is going to bomb hard.  Millennials will skip it and watch porn at home, film students will settle for a much more scandalous Lars Von Trier movie, and the studio will barely recoup its expenses on a risqué music video-movie they should have made for a quarter of the cost.

Ghost in the Shell – It’s a dumbed-down, action-heavy, PG-13 remake of a highly philosophical, dialogue-heavy, R-rated anime.  That doesn’t mean it has to fail as a 21st century Matrix-clone in Hong Kong, but my prediction is it will have next to no appeal for those, like me, who admire the original.  I predict this a) because of the “You’re special” lines in the trailer, which has no grounding in GITS and is a very mainstream trope, b) because of Scarlett Johansson, who is clearly supposed to draw Avengers and Lucy fanboys, and c) because there’s literally no mention of the anime in the trailer.

Life – Generic outer-space movie looks generic.

Blade Runner 2049 – This isn’t much of a trailer, but I still got chills when I heard Vangelis.  Based solely on the people involved I don’t have to see any more of it before next October.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Save Dewey, Build The Wall (Pepperdine Service Announcement)

The following is a digital transcription of an urgent message ineffectively distributed across Beatissima University the week before finals so that nobody would notice it or pay it any heed.  Dewey Hall is a stately and beloved middleclass dormitory situated on the far side of Greek Row that’s set to be demolished in spring of 2017 in order to be rebuilt from the ground up as a larger living area accommodating larger, more diverse class bodies that will incidentally be paying even more tuition to acquire less applicable knowledge from less intelligent professors.  What the Housing and Residence Life office of Beatissima does not know or refuses to acknowledge is that Dewey is currently resting on “sacred ground” and any construction efforts advanced upon it will not only prove catastrophic to the coastal environment but, more pressingly, cause irrevocable harm to the feelings and comfort of the students living there, who will be forced back into the shadows they’ve fought their entire adult lives to escape.  As it stands, people who call Dewey their home are Beas in every way except on paper, and the time has long since passed for the school’s Christian administration to recognize their dignity, which brings us to the text of this poster.

Most of this will not make sense to those who haven’t studied recently at Beatissima.  Most of this will not make sense to those who are currently studying at Beatissima, as reading comprehension is frankly not Beas’ strongest suit, any more than is staying informed on food and housing arrangements affecting where they live, any more than is remembering the statements of those running for president pertaining to Americans’ gun rights and freedom of speech.

First they came for the fountain, and I did nothing, because I was a broke-ass college student and did my laundry at my parents’ house, not in the fountain.
Then they came for the La Brea and Peet’s, and I did nothing, because I did not eat baked goods and already had Starbucks, which is better, at the cafeteria and HAWC and verily every corner.
Then they came for the cable, and I did nothing, because I did not watch anything that was not on Putlocker or Netflix and because I could not get cable on my iPhone.
Then they came for the library, and I did nothing, because I knew better than to waste my time reading anything more complex than a 100-word Facebook “rant” or a nihilistic Salon article.
Then they came for the mural, and I did nothing, because I was not one of the unacceptably few not-white people here and was not aware of any such mural or the affront it caused.
Then they came for Dewey, and no one did a thing for me, because they had never called Dewey “Home” and did not even know that it existed.

It’s time to send The Powers That B a message:
   That they cannot take whatever they want.
      That this is our land.
         That we stand in #insolidarity and unity for
               Immediately around


* Miller will pay for it.
** Some of the people in HRL, I assume, are good people.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Responding to Criticism, Warner Bros. to Adapt Childrens' Novel that Parents Also Read

Article written by George Stefano Pallas.  Barely repressed Marvel bias and fansplaining practiced by the author are his alone and do not necessarily reflect nor should be construed as those of the Author.

After a string of critical and commercial successes like “Batman v Superman: The Ultimate Cut” on Blu-ray and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, Warner Bros. today pulled back the curtain on their hotly anticipated next intellectual property, Kid and Giant Fantasy Companion, which has been in development since last weekend.  Studios like Summit and 20th Century Fox that specialize in mass-producing lowest-standard adaptations of YA franchises had reportedly been enjoined in a fierce bidding war over the coveted material, but with millions pilfered from tone-deaf Suicide Squad viewers who couldn’t take a hint, Warner Bros. inevitably used its box office clout to triumph over competitors.

“We are overjoyed to be working with Warner Bros. to bring this beloved story to life,” commented executive producer Mick RcCallum.  “At first we thought that Sony would be a good match for Kid and Giant Fantasy Companion, having funded Certified-Fresh movies like Ghostbusters (2016), the Goosebumps movie, Spectre, and Uncharted 4, but I’m very appreciative of what Warner has done to commercialize an 80-year-old children’s book like The Hobbit, and I know that they’ll be a great partner with us in spreading the beautiful, life-affirming message of hope and life enclosed in the book.”

Kid and Giant Fantasy Companion first appeared on the New York Times bestseller list in June after receiving endorsements from Katie Couric and the “Finding Dory” Facebook page.  The 300-page coming-of-age novel by Rhonda J. Krowling centers on a precocious 12-year-old boy whose parents are divorced and who struggles to navigate the turbulent middle-school whirlpool of bullies, first crushes, and teachers who aren’t paid enough to care about realizing his dreams of going to a $250k university and getting his bachelor’s in sociology.  At his lowest point, when Christian is contemplating striking back at the bullies and running away from home, he runs into and develops a touching friendship with a towering mythical creature, who confronts the bullies for him and gives him the confidence to approach the girl, his parents, and every other problem that comes his way.

As literary scholars on Salon and the Huffington Post have perceptively noted, the presence of the giant fantasy companion has a lot of metaphorical implications about fascism and cultural appropriation that have made the story just as appealing to single, unemployed adults as to children, and the nostalgic tone of the book has been universally praised for imparting the feels.  Krowling says she wrote the runaway hit “while working” in her college’s library and considered self-publishing it as an e-book, but leapt at the opportunity to get it in stores when Harper Collins accepted the text.

“Never in our wildest dreams did we see a book as nuanced and lyrical and deep as Kid and Giant Fantasy Companion being adaptable, let alone marketable in a way that will get people to take a chance on such an unconventional narrative,” says Warner Bros. representative Joel Kern.  “Then Suicide Squad happened, and everything changed.  Suddenly we realized, not only was this a story that could be told, but this was a story that needed to be told.”

Other factors that played a role in Warner Bros.’ acquisition of the movie rights include: Pete’s Dragon, which received an uncommon A-Cinemascore grade from mothers who like anything so long as it has good morals, no swearing, and no bloody violence; the upcoming Liam Neeson ent film A Monster Calls, which has an approximately 34:1 like-to-dislike ration on its Youtube trailer; the Playstation 4 game The Last Guardian, featuring a giant cat-dog-bird thing; The Iron Giant Blu-ray release; the How To Train Your Dragon franchise; and The BFG.

“After Suicide Squad and Fantastic Beasts and the next six installments in the DC extended universe, we at Warner didn’t have a clue where we were going to go next,” continues Kern.  “We’ve done fun superhero movies, we’ve done plenty of hilarious Adam Sandler comedies, but where could we go that feels fresh and relevant and doesn’t sound like a huge, uncertain business investment?  Thankfully, we didn’t have to figure that out ourselves, and now we’re proud to be shepherding one of the best pieces of literature this generation has seen, right up there with Paper Towns and Gone Girl.”

The reveal of the director of Kid and Giant Fantasy Companion is set for September 30th, 2016, and a teaser trailer with title cards, a shot of the creature’s shadow, and a chilling Sigur Rós song will be released sometime around Winter Holiday.  Kid and Giant Fantasy Companion has an average score of 4.6 stars on Amazon, lagging behind The Lorax by Dr. Seuss but just on par with or outpacing Lean In, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons EverythingI Am Malala: The Girl Who “Stood Up For Education” and Was Shot by the Taliban, and The Absolutely True Diary of Apartheid Indian.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Star Trek Beyond, Jason Bourne, and Catching up on a Lot of Trailer Reviews

Star Trek Beyond The Eighth Dimension

Star Trek Beyond ends, as have the other fake 21st-century Star Trek movies, with a spirited recitation of Star Fleet’s mission to boldly go where “no person” has gone before, and in all the least meaningful ways, Beyond fulfills that mission.  It certainly goes where no Sulu has gone before, and possibly where no in-series fight scenes have gone before, but everything else in the film is so worn out from previous adventures that it briskly earns its status as the most slumberous Star Trek since The Original Motion Picture. Ditching the creative input of Orci, Kurtzman, and Abrams, Beyond stupidly transfers writing credit to Simon Pegg of Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead, which by default means it will be desperate, smug, and not that funny.  Bones and Spock share one semi-thoughtful exchange about the fear of death keeping us alive, but other than that there’s nothing very emotional or, conversely, logical about the script.  To their credit, the makers don’t try to spin a silly War on Terror allegory out of Star Trek (can you imagine how dumb that would be?), but then they don’t try to spin much of anything out of Star Trek.

There being almost no subtext or character arcs on which to ruminate, I’m forced to focus my critiques on the technical, which is neither good nor overwhelmingly bad.  The dreadfully overcast Idris Elba is a terrible villain who leaves just as indelible a mark on the viewer as that elf king in Thor 2 or the yelling blue guy in X-men: Apocalypse who could do anything he wanted until he got beaten by a redhead teenager.  The action sequences are the worst-filmed I’ve seen all year outside of Jason Bourne, though we’ll get to that in due course.  Beyond contains a fleet’s worth of exciting sketches for sci-fi battles – a motorcycle releases a solidifying gas in its wake to intercept laser fire, a swarm of alien ships ram the Enterprise kamikaze-style in close formation, two captains fly around and punch each other in the center of several gravity slipstreams – but the combination of bonehead Justin Lin’s predilection to close-ups and the editors’ quick-cutting sensibility renders these scenes unfailingly dull, if not incomprehensible.  It also looks surprisingly dark and murky, unless my theater lost the original print and just happens to be running a 480p Putlocker rip on all three screens, which I wouldn’t put outside the realm of possibility.  Only four or five fighting shots stand out in my memory as being legible; I’m sure they’re in the trailer somewhere.

Speaking of the trailer, I don’t get why the internet eviscerated the Beastie Boys teaser back when it came out, presumptively blaming it and the new filmmakers for ruining the slow-paced, talky Star Trek with which they’d grown up.  Said teaser was arguably the most daring and innovative move on the part of anyone involved in Star Trek Beyond, as it didn’t cheaply rely on fades-to-black, slow piano building to grandiose choir, Inception bwaaas, or other advertising staples to generate intrigue and sell a dour, epic tone the movie itself would not deliver.  More extraordinarily, the song used in the trailer not only appears in the film but plays a major role in it, unlike the songs in this and this and this and this and this and this and this. Bravo to the abused and unappreciated soul who took on the responsibility of unveiling this movie I had little to no interest in and didn’t do so in the safest, most clichéd fashion.

Also bravo to Michael Giacchino, whose score remains as sweeping and hummable as ever.  Rihanna’s end credits single, in contrast, isn’t so bad as to wreck a mediocre movie but is a melodramatic copy of every other pop song ever written by Sia, who should go away forever.  Also bravo to the makeup artist for creating whatever alien Jayla is.  If not for the contributions of these people, I would have been hopelessly bored throughout the whole affair, but not so bored as to require a Jedi mind meld to wipe this from my memory, which is fortunate, as not even President Barack Hussein Obama knows how to administer one of those.

I should also mention the scene where Spock is looking at a photograph of the original series’ crew and, seeing Leonard Nimoy in close-up, starts tearing up inside.  I thought this was a really subdued and poignant way of depicting a character’s grief that I’d literally never seen before in better films.

What the Hell is Happening? ("Spoilers")

If I applied the same scrutiny to the plot of Jason Bourne as I did to more sophisticated espionage or manhunt thrillers, the structural integrity would probably implode due to the pressure of having to move as fast as cinematically possible.  The last couple films in the series have taken a distancing 360-degree overview of the action that cuts between Bourne and his pursuers at an alarming rate, but this reboot (and it is a reboot) is the first in my mind to pull it off successfully.  Most of the time I had barely an inkling of what was going on – or of how the characters knew what was going on –, but whenever I started to question the C.I.A.’s omniscience too much, the movie had already darted off to another location, forcing me to readjust in order to keep up.

This is an action movie which passes every test of filmmaking except the one for its action, which is the most incoherent and ramshackle of the year.  Over-funded and -edited atrocities like Jason Bourne’s frenzied car chases and fistfights are redeemable only in illuminating just how impressive the stuntwork and choreography were in Hardcore Henry and Mad Max: Fury Road, those two most irreproachable action films of the decade.  Even the motorcycle chase in last year’s passable Mission Impossible looks like a revelatory achievement when juxtaposed with Paul Greengrass’ nonsensical Athens sequence.  Graciously, most of the film consists of people looking at screens, yelling through earpieces, pointing guns, and walking quickly while ignoring their surroundings because they’re too cool for that, so the godforsaken shaky-cam only seldom becomes the ruination of a mostly entertaining adrenal rush.

A common criticism seems to be that this Bourne borrows too much from its predecessors, but as someone who never loved or re-watched any of the prior films, I wasn’t at all disgruntled by Jason driving a car recklessly again or rediscovering another person from his past he needs to kill, since these just seemed to fall within the territory of things I could expect from a generic action spy movie.  Like the catchy Moby theme song that’s gone through several minor variations since Identity, the new iteration of Jason Bourne makes just enough topical changes to the core formula to warrant a Redbox rental.  This one aims to capitalize on the ongoing debate over internet privacy and “fighting terrorism”, and though some might say it incorporates this theme superficially, I appreciated the adaptation of the series to our modern climate and thought it ultimately came down on the right side of the constitutionality argument (the one that isn’t backed by sniveling cowards and/or surveillance state control freaks like Boehner, Christie, and McConnell).  Jason Bourne takes place in an alternate universe wherein the N.S.A. – or C.I.A. in this case – is able to hack any device to do virtually anything and is willing to suspend due process of law to assassinate any person, including billionaire tech CEOs, who could expose their legally suspect data mining to the world.  If the Bourne series’ unflagging distrust of the people in power makes it “treasonous” or “unpatriotic” or “national security Russian roulette”, then label me an anarchist.

One change I didn’t take that favorably in the first forty minutes was the decision to kill off Julia Stiles, who’s always been in these movies for the sake of looking hot, so as to make room for young blood in the form of Alicia Vikander, who will theoretically rejuvenate the series with hotness (and smartness) in the next few installments while Matt Damon goes the route of Tom Cruise and doesn’t falter at picking up girls half his age.  I took this as a superfluous and rather demeaning way of swapping an attractive woman in her 30s for an equally attractive but demonstrably more popular woman in her 20s.  In fact, killing off Stiles just about destroyed the next twenty minutes of the movie for me until I made peace with the presence of Vikander, who used to be a hidden gem for those who saw Ex Machina and has now reached the same unfortunate point of ubiquity as Michael Fassbender, appearing in no fewer than four movies every year. She’s great and subtle in this as usual, as is Tommy Lee Jones, who would be a mustache-twirling villain if he wasn’t clean-shaven.  Vincent Cassel kills a bunch of people and made me want to watch a movie like Black Swan again where he actually does some acting.

Matt Damon doesn’t talk much, which is an appropriate use of his faculties as a Democrat Party spokesman, and John Powell’s urgent soundtrack staves off fatigue, though this series’ music obviously peaked with Supremacy.  I’m giving Jason Bourne 6 Hollywood hypocrites out of 10 gun-phobic beta males.

Now we reach the moment so many people have been anticipating so much more than my apathy towards lame summer movies.

Trailer Reviews through July 2016 (for sake of concision, discounting films already seen or trailers encountered outside the theater, i.e. Wonder Woman and King Kong 4)

The McDonalds Founder Movie – Why would I watch some boring Oscar-baiting movie about McDonalds when I could go buy a happy meal and get a toy from the movie instead?

Central Intelligence – I’ve seen bits and pieces of this in the line of work.  The movie opens with Jumpman Jumpman Jumpman Jumpman Whoo! by Drake and has this cheesy, anti-bullying posturing which is kind of embarrassing to the manhood of both actors.  That should give you a good idea for whom this movie was made.

“Saving the world takes a little Hart and a big Johnson” is a golden tagline, though.

NOW You Really See Me – I don’t care, and it aggrieves me that anybody does.

Doctor Strange – “Forget every Marvel movie that you think you know,” and also Batman Begins and Inception while you’re at it, because if you don’t, you’re going to have some serious déjà vu.  Booming rattle sound effect.

Doctor Strange Trailer 2 – Oh, wait, Rachel McAdams is in this too?  Boycott retracted, maybe.

Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie – There’s an Absolutely Fabulous – Not the Movie?

Some Horse Movie – I did a web search for horse movies in 2016 to remember what this is and came up with a documentary about “a working-class horse that was about to take on the likes of the best”.  If The Black Stallion Returns is a 1 and Secretariat is a 3 and War Horse is a 4 and some other horse movie is a 5, then I’m guessing that this one’s going to be a 6 out of 10.

Indignation – “I don’t prefer to practice one religion over another.”  Well, I guess that just makes you better than everybody else.

Our Kind of Traitor – This isn’t a Lars Von Trier movie.

Nerve – Ugh, another social media movie.  Or is it more like a Pokémon GO movie?  Is Pokémon GO a real video game or a social media pseudo-game like Farmville?  Wait, Emma Roberts is getting undressed for this movie?  And that’s the thumbnail on Youtube?  Did they put that in there just so boys would go to see this piece of crap?

“Watchers pay to watch,” says the disembodied computer voice, but why would cheap Millennials who pirate all their media pay to watch other Millennials doing stupid or dangerous stuff when they can see the same things on Youtube for free?

Ouija Board 2 – Unconvincingly shambling from candlelit séance to happy, skippy comedy music and back to “horror” again, this trailer should be lauded as a toxically accurate representation of the film on which it’s based.

Morgan – “What if I recommended that you be terminated?”  Oh, you done messed up there, Paul Giamatti.  Anyway, this is basically a dozen recent sci-fi premises smashed into one with a suspenseful siren blare that’s supposed to remind the viewer of the Prometheus ads, which is fitting as it’s directed by Ridley Scott Jr.  Hollywood nepotism at its finest.  I’ll still watch it for free some afternoon.

Don’t Breathe – If I were in charge of marketing this, I would not be broadcasting the director’s association with the Evil Dead remake of three years ago.  But I’m not in charge of marketing this.

Ghostbusters Trailer 2 – They made it worse.

Assassin’s Creed – I’m in the minority on this one, but this looks like it could well be the first good video game movie, so long as they don’t waste a lot of time in the present day setting as the games have mistakenly done (Assassin’s Creed III basically has an hour-long opening cutscene).  All the parkour and impractical flipping moves look real enough, the camera is mostly stabilized, and it’s got this cool hazy quality about it that was also present in the director’s Macbeth movie.  Please, 20th Century Fox, don’t screw this up of all things.

Or go ahead and screw it up.  I don’t really care about Assassin’s Creed.  Where’s that Peter Jackson Halo movie we were rumored to be getting all those years ago?

Suicide Squad, trailer #7 part 2 – The more and more I see of this, the less enthusiasm I have to finally see the rest.  DC’s obviously trying to make this look like The Avengers to compensate for criticisms of their other movies, and so they’re mitigating everything that might have distinguished their product tonally from Marvel’s.  Last year’s Comic-con trailer made this out to be a dark and enigmatic tale about some seriously deranged and violent people, but now the “bad guys” are indistinguishable from the “good guys” of any other movie and appear to be starring in a weightless, disposable music video.  Depending on how this turns out, I highly doubt we’ll ever get another mainstream film in the mood of Watchmen or The Dark Knight, which didn’t feel the need to be jokey and “fun” all the time.

The Legend of Tarzan – In the non-Disney Legend of Tarzan, Margot Robbie has a gotcha line when she tells evil religious colonialist Christoph Waltz, “It sounds like you and your priest were really close”.  The Legend of Tarzan is set in the late 19th century Congo.

This movie sucks.

The Girl on the Train – Note to trailer editors: slowing down originally midtempo Kanye West banger tracks doesn’t make them sound more dramatic or chilling; it just wrecks a decent song and makes you sound like a hack for being the 50th person to unadvisedly jam a Kanye West song into a movie trailer. This looks like Gone Girl without the guiding hand of David Fincher, and nobody talks about Gone Girl anymore in 2016.

The Infiltrator – TV movie starring an annoying Hillary drone.

Bridget Jones’s Baby – It’s not for me, or anyone who went to Swiss Army Man for that matter, but the theater played it anyway.  And why is there a second S after the possessive Jones?

Equity – It’s good because it’s a movie about banking with women playing roles normally played by men.

Free Fire – Somehow I managed to catch a trailer for this in Swiss Army Man even though the internet gives no indication that one exists.  Consequently, I feel obligated to say something about it one cannot gather just by reading, but the trailer simply wasn’t that funny or memorable.  I think there was a lot of shooting in a warehouse, and Brie Larson was in it, which is bad, because I’m getting tired of seeing Brie Larson.

American Honey – Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank was a freaking good, underseen movie with excellent no-name actors and judicious use of older songs that shed light on the characters’ positions rather than just pleading for nostalgia-based approval.  Minus the concerning addition of Shia Labeouf, American Honey appears to be more of the same.

Loving – A clever double-meaning of a title for a film about interracial marriage.  Joel Edgerton looks totally unlike the last character he played, again.  Lots of prepackaged movie trailer lines like, “This could go all the way to the Supreme Court,” and, “Tell the judge I love my wife.”

Gleason – I’m willing to believe this guy and his family are really nice in real life.  I just don’t like watching documentaries about nice people.

Our Little Sister – I thought I already had my pulse on the Asian movie circuit, but I haven’t heard of any of the three films mentioned here.  Apparently Hirokazu Koreeda is Criterion-certified, which means I’ll have to check him out like the elitist snob I am.  I also hear that Linklater’s Boyhood is getting inducted to the Collection this fall.

It’s obviously harder to cut a trailer for foreign audiences that doesn’t rely chiefly on visuals or accolades over dialogue, but the editor of this one really tried.  Those bicycle shots beneath the pink blossoms sure look pretty, and I’ll make sure to catch this one if it ever touches down in my theater, which would be astonishing.

War Dogs – Eh.  This is definitely an August movie.  Miles Teller voiceover reminds me of The Spectacularly Bad Now, and the 50/50 chance of survival joke was a fail.  I guess I can’t see the reason this was made.

The Mechanic: Resurrection – Fighting on a gondola, sticking to the side of skyscraper, and blowing up a ship – I’m sure there will be a Good Parts Version with Jessica Alba available on streaming services in a couple months.

Inferno – “Dante defined our modern conception of Hell seven hundred years ago.”  Why don’t you just make a movie of Dante’s Inferno, then, if it’s that important a poem?

Why Him?Bleep you, it’s January!

Split – The Shyamalan is back and the hype is real.

Sully – Why do I feel like this movie was made four years ago with Denzel Washington and 16 years ago with Tom Hanks?

Anthropoid – Filmmaking looks kind of bland and the trailer is full of expository “This is this person/thing” parts, but maybe I’ll learn something while watching it.

Denial – Having seen this trailer three times, I’m pretty sure that Holocaust denial in this movie is meant to be interchangeable with Global Warming skepticism, which is rather insulting to the memory of any Jews who were exterminated in the Holocaust.  Even Rachel Weisz says, “The earth is round, the icecaps are melting, and Elvis is not alive.”  Come September, I would be disappointed if Kenneth Turan, A.O. Scott, and whoever writes the plot synopsis for USA Today all failed to make this connection and gloat about it. “I’m not against freedom of speech.”  Well, you kind of are.

Rules Don’t Apply – It’s a period drama with some sexy people and some people whom I hate.  I’ve actually never seen anything related to Warren Beatty, but this seems to have an adequate amount of Christian jokes to keep me interested until I fall asleep on the couch.

Hell or High Water – Dude, I think I’m going to skip this one.

A Monster Calls – This is what the BFG movie should have looked like if they’d spent a little more time on the visual design and got a more audacious director than Steven Spielberg.  The whole monster being a metaphor for fear of impending adulthood thing will almost definitely wear thin fast, but I’m elated to see another addition to a rich lineage of talking tree movies.

The Accountant – This is the best-edited trailer of the year so far, and I’m not just saying that because of Radiohead.  The movie itself will come and go and not be spoken of again within three weeks, but I’ll be damned if the beautiful, sonorous din this sends washing over the aisles doesn’t induce chills for all well-reared 90s kids in the cinemas.  I also like that Ben Affleck doesn’t speak words and it doesn’t give the entire story away.

La La Land – I’m calling it now that this is going to be my 3rd-favorite film of the year.  You got Emma Stone being adorable again, Ryan Gosling being his hunky self, deep reds and blues, lovely music, and a trailer that calls to mind the advertising of both Blue Valentine and Punch-Drunk Love.  It’s also got that dunce John Legend, but I’ll try not to dwell on that too much.  Here’s hoping Damien Chazelle keeps his perfect streak running.

Friday, July 29, 2016

The Killing Joke Is Feminist Affirmative Action

In the days surrounding Batman: The Killing Joke’s one-night theatrical release (or two, depending on where you live), much hoopla has been raised by comic fans over certain alterations made to the characters of Barbara Gordon and Bruce Wayne, who apparently take their relationship to places never before suggested or seen in the series canon.  Having read Alan Moore’s Killing Joke (really old review here), played the first two Arkham games, and bypassed pretty much anything else in the way of Barbara-related comics lore, I’m in no position to comment on the credibility of this unanticipated development other than to say it’s disrespectful to the men who wrote the comics, the fans who read the comics, and the characters who carried the comics, which would be all around deplorable enough if the added subplot didn’t also reek of politically motivated, arrogantly Progressive revisionism.

The original Killing Joke obviously wasn’t centered on Barbara Gordon, a minor character and centerpiece of the Joker’s horrifying scheme, nor did Moore’s choice not to emphasize her impede the ability of any fair and reasonable reader to empathize with Commissioner Gordon or loathe the monster striving to break him. Barbara was, by any interpretation of the word, a plot device, but that wasn’t inherently a bad thing, as not every comic issue needs or ought to dedicate the same attention to every character all of the time.  This is a fault of Marvel’s cluttered Captain America and Avengers movies, which try in vain to equally apportion a shining moment or integral story function to a dozen different superheroes in order not to upset fans of War Machine, Scarlett Witch, Sharon Carter, and other lesser Marvel characters.  Nor does every story need to feature a resilient and self-sufficient female character for the sake of availing witless, backsliding readers that women can be resilient and self-sufficient.  This assumption is born out of a malicious, educationally-propagated fallacy that fiction, rather than being a coded line of communication between author and listener, should serve solely as a vehicle for promoting and engendering a warped leftist worldview, wherein women are never brutalized by more powerful men and both sexes have roughly equal agency in any given sequence of events.

Up until a couple years ago, or maybe even the release of this movie, The Killing Joke was unanimously considered a nearly perfect graphic novel, and it’s still a nearly perfect short story to this day.  The passage of time and the softening of people’s consciences have no bearing on the artistic worth or philosophic clarity of a piece of literature, so while Emma Watson-worshipping college lesbians may denounce the shooting and humiliation of Barbara Gordon as an attack upon their sexuality, this is exclusively their problem and not the novel’s.  Barbara’s limited role in the novel perfects suits the story Moore was trying to tell: it serves a purpose in a maniacal plan that couldn’t quite be replaced by anything else, it poignantly highlights the cruelty and perversity of the Joker while exposing Jim Gordon’s prevailing goodness, and it drives home the bleak, disturbing world of Gotham by utterly appalling the reader.  Detractors may dismiss this as Exploitation Fiction, but when has that stopped leftist culture critics from lionizing Tarantino, Argento, Miike, and other masters of exploitation sub-genres?  The otherwise mediocre rape drama Irreversible still attracts new viewers because its director pulled no stops in shooting the film’s most exploitative, sickening, and undoubtedly effective scene.  The point of moviemaking is not to utilize a female character in ways embiggening to disaffected females who like to claim make-believe women as representatives of their physical or psychological ability; it’s to utilize (or not utilize) a female character in ways that serve the nature of whatever story the author is telling.

Screen writer Brian Azzarello’s unnecessary expansion of Batgirl doesn’t just taint Alan Moore’s already cohesive and complete treatment of Batman and The Joker; by totally revamping the opening to the story and kowtowing to Feminazi ideologues who either don’t understand or don’t care about art, it retroactively accuses the original author of committing accidental misogyny and ruins the movie by attempting to atone for ‘mistakes’ which were a byproduct of a less sensitive, right-thinking era.  This Progressive pandering, more so than the spontaneous sex scene, voyeuristic night jog shots, or obligatory gay friend who does nothing, is the most offensive addition to a classic that needed no Obama-age updating, and will be remembered as one of the worst stabs at correcting a minor female character outside of Briseis in the catastrophic Troy, whose creators couldn’t stomach to depict a woman as a helpless war prize, and whatever that Leonidas wife subplot was in 300.

Story notwithstanding, the 30-minute Batgirl prologue is tonally incongruous with everything else inside The Killing Joke, which the humorless remainder of the microscopic film replicates almost panel for panel and line for line.  The introductory plotline is stuffed with awful one-liners and relatable character moments that had my sold-out theater howling with laughter, while the latter part features no relatable characters and only invokes humor in the most disquieting or horrifying of circumstances.

The voice acting by Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy is fine, except when it’s not due to bad direction or unconsidered loyalty to the comic book format.  All the Joker flashbacks until his transformation – the best part of the movie, bar none – are passed through stock, old-timey sepia filters that accentuate the theatricality of the voice acting and convinced me for about half a minute that the movie had switched to some TV show within the show.  When he receives the news that his pregnant wife has passed away, Joker puts on a sullen face but speaks with little audible emotion, and from that point on the audience are drifting in the same boat of apathy.  Dialogue is read at a breathless pace with no pauses for comedic or dramatic emphasis, as if the actors were having an after-school hang-out in the bookstore and trying to skim through the book as fast as possible to make it home in time for dinner.  As such, it comes across more like an accelerated episode of Scooby Doo than a recommended-for-mature-viewers character study. The last time I read The Killing Joke I took as a kind of horror story about a tragic man who’d forsaken all moral restraints and wanted to prove that any man subjected to similar trauma would also revert to an animalistic state.  The movie by comparison looks and sounds like a morning cartoon, and even with the heavily hyped R-rating, it still steers away from nudity, profanity, or atmospheres of terror and dread.

The consensus online seems to be that DC should have settled for making a 45-minute short instead of padding The Killing Joke out to justify a feature, but the movie’s ultimate failing is its indecision to distinguish itself from the core story in cinematic, thematically appropriate ways.  The one major change they made from the book should have been omitted entirely, and everything else is harvested straight from the panels with no thought to fleshing them out to be suspenseful, scary, or filmic.  Consider how tense and drawn-out the scene in Blade Runner is where Deckard hunts down Batty, how much mental unease Ridley Scott builds out of one compact environment.  In Batman: The Killing Joke: The Movie, Batman paces down a hallway of green and purple mirrors, lets the Joker beat him up in a boring, bright room, then tackles him out a window all in a span of two or three minutes, thus ending a chase that could have spread across a range of carnival attractions.

For those deniers still sitting on the fence, DC thankfully demystifies the longstanding question of whether Batman kills the Joker at the end, effectively quelling any more useless debate and signaling that comics, written as they are for teenage boys, have no artistic excuse for ambiguity and should not be left open to interpretation.

Here’s hoping Suicide Squad has lots of snappy dialogue, likeable and one-dimensional crazy people I can quote ad nauseum to my friends, themes of working together to defeat a bad guy, nobody dying or getting permanently injured, and zero depth of storytelling.  If DC would just take some lessons from Marvel, maybe they could start producing child-friendly entertainment like Avengers: Age of Ultron which all of us already know and love.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Dharma Relativity Theorem in the Ramayana

The following was written for a catch-all class on Asian great books, philosophy, and calligraphy which kicked off with a reading of the Good Parts Version of the Ramayana.  The paper won’t make much sense to the uninitiated, firstly because I wrote it for a professor reasonably familiar with the Ramayana, secondly because the Ramayana itself just doesn’t make much sense.  It’s still a pretty good entry point to Eastern literature, as it feels like the best Michael Bay movie Hollywood hasn’t yet had the good sense to green-light and offensively recast with non-blue people of European descent.  Where the Ramayana falls apart as religious epic – or stands tall depending on your spiritual persuasion – is in its confused, progressive, and relativistic presentation of the moral code of dharma.

The essay is way too long and rephrases the same idea over and over because I was being graded on a page count and because a pretty big chunk of it was written overnight.  Teachers in other fields may take this as a cautionary paper.

The concept of dharma in the Ramayana takes a multitude of forms, encompassing such meanings as natural calling, social obligation, and right behavior more broadly.  Pretty much every character in the epic lays claim to knowing and walking in the way of dharma, even those whose aims are diametrically opposed to one another’s.  As such it’s often hard to discern what the author of the Ramayana believes real dharma to be.  The contradictions within the moral order and its manifold interpretations are most easily reconciled when one sees dharma not as a concrete, immutable, absolute code but as a personal excuse pleaded by fallible, selfish characters in justification of their actions.  In the grand scheme of the epic, fate plays a much larger role in Rama finishing his exile and reclaiming Sita than does his inconsistent, continually revised commitment to dharma.

The author commonly refers to Rama as a perfect incarnation of dharma, Avatara of the deva Vishnu.  The introduction to Rama at the beginning of Book Two describes him as a human in whom “all the virtues that Brahma ever created were gathered as the galaxies are within the universe”.  When held up to scrutiny, though, Rama often falters from the very principles he describes as dharma, succumbing to fits of wrath and needless outbreaks of violence. In one chapter he lectures Lakshmana on the foolishness of violent resorts, saying, “Violence is never dharma and you must not give in to your anger.”  But throughout the Ramayana, Rama not only engages in violent acts but veritably relishes the opportunity for them.  When the “hideous” and pitiful rakshasa Surpanka enters their encampment, Rama recognizes her for what she is, but instead of attempting to defuse the situation quickly and peacefully, he entertains her seductive behavior and toys with her by recommending his brother in his stead.  Aiming to capitalize on the brothers’ pretense of flirting, Surpanka aggressively moves to devour Princess Sita, and Rama responds by brutally disfiguring the demon with the aid of his brother.  Rather than lamenting this unfortunate defensive act, necessary to protect the wife who gave up everything to enter the wilderness with him, Rama celebrates the maiming of Surpanka, for as the text reads, “The brothers dissolved in mirth.”

Was it dharma for the exile to break his former testimony against bloodshed, in such a sadistic and excessive manner none the less?  Did the dharma of defending his wife overrule the dharma of nonviolence he’d spoken of earlier?  The key implication of this scene is not that Rama has somehow violated dharma, considering that his personal “dharma” is ever changing to suit his current circumstances, but that fate or destiny is using him in unpredictable, seemingly ungodly ways to fulfill his ultimate purpose of toppling the tyranny of Ravana.  As the abducted Sita says in her encounter with Hanuman, “Ravana is part of our destiny and destiny must take its course.  Rama must come to Lanka and kill Ravana... Then dharma will be established on earth… Let there be a war, a dharma yuddha, as is honorable.”  The humiliation of Surpanka only leads to Rama’s decimation of Khara’s rakshasa – another sweeping reversal of his prior counsel –, which leads to her inflaming Ravana with jealousy over Sita, which leads to the beautiful woman’s separation from Rama and his ensuing, predetermined quest to regain her by any means.

Rama, Lakshmana, and Jatayu hunt rakshasas in a notoriously unsuccessful 2009 adaptation.
© 2007 Twentieth Century Fox

Rama again resorts to gratuitous, ill-informed brutality when he unhesitatingly offers to assassinate Sugriva’s brother, the monkey king Vali, for reasons not entirely clear on a very one-sided account.  “It is plain that only Vali’s death will bring you peace,” he tells his new ally, “And I swear to you, he will die.”  These don’t sound like the words of a man who “shuns violence wherever he can”, nor do they make much sense given his address to the dying Vali, whom he reasons he can justly kill within his dharma because the vanaras are wild animals that have been hunted through the ages by his ancestors.  Since Rama isn’t beholden to the same rules when dealing with the punishment of animals, one can only wonder why he treats so solemnly the suffering of one like Sugriva, who has simply fallen short in the natural world’s battle of the fittest.

In any case, the prince of Ayodhya breaks his initial tenets of dharma in several ways, by needlessly killing a creature instead of negotiating a peaceful resolution, by shooting him from hiding like a coward – an insult frequently levied at Ravana for stealing Sita in the night –, and by subjecting his reason and concern for justice to his emotion.  “You are the worst kind of sinner: the one who pretends to be dharma itself… You have not even heard both sides of our story,” accuses Vali in his dying throes, but even now Rama tries to rationalize his execution of the monkey as an act of dharma, saying he’s called to judge and punish the sinful.  Whatever choice he makes resolving any given conflict Rama passes off as dharma, whether or not it clashes with the precedents of dharma he’s set in the past.

Rama’s unwavering adherence to a rigid dharma, if it existed, would probably be an impediment to his destiny more than anything.  The more pragmatic, impulsive Lakshmana expresses as much after he’s been deceived into thinking that Sita’s died by the hand of Indrajit.  “My brother has been a savior to the munis of the forests… But his dharma has not saved him from evil.  Gentleness and dharma are of no use in this world.”  In fact, “real dharma”, or honorable action, often seems like it would counteract destiny, which depends on people acting in accordance with their baser natures and desires, i.e. with their personal, contextualized sense of dharma.  All the events that set in motion the eventual destruction of Ravana and his kingdom are motivated by transient adharma so that a different, generalized kind of dharma can prevail at the end of the ancient war.

Hanuman smashes Aksha while razing Lanka to the ground in Peter Jackson’s dumbed-down crowdpleaser.
© Universal Pictures

One example of this pattern is Ravana’s disagreement with Vibheeshana, who urges him to follow “the way of dharma” and return Sita to her husband, “the perfect man”, so as to avoid innumerable casualties in a catastrophic war with the vanaras.  Yet for Ravana to do this would not only contradict his own dharma as a demon, but further undermine the whole pretext for Rama dethroning Ravana in the first place.  Here the author introduces the theory of dharma as a natural, rather than a spiritual obligation, for Ravana repeatedly emphasizes the importance of what he’s doing to his role as a king and a rakshasa.  “You say it was dishonorable for me to abduct you, but you forget I am a rakshasa.  It is natural, and so entirely honorable, for me to take another man’s wife if I want her... That is a rakshasa’s nature, and his dharma.”  The dharma of a rakshasa, who’s given over to animalistic rage and orgies, differs starkly from the dharma of a human or a vanara, whom Rama judges must never take another man for his wife lest he be worthy of death. According to Ravana, who may be speaking falsely to get his way but nonetheless points out the relativity of dharma, even Sita violates her own calling as his prisoner by resisting his advances.  “You are denying your own nature, Sita.  Other woman have been brought here as spoils of war, as frightened as you… But when they knew me, none of them resisted me for more than a week.”

So too does the dharma of a king, who has to exercise aggressive, ruthless, often stubborn dominance to sustain his power, differ vastly from the dharma of everybody else, as both Vali and Ravana observe at various points.  “Let Rama come not with an army of monkeys but with the host of heaven, and I will not give Sita up to him,” objects Ravana to his wisest advisor Vibheeshana.  “Your counsel is the way of cowardice.  How can a king like me heed such advice?”  The disparity in dharma arises because each character, being in pursuit of different interests, reveres a different, private dharma that condones their actions specifically.  For Rama, that dharma is the divine authority of his judgment passed on other souls, and for Ravana it is the natural course of things when people follow their most essential, ravenous tendencies.

Where they overlap is in their confidence that everything they do is directly working out for fate.  “Sita, fate is all-powerful.  You and I were created for each other.  Why else would you have come to me at all, by the long and winding way that you did… Don’t resist the will of God.”  Ravana, for once, speaks truth without fully realizing it, because it is the will of Brahma that Sita and the Lord of Lanka be together for a while, just as it is Brahma’s will that Dasaratha banish Rama for 14 years and that Rama fulfill his inborn purpose of killing Ravana and inheriting the kingship.  Sita echoes this sentiment: when she defies her captor: “Now that I have seen how evil you are, I think fate conspired to make you abduct me.  So Rama would come to kill you.”  Whether or not the characters reach the final point by “dharma” is an insignificant detail, because destiny is the only constant in their lives and destiny dictates that dharma will ultimately triumph over adharma.  The path to this victory is paved with sin and violence, but sometimes it’s necessary for people to bend or pervert their sense of dharma in order to satisfy the will of the gods.

Another place one sees the relativity of dharma is in the prevalence of suicide threats from almost every grief-ridden character, including Rama and Sita themselves.  Hanuman briefly comments on the depravity of suicide in his scouting trip to Lanka: “But they say it is a grievous sin to kill oneself, worse than murder.”  This shows that most of Rama’s family are either ambivalent to their dharma concerning suicide, not understanding its consequences, or think that other forms of dharma – sharing the fate of one’s spouse, loyalty to one’s brother, motherly love – outweigh the bad karma they’d inherit by taking their own lives in violence.

If the subjectivity of dharma can be summarized in a single passage, it would be in Rama’s preparations to depart from Rama, when he tries to comfort his anguished mother and temper the furious Lakshmana.  “All this is fate working toward her own inscrutable ends.  Not even the rishis who are masters of their sense are beyond fate; even they fall prey to the passions of destiny… It is not that mother Kaikeyi is evil… only that destiny uses her, even against her own nature.”  Such is true of all the adversaries the hero faces on the path to Lanka, of Surpanka and Khara and Vali and Maricha and the dark lord Ravana himself.  Though Rama encounters much resistance and deception and constantly adapts or qualifies his dharma to meet the challenges he faces, fate in the Ramayana is always utilizing dharma and adharma, righteous deeds and sin alike to advance the final will of the Devas, and that which seems immoral or contrary to dharma in the present is just one of many instruments used by the divines in a greater plan.

On a side note, the Ramesh Menon adaptation/condensation of the colossal poem is hilarious and makes for a great read even if you have no interest in Hinduism or Indian folklore.  The Good Parts Version of his translation had me bursting into laughter almost as frequently as Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, and I would gladly have finished it if I wasn’t enrolled in 18 units and it wasn’t practically impossible.  Here are some of the more riotous or just plain interesting passages:

“One moment, the rakshasa rushed at Rama with his claws outstretched to seize his throat; the next, he screamed as the astra struck him and his flesh fell away from his skeleton in anxiety to escape the intolerable pain of that missile.  His heart exploded, then his giant head, and nothing was left of Khara but patches of blood, skin, and a heap of bones on the ground.”
“‘Have you seen her?” he cried to the kadamba and the tilaka, the asoka, the karnikar and the kritamala.  But they stood mute, on the eloquent verge of speech.”
“Playfully, he cut off her nose and her ears, so black blood spurted from her face.”  [One of at least two nose & ear removals in the Ramayana.]
“Hanuman thought, ‘By her beauty she must be Sita.  But how does she sleep so contentedly in Ravana’s bedchamber, with a smile curving her perfect lips?’  He slapped himself again, across his cheek this time, as monkeys do.”
“Rama seemed undecided what he wanted to do first: look for Sita or consume the world.”

And those are just the ones I feel secure in sharing on this blog.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

NWTE – Hunt For The Wilderpeople and The Invitation

Not Worth The Effort was conceived in early Fall of 2015 with the aim of succinctly documenting and summarizing movies (and possibly other media) that simply aren’t worth the effort of a full review.  This month’s issue is dedicated to Ghostbusters (2016), which is so far by far the most astonishing movie of the year and which proves to misogynist haters beyond a shadow of a doubt that women can be as witty and hilarious as Azis Ansari, Louis C.K., Adam Sandler, and Anderson Cooper.

Wishing For Wilder People

About ten minutes into Hunt For the Wilderpeople, I realized that I had stumbled into what could accurately be described as a grandma movie – that being a completely toothless, affable, and frivolous comedy with emphases on filial-paternal dynamics, enjoying the outdoors, and learning to live life to the fullest.  The only people who could stand to be mildly offended by a movie like this are governmental child care workers, and chances are that anyone who works in the government is already busy being offended by a litany of other travesties, like the heartbreaking new video of Alton Stirling dancing with Derek Hough.  The internet seems to tell me that the movie takes a lot of pot shots at Australian or New Zealand groups, but if it did, then these shots must have flown straight over my American head, and I’m not about to go read up on Australian demographics so I can understand the freaking Hunt for Wilderpeople.  Regardless, such desperate allegations, most likely formed by people scrounging for some way to rationalize the $10 they’d just spent, are simply obfuscating the reality that this is one of the least offensive films released since Deadpool – a fun and family-oriented film which almost nobody could dislike and which any seasoned movie viewer would struggle to truly love.

"A film which almost nobody could dislike..." ~ The Author before he saw the Tomatometer

It’s a film in which the main character is introduced wearing a 2Pac jacket and names his dog after the rapper but which features nary a reference or montage to any of his songs, maybe because they couldn’t get the money for one, maybe because the director correctly assumed the vast majority of 2Pac fans would have no interest in such a White People Movie, or maybe because he figured that playing a profanity-ridden 2Pac song would scare away the grandparents who thought they’d gone to see a cute, endearing movie about a nice boy and his uncle going camping in the woods.  Maybe there’s a deleted scene out there somewhere that’ll make its way, without the musical backing, onto the DVD, or maybe the fact that Ricky Baker looks up to 2Pac as a role model is kind of superfluous and adds nothing to the movie aside from reinforcing that he’s a petulant and destructive problem child, something we were already meant to gather from the montage of him breaking things, kicking things, and loitering.

And if you thought that Swiss Army Man had a lot of montages, then rest assured that Wilderpeople will not disappoint on that front.  Survival and newsreel montages are just one of many clichés that Taika Waititi, who once made a decidedly non-cliched vampire documentary, whips out throughout this smaller-scale Lord of the Rings.  Others include:
* Like meter on a social media photo zipping up really fast to indicate significance to modern, tech-dependent viewer 
* A character talking nonchalantly about one thing in a vague enough manner that strangers think he’s talking about something completely inappropriate and sexual 
* Well-meaning but misguided government trying to take the kid away 
* Character at the beginning of the movie: “Don’t call me Uncle.”  Character at the end of the movie: “I guess you can call me Uncle.” 
* “What did you just call me? Call me that one more time!” 
* Terminator references 
* Hungry person imagining an animal is a giant hamburger  
* Character who thinks he’s taking a long and arduous journey is rudely awakened by someone to learn he hasn’t traveled more than 200 yards
* Practical trick exercised at beginning of movie (haiku) brought back at end for emotional impact and symmetry
* Beautiful, luminously backlit girl shakes hair in slow-motion as main character realizes he’s falling hopelessly in love. [OK, I admit I laughed at this part, and they did it twice in case you missed it the first time.]

Much though I would love to exhort these Files’ readers to go support indie cinema and “movies that are different”, to do so in regards to Wilderpeople would be completely disingenuous, as this is nothing more than another slant on the now formulated tale of a talkative kid warming the heart of a grumpy older guy and showing him he doesn’t have to be alone.  What’s more disappointing is that this variation on the tale adds the loss of an amiable wife and mother figure, but after Auntie passes away, we never really see the boy or Sam Neill grieving her absence.  Would dedicating more time to her and what she meant to both main characters have made this a more sentimental, manipulative movie?  Probably.  Would it have made the film more engaging and consequential?  Yes.

If not for its gleeful satirization of the broken foster care system, Hunt For The Wilderpeople would merely be a halfway amusing, not that funny, and always predictable walking movie with too many crossfades, a soundtrack that’s all over place, and some pretty New Zealand landscape shots that looked much better in The Fellowship of the Ring, which this film parodies in one of its finer moments.  Through the heightened dialogue and actions of the overly excitable social worker, Waititi seems to be insinuating that people in government suffer from a kind of small penis syndrome, by which they frequently need to justify their profession.  Usually that justification is based on stirring up problems in ordinary people’s lives where none exist so that “public servants” can “fix” those problems and pretend they’ve done a valuable favor for the citizens who pay them.  Ricky and Hec desire nothing but to be left alone and to roam as free and independent wilderpeople, but just as in the real world, the state’s self-conscious compulsion to be seen as action heroes supersedes the will of common folk and the bonds of family.  In fact, the movie slips in so many send-ups of action movie tropes that I can hardly doubt lampooning the government’s warped self-image was accidental on the creators’ part.  Paula the social worker braggingly compares herself to the Terminator, shrieks corny movie lines like, “I’ve secured the package!” and generally bears herself like she’s a much more masculine character defusing much more volatile situations.

But would I recommend you pay to see this movie?  Well, it isn’t animated, it doesn’t star Melissa McCarthy or Matt Damon, it doesn’t have a homosexual Sulu in it, and there’s not a colon in the title.  Is that sufficient grounds to recommend a movie this year?

If you drive 10 miles or more out from your house, you might find a smaller, less profitable theater that’s inexplicably still playing The Lobster to audiences of two or three people per screening.  You should watch The Lobster.

Inviting Violence

Little seen and screened in its limited April theatrical run, The Invitation swiftly passed into obscurity as people, including some Beatissima students, unfathomably went to watch Zootopia and Batman Vs. Superman for the second or third time in theaters.  Now that it’s on Netflix and the makers have absolutely nothing to gain from people watching it other than personal satisfaction at a job well done, maybe it’ll finally find the audience it deserves.  I hesitate to reveal too much about the plot, but at its core The Invitation is about the difference between dealing with and dispelling pain, between respecting and forgetting those whose lives were tragically cut short.  Dreamy flashbacks are intercut with the present timeline to great effect, and director Karyn Kusama wisely gives the audience just enough visual cues to infer the background of the characters without outright expositing.  Again, without spoiling anything beyond the 30-minute mark, the film directly concerns a religious cult originating in Mexico but deliberately leaves its structure and belief set nebulous and open to scrutiny, as cults tend to be in real life.  The movie definitely appears to have been inspired by real-life events, but I’ll leave it to the viewer to discover exactly how.

In brief, the first hour and 20 minutes were unadulterated, heart-clenching thriller greatness, the 15-minute climax was thoroughly deflating, and the final scene literally sent chills down my back.  If I had to form my year-end favorites list right now, it would be lagging behind The Lobster, Hardcore Henry, The Witch, and 10 Cloverfield Lane, but just outpacing Warcraft and The Neon Demon.

If it wasn’t already patently obvious, 2016 hasn’t been that great a year for films.

Post-script: There’s far too much attention being given on The Invitiation's IMDb forums and the internet in general to the “diverse” casting of the dinner guests.  This was an element that neither bothered nor pleased me, as the race and sexual orientation of the characters was wholly incidental to the story.  There’s one remark about an absent friend being one of the most careless Koreans in Hollywood Hills, and a couple throwaway shots where two gay guys are acting gay towards each other, but the fact that Kira was black or Miguel was Hispanic or Gina was Asian had no bearing on the events of the story, and the script never drew much attention to their ethnicity.  This is something I’d like to see more of in mainstream cinema, where minority characters are pervasively cast as victims having to surmount their crippling minority status.  The multi-nationality of the Starship Enterprise crew wasn’t a dominant interest of the original Star Trek TV series or movies; it was just an attribute of the Federation in Gene Roddenberry’s fictitious, optimistic future.  The Invitation follows much the same philosophy, but that’s the least notable of all its virtues.