Saturday, June 22, 2019

Pixar Fans Are Relieved that "Toy Story 4" Isn't Rated R

Article written by George Stefano Pallas. Infantilization and bald-faced consumerism practiced by the author are his alone and do not necessarily reflect nor should be construed as those of the Author.

Another Toy Story movie hits theaters this weekend, which means it’s once again time for parents to replenish their tissue supply. Since the very first Toy Story in 1995, Pixar have built a reputation as the preeminent animation studio telling sophisticated, emotional, grown-up stories that kids can also enjoy. It’s pretty much inarguable they make movies better than anyone else in the whole world, notwithstanding less ubiquitous competitors like Studio Ghibli, Studio Trigger, Studio Chizu, Kyoto Animation, Science Saru, Madhouse, Gainax, Shaft, Inc., CoMix Wave Films, and American Empirical Pictures.

Pixar’s thought-provoking, existentialist series about talking toys being traumatically separated from the children who play with them and finding their way back home over and over again has always held a special appeal among adults, unsurprisingly so, according to Toy Story 3 director Lee Unkrich. “At the end of the day, we don’t make movies for kids, we make them for everybody —for adults and ourselves,” he said two years ago while promoting Coco.

This disclosure, along with some other ambiguous signs, had many Pixar fans concerned about the forthcoming Toy Story 4 and whether parents would be forced to find a babysitter in order to go see it. Despite its G rating, Toy Story 3 caused no small amount of debate in 2010 on the movie’s suitability for young children. Cultural commentators noted that Unkrich wore his horror influences on the movie’s sleeves, particularly in the intense finale where the toys are dragged along a conveyor belt towards an open-mouthed incinerator.

“I honestly think I was more terrified than my 8-year-old back then,” says San Francisco mom Denise Schaal. “One moment Buzz Lightyear is speaking Spanish and Barbie’s doing Barbie things, the next our heroes are holding hands in a circle, face to face with death. Was Pixar about to permanently kill these characters I’d come to love and spent hundreds of dollars on between tickets, VCRs, DVDs, merchandise, and Disneyland passes? It didn’t make any sense. All I could do was cover my eyes.”

Schaal was far from the only adult to notice Pixar’s sudden pivot into more extreme and stomach-churning subject matter. “In the climax of the film, we see the toys embroiled in literal Hell,” observed Jordan Peterson, controversial professor of psychology at the university of Toronto, in one of his YouTube videos. “They flinch and recoil at the sight of this all-consuming evil and join hands in a symbolic gesture of prayer. It’s only through their belief in a higher power that a celestial claw descends from above to save them from the inferno, sealing the redemption and resurrection themes of the whole saga that make Toy Story an indispensable piece of American mythology.”

Other viewers brought different yet no less troubling readings to the film, including the popular view that the plight of the toys in the incinerator subtly evokes the Holocaust. Unkrich has never addressed the fan theory that he intentionally used visual parallels to real death camps responsible for millions of tragedies in order to imbue Toy Story 3 with more dramatic heft. Still, Toy Story fans wondered obsessively if Pixar had outgrown their original audience. Tellingly, the chair of the MPAA later admitted that the ratings board had made a mistake by not restricting Toy Story 3 enough. “It should have been PG-13 at the very least,” she said. “Based on that 70-second scene where nobody gets hurt alone.”

When Pixar continued their dark streak with the violent spy movie Cars 2, the depressing psychological drama Inside Out, the macabre Coco, and the white-knuckle, gritty Incredibles 2, the pattern did little to allay fans’ worst fears that Toy Story would finally receive an R rating.

“I don’t have a problem in principle with creators changing over time and trying out new styles,” says Chapman University sophomore Aishna Feyer. “But when you make the choice to exclude like an entire group from seeing your vision, I don’t see how anybody benefits from that. Pixar are the ones who inspired me to become a filmmaker, like they’re the reason I’m here getting a film degree. Imagine if millions of little girls didn’t have that source of inspiration to go to college for an arts degree.”

Pixar’s silence on Toy Story 4 in the months leading up to it amplified uncertainty about both the genre and the rating of the movie. The revelation that Jordan Peele, director of the terrifying Us, had joined the cast seemed to affirm that Toy Story was sticking to the horror route established in the last film. The use of The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” in the first trailer also raised eyebrows: would the new film depict Woody’s slide into marijuana and LSD addiction? Or would the studio shaped by John Lasseter leverage the return of Bo Peep to comment on #MeToo and unwanted touching in the workplace? Some journalists at Slate and The Verge welcomed the possibility, but Toy Story purists weren’t sold.

On Monday, though, families exhaled a collective sigh of relief when the MPAA dealt Toy Story 4 a strong G rating, the same as more than half of Pixar’s films aimed at adults. For the near future at least, Toy Story is safe for the whole family, with a few caveats.

“I’m scared to go back,” Schaal says about the new movie. “My baby is about to graduate high-school now; he watches really horrifying stuff like Logan, Deadpool, Alien: Covenant. I just don’t know if I can make it through another two hours of Toy Story in one piece.” She adds with a laugh, “Maybe I’ll have him preview it for me.”
Parental doubts aside, Toy Story 4 is expected easily to sweep the box office this weekend over The Secret Life of Pets 2, Men In Black 4, John Wick 3, Child’s Play (2019), Aladdin (2019), Shaft (2019), Dark Phoenix, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, and Avengers: Endgame.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Roman Polanski Shares Harrowing Rape Story In Brave Speech

Article written by George Stefano Pallas. Victim blaming, moral relativism, and degradation of western civilization practiced by the author are his alone and do not reflect nor should be construed as those of the Author.

Roman Polanski doesn’t often speak out on politics, but when he does, the world knows to stop and pay attention. The famed Polish director and Holocaust survivor made just such an occasion at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival before a secret screening of his new film, An Officer and a Spy, where a discreet cell phone video captured his impassioned rhetoric.

The video surfaced Monday afternoon on the conspiracy theory-laced website Wikileaks. In it, an international audience of hushed and rapt buyers listened to Polanski as he introduced his feature with a deeply personal preamble, describing in new detail the nonconsensual sexual procedure he underwent 40 years ago.

“I had sex with a girl when she was very young, and it was the best decision that she never made,” Polanski said with a grave expression. “It worked out for the better, both of me and of the supportive, reciprocal relationship neither of us were ready for, emotionally, psychologically, and financially.”

The director, most well-known for the involuntary impregnation horror classic Rosemary’s Baby was referring to the well-publicized scandal in 1977 when he performed multiple kinds of sexual intercourse on Samantha Geimer, then 13 years old, allegedly after giving her a sedative and several glasses of champagne. The case remains steeped in controversy because Polanski, who pled guilty to the lesser charge of unlawful sex with a minor, left the United States before his sentencing hearing and has never returned.

“So many teenage girls end up being betrayed by boyfriends they wrongly believed they could trust,” Polanski continued. “These children can feel like their lives are ruined, like the world doesn’t want them. They can end up spending their 20s living at home, terrified to open themselves up to another partner. I can think of nothing more cruel than entering an unsustainable committed relationship with an underage woman that one wants to make love to. Consider all the heartbreak that would be avoided if politicians just respected our right to safe, accessible sex.”

Polanski ultimately related his lingering frustration from the Geimer affair to the #MeToo movement, and with it the “cancel culture” that has disgraced several alleged undertakers of nonconsensual sexual procedures. At this point in the video he appears to go off a script and speak in a more raw, emotional tone.

“It’s easy,” he said, “To sit in the comfort of your parents’ home and say, ‘Oh, Kevin Spacey shouldn’t be soliciting young boys for sex.’ Or ‘Bill Cosby really shouldn’t have drugged and violated those women.’ Until you’ve been in that situation, though, you have no idea what a nightmare it is. And who decides if you can go to prison for 100 years for having a rape or an assault? People who’ve never had to make that impossible choice.”

“I never wanted to speak about my experience again,” Polanski concluded. “But when I think about the fact that men might have to procure nonconsensual intercourse in worse conditions than I did, my stomach turns. I couldn’t remain silent when so much is at stake.” The video cuts off shortly afterwards.

Uncorroborated sources at the screening reported seeing several people walk out during Polanski’s introduction, but the majority who remained greeted it with a 10-minute standing ovation. While it is illegal to look at the leak in question, concerned citizens should seek out more information from the media, who are working to uncover the United States’ possible involvement in hacking the video.

If, as an inside source suggests, the White House did participate in the leak, then the move appears to have backfired. Since the emergence of the video, #JusticeForPolanski and #DoLikeTheRoman have started trending on Twitter, fueled by an outpouring of support for the director.  Fans of Roman Polanski have long decried what they see as the puritanical, outdated mores of the United States on teenage sex. Because Geimer has subsequently forgiven Polanski, some argue that the discrimination against the director infringes not only his right to govern his own body but also the separation of church and state.

“This is just another case of organized religion sticking its hands into the pants of a successful man whose lifestyle they don’t agree with,” reacted Brie Papologos on an MSNBC discussion of the Cannes footage. “Polanski is an extremely affectionate, extremely flirtatious guy, not a predator. When ‘the victim’ herself is telling you that he’s a good man, then you know you’re crossing into that constitutional gray area where you’re legislating morality.”

The age of Geimer at the time of the procedure has turned into a critical point for reproductive rights activists. According to their argument, because the girl was not old enough by law to unambiguously consent to intercourse, Polanski cannot reasonably be charged with having nonconsensual sex with her, having had no scientific way of knowing the acceptability of his actions.

Nikolai Vladimrov, a professor of psychology at Yale and expert on sexual development, comments, “Polanski’s case is a perfect prism through which to analyze our sexist legal system. The erotic relationship entered into between them was premature and nonviable, ready to be terminated at any time. The child was not developed enough, mentally or as a moral being, to have a say either way in her bonding with Polanski. Who receives the punishment for this inconvenient state? The adult man who was freely giving of his own body and enabling a less independent person to benefit from him, of course.”

Polanski’s vulnerable speech had such wide-reaching ripple effects that even politicians weighed in on whether he should be pardoned. Newly-elect U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez denounced his statewide ban on her Twitter account, which she runs independently without any ghostwriters. Ocasio-Cortez argued sharply that opposition to free college tuition and other policies speaks to a deep hypocrisy within Polanski’s detractors.

“Anti-rapers don’t care about rape - especially statutory ones,” she wrote in the last of a several tweet-long thread. “If they did, they’d: cosponsor sexual assault groups or at LEAST have a real assault plan; guarantee reproductive access so NO men have to seek nonconsensual care; resist systemic rape of our prison industrial complex.”

Numerous celebrities have spoken out in defense of Polanski since the video went viral, including Whoopi Goldberg, Quentin Tarantino, and Mia Farrow, who played the involuntarily impregnated mother in Rosemary’s Baby and used to be the partner of Woody Allen. More than 50 actors and directors have also signed a petition to reinstate Polanski’s membership with the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

"Booksmart" Crams Problematic Predecessors for the P.C. Midterm, Forgets about Comedy

© Annapurna Pictures, modified

Whatever people choose to think of Roger Ebert’s liberal (and also liberal) use of his 4 star rating, the critic once astutely wrote that, “No good movie is too long, just as no bad movie is short enough.” Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut Booksmart doesn’t run for longer than 105 minutes, but I can’t imagine a version of the movie that wouldn’t be fundamentally broken. Vaunted in advertising and pseudo-advertising (i.e. reviews right out of SXSW) as “female Superbad” for the Zoomer generation—a compliment suggesting a viewer who has exceedingly fond memories tied to Superbad—, Booksmart trades in a generic high-school comedy plot about partying hard and getting laid that would be wholly unremarkable and fly under the radar of any discriminating person if not for its cunning, politically correct casting choices.

The movie is set in some kind of small prep school where all the rising graduates with names are going to an Ivy League college or heading straight into the workforce… at Google. “Don’t judge me, but… Harvard,” says one of the teens to the competitive Jewish girl Molly, the more outgoing half of the straight-As duo who decide to live it up the night before they get their diplomas. Har har moments like these underscore the film’s slavish endorsement of the money-fleecing scams that are for-profit, intellectually specious institutions like Yale and Harvard, the latter of which is recognized for accepting celebrities with subpar testing scores so long as they promote the fad political cause of the month.

Confronted by the sudden epiphany that having good academics and good fun aren’t mutually exclusive goals in high-school, Molly berates her virginal gay best friend Amy into infiltrating the cool kids’ party, where both hope to make up for the missed opportunities and see some physical action. Making the Michael Cera character a lesbian is the film’s most inspired deviation from Superbad, since Amy’s defective gaydar compounds her lack of social confidence and belonging. However, her gayness has the downside of unveiling the writers’ similar lack of fortitude as they lightly skip around the eggshells of issues that could rile their young audience up into a cannibalistic Twitter mob. Teen comedies frequently come up in “Could it be made today?” discussions because they reflect the ever-shifting Overton windows of their respective youths. In the same way that Superbad repudiated the glamorized sexuality or supposed “creepiness” of John Hughes’s hits, e.g. Sixteen Candles, Booksmart suggests that young Millennials and Zoomer Tumblrites can no longer tolerate some of the edgier, more truthful sides of Superbad.

As any devout LGBT supporter would feel pressured to do, Wilde gives life to an idealized neoliberal universe where seemingly every character, no matter how mean or vindictive, presumes homosexuality is normal and beyond the boundaries of reproach. It’s hard to judge what convenience beggars belief more: that Amy’s parents, over a celebratory dinner they’ve prepared, casually give their daughter their assent to go have sex with Molly at her house (the most plausible alibi these #smartwomen could brainstorm for slipping off to the party), or that none of the bullies seize upon her sexual preference as an object for ridicule.

Does Booksmart feel more toothless than its forerunners because its subjects don’t flaunt their cruelty as much and the movie is merely portraying their deference to political-correctness accurately, or is the film itself a product of inhibitions and social conformity? I haven’t set foot in a high-school since my SAT, but I did go to a university that felt like high-school, and rewatching Superbad just confirmed my notion that Booksmart buckles under the timorous impulses of its writers. In the 2007 film written by and loosely based on Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, the young cast members casually denote effeminate or atypical behavior as “gay”, which was true to my college experience, as I’m sure it remains true to current high-schoolers’. Making matters more problematic and funny, Jonah Hill addresses Christopher Mintz-Plasse as “Fagell” throughout the film, a decision that Rogen now claims to regret. The 2019 film features no such displays of antagonism because it’s terrified of people who can’t distinguish a writer’s words from the words of a character.

I anticipate a defense that Booksmart is less abrasive and mean-spirited than Superbad merely by token of its focus on women, who don’t find as much camaraderie as men in skewering each other’s sexual prowess and proclivities. On the other hand, the writers seem largely disinterested in the myriad ways that women can demean and torment each other, or in the friction that could develop between adamantly leftist #Resisters and their peers. Putting aside the utter detachment that would be necessary to put an “Elizabeth Warren 2020” sticker on a car belonging to an 18-year-old, Molly and Amy don’t come up against any intellectual adversaries because the script has situated them in an idealized neoliberal bubble. Even Jason Sudeikis’ jaded principal gets caught with his metaphorical pants down listening to the Lean In audiobook in his Uber car, because nothing apparently is funnier than the thought of a white male hating himself enough to read Sheryl Sandberg. An hour into the film, I could have gone for one of Adam McKay’s and Will Ferrell’s stick-figure conservatives, just so the main characters wouldn’t have to exist in a vacuum, unopposed by anyone and everyone. Some paid critics’ blurbs on Rotten Tomatoes (a utility that gets more broken and oxymoronic by the month) extol the lack of “meanness” in Booksmart. To each their own, but if I wanted to watch a story without adversity or the more unattractive sides of humanity, I could always take a nap on my couch in front of HGTV or Chopped.

For a project bent on breaking down stereotypes and giving dimension to “less visible” groups, Booksmart has an odd habit of validating its audience’s preconceived assumptions about masculinity and femininity. The Lean In scene begs a chuckle because of the principal’s embarrassment, having been exposed as liking something that he, a heterosexual man, should not like. A second-act twist, admittedly well staged in an underwater pool shot, reveals that the frizzy-haired skater girl whom Amy formerly fancied a lesbian swims the other way, subverting both her and our expectations. In order for this scene to work as a surprise at all, one has to assume that some girls, either by the way they present themselves or by their facial features, fit a lesbian profile more than others, a postulate that sets the gay community back more than any Bohemian Rhapsody or Blue is the Warmest Color.

With a whole lot of smaller reviews on my back burner, I could have tried to mash Booksmart into another indie movie round-up, but that would make less sense than wrangling John Wick into an arthouse round-up. The film owes its existence to the generous pockets or astounding vanity of Megan Ellison, the daughter of billionaire Larry Ellison who has made a name for her Annapurna Pictures by throwing exorbitant resources at financially insolvent, “important”, Oscar bait projects, often of a leftist bent, that unlike most films don’t need to turn a profit. In Booksmart, Ellison’s unlimited money appears to have been funneled straight into the soundtrack, which features such heavyweights as LCD Soundsystem, DJ Shadow, and Death Grips, although Wilde disrespectfully abuses the last group’s “I’ve Seen Footage” for a loud instrumental transition gag, anonymizing them.

The movie will surely be lauded for casting relatively unknown or even non-professional actors, but that praise also belies the insular, elitist nature of the casting; more than just a lazy ripoff of Superbad without any balls, Booksmart is an avante-garde, metatextual art film enlisting the real-life younger sister of Jonah Hill to play roughly the same character that he did 12 years ago. Clicking through the cast list on IMDb reveals additional noteworthy, if not surprising, connections: Mason Gooding, son of Cuba Gooding, Jr., Molly Gordon, daughter of a screenwriter-producer and a Curb Your Enthusiasm director, and Billie Lourd, daughter of Carrie Fisher, who was of course the daughter of Debbie Reynolds. Being a laissez-faire capitalist, I point these details out not to discredit the casting choices so much as to assert that Booksmart is about as “indie” as Bernie Sanders.

The camerawork, production design, and other elements are serviceable, though not enough to compensate for the blandness of Wilde’s direction. In a moment that’s pretty indicative of the film’s artistic sensibilities, Amy and Molly get into an argument at the party that Wilde captures in one long take, woozily bobbing back and forth between the two girls as their tempers fly out of hand—so impressive, at least until the ambient soundtrack gradually swallows the audio of their quarrel, as if to tell anyone who didn’t get it or wasn’t paying attention that this is a very low point indeed. What’s the purpose of writing, shooting, and performing a friendship fallout scene if you’re going to make half of the scene illegible in post-production? Booksmart has precious few spaces where music isn’t overtly lending the mood of a scene, which may appeal to its target psychographic of young adults prone to saying, “I love music. I listen to a little bit of everything except country.” It also features a stop-motion drug trip in case the rest of the movie didn’t already scream, “Quirky directorial debut.”

Booksmart is hard to hold in contempt for very long if only because it feels emblematic of Hollywood’s new puritanical norm in the Trump era, which in 2018 saw one of the most banal and artistically bankrupt years in film history. Annapurna are pushing the film as a cutting-edge romp, full of risqué humor and political zealotry, but the final product can’t even find amusement in a high-school student seducing and having sex with his teacher in a fictional scenario. “You’re 20, right?” Jessica Williams asks pointedly, half to the student and half to the bloggers or SJWs carefully scrutinizing the movie for clickbait. Wilde forgets the principle Superbad knew so well, that there’s much hilarity to be mined from people taking drastic measures to misbehave. If it’s neither illegal nor, according to the liberal metric of consent, immoral for the student to bed his teacher, then why does Booksmart expect me to cackle at them doing it?

AUTHOR’S CORRECTION/ADDENDUM: The Sandberg audiobook scene takes place not in the car of the principal, who does awkwardly try to strike up a conversation with Amy about feminist music, but in the vehicle of another white male character. I originally conflated the two car ride scenes through an error of memory.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

"GAME OF THRONES" SCANDAL: Inside the Shocking Fall of the Nation's Top Recap Writer

Article written by George Stefano Pallas. Search engine optimization and softcore pornography practiced by the author are his alone and do not necessarily reflect nor should be construed as those of the Author.

Left: Arya Stark fights the Army of the Dead at Winterfell; Right: Wes O'Fink. © Home Box Office / Wes O'Fink

People flipping through the Life section of USA Today on Monday were confronted by a rather glaring omission: for the first time in nearly six years, the company did not run a recap article for the previous night’s episode of Game of Thrones, not even in the Opinion, Money, or News section. That’s because, as of Sunday night, TV critic and Senior Analyst of Westeros Affairs Wes O’Fink no longer works for the famed nonpartisan newspaper, which he nurtured into a go-to source for reporting on the power struggles and scandals pandemic to the war-torn continent.

It took USA Today’s board of directors no more than 36 hours to respond to an internet furor sparked by incendiary tweets that O’Fink posted before he worked for them. Sometime around Saturday morning, users on the social network unearthed misogynistic comments that the analyst seemed to have made off the cuff in reaction to earlier seasons of Game of Thrones. The earliest of the tweets, which O’Fink has since deleted, focused on a particularly rough and memorable encounter between Daenerys Targyrean and Khal Drogo from Season One.

“Drogo did nothing wrong, also Jason Momoa can GET IT,” he wrote after the premiere of the second episode. Many Game of Thrones fans, however, choose to see the scene as more distressing than erotic, and tweeted at the analyst in droves to say that his rhetoric normalizes rape culture.

O’Fink didn’t stop at this admittedly ambiguous moment, though. In 2014, he weighed in on the controversial relationship between the incestuous Lannister twins, specifically the infamous scene where Jaime forces himself on a reluctant Cersei right next to Joffrey’s dead body. His take reads: “Jaime be like, ‘Your mouth is saying one thing, but your body’s saying something else.’ #GOT #BetterThanBrazzers.” Game of Thrones analysts and professors at USC universally agree with the episode’s director that Jaime’s actions constituted rape, and academics have identified denial of this fact as an ipso facto symptom of rape culture.

During the last season before he joined USA Today as a journalist, O’Fink dabbled in victim blaming yet again, sharing an offensive meme based on The Dark Knight. In the meme, Heath Ledger’s Joker character reflects, “Massacre countless people including a pregnant queen at a wedding, nobody panics; have Sansa Stark get raped off-screen, well then everyone loses their minds!” O’Fink was presumably referencing the episode “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken,” which critics and politicians regarded as a low point for the series. The tweet is made still more disturbing by the known connections between clown symbols and white supremacist groups online.

O’Fink waited until Sunday morning to address the public backlash against the things he’d written. Instead of apologizing for belittling the pain of the characters, though, he doubled down on those and other statements.

“To anyone who went creeping through my profile looking for some old jokes to twist against me for a keyboard warrior medal or dopamine rush, I hope you get impaled by the Night King and exposed as the zombies that you are,” he wrote in a series of enraged tweets. “I will enjoy finishing up one of three articles I’ve already started for #BattleOfWinterfell and invite all the haters to suck on it.”

None of those pieces have materialized, however, as USA Today told the analyst that very evening that he was fired effective immediately. In a public statement first shared by Deadline, the paper explained, “In the #MeToo era of heightened sensitivity to the experiences of women including Cersei Lannister, Sansa Stark, and Danyreas Targyrean, we apologize to all our readers for the repellent statements made by one of our former staffers. Rape is never a laughing matter, and we hold our recap analysts to a higher standard of professional conduct than that displayed by Wes O’Fink.”

USA Today also disclosed that they had contacted the FBI to investigate whether their writer had committed any crimes by explicitly wishing for his detractors to be killed by the Night King. “Not every threat of violence is genuine,” the paper read, “But when someone sends a threat with that degree of specificity, the only responsible option is to take it seriously.”

The reaction on social media to O’Fink’s dismissal was largely positive. One user named Fiona Marrow said, “USA Today took less than two days to adopt a common-sense 21st-century solution to an abuser. America, are you listening?” Others noted that O’Fink will be entering a tough job market for Game of Thrones recappers and reporters in general, considering the wave of journalist layoffs at BuzzFeed News, Huffington Post, Vox, Vice, Refinery29, and other respected online publications. “Better get used to Kraft and ramen, @BestWes,” scoffed Bob Breichner, an actor-turned-activist who has a blue check mark.

For many, however, the termination of O’Fink couldn’t come at a more inconvenient time, as the third episode of the eighth season threw viewers headlong into the epic Battle of Winterfell, one of the most deadly mass killings in a nation long burdened by sword violence. The absence of a designated expert covering the bloodshed in Game of Thrones feels especially poignant in the era of fake news and concerted efforts to suppress the freedom of the press.

USA Today has assigned TV critic Patricia Crummer to cover O’Fink’s responsibilities until they hire a permanent replacement, but some find even that measure inadequate, given the magnitude of the events in Sunday’s episode. “It’s like we’ve become Idiocracy,” said YouTube commentator Cenk Uygur with a heavy sigh on The Young Turks’ weekly review special. “This is history in the making, and you’re going to fuss over a couple bad words said years ago by a journalist, one of the people we need most right now? Are you for f***ing real?”

Indeed, O’Fink is not without vocal defenders. Several cast members of the show wrote an open letter to USA Today on Monday pleading for his reinstatement. According to the signees, including Emilia Clarke, Kit Harrington, Sophie Turner, and Maisie Williams, O’Fink was a “victim of internet trolls and character assassination.” The letter went on, “We believe his cancellation does a disservice to our show, which has always forced the topic of rape in a mature and penetrating manner.” Commenters on the USA Today Facebook page also questioned if terminating O’Fink is consistent with the paper’s centrist, independent political stance, which makes it a printed competitor to NPR and CNN.

Whatever the future holds for Wes O’Fink, the outcry over his Game of Thrones criticism has renewed conversation about the necessity of unregulated administrative regulation of social networks. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has attracted criticism for lax enforcement of the website’s hate speech guidelines, making it a favored platform for conspiracy theorists and noted alt-right figures like Milo Yiannopoulos, Alex Jones, Gavin McInnes, James Woods, Laura Loomer, Tommy Robinson, and Carl Benjamin, a.k.a. Sargon of Akkad.

The Gannet Co. is currently accepting applications for a new critic to write about the developments both in Westeros and Westworld. Among the requirements listed are a Bachelor’s degree in History, Political Science, Journalism, or International Studies and at least three years of experience analyzing Game of Thrones for an established podcast, newspaper, journal, or think tank.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Belated Thoughts on "Us", "Shazam", and the State of Art Criticism

Jordan Peele and the Soft Bigotry of Lowered Expectations

The following contains brief spoilers for Us, mostly in the third and fourth paragraph, so if for some reason you’e yet to see it and are waiting on the home release, you may want to bookmark this page and come back later.

As more and more curious people come out of the woodwork to understand the swollen hype around Us, which shockingly grabbed the best opening weekend gross for an original, non-animated film since Avatar, Jordan Peele’s sophomore film will probably gain a reputation as a cinematic personality test, splitting viewers into more creative/liberal thinkers and logical/conservative ones. For the latter party, the mental exertion of dwelling on the premise for more than 30 seconds will both hurt their brains and dilute whatever emotional response the movie momentarily wrung from them. “Why did the doppelgangers wait until the present day to attack their surface-world counterparts?” these critics will ask. “Why did the rules that restrained them for so long arbitrarily cease to function, and why is the central family able to exploit those rules for survival anyway? Nothing that happens has a logical reason for happening in the time or manner it does, and only happens so that there can be a movie.”

The liberal party of thought, in contrast, will undoubtedly chastise the “nitpickers” for fixating on plot holes to an unfair extent, missing the dense forest of political themes and symbols for the trees of how it all works. “It’s all a metaphor, and should be treated as such,” they will argue. “Focusing on the mechanics of how the doppelgangers move or reproduce or survive ignores the deeper, more crucial subtext of the movie, which is about disenfranchised or forgotten people living in the shadows. Also, Jordan Peele is producing the reboot of The Twilight Zone, and since nobody raises the feasibility of a gremlin terrorizing William Shatner on the wing of a plane, Us deserves the same suspension of disbelief. Also, you raved about Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, Mr. Author, and that movie literally makes no sense, so you’re a hypocrite.”

Nothing would bring me more pleasure than to take Us as an extended Twilight Zone episode and grapple with its ideas separate from the linear home invasion plot. At times the movie seems to court an allegorical reading, as in the mind-bogglingly hokey declaration by Lupita Nyongo’s double: “We’re Americans.” Get it? Because Us = U.S. I’m certain almost nobody else noticed this connection. As fleeting broadcasts and exposition dumps peel back the curtain on a heavily coordinated, nationwide clone uprising, Us half-heartedly masquerades as a class warfare fable, designed more to jog the moral noggin than to move logically from point A to point B.

Nonetheless, Us differs significantly in practice from mother!, one of my favorite films. Whereas the latter worked as a Kierkegaardian satire staged in a malleable, figurative environment, with some Lynch and Polanski elements thrown in to distort reality even further, Us is definitively not an allegory, and so it has the added burden of maintaining some internal consistency. Most of Us’ narrative shortcomings could be alleviated by merely leaving the doppelgangers’ origins open to interpretation. There’s nothing wrong with choosing Pure Evil or Magic as the threat to be overcome; whatever deviation from our material world is necessary, audiences will generally allow it if the storyteller announces it up front. Peele sets up his grand reveal in a multitude of places: text drawing attention to a network of underground tunnels, seemingly throwaway dialogue about government mind control, a creepy zoom shot of caged rabbits all along a wall. When he does at last unveil the truth, though, I couldn’t help but wish he hadn’t. I didn’t need a real-world, rational explanation for the origins of the tethered, but since the author saw fit to provide one, such is the lens by which many will reasonably judge, and thereby reject, his text.

With the exception of its opening flashback to a stormy night in Santa Cruz, freed of any overbearing music or editing tricks, Us never particularly inspires fear, nor does it earn its comedic beats as well as Get Out, which kept the horror and the humorous knuckling of liberals mostly separate yet equal, so to speak. Left with a defective story occasionally elevated by inspired string sections, some cool shots, and a decent dual performance by Lupita N’yongo, the average horror fan will disassociate from the plot holes of Us by playing spot-the-film-reference (There’s Funny Games! And there’s the ’78 Invasion of the Body Snatchers!) and later gawk at the onslaught of utterly shameless rave reviews penned by professional journalists.

Has another movie’s point more expertly eluded its target audience than that of Get Out? A rare film from mainline Hollywood to reach across the partisan divide, Peele’s directorial debut spoke to certain pockets of conservatism by relentlessly taking the piss out of guilt-ridden white liberals. An Obama-era update of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Get Out supplants the disapproving and prejudiced family of the Sydney Poitiet original with a no less bigoted progressive cabal, who aggressively ingratiate themselves to the protagonist and flaunt their racial wokeness. “I would have voted for Obama a third time if I could,” Mr. Armitage confides to his daughter’s black boyfriend, Chris, with no pretext whatsoever. “Best president in my lifetime, hands down.” Later in the film, the visiting friends of the Armitages vocally appraise the interracial couple and make such cringeworthy, overcompensating remarks as, “Black is in fashion.” Spoiler alert for anyone who turns a blind eye to the Democrat Party’s actual perception of black Americans: all this patronizing special treatment belies a misconceived ploy to lower Chris’ guard, lulling him into a false sense of value and belonging before his liberal benefactors surgically hijack his superior black body for their own gain. Get Out, whether by accident or by design, was the ultimate rebuke to our mainstream media’s insidious language of white-knighting and two-faced racial paternalism.

I don’t mean to say that leftists can’t enjoy or write highly of Jordan Peele’s films, but I do wish that they’d attempt so with some modicum of self-awareness. Notice Richard Brody’s review featured in The New Yorker, extolling the film as a “colossal cinematic achievement” and “work of directorial virtuosity” because, among other things, “Peele employs point-of-view shots to put audience members in the position of the characters, to conjure subjective and fragmentary experience that reverberates with the metaphysical eeriness of their suddenly doubled world.” In other words, sometimes (hardly enough to note) the director positions the camera to put viewers in the shoes of the hunter, for reasons of tension. Such technique is old hat for horror aficionados. Brody goes on to argue, “This world-building has a stark thematic simplicity that both belies and inspires immense complexity,” but even he has trouble abiding by his own moratorium on applying “jigsaw-fit, quasi-academic interpretation” to Us. “The results [of receiving Peele’s inner world],” he concludes, “Are intrinsically political, even revolutionary.”

The hyperbole continues with the beltway’s haste to coronate Peele a perfectionist alike to Kubrick or “this generation’s Hitchcock”, two films into a career that, if he were closely following Hitchcock’s output, would have 50 more movies to assert his mettle. Peele has more in common with a mischievous satirist and remixer like Wes Craven than with the master of suspense, and I’m not even that partial to Hitch after chowing down half his filmography. Is it responsible or just to hold Peele to a lower standard as a genre director, merely as reparations for decades of horror treating people of his pigmentation as expendable? Was Obama the best president of my lifetime, hands down?

If you take a film or gender class at university now, you may hear that Alfred Hitchcock was a Bad Person because he allegedly harassed Tippi Hedren, because he liked to cast actresses he found sexually attractive, or because Marnie is super Problematic. All that may or may not be the case, but at least Hitchcock never shoehorned ominous-sounding, yet largely tangential Bible quotes into his lowbrow shock films—full of murder, obsession, and men on the run—in order to goad gullible or self-effacing people into thinking they’re enjoying something deep and smart.

This Is Not a CW Original Show

Shazam! left such a feeble impression on my memory that I can’t guarantee the accuracy of any detail recounted here, but I’m tempted to say that it features the first on-screen depiction of a completely secular prayer. The patriarch of the central foster home reaches his palm face-down across the dinner table and instructs the others to follow suit. Everybody at the table stacks hands with the father, as if in a team huddle, and he proceeds to lead them in this act of “prayer”. “Thank you for this food, thank you for this house, thank you for this family,” he says to nobody in particular. Then they split hands and eat, the recipient of their thanks never addressed by name or consolidated with so much as an “Amen.”

Having been raised in a religious household that occasionally observed traditional Judeo-Christian prayer at the dinner table, I couldn’t understand this ritual, and the strangeness of it continues to bother me while writing this. If anybody who worked on the set of the movie, or anyone who identifies as a member of the “Spiritual” religion, can tell me what the heck was happening in these scenes, I will append the explanation to this review for the benefit of paying filmgoers likewise nagged by the question.

Why focus so much on an aspect that will fly right over most superhero fans’ heads? For me at least, the noncommittal football prayer sequences and confusion they entailed were the most fascinating takeaway from Shazam!, which is perhaps the closest that DC has gotten to making a Marvel Cinematic Universe product: visually flat, predictable, and challenged for good humor. The major comp for entertainment writers will be Penny Marshall’s Big, which Shazam! briefly and lazily references, but the new film reminds us yet again that the 1980s were a much brasher and more offensive—ergo, more interesting—time for comedy than the hamstrung, overly sensitive 21st century. Who could forget the scene in Big where the naïve boy trapped in Tom Hanks’ body ushers a woman into his apartment for “a sleepover”, on one condition: “I get to be on top!” One of the funnier scenes in Shazam! follows the main foster kids’ endeavor to grab beer from a gas station, taking advantage of hero Billy Batson’s newfound height and manly man looks. When the boys crack open a cold one outside, we get to laugh at their subverted expectations.

On the whole, though, the movie steers clear of the humorous travails of an inexperienced kid having to grapple with the responsibilities of adulthood. Billy is a superhero. Punching the bad guy harder than the bad guy punches him is about as adult as he can get. For most of its runtime, Shazam! is weightless entertainment wherein nobody with a name gets physically or emotionally hurt, and when they do, we only know because they talk about the incident afterwards. Several YouTube-based critics I watch have admonished parents over the “intensity” of scenes involving the interchangeable, bland CG ogres who are supposed to represent the seven deadly sins. Their concern rubs me as ironic, since director David F. Sandberg, a man with a background in horror, has shepherded the least horror-inflected movie in the DC canon.

Between Shazam!, Justice League, and Aquaman (which I nonetheless loved as unadulterated IMAX spectacle), Warner Bros. has neutered a franchise that used to offer an eclectic, director-sculpted alternative to Disney-Marvel, clumsily broaching real-world topics like immigration, eugenics, or the Gospel. Even the foster household angle in Shazam! feels like second pickings after Instant Family, a much funnier, edgier, more holistic, and more heartfelt precis of the system that too few people saw.

I have more issues with the movie, but most of them were already covered by Kyle Smith at National Review, so I won’t waste anybody’s time repackaging them.

Friday, March 22, 2019

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World of Good Animated Sequels

© Dreamworks

I wasn’t originally planning to write about How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, the obligatory third part to the crown jewel and prime money-maker of DreamWorks Animation. Then I remembered that this series has been butting its head into the Files since the beginnings of both, and so the completionist in me feels obligated to assess the final one, not only for the benefit of DreamWorks, who have 90% of critics telling them they can do no wrong, but also for my own as a maturing writer and critic.

As with many threequels that are too eager to placate fans with inflated expectations, Dragon 3 talks about twice as often as the original and communicates nary half as much. More than just a disappointing cash grab, it stands as a microcosmic case study of all the forces that have been degrading Hollywood entertainment over the last decade, one that retroactively augmented my esteem for the flawed second film.

The plot of the film resembles a shambling re-animation of two long-deceased kiddie movie frameworks, viz. the forced migration from a no longer habitable home (Dinosaur, The Land Before Time, Ice Age 2, et al.) and the conniving dog napper, here re-purposed into a comically gaunt and Nordic hunter whose raison ’d’être is to exterminate all of dragonkind. When Hiccup rightly impugns his bad guy principles by pointing out that Nosferatu himself commands an army of “Deathgripper” dragons—the better to chase our heroes and create spectacle, my dear—the villain laughs the accusation off, asserting that those aren’t “real dragons” because he drugs them into obedience with their own venom. Checkmate, YouTube critics. No inconsistencies or plot holes to see here. This still doesn’t make Max Von Pseudow an interesting or empathetic figure, certainly not with an affected Transylvanian voice supplied by F. Murray Abraham, the Oscar-winning Salieri of Amadeus.

As I recall How to Train Your Dragon 2, the overarching writing credo of that film was to take the message and characters of Dragon and flip them inside out. Whereas the first movie reveres Hiccup for defying the will of Chief Stoick and acting brashly in defense of what he believes to be right, the second movie reprimands him for his filial impiety and air-headed millennial hubris. In 2014, I didn’t take fondly to this twist because it seemed to come at the contrived expense of Hiccup, a young man who’d demonstrated a certain composure and critical outlook. Having now seen the full trajectory of the series, I can commend the second installment for having the gumption to do anything with the main character—integrity be damned.

Hiccup’s principal motive in Dragon was to effect peace between the Vikings and the dragons, while in Dragon 2 it was to avert an imminent war between Berk and a barbaric chieftain, whom he mistakenly believes will be privy to negotiation. Both of these drives speak to a deeper value in his character and are ripe for both personal and political exploration. In Dragon 3, Hiccup is moved to find a new home for the dragons because Berk has simply gotten too crowded. Along this journey, he tries to set Toothless up with a female night fury by pure coincidence and at no discernible cost to himself, while other thankless characters like his mother urge him to join the unconditionally supportive Astrid in marriage, a union he doesn’t protest at any point. These threads make for a stunningly inert narrative wherein neither Hiccup, nor his mannequin of a girlfriend, nor the unrelatable paleface antagonist undergo any development or have to make hard decisions.

Remember how Disney shills insecure in their admiration of a children’s movie played up the angle that Toy Story 3 was intended more for adults than the kiddos: that Pixar was deliberately catering to college students who grew up with the VHS tapes or Gen X dads moved to tears by dredged-up childhood memories? DreamWorks landed themselves in a similarly opportune moment with this franchise, which has charted such familiar domains of adolescent development as first crushes, death in the family, and assuming responsibility for people besides oneself. The Hidden World should have been the chapter where Hiccup and Astrid, if not consummate their love on a fur pelt in a vivid anime interpolation, at least have a stern, mature conversation about his roommate Toothless and whether it’s time for the best friends to separate and start their own families. Instead of advancing the nuanced human relationships that arguably pushed Dragon to the top of the DreamWorks pyramid, writer-director Dean DeBlois took the easy route and focused on a nonverbal mating game between two adorable, wide-eyed fairy tale creatures. It appears the easy route might have reaped the greatest spoils, as trailers emphasizing the meet-cute of Toothless and the girl dragon helped Dragon 3 capture the best opening weekend of the trilogy.

Granting this is a trivial cartoon made for children with no insight to proffer on the human condition, can The Hidden World get any credit for the dragons? The first movie achieved a fine balance of making the Vikings’ nemeses colorful and loveable but also nonhuman and dangerous. One could understand why the warriors dreaded the beasts even while rooting for Hiccup to show them the error of their ways. By the time we get to Dragon 3, commercial interests have swallowed any mythical grandeur, physicality, or distinctive traits left to the dragons, reducing them to a throng of loveable doglike pets ready to be peddled as plush toys and action figures. Toothless gets to keep some smidgeon of personality, but he himself suffers an anthropomorphic makeover, no longer believable as a legendary king among monsters.

A lot of people have lauded the animation work in Dragon 3, the lowest-budgeted entry, as the best in the series, in large part because Toothless draws a picture in a sand bank that looks exactly like real sand. If higher polygon counts or more realistic hair and grass are someone’s main metric of good animation, then I wouldn’t know how to convince such a person that Dragon’s animation has visibly soured over the years. When Incredibles 2 came out, some critics seized the occasion to note how far CGI has advanced since the comparatively rudimentary Incredibles; how long will it take popular consensus to grow disenchanted with the computer graphics in DreamWorks’ grand finale? Preoccupation with 3D animation “detail” or “realism” seems a uniquely American foible. Films like Akira, Ghost in the Shell, and Princess Mononoke look just as impressive today as they did in the ’90s, having put most of their chips in technology that isn’t aging rapidly. Even the first Dragon can lord its darker, more intricate lighting and shadows over The Hidden World, which continues to repaint the world with a sunny, candy-colored palette more reflective of competing cartoons.

Cuteness trumps narrative functionality or theme, and scenes that are primarily dramatic feel like a welcome reprieve from the “comic relief”. I said that Dragon 3 talks a lot more than the original, which has many scenes of intentionally sparse or absent dialogue where Hiccup gradually earns the trust of Toothless. Somewhere along the marketing research treadmill, DreamWorks or DeBlois got the message that audiences liked the hilarious interactions between Snotlout, Fishlegs, Ruffnut, and Tuffnut, who barely figured into the first film but I imagine have a sizeable role in the Netflix series. I would venture that these characters have twice as many lines collectively as they had in 2, not one of them being funny or instrumental to the film. In a rather characteristic scene, Tuffnut advises the peg-legged Hiccup to “lose the limp” because “no one’s going to marry that”. When Hiccup informs him that his gait stems from a physical disability, Tuffnut says something witty like, “And I’ve got a parasitic twin, but you don’t see me limping around about it!”

So goes the humor in the third part of a critically-acclaimed animated franchise. AFOD’s (adult fans of Dragon) used to be able to tune out these minor characters, as their idiocy was incidental to the plot. In Hidden World, their mishaps—a brother abandoning his sister in battle because they hate each other; said sister assuming the bad guy let her go with no intention of secretly following her—are actually integral to it.

Somewhere over the course of watching the movie and mentally drifting off from boredom, it occurred to me that there has never been a truly good animated sequel in the West, and DreamWorks’ series makes it blaringly apparent why. As a new IP that early adopters had no guarantee would satisfy them, How to Train Your Dragon had the luxury of being able to make risky choices concerning its characters, choices that endowed their actions with moral significance. In the DVD commentary track, the creators talk about the positive reaction at test screenings to Hiccup’s amputation at the end; one child appreciated that the protagonist “lost something, but he gained so much more”. The Hidden World doesn’t have the same benefit because the filmmakers have to skirt around inflicting terror upon children, who are conditioned by witless media outlets and a consumerist culture to “identify” with or “look up to” unattainable fantasy characters. How can a director like Deblois sleep knowing that he may have corrupted, maimed, or misrepresented a figure who brings joy to millions of people? It’s easier just to do nothing with him.

In How to Train Your Dragon, Hiccup’s courage and commitment to Berk cost him a limb. In Dragon 2, his arrogance cost him his father, even if Stoick’s death didn’t loom over the film to a great extent. In Dragon 3, Hiccup tries to sacrifice his own life to save Toothless, but ten seconds later the movie saves them both miraculously anyway, Last Jedi-style. Some days later, Hiccup marries Astrid and says a final goodbye to Toothless, himself involved in a serious relationship with the girl dragon. Here the movie could have ended on a beautiful callback to the first film’s training scene, signifying that our friendships irrevocably change and bless us even when our friends must journey elsewhere, never to see us again.

The Hidden World, however, is too coy to end on such a poetic note, or to suggest that the hero’s best friend could actually be his wife. Instead we get a manipulative, happy-go-lucky epilogue in which a bearded Hiccup and his offspring reunite with Toothless and his offspring and they all go flying together above the clouds while John Powell’s theme music swells. Nothing ventured, nothing, for me at least, gained.

The CGI was good, though, so I’ll give it an A-, slightly below what I gave Captain Marvel, which is also decent and entertaining despite its slight deficiencies in comedy, drama, romance, action, suspense, acting, writing, editing, cinematography, makeup, and shot composition. Please support these films.