Wednesday, December 20, 2017

THE LAST JEDI: Why I love this movie (Spoilers)

There is so much to love in THE LAST JEDI, and I think the haters are being given way too much attention, though I've found (at least at my office) that there are a number of relatively rational people who just don't like this film. I get it. Hey, it's product. Hey, it's a franchise that's been around for forty years. (One co-worker said it was a little too Guardians of the Galaxy. I held my tongue.) Etc. etc. I get it. Don't care, but I get it.

But here's the thing I love most about the film. And it's a spoiler, but I said that at the start. Rey's parents are nobodies. There's no lineage, she's just super talented. Rian Johnson has returned the Jedi to the people.

Now, I can't say I'm so old that I remember seeing the first film in the theater, I don't, though my parents told me I was scared of Darth Vader. I have scant memories of seeing EMPIRE on the big screen, which I saw at four, and it left such an impression I would hang upside down on the jungle gym and try my damnedest to make objects move (alas, it never worked out, though one girl said she was a witch and chased me around the playground because that's how Kindergartners crush on each other). As a young blonde boy I wanted to be Luke Skywalker more than anything until I realized - around the time of puberty - girls were better than magic tricks. There's a reason I wanted to be a Jedi: In the original STAR WARS, Luke Skywalker isn't the son of the most famous Sith lord, he's just a regular kid whose head is in the stars, and who thinks he's special. It turns out he is.

You could say the big reveal in EMPIRE betrays that, but as much as Luke is related to Darth Vader, it's also about having the narrative rug pulled out from the main character as hard as possible at the end of the second movie, which also means it doesn't really become about bloodline until the next film. Ultimately the twins stuff is where it gets messy, but from a narrative perspective, the son confronting the sins of the father and redeeming the father isn't bad, and as someone who grew up in peak early STAR WARS - I remember going to a mall where a television center was playing the first film and two teenage boys were reciting every line as it played - even I could tell that some of the narrative decisions were based on making the love triangle play out so Luke wasn't a chump. It wasn't planned no matter what Lucas said, and so it was about creating the most difficult obstacles for this young man to navigate, and what is more difficult to maneuver around than finding out the person you think you hate more than anyone happens to be your father?

And here's where it's hard not to kick dirt at the prequels. When you have a writer who says he always had a plan and then makes films that had no obvious plan, and a director (both George Lucas) who was not only off his game, but also had no interest in getting back on his game after he gave up when the only film (THE PHANTOM MENACE) that reflected his interests was rejected by a large section of the audience. Because the storytelling is so shitty, it becomes about bloodline and destiny. There was no tragedy in Anakin's turn, because he's a lackluster character with an unbelievable love story. At no point does Lucas challenge himself or the narrative. He doesn't paint himself into corners and find organic ways of getting out, he enters round rooms and still gets paint on his feet.

Back to THE LAST JEDI. The great thing about avatars is that they can be anyone, and when you tie that to bloodline and destiny, you limit possibilities, on top of suggesting something that history has shown is generally not true. In fact, Episode VIII shows that the children of famous people are often the worst. Rey came from nowhere, yet she's still amazing, Ben Solo had everything, and he'd rather destroy the world/past because he'll always be in the shadows of legends. Modern dynasties give us people like Paris Hilton and the Trump children, and the idea that a bloodline is somehow a determiner of worth or fame is something best tied to kingdoms, and other wholly outdated belief systems. STAR WARS was about, and probably always should have been about, how the force can belong to everyone - as the denouement underlines.


Snoke sucked in THE FORCE AWAKENS, but I loved how THE LAST JEDI made him dangerous and a character, but also cleared him away. If they went another route, It would have been easy to say that Snoke showed the worst aspects of J.J. Abrams's instincts in repeating another round of servants and Emperors - this time with an even more thinly developed character - but by killing him it makes his inclusion in THE FORCE AWAKENS all the better because he proved to be a Macguffin and not a mystery box. Regardless of how this new trilogy ends, we care about Kylo Ren/Ben Solo, because he's an interesting character, and whether he is victorious (never gonna happen), killed, imprisoned or redeemed, that will have more weight than anything that could ever involve Snoke. Even if Snoke was some reincarnation of a figure like the Emperor, that shit isn't interesting.

I loved how Hux becomes a character in this film. He's a toady, he's a bureaucrat, he's a modern neo-Nazi with a tiki torch who is as dangerous as he is laughable. And Phasma gets ditched, which, whatever, she's a costume.

I wish Finn wanted to leave the ship because he thought he was the tracking device. Just saying.

Puppet Yoda felt like a return to form for the character in so many ways. George Lucas never got Yoda like Kasdan and Kershner did, in the prequels it became about bad sentences more than a belief system.

I love how the film starts. At the end of TFA, the first order says they know where the rebels are and the meeting between Luke and Rey needs resolution as well, so that's where you have to start. You can't cut to three months/days/years/decades later. Abrams punted so much, but now I'm thankful he did.

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Let's do maths

Transformers 1: $319 Million
Transformers 2: $402 Million
Transformers 3 (3D): $352 Million
Transformers 4 (3D): $245 Million
Transformers 5 (3D): $102 Million (still going)

Transformers 1: $708 Million
Transformers 2: $863 Million
Transformers 3 (3D): $1124 Million
Transformers 4 (3D): $1104 Million
Transformers 5 (3D): $432 Million (still going)

Pirates of the Caribbean 1: $305 Million
Pirates of the Caribbean 2: $432 Million
Pirates of the Caribbean 3: $309 Million
Pirates of the Caribbean 4 (3D): $241 Million
Pirates of the Caribbean 5 (3D): $166 Million (still going)

Pirates of the Caribbean 1: $654 Million
Pirates of the Caribbean 2:$1066 Million
Pirates of the Caribbean 3: $963 Million
Pirates of the Caribbean 4 (3D): $1045 Million
Pirates of the Caribbean 5 (3D): $710 Million

In both cases what we're seeing is that both franchises found their international footing with later pictures, while both peaked with their second films domestically (as likely people loved the first film most and were disappointed with subsequent entries). If we remove 3D from the equation it looks like Pirates dropped around or over a hundred million with each subsequent sequel (until the most recent) while Transformers has a similarly precipitous return on investment. Domestically.

There have been a number of stories about how this is a bad summer for franchise films, but graphing these sequels shows that America had already lost most of their interest in these films and if the studios thought there would be a different result from these films, they would have to be dumber than our sitting president. They were not. America was an afterthought.

But then also, this:

The first film where America counts for most than 50% of the gross? The LEGO Batman Movie at number 16. At number 12? The Mummy, which is being treated as one of the biggest bombs of the summer (that said, it may lose money, but let's also do some quick comparisons. If you look at the worldwide chart outside of the Mission Impossible franchise, this is a solid WW gross for Tom Cruise, tracking a little behind Edge of Tomorrow, which is getting a sequel) . Seven of the top movies for the year (so far) made over eighty percent of their money overseas.

Cars: $244 Million
Cars 2: $191 Million
Cars 3:  $121 Million (Still going)

Cars: $462 Million
Cars 2: $562 Million
Cars 3: $174 Million (it looks like this hasn't opened in most territories).

Pixar knows what they're doing.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

ROGUE ONE: On Prequels (A Non-Review)

A lot of my friends love ROGUE ONE. Bully for them. I don't. I feel sort of bad about it, and maybe an eventual revisit will warm me to it, but I have very specific problems with prequels, and they may explain why this film left me colder than SNOW FALLING ON CEDAR.

Most prequels don't need to exist and probably shouldn't. The problem prequels run into frequently is they tell us information that is irrelevant. For instance, I know Anakin is going to turn bad. Seeing that happen isn't interesting if I'm not emotionally invested. To make me invested I need to care about that character. Lucas spent three films not doing that. OZ, THE GREAT AND POWERFUL is charming at times, but what parent or person wouldn't rather watch the 1939 film? The Hobbit films at least had their roots in a book, but it was distended beyond nature - it's the Mr. Creosote of trilogies. But more than that it tries to engage you with spectacle that only works when you have a rooting interest. The problem is often how, and how is so often overlooked in these films.

What are good prequels? My list is thin. The best example currently going is BETTER CALL SAUL. There are a number of reasons for this. But foremost is that the creators from the first frame show that whatever Saul/Jimmy/Cinnabon employee man does, his fate is determined. And so we can wonder if the events, as they unfold, are inevitable. Jimmy McGill isn't loved by his brother. But Jimmy had bad tendencies. Would brotherly love have fixed or enabled him? Is Chuck right, even if he is an asshole? The little things add up, but this show has given those little seismic shifts the weight of earthquakes.

My mind then goes to RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. What is so great about this film (and less so, so far, about the sequels) is that it showed something that we never got to see if we take certain time travel theories to be correct (essentially, if we accept that Taylor arrived on timeline A, the time travel of Cornelius creates a timeline B by altering events of the past. This may have been explained in the films proper, though the films suggests that Taylor's craft was not created in 1968, while Cornelius and Zora arrive in 1971 most obviously). But the story of RISE is about enslavement and rebellion and it works by creating a new template for the franchise. It also works because it adapts modern concerns to the franchise, while the first film ended on a note of nuclear panic, this later film is about genetic modifications and superbugs. It also wasn't a story that had been previously told in the franchise, even if it has similarities to CONQUEST.

The thing about THE GODFATHER PART II is that the prequel elements are also not telling us anything we knew before. It works because it acts in parallel with the story of Michael Corleone. Perhaps we thought Don Vito was mostly honorable, but it paints a portrait of immigrant life which feels historically correct. A minority oppressed, with limited opportunities, and one oppressed by its own. Vito built an empire on blood, and the family paid the price, but Vito hoped his legacy would be Michael, but not the Michael Michael became. Seeing the life of Vito is not telling us things that had been explained or inferred by the first film.

You know what's a great prequel? KILL BILL VOLUME ONE CHAPTER FIVE. We know that the bride defeated O-Ren Ishii, it's obvious from the end of the first chapter of that film. What we don't know is the how. And the how is fucking amazing. And I gauge prequels on the how.

So, ROGUE ONE. The information about how the rebels got the missing plans was covered in a crawl, so it was disposed of within, literally, the first three minutes of the original film as a minor detail. But going in to this film, I knew two things: The new characters can't play a part in future films, and the rebels gonna get those plans.

Here's where disappointment set in for me: At no point does anyone have any great special skills to get those plans, nor do the main group of rag tag thieves have that many defining character traits. People will probably point to the new droid (and he's the best thing in the movie), or Donnie Yen, but that's not enough. I kept waiting for something, anything to happen where someone had a special set of skills that were useful. And though that sort of happens a little bit, so much of the third act was for me more impressive spectacle versus engaging craft.

Now, here's where I can play a little bit of devil's advocate and say that this might possibly be the point, that it's not about skilled people doing things they are good at but ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances who have to deal with the cards they're given.

And if the film was that subtle, I would totally forgive it if the film's denouement wasn't as ham fisted as a punch from Porky Pig. I guess some see the ending as the natural conclusion to the narrative about hope. For me It was fan service dialed up to eleven. And maybe I'm not connecting to the thematic resonances therein. But perhaps I'm too turned off by a kung fu Darth Vader and a poorly acted CGI Tarkin to care.

I think you could probably take a character getting coffee and turn it it into a feature film. About how the beans were grown, about how they were cured, about how they made their way to a Starbucks (or wherever) and make it interesting, but if that's the case I have to be engaged on a level more than "Eventually these people get their coffee" and that was how I felt about ROGUE ONE. Eventually, the rebels are going to get their Grande Mocha.

Saturday, May 07, 2016

Dancing Days are here again...

I wish I knew more people who loved to dance as much as I do. At The Short Stop, I was and am known as "the firestarter." I wonder how many other people know what that's like. When I dance, I can get people dancing. I don't know if it's because of my enthusiasm or skill, but I know it to be true. I may be the first person dancing on a Saturday, but eventually people are going to dance on a Saturday because it's Saturday. When you can get a crowd whipped up on a Wednesday, that's when you know it's not just the day. I wonder about my movement. I know I've gone through transitions. I've moved my hips more, my legs more, my arms more. I've found patterns I like to repeat, but it's all self-taught. There might be a little Travolta (very little) or found items, but maybe it's best if it's primitive. No idea.  Rhythm is math, understand the math.

One thing dancing has made sacrosanct is that woman are to be treated kindly or left alone. I say this because one thing the dance floor has taught me is what it means to be objectified. On an off night, people can do what they want, but when shit gets crowded, you get guys who are on the hunt. What that means is a line of guys just looking, dudes who get into groups and will stand around in the middle of a dance floor (MIDDLE OF THE DANCE FLOOR!!!) not dancing, sometimes just looking at their phones. This makes me think an entire generation of people don't know how to interact, so they just want to be in it.

But I also know that as someone who hits the floor so regularly and with such passion, that I am captured on people's phones. People think they're being subtle, but they're not. Some days I treat it like my friend Scott - who used to pose in the background of photos at Universal Studios, creating an album of images that will never be seen by anyone - as something that happens but is my personal in-joke. These days when I see phones pointed at me I get mildly annoyed because I know that this is going to end up on social media platform to which I have no access and I have no idea how what I'm doing is being viewed. Am I being singled out because of my skill, or is it "look at the white guy!@!" I have no idea. Because these people don't talk to me, I can't be sure. And that makes me mad at the level of a dull ache.

Being objectified also means that people will touch me. My ass has been pinched often, women have tried to kiss me, and people will offer me advice I don't want about how to dance. I don't need to be told how to dance, and I generally don't want advice from someone I don't know. I have control. It may look frenzied or big, or whatever, but I know what I'm doing and I know the space I have, which means when I have a lot of space I like to take advantage and go big. I would compare this to being a woman if it happened all the time, but really it only happens when I'm dancing so I won't pretend to relate. If I do talk to a woman on the floor it's because I know she's interested, or I feel the need to tell them they are a great dancer and I leave it at that.

Unfortunately, flattery is my downfall. It's late Friday and I'm at home without going out. That's because I threw my back out a while ago, and I don't know if it recovered. I often carry groceries in a backpack and I think the weight differential puts my spine out of whack. Sad. But the reason why I'm hurting so bad is because I was out Wednesday night after work, and I got the dance floor going. I hit, and people joined in. Eventually a woman - who had a boyfriend - hit the floor. I had been peacocking for a while as there was enough space, but the people who were clapping on my moves made me feel supported. Even though she was with a guy, she wanted to dance with me, and that seemed awesome, so I danced with her, eventually going full DIRTY DANCING. When she came over to show me all the photos her boyfriend had taken, I couldn't be happier, happier to be included in this game. But my back showed signs of distress, which I ignored because the DJ was cute and I was being properly lauded.

I recently joined Tinder. I don't care for swipe culture, but I also felt it was important, as I think I'm ready to date again for the first time on social media. I want people to know I'm ready. I have no idea how many swipe right or lefts I've gotten, but I figure that if I'm at a club and people see my profile that it can't hurt. Then again I was at work today, and as I got out of the elevator to go to work, I got a "yeah" nod from a female who must work near me. I assume this happens all the time to women, but it happens to me only from time to time. It's that "yeah" nod that suggests that person is in to you, sold American. And that's the divide from men to women perhaps, though perhaps not, of when I want to be objectified.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Camus had a point talking about Sisyphus

I lived on Beachwood Drive for about ten years, give or take. For those who've never visited Los Angeles, what may be most famous about said street is that it seemingly leads directly to the Hollywood sign. You know, that sign that says Hollywood and gets destroyed a lot in post apocalyptic and disaster movies. Note: The street doesn't actually get you to the sign.

There were two things one would encounter because of this, often on a daily basis: Tourists asking you to take their picture, and tourists parking illegally in your driveway so they could take pictures. Never mind the absurdity of taking a picture in front of a sign that is famous for being a sign that is famous (Hollywood in a nutshell). But no matter how nice or how awful you were to these people, there was nothing you could do about it to make a change. How could you? Were they going to tell the next person you ran into? No.

I walk a lot every day if I can help it. And the one thing you can not change is that some people have spacial awareness and some people do not. Some people do not almost blissfully so, to the point that it leaps over into awareness of being an asshole. But no matter how nice or how awful you were to these people, there was nothing you could do about it to make a change. How could you? Were they going to tell the next person you ran into? No.

I go out dancing all the time. Gross dudes don't understand they are gross dudes. Here is the one time that sometimes Sisyphus makes progress that seems real, even if it isn't. I don't usually peacock to peacock, but if the floor is right (that is to say, if I have space), I will go big to make a point. Sometimes that inspires gross dudes to go with me, like they think I'm on their side. But more often than I'd hope they get the point. And they do because ironic dancing only gets you so far when faced with skill. I have been going out dancing since I was able to buy a drink, and at this point I have to admit to myself (and others) that I'm good because false modesty becomes unbecoming.

But even if I win the battle, the floor usually hits capacity, and there's nothing I can do about gross dudes who don't understand that women like watching me dance - whether it's because they think it's funny a tall blond balding white guy is throwing down, or because they might want to fuck me - and that seeing me dance inspires them to dance, and that women don't want to dance when the see guys who stay on the floor and don't dance but either stare or look at their phones and don't like guys who stand in a line by the side of the dance floor. I don't like describing women as prey but as I have probably said before, a dance floor is an ecosystem, and any ecosystem with too many predators is doomed to collapse. But this is also about who's in the bar at the time.

It's funny, I was thinking about this last night, there was a guy in a toque who was standing around the floor in the middle of the dance floor, who migrated to the center, and I was dancing near him. Amerie's 1 Thing came on (for reference), and I was like "time to show off" because... that song and immediately after throwing down the two hottest ladies in the club started dancing near me. As if the fates wanted to prove my point. But this dude persisted in hanging out in the middle of the dance floor. The middle is sacred to me. One of the old bouncers at the Short Stop (my joint) used to call me "fire starter," because I could get the floor going, and if you're in the middle - if you're in the focal point - you want to be throwing down because that's where the energy comes from. To stand in the middle is an affront.

After, this led me down a rabbit hole of thought. What I've experienced of late is that more people than you'd expect aren't so much cold as anti-social, or ill equipped with social interactions. Everyone wants to be a little bit Don Draper - to be the playboy, what have you - but so few of us are. And I want to be inclusive, you always want to be inclusive, because it results in better net gains, as it were. I was totally dancing with the lesbian couple next to me and we were all digging it, but this guy I couldn't get a bead on - but at this point with legalized weed so many people are probably stoned all the time and don't even know where they're at. Part of me want to grab this guy and ask "Why the fuck are you standing here? What do you think you'll accomplish? Why aren't you sitting down or standing on the side of the floor?" Honestly I wanted an answer, I wanted catharsis. But the truth is that there was nothing I could do about it to make a change. How could I? Was he going to tell the next person I ran into who did the exact same god damn thing? No. But I move the bolder up the hill just the same. 

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Ten Declarative Statements About Prince

1. Prince made you want to dance.
2. Prince made you want to fuck.
3. Prince made you want to believe in God.
4. Prince made the Super Bowl cool.
5. Prince made the Eighties, if not cool, bearable.
6. Prince made Minnesota cool. Minnesota.
7. Minnesota.
8. Prince concerts were always an experience worth having.
9. Prince knew he was Prince and had fun with it.
10. Prince is gone and the world is a less funkier, sexier place for it.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Redbox

How movies are bad these days has changed by leaps and bounds, and it's partly to do with the current studio system. With fewer and fewer mid-range budgeted films, there's less room for filmmakers to learn their craft before moving on to the Jurassic Worlds of cinema. And with Disney currently operating as it does (and this may change due to filmmaker pressure at some point), the standard "one for them one for me" model isn't tenable. You make a hit movie for Disney/Marvel, they're not really in the business of making passion projects. Do you see Joss Whedon getting his next film going at Disney yet? Shouldn't he? Auteurism has been ceded to the studio/brand. Who senses that Justin Lin touch in Fast Five, or James Wan's hand in Furious 7? J.J. Abrams and Sam Mendes are hit directors whose biggest hits mark their films as professionally made, but with little sense of the filmmaker behind them (at least in their franchise work). 

Twenty years ago, I would go see films that might be bad, because you never knew. In 1996, critics were just likely to be dismissive of Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy as they were The Frighteners, as they were Kazaam, as they were whatever Jean Claude Van Damme was doing at the time (in this case Maximum Risk). Sometimes they were right, but also, they may not have grasped what Hong Kong filmmakers were doing with craft as they used JCVD to make whatever insane piece of art they were after. Reasonably budgeted movies had a certain autonomy. But even the big summer films of twenty years ago often had the stamp of the director, of someone or something behind it that wasn't a brand. Here's a list of the top ten films of 1996:

1) Independence Day
2) Twister
3) Mission: Impossible
4) Jerry Maguire
5) Ransom
6) 101 Dalmatians
7) The Rock
8) The Nutty Professor
9) The Birdcage
10) A Time to Kill

Five of these are definitely products of their director, but even of the most cynical it's hard to say that something like Twister or Independence Day were noted to death. Fox heads may have had some input in ID4 (a film I like), but the film seems to be a pleasure machine based on what audiences had liked before as surmised by the filmmakers. It feels naive in its cynicism; it loves its cliches. Two of these seem like straight-ahead hackwork: Dalmatians and Twister - but even Twister, bad as it is, was mostly a success due to audiences reacting to changing technologies, much as people responded to 3D regarding Avatar. A Time to Kill is just Joel Schumacher adapting a popular novel so it's a non-starter, benign. I would find it hard to say any of these films are truly great, but I would say most are entertaining, and have personality.

I've seen all of the Marvel proper movies in theaters, and have hated a couple (looking at you Thor), so it's not that I get angry at all studio-run projects, but when big movies are bad these days, there is nothing for someone who loves films to get all that excited about, but this also points out why the best Marvel movies often have the stamp of their director(s). The turning point for me with trusting criticism of big budget movies is two-fold: Critics are now more sensitive than ever to geek concerns, and bad studio product movies are bad in ways that make them no fun to read/watch.

As for the first point, well, let's face it: geeks won. Ain't it Cool may not be the powerhouse it once was, but it seeds are planted, and not just at Hitfix. Critics who are in their thirties and forties grew up with Spielberg and Lucas, and though they may not even be versed in Hitchcock (to be fair, many are), they aren't as snobbish as the old guard who may have worshiped Cukor and Stevens and Stanley Fucking Kramer. The old guard are the ones who favored films like Out of Africa, or Gandhi, or Chariots of Fire, films that have no great value these days, the people who may have given The Artist four stars. I may not always agree with Devin Faraci, or Drew McWeeney, or Eric Vespe, or a number of the film critics that (full disclosure) I've known socially (in some cases just online) for years, but I know that they are nerds/geeks/whatever the polite descriptions of indoors kids are. Or, more to the point, they are the target audience. And as time passes, at least for the foreseeable future, this will only grow more the case as Hollywood churns out films based on the brands critics grew up with.

The second point is that I saw Star Trek Into Darkness in theaters, and that was a film that I made a promise to myself after, and that promise was that I wasn't going to pay to see a film that I knew I would hate simply to be a part of the conversation. This advice has served me well, as I skipped The Amazing Spider Man 2, Jurassic World and many more in the theater. I caught up with them on home video, and they proved to be as bad - if not worse - than I feared/heard at the time. I hate beating up on films like Fantastic Four or Terminator Genysis, but they seem a product of current Hollywood thinking as much as anything, and when they hit home video, there were no champions for it, and it's unlikely that auteurism 3.0 in twenty years will make a great case for these films. These are not the sort of detritus that turn out to be hidden greatness. I know this because I could find that in the films of twenty years ago while I was watching them. I could be proven wrong, and would love to be, but it comes down to voice, and what marks these films is a lack of it, or a lack of an original one.

The problem is that without that voice, without a sense of real guidance, these films are bad in ways that aren't interesting. Say what you will about Sucker Punch, but that's a fascinatingly bad/misguided film. That's a film that's after something, that's trying to say something and may have utterly failed in doing so, but it is also after something beyond branding. Even Man of Steel, as flawed as that movie is, has a guiding voice and an idea behind it, whereas with so much of modern cinema it doesn't take sunglasses to read that the main idea behind them is CONSUME. And on some sort of political level, I can't support paying for art that is so cynical. At the end of the day, the Marvel films are usually at best fun rides, but it's hard to say they're more than that. The same goes for the new Star Wars (which I like), but at least they're enjoyable. And it makes me wish more people would give a director ten million dollars to make a film with Jean Claude Van Damme and leave them well enough alone. You might get shit, but you might get art. Throwing half a billion dollars at a filmmaker that has a checklist that's more important than the story? Fuck off.