Buying the Ridiculous

In Kingsmen: The Secret Service, our hero gets a bulletproof umbrella. In John Wick 2, he gets a bulletproof lining for his tailored suit. These are patently ridiculous ideas that should appear preposterous even to someone with a complete lack of scientific or engineering understanding. And yet those moments bring only delighted smiles when they occur in these excellent films.

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is one gigantic implausibility that cleanly divides the audience into those who despise it, those who don’t get it, and those (like me) who love it so much they have to re-watch it every six months or they start to get the jitters.

Armageddon, on the other hand, is one long, dull laundry list of logical gaffs scored by the boos, groans and guffaws from the theater. The showing I attended had people walking out shaking their heads. It’s an accomplishment to get someone who has just paid $10 for a ticket and $20 on food to abandon that money for a quick escape.

What’s the difference between these movies? Why can some get away with playing Three Card Monte with physics and some fall on their own sword?

The answer: You have to earn your cheats. You have to tell an engrossing story populated with characters the audience cares about. If you do that, they will let you slide on some movie physics. If you’re good enough at story telling, they won’t notice that Indiana Jones had zero effect in the Lost Ark.

They aren’t there for a physics lesson. They’re there to be entertained.

One of the best movies to use as an example of this is Independence Day. When I think back on all the manipulative crap they pulled in that movie and all the stuff they straight stole from other movies, I remember ID4 as being terrible.

Then I come across it on cable and I’m immediately engrossed. All that dumb stuff about uploading viruses to alien computers and fighter jets being able to keep up with gravity drive ships just settles into a heap in the back of my mind, forgotten and forlorn until I’m free of the narrative’s grasp.

The problem with sloppy filmmakers like Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich (his later films didn’t fare nearly as well as ID4), is that they think in set pieces. They will tell you that to be a good director you have to “think in a visual language.” Whatever that means, it’s wrong. You have to tell a story. You can’t count on the audience to be wowed into submission by your special effects if those effects are happening in a story they don’t care about to people they don’t care about.

I stopped going to the Avengers movies not because of the ridiculous movie physics in their fight scenes (though they are egregious) but because I stopped caring about the characters. I was (wrongly, it turned out) worried about John Wick 2 because I was afraid there was nothing left to say about him. And I was rightly worried about Kick Ass 2 because Matthew Vaughn, a great story teller, had no part of it.

Jeff Wadlow, the director of Kick-Ass 2, was only interested in giving us violence acted out by people in funny outfits. He had no feeling for the characters we had become so enamored of in the first film. His first act was to destroy the main romantic relationship the first movie worked so hard to create. It was a disaster perpetrated by someone who just didn’t get the material.

To paraphrase Bill Clinton: It’s the story, stupid.

 

Notes From The Internet Apocalypse

I, like most people, rely on fallback fantasies to be able to sleep at night. If I lost my house, for instance, I could just fall back to apartment life. If I lost my car, I could just fall back to public transport. And if I lost the internet, I would just fall back to television, snail mail, and face to face conversations.

That is such bullshit. I haven’t shared a wall with a stranger in forty years. I nearly killed a man over a barking dog once. I can’t stand the fifteen minutes it takes me to drive to the office. The bus takes over an hour to cover the same ground. Without the internet, life itself would cease to have meaning.

The reason we believe this stuff in spite of it being obviously ludicrous is because we have to. Otherwise, we would live in constant terror of having our cushy existence upended. It’s especially easy to believe the fallback theory when it comes to the internet because the fucking thing has only been around in its current form for fifteen years. How far could we have possibly gone down a road in just fifteen years that there’s no turning back?

If you want to get a feeling for how intrinsic internet connectivity has become to modern society over that short period of time, give Wayne Gladstone’s Notes From The Internet Apocalypse a read.

The conceit of the story is that the internet just up and disappears one day. No one knows where it went or who has it. They just know that they somehow have to adapt to life without it until it is returned to them.

We follow the oddly named protagonist, Gladstone, through a New York City brought low by the loss of omnipresent connectivity on his search for and attempt to bring back the internet.

I’m not going to spoil the many ways he illustrates the rough landing people make when the object of their addiction is suddenly withdrawn from them, that would rob you of too many belly laughs and smirking nods of the head which are the real pleasure in reading this book, even though I am tempted to.

Let’s just say that netizens don’t hop right back to campfires and conversation pits. Our lives have been genetically altered by the internet to function efficiently only with the internet. Going back now would be the equivalent of returning to a raw meat diet. Our bodies have adapted over hundreds of thousands of years to eat cooked meat. “We are the species that cooks,” as Michael Pollen says in Cooked.

We are also the species that Reddits, 4Chans, Tweets, Facebooks, and Snapchats. We commute to work over broadband as much as we do highways. Why are Russian agents able to cripple our infrastructure? Because it’s all on the internet. If the internet disappeared, nothing, NOTHING would work again. Not our machines. Not our society. Not us.

And if you want to know what the squirming, tweaking, gnashing withdrawal symptoms would look like, there’s no better place to start than Gladstone’s book.

 

Wind River

The most subversive people I can think of are the people at Alamo Drafthouse who put together the pre-show entertainment. They have the ability to find the most arcane material that is only tangentially applicable to the movie it plays in front of, and yet, somehow, can also be a clever commentary.

Such was the case for Wind River. We were treated to a very long Carmen Miranda music video complete with an army of fake Latinos, white people in brown face displaying every known Mexican stereotype for the cameras. It was funny and anachronistic, but I had no idea what it had to do with a movie that takes place in the snows of Wyoming.

Eventually, I got it. Whitewashing.

Wind River is another movie, in 2017 no less, where a white man goes around explaining stuff to Native Americans. Why would a movie that takes place on a reservation have a Caucasian hunter/tracker? This was a perfect chance to use racial stereotypes against themselves by having a Native American play the lead.

Wind River has an 85% on Rotten Tomatoes and no one has brought up this missed opportunity, so I guess I’m alone here, but I felt like it was slow and monotonous. Jeremy Renner’s one note, low energy performance gave me time to wonder why the makeup department didn’t do something about his pores. The closeups were positively brutal to his skin.

Elizabeth Olsen turned in a fine performance. She and Gil Birmingham portrayed the only two characters who brought emotional depth to the movie. Everyone else is very… stoic.

(Spoilers for Wind River follow)

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Dunkirk

When I first saw the trailer for Dunkirk a month or so ago, my first reaction was to say to my wife, “No way. That is one of the most depressing moments in WWII history.” I had a change of heart, obviously, over time as people began to talk about the move in terms of outstanding Christopher Nolan’s film making. I didn’t want to miss this generation’s Lawrence of Arabia, after all.

My response on exiting the theater was: “That was one of the best movies I’ve ever seen, but I wish I hadn’t seen it.”

 

Spoilers for Dunkirk follow

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Valerian

Way back in the 90s when I still smoked, I could tell how bad a movie was by how many times I left the theater for a smoke break. The record was four smoke breaks for Face/Off. If I were still a smoker today, I just would have spent the whole two and a half hours of Valerian out back smoking an entire pack of Marlboro Reds.

Spoilers for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets follow.

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Wonder Woman

Lucky for us, it seems like we get one of these a year now. A movie in which everything goes right. An engine banging along on all cylinders that takes you in immediately, pulls you along for the ride, and then kicks you out into the night, blinking unbelieving at the real world.

Superhero stories are never going to be unique. Joseph Campbell spent most of his life pointing out the tropes of the hero’s journey — and that’s fine. We don’t need them to be unique. As a matter of fact, I would say that we need them to be refreshingly familiar. Telling these tales to ourselves over and over reassures us that nobility and courage and selflessness are a part of our heritage even as we watch the majority of us wallow in greed and self-absorption and ignorance.

What we need is a fresh take on the familiar superhero story. Whether it’s Deadpool or Star Trek (2009) or Rogue One or Sam Raimi’s Spider Man, we know the cadence of moments that make up a hero’s journey movie without being able to recite the names Campbell gave to them. What makes the good ones so invigorating to the spirit is that they tell the story of people who happen to be heroes and it’s getting to know those people that is so pleasing to us.

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MST3K: Moon 13, The Moon

There’s a famous line from baseball when a dangerous hitter is at the plate and there’s no open base to put him on. The pitching coach will walk out to the mound and tell the pitcher, “Don’t walk this guy, but don’t give him anything to hit, either.”

That’s basically impossible. Don’t throw balls, but also don’t throw strikes.

That was basically the mission when they decided to reboot MST3K: Don’t fix what ain’t broke, but don’t just do the same thing, either.

Somehow, they managed to do it.

This show is funny and fun and keeps the spirit of the original while being just new enough that you don’t think you’re watching a rerun. The new Mads are great. Felicia Day’s granddaughter (I think) of Clayton Forester is megalomaniacal in her own media-obsessed way and just as brutally incompetent as her grandfather. Patton Oswalt is letter perfect as TV’s Son of TV’s Frank (just call him Max).

Baron Vaughn and Hampton Yount have the perfect mix of child like innocence and drunken uncle cynicism. The animations look different, even using stop-motion at times, but are just as cheesy as the original and Gypsy finally had per processor updated so she can still run the vital functions of the ship and have an intelligent conversation.

If had been asked to pick the new subject of the Mads’ experiments, I honestly would have gone with Jonah Ray, too. I honestly can’t think of anyone else to where the jumpsuit.

So they raised a record amount of money on Kickstarter to fund this project, so much that they were able to make 14 episodes and put them up on Netflix. If you like expert riffs on amateurish films, do yourself a favor and go directly to Netflix and just watch all fourteen in a row.

You might as well binge them the first time, because you’ll be going back again and again.

Ghost In The Shell

My reaction to this movie was so complicated, had so many moving parts, that I had to take a couple of hours to unpack it after I got home. I mean, there’s no question that I didn’t care for it What makes it so complicated is all the conflicting reasons I didn’t like it, some of them so arcane they became circular references.

Having grown up a science fiction fan, I was a little depressed by the lack of new directions in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. I felt like all the innovation was coming out of the fantasy genre, one I’m not particularly interested in.

When I finally stumbled across an article in Wired about Cyberpunk, I sort of threw myself into it. Being a new parent, I didn’t have the time to read every book in the genre and I missed Steampunk altogether, but I did stake my devotion on the major works including Ghost in the Shell.

In other words, I’m the target demographic for this movie. What happened?

This is where we start unpacking.

First of all, and primarily, this Ghost in the Shell didn’t bring anything new to the table.  This hurt the movie in several ways. One, its slavish devotion to recreating scenes from the Anime hindered the actors’ performances. Scarlett Johansson, who is normally  a very good, very natural actor, looks stiff and inhibited in most of the scenes.

 

Secondly, so many movies have already lifted the iconic imagery from the original Ghost in the Shell that this movie looks like a retread – this is where the circular references start coming. There used to be a joke in the SF community that went, “I wish they would make a live action version of Ghost in the Shell. Oh wait, they already did. It was called The Matrix.”

Thirdly, we often complain when a movie deviates from the original material, but the truth is we need something new to keep the experience fresh. By hewing so closely to the original, this movie borders on the tedious.

Then comes the whitewashing.  At first, I didn’t get caught up in this teapot tempest because Anime is weirdly biracial. Every character looks half Asian and half Caucasian in what I assume is an attempt to broaden the market as much as possible. But there was this weird moment in the movie when Major goes to visit her obviously Asian mother that yanked me out of the film long enough to notice that a movie that takes place in Japan has Asian actors in the minority.

And finally, action movie, shmaction movie! We get one every fucking month and they’re all the same. That’s why John Wick and Chapter 2 were so refreshing. Someone actually sat down and worked out a different kind of action movie instead of using the exact same moves they’ve been using since they learned how to do wire erase.

That’s probably the final nail in the coffin. The original movie (and the manga it came from) was so innovative for its time that this movie’s complete lack of anything new just screams RETREAD!

So that movie we’ve been waiting for all these years finally came out and it had a big budget and a great lead actress and it wasn’t good. So now we have to ask ourselves if we really want to see a big screen version of Neuromancer or Snow Crash.

Kong: Skull Island

My first car was a baby blue 1969 Mustang. It was a beautiful car that started almost half the time when you turned the key. I can remember so clearly sitting behind the wheel, key turned all the way forward, foot firmly off the gas pedal, listening to it whine and groan, whine and groan, and then, just for a second, it would sputter and pop and you’d think it was going to start, but then it would just go back to whining and groaning.

That feeling of something never quite catching, never quite igniting was very much in my mind as I watched Kong: Skull Island. The movie would drag along with a remarkably phoned in performance from Hiddleston and Brie Larson trying gamely but ultimately having little to do and then for one brief, shining moment, John C. Reilly would burst into the narrative and light it up and you’d think, “Okay, here we go,” but then they’d push him aside and we were back to Samuel L. Jackson’s dreary attempt at Heart of Darkness.

Basically, I wish they would go back and cut out most of the other characters entirely and just tell John C. Reilly’s story. I was far more interested in what had happened since that day he and the Japanese pilot were shot down up to the present than I was in anything going on with the superfluous characters in the foreground.

On the plus side, we finally have the CGI capabilities to make a good looking Kong movie. Now all we have to do is tell a good Kong story.

 

John Wick 2

Yeah, let’s face it. When you go into a theater to see a movie with a number in the title, you’ve already subconsciously set the bar really low. To my mind, there have only been three great sequels: Godfather 2, Aliens, and Terminator 2. I don’t know if John Wick: Chapter 2 belongs on that list, but it is definitely better than 99% of all sequels out there.

Spoilers for John Wick: Chapter 2 follow

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