The Center Does Not Hold

I love all the Mad Max movies, even that redheaded stepchild Beyond Thunderdome, but the one I find most disturbing, even more so than Fury Road, is the original.

All the other movies take place in a de facto post-apocalyptic landscape. The world exists the way it is. There’s no changing that, no avoiding destruction. But in the original Mad Max, our world is just now disintegrating. Islands of civilization remain even as the deserts of chaos grow around them.

Even though a corrupt court system eventually turns the criminals loose, the havoc they wreck happens outside the city limits. Even the disastrous attack on Max’s family happens out in the country.

Director George Miller is necessarily obtuse about how the landscape is laid out – this isn’t one of those books with a map on the inside flap. All you know is there are civilized places and they are surrounded by uncivilized territories.

The creepiest thing about that original movie is the attack on the small town by Toe Cutter’s crew. You get the feeling this was a safe place maybe even just a few weeks ago.

And that’s the truly disturbing part of Mad Max. That feeling of everything you love about the world slipping away as the animals close in from the edges.

Found Treasure

I’ve been fascinated by these pop-up libraries appearing in neighborhoods where everyone could afford to just buy any book they want. At first, I figured it was some conspiracy to destroy the livelihoods of mid-list writers, but now I think it’s something else: we have grown to miss found treasure.

I first ran across this phenomenon when I amassed a large DVD collection that sat gathering dust on my shelves. I could always pull down The Matrix or Galaxy Quest and watch it, but I only seemed motivated when I caught such a movie on television, often in the middle.

The love of found treasure may not apply to current generations who have grown up with everything on demand, but to those of us who lit up when a particular song came on the radio or when we stumbled across a bad print of The Magnificent Seven on some UHF channel, there was something about browsing a bookstore, pulling out books, perusing covers, reading back jacket copy, taking in the first few pages.

Or maybe their version of found treasure is the TikTok video sent by a friend or a retweet or an IG story that went to hell in a hurry. Whatever it is, I hope it’s something, because the joy of found treasure is a singular delight.

The Stand (Redux)

You’ll often hear Stephen King described as a “cinematic writer”, someone whose work is so visceral and visual it can be turned directly into a screenplay without much effort. So the question comes to mind, “Why does Hollywood mess it up so exuberantly and so regularly?”

The first reason has to do with length. King’s best adaptations are of his novellas and short stories. When it comes to the novels, there’s just so much there it can’t all be packed into even a three hour runtime.

But this should no longer be a problem with the rise of the limited series. After all, they made an excellent adaptation of The Stand in the 90s by stretching it out into a miniseries.

So if we’ve already had one good adaptation of The Stand for TV, why did we need another one and how did it go so spectacularly wrong? Well, I can’t answer the first question, but I have a few guesses on the second.

First of all, its time framing is terrible. By making the plague and the journey into flashbacks and the Boulder settlement the present, they robbed the story of its mystery. King has written stories, namely It, that work best by flipping back and forth between the past and the present, but The Stand isn’t one of them. The Stand is the story of a magical journey and you don’t start a magical journey at the end.

Secondly, they hollowed out the characters. This grim, mushmouthed defeatist is not Stu Redman. I know Stu Redman. Stu Redman was a friend of mine, and this guy is no Stu Redman. The book (and Gary Senise’s portrayal in the miniseries) really fleshes the man out. The book is full of complete characters with depth and behaviors who are in the process of discovery, some heading to one conclusion and others to a different one.

What happened isn’t the story. It’s the process of surviving an extinction event and coming to understand your place in this new world. This reboot is boring because it’s a dreadful trudge instead of a magical journey.

This reboot reminds me — in the worst possible way — of the truly awful 2004 remake of Salem’s Lot. There is something about modern development execs who really don’t get the fun and joy of a Stephen King story and their response is to darken it down to a gray smudge.

The one brilliant exception this was the movie version of It. That was a fun movie that captured the true Stephen King spirit.

I have to admit I only made it through two episodes of the reboot. We have so many options for high quality entertainment now that there’s just no reason to put up with a ponderous, slow-moving dirge that sucks the fun out of one of the all time great fantasies.

Podcast Drop

Come listen to the latest episode of our podcast Current Events. It’s all about Star Trek: Discovery season 3 episode 10. You’ll be glad you did.

https://www.stitcher.com/show/current-events-7/episode/105-star-trek-discovery-3×9-80883658

Utopia

TL;DR: I liked the American version better, but both are insidious in their ability to make you empathize with the villain and question the behavior of the protagonists.

Spoilers for both versions of Utopia after the jump.

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Current Events 104: Discovery 3×8

Our latest podcast is up talking about Discovery Season 3 Episode 8 and it’s a doozy. The podcast, not the show. The show was kind of meh but we had so much fun talking about it. Join us, won’t you?

https://www.stitcher.com/show/current-events-7/episode/104-star-trek-discovery-3×8-80709213

Pacing

I rail quite a bit about movies being overly long, but the more I think about it, the more I believe the boredom of many modern films has more to do with bad storytelling than length.

Runtime can definitely be a problem with the theater experience. Once you reach the two hour mark while trapped in a dark room with a crowd of strangers, things can get physically uncomfortable. You’ve already finished your 128oz cola and garbage can of popcorn and now bathroom sensations are growing even as your butt quietly goes numb.

That really hasn’t been a problem for us for the last year, and yet, we’re still being bored by movies like Wonder Woman 84 and, for me, the Star Wars prequels, where length is not a physical problem but can still add to the emotional toll of long scenes, pointless action, and a meandering plot.

Two examples where critics and audiences alike have complained of slow pacing from long movies, one I agree with and one I don’t: WW84 and The Midnight Sky.

Wonder Woman and WW84 run approximately the same length, but the first one feels so much tighter than the second. For one thing, there’s a lot of wonder in Wonder Woman. We get to see her world, her people, through Steve Trevor’s eyes and then turn the tables and see our world through her eyes. There’s also an unraveling mystery about her origins to add tension.

WW84 shows us a lot of stuff we’ve already seen and tells us a lot of stuff about WW we already know. It also adds an unnecessary villain, Cheetah, and, for some unknown reason, shows off heretofore unknown indestructible gold armor that protected the Amazons against the army of all men but which can inexplicably be shredded by cat claws.

The one really interesting character from WW84 is Kristin Wiig’s Barbara Minerva. The moment she turns into Cheetah, however, she becomes a badly rendered CGI trope. Pedro Pascal’s hustler just wasn’t necessary in this 2.5 hour retelling of The Monkey’s Paw.

In summary, WW84 is a long, slow march with a few high points and a not very compelling story. Is it a problem with length? Not really. It’s just not an interesting story and going long really hurts when you don’t have a lot to say.

That brings us to The Midnight Sky, a movie I was actually warned off of by several people. In this Clooney directed and starring vehicle, an elderly scientist awaits the end of the world at a polar ice station hoping to hang on just long enough to warn a returning space mission not to come back.

First of all, I should state that I’m a sucker for end of the world movies. There’s just something so cleansing about humanity’s stain being removed from Earth and the planet being allowed to heal that appeals to me. My favorite is probably Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, but The Midnight Sky comes close.

So what’s the difference between this slowly paced film and WW84 (or any of the Star Wars prequels)? It’s not the number of minutes, it’s what’s in them.

Another of my favorite storytelling devices is to begin in media res with no backstory, no narrator, no text crawl. Just let me learn what’s going on as the story proceeds. The Midnight Sky does this extremely well by treating the audience as if they’re smart enough to get what’s going on without it being ladled into their brains.

This fills every minute with mystery and that urge to know drags us forward to the next minute and when we reach the inevitable conclusion, even though we knew what was coming, it ties up so well we can’t help but end with a knot in our throats.

WW84 will remain a throwaway superhero movie, but I think there’s a chance The Midnight Sky will eventually find an audience in people who love well crafted movies.

Podcast Episode #100

I can’t believe we’ve reached this milestone, but it’s true. We put our 100th podcast in the can.

And upcoming in episode #101, we rank the Star Wars movies. Yeah, I know, so stupid, right? Join us, won’t you?

https://www.stitcher.com/show/current-events-7

The Prequels, Revisited

As you all know, the podcast episode where Mike and I rank the Star Wars movies is coming up and that has caused me to have to watch the prequels all the way through.

The fact that they stink is not worthy of discussion. This post is about how good the original films are (well, the first two) and how confounding it is these two tight, fast paced thrillers were made by the same guy who made the bloated, slow-moving carcasses twenty-five years later.

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The Phantom Menace

TL;DR: Revisiting an objectively bad movie did not improve the movie.

I tell this story often because 1) it’s funny to me and 2) it’s about someone I viscerally hate, an embezzler and saboteur who destroyed a company of mine. So, on the occasion of my re-watching The Phantom Menace for our Star Wars ranking podcast episode, allow me to tell it again:

It’s 1999 and we’re starting to see sneak peak trailers for a movie no one has heard about. The only way to see a whole trailer is to go to whatisthematrix.com, our first foray into internet viral marketing. Two of my friends and I are very excited about seeing this movie, whatever it is, while a fourth – not a friend, let’s call him a coworker even though it turned out all he was working on was stealing our IP and fraudulently billing our clients for his time — turns to us and says, “There’s only one movie coming out in 1999: The Phantom Menace.”

The Matrix, of course, turned out to be a masterpiece and TPM turned out to be a mess.

Anyway, I haven’t seen TPM since that first time in the theater (from which I emerged fully dumbfounded and calling into question my love of Star Wars in its entirety) and with the Star Wars ranking episode looming on the horizon, I decided to give it a second chance, you know, just in case.

I can’t bear to write an entire post about this experience so I’m just going to include my live notes after the jump:

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