Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Franchises, Fandom, and Film Criticism

It is hard for me to write about films of which I am not a fan. I can do it, and sometimes I have produced good analytical papers by doing so, but here on the blog I mainly post about films toward which I am positively inclined.

This truism partly explains why I have been so slow to complete my promised review of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. I want to get that piece out there, but it is more an intellectual goal than a passion project. I want to review a Star Wars prequel to show I'm a good sport and to inoculate myself against accusations of bias against them. But the truth is, I am biased: as a movie fan, I loathe and despise all three prequels.

Winchester: "I loathe you, Pierce."
Pierce: "I call your loathe and raise you two despises."

Conversely, I noticed recently that there are certain film-worlds I simply enjoy inhabiting and will take the opportunity to visit them even via relatively mediocre movies, e.g., the Tron universe or G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009) or anything involving the Fantastic Four. Then there are other cinematic universes, like that of the X-Men, that I don't find too compelling. I enjoyed X-Men: First Class (2011), for example, but I cannot rally the enthusiasm to make it all the way through Days of Future Past (2014). It's a perfectly well-crafted movie, and if I were really into the X-Men I would probably love it, but I am not invested and no X-Men movie, no matter how good, has much re-watch value for me. Maybe I am just Wolverine-fatigued?

Owen Gleiberman wrote a recent piece that gets to the heart of this issue. Ostensibly about his disappointment with Pirates of the Caribbean 5 and Alien Covenant, the article notes that
Franchises are the basic commercial architecture on which the movie business now rests, so the whole culture — audiences, critics, the industry — has a vested interest in viewing this situation without cynicism.
That is, the way the film industry is structured right now encourages viewers to buy into a whole different kind of movie -- the intertextual franchise entry -- than existed in the recent past. According to Gleiberman, our experience of sequels and franchises has shifted since the blockbuster era began in the 1980s:
One of the reasons the word “franchise” passed from industry talk to a colloquial term is that it sounds strong and powerful. You’re not just seeing a movie, you’re glimpsing a part of something larger. You’re not just watching it, you’re joining it. 
This "joining" with something larger can be great fun, and explains my enjoyment of the G.I. Joe films, yet sometimes I just want to see a well-made movie that isn't hyperlinked to a bunch of other stuff. As I said in my review, part of what makes Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman so refreshing is that, whatever its internal flaws, it mostly feels like its own movie, even if you can tell from its overuse of slo-mo combat sequences that it is part of the "DC Universe" and that Zack Snyder vaguely oversaw its production.

I ultimately advocate for both experiences. It can be fun to immerse oneself in a franchise-universe that you enjoy, and this kind of fandom creates a special relationship to (at least certain) films in the franchise, e.g., my love of Prometheus. Yet as Gleiberman suggests, "it can be healthy to return to the mindset of the ’80s and remind yourself that a sequel is often just a sequel: a movie that has no organic reason for being, even if it pretends otherwise." Agreed.

I greatly enjoy hanging out in the Alien universe, and absolutely loved Alien Covenant, but I totally agree with Gleiberman when he says that "the thing that can’t be recaptured, even by director Ridley Scott, is the essence of the original 1979 Alien: the sense of revelation, of seeing a monster that immerses the audience in transcendent horror." I agree. Yet as a committed fan of the Alien franchise, I don't go into Prometheus or Covenant expecting to relive the greatness of the original film. I go in wanting simply to hang out in that world some more.

Still, there are limits and contours to my Alien franchise fandom. For example, I find the abominable Alien Resurrection (1997) all but unwatchable. I re-watch Alien and Prometheus much more often than I do James Cameron's generally excellent Aliens (1986). And I am currently enjoying Ridley Scott's run of Alien prequels quite a bit -- see this EW review for a gloss of what I think of Covenant.

I have written about movie fandom before -- maybe the best thing I came up with (besides the catch phrase "Fuck the Tomatometer") is that "holistic film criticism is always colored by the history, tastes, predilections, hatreds, and fandoms of the individual reviewer." In saying that I am echoing Gamasutra's Katherine Cross, who writes that criticism is "the product of a gut reaction; it is a melange of values, emphasis, and personal judgement. It can never be objective."

To the extent to which that is true, criticism and fandom are somewhat inextricable. Yet it is the critic's job to be as clear as possible about their fandoms and leanings so that the reader can have some kind of barometer to use in evaluating the critic's work.

This means being able to talk about fandom -- a kind of gut-level, euphoric, gushy thing -- in concrete terms. I've been thinking that fandom has a few different levels:
  • casual fandom, describing someone who will remain loyal to a franchise or genre or star in a vague way, but doesn't get too wrapped up in the deep mythology or details
  • fandom proper, which exists in a big range but includes a certain loyalty to a brand, studio, star, director, franchise, starring character, etc. Often the true fan tries to protect what they see as the canon of their preferred genres and franchises, and probably has some apocryphal knowledge
  • crazy-assed fandom that is so specific and particular that it destroys the fan's ability to enjoy a thing transposed into another medium or changed in the "wrong" way
I have this last thing with Lord of the Rings. I love the original J.R.R. Tolkien books so much, and they were so deeply influential upon me at an early age, that for me no film version of those works has ever really come close to the version I have in my mind. I find the Ralph Bakshi Lord of the Rings (1978) watchable, and Peter Jackson's The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) passable, but I guess I will always be swayed by my abiding fandom of those novels. Of course, the Rankin and Bass animated The Hobbit (1977) is an exception to this rule, since it is a brilliant and beautiful work of genius that is utterly enjoyable on its own merits, especially its delightful songs.

This is not to say that Jackson's Rings movies aren't good movies in some more objective sense -- though they do get worse as they go, especially screenplay-wise -- but simply that I will probably never love them the way many fans do. As a critic, I can see their positive qualities (e.g., high production values, great casting and visuals), even though I can also see the concrete reasons (e.g., contrived dialogue, shitty characterizations, numbingly bombastic battle sequences) that make at least the second two entries completely unappealing to me. My loyalty to the books plays a key role in how I respond as a viewer, and I acknowledge this in my criticism, but I also have legitimate critiques of the Lord of the Rings films themselves. I am a fan and a critic.

In "Hollywood Blames Critics for Its Movies Being Unimaginative Pieces of Shit," The Daily Beast's Kevin Fallon observes that
When a film like Get Out or Hidden Figures skyrockets to surprise box office success on the fuel of critics’ raves, it’s a credit to the value of positive reviews. But if a well-reviewed film is a box office bomb, then it’s used to argue that they don’t matter. What’s interesting, though, is how often critics and general audiences’ tastes align.
Indeed. Gleiberman echoes this sentiment in his article on superhero movie fandom, writing that "1) Critics are fans. 2) Fans are critics." As Gleiberman concludes:
Take the all-too-relevant issue of critics and comic-book movies. Do we critics reflexively dislike them? No. Do we sometimes dislike them? Yes. Do fans of comic-book movies agree with us? More often than not, I would say…yes. Four years from now, will people be talking about what a kickass movie Suicide Squad was? Prediction: Not really.
But all of us, critic-fans and fan-critics alike, will continue to passionately debate the films, franchises, and pop cultural loyalties we enjoy, nurture, refuse, and resist. The best thing we can do is to articulate these positions clearly and be as respectful as possible in how we communicate our ideas and passions.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Shark Lake (2015) vs. Sharktopus (2010)

Eric Roberts, one of the best things about Sharktopus. 

This post is an (only very slightly) enhanced take on ideas I first hashed out here. I mainly posted this revised version to set the stage for an upcoming Shark Attack Movie Roundup! and because I had a few more things to say about Shark Lake (2015) and Sharktopus (2010).

Sara Malakul Lane as Deputy Hernandez, the protagonist of Shark Lake. I'd show you a shot of the shark but it might deter you from wanting to see the film.

Shark Lake is a low-budget B-movie which features top-billed Dolph Lundgren in about four short scenes. The rest of the movie is carried by Sara Malakul Lane as sheriff's deputy Meredith Hernandez. She is compelling and some of the film's attack sequences -- especially an early one involving an old man -- are pretty amusing. But the special effects are pure shit, and therefore, despite its promising title, the shark is the least goddamned interesting thing in this shark movie. I don't inherently mind fakey or cheap special effects, but in a film-world that purports to be dealing with "real" sharks, bad effects can really ruin it. (As we'll see, I am much more tolerant of shoddy, obvious CGI when it is used to convey the weird and fantastical as in Sharktopus.)

The best stuff in Shark Lake includes the pub scene when Hernandez tells her adoptive daughter Carly that one of her nine-year old schoolmates is sexist, and the witty banter that subsequently ensues between Hernandez and oceanography nerd Peter (Michael Aaron Milligan). It's also fun to watch Lundgren growl his way through a few incomprehensible scenes late in the movie. But it is a weakness to make a shark attack movie in which the shark attack scenes are by far the worst part.

Overall, Shark Lake is one of those "so bad it's good" entries. While the acting is pretty good, the film's badness mostly stems from its bargain-basement special effects and some very odd plot turns near the end. Nonetheless I would call Shark Lake a very enjoyable low-budget shark attack film. Bear in mind that I am both a low-budget shark movie junkie and an ardent fan of The Room.

You guessed it: Sharktopus. Yes, they're on dry land.

Sadly, Malakul Lane, who does such a noble job propping up Shark Lake, goes underused in the otherwise delightful Sharktopus. Eric Roberts basically steals the movie from its ostensible leads, and the sharktopus creature's visual appearance and attack scenes are much more satisfying than similar ones in the generally less overblown Shark Lake. Indeed, Sharktopus as a whole is great fun, in part because it is great fun to watch a huge shark / octopus hybrid crawl up onto dry land, roar, and kill people.

Sadly, in Sharktopus, Malakul Lane is relegated to being an especially drab embodiment of the "babe scientist" stereotype I discuss in my review of Doctor Strange. She spends a lot of time sitting in the back of a motorboat, silently typing at a laptop computer. This is disappointing given that she is given much more to do -- and therefore more character depth -- as the protagonist of Shark Lake.

One of the least thrilling aspects of the generally action-packed Sharktopus.

Shark Lake vs. Sharktopus: despite plot confusion and rock-bottom shitty monster effects, Shark Lake has much better dramatic sequences than does Sharktopus. The strengths of Sharktopus are its awesome attack sequences, especially since the creature can climb up on land and remain there for several minutes at a time. And again, Eric Roberts.

Both films are exploitative and crass, but Sharktopus is more so. Take, for example, an early dark-comic scene in which Roger Corman himself cameos as an elderly beachcomber who watches a woman get brutally killed by the sharktopus. He looks on impassively, watches her die, shrugs, steals the now-dead woman's prized coin off the beach, and walks away. Despite some gratuitous ass shots in a couple beach party scenes, there is no comparable scene of death being treated so lightly in Shark Lake.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Review: Wonder Woman (2017)


Wonder Woman is a big-budget superhero movie, and despite a couple of clever comments Diana (Gal Gadot) makes near the end about heroes being unable to solve complex problems like war and human corruption, it is fundamentally an earnest one rather than a deconstructive one. That is, it feels like it could have been made ten years ago, and probably it would have felt fresher then, situated among other straightforward origin stories like Iron Man (2008) and Captain America: The First Avenger (2011).

This is not Wonder Woman's fault -- Hollywood has dragged so much goddamned ass finally making an A-grade female-led superhero film that it beggars belief. We have been waiting for a Wonder Woman movie for so many years, even decades, and our having to wait this long for a movie centered on such an iconic character is glaring evidence of Hollywood's deep and pervasive structural sexism.

But the movie is finally here now, and it is a lot of fun. Like all superhero films, Wonder Woman takes its cues from the blockbuster writ large, inheriting its DNA from the 1980s Spielberg-Lucas template. So like any big-budget action-adventure film made in the wake of Star Wars (1977) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Wonder Woman is entirely predictable. There are no surprises or revelations here -- we've seen all this before.

However, that said, Wonder Woman is well-executed and possesses a few key strengths that make it a pleasure to watch:
  • a very likable, positive, and non-brooding protagonist
  • a particularly game and enjoyable supporting cast, especially Chris Pine as Steve Trevor -- Gadot and Pine exhibit delightful onscreen chemistry
  • minimal (though some) running-time bloat and (thank god) minimal crossover exposition -- no distracting Superman or Batman cameos here
That first item is the most important and is what sets this film apart from all the others in the recent DC Universe franchise.* I am sick to death of dark, tortured protagonists in action-adventure blockbusters so when I heard that Wonder Woman was not going that route, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. Wonder Woman's Diana is not quite so upbeat and booster-ish as Christopher Reeve's Superman or Melissa Benoist's Supergirl, but she abides in that general area -- grimly determined but not grim, and generally optimistic about human potential and the human spirit. I like superheroes like that.


Teamed up with Gadot as Diana is Chris Pine (a personal favorite) as Steve Trevor. He is a delight and his chemistry with Gadot is spot-on. I agree with AV Club's A.A. Dowd that
Pine, with his square-jawed deadpan, bounces nicely off of Gadot’s tourist curiosity; the two actors have a chemistry of innuendo and hesitant camaraderie—the makings of a screwball romantic comedy, simmering around the edges of the story.
Indeed, I wouldn't have minded if the Diana-Steve duo spent a little more time in London exchanging banter and having fun with Etta (a hilarious Lucy Davis) before slogging into the whole combat mission. But this is a blockbuster, there are action beats to get to, I get it. As Dowd puts it, "One just wishes [director Patty Jenkins] were working outside of a house style not already etched in stone." Hear, hear.

At least Wonder Woman avoids annoying franchise hyperlinks that distract from the story at hand. Recall the marred ending of Winter Soldier, about which I have written:
Captain America: The Winter Soldier was okay but should have ended right when Cap comes ashore at the lakeside after the film's climactic battle. Everything else after that is franchise-connection filler and is superfluous to this movie. 
Sure, Wonder Woman has a brief frame story in which Diana (in the present day) receives a note and photograph from "Wayne Enterprises" and subsequently sends an email message back to "Bruce Wayne." But there is no pointless cameo by any other DC franchise character or some out-of-context teaser for the upcoming Justice League movie, in which Diana will also appear.** So hearty kudos to Wonder Woman for simply being its own movie, an increasing rarity in today's franchise-dominated blockbuster world.

To characterize it in the terms fleshed out in this postWonder Woman is a simple, generic blockbuster.

Wonder Woman hangs out on the top left with blockbusters like The Avengers (2012). 

Simple blockbusters, indicating the simplicity of their plots, "make pretty clear from the get-go what is at stake" and "do not depend upon mystery or surprise." There is only one major "surprise reveal" of a character's true identity near the end of Wonder Woman, and if you don't see that coming from leagues away, then god help you. No, Diana sets off from Themyscira to do a certain thing, and by the end of the movie she does exactly that.

Generic blockbusters, referring to genre and style, are "films that adhere more closely to the established parameters of their genre, with less evident authorial flourishes or deviations in tone or visual aesthetics." In this context we have to see genre in terms of franchise and branding as well. I would describe Wonder Woman as a generic superhero blockbuster in the Warner Brothers / DC post-Nolan, Zack Snyder-ish style.  There's slo-mo combat, there's a big boss villain, there are super-weapons, there are parent / child things being worked out, etc.

If Wonder Woman has noticeable flaws, they are:
  • a too-long running time and a pointless and boring final battle -- the film is emotionally over about twenty minutes before it concludes, around the time Diana confronts Ludendorff and then Steve Trevor on the elevated tower near the airstrip. 
  • some incomprehensible, sloppily choreographed and/or shot action sequences, especially during Diana's early training. This is not unique to Wonder Woman -- pretty much all superhero films and blockbusters follow "Chaos cinema" aesthetics in their action sequences these days -- but it is still unfortunate.
That said, some of the slow motion in the action sequences, used more judiciously by Jenkins than it is in the Zack Snyder-directed movies I've seen, works really well, creating a kind of comic book panel or splash page type effect. Combined with this, Gadot, for me, possesses the physicality, prowess, and aura to really pull off this role. For me, her Diana in Wonder Woman is as visually iconic as Christopher Reeve in Superman (1978) -- I mean that as a supremely positive comment.  

In his review, Entertainment Weekly's Chris Nashawaty compliments Gadot's "undeniable star power" and accurately describes Wonder Woman as "assured and sly." He writes that Gadot's Diana "is both awesomely fierce and surprisingly funny" and "her chemistry with Pine is just as unexpected and electric." I agree with these points and with the overall conclusions of that review.

And importantly, as Dowd and others have noted, despite the shortness of her skirt-thingy and a few gratuitous bare-leg shots, the film mostly resists sexually objectifying Diana, thank christ. It's sad that the bar is so low that we are relieved simply when a mainstream film doesn't objectify or ogle its female characters, but there you have it.

She usually looks more like this. 

In short, definitely see Wonder Woman if you like enjoyable blockbuster action movies. This one won't condescend to you. It will provide "sly and assured" entertainment and action thrills -- Diana's assault on the village of Veld being my favorite instance of the latter. I also really enjoyed the brief alley fight that happens in London. Diana's whip, weapons, and style are cool, and the film's climactic message, while entirely corny, is the sort of popcornish thing I want to hear at this time of year and in these troubled times. That Wonder Woman's message of love comes from the lips of Hollywood blockbuster cinema's first bona fide female stand-alone superhero franchise protagonist is, I think, cause for celebration. Long live Diana, Princess of the Amazons.


UPDATE 6/5/2017: Please read this feminist critique of the film by Nerds of Color's N'jaila Rhee and consider also this more deprecatory feminist analysis by Slate.com's Christina Cauterucci.

UPDATE 6/9/2017: For even more nuanced discussion of the feminist implications of Wonder Woman, read Noah Berlatsky's incisive rundown of how the film fails to acknowledge -- and even works against -- the "sisterhood" elements of the original comics, and also this smart dialogue between Carolyn Petit and Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency.

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* Note that I have not seen Man of Steel (2013) nor Batman v. Superman (2016) and don't plan to see either one. I have no truck with a brooding, "dark" interpretation of Superman and I was tired of the "dark" version of Batman by the time The Dark Knight (2008) rolled its end credits.
** To be fair, I did not stick around to see if Wonder Woman has a clunky, Marvel-esque post-credits sequence pointing toward future franchise entries.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Review: Kong Skull Island (2017)

Bearing in mind that I am the guy who re-watches The Lost World more often than I do the original Jurassic Park, I saw Kong Skull Island over the weekend and got exactly what I expected: a brainless, action-packed good time.

Is the film thin on the ground plot-wise and character development-wise? Yes, quite.

Are the only characters who can be said to have any personality or character arc Samuel L. Jackson's Packard and John C. Reilly's Marlow? Yes.

Indeed, Entertainment Weekly's Chris Nashawaty is correct to note that "there are about a half dozen too many characters to keep track of once the film gets underway." True -- I remember almost none of them except the two already mentioned plus John Goodman's Randa. Most egregiously, superb actors Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson are especially underused here -- they get barely any lines and are mainly around to pose attractively in the foreground of tableaux shots.

As David Palmer writes in his negative review,
If ever there was a blockbuster that was the definition of "studio picture" it’s this. Everything feels been there/done that, and even the scenes where Kong is Gronk-spiking helicopters manage to feel lifeless and almost completely devoid of joy. Slow-mo is overused to the point of eye-rolling and [director Jordan] Vogt-Roberts doesn’t seem to give any character direction to his actors.
I agree with all this and yet, unlike Palmer, I thoroughly enjoyed Kong Skull Island. I knew what I was in for and had no expectation that the film would be anything more than what it is: a big, dumb, action movie in which a giant gorilla beats hell out of a bunch of stuff. Nashawaty calls Skull Island "a big, loud, and kinda silly monster mash that feels like a throwback to the late-‘90s Bruckheimer era of gung-ho, budgets-be-damned macho adventure" and I agree.

Skull Island's soundtrack is riddled with hackneyed, over-used Vietnam-era classic rock tracks: The Chambers Brothers' "Time Has Come Today," Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit," and of course CCR's "Run Through the Jungle." As Nashawaty remarks, the film's song choices evince "lack of care" and "have as much imagination as a Time-Life Songs of the ‘70s set." I found these choices annoying.

Yet the movie's weirdest musical choice -- which constitutes my single biggest complaint about Kong: Skull Island overall -- is its use of Vera Lynn's "We'll Meet Again" right near the end. That song forever belongs to the apocalyptic montage at the end of Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (1964). To use it in any other movie -- especially as used here, as a straight-faced piece of WWII nostalgia -- ends up feeling macabre and off-putting due to that unavoidable intertextual reference. These filmmakers should have known better.*

My other big problem with Skull Island is its bald-faced Orientalism in portraying the native tribe with whom Reilly's Marlow coexists. Between Marlow's Heart of Darkness-evoking surname and the decision to have the natives never speak -- they just silently nod and gesture throughout -- the filmmakers obviously mean to signal that they are "in on the joke," that they are re-hashing these racist, imperialist tropes knowingly, with a nudge and a wink. Yet the tropes are still damaging, and the film's racist, one-dimensional depiction of the 1970s Skull Islanders is distractingly offensive. They could have been done so differently.

In conclusion, I do not know if I will ever watch Kong Skull Island again, but there is a vastly greater chance of that happening than me ever watching Peter Jackson's overlong, draggy, bombastic, and boring King Kong remake again (believe me, I've tried). The difference lies in aspiration, not execution. Both 2005's Kong and 2017's Skull Island are well-executed blockbusters. But the 2005 film is trying too hard to be an "epic," serious homage to the 1933 original, so despite its great casting and better script, it is, for the most part, slow-paced and mind-numbingly boring.

Skull Island, in contrast, wastes no time getting to the island and the Kong fight scenes, so is a much more worthwhile investment of my time and entertainment dollar. I recommend it for what it is: blockbuster thrills held together with a stupid plot and flat characters -- but with the common decency not to pretend to be otherwise. Its honesty in this regard, which reminds me of Pacific Rim (2013), is refreshing.  

King Kong sez: "Eat my shorts, Peter Jackson."

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* Unless, of course, they were misguidedly trying to "steal the song back" from Kubrick on purpose, a hubristic and futile attempt which utterly backfires. How can anyone who has ever seen Strangelove forget that sequence and song?

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Three Recent Good Movies

David Brent (Ricky Gervais) explains the various misfortunes that have struck his original "Foregone Conclusion" bandmates.  

I recently got around to watching David Brent: Life on the Road (2016, dir. Ricky Gervais) via Netflix streaming, and was pleasantly surprised by how truly good it is. Surely of greatest interest to those viewers who (like me) are familiar with writer/director Ricky Gervais' seminal BBC series The Office (2001-03), this feature-length sequel does not require such familiarity in order to be thoroughly enjoyed. The film, documenting David Brent's life ten years after the end of The Office, features zero cameos from the original series cast and only one brief reference -- to Pete Gibbons, what else? -- that would constitute an in-joke. Life on the Road stands on its own.

I therefore recommend Life on the Road to any viewer fond of British comedy and/or Spinal Tap-style mockumentaries. Indeed, Life on the Road is a lot like a more downbeat, dry version of Spinal Tap, as the self-involved Brent sets off on an expensive and disastrous vanity tour to attempt to flog life into his non-starter career as a rock musician. Everyone around him, including his hired bandmates and road manager, find him musically silly and interpersonally odious, and say so in their ongoing interview segments.

Meanwhile, Brent's own interviews highlight his socially important lyrics -- he is a clueless, unconsciously racist white man inexplicably fixated on native Americans and disabled folks -- and the big plans he's got for his musical career once he's signed to a record label.

David Brent convinces his long-suffering bandmate Dom (Ben Bailey Smith) to don an ethnically inappropriate costume for a gig. 

In addition to being quite funny -- some of Brent's songs and concert sequences are especially outrageous and squirmy -- Gervais here deploys a climactic device similar to that he used in his brilliant HBO series Extras: he gives Brent a chance at emotional, if not musical, redemption. His tour fails but for the first time since the character's first appearance in 2001, David Brent seems to actually learn something of value from his mistakes. A melodramatic ploy? Yes. Effective and touching? Yes.

As he has shown again and again, Gervais is a master craftsman of character-driven comedies like this, and his return to his best-known character is hilariously funny and surprisingly poignant. Life on the Road is definitely worth a watch.

Daniel Kaluuya's spot-on performance as Chris anchors Jordan Peele's 
must-see horror film Get Out. 

Get Out (2017, dir. Jordan Peele) is a fun, timely, and darkly humorous horror film that is in serious contention to be the best film of the genre released this year. It really is that good. It is also rated PG-13 which means it isn't too gory and should be accessible to thriller fans.

Get Out's most obvious referents are The Stepford Wives (1975) and John Frankenheimer's Seconds (1966), yet Peele borrows concepts from those films (as well as visual ideas from The Shining etc.) and makes them very much his own. There is a strong sense of purpose and authorial voice in Get Out, including many wonderful comedic moments that perfectly break the tension -- just long enough to give the audience a brief respite from the thrills. As I discussed with my companions after the screening, I am most eager to see what Key and Peele and Keanu alum Jordan Peele does next as a director.

[UPDATE: Jordan Peele tells Business Insider that he's got four more planned "social thrillers" in the works.]

Most interesting to me is Get Out's knowing yet subtle riff on the ending of Night of the Living Dead, a film that obviously looms large for any genre fan when watching this movie, since it is one of the few other horror films ever to feature a black protagonist.

Timely due to its racially charged plot and thematics, Get Out lands because it is a well-crafted, thrilling movie, with lots of pathos and humor deftly interwoven with its scares and thrills. As this incisive critical essay by George Shulman notes,
the gift of Get Out is that its humor about the absurdities of race, and its playfulness with Hollywood genres of horror and thriller, displays the possibility of facing - exposing - this horror [of contemporary structural racism] in ways that cross racial lines, and by evoking affects other than self-righteous reproach and guilt. But the question remains whether this movie can - what act, event, or artifact possibly could - undo the knowingness by which Obama-era whites protect themselves from their implication in the horror, the horror.
Indeed. I know I over-use this adjective, but Get Out is truly brilliant -- equal parts thrilling, funny, and thematically poignant without ever being heavy handed. An absolute must-see.

Yet like Shulman, who wonders whether or not liberal white viewers will see themselves included in the film's critique of white obliviousness to racism, I hope Get Out can inspire the right kinds of discussions and reflections in its white viewers. The film's point is that even those of us who attempt not to be complicit in structural racism, are. We should enjoy this film as horror fans but seriously grapple with its implications as potential anti-racists. As Schulman poignantly writes:
did whites in the audience imagine themselves as exceptions, as exempt from the portrait of whiteness in the movie? When we were laughing at the fabulous humor, and when we felt terror at white predation, did we divide ourselves from whiteness by a kind of self-protective knowingness? Is that division exactly how Obama era politics could proceed while leaving the deep structure of white supremacy intact?
These are the right questions to ask and think about.

Amy Adams gives a riveting central performance in Arrival. As with Daniel Kaluuya's work in Get Out, the key concept here is empathy

I have been a fan of Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve since Prisoners (2013), and have been eagerly anticipating my chance to finally see his latest movie, the science-fiction drama Arrival (2016). I just saw it this weekend and I was not disappointed. In fact, I would call Arrival my favorite Villeneuve film and the best science-fiction film I have seen since, say, Moon (2009).

On the basis of the first three Villeneuve films I saw -- Prisoners, Enemy and Sicario -- I would have said that the director suffers from the same "brilliant setup goes off the rails in the third act" malady as does Danny Boyle. Not to the same degree as Boyle -- seriously, look at the climactic sections of 28 Days Later and Sunshine and you'll see what I mean -- but detectable nevertheless. For example, Prisoners seems to start off as a serious meditation on the moral and emotional price of torture, then becomes a Silence of the Lambs-esque serial killer thriller in its third act. Sicario is mainly a story focused on Kate (Emily Blunt) until she basically disappears in act three and the film turns into a revenge thriller centered on a different character.

I have still enjoyed each of these movies, especially Enemy and Sicario, but I have noticed this tendency toward third-act inconsistency each time.

This problem does not exist in Arrival, Villeneuve's best-conceived and most coherent film yet. The third-act payoff is brilliantly set up from the very beginning of the film, in a "show don't tell" manner that is hook-producing and ultimately enormously satisfying. I can't give away specifics but let me just say that this film knows what its purpose is from the outset and it pays it off in an artful and emotionally resonant way.

The terrific cast doesn't hurt either. Amy Adams is especially good, and she is well supported by Forest Whitaker, Jeremy Renner, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Mark O'Brien. The alien vessels and creatures are convincing and interesting, and the sci-fi thrills will remind genre-savvy viewers of analogous situations from James Cameron's The Abyss and The Terminator.

In short, Arrival is thinking-person's sci-fi with enough militaristic thrills and interesting plot twists to satisfy any viewer who does not absolutely require lots of explosions in order to enjoy a film like this (though there is one explosion). Beyond that, the film does what great sci-fi should: suggests an emotionally truthful idea about who we humans are and can be as a species and a society. Arrival may not deliver an especially profound or unique message -- it is something we've heard before for sure -- but in these troubled and divisive times, it is a timely and appropriate idea. As a recent Oscar reviewer wrote of Moonlight's much-deserved best picture win this year, "in choosing Moonlight the Academy went for empathy over escapism." Arrival goes for empathy and escapism, and succeeds at both. An engrossing must-see.

The heptopod sez: "You humans have got to get your shit together!"

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

My Star Wars Fandom Explained


This post functions as a prequel (hee hee) to my forthcoming review of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. The present post will deal with the following two facts:

(1) I am of the generation who grew up with the original Star Wars trilogy (1977-1983) and therefore may not be the target audience for the Star Wars prequels (1999-2005).

yet

(2) The Star Wars prequels are objectively shitty on every level except their deployment of digital effects and sound design, plus a few individually well-executed scenes here and there.

Not this one. 

I am a Star Wars fan from way back. I was just the right age to go see the original trilogy films as a kid with my family. I saw Star Wars (1977) multiple times in the theater because that was simply a thing one did for a year or so after its original release. I'm guessing I saw it five times in the theater.

Similarly, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi were also family events, and big cultural events as well -- I got pulled out of school by my folks to go see Return of the Jedi with friends. Star Wars was the most significant cultural phenomenon of my early lifetime, and like it or not, my destiny is still somewhat chained to it.

Nowadays I categorically prefer Steven Spielberg's films over his geeky buddy George's,  As I have increased my appreciation for the art and technique of cinema, I see that Spielberg is an all-around great director, a true master of the form. Lucas is a good ideas man and executive producer, and a marvel at deploying special effects of all kinds, but he is lousy with scripts and actors -- this is a real Achilles' heel for him.

That said, that original Star Wars trilogy will always be with me.

What this also means is that I was one of those folks likely to have trouble with the Star Wars prequels.

I have already explained one reason why the prequels are total failures, which is because Lucas tried to take on too many tasks that he's frankly never shown he's very good at:
If Lucas would have brought on additional writers, surrogate directors, etc. and just focused on the one thing he knows how to do well, i.e., deploying special effects, those [prequels] might have been at least watchable and maybe even enjoyable. As it is, they are some of the worst movies ever made -- incoherently scripted, boringly shot, and abysmally directed -- and it is confounding to think that they could have been, with just the slightest bit more thought and effort, something more.
Ultimately, these films are mostly worthless because, as Mr. Plinkett has pointed out, they are structured like character-driven narrative films, yet they feature flatly written "characters" and insufficiently thought-out stories. At the scene level, they are too often directed badly, unimaginatively, and flatly. They are boring.


All that said, this apologia for the prequels is well-articulated and mostly fairly convincing. I will return to this piece in my forthcoming Episode II review.

As for recent, Disney-era Star Wars developments, you can read my Force Awakens review here. I haven't been able to motivate myself to get out and see Rogue One yet, but I have taken great pleasure from watching this long review, this short review, this follow-up review, and this amazing review parody instead.

Mike Stoklasa sez: "Me personally, I also loved this film"

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Review: The Shallows (2016)

Blake Lively and Sully the seagull star in The Shallows

I finally got around to seeing The Shallows, which I mostly really enjoyed. The movie sometimes "jumps the shark" in a couple different senses. A few key events, shark behaviors, and moments of bad CGI stretch viewer credulity to the breaking point. Yet I had a fun time watching the movie and would -- will -- watch it again.

Blake Lively stars as surfer Nancy Adams, a Texan medical school dropout who goes to a remote, locals-only surfing beach in Mexico to make peace with her mother's recent death. Once there, she faces death herself when a huge, hungry great white shark attacks and terrorizes her. 

I appreciate The Shallows' well-executed homages to Jaws like the presence of the buoy and Nancy as the film's solo protagonist. Nancy's no-bullshit attitude and high degree of narrative agency makes The Shallows feel like a critical referendum on Jaws' brilliant yet rape-y opening sequence -- that is, The Shallows explores what it would be like if Jaws' Chrissie had been given a chance to fight back.

And sure, the Jaws buoy homage has been done before -- there are clanging buoys in Deep Blue Sea and Open Water -- but rarely as well. The Shallows makes its buoy a much more important screen element, distantly haunting the film's early scenes then serving as the third act's main set piece.

Nancy strikes back, astride her mighty buoy. Her use of the buoy to defeat the shark is surely a critique of Chrissie's fate in Jaws

That said, as I have similarly argued of Mad Max: Fury Road, The Shallows embraces the sexist cinematic convention of visually objectifying Nancy's body. Although she does not spend the entire running time clad in bikini only, Nancy's body is frequently put on display for the viewer's pleasure, in accordance with the pervasive Hollywood practice documented by feminist film scholar Laura Mulvey.*

The film's scenery is beautiful, and its central performances (by Lively and a seagull companion) are quite good. However, there is some over-use of slow motion in the first act. The slo-mo works well when the film shoots from a low angle at looming waves, suggesting imminent danger. But it grows tiresome during some of the surfing sequences, which would actually be more impressive if depicted in real time. As Peter DeBruge puts it in his generally negative review,
It’s a beautiful cove, and Collet-Serra and his camera crew (including surf d.p. Dwayne Fetch) lavish us with a gorgeous (if somewhat abstractly cut together) hang-10 montage featuring nice moves by Nancy and two unnamed Mexican surfers.**
Abstractly cut together indeed -- especially egregious is one shot which starts in slo-mo then suddenly switches to fast-motion mid-take. This feels needlessly corny and cheap-snowboarder-videoish to me, at odds with the suspense the film seems to want to build here. Nevertheless, despite its distractingly cheesedick surfing cinematography, The Shallows' "reality" remains fairly intact for its first half-hour. It breaks for me when Nancy does some home surgery on herself, stitching her extensive leg wounds together with a couple of earrings.    

This is PG-13?!

Then the film mostly gets back on track, though it deploys blatant ethnic stereotyping when a fat, drunk Mexican turns out to be unscrupulous and untrustworthy. Of course, this being a genre film with fairly well-established rules, the greedy, evil, corpulent Mexican swiftly meets a terribly gruesome death by shark attack. Voila!


The third-act underwater jellyfish sequence is brilliant, both in concept and in execution. It is the film's most visually interesting sequence. It may not be strictly realistic -- does a great white shark really have much sensitivity to jellyfish stings? -- but it feels close enough to plausible and it is a visually stunning and suspenseful scene.

I cannot say the same for a couple ridiculous things that happen near the film's climax. The Shallows obviously goes for a Jaws-like crescendo when the obviously CGI shark starts attacking the buoy, but given some of the grittier earlier aspects (e.g., the surgery, the quiet moments with the seagull), I think a more subdued ending a la The Reef would have better suited this film. I buy Nancy escaping from this surprisingly persistent shark, but killing it in the over-the top, action-heroine fashion in which she does? Not quite credible, though of course I applaud the intention.

I still don't understand how the fuck THIS happened. Spontaneous saltwater combustion?

I'm not sure the brief "One Year Later" epilogue is necessary either. Just end it with her and Steven exchanging looks as she lies on the beach -- we already know the rest.

All that said, The Shallows is an exciting, thoughtfully made thrill ride and it deserves a place of honor among shark attack films. It is way above such pleasurable dreck as Shark Lake and Sharktopus, yet doesn't quite reach the high benchmark set by The Reef. It sits below The Reef, somewhat near Open Water, in my shark movie rankings.

Sully the seagull sez: "Check out my Oscar-worthy performance in The Shallows -- I'm more believable than the shark!"

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* See Mulvey's influential essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," originally published in Screen 16.3 (Autumn 1975) pp. 6-18.
** Much as I enjoy The Shallows, I cannot really defend it against DeBruge's critiques, and I especially agree with him that the film's score is clunky and weak. Debruge describes it as "the relatively suspense-less, all-digital stylings of composer Marco Beltrami, whose background music sounds like broken sonar equipment."

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Top Five Blog Posts (times two)

I began last year's blogging in a slightly unusual way, with a book review. I want to start 2017 by doing something completely new: offering a brief retrospective about some of my favorite and most popular posts of the past.

In addition to functioning as a kind of "greatest hits" retrospective, I hope this post draws attention to some of the earlier entries in this blog's three-plus year archive more generally. In the process of compiling these two top five lists I've realized that there are some enjoyable gems among my earlier posts.*

First I will share a list of the blog's top five most popular posts, ranked by how many total pageviews each one has received as of 12/30/2016. That list, with comments, will be followed by a list of my personal top five favorite posts, also with comments.

Top Five Blog Posts by Pageviews

1. Why Manhunter Kicks Red Dragon's Stupid Ass. One always hopes that a post's high pageview count corresponds in some way with the quality of the writing and interest of the content of the post. However, I don't kid myself. Much as I wish that the number-one clicked-on post, "Why Manhunter Kicks Red Dragon's Stupid Ass," was well-viewed due to strong interest in Michael Mann and his great thriller Manhunter, I strongly suspect that its draw has more to do with the words "Kicks Stupid Ass" appearing in the title.


Nevertheless, "Why Manhunter Kicks Red Dragon's Stupid Ass" stands as one of the blog's finest examples of using close attention to cinematic aesthetics to defend a taste preference. I do genuinely think Manhunter is a vastly better film than Red Dragon in almost every way, but what I like best about this post is the deliberate way in which I make my case clear to the reader. It's a good example of close visual analysis (via the scene comparisons) used to support an argument, as well as a chance for me to champion the great Michael Mann.

(Due to its sharp visual analysis and overall written flow, I would have chosen "Why Manhunter Kicks Red Dragon's Stupid Ass" as a personal favorite post in any case. Yet I was spared having to use up one of my five picks since it was the top winner by number of pageviews -- a total of 1,438 on 12/30/2016.)


2. In Defense of the Jaws Sequels. I am so glad this post is statistically popular because I am quite fond of it. I genuinely love the Jaws sequels (especially Jaws 2 and Jaws: The Revenge) so am happy to think I might have persuaded other film lovers to take a chance on one or more of these hidden gems.

3. Five Directors to Watch Out For. This is an important post and the earliest-composed one (November 2013) to appear on either list here. It discusses the work of Nicole Holofcener, Steve McQueen, Lars von Trier, Steven Soderbergh, and Nicolas Winding Refn, all of whom I still revere. It also reveals this interesting truth about me:
at the end of the day, I would rather see a "noble failure" by filmmakers with something interesting or unique to show me rather than something formulaic and cliched that simply "plays it safe."
That is a key to understanding my cinematic tastes and aesthetic preferences.

Sidney Lumet, director of 12 Angry Men (1957) and several other truly great films. 

4. Alternate Top 100: 12 Angry Men (1957). An incisive piece about a truly great film in which I claim that 12 Angry Men is "the greatest fiction film about the American legal system of which I am aware" and "one of my favorite movies in any genre." I stand by those statements, and that is why I include 12 Angry Men in my "Alternative Top 100," a list of films meant to be added to or swapped into the Entertainment Weekly Top 100 Films list to correct its "oversights and errors." As I write of this project,
I am simply naming some films that I think should be on any legitimate list of this kind. See my second footnote here if you want an idea about which titles I would cut from EW's list to make room for my alternative selections.
I am proud and pleased to note that Sidney Lumet's 12 Angry Men, an essential watch for anyone, is the first film I selected for this distinction.


5. The Reef vs. Open Water. I love this post because it expresses my enduring love for fictional shark attack movies and because it contains this line:
Broadly speaking, Open Water is about how modern bureaucracy, white peoples' need for cheap tourism, and lack of personal connections between married people lead to mistakes that destroy us, then we get eaten by sharks, whereas The Reef is about bonding with friends and relatives, mending past relationships and discovering rekindled love, then we get eaten by sharks.
My Top Five Favorite Blog Posts

In making these selections I went with my gut instincts at first -- by which process I came up with eight or nine posts. In winnowing the list down I tried to choose for content but also for good writing and a satisfying overall unity to each piece. I hope I succeeded and that you'll check out some of these ones if you haven't before.

1. Review: Prometheus (2012). This post constitutes an excellent defense of an under-appreciated movie. It includes a well-balanced discussion of the film, including its weaknesses, and the piece as a whole flows well.

2. I Am A Feminist. A key manifesto and as much autobiography as I'm ever likely to write, this post acknowledges many key influences on my worldview and thinking, including my maternal grandmother, pop-cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian, and most importantly, my intellectual mentor Kathleen Rowe Karlyn. Without Karlyn's guidance I would have neither my astute critical perspective on popular culture nor my beloved day job as a film studies professor. "I Am A Feminist" is must-read if you want to understand where I'm coming from as a person and movie critic.

3. Review: Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014).  Eviscerating reviews (like this one and this one) are the funniest. This is such a review and is therefore quite funny. Yet it also gives credit where credit is due (no shaky cam!) and marks a pivotal entry in my increased highlighting of racism and Orientalism in popular films.

4. EW #11: King Kong (1933). It is huge fun to write about films you love well, and I love the 1933 version of King Kong. I also despise Peter Jackson's bombastic 2005 remake, and this review both extols the virtues of a deserving classic and briefly runs down why the CGI remake is a colossal waste of time. Plus it includes a reference to mule piss, a sure sign of an excellent piece of film criticism.

5. Film Reviews Are Subjective. This is the famed "Fuck the Tomatometer" post with the picture of the kid flipping the bird -- an image that almost singlehandedly guarantees this post a spot among my favorites. Despite its seemingly confrontational stance, "Film Reviews Are Subjective" is a thoughtful, metadiscursive piece about the nature of film criticism. Like "I Am A Feminist," this post is a manifesto about one of my core stances as a person, a writer, and a cinephile.

I actually see "Film Reviews Are Subjective" as one of my better pieces of writing -- I like its discussion of film fandom and subjectivity as inextricable components of honest film criticism. I like the contrast that Sal's Marvel fandom allows me to create with my own eclectic tastes. Plus I get in a few great jabs at that useless, annoying tomatometer.

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* At one point I tried to install one of those "featured post" widgets to help promote older blog entries, but the widget screwed up the look of the sidebar so I deleted it.