VHS Nostalgia Take Two: A Response to Topless Robot

I already wrote about my feelings towards VHS nostalgia, but I saw an article earlier today that I do feel needs to be responded to in some way.

The article was posted on a site called Topless Robot. I always thought a topless robot would have the same effect as opening the hood on your car, but then what do I know? The article details the “top ten reasons why VHS is better than Netflix.” And unlike those quaint buzzfeed lists that are meant to elicit nostalgia rather than discuss anything, it raises some good points.

Indeed, I must now concede that there are three benefits that VHS has over Netflix:

1) It is far easier to record material with a VHS than it is with current Blu Ray players. It is possible to store stuff in the DVR, granted, but this is not a portable object that can then be burned to disc.

2) They are a very low cost alternative to Blu Rays. You want be able to get any sort of new release but many films are still available on VHS, including the required viewing that everyone should have seen. In fact…

3) There are some things that never received a DVD or Blu Ray release, and likely never will be. This isn’t just minor cult stuff either. The Beatles’ Let it Be has never made it past VHS and neither has  Ridley Scott’s 1492. And the original theatrical cuts of Star Wars are more commonly available on VHS than they are on DVD. And the Star Wars Blu Ray contains even more alterations.

And that’s about it. I would be foolish to try to undermine VHS’ effect on film and film fandom. It is an important artifact. But the keyword in that statement is “artifact.” It’s outdated and unnecessary for the modern viewer. But that’s not stopping people like “Replicants without Shirts.” They wax nostalgic for tapes that look like garbage and are about as brittle as the skeletal structure of a man with Lobstein Syndrome.

So, I will be taking each of the points separately and responding to them in turn.

1. They’re Easier to Program

“VCRs required a small amount of planning (you had to check your local listings), and a simple matter of programming the time, the date, and the channel. You were in control…I got my own VCR to stop flashing “12:00″ really quick. It was easy.”

Response: Well, apparently the writer missed the experience with VCRs I had, where “programming a VCR” was akin to brain surgery and the flashing time was the norm rather than the exception.

Above: A form of torture as outlined by the Geneva Convention

It may be that today’s machines are more difficult to program, but that has more to do with the fact that people today are more tech savvy than they were when VCRs were released. VCRs could be easier to program than a Blu Ray player, but that is not necessarily a benefit.

After all, what can today’s machines do? They can connect wirelessly to the internet and stream programs themselves. They can connect to hard drives and even our laptops. They are one stop entertainment systems. It would have taken five very expensive machines to do in the ’90s what a Blu Ray player can do now. That may make it harder to program, but at the same time, it means that people are able to access technology at a lower cost than was previously available. This is a good thing.

2. They’re Easier to Edit

“I miss the magic of the mix tape. Back in high school, I didn’t have cable TV. I still don’t. Over the years, several concerned friends – worried that I was missing quality programming on MTV or the Cartoon Network – began making 6-hour mix tapes for me, crammed full of a diverse sampling of all their own favorite shows and music videos. Those tapes were great. “

Response: We still have these today. They are called “YouTube Playlists.”

This argument is the sign of arguments to come. It has less to do with the benefit of the medium and more to do with childhood memories. Yes, tapes were an important way to spread diverse programming suited to individual tastes.

But that doesn’t mean that we don’t have that same capability now. It just means that we have a different format. And that format is platforms like YouTube, which can reach far more people than a single tape. How could the concept of “viral” exist in the days of VHS? The most we had was America’s Funniest Home Videos. It was a dark and dreary time.

Not even “The Sag” could help us.

So now, when people talk about their favorite video clips, they can be seen immediately by a large group of people. It’s personal, yes, but at the same time is far more of a unifying thing

3. You Could Bring It to a Friend’s House

“A huge advantage VCRs had over modern technologies was their mere modularity. You could tape something off of the TV – or you could just own a feature film on VHS – and you could slip it into your backpack and ride your bike over to a friend’s house where you could watch it together. “

Response: I would like to introduce you to my little friend. I call him Pickles.

 

Pickles is hard core. You don’t mess with Pickles.

Now I’d like to introduce you to my other friend, Mr. Thumb Drive.

“Sup?”

 

Mr. Thumb Drive is great. He’s portable, lightweight, and holds a lot of files. Including video files, such as episodes of old shows you want to watch on your laptop or videos you might want to show your friend. In fact, he holds hours.

Most tapes could only hold two hours. That’s four episodes of a traditional sitcom if you’re lucky.

See, storage capacity has increased in vastly smaller material items. So, there is no advantage to VHS for this.

Finally I noticed this little argument: “It was also the best way to share porn.”

Hmm. I’m just going leave this little ditty here (Notice how I don’t have to bike over to your house to show it to you?) and let it speak for itself.

4. Finite Space = More TV

“I don’t know a single person who has watched everything in their Netflix queue…VHS tapes, when used in SLP mode, could record 6 hours of video, tops. This forced you, dear viewer, to be stingy and more selective. Rather than just passively recording anything you may want to watch at some point, you had to be more active about what you definitely wanted to keep.”

Response: OK, this is true. I can speak from personal experience. It’s a natural outgrowth of having all these choices. Apparently the average Netflix subscriber spends one hour and 44 minutes a day watching Netflix. That’s certainly not enough time to get through everything in the queue. (Mine currently contains 264 titles.)

But so what?

One of the big things about finite space is you have to sacrifice something to make room for something. This means that tapes would have to be reused; not just by home viewers, but by TV broadcasters in the early days. Ask Doctor Who fans how well that worked out.

Netflix doesn’t have that issue. If you want to watch something, it’s there. If you want to add something to your queue, you don’t need to remove anything else. Considering most video stores had a three-rental limit and often got rid of their stock, this is obviously the preferred choice.

5. Tapes Last Longer

“A VHS tape sits on a shelf. It just sits there. It doesn’t require tech upgrades, it doesn’t need to be ported over into a new cataloging system, and it doesn’t need to be meticulously categorized just to be located. It’s always on that shelf. For as long as you keep it there. As tech speeds up, more and more is becoming impermanent. The VHS tape would last for a good 15, 20 years. I have tapes from the 1980s that are still in perfect working order. How else could I still view “The Playgirl Morning Workout?” VHS tapes, despite their reputation, last a long time and look fine.”

Response: Oh, my friend.

Perhaps you’ve forgotten about situations like this one?

Yes, the physical tape could last a long time. But by no means does that save the magnetic tape. It degraded. It was brittle. As you rewound it, you had to You would have to fight the tracking on it CONSTANTLY. And it looked washed out compared to watching the film in theaters. This is especially true about VHS tapes on modern high def TVs.

Now, I do agree that it’s important to have some sort of physical back up for things. After all, hard drives can crash and the internet can go out. Tapes do accomplish this task. But that doesn’t mean that your choices are “bad digital file versus indestructible object.” In the long run, tapes are not going to work for you.

Also, note who in the video he had to rig his VCR up to an old TV? That’s important. The problem isn’t so much with the tape degrading. The problem is that the technology used to play them either changes or breaks. What good is a tape if you have nothing to play it on?

6. You Can Pick Up Where You Left Off

“This has always been a pet peeve of mine when dealing with streaming technologies, YouTube, DVDs and Blu-rays: there’s no way to turn off a show you’re watching, and then pick up right where you left off a day later…the disc formats are especially bad because I have to wade through the FBI logos and previews all over again, then find the menu screen, then select the scene I want, or just fast forward to where I was.”

Response: OK, this one confuses me. It’s definitely possible to do that with discs. My Blu Ray player leaves DVDs off exactly where I want them to be. Criterion Collection Blu Rays have the bookmark feature built in. Ditto Twilight Time. And Ditto Netflix. This is actually the first complaint I’ve heard about someone who wasn’t able to pick something up with Netflix.

“Would you like to continue watching? Warning: trick question.”

Besides, and I think you mention it later, discs let you skip scenes and watch your favorite moments. It’s kind of like how CDs allowed you to skip to your favorite songs. And TV? You can select which episode you want to watch without memorizing a time code. Discs have given people more control over the viewing, not less.

By the way, there is a “skip chapter” option if you want to skip those FBI warnings.

7. Hipster Cred

“VCRs – especially the old top-loading models – just look cool. They are gigantic robotic boxes that look like they can do some real effing damage. Like something designed to be chucked through the window of a passing truck. They are hefty and awesome. Substantial. What do we have now? Thin black planks with glowing blue lights on them?”

Response: Well, a John Deere tractor looks far heftier than a Jaguar. Should we get rid of luxury cars in favor of farm equipment?

How something looks is not particularly relevant. Remember Mr. Thumb Drive?

“Wanna come chill?”

It can be stepped on, but it can hold far more video than VHS. It works better at holding things than VHS. The size and heft does not matter.

8. They’re So Much Easier

“I admire the poetic simplicity of the VCR. There are shows on constantly. You choose a few you want to see. You tape them. You watch them whenever you want. There’s less visual noise to sort through. Less garbage. It’s just you and a machine.”

Response: You can carry videos on your phone. It takes a few finger swipes and  you’re good to go. And you can carry it around. What more do you want?

Now, it may seem less difficult to us. But at the time, VCRs were considered the cutting edge. We sort of went over this already. They were introduced before many homes had the internet. Things may be more complicated now, but the advantage is that we have all of this great stuff that would have seemed like science fiction a few years ago. Pencil and paper is less complicated than the printing press, but do you want to undo human civilization?

Thag Like Club. Club Simple. No Need Nothing After Club.

 

9. Tapes Don’t Rat On You to the Robots

“I’m increasingly distressed by the way online ads seem to know where I am. Or at least where my computer is. I don’t see blanket ads for national services as much as I do very specific ads based on what I type into Facebook, look at on Amazon, or merely peruse in my idle hours. There is a chip in my computer that reports me back to the advertising robots 24 hours a day.”

Response: OK, I admit this is a big problem. In the age of Saint Snowden, we are all wary of the robots and what is happening to our data.

“I died for your sins.”

But here’s the problem with this argument, and it goes back to something you said about specialized taste.

This data is being used to help build recommendations. It helps you find something new that you might not have known about before. It has to do so based on what you’ve rated and what you’ve watched.

Now, this can be used for very poor things and I think Netflix is going to have to change their methods to help reassure consumers. Everyone well. But then this is not something that was unique to Netflix. Do you think hipster video store clerks don’t judge you based on your choices?

10. Video Stores Are Awesome

“Netflix is coy about how many titles they have, although many reports put them somewhere in the 3,000 – 5,000 range. Some are as high as 9,000. My local video stores have 40,000 apiece. And while streaming services claim to have everything, they only specialize in the popular stuff, really. Heaven help you if you want something unpopular, obscure or recently canceled.”

Response: First off, I have no idea where those numbers come from. They are not cited in the story. Answers lists the number as being a little over 10,000. It’s probably going to be very difficult to tell since the catalog is constantly changing.

But I doubt the numbers you give. You say you have 40,000 at your local video stores? Are they TARDISes?

“Wait to you see all the stuff behind the bearded curtains.”

I grew up near a Blockbuster. It was about ten minutes or so from my house. And they NEVER stocked anything obscure or interesting. They did have a good “classics” section, but that eventually went by the wayside. There was also a Hollywood video filled with dopey staff that thought Citizen Kane was a seasonal candy item. And even if you wanted something, it might not be there next week. Room was made for the newer stuff, and there were some things you would never find at a major video store.

Actually, that brings me to my next point. I can summarize it in nine words:

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover.

This is one of the greatest films of the ’80s. It was a brilliant satire about how culture had been replaced by mass marketed ideas that were brutish and eager to take anything over however they could. It would have hit a note with the executives of Blockbuster.

But they wouldn’t stock it. Why? Because the film was slapped with an NC-17 rating. So Blockbuster customers were denied a great film thanks to images Helen Mirren’s boobs.

Sorry, Blockbuster customers. This is not for the likes of you.

But you know who does have it? That’s right. Netflix. You can watch Dumbledore verbally abuse his restaurant customers any time you wish. You can watch documentaries that would have been impossible to find at Blockbuster. There was even a huge, huge scandal back in the day over the fact that Pulp Fiction in widescreen would not be stocked by Blockbuster. But it’s on Netflix.

There are advantages and disadvantages to any platform. People who grew up with VHS tapes associate them with a simpler time. That’s normal. But that does not make tapes better. Netflix’s flaws do not make it worse. VHS is a format whose time has come and gone. And I wouldn’t go back to it for anything.

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A Review of Gone Girl

Gone Girl is a film that’s incredibly hard to write about. Not because I’m torn about it’s quality, but because the less I say the more effective the film will be.

This is one of the finest thrillers ever. But Gone Girl is not content to be just a wodunit (or, more specifically, a whowilldoit). It also wants to be a satire against news as reality TV and how the traditional institution of marriage is unraveling at the seams. Gone Girl even has a lot to say about gender politics and the continued existence of conservatism. But ultimately, Gone Girl is an exploration of how humans relate to each other and, despite all the discussion of love, maybe it’s impossible to two people to really be compatible.

That’s a lot for one movie whose ad campaign has painted it as a vague story about a man named Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) who is searching for his missing wife Amy (Rosamund Pike). I have not read Gillian Flynn’s novel – though people tell me the film is very similar, Flynn (who also wrote the screenplay) said that she wrote a different ending to make sure no one has the surprise ruined. But it’s difficult for me to imagine the material being as effective outside of film. So much of why it works depends on the construction of the story and the shots of the outside media that are reporting on Nick and immediately declaring Nick to be guilty of murder long before any body is found.

Sound familiar? That familiarity is what was so engaging for me. I felt as though I had already seen Gone Girl as I was watching it. I even almost recognized the attorney Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry…yes, Tyler Perry). He was eager to appear on TV long before he was ever hired by anyone, which has become the second career of almost every attorney in the nation. And the appropriately loathsome Ellen Abbott character, who is a cross between the crazed Nancy Grace and the insufferable Rachel Maddow, perfectly leading the witch hunt against Nick.

But let’s go back to how the film is constructed. I can really only talk about the first act or I will completely ruin the experience for everyone. But that gives us enough to work with. The film goes back and forth between the beginning of the relationship and the current situation when Nick finds his wife missing. We see their first meet, which ends with them covered in sugar. We see them unemployed, moving back to Missouri, and the growing distance between the couple. And we see Nick start an affair with with the breathtaking Andi (Emily Ratajowski). And we see Amy worried that Nick may just kill her to get rid of her.

I’m not praising those moments, which are recounted by Amy via her diary. They are stilted, unrealistic, and convenient for the plot. But (minor spoilers) that’s the point. It’s kind of like Double Indemnity, where Walter Neff is desperately trying to make sense of what happened to him as he narrates his own story. Nick barely seems aware of his relationship with Amy, which makes him look worse to the public. It makes the second act twist that much worse. By the third act, Nick is no longer in control of his life.

If I want to compare it to any other film in David Fincher’s filmography, it is 1997’s under appreciated The Game. Like that film, Gone Girl boils down to the story of a man who is being hurt by forces he never fully understands. Even by the end, he is not sure if what is happening to him is real. It’s certainly well outside of his control.

But at least Nick Van Orton volunteered to play “the game.” Nick Dunne was only seeking what everyone wants – a strong relationship with a person they love. Gone Girl views our normal way of life as a prison. There have been many comedies about marriage and its effect on people. Usually, it comes across as a visit from the Cheap Laughs from Next Door. Gone Girl makes the audience fill that same entrapment. What’s worse is (possible spoilers) there might not be any escape.

Gone Girl is nothing short of amazing. The film works well as a thriller, but there’s so much more going on that it’s almost impossible to articulate it in one review. Those who are looking for a traditional film noir that will remind them of the classics of the genre will be perfectly satisfied. Those people will be completely satisfied. But those looking for more will find it and will find a lot of it. Fincher has somehow managed to create his own populist framework as an expression for big ideas. Gone Girl fits nicely into that canon. I wish films as good as Gone Girl were released every weekend.

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Classic Movies that are Actually Terrible Volume 2: Batman Begins

OK, this is the danger of branding.

This review will not be about how Batman Begins is terrible. It’s not a terrible film, especially when we consider some of the other media related to Batman. What I am saying is that Batman Begins is profoundly overrated and has not aged well.

When Batman Begins was released, it was the geek media equivalent of Nixon’s resignation. The long national nightmare was over and we were from the tyranny of bat nipples, ice puns, crotch shots, and some of the worst casting decisions ever made. Nolan was someone who would “get” Batman and wanted to “make him real and gritty.” Compared the barrage of neon that had become Gotham, we were all very grateful.

And Nolan finally did make the great Batman film with 2008’s The Dark Knight. Problem was this was still 2005. Batman Begins, despite some great performances and a strong third act, could not shake the feeling of pointlessness present.

Batman Begins tells Batman’s origin story for the three people who don’t know it. We see the death of his parents, which had not been seen before except in every other piece of Batman related media ever. We see Bruce Wayne’s training with Ra’s Al Ghul and his League of Assassins Shadows, which no one ever really cared about. We see the corrupt crime families of Gotham and how they had bought off the entire police force. And we see how Batman feels Gotham, despite all of its flaws, can be redeemed.

All of these things had already been explored and were hinted at in other works. But there’s a problem with this approach. Actually, there are two problems.

The first is with Batman as a character – he’s incredibly boring. Most heroes are – they will always do “the right thing” no matter what their motivation is and no matter what they have to sacrifice. Batman actually does struggle quite a bit with what he does and, in Batman Begins, there are moments when the goals of Batman and Ghul overlap. But Batman is so introverted that he never shows what he is thinking. He lets the even more boring Bruce Wayne do all the emoting.

I wasn’t going to mention the performances, but now is as good a time as any. Christian Bale made an excellent Batman, but a poor Bruce Wayne. He essentially uses Wayne as a disguise, someone who is deliberately bumbling. This might be fine, but especially in this film, it becomes a distraction. There is never a sense that Wayne is a good businessman or even a good playboy. Any time there is any competence shown, that is Batman without the mask. It’s a very difficult trick to pull off (only Kevin Conroy has ever done it, and he had the benefit of only having to worry about the voice) but considering Batman Begins is all about Batman and Wayne, this problem becomes that much more apparent.

The second biggest problem with Batman Begins is one that is shared with all prequels. This wasn’t really a prequel to anything, granted, but we still had that problem. Characters work better when they remain mysterious. If see how a horror movie villain came to wield the chainsaw, he becomes far less scary. When we see a hero learn how he acquired his skills, he loses his larger than life status. Are we really being served when we learned that Batman is a ninja who has a few cool gadgets? We already knew that.

There’s a lot to like about Batman Begins. The performances are good (Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow was utilized well , Morgan Freeman was amazing as Lucius Fox, and again, I do like Bale’s Batman), the third act is a nail biter, and the film takes the character seriously. But it just can’t shake the feeling of being a retread. I needed more, and Batman Begins didn’t give it to me.

Just a year later, Casino Royale would use a similar approach on another classic hero with better results. But unlike Batman, there was not a lot of time devoted to how Bond developed his skills and became a master spy. We do see how Bond treated his first big assignment and how it shaped him into the free wheeling, womanizing assassin that we know now. And it worked because we did get a sense of the Bond but also saw how he was vulnerable. It was also something that we’ve never explored about the character. Batman’s origins are well established as are his motivations. Even his vulnerabilities have been explored, especially in regards to how he cannot save everyone in the city. Batman Begins feels like buying a Ferrari, only to continuously drive it to the convenience store nearby. Surely, with such great equipment, there’s a more interesting journey to be had?

Batman Begins is not a bad film. But it is no longer a representative of what a Batman movie needs to be. A Batman cannot focus on Batman alone – it’s all about the relationship with the villains and the city. Batman Begins tells a story we already know and lacks the central conflict that made The Dark Knight work. Seek that out if you want to see Batman. Batman Begins should only be used to kill time if it’s ever on FX or something.

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A Review of Kill The Messenger

I’m going to be a lot more enthusiastic about this film than I should be. I am sure many other people will find flaws in the film and a lot of audiences will be turned off by the depressing ending, even if that’s true to life.

Kill the Messenger, produced by and starring Jeremy Renner, recalls Oliver Stone’s early work. It is passionate, it is desperate, and it captures something very important about what’s going on in the world.

The film is about Gary Webb (that’s Renner), a journalist at the San Jose Mercury. He uncovers evidence that the CIA used the profits of cocaine sales from Contras to fund the war in Nicaragua. They even let the drug dealers go so long as they worked as government informants, even though these Contras were bringing in far more product and leaving far more money. This was at a time when Reagan’s war on drugs was in full effect and when Congress had specifically passed laws to prevent money from going to the Contras.

The first act is a wonderful thriller. Webb goes to Nicaragua and interviews the people who helped traffic the drugs. He is attacked by Nicaraguan law enforcement and ignored by the CIA. He publishes his article and gains a high amount of acclaim.

And that’s where his troubles begin.

In a short time, thanks in part to the CIA and his sources suddenly lying about meeting with Webb, he is discredited, reassigned, bankrupted, and ultimately dead from an apparent suicide.

But that’s the real story of Webb. You can find that on Wikipedia or by reading his books. What does the film do with this material?

It makes us feel as Webb undoubtedly did on his journey. The first act practically turns him into a superhero, with Renner hopping from place to place armed with his trusty notebook and his terrible handwriting. He believes in his own abilities to the point that it almost becomes sort of hubris. He thinks he will change the world and he will create a lasting effect.

Which is why the second act (there is no third act, really) is so emotionally destructive. All of that is promptly taken, not due to government influence but due to competition in other media outlets.

Yes, the ending is depressing. There is no redemption for Webb. It’s going to shock a lot of people, especially in our current age of cynicism. Shouldn’t Webb be embraced by his profession even as the CIA goes after him?

But then, real life doesn’t follow such a neat structure. This is pretty far from All The President’s Men. That film was about men seeking the truth and, despite push back, having all the support from their profession. Webb wanted to be Woodward – that’s a natural part of the profession. But the film focuses more on the man than the story. In that way, it feels more honest about what usually happens.

Is it flawed? I’ve mentioned how jarring the change in tone might be to audiences, but that’s not necessarily a flaw. I will say that the script glosses over some of Webb’s darker attributes, like his affair at the Cleveland Plain Dealer. In  fact, that one element is built up as a huge plot point (they keep referencing a “woman in Cleveland” in ominous tones) but it’s hardly a surprise that he had an affair. The way its built up implies he left her under the floor boards. Also, there’s an inexplicable scene in which Ray Liotta shows up as a Deep Throat figure that ultimately means nothing. This isn’t about vindicating Webb, because that didn’t happen in his lifetime. Yet that’s the only reason Liotta is present. It’s a good scene on its own, but it distracts from the themes of the overall work.

However, I do think Kill the Messenger is an important film. I’ve been starved for films that actually want to convey a message and not just be complacent. Audiences have gotten used to giving audiences shiny objects upholding the credo that good will always be rewarded and evil will always lose. Well, life isn’t so simple. The good may not always be rewarded, but it is still important. For all its flaws, Kill the Messenger drives that point home in a desperate, necessary way.

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Classic Movies that are Actually Terrible Volume 1: The Sound of Music

Now that the summer blockbuster season is over and Hollywood is throwing their refuse at us in the hopes that we don’t notice – as opposed to say, throwing their refuse at us in the hopes that we throw piles of money back – I’m pressed for films to review. There’s not a chance that anyone is going to make me see Dolphin Tale 2, so instead I’d like to announce a new series about movies everyone seems to love but which are actually terrible. I’ll update it during lulls in the release calendar – which will pretty much cover six months out of the year.

Everyone has a film that they hate despite public opinion (or critical opinion) practically hailing it as the coming of the savior that will lead us to the land of milk, honey, and pantlessness. I have many. I do get why people would want to be distracted from the daily grind, but something that distracts you is not necessarily good. Shiny keys have been known to amuse babies and people with particularly bad head wounds, but we shouldn’t be discussing how moving and gripping the keys are is and how they represent an important critical milestone.

So, for the first in the series, I would like to take a look The Sound of Music.

This film was constantly on in my house when I was a child. My mom is a big musical fan and this was one she remembered from childhood. I remember having the two VHS tape copy of it. As I grew up, I realized that everyone has a similar story to mine. It is legendary. It is part of the public consciousness.

It is also unbearably bad.

The Sound of Music is one of the most pathetically mawkish films ever created. The songs are profoundly bad. The performances are bad. And the themes and emotions of the film are wildly misplaced.

I’ll start at the beginning.

For the three of you who don’t know, the film is about the nun Maria (Julie Andrews) being hired as a governess for Georg Von Trapp (Christopher Plummer, who hated working on the film and still doesn’t like talking about it) and his children. They start off mean but learn to embrace life. This also takes place just as the Nazis are about to decide that a nation’s border is more of a guideline than an actual rule.

This is all set to music, even though it’s not necessary. It’s also about as long as a David Lean film, even though the plot runs out about 70 minutes in.

Already we see flaws in the film. The characters are limited and the plot is terrible. I know it’s based on a true story, but nothing about The Sound of Music ever felt real. Everything stayed on the screen. It was almost stubborn just how the film went out of its way to not present people, but objects. I wanted to know more about Liesl. I wanted to know why Maria was she the way she was. But it wasn’t going to happen. Maria is what Nathan Rabin called the Manic Dream Pixie Girl. Liesl is the Rebellious Teen. The Captain is what I call the Cryogenic Frozen Heart Man (because all he needs is to be thawed, you see, and everything will be normal). I can say those words and you’ll know everything you need to know about the character. That is not good writing, and if I’m going to care what these people are singing about, I need to care about them.

But this is not the worst part of the movie. The Sound of Music’s biggest flaw is in how inappropriate it is in addressing this dark chapter in world history.

This is not a movie that simply takes place at the same time as the rise of Nazism. That is meant to be one of the central conflicts of the film, with the presence of Rolf and the third act escape across the Alps. The resistance to Nazism is the point of work (even though it’s introduced too late in the film). This is a fine goal and one that has produced great works.

But the film is uncomfortable addressing it head on. Many filmmakers make this mistake – they think the point of such a film is look for the light in the darkness. That’s entirely inappropriate. Nazism is about the failure of humanity towards humanity. Those small acts of kindness ultimately don’t mean much in the wake of millions of deaths. The Sound of Music takes it further by presenting the light as the norm and the rising darkness as a minor inconvenience from the happy singing children. Rolf, Liesl’s boyfriend he joins the Nazis, is basically a non-entity and the late “Edelweiss” scene, which is supposed to be the sort of Bob Dylan protest, is so subdued it’s practically meaningless. Normally I wouldn’t care for the bombastic, but this is supposed to be a musical. It’s supposed to be about heightened emotions and heightened reality. So why is the biggest part of all so subdued?

“But,” I hear you saying, “the songs are what makes the film work. They are so sweet and memorable. It’s impossible not to find them catchy.”

Well, let’s take a look at the lyrics.

“Do, a deer, a female deer/Re, a drop of golden sun/Mi, a name I call myself/Fa, a long, long way to run.”

These are not lyrics that are written to capture the public imagination. These are the lyrics Raffi writes when he’s on a tight deadline. And all the lyrics in the film are like this. They’re about confidence, my favorite things (which is about copper kettles and string, as though Maria is suffering from undiagnosed ADHD or is possibly a cat), and about being sixteen going on seventeen (which just reminded me of that Patton Oswalt bit about how many birthdays people should be reasonably allowed to have in their lives). There is nothing to suggest any deep thought about these characters or what they’re going through. That song about confidence that spring will come again is probably the closest, but again, it’s all so bright and happy where that’s not entirely appropriate. And who cares about a puppet show with goats? What does that say about the characters? Nothing. You could get rid of most of the songs and still learn as much about everyone as you do in the final cut.

The best musicals use their songs to examine ideas and emotions that cannot be expressed any other way. They essentially work as soliloquys, examining the deepest recesses of the characters’ minds. Go watch Chicago, The Wizard of Oz, and even Tommy. The songs not only propel the plot but reveal something about the characters. The songs in The Sound of Music (barring the obvious “I Have Confidence” and maybe “Edelweiss”) do not accomplish that goal. They exist for the sake of existing. I guess the fact that they’re still remembered prove they accomplished their goals, but I don’t think I’m being a curmudgeon by demanding that the songs do something more for the story and the themes.  The Sound of Music is a musical that doesn’t need to be a musical to get its point across. Here’s an idea – why not turn that scene with the introduction of the kids into a song? That would have worked. But no, I guess we should all talk about doorbells and sleigh bells and schnitzel with noodles. Because that’s truly what the subconscious desires and longs to shout out.

So, why is this film so popular? It’s probably for the reasons I hate it – because it serves as an escape from a time and place that people still don’t want to face. There is a natural inclination for people to try to find the ray of light in darkness. The Sound of Music provides that light. But it also takes two steps back in honesty and runs a marathon backwards in the treatment of its characters. The rise of Nazism is not the appropriate backdrop for a story about people embracing life. We know that in a few years, they probably would not be alive anyway as the Nazis and then the Soviets turned Europe into the least fun game of Risk ever played. And even if this is a last hurrah, surely they can think of a better way to spend it than singing about lonely goats high on hills.

Herd-layee-o-dl-layee-o-dl-Oh God I hate you Oscar Hammerstein.

I can think of one or two ways to solve a problem like Maria. They involve my friend Lou. Lou fixes things. Fixes them good.

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Aladdin and What Robin Williams Meant to Me

I didn’t even think about the moments I’m about to describe until I read the numerous articles surrounding Robin Williams’ tragic suicide. Everyone has been talking about their favorite Robin Williams’ movies, especially people my age who grew up with him and never realized just how important he really was to our formative years.

Williams’ filmography is like any other actor’s resume. He has some great films (Awakenings, The Fisher King, Insomnia, Good Will Hunting, Dead Poets Society – which I’ve actually never seen but I’ve been assured it belongs here) and some terrible dreck (The Final Cut, Bicentennial Man, Patch Adams, RV, Popeye - which I’ve actually never seen but I’ve been assured it belongs here). But Williams was always an exciting performer who was more versatile than people give him credit for. He deserved his Oscar and his death represents a loss of great talent.

But there’s more to it. The outpouring of grief I’ve seen is not the norm, even for a famed performer. He’s still dominating every conversation and every headline around the world – and there’s no sign that’s going to change. Compare the response to Lauren Bacall’s death. She’s had tributes, she’s had her fans talk about what she meant to them, and her death is also a sad loss of another great talent. But her death didn’t spark a national debate. Her death didn’t result in touching memories from performers across so many different mediums. Sad as it is, Bacall’s death will probably not lead to any great re-examination of her work. Her legacy was secured long ago. Everyone is taking a second look at Williams and his filmography.

Why?

I can’t speak for everyone. I can only speak for myself. And I think it has something to do with the fact that Williams was an important part of my childhood and what I saw in movies.

People often ask me what the first movie I can remember seeing was. I have brief flashes of seeing Beauty and the Beast in theaters, but I can’t remember anything about the experience. I do remember watching two films in particular and falling in love with the adventure. I could follow the plot and get the sense of excitement when the bad guy was defeated and the good guy found happiness.

Those two films were Steven Spielberg’s Hook and Disney’s Aladdin. And the thing that linked them together was Williams. I didn’t think about that at the time – obviously his Genie and Peter Pan were not the same to me. But I can still remember scenes from them even though I have seen the films in many, many years. I can remember the scene in which Williams’ Pan shot down a rival by screaming, “don’t mess with me kid! I’M A LAWYER!” And when he realized that he could still fly – what a moment! Still clutching his childhood teddy bear, he levitates at first, and then takes off through the clouds. Thinking about it now brings a smile to my face.

But I think the Genie is who really stuck with me as a kid. He was such a bizarre force – always talking and never repeating himself. I didn’t get all the jokes -how could a child know who Groucho Marx or Ed Sullivan were? How could they get the tributes he played to Rodney Dangerfield and Jack Nicholson? I didn’t laugh at those jokes. Mostly I remember laughing at that scene where the Genie blew a raspberry through his lamp and when he turned into a sheep to make a “baaaaahd boy” pun. I still don’t know everything that I’ve missed in his dialogue. But I could respond to it even at a young age. Williams was such a smart force that he could connect with everyone in his audience. There are not many performers who can say that.

Williams, of course, was the man who popularized celebrity voice overs in animated films. But there are no other performances I can think of that accomplishes quite what Williams did. Most famous actors are phoning it in when they take a voice over role. Williams didn’t. He used the opportunity as a canvas to do things that he would never be able to do in any other film. It’s taken me a while to realize just how brave and unique that film is for Williams.

And that’s the moments that make me realize there is something special about those giant moving pictures in those dark rooms. They can capture something about artists and performers that no other medium can capture. They can take risks and reveal the truth about our emotions in a way that affects the entire population.

Aladdin and Robin Williams was those things for a four year old boy sitting in that theater. Williams was a huge force that made me fall in love with movies as a kid. It’s something that’s continued for a long time. I guess I ultimately have Robin Williams to blame for where I am now. I can think of worse fates.

I close with this song that I had previously posted on my Facebook page. I didn’t say anything at first, but now I feel it reads as rather prophetic. Williams inadvertently stated exactly what his legacy would be. He’s right – we never had a friend quite like him. And I don’t think I realized it until now.

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A Review of Guardians of the Galaxy

I know I’m late to this party, but I spent last weekend taking in Boyhood while everyone else was laughing at the antics of a talking raccoon and that dude from Parks and Recreation.

I know I’ve started a little glib. The truth is, the hype surrounding the movie made me skeptical. It currently holds the 36th position on the IMDB top 250 and was tied with Boyhood on Rotten Tomatoes. Usually, when this happens with a blockbuster, I am setting myself up for disappointment. It happened with Frozen and it can happen again.

Guardians of the Galaxy is not a disappointment. It is a fun populist science fiction movie. There is plenty to like, from the bizarrely unique characters to the very good special effects.

But so much about the film feels safe and sterile. I do understand why – the Marvel comic is not among the most well known properties and it obviously cost a great deal of money to bring this world to life. So the script had to be comfortable for everyone.

Most of Guardians is based on The Avengers’ formula of getting different characters together, realizing that they’re different, but coming together when a major city is threatened with destruction. In this case, the protagonist is Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) a human who was kidnapped from Earth in 1988. He still carries a mixtape that his mother gave him. (A mixtape? How has that lasted thirty years and several light years?) Then there’s Gamora (Zoe Saldana) a bounty hunter who is the daughter of Thanos (Josh Brolin, uncredited) and sister of the villainous Nebula (Karen Gillan of Doctor Who fame under heavy makeup). Next, we have Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), a talking raccoon who is joined by Groot (Vin Diesel) a living tree. Finally, there’s Drax (Dave Bautista) who seeks to avenge his wife and child. They’re trying to stop Ronan (Lee Pace) from using a MacGuffin (actually something called an infinity stone that is a remnant of existence from before the big bang) and destroying the universe.

As I typed that preceding sentence, I realized just how simple the film can be described. It doesn’t feel simple at first, particularly during the first act. This is mostly because the characters are well defined. Rocket, in particular, is delightfully weird. Even the pop culture obsessed Quill is engaging, even though such a character has been copied in every decent space opera for a while now. Still, his speech about the earth legend Footloose was inspiring. And Groot – Groot is just a giant tree that can only say his name. Still, he’s very useful in a fight.

The worlds they travel too are also appropriately wonderful. When you have an alien planet that’s actually the skull of an old god, you know you’re in pure adventure territory. What’s amazing is how subtle some of these differences are. There are all sorts of subtle signs and moments that gave me the feeling of a larger world. One example involved a humanoid with an obviously alien family. There is no reference to it, but it did gave me a lot to ponder. What are alien/human relationships like? Are they tolerated on other planets? Is this planet meant to be a utopian paradise where no one questions that? What does that say about our planet? One moment, with no dialogue, left me wondering. That’s skillful film-making.

Yet it’s the characters that make the film work. There is an actual dynamic there and they do seem to be products of the world’s they inhabit. One of the biggest problems with science fiction films is the endless time that is devoted to explaining what is happening and where the characters are. Wouldn’t they already know that? Guardians of the Galaxy assumes the characters are smart and doesn’t revel too much in the exposition.

But that’s also because the plot is safe. I wasn’t kidding when I said this was basically The Avengers. The entire third act deals with the destruction of a huge city. They repeat that joke with the Hulk pounding Loki into submission (only this time it’s with a spaceship running someone over) and there is the second act conflict where one of the characters loses control and brings destruction to his team. Considering Avengers made a billion dollars worldwide, it’s easy to see the motivation they had. Still, with such great characters and an awe-inspiring setting, I can’t hate the film.

There is a reason people flock to the familiar. Guardians of the Galaxy isn’t insulting and is engaging during its run time. I certainly enjoyed it, but I have to confess it is getting rather tiring. I seem to always loop back to Iron Man in any Marvel review, and that’s because I think people are forgetting the impact of that amazing film. It was a great achievement, filled with imagination and skill. But it also broke several molds and took everyone by surprise with the thought that had been put into Iron Man and his world. I feel that’s been missing from the subsequent Marvel movies. They’ve found a routine that they’re sticking to. It works for now because they still hire skilled filmmakers who understand that appeal of the comics. But if Marvel and Disney aren’t careful, they’re going to find themselves in a lot of trouble down the road.

Maybe that Howard the Duck movie they tease in post credits scene will help. It can’t be any worse than the last movie based on Howard.

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A Review of Boyhood

I didn’t think a film like Boyhood could exist anymore. It is one of the most ambitious films ever made. And despite the conditions in which it was made – the film is basically a series of shorts strung together – the film is a seamless narrative that never threatens to collapse under its own weight.

I had heard rumblings of the film in passing. Richard Linklater (the director of Dazed and Confused, Waking Life, and more mainstream fare like School of Rock) began shooting in 2002. He would shoot with his cast every year for twelve days at a time. They would go off and reconvene. Linklater was writing the script as he was shooting and did not know where he would end up.

The film is the story of Mason’s (Ellar Coltraine) life. His sister (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter) and him both live with his mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette). She is separated from their father (Ethan Hawke) and is trying to piece together her life. We see Mason grow up, become wiser, and end with his hopefully bright future.

It’s rather difficult to describe the plot. There are certain pieces that are important. Patricia, in one scene, marries a college professor who turns into a violent alcoholic that places the kids in danger. We later see that Mason’s father has remarried and has had a new baby with his wife. We do have scenes with Mason’s first girlfriend. But it is difficult to fit all the pieces together.

So yes, the narrative is clearly not planned out. There are characters (like the drunk stepfather) who disappear completely and are barely mentioned again. At times, it is difficult to figure out exactly what year the scene takes place in and how old Mason is. Usually, we can only tell when something is taking place based on a news report or when a pop song is being played. But for me, that made the film feel more like life. Can YOU recall exactly when certain events happened? Have people disappeared from your life? It is Linklater’s way of being honest about memory.

I’ve said that the best films are the ones that are true about the way people feel. Even when a film is exploring deeper philosophical questions, it must connect the audience with the characters who are asking these questions.

Boyhood is the best example of this connection in a very long time. For example, there’s a scene late in the film where Mason muses about how deleting his Facebook page would allow him to live again. This is poignant in its own way, but it follows many amazing scenes where Mason has had to find solace from his feelings on Youtube videos. Earlier in his life, he endlessly watches Will Ferrell’s comedy short The Landlord (remember that?) while dealing with his own exposure to the dangers of alcohol.

It’s a very skillful trick, one that people may not pick up on. But it’s also the key to understanding why Linklater did what he did. That’s how lives and minds are molded – by seemingly inconsequential moments that are only recalled years later. Those changes are very gradual. The Up series of documentaries technically did it first, but Linklater’s film shows the most realistic process of growing up.

What’s also incredible is how we see the talent of the child actors developing the longer they’re on camera. Arquette and Hawke are both well established, but the kids were unknowns. Linklater was a natural young actress (I laughed quite hard when she responded to one of her mother’s orders with “yes sir, mother sir!” and at her repeated insistence that the family would not move to Houston) but Coltrane goes from an introverted kid to a rather likeable young man. Never once does Coltrane’s performance waiver. It’s easy to understand why – he’s been playing this character for most of his life. Still, it feels like the sort of natural performance most method actors would kill for.

Most of the proceedings are relatively standard Linklater. He has a great ear for conversation and popular culture. But I don’t know if it’s ever worked as well as it does in Boyhood. For once, Linklater’s dialogue does feel like someone who is trying to come to terms with the world. Everything about the film works.

It has never been safe to make this sort of film. But right now, it is downright insane. Linklater’s skill extends beyond his patience producing the work. He has not lost his eye for youth culture and just how important those formative years are. This is a phenomenal work, one that really only does come once in a lifetime.

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The New, Official Worst Film I Have Ever Seen

In order to properly analyze films, it is imperative that someone know what is good and what is bad. People are always eager to share their favorite films. But their most hated is buried in the same place as childhood trauma. There are some smart-alec writers who pride on watching and surviving bad films. But this is different. This is something that is as personal, and wounds as deeply.

For many years, I thought the worst movie I would ever see was the 2002 live action version of Scooby Doo. Now, I have seen films more ineptly made and I have seen films that are just as frustrating to watch. But this was different. This was a bunch of people acting stupid for the sake of acting stupid. It’s rare for me to see someone treat a film with such disrespect. Every single decision made was done out of laziness and sloppiness. In some cases, a film is bad because the people making it are in over their heads and don’t have a clue what they are doing. In other cases, people are there to collect a paycheck. But Scooby-Doo tried to pretend to have some sort of love for the original (stupid) cartoon but did not want to examine why it may have worked and what, if anything, needed to be said about it.  The result is unwatchable and offensive. In a medium that has produced artists like Ingmar Bergman, the fact that something like Scooby Doo can exist is something I cannot comprehend.

But I now have a new reigning champion by which all awful films will be measured from now until the end of time. It is a film that fails on every level. It is a film filled with bad performances, even for those actor who are bravely trying to have fun. It is a film that I hated looking at. It is poorly written and poorly plotted. It shows the same disrespect as Scooby Doo but takes it to another level.

That movie is 1997’s Spawn.

You may not remember Spawn. The Todd MacFarlane created comic is still being published today, but I don’t know how often it is discussed. Still, back in the ’90s, the character looked to be the next great super hero. MacFarlane had become an artistic superstar and the comic was being written by some talented writers including Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, and Grant Morrison. This is the part where I say that I have never read the comic and I don’t know anything about the mythology. But it’s easy to see why it attracted its audience.

It’s also easy to see how the film was greenlit. I learn from Box Office Mojo that it made twice its production budget during its theatrical run. It was made at a time when comic book movies were not taken seriously. (It was released the same year as Batman & Robin.) And considering its themes about hell and redemption, as well as being the first movie with a black superhero, it should have been very popular.

But something went wrong.

I’m not even sure what. Sure, the graphics are among the worst I’ve ever seen in a high budgeted film. The scenes in hell are woeful – the Satan character has a mouth that does not move whenever it speaks. I cannot tell what anyone is standing on at any given time. And remember how, in Citizen Kane, Orson Welles would suggest crowd scenes by waving lights at the camera and dubbing in cheers? Spawn does that too – except it gives us long shots of the lights being shaken. There are no crowds and no suggestions of actual beings.

But that was just a preamble. Spawn’s flaws goes far beyond visuals. For one, the main hero has no arc. It’s not that he has a bad arc. It’s that his arc doesn’t exist. Al Simmons is a special ops soldier who is betrayed and burned to death. He comes back to life after he agrees to lead Hell’s army. Why would he agree to do that? We are never told. He does have a mentor who’s name I can’t pronounce (Cogliostro?) but that man never actually mentors him beyond showing him the magic of chains that fire out of Spawn’s nipples. We are also never told what changes his mind and why he decides betraying Satan is a good idea. The ending fight (which takes place in hell) is terribly anti-climatic. Parts of it takes place in the leading lady’s apartment. Spawn promptly leaves after the big bad is defeated and (I’m going to have to take Wikipedia’s word for it as I sure couldn’t figure it out) “dedicates himself to justice.” He doesn’t even get the goodbye kiss. At this point in the movie, I desperately wanted something so lowbrow and hackneyed.

I guess that was Spawn’s motivation  – his girlfriend. He thinks leading hell’s army is the only way to get back to get back to his girlfriend, but other citizens of Hades seem to be able to leave the realm just fine and…oh, never mind. It’s not even until the last twenty minutes that he learns about his powers. You would think that vengeance drives Simmons, but that’s not the case. He does attack the people who wronged him (and kills one of them) but it’s quickly forgotten as we get more scenes with the atrocious clown character.

Ah yes. I have not even mentioned John Leguizamo’s clown character. I think he has a name, but I really don’t care to look it up. (OK, it’s Violator. You’re welcome.) I have never seen a more loathsome character in a film. He is meant to be the comic relief but never once delivers a funny line. He is massively obese and short – and constantly brings attention to that physical attribute. Now, this could be made funny in more talented hands, but I was distracted with my endless questions about the character. He is meant to be a denizen of Hell. What did he do? Why does he look like an obese clown? Was he created that way? Is that part of his punishment? What sort of powers does he have? Why, at times, can he turn into a giant monster? And why does he think that eating maggot covered pizza is funny?

Do you see what I mean? There are some intriguing questions to be asked, but the film just can’t be bothered. It doesn’t realize what about the original material worked. It was replaced with junk.  It’s not even cliched – cliches are above the film.

There will be other bad films. There will be other films that give me certain physical reactions that are best not described in great detail. There will be other films that insult the audience watching and anyone who harbors a notion that films are meant to be enjoyed.

But none of them will be as bad as Spawn.

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A Review of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

What if I told you that the current top of the box office was a film that addressed complex geopolitical themes, incredible views on the foundations of civilization, a complex look at the nature of war, mind-blowing effects, and complex characters who have to earn their sympathy?

You would probably think I was describing some film that had been released in time for Oscar season. But I’m describing Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, one of the best films I’ve seen so far this year. I expected it to be good; Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a good film that featured amazing special effects. But this takes the source material to a level I didn’t know existed.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes takes place about ten years after the original. If you’ll recall, the finale of the original film focused on a retro virus that made apes intelligent and killed human beings. In that ten years, humanity has been virtually wiped out (the exposition at the start of the film states that the virus had a survival rate of 500:1). So, for most of the first act, we focus on the apes and how they are thriving as a society.

Caesar (Andy Serkis, the king of mo-cap who deserves at least an honorary Oscar) is the leader of a tribe somewhere on the west coast of the United States. We see how the apes hunt, how they live, and how they form relationships with each other. We see Caesar’s children, and how they disagree with aspects of his rule.

These scenes are amazing. There is almost no dialogue in the first act of the movie (the apes talk like the Frankenstein monster), but we get a sense of all the issues at stake. The fact that these nonhuman characters are the most sympathetic in the film says something about director Matt Reeves and Serkis. We get a sense of what’s at stake for the Apes and why there would be a conflict between them later. But there’s very little dialogue. The apes, particularly Caesar, are able to talk but mostly rely on sign language and grunting. How is it possible to communicate their language in this manner and make people really get it?

It’s a difficult task, but Reeves succeeds. The apes are the best characters in the film even though they can barely speak. This continues after human characters are introduced The primary conflict in the film is between Caesar and Koba (Toby Kebbell). Caesar is willing to work with them, while Koba despises them for the medical testing he endured. It is not simply a question of good versus evil – the film never says who is truly correct and the humans and apes are equally capable of evil. But mostly, they just want to reactivate a hydroelectric dam in ape territory and start rebuilding their own civilization. There are great scenes between Caesar and his new human friend Malcolm (Jason Clarke). They don’t trust each other, and there are good reasons why, but they do realize they will need to at least cooperate.

It’s a very complex relationship that has a lot to say about current geopolitical battles. Both sides may have a point and the decisions the characters make will be hated. But even those who want to respond violently are at least able to explain why.

The third act of the film does devolve into a simpler action film. But even then, the themes of the work have been set up so well that it makes sense. It’s simple, but it’s something that could happen given what we’ve been told. Koba’s hatred for humans is reinforced by the massive arsenal of weapons they’re building and his actions take on a desperation. Koba isn’t exactly evil – he’s become blinded by his own beliefs. There is something Animal Farm-esque about Koba and how he arrives at his conclusions.

The last act also features some of the best moments from Cesar as he contemplates on why he is more willing to trust apes than the humans who had not made a deliberate invasion against their society. And that final fight actually means something – it is not just a reason to showcase CGI. It is a battle of ideologies. There is an “evil” side, but it one that makes sense in the context of the world and isn’t simply dismissed or defeated. The conclusion is very satisfying and is the preamble to how these two societies will get along – or if they’ll be able to. The third film in this revived franchise, if it’s done correctly, is going to take these questions to new heights.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes knows exactly what it needs to do to be successful. It addresses its themes with a level of confidence and skill that I thought would be impossible for this time of year. It’s an amazing movie and the revived Apes has the potential to be the greatest blockbuster franchise in a long time.

I can’t wait for the third one. Hopefully they’ll bring back the pantsuits.

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