The Interview, Kim Jong Un, and Sony’s Cowardice

As you can tell from the headline, I am not in a mood to mince words.

There are many things to be offended about in today’s world. You can be offended about the hostage situation in Australia. You can be offended about the Taliban slaughtering children. Here in the U.S., you can be offended over the fact that police officers keep killing unarmed people and don’t seem to be facing any consequences.

I am offended and saddened by all of those things. But this also hits me in a way I didn’t really expect, simply because I never believed something like this could happen.

Following a massive hack to their servers and various threats against theaters that were going to show the Seth Rogen/James Franco vehicle The Interview, Sony Pictures has pulled its release. It has stated that it has no plans to release it in theaters, on Blu Ray, or on Netflix.  It is languishing in a vault somewhere. Right now, it’s looking like we may not see the film at all.

I hope I’m wrong; that’s not how the world should be.

That it was The Interview that was pulled was irrelevant. It could have been any film and my reaction would still be the same. I’m not saying The Interview is some sort of artistic masterpiece and its vaulting is the equivalent of the destruction of Greed. I have no way to make a proper assessment of the film. It could be a terrible film with flat comedy and bad performances. In fact, some critics who managed to see it say that’s exactly the case. The Rotten Tomato score is at 52%. It could be the greatest film ever made, a poignant satire on international relations and the looming spectre of the Cold War on the world. I doubt that last scenario, but the trailer did look funny and I was a fan of This is the End.

There are countless lost films out there. Some were lost to time due to neglect. Others were completed but canned due to an actor’s death or rights issues that were not worked out before. Some (like the infamous The Day the Clown Cried) were shelved because the creator found it unwatchable and embarrassing.

That’s not what happened with The Interview. It was ready to go. Promotional material was released. Posters adorned lobbies. Trailers were up on YouTube. The two main stars started granting interviews in relation to their upcoming film. (Seth Rogen was one of the last guests on The Colbert Report.) It would have probably done well at the box office had it been released as scheduled.

And now, that’s all gone for two reasons. And both of them are terrible reasons.

For one, North Korea’s reaction is pathetically stupid even for a terrible despot who has witnessed his people starve but uses his country’s exports of fake U.S. currency, crystal meth, and insurance fraud to buy Yves St Laurent cigarettes and sauna equipment so he can beat hangovers after partying all night. This while the majority of North Koreans literally eat grass – those that aren’t stuck in nightmarish, dystopian gulags and have to resort to eating hard pieces in cow feces to eat anything at all.

Dictators have been portrayed in film since there was film. They’ve been discussed in literature for centuries. There have been countries to ban works, sure. But declaring a film to be an act of war, especially when that film has no chance of reaching your shores anyway, is stupid. Hitler never threatened to assassinate Charlie Chaplin over The Great Dictator. Suddam Hussein never threatened to bomb the U.S. mainland when Hot Shots Part Deux roared into theaters. Mussolini felt that the Marx Brothers classic Duck Soup was about him and so banned it in Italy, but it didn’t result in Harpo having to employ a bodyguard.

And I’m not even going to count the number of times the U.S. president has been the target in any number of espionage films. Did anyone arrest the director of Air Force One or In the Line of Fire for portraying a president in danger of being murdered? Fox News rallied against a little seen mockumentary called Death of a President, but they didn’t hack into Lionsgate’s servers and post emails that suggested Jason Statham demanded fresh, virgin tiger blood every day on the set of Crank.

So what, you corpulent, idiotic, pathetic, spineless, nefarious, vile, stupid imbecilic freak makes you so special?

That clip is above is from the aforementioned Death of a President. I’ve seen it. It was an interesting piece of speculative fiction that didn’t really live up to its premise. It may be vulgar and offensive to depict a world leader in that manner. I didn’t find it vulgar, mostly because the film didn’t really take a position on Bush as a human being or as a president.

But I can see that and make that analysis.  (So can you, if you’re so inclined. It’s on Hulu.)

Which brings me to my next point – Sony’s reaction.

After everything that happened, and after their moment to become the beacon of free speech, they pulled the film. They chickened out. They did exactly the opposite thing they needed to do.

“We stand by our filmmakers and their right to free expression and are extremely disappointed by this outcome,” Sony said in its statement as they demonstrated they don’t stand by their filmmakers or their right to free expression by pulling The Interview from its release schedule.

I know how damaging the hack was to them. The emails make some of their top executives seem quite unprofessional and may alienate a few powerful people in Hollywood. But that’s business. Sometimes you have to work with people you don’t like and sometimes your relationships change. What’s going to be a lot worse is how they will have no support from that artistic community. Why would anyone work for Sony if they’re going to have to constantly compromise and may not even allow their films to be seen? That’s far worse than telling Angelina Jolie that she’s out of her mind for calling a meeting about the editing process.

Now, I know what you’re going to say, “It’s better safe than sorry.” “They threatened us with terrorist attacks. The theaters would have been targets. We can’t show the film now,” you think, as a car backfires and you run for cover.

Well, you could also get into a car wreck each time you drive. In fact, that’s far more likely than being a victim of a terrorist attack while watching a movie. Vastly more likely. So should we ban cars to keep you safe?

I have a feeling you would have some words about such a ban, but math is on my side. So let’s ban cars! North Korea doesn’t have cars and the only traffic accidents they have are the top political officials who fall out of favor or criticize the Dear Leader.

See, this is the problem. Sony and theater chain owners were afraid of something that could not realistically happen. The threat was enough to give North Korea what they wanted. Some would compare their actions to those of Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister that helped create the Munich Agreement. But that’s not a worthy comparison. The British populace didn’t want war and may not have been in a position to fight the Nazis. North Korea is in no position to do anything (see that statement about the exports and how the citizenry eats grass) and people wanted to see the film. But Sony and American theater owners still backed down.

This would have been a lot worse if people came out supporting Sony in the interest of not being yelled out. Luckily, the reaction seems to be the opposite. Sony’s actions have been heavily criticized. Kim Jong Un’s death scene from the film has already leaked. Franco is still making public appearances. (He was part of the ensemble that helped play Stephen Colbert off his show.) And above all, Kim Jong Un is not winning anyone’s approval. People think about him, I’m sure, but this has put him in the news in a bad light more than even the UN’s report on his human rights abuses.

That’s the ultimate victory of pop culture. Usually, politics is boring and indecipherable. But when it hits the people directly, that’s when change comes.

In the short term, maybe that means The Interview is released in theaters. In the long run? Maybe people around the world realize they cannot be bullied when they demand access to something.

The second The Interview is released, I will review it. For now, I am going to criticize Sony in the manner they deserve. Shame on you for bowing to North Korea. Shame on you for censoring an artistic work. And shame on you for expecting us to praise you for making the choice you made.

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A Review of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome/My Fury Road Reaction

Another week, another huge trailer for a film franchise that was completely dormant for decades.

Actually, I can’t wait for the release of Mad Max: Fury Road because I can’t wait to hear the full story of its crazy production. It was originally supposed to shoot in 2003, then it was delayed due to money issues and the outbreak of the Iraq War. Then it was supposed to be revived as an animated film stylistically similar to Akira. Then it was supposed to be two films shot back to back.

And then, when it finally started filming, the production was so out of control it stopped and restarted roughly a year later. And THEN filming wrapped in 2013 but got trapped in post production. And despite all of the interest in the franchise and the long gestation period, nobody has any idea what the film is about.

Apocalypse Now didn’t go through this many false starts or such a bizarre shoot. Fury Road is destined to be either incredible or incredibly terrible. There is not going to be a neutral position.

What’s unusual is just how the series was revived in the first place, especially after Beyond Thunderdome. The second film in the series (Road Warrior) is regarded as a genuine classic that has influenced filmmakers from David Fincher to Joss Whedon. Thunderdome’s reputation is more mixed. There are some who love it and insist it is the best of the franchise. (Roger Ebert took this position.) There are others who feel that it is the low point of Mad Max.

In a recorded DVD intro for The Road Warrior, Leonard Maltin compares the climatic car chase to John Ford’s legendary Stagecoach. Both are genre pictures that rewrote all the rules about their respective genres. The post apocalyptic look of Mad Max is everywhere now, even in places where it’s not appropriate.

Beyond Thunderdome deserves praise for not copying its predecessor but for trying to introduce something new. This time, Max goes to a western frontier town called Bartertown where a power struggle exists between Aunty (Tina Turner) and the El Topo-esque Master Blaster. Aunty tries to get Max to kill the giant Blaster via the Thunderdome (essentially a WWE cage match with chainsaws and blades) to prevent the dwarf Master from taking over the town.

What’s surprising is that this plot is resolved barely forty minutes into the film. And that’s where the movie makes it’s biggest mistake.

After that, Max encounters a tribe of children who believe him to be a pilot that will fly them to “Tomorrow-morrow land.” If you think this sounds like a half baked version of Peter Pan’s lost boys, you are correct. Even the intriguing version of their oral history is not enough to save them.

So of course Max thinks the best thing to do is to take some of the children to Bartertown to rescue Master, which results in half the town being destroyed and a car chase involving a train.

I cannot tell you how those ideas link. I think that the idea was to explore how civilization truly rises. The kids start out in what we would call a primitive tribe but then move onto rebuild great cities. They have legends and heroes. It’s the same things that kept everyone else going. There’s also the dynamic that their legends are based on reality but are not going to meet the expectations of everyone. Still, the film ground to a halt during the second act.

But those scenes in Bartertown are amazing. It’s a great western tribute that captures the imagination. Plus, in its own way, it feels like the sort of ramshackle civilization that would be set up in the world of Mad Max. Tina Turner is an effective villain and the Thunderdome scene is worthy of applause. It was fast paced, action packed, and a wonderful exploration of the “bread and circuses” idea that would undoubtedly carry the people living in this world. This is fascinating, intriguing genre film making. That is where the strength of the film was, and it’s curious that the filmmakers didn’t seem to realize it.

Another problem is how they changed Max. In The Road Warrior, there’s a lot of Clint Eastwood and Toshiro Mifune in him. He barely talks in that film at all. Here, he almost never shuts up. They even handle his weapons poorly. At the start of the film, Max unloads an entire mercenary’s arsenal when entering Bartertown. (It’s illegal to carry the weapons there.) In Road Warrior, part of his character was that his sawn off shotgun was useless – he had no ammo for it. It was his poise and his mysteriousness that made him dangerous. Trying to have him act like a typical macho ’80s action hero didn’t feel right.

So, Thunderdome was incredibly entertaining but still flawed. That’s what has me worried the most about Fury Road, especially in regards to its long gestation time. There’s an old maxim in Hollywood that states, “You’re only as good as your last film.” The last Mad Max films had some great ideas, some wonderful images, and the series’ trademark fantastic action. But it ultimately tried to do too much in a short run time. It’s also still very difficult for me to explain how the two plots merge together. But at least I can explain what happened. The fact that no one seems to know what’s going on in Fury Road is disconcerting.

But to me, the weirdest aspect is the fact that Fury Road just seems to be The Road Warrior on steroids. It’s bad for sequels to redo what previous films have already done. Beyond Thunderdome didn’t have that issue. It took its characters and tried to do something new with them.

Even if it didn’t succeed, it’s one of the most daring sequels ever made. I hope Fury Road lives up that.

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The Best Films of 2014

Last year, I had a difficult time deciding what the best film of the year was. This year, I was pleased that it was almost too easy.

Actually, it was almost too easy, to the point where I had to exclude some of the films I would have loved to mention. It’s been a while since that’s happened. Over the past few years I’ve struggled mightily to find films worthy of inclusion. It was not that great films didn’t exist. Rather, it was impossible to actually see them. I live about twenty minutes away from a large U.S. metropolitan area. There are a number of independent theaters where I live. Some of them are very famous. There are also more multiplexes than I would ever care to count.

But all of those theaters play the sort of populist garbage that serves as a brief distraction rather than a profound experience. Hollywood spends a fortune producing scripts that feel like someone decided that a Syd Field guide was a connect-the-dots puzzle.

I had always hoped that people would rebel against these sorts of mawkish, dumb films. And this year, it seems like they did. The box office totals were significantly down throughout the year as people threw up their hands in frustration. With a few exceptions (like Guardians of the Galaxy, which didn’t make my list but I still admire for being highly imaginative and very fun), all blockbusters released this year were so bloated and pathetically banal that no sane audience could gain anything from them. So people stayed away, choosing instead to binge watch classic films and great new TV shows on platforms like Netflix.

If studios don’t change, those viewing habits are going to become the norm. People will not spend the time or the money to sit in darkened room awash with advertising and rude boors who destroy the atmosphere with their cell phones just to watch a dumb film where a lot of things get blown up and a lot of characters yell. They are going to take control of their movie watching experience in ways that will cost studios and filmmakers. If they want to survive, studios need to make better films.

2014 demonstrated they are capable of doing exactly that. My list actually includes some major blockbusters that had wide openings and made large amounts of money. But major studios still have a long way to go before the tide turns back. Hopefully this year will be a great start down that path.

This year I want to do something a little different. Instead of just picking one film to stand out above the others, I want to award my top three. I feel this three did stand apart from the others on the list. Besides, if it’s good enough for the people playing the ponies at the track, it’s good enough for me.

So, without further ado, here is my rundown of the best films of 2014.

FILM OF THE YEAR

As I said at the beginning of this piece, it was remarkably easy to pick a best film of the year. But this film shouldn’t have been as successful as it was. It was a grand experiment that doesn’t sound like it would make a cohesive whole. But the film works perfectly both as a time capsule for people my age and as proof that film possesses an emotional power absent from any other medium. I cannot think of anywhere else this would have worked. With engaging characters, a documentary like feel about the nature of a person’s life, and intelligence that is absent pretty much everywhere, I cannot think of a way this film could be more perfect. Chances are, this film may top my list for the decade as well.

Boyhood (director: Richard Linklater)

I can’t think of anything else to say. This film is an incredible achievement at a time when everyone is lamenting the death of cinema itself. There’s still some life in it left and Richard Linklater shows us why. I hope that more people get a chance to see it.

SILVER MEDAL

Here’s where a few people may be surprised. I’ll spoil the selection for the people who don’t want to scroll down a few lines and look at the bold text – it’s an animated movie. And it’s not a Studio Ghibli movie, but a commercial animated movie released by a major studio that shouldn’t have any real ambitions of quality. I took some heat for hating Frozen, but I found that movie riddled with plot holes, emotionally manipulative scenes that made no sense in context, and based on character motivations that were impossible to understand. (ABC’s Once Upon a Time added the characters to its cast and actually address many of my complaints. It’s been great seeing them reworked for the show and I’m enjoying the season.) This movie has an even weaker plot that is threadbare. But it’s also so charming, smart, and funny that it’s impossible to overlook.

The Lego Movie (directors: Phil Lord and Christopher Miller)

The plot of this film is dumb – it’s the hero’s journey. But it’s also very smart in its understanding of how people craft stories in the first place. Toys like Legos are a part of the imagination that help children build their own adventures based on what they have seen. Isn’t that what film making and storytelling is? In an era without risks, this film is far, far better than it ever needed to be.

BRONZE MEDAL

I actually debated between this and Nightcrawler, but I think that my pick edges the latter film out slightly due to its incredible plot structure and fantastic female lead performance. This was one of the best thrillers I’ve seen in a long, long time precisely because it keeps the audience guessing to the very end.

Gone Girl (director: David Fincher)

David Fincher is a director of great skill who knows what an audience needs. That’s something that links him to the classic Hollywood directors. Alfred Hitchcock didn’t have ambitions to make great art. He wanted to scare some people. Fincher takes the same approach to create one of the best thrillers in recent memory.

THE REST

The rest of my picks are presented alphabetically, as is my custom.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (director: Matt Reeves) –
This film is what all summer blockbusters should aspire to be. It’s dependent on its special effects, but it’s also very smart. It has so many engaging features, from explorations on the birth of civilization to the origin of war. Serkis’ Caesar is one of my favorite performances of the year, even though he relies on computers to bring his character to life. But it doesn’t matter. The script is so strong and the themes so amazing that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes cannot be ignored. If Terrance Malick was given $200 million, I’m not sure that his film would differ greatly from Apes.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (director: Wes Anderson)-This is not my favorite Wes Anderson film. But from a technical standpoint, Budapest is his best film. It’s certainly his most challenging. There are narrative tricks that are nearly impossible to pull off convincingly and jumps around genres as though it is picking pastries from some obscure European bakery. The film is a prison escape film, an espionage film, a dry comedy, a nostalgic reflection of a simpler time, and a war drama. And it manages to be all of these things without ever losing sight of its ultimate goal – to be entertaining without insulting the audience’s intelligence.

Jodorowsky’s Dune (director: Frank Pavich)-Even in his 80s, counter-culture filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky remains an incredible storyteller. The entire film is based on him talking about his great unrealized project. He doesn’t talk about it with the sadness usually associated with a lost work. He still is as energetic with us as he is with the investors who would have financed his masterpiece. Dune has become one of the most famous unmade films ever made. We’ve finally gotten a chance to see a version of it, and even in this form it’s worth discussing.

Life Itself (director: Steve James)I surrendered myself in my review because I was so emotionally connected with the subject that it would have been impossible for me to not like this film. But it was still an amazing look at an amazing end. Roger Ebert had always put on a brave face for us as he talked about his battle with cancer and the loss of his ability to speak. This film was a revealing one. We saw the struggles of his daily life and how he sometimes let his armor slip. That would be great enough, but the film also functions as a wonderful obituary. We see his work, his life, and the people he touched. I can’t think of a film this year that accomplished its goals more thoroughly or a time I was more emotionally touched in the theater.

Nightcrawler (director: Dan Gilroy)-This film reflected our age in a way that I wasn’t even sure was possible. All of the characters seem to exist in a YouTube video, where the most important thing is to get people to look at you. Jake Gyllenhaal’s Louis is the perfect representation of what people think of when they think of a millennial. He’s a man who only cares about the ends and who doesn’t view the people he meets as people. It’s fascinating to see him work and frightening to know there are people like him out there now making a fortune.

Only Lovers Left Alive (director: Jim Jarmusch)-This is a vampire movie about vampires who are awkward recluses. They use pathetically bad ruses to obtain blood. One is an outsider musician who doesn’t know what he wants with eternity. In other words, this is the first film of the modern era that acknowledges that, if vampires existed, they would be very creepy. There is no pop culture coolness associated with these types of characters. Jarmusch has always been an expert at deconstructing American pop genres and pointing out just how sinister our desires are. Only Lovers demonstrates that. It’s the best film he’s made since Ghost Dog.

Under the Skin (director: Johnathan Glazer)-This is one of the oddest films of the year. There’s practically no dialogue, the plot is flimsy, and the scenes depend on single images that make no sense on their own. In other words, Under the Skin is remarkably brave for a film that came out this decade. It allowed for interpretation, something that most modern films are almost afraid of. If Nicholas Roeg was still the powerhouse that he was in the 1970s, this is the sort of film he’d make. And that’s what makes it good. It’s able to acknowledge that the best science fiction depends on ideas and interpretations. I’m not sure how well the film will age, but I love the fact that someone took chances in its making.

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A Reaction to the new Star Wars Trailer

We’re in full Oscar season now and the new Hunger Games movie opened to a huge box office. But this weekend, everyone was obsessed with one 88 second trailer.
Specifically, this 88 second trailer:

It’s already been remade in Lego, which represents some sort of success.

I didn’t want to write about this immediately, because I didn’t want to get caught up in the hype that everyone seems to be caught in. The new Star Wars trailer has been described in ways that describe the deities of most major religions. Obviously, there needs to be some sort of middle ground. Also, I was out of town and didn’t have access to my trusty computer.

But now I do, so I want to remind everyone that we need to remain guarded. But, I was quite excited when I saw the trailer. It demonstrates that the filmmakers are addressing the problems of past Star Wars films.

I can remember when the prequels were first announced and the fanfare that greeted that first trailer. YouTube wasn’t around then, so it was attached to a movie no one wanted to see. (I believe it was Wing Commander, which .) People would walk in, see the trailer, and then walk out and ask for their money back. Theaters had to quickly create policies to deter the practice. Magazines examined the trailer frame by frame to guess what was happening and how it would all tie in to the legendary Star Wars trilogy.

Luckily, you no longer have to spend money to see it for yourself:

The point is to get you to go see an upcoming movie. An editor has to find the best moments that work and see how they can attract an audience.

That Phantom Menace trailer was no different. The editor worked like Pavlov with a bell to get audiences to react in a certain way. We were teased with the classic Star Wars score. We saw new characters and settings that looked exciting. We even saw glimpses of the new technology that was bringing the story to life. Digital characters like Jar Jar Binks had never been done on that scale. It was amazing to witness that character in the trailer for the first time, in the same way it was amazing to see the huge technological leap that the first Star Wars film had.

But there was a problem with the trailer that no one recognized when it was first released.

One of the biggest weaknesses with the prequels was the performances. I don’t blame the actors – they were probably just as confused with the direction as the audience was. But it still made the films difficult to watch. It would have been very easy for the trailer to hide this with its images and the whole idea that we were finally getting a new film in the franchise.

But the trailer includes dialogue that would have been meaningless to anyone who doesn’t know the Star Wars mythos. And it’s all delivered in a stilted manner to give plot points that, ultimately, the saga didn’t need. Had the trailer eliminated those moments, it would have been perfect. The fact it didn’t demonstrates George Lucas’ overconfidence in the film he had just made.

But now that time has passed, a good filmmaker would need to examine what works about the franchise and what didn’t. And that trailer demonstrates that J.J. Abrams is at least willing to take a look and actually improve on some things that went wrong.

Yes, the trailer does not include much about the plot. I have seen websites that reportedly leak details about the story and how it will end. But I honestly have not been following them. I remember when that happened the last go around and how most of those spoilers were wrong. Besides, the trailer is smart in not revealing too much.

Its strengths are in create those images to tease us. There is no dialogue outside of Andy Serkis’ narration. The villain teases us with a lightsaber we have never seen. The trailer shows us things we’ve seen and with new characters that we haven’t. It’s a very effective 88 seconds that piqued my interest in a franchise I had thought dead. I will reserve my judgement for the film, but I at least what to see it now.

I remain guarded because I know that Star Wars does not automatically equal “good.” The franchise has been wildly inconsistent. I am hoping that J.J. Abrams can revive a franchise. Despite my attitude, I don’t like seeing films fail. And this is a film that will be seen by everyone and become a cultural milestone. I can only hope that it’s worthwhile.

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A Review of Interstellar

I’ll just go ahead and spoil it. A lot of criticism for Interstellar, the latest from Christopher Nolan, is about how it cannot handle the lofty ideas it presents.

This is incorrect.

Interstellar has no lofty ideas to present.

Oh, it tries to pretend like it does. The trailers made the film seem like it would be like an intense, 2001 style space opera. That’s not what it is.  Interstellar is basically a family drama about a man torn away from his daughter and trying to do everything he can to make sure he sees her again.

A noble premise. There’s been some great movies that follow that line of thinking. But, considering the fact that it’s also about the end of the world and the future of the human race, making that the focus of the drama seems cheap and hollow. When one of your lines is something about how love “transcends all forces in space and time,” you are not making something revealing about the human condition and our place in the universe. You’re making the sort of mawkish work that’s been done hundreds of times before.

It’s almost insulting.

Matthew McCoughaney’s Cooper is a corn farmer who was a pilot at one point. It’s about, oh, seventy or eighty years after our present and the only food that can be grown on earth is corn. Lots of corn. Seriously, we barely see anything of civilization outside of Cooper’s farm and an endless corn farm. But even the corn is dying and humanity will go extinct. So, Michael Caine (Michael Caine) recruits him to travel through a wormhole near Saturn to check out possibly habitable planets that exist near a black hole.

OK, so we have a good set up – dying planet and a need to go to the most distant places in the galaxy. Even Cooper is a good protagonist – an every man who is thrust into a situation he doesn’t entirely understand. We want to see him succeed because we know he wants to help his children Doyle (Casey Affleck) and Murph (Jessica Chastain) see the future. And he can help guide us on his trip through distant planets. Ideally, we would learn as he learns. He can even help us understand some pretty lofty ideas. The film devotes discussion to relativity, wormholes, and the existence of dimensions beyond the four we can perceive. Somewhere, Neil deGrasse Tyson is smiling.

But that would only work if Cooper himself seemed to care about the journey to these distant worlds. He never does, focusing instead on how quickly he can return to his dying Earth. Everything about his journey seems to be about how much is sucks to be away from his daughter. The passage of time is an inconvenience for him and it’s not something we, the audience, ever feel shocked about. And it keeps cutting back to Earth, as Murph grows up to join the science team monitoring Cooper’s mission. It’s supposed to be tied together in the end (in a VERY predictable manner), but by then I was so exasperated with what was going on that I barely cared.

The film doesn’t become intriguing for me until about two hours in, when the team lands on a planet and finds a scientist who was part of a previous mission. (I won’t spoil the fun by saying who it is.) This scientist reveals that (minor spoiler) the mission wasn’t exactly explained to Cooper fully. He realizes that he may never see his family again and that the people of earth may be doomed.

I sat back and thought, “Well, golly me. Actual moral questions about sacrificing oneself for the species? About keeping secrets from people? About making difficult decisions in the face of unusual circumstances? This could actually be good after all.”

But of course it doesn’t work out that way and we’re back to the maudlin in practically no time at all.

At least the special effects are nice, particularly the robot TARS. He doesn’t look like any robot we’ve ever seen in a film – more of a walking iPad, really. The final third act sequence in which Cooper goes “beyond the infinite” works very well from a technical standpoint. And I liked the sequence through the wormhole, even if it more than casually resembled the star gate sequence in 2001. Even the apocalypse on earth works well. The barren civilization feels more realistic than the countless ruined cities. It’s an engaging world.

I’m happy that the film had such a grand scale and at least wanted to tackle some smart ideas. I wish more high budget films would decide to step back and look in awe instead of blowing stuff up. But Interstellar never gets to that level.

Nolan did most of the same thing with Inception and it worked. There was a genuine sense of awe with Inception, and it balanced the emotional core of the characters with the lofty ideas about the human mind. The two coexisted with each other and created a wondrous time at the cinema.

Interstellar never found that core. It just keeps piling on ideas for its nearly three-hour run time to give the audience the impression that they’ve seen something profound. But it’s not profound at all. I realized I had seen this approach before in Nolan’s filmography – The Dark Knight Rises. That Batman film piled on scenes from various comic story lines to give people the idea they were watching a great comic adaptation. But it was filled with messy plot holes and silly ideas. Interstellar works the same way. I have a feeling it’s going to make a ton of money at the box office and Nolan will have a bright career ahead of him. His legacy was already secure before Interstellar entered production. So why wasn’t this movie better? Nolan knows what works for both critics, cinephiles, and the populist audience. Why did Nolan resort to the most shallow tropes to make this movie?

 

If Inception was The Dark Knight, then Interstellar is The Dark Knight Rises. There is no central idea to tie everything together. It feels like a confused mess of themes that the director wanted to explore. At least I was familiar enough with the source material to guess what Rises was trying to do. I don’t have that luxury with Interstellar. This could easily have been as great as everyone was hoping it would be if they had rewritten it to either focus completely on Earth or completely on the mission. In fact, that would have been great to have Murph as the protagonist who is trying to piece together the messages her father is sending her.There are some great ideas here. But as it stands, those ideas never come together. I feel almost apologetic in saying this, but Interstellar is not a great movie. It’s barely even “acceptable.” I had such high hopes for this movie and I know a lot of others did as well. But I cannot recommend Interstellar.

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A Review of Nightcrawler

I’d like to talk to you about something I discovered. Film noir is dead as a genre. It has been replaced by something I’m calling film neón.

Film noir was defined by its shadows and darkness. The people were hard living blue-collar employees who thought they understood the situation perfectly but were often wrong. The women were still basic housewives who were trying to game society. They were often morality plays, so evil was punished and there was a very strong sense of morality.

Film neón is awash with the streetlights and skyscrapers in modern cities. The people who inhabit these cities only vaguely resemble people. They often don’t have much to say, and when they do, their dialogue is basically repeated speeches they may have heard on infomercials. The women are in actual positions of power and independent (rather than being married to the right man), but are still the driving force behind the male character’s motivation. In fact, the women can resemble the sort of life they want. Morality is very ambiguous – the heroes are often equally bad, but are trying to fight for the right thing.

It’s a trend that’s been growing. Most of the qualities were set by Michael Mann’s Collateral. Drive is another example, and even the James Bond films Casino Royale and Skyfall has a lot to say about the emerging genre.

But Nightcrawler is  the perfect example of film neón. It is one of the best films of 2014 for illustrating exactly what is so important about the genre. Everything about the film, from the characters to the setting to the structure, is incredibly well done. And it manages to ignite some important questions about the world we live in, where cell phone video often reveals important information that news organizations can ignore.

So far this year, I haven’t singled out any actor who deserves an Oscar. I would like to amend that and declare that Jake Gyllenhaal deserves to win Best Actor for his portrayal of Lou Bloom. Bloom is a man willing to do anything to get ahead, and is able to justify his actions with key phrases you’ve probably heard the upper management at your company say.

Even when we’re introduced to him, he’s stealing copper to sell to a construction crew. Then he finds someone else filming a crash scene, and is drawn into the world of freelance videographers (or “nightcrawlers”) who take footage at crime scenes and sell them to local news stations.

Bloom runs full steam ahead. He buys a camera and police scanner and hires an assistant named Rick (Riz Ahmed) whom he verbally abuses with his business buzzwords. He even forms a relationship with local news director Nina (Rene Russo…yes, seriously, Rene Russo. I don’t know what rock she crawled under after 2002, but the filmmakers found her for this movie) whom he constantly threatens not to sell footage to unless she has sex with him. And, despite everything he does, he is very successful in his pursuits.

He is the greatest film neón character to date – a facsimile of a man who doesn’t quite know everything but thinks he does.  I’m not sure how Jake Gyllenhaal was able to capture the spirit of this YouTube Iago, but he did so. It was amazing seeing him rattle off all the business buzz words he’s learned from online courses. He sounds confident and sure. I won’t even say it’s a disguise. I would say it’s an idea of who he thinks he is. He relished each moment, the way only Lou could have.

But there’s so much more to Nightcrawler than Gyllenhaal’s performance. The film is ultimately about how much media is willing to compete for a much smaller audience. Lou is terrible, but he is responding to a demand that the news stations have. There’s a vague feeling of Network in Rene Russo, where she constantly demands death for the camera. Network, you’ll recall, had Faye Dunaway insisting that the TV station fast track a show about a radical black power group to increase ratings. Russo has graphic footage of a home invasion, and puts it on prime time. She only pauses to ask if it’s legal to show.

Is this what we want? Apparently, judging by what trends on YouTube. The only time Russo ever pauses is when Lou haggles over the price. Rick only ever demands that he get more money (Lou insists that Rick is an “intern,” something that mirrors pretty much every media company today). Everything is driven by selfish gains. There is no villain in the film outside of the character’s own, selfish desires. And (spoiler) they get away with it.

What does this mean? Well, ultimately that’s up to the viewer. I think that the film’s seductive film neón quality makes the situation seem that much more acceptable. The third act is a real thrill ride, but it’s a situation that could have been avoided. Do we need to keep placing ourselves in dangerous situations just for a few thrills? If you ask any number of viral stars, the answer is “absolutely.” After seeing Nightcrawler, I’m not convinced.

As I said at the start, Nightcrawler is one of the year’s best films. It is an important chapter in a growing genre of films. But it’s very engaging on its own and has a lot to say about professional media in the YouTube era. There are a lot of Lous in the world that are going to have a very worrisome impact. Maybe you’re one of them. I hope you at least stop to think about what you’re doing.

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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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