A Review of Richard Donner’s Superman

I was excited to see Batman v Superman: Useless Subtitle until I saw the trailers. I realized there was something seriously going wrong as I saw how many characters the film was going to have. It was obvious the creators were throwing everything possible at the wall to see what sticks. I complained that The Dark Knight Rises was piling on moments from the comics without really thinking about its central theme, but that looked downright restrained and well-planned compared to a film that features characters from pretty much every major DC property in the hopes of trying to “build a universe.” What’s the point of going to see something if I know it won’t make a lick of sense until the other films come out? I already had that experience trying to slog through ABC’s Agents of SHIELD and I am not going through it again.

But the worst part for me came when I saw how Jesse Eisenberg transformed Lex Luthor into a drag queen. Now, Eisenberg has proven himself to be a talented actor and I was actually pleased about the casting when it was first announced. But everything about his mannerisms was off in the clips I saw. I can only blame the filmmaker’s desire to camp up the character because that worked for The Joker.

That’s not the purpose of Luthor. Luthor is a man who could rule the world if Superman didn’t stop him. He’s a megalomaniac who feels that Superman is destroying his birthright. But it never drives him crazy. In fact, there are times when Luthor’s discussions about how Superman is holding back humanity by making them dependent on a god makes perfect sense. Those create the best moments in the comics, as they become less about punching and more about a battle of the minds. Go check out Red Son and see how the relationship between Luthor and Superman should be. They’re two sides of the same coin, with both convinced they are acting in humanity’s best interests.

I realized there was no place for that relationship in Batman vs Superman as I saw Eisenberg giggling about Clark Kent’s “good grip” in the trailer. It was a terrible joke coming from a character who would never speak to anyone like that.

I could be wrong about the final product. I haven’t seen it. But the advertising demonstrated a disrespect for the audience and the characters and didn’t encourage me to check it out. It was about shoehorning as much as possible in to set up other works and sell toys to kids. It had the hallmark of a bad 90s blockbuster and, after ready the pounding the film has received at the hands of critics, I think I can safely say my gut feeling was right.

So, instead of paying full price for a film that is likely to make me upset, I wanted to try something different. I wondered if it would be possible to ever capture Superman on film. It seemed like a Herculean order, especially as the character has no conflict and isn’t even really human. When you’re capable of doing pretty much anything, it’s hard to get anyone to relate to you.

But everyone seems to love the Richard Donner’s original Superman. 

So I rewatched it, trying to figure it out. I didn’t like it the first time I saw it. I didn’t think it had aged well, except for the flying effects.

But as I was watching Superman again, I realized I was wrong. There is a lot to admire about this film. First, at a time when comic books were still being treated (and written) as dopey pop art for children, Superman takes its source material seriously. Everyone knows Superman’s origins. and probably already knows the logical inconsistencies with Kal-El’s journey to Earth. For example, why doesn’t father Jor-El (Marlon Brando here, consistently mispronouncing the word “Krypton”) build a shuttle large enough to accommodate all three members of his family? How does he know about Earth science and Earth culture enough to program talks that will play in Kal’s capsule, especially when he reveals that he’s been dead for “thousands of years” later in the film? Why does he even care, as Krypton is a much more advanced planet? This would be the same as a human asking a goldfish about the secrets of the universe.

The film never bothers to address these questions, but the film still treats the journey as an important event. It’s shot on an epic scale, and I pity the fact I have not seen those scenes of Kal-El flying through space on the big screen. It looks stunning and is treated with a respect I wasn’t prepared for.

Christopher Reeve also makes an incredible Superman and Clark Kent. As Superman, he does all the prerequisite things, joking with crooks he knows he is more powerful than (like the cat burglar climbing up the side of the building) and doing his best to shrug off the great challenges he faces. It may seem extraordinary to humans, but what else can he do but shrug off the compliments he receives?

But as Clark Kent, I finally believed people would never see him as Superman. Reeves plays Kent as a hunched over, stuttering fool who doesn’t even talk in the same voice. Kent is a hopeless nerd, who thinks talking like an extra in a 1950s sitcom will make him pass as human. I didn’t even believe Kent was Suoerman until after he took off the glasses. It’s one of the oldest jokes to point out that everyone in Metropolis must be pathetically stupid to buy Kent’s disguise. The film is respectful enough to make it believable.

Even the supporting cast does well. Margot Kidder is perfect as the head strong Lois Lane, eager to act tough in a world surrounded by her male colleagues. She treats Clark like a pet but Superman like a God. Even that odd romantic poem, which Lois thinks about during her flight with Superman, somehow works in context and doesn’t destroy Lois’ character. Glenn Ford is a perfectly grounded Pa Kent, who teaches a teenaged Clark that it’s not important to always be the center of attention. Even Brando as Jor-El is…well, Brando’s been a lot worse. He treats Jor-El as the great sage he needs to be and his coming off as alien and distant makes sense for once.

So far, so good. I was pleased with the casting, the aesthetic, the effects – this sounds like a great Superman adaptation, doesn’t it?

But then we see a character that nearly destroys the movie – Lex Luthor. Gene Hackman plays Luthor as a man who is evil for the sake of being evil. His master plan is to destroy the West Coast so that land he owns greatly increases in value. How he would avoid prison after stealing a nuclear weapon and blowing up the San Andreas fault by way of make believe science is not something he stops to think about. He openly declares himself to be the greatest criminal mastermind of all time and is basically fighting Superman…because Superman’s there.

This is the complete opposite of who Luthor needs to be. Luthor is not fighting Superman for the sake of fighting him or for some get rich scheme. He’s fighting Superman because Luthor feels that Superman is preventing mankind from reaching its full potential. Even worse, Superman is preventing Luthor from becoming the Ubermensch. He cannot stand living in Superman’s shadow and has convinced himself that destroying Superman is more than about his ego. None of that is present in the film. This Luthor is two steps below a Roger Moore era Bond villain.

Alright. This film was made at a time when comics were still written with the broadest strokes possible. The heroes were always good, the bad guys were in love with their own evil schemes, and there was no attempt to make the conflicts even remotely believable. It could just be that the film is dated, which doesn’t make it bad.

But then the second thing comes that ruins the film – the cop out ending in which Superman resurrects Lois from the dead. (Screw spoiler warnings – the movie is almost 40 years old.) It not only contradicts what makes Superman stories compelling but destroys the message of the film.

In the best Superman stories, one of two things happen. Either Superman realizes that, no matter how powerful he is, he’s not a god. Inevitably, he’s not going to be able to save someone crying for his help. Worse, the people around him are going to die and there will be nothing he can do to stop it. Heck, Superman himself is probably going to die someday, and what will humanity do then?

Or, Superman is going to realize that the symbol he’s created is not something he can maintain. Either he’s going to have to do something that breaks his moral code or he’s going to have to let people who don’t have the same rules as him do unspeakable things.

That ending, in which Superman flies so fast he reverses the Earth’s rotation and turns back time, destroys any hope of the film series addressing either of those issues. Who cares if someone close to him dies? Superman can turn back the clock and fix it. And Superman now has no limits. He can do anything and save everyone calling for him. It not only removed that tension, but it contradicts Jor-El’s message to his son. Obviously Superman is interfering with human history. What’s meant to be a triumphant moment is the death knell of the film’s themes.

So, the filmmakers spent the entire time making me happy that they respect this important figure of Americana, only to reveal in the last ten minutes that it was all a con. I could not wrap my hand around the filmmakers making such a wrong choice to end their film.

But even with these flaws, Superman was a huge box office success. Inevitably, sequels followed. Superman II was ruined by executive meddling, but saved in 2006 when we finally got to see Richard Donner’s directors cut. It’s one of the few sequels that bests the original by introducing some of the conflict that was lacking from this outing. But that franchise eventually crashed and burned with Quest for Peace. Then Superman stagnated in development hell, during which time two of the most infamous unproduced Hollywood blockbusters ever were considered for production before saner heads prevailed.

Superman Returns was basically shrugged off the screen and Marvel started making money to the point where their box office grosses are more accurately compared to GDPs than audience attendance. This unquestionably lead to the current approach, which I suspect will implode again. Maybe it means Superman, a character that has inspired generations of readers, cannot be put to celluloid. Or maybe it means no one has taken a step back and tried to figure out what about the character is special.

One thing I haven’t done is seen the original Man of Steel, which Batman vs Superman is essentially a sequel to. As the first attempt to separate the cinematic Superman from Donner film, that would be an interesting item to evaluate. More interesting, I’m sure, than seeing a CGI Doomsday.

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A Review of 10 Cloverfield Lane

The original Cloverfield is primarily remembered as an exercise of style rather than substance. This ignores the film’s many strengths, but it’s easy to see why this happened. The film was a complete first person perspective film in a way that has not really been repeated. It was tense, it was frightening, and it was wonderfully effective. But it hasn’t been revisited often since its release in 2008.

This is because the film doesn’t do well with repeat viewings. Once you see it and let it affect you, you’ve seen pretty much all the film has to offer. It was obvious that producer J.J. Abrams and director Matt Reeves were talented, but they wanted to be seen more as just technical wizards. They wanted to be seen as people capable of not only creating an effective thriller, but doing it with the fewest elements possible.

They succeed with 10 Cloverfield Lane. It’s not a sequel to Cloverfield and does nothing to try to equal that film’s scale. It’s a film that only has three main characters, is shot almost entirely in one location, and doesn’t heavily depend on special effects.

It’s also one of the most effective mainstream thrillers to come out in a while.

The less you know about 10 Cloverfield Lane, the better it is. But the set up is like something out of The Twilight Zone. A young woman named Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) gets in a car accident and falls unconscious. She awakens in a basement, chained to a bed with an IV drip in her arm and breakfast waiting for her. The basement belongs to Howard (John Goodman), who explains to her that the world has been destroyed by an “attack.” He is not sure what caused it, but is determined to survive the fallout for two years in his bomb shelter. The only other survivor is Emmett (John Gallagher Jr), one of Howard’s neighbors.

The questions come quickly. Is Howard lying? Is he telling the truth? Is it a mixture of both? The film plays its cards close to its chest. All good thrillers are not about the resolution but about the trip. They only work if the audiences are as disoriented as the characters.

10 Cloverfield Lane ensures that we never find out what is happening to anyone. There are many tense moments as the characters try to have something resembling daily life as the world above them may not even exist any more. We do get moments where characters have to fix things in the shelter, which provide great tension. I particularly enjoyed a scene late in the film in which the characters play Pictionary. Howard indicates that he suspects Michelle and Emmett are about to betray him, and it’s great to see both characters desperately try to deflect his suspicion.

Winstead is great as Michelle. It’s not a damsel in distress role, which helps turn the film into a subversion of female roles that Hollywood can’t seem to get rid of. Michelle is never treated like a sex object and is capable of defending herself. She is also resourceful and clever. Emmett is the secondary character who depends on Michelle. In an age where Disney still won’t produce female superhero movies, characters like Michelle stand out.

But the main reason the film works is because of John Goodman’s performance. Goodman has consistently one of the best character actors in history, but has never received a fraction of the recognition he deserves. He gives Howard an internal conflict as Howard tries his best to be a good host. But he secretly hates the world and is almost pleased that he was proven correct. When Emmett asks him if he has any regrets, Howard responds that he did everything he wanted to do with his life. It’s easy to be unnerved by his behavior, even as he cooks dinner for everyone. He’s not exactly crazy (that’s the whole point of the film) but his attempts to interact with people in a normal way indicates he is eager to hide from everyone. It’s reminiscent of Anthony Perkins in Psycho, another man who made the seemingly ordinary appear grotesque and monstrous.

Goodman ignores the fact that he is in a genre film and wants people to remember his performance long after they’ve left the theater. He succeeds in creating one of the most effective, unnerving antagonists I’ve seen in a while.

There is a problem with the third act, where (minor spoilers) we find out exactly what has happened to the world. It goes back to the sort of overblown spectacle 10 Cloverfield Lane had been looking to avoid. But it’s at least believable given what the film has already revealed to us and we care about what happens to Michelle. It’s distracting, yes, but it’s not a deal breaker.

10 Cloverfield Lane is the sort of film I wish Hollywood would make more. It’s not dependent on CGI or on only addressing the audience’s most basic needs. It’s a film that could have been shot by film students over a weekend. But it works because everyone involved wanted to make the best possible film they can. It’s driven by a passion and a need to tell the story of these characters trying to survive each other. It’s simple but it works.

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A Review of Zoolander 2

The original Zoolander is a work of unrecognized comic genius.

That film is the closest anyone has gone to capture the sensibilities of writers like Brett Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney. Both authors specialize in characters who are so wrapped up in appearing hip and trendy to their peers that they don’t realize how disposable they are themselves. Ellis especially is obsessed with celebrity and how, despite their wealth, beauty, and fame, the people that grace the cover of People are horrifyingly inept at seeing the world that is fascinated with looking at them. Zoolander may not have been as malicious as a character like Patrick Bateman, but he was still able to wreak havoc on the people around him with his narrow world view.

The delivery of the jokes is perfect. There are lines in the film that still make me laugh, particularly Zoolander’s query “Why is he sticking his hand in his pants?” during the famous walk-off scene. The impact Zoolander makes is consistently great throughout its run time.

Its biggest problem was that it seemed dated by the time it reached theaters. Zoolander was released in the shadow of 9/11 – as in, about two weeks after it happened. I learned on IMDB that the first news footage about the attacks interrupted Zoolander’s TV spot and recall seeing the first film in a practically empty theater when I was 14. No one wanted to watch a vicious deconstruction of the New York celebrity scene while New York was trying to rebuild. But somehow the original became more relevant as people found ways to turn themselves into Derek Zoolanders. There are hundreds on YouTube, craving attention and not stopping to ponder whether there is more to life than being really, really, really, ridiculously good looking.

Maybe that’s why Ben Stiller wanted to make a sequel 15 years later. I’m speculating because Zoolander 2 isn’t giving me any answers as to why we needed to see another chapter in Zoolander’s life. This is a sequel that doesn’t understand what made the original work so well. It’s a dated, dumb comedy that offers practically no laughs, only miscalculations.

I realized something was terribly wrong during the credits sequence where we learn what happened to Derek Zoolander in the fifteen years since his last movie. First, his Derek Zoolander Institute for Kids Who Can’t Read Good And Want To Learn to Do Other Stuff Good Too collapsed the day it opened because the building was made with the same material the model was made out of. Har har. The problem is that we see the institute collapse via a home video someone took and it unmistakably resembles home video footage of 9/11. I know I said 9/11 destroyed the original Zoolander’s theatrical release, but for Stiller to complain about it seems petty. I have a feeling that when we’re examining the impact of that day, “kind of lowering the box office gross of Ben Stiller’s film” is not often discussed.

So that was strike one.

Strike two is when we realize that there are victims of this collapse – namely, Zoolander’s wife Matilda. Matilda was the audience surrogate of the first film. She kept us sane in Zoolander’s crazy, shallow world. What were the filmmakers hoping to accomplish? Having us not feel dirty about the scenes where Zoolander is lusting after Penelope Cruz? What it does is remove Zoolander completely from our world so that we have no lenses to observe Zoolander’s lifestyle. And it’s a mean spirited way to start a comedy.

So, within two minutes the wrong tone has been set and poor narrative choices have been made.

Anyway, Zoolander goes into seclusion, Hansel is maimed by the building collapse and gets his entire orgy pregnant (including Kiefer Sutherland), and Billy Zane continues to be Billy Zane. They’re drawn back together after a series of murders in which the victims strike Zoolander’s poses before they expire. The literal fashion police (lead by Cruz) are called in to investigate. OK. The first film dealt with a dumb conspiracy that revolved around Zoolander. If it leads to the same sort of comedic invention, I’d be on board.

But Zoolander 2 continues to make poor choices by forgetting what made the first film work. It was meant to be a parody of models who are so desperate to be around today’s hottest celebrities. Every single reference that Zoolander 2 makes is dated. The conspiracy – which has something to do with fashion icons looking to find the Fountain of Youth and murder right rock stars who are protecting it- recalls Dan Brown’s novels. Too bad those are about ten years old. Then we have cameos from celebrities like Susan Boyle, Skrillex, Joe Jonas, and MC Hammer. In other words, people who are well past their fifteen minutes of fame.

There is one character in the film that works – All (Benedict Cumberbatch). All is literally a person with no identity except that which is given to…All. Part of the joke is that All’s gender is ambiguous, but All is not mocking transgendered individuals. Rather, All works as a commentary on how increasingly blank models are. But All is barely in the film and is overshadowed by fashion designer Don Moody – an annoying man who lives to love kitsch. He’s supposed to be an indictment of hipsters, but that joke has been made and has been made much better. Kristen Wiig as Alexanya Atoz is even worse and serves as nothing more than a dates Donatella parody.

Zoolander 2 continues to make mistakes as the second act switches focuses to Zoolander trying to rebuild a relationship with his son, Derek Jr. Zoolander lost custody of his son after a home video surfaced showing him trying to cook pasta. (“How did Mom make it soft?” Derek wails to his filth covered son.) Derek Jr has committed the unforgivable sin of becoming a smart, sensitive young man who also happens to be “plus-sized.” Zoolander 2 screws this moment up by having Derek Jr unconvincingly repeat the beats his mom had in the first film. I know I mourned not having an audience surrogate a few paragraphs ago, but Derek Jr. is not an outsider in the way his mother was (he’s an idealized orphan) and can’t repeat anything beyond “I’m really smart and you’re really dumb.” The film ends with Derek Jr becoming a plus sized model, which goes against the character’s arc.

Even returning character Mugatu (Will Ferrell) doesn’t work. He’s been put in “fashion jail” after his crimes in the first film, which somehow didn’t prevent him from orchestrating the whole conspiracy. How? I have no idea, and it somehow doesn’t involve the shadowy cabal of designers from the first film. Ferrell is given nothing to do with the character and what is shown contradicts his role in Zoolander. 

I sat there, watching these characters create a dated comedy with no laughs. Then I realized that this could be Ben Stiller pulling the ultimate prank. He was turning his audience into Don Ataris, having us hate everything about these characters while turning our lack of laughs into an obnoxious statement. We had paid money to see something that we knew would not be good. We bought tickets to see how dated it would be. Stiller was turning us into the jerks he was criticizing and then makes us realize how we are not above his characters.

So, is Zoolander 2 a sort of Andy Kaufman comedic subversion, where we’re supposed to laugh not at the film but about its effect on us and how we are the people Stiller is mocking? If so, then Stiller one of film’s greatest geniuses and a master of anti-comedy.

Then I got to the fifth or sixth fat kid joke and realized no, it’s exactly as dumb as I thought.

So in summary, Zoolander is less like the latest spring lineup from Versace and more like that stained shirt you find for 75 percent off at Old Navy. Watch the first film instead if you want to laugh.

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A Review of Deadpool

Deadpool is a character that has struck a chord with a large part of comic book’s fandom. He was originally created by Rob Liefeld as part of the anti-hero fad of the ’90s. I’m not too familiar with his work, but the internet has taught me Liefeld’s reputation falls somewhere between “child molester” and “Donald Trump.”  Yet the character remains a favorite that has lead to parodies, homages, and the knowledge that there will be armies of Deadpools at any convention.

I think this is because Deadpool is the ultimate reflection of the average geek’s personality. He is a man with the brainpower to write a PhD level dissertation on the comic universe he inhabits, but is also an immature creature who thinks that dick and fart jokes are the height of wit.

It’s obvious why people wanted to see a Deadpool film, but it’s also easy to see why the studios were so hesitant to make it. Make the film as a standard superhero film and you’ll upset the fans. Yet Deadpool exists to point out the bizarre inconsistencies of the Marvel universe and how dumb it is to treat these characters like they have an impact on the real world. Making a movie like that would potentially damage other films in Marvel’s stable.

So director Tim Miller tried to balance the two approaches. And I don’t know if it really works.

The film is at its best when it’s just about Deadpool, his origins, and his desires. However, there are still moments when they try to somehow tie this film into Fox’s X-Men series. I’ve become increasingly exhausted with Marvel films. They don’t understand what makes these characters work. It’s not about the ongoing mythologies that will never have a resolution and thus will never be satisfying. It’s about using these characters that have become a familiar part of the culture and seeing how they can be applied to a self contained story. Ask a comic book fan what his favorite Superman story is, and he’s far more likely to list Grant Morrison’s beautiful All Star Superman than he is That One Issue, I think it was #605, Where Superman Teams Up with the Superman of Eath-2 and They go Back in Time But it Ends Before They Defeat the Villain.  Somehow, the Marvel cinematic universe seems to think that the later approach is the correct one to take. Deadpool is not nearly as egregious with this approach as Avengers: Age of Ultron but falls for that same trap.

The film does one thing unequivocally right – casting Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool. Reynolds has always been a gifted comic performer who was repeatedly saddled with terrible roles. Van Wilder is one of the worst comedies I’ve seen, but Reynolds still managed to get a great performance out of that weak material.

Deadpool finally gives him something worthy of his screen persona. As Wade Wilson, Reynolds works as a hired killer whose  quipping helps . We only see him perform one job – intimidating a stalker who has been harassing a young woman. But he openly lets the audience know that he is not a “good guy” and tries to bait someone into killing another gun for hire. Still, he exudes a blue-collar charm that makes the character more familiar and likable than Wolverine ever was in his films.

Wilson is in love with Vanessa (Morena Baccarin, who has not aged a day since Firefly) and asks her to marry him (using a Ring Pop). He is later diagnosed with terminal cancer and given the opportunity by a mysterious man named Ajax (Ed Skrien) who claims he can cure the cancer using the same mutant genes that give the X-men their powers.

After the procedure, Wilson is deformed, rechristened Deadpool and goes bonkers. He ignores calls from the metal skinned Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) and his protege Negasonic Teenage Wasteland (Brianna Hildebarnd) to join the X-Men and focuses on finding and killing Ajax. What’s strange is that, during the second act, Deadpool is not as interesting as he was without the mask. Wilson was already a funny guy who offered commentary on the modern action film and had a significant emotional investment in another character that the audiences could relate to.

After he put on the mask, it was a standard superhero film with a lot more masturbation jokes. It is well executed and Reynolds takes the role as seriously as possible. Deadpool, like Guardians of the Galaxy, was a risky film for Marvel to support. Deadpool is not a household name but firmly a cult character. Perhaps that’s why the film includes two X-Men characters and shots of the famous X-Men mansion. (Which, as Deadpool seems to point out, only seems to have Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Wasteland in it.) Even Deadpool’s creators are not well respected by comic fans. In the ’90s, this would have been the sort of film that would have gone directly to video.

But everyone making it seems to have a lot of respect for the material. And, with a smaller budget than the usual forces the makers to get creative with their action scenes. I quite liked the opening scene with Deadpool counting the bullets that he has in the chamber, which leads to him using one bullet to dispatch three goons. It was a scene that built up to something and didn’t use countless explosions and flashes to distract audiences. They saved those distractions in the form of Deadpool’s quips.

Those quips may be why the film doesn’t work for me. Deadpool has always been about breaking the fourth wall and commenting on how everything happening in the comic book universe was not done for any big artistic point but because the writers were feeling lazy. The film embraces that from the first frame, as the credits do not feature any cast listing but generic tropes like “The Comic Relief” and “The British Villain.” Deadpool even goes further, playing with the camera and turning it away before committing a violent act. Even when confronted with the absurdities of meeting X-men characters, he openly talks about how the studio heads are demanding their appearance. (How Deadpool actually met Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Wasteland is never explained.)

At first, I liked these moments, but then I realized they aren’t addressing the problems with comic book movies. This approach seems to call attention to the flaws Deadpool presents in its run time. I don’t want to be distracted by ancillary characters. The fact Deadpool himself knows the problems his film has makes him seem even lazier.

I’m glad Deadpool exists because it indicates that the studios are starting to realize that their comic book movie formula is becoming worn. But Deadpool does not really go far enough to address all the problems with modern comic book movies. It thinks that pointing out the mistakes you’re making absolves you of making those mistakes. Even though this does make the film more entertaining than Thor or Age of Ultron, it doesn’t represent the great leap forward that the genre desperately needs.

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A Review of Hail, Caesar!

No matter what the Coen Brothers release, it’s always worth examining.

In a career that has lasted thirty years, the Coens have only made one truly abysmal film, The Ladykillers.  But the rest of their filmography is a wonderful Pynchonesque combination of Americana trash with philosophical treasure. They find the most banal aspects of our society and use it as a diving board to examine how America’s conscience ended up distracted by things like bowling, cars, and hair gel.

Hail Caesar! begins its examination with the post-war studio system. Head of Capitol Pictures Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) drifts through his private world as he tries to solve one crisis after another. One of these crises, as outlined in the trailer, is the kidnapping of Capitol star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) by a group of communist screenwriters. There is also a potential sex scandal with DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) who is pregnant but can’t identify the father, a director named Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) who detests having western actor Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) forcibly cast in his comedy of manners, and job offers from Lockheed Martin that Mannix is finding increasingly attractive.

The old Hollywood setting immediately recalls Barton Fink, which also announces the Coen’s intentions. Fink was a film about how the world was ignoring the rise of Nazis by focusing on meaningless garbage. Caesar seems to be predicting the Cold War and how both sides tried to be so different but ended up consumed by their singular obsessions. With the U.S., there is an obsession with religious iconography. The titular production is a Ben-Hur-esque epic about a Roman soldier who meets Jesus of Nazareth. This production also leads to the funniest scene in the film, in which a Catholic priest, a Protestant minister, and a rabbi all argue about the nature of God and whether or not the portrayal of Jesus could be offensive. One of the assembled men can only complain about how the chariot scene may be overdone.

With the communists, there is constant bickering with no real clear ideas. The screenwriters who kidnap Baird all seem to just want more of the money that the films they write have made at the box office. They sit around in their bungalow, endlessly debating their plans about bringing on the worker’s revolution. But this means that they cannot articulate anything meaningful. They’re so distracted that their kidnapping plot seems to be their biggest coup, but they barely even notice what’s happening. Whitlock is easily seduced by their conversation, but he’s presented as such a blank slate that he’s probably just happy someone is talking to him.

So what does this all mean?

I do think this is mean to be an extended metaphor for the Cold War and how both sides were ultimately having the same fight. But the Coens create a universe that has several layers of meaning. It all points back to that dichotomy, from the appearances of twins who both insult each other to the repetition of each new day for Mannix. People will be debating endlessly about what Frances McDormand’s editor character means, but that’s part of the fun. Has anyone actually agreed on what Barton Fink means?

Perhaps the  most interesting character is the Hobie Doyle. He’s a person so fixed in his role that he is unable to really comprehend going beyond cowboy pictures. He’s not resentful of being cast in a new film. He is in fact quite friendly. He is just unable to properly understand what it means to play a new role. It underlines Mannix’s conflict about accepting a new job and Whitford’s position of not understanding the new role that has been thrust upon him. He’s essential to the film but, since he’s surrounded by a cast full of stars, people barely notice him.

Are there problems with Hail Caesar? Yes. The Coens include far too many subplots and characters that are good for nothing more than a single joke. Scarlett Johansson is featured prominently in the trailers but is only in two scenes of the film. Neither of those scenes even have a bearing on the main plot. Channing Tatum has a much greater impact on everyone else, but then he is also in a minimum number of scenes. There’s a lot of wasted potential on display and it’s jarring. I found myself wanting to know more about these characters, especially after I realized the kidnapping plot was one of many threads.

The Coens took a similar approach to cameo appearances in The Big Lebowski, which had David Thewlis, Ben Gazzarra, John Turturro, and Julianne Moore in a limited number of scenes. But each of their characters had the appropriate singular impact and never detracted from The Dude. He had to meet them to try to make sense of the conspiracy around them. Hail Caesar never made that connection for me. It felt more like a collection of vignettes that would have been more amusing if they were not part of a larger whole.

But on the other hand, maybe the point is that people at the time were not stopping to look at the bigger picture of the world around them. The communists came across as dumb and greedy, as did all of the people in the studio who were incapable of switching any aspect of their lives. And Hail Caesar has more ideas than the last five films I’ve seen. The Coens remain some of the finest working American filmmakers. I wish more people emulate their approach, but I also know not a lot of people could.

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A Review of Anomalisa

What does Charlie Kaufman do to make his films work?

I could describe scenes from his animated Anomalisa and they would sound like the most boring, pretentious scenes imaginable. The studios probably thought so too, which is why Kaufman had to raise funds on Kickstarter. (And, if the credits are any indication, got help from Rick and Morty’s Dan Harmon.)

But this is a mistaken approach. The film is wondrously beautiful even at its most banal. Anomalisa showcases how Kaufman’s films follow their own internal logic that makes the absurd seem perfectly normal. The idea that an entire population would share the same voice seems to be the logical conclusion for Michael Stone’s (David Thewlis) world.

Stone is a motivational speaker and author. He has apparently been very successful giving lectures and writing books about customer service. In fact, the film opens with him flying to Cincinnati to give a speech and checking into one of the nicest hotels in the city. But he hates his existence with a passion.

This is probably because every single person he meets speaks with the voice of Tom Noonan. Every single person. Whether this is one of Michael’s own delusions or whether this is how reality is in Michael’s universe is never fully explained.

But it calls to attention a person’s ability to filter out the weirdest aspects of the world. All of Noonan’s characters are puppets going through the motions of their day without stopping to think about their role in the world. Michael’s taxi driver from the airport is not focused on his job or his family as much as he is focused on making sure Michael tries the chili in Cincinnati. (As an aside, I’ve eaten at Skyline and the chili is fantastic.)

But Michael notices such things, which is why he becomes immediately infatuated with the titular Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh). She’s a woman who’s come to see his lecture with her friend. He had drinks with her and takes her up to his room, convinced she’s a person who, like him, can see the world the way it truly is.

Kaufman’s films have always followed their own logic to make the fantastical seem sensible. After watching Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I couldn’t help but wonder if I knew someone who went to Lacuna. And the bizarre scene of a woman literally buying a house that was on fire was darkly hilarious because the buyer didn’t seem fit to ask about the fire until the very end of the scene. Anomalisa has numerous scenes like that. The film is animated because it makes sense that the people Michael encounters would be nothing more than dolls going through the motions. One scene that I found funny was the scene in which Michael tries to order room service. The clerk repeats every single item back to Michael with enthusiasm, as Michael becomes increasingly annoyed that this person would dare be happy to serve him.

The reason the film works is that Michael is a terrible human being. Kaufman does not want you to like him or feel sorry for him. Michael is a man who is paid a lot of money to give a speech only to suffer a severe nervous breakdown onstage. He cheats on his wife, he insults the people around him, and despite working in customer service he treats CSRs with no patience. Being John Malkovich worked for the same reason. Greg Schwartz was a pathetic loser who could not relate to any being not attached to strings.

And like Schwartz, Stone becomes trapped by his own neurosis. He is unable to stand the woman who may solve his problems, and instead focuses on how she talks with her mouth full. In the end, the only other different voice he can hear is on a mechanical toy.

Still, I also have a feeling that Anomalisa would have worked better as a short film than as a feature. It clocks in at 90 minutes, but most of what the film has to say is done in about 45 minutes. It’s well paced enough that the film is not boring, but the point of the second act is well established. And perhaps it’s just me, but a sex scene between dolls will always be awkward.

Anomalisa’s only crime is that it is not as inventive as some of Charlie Kaufman’s other films. But few films have ever matched those levels. Anomalisa is still a revealing portrait of a man who thinks he is stuck in a prison but in reality has earned his fate. The most shocking film about the movie is that someone of Kaufman’s caliber had to beg for money to get the film made. But then, it’s necessary for a film as uncompromisingly honest as this one.

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A Review of The Revenant

By the fourth scene of Leonardo DiCaprio eating a raw animal, I found myself saying, “Yes, yes. But what does it all MEAN?”

The Revenant has grand ambitions it never lives up to. I think director Alejando Gonzalez Inarritu thought he was making a Terrence Malick or Werner Herzog film and had something profound to say about man’s relation with nature.

He doesn’t succeed because he does not examine the larger themes of the story. It’s a vengeance thriller at its core, and its successes as a vengeance thriller should not be ignored. But the film constantly reminds you of its ambitions to be something greater than it really is. I didn’t look forward to beautiful nature scenes because I realized they were working against the film.

The story of Hugh Glass  (played here by Leonardo DiCaprio) certainly does make for riveting cinema. After a bear attack, he was left for dead by his fellow pelt traders in the woods. He survived after crawling for two hundred miles to the nearest fort. The film adds additional motivation to Glass’s trek by having John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) murder Glass’s fictional son. He’s seeking to not only survive but to punish Fitzgerald.

A film like this really puts my criteria of a good film to the test. So, I’m going to answer each of my three questions in succession.

First, does the movie provide a satisfying emotional experience that I could not ever have in my own life? The Revenant passes this test with flying colors. Starting with the shocking, sanguine bear mauling scene, it’s impossible not to feel Glass’s struggle as he tries to get back to civilization. There are scenes of Glass cauterizing the wound on his neck with gun powder, scenes of him catching fish and eating them alive, and endless scenes of him trying to crawl up mountains with an injured leg. Each time, I believed that DiCaprio was actually undergoing these struggles. The bear mauling scene in particular deserves examination. Glass is completely helpless against the bear as it repeatedly sinks its claws into his body. The camera does not focus on the attack (we see Glass’s wounds later) but on his face as he tries to fight against death is an incredible piece of cinematography supplementing an incredible performance.

So, gold star Revenant.

The second question I have on my test is, “What is this film trying to do?”

And here’s where I hit a wall, because I cannot answer that question.

On its surface, the film is a tribute to the works of Jack London. It’s about how there are times when man must embrace his primal nature if he hopes to survive against all odds. But at the same time, Glass fights against becoming an animal. He still thinks of his duty and shows kindness to the Native Americans he meets. He also comes across as far more human and caring than some of the French soldiers who openly execute the Native Americans they meet. There’s a subplot of a tribal chief who is attempting to recover his daughter from French soldiers. DiCaprio manages to assist them, even in his weakened condition. We get a definite hero faced with impossible odds and want him to succeed in his quest.

But there are numerous dream sequences that show the film has ambitions beyond a simple adventure story. These sequences are where Inarritu decides that he is trying hard to make a Terrence Malick film, examining the beauty of nature while trying to understand the ugliness of man. But Malick always keeps that idea first on his mind when he makes a film. Inarritu does not here. At the very least Inarritu never contrasts the shots between man and nature in the same way that a Malick does. And he never lets Leonardo philosophize about his predicament. Everyone in Malick’s films has something on their minds as they tried to figure out what was happening around them. Not Glass and nothing we see in the film supports anything else. Fitzgerald does have a story about a friend who found God in the forest, but it’s treated as a joke and is meant to talk about his character, not any larger themes.

Because I do not know what the film is trying to do, I cannot answer my third question – “Does this film succeed at what it set out to do?” But there were several moments that undermine Glass’s story, so I’m not sure if it even works as an adventure.

For one, I actually found Fitzgerald a more engaging character. He is given more of an opportunity to talk about his place in the world and about his desires. He is greedy, yes, but there is the sense that he arrived at that conclusion on his own and was not forced into it by the demands of a screenplay. Also, his action of killing Glass’s son was an accident rather than a malicious action. I almost wanted the film to give him equal focus as it did Glass.

Additionally, the film has subplots that never really go anywhere. I mentioned earlier that scenes follow a chief trying to find his daughter. This subplot is only tenuously linked to Glass’s story and has no real emotional impact on the overall work. Yes, it does lead to an amusing shot at the end of the film, but it’s the equivalent of waiting a month for a restaurant reservation only to learn that they only have pulled pork available on the night you visit.

Given these, I guess I can overlook my fourth question – “Was that thing the film set out to do worth doing in the first place?” There’s obviously a great story here, but given how unsure I am about The Revenant’s ultimate goal, I don’t think I can begin to tackle this question at all.

The Revenant is certainly not a bad film. It works as a pure Jack London-esque wilderness adventure and is well made. But I was constantly distracted by the film insisting it was more ambitious than it really was. It was perplexing how much the filmmakers insisted that they had something more important to say than they really have. It makes the good elements of the film still seem like failures.

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The Ten Best Films of 2015

What better way to help ring in the new year than by looking back at the previous year and wondering what everyone could possibly have been thinking?

2015 was a more difficult year for films than 2014 was. There were a lot of huge hits, but many of ones I saw felt shallow and lifeless. They were all, with one notable exception which you may find on the list below, content to hit the same beats as the superior films that have come before.

What’s also been unusual is there is no one film that everyone has rallied around as the definitive film of the year. Usually, there is a movie that everyone agrees will pretty much sweep the Oscars and will define what the year was all about from an artistic standpoint. I can’t think of that landmark film for 2015 the way I associate 2012 with Gravity or 2014 with Boyhood. That’s not to say everything released this year was bad, but I do believe that we’re going to have a hard time determining what strides were taken in the medium and what filmmakers are doing to inspire the next generation of artists based on what we saw in 2015.

Of course, this may also be my own failure. I was not able to see all of the films I wanted to see throughout 2015, including Straight Outta Compton, The Martian, and Bridge of Spies. I plan to watch them as soon as possible, but the fact that I didn’t feel a need to see them immediately in theaters is telling. That experience is slowly dying and there is very little filmmakers are doing to address it. I’m not talking about theaters installing recliners and serving beer at the concession stands, although that is a plus. I’m talking about the need for audiences to experience something together when a film is released. Think about the television shows you watch and how quickly they are consumed and discussed. Everyone wants to see them as quickly as possible so they can join their peers in discussing what they just saw.

Now think about the last film you saw.  Was there some cultural conversation you were trying to join? The only thing I can think of that fits this criteria is the new Star Wars entry and that’s definitely an outlier. Films need to be community experiences for fans and the medium is ignoring that aspect. Without that, then film communities are going to become more and more fragmented until someone will declare the “best film of the year” to be a cat video they saw on YouTube. You laugh, but I do think that viewing experience is the wave of the future and that films need to adapt rather than insisting we all pay a price that too expensive for a single film that is just going through the motions in a way that no longer excites people.

Despite all this, there are still some filmmakers who created great works. Even better, there are filmmakers that are able to reinvent themselves and show audiences something new. I hope this list rewards them.

As with last year, I’m going to rank the top three films and then list the rest alphabetically. I liked this format because it does show some competition but also recognizes there is not a way to label certain films  as being “better” than others. If you can, please check the films on this list out. I think you will be greatly rewarded.

The Best Film of 2015

It was fortunately easy to pick best film of 2015, but I was still surprised that this film turned out as well as it did. This is a sequel to a franchise that had been dormant for decades. Its production was a disaster and the idea behind it is what produces some of the artistically bankrupt hits of today. Look at films like Jurassic World. That was a fine distraction but was very shallow and already feels about as fresh and inviting as week old sushi.

This film not only rebuilt its franchise, but did so when no one expected it to accomplish anything. The director could have just remade a previous entry, gotten fans excited, made a lot of money, and moved on.

But this film explored new ideas with new techniques. It’s a tribute to old westerns, samurai films, and to a time when special effects were not just built on a computer. But it also introduces modern ideas to make sure that we’re on board with what it has to say. It feels fresh while still engaging those nostalgia obsessed portions of my brain. My pick for the best film of 2015 creates one of the most exciting, thrilling, and action-packed films in years.

Mad Max: Fury Road (director: George Miller)

The Road Warrior is one of the greatest action films of all time. The entire film is one long car chase, but the plot requires that and the film does not use its basic idea to be lazy with its material. It never repeats an idea or a crash.

Fury Road also uses its material to explore themes that resonate more with audiences today. There are critiques against sexual slavery, warfare, and the idea that the perfect society may never be attainable. It’s all done so effectively that I almost didn’t notice any of its deeper poitns when I first saw the movie. This means that Fury Road needs to be seen multiple times to understand everything.

In an era defined by repeating what’s been done before, Fury Road uses the Mad Max franchise’s past success to take risks and share something new with audiences. That makes Fury Road stand out to me. It’s a film that means even things you loved in the past can still be used to show you new things. I wish more populist blockbusters did that.

Silver Medal

Most films these days are obsessed with adapting popular novels into films to exploit the built in fan bases. And most people feel they’re being good critics by pointing out every single “difference” between the book and the movie.

That’s the wrong approach. Novels and films are different mediums and what matters is how an adaptation kept the themes of the author while also exploring other elements of the work that may have gone overlooked. In other words, the filmmaker answers the question, “Why did this novel need to be a movie?”

This adaptation did answer that question. While every plot point is shared with the original work, the film took risks and introduced new ideas to the material that would have been impossible to have done in the novel. The film explained why it needed to exist and why people should watch the film.  The fact the lead actress deserves to win the Best Actress Oscar is icing on the cake.

Room (director: Lenny Abrahamson)

Room was an incredible novel about two people stuck in an incomprehensible situation. The novel followed the child who would show the reader what his life stuck in a 7 x 7 bunker was like. The film followed the mother, which helped audiences relate to the story by showing us what her life was like and how she’s trying to adapt to a situation virtually no one will ever experience.

There are moments that showcase  Jack’s monologues and observations, but his Ma is never out of our minds. We see everything through her eyes and come to understand her plight.

Room is a great adaptation of a novel I really liked.  It’s an adaptation that depends on what the filmmakers add and what they have to say when they adapt the novel. Brie Larson also gives the performance of her lifetime as Ma.

Bronze Medal

Once again, I struggled a bit to determine my “bronze medal” winner. It was between this and Spotlight. Both are excellent films about stories that have had a huge impact on my generation.

But then I realized that the film that manages to explore new ideas in a new way is the film that deserves to be recognized. This film uses unique narrative techniques to affect audiences by having reality TV stars explain what’s happening in simple terms that anyone can understand. And for the story that the film wanted to tell, this approach ensured everyone could understand why the story it had to tell is still important.

The Big Short (director: Adam McKay)

I haven’t written my full review for this one yet, but I admired how the film made its point. It criticized the celebrity obsessed media that didn’t acknowledge the housing bubble, then watched as that same media finally picked up on the story as it became more relevant to the American people. The scenes in which Margot Robbie explain how the housing crisis happened may seem gratuitous to some, but that’s how the modern audience is going to respond to these sorts of things. Fox News has been taking that approach for almost 20 years and it doesn’t have the honesty to admit its programming is only “based on a true story.”

Additionally, The Big Short never loses its desperation. It’s a film about accounting and stock market speculation that is as exciting and breathtaking as an action thriller. Finally, it’s a film that made me question my own viewpoints and ideas.  While I always thought that the bank executives who royally screwed up the American economy were pathetically stupid, immature, and undeserving of government bailouts, I never realized how their actions amounted to felonies that should have put a lot of people in prison for the rest of their lives.

Other artists had tried to explain it to me, but The Big Short was the film that convinced me that viewpoint was the correct viewpoint. Most people are too afraid of being “biased” and alienating their audiences to relay their message. How many filmmakers, especially filmmakers that have stuff like Step Brothers on their resume, are brave enough to take risks like that?

The Rest

These films also deserved to be watched and examined. I know there are omissions based on what I didn’t see in theaters, but I believe this list still highlights some of the best work 2015 had to offer.

Black Mass (director: Scott Cooper)Black Mass may very well go down in infamy. It was released to big buzz that has not translated to any award recognition. That’s a shame, because Black Mass is more than just about Depp returning to his roots as one of the all time great character actors. Black Mass treats the story of Whitey Bugler seriously and examines what his presence in the world meant for a lot of people. Even Martin Scorsese took the easy way out and treated Bulger as a figure of comedy. Black Mass confronts his story and paints a portrait almost as relevant as The Big Short for demonstrating how institutions repeatedly fail the people they’re supposed to serve.

Crimson Peak  (director: Guillermo del Toro) – The fact that Crimson Peak bombed depresses me. Maybe the fault lay in the marketing. This was not a ghost story and the film was very clear about that. Rather, this is a film that serves as a tribute to early Alfred Hitchcock, where building the atmosphere was the most important element to building a thrill. The production design is also the best of the year. This is the first film in a long time that treats the sets as characters. Removing them would be a disaster for the film. If you want a creepy experience, then Crimson Peak needs to be seen.

Ex Machina (director: Alex Garland) – These days, intelligent science fiction films are few and far between. Ex Machina reclaims smart sci-fi by asking what it means to be human and if it’s possible to create an intelligence from the data that we no longer notice. The film, about a robot that wants to escape its prison and seduces a human to help her accomplish this goal, feels like a documentary rather than fantasy. Ex Machina reminds us how close we as a society are from answering the big questions that it asks.

Going Clear (director: Alex Gibney) – I know I’m cheating when I include this film. Although it was released in theaters after its premiere at Sundance, it was more famous for airing on HBO. But I figured, so what? This film had a huge impact on the public conscious, with articles and threatening letters written in response to the film’s points. Alex Gibney, who has directed some amazing documentaries, examined how some very successful people can join something as nonsensical as Scientology. It’s not that that adherents to the religion are dumb. It’s that people are looking for something meaningful in their lives and want to join something they feel will have an impact on the world. Scientology is not necessarily what’s being examined. L Ron Hubbard and David Miscavige could be replaced by any religious figure and the film would have the same message. It’s about how people are so desperate to look for a group they can belong to that they don’t ask the larger questions about what they’re doing.

The Hateful Eight (director: Quentin Tarantino) – It’s saying something about a filmmaker when even some weaker films in your filmography are still among the best of the year. The Hateful Eight Roadshow tour was treated like an event, with programs literally handed out before the screening.  But The Hateful Eight is not an epic Leone-esque western. It’s a tense chamber drama that slowly builds up its tension like a stew cooking over a campfire. It requires patience, but the payoff is so rewarding and shocking that it’s worth it. Tarantino remains a master of dialogue who can coach amazing performances with unique dialogue that would destroy any other director. The Hateful Eight is the one film that addressed my bigger question about why films need to be scene in theaters.

Spotlight (director: Tom McCarthy) – Spotlight is the biggest reminder of what the media can do for society. It can take down institutions that have been considered untouchable for centuries. But it also reminds people why they need to be responsible with information and how important it is not to react immediately. The film is ultimately not an indictment of the Catholic Church. That film has already been made. Spotlight is an indictment of people who still pounce on whatever headline catches their attention and makes them feel informed. If only Sabrina Erdely could have watched this film before embarking on her infamous Rolling Stone article.

What We Do In The Shadows (directors: Jermaine Clement, Taika Waititi)
Flight of the Conchords was one of the funniest TV shows of the past 10 years, and What We Do In The Shadows has very similar humor. It shows sad people who could do great things but let the world pass them by and never bother to try anything to make a difference in the world. What We Do In The Shadows is about vampires, but it does not treat them as figures of fear. Rather, it ends at the logical question of how people would react if they actually became supernatural creatures of the night. Take what you know about the people you hang out with at the local bar. Now imagine their insecurities about having to live for centuries. Finally, What We Do In The Shadows revives the mockumentary as a genre capable of great insight and great humor.

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A Review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens

As I think about the new Star Wars, I think about Mad Max: Fury Road.

Like The Force Awakens, Fury Road was an entry in a franchise that was virtually dead. Both come from franchises that were hugely influential on the generation of filmmakers that grew up watching them. (Although, unquestionably, Star Wars had the bigger impact.) And both films had an enormous hype surrounding their respective releases, with a new era of nostalgia driven audiences waiting in anticipation for the respective films.

Fury Road was a massive artistic success, but that franchise didn’t suffer the hiccups Star Wars did. I remember the same sort of anticipation surrounding the prequels that surrounded The Force Awakens. Two of those films were complete artistic failures while Revenge of the Sith (which I still like) suffered from huge flaws that are impossible to ignore.

I treated The Force Awakens with some interest, but remained skeptical, especially when I learned JJ Abrams was directing it. I hated Star Trek: Into Darkness and viewed it as an extended bout of fan service rather than an actual film. The entire script was set up to make cheap references to the Star Trek films that had come before, even when it made no sense and took all tension out of the flimsy plot.

The last thing I wanted to see was the same fate befall Star Wars. This is a franchise that needs to look forward and not focus on its past successes. So, does J.J. Abrams take that vital approach?

Well…not really. He does introduce some great new elements, but the more I think about it, the more I realize that The Force Awakens is content to recycle a lot of the same beats as the original trilogy.

This sounds like I’m going to pan The Force Awakens and that’s far from the truth. We’ve seen how bad this franchise can be and The Force Awakens is much better than a lot of what’s come before. I loved the great new protagonists (who outshine the returning vets), the wonderful action scenes (particularly the climatic lightsaber fight), and the fantastic new visuals that stir the imagination. But I can’t help feeling like I’ve seen most of what The Force Awakens has to offer me.

Now, in the interest of preventing any spoilers from getting out (even though I’m late reviewing this movie), I’d like to warn everyone that this review will get into specific plot points. Just know that my review is basically going to conclude with “Go see it, it’s leagues better than the prequels and addresses all their narrative shortcomings. But it doesn’t do anything new, which is going to cause problems down the line for the franchise, especially as Disney fast tracks production of the sequels. They have the potential to get very lazy with the material.”

I’m serious. If you don’t want spoilers, turn back now. Here is a funny image from Darth Vader and Son to break the page.

 

 

OK then.

Star Wars is probably the most examined and discussed film series of all time. Everyone has an opinion on what works and what doesn’t work about all six of the films. It’s also a series that has run the gamut of narrative successes and failures.   As Red Letter Media pointed out, the prequels did not have a protagonist and told us about the relationships the characters had rather than showed us.

It means that The Force Awakens has an easy way to succeed. Luckily, it does by introducing us to not one but two engaging protagonists. The first is Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger stuck on the planet Jakku who dreams of seeing her family again. We’re with her throughout the film and learn about her goals and see her transformation into a potential Jedi. The second is Finn (John Boyega), a former Stormtrooper who doesn’t want to kill.

These characters meet as they are trying to reinvent themselves. Finn tries to impress Rey, but what’s great is that this is not some sort of romantic quest. Both people realize that they are in a place they don’t understand, but understand its importance. It’s satisfying to see them go through their quest.

Already, based on a very simple start, we have two characters we care about. Their arcs are clearly defined but still present a challenge for them. And best of all, these arcs are the most important component of the film and not rendered a subplot as the were in the prequels.

But even that background political structure in the film makes sense, even if it’s not given a prominent place in the film. Even though Emperor Palpatine died in Return of the Jedi, this film has a subsect of the Empire that’s still standing. This works because we see the impact the Empire has on the normal denizens of the world as they massacre a village.

Finally, we have Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). He is the new Darth Vader, but we see his humanity early. Unlike the stoic Vader, Kylo Ren is an emotional person. He gets angry, he slices up computer consoles with his lightsaber, and he takes his frustration out on his subordinates. It makes him a far more frightening villain because we don’t know what he will do. We also see him struggle as he wonders why he’s committing these evil acts and wondering if he’s making a mistake.

Every Star Wars film has the climatic lightsaber fight, but the one in The Force Awakens is among the best in the franchise. That’s because Kylo Ren and Rey don’t know what they’re doing and are fighting for survival as much as anything. There’s none of the acrobatics from the prequels and both parties land blows on each other. There is an emotional heft to the scene and the result is far more thrilling than that Darth Maul fight.

So, we have characters we care about, clearly defined and complex villains, and exciting moments as all the characters interact with each other.

Yet, even with its successes, there is a huge problem with the film. I’ll describe the major plot points of The Force Awakens to illustrate.

The film opens with a droid, BB-8, having data uploaded into his memory that is important to a resistance group. Sound familiar?

The droid finds a human stuck on a desert planet. They dream of doing something more with their life. Sound familiar?

The two characters get off the planet via the Millennium Falcon and are assisted by Han Solo (Harrison Ford) who is in debt to some dangerous characters. Sound familiar?

The protagonist meets a diminutive alien (voiced by Lupita Nyong’o) who offers to impart knowledge on the protagonist about the ways of the Force. Sound familiar?

The giant government organization they are fighting destroys a planet that is important to the resistance with a giant battle station. Sound familiar?

The Rebels stage a counteroffensive to destroy said weapon. Sound familiar?

The main villain turns out to be a relative of a major character and the two characters confront each other in a climatic fight. Sound familiar?

All of the film’s biggest moments and plot points come from the original trilogy. The characters, locations, and emotional moments are all derived from some part of the original trilogy. Even the characters seem aware of this as they speak about Luke Skywalker in hushed tones and are in awe to see Han Solo. I expected this – after all, those individuals were involved in a major event that would have touched generations across the galaxy. But after a while, it becomes a hindrance to the film as characters from the original films are reintroduced to the narrative and plot points are hit with no reaction.

The destruction of the Senate is one prominent example for me. It’s meant to mirror the destruction of Alderaan from the first film. But the Alderaan scene had an appropriate emotional weight to it. We see Leia begging for it to be saved and saw Obi-wan’s reaction to feeling all of those people die.

We get none of that in The Force Awakens. Yes, it’s a scene with much better effects as we see the laser beam destroy the planet, but there’s no emotional heft to the scene. Everyone forgets that it happened, almost as if the event was just a check box for the fans rather than the characters.

What’s strange is that The Force Awakens is at its best when it focuses on the new characters rather than the returning vets. Besides Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill, who is barely in the movie), none of the other characters needed to come back. The new characters have a much better connection with the audience and their climatic battle is one of the best moments in the film. We feel for them and know this is what the film has been building to. I didn’t need Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and C3PO (Anthony Daniels) showing up to distract me from these new characters I want to see.

The Force Awakens is an effective movie that knows why people fell in love with Star Wars almost two generations ago. But it also doesn’t really move the franchise forward. There is potential here and I am looking forward to the next film. Still, Star Wars can’t keep hitting the same emotional beats and expecting audiences to respond positively. Besides, there’s nothing left after The Force Awkanes borrowed everything from the original trilogy. Perhaps this means that we’ll focus more on the great new characters in  the future films.

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A Review of Trumbo

I will start this analysis with a full disclosure – I am not too familiar with Dalton Trumbo’s work.

I knew who he was and about his placement on the Hollywood Blacklist. The blacklist was a list of screenwriters who could not get hired by any major studios due to their  affiliation with the American Communist Party. It last throughout the 1950s and ended when a few big stars (specifically, Kirk Douglas) finally hired Trumbo and insisted he be credited for his work.

It’s an important piece of history, but Trumbo has not gained a modern audience. Many of Trumbo’s techniques have become outdated as films became less and less conservative. For example, Trumbo wrote and directed an adaptation of his novel Johnny Got His Gun, which was later used by Metallica for a music video. If I had to guess, that music video is one of the few items related to Trumbo that causes any sort of excitement with an audience today.

Still, even if time marches on, artists still capture the era that they lived. Trumbo certainly did. His work captures the last generation of the classic studio system. The films Trumbo wrote were not necessarily personal stories, but gigantic epics that created community events for their audiences. Additionally, Trumbo’s story paved the way for more politically motivated films that became popular through the 1960s and the 1970s. He and the rest of the blacklisted writers deserve a film that will tell their story.

Is Trumbo that film? For me, no. I can’t point to any specific thing that it does wrong on its own terms. Bryan Cranston gives the performance of a lifetime as the titular Dalton Trumbo. The film is well cast, well photographed, and fairly well written. But it’s also too shallow to really have a lasting impact or to explain what motivated the writers to continue in their craft after they were shunned by Hollywood. That’s the story I think the film owed Trumbo, but that’s not the story they told.

Bryan Cranston’s performance as Dalton Trumbo is nothing short of miraculous. He embodies Trumbo not just as a character, but as a man. This is Cranston’s performance of a lifetime as we goes from making grand speeches to quiet moments in his bathtub as he tries to write. Cranston plays Trumbo as a sort of reverse Norma Desmond. His films haven’t gotten small, but he is. He’s trying his best to live up to his own lofty expectations and change the world.

The blacklist ironically gave him the opportunity to be the huge rebel he always dreamed he would be, and Trumbo spends most of the film coming up with a convoluted plan to cover up the authorship of his scripts, with specific drops and specific times. He gets his children involved and there’s an almost obligatory scene where he won’t come down for his daughter (Elle Fanning’s) birthday celebration.

The film has the appropriate emotional impact with the villains Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) jumping at the chance to ruin the writers while Trumbo’s patient wife (Diane Lane) and colleagues like Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.) try to support him as they wonder why. Trumbo works on that level. I felt for him. I wanted to cheer for him and was hoping his films would all turn out great – even if the real Trumbo had a spotty record. And he did win based on his talent and his desire to see his name back on the screen one day. It sounds like a typical comeback kid plot, but Trumbo is at least subtle about it. I can see how the film will leave a lot of people smiling, happy that Trumbo overcame.

Where the film falls short is in its ideological examinations. That is to say, Trumbo has no ideological examinations. It never takes the time to examine why Dalton Trumbo joined the Communist Party in the first place and how it affected his work.

We do get one tiny explanation from Trumbo, who explains to his daughter that he just thinks everyone should share with people who are less fortunate. (Trumbo says this while living on a giant ranch next to a lake he had built, but whatever.) I’m pretty sure Trumbo’s glossing over one or two details – details which have one or two details themselves. The film also never explains why, exactly, the U.S. became so paranoid about identifying communists in the first place.

Does it sound like I’m complaining that the film is not addressing what may be my own biases? You are probably correct. However, Tumbo doesn’t bother to explain anything about Trumbo’s ideology and by the end of the film, communism is barely even mentioned.

There are moments that could challenge Trumbo. When he goes to jail for contempt of Congress, one of the inmates he meets is a poorer black man. It sounds like the person Trumbo would support, but this man openly calls him a traitor and threatens him. How does Trumbo react to that? Does he ever question his resolve and his beliefs? The film never says.

With any biopic, it’s important to examine these motivations. Ed Wood, probably my personal favorite film biopic, accomplished this by always reminding us of the fact that Wood was on the brink of financial and personal ruin but was far to optimistic to realize what was happening around him. He made films because he had to – he felt he was living a great dream and could not bear to watch what happened to him if he let go of that dream. I never understood Trumbo. He wrote because he had to, but his films as described in Trumbo weren’t overtly political until the end. So what was his motivation? The film never says. It could be rebellion but, as I said, Trumbo’s communism isn’t mentioned after the first act. And Trumbo isn’t a starving artist – he’s still able to afford a nice home with a pool for his family. Did Trumbo ever question himself and his ability to continue writing?

I think that’s the biggest failure of Trumbo for me. I admired the craft, Cranston’s performance, and I absolutely agree that this was a story that needed to be told. But I left the theater no wiser about Trumbo and what motivated his work. Everything interesting slowly faded away as the film became focused on the formulaic David and Goliath plot. The Hollywood Blacklist era was a terrible time and probably the closest the U.S. has come to punishing thought criminals on a large scale. That’s a gold mine of material for artists to examine. But Trumbo, for everything it does right, only scratches the surface of that massive ideological battle. I can’t fault Trumbo for not accomplishing its goals, but I also can’t help but feeling the film should have aimed a lot higher.

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