A Review of Arrival

Arrival is basically what I wished Interstellar was.

I was disappointed in Christopher Nolan’s space opera because I didn’t feel like it was really interested in exploring the themes that it introduced. Yes, the power of love is certainly a wonderful human emotion that has been the impetus for some legendary work, but does it mean a whole lot when we’re exploring the concept of the infinite universe?

Arrival gives me what I would actually be interested in if aliens came to earth – an examination of the impact on humanity. But it doesn’t sacrifice the human feelings that Nolan was obsessed with. Instead, it blends them into the larger goal of learning how to communicate with intelligent life from another galaxy.

Most people know that Arrival is about aliens coming to earth. Most don’t realize that the film focuses on Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) who is, of all things, a linguist. She is recruited by Colonel Weber (Forrest Whitaker) and assisted by physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to help translate the aliens’ language. Meanwhile, Louise is teased with memories of her child that passed away. This tragedy inspires Louise in her communication with the aliens, even when other countries like China view the aliens as a threat rather than a beacon of hope.

 What impressed me the most about Arrival was the fact that, despite the presence of the military and aliens, it never devolved into an action film. That sounds like a weird compliment, but it’s something that makes Arrival unique. The trend is to treat aliens as bug-eyed monsters who exist to put humanity in danger. They will be killed in an explosion that means nothing because we know nothing about the aliens or really care about the humans. Compare it to that stupid Independence Day sequel and you’ll see what I mean.

Arrival treats the existence of aliens like the global changing event it would be. People are scared of them but fascinated with them. They want to know why they came and what it means for humanity. 

Adams’ performance encapsulates all of humanity’s fears and excitement. She is nervous when she goes into the craft for the first time (the ship only opens during certain times of the day and only for a limited amount of time) but is fascinated to watch the aliens communicate. Their language is also wonderfully original, which makes the film’s themes of overcoming the language barrier that much more pronounced. The best scenes of the film feature Adams and slowly unlocking their language. 

The film does explain why the aliens came to earth and, in that grand sci-fi tradition, it’s not for what you would expect. Some people have already complained about the “twist” at the end. It won’t be original to science fiction fans, but the film doesn’t treat it as a new idea. What matters is that the film naturally builds up to the revelation of why the aliens came to Earth. I didn’t feel cheated by it, nor did I feel like the film was talking down to its audience. If anything, it was treating them with some intelligence and respect.

Arrival does something that is increasingly rare in a blockbuster. It has a brain in its skull and gave me a sense of wonder about the world. We live in a time now that puts fear and anxiety above knowledge and wonder. Arrival gives me hope that this phase of humanity shall pass and maybe there is a bright future ahead.

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A Review of The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again

The fact that The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again exists is a disaster to Rocky Horror fans.

The reason the original film has played in theaters for 41 years has nothing to do with its quality. It’s a deeply flawed film with bad writing, bad singing, and bad acting. But it’s been a way for people sympathizing with the counter-culture to come together with like-minded individuals and feel as though their ideas have won out. As you probably guessed by the opening sentence of this paragraph, I’m not a big fan of the original Rocky Horror film. It’s nowhere near as revolutionary or insightful as its legions of fans claim it is.

The whole point of the film is to point out that the junk culture from the Eisenhower administration directly lead to the hippie revolution and the “Summer of Love” that saw people exploring the limits of their sexuality in a way that still seem dangerous. That’s certainly a good theme, but filmmakers like Brian de Palma, Ken Russell, John Waters, and Derek Jarman have explored the same territory and done it better. (Not to mention performers like Alice Cooper, Freddie Mercury, Frank Zappa, Prince, and David Bowie, who all built careers around the same idea that have lasted decades.) Grease was about the same thing and demonstrated that such an idea is so against mainstream culture that it became, for a while, the most popular film ever released.

Still, for many years, Rocky Horror was a phenomenon that belonged to people going against the constraints of society. I have been to a live screening and it’s fantastic. Even if I don’t understand the cult, I can’t deny it exists or try to fault people for being in it.

But that cult still depends on rebellion from the mainstream. Even if this new Rocky Horror is a perfect remake that captures everything about the original, it’s being played on prime time TV. No longer is Frank N Furter a midnight staple for the hippest of the hip New York audiences. He’s being beamed across America for everyone to consume. And not only is he a man in drag – she (Furter’s gender is changed in this adaptation) is being played by an openly transsexual actress. What would have been unthinkable even ten years ago is now ready to be consumed by the masses.

So the new Rocky Horror had no chance of making the same impact the original did. But does it still capture the campy fun that makes the original watchable? No, and it doesn’t even bother to try.

The film does have a good opening. It’s one of the few times that director Kenny Ortega (Hocus Pocus…no, seriously. Someone watched Hocus Pocus and decided that this guy was the perfect man to capture the Rocky Horror cult for a new generation) tries something new. Instead of the iconic lips singing “Science Fiction Double Feature,” we open with an Usherette (Ivy Levan) singing it as people walk into a movie theater to settle in for a screening. She wanders through the crowd, chastising people for putting their feet up, and slinks through the song with a new sort of cheesy pop sound. It works because it acknowledges the Rocky Horror cult, shows a willingness to experiment with the songs, and introduces new camp elements that would resonate with people who are decades younger than the original film.

It’s also the biggest con in film history. The rest of the film is exactly like the original, demonstrating the pointlessness of the remake. There are also several times when we cut back to this theater audience at random, showing people making jokes at the film. This might have worked had the show been live and there been a shadowcast, but as it stands it’s a joke that makes no sense. You have to know the punchline in advance, and those people who’ve gone to the show hundreds of times are just likely to be upset by the joke.

Then we get to the usual stuff – Brad (Ryan McCartan) and Janet (Victoria Justice) go to a wedding, get engaged, have their car break down, end up at the castle, etc. And when I say it’s the same, I mean it’s exactly the same. There is no attempt to try anything different.

But this new version never captures the original spirit of the film. This version is so glossy and clean. Every costume looks professional, all the actors look fantastic, and the set design is really good for a TV movie. This is a terrible idea for Rocky Horror. It takes away the elements of danger and the oddness from the original film. The filmmakers turned away people like Steve Martin and Mick Jagger for people who were unknown at the time. The film’s low budget aesthetic worked to its advantage. All of that is gone in the new version. For example, here’s what Victoria Justice, the film’s Janet, looks like:

She is a gorgeous woman. How on earth does anyone who looks like this capture the feeling of “innocent 1950s virgin?” When she sings “Toucha Toucha Touch Me,” it is not going to convey an exciting moment in her life as she tries something new. It’s going to come across as “business as usual.” The whole point of Brad and Janet is that they’re hopelessly square people who can barely understand what the Transylvanians are doing when they talk dirty about pelvic thrusts. And that initial lack of knowledge is what creates the thrill for them that leaves them forever changed. Hiring a supermodel is not going to convey that, but is going to convey a bright poppy sheen for a mass audience.

Even Laverne Cox isn’t served well by this approach, and she’s the only person that really tries to capture the spirit of the original. Cox is not only a talented actress, but is someone who still captures the dangerous sexuality that makes Frank N Furter work. Her public statements about her transition still rattle the mainstream. She also does try to capture the campiness of the original. But here’s how the film handles her performance:

The filmmakers have forgotten that Frank N Furter is not meant to even wear convincing drag. His corset doesn’t fit, his makeup looks like a Joan Crawford nightmare, and his fish nets are torn. Cox looks like she could open for Rhianna. It doesn’t have the same impact Tim Curry made when he first threw off the cape.

Speaking of Curry, he shows up in the film as the criminologist. And it’s sad. Curry suffered a stroke some years ago that left him wheelchair bound. He does the best he can, but it’s terrible seeing him barely able to say his lines. I don’t blame him at all. I blame the filmmakers who thought it would be a good idea to show such a legendary actor in such a weakened state just for a cheap nostalgia thrill.

An image that captures my feeling on the film's treatment of Tim Curry.

An image that captures my feeling on the film’s treatment of Tim Curry.

The whole film is a mess, but it feels like a more desperate, unfortunate mess than the original film. I had a feeling that the original cast and original creators at least believed in the point they were trying to make and felt they had to make it any way they can. They managed to find camp in a way that audiences could relate to – an audience that felt unable to relate to anything else coming out of the mainstream. This remake simply feels that being “weird” is enough. It’s practically adding a #totallyrandom hashtag to the credits and thumbing its nose at the people who have kept the original in theaters for 41 years. How can anyone approve of that?

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A Review of Finding Dory

I know that I’m incredibly late to this party. (And incredibly late in updating this blog.) But I recently saw Finding Dory on a Transatlantic flight and feel compelled to respond to it. I suppose that’s a compliment, considering how dreary most of this year’s releases have been. But then I have to remember that even fools gold is shiny.

I didn’t see Dory during its original theatrical run. I usually avoid animated films in theaters for two reasons.

1.) The predominantly child audience would make me stick out like a sore thumb and

2.) Animated films, more than any other type of film, are not treated as works of art. They are treated as commodities that are designed to distract children and nothing more. I know this because every time I point out any flaw in a Disney movie, I inevitably hear, “It’s not FOR YOU! It’s for kids.” But that’s not how films are supposed to be judged. Yet most animated films are not works of art – they are enterprises designed to advertise toys, coloring books, and fast food to kids. And instead of demanding that our kids receive better treatment during this important part of their lives, we let the filmmakers get away with it.

It was the second item that had me concerned about Finding Dory when I heard about its release. Pixar has been the studio that has consistently produced some of the best work of the last 25 years. The original Finding Nemo isn’t my favorite Pixar film, but that’s the point. Most creators can spend a lifetime not making anything nearly as good as Finding Nemo, yet Pixar has surpassed it several times.

But lately Pixar has been taking the idea that films are the springboard for whatever trinkets the marketing department at Disney wants to sell. Cars has gotten a sequel and is getting another one. Monsters Inc got a prequel about a time nobody cared about. And Toy Story is getting another entry even though the narrative is clearly over. Finding Dory just seemed useless to me. Nemo knew to avoid overusing its cute characters and knew when to drag out its emotional moments for maximum impact.

Having said that, I’m pleased to say that Finding Dory is really good. Its animation is beautiful and its plot isn’t just a retread of the first one. It also introduces some great new characters that help show a new side of Dory.

But it also feels like Pixar is taking a step backward. Nemo worked because it knew that you can only make it rain once. Dory is almost packed with moments that rain. The filmmakers don’t know when to let up and those moments lead to plot holes and dampen the emotional impact of the film.

When Finding Dory works, it works very well. The opening drew me in as I saw a baby Dory talking with her parents Jenny and Charlie (Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy) about her short-term “remember-y” loss. It’s a cute moment that shows us how a supporting character can take the lead of the film.

But the opening scene also shows the weaknesses Finding Dory will not be able to shake in its run time. It would have been great if we only received the one flashback to set up the story.

We then flash to a grown Dory (a returning Ellen DeGeneres) suddenly remembers her family and goes on a quest to find them with Marlin (Albert Brooks) and Nemo. She only remembers a name – the Jewel of Morro Bay. It leads her to an aquarium/habitat and leads her to be separated from her friends as she tries to get to the exhibit she was born in.

I really enjoyed the aquarium setting in the second act. It offered a way to drive home the environmental theme of the first film and gave audiences a slew of new characters. One of my favorites was Hank (Ed O’Neill), a misanthropic octopus who wants nothing more than to go to an aquarium in Cleveland. Hank represents everything strong about Finding Dory. Not only is he beautifully animated with fluid motion and some great scenes where he camouflages himself, he’s an interesting new character that had no equivalent in the original film. Destiny (Kaitlin Olsen), a nearsighted whale shark, also provided some new dimensions that weren’t in the first film. She dreams of freedom from her tank but is also scared of what lies outside. And best of all is my new spirit animal, Gerald.

But it made me wonder why Pixar even used the Nemo characters at all if they wanted to take advantage of new ideas. Marlin and Nemo are really underused. Marlin’s whole arc is about how he mocks Dory for her handicap – which was also his arc in the first film. Nemo is a non-character who spends the entire film sulking.

And Dory’s characterization is unusual. She supposedly has no short-term memory but frequently has flashbacks to her childhood. In fact, the entire film is built on moments when she can’t remember simple things…unless the plot requires it. These flashbacks quickly became grating as I wondered how Dory could even have them.

I caught myself several times during the film as I started to whine. Why should I complain when there are so many good moments in Dory? Even when the film wasn’t making the right emotional impact for me, I admired the skill the animators had. One scene late in the film that has Dory falling through a pipe in a POV shot is one of the greatest animated sequences I’ve ever seen. The water effects throughout the film are fantastic. And yes, I was emotionally invested in Dory’s journey. One scene that suggested Dory may never be reunited with her family had me nearly in tears. I was emotionally invested in these characters, which is the starting point to any great film.

Finding Dory is fantastic in many ways. But it also leaves me conflicted. Do I praise Finding Dory for exceeding my expectations or condemn it for not matching Pixar’s other output? In the end, I did what everyone else does in this situation – thought of the children. I remembered when I was a child and saw Toy Story for the first time. It was revolutionary. Kids are at an impressionable age and will remember those moments for the rest of their lives. I think we owe it to them and I know Pixar is capable of delivering. So maybe that’s why Pixar making what is only a really good film still feels disappointing to me.

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A Review of Snowden

Edward Snowden’s story is basically the story of my generation. After 9/11, we were all scared and wanted to do anything we could to protect ourselves and the U.S. No one ever stopped to think about what we were doing to further that goal. When Bush said that Iraq had WMDs and was harboring terrorists, we all smiled and nodded and let him do whatever he wanted. Those who questioned him were traitors who just wanted to invite another 9/11.

But time still went on and the more the Bush administration did, the more people started taking a long hard look at what we were doing. The U.S. was going into nations for no reason, no plans to ensure that the area stayed safe, and ended up destroying what little infrastructure existed. A few short years after the Iraq invasion, the region was a perfect breeding grounds for groups like ISIS. And in an effort to “protect our freedoms,” we discovered that the government was frequently treating those freedoms as an inconvenience in its quest for some undefined “safety.” And then, as the government realized groups like al Qaeda were essentially destroyed and that no one group or nation posed a significant threat to our borders, it began to use this data in ways that were legally and morally reprehensible.

There are those people who still say that Snowden is a traitor who endangered American lives. Those people are wrong. Snowden disclosed important information about how U.S. citizens were being treated as the enemy by its own government. It jump started an important discussion about our nation’s future and how we the people exist as the bosses of the government, not the servants. Some people don’t want to participate in this discussion. (These are the same people who want to vote for a racist Oompa Loompa with the IQ of mustard in November.) But that doesn’t mean that we can avoid it.

That’s why it’s important that Snowden exists. It’s also why I was excited when I heard that Oliver Stone was directing it. Stone’s career has been built on films that create a desperation in its audience to speak truth to power. It’s been frustrating when he puts that passion into the wrong direction. JFK is genius in its construction but is about as insightful into history as Monty Python and the Holy Grail. But Stone wouldn’t have to invent facts for Snowden. The conspiracy already exists. All he has to do is create that feeling of passion and anger in his audiences. He succeeds.

The film starts with the moment we’re all familiar with. Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) meets with columnist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) to disclose the data he has smuggled from his job. We then go back to Snowden’s beginnings and how he became public enemy number one. Along the way, we also witness Snowden’s growing paranoia that is eventually proven correct.

The obvious choice would have been for Stone to focus on the deep conspiracies surrounding Snowden and how he came to fight against him. It’s like what he did with Jim Garrison in JFK. Stone was so eager to discuss the supposed”conspiracy” around Kennedy’s assassination that Garrison’s family and his effect on them was almost irrelevant to the plot. Which scene do you remember more – the scene in which Garrison’s wife yells at him for missing the family’s Easter Sunday lunch, or Garrison’s courtroom plea for truth?

What’s interesting is that Stone takes a more conservative approach at the start of Snowden. He’s mainly focused on the love story between Snowden and Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley). When they meet, they have opposite worldviews. Snowden was a special forces trainee at Fort Meade before an injury forced him to leave the Army. He still sees enemies of the U.S. all around the world and wants to serve his country. Lindsay is a more bohemian woman who signs petitions protesting the war in Iraq and scoffs at Edward’s statements on the “liberal media bias.”

Mills has been a figure that is often overlooked in Snowden’s story. When the story first broke, she was depicted in a sexist manner as an example of “what Snowden gave up.” We were reduced to ogling at Mills without wondering how this was all affecting her. But Snowden gives her a greater voice. There are some arguments that seem cliched (like one in which Mills accuses Snowden of preferring work to her), but it’s far better than the coverage Mills was given by the news media.

The focus on Mills makes for an odd first act and some of the dialogue is clunky, but it did help me see the human side of Snowden. It was easy to forget that this man is a human being. Mills also acts as the sort of passive figure in finding out about the surveillance. She reacts with shock when Snowden places a band-aid over her webcam. (He claims it’s to protect her from Russian hackers.) And when Edward starts talking to her about the data the NSA is capturing, her response is “I have nothing to hide.”

Only in retrospect that we realize Stone is preparing to respond to the passiveness that have greeted Snowden in the past. He’s preparing us to be shocked by just how far the CIA and the NSA were going with their programs to “keep us safe.” One of the most effective scenes in the film has Snowden explain how the NSA casts its net by looking at people’s cell phone contacts. We see the wide net the NSA is casting and see how that technology can be abused. One scene has an agent remotely turning on a webcam – ostensibly to spy on a banker’s family, but more likely so he can watch a Muslim woman remove her burka – and pants. Once the film shifts to the NSA spying techniques, it finds a jolt of energy that doesn’t let up until the credits role.

Snowden’s symbols are not subtle, but when has Oliver Stone ever depended on subtlety to convey his point? What matters is if Stone creates the emotional feeling he’s looking to convey. Snowden accomplishes this in spades. The scenes of Snowden smuggling the data out of the headquarters is nail-bitingly tense. The scenes of him and Lindsey are touching. The moment where Snowden argues with his boss over Skype (in which his boss is projected onto a huge display that makes him look like Big Brother) is good for boiling the blood.

Overall, Snowden is such a great package that accomplishes what it set out to do that I can’t stay mad at its flaws.  It’s a great example of how, to paraphrase Woodrow Wilson, history can be written with lightning. It’s also great at showing another side of Snowden. He’s removed from being a symbol and finally becomes a human being.

There are some who will like Snowden. Some will hate it and wonder why Stone is so obvious with his message. I found Snowden to be the most effective film Oliver Stone has made in more than a decade. It doesn’t beat audiences over the head with its message, but allows them to enter Snowden’s world on their terms and understand why he did what he did. That’s all any movie can hope to accomplish.

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A Review of Suicide Squad

I originally made plans to skip Suicide Squad after seeing the press about it. Additionally, director David Ayer directed one of the few films I’ve ever been morally disgusted enough with to shut off. (End of Watch – specifically, I turned it off at that scene in which a cop fights a suspect on a dare and his partner is egging him on while recording it for some community college class.)

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that Suicide Squad needs to be discussed regardless of its quality. First, it is the perfect film that illustrates the state of the film industry. Marvel has been successful in creating a “universe” that requires people to buy tickets to twenty films in order to understand what’s happening. Filmmakers are not doing this because of some huge artistic ambition. It’s because of the potential for higher grosses.

I don’t fault studios for coming up with new plans to fit a changing market. That’s what running a business entails. But it also means that big tent pole films are slowly morphing into a product that is turning people off. Batman V Superman crashed and burned earlier this year after people realized that it was not so much a film as a trade show to introduce the new fall superhero design. I have not seen Batman V Superman, but the marketing campaign was a mess. Instead of focusing on two of the most famous pop culture characters, the studio dictated that every single character be introduced at the same time. And, rather than letting the audience discover these characters on our own, the ad campaign gave every new character their own trailer. It was impossible to understand how so many elements would come together.

Suicide Squad works much the same way. Even after having watch the complete cut, I still am challenged to explain who the characters are, how they relate to each other, or what they accomplish in the film. Suicide Squad doesn’t work as a dramatic work. It works to introduce characters that we’ll see later and to generate excitement about future films. It’s an extended trailer. Maybe, somehow, this will pay off in the long run as Warner Bros puts out more DC Comics movies. But it doesn’t pay off in the short term.

The plot is simultaneously simple and incomprehensible. Viola Davis is Amanda Waller, a high-ranking intelligence officer who wants to put together a team made up of “famous” comic book villains to go on deadly missions. This includes Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) a former psychiatrist from Arkham who fell in love with The Joker (Jared Leto), Deadshot (Will Smith) who is trying to balance his life as the world’s greatest assassin with being a dad to his eleven year old daughter, Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) who has a skin disease, Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), an ancient witch who inhabits the body of an archeologist, and someone named Captain Boomerang who I am still not entirely convinced is an actual character from DC Comics. The team is promised time off their prison sentences in exchange for helping Weller on missions. But Enchantress uses her freedom to resurrect her brother to do…something…that will somehow cause the end of the world. The rest of the squad has to stop her before it’s too late. Oh, and The Joker is in it and trying to help Harley break free of the Squad.

I will focus on the two elements that I thought worked for the film. The first is Robbie. Harley Quinn has been a fan favorite for almost 25 years. There was a bizarre quality about her in every adaptation – she somehow brings the closest thing to humanity The Joker has while somehow showing why so many people are attracted to the dark side of Gotham. The Joker is as physically and emotionally abusive towards her as anyone would expect, but Harley seems to think that it’s her who ends up with power through their relationship.

Margot Robbie captures all these aspect of the character in her performance. Besides the “Mistah J” and “Puddin” lines, Robbie’s Quinn is simultaneously strong and tortured. She uses her sex appeal to drive her captors crazy but is unwilling to face what The Joker is doing to her. That character should have carried the film on her own.
I also liked Will Smith’s Deadshot. Smith has been a very talented performer for many years and hasn’t lost his edge. He’s simultaneous funny while also being very human. Smith has a talent for taking weak material and bringing out the most he can from it. That’s the case in Suicide Squad – the hitman with the heart of gold has been outdated for decades. Smith makes it seem fresh and finds the emotional core that audiences need in the film.

But that’s really all the positive I can say about Suicide Squad. The rest is a disjointed mess, filled with too many characters and so many leaps in logic that it became impossible to follow.

For example, as I stated in the plot summary, Enchantress becomes the main villain after being recruited for the team. You would think this means that everyone involved sees the immediate flaws in the plan and squashes the idea of setting a bunch of dangerous criminals loose. But no, it’s full steam ahead the entire time. The film also takes care to reveal that Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) is the Enchantress’ lover. And then, the film reveals it again as though that was a big dramatic twist in the second act. Characters are pointlessly introduced multiple times. And the big finale fight is an incomprehensible hodge-podge of CGI. I’d rather watch a cartoon if I’m going to end up watching two digital characters fighting.

And Jared Leto’s Joker is terrible. He’s barely in the film, and what few scenes he gets are of Leto trying his best to impersonate Heath Ledger’s performance. There’s no sense of a character being created. You wouldn’t know who the Joker is unless you were already familiar with the character walking into the movie.

That sums up the movie’s flaws in a nutshell. It exists as a checklist so producers can say, “we introduced this character now so we can bring them back later.” I’m sure there are plans for The Joker later, but nothing is realized here. And I’m not going to excuse this by saying that he “may be better utilized” in a later film. This film doesn’t work because everyone involved was too eager to get to the next step.

Suicide Squad is an important film that should be examined for what it reveals about Hollywood’s business side. But such an academic exercise is not going to be fun for the average audience. It’s not going to be fun for those critics either, who are going to walk away very depressed. This should not be the future of Hollywood, where films are made on an assembly line or as a stop-gap. There have been some great films made in the past based on comic book properties. But as they’ve become more popular, they’ve become diluted in their impact. Suicide Squad demonstrates not a need for a competitor to the Marvel Universe but a moratorium on superheroes until we can all agree that a character named “Captain Boomerang” does not need to be seen outside of a children’s TV show.

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A Review of The Killing Joke

Before I begin my review proper, I would like to thank the people at movietickets.com for double booking my reserved seat. As more theaters change their layouts and require you to book your specific seat before showtime, it’s good to know that the ticket I paid for does not necessarily guarantee I’ll have the seat I chose. This is especially a good idea when the theater is nearly sold out. I’m also pleased that you took no effort to correct your mistake and tried to say it was the theater’s responsibility, even though I didn’t purchase the tickets from them. You obviously run a company with no logistics experience and no idea how to keep you information up to date. So huzzah for you, movietickets.com! Three cheers for a job poorly done and I will enthusiastically recommend no one ever uses your service.

Now then, onto The Killing Joke.

Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke is one of the most famous Batman graphic novels of all time. This is because it’s the only story that cares to actually explain what The Joker is. Not “who” he is, mind you. Even though the story has been accepted as The Joker’s officially origin, it’s not been relevant to the main point. The Joker is the man Batman could easily be with just a few tweaks. This was the attempt of The Joker to prove to himself that he’s not crazy. Anyone could turn into him. He regrets his actions, but in the final pages, The Joker realizes that he has no choice but to abandon reality and treat life like a giant joke.

But to turn it into a movie, The Killing Joke would need a lot of changing. For one, it’s a shockingly short comic. For another, much like Moore’s Watchmen, the story only fits the medium it was designed for. It contains a large amount of in-jokes, especially as we transition from the past to the present in a single panel. It’s obvious in the comic that The Joker’s origin story is the product of his insane mind. He’s creating a story that reflects what he’s afraid – namely, being seen as a hack criminal who isn’t funny and is scared of Batman. Films have never been allowed to be ambiguous.

The film adaptation should be praised for moving away from that template. The Killing Joke never feels bounded to the original work and expands on the world. It even addresses one of the biggest criticisms of the original work – the treatment of Barbara Gordon. She is not only a victim of the Joker, but someone very capable of doing whatever she wants to.

But it also feels disjointed and never feels satisfied with the changes it makes.

The film opens with a long prologue that highlights Barbara Gordon as Batgirl. She’s frustrated by a mobster named Paris Franz (yes, really. She even asks if it’s a joke) who taunts her and the fact that Batman will not let her take the lead in capturing Paris.

The prologue is a clever deconstruction of how comics usually treat female superheroes. Paris treats Batgirl as nothing but a sex object and, as Batgirl threatens to beat him up, states that “it must be that time of the month” in true Trumpian fashion. She also has to reconcile her own feelings for Batman, whom she tries to convince as an equal but is sexually attracted to him because he is everything she isn’t. Some fans will treat the sex scene as controversial, but it doesn’t bother me. The comics have always viewed dressing up as Batman and defeating garish villains as Bruce Wayne’s only sexual outlet. He cannot have a normal relationship with anyone who is not like him. Barbara realizes this and, in an effort to defeat him at his own game, gives Batman what he’s always wanted. And she’s never treated as a damsel in distress. She’s always the one in control.

This is good material about a character that often gets overlooked. But how did the filmmakers seamlessly transition this prologue into the main feature? How did they tie in her role as Batgirl into her gruesome fate at the hands of the Joker and her transformation into Oracle?

They didn’t.

After the prologue, we immediately transition to The Killing Joke’s story and the film forgets what happened in the first 20 minutes. Batman has the same reaction to Barbara that he did in the comic when he went to visit her. It no longer makes sense given their updated back story. We do get an extra epilogue that helps complete Barbara’s story and her transition to The Oracle, which is helpful, but she’s virtually ignored during the main story.

Again, this main feature is exactly what happens in the original comic. Barbara Gordon appears in maybe two scenes and never puts on the cape. Yet the film version had decided it wanted to explore different aspects of the story and the characters. The Killing Joke adaptation should have either been brave enough to keep down this path or not bothered at all if it was going to pretend like the prologue didn’t happen.

However, the treatment of The Joker is as good as you would expect from an adaptation of The Killing Joke. Mark Hamill, as the featurette that played before the main attraction stated, has defined the Joker for almost 25 years. This is the one story he said he wanted to do. It gives him a chance to explore the character and his fears. When The Joker realizes he hasn’t made Commissioner Gordon insane, his reaction is new for Hamill. There is no look of sadness like there is in the comic. Just frustration from the Joker. He can barely scream, “Why aren’t you laughing?!” Also, Hamill adopts a different voice for the flashback scenes. The Joker is still there, but buried deep beneath an unfunny man trying to deliver the punchline. It helps emphasize Batman’s case that The Joker is unique in his madness and that the seeds were planted long ago.

So, we still get the same dynamic between Batman and The Joker that has attracted audiences for more than 75 years. When the film is adapting The Killing Joke, it’s great. And I admire the filmmaker’s bravery in exploring Batgirl. Yet I still feel underwhelmed by the finished product. While the original comic felt revolutionary, the film adaptation feels worn out. After numerous movies and a celebrated cartoon, The Killing Joke film doesn’t feel like it’s breaking new ground. You should see it if you’re a Batman fan, but don’t expect to be blown away.

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A Review of Independence Day: Resurgence

Imagine, if you will, being a nerdy guy in high school. It’s prom season. You see the prom queen being crowned and dream what it would be like to one day be with a person like that.

Then, twenty years later out of the blue, she calls you and wants to meet and finally talk to you. You’ve changed greatly, but that phone call takes you back in time. You imagine the thrills you’ll feel as you finally meet her and get to relate to her more on her level.

But then you meet and realize that the years have not been kind. She doesn’t look the same as she did twenty years ago. Neither do you, but the blow feels more crushing after the beautiful idea you had built in your head. What’s worse is that her mind hasn’t expanded at all. She’s still stuck with the obsessions as she was in the past that just seem trivial and silly now. She can’t even explain why anyone should care about what she thinks.

You leave the meeting disappointed, almost crush. This was the most beautiful woman you could think of, an important part of your adolescence. But revisiting her just leaves you feeling cold, like somehow you have failed at your life.

That story sums up my feelings as I watched Independence Day: Resurgence.

The original Independence Day was my favorite film when I was eight. Watching these characters try to save the world was thrilling. I, like many children, didn’t care about the plot holes you could fit one of those city-sized UFOs through or the cheesy dialogue. It would always take me on a thrilling ride.

I watched again recently and was surprised that it held up fairly well. No, I’m no longer going to list it among my favorite films. The dialogue (particularly Bill Pullman’s big speech) is hammy nonsense and the third act is preposterous.

But at the same time the film accomplished what it set out to do. It works for two reasons. First, the actors are completely believable. They aren’t going to win any Oscars for their performances, but Pullman, Will Smith, and Jeff Goldblum all have convincing performances with what they were given. Pullman turned that aforementioned hammy speech into an inspiring statement. Smith found a chance to have fun with his role. And everyone actually acted like the world was about to end.

That was the other element that still makes Independence Day work. I emotionally believed the world was under a threat from an alien force and there was a chance humanity could lose. The people on the planet acted to the spaceships with awe and watching giant cities laid to waste (with good old practical effects!) drew me in.

So now that we’ve established what worked in the first Independence Day, let’s see what the sequel does to ruin it.

The film takes place twenty years after the events of the first one. Humanity has used the technology they recovered from the downed alien spacecraft to boost Earth’s technology. They’ve built a base on the moon to help defend Earth in case the aliens come back. The cities have been rebuilt with this new technology.

Right away, I felt disconnected from the film. It makes sense that the sequel acknowledges that a world in which aliens tried to destroy the planet would be remarkably different from ours. But Independence Day worked because it seemed to much like our own world. It made the emotional stakes high as we watched the Empire State Building blow up and people run for their lives through familiar streets.

Now, the world is entirely unrecognizable. As I watched a UFO threaten the moon base, I realized I was watching a cartoon. This emotional disconnect between the two films was something I never recovered from.

But just because Resurgence doesn’t have the same emotional impact as the first film doesn’t mean that it can’t create a new one on its own. But the film fails at that completely. None of the returning characters are treated very well by the script. President Whitmore (Pullman again) becomes a psychotic husk who is barely able to talk. Dr. Okun (Brent Spiner), who was clearly killed by the events of the first film, somehow gets his death retconned as a coma and awakens unhinged. He has a gay partner now, but the relationship is so unexplored that it may as well not even exist. The Levinsons (Goldblum and Judd Hirsch) are barely even together in the film, and neither of them have much to do.

Resurgence wants to focus on the “next generation” instead. Steve Hiller’s stepson Dylan (Jessie T Usher) is all grown up, as is the President’s daughter Patricia (Maika Monroe). Both want to be pilots and are training with All-American Jake Morrison (Liam Hemsworth). Absolutely none of them have any charm or likability. It’s the standard “I hope I can live up to my father” story arc that’s been done to death, combined with Jake’s “I’m the cocky rouge with a heart of gold” character arc. Charlotte Gainsbourg also shows up to be the “new love interest.” Nothing that happens to these characters is engaging. There are scenes that reminded me of Starship Troopers as Jake calls home. But at least Troopers treated these clichés with a knowing wink. Resurgence treats them as new and thinks I would be engaged by these worn out tropes. I’m not.

Even the aliens are screwed in the film. There was some mystery about them in the first one. We were told exactly what we needed to know about how they were “like locusts.” Now? They’re a hive mind with a “queen” that humanity is trying to kill. They’re also trying to drain the Earth’s core to “kill” the planet and…get the iron from the core? I think? Or destroy the atmosphere out of spite? It also means that we get no real scenes of mass destruction or humanity in chaos. The ship lands over the Atlantic Ocean and (accidentally?) destroys a city with its gravitational pull. Doesn’t this already mean that the Earth is pretty much doomed anyway? Why would some arbitrary timeline about the aliens drilling through to the core help? And why do I need to see yet another giant queen in some pitiful attempt to raise the stakes for the film?

This film is a disaster. Practically nothing about it works. It takes everything that worked about the original and turns it into an outlandish cartoon. I wouldn’t have even minded that if the film tried to engage me on its own terms. But no. I never once felt like the planet was in any danger or that the characters were under any threat. Resurgence ends by teasing a sequel in which humans will “take the fight” to the aliens’ home planet. After what we had just witnessed, this sounded less like a teaser and more like some sort of punishment for bad behavior.

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A Review of X-Men: Apocalypse

I’ve said that I like the X-Men franchise in my previous reviews. They haven’t all been good – some have been really bad – but when the films work they’re really exciting. There are so many interesting characters in the source material that it should be an attractive prospect for any actor and writer. They can find at least one character that matches their sensibilities and provides them an outlet for their worldview.

It’s why I’m sad to say that X-Men: Apocalypse manages to highlight the absolute worst of comic book writing. And it fails because it’s obvious that no one in the cast was excited about the material and didn’t try to do anything fun. Most were phoning it in so badly that they were practically using a rotary.

What happened? After rebooting the series in The Days of Future Past, I was eager to see where the franchise would go. I was worried a reboot would mean character development might get tossed out the window, but the film franchise had always aimed higher than the comics and didn’t ignore character development. That wasn’t the case with Apocalypse.

It starts out so well. Apocalypse (Oscar Isaacs – yes, really) may be the first mutant in existence. He has the power to transfer his consciousness into other mutants – and gain their abilities in the process. He has four main followers and will frequently wreak havoc on the world when he feels it needs to be renewed.  This power allows him to live as a god in ancient civilizations – until he’s sealed in a pyramid in Egypt.

These are exciting scenes that set up some good ideas. “OK,” I thought. “It’s an examination of religious extremism and cults. That’s really strong and could lead to some great moments.” The existence of Apocalypse in this universe proves several religions wrong and provides the filmmakers to dig deep into ancient mythology for inspiration.

But that sort of examination never happens. Instead we get the same thing we always get. Magneto (Michael Fassbender) is trying desperately to live a good life in secret but is tempted back into evil. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is running his school with Beast (Nicholas Hoult). Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) is doing what she can to blend in. Jean Grey (Sansa Stark -yes, I know her name is Sophie Turner, but until Game of Thrones is cancelled she’s Sansa Stark), a student of Xavier, meets a new student at the school named Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) who seems to have something wrong with his eyes. It’s pretty standard and their fate in either fighting of joining Apocalypse is not surprising.

The fact that Apocalypse is not as deep as its predecessors does not necessarily make it a failure. Deadpool and Guardians of the Galaxy were not “deep” either, but still met their ambitions and were a lot of fun. Apocalypse is not fun. It takes about an hour or so for the plot to take off. Before then, we’re being introduced to characters we’ve seen before and who are acting completely differently than the films would indicate. I know that the cast is younger and meant to play the characters still trying to understand their powers, but I can’t see the confident Jean Grey in Sophie Turner’s interpretation. It is interesting for about an hour seeing the X-Men in their younger days, but after an hour I wanted them to move on. The filmmakers had forgotten that these characters have already been explored and im not going to clap at seeing Nightcrawler and Angel when I already saw them in an X-Men film years ago. And that Quicksilver scene, in which he has to rescue practically everyone from an explosion, is pretty much what we saw in the previous film. It’s well done, but it doesn’t feel fresh.

Then they try to change the focus to their fight with Apocalypse, who goes to Egypt to destroy the world…for the sake of it, really. There’s a lot of CGI destruction effects, but I never felt like the world was in danger or wondered why I should care if Apocalypse succeeds. The fact that Isaacs doesn’t have fun makes the conflict even less worthwhile.

But of the main cast, Jennifer Lawrence gives the worst performance. She comes off as completely bored with her character. She’s rarely shown with the makeup, even though Mystique is supposed to be about embracing her true nature. We only see her imitate someone once and every line reading demonstrates no internal conflict that was what made her great in Days of Future Past. Her performance exemplifies everything wrong with Apocalypse. Everyone’s bored with the material and ignores what made their characters work.

I was wondering when audiences would grow tired of comic book movies. X-Men: Apocalypse shows a bigger danger – that the artists behind them are growing sick of the genre. Apocalypse does nothing new  and none of the actors even try to explore their characters. It leads up to something that’s not an outright disaster but is completely bland. Apocalypse keeps the franchise at a standstill and acts as though things the franchise did 13 years ago are somehow new. The series is on autopilot and needs a very quick change if it hopes to stay relevant or even watchable.

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A Review of The Lobster

I left The Lobster in deep thought, trying to figure out what I had just seen. Was this meant to be a parody response to all the young adult dystopian novels that have become all the rage? Is it an admission that rebelling is pointless? Is it really a love story? And above all, is it good or bad?

The Lobster was advertised as a straight forward romantic comedy that just happens to take place in a dystopian future where singles are doomed to be morphed into animals. That does not nearly begin to accurately describe it. Director Yorgas Lanthimos was not interested in creating a romantic comedy.

What interested him was destroying the trope that “love conquers all.” Think about how much emphasis was put on Peeta and Katniss’s relationship in The Hunger Games to the point that it overwhelmed the plot. Think about how Winston and Julia in 1984 viewed their sexual activity as the ultimate rebellion against Ingsoc. The doomed lovers in The Lobster don’t view their actions in the same way, which makes for a more interesting think piece.

Yes, the film does begin with the idea the ad campaign emphasized. David (Colin Farrell) the only character in The Lobster to be given a name, checks into a hotel where he is required to find a life partner in 45 days. If he fails, he is turned into the animal of his choice. (The film implies that all animals on the planet are singles who were unlucky in love – I’ll get to that in a moment.) He meets some of the other hotel denizens, including the Lisping Man (John C Reilly), the Limping Man (Ben Whitshaw), and the Heartless Woman (Angeliki Papoulia), who David tries to form a relation with to spare being turned into a lobster. But, after that sours, David goes to live with the Loners, a group of people that live in the woods and forbid sexual and romantic relations with anyone. While with The Loners, David meets the Short-Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz) and finally finds his match. They must keep their relationship a secret from the Loner Leader (Lea Soydeux).

I might be wrong about some of these details because the film doesn’t explain a whole lot about the world at large. But that’s actually one of its strengths. The Lobster resolves one of the biggest problems with dystopian works; if society has worked this way for some time, why would anyone living in this future need the exactly rules explained to them? The people in The Lobster don’t bother to explain the laws of the society or even where or when the film takes place – or why relationships are mandatory.

I know there are some audiences that are going to be frustrated with the lack of explanations about how this society was formed. I found it to raise a lot of profound questions about the world. For example, the Short-Sighted Woman states that rabbit is her favorite food. But if the animals are just transformed people, then isn’t this the equivalent of cannibalism? When humans are transformed into animals, do they retain their memories? Do they remain self aware?

The film never says, but it’s not important to the narrative that is being created. These questions are meant for the audience so that we feel the horror the characters do not feel. They are so used to what is happening that they lack the capacity to question it. Even the Loner “rebels” aren’t really fighting against the system. They’re creating an inverse of The Hotel for the point of rebelling, kind of like that 20 year old who refuses to get a job and spends his days on Snapchat complaining about how people never really speak to each other. And the way they treat their members is no better than the methods The Hotel uses to bring people together, making it impossible for one side to appear correct.

David is a very reluctant protagonist. Think about The Hunger Games and how the entire society was built to be rebelled against by the downtrodden. No character in The Lobster rebels against “the system” out of some deep political ideal. It’s due to their personal circumstances. David was perfectly willing to participate in the system and only rebels after his attempts to lie his way into a relationship goes wrong.

The fact that its approach to dystopia is so unconventional makes the film frustrating at times. There’s no major antagonist and the unanswered questions distracted me. And the ending is the exact opposite of most work, in which rebellion may be pointless and conformity may be the ultimate key to happiness, no matter how painful it is to conform. But then, the more I thought about it, the more I realized The Lobster was ahead of me. It insists on teasing audience with this world and hoping they’ll think about what it all means and how, in an age of Tinder, we’re treating relationships like a commodity. And there’s no real major antagonists because David, as we’ve established, is never fighting for change. Maybe that ending is just David realizing that doing something for another person is rebellion enough. I keep saying “maybe,” because I still haven’t made up my mind. I’ll probably need to see The Lobster again, which is something I rarely say these days.

The Lobster requires a lot of patience going into it, but it’s an incredibly rewarding experience. Perhaps the best thing is that there are no real answers to the questions I posed in the first paragraph. The best experience you can have with the film has a far greater impact than reading about the film. It’s subtle, hilarious, and insightful. It’s the most effective dystopian movie since Never Let Me Go.

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A Review of The Nice Guys

Films like The Nice Guys are nearly impossible to review. They do the jobs of critics, pointing out every single flaw and encouraging the audience to pay close attention. This means that The Nice Guys could, in the wrong hands, but a pretentious slog that misses the target. The usual approach to this sort of spoof is, “look, I’m not a bad artist! I’m fully aware my film isn’t working, but I’m the one pointing it out. That makes me smart and introspective, right?”

No, it just means you were lazy. Luckily, Shane Black is not someone who falls for that trap. As the guy that directed Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang and wrote Lethal Weapon, Black knows that the best way to critique a genre is to surpass it.

The Nice Guys works as a noir first and a spoof second. The Nice Guys is exciting and funny all at once. It simultaneously deconstructs its genre and celebrates it. Shane Black doesn’t get nearly enough credit for creating smart films that celebrate the genres he loves. Hopefully The Nice Guys will draw more people to Black’s work.

Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling seem like bizarre choices to take on these roles, but that’s part of the point. Crowe is a veteran of the noir genre, but his character in The Nice Guys is completely removed from characters like Bud White. Crowe’s Jackson Healy is an out of shape muscle for hire who pretends like he’s a good man. He’s not above murdering people and lying about it, but he still doesn’t seem to particularly like his existence. Imagine if Bud White had tried to wrestle against his brutal nature for 30 years and then realized that there’s no point in fighting it anymore. If he’s going to be muscle for hire, he may as well have fun with it for as long as he can.

Gosling’s Holland March, in contrast, is a good private eye who acts like a bad one to throw his enemies off. He is a neglectful father who doesn’t seem to realize how inept he is at everything.  He’s also the character that destroys the touch as nails gumshoe archetype. All of his accidents are not caused by any outside forces. He simply tries too hard to be good and comes right back around to inept.

March also gets the best scenes in the film. While Mike Hammer would punch through a window to break into a building, March’s attempts to do so result in March passing out from all the blood after he cuts his wrist on the glass. He also proclaims himself to be literally invincible as he falls from great heights without a scratch.

But I think the best character was March’s daughter Holly. She’s a thirteen year old who demonstrates that she is more capable of navigating a coke-fueled hedonist party more than her drunken father. She is someone who is profoundly disappointed in her dad and wants to be his better. Why did this surprise me? Mostly because I did not know the character existed going into the film, but also because the newcomer Angourie Rice manages to find the right balance between stuck up teenager and broken person. Check out the scene of her reading on vacant lot where her family home once stood – and how she’s trying so hard not to collapse as she explains to Healy what happened to her house.

Tonally, the film closely resembles Inherent Vice. The mystery itself takes a back seat to exploring the characters and the Los Angeles of the late 1970s. Every citizen exists in a permanent state of parody as they wear leisure suits, attend bizarre parties, and take copious amounts of illicit substances. There’s very little explanation about the madness we’re seeing – it’s normal for everyone in town. Yes, the tongue is firmly in the cheek as March and Healy interrupt a students protest against pollution. (“We can talk to you – we’re dead,” a gas mask wearing student informs the two when they try to ask the crowd questions) but the film does exude a love for the time frame even as it acknowledges how bad the late 1970s were for a lot of people. It simultaneously allows Black to use noir tropes that wouldn’t make sense today (how many mysteries of the past could be resolved with a simple phone call now?) while still making them exciting.

The third act of the film, in which we try to figure out “the big mystery,” is quite convoluted. It has something to do with finding a pornographic film that contains a critique against the Detroit automakers for causing massive pollution – how showing a pornographic film in the middle of a car convention would bring down the auto industry, I have no idea. Yet it “feels” appropriate for film’s tone, where a scum industry can somehow proclaim superiority to an important piece of Americana. And it’s not about the solution. It’s about the chase.

I liked what Shane Black did with The Nice Guys. It’s so enjoyable that I can’t get upset about its (relatively minor) flaws. The film’s ending hints at a sequel, and this was the first time in a very long time and I was genuinely excited about the prospect. The Nice Guys finds the line between clever and pretentious and never threatens to cross it.  It hits the right beats for film snobs and for the summer audiences.

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