a possibly too long explanation of why this isn’t a review of inside out

In the Star Wars: The Force Awakens reel released for Comic-Con a couple of weeks ago, Mark Hamill narrates on the significance of this new Star Wars chapter:

You’ve been here, but you don’t know this story. Nothing’s changed, really. I means everything’s changed, but nothing’s changed.

It’s reminiscent — maybe on purpose — of the common notion that a good movie just reformulates an already-familiar truth, kind of like a song that feels like a classic even on first hearing. (I feel like I’ve heard this idea floated before, but I can’t find a web reference for it. Take me at my word? )

This is not at all unexpected, but it does remind me of an ongoing reservation I have about even the best of popular entertainment: I feel like movies shouldn’t be so comforting that they could double as a warm blanket. The best of film is too fresh, too hard to process to ever let you feel like “nothing’s changed.” I suppose what I’m saying is that even when perfectly executed, a movie whose purpose is to refeed you what you’ve already been fed before is a movie that needs a different reason for being. A movie whose goal is not to put on the screen a new vision of art, but to return us to somewhere we think we already know, well that’s art that is aiming too low.
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superheroes only wish they could be us

Another summer done, another summer of good and bad and mostly forgettable popcorn flicks.

Though it seems like just another summer, our summers have changed over the last decade or so; on the occasion of this end-of-summer it occurs to me that movies featuring superheroes – though we now expect their regular release – were invented as we know them almost entirely in my lifetime. Put it this way: While you and I can still recall a time when superhero movies were produced only sporadically, the child born today will probably think of the genre as a given. At some point, it’s likely the elements of a superhero movie will be taken for granted, the way film noir, screwball comedies, and action films are now so fundamental to the culture it’s hard to imagine they were ever a new phenomenon.

Photo by Eneas de Troya via cc

Photo by Eneas de Troya via cc

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is gladiator a tragedy?

When I first saw Gladiator, at 19, I was only really watching Maximus.

The general-turned-warrior, played by Russell Crowe, was a real man any which way you looked at him. You could love him for his intelligence; you could love him for his brawn; you could love him for being a leader; you could love him because he actually just wanted to go home to his family. If the fearsome killer didn’t do anything for you, you could admire the family man.

In theory. I, for one, could not have given two hoots about the family man. Gladiator worked for me because it elaborated vividly and at length on the premise that Maximus was a badass. The beginning and ending of Gladiator’s appeal was that it let me forget I was myself for a while and pretend I was him.


photo by Nick Thompson

Of course, one finds oneself a bit lost in the end when this is what one yearns for in a film. Leaving the movie, I went through a sort of withdrawal. The fantasy ended, I was left with the reality that I was an anonymous college student waiting for a bus in the basement of the Mall of America. Spending time wanting to be Maximus was time wasted, and I knew it. Now, more than a decade later, I find that a little part of me still enjoys watching Maximus being a badass, but it’s no longer the only story in the movie. I have traded my ability to become completely engrossed in a dream for the ability to watch a movie more carefully and for other reasons.
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age of extinction: some thoughts in rhyme on the latest transformers

I just saw Transformers 4.
I should have known what was in store.
I’m not clairvoyant, I’ve just seen
the other movies. (Yes, all three.)
In my mind they’re one long film:
Explosions, shouting, robots killed.
The trailer says, “The rules have changed.”
I assure you: They’re the same.

At movie’s start, Optimus Prime
is nearly dead before his time.
Mark Wahlberg finds him and repairs
his robot wounds with loving care.
Wahlberg’s lines are bad enough
to make you miss Shia LaBoeuf.
Since his acting is so stiff,
he ought to make some use of it.
Mark could play an Autobot
who transforms to a decent plot.

14-07-07 transformers 4

They meet with Prime’s remaining team,
the second stringers, it would seem.
One’s Japanese, another Cockney.
If that seems strange, even more oddly,
one Autobot should plainly be
storming the beach at Normandy.
He’s helmeted and smokes cigars;
you almost want to call him “Sarge.”

I think you might already know:
To this hot mess you shouldn’t go.

man of steel: i heart krypton (probably more than i heart superman)

In all probability, last year’s Superman reboot, Man of Steel, was not designed to make me want to watch an entire movie about Krypton. But that’s what it did, maybe more than it did anything else.

That probably says more about how totally effective the early scenes of Krypton were more than it means anything about how much I liked the rest of the film (which was fine or something). Man of Steel’s Krypton is a vividly foreign place that clearly establishes its own peculiar aesthetic, one that is a lot more than a mere extrapolation from present trends in American design. Just as it should, the planet feels remote from anything we know in modern America.

First, as we see the birth of Superman (the first Kryptonian born the old fashioned way for quite some time, it seems), there’s a floating monitor-type thing that uses a bunch of pebbly metal beads to display information, like a picture of the Super-fetus. Like a lot of Kryptonian tech, it’s distinctly beyond anything humanity could build right now, but more importantly, it doesn’t look like anything Apple would make any time in the next century, either. The shapes of their buildings, tools and costumes, as well as the green-brown color palette of Krypton, build up a cultural context unlike anything you or I ever normally see – which makes perfect sense.

14-06-30 Man of Steel - 1a super-fetus
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godzilla: do not see this junk

Pyrotechnic-filled mega-hit popcorn flicks are not all the same, by the way. Some have redeeming qualities with others just alternate overlarge things breaking with people reciting wooden dialogue.

Godzilla is the latter, and it sucks.

Monsters, the first movie by director Gareth Edwards, used its CGI beasts as a kind of metaphor for nature and even dipped into a bit of sociology. In Godzilla, the monsters are just metaphors for monsters, and the only lesson that we might draw from it is that if a giant praying mantis and a giant dino-sized lizard emerge from the depths, we should trust the lizard.

So, in lieu of being entertained while watching this, I spent a lot of the movie working on a theory that I know to be completely untrue. The theory is that Godzilla, 2014 edition, is actually an arch meta-commentary on blockbusters and their slavish devotion to formulae. Warning: This movie is dull and clearly not smart enough to substantiate this theory. But thinking about this notion is the only fun I had watching this paint-by-numbers bore-fest.

Herewith, I offer my evidence for the plainly false idea that Godzilla is a covert attempt to comment on the nature of the modern blockbuster.

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david denby reminds me why i don’t write about important things

In the introduction to David Denby’s collection Do the Movies Have a Future?, he imagines the answer, at least for the purposes of the theatergoer who likes a certain kind of quality film: “Well, maybe. Sort of. Perhaps. If certain things happen.”

I think it says a lot that the question is so big and the answer so tentative.

Maybe unsurprisingly, the gist of his opening essay is that the movies are becoming crasser, more commercial, and more frenetic, and he feels that this is definitely bad. He is made “crazy” by this, and mourns what movies use to be like, how a more adult entertainment used to rule the theaters, in a time when Oscar-worthiness was better correlated to popularity. He paints for us a picture of marketing tie-ins and branded entertainment and movies filled with too many explosions and not enough dramatic tension, and this is a world that dismays him. He takes Iron Man 2 as his example, and explains that while Robert Downey, Jr. is entertaining, the movie boils down to well-produced bang-bang without any emotional heft.

photo by Nur Hussein via cc

photo by Nur Hussein via cc

I’m with him in all of this, and in fact I’m also unhappy with popular culture in the new century. But Denby wants to make a grander argument out of his unhappiness. In this state-of-the-movies address, he develops a scathing critique of the cultural moment, one that is implicitly founded on the notion that things have gone very wrong with the art of film. It’s not enough that he himself is unhappy; like many people, Denby assumes that the thing that makes him unhappy is a symptom of a larger wrong. He may not say it outright, but it becomes plain through his extended lamentation that he considers the decline of his preferred theatergoing experience something worse than a minor annoyance.
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