Honest Thief

Every once in a while, I’ll read a story or watch a movie and think “on my worst day, I can write something better than this.”

My wife and I decided to unwind this holiday weekend by watching an action movie. We both like Liam Neeson, so we expected his latest thriller would deliver what we were looking for.

We’re now wondering if Neeson was desperate for work last year, because this film was a complete disappointment.

The story begins with an amateurish plot hole — a notorious bank robber contacts the FBI to negotiate a deal for turning himself in, despite having no legal knowledge or representation — and compounds the error by introducing a love interest utterly devoid of agency. Kate Walsh’s character doesn’t get to do too much in the film, and when she does it’s always a poor decision.

The car chases through the streets of Boston were entertaining for the wrong reason. Neeson, under suspicion for murdering an FBI officer, escapes from his pursuers by stealing the delivery van of a bakery. Despite being adept at breaking into and hot-wiring cars, Neeson drives around for fifteen minutes before the cops finally figure out they should be looking for a guy in a bakery van. He eventually flees the vehicle and steals a white pickup which he drives for the last half hour of the film. My wife and I alternated between yelling at Neeson to steal another car and at the police for their inept search.

What bothers me most is that these problems in the script could have been easily fixed. Explain why the fugitive doesn’t like lawyers; give the love interest something to do; steal a few more cars. Give me fifteen minutes and I could make these problems go away.

But muddling through the occasional bad work of fiction is inspiring. Knowing I can do better, even on my worst day, makes me want to work even harder to get my own stories out there.

There’s More to Life than Entertainment

I post occasional movie reviews on this blog, though I write about far fewer movies than I actually see. That’s probably because most of the films I’ve seen lately have been pretty much the same. Disney shareholders love me these days.

The movies I’ve been so passionate about have been criticized, fairly harshly, by two prominent filmmakers. And while calling them “despicable” seems a bit much, there’s a part of me that agrees with the sentiment they are “not cinema.” Movies can be a powerful medium for revealing truths about our world, and while there’s nothing wrong with having a good time at the show (a concession I’d like to see from the genre’s critics), I definitely feel like I’m missing out on some quality filmmaking. So while there’s no way I’m missing the next Marvel or Star Wars flick, it’s definitely time to see what else the silver screen has to offer.

So here’s the challenge I’m setting for myself. For every superhero/sci-fi/action film I to to see in the coming year, I’ll also patronize a film that relies more on feeling than explosions. I have a feeling I’m going to enjoy this challenge.

Unseen Movie Reviews #2: The Graduate

Like fine literature among intellectuals, great movies so dominate populate culture that we have no choice but to be familiar with them. Much as I’ve never read a certain American literary classic but can tell you most of its plot and recite many of its famous lines, there are films I know so very well despite never haven seen them. So far in this series, I’ve fabricated memories of a horror classic and an epic fable of the American south; the next entry is a bit more contemporary. 

Why I Can’t Believe I Haven’t Seen This Movie: If you were a cynical undergraduate between the years 1967 and 1987, enjoyed films, and had ambivalent feelings about the adult world into which you were about to enter, there simply was no way you could not watch this film. It was a perfect expression for the anxiety of a generation. And the soundtrack from Simon and Garfunkel was absolutely awesome.

The One Time I Came Close To Finally Seeing The Movie: One night in graduate school, my roommate rented this film and invited a buddy of ours over to watch. I was in the graduate student office, and a bunch of fellow students talked me into going out drinking with them. I had just done poorly on a paper, and decided to get bombed. The next day my roommate said I could watch it if I wanted, but I was too disgusted to allow myself even a pleasure so small as watching a movie. So I returned it.

Why I Probably Won’t Ever See It Now: A sentiment that once appealed to me so strongly no longer has any attraction. In “My Back Pages,” Bob Dylan said it with far more eloquence: I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.

The One Image I’ll Never Forget, Even Though I Haven’t Seen It: Dustin Hoffman being seduced by Anne Bancroft. I mean, it’s on the friggin’ poster, after all.

The One Line I’ll Always Remember, Even Though I’ve Never Heard It: “Elaine! ELAINE!”

I Haven’t Seen This Film, But I Have Seen: The Freshman, a quirky 1990 dark comedy starring Marlon Brando and Matthew Broderick. Like “The Graduate,” it follows the journey of an intelligent young man struggling to understand the world around him, but doesn’t take itself nearly as seriously. Brando plays a character who claims to have been the inspiration for Brando’s performance in “The Godfather,” Bert Parks dances and sings about a Komodo dragon, and Broderick’s attempt to ruin the film with his typically awful acting go unnoticed through all the bizarre plot twists.

Review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Call it the Principle of Uncommon Cognomen. If a book or movie (or in this case, both) has an unusual name, there can be no middle ground — it will either be as embarrassing as its title, or cool enough to justify its unique appellation.

Fortunately, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a solid film. Based on a 2008 historical novel, the movie takes place during the 1940s on the island of Guernsey, located in the English Channel and occupied by Germany in the second world war. Juliet Ashton, a writer who achieved fame during the war, visits the island and its oddly named literary society in 1946 after being contacted by one of its members. Ashton learns the society served as a resistance to the Germans, and discovers a secret the society would rather not have her reveal.

The film works on a number of levels. As historical fiction, it sheds light on an obscure theater of World War II, and creates empathy for the island residents who chose not to evacuate in advance of the Germans. Ashton, adroitly played by Lily Adams, is an engaging character who functions well as the audience’s guide to Guernsey and its mysteries. She also struggles with her recent engagement, and while the audience can see the resolution to this storyline early in the second act, Adams is a strong enough actress to make this part of the film seem genuine.

The film was released in theaters in Great Britain, but evidently believing American audiences were adverse to characters speaking in British accents, it is only available on Netflix in the United States. That’s a shame, because the wide shots of the Guernsey coastline are best appreciated on a large silver screen. But even when restricted to the narrower width of your home television screen, “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” demonstrates that a film with the most unusual of titles can still be unusually good.

Storytelling in the Age of the Blockbuster

There was no way I was going to avoid commenting on Avengers: Infinity War, just as there was no way I was going to avoid seeing it during its opening weekend — not after having watched every single Marvel Cinematic Universe film (which is how many, 18? 19?) that lead up to this, and especially not after having been engrossed by the original comic book series as a teenager in the 1970s.

Obligatory Movie Review Rating Statement: If you’re a Marvel movie fan, you’ll have a great time. But if you’re not, take a pass — the references to previous films in the series, and the conversations that presuppose familiarity with their characters, will leave you feeling like a guest at a large party where you don’t know anyone, and everyone knows everyone else.

Obligatory Movie Review Disclaimer: If you’re thinking of seeing the film and hate having significant plot details revealed, you should probably stop reading right… about… now.

The comparisons to The Empire Strikes Back have already begun, but I wish they’d stop. If you hadn’t seen the original Star Wars film (created without the promise of any sequel), any confusion you experienced at the start of “Empire” would have been forgotten by the introduction of new characters and plot elements; “Infinity War,” however, is incomprehensible without prior knowledge of earlier films in the series. Of more significance is that “Empire” was filled with surprises, and left its audience with questions (Who was Luke’s real father? What did Yoda mean by saying, “There is another”? Was Han Solo still alive?) that had no readily apparent answers. “Infinity War,” while certainly entertaining, provided what I consider insincere surprises at its conclusion — audiences may not have expected most of the Guardians, Black Panther, and Spider-Man to disappear at the end of the film, but does anyone who knows anything about the modern film industry believe Disney would cancel the third in a series of successful films, or fail to make a sequel to the highest-grossing superhero movie of all time? Or that Sony would release its newest star from his contract? None of that is going to happen, so these characters will certainly return during next year’s sequel.

Nearly as certain is the fate of those characters who do survive Thanos’ massacre at the end of “Infinity War.” The core group of Avengers have been played by actors who will reach the end of their contractual obligations to Marvel with the subsequent film; many have openly stated they want to move on to new projects, and those who wish to carry on with their roles may demand a salary Disney no longer wishes to pay, especially with the recent success enjoyed by their more affordable colleagues.

The story of the untitled fourth Avengers film is already evident — the original team is going to play the Jesus card, sacrificing themselves for the sake of their comrades. And while it will likely be as enjoyable as “Infinity War,” which never seems to drag despite its length or buckle under the weight of so many characters, it’s still disappointing to know the outcome of a film a year before its release.

But that’s the reality of successful film series in today’s hyper-information world. Movie audiences know more about contracts and films in development than they did during the era of the first Star Wars trilogy, and that’s ruined some of the suspense. Despite our best efforts, we cannot avoid knowing how our favorite stories will end.

Ready Player One

I think we can all agree that humanity is not likely to be saved by teenagers playing games, but we can also probably agree that a film like Ready Player One shouldn’t be judged on its plausibility. This is escapist fantasy, and when enjoyed as a visual spectacle it is highly entertaining, and as someone who’s invested hundreds of dollars into watching Marvel movies, I feel a little hypocritical in calling out this film for its vacuous message.

But I can’t help it. Salvation stories always have heroes, and those heroes need some quality that not only drives their determination to clean up the mess we’ve made of the world, but also provides the power needed to overcome their obstacles. In the Marvel films, technology is both problem and solution — the message running through the nearly two dozen films in the series is that humanity needs to learn how to use technology responsibly. It’s a hackneyed but enduring trope, and Marvel has delivered it successfully.

“Ready Player One,” on the other hand, has no interest in any deeper meaning. Kids play in the computerized fantasy world of the Oasis to escape the bleak reality of their actual world. Making that world a better place, or objecting to the Oasis as a distraction, is never a consideration. You just turn off your critical thinking skills, and play.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment of the film is the antagonist, whose motivation is exactly the same as the heroes — to win the game. The baddie is not threatening in any way; he’s just a poor sport, and if he had conquered the Oasis instead of the heroes, I struggle to see how our world’s fate would have been much different.

Seeing the film did remind me of Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson’s excellent 1992 novel which also revolves around a computerized alternate reality. If this novel ever makes its way into a film, Stephenson’s Metaverse could be just as engaging and visually stunning as the Oasis, but with the benefits of far more complex characters and a much weightier narrative. It would be, unlike “Ready Player One,” a film you could see without having to check your brain at the theater entrance.

Black Panther

Let’s get the obligatory thumbs up/down portion of this review out of the way first: Black Panther is one of the better superhero movies. It’s in my personal top-five list, somewhere in the mix that includes The Dark Knight, Spider-Man 2, Wonder Woman, and Logan. Fans of the genre will enjoy the hero’s journey and outlandish setting (Wakanda is a dazzling blend of Camelot and Star Trek), action/adventure fans who are ambivalent about superheroes will still appreciate the fast-paced narrative and kick-ass battles, and for those who’d rather skip all the explosions and CGI, at least you have other ways to enjoy a night at the show.

The film offers no shortage of topics on which to comment — the hilarious memes its inspired, the lame attempts by racist cowards to sabotage its aggregate audience score or scare caucassians with reports of fake assaults, its cultural significance to black America and black girls especially, even its potential impact on a character who, as I’ve commented before, has had a complicated history in the comics. But for today, I’ll restrict my comments to the decision not to develop the Infinity Stones story arc that’s been sown through most films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

(Background for the curious but uninitiated: the Infinity Stones are six gems of immense power, formed during the Big Bang that started the universe. Five of the stones have appeared in MCU films, as has Thanos, a madman attempting to gather the entire set and cause all kinds of trouble. Since Black Panther is the last MCU film before Thanos completes his collection in this May’s Avengers: Infinity War, many assumed the sixth stone would be in Wakanda, or that T’Challa would somehow stumble across its presence.)

I was glad to see Black Panther make no mention of the sixth stone, as its inclusion would have been an unnecessary distraction. T’Challa’s role within the MCU had already been established by his appearance in Captain America: Civil War (another film that did little to further the saga of the stones), and there was no need to further incorporate his character in this marvelously complex world. Most MCU heroes have been featured in at least one film with only tangential relationships to the MCU; Black Panther deserved an opportunity to shine on his own, and based on the phenomenal box-office receipts, T’Challs needed no assistance from his Avengers buddies or the Infinity Stones storyline to deliver a terrific story.

Some day, the current era of superhero movies will come to an end, most likely when the current generation of charismatic actors decides to move on to other projects. I’m just glad that Black Panther was able to have his moment on the stage before the curtain came down.

Red Pill Blues

Over at the Karma Linguist blog, Nicholas Gagnier just posted an intriguing poem that explores the uneasy relationship between love and sanity. It includes a reference to The Matrix, a tremendous film that in my opinion has suffered through two dismal sequels (fell asleep during the second film, decided not even to bother with the third). Rumors circulated a few years back that the series may be rebooted, but fortunately the energy in that wave seems to have expired. More is not always better; the pill might look just as red, but it doesn’t take you to the same place any longer. 

Aunt Marisa, and Geek Culture’s Ambivalence with Elderly Women

Marvel’s “Captain America: Civil War” opened in movie theaters this weekend, and I believe it’s deserved the rave reviews and tremendous box office receipts it’s earned. Rather than adding another voice of praise, I want to analyze one of the minor moments of the film, and its implied comment about geek culture. (Mild spoilers ahead; if you’re planning to see the movie but haven’t gotten around to it yet, you might want to check back here later.)

As a confrontation with Captain America and his allies becomes evident, Tony Stark/Iron Man decides to recruit an “enhanced human” he has recently discovered — sixteen-year-old Peter Parker, who apparently had been bitten that radioactive-or-whatever spider six months ago and has been captured on YouTube videos swinging through the streets of New York in a hilariously crude homemade costume. (Why Stark would recruit a kid who’s only fought burglars and car thieves into a superhero battle is a question for another time.) The lad comes home from school one day to find Stark sitting in the living room of his apartment — but Parker’s surprise isn’t as big as the surprise generated by the actress sitting next to Robert Downey Jr.

AuntMay-Comics

Aunt May in the comics

Aunt May is arguably the most important supporting character in the Spider-Man story. Typically portrayed in the comics as a frail septuagenarian, May has been a major influence on the nephew she’s raised since childhood. (Peter’s biological parents, along with the how-when-why of their deaths, have never been adequately detailed.) While frequently used for comic relief, May also has a strong moral code, and is never afraid to admonish her nephew when he fails to live up to his obligations; her guidance early in a Spider-Man story arc often directly influences Spider-Man’s decisions later in that same narrative. May’s presence since Amazing Fantasy 15 has reinforced the notion that Spider-Man’s power comes as much from within as from his wall-crawling abilities.

AuntMay-Harris

Rosemary Harris as Aunt May

Prior to “Civil War”, Aunt May’s casting in Spider-Man movies has been largely consistent with her portrayal in the comics, with Rosemary Harris portraying her in the three Tobey Maguire films, and Sally Field playing a younger yet still visibly aged version of the character in the two Andrew Garfield movies. Both of these wonderful actresses portrayed Aunt May’s inner strength along with her charming cluelessness, and delivered memorable performances with limited screen time.

AuntMay-Field

Sally Field as Aunt May

But neither of these Aunt Mays are recognizable in the woman waiting with Tony Stark for Peter’s arrival.

For the record, I’ve been a huge fan of Marisa Tomei since “My Cousin Vinny”, for which she deservedly won an Academy award. I also believe she can bring an energy and charm to Aunt May that neither Harris nor Field could match. Her appearance in “Civil War” is brief but engaging, and I’m actually looking forward to what she’ll do with the character given a larger role in next year’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming.”

Marisa Tomei as . . . as . . . I forgot what I was writing about

Marisa Tomei as . . . as . . . what was I writing about?

But as much as I admire Tomei as an actress, I’m one of many who have misgivings about this casting. I’ll let this tweet speak for one of those misgivings:

I simply can’t help feeling this casting in large part represents Marvel’s cynical exploitation of the juvenile ideal of feminine beauty that’s an unfortunate part of geek culture. It’s part of a larger ambivalence I see regarding elderly characters in fantasy, sci-fi, and superhero fiction; you see the occasional geriatric male, but they mostly comply with the Gandalf/Obi-Wan/Dumbledore “wizened wizard” stereotype, and the few elderly women who appear are often met with caustic derision from fans, as demonstrated in the response to General Leia Organa in last year’s “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” As much as I appreciate Tomei, and look forward to seeing her portray Aunt May in the years to come, I can’t help regret losing one of few (if not the only) strong elderly women in superhero films, and the opportunity to address an enduring ambivalence in geek culture.

In the past few years, the comics industry has placed an emphasis on diversity, with several minority characters taking the mantle of established superheroes; most notably, proto-WASP Peter Parker has been replaced as Spider-Man by Miles Morales, a Hispanic African-American. (They’re all fictional characters; if Marvel wants a trans-gender Spidey, or to have Aunt May played by a knockout, they have every right to do so.) I just hope this emphasis on diversity also extends to characters over the age of 40.

Star Trek: Into Darkness

First, the good: I enjoyed “Star Trek: Into Darkness.” The actors portraying the classic Star Trek characters seemed more comfortable with their roles than they did in the first film, in which many seemed more intent on impersonating the original actors rather than playing their roles. The action is fast-paced without being dizzying, and the storyline provides an interesting commentary, whether intended or not, on current international politics.

The bad: while I enjoyed the surprise reference to the earlier films in the series (and for the sake of fans who haven’t seen the film, I’ll stop there), I think it’s way past time to cut the cord. Put another way, you shouldn’t have to see the Shatner/Nimoy films in order to fully appreciate the Pine/Quinto series. No more plots from earlier films (and please, no whales); I love Leonard Nimoy, but I don’t care to see him or any other original series actors.

I think the next Star Trek film will be crucial to the continuation of the franchise. If they continue with the pastiche, I think they’ll lose the younger audience, and that will be the end. But if they can take the core of this great saga and (OK, I’ll do it) boldly go where no Star Trek film has gone before, I think they’ll have a good chance of continuing the series far into the future.