If you're a human living on Earth, you are going to fight the madding crowd this weekend to see the new Star War that Disney is releasing. Early notices for the film are overwhelmingly positive, which should no doubt be encouraging for fans of the franchise or the work of director Rian Johnson. As a fan more of the latter than the former, I am feeling good about attending. So to do his work justice, I decided to brush up on the other Star War of this modern dispensation, The Force Awakens. And I had some thoughts I wanted to share.
Basically, it's really not that good.
To qualify that: there are good (or at least cool) parts throughout The Force Awakens. First to mind is the overall design of the film. It does an incredible job of marrying practical on-set creatures and effects with digital creations and manipulations. (But let's please agree that the one horrifying exception to this standard is the Jakku junk dealer.) The universe feels very real, something the first trilogy always succeeded at. Taken in isolation, there are also a lot of cool parts. The opening sequence with Poe on Jakku is arresting and well-paced. There are some cool "wow" moments in various dogfight situations. The film really has a lot going for it on a design and technical level, which should be expected if you spend infinity dollars making a film.
Unfortunately, very few of those infinity dollars went toward creating a story that worked on its own or was made of mature components. Two examples particularly stuck out to me on this viewing: 1) there is an incredible amount of narrative string-pulling, and 2) there is a baffling amount of expositional dialog. Let's look at these a little closer.
Narrative string-pulling is what I'm calling the phenomenon, rife throughout this entire film, of a force outside the film (i.e., the storytellers) propelling action forward in an arbitrary or at least unearned way.
Expositional dialog takes many forms, but is always used to inform the audience of important material. It isn't inherently bad, but it is often awkward or at least obvious, and detracts from any realism that may have been desired. Basically it is a lazy way for a storyteller to directly communicate with the audience. For my tastes, I think good films jettison expositional dialog almost entirely, instead using other, subtler devices to portray the film's world to the viewer.
The expositional dialog in The Force Awakens takes one of its worst forms: two characters talking about things they both know as if they don't. And it takes it often. A prime example is basically everything Han and Leia say to each other. You know our son, the bad guy who split us up? As you remember, it caused us to split up. It's too bad we had to deal with that in our own way by falling back on what we were best at. But it's good we still kinda like each other too. And so on.
But there are other forms for the fan of expositional dialog to feast on. There is plenty of "This is what I'm thinking" and "Remember, our plan is to do these things" and "Those are bad guys" and "Those are good guys" peppered around. Taken together, there are very few conversations which don't amount to explicitly clueing in the audience to new material or reminding them of or referencing old material, instead of revealing layers of character. Watched muted, the experience would be largely the same.
I bring all this up because I think that fans of franchises, especially franchises that have the resources to achieve anything they want, deserve films with complexity and depth. And The Force Awakens is a fundamentally depthless movie. Fun, yes, particularly on first viewing, but depthless. I brought up some specific storytelling issues here, but there is also the thing taken as a whole: Nothing new is really explored in terms of the Force or characters' relationships or even the geo-political situation of this fantasy universe. There are suggestions, yes, but so much has to happen that we get only a handful of non-expositional moments between anybody, which means we end up not really knowing (or caring) much about anybody. The characters themselves are hollow: either caricatures of themselves if they are old ones, or thinly painted in broad strokes if new. Indeed, the film has many of the symptoms of overstuffed contemporary blockbuster filmmaking, above all placing supposed spectacle over characters and conflicts that mean anything outside of the brand.
Again, I think that fans of franchises should hold what they love to a higher standard. Massive franchise movies can be fun and also really good--that's the whole reason you got into Star Wars in the first place. As a fan of Rian Johnson's other work, I really hope The Last Jedi has more going for it than a great-looking exterior, and I know he can deliver. I guess we'll see this weekend.
By now you've no doubt heard the news that VidAngel, the popular filtered streaming service, is back. "Back," because, you know, it was shut down by a federal judge back in December. Although it appears that, at least for now, the company's practices are on less skeezy legal footing than before, this writer is still not a fan. And I've decided to burn a few friendships to try and win some of you over.
First, let's talk about the old VidAngel and why it was so problematic. Martyr-cries to #savefiltering notwithstanding, the prolonged legal battle involving Disney, Warner Brothers, and 20th Century Fox really has nothing to do with filtering. It can't, because in 2005 Congress enacted a law titled The Family Home Movie Act. This act essentially allows for the creation of software or other devices to edit a DVD or transmitted film during playback. It maintains the integrity of any copyrighted intellectual property represented in a film by not effectually changing its substance, while permitting consumers to filter out content they consider offensive in a home-viewing setting.
Now, understandably, copyright holders might get concerned about this, since digital piracy is a massive problem. And they don't have to make it easy for DVDs or streamed information to be altered. Consumers that want filtered content also get frustrated, since many filtering products work pretty poorly. Enter VidAngel. The company offered a cheap, fairly-reliable solution that could basically be applied to any movie under the sun. If it sounds too good to be true, it is.
But the trouble with VidAngel was never the filtering; it was their process prior to. That process, described by lawyers for both sides, was roughly as follows: The company bought a DVD of a given film, broke its encryption, and created a single master copy. That copy was broken into many pieces, tagged for potential offensive content, and stored in a cloud. When VidAngel then "sold" you that film, what you got was really an assemblage gathered from a single master, not a legitimate copy from the source. You know, like piracy.
That is what Disney Company, et. al., were unhappy about: not the on-the-fly filtering by home viewers provisioned by Congress, but the unauthorized copying and redistribution of copyrighted material, to the tune of tens of millions of dollars.
But now things are different. By filtering movies you can legitimately stream, VidAngel should no longer be in violation of any copyright law. But that makes them only marginally less-awful in my book.
VidAngel made a (very successful) business of hawking unauthorized wares to people who only want to do the right thing. Instead of setting up something legitimate, like it looks like they have finally done, they turned the guy in a hoodie selling ripped DVDs on the corner into the Last Bastion of Decency. Given the speed with which they have pivoted business models, one must conclude that it was a very intentional choice to take the low road in the first place: how much easier to simply raid the Walmart $5 bin than go through the rigamarole of streaming licensure.
It also irks me that VidAngel has always played and will continue to play the victim of a pernicious plot by "Hollywood" to remove anything good and decent from American homes. Hollywood knows families are big business--Sony just announced the release of family-friendly versions of some of its films--it just really doesn't like when people don't pay it for its stuff. Notwithstanding having amassed impressive profits, VidAngel deemed it needful to enlist the financial aid of its customers during its heroic fight against the persecution of the Mouse House. Indeed, it gathered some $10 million toward the noble cause of "saving filtering," one which needs no defense as it is under no attack. No, it duped its customers with misleading pleas and petitions to contribute tens of millions of dollars toward little more than protecting piracy.
Let's not talk about the casual (okay, pretty overt) misogyny and disability-shaming that permeates VidAngel's first entry into original content, Tim Timmerman, Hope of America. For a company that apparently worries so much about the disproportional amount of female nudity in American film and what depictions of aggressive masculinity teach our boys, it doesn't seem to be too concerned about creating anything that contributes positively to the lack of meaningful female roles or reverses negative gender stereotypes.
VidAngel is not what you think it is. It is not the Final Hope against corrupt Hollywood turning our kids into thugs and pornographers. It is not the little guy who has your side. It is a company that just wants your money. That's not any different from any other company, I guess, but from where I sit VidAngel goes about getting it in hypocritical, deceitful, and, it seems, less-than-legal ways.
I don't really care if you are into filtering or not, as long as however you watch your movies is supportive of the people who made them. I plead for you to seek out your entertainment through legitimate means, whatever it is that you watch or play or listen to. Or if not, I guess you can always #savepiracy.
I think we can all pretty much agree: 2016 kinda sucked all around. This writer, for one, will not be terribly sad to see it go, in part because 2017 looks like it holds some pretty good potential, movie-wise. So let us all give this year one final "good riddance" by having a little look at 4 movies I'm looking forward to next year.
John Wick: Chapter 2
2014's John Wick was a wonderful little surprise. It claims to be nothing more than straight-ahead action-flic, but like a good straight-ahead, no-frills rock song, sometimes that's all you need. Its action sequences were fun and inventive, and it managed to have a genuine sense of humor, something lacking in many contemporary action movies. Hopefully the next chapter continues in that direction.
John Wick: Chapter 2 comes out February 10th.
Kong: Skull Island
I know I'm the last person to be excited about another expanded franchise film, but the trailer above kinda sold me hard. It's a great cast, and the colors and other visuals have really been appealing to me. It's also directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, who brought us The Kings of Summer, one of my favorite films of 2013. So that's more than enough goodwill to get me in line.
Kong: Skull Island comes out March 10th.
(The only trailer I can find right now is a red band one, FYI.)
I know a lot of you weren't totally impressed with 2012's Prometheus, and while I have issues with it I still enjoy it more than most. But certainly Michael Fassbender was one of the better elements of that movie. This looks to be more in line with Alien than many of the other entries in the series that followed. Hopefully it does have some original cards to play as well, though, especially as an expensive summer release.
Alien: Covenant comes out May 19th.
Blade Runner 2049
This film, of the rest on this list, holds the most promise for me. It is based on one of my favorite films from the early 80s, Blade Runner, and directed by Denis Villeneuve (who just gave us Arrival) and shot by master Roger Deakins. So I am hopeful that it will turn out to be a film as engaging as its originator, and not a legacyquel with great production design like Star Wars: The Force Awakens was. But at this point, I am confident of something quite satisfying.
Blade Runner 2049 comes out on October 6th.
That does it for this list, which I just realized has nothing that is not now part of some franchise on it, for shame. So I'll mention I'm also excited (to one degree or another) for Split (1/20), A Cure for Wellness (2/17), Life (3/24), and Dunkirk (7/21), to name a few. Happy viewing, and I'll see you next year!
Well, the end of the year is finally upon us, and that means it's time for me to recap the best of the year so you'll have something to watch instead of Ryan Seacrest on New Years. I have carefully selected my top five favorite films of the year and ranked them according to highly subjective criteria. And to clear things up right away, Star Wars is not on this list, though it made the number six spot. It was narrowly beaten out by...
Call this a case of my inner biased James Bond fanboy wanting his own way. This film has received kind of a lot of hate due to its plotting, but one can't really evaluate a Bond based on its plot, because they all have basically the same level of believability. What it does give us is a stylish, dangerous, and appropriately woman-izing spy fantasy that reintroduces the series' most wonderful baddie. Yes, the way he is revealed bugged me, and yes, Sam Smith's "song" is worse than salt and vinegar chips on a canker. But those deficiencies can't defeat my irrational love of these movies, which is, I suppose, what it means to be a fan. I won't judge you if you won't judge me.
This is not your Kenneth Branagh-issue Shakespeare, but it is also not as revisionist as its ultra-stylized visuals suggest. The play is plunged into a period in Scotland where pagan superstition shares the bench with Christianity and bathing is not a concept. Leads Marion Cotillard and Michael Fassbender are a grim delight, and a supporting cast featuring Professor Lupin rounds out a very introspective take on the Bard's grim play. The photography and immaculate composition often evoke a graphic novel-ish aesthetic which is occasionally a little distracting, but it also provides contrasting stimulus during soliloquies that other cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare lack. Check it out.
3. Inside Out
As the one film on this list that I know all of you have seen, I don't know that I need to say much by way of praise. But I love it as an example of the kind of wonderful thing that can be accomplished in the world of animation, when those in charge are not busy trying to figure out ways to make half a billion dollars on the backs of one-joke side characters. Ahem... Anyway, this film was a delight, somehow maintaining its light heart through some surprisingly complex emotional material that breaks with the black-and-white happily-ever-after doctrine of any mainstream animated feature ever released. (Okay, except Toy Story 3.) And those scenes during the credits, though.
2. Slow West
Like I have said before, Slow West is the neo-western fairy tale lovechild of Shakespeare, the Coens, and Frederico Fellini, and I loved every minute of it. It is, well, kind of slow, moving between detached scenes in a pretty observational way, but patches of brutish violence or emotional realization punctuate it throughout. Of those on this list, this is the film you probably have heard the least about, so I highly suggest going and renting it, like tonight. It is the kind of unexpected delight you only get a few of each year, and in another year would have been sitting at the top of this list. But what could possibly have topped such a wonderful little thing?
1. Mad Max: Fury Road, duh
I want to be careful not to wax too hyperbolic here, but Mad Max: Fury Road is as close to a perfect a movie as they come. It is, first of all, an absolute riot: an exhilarating, crazy, technically exquisite thrill ride. It also functions as the best, most concise symbol of the terror of the unbridled masculinism in our culture. It is the perfect marriage of pure cinematic showmanship and timely, uncompromising, but undidactic commentary on what we live with today. It is the result of of years of work by masters at the top of their game, visual storytelling the way it ought to be. And if you don't like it, our relationship may never recover. There, I said it.
This brings us to the real reason you're reading, to find out what I really didn't like. So here we go:
My issues with this movie are many and varied, but let's start off by saying that it just wasn't good, like in any way. There is not much to be entertained by in terms of character, plot, or action. In fact, it leaves mostly a bad taste in the mouth due to its bizarre sexism and constant "hey, remember this?" moments. I say that it is worse than what you think of as other "bad" movies because it is so intent on being as good and important as its older brother, and is so inexplicably popular. Bad movies usually have the decency to at least not make money.
It is what others more clever than I have termed a "legacy-quel:" a narratively unnecessary sequel that relies more upon nostalgia than novelty in order to bring in an audience. Here we see recycled fan-favorite sets, props, and animated characters that make us think of watching Jurassic Park on VHS after school. These winky moments trick us into thinking we like the movie, when really there are no likable characters or memorable sequences, only lots of cartoon dinosaurs and product placement. Other legacy-quels of note this year include Terminator: Genisys and, yes, Star Wars. Almost all of Star Wars. But what about Mad Max, you say. It is not, since it does not pander for attention by throwing in references to Bartertown or Toecutter. It supplies new material with the tools provided by its world. A fine line, but one that Jurassic World crosses repeatedly and unenjoyably.
But with all of the cinematic good out there, we needn't bother with the rubbish. And you needn't even bother with the rantings of this writer, for if you have enjoyed any movie, that ought to be good enough, and I can and should have nothing to say against it. Just please enjoy movies next year responsibly.
This week my home viewing has been concentrated on the work of M. Night Shyamalan, whose first four major movies (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, and The Village) were some of the first reasons why I began really loving movies in the first place. To be honest, I find it difficult to defend his latter work, and for many people this begins with The Village-–for them a convoluted period monster flic that slowly bleeds out what little believability it begins with until it limps, dying and confused, into its closing credits. But I am here today to proclaim that not only is it my favorite of Shyamalan's films, but it might be his best work altogether.
Reason #1: Dat Music, Tho
The films mentioned above all have superior music gifted to us by James Newton Howard. But the jewel in the collection is the beautifully melancholic suite he composed for violinist Hilary Hahn on The Village. Each note is full of sorrow and hope and loss, and the score is one of the greatest meditations on those themes in music. As a soundtrack it is risky, because it runs the possibility of overrunning the screen image it is meant to support, but it never overplays its hand or becomes pedantic. Indeed the music is the perfect accompaniment to the photography, and the mood which it carefully creates and maintains. Speaking of which...
Reason #2: Roger
I know, praising the work of master cinematographer Roger Deakins is like saying bacon is tasty, but that doesn't mean it can't be done genuinely. Of Shyamalan's films this is by far the best looking (although Eduardo Serra does some cool stuff in Unbreakable.) I mean, tell me that just the still frame of that chair on the porch doesn't make you want to cry. Tell me (if you've seen the movie, of course) that it doesn't infinitesimally increase your understanding of and sympathy for the characters. Tell me his use of color (while often brought to our attention by the dialog) never feels immaturely attention-seeking in itself. Indeed, it is the images Deakins captures, together with Howard's music, that floats the picture when the rest of it is shaky. This brings me to...
Reason #3: The Reason Most People Don't Like It
*This section gets spoilery.* While it is a solid aesthetic achievement, what really gets me (in a good way) about this film is how poorly its internal logic works out. And this is why most people don't like it. "Gee," they say, "it sure seems flimsy that they could live indefinitely in a wildlife refuge and no one would know." "Wouldn't Ivy immediately figure out that it was Noah and not a creature that she killed?" "Why do the elders speak in the weird 1890's speak even when they are alone?" "Couldn't they have brought modern medical supplies with them? No one born there would know the difference. Actually, why did they pretend to be homesteaders in the first place?" And so on.
The point is, I think that this flimsy logic is the point. Misreading it (and therefore being disappointed with the movie) comes out of misunderstanding what the movie is about. It is a love story above everything else. It is also an exploration of fear and guilt, and how those intersect with love. And to me, the fact that a story that they invented to preserve love from the corrosion of fear and guilt makes no sense at all, but that they desperately cling to it anyway, only adds to the poignancy of the whole thing. It is a kind of tragedy the sibling of which I cannot think of. Brendan Gleeson's character says of Ivy, after she has gone, to let her run toward hope. The beauty of the place is that she is free to do it, and if it is worthy, she will be successful. The tragedy is that the place is not worthy, but she will come back anyway and think, for a moment, that it is.
So I take for subtlety what others take for poor plotting. The film manages to tell a very sobering and melancholy tale without ever being despairing. It preaches earnestly and sincerely about love, its powers and wonders. And it turns around and mourns over the false hopes that love can inspire. I cannot think of another movie that makes me feel the way that it does. In doing so it reaches a tonal ambiguity that isn't found in the rest of Shyamalan's work. In that regard it is his most artistically satisfying piece for me, and the one that I can come back to most often. Finally...
Reason #4: Just Because
I know that the film is not without its faults. The dialect is sometimes clunky and distracting and the editing near the end cannot decide whether it is brilliant or just confusing. And I have tried to elucidate real reasons why I love this movie. But I think it comes down to the fact that I love it, just because I love it. Maybe it's because it came at just the right moment in my life: earlier and I would have ignored it, later and I would have scorned it. Maybe it's because it was the first movie that I ever sat through the credits of, thinking that I didn't know what I was feeling. Maybe it's because everyone has to have a terrible movie that they love, and this is mine. I don't know. But I hope you have at least one that you love and you cannot explain why, even when IMDb tells you that it is worse than that last Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Seriously. Look it up.
And here's a selection from the score, in case you didn't believe me earlier.
by Chase Harrison