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.
I love me a good scary movie.
When I say that, I mean, "I love scary movies that are good." Which, unfortunately, can be difficult to find. Horror is probably one of the more prevalent genres in film right now, and for good reason: a serviceable horror movie can be knocked off for just a few million dollars, and almost always has a great rate of return. But with so many entries, it is also easy for overall quality to dip. Which, as a fan of good scares more than the genre as a whole, means I don't usually go out to many.
But It looked different, to an extent. For one, it comes from Stephen King's "golden age," rubbing shoulders with classics like Salem's Lot, Carrie, and The Stand. And even though it features a clown, that most tired of all cheap horror tropes, it's marketing seemed to focus more on atmosphere and story elements more than just "Hey, look, we have a clown." So I decided to check it out.
It is the story of a group of teenage friends trying to get to the bottom of the mysterious disappearances that have been happening in their town, since the adults seem not to really care.
Although It does feature what is probably the most famous of all horror clowns, the film itself is actually pretty atypical, at least in terms of genre horror. For starters, it is long, clocking in well over 2 hours. This proves to be a tremendous boon: it means we are allowed much more time for exposition and actual character development than your typical 90-minute found-footage shocker or possessed-doll-runaround. There are wonderful moments of levity throughout, which, due to the film's breathing room, feel organic and not shoehorned in. It also means the film's scares are slower and, somehow, seemingly more numerous than what genre audiences are used to, which creates something of a unique viewing experience.
You've probably heard by now about Bill Skarsgård's Pennywise. Although little more than a personification of evil, Pennywise still feels like a character, which is the second key ingredient of this film's success. Basically any horror movie has a similar antagonist, and for the most part, they all feel the same: one poltergeist or porcelain doll is as good as the next. They are "scary" because they are supposed to be, not because there is anything in the film that earns them the distinction. Skarsgård makes watching Pennywise a strange kind of delight, like Jack Nicholson in The Shining or Klaus Kinski in Nosferatu the Vampyre. Working from the deficit of hackneyed genre expectations, he is able to portray something subtly more than just insensate evil. In addition to his immediate threat to characters we have come to genuinely care about, Skarsgård conjures a level of the uncanny that is genuinely unsettling.
The final element that makes It work, and work well, is the Losers Club. It could have been a losing bet indeed to rely on a cast of children to carry a horror film of such mass, but they are more than up to the challenge. The group of boys is delightfully rendered, but it is Sophia Lillis as Beverly who steals the show.
Some have even gone so far as to say that, because of its cast, It is this decade's Stand By Me. I think the cast is certainly capable of reaching that height, but the film itself is not. For all its subtleties of horror and structural integrity, its thematic elements of staying together and whatnot are always pretty on-the-nose, and Beverly is reduced, a little needlessly, to the damsel-in-distress. The film does not, in the end, transcend its boundaries as a horror film, but I do not think that is a bad thing. What we are given is an epic of terror with fully-realized characters and outstanding performances, and I would be perfectly happy if more movie-of-the-week horror outings followed more closely in that suit.
So I say, definitely check out It if you are into that kind of thing, but maybe don't if you're not, and look for Bill Skarsgård to join the ranks of great all-time horror performances.
It features Jaeden Lieberher, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Wyatt Oleff, and Bill Skarsgård, and is rated R for swearsing and general clown-related horror and violence.
Written by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman
Directed by Andrés Muschietti
Hey, y'all. Since this week looks like yet another slow movie week, I thought I'd pipe up about a little movie I saw a couple of weekends ago that has not received the amount of love (in terms of audience size) I think it should. I'm talking, of course, about Logan Lucky.
Logan Lucky is the story of the Logan siblings, (Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, and Riley Keough), working-class West Virginians who hatch a plan to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway. It comes to us courtesy of Steven Soderbergh, director of the Ocean's movies, and who has been "retired" from movies since 2013. Let me say, it's great to have him back.
Most of what I have been hearing people say about this film is that it is basically Ocean's 11 with hillbillies. I think that doesn't quite give the film the credit it deserves. For the Ocean's movies are sleek odes to professionalism and the myth of the gentleman thief. Logan Lucky, while no less of a heist movie, is imbued with a certain subtle warmth that its cousins lack. The Ocean's films present us with larger-than-life characters we might fantasize about being in another life; Lucky, in a sense, gives us the dreamers.
It is notable that the film, taking place deep in what many think of disparagingly as Trump country and featuring an ensemble of the bluest of blue collar joes, never feels like it does bad by that oft-derided segment of America. Not that it doesn't have fun with them--the film is primarily a comedy, and finds much to draw from and even make light of in its setting and characters. But it doesn't fault anyone in it for their station or interests. I don't want to sound like it is a look at the "other side" or something like that; but it takes a higher road than many lesser filmmakers might chose when presented with a NASCAR heist movie.
It is a movie that has fun as its primary objective for everyone involved, something I think is sorely needed in these end-of-summer doldrums. I admit many summer movies set out with this in mind, but I think that often along the way a bloated budget and committee thinking and fanboy expectations suck the life out of what we, the paying public, finally get. This film comes free of all of those entanglements, since it was financed and distributed entirely outside of the studio system. It also comes with one other added bonus which I could really get used to: the introduction of an exciting young actor, Daniel Craig, as spikey-haired platinum blonde explosives expert Joe Bang!!
Logan Lucky features Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Riley Keough, Katie Holmes, Seth Macfarlane, Katherine Waterston, Hilary Swank, and Daniel Craig as "Joe Bang!!" and is rated PG-13 for jokes and some swearsing.
Written by Rebecca Blunt
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Welcome back! In this installment I'll be having a look at Edgar Wright's new film, Baby Driver. And let me just say, it has pretty much saved what has been for me a fairly lame summer movie season.
Baby Driver is the story of Baby (Ansel Elgort) who is, appropriately enough, a driver, specifically of getaway cars for a local crime boss (Kevin Spacey). I think that's all I will put here, for now at least.
To jump right in, the film is basically constant fun. It is full of really excellent car chases (like you'd expect), but that is really only where the movie begins. Edgar Wright has made his name in mashing up disparate genres, and this film is no different, really, although I wouldn't call it purely a genre mashup. Mr Wright has decided to make this story about a guy with tinnitus who uses music to drown out the constant hum. And music, therefore, becomes this film's chief stylistic tool, and even a primary engine in driving the film forward.
Mr Wright here teaches a master class about curating and employing a soundtrack. The music he uses is not simply a mixtape of classic tunes like might be featured in certain Marvel franchises; each selection is carefully woven into the structure of the movie starting at a script level. The music is the one common language the characters (deaf, young, insane, whatever) all share in this world, and it all culminates in creating what is essentially a feature-length choreographed dance with guns and automobiles. Some people (sometimes rightly) have issues with highly-stylized films, claiming an undue emphasis of form at the cost of substance. Here, the form is often the substance, or, perhaps better put, the substance is often the form. Mr Wright uses music as a crucial diagetic element and structural tool. Without its music we would have a perfectly serviceable heist movie; with it, we have something special.
But the film does not use its music as a crutch to mask underdeveloped storytelling. If Baby Driver's beating heart-rhythm is music, its soul must be its characters. Everyone in this film is a delight--even Mr Elgort, who you might only know from bad teen weepies, and especially Mr Spacey. Mr Wright's gift is to take "stock" characters--thug, kingpin, wistful waitress--and make them lovable (or at least enjoyable), relatable, and original in their own way. Their chemistry as an ensemble, and particularly that between Baby and Debora (Lily James), is simply a treat, and lays the sturdy foundation upon which all the film's stylistic flourishes can successfully build.
So I say, definitely go see Baby Driver. Spider-kid and Despicable 3 can wait for an evening when you have nothing else to do. Something like Baby Driver is a rare summertime treat best enjoyed fresh.
Baby Driver features Ansel Elgort, Lily James, Kevin Spacey, John Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Eiza Gonzalez, and Jon Berthal, and is rated R for some swearsing and general mayhem.
Written and directed by Edgar Wright
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.
by Chase Harrison