A Sense of Wonder: Wonder Woman and Sincerity

Over at Do Some Damage, I talk about Wonder Woman, and director Patty Jenkins on sincerity. I loved the movie, let me tell you why.

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They Live, Nada, and “Eight O’Clock in the Morning”

John Carpenter’s They Live has been a favorite since I first saw it, and remains a pulp science fiction classic. My friend Tony Peyser told me it was based on a short story by Ray Nelson called “Eight O’Clock in the Morning,” which was published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1966, long out of print. He also invented the propeller beanie hat, if you remember those.

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The story is very thin but of course, a very memorable premise of mind control and aliens among us. Carpenter filled it out a lot with Reagan-era class warfare from the yuppie class enslaving working people, and fed into the hatred of the soulless consumerists who inspired American Psycho. If you haven’t seen They Live, it’s a deserving classic for many reasons, and embraces its kitschy pulp roots, very much like the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The DVD is available on NetFlix.

You can read “Eight O’Clock in the Morning” here. In 1986 there was a comic adaptation by Bill Wray in Alien Encounters, which Carpenter saw and drew from. That’s where the infamous and silly final shot comes from. Instead of a girlfriend, Nada, played by Roddy Piper the pro wrestler, gets Keith David, one of my favorite actors, best known for playing Childs in Carpenter’s The Thing. When Nada wants him to “wear the glasses” that will awaken him from alien domination, they have a throwdown alley fight for at least five minutes, to play to Roddy’s wrestling strengths. It’s a lot of fun, and silly, and after so many mass shootings, Nada’s shotgun solution to the aliens in the infamous bank scene is a little creepy, but it’s as pure an action hero story as there ever was.

If you want to read the comic that inspired Carpenter, you can read it here. This is a snip:

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Are You a Good Witch or a Bad Witch?

One of the most polarizing films of late is THE WITCH by Roland Eggers, a brutal period piece. Another brutal period piece, The Revenant, nearly won Best Picture, but left many wondering why.

I take on both these films at Criminal Element. Black Phillip is not amused:

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Spoilers Without, Review I Shall

While I could easily nitpick the new Star Wars movie, I greatly enjoyed watching it. My pal Johnny said to him it approximated what it must have felt like to see the original trilogy in theaters; having seen all three in theaters back in ’77, ’80, and ’83 at the long-gone Franklin Theater in Nutley, I will concur.

I had a smile chiseled into my face for much of the running time. There were missed opportunities, and some of it was a little too familiar, but as a whole I can compare it favorably with Mad Max: Fury Road. Don’t make me choose which is better; I’d say that Fury is more focused, because it didn’t go in with the intention of two more sequels. The Force Awakens (unlike the original Star Wars) knows we’re along for two more films, so introduces many new characters and doesn’t give them all complete story arcs, but lets us get to know them enough to know we’ll want to see more.

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I’m no fan of JJ Abrams; he’s really good at making cotton candy like Cloverfield that thrills you until you start asking basic storytelling questions like “who’s that stupid?” and so on. There’s some of that here, where a character is given more camera time because of the upcoming Rogue Squadron spin-off, but it’s not blatant and the film captures the wonder of the original movies, at least in spirit.

What I loved:

The background is as detailed as the original movies (which I watched last week, so the memory is very fresh). And unlike the prequels, it’s not in love with itself. We notice a lot of detail while the story is focused on the characters. It feels a lot like the best video games LucasFilm came up with, like Knights of the Old Republic (which is begging for a direct screen adaptation). The fight choreography in The Force Awakens is quite good, and forgoes the crazy anime / Matrix style that made the prequels just not feel like a Star Wars movie at all. The originals are based on Westerns, World War II films, and samurai movies after all, not Chinese wire-fu flicks. The fights in this one are exciting, and the Stormtroopers can hit the side of a barn.

What I didn’t love:

JJ Abrams action set pieces and the lack of tension. Because we’re only just meeting everyone, and some things plotwise are a little too close to the original, there’s nowhere near as much tension as there was in the first trilogy. I’ve seen those movies dozens of times, and my heartbeat still quickens when they are taking out the Death Stars, Han is being frozen in carbonite, and during the lightsaber battles. Here the dogfights are a little more about spectacle, the bad guys aren’t as chilling, so there wasn’t as much riding on the stakes. John Williams is kind of phoning it in, there were many calls to the original themes, but I didn’t recognize or remember any leitmotifs or themes for the new characters.

I’m looking forward to the second and third films, and I hope they keep the faith; in Empire, Luke is not truly a Jedi but he’s quite capable; in Jedi, he’s no Obi-Wan but the Force is with him, and you don’t want to cross him. It would not be terrible to give the new characters similar story arcs. The last thing I want to see is a Jedi who can give into his anger or hatred, and then just go mope and feel guilty about it for a while. The high road is difficult. Luke telling the Emperor he’d have to kill him, that was a tough choice. In the era where Superman snaps people’s necks because it’s easier than dealing with the existence of evil, I sincerely hope the Jedi don’t take that path.

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Here’s a photo of the old Franklin Theater. I was six when I saw Star Wars with my father; all I remember is seeing Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru’s barbecued corpses and looking to my Dad to see if it was okay. He kept watching, so I did too. I remember the collective gasp during Empire when Vader says “I am your father…” and the line around the block for Jedi, and how much we loved it, ewoks or not. While my joy during The Force Awakens was not quite that level, it was close. This is a good fun movie and avoids the mistakes of the prequels, so go see it with an open mind and enjoy.

 

 

Mad Max: Fury Road

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As a huge fan of the Mad Max movies, I had low expectations for Fury Road. It had been talked about for so long, and went through many iterations- or at least, the Internet rumor mill did. It was going to be all CG, like the Happy Feet movies! (also directed by George Miller). Mel Gibson would return! Or worse, it would take all the worst parts of Thunderdome and run with it.

Well, George Miller and company made a movie, that for pure action enjoyment, blows all the other three Max movies away. Now, The Road Warrior will always be my favorite. (I reviewed Mad Max, Road Warrior, and Thunderdome here). I saw Mad Max 2 when I was twelve, and it scarred by brain. Any car chase I write is inspired by its insanity. But side to side, there is no comparison. The stunts are bigger, the chase neverending, and the world of the film is immense. Road Warrior felt like one settlement was all that remained. Fury Road gives us a bleak continent.

The story kicks off with Max captured by the war boys of the Citadel, a water station run by Immortan Joe, whose young killers worship him like a god. He’s built a new mythology out of metal album covers and when his lieutenant Imperator Furiosa (Cherlize Theron) goes rogue, with Max along for the ride, the movie is a two hour balls-out car chase of war rigs, Big Daddy Roth monster hot rods on monster truck and battle tank frames, and hornet’s nests of nomadic bikers. The world, and the characters, are painted in such detail that the lack of exposition is no matter. This is a tapestry, not a history book. My favorite characters were a band of woman on motorcycles with rifles, young and old, survivors who fight like the Night Witches of World War II.

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Tom Hardy makes a fine Mad Max. He’s a favorite actor of mine, daring, a fiery star of emotion, who’s played iconic British gangsters and violent men with incredible power. Here he wavers between ice cold killer and leather-clad Buster Keaton on an out of control murder convoy. The movie is equally his and Theron’s; as always, we get very little backstory on Max. If you want backstory, watch the other movies! Theron’s Furiosa is equally cryptic, and they make a brutal team of reluctant equals. The movie is relentless, but I’d watch it if it were twice as long. I’d watch a prequel about the bad-ass biker women. I’d watch another movie with Furiosa and Max. I’d watch George Miller set a bag of dog crap on fire and ring Hollywood’s doorbell, because he made a better action movie than the Marvel toy-selling machine and the DC grit-shit-show has been doing for the last decade.

Unshackle your imagination with bolt cutters and burn out on a fury road…

mad-max-fury-road-ReviewI wasn’t going to mention it, but some “man website” was trying to make manly real man-men boycott the movie because it’s “feminist” or whatever. The movie has bad-ass women in being bad-ass, and it made their peepees feel small. I don’t take “the manosphere” seriously (how can you, with a name like that?) but I found this takedown site hilarious. We Hunted The Mammoth takes down the boycotters’ whining here.

The Oscars 2015

oscar-statuettesI watch The Oscars because Firecracker does. I don’t think they choose the best movies made in a certain year, but they choose some of them. But we always try to watch all the best picture and actor/actress contenders. Here are my thoughts on the bunch, in no particular order:

American Sniper

Having read Kyle’s biography, I found the movie fabricated and simplistic, though Bradley Cooper’s performance was excellent. If Selma gets slammed for poetic license, this one ought to as well. It’s a glowing portrait of an elite soldier, cut down while he was trying to help other veterans wounded inside and out, but much is fabricated. The story Kyle told in his bio did not need embellishment with sniper duels and hunting pychos who drill holes in children’s heads to make it compelling.

Whiplash

This movie surprised me the most. JK Simmons as a brutal conductor and music instructor who takes a talented jazz drummer into his conservatory band was more gripping and fascinating than any of the other movies this year, including the war movie. That says a lot. Simmons was amazing, but good luck defeating Cooper and Cumberbatch with their promo campaigns and fan base.

Selma

I was very surprised that direct Ava DuVernay and David Oyelowo, who played Martin Luther King, did not get nominated. They turned history into a compelling and prescient story, and they couldn’t use any of MLK’s real speeches because they are owned by a media conglomerate. You don’t notice. Writer Paul Webb’s script and Oyelowo’s stunning performance distract from that. The LBJ story felt like unnecessary tension; I like Tom Wilkinson a lot, but his New England accent kept breaking through and I couldn’t see him as Texan at all. It was quite glaring.

The imitation Game

This is a badly written Oscar-bait movie built around Benedict Cumberbatch’s excellent portrayal of Alan Turing, the genius who cracked the Enigma code, built some of the earliest computers, and was tormented to suicide by the British government for being homosexual. It’s a story that needed to be told, but the World War II story of cipher cracking and espionage was condescendingly spoonfed to the audience. They made it seem like Turing came up with the idea to not let the enemy know when you crack their ciphers! This is only a Picture nominee because they need 10 of them.

Birdman

This was a refreshing change of pace, but it’s still a Hollywood story about Hollywood, however quirky it may be. Michael Keaton gets a role he can chew on, and does a great job. It’s a hilarious, painful, and touching story well told, and Emma Stone shows great talent in her supporting role as his daughter. The unbroken shot feels like showing off, but this is great storytelling and a story that is easy to like. It lacks the substance of the other nominees like Selma, Sniper, and IG, but it’s unforgettable and full of great performances.

Boyhood

The 12 year experiment of filming a young actor from age 6 to 18 makes a great story out of everyday life, and its naturalism lays the artifice of Hollywood bare. Patricia Arquette is excellent, and deserving of her nomination. The story is unexpected and emotional without falling into cliche, though I found one section pandered politically to the left as much as Eastwood’s loving paean to the Iraq invasion pandered to the right.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

My favorite of the bunch. It’s been on cable and I’ve had the pleasure of watching it again and again, but it came out so long ago that its chances are probably hurt. Wes Anderson’s best movie yet, he sets his story in the everyday life of a fanciful hotel on the brink of the fascist slaughters that led to World War 2. Some criticized setting a comedy during the time, but he doesn’t shy from brutality, and tells a hilarious, heartfelt, sentimental story of the civilization destroyed by hatred, with unforgettable characters (Willem Dafoe’s brutal henchman being my favorite). Even if you don’t like Wes Anderson’s other films, this one is never boring or overly twee.

The Theory of Everything

Eddie Redmayne’s performance is uncanny, and the story of the famous astrophysicist and his family as he deteriorates with motor-neuron disease is made incredibly compelling. This is how you make a biopic. It is direct, it does not inject storylines, though it does simplify his life. My bet for the best actor win, though JK Simmons was incredible as well.

Wild

I thought this was a better story and film than some of the BP nominees. Reese Witherspoon disappears into her character, a woman devastated by loss who goes on a grueling trek to purify herself of self-destructive tendencies. She is not an easy character to like, which made me like the movie more. Laura Dern is great as her mother, but I’ve seen her do more, and think this is one of those “she deserves one” noms. Which brings me to:

Into the Woods

This was boring and horrible, and Meryl Streep gets a nom for this? Just make a Being Meryl Streep Oscar already. She’s great, yeah. But this musical felt like a Disney TV movie that dragged on and on.

Gone Girl

A good adaptation, and Rosamund Pike was great as Amazing Amy. I’d give Witherspoon the nod over her role in this one. Fincher made a by-the-numbers adaptation with a few inspired bits of casting, and made the third act reveal a Marilyn Manson video that just felt ridiculous.

Ida

This is the Polish entry for best foreign film, a contemplative, character-driven story about an orphan who becomes a nun, then learns she has an aunt: a morose, drunken ex-judge who sent people to prison camps for defying the new socialist government. Set in the ’60s, the horrors of World War II are not long past, and as they seek the graves of Ida’s parents, we spend time with two enthralling characters as we revisit the ugly history of the last century.

Foxcatcher

The story of two wrestler brothers who made it to the Olympics again in 1988 with the help of John E. DuPont, a creepy, uber-rich wanna be who lives in the cold shadow of his mother. This should have been a Best Picture nominee. What it lacks is a chapter between the end of the Seoul Olympics and the tragic ending, but that still makes it a better film than many of the nominees. Channing Tatum’s performance was at least on par with Mark Ruffalo and Steve Carell’s, and the story was fantastic. I wonder if the DuPont family put the kibosh on the Academy Award for best picture nom?

Still need to see Foxcatcher, Still Alice, and The Judge. The weekend will be a busy one… but right now, my choices and bets are as follows. (Choice is who I’d vote for, bet is who I think the academy will pick).

Best Picture: I choose The Grand Budapest Hotel, the Academy picks American Sniper

Best Actor: I choose Eddie Redmayne, the Academy picks Michael Keaton

Best Actress: I choose Julianne Moore, Academy picks Julianne Moore (I have not seen Still Alice; I love Julianne Moore)

Best Supporting Actor: I choose JK Simmons, Academy picks Robert Duvall

Best Supporting Actress: I choose Patricia Arquette, Academy picks Meryl Streep (because she needs her Oscar for singing this time)

Best Animated Feature: I wish The Lego Movie had been nominated, it was so much better than it had any right to be. The Academy picks How to Drain Your Dragon 2 (tee hee). Like with the snub of Fantastic Mr Fox, the Disney/Dreamworks machine gets wins for predictable remakes of the same old story over and over. (I loved UP until the ending, which was just awful writing. Remember kids, we can only solve problems by killing people, even in a whimsical film about a flying balloon house…)

Sunday Reading

I’m currently reading The Bartender’s Tale by Ivan Doig, which is a cozy and nostalgic coming of age tale in 1960’s Montana, about a young boy growing up behind the gin mill his father runs in Gros Ventre, a beloved saloon called the Medicine Lodge. I’m enjoying it so far, it has lots of local language, wordplay, and Americana.

Speaking of nostalgia, my friend the TV host and actor Bobby Rivers started a discussion on his excellent blog about Disney’s blonde obsession, which kicked me off into a discussion about nostalgia, “fairy tales,” and fantasy fiction, and why it should always be taken with a grain of salt. I recently watched Maleficent. I should’ve loved it, I’m a huge fan of Disney’s evilest femme fatale, but it was an obvious ripoff of Wicked, and I hated it. Afterward, we watching the original Sleeping Beauty (which still looks magnificent) and it was creepier and more involving than the rehash. Also watched 47 Ronin, the one with Keanu Reeves as a half-demon… well, it was dopey fun, if you look at it the same way you do Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

As for good movies, I watched The Endurance, on Shackleton’s failed expedition to cross Antarctica. I rented it via Netflix,  but the link I provided has the entire documentary on YouTube. It’s an amazing story of survival, a mix of footage, reenactments, and interviews with families of the survivors. The RRS Discovery, the ship from the first, successful expedition, resides in Dundee, Scotland. Here it is from our visit in 2013.

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As for news that makes me apoplectic, spas are now catering to affluent girls, age 7 and under. Because their young skin needs products? No, to get them used to pampering themselves. My favorite line? “Don’t we want to spoil our children?” It’s at the NY Times and may be paywalled. Read on to see a 3 year old get a pedicure, and for an introduction to the next generation of privilege.

All writers should read the newspaper. The inspiration never ends, and you don’t have to read Internet comments (though NJ’s Star-Ledger has taken to printing NJ.com comments in the paper, which is surely a portent of impending doom). It’s often bad or annoying news, of course, but the drop in violent crime across most major cities, as reported in the Washington Post, is something to be happy about. I’m not sure I agree that long prison sentences are wholly responsible, as Louisiana has some of the longest, and its violent crime rate is still among the highest in the nation. But there is certainly good reason to keep violent felons incarcerated. “Heroin is cheap” doesn’t make sense either, because crack was cheap. The violence is committed over supplying it. Perhaps the drug gangs are done divvying up neighborhoods? As for targeted policing, New York City quit stop & frisk over a year ago and crime dropped. It will take longer to see if the end to “broken windows” policing will have any affect. I think Matt Taibbi is calling it a little early, but quotas and selective enforcement won’t be missed.

Another link seems to be the reduction in lead paint. That is heartening, because it means the drop may continue, but also disturbing, in how our environment can affect us. I’ve lived in buildings that had warnings about lead paint, where all the landlords had to do was give us written notice. I think they have to repaint if young children move in. I wonder for how long we’ll be affected by chemicals in our homes and even the drinking water, without ever knowing the cause. Estrogen-like chemicals in the water have been blamed for lower sperm counts in males and earlier puberty in females; every species is collecting more fat around the middle, which may be linked to PCBs and plastics. I wonder how many people are dead due to a child eating paint chips in a building, so the landlord didn’t have to pay to have it removed…