Monday, August 1, 2016

The Blair Witch Project

To get a sense of how unique Blair Witch is -- and more importantly, to establish what Blair Witch is not -- I'm going to compare it to the two others of the most successful "found footage" movies, Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity. You can consider everything from here on out a spoiler for the endings to all three movies, so if you were planning on watching any of these ten-to-twenty-year-old movies in the near future, please stop reading now. Who am I kidding, nobody reads my blog.

In short, despite a slew of copycats attempting to capitalize on the lightning-in-a-bottle critical and financial success that Blair Witch rightly deserved, no "found footage" film after was capable of reproducing its true strength -- the feeling of confinement brought on by the handheld camera.

I searched in vain to try an find a clip online that displayed this accurately, but trust me when I say that the editing in Blair Witch is masterful. I would say that there are sections of the film -- maybe even the whole film -- that are so sharply and suddenly cut together that they may even constitute a complete montage. The idea behind using "found footage" is that the film looks like it's made by a bunch of idiots, meaning that the cinematography is a mess and the editing is just kinda jumbled together. Scenes in Blair Witch are abruptly and often inexplicably cut short, and just often as often, the scene opens at least 10-15 seconds after the action in question has already occurred. Often times, there will be a smash cut followed by a completely different change of scene and somebody going, "Did you hear that too?"

This is great for two reasons. Number one, this is extremely unconventional storytelling, and I can imagine how that can frustrate the audience, and number two, this is meant to frustrate the audience, which can also frustrate the audience. You, as an audience member, are desperately trying to see what is going on. You're trying to catch a glimpse of the monster, or the rednecks that are stalking our filmmakers, or trying to deduce if the filmmakers themselves are coordinating this entire fiasco for the sake of creating a good film, but you can't, because of that fucking camera. I can easily see how this adds frustration, but I would argue that it also brings tension. Not only is the entire film a great example of "Show, Don't Tell" -- the backbone of any horror movie -- but stays within the confines of its premise.

And it's that premise that other films tried to replicate and ended up embarrassing themselves over. Again, I tried to find a clip for this and failed, but hopefully you remember it, because it was the second dumbest thing in Paranormal Activity. The entire film is a combination of handheld footage and what I'll call "security camera" footage -- shot in static. Anyway, the "security" footage is fine, because it obeys the laws that it sets up for itself -- this camera stays put and records one room, at one angle. The handheld footage, not so much. For one, the movie fails to jump that hurdle that all handhelds must pass: Why are you filming this now? The protagonist in Paranormal Activity shoots everything. He shoots himself meeting someone for the first time. He shoots himself having a regular conversation with his wife. He shoots himself watching the footage that he shot. At some point, the camera becomes omniscient; it sees all. There is even a scene where he's shooting himself playing with a Ouija Board, then sets the camera down as it's still rolling and walks away so that we, the audience, can see that gasp the board is on fire. You're not even making a "found footage" film at that point. It's just "footage".

Compare to Blair Witch , where a scene begins with two of the filmmakers saying, "Why the fuck are you filming this? Turn the camera off," and then the scene ends. Hurdle jumped.

I found Cloverfield actually be a far worse offender in this regard, because with Cloverfield, it didn't even try to present the illusion of handheld camera. Watch these mad camera skills, yo:



UGGGGGHHHHHHHHHH Christ I hate this fucking movie so much why did I decide to use it as an example

Alright, so first, the hurdle: Is it reasonable for him to be filming right now? No, not at all. He's not even filming, you know, the actual things that are happening, which is a huge mass of people attempting to cross the bridge. No, this guy determined to chronicle the events of a giant monster attacking New York thinks that the best use of his time and energy during an evacuation is filming a guy having a very boring phone conversation. Hurdle failed.

More importantly, look at the way this whole thing is shot and composed. Fuck dude, I couldn't even get all my friends in center frame with a handheld camera with 100% accuracy the way this guy can, but that's mainly because I don't have friends. Plus, isn't he standing, like, in a middle of a crowded evacuation. I haven't been to Brooklyn Bridge, but I imagine that a) even on a regular day, somebody is going to bump into me and prevent me from holding that camera perfectly still b) it will be noisy as fuck at all times and there is no way I could hold a conversation with two people 20 and 50 yards ahead of me c) but even if I couldn't hear them, there's no way that I could even see them in the middle of a crowd especially during these conditions. I mean, honestly, JJ Abrams, why don't you just fucking make a movie at this point, if the camera and sound are going to do whatever it is you want them to do? Oh, I know, because you're a hack director and could only sell tickets based on a shitty gimmick.

I mentioned before that Blair Witch deals mainly in a lack of information, but I want to call that confinement. What I mean is this. Take a look at this screenshot:



Ok, notice how grainy and shitty that looks first. Then, notice how askew that shot is. This is not running from a giant monster or crossing a bridge during an evacuation, but just a regular conversation. That is what holding a heavy camera all day long looks like.

But most importantly, look at DAT NAUGHTY, SEXY ASPECT RATIO. Not only does the 4:3 make it look like "not a movie" with the big stupid black bars on the sides, but the black bars on the sides, top and bottom give the whole film a "keyhole" look. You're not even given enough information to see what's going on to the left and right of this character. The characters may be lost in these expansive woods, but you might as well be in one of those boxes in cartoons that have a hole in the side for one eyeball to peep through.

To its credit, Paranormal Activity realized that this dearth of information is one of Blair Witch's greatest strengths, and attempted to copy this by limiting the audience's viewing not by cutting off the sides of the screen, but by keeping the camera immobile (for some of the time). Both of these movies also succeed in achieving uniformity of location; Blair Witch keeps the action located in "woods" which all look the same and thus require no new information to the audience, and Paranormal Activity stays pretty much within the same house (with a large chunk of it in one room). Keeping your audience uninformed means that you have to give them less information -- or should I say, only the crucial information. Unlike the turd that is Cloverfield whose locale is the entirety of the biggest fucking city on planet city. Seriously, just from memory alone, I can recall: apartment, street, bridge, underground, hospital, street, building, helicopter and central park locations, all of which have to be introduced through the medium of visuals and thank god we don't have a handheld camera for that or it would be hard.

Blair Witch captures a sense of confinement within its visuals, its sounds, its editing, and even with its characters. Truthfully, the script (and don't say, "The actors improvised and so there's not a script it doesn't count" because yes, it does count) was a failed experiment in improv and horror that has rightfully been forgotten. However, to its credit, the film rotates the "idiot ball" between its main characters. One person fucks up or acts like an asshole or breaks down, and everybody else is all like, "Hey man, just flow with the go, dude", and then no less than five minutes later, another character breaks down and the previous fuckup takes a turn being the sensible one. It creates an atmosphere where they are all fuckups, but they are also all reasonable at the same time, and so the net result is that they actual don't fall victim to "horror movie logic" where they consistently do dumb shit to get people killed. Instead, they actual play it pretty smart (following the creak, walking in one cardinal direction, and yelling a lot are all things I would do if I were actually lost in a forest), but you're never know who's going to lose it next, and whether or not that breakdown is going to have serious consequences.

Compare to Cloverfield, where our protagonist is the epitome of dumb, risking his life and his friends' lives for the sake of a character to whom we've only met for a fraction of a scene. Yeah, ok, Homer and the Odyssey and all that, but Penelope was a legit badass and loyal wife. The ex-girlfriend character is nothing more than pretty.

But I want to talk about confinement some more, because I think it's crucial. Take a look at these clips from Paranormal Activity. (BONUS: The Ouija Board clip I mentioned earlier just happened to be at the end of this video.)



Now, despite all the problems it has, this movie did have some good moments. The first and third clips are not one of them. The first clip does have the main characters exit "offscreen" for a while, but I would argue that this does not constitute any kind of "lack of information" because you know the result: She kills him gud. Would it have been any different or more tense if we saw him pick him up in the middle of the room instead of outside of it? The end result is the same, and we can easily piece together what happened out of our sight.



Cloverfield actually seems to relish showing the audience Eh.Vuh.Ree.Thing. Even just ignoring all the logical missteps in this scene (where did that monster get a bomb?) there is nothing left to the imagination. We see the explosion, we see the result, we see the statue of liberty. If Blair Witch is the girl who makes love with the lights off, and Paranormal Activity is the one that has sex with the lights on, Cloverfield greets you when you first walk into the room with her gaping asshole in your face. LOOK AT IT. SEE HOW SCARY THE MONSTER IS IT BROKE A 200-YEAR-OLD STATUE UHHH

Notice how when the camera "fails" when they're moving down the steps that it really didn't need to? Like, it didn't change anything or hide anything from the audience. There was not anything interesting going on in that staircase. In fact, why didn't you just cut that fucking scene. SCENE 1: Rooftop. SCENE 2: Street. There, I fixed it for you.

Cloverfield makes me fucking sad. In fact, it made me fucking sad back in 2008 the first time I hated it, in one of my very first online movie reviews ever, I said: "If you're going to have a first-person cameraman in the movie, you have to have things that the character doesn't see. Hud doesn't really miss anything and I wished to god that he would have. " Fuck man, 24-year-old Kevin was pretty dumb and he could still figure this shit out.

I leave you with the final clip of Blair Witch, which involves navigating a house which despite has two characters walking around in two different places most of the time with nothing really happening, still manages to leave you much more in-the-dark than Cloverfield does:

Monday, March 7, 2016

I’m Actually Pretty Okay with Iron Fist Being White

Before we get started, I need to clear up a few things, because I imagine most people read the title and either thought that Im some comic book purist who thinks that just because a character in the books is white, the character on the screen must be as well, or that Im the type of person who is sick of all this SJW bullshit and wishes for liberals to stop taking my toys away. Neither is the case.

I should also mention that the title of this piece was very, very carefully chosen. Im okay with Iron Fist being white in the same way that I would also be okay if he were Asian or black or whatever. I think that in each case, the ethnicity of Iron Fist has the potential to tell a different kind of story, and the strength of the casting is going to depend on their ability to tell that particularly story. Judging by the casting, I can guess what direction Marvel wants to go in, but whether it works or not remains to be seen. We could end up with another shitty Dances With Wolves rehash if it fails.

1.       Lets Talk about Diversity Real Quick

So, in my view, diversity in films and TV is when we have a role that can be covered by a person of any background being given to someone of a background we dont see often enough on screen, or, when a role for someone of a background we dont see often enough on screen is created and filled by the appropriate ethnicity. For example, there is no reason that Glenn from The Walking Dead needed to be Asian in either his screen or comic book form, but since theres no reason he cant be, we get an actor of Asian descent filling the role. For the latter, Dev Patels character in Slumdog Millionaire can be nothing but Indian, and we dont typically see Indian actors in Western media.

I would argue that there are three reasons that diversity on the screen is a good thing. Number one, Art. Seeing the same old thing in our heroes and protagonists is boring as shit. We have a glut of straight, white male protagonists, and seeing something different is exciting. When I was a kid, I loved the characters of Bruce Leroy from The Last Dragon and Prince Akeem from Coming to America precisely because they were so different from the same Bruce Lee / Jet Li / Jackie Chan / Sammo Hung martial arts stars that I grew up with. Number two, Exposure. The opening up of roles to those of different backgrounds not only allows us as audience members to be introduced to performers we may not have seen before, but allows those same performers more opportunities for more roles. This also goes a long way in terms of leveling the playing field in terms of monetary compensation. Number three, Stereotype-Breaking. Seeing a character from a background youre not used to seeing is great for introducing audiences to the wider world. Seeing a minority character in a role you wouldnt normally see them helps make progress in terms of breaking down negative stereotypes you may have about that ethnicity, and helps normalize the idea of people from different backgrounds being, you know, actual well-rounded people. You may laugh at me or call me a racist or whatever, but Prince Akeem and Bruce Leroy really did go a long way towards helping me understand that black people were actual people with talents and positive qualities. I cant recall all the times I would see a black gangster on TV or the news or something, but I remember being in awe of how fucking cool those two were. They were tough while remaining gentle, polite and patient even when they had no reason to be, smart and dedicated, and most important to me at that young age, they knew kung-fu.

What are the downsides to diversity? Well, fucking nothing. 

To summarize, there are three good reasons to have more diverse screen roles, and no real downside. If you dont agree with all three of my reasons why diversity is good, I think you can probably agree on at least one of them.

2.       Canon Doesnt Matter One Bit

A common argument that I have heard, especially from comic book / fantasy / sci-fi types, is that such-and-such is white in the books/comics/game/what-the-fuck-ever so he/she/they/it should be white in the movie/TV show/what-the-fuck-ever. This is dumb.

This is dumb firstly because its lazy thinking and secondly because it lacks creativity. This is the equivalent of a teacher telling a kindergartener to draw whatever she wants, and then when she draws a flying toaster, shes told that toasters dont fly.

By the way, the teacher in that story? Half-Inuit, Half-Lebanese gay man. BUT YOU ONLY THOUGHT OF A WHITE WOMAN DIDNT YOU, YOU RACIST BASTARD.

To repeat the point I made earlier, the race of a character only matters on rare occasions, and when it doesnt, we can fill that with any color of the rainbow we feel like. Us nerdy types love to cling to our canon as though its some sort of sacred, immutable text, when in reality, canon is the etch-a-sketch of the literal world.

For some of the time, changes to the ethnicity of a character are, at worst, inconsequential. You may have heard something a couple years ago about Spider-Man is now black or whatever. (In actuality, the alternative reality version of Spider-Man is a half-black, half-Puerto Rican teenager, but whatever.) The comics that have been telling his story have been great, but only because hes a teenager dealing with teenage things, he has a strained relationship with his father over the death of his mother which he inadvertedly caused, and he has to deal with living in the shadow of this older, better, dead Spider-Man that hes now replacing. Not one bit of the story is enhance or changed in any way because of his ethnicity, and this the worst case scenario.

For the rest of the time, this diversity shit has been fucking awesome. I mean, have you fucking seen Idris Elba? Put him in every fucking movie, I dont even care. Michael B. Jordan is super fucking cool, super fucking funny and Im glad as shit he was the Human Torch. Sam Wilson as Captain America? Fucking, yes please. Kamala Khan as Ms. Marvel is a phenomenon. Thats not even mentioning Glenn and Bruce Leroy.
Seeing movies, TV shows and comic books with the lens of potential diversity shows how silly some of this dedication to canon really is. There was a bit of a kerfuffle over making Elsa and Anna white, and the setting Northern Europe in Frozen. The pro-Europe side claimed that this is the real story because the original tale came from a guy who lived in Denmark, so?

The thing is, being bound by canon is a huge limitation on creativity. We get stuck in one place with a certain type of character and were not allowed to change that. In the case of Frozen, this works out pretty well, but I cant help but imagine what the story would have been like if it was set in a place like Belize, or Iraq, or Indonesia, where they have hardly (or maybe never) see snow. Elsas ice powers would seem even more fantastic and magical, while the havoc she wrecks on the village even more devastating. I mean, I always had a problem with the crisis in the movie anyway. The fjord froze. So what? Have you ever met someone who lived in a place where it snowed a lot? They dont even notice it anymore. Drop 10 feet of snow in Alaska and theyll drive the same speed to work. But if you drop an inch of snow in Texas, everything shuts down.
Now, after all I said about how diversity is great, how can I possibly be fine with Iron Fist being played by a white actor?

3.       A Little History

I think a big problem of why this character has suddenly become a hot-button issue (for those of us with too much time in the day and who care way too much about juvenile entertainment) is due to a lack of foreknowledge about the character, and what hes about. Personally, Im a huge fan of comics and a huge fan of kung-fu movies, so I feel uniquely capable to talk about this on a blog that nobody reads. A lot of people, I imagine, heard they made the kung-fu guy white and thats about it. Thats.well, yeah, ok, thats pretty much true, but theres some nuance to the story.

So theres this kid, alright. His name is Danny Rand, and he is the worst little shit. Hes this entitled, spoiled little shit son of these millionaire parents. One day, the millionaire parents notice that their son is indeed a little shit of a brat, and decides that he needs military school, only instead of military school, it is kung-fu camp at this mystical village in the mountains. So the parents, the little shit kid, and the fathers business partner all pack up and head for this mystical village, but disaster! I shit you not, the little kid Lion Kings the whole thing up; Danny being Simba, his dad being Mufasa, the business partner being Scar, the gravity being the wildebeest and the circle of life pretty much staying the way it is. After this, little shit Danny wanders into the mystical village, where they take him in and he learns kung-fu. Oh, and his mom gets eaten by wolves or something. I dunno.

Now alright, one of the things that I like to harp on when discussing comic books is the difference between what a character is and what a character is about. For example, Captain America is a guy with a shield. When you describe him to your grandmother, you say, Hes the own with the shield, Nana. The Hulk is a big green monster. Hes the big green monster, Nana. Hawkeye is the guy with the bow. Bow, Nana. Bow.

So, Danny Rand is a guy who does kung-fu and fights the bad guys.

What a character is about is something different though. This is the thing that makes a character last in someones memory. In that sense, Captain America is a guy about liberal ideals, freedom and justice for all, even in the face of extreme hardship. The Hulk is about controlling your emotions and learning to balance two halves of yourself. Hawkeye is about dedication and perseverance, even when all you have is a fucking bow.

Looking at his backstory then, what Danny Rand is actually about has very little to do with Asia or Asian culture. Its much more about him coming to terms with his own privilege, realizing that hes been spoiled his entire life, and learning to work hard. In fact, this is the exact same story that happens to Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins. He grows up rich and entitled, he finally realizes that hes rich and entitled and decides to change, he travels to Asia, learns kung-fu, and then comes back to the US to fight crime. Its literally the exact same thing and yet because what Batman is is a guy who dresses like a bat and fights bad guys, and not kung-fu guy, people didnt even think to get outraged when a non-Asian actor was cast for this role.
I mean, seriously. There are people out there who heard kung-fu guy and thought Oh, he should be Asian, right? And these are the liberals. This is not Nana. Thats something Nana would say.

Iron Fist is the kung-fu guy, Nana.

Oh, do you mean the nice slant-eyed fellow?

“…”

4.       Dannys Whiteness Adds to the Story

I want to be clear about what I said before. If Marvel decided to cast an actor of a different ethnicity, then they should hopefully try and tell a different story. If they decided to cast a white actor, which they did, they should write their story accordingly, and if they do it well, should be an interesting story to hear. Judging by their casting choice, I can take a guess as to what kind of story.

Remember that Danny Rand starts off as an arrogant, whiny little rich kid asshole? Well, take a look at Finn Jones, the actor chosen for the role, and tell me if you find him believable in this role.

I mean, christ, I absolutely believe that this little asshole would be a rich snob. Look at that fucking arrogant half smile and his pretty boy curly locks of blond hair. He is a popped-collar with a face. If Axe cologne sprouted legs and did less date-raping, it would look like this.

Ugh. Jesus christ. I mean, I know hes a good actor, and Im sure hes a good guy in real life, but he just looks so fuckingpunchable. Really. He looks like such a rich, spoiled brat that the only thing I want to do is push his fucking teeth in with my fist.

Alright, so lets play a game. I think weve well-established that Finn Jones is well-cast as a rich, snobby, arrogant, whiny rich boy. But what would it be like if we cast an Asian actor instead?
Ugh. Jesus christ. I mean, Im sure hes a good guy in real life, but his face just looks sopunchable? Really? He looks like such arich? Spoiled? Brat? I want to knock his teeth inBUT NOT BECAUSE IM RACIST. Its just, hes much better off than me? Or something.

Now try this one on for size:

How about this:

The point that Im trying to make is that it is safe to hate on rich white dudes. Its not completely unpalatable to look at an entitled white boy and think, Man, I really hate him. Thinking back to Danny Rands backstory, it seems that casting anything other than a white guy would beuncomfortable.

Remember Elsa? The race of the character doesnt really matter at least, not in the same way that the race of the protagonist in Slumdog Millionaire does. But there are a few ethnicities that add certain elements to the story that can change (and, I would argue, improve) it. I think Danny Rands race is something like this. Does it matter what race he is? Not really, but depending on his background, the story will change. In this case, they are hopefully playing up the "personal growth" aspect to the story, by starting Danny Rand off as a completely hateable jerk. 

Now, again, they didnt have to cast a white guy or keep his backstory entirely the same. This is one of many stories that they could have told, and if told well, could be an interesting one. But, still, I mean, cmon. Isnt a white guy doing kung-fu kinda silly?

5.       Kung-Fu Fun for Everyone!

Look, the idea that another Asian actor has to be hired for another role as a martial artist is so fucking silly and backwards, its hard for me to even take it seriously. All youre doing by placing an Asian actor in that role is reinforcing the same old tired All Asians Know Kung-Fu stereotype. I think we need to remember that any representation is not the same as positive representation, and to be honest, another Asian kung-fu fighter doesnt strike me as moving in the right direction. So instead of talking about that, I want to talk about kung-fu movies instead.

Maybe its just me, but I think a lot of the misunderstanding about this issue is coming from people who think of Danny Rand as a kung-fu superhero and not a kung-fu superhero. Because really, we have a ton of superheroes who are white, and we have a ton of superheroes who fight, so this is the same thing, right? Well, no. Kung-fu is a complete genre, which means it has certain tropes and themes that regularly appear. One of those themes is egalitarianism, and another is The Outsider.

Very often in kung-fu movies the people will be in peril. Off the top of my head, Ip Man and The Chinese Connection focus specifically on being colonized. Iron Monkey, Come Drink With Me and Hero are all about oppressive governments. And yet, in these films, kung-fu is the great equalizer. If you can discipline yourself, train every day, and work hard, you can find the strength to protect the people. Frequently, a person or a group of persons is in possession of some kung-fu secret or a mystical weapon that they refuse to share. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon does this with the sword. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is entirely about this trope. And finally, many times the hero or protagonist is someone that is either foreign to the land or culture -- like in Return of the Dragon or Rumble in the Bronx -- is an undesirable like in Legend of the Drunken Master, Drink With Me, King of Beggars, King of Comedy or is otherwise an outsider. San Ta in The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is an orphan and enemy of the state, Bruce Leroy is a weirdo, and the One-armed Swordsman only got one fucking arm.

I want to talk about 36th Chamber for a bit, because I imagine that it might be a mirror for what Danny Rands story will be. In 36th Chamber, San Ta, a well-meaning young student decides he wants to join the rebellion against ghe gubmint. Whoopsie! Now your parents are dead and youre on the run from the army. He hides out in a Shaolin temple, trains hard, trains real hard, and eventually gets elevated to the highest level of kung-fu badass, which directly translated from Chinese is: Kung-Fu Badass. Around this time he begins to fight with the leadership of the temple, which says that kung-fu is for Shaolin monks and Shaolin monks only, whereas San Ta wants to take kung-fu out into the world, teach it to civilians and use it to fight the government. I suspect that Danny Rands story will probably follow a similar path of taking the knowledge that the elders have hidden away in a mystical mountain village and using it for the good of the people.

I don't need to spend much time explaining how Danny Rand may embody being an outsider in both the mystical village where he trains and the homeland he was separated from, do I? And, if Daredevil was any indication, the storyline in Iron Fist may follow a similar path involving corruption at the expense of "the people". Plus, if you really want to be egalitarian, you have to accept the people that you hate the most, and acknowledge their abilities, if they train hard enough, that is. The training is very important in the kung-fu genre. So important, that most movies have very little "fighting"and shit ton of training. If you need examples: The Legend of the Drunken Master has something like three fight scenes, Return of the Dragon has maaaaybe two, The Karate Kid pretty much has one if you don't count "just getting your ass kicked", and depending on your definition of "fighting", 36th Chamber has zero.

Like I said in the beginning, people are afraid that we're getting Avatar but with punching. They're afraid that Danny Rand, this white boy, comes into this Asian culture and is instantly way, way better at kung-fu than all these people practicing their entire lives. If they keep the original backstory, your fears should be assuaged because A) he grows up in the mystical village as well and B) he's not necessarily "better"or "the best" so much as he is the one willing to take the kung-fu out of this hermitage in the mountains. More importantly, just showing up and being better is completely antithetical to everything the kung-fu genre stands for. If they want to include these themes, Danny is going to have to training montage a lot.

Look, Ive argued that Dannys whiteness makes him more believable as a smug asshole. Ive argued that his whiteness and not his ancestry emphasis the anyone can learn kung-fu trope common to the genre. Ive argued that being an outsider is typically a good thing in these types of movies, but none of this means that Danny necessarily be white. A second or third-generation Asian-American character would have served just as well for a lot of these cases, and while I can easily hate a rich white guy, its not a huge stretch of the imagination to hate a rich anything. So, the question is, did Marvel make the right choice in casting a white actor for this role?

The answer, the objective answer, is that we wont know until we binge-watch all the episodes over a weekend.

And we both just spent a lot of time reading and writing this long-ass article for nothing.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Top Ten of 2015 - Part One

I love making top ten lists. It's not real writing, but it feels like it is. HERE'S MY TOP TEN MOVIES OF 2015!

10. Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

2015 had a lot of great movies, and to be honest, narrowing down my top five for last year was really hard. Honestly, there's not much to say about Rogue Nation, though, which is probably why it's number ten and why it deserves to be there. I was pleasantly surprised at how well-made, fun and creative a lot of the shots and scenes were in this film, and even though I stopped watching after the first one in the series, I had an ok time sitting in the theater watching this. It's not high-art, and it's not meant to be; it's not ground-breaking, and it's not meant to be. It's a good action movie done well, and sometimes that's enough.

9. Inside Out

I actually was really torn on whether or not this deserved to be on my top ten list. First of all, this movie was something of a disappointment to me. Even though I'm a thirty-year-old man, I really enjoy animated movies of pretty much any style, from Pixar to Dreamworks to Ghibli, all of which have produced some of my favorite movies of all time as well as some of my most-watched. (There was a point in my life where I could say that I saw How to Train Your Dragon more than three times a week.) When Pixar announced that they were making a new movie with some really outstanding voice talent, needless to say, I was excited. Maybe it was my own overly high expectations for this movie, but in the grand scheme of Pixar films, I'd say this is one of the worst (aside from the obvious worst, which is the one about cars.) Still though, even when Pixar fails, they're better than 90% of the movies out there.

8. Creed

Like I said, making top ten lists does not count as real writing, but once I get started asking myself which movies I liked the most that came out last year, I begin seeing a few patterns. Creed is at the front-end of a few movies that came out in 2015 that took a tired, old formula and did it well enough to make it an enjoyable movie-watching experience. I haven't seen the original Rocky, and I can't say that I watch a lot of sports movies either, but I'll be damned if it didn't feel like I hadn't seen Creed a million times before. (Was it Little Giants or The Mighty Ducks that this movie ripped off its ending from? What was the baseball movie with the little kid as a manager...or a pitcher? I can't even remember.) Still though, there was a number of movies that added nothing to movie history or engaged in the audience in any kind of unique way, but were done so well that it's hard not to love them.

7. Crimson Peak

I think this movie fell victim to the same problems that I had with Inside Out. More than Pixar, I'm a huge Del Toro fan, and probably an even bigger fan of horror movies than I am of animation. As with Inside Out, this movie was not quite what I wanted it to be. It lacked the atmosphere and set design that Del Toro is known for; it lacked tighter, stronger characterization that made even Del Toro's weaker movies so great; it lacked that imagination that makes his great movies great. If I sit here and think about Crimson Peak alongside Pan's Labyrinth, there isn't nearly the same amount of creativity at work here, even when Del Toro is given free rein. Still though, there's enough atmosphere to make it great, and there were enough cool ghosts to keep it interesting. Tom Hiddleston is fucking cool no matter what he does, and I feel like twenty years in the future, we will look back on Jessica Chastain's performance in this movie as being her most Jessica Chastainiest.

6. Ant-Man

Ant-Man was pretty funny, had a great cast, and featured a lot of truly creative fight scenes. (Seriously, watch any modern-day kung-fu flick and tell me that the fight between Ant-Man and The Falcon is not at least as creative as any of those.) Most importantly, now that we're fucking swimming in super hero movies, Ant-Man made the brilliant decision to keep the story low-key and character-centric. I've complained about it on this blog (or maybe just endlessly to my friends) that every time an Avengers movie comes out, they have to save the world, but it's boring bullshit because you already know before the movie starts that it doesn't have the balls to actually have the world get destroyed, The fact that you get introduced to all these characters in the same movie means they're expendable, and the fact that it's not the fate of the world at stake means the trigger could potentially get pulled.

5. The Martian

I think there's two things that make this good. Number one, it's fun hanging out with Matt Damon for a while, which is pretty much all this movie is. Number two, it throws a lot of hard science the audience's way, and it shows how this information has a use. Another thing that I tend to hate in movies is when they are dumber than me. That is, if the character in the movie has a problem and needs to think of a way out of it, they should do it better or faster than I can as an audience member. (If you've ever seen a horror movie, you've probably had this feeling before. Walk out of the house with the killer in it you stupid idiot teenager.) Conversely, this movie does the opposite really well, where Damon gets put into a situation that if I was in I would definitely not survive. This not only beats in a knowledge is power message to the audience, but makes us feel good that this character overcomes what appears to be a completely insurmountable problem.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Room

SPOILERS
I don't think
Room is the type of movie that can be spoiled. That is to say, I don't think that the "point" of the movie is to have some big revelation or twist at the end. However, I'm going to be all up in this plot, so if you don't want to know anything at all about Room, this is your warning.

I think the hype for this film already ruined it for me. If I would have seen this film, back it was still a baby movie, doing the rounds on the film festival circuit, instead of this Oscar-nominated suck-my-dick oh-my-god-amazing monstrosity, I may have liked it. And to some extent, it's still a good movie in that it is mostly competent, but I was mainly bored throughout the whole thing. Maybe my expectations were too high.

In my mind, there's two big problems that I want to talk about, but there's a few smaller things I want to hit first:
1 - The cinematography is just fine, which makes it bad. I can make a few excuses for it, like the fact that cost hardly anything to make and working with child actors means you can't do a lot of long takes (because child actors suck), but that doesn't change the fact that handheld cameras, and the plain-old "shot/counter-shot close-ups of characters facing each other while they're talking"style gets boring really fast.
2 - I will contend that children in movies suck always, but the little boy here was not terrible.
3 - Brie Larson is always amazing. You know I loves me some Envy Adams


But besides that, two big things:

The Movie Has a Problem with Perspective
When I say "perspective" I mean it in both in the senses of the worse. First that we follow one character (Jack, the little boy) and are meant to identify with him, and second, we are only privy to the information that he himself is privy to. So, for example, if a conversation happens while Jack is asleep, we as audience members don't get to see it, but get to hear about it later.

Here, a quick summary of the plot is necessary. The story is about one woman, Joy, who was kidnapped seven years and put into a small room (a garden shed, actually), and raped on a nightly basis by her kidnapper, whom she names Old Nick. Five years ago, she gives birth to and raises a young boy named Jack. Old Nick provides food and necessities and things like that, and imagines himself to be saving Joy from the outside world.

First of all, I think this was an over-ambitious choice, or maybe it was just handled poorly. Jack is a boy who has lived his entire life, literally from birth onward, in a tiny room, and knows nothing about the outside. Anyone old enough to see this movie is automatically fighting an uphill battle trying to get inside the head of this child, because we think like adults and we're obviously aware of the outside world. Even though the movie tries really hard to keep the focus on Jack, there was never any doubt in my mind as to who I identified with throughout most of the film: Joy, the mother. I think the most striking example of this is a scene where Joy is trying to explain to Jack that there's a whole world outside, and he doesn't believe her. It's frustrating in the way that trying explain something that we all intuitively know to be true to a child can be. He screams, he throws insults at his mother, and he calls her a liar, and it's so hard as an audience member to recognize this character as the protagonist instead of the adult calmly and patiently trying to talk to her little boy.

Again, the movie would have been much more engaging, in my opinion, if the focus was on the mother. There's a long sequence where she decides to fake Jack's death so that they can escape the room. After Old Nick rolles Jack's "dead body" into a rug and puts him into a pickup truck, Jack gets a chance to escape. When the truck comes to a stop, Jack hops out, and there is literally a hundred billion people on the street he could ask for help but he doesn't say a goddamn thing. Now, Jack lacks agency and understanding for this entire situation. That is to say, he doesn't make any choices in this situation and he doesn't comprehend what's at stake. On the flip side, his mother has to struggle with these huge choices and fears: "Do I risk sending my only son out with this rapist-kidnapper or raise him in this garden shed?" "What happens if Old Nick finds out he's been tricked?" "Is Jack old enough to handle this responsibility?" I mean, can you imagine how frightening she must have been alone in that room after Jack's "dead body" went outside? That scene would have been so much more interesting to watch.

So, because our perspective is limited only to Jack, we miss out on a few crucial scenes, like Joy waiting inside the room to find out if Jack escapes or not, which is frustrating enough, but then the movie doesn't even stick to its own goddamn rule. There are times when the audience doesn't get to see something because Jack doesn't get to see it, but then there are times when the movie goes ahead and shows us something Jack couldn't possibly see or hear for no reason. Sometimes we get to see scenes when Jack is asleep, and sometimes we don't. Sometimes we're not shown scenes while Jack is out of the room, unless Jack is in the basement and the conversation takes place out in the yard. Make up your fucking mind, movie. If you're going to stick with this stupid idea, stick with it.

And that's the thing, the idea of keeping the focus on Jack and limiting the information the audience is given is a stupid idea. This type of "limited perspective" filmmaking works best in films where the lack of information is the point of the movie. It's best for mysteries. Think Chinatown or Maltese Falcon, where both the main character and the audience don't know who to trust and what's going on behind the scenes. Oldboy is great at this, where a man gets thrown into a room for 15 years and he has no idea why, and we don't either, and that's the joy of the movie. Here, instead of there being any mystery -- because again, we are adults and live in the world that Jack is being introduced to for the first time -- Jack's confusion is not our confusion. Instead of seeing how Joy's father is handling his divorce and his new grandson, or seeing how Old Nick reacted when he was arrested, or seeing Joy in the hospital struggling with depression, we get to see Jack figure out how pancakes work.

The Movie Has a Plot Problem
This movie suffers from having too many plots and not enough story.

Essentially, the movie has three parts: the time spent living in the room, the time spent escaping the room, and the time spent adjusting to life outside of the room. Any one of these three sections would have been plenty to fill an entire movie. Ninety minutes based around a mother and child trying to escape their kidnapper would have been a good thriller, or showing Jack grow up in room and focusing on how it affects him, or show both of them try to figure out living would have been really interesting. But we get all three of these things so plot points get touched on but never resolved or they get focused on for no point or payoff later on.

The beginning of the movie focuses on Joy and Jack living in the room, doing their best to maintain their sanity and not exactly succeeding. Jack is not only a little kid who can't handle his emotions, but he has nothing to focus his energy on, so there's a lot of yelling and frustration. Joy has these "Gone Days" where she just lays in bed all day. I would mind it if the plot of the movie was nothing more than them inside the room for the whole time, and the point of the movie being how to be happy in a shitty situation.

The short middle section is all about deciding to, and succeeding in, escaping from the room. This was my favorite part of the film because it's the only part of the movie with stakes, despite the movie shooting itself in the foot by focusing on Jack. There is even a lot of comparisons drawn to The Count of Monte Cristo and Alice in Wonderland that I would have loved to have seen played out -- those revenge and escape themes. In the film that we got however, these allusions are quickly discarded and never mentioned again.

The last and longest section is about the two of them adjusting to the real world. I think this last part is handled so clumsily and it hurt. One problem is that the important things go by so fast and unimportant shit gets focused on. For example, shortly after escaping Jack forms a bond with his step-grandfather, Leo, over a bowl of ice cream. It's a cute scene, honestly, but any other opportunity to expand on this relationship is discarded, and the two of them barely share any dialogue for the rest of the film. Joy states that she wishes Jack would form an attachment with someone or something other than her, and what I thought was a very crucial moment in that growth -- Jack making a friend the same age he is -- gets zero screentime whatsoever. The little friend just kinda, shows up one day, and I guess they've been friends for a while? Or they just met and instantly bonded or something? I have no idea.

A huge problem with this whole last section is the TV in the first section. See, because Jack could always watch TV in the room, he isn't really completely clueless about things in the outside world. He's seen all of it before. And while there are a few things that Jack has to figure out -- for example, he doesn't know how to walk up and down stairs -- for the most part, he knows what stuff is. In my mind, this is a huge missed opportunity. This movie would have been so much more interesting if it was about a boy not knowing what a bird was and seeing one for the first time, or never feeling wind on his face, or, fuck, even seeing a TV for the first time must be a jarring experience. That movie would have been so interesting to watch.

So yeah, Room. It is a movie. See if you want to, but maybe don't, yeah?

Monday, February 8, 2016

Spotlight, Montages and Juxtaposition

I feel like sommeliers and critics feel the need to justify their existence on a semi-regular basis. If you're a wine expert, you constantly have to deal with schmucks drinking Boone's Farm in front of you, telling you that it's the best wine out there. The majority of the population can't figure out why an expensive bottle of wine is expensive; they (and myself) can't even understand what's being missed with our simple, rat-brained palettes when we taste [insert fancy wine name here]. I imagine that a skilled sommelier genuinely has moments of pity for people that cannot taste what she can. To put it another way, imagine if you were the one person on the Earth that could see a color that nobody else could. You're stuck trying to explain to everyone else how pretty this color is, and nobody else can even comprehend what is impossible to describe. Anyway, I just walked out of Spotlight and not to sound like a fucking snob, but you people probably don't get how great that movie is.

Which is cool. I mean, if I just sat back and watched a movie instead of wasting precious moments of life analyzing everything all the goddamn time, I would have enjoyed it, sure, but I probably wouldn't have seen a lot that color that nobody else can see.

Alright, so let's talk about juxtaposition, which comes from the Latin word juxta meaning "to make a movie all about raping children and have audiences not want to kill themselves afterward". Spoiler alert, this movie is about the Catholic church. And an idea that gets repeated a lot in this film about the Catholic church covering up the molestation of children is X is bad, but Y. For example, (and perhaps one of the best cuts in the film) has a lawyer declaring that "If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse them, and that's the truth" immediately before a smash cut showing a crowded room of Catholic philanthropists. The implication is clear: This is the village doing the abusing. But at the same time, the uncomfortable truth sets in (and is stated blatantly by some characters in the film) despite the evil the church as done, it is also doing good. Things are not so black-and-white, the movie informs us, and the truth is somewhere in between.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The above is an example of a montage, a word so criminally abused that the first thing you thought of was Rocky or Daniel-san training. Those are definitely montages, but the core idea between what a montage really is is that connection between two seemingly unrelated ideas. Deep down you already knew this, even if you're not conscious of it. If I flashed you a picture of Donald Trump, and then a picture of the devil, my message would be clear, even if I never explicitly said it.

But movies are almost entirely cuts, which is why I tend to believe that if an audience isn't conscientiously thinking, "The director wants me to consider these two images together as a whole," you might not realize what you're looking at. Spotlight contains so many of these types of cuts, meant to contrast different ideas and images and coalesce them into a single theme.

Spotlight doesn't stop there though, because it contains a number of those types of montages that you usually think of, those passage-of-time montages where you see Danial-san doing kicks on the beach so you know he's been training hard for a long time. One of the things that I love seeing in movies is telling a lot of information in a short amount of time, and with as little spoken language as possible. A great example of this in Spotlight is a short scene with one reporter explaining that he's married, and his wife doesn't like that he works so much. Later one, we see the same reporter in his tiny, dirty apartment boiling hot dogs, when his boss stops by with some leftover pizza. You get it, immediately, that this reporter is a really bad place right now, to the point where his boss feels the need to drop off half a pizza, because his wife is divorcing him.



Another theme that gets repeated in Spotlight is the ubiquitousness and overwhelming power of the church. And yet, there's only two actual clergy members on screen, both of them very nonthreatening, and there's definitely no mafisio, horse-head-in-the-bed shinanigans going on either. However, in nearly every shot of Boston the city, a church can be seen, oftentimes looming over the characters as they stand in the foreground, tiny and feeble. The intimidating nature of the church is seen in one particular time-lapse montage, where one character taking a taxi from the courthouse through the city of Boston. From the time he leaves the courthouse (a place comprised by the church) until he gets to his office, the presence of the church is everywhere, from the physical churches he passes to the sounds of bells interrupting his phone call. The gigantic structures of the church are promptly compared with the tiny Boston Globe building, adjacent to a billboard for the internet service putting it out of business. Of particular note is the office of our main characters, which is especially small, cramped and with a visible ceiling. (The ceiling is important. Are you sitting down right now? Look directly parallel to the floor and see how much of your ceiling is visible. Now imagine how small the room you're in would have to be for that ceiling to be visible at all times.) The contrasting shots of Boston on the outside, where the church rules, and the Boston Globe building on the inside, where the truth rules, is another great and omnipresent example of this juxtaposition. What sucks about being as dumb as I am is that even as I see these few examples, I know that in a movie like this, there's still a lot I must be missing.

Anyway, Spotlight is pretty fucking good and you should watch it.