Monday, June 18, 2018

Tron's journey from dated to timeless

The thing about Tron that likely lingers with most of us -- and which was one of the chief perceived advantages of making a modern update in 2010 -- is how dated the effects look. A good encapsulation of that impression came in that great Simpsons Treehouse of Horror episode where Homer steps into the 3D world, and it's likened to Tron -- a movie all the other characters say they have not seen (except Chief Wiggum, who quickly changes his answer to "no" so he does not stand out). I'm not sure why the writers wanted to engage in a little round of Tron bashing, but that's clearly what it is.

I would have probably subscribed to that hot take, as it had been since the 1980s that I saw it, and only had my occasional exposure to stills to go on when formulating an impression adjusted for modernity.

So I was taken aback by just how absorbing I found the world when I saw it for the first time in probably 30 years on Saturday night.

It could have just been my new TV talking, but what others call dated, I called a wondrous stylized odyssey.

Calling Tron's effects dated feels like an incredible misnomer ... but it's not because they were never dated. I think at one time they probably were.

In the 1990s they probably looked dated. Very dated. But what was originally an attempt at a "realistic" look inside a computer fantasy world now seems like something with its own particular aesthetic that just looks awesome. The new effects Tron: Legacy was capable of in 2010 may have "looked better" or "looked more realistic," but they didn't plunge me into a world like I felt like I was plunged Saturday night.

I think it's in part because we are trying to do retro science fiction more than we used to. Tron is not retro futurism, an aesthetic I would more ascribe to something like Tomorrowland (or The Incredibles 2, which I will write about tomorrow). But Tron fits comfortably into a world where retro futurism is something we crave seeing done well.

It also, ironically, fits well into a world where we celebrate practical effects. There's nothing practical about Tron, but there is something quaint about it, something the icy digital creations of Tron: Legacy just didn't understand.

But to be clear, watching Tron today is not just an exercise in nostalgia, in being pleased with the limitations of earlier modes of filmmaking in and of themselves. Tron actually looks good. If someone today could make a celebration of retro science fiction that looks as good as Tron looks, they'd be quite happy with themselves. The closest I can think of someone accomplishing that might be something like Speed Racer.

There's something about the simple, blocky designs that really works, but also feels like a conscious aesthetic choice now, even if it was not then. There's something about it that feels very clean and lean, with the pristine straight lines of the light cycle light trails, and the perfect circles in that microchip version of jai alai they play.

And again this could be the TV talking, but the depths that were conjured by the movements of the camera also gave the world a sense of space and dimension. I dove down into it.

Before you think I'm going to start proclaiming Steven Lisberger's movie as some kind of masterpiece, I'll tell you that the plot was confusing enough that I was basically left zoning out. I couldn't really explain to you what happens or why it happens, except in the broadest strokes. I also thought some of Jeff Bridges' choices on how to play the character were a bit broad.

But as a visual spectacle, it was glorious, and I enjoyed every damn minute of it.

Tron is not a masterpiece, but I think it is properly described as a "classic," one that has transcended the apparent limitations of the moment in which it was made to become something that just looks beautiful. I'll look forward to my next viewing much sooner than 30 years from now.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Mea culpa on Atlanta

This isn't a TV blog. You know that.

But I made it one momentarily by bringing up Atlanta in the context of discussing Donald Glover just a little over a month ago. (Which in itself was more about Childish Gambino's "This is America" than any of his film exploits, though I did see it as a bit of a Solo tie-in, justifying its inclusion on the blog.)

I couldn't have said anything of substance about Atlanta back then, because I'd only seen a single episode -- one I caught on the plane at that. However, I thought I knew enough about the show to be a bit dismissive of it. For some reason, I thought it was Glover's attempt to "be cool," after his character on Community had been so dorky. This is what I said about Glover in that piece:

"It reflected a conscious choice to trade in his nerd bonafides for something more clearly hip and stylish."

"... Earnest Marks was the coolest cat on screen."

I had actually wanted to be more dismissive except I was conscious of how little I did actually know about the show.

Some of that dismissiveness was a result, I will admit, of this poster. Not knowing the other two characters and finding this to be a big break from what Glover was doing on Community, I guess I thought of it as an instance of Glover "forsaking his roots" -- "roots," of course, being a very weighted word when it comes to an African American performer. But I have a long history of being mildly annoyed when someone thinks that "what got them there" is now passe, something they should turn their back on. This was my impression of Glover vis-a-vis Atlanta.

And then I actually watched Atlanta.

"This is America" re-attuned my wife and me to the fact that we had always wanted to watch Atlanta, and a very little digging made us realize we had that opportunity right now. It plays in Australia on a network called SBS, and SBS has an on demand component that allows you to pick up whatever shows you want for as long as they're sitting there. As it happens, both seasons of Atlanta were sitting there, ready for us to watch them.

And in about a month's time, we've watched all but the final two episodes of the second season. That may take us a little longer than what our pace has been to this point, simply because we want to savor what remains before we have no more Atlanta in our lives until next season.

I could never have guessed how much this show would play by its own rules. I'm not sure I knew what I thought the show would be, outside of the posturing I thought Glover was guilty of, but the one episode I saw did give me some idea of what I thought its narrative thrust would be. Episode one of season one is devoted mostly to Earn (Glover) trying to represent Paper Boi (the wonderful Bryan Tyree Henry), his cousin and a burgeoning rap star. I kind of figured it would be a fairly plot heavy show about the trials and tribulations of making it in the music industry, and though that would be interesting, it did not feel like it would be particularly novel.

Having watched most of Atlanta now, I don't think I can imagine a more novel show on television. And it's only gotten better in its second season.

It being plot heavy could not have been further from the truth. There are a couple episodes where they nudge forward the narrative of Earn's attempts to manage Paper Boi and to pull his own broke ass up by his bootstraps, and of course, that's still the narrative backbone of the series. But it's a particularly squishy backbone, and the series is happy to have three or four consecutive episodes where how or whether Earn is managing him at all is not even touched on.

What is touched on? The day-to-day lives of its characters as black people living in Atlanta, though even that makes it sound more pedantic than it is. Each episode is interested in some fashion with the social norms experienced by blacks in America, either with regards to whites or in among themselves, but there isn't a single moment of this series where any message feels obvious or foregrounded. Many of the episodes are, in fact, these weird one-off exercises in comedic drama, total departures from the story and even from any recognizable narrative convention. Like the episode where Paper Boi gets involved in a bizarre odyssey with his barber while trying to get a haircut. Like the episode where Earn's girlfriend Van (the wonderful Zazie Beetz) attends a New Year's Eve party at Drake's house. Like the episode where Paper Boi's friend Darius (the wonderful Lakeith Stanfield) tries to pick up a piano from an oddball music legend who has been whitening his skin (Glover). In fact, I think those may have been three consecutive episodes (though not in that order) in season two.

If I were trying to find the most similar TV show -- that I've watched, anyway -- it would be Louie, in its disregard for traditional episode structure, or the role of each piece within the series' overall structure. But even that is a poor comparison, and not only because Louis C.K. has been revealed as a sexual deviant. Atlanta goes outside the box in ways Louie had only started to touch on.

There were times during season one when I felt a bit frustrated by the series' unwillingness to be more like the thing I thought it was going to be. This was part of that adjustment period when I was still figuring out what Atlanta was. In season two I fully embrace everything that it is, and don't wish it to be anything other than exactly what it is. And can't imagine a better way to spend 24 minutes of viewing time. (Honestly, it feels shorter than that -- each episode flies by.)

I've got two left, and then however long until season three.

Of which there were certainly be one, but I hope it's not the last. Glover strikes me as the type of person for whom to stand still is to die. Even when a show is doing as many things right as Atlanta is, he will probably not want to make five or six seasons of it because at some point it will start to feel less vital than it currently does. At some point the ideas will start to run out, and the show will have overstayed its welcome. I suspect Glover will reach that moment before we will.

Until then, I'm going to appreciate the hell out of it. It's not, in fact, Glover's attempt to "be cool" -- Earn isn't even all that cool much of the time. It's Glover's attempt to inject something true and incisive and scintillating into the entertainment landscape, and he has done so, brilliantly.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The reason I called it "Ju-bad-ji"

My friends and I have a clever way of indicating when we think a movie is bad, one that started years ago and has unaccountably held on to the present day. And by “clever” I mean “incredibly lame but it consistently makes us laugh.” And that is to replace a word or even a syllable of a word in the title with the word “bad.”

Example: “Wild Wild West was Wild Wild Bad.” Or maybe “Wild Wild West was Bad Bad West.” I think you get the idea.

Sometimes we’ll get even more clever and use a synonym for “bad,” one that perhaps is a better phonic match for whatever syllable we’re replacing. Let’s call it growth over the years.

One of the first examples I ever remember, though, was when I saw Jumanji and made this pronouncement about its poor cinematic quality: “Jumanji? How about Ju-bad-ji.”

I’ve continued to not like Jumanji whenever I think about it, though my one viewing remains sometime in the late 1990s, likely within a year of when it was released. I’m quite sure I did not see it in the theater, but I think I also would have prioritized it within a year or two. Anyway, it’s been 20 years, but what you felt about a movie tends to be something that sticks with you. And I thought this one was bad, as memorialized in my clever (there’s that word again) alternate title for it.

But in the last six months, my relationship with the Jumanji brand has undergone a change. You’ll remember from this post that my sister gifted my kids the storybook, complete with audio CD read by Robin Williams, for Christmas. Probably not coincidentally in terms of the timing of her gift, there was also a Jumanji reboot released. We both opened the present from her and watched Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle while we were on a five-day holiday down on the Mornington Peninsula over New Year’s. The kids loved the movie and became addicted to the storybook, or rather, its audio version. We’ve since listened to Williams read that story so many times that my wife and I have a dozen of his line readings that we find particularly snort-worthy – not because we like the line readings, but because we find them kind of ridiculous. (Sorry Robin – R.I.P.)

The next logical thing to do was to watch the original cinematic adaptation of Chris Van Allsburg's story with my kids. I knew it wasn’t a whole lot like the book, which plays out in only 18 minutes on the CD, and that’s with some pregnant pauses and filler to stretch it out a bit. But I also knew it was possible they’d love it, and that I had misjudged it. I knew those younger than me consider it a childhood classic (I was in my early 20s when it was released in 1995), so maybe I was missing something, or just at the wrong age to appreciate it. Maybe seeing it through parent lenses would soften my hard heart.

Nope.

We finally watched it on Monday, which was a holiday to celebrate the queen’s birthday (two months after her actual birthday). We logically might have watched it much sooner, as it’s been available streaming on Stan all year. Our delay was because my wife wanted to be involved, but is always the one with the schedule least likely to allow it.

When we had to cancel some other plans for the day because my kids were both getting sick, I thought we’d finally landed on the right day for Jumanji. My wife seemed to agree, but then eventually realized she’d be better served using those two hours when others were occupied to catch up on some work. Still wanting her to be involved, I told her we’d try to find something else to watch instead – and she accepted that offer.

Disappointed, I listlessly poked through the other streaming options, options we’d already scrubbed pretty well. The kids are at ages where their tastes are pretty divergent. The seven-year-old won’t watch anything that he finds too baby-oriented, and the four-year-old wants things that are more baby-oriented than even I want to watch. There are a lot of classics right in the middle of those two extremes, but we’d either already seen them, or neither of them wanted them.

I couldn’t believe I was trying to sell them on the trailers for a couple movies I hadn’t seen (3 Ninjas and Shark Tale), or one I’d seen and liked, but didn’t look like it held up too well while watching its trailer (Antz). The afternoon seemed doomed.

But then I pulled a bit of a fast one.  

Jumanji is one of about a dozen titles that are writ large at the top of Stan's children's section, movies Stan is trying to push on you as some kind of featured title. You can scroll through many more if you drill down to the smaller rows of more specialized options, but the top of the page splashes the titles and artwork of the featured movies one per page, with a greater than or less than symbol on either side for you to click to get the next one.

I didn't have to actually suggest Jumanji ... but what if we "innocently" scrolled past it while considering our options, and the kids demanded it?

And that's exactly what happened. I "innocently" went and reported this outcome to my wife, who relented on her wish for us to save it -- probably because she knew deep down that the next time a situation like this arose, she'd probably opt out again.

Well, I think I saved her a pretty tedious 100 minutes at the movies. Jumanji was about as bad as I remembered it, and the two-star rating I'd given it (retroactively) on Letterboxd was more than fair.

There are any number of shortcomings I could linger on, but I'll concentrate on just a few:

1) The film has an odd ineptitude at how to raise the stakes. As the four players (two kids and two adults) work their way through an interminably protracted game, the jungle beasts that are becoming real don't actually increase in magnitude as the game moves along. In fact, the oversized mosquitoes that emerge first from the game are, in a way, some of the game's most threatening creatures. A few days later I've already blocked out the sequence that the other threats arrive, but they don't escalate in any obvious way, such that it feels like a bunch of disconnected set pieces strung together only by the characters occasionally returning to the board for someone else to play their turn, breathing deeply and looking at each other ominously. And there are like eight of these episodes, so each time it feels a little less like anything matters.

2) The visual effects. Cruel to dwell on these when obviously they would become dated within a short time, but the effects in this movie are bad. We would expect that of the visual effects, which were cutting edge for 1995, but the thing I might have found most distracting was the practical effects involved in the animatronic lion. I figure there should have been a way to train a real lion to do the fairly minimal things it needed to do, without endangering the actors. This lion looks like shit. Here:


I don't know, maybe you can't tell from that.

3) This one may be on me, but this movie is pretty inappropriate for kids my children's age. The main character, whom Williams plays as an adult, is Allen Parrish, the boy who got sucked into the game back in the 1960s. The effect of him being sucked into the game disturbed me even when I was in my 20s, so I can only imagine how it must have chilled my kids, though they didn't say anything about it. But that isn't really my bone of contention about this. Because no one believes that Allen got sucked into the game, a story develops that his father killed him "and chopped him into little pieces." The possible death of a child is a big enough deal; his dismemberment into hundreds of chunks of human flesh and viscera is quite something else.

4) And then there were just the little details that bothered me. When Allen is beaten up by bullies at the beginning, he emerges from this 30-second skirmish with a full-on black eye. Don't you know, Jumanji, that bruises like that only develop after the initial blows have had the chance to settle in?

One bonus thing that made me a bit uncomfortable: David Alan Grier as the town police officer. His portrayal is not actually "wrong" in any respect you could easily identify if you were trying to provide evidence in a court of law. But there's an awful lot of bugging out of eyes and screaming. Just didn't feel all that racially sensitive to me.

The kids loved it though. Well, liked it anyway.

I guess now I'll be due for my second viewing of The Polar Express, to see which artificially distended version of a beloved Chris Van Allsburg storybook actually fares worse.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Taking new things for spins

It's been a weekend of trying new things on the movie home viewing front.

Originally this post was going to be entitled "Taking our new TV for a spin," but then a second "new" type of experience presented itself, even though it's of a more superficial nature.

But let's start with the big one.

We got a new TV this past week. It was something of a surprise, as in, we didn't even really talk about it. In fact, it was all transacted in a couple emails while I was at work one day.

We've had a pretty modestly sized 30" TV since moving to Australia, even replacing it with the same 30" make and model when the first one died after about two-and-a-half years. The price was right so we hoped it wouldn't have the same mechanical failure this time, and it hasn't so far. But some additional stability in our finances (I got some new security in my job) and end of financial year sales tempted my wife to check out the possibilities for an upgrade. A scant few days later, a 43" TV arrived on our doorstop.

I guess that means it's nearly 50% larger, and the difference is significant.

We originally expected it last Friday, and in fact, my wife made sure she didn't stray far from the house or for very long, in order to be around for their ridiculous 12-hour delivery window. It didn't come that day, meaning I couldn't revisit a visually dynamic favorite movie from my collection last weekend as anticipated. That was the way I wanted to symbolically break the thing in. But it did arrive the following Monday, meaning I ultimately had to make my first movie on it ... High Plains Drifter, which you know I really didn't like if you read this post.

But I knew another weekend, a three-day weekend, was on tap in just a few short days. We celebrate the queen's birthday here in Australia, so no one is working on Monday. Even though the queen's actual birthday is in April. But we have like four other holidays in April and none in June. (In fact, without the queen's birthday celebrated in June, we wouldn't have a single public holiday between the end of April and the middle of September. And that September holiday was just introduced since I've moved here, meaning the drought formerly lasted until November.)

So this past Friday night I planned the real debut of the new TV after its previous "soft open." And that was ... Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.

Perfume is one of a dozen "new favorites" that I watch every couple years ... "new" being defined as "post 2000" I guess. And since I do watch these movies pretty frequently, I was kind of surprised to see it had been more than three years since my last Perfume viewing. I originally planned to involve my wife in this viewing, since she had stated a desire to watch the movie again herself, having seen it only once. But she was too tired on Friday night, for any movie let alone a 140-minute one. I imagine she saw the disappointment in my eyes, and never wanting to hold up one of my own viewings for her schedule, she urged me to continue with it anyway. (She'll probably be content to wait another two years for her second viewing, at which point I'll be ready for my seventh.)

And yeah, it looked pretty effing great on the new TV.

This is going to be fun.

I should also mention it is, of course, a smart TV, but I couldn't have anticipated the ways in which that intelligence would present itself. Without even pairing them, the TV now has dominion over our BluRay player. That's right, its remote control allows us to control the BluRay player controls. Which is no small thing, because our BluRay remote has been dead for at least two years and we've been using an app on our phones to control it. That app relies on the WiFi, so if we are having internet problems, we can't use it. BluRays or DVDs are a good alternative to Netflix if we are having internet issues ... but not if we can't play them. (There are certain things you can control with buttons on the front, but certain things you can't, and some of those things are insurmountable.) So yeah, this is big, and though I suppose it also relies on the internet in some way, it's possible it does not. Hey, I don't profess to fully understand all this stuff.

The second night of the three-day weekend didn't involve another visual feast on the order of Perfume, but it did feature my second "new" type of viewing experience of the weekend.

Namely, I've got a new supplier for my movie kiosk needs.

Even though the rest of the world has moved away from physical media, I still like going to a kiosk and renting a movie ... even if it usually involves going out of my way on the second day to return it. It's the last vestige of the experience of going to a proper video store, which is now well and truly dead.

Kiosk rentals looked to be dead too, as I have witnessed and written about the steady demise of the Hoyts kiosks I've been using since moving here. They may be entirely gone now; I'm not going to their possibly former website at this moment to find out, as it's too depressing.

But in a sign of some optimism for the delivery method if not for Hoyts in particular, the last Hoyts kiosk I used, at the Woolworth's in Moonee Ponds, has actually been replaced with a different brand of kiosk. In all previous other instances I'd witnessed of a Hoyt kiosk vanishing, it disappeared from the location without a successor. But the Moonee Ponds Woolworth's now has a Video Ezy kiosk where the Hoyts one formerly stood.

Pretty much the same deal, except I think the movies are $4 rather than $3.50. That, of course, is not a deal breaker for me. The time and gas required to get to and from the store probably cost me twice that much.

That's not my closest Woolworth's, but I was going that way Saturday morning anyway because I needed to pick up my bike from the bike shop, where it had undergone some repairs. I had gotten a glimpse of the new Video Ezy kiosk on a previous occasion, and this time I planned to use it.

And fortunately, the first movie that came up when I browsed was one my wife and I both wanted to see: Game Night.

Alas, she ended up skipping out on this viewing too. We were over at a friend's house for dinner last night, and though I thought we might return around 8:30, it was nearly 10 o'clock when we got home. I will of course watch a movie starting after 10, especially a short one like Game Night. Not so with my wife, who was ready to retire to the bedroom with the TV shows that she watches that I don't.

Unfortunately, the drawbacks of the single-night rental experience were underscored by Saturday night's example. If I'd had my druthers, I might have put off my viewing of Game Night for a time when a) my wife could also watch and b) I myself was not so tired. But if $4 won't break the bank for me, $8 might, so I couldn't/wouldn't extend my rental of the movie a second night.

And so I can barely tell you what happened in Game Night, as I slept several times during it. I paused it each time and rewound when I noticed I'd slept through some actual content, but the whole thing is a bit of a mishmash in my memory. I do know that I marginally enjoyed it.

And also that it looked pretty effing great on our new TV.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

A word on the age of the Ocean siblings

Spoilers for Ocean’s Eight related to something that is literally revealed in the first minute of the movie. Proceed with caution if you don’t want the first minute of the movie spoiled.

I hate to say this, but I couldn’t help noticing in Sandra Bullock’s first scene of Ocean’s Eight how obvious it is that she’s had plastic surgery. It seems that many if not most actresses do it, so I shouldn’t be surprised. If it prolongs their “prime” – defined here as that period when they can still get cast in roles with big paydays – then it’s a worthwhile investment, I’m sure. But I guess I thought my Sandy would be willing to grow old gracefully.

Anyway, the point of this observation is not to body shame. (And to be fair, I never noticed it again the way I noticed it in her first scene, during her parole hearing.) It’s to note the incongruity between the age Bullock is trying to play, and the age her character must really be.

As you probably know, Bullock plays Debbie Ocean, the sister of Danny Ocean from the original Ocean’s trilogy. (Or, I should say, the trilogy that grew out of the remake of the original original movie, starring the rat pack.) We wouldn’t necessarily know how old Danny Ocean is, or was, if it weren’t for the fact that he is now a “was.” One of the first things we learn in Ocean’s Eight is that Danny Ocean is pushing up the daisies. Or rather, he’s entombed in one of those marble walls in a mausoleum, the dates of his birth and death engraved on the front. Anyway, he’s dead.

I’ll get back to the issue of Danny Ocean being dead later.

His age is the thing that interests me now, and not only because it contains a funny continuity error that was likely the result of reshoots. That continuity error is that his death year is alternately listed as 2017 and 2018 in this early scene in the mausoleum. When we see it in close up, it’s 2018, but there’s at least one background shot where it’s listed as 2017. I suspect maybe at one point this movie was supposed to come out last year, and they didn’t realize they still had the old death year listed in some of the shots. (Side note: Who cares if he died this year or a year ago? Does a 2017 death year make the film seem somehow less of-the-moment?)

What interests me here is the birth year, which was the same in both shots: 1958. Interestingly, this is NOT the birth year of George Clooney, who played Danny Ocean, and is a few years younger than arguably his most famous role, having been born in 1961 himself. Anyway, the 1958 birth year means Danny was anywhere from 58 to 60 when he died, depending on which death year you’re looking at.

So Debbie Ocean is supposed to be …

The movie goes to great pains to suggest she’s still in her 40s, and possibly even her early 40s if you wanted to follow Bullock’s plastic surgery to the logical conclusions of what it is trying to accomplish. Bullock is actually 53, so she’d be only five to seven years younger than her brother if we were going with the actual age of the actress. But this movie wants her to be 47 at the oldest, I imagine, which makes her a full decade younger than her brother, and not the contemporary the film sort of asserts that she is.

This is a really minor point upon which to expend 700 words.

Okay, so let’s get back to Danny Ocean being dead. And now I should probably include a second SPOILER WARNING because I’m going to spoil something that doesn’t come until the very end of the movie, though doesn’t ultimately have a whit to do with this actual story.

Such a big deal is being made of Danny being dead – like, it gets mentioned approximately every seven minutes of screen time – that the only conclusion seems to be that it’s setting us up for the same kind of long con that the movie’s narrative itself is about. You only mention Danny Ocean being dead this often if it turns out he’s not actually dead. Faking his death would be a very Danny Ocean thing to do.

Yet he is actually dead. Or, the movie never tells us he isn’t.

The film’s last scene involves Bullock returning to that mausoleum and pouring a martini to toast Danny’s memory. There was no way that scene was not going to include George Clooney strolling in as a surprise guest. No way for anything but that to happen.

And yet the credits do roll and he does not appear. I stayed around for the entire credits expecting a Marvel-style stinger in which Clooney shows up and winks at us, suggesting the possibility of an Ocean’s Fourteen or at least that he might appear in Ocean’s Nine, assuming this film is successful enough to warrant an Ocean’s Nine. But again I was disappointed.

So why exactly was Danny Ocean dead? What did that do for the story except kind of bum us out?

The only thing I can think of is that George Clooney said “Please, I don’t want any rumors of Steven making another Ocean’s sequel, and to cut those off at the pass, I’d really like you to kill off Danny Ocean.” I can’t really see the logic in it – Hollywood is traditionally about leaving open the possibility of sequels except where it’s absolutely necessary not to – but it’s possible he did it.

Or it’s possible this is just the longest of long cons and that Danny being alive will be the big surprise in Ocean’s Nine.

However, if you take this film only on its own terms, the film decided to kill him off without having any real rationale for doing so, or any payoff. Yet still felt it was necessary to keep mentioning him throughout the narrative, to keep his ghost in the background. One would think that this movie would only need a mention of the character to get it shoved off in the right direction, then could just fly on its own. Why keep coming back to him?

I suspect there’s more to this story and that it will just be some kind of delayed reveal for the sequel, but it definitely gave me pause.

Friday, June 8, 2018

When "it was a different time" just doesn't cut it

I had a far more negative reaction to Clint Eastwood's High Plains Drifter than I probably would have at a time we were all a bit less woke about gender politics in the movies. But I hope I would have had a pretty negative reaction to it even then.

We use the phrase "it was a different time" to excuse a lot of tone deaf treatment of women and minorities in films from decades past ... not to mention, I suppose, to excuse the behavior of Hollywood men who thought it was okay to massage the shoulders of production assistants and occasionally grab a little bit of their asses. We're moving past that second one I hope.

But I still don't understand what the hell Clint Eastwood was thinking in High Plains Drifter.

One of the first things his "man with no name" does in this film is rape a woman. Yes, you heard that right. When a woman comes up to him in the street and gets a bit sassy with him -- after he's just killed three men in the tonsorial parlor, mind you -- I at first thought he was going to be comparatively chivalrous and laugh it off. Even when she slaps the cigar out of his mouth, I figured his reaction would be muted. I mean, he's not going to hit a woman, is he?

Well, he doesn't hit her. He does something far worse.

He grabs her by the arm, hauls her off to a local barn, lays her down in the straw and forces himself on her.

Presumably because Eastwood had an instinct toward what he thought would preserve some of the sympathy for this character, he of course has her "get into it," of sorts, halfway through. I mean, she's a slut, and sluts like to get fucked, don't they? His character would have only done that because he could "see it in her eyes," right?

Ugh.

I was frankly aghast at what I was watching. Yes, this had happened.

I suppose you could say that Eastwood was making some kind of commentary about bad men, and including his own character in that group. This was considered to be a revisionist western even 19 years before the revisionist western he is most associated with, the best picture winner and true classic Unforgiven. You might even say it was bold and/or "brave" for him to throw away a good deal of the audience's sympathy ten minutes into the movie, assuming he had enough sensibility to recognize that an act like this would do that.

But I didn't think that. I just thought it was ugly. The "man with no name" (he really does never give his name, just like in those Leone movies) is supposed to be a badass and someone you want to emulate, and unless the movie is damning his actions in no uncertain terms, it's effectively endorsing them.

Interestingly, the movie does try to damn his actions in a way. The woman he rapes comes upon him in the bath at that same tonsorial parlor and takes about three shots at him at nearly point blank range, and later tells the sheriff that he raped her, even using that very word. But the film portrays this woman as idiotic and venal and weak-willed, a fool that it laughs at every time she's on screen. Never mind the way it makes her so incompetent with a gun that she fires three shots at him from like five feet away and can't hit him.

If the film's awful portrayal of women were limited to this one character that would be something. But the other female character in the movie -- there is literally only one other -- is the innkeeper's wife, a woman who appears to be of strong moral fiber. Until, that is, the scene immediately after Eastwood blows up the upper story of her hotel as an unnecessarily complicated way of killing them men who tried to break into his room and beat him in the dead of night.

In this scene she's understandably furious with him, as he has just essentially ruined her livelihood, not to mention blown up the very place he was hoping to sleep that night. (He had previously ordered the rest of the hotel to be cleared of guests so he could have the whole place to himself, part of the escalating price of defending the town against three miscreants who were just released from prison and are coming to kill anyone within range.) She lets slip that the only place that wasn't destroyed is "our room," meaning the one belonging to her and her husband. So Eastwood raises and eyebrow as if to say "I'll take that one, then."

So then he grabs her by the arm and escorts her down to the room, toward what end I can't say because he knows where it is, so he might as well just go there unaccompanied and make himself at home. When he suggests that he can't sleep with her because he needs a good night's rest, she's so enraged by his ego and his presumptuousness that she grabs a pair of scissors and comes at him where he's lying on the bed. You probably know where this is going. He grabs her wrist to prevent her from plunging the scissors into his neck, and twists this gesture into a passionate kiss. The next shot is of them awakening in the morning in bed together.

Now I'm really pissed.

It's one thing to suggest that women are attracted to mean who treat them poorly, an idea that has some unfortunate truth to it. It's another to have Eastwood essentially rape two of them and have them "start to like it" halfway through.

By the end of the movie I came to realize that Eastwood was probably not trying to hold up this character as a paragon of heroism. But the damage had been done by that point. Even if he has a righteous reason for putting this town in his sites and submitting them to this monstrous behavior -- a reason I don't totally buy, but okay -- you can't just go around killing people and raping people and making it seem cool because Clint Eastwood presents as a badass and he's the star of the movie. That's just irresponsible filmmaking.

Then there's just the inept staging of some of this material. The town is guilty of having been complicit in an event where the three miscreants whipped a local lawman to death in the town square, as none of them did anything to stop it, and in fact, they likely encouraged the act because the lawman was going to blow the whistle on some shady dealings that were helping prop up the town. The staging of the whipping, seen twice in flashback, is really shoddy, even though it was 1973 and they didn't perhaps have the ways of making it look convincing that they would have today.

But even this wouldn't have bothered me so much if Eastwood himself hadn't experienced one of these flashbacks. As he's falling asleep his first night he flashes back to the whipping death of this local lawman ... even though he was not present for the event. That's just lazy filmmaking.

This was only Eastwood's second directorial effort, so inexperience can be blamed for some of this. But the overall feel of the film is shocking and nauseating, and neither of those things in a good way. It feels as though he made Unforgiven almost as an apology for this movie. Will Munny had skeletons in his closet, dozens of them, and may have been guilty of worse crimes even than the "man with no name" of High Plains Drifter. But the fact that we don't see it is the right moral choice, and makes the same point more effectively.

Friday, June 1, 2018

No one protecting the copyright

I almost gave up on being able to watch Europa Europa in the month of May.

It wasn’t some arbitrary deadline I placed on myself, though on this blog that would not be unusual. Rather, it was the movie I’d drawn in this monthly viewing challenge in which I participate through my Flickcharters Facebook group. There are some 30 of us doing it, and each month, the guy who organizes it draws a name for each of us from a hat. Our assignment is then to watch the highest ranked movie on that other person’s chart that we haven’t seen.

Europa Europa (I prefer to leave out the middle comma, though I’ve seen it written both ways) was the #17 movie for the woman I drew. And impossible to find anywhere, it seemed.

I tried the library. I tried iTunes. I tried all of my streaming services. It seemed like the kind of thing that might be available through Kanopy, but it was not.

Just before I was about to move on to her next highest movie I had not seen, Gaslight, I randomly decided to check YouTube, and there it was.

Considering that copyright holders regularly scrub YouTube of anything that infringes on their copyright, often within hours of when it gets posted, I found it strange to see a complete copy of Europa Europa staring me in the face. Strange but by no means unprecedented. I’ve watched a couple movies on YouTube before, and not only the ones that have lapsed into the public domain. The strangest example was when we watched The Room there last year, especially since I understood Tommy Wiseau to be particularly tenacious when it comes to making sure people pay to see his movie.

I guess I don’t have much to say about EE being available that way. It’s tempting to say that it represents some kind of neglect of a movie that people should be properly buying on Criterion or whatever you have to do to watch it these days. But maybe it’s just someone out there being magnanimous and allowing a great movie into our lives that isn’t widely available elsewhere. If you’re an artist you just want people to see your work, and maybe even if you’re a copyright holder rather than an artist, you feel that way too.

Or maybe it is just neglect.

I got all confident and tried to find Agnes Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7 on there, as I would prefer this to be one of two Varda movies I see when I eventually get to her in Audient Auteurs. But in order to see this on YouTube – which you can do – you have to subscribe to their movie service.

Which, honestly, might be worth doing it if doesn’t cost too much and allows me to see the movie.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Audient Auteurs: Elaine May

This is my fourth month of Audient Auteurs, a 2018 series in which I watch two movies per month by a director whose work is unfamiliar to me. Yes, I skipped January.

We were spared four white men in a row, and three Frenchmen in a row, when my expected May target, Jacques Rivette, had one of his two movies disappear from Kanopy between when I first checked on it in April and now. Which is just as well, because a) that movie was nearly four hours long, and b) it allowed us to finally bring a woman (not to mention an American) into the series.

Elaine May was not one of three women I had on my original shortlist, however. Those other three -- Agnes Varda, Chantal Akerman and Lina Wertmuller -- have all been presenting me difficulties on the sourcing front, though I should be able to get Varda at least in a month or two when Faces Places becomes available for rent. May actually came to mind as an afterthought. She is the second straight month of something, as she follows our April auteur, Robert Bresson, as another subject of a recent marathon on the Filmspotting podcast.

May's much smaller filmography as director -- she made only four features -- made me originally question whether she was appropriate for this series. But hey, if she's good enough for Filmspotting, she's good enough for me. And when I could find one of her movies on Kanopy and another for rental on iTunes, it worked out perfectly for me to tackle half of her filmography.

May is not probably known first and foremost as a director, but as half the comedy team of Nichols and May, that Nichols of course being Mike Nichols, director of The Graduate and others. They met during their involvement in a Chicago improv troupe in the 1950s and ultimately splintered off into their own enormously popular act, both writing and performing their sketches. Which they subsequently abandoned at the height of its popularity only four years later. Apparently, they both wanted to become filmmakers, as May also developed a distinguished writing career that featured, among others, the Warren Beatty hit Heaven Can Wait and a couple of Nichols-directed features, The Birdcage and Primary Colors. She received Oscar nominations for the first and third of those. It seems likely she would have had a longer directing career except for what happened with the second film we're going to discuss today. She's also the first subject of this series who is still alive (age 86 as of this writing).

If I'd seen either of her first two features, A New Leaf (1971) or The Heartbreak Kid (1972, which the Farrelly Brothers eventually remade), I might have quite a different idea of her style as a director, one that might have made it easier to produce a "take" on May. The two I did see gave me the impression of a director capable of a wide range of things ... though not all of them good.

Mikey and Nicky (1976)

May's third feature is a big turn away from the comedic sensibilities that informed her career as a sketch performer and her first two movies. In fact, it reminds me quite favorably of the directing work of one of its two stars, specifically the only film of his that I really like.

That star is John Cassavetes, who plays Nicky, a low-level hoodlum with a price on his head after he ripped off some gangsters. Mikey (Peter Falk) is his childhood friend who is also in with the same criminal syndicate, but is not implicated in Nicky's double crosses. Whether Mikey is trying to steer Nicky clear of danger, or directly into it, is something Nicky spends most of the movie trying to determine. The story takes place all in one night as Mikey and Nicky change locations around New York City, which move them closer to and further away from a hapless hitman played by Ned Beatty.

When you watch a movie like Mikey & Nicky it seems almost impossible to reconcile the fact that it was directed by a woman. Although there are female characters in the film, at its core it's a story of two men in a relationship at a point of particular vulnerability. Nicky knows he's got a price on his head and doesn't know who to trust, but he feels he can only turn to Mikey, even if he knows he may not fully be able to trust him. After all, they have a shared history that gets teased out in the dialogue over the course of the evening, which includes friends and family members long since dead, not all of whom died under pleasant circumstances.

Why it's not stereotypically "female" is because of the G-word: "gritty." This is a film that looks like it might have had its celluloid intentionally damaged or afflicted with lint or scarred with so-called "cigarette burns" (thanks Fight Club) just to make it look more grungy. And you've got two truly streetwise and intense actors here, one of whom made films that were very similar to Mikey & Nicky. Cassavetes is of course thought of as a filmmaker first and an actor second, but this film reminds me how good he was in the latter role. As the man on the run, he's truly desperate and untethered and cracking apart at the seams. No one can wear a pained smile like Cassavetes can, and he wears it nearly throughout this film, giving off the impression that his eyes are boring through the artificiality of these interactions while his mouth holds the smile for the purpose of keeping up appearances and pretending he doesn't know what's what. As he starts to catch on to the idea that Mikey might not be there as his friend, he shifts to calling on their personal history to try to prevent Mikey from taking the action he fears Mikey will take, without naming that action in so many words. It's a desperate cry for help from a man who refuses to beg, and whose speed in belittling his friend in mixed settings during happier times may have turned Mikey against him.

The saga they go through is by turns symbolic and absurd. They spend time sussing each other out in a hotel room, in which Nicky at first refuses to open the door to Mikey, so sure is he that Mikey is bringing his doom with him; Mikey has to practically beg Nicky to let him leave so he can go to a pharmacy to get medication for Nicky's painful ulcer. Then the action shifts to a bar, where an assassin may or may not be coming for him. Spooked, Nicky gets the urge to leave and take them to an all-night movie theater, but they also spontaneously jump off a bus to go visit Nicky's mother's gravestone. Later, they pay a visit to Nicky's damaged lady friend, with whom he's cheating on his wife. And oh yeah, did we mention Nicky has a child that's less than a year old? A bizarre scene plays out here as it does later at Nicky's own house with his estranged wife. The whole thing goes humming along on a flow of great dialogue and a vibe of apocalyptic doom.

In terms of Cassavetes' filmography, I was reminded most of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, not so much because the plots are very similar (to my recollection, they aren't), but just because of how much I love them both. When I did a similar examination of Cassavetes back in the Getting Acquainted series (see here for that post), I waded through two Cassavetes films that didn't really connect with me before getting to Bookie, which knocked my socks off. Mikey & Nicky knocked my socks off equally, but in this case, it was my very first exposure to May, and set some very high expectations.

Ishtar (1987)

Expectations that, unfortunately, were not at all satisfied by the second movie I watched. Which might have been expected, given its reputation as an infamous turkey. Ishtar is often cited when people are looking for a good go-to example of a famous flop, and I can still remember reading the review of it when it was released, back when I was in my early teens. The Boston Globe critic at the time, though the internet refuses to reveal to me who it was, wrote approximately this in a capsule review: "One star for Dustin Hoffman. One star for Warren Beatty. No stars for anything else."

And yet Ishtar has also been reconsidered over the years, to the point that some critics now consider it a worthwhile exercise at worst, and possibly a misunderstood comedic gem. It was in that spirit that I finally saw a movie I had been curious about seeing for some 31 years, which had been hard to get your hands on until recently. I'm not sure why May had to wait 11 years to make her next film after Mikey & Nicky, but having seen Ishtar, I can kind of see why she never made another one.

May is back in comedic mode after her single-film departure, but it's almost a slapstick kind of comedy, deaf in its tone about ethnic issues and, well, pretty much everything else as well. Its two superstars play a pair of would-be musicians, though in a bit of honest self-assessment, they are really only good at the writing part, as they can't sing and can only play instruments functionally. If they see clearly about their own performing abilities, they're deluded about their writing abilities, as the opening sequence in which they try to hash out the lyrics for a song called "Dangerous Business" amply demonstrates. These guys, in fact, don't appear to be good at much of anything. But they do get an opportunity to ply their "trade" when they are dispatched to perform at a club for American expatriates in a fictional country near Morocco called Ishtar, which is on the verge of political upheaval.

The less said about the rest of the plot, the better. Let's just say that a blind camel factors in prominently. Said camel is the result of a misunderstanding of a code word meant to be used as part of a communication with a potential revolutionary. Why are these bozos involved so closely in political revolution? It's the result of a chance contact with a beautiful spy at the airport (Isabelle Adjani) and an ongoing contact with an American CIA agent (Charles Grodin). There's a lot of bad singing, wandering around in deserts, and Hoffman pretending he can speak in the tribal dialect of nomadic Africans, which results in some of the movie's least sensitive and groan-worthy passages.

The ingredients for something funny are present in Ishtar, but Ishtar is not funny. I've heard the arguments that it's fully intended as a satire, I mean even beyond the ways it is superficially supposed to be a satire. But layers upon layers of theoretical comedic intent don't actually make me laugh, and I feel really bad for Hoffman and Beatty, who do really give it their all. I only think they're actually worthy of about three-quarters of a star each, though, as I could only bring myself to give Ishtar 1.5 stars on Letterboxd.

I'm not really sure who I'm doing in June. It could be Varda, it could be some other Frenchman, or it could be another auteur I haven't even thought of yet. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Celebrating 2,000 posts -- almost on time

I completely flailed when I wrote my thousandth post for this blog, which was sometime in early 2013. I don’t know what I would have done to celebrate the milestone, but given my general affinity for recognizing milestones, it should have been something.

I’m more on top of things now that 2,000 is rolling around, though still not quite as on top as I'd like. Unwittingly, I wrote my 2,000th post yesterday, frivolously frittering it away on a post about how I’d seen Michael Pena in two movies where he played a cop on consecutive nights last weekend. It was the very antithesis of a 2,000th post.

But at least I’m getting in a proper recognition only one post late.

So what should I do to recognize the arrival of this milestone, which comes about half a year before the blog’s ten-year anniversary?

I gotta be honest, I don’t have anything planned. However, I do have a couple other potential posts backed up, so I need to write something and then just move on with my life.

So I thought, why not take a look at the movies I’ve discussed the most during that time?

I thought of doing the top ten tags, but all the year-long series have their own tags, so each of them would have at least 12. Then you’ve got the topics like Netflix, which I’ve tagged 40 times, perhaps because Netflix has probably been the single most discussion-worthy topic over the last decade that can be distilled down to its own convenient tag. (Granted, the conversation about Netflix has shifted significantly over that time – my first dozen or so posts were devoted to how I preferred Blockbuster’s disc-through-the-mail service to Netflix’s, before I’d ever even heard of streaming. Which really dates this blog and shows you have far Netflix has come during that time.)

So here are the movies, just the movies, I’ve tagged the most. There are some ties, but I listed them as a countdown with individual spots nonetheless, because that's how I roll. Only at #10 did I list an actual tie since otherwise it would have been a top 14. 

10) Boyhood/The Avengers/Titanic/Toy Story (7) - Boyhood would certainly be one of the most significant movies of the past decade for most people, but I'll have to audition it with another viewing before I can be sure whether I'll include it in my top 25 of the decade 18 months from now. But I certainly found it discussion-worthy. Titanic and Toy Story likely got discussed out of general love and social relevance, while The Avengers was purely social relevance -- and in some cases, a shorthand tag for talking about the franchise in general. 

9) Up (8) - This is pretty mystifying for me, though the movie did come out in the first year of the blog, so that partially explains it. This is within the lower half of my Pixar chart, though I guess I do struggle with my feelings toward it, and have seen it three times now, allowing me to write about that struggle on several occasions. 

8) The Matrix (8) - Perfectly logical movie to see mentioned a bunch, as it's one of the most influential movies of the last two decades. (And will be two decades old next year. Yikes!)

7) Moon (8) - Like Up, this not only came out in the blog's first year, but it was also my #1 movie of that year. There are a couple of glancing mentions among the eight though.

6) Children of Men (8) - Again another #1 movie of the year, but this time 2006, before the blog started. A couple glancing mentions in there too, but it did provide the poster art for four of those posts, prompting me to get ever more creative with the use of posters (I have a rule of never using the same art twice for a post).

5) The Social Network (9) - My #3 movie of 2010 will likely figure in a very elevated spot in the top 25 of the decade, and I've had the occasion to watch it three times now. The fact that the score was by my favorite musician, Trent Reznor, is responsible for a couple of these mentions though. 

4) Run Lola Run (9) - My #1 movie of 1999 (it was released in Germany in 1998) is also in my top 20 of all time (which it has in common with Children of Men). I've rewatched it three times alone during the lifespan of this blog, and written about the viewing each time. 

3) Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (9) - The tag is only "birdman" though. Another #1 movie, this time from 2013, though most of my mentions were surrounding its nomination for best picture. I do think I still like the movie quite a bit, but I am not really looking forward to my eventual third viewing, which will determine where or whether it appears in my top 25 of the decade.

2) Avatar (10) - All cultural relevance and "state of the film industry" posts here, as I did not love Avatar and still have only seen it once. But it sure was/is worth talking about. 

1) Star Wars (24) - And we end with a cheat. Although possibly enough of these posts are about the original movie to win on its own, the tag has also been used to refer to issues related to the franchise in general. In fact, I have stopped italicizing "Star Wars" unless I am referring specifically to the first movie, so much of a brand has this become.

And there you have it. A small smattering of useless stats from 2,000 blog posts. 

And now, that leaves me about seven months to determine a more proper way to celebrate the blog turning ten. 

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Michael Pena Plays a Cop movie weekend

I had no good reason to watch CHiPS on Saturday night. It was my reluctant choice after a lot of lethargic clicking of the right arrow on my remote control between different titles on Netflix.

The best reason, in fact, was that I had just watched Michael Pena play a police officer in a movie the night before as well.

The night before I watched End of Watch, which had never interested me but which has a decent amount of critical respect (especially compared to some of David Ayer’s other movies, **AHEM** Suicide Squad). Pena stars in that opposite Jake Gyllenhaal. They both play LA cops.

Pena’s CHiPS co-star is Dax Shepard, who is also the film’s director, which should have told me something about what to expect. Dax Shepard may appear in one of my favorite comedies of the 21st century (Idiocracy), but that doesn’t mean I’d trust him to make a movie. In fact, I’d only trust him marginally more than the character he plays in Idiocracy. (And figured what he’d make would be the 21st century version of the 26th century classic Oscar-winner from Idiocracy, known simply as Ass – a feature length shot of an ass farting).

In both instances he’s a cop in Los Angeles, too, though in CHiPS he’s actually on assignment from Miami, secretly infiltrating the California Highway Patrol.

Not that Michael Pena playing a cop is actually particular novel, though his other appearances as a cop are also unseen by me. If I’d wanted to make it a quintuple feature (and if these movies were available on a streaming service to which I subscribe), I also could have seen War on Everyone, Gangster Squad or the remake of Vacation.

For slight variations on this in movies I have seen, Pena plays a security guard in Observe and Report, a border patrol agent in Babel and a detective in My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?

Can you say “typecast?”

As for the movies themselves, both disappointed, though I oddly have the slightly more favorable impression of the clearly less good movie. CHiPS was slightly better than I expected it to be, especially since I’d set the bar so low for Dax Shepard. As it turned out, Shepard was more charming than I expected as an actor and, um, perfectly adequate as a director. End of Watch was worse, though probably not a lot worse, than I expected it to be. It was weirdly kind of a cop hagiography, which is especially troubling given that some of what these guys do is questionable at best. Ayer seems be pretty tone deaf in most of his movies, and this was no exception.

Pena?

Yeah, he can play a cop. No doubt about that.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Say it ain't so, Mo

I did not expect to be writing another #MeToo post, not because it's not important, but just because I'm so exhausted and dispirited by the whole thing that I've generally gone into avoidance mode. Sad but true. At the very least, I figured the next series of accusations I talked about here would have to be so earth-shattering that I couldn't avoid talking about them.

I wouldn't say that's true in this case, but I've decided to devote a post to the accusations against Morgan Freeman because of this post.

Don't care to follow the link? That's fine, let me summarize for you.

The subject of that November 21st post should be clear enough from its title: "Five sexual assault allegations that would crush me." Four of the men named in that post -- Tom Hanks, Barack Obama, George Clooney and Steven Spielberg -- are still untainted.

The fifth is now not.

In fact, what I wrote about Morgan Freeman in that post was weirdly prescient (I swear I had not heard any rumors about his conduct): "Maybe he's inherited the grandfatherly black gentleman mantle I had once entrusted to Bill Cosby. Freeman is a treasure, and if I heard he was a skirt chaser, who would be the voice of God in my head?"

The unfortunately accurate part of that is that one of the specific charges against Freeman is that he chased someone's skirt. I can't remember who the person was because I want to read that long CNN article once and only once. But one of the more problematic of a number of problematic accusations is one where Freeman was allegedly trying to lift of the skirt of an underling to see if she was wearing any underwear. And this was on the set of a movie that came out last year. Alan Arkin, thank goodness, appears to have shamed him from continuing to pursue that course of action.

"Freeman is a treasure" is another important phrase in that brief two-sentence writeup. The fear of losing their job might not have been the only reason women didn't come forward about Freeman's behavior, and had to be asked about it by the CNN reporter who began investigating the issue based on her own experience of harassment from Freeman. The importance of Morgan Freeman being our collective treasure might have been just as much of a motivating factor.

We need to believe that some people are above the fray. And some people certainly are. But they are not always the people we wish were.

Because I continue to be able to separate the art from the artist, for the most part, this will not taint my personal ability to appreciate Freeman's film work. But many others are not able to do that, nor should they. Freeman will now follow others we used to respect into that same gutter of taint. People like my wife will now no longer feel comfortable watching Morgan Freeman movies. (Though I should note that she is also in denial a bit about this, as she had not read the accusations against him the last time I checked in with her.)

Oh Morgan. You knew it was bad. You needed to stop. And now you have issued an apology that is lame and hollow and leaves us without the opening we needed to try to rehabilitate your image in our minds.

God is dead, I guess.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Better Call Han

No real spoilers.

I won’t go into spoilers on Solo: A Star Wars Story, though there’s only one thing in it that I think qualifies as a genuine surprise that has any bearing on the rest of the Star Wars universe.

I will say that I think the movie is kind of like the cinematic version of Better Call Saul, and that’s not even something I probably needed to see the movie to know.

Like Better Call Saul to Breaking Bad, it gives us a look at the origins of a character we have come to know as a bit of a rapscallion, when he was less of one. Of course, Han Solo is a lot more of an old softy than Saul Goodman a.k.a. Jimmy McGill, and he undergoes a character arc over the course of the original Star Wars trilogy that Saul does not undergo in six seasons of Breaking Bad.

But there’s the same kind of sense in watching it that this cannot end well.

And not just because Han Solo will one day end up on a bridge with a lightsaber through his stomach.

Better Caul Saul goes to great lengths showing us that the man once known as Jimmy was a good guy. I mean, he was always a trickster and he never met a scam he didn’t like, but he lived his life following a certain moral compass. The people he duped were (almost) always deserving of that usury, or at least the ends justified the means. At the end of the day he wanted to do the right thing for people who deserved justice.

But of course, at some point – a point we have not yet reached in the narrative of that TV show – it all came apart.

It’s a similar situation with Han Solo. Now, Han is not as compromised, morally, when we meet him at the start of A New Hope as Saul is when we meet him in Breaking Bad. He’s a bit more of a genuine hero than an anti-hero, whereas Saul isn’t either – he’s essentially just comic relief. We didn’t know then how much we would love him and how much we would thirst for a whole series devoted to him, which in some ways even surpasses the series from which it span off.

But if things had really “gone well” for Han Solo, we wouldn’t first encounter him in a seedy bar on Tatooine, trying to escape his debts to a gangster and the bounty on his head, shooting first on the bounty hunter who tries to take him back as a hostage to that gangster. Hey, I’m sure Greedo had some kids to feed.

And so Solo: A Star Wars Story cannot really end well for him either, though it remains to be seen if they are going to try to squeeze some sequels out of this material. I won’t give away the ending, but you already know it has to be on some kind of downward trajectory, because of something you might not know: Han Solo might also be described as something of an idealist at the start of this movie. Sure, his charm is rakish and his schemes reckless, but we find out in the first five minutes of this movie that what he’s doing, he’s doing for love. Sorry if you think that’s a spoiler, but it’s in the damn first five minutes of the movie.

So the journey with Han, as with Jimmy, is the loss of that idealism, to be replaced by something more jaded and cynical.

And in both cases, there’s a love driving that idealism, a love that is lost. We don’t know what’s going to happen between Jimmy and Kim (please don’t die) because the series hasn’t gotten that far yet. But she makes no appearance in Breaking Bad, so she’s out of the picture in one way or another. And with Han’s love interest in Solo … again not spoiling anything, but let’s just say you already know Han is single when he first meets Princess Leia.

I just hope Jimmy can live long enough to meet someone, have children, and die of a lightsaber wound to the gut.