Thursday, February 26, 2015

Edge of Tomorrow Meddler Week, Part 4: The Ridiculous (and All-Too-Familiar) Phony-Sacrifice Ending

And the fourth problem with Edge of Tomorrow is the way it falls apart at the very end. The plot logic is remarkably solid right up until the eplogue, when it wrecks itself in a depressingly familiar way.

Yes, it’s the return of the same problem that plagues Superman Returns, The Dark Knight Rises, The Avengers, Pacific Rim, Star Trek Into Darkness and many more: the hero gloriously sacrifices his life to save everybody else...only to wake up afterwards just fine.

Of course, that may sound inherent to this particular movie’s premise, but it’s not, because Cruise has lost the ability to repeat and has to really win without any do-overs, which makes the finale far more exciting…until the very last second when he regains the ability just as he gives his life to defeat the bad guys.

So Cruise wakes up in the past all over again, but this time it’s a past in which the bad guy has still been defeated…even though all the guys who died defeating him are once again alive! Huh? In all of Cruise’s previous reboots, his previous progress past the point of waking up was undone. Why should it be different this time?

For a movie that had devoted so much brain power to making this (literally) loopy premise work in a rock-solid way, this is just such a slap in the face, to abruptly abandon all of that skillfully-constructed logic at the very end.

It’s like we have this idea that nobody can just win anymore, because that would somehow be “bogus” or something. “Heroism” has become synonymous with “sacrifice.” You can’t have one without the other, apparently. And yet they still want to give us happy endings, so they just make it a consequence-less sacrifice every damn time.

Here’s an idea: if you want the hero to win, just let him WIN. Let him struggle and suffer and barely kill the bad guy, of course, but skip over the phony sacrifice scene and just let good flat-out triumph over evil for once. OR have him sacrifice himself and stay dead. Either situation could have been pulled off in a meaningful and satisfying way, but they once again tried to both, which just alienates and pisses off the audience.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Edge of Tomorrow Meddler Week, Part 3: We Always Come In Late

My third problem with Edge of Tomorrow is that it become addicted to using same trick over and over: In scene after scene, it shows Cruise encountering and scrambling to defeat some “new” menace, only to have the audience suddenly realize that, nope, he’s actually already done this before and he actually knows what the bad guys are going to do. The first few times, this is clever and fun, but it quickly wears out its welcome. There are two problems here:
  1. This trick forces us to focus on the “who care, he’ll just get to try again” aspect of the premise, which is something we’d rather forget.
  2. More importantly, it short-circuits our attempts at identification. Every time they trick us into identifying with Cruise’s worried looks, only to reveal that he’s actually way ahead of us, we lose the ability to care about him or worry for him. We can’t share any genuine emotions with him, because we never get to share his first-time reactions. By the time we come along, he’s just “going through the motions” to get back to where he already was.
Ultimately, Cruise loses the ability to repeat when he gets an unwelcome blood transfusion that purges the power from his veins. This twist is well-set-up, and fits the logic of the film, and it’s believable enough when it happens, but I don’t think it was the best choice.

Instead, I think that, rather than have that scene early on where Blunt warns Cruise that he’ll stop repeating if he gets a blood transfusion, she should warn him that the power just wears out after thirty times. This would give every scene a lot more urgency, and convince Cruise to stop rebooting himself with little provocation, redoing every moment over and over to get it right. 

Maybe put a countdown onscreen of how many regenerations he has left, so every death counts. As it stands now, the movie looks intense, but this change would make the movie feel intense. The audience can tell the difference.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Edge of Tomorrow Meddler Week, Part 2: The Hero is An Everyman

Okay, sorry folks, after moving all these pieces around I accidentally auto-posted part 3 a half hour ago, but now I’ve taken it down to push it back to tomorrow and put the right one here...of course, by this point between the podcast and comments, we’ve already pretty much covered this one thoroughly, so sorry for the repeated beats! (And my computer is still broken, so I’m writing this on Betsy's computer. It’s that kind of week.)(And this is the last time I talk about video games, I promise! For the next two days, Im covering more nuts and bolts problems.)
Here’s another way that Edge of Tomorrow could have played off of the video game-like nature of the situation.  In actual video games, every character in an everyman, kept generic enough to allow for every possible player’s every possible action, which, to may mind, fatally inhibits the medium’s storytelling potential (though I know many would disagree with that assessment). 

The movie could easily have chosen to milk meaning out of this problem, but instead, it merely replicates it. 

There is no real flaw scene at the beginning, which gives the movie nothing to pay off later on.  Yes, Cruise is a little blithe and cowardly in the quick opening montage, but his reticence to get on the front lines is perfectly understandable, and we never even find out why the general hates him enough to plan this engineer this insanely sadistic revenge. 

Perhaps begin the movie with an incident where Cruise didn’t realize his mic was still on, and revealed his contempt for the brass, or the way the war was being waged?  (Going back to yesterday, he could perhaps something like “they’re treating this like a video game” Or “your average kid playing x-Box could win the war quicker than this guy.”)

Because there’s no flaw scene, there isn’t really a spiritual crisis either, no point at which Cruise realizes that he’s his own worst enemy. (Instead we get another moment stolen directly from Groundhog Day, where Cruise realizes he can’t save Emily Blunt no matter what he does, which is a nice little moment of “There are some things I can’t fix”, but because it doesn’t connect back to any pre-established flaw of Cruise, it lacks emotional any real emotional punch.)

The spiritual crisis needs to be the point where Cruise finally says, “Oh, life isn’t a video game, you can’t just figure out a pre-designated path that will allow anybody to win. You aren’t an everyman and you wouldn’t want to be.”  This is the moment where he would realize that, even though he’s freed of all physical consequences, he still has to overcome his longstanding flaws and then use that some flip-side strength that’s uniquely inside him in order to win.

But that never happens.  Cruise gets to remain an everyman and never discovers any hidden flaws or strengths inside himself.  In the end, he just wins in the way that anybody would. 

Monday, February 23, 2015

Edge of Tomorrow Meddler Week, Part 1: It Ignores Its Own Meaning

So let’s talk about Edge of Tomorrow AKA Live Die Repeat, AKA All You Need is Kill. As you might have noticed from the multiple titles, the studio didn’t really know how to market this movie, and didn’t really care, but then there was a twist: Critics loved it! But then there was another twist: Audiences didn’t show up, and the movie flopped! But wait: I had good word of mouth! At some point, the reputation finally settled at “sleeper you should see on DVD”. So I did.

So who was right, the dubious studio, the happy critics, the mass audience that rejected it, or the cult audience that embraced it? A little of each. The movie is definitely a slam-bang action blockbuster, delivering exactly the sort of all-out adrenaline-fest that draws people into Transformers movies, but with actual entertainment value added on, so it is frustrating that Transformers 4 kicked its ass at the box office.

 It’s also far better (both more entertaining and smarter) than Oblivion, Elysium, Pacific Rim, After Earth, and all of the other abortive attempts at non-franchise sci-fi from the previous year. So there’s that.

But…is it actually good? As in, not just better than crap, but actually good in its own rite? The answer is: almost. Well, okay, it’s certainly good, but it’s almost very good, and that’s really frustrating.

Unlike the movies above, this situation actually makes sense (which is saying a lot, with a premise this wild) and each plot twist is a clever and exciting escalation on the last. It’s well-structured, has fun dialogue and good performances. But it has several fatal flaws, so let’s take a look at those from a storytelling point of view:

The first big problem that plagues the movie is that it tacks on a bunch of awkward satirical elements while ignoring the satire inherent in its premise. The whole first half of the movie plays like a tongue-in-cheek parody of the D-Day landing (Too soon? Actually, yes.) Then there’s a mish-mash of other war references (The young woman who suddenly rises through the ranks to lead the army is known as “the Angel of Verdun”.) These odd detail are jokey without being jokes, and they ring all hollow. Parody and satire always limit audience identification, so they’d better add something to the movie, but these don’t.

This is frustrating, because the urge to add a satirical element is actually a good one. Here’s the premise: An untrained army PR guy is forced to fight an alien invasion on the front lines, but he finds himself living the same day over and over, allowing him to get better and better as he repeats the day, until he finally figures out how to stop the invasion altogether.

Obviously, Groundhog Day has already milked most of the meaning out of this situation, so it would seem like there was nothing left to say, but the change of setting could have provided a completely different meaning.

What this movie resembles more than anything is a game of “Call of Duty”: You’re plunged into an invasion, get killed a bunch of times, go back to the beginning each time, and learn to start over as a bad-ass right from the start. This taps into two possible sources of meaning:
  1. It could be a commentary on the FPS-generation of couch-bound man-boys, who crow online about what badasses they are while hitting reset over and over.
  2. And it could also be a commentary on the increasing video-game-ization of war itself, with guys sitting in Las Vegas with joysticks blowing up actual Pakistani families as if there were just so many Koopa Troopas.
In both cases, this premise almost taps into a deep vein of meaning...but it never actually goes there. The video games aspect is never hinted at, and this is clearly a drone-free military.

How to fix this? Let’s look at some on-the-nose solutions: Give Cruise a son by an ex-wife, then let him start the movie by having an awkward video chat with the boy, who’s ignoring him and playing an FPS instead. Or have Cruise, as PR spokesman, say that the new suits are as easy as operating a joystick.

Or make it less on-the-nose: After Cruise loses the power, have him freak out and hide until Blunt yells at him that he never would have been able to win without consequences, because we can’t really commit until we have something on the line.

Instead of critiquing video game culture, the movie just become a video game, which is a problem in more ways than one, as we’ll see next time...

Saturday, February 21, 2015

New Oscar Podcast

Hey guys, there’s a new Narrative Breakdown podcast up about 2014 movies just ahead of tomorrow’s Oscar ceremony. We start with Selma, and I say the pretty much the same things I said here on the blog, but after that we cover…
  • Nightcrawler
  • Whiplash
  • Snowpiercer
  • Boyhood
…and most of my thoughts on those movies go far beyond what I said on the blog, so check it out. We also discuss Edge of Tomorrow, which I’ll discuss here on the blog next week, so you’ll get a preview of that.

I think that this is the best one we’ve done. I’m working on my presentation skills so I pictured Tyler Perry from Gone Girl throwing a peanut at me every time I was about to revert to my verbal tics, and that helped!

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Best of 2014, #1: Boyhood

Of course this movie is #1. I’ve always said that the problem with Cassavetes is that his movies have to either be the worst stuff out there or the very best, because if he can make his “super-long-take unblinking-gaze” device work, then every other movie suddenly looks phony and shallow in comparison. The same is true of Boyhood: it’s so startlingly brilliant and hyper-real that it can’t help but make every other movie look a bogus sham, so it’s hard to do an honest comparison.

It’s also hard to say anything much about the movie. If you’ve seen it, it’s already had its impact on you, and if you haven’t seen it then you should know as little as possible about it beforehand, so as to maximize it power.

The only thing I can say is that this movie powerfully proves a rule that was hiding in a “What’s the Matter with Hollywood” post: Innovation Doesn’t Require New Technology. This movie could have been made anytime in the last 100 years by anyone who had the dedication. It was made on the cheap and on the fly, and yet it shatters all of our assumptions about what a film can and should be.

Writer/Director Richard Linklater suddenly remembered, “Oh yeah, all this stuff we do, all these tried-and-true tricks we’ve built up over the years to cleverly simulate life on the screen, we don’t have to do it that way. If we want, we can jettison all that stuff and try something totally different. We can find a new way to powerfully capture the nature of life on screen.”And so he did.

But then he did something that was terrifyingly bold: he waited twelve years to let the rest of the world in on his flash of inspiration. He worked periodically on this movie while also making School of Rock, Before Sunset, Bad News Bears, Fast Food Nation, A Scanner Darkly, Me and Orson Welles, Bernie, and Before Midnight, never letting on that he also had this other movie brewing totally out of sight.

Note also that none of the movies between Before Sunset and Before Midnight was much of a critical or commercial success, and there was a three year gap in there with no movies at all. Surely he must have felt at times that he was being written off and forgotten, and his last best hope was to simply declare Boyhood to be done and unleash its brilliance upon the world. But no, he would sell no wine before it was time, and he let it continue its slow fermentation, no matter what ups and downs his career might experience in the meantime. That is fierce dedication to art.

The result is a masterpiece, and a reminder that we have barely scratched the surface of what this medium can do, if we stop focusing on post-production innovation and devote more time to pre-production innovation.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Best of 2014, #2: Selma (And Storyteller’s Rulebook: The "Ironic How" is Better than the "Ironic What")

This remarkable movie crystallized a thought I’d been developing for a while, about the difference between the “ironic how” and the “ironic what.”

I frequently recommend maximizing the irony of a story in every way, but there are actually limits to that. It always annoyed me that Spielberg made his Holocaust movie about a heroic German industrialist, and his slavery movie about a heroic McConaughey, but then I thought, “Hey, wait just a second, isn’t that exactly the sort of thing I recommend?” Isn’t that the most ironic choice? Aren’t these the heroes who start off with a false goal and a false philosophy, only to be forced to do things that are hard for them to want to do?

The traditional way to do a movie like Selma is to focus on a white hero, not necessarily because of racism on the part of the filmmakers, but because it genuinely seems like the most interesting choice: a white southerner joining the civil rights cause is ironic, whereas a black person joining is unironic, and the ironic choice is usually the best choice. But Selma shows that rather than focus on an inherently ironic character, you can derive just as much meaning from a consideration of the ironic tactics MLK actually used. What he's doing is not ironic, but how he's doing it is ironic (going county by county until he's able to find a sheriff who will beat his people up, for instance.)

There are many problems with “ironic what” stories, especially where historical injustices are concerned: Most obviously, you’re silencing the victimized group and lionizing the victimizing group, and often you have to falsify the actual story in order to do so (as in both Spielberg movies listed above and Mississippi Burning).
The most offensive “ironic what” story was no doubt Ang Lee’s ridiculous Ride with the Devil. This is one of the few American movies about our Civil War, and it features only one major black character, who happens to be fighting for the slavers. That’s certainly “ironic”, but it’s also deeply offensive. Did a tiny handful of blacks fight for slavery of their own will? Sure, in any group there’s always going to be a few sick, sad individuals with bafflingly self-destructive behavior, but of course, Jeffrey Wright didn’t play the part as stupid or evil, because (oh irony of ironies!) that would seem offensive to our modern sensibilities. We like our lone black characters onscreen to be good and smart and brave—even if what they’re doing is actually depraved and idiotic.

Irony is always necessary for good storytelling, but easy ironies can twist the truth in offensive ways. Find the hidden ironies that arise from the difficult decisions of the real heroes and/or victims, instead of creating easy irony by focusing on an unrepresentative scenario that reverses the roles of victim and victimizer.

Next: Oh, come on, you know what it’s going to be...

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Best of 2014, #3: Whiplash

It’s shocking that this is only at #3, because this is one of the most intense viewing experiences I’ve ever had. My mouth was dry, my muscles were knotted, and I was on the edge of seat for two hours, and the ending only left me gasping for a catharsis that never came. This is a movie you have to “come down from”, waiting nervously for your pulse to slow back down.

Let’s look at some of the rules that this movie exemplifies:
  • Always Have a Left Turn: We have seen so many tough-coach movies that we enter this movie supremely confident in where it’s going, only to be thrown for many, many loops. It’s so rare to sit through the second half of a movie, exclaiming to yourself in awe: “I just have no idea where this is even going!
  • The Hero Can’t Stand Outside of the Problem: The biggest thing that keeps us unsteady is the fact that both of our combatants are fairly repellent, and as each one becomes worse, we’re naturally inclined to shift our identification to the other, but unable to do so. The snarling masochist and the snarling sadist trap each other (and the audience) in a feedback loop that ratchets up the the tension exponentially. It’s easier to write about a victimized prodigy getting abused by a sadistic teacher (as in The Black Swan), or a rapacious pupil scaring his teacher (as in The Color of Money), but this movie puts the most dangerous pairing in the same room and lets each escalate the other’s intensity higher and higher.
  • The Ending Doesn’t Determine the Meaning: One problem with these sorts of movies is that it’s so hard to keep the ending from determining the meaning—If the pupil succeeds, it was all worth it, and if he fails, it wasn’t, right? Some great movies have tried to have it both ways (The two movies listed above, as well as Downhill Racer and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner) but this movie just may top them all. The climax of this movie mercilessly toys with our hard-wired need to determine if it’s “all worth it”, whipping our emotions back and forth several times. Ultimately, the only conclusion we can reach is that, no matter how this ends, both sides will lose, because “greatness” itself may be an unhealthy and inhumane concept.
Next: A movie that was a long time coming…

Monday, February 16, 2015

Best of 2014, #4: Birdman

Be a Good God: There’s so much interesting stuff going on in this movie that it’s hard for any one reviewer to cover it all, so I’d like to focus in on one element that I haven’t seen many people discuss: The hero’s delusional belief that he has raging telekinesis that disappears when anyone else is looking.

On many layers, this is a movie about power-fantasies: An actor agrees to play out the public’s superhero power fantasy, but then he feels powerless to stop, so he rebels and creates his own power-trip in the form of a Broadway vanity project, only to find himself humbled and overpowered at every turn, but in a way that he finds ironically liberating.

Co-writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu implies that our current infatuation with superhero movies isn’t a wish for power we don’t have, it’s a confirmation of the power-fantasies we’re already living every day, certain that our faces are masks, hiding the secretly-omnipotent beings within, just waiting to be revealed to the world. Only by acting on our delusions and tearing down the screen that separates us from real life (as Keaton does by subjecting himself to a live audience) do we discover that no, we’re neither super nor heroes...and that’s probably for the best, because it’s hard enough to just be human.

When art is made, who has the power? The writer? The director? The producers? The star? The audience? The critics? Are each of these parties trying to prove the others wrong, or to reach out across a divide and make a connection? For each, it’s always a little of both. This movie is a intense, funny, sad, and profoundly weird examination of that tension, and it’s pretty great.

Next: A similar score…

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Best of 2014, #5: Nightcrawler

Tap Into Real-Life National Pain: There’s been a lot of talk about the whiteness of the Oscar picks this year, both in terms of the snub of Selma’s star and director, and in terms of the lack of black roles that were available overall. The best place to examine this problem, it seems to me, is not by looking at Selma nor its natural counterpoint, American Sniper. Instead, the movie that really lays bare the underlying problem here is Dan Gilroy’s intense little thriller that also works as a brutal parable about the modern vampire-squid economy.

I share the anger about Hollywood’s narrow-minded young-white-male obsession, but, as with almost any protest from either the right or left in America, the discussion always puts the blame on “the culture” instead of actually examining the systems in place. Frequently, people seem to be asking, “Why doesn’t that executive who makes twenty movies a year deign to have some of them be about women/minorities/older people?” And nobody ever speaks up with the correct answer: Because he died forty years ago.

An incisive discussion of Hollywood’s young white male problem has to include an understanding of how Hollywood itself has essentially ceased to be. Like most American corporations, Hollywood studios have figured out how to shift all the risk outward and all the profits inward. All development in Hollywood is now done by independent producers, who spend years getting each movie made, with no “development money” whatsoever. Each movie is its own start-up, with the producers sinking a fortune in development costs out of their own pocket (or the pockets of their investors) in the hope of making that money back with a blockbuster. The studios, using their monopoly on distribution, then swoop in and “partner with” these producers, co-releasing the movies, and taking half of the profits for themselves. This is why every movie now has five “producer cards” up front.

So what does any of this have to do with Nightcrawler? Everything. Jake Gyllenhaal’s character is unable to find any regular job, so out of desperation he becomes an “independent contractor,” seeking out nighttime car crashes and selling the tapes to the morning news. At first, he naively treats all crimes the same, but the producer tells him she’ll pay much more for anything involving black or Latino crime in white neighborhoods. Soon Gyllenhaal has totally internalized these values, jovially mocking his assistant for wanting to tape a crime in a poor neighborhood.

The station has laid off its own cameramen and denies all responsibility for the actions of the contractors who have taken their place, creating a “race to the bottom”, in which both sides push each other to pursue the least common denominator of viewers without either side having to consciously make that decision.

The same thing happens on the big screen. Movies are increasingly hyper-focused on young white men because that’s the least common denominator of viewers, and it’s no one’s job to say, “hey, let’s serve another viewership with some of our movies.” There is no “our movies” anymore, there’s just “my movie”, and no producer wants to sink years of work into a risky proposition (or even a proposition that looks like it will make a decent-but-not-spectacular profit).

Louis B. Mayer (or somebody else, I can't find the quote) once said something like “Don't talk to be about ‘quality pictures’. Every week, 52 times a year, a truck pulls up and expects us to put new film cans in the back, and that truck driver isn’t going to wait to make sure that it’s a ‘quality picture’.” But of course his quote was disingenuous: Such a system was actually ideal for ensuring that each studio could cultivate multiple audiences (old and young, male and female) and even produce a few low-profit “prestige” or “social problem” movies, just to make themselves feel good. But if each independent producer is betting the bank on one picture at a time, the financial disincentives are huge, just as they are for Gyllenhaal’s character.

As far as I'm concerned, the only real solution (other than forcibly restructuring corporate America, which also needs to happen) is to do what almost every other country in the world does: have a federal film fund to commission movies that make less profit but take more risks and/or portray underrepresented communities. But of course here in America nobody is ever allowed to say, “they’ve already solved this problem in every other country in the world, so let’s do the same thing here.” Don’t you know that we’re exceptional?

Next: The best cast of the year…

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Best of 2014, #6: Guardians of the Galaxy

According to a lot of my theories, this movie shouldn’t work:
  • The hero is motivated by money for most of the movie, and even when he does decide to ditch the money and become a true hero, the heroic motivation is too small because he decides to save a planet that is not his own, nor is it the home planet of any of the Guardians. Why should he or we care about Glenn-Close-world? It’s bizarre that the movie remains compelling. The filmmakers must have been tempted to replace these weak motivations with a more straightforward emotion goal, such as searching for his missing father, or trying to avenge his dead mother, but the movie goes precisely the other way. In fact, you could say they break another rule: Instead of simplifying the motivation they multiply it: Pratt’s primary motivation is money, but his secondary motivation is something that seems equally superficial, but isn’t: he want to be cool. His social humiliation is delivered right away when he announces he’s Star-Lord and Djimon Hounsou says “Who?” (Nicely paid off when the same character later warns his boss, “That’s Star-Lord!”) This seemingly shallow goal becomes deeply heartfelt because we see how closely tied it is to his severed relationship with both parents. His hapless attempts to be cool ultimately are an attempt to search for his dad and bring his mother back. Threading that tricky emotional needle was a big part of this movie’s unexpected success.
  • But wait, here’s another violation: The concept seems to be too complicated. The interplanetary politics of this world are bizarrely labyrinthine, and after the very-relatable first scene we suddenly jump into the middle of a complicated story that we never quite catch up with, so why doesn’t this alienate the audience (literally and figuratively) as badly as Pacific Rim? Obviously, beginning in a recognizable place goes a long way, allowing us to step into this world with the hero, at least briefly, but beyond that, the movie greatly benefits from a rule hidden inside this post: the value of “I’ll tell you later” Guardians pushes this to its extreme, because this was basically one big movie of “I’ll tell you later.” The filmmakers use weirdness as wallpaper, much in the same way that Star Wars does, but they never ask us to care about that stuff any more than the hero does (and he’s wonderfully dismissive of most of it.)
This movie puts a very human hero in a very weird galaxy and allows us to hang on tightly to the hero’s emotional throughline as everything else goes crazy. You don’t have to believe in any of this craziness, you just have to believe in him. Pacific Rim does the opposite: It quickly becomes clear that those filmmakers care more about the concept than the characters, which makes it impossible for the audience to care about either.

Next: Back down to Earth…

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Best of 2014, #7: The Lego Movie

Show Your Theme Instead of Saying It: All of my top five movies are intensity personal artistic statement, but there’s another type of greatness exemplified by this movie: the deceptively-complex fun-time fable. Like Frozen, this is a thematically complicated movie aimed at little kids, trusting them and their parents to unpack the meaning over several viewings.

 At first this movie seems to set up an easy dichotomy right out of The Matrix: unimaginative conformity bad / creative rebellion good, but then things get more and more complex. Soon it’s going places that few movies would dare to go and challenging deep-set orthodoxies of 21st century parenting: showing that a world in which everybody is expected to compete for a place in the creative-elite is equally problematic because both sides punish normality.

One could say that the shock-ending, despite its undeniable emotional punch, dials things back to a more straightforward moral, but a writer must trust that the doubts raised will linger, even after the ending seems to tip towards one side or the other of the thematic dilemma.

Tomorrow: A familiar voice...

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Best of 2014: #8: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Make the Sequel Totally Different: What I liked most about this movie was something that was equally true of Apes: It was sequel that bore almost no resemblance to the original.

Where do they get this notion that we want a retread? As I wrote about with Pacific Rim, setting the dial back to zero before the credits roll sabotages the first movie and the second one.  This movie, I’m glad to say (as opposed to Iron Man 2 or Thor 2) doesn’t have the slightest bit of retread to it.

The previous movie created a pure hero for a pure war, and it must have been very tempting to inject cynicism or subversion into that narrative, but instead, they set themselves the challenge of playing it totally straight, and knocked it out of the park. When I heard that the first movie was going to be set entirely in World War 2, I was baffled, because that would miss half of the appeal of the character: the “man out of time” aspect.  But as it turns out, that was exactly the plan.

Marvel plays the long game, and by devoting a whole movie to half the appeal, they guaranteed one hell of a sequel once they finally cashed in all of that potential energy three years later. This movie mercilessly plucks that idealistic hero out of his place, time, and comfort zone, thrusting him into a new world that makes his code, his methods, and his beliefs appear to be totally obsolete.  Refreshingly, the goal is not to impeach or degrade those ideals (as many modern movies do) but to put them to the ultimate test, which makes it all the more thrilling to see the hero win. It’s hard enough to fight true evil over there, but it takes so much more courage and cunning to fight true evil over here, which made this the ultimate escalation.

Tomorrow: A movie that really, really should have sucked. 

Monday, February 09, 2015

Best of 2014, #9: Snowpiercer

The Hero Must Have Something Everyone Else Lacks: This movie has the quickest and simplest version of this: We begin with Fascist troops ordering a traincar of people to stand and then sit back down in rows.  Everybody sits down except one man.  Okay, so now we know that he’s our hero.  But can we trust him, or is he just engaging in empty rebellion?  No, his friend asks, “What were you doing?” and he says, “Counting,” and we see that he was timing the number of second before the doors close.  Okay, so now we now we trust him, but will he be too heroic to empathize with?  Will he be vulnerable?  Yes: The next time the soldiers demand they sit down, it is someone else who won’t sit, for non-strategic reasons, and we see the anguish on our hero’s face.  Should he wait for the right time, and leave this man (who was probably inspired by him) to his fate?  Now he must choose between strategy and bravery, which is a painful dilemma.  Empathizing with that dilemma, we are now fully bonded to the hero.

Art Requires Distance, and Tough Decisions Must have Tough Consequences: After this series, we’ll do another Meddler week on another 2014 movie that didn’t quite work, and one problem with it is that it sets up a critique of video-game logic but ultimately replicates that logic when it should be subverting it.

Even moreso than that movie, Snowpiercer cleverly establishes a real-world Double-Dragon-style linear sidescroller, as our heroes have to “clear each board” before they move on to a new self-contained environment.  The movie however, uses this set-up to totally impeach the video-game storytelling mode.  Our “everyman” hero turns out to be not so every (we find out he has some very disturbing motives) and his relentless march forward turns out to be ironically self-defeating precisely because he foolishly believes in the myth of linear progress. Even when he succeeds, the results are so instantly catastrophic that the cure is clearly worse than the disease, with no reset button to undo the consequences.  The result is a seemingly clean, linear narrative that ends up being anything but.

Tomorrow: A familiar face...

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Best of 2014, #10: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

So it was a good year for movies, once again. So good, in fact, that my year end countdown swelled to ten, and since I always like to get these out of the way before the Oscars, that means I’ll be bumping the next meddler back two weeks.

I should warn you upfront that, for whatever reasons, the top half of the list is all sci-fi and the bottom half is all drama, lest you come to fear this week that I’ve officially gone all-geek-all-the-time. As always, I’ll be pairing each movie with a storytelling rule that the movie exemplifies. (And as always, I should also preface things with a list of the movies I missed, in this case Theory of Everything, Imitation Game and How to Train Your Dragon 2)

#10: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Everybody Only Wants What They Want: We had a lot of discussion about psychopathy last week (as we always seem to do) and debates about whether the presence of a psychopath is necessary to generate thrills. This movie gives us the resounding answer of no. Everybody in this movie can confidently justify their actions, and each is ultimately proven right, in different ways.

This is a heart-breaking fable of self-fulfilling prophesies: if you’re trying to protect your community from existential threats, you will find enemies that prove you right, and if you’re trying to make peace, you will find allies to prove you right. If your community tries to pursue both paths at once, a tragic chain of consequences can occur, in which the warmakers doom the peacemakers and the peacemakers doom the warmakers. The greatness of this movie is that we see both sides of this debate on both sides of this war, and we are unable to entirely disagree with any of these four factions.

Tomorrow: More dystopia!

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

The Meddler: Gone Girl (Book and Movie), Part 3: The Three Big Pregnancy Problems

So let’s talk about three more big things that make no sense about “Gone Girl”, on either the page and the screen:
  1. Stealing a pregnant woman’s pee is fine if you want to fake a home-pregnancy test and fool your husband, but it would never fool an actual doctor. This is the 21st century and they no longer kill a rabbit. Your doctor instantly gives you a full physical, including a blood test that tell them a lot more than pee ever could.
  2. Likewise, you can’t secretly impregnate yourself with one specimen of frozen sperm. You’d have two options: Either do IVF, which is a long complicated surgical procedure with a high fail rate (but at least you get several shots off one sample) or you can attempt to self-thaw and then use the turkey baster method, which would have an astronomically high fail rate, and you’d only get one chance. Getting pregnant even with a fully-participating man is already quite unlikely on one try.
  3. Why does Nick stay with her for five weeks (it was longer in the book, iirc) after she comes home and before he finds out she’s pregnant? In the movie, she says that otherwise the press will turn on him, so he has to stay, but so what? Before, he was trying to win the press over to avoid being arrested, but why would he care now? It makes no sense. Of course, the real reason that he has to stay so long without a good motivation is to allow time for the impregnation storyline.
The most annoying thing about these three story-killers is that they could so easily be fixed with one solution: Have her actually get pregnant.

If she’s so dedicated to her long-term revenge plan, then secretly going off the pill for a few months would not be so much of a stretch. This would give her enough chances to actually get pregnant, and allow her to actually prove her pregnancy to a doctor.

In this version, she would enact her revenge long before her pregnancy showed, planning to abort the baby sometime later (or not, if we’re going with the kill herself version, which would also require an actual pregnancy). She could leave a clue for Nick in the woodshed that implies she aborted the baby, then reveal to Nick at the end that she never got around to it, which still allows you to have the shock-ending. This would also help explain Amy’s sudden change-of-heart and desire to return to Nick: Pregnancy is a hormonal roller-coaster, after all, and it tends to reset your priorities.

And, most importantly, in this version, she could confront him the night of her return, or at least that week, rather than forcing him to stay in the house with a psychopath for no reason whatsoever.

Why didn’t they do this simple fix? Because murder and rape are sexy and fun, but pregnancy is a turn-off and abortion is beyond the pale? Ugh. If Flynn was going to go there, she should have went there, and solved three huge problems with one quick fix.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

The Meddler: Gone Girl (Book and Movie), Part 2: Amy’s Nonsensical Plan

Here’s something that makes no sense on page or screen: Amy’s plan. Amy’s frame-up is clever and fun, no doubt, but it falls apart when we find out about her plan for the future, or lack thereof.

Amy quickly mentions in passing, in both the book and movie, that she intends watch Nick suffer for a while, then drown herself in the river to ensure a conviction. Huh? If she really wants to frame the guy, and she’s already put so much insane detail in to everything, and she’s ready to kill herself, why not just do it now, supreme in the knowledge that this will seal the deal?

Besides, if Amy is really a psychopath, as subsequent events will strongly imply, then it’s very unlikely she would ever even consider suicide. Psychopaths are the world’s most self-serving people, and they’re happy to just move on to the next victim, confident that they can once again fulfill their needs and then avoid all consequences.

And even if she’s planning on killing herself, why would she choose to stay at a cabin in the Ozarks in order to watch the coverage?? A big plot point is that she’s accustomed to luxury and can’t stand the indignity of her middle-class existence in Missouri. She has that big money belt, so why not go someplace nice? Does she not know that the rich have more anonymity and privacy than the poor?

Killing herself should never have been part of her plan. Why not just withdraw a lot of cash from those secret credit cards and then move to a Gulf Coast island to enjoy a life of low-cost semi-luxury while watching the whole circus on TV and starting a new low-key life?

You could still have her trashy neighbors bust in and steal her money (the rich and the beach-bums live next to each other on those islands, after all.) She could still flee to Desi when things went bad. It wouldn’t change much, but it would have made a lot more sense. As it is, the suicide plan creates a big motivation hole in the center of the story.  (And an empathy hole as well, because it’s hard to care about a character if you’re just waiting for her to kill herself.)

But that still leave three huge plot holes, which we’ll get to (and easily fix) tomorrow...

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Gone Girl Meddler Week, Part 1: Where the Movie Blows It

Okay folks, we’re going to do a three-part Meddler this week, then a four-part Meddler next week with a different movie before we get to the year-end countdown...
Let me start by admitting that the movie was a lot better than I thought it would be. When I first heard the list of actors, I thought every role was miscast, but the movie proved me wrong about almost everybody (but that’s a big almost.)
  • Ben Affleck is amazingly good. His disingenuous flash of a smile at the press conference totally nails the character and makes all of the pathetic interior life of the character leap from the page to the screen. He’s brave enough to be unlikable and also has enough complex emotion behind his eyes to earn our pained empathy throughout, but just barely, which is how it should be.
  • I originally thought Affleck and Neil Patrick Harris should have switched roles, because Desi on the page was a hunkier, more intimidating guy than Nick. My big fear was that Fincher, in his rush to demonize Amy, would use NPH to make Desi into more of a sad sack victim. But no, I was happy to see that NPH was allowed to be totally creepy and become genuinely threatening. You do fear for Amy when he’s around.
  • Likewise Tyler Perry is a revelation: Funny, clever, and charming. Give that guy a spinoff.
  • A lot of other actors who I thought of as merely okay really stepped up to the plate with smart, funny big-screen-worthy performances, especially Kim Dickens, Patrick Fugit, and Carrie Coon.
But of course, that leaves one big performance that fails: Amy. It’s hard to blame Rosamund Pike for this, given that she was totally miscast and then undercut by her director at every turn. Even when we’re seeing dramatized pages from her diary, which, you’ll recall, she’s fictionalized to make herself extremely sympathetic, she’s totally cold and repellent. In her first sex scene with Nick, she’s wearing black bra, panties, and leather boots as he kneels at the foot of the bed performing cunnilingus. That’s in her phony diary??

As I mentioned before in the comments, Reese Witherspoon optioned this book when the galley first came out, intending to play Amy herself. I knew this when I read it, and it worked perfectly: After all, she excels at playing both “America’s Sweetheart” and disturbed sociopathic characters, which is exactly the duality this part required. But after Witherspoon hired Fincher, he turned right around and fired her, because he didn’t fit her conception for of the part.

So instead he cast an honest-to-God Bond villain. Now I loved Pike’s pulpy performance as “Miranda Frost” in Die Another Day, and I thought she was even better in An Education as a dim-but-wise moll. She’s a great character actress. But both roles capitalized on her inherently frosty and opaque charm. She’s not even remotely “America’s Sweetheart,” as the Amy of the diary has to be.

Allow me to tell a story I probably shouldn’t: An acquaintance of mine wrote a screenplay that became a hot Hollywood commodity, attracting several stars and big directors before it finally got made (you’ll probably guess who I’m talking about, but please don’t say so in the comments). He was telling me about how he managed to stay on as sole writer over the course of that long process, and said it involved doing a lot of unpleasant things.

Specifically, he talked about the period when David Fincher was attached to direct, and demanded of the writer that he rewrite it as a “domestic abuse comedy”, in which the couple try to kill each other and then go to the hospital and force each other to tell the doctors that they just ran into doorknobs. The writer said that it disgusted him to write those scenes, but he felt like he had to because he didn’t want to be replaced on his own script. Besides, by that point he had already seen so many directors come and go that he felt he could make these changes and just hope that the script would revert after Fincher moved on, which was precisely what happened.

I kept thinking about this story as I watched Gone Girl. Finally, I got to the point in the movie where the doctor asks Pike if she feels safe going home with her husband, and we cut to Affleck giving a little “fuck you” wave to her, which got a laugh from everyone in the room, including me. That was when I said to myself “Jesus, Fincher finally got the domestic abuse comedy he always wanted!”
It didn’t have to be this way. Amy could and should have been much more sympathetic: a sweet-but-spoiled girl with a charmed life who marries a selfish jerk that takes her away from everything she ever loved, soaks up her dwindling money like a sponge, then brazenly cheats on her. Finally, she snaps more than any woman has ever snapped before, launching a truly deranged revenge plot. Then, when she gets robbed and realizes what true desperation is, she turns to her old boyfriend, who tries to turn her into his private sex slave, so she snaps even further, kills him, and, totally nutso at this point, uses a pregnancy to blackmail her husband into taking her back and resuming their sad mockery of a marriage.

One thing that was so clever about the book was that Amy’s “phony” diary, despite her attempts to twist the narrative to her own advantage, actually gives us a compelling portrait of a woman scorned who snaps, revealing more about her true self than she ever intended.

This worked so well that I was really disappointed (as well as disgusted) when Flynn revealed Amy’s history of false rape claims. Not only does this plot twist reflect a totally unrealistic (but all-too-common) misogynistic misperception of reality, it also undoes the subtle cleverness of the first half in favor of a straight-up villainous narrative. Instead of a somewhat shallow girl who becomes desperately deranged, she’s just, in her own words, “a cunt.” (By the way folks, real life women don’t serially fake rape or call themselves cunts. That’s not the way the world works.)

When I heard they were turning it into a movie, I thought, “Great, just take that totally-extraneous part out and it would be a pretty good movie!” But of course Fincher kept it in, and twisted the rest of the story to fit that narrative, which makes Amy consistently repellent in every frame of the movie, which leaves us with weasely Nick as sole protagonist, which doesn’t work. So the movie fails. It’s a shame because Fincher nails every scene that Amy isn’t in, and even a few Amy scenes (like the robbery, and the early NPH scenes). If only Fincher hadn’t fired his boss, it all could have worked!