Monday, May 9, 2016

So I almost got to see Captain America: Civil War

Yes, it was a beautiful day, but I thought that might mean I'd have a chance at taking my four-year-old to see some superheroes kick butt. So I tried taking the wee man to see Captain America, which we left due to The Tiny One's constant "whispering" (He's actually getting pretty good. We're almost there).

What wasn't the best, though, were the previews, which were all over the place -- from Nickelodeon's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to Bourne, some (I think) Civil War thing, and a super messed-up, graphic shark-biting surf movie. Like, really? As the shark thing started, the dad next to me was like, "Dude, this one gets bad." I was like, "Yeah, hey, Hank, come show me the posters in the hall for a bit."
Jaws: 2016 -- I mean, The Shallows

I get that these Marvel movies have to try and please every single person and culture on the planet, and I don't know how they do it. I feel comfortable letting my kid see the Marvel stuff, recognizing I'll need to endure/explain a moment or two of "elevated" language. But most of the violence is pretty cartoonish. Then again, I will say, from the 20 mins of the flick, ideas of heroes and collateral damage is a bit tougher to shrug away than an army of CG robots.

Next time: Jungle Book, mid-week matinee, when hopefully we'll be totally alone and the boy can run around the aisles and talk all he wants.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Jurassic Park: Distilled and Amplified

Dinosaurs are awesome. If you've ever doubted the staying power of this historical recounting of wildlife reintroduction, look again. You will not be displeased. With rumors of a fourth installment in the works, I thought it a fine time to explore the island, Isla Nublar. Now I have my reservations on trying to revive the franchise. This really is the only movie to ever successfully pull off the genre, and even the second and third installments of JP seem to miss something vital. Perhaps its the sentimental, fatherly Dr. Ian Malcolm in The Lost World, or Téa Leoni screaming for her son on an island full of dinosaurs in #3 (not to mention the stretch of getting Alan Grant there in the first place). But that's a different essay. You'll just have to take my word that Jurassic Park is one of its kind. What follows is my 5-point tribute for the wonder that is this movie:

1. "Dino-DNA!"

This talking strain of DNA must use the phrase "Dino-DNA" seven thousand times during its presentation on the foundations of Jurassic Park. It was a momentous occasion, the extraction of Dino-DNA from prehistoric mosquitos and filling the gaps with frog DNA (why not lizards? I have no clue... seems a better choice than hermaphroditic frogs, yes?). Anyways, Mr. DNA will surprise you with the number of times he can say Dino-DNA. I promise. It rivals John Hammond's refrain, "Spared no expense."

Yes, Jeff Goldblum, life does find a way

2. Dr. Ian Malcolm and Chaos Theory.
Pretty much everything that comes out of this man's mouth is liquid gold, but you'll love it all the more when Chaos Theory enters the conversation. He could say, "The lack of humility before nature that's being displayed here staggers me." Or, "If there is one thing the history of evolution has taught us, it's that life will not be contained. Life breaks free, expands to new territories, and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously, but—well, there it is." Dr. Malcolm gets it.

3.  The "failings," if they even are such.
Please, little girl, stop screaming and go get eaten
Good God do I hate those two kids. If I could change one thing, those little brats would have drowned in mud, entombed within a flipped Jeep. I could even pretend that they're a hallucination of Dr. Alan Grant—a metaphor for the island, if you will, for they are surely as evil as any reptilian carnivore.

But those kids are there. I cannot edit them off the screen. That little boy will chase Dr. Alan Grant around with his dino-facts, refusing to jump off an electrified fence, and the girl will be all "veggie-saurus—I don't eat meat—blah blah blah." Spare me. Eat them, but spare me.

I get it, they are a vital and necessary part of the film. They are audience surrogates for every little boy and girl watching from behind the couch. I guess I've just never connected. I always wanted to be the paleontologist Indiana Jones over there, Dr. Grant. I want that hat.

This is what a hero looks like
4.  The Heroes
Just as no one could possibly out-snivel the true villain of this movie, the overweight hacker, Dennis Nedry ("Ah, ah, ah... you didn't say the magic word. Ah, ah, ah..."). It is high tragedy that the chain-smoking Ray Arnold (played by Sam Jackson) never got to punch him square in the face. In fact, I think Arnold gets the rawest deal out of anyone. He has to put up with Nedry every day, then clean up his mess, then go turn the power back on all by himself. He doesn't even get a proper sendoff, just a severed arm... poor guy.

"They should all be destroyed"

 Robert Muldoon. If only he had talked to Alan Grant for a few minutes longer, he might have understood the raptors' hunting techniques. They come from the sides, you fool. He could have had a chance, versus buying time for blondie. I've played enough video games to know the correct raptor-hunting technique. There are three elements: high-ground, open-spaces, and shotgun. Every time I watch, I think he'll wise up, or at least take-down one of those monsters.

5.  Respect the Raptors
Dr. Alan Grant knows how scared you should be of these beasts, so pay them some respect and acknowledge the many times they outsmart the humans. Yes, I am scared. It is time to give credit where credit is due.

Yeah, I'm smarter than you 

Review-ish: Friends Like Us

I'm not quite sure how I stumbled across this book, but am very glad I did. In moments of procrastination I like to wander the aisles of my digital library on Overdrive and look for something new to read. Sure, most of the hot titles have long wait lists, and if I had any money I'd probably lose patience and buy book after book to clog up what little space I have on my iPad. But Overdrive is free! And if you're creative and/or patient enough, there is are mountains of free content in which to lose yourself. Go, now. You know adding things to wish lists is the best way to waste time, so just poke about for what you want to read. Or, start where I did, with Pop Culture Happy Hour's reading list.

So, Friends Like Us. Does the cover imply a triangle? Well there is one. The narrator, Willa, is an illustrator in her mid-twenties who lives with her best friend, Jane, whom many mistake for her sister—twin, even. Jane begins dating an old high school friend of Willa's, and the book begins investigating notions of friendship, and how relationships shift, mutate, and end. It's a fun book, especially if you're in the mood to slip into someone else's shoes and walk around a bit.

Willa is a sympathetic narrator at times, less sympathetic at others, as we all are, and this ability to imagine the ways we rationalize selfishness, sometimes unknowingly, creates an incredibly human novel.

Another thing I found noteworthy about this book is its alternate cover, which definitely markets the book to a different audience. I wonder which version other's would pick up. Does the illustrated cover imply plucky, literary sensibilities while the other is more mass-market? Does the former push the triangular friendship with this other pushing the third-wheel issues of one's disappearance when friends start dating?

Friends Like Us is not going to give you a headache, and you should be able to get through its 250 pages pretty quick, especially as you read away these last weeks of winter.

But don't take my word for it...

Stop Winking at Me: On Involution and Art

I have not been able to finish the latest season of Arrested Development.

Still reading? Good. Maybe you agree with me. I want to talk a little bit about television, movies, and books that evoke an eye-roll. Writer Glen Weldon, in his role as panelist for NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour, speaks on involution in art; he defines it as "turning in on itself. Going up its own butt—its own narrative butt." "Self confidence becomes self regard," he says, listing Joyce as the clearest literary example. I took an entire class on Joyce at one point, and outside Dubliners, I can't stand the man. Anything that seems too into itself makes my skin crawl.

For that Joyce course, my final paper was twelve pages on one single chapter from Ulysses: Nausicaa. And I have to say, by the end I did want to write twelve pages on every chapter in the book, but come one now, really? That's the only way for me to understand what's going on? David Foster Wallace once wrote that reading should be hard work, and I agree, for the most part... balance in life and all that (I'll let you know when I get past the second chapter of Infinite Jest).

Perhaps this has to do with the years I've spent studying creative writing. Conceit existed through my undergrad, in the way all fledgling writers think themselves kings of craft and creativity, but by graduation most of us had simmered down a bit. I had moved from fiction to nonfiction in the understanding that studying and writing the truth might allow me to one day support myself. In that shift I also came to realize how infinitely more complicated the world of nonfiction is than fiction and poetry (of course that's not necessarily true, but it's where my passion lies, so I'm right). By the time I finished grad school, I wasn't sure many writers were capable of humility. One semester, half the program took a course on "The Sublime" and it was all anyone could talk about. This was around the time I just wanted to squeal about the upcoming Avengers movie. My effervescent joy was met with many an arched eyebrow and upturned nose. In my final year I took a Rushdie class. Here's a bit of advice: Shakespeare is the only writer allowed to have his own class. If anyone tells you otherwise, be very, very sure you love the work before signing up. Rushdie, like Joyce, is very excited by how clever they can be.

No. Please, stop. You've ruined it.
So, what instances of this do we see in film and television? For one, Arrested Development, season 4, ruined just about every wonderful joke they had. Someone threw subtlety out the window along the way and everything became a reference to the previous seasons. I gave up around the point JOB was to marry Ann under the gigantic "Her?" altar. The best part of Arrested was how quiet the running gags could be, you might miss them even after multiple viewings. I also argue the shifting perspective messed with the tone, but that's neither here nor there.

This is why I am terrified of someone reviving Firefly. Leave it alone. It's perfect, and the premature cancellation evokes a longing that adds to the magic. And that magic cannot be recreated.

The 9th Doctor is not impressed
My absolute favorite show has has even fallen prey to this involution. That 50th Anniversary Doctor Who special was so far up its own ass, I wasn't sure I'd ever find my way out. There was so much self-referential fan service in that episode, the whole thing lost sight of itself. How dare they empty the emotion from David Tennant's final line, "I don't want to go." Thank God Peter Capaldi showed up to take care of things. For a show about traveling through time and space, I sure need it to be down to earth... See what I did there?

Why write about this now, you ask?

Could this show take itself more seriously?
You must know, deep down, what has driven me here. Gotham. I sat through the series premiere. No more. Though I do feel obliged to watch the second episode for this writing, there's no way I'd stand it. Now, Gotham is only at fault in its decision to follow Nolan's work to its inevitable end. Nolan is a director I find so excited by his own genius that he nearly ruined Batman. They're trying their hardest to ruin Batman, but Batman will outlast. Batman is stronger than shoddy writers and directors. At this point, I should know to stick to graphic novels and video games wherever Batman is concerned. Those mediums allow for a requisite brutality impossible in television and blockbuster cinema. Gotham is just one big easter-egg hunt as far as I can tell.

Inception is a movie that literally collapses in on itself. There is no reason for three Hobbit movies; I'm looking at you, made-up orcs, Radagast, and foreshadowing. All I wanted was a treasure hunt. I mean, imagine if Guillermo del Toro directed the thing with Ron Perlman as Beorn. It would have been more fun than farcical.

The Avengers knew what it was, and succeeded. It did, at times, try a bit hard to be that which it was, like a caricature of itself. Some of its -ness could have been reigned in by the likes of Mark Ruffalo's subdued performance as Bruce Banner, but that excess exhibited by snarky, ostentatious dialogue was corrected in subsequent Marvel films. It's still there in the banter between Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson in Winter Soldier, and everything about Guardians of the Galaxy, but refined, dialed-in.

Not too long ago, a friend asked me, "Do you think True Detective is funny, or is that just me being a sick bastard? I mean, nihilism is just so cute."
"Occasionally, yeah," I said, " it goes way over the top at times."
He said, "Gotta love excessive earnestness. More people need to read and watch Oscar Wilde."

What's on your list? If I'm in the wrong mood, even Game of Thrones becomes ridiculous, and I love that show. Where do you draw the line? When is it too much?

Just Let Yourself Enjoy Spider-Man 2: A Review/Essay on This Film's Successes Within the Context of its Genre

The movie is fun. It's fun! Can't we just let it be fun? There's a fine line in analyzing pop-culture between respecting the Art of the thing, whatever it is, and remembering the inherent levity of flashy, explody, building-smashy entertainment. I mean, I've seen Captain America: The Winter Soldier twice, and I still don't quite understand what happened.

Spider-Man has always been the super hero I identified with most. Sure, I wanted adamantium claws and the corresponding facial hair, but how useful would that really be? And if I'm honest with myself, I'm no Logan. Despite the fact that spiders creep the heck out of me, Spider-Man is a champion of the bookish-folk. He's a goof—always joking, to himself, for the most part, and wiry. He teaches us to laugh at ourselves, laugh at the small stuff, and laugh at the big stuff. Spider-Man is the little guy, which is why I think it makes an odd sense that he's separated (at Sony) from the rest of the Marvel group (Disney).

So, since this new Spider-Man movie has come out, reviews have been popping up all over the place, like here for Forbes (by Mark Hughes, who I think nails it), here for Wired, here for NYT and here's the ever-surly Christopher Orr's take, for The Atlantic. And I suggest you give all of them a look, they'll teach you a lot about how movie reviews are supposed to sound. The best way I can describe it is like trying to describe something while standing very, very far away. Like, you had the thing in your hands, but then hid it and ran a mile before stopping to talk about it... maybe this piece will sound the same. I wonder why critics seem, by and large, so crotchety. If I keep writing about movies, will I end up the same way? If I am crotchety while using clever, review-y jargon, does that make it better? Granted, I got pretty crabby about Terrence Malick, twice, but in a fun, funny way, right? So that makes me better, yes...

But yeah, there were a few things that this movie got me thinking about. 1) I will always be a little grumpy about the fact that every super hero movie is not rated 'R', and, by recognizing that, be okay with it, 2) The claustrophobia of villainy in superhero movies (does it ever work? How (not)?), and 3) a spoiler-laden end beat on how some bold choices made by this movie in the third act might be changing the stakes for this film genre. You know what? Scratch that. I won't go beyond saying "I think some bold choices made by the filmmakers change the stakes for this film genre."

It doesn't even have to be the thirteen-year-old in us that enjoys this film. There is a little boy in the movie who is saved by Spidey (and doesn't go bonkers, like the villain) and shows up again later to face-off against a baddie while we wait for Spider-Man to get there. That's the kid. That's the kid going to see this movie, not guys in their late twenties like me who still want to swing from rooftops and climb buildings and hear Spider-Man let loose an "Oh Shit!" whenever he's about to get clocked. This movie does a fine job in audience recognition. They know it's a kids movie, but also have to try and make the rest of us love it as well. It's hard to do! I suggest anyone in college, or (especially) beyond, use their imagination when watching this movie. Fill in the blanks. For me, Spider-Man says, "Shit!" a whole lot. I think that's what the "Spidey-Sense" is, so I make the switch in my brain.

Moving on. Be warned, I get a bit more specific concerning the plot here. The wretched Spider-Man 3 had three villains, and so does this. It seems a common consensus that the last thirty minutes of The Dark Knight were a bit of a stretch, like Nolan should have just let Two-Face kill a couple cops then disappear until the next movie, where could have by then organized his own crime syndicate. The Avengers was equally crowded, though more by heroes than Villains. Yes, Whedon new what he was doing, but since he let the audience watch the heroes battle each other, which is what everyone wanted, Loki felt more like a nuisance than actual threat. But back to The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and how this claustrophobia of villainy is an inherent part of comic-book adaptations, especially Spider-Man.

Let's face it. All of these movies, however original the screenplay, are adaptations of graphic novels, and just as adaptations of traditional novels must play by their source material's rules, so must this genre. reviewers have derided the "Tangled Mess of Plotlines," how "utterly wasted Giamatti" was as Rhino bookending the film, and how Osborn's Green Goblin was shoehorned into the final act. Sure, Harry Osborn was an empty device used to move plot; he was absolutely no match for Spider-Man, and also detracted from the weight of Electro's place as super villain. But this is the world of Spider-Man, and comics. There's always something going on. Someone, somewhere is doing something they shouldn't and the hero has to stop them.  Think of the Arkham games, especially Arkham City. Batman has to, in the span of one night, take down virtually every single villain he's ever known. This is the nature of pretty much every superhero universe. Marc Webb did with Rhino what Christopher Nolan should have with Two-Face, and The Amazing Spider-Man 2, was fun, shiny, sufficiently acrobatic and sentimental, all while delivering a movie appropriate for children that appeals to adults.

Final Note: Shout out to "Paranoia," the Electro theme. It kicks so much ass, and even manages to complicate and develop the character.