365 Days: 50 Shades of WTF

Wow. What a treat. For some reason 365 Days is trending on Netflix, a feat I was so proud of Avatar: The Last Airbender for achieving and now I feel like that success is sullied by this gross, horribly acted, poorly written, bizarrely directed adaptation of a Polish author’s trilogy of books who is, shockingly, a woman. All due credit to directors like Michael Bay who turn women into lips and boobs and sweaty trophies to be shunted from one place to another, but you really can’t beat the way some very successful female authors are capable of turning their main characters into vapid, objectified caricatures whose only personality is ‘hot’. It’s got to take an almost Uncle Ruckus type level of self-loathing on their parts but I can’t really fault them because, well, there’s sure as hell an audience for this kind of story. Credit is also due for transforming their male “protagonists” into domineering, preening, sex obsessed, well…. predators, it’s equal opportunity if both sexes are portrayed as everything that we try to teach children it’s not okay to be.

I understand this is fantasy, that hasn’t escaped me but it’s pretty fucked up fantasy. After the son of a mafia boss watches his father get murdered by a…sky bullet or something, Massimo sees a hot lady on the beach and is enamored as he lays in a pool of his and his father’s blood. Five years later he randomly sees her again while glancing out of the car window while pulling into the airport and recognizes her. That’s some wild shit right there, I can barely remember someone’s face after an hour of conversation but Massimo immediately sets a plan into motion to, let me check my notes here…, ah, yes. Kidnap her from her best friend and boyfriend, cover it up with a note and imprison her for 365 days during which he will try to earn her true love but if he doesn’t she’s free to go. You know. Like ya do.

Now, I don’t daydream as much as I did when I was a kid, I miss it to be honest, but even back then when I was lost in my imagination and things took a weird turn I had the presence of mind to think, nah, heh, that actually just stupid, back it up a few beats. Blanka Lipińska, whose novel this film is based on, apparently never developed that same editorial instinct because this character, Laura, just kind of goes with being abducted and torn away from her life in order to fill the niche desires of a career criminal and sexual predator because he saw her on the beach one time after he got shot a little bit. Contrary to what some friends and exes might assert, I am not a girl, so I don’t quite understand this obsession fantasy, this desire to have a powerful, dangerous figure basically threaten sexual violence but stop short so many times eventually I’m like, well now I actually want to, good job knowing that I wanted to be choked and thrown around and afraid for my life but not really because you, in fact, love me. I must have looked so good on that beach where you saw me one time while you were in shock and had just lost your father to murder and were also bleeding out. 

I do have to be completely honest, however. When the credits suddenly and inexplicable rolled, oh, I don’t know, halfway through the third act I was enormously disappointed. Somehow this artless, exploitative, utterly tone-deaf travesty of a film had me invested, I needed to know where it was going, not why, I’d given up on “why” about 15 minutes in when the main male character sexually assaults a flight attendant but it’s okay because she masturbated about it later. Because I guess consent can be retroactive, way to think fourth-dimensionally, Europeans. But for some reason I had find out what happens to these characters I didn’t really care about, maybe it was morbid curiosity, or maybe it was horniness. Or some combination of the two? Morbid Curi-Orniness. Apparently, a sequel has been greenlit by Netflix but filming has been delayed by some kind of contagion, I don’t know, I’m in Texas and we’re all carrying on like nothing is wrong.

A word on directing. What’s odd is that 365 Days looks pretty spectacular. It could be that technology and digital filmmaking is at a point where any toddler can point a Red camera at a pile of rocks and make it look like art, but the lighting, set design, and cinematography are all top notch, this movie looks fantastic, it’s like a Bond film had a baby with a watch commercial. And then someone filmed softcore pornography on top of that baby. This is, again, not a compliment to the directing because the camera work itself is remarkably awful. As in it’s almost impressive how wrong the decisions are to film, for instance, an intimate dinner scene by swaying inexplicably back and forth like a pair of adolescents clutching each other at a Sadie Hawkins dance trying desperately to find the beat and failing, failing, failing. The constant orbiting of characters is a problem that makes it hard to understand whom is speaking to whom or why. Camera positions and blocking are used to communicate standing and strength or vulnerability, to imply a comfortable relationship between X and Y or an antipathy between W and Z. But if the camera is just wandering around aimlessly it’s an entire avenue of communicating information shut down.

It occurs to me that the name of the film is 365 Days because that’s how long Massimo needs to make his victim love him, and that I wondered how he was going to come up with a full year’s worth of sexy, seductive Stockholm Syndrome stuff to do and apparently so did the filmmakers because the story itself only lasts about 2 months. And when it ends, oh, man. I had to rewind the damn thing to make sure I hadn’t missed something. I hadn’t, there’s nothing to miss, but damn if it didn’t make want more. Laura Biel, the main love interest had a character arc that consisted of, essentially, that she was a brunette at the beginning of the film and blond at the end. Massimo was a blank slate at the beginning, a sex criminal in the middle, and a sadder sex criminal at the end because of something called the Hero’s Journey? This all happened in the middle of some kind of mafia war that some of the unnamed side characters who were not sexy and naked all the time insisted was going on. If you say so, more unrealistic sexual positions, please!

Any real review boils down to a recommendation or the polite suggestion to save your time and in this case, I’d give 365 Days a shot for one reason. Well. Two reasons. That first one is that I learn a lot about storytelling and film from good movies, the really good ones are great for inspiration but I learn exponentially more from bad films. You learn pacing and what bad acting looks like and how much can go wrong and it’s fun to learn, thanks Levar Burton. The second reason is the music and you’ll have subtitles on because there are three different languages spoken and English is no one’s first but the music, oh the music, the wonderfully corny, sappy, trite euro-pop and the lyrics therein. Bellisimo. Because this big ol’ slab of man named Michele Morrone can also get rapey jiggy with it.

The Witcher – Black Magic Woman and/or Man

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First of all, let me get something off my chest that has been bothering me for weeks: why the hell are the episodes of The Mandalorian so short? I know a lot of focus has been on how pants-shittingly adorable Baby Yoda is but if you subtract that one little guy how compelling has the show been, really? I finally lost my cool after this week’s episode, Chapter 7, which was a grand total of 35 minutes long. I believe that Jon Favreau is a first time showrunner, which is understandable but this is Star Wars, hire some more guys, flesh the thing out, take your time. If you add to the fact that the show’s a Western, you’re already padding out the runtime with lots of landscapes and staring into the middle distance. Through a helmet. Disney Plus’ catalogue of original content is already pretty anemic and I almost found myself actually asking for some filler episodes until I realized that they are almost all filler episodes. It’s the second to the last episode of the season and we finally get to meet the Big Bad, for all of two minutes. With the flak that The Rise of Skywalker is getting I find myself truly dumbfounded, how is it so hard to do a Star War? It was invented by a guy that went on to make Howard the Duck and had the balls to release it to the public, for heaven’s sake, on purpose. And these muppets can’t crack the code.

Anyway.

So The Witcher, despite the critical consensus, is a very good show but I understand some of the opinions to the contrary. The first issue is with the pilot, which has a similar problem as the first novel, which I tried and failed to get invested in and that problem is an absence of world-building. Characters just start talking about the different kingdoms and locales as if this the third or fourth season instead of the first, so there is no sense of geography. This is something, and I’ll apologize now because the comparisons are inevitable, that Game Of Thrones did very well from the outset, we start beyond the wall, we travel to Winterfell, then further south. Maps are shown. Allegiances explained. The whole of Westeros and beyond felt lived in, real and palpable.

I have no idea what the layout of what has only peripherally been referred to as ‘The Continent’ is, and this is including any knowledge I gleaned from the book. I have no idea where Rivia is relative to the show’s events. And worse, the names of places are very stupid, that’s just inarguable, they seem like someone stuck their hand in a bag of Scrabble pieces, grabbed a bunch and threw them at the wall. Again, Winterfell, that makes sense to me, King’s Landing, must be important, what in the ever-loving hell is a Blaviken? Uh oh, Cintra is under attack, even though it sounds like the name of an off-brand household cleaning product, it’s curious that the showrunners didn’t pick up on this disorienting, even alienating misstep by the narrative that very probably dissuaded some viewers right out of the gate.

However, like any decent show with a capable showrunner, as the episodes progress the writing staff get better and better at figuring out what kind of thing they are making and this is clearly the case with The Witcher. What that thing is, exactly, is closer in tone to an R-Rated big budget clone of Hercules/Xena: Warrior Princess, and if you for some reason interpret that observation as pejorative or insulting to The Witcher, what’s it like growing up with no joy, having had a shitty, friendless childhood? Those shows were terrifically entertaining if you could look past the production value and some of the acting and the same can be said of this new series, it’s a lot of fun disguised as a Dark Fantasy, grown-up softcore romance novel.

Lauren Schmidt Hissrich has a great track record with Netflix and her resume goes back as far as The West Wing, so you know I’m on board. What she has brought to the story is something that I felt was missing from that first book and that thing was a female perspective. I don’t mean there aren’t some strong female characters in the book, sort of, and I don’t mean this in a social justice kind of way, I mean that The Last Wish, the first in the series, is a book in a category of Fantasy that I just don’t get behind.

Take the Lord of the Rings books, for example, those were written by a guy who invented a language first and then wrote a story around that language until it became a fully realized world. A Song of Ice and Fire was written by an historian who cribbed the real life War of the Roses to create a story that was full of rich characters and dynamic alliances. The Witcher books appear to have been written by a man who saw a lot of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone movies in the 80s and thought, I gotta get a character like that fighting witches and ghouls and things. So that’s a bit reductive and rude, I would apologize to Andrej Sapkowski but I doubt he’d hear me through the Scrooge McDuck-style mountains of cash he’s made from his terrifically successful series of novels, so, good for that man but he can take it.

Although the action scenes are well-written, something that is very hard to do, I was sort of put-off by this character, who, while laying injured and barely conscious in bed, gets mounted by some super sexy nurse within the very first scene of the book. I get that this is some people’s fantasy style, it’s just not mine, and if anyone is curious about my contemporary taste in the genre, I’m fully on-board with the Wheel of Time series which was as brilliant as it was loooong, I’ve dipped my toe in the Kingkiller Chronicle, got all the way through Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series before waking up to the wretched, derivative Ayn Randian fan-fic it really is, and have some real affection for the Gentleman Bastard series by Scott Lynch. I also have a Dark Tower tattoo but that’s kind of a different animal all together.

So when I say that The Witcher needed a female perspective I’m not trying to impress some liberal chicks, I literally mean that it’s narrative is missing that other perspective to feel like a more complete story and that’s, again, where the TV series succeeds. The equal time given to developing the character of Yennefer is so much more interesting, I barely registered her in the book but here she’s a living breathing part of that world.

Also, good for Henry Cavill. As a nerdy kid and a pretty nerdy adult I don’t usually empathize with guys who are that fucking handsome but I really do feel for the dude. He’s a full on nerd himself, he plays WoW, he was obsessed with Geralt of Rivia and lobbied relentlessly to get the role and he really owns it in a way that is rarely seen, it’s absolutely pitch-perfect casting. Why do I feel bad for him? Well, his Superman was just fine in a series of movies that were really, really not fine and that role may be lost to him finally. Also, The Man from UNCLE is one of the best action/spy films of the last decade that no one saw and established, for me at least, how incredibly charming and funny he can be when he’s not being directed by Zach Snyder.

It’s nice to see the guy get a role that he clearly loves this much and I think that it shows in his physicality and raw enthusiasm. Usually I prefer a bit of wacky Whedon-esque turns of phrases in my fiction but the man lands a frustrated, defeated, “……..fuck.” so perfectly that I can excuse the brevity. The action sequences are as thrilling and well executed as I would have hoped for, I was a little concerned that not much of them were revealed in the trailers but that appears to have been intentional, as a treat rather than a selling point.

The rest of the cast is…good. Anya Chalotra is a great new find and I’m thoroughly enjoying the other newcomer Joey Batey as Jaskier (he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page!), who brings much much needed levity and humor to a story that is dangerously close to being swallowed up in it’s own seriousness and self-importance. Beyond that I need a rewatch to remember the rest of the cast, sometimes they just kind of come and go without being well-explained. This comes back to that first problem and geography, the same thing happens with the drama, no effort is made to establish who or what the hell is happening until after it’s taken place. This is troublesome.

The big question everyone is asking and joking about on Reddit, is this the next Game of Thrones and I’ll take that one if you don’t mind: no, no it’s not and it never will be. And that’s okay. The thing is, what made GoT so fantastic and intricate, so unpredictable and shocking, so affecting is because of one George R.R. Martin. Now that the series collapsed under the weight of the showrunner’s incompetence, laziness, and I’d argue contempt for their audience, it’s clear that he was the one and only thing that made that story tick.

And there’s not going to be another George Martin, it’s just not happening. Maybe someday another will rise but he was the big love of our pop culture lives, folks, the real thing for this generation and now that that’s over we should stop asking for the next one. Instead, we’ll have to be content with things like The Witcher, which may not be true love, but it might just undo it’s nurses uniform and slide into bed with us while we convalesce over Jon and Dany and Arya and give us a good, stupid romance novel-style snog and that’s fine. That’s going to have to be enough.

 

 

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker- This Is Fine

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One of the first viral videos I ever experienced, possibly before the term had even been established, involved some proud family recording their child’s very first steps in the world. The kiddo in question slowly found his footing using a couch as a crutch before wobbling forward on his own, a landmark moment for anyone, while the family cheered with excitement off-screen. The family dog, one of those small yippy ones that no one who isn’t the owner really likes, walked casually into frame, hunched up his back and proceeded to drop a few rounds of freshly digested Kibbles and/or Bits alongside this child’s first real accomplishment in life. The family roared with laughter, of course, (how funny!) and the child seemed to sense he’d lost the spotlight without knowing how or exactly why. So, disoriented, the child tries to reposition, loses his balance, and falls ass-first into the dog’s droppings, and his loving parents lose their ever-loving shit, all while making no effort to assist the kid in his new predicament.

If this story seems out of place in a review allow me to clarify. Going into The Rise of Skywalker, I perused some high level reviews and scores and got the sense that what I suspected after the first trailer was released, that it would be bad. Very, very bad. The Force Awakens, in this example, is like that child in the viral video, in the beginning unsophisticated, well-meaning, but not in anyway reinventing the wheel or impressing anyone who wasn’t already completely invested in the end result. The Last Jedi is that dog. Now, I’ll still defend that movie to some Star Wars fans if only by saying that while I think it’s a better movie than audiences give it credit for, I’ll admit it’s a very bad Star Wars movie; it’s incongruous with the rest of the canon, it undeniably shunted contemporary social politics into a space opera about wizards and robots, and it is guilty of being, in the end, pedantic and joyless. But it is also a surprising and I’d argue bold head-fake. Just like that damn dog when it pulls up to do his business, no one viewing it didn’t go, ‘Wait, what am I watching now? This is not what I expected,’ which doesn’t make it good automatically, however it does take some real shots and I’ll respect a film that takes the wrong shots over none at all, he said, looking conspicuously in the direction of The Force Awakens. 

It’s just too bad that neither that first or second act of this trilogy appeared to have an endgame in mind, nor did their directors JJ Abrams and Rian Johnson, seem to have compared notes at all while making entries in this, you know, massively influential billion dollar franchise and cornerstone of modern pop culture. This has resulted in wildly disparate takes on the same characters and story arcs, such as they exist at all and while the blame for failing to coordinate a singular tone or narrative theme is theirs to own, I don’t hold them ultimately accountable for the sequel trilogy’s failures. The guilty persons or person in this situation are the studio heads in Disney and Kathleen Kennedy herself for not doing one simple thing at the beginning of this whole goddammer, and that’s find a Kevin Feige. One creative talent to rule them all, to conceive some incarnation of the Hero’s Journey, the thing that so thoroughly and effectively permeated the original trilogy and, shockingly, is even portrayed adequately with some fits and starts in the prequel trilogy, which failed for entirely other reasons. Reason. One reason, (George Lucas).

I am no Lucas fanboy, far from it clearly, but after the resurrection of the Star Wars Universe in the 90s turned one of the greatest villains in cinematic history into an obnoxious little kid and then a petulant, hormonal teenager, and then child-murderer I thought that things couldn’t get any worse, and that the quality of the original movies was somehow tarnished by these hours long toy commercials with razor thin plotting and cardboard characters.

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One of the great things about growing up is learning how to admit when we are wrong, and boy was I ever. As much as the thought of watching the prequels again makes me mildly nauseous, I have to at least give Lucas credit for having some vision for how his characters would develop. for having some direction. Anakin’s failure to save his mother feeds into his drive to save the love of his life from the same fate, whatever the cost, Obi-Wan’s desire to train Anakin despite the Jedi Council’s warning, and the Council thinking they know what’s best because they are all knowing and have this spectacular view of Coruscant, all of this is pretty good stuff. This is obsession, hubris, arrogance all the things that lead to the downfall of the Republic, all good intentions gone awry while again, badly written and directed but at least composed of fundamental storytelling techniques. At least there seemed to be a point.

Back to the little kid and that goddamn dog. The Rise of Skywalker, fortunately or unfortunately for my analogy, is not quite the small child tumbling into a pile of dog shit that I was anticipating now that I’ve seen it. I may get some heat about this and also some distrust, since I also said that I liked The Last Jedi when it came out but I honestly enjoyed this last entry far more than I was expecting. Is it flawed? Oh, most definitely. Is it a return to the fan service pandering that littered The Force Awakens? Spectacularly. Is it entertaining, though? That’s the real question and I’ll answer with this; yes, yes it is. Come at me, bro. I won’t suggest for a second that JJ Abrams is a more intelligent director than Rian Johnson, but he is just a better entertainer when it comes to this kind of material. This is crowd pleasing, cacophonous, emotionally manipulative fluff and it’s right in JJ’s wheelhouse, it’s how he dragged the Star Trek Universe back from the bold frontiers of exploring science and the human condition down into the dregs of garbage, soulless action films akin to The Fast and The-… YES, I admit again that I am primarily a Star Trek fan (*produces a switchblade, inexplicably, and retreats*).

Surprisingly, I’m content and thoroughly pleased with this final entry. There is a conversation about identity and fate and the whole Light Side/Dark Side dilemma. It’s about family and blood and how friendship can transcend both those things. A fucking planet gets blown up.  And most importantly, to me, anyway, Carrie Fischer gets the right send-off,  I couldn’t have asked for a better one, so all glib aside, cheers to Abrams and company for that. It’s entirely possible that my expectations were so low to begin with that anything superior to Jar Jar Binks kicking BB-8 around like a soccer ball for two and half hours while spitting out definitely racist tropes and banter would feel like success, but in all honesty those expectations, in tandem with the almost gleeful destruction of every mystery box/hanging plot thread Rian Johnson could get his hands on in The Last Jedi, (like Edward Scissorhands, he only wanted to love but all did was hurthas led The Rise of Skywalker to feel almost like a standalone film on it’s own.

We know the characters, we have some idea of the central conflict (First Order = Bad, Kylo Ren = Evil Cosplayer, Rey = Searching for Purpose/Good at All The Things) but what’s been missing is provided in TROS and that’s a true Big Bad, even if JJ had to return to the well to find it. As a standalone affair this last entry has to pipe a ton of exposition into it’s run-time, as well as undo a lot of the damage to the Star Wars Universe done by Johnson. This is largely accomplished with a few offhand comments that attempt to explain away the things that had the more toxic members of the fanbase throwing conniption fits all over the internet for the last two years. And while that same fanbase is going to sing the NUMA NUMA song at the top of their lungs in a perceived victory at Abrams revisions, they are also going to have to acknowledge the narrative tools Johnson introduced that JJ has appropriated, expanded on, and used to great effect in this last film. I won’t go into any more detail than that for fear of spoilers but I was definitely pleased to see more than a little DNA from The Last Jedi leftover in The Rise of Skywalker.

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Speaking of which. All the money in my pocket against all the money in your pocket says that they came up for the title of this film before they had a story. I’ve been avoiding negativity here because it all feels like low-hanging fruit but this would be incomplete without some, so here goes. Not enough Rose Tico? I don’t know. It definitely feels like it was written by five different guys as the conclusion to a trilogy written by three other guys. The transformation of Emperor Palpatine and the Knights of Ren into the Night King and the frickin’ Nazgul was a bold choice, Cotton, let’s see if it pans out. Also the introduction of a Sith homeworld with a whole secret entrance or whatever would have been great information if it had been brought to my attention YESTERDAY. Seriously, did we not know about this stuff and why couldn’t it have been set up or hinted at or foreshadowed years ago? Like how Senator Palpatine was hiding in plain sight in the prequels for two whole movies, I mean it was boring but at least it gave us something to look forward to and then the moment came and Sam Jackson got defenestrated and we were all like, well I guess that was worth it.

Seriously, was it really so difficult to explore the First Order and maybe develop some structure or impetus? How about this, after the Empire was destroyed the primary members of the Order came from a single planet or system that was unfairly vilified, disproportionately so by the re-emergent Republic and that resulted in famine and poverty until some charismatic nutjobs came along and whipped everyone up into a nationalistic furor. They started rebuilding and taking back territory while the rest of the galaxy just partied and APPEASED them because they could Not See how powerful they were becoming? Etc. Etc. See the comparison I’m making there? The historical parallel? It’s Nazis. They could have made them Nazis. So that would flesh out the first two entries in the series and, bonus points, contemporary political statement as well, TRIPLE WORD SCORE. But instead JJ and company just couldn’t be bothered.

As much as I probably need to check the movie out one more time to be sure, my affection and legitimate enjoyment of The Rise of Skywalker is apparently the minority opinion. Critically it’s taking a bit of a drubbing and that’s a shame, while flawed and rushed and a dozen other things, the cast and crew clearly have poured their all into this movie and that’s not nothing. It’s also easier for me to sit back and throw a big thumbs up because I don’t feel a sense of ownership over it or the Original Trilogy, I have other things to get worked up over (I’m coming for you, Star Trek: Discovery). I’m more disappointed in the fact that I wasn’t able to conclude my original analogy. Who is the little kid that falls in dog poop? Is it the audience? Is it the entire Intellectual Property that is the Star Wars franchise? Oh, I know. It’s JJ Abrams. Definitely.

 

 

 

El Camino- A Breaking Bad Movie: Once More, With Feeling

Vince Gilligan, aside from having phenomenal taste in music, is going to go down as one of the preeminent television writer/show runners of all time but, having walked out of El Camino: A Breaking Bad movie, he is still specifically that; a television writer. I don’t want that to seem like a disparagement on any level, far from it but just based on the pacing and structure El Camino doesn’t feel like a film, rather than a coda, a supplement to the original five seasons and there is nothing wrong with that. Television, with respect to Film, is not a lesser medium just a different one, as shows like The Sopranos and The Wire have established. As for any kind of verdict on the final product, it’s exactly what a fan of the show would hope for while feeling closer to the nod-and-wink affection towards its audience that the Deadwood movie smacked of than a stand-alone reinvention that was Serenity to Firefly.

By that I mean it’s much more difficult to transfer a great television show into a good movie than vice versa. Who, as a writer, is the audience? The original fan base? New viewers? Some combination of the two? Vince Gilligan, I believe, is aiming for something else with El Camino and it’s that he’s made something for the cast and crew, for the feeling of family that clearly developed among the principals and the supporting cast. It feels like something out of Kevin Smith’s oeuvre, if that word can be applied to his body of work, like an opportunity to give this incredible cast the chance to say one last great bit of dialogue before exiting stage right.

And do they ever. Again, I am not faulting Gilligan for being a television writer, but damn if he can write. El Camino is replete with cameos of characters gone by and each visit with these characters feels like a visit from a ghost who has some profound wisdoms to share and while I wasn’t rolling my eyes going into them I was trepidatious. It’s easier to step in trite than it is to step in dogshit in my backyard and I never pick up the backyard at my house. Ever. But Gilligan, he lands every single one of these scenes, he lands them with perfect effect and after each one I found myself drifting off in thought, even though the action had started up again. This is unimaginably difficult in a drama where you want that action to continue, usually flashbacks make me want to hit fast forward immediately. Not the case here at all.

I shelled out a months worth of Netflix subscription to trek out and see El Camino in the theaters. Why? Because Vince Gilligan told me to and honestly, he deserves it. But is it required watching on the big screen? I don’t think so. It’s good, very beautiful, his love affair with one of my favorite landscapes, the American Southwest, is still going strong and the cinematography is outstanding but the theater experience is so staggering in scale and scope at this point, thanks to films like Fury Road and Dunkirk, that a little indie darlings don’t quite meet the cut for required viewing. As a memory, sure, very cool and a little surreal seeing some of my favorite television characters on the big screen, but most home setups are going to be perfectly adequate.

A few negatives. The film itself feels both compressed and a bit stretched out. It occurred to me as it started that I really didn’t know what it was going to be about. At all, which is unusual. And it honestly feels like El Camino doesn’t know either until maybe the 45 minute mark. So until then it’s a little bit too detailed, if that makes any sense. To put a finer point on it one of Gilligan’s gifts is his magnificent confidence as a visual storyteller. His ability to communicate a ton of information within a few gestures or frames is what makes Breaking Bad so hypnotic. Nothing goes to waste. No shot is without purpose. But that efficiency is missing in the first act, along with, you know, an antagonist. It somehow also feels like, when it knows where it’s going, it’s in a little bit of a rush to get there and I kind of wish this had been fleshed out as a four part mini-series instead.

Then there is the curse of Gus Fring. As outstanding as the last season of Breaking Bad was, Jack and his gang of Neo-Nazi fuckwits were quite simply underwritten. This is fine, it’s a show about Walt and his family, not a bunch of racist assholes. But after the epic and spectacular clash of wits that was season 4 nothing else really compared. That’s the story here, unfortunately, and the MacGuffin is a little bit small town for the places and heights that this show went to. Also fine, Jesse always was that, it was Walt that attracted spectacular disaster after spectacular disaster.

The question is, does El Camino accomplish what it set out to do and the answer to that is an emphatic yes. Jesse Pinkman fleeing his imprisonment as the cops closed in was a loose thread in an otherwise complete story and the character deserved better than that. Here we have what amounts to an encore, an addendum that fills in some gaps that only the original creator knew were there. It’s a worthy addition to the canon and a charming visitation by the ghost of a beautiful thing, a pop culture darling that somehow came and went on its own terms, on its own time. Vince Gilligan says he is almost certainly done with this Universe, having handed off the reins to Better Call Saul to the extremely capable Peter Gould but should he change his mind or find some inspiration this ghost is welcome back any time.

Spider-Man: Far From Home – Bright and Illustrious Illusions

I hold the unpopular opinion that while Tom Holland is perfectly charming and his efforts in the role of Spider-Man so far are completely acceptable offerings, he is not and probably never will be my Spider-Man and that is totally fine, he’s not really supposed to be. I feel that way not in order to be a troll or a killjoy, I don’t want attention for that position and will never write a hate-piece pointing out the flaws and inconsistencies in Jon Watts’ webhead. I respect the popularity of this depiction and sit quietly in the back of the theater while everyone else has their fun. Knock yourselves out.

But to put a fine point on it the things I loved about Peter Parker, the things that made me want to grow into a man like him was his independence and ingenuity and, primarily, his humor. Parker was funny because he was smart, not because he was bumbling and awkward and unfortunately Holland’s version leans so far into those tropes that I simply don’t care for the character in the way that I did. And if there are objections to that criticism all I have to do is direct eyes right… right at the tonally brilliant Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse which does a much better job of breathing life into the comic incarnations, multiple incarnations at that, that it becomes an unenvious position of trying to follow that act.

Spider-Man: Far From Home is superior to Homecoming in nearly every sense, from its scale to its humor and supporting cast to, most importantly, its villain and that’s saying something considering how frightening and fun Michael Keaton’s Vulture was but if there was a flaw to his depiction it’s that he disappeared inside of a big CGI robot that just smashed everything in sight. But man, I gotta say, I love Jake Gyllenhaal. I have for a long time, he seems like the kind of actor who both really loves his work and throws himself into it with pure enthusiasm, I really think he deserves a good popular role finally, something that isn’t buried in an obscure indie film and he seems to have found it here in Mysterio, and unlike Keaton, he gets to work both sides of the street in costume and out of it, as a hero and nemesis.

Far From Home also benefits from having only two listed writers this go around instead of Homecoming‘s six and the result is considerably more consistent. Someone at a pitch meeting said “Cross a Marvel movie with European Vacation but get rid of the parents and focus on Rusty and we’re off to the races”. We’ve also beefed up Zendaya’s role as some kind of April Ludgate zygote and the result is mostly successful if largely predictable.

Speaking of predictable. I’ll not deny going into Far From Home a little bored, with lowered expectations, it’s an odd coda to a largely complete Phase 3 after the trauma and rollercoaster of emotion that was the final two Avengers films. It’s a little like the scene at the end of (spoilers but, I mean, kind of obvious) The Impossible the Ewan McGregor/Naomi Watts (oh and a young Tom Holland!) movie about the Indonesian tsunami in 2004 that killed nearly 230,000 people. In the beginning the family is going on vacation in Thailand and the mom and dad are a little anxious about flying, the plane ride makes them nervous and then they experience one of the most horrifying and destructive natural disasters in modern history and, after surviving, they get on a plane home, recall their earlier flight jitters and have a surreal moment that translates into big fucking deal now, eh. So what the hell is Spider-Man going to bring to the table after all that?

Well. I’d posit that I have not seen a better depiction of a true Spider-Man villain brought to the screen as well as Mysterio. I have not been so effectively brought back to the thrill and imagination I experienced when I first started reading comic books, where the bad guy has to be outsmarted rather than outpunched. That’s the thing that rarely gets through in the MCU besides maybe Doctor Strange, more often in the stories the heroes had to figure out a solution or a counterattack rather than just hit things and that’s because hitting things is boring to read, it’s dull when it’s a static drawing which is what compelled comic writers to come up with real resolutions. In Far From Home Spidey isn’t up against a comparable variation of his own abilities that he can just out webswing. He has to come up with a strategy and utilize his skillset. He has to trust his powers. He has to be smarter than the villain, not just stronger.

And that’s the crux of Spider-Man. That’s what made him a hero, his brain rather than brawn. As expected and shamelessly reiterated throughout the MCU, Iron Man is ubiquitous and nearly all-powerful, he’s the Swiss Army Knife and the deus ex machina and there isn’t a better example of that than Far From Home and that’s also okay. RDJ casts a big shadow, he’s inarguably the godfather of the whole shebang but at a certain point the children have to start making their own way and if this last entry of Marvel’s three phase universe, it’s a well executed, well intentioned, terrifically entertaining half-step in that direction. But it can be better. It can step out of that shadow. And it can stop giving its antagonists the short shrift; if Thanos, Killmonger, hell, if Loki demonstrated anything it’s that it is possible to create compelling, multi-layered characters who happen to be at odds with conventional expectations of bad guy versus good guy. To put a finer point on it, if the MCU is going to grow up, now’s the time.

Game Of Thrones: Final Thoughts – A Beautiful Disaster

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It’s amusing how divided people are the day after a pop culture experience like this, though there have been few like it ever, outside of the Star Wars films. There are people that defend the episode and try to appreciate it for what it was but those people inevitably end up listing all the things that are wrong with it first, essentially defeating their own case before jumping back to their relentless optimism. Then there are the people who hate the thing and they are just overflowing with so much rage they can hardly form a coherent thought.

Where do I fall in that spectrum? This morning while in the gym I had to take an elliptical that was facing two TV screens, one that had How I Met Your Mother on (hold fast, fans of that show, it was one of the later, incoherent seasons) and Steven A. Smith on the other with the captions unfortunately turned on. Even though I had my phone in front of me I couldn’t look away from either and that 45 minutes was a nearly interminable stretch of time filled with shitty network friendly ‘jokes’ and a crazy, stupid know-it-all who is somehow still a know-it-all despite being wrong all the time. But even after that torturous, sweaty, double barrel blast of annoyingness this morning I was still less irritated and exasperated than I was last night during the Game of Thrones finale which was an episode I didn’t watch as much as endured.

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I’d like to put two arguments to rest, I’m tired of hearing them, David and D.B. were not sabotaged by a lack of content or resources from HBO. They themselves have admitted that HBO basically opened the vault and said we’ll pay for however many episodes you want but they turned them down, stubbornly insisting on two shortened seasons. As for content, read any suggested fan theories about this season or rewrite suggestions. Any of them. There are fans and writers out there who live, breathe, and eat GRRM (ew, I feel like I have beard hair stuck in my teeth), who could pick up where he left off, it’s not like D&D couldn’t look around, take some writing workshops, get some aspiring writers who know the material better than they do (which is a lot of people apparently) and make an effort to come up with a satisfying narrative and if you think that’s a fanboy daydream I present to you: Ronald D. Moore, a Star Trek fanboy who wrote his own fan-fiction, got a tour of the Paramount studios and slipped a script to some PAs. That script got him a job as a screenwriter and the resident expert on Klingons, and eventually he rebooted a little-watched Sci-fi show from the late 70s into another pop culture phenomenon that you may have heard of called Battlestar Galactica.

But Dave and D.B. didn’t do that, instead they said, “No. We know better than you, you’re going to take what we give you, like it or not.” And surprise, nobody likes it. Regarding that petition going around that is closing in on 1.5 million signatures to remake the final season with better writers, it’s kind of sad and won’t have any effect but I understand the need for it, however I think that the use of the word “incompetent” to describe them as writers is inaccurate. Nobody with as many Emmy wins as this David and D.B. have earned should be described as incompetent, instead what they are this season, and the last three I would argue, is fucking lazy, with a borderline contempt for their own audience.

Most of the things that have been wrong this season have been easily re-edited by fans who have also offered small changes or suggestions that almost immediately improve the logic of a given plot line. Writing, they say, is rewriting, but it’s absolutely clear that they didn’t bother with that second step. They didn’t even bother referencing the earlier seasons of their own show for consistency, it’s just not there and if you have to spend 10 minutes in an after episode interview explaining why the characters behaved they way they did, you’ve failed to do what the writers of a show are supposed to do.

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All this is under the blanket excuse of “subverting expectations”, but ask Rian Johnson how that pans out. This is nonsense, of course, it’s possible to meet expectations and still provide a satisfactory conclusion, just because it appears to be impossible to exceed them doesn’t mean throw the series bible out the window. A football buddy of mine once said of a team (I think he was talking about Alabama and if there’s a Jaime/Cersei Roll Tide/incest joke to be made please leave it in the comments and we can be friends!) that it’s not the worst thing in the world to be predictable, as long as you execute. Dave and D.B. did not execute or subvert, they disappointed. Indisputably. Of course, a series this complex wasn’t supposed to have a happy ending but it did deserve a believable one that rewarded its rich characters and lore with a conclusion, not with spectacle and unpredictability.

It is one thing to come up with the unexpected and head-fake the world but, I mean, Bran? Fucking really?

To sidestep the obvious anticlimactic disappointment of promoting the most useless, ill-explained, unlikeable, and thoroughly charmless character in a show replete with wretched unlikeable characters it needs to be acknowledged that none of this shit would have ever happened in the first place if he hadn’t been climbing around, spying on people boning. Some people might call that cyclical or thematic but some people also dress up as characters from My Little Pony and have sex with each other. There’s all kinds of opinions and types out there is what I’m saying but what it is is rewarding a character for a sort of Shakespearean folly, it’s a tragedy without a tragic ending, a hero’s journey where the whole middle two thirds of that journey consist of being pushed around in a wheelchair and doing nothing, the fuck, at all, while also possessing the ability to control animals with his mind, Free Cam into any place he wants, see into the past and future, and, most remarkably, affect the past and interact with it. None of which is ever utilized or addressed after the third or fourth seasons. My expectations are so subverted that I could shit, thanks Dave and D.B., you shiftless, contemptible pricks.

I am available to write greeting card messages or Happy Birthday cards, by the way, in case anyone is looking for some friendly prose and a romantic sense of humor, free of charge of course, I just like to get my name out there and help (miss you, Bill Hicks). And if it’s not immediately clear, I fall into that second camp, the seething rage and incoherent thought group, but that’s not entirely true. The truth is that in my listless stumbling about the interwebs I came across those final plot points a week or so ago and while I will usually get upset at myself or the provider of the leaks, I really didn’t care this time around and that might be the greatest sin of this last season: I just didn’t give a shit. In my apathy I turned to a rewatch and really fell in love with the show all over again, it’s really a remarkable piece of art in a dozen different ways but most importantly was how great the conversations were.

(Tyrion, as The Hand, arrests the Maester that has been spying for Cersei)

Cut his cock off and…feed it to the goats.” Tyrion orders, a callback to his time with the Mountain Tribes.

The guard hesitates, “….there ain’t no goats, M’lord.”

Tyrion waves his had at them in disgust, “Well. Make do.” Before fixing a look on Bronn that says, Can you believe the help around here?

I remembered that the little horror story that Bran’s nursemaid tells him, about the long winter, was more interesting in a few minutes than the entirety of the Battle of Winterfell:

“Oh, my sweet summer child. What do you know about fear? Fear is for the winter when the snows fall a hundred feet deep. Fear is for the the long nights when the sun hides for years, and children are born and live and die, all in darkness. That is the time for fear, my little lord; when the white walkers move through the woods. Thousands of years ago there came a night that lasted a generation. Kings froze to death in their castles, same as the shepherds in their huts, and women smothered their babies rather than see them starve, and wept and felt their tears freeze on their cheeks. So is this the sort of story that you like? In that darkness the white walkers came for the first time. They swept through cities and kingdoms, riding their dead horses, hunting with their packs of pale spiders big as hounds…”

Of course, this is because what is imagined is always more thrilling than what is seen, a lesson lost on D&D.

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I could complain on and on, the most difficult thing about writing this hasn’t been starting as much as throttling the tide of “…wait, what the fuck was the point of the horse, now?” and other tangents I want to go on but the thing that chaps my ass the most is pretty basic and if you’re one of those optimists/delusional people, I really am happy you enjoyed this last season but consider this one, intractable point about that final council with all the JV characters (besides Sansa, of all the nonsense this season, totally good with the Queen in the North); how in the ever-living fuck does a show called Game of Thrones, where the entire premise of this show, the whole engine of suspense and drama and violence and betrayal is built on the ambition of winning said game end on a cadre of third string characters, none of whom want the aforementioned throne.

David: “And then Tyrion, like, he’s done talking, right? And he looks around at the council of noblemen and noble…non-men…what are they called-“. 

D.B.: “Women.”

David: “Noble-womenAnd he’s like, only one of you is fit to sit on the throne…”

D.B. (excited): “Who does he pick? (pours the remainder of a can of Pringles into his mouth).”

David: “Tyrion picks…Sansa.”

D.B.: “Ooohh. But wait, dude! They’ll expect that! Because it makes sense given her experiences and maturity and character arc!”

David: “Shit, you’re right. Not her. Who then? Who else is there?”

D.B.: (consults his notes that are really just drawings of cats)

David: “I got it.”

D.B.: “Who?!”

David: “(pauses for effect) Sansa.”

D.B.: “You just said that.”

David: “FUCK.”

 

Particularly after the whole “Unstoppable, Relentless Undead Army and Ensuing Winter Apocalypse” plot got jettisoned in one episode, the Iron Throne, or what’s left of it, is like the dinner party check at an Applebee’s that nobody wants because you just willingly ate at a fucking Applebee’s. All our chips were put on Cersei being the focus of the show and then she just sat there drinking Two Buck Chuck. In the end, after what he’d done, Drogon should have torched Jon. It just should have happened, I don’t want it but the whole point of the show was that doing the honorable thing in a world where honor gets you killed should have gotten Jon killed. And it would have been a good death. Tyrion should have been killed by Grey Worm who has every excuse to go to the Dark Side with his one true love murdered and his Queen assassinated under his watch, instead he just kind of…arrests him? And the Dothraki just kind of…chill? What would have made more sense is that Grey Worm and the last of Dany’s army become the new villains of the story and the show ends with them on a new conquest to destroy the seven kingdoms. Daenyers’ dream of breaking the wheel only starts the revolution of a new, more violent one. Fade to black.

That’s thematic. That’s tragic and “bittersweet”. The whole concept of the books and the show is that every generations victory is only the beginning of the next generations struggle and that the very nature of humanity, fantastical or otherwise, is a never ending tug of war, a tidal force between order and chaos that is more often run red with blood than not. There’s an attempt to demonstrate this with that last council meeting, that Monty Python-esque comedic exchange as the camera pulls away but what are they ruling over? Who is left? What’s the point. How telling was Sam’s attempt to introduce democracy, with the lords and ladies erupting in laughter at the absurdity of it all, that the common people whose lives are affected should have a voice. And how telling is that scene given the Executive Producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss wrote and directed the episode. What an appropriate middle finger to the crowd.

Game of Thrones, Season 8: Blood Simple

There’s a lot to unpack after last night’s explosive, fiery, thrilling, confusing, but ultimately satisfying episode of GoT, titled simply, The Bells so forgive me if I dispense with the pleasantries (hello, blog, I’ve missed you, it’s been too long, etc.). As with a lot of episodes in the penultimate and now final season they have been thoroughly exciting and mostly unexpected but as the credits rolled my brain would click back on and I would think, ‘Now…wait a minute… that didn’t make any goddamn sense,’ and I was afraid this would be the case with last night’s offering but after a second viewing I can safely say, yes, I think Game of Thrones has stumbled out of the wilderness and found the path again, if only for the time being. If the rumors about the finale are true then I think it’s important to reflect on the show after its finally satisfied and immediately before it pisses everyone off again, and for me personally, I enjoy writing about a thing I like a lot more than complaining about a thing I don’t. So. Here we are.

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I really didn’t like any of this last season up until this point. It’s been stupid, unbalanced, illogical, and a complete waste of 8 years of spectacular character development and build up, just so that it could ‘subvert’ our expectations (re: David and D.B. have been completely held up by GRRM and they don’t really care if anyone knows it or not).  So now that that’s out of the way here’s where the show found it’s footing again. I know a lot of people are upset that their beloved Mother of Dragons has gone full on psychopath, laying waste to King’s Landing and butchering thousands of innocent civilians but I’d make the case that our platinum pixie queen has been a little bit touched for awhile now but we made excuses for her because her atrocities were perpetrated against the slavers of Meereen and their ilk and were in the guise of rescuing the downtrodden. Okay.

But she still did those things. She still cut off people’s heads and lined the roads with them on pikes. She burned to death surrendered foes when it had no real strategic benefit other than to freak people out. And worst of all, she seeks to rule. She wants to be in charge because she wants it, there is no liberation of Westeros that was necessary, no oppressed people. Maybe the Lannisters were assholes and some how relocated King’s Landing to the desert for some reason, fine. But as badly written as she now has become there is a sort of interesting and, I’d say, almost compelling aspect to her falling out with Jon Snow. On the other side of the Narrow Sea she was the most popular girl in school, she got used to the fawning and the adulation only to be met with skepticism and distrust in Westeros. She has said before that her father was rightfully deposed because of his insanity but it doesn’t really seem like she believes that given how adamant she is to return Targaryen rule and her insecurity with Jon’s popularity. Granted, this would have been better developed over, say, half a full season or so instead of two episodes. There was almost a decent arc but David and D.B.’s rush to get out the door has spoiled that so it is what it is.

To say Jon Snow is now probably the most underwritten character all of a sudden is painful to admit. There is so much screen time in The Bells dedicated to Jon staring wistfully off-camera that I kept wondering if he’d just forgotten his lines and Miguel Sapochnik thinks he’s so dreamy to hell with it, use the footage. Also if I can have a word with Jon for a second, “Hey, buddy. I know this is none of my business and all and it’s totally too late after Varys basically called it and y’all were like, naw, she’s good. But this is kind of your fault. There’s still time, I know it’s the last episode and she’s basically confirmed everyone’s worst fears of her return, including ol’ Bobby B who everyone thought was a dick for trying to assassinate a widdle baby but damn if we all don’t have egg on our face on that one, amirite? Heh. So what I’m trying to say is that you can still help by being a good guy and taking one for the team. How is that? By performing you big dumb idiot. Your incredibly hot aunt with a dragon and a family history of mass murder wants a little loving, you make like she’s the ‘winter’ in the Stark family motto, know what I sayin’? It’s not like you haven’t already rang that bell, my friend, don’t get all shy all of sudden. Jon’s awkward rejections of her is what finally triggers the Dark Side and I think he deserves a little blame for not recognizing an obvious and easy ‘yes, dear‘ moment. It’s almost like he’s never had a girlfriend before.

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To get back to the episode, it was refreshing to experience some complexity again, something that is not a constant black and white, good v bad, living against the dead fantasy trope. Like the Battle of the Blackwater years ago there are good guys and bad guys on both sides again. There’s pathos for a lot of the characters involved once more, the stakes have returned! Mostly. I’d also like to make special note of The Golden Company, thank you so much for your contribution to the Game of Thrones saga! Let’s go to the highlight reel….What’s that? Highlight reel isn’t playing?……Oh, there is no highlight reel. Okay, well, thanks Golden Company! I hope the trip out was enjoyable and that you didn’t bother… with return tickets.

Arya. First time around I was a little bit pissed off at how pointless her whole journey was, strutting into the Red Keep with basically a name tag on that says ‘Hi, My Name Is – ARYA STARK HERE TO KILL CERSEI’ instead of utilizing her stealth assassin skills and ability to wear people’s faces. Jaqen must be rolling his…or possibly someone else’s eyes in total frustration at how much she has disregarded her training. But she gets there and Sandor (touching that she called him by his name) tells her to scoot, skidaddle, go back the way we came, what do you think you’re some gladiator bad-ass dead set on exacting your revenge? I learned it from watching you. So she does and then gets caught up in the aftermath of Dany’s rampage and, again, I didn’t understand the whole point of her being there except to be an excuse for more destruction-porn. I mean, it’s a beautiful sequence, particularly at the end but I didn’t understand the purpose of it until a second viewing, and it’s this: Arya has been thinking she’s hot shit since she wiped out House Frey single-handed, an event that has yet to come up beyond a passing mention from Jaime a season ago, like, seriously, has no one noticed the newspapers piling up on the front porch or the complete absence of a military presence on one of the most important strategic locations in Westeros, the Twins, the bridge that connects the North and the South that cost Robb Stark his entire campaign all because of the Florence Nightingale Effect?…

(takes a breath)

Arya has been thinking she’s hot shit since the Frey’s and now she’s a Night King Killer on top of that and, all due respect and disregarding the awful writing, she totally is. However, this whole sequence served to humble our salty, needle-wielding assassinette. She has seen some shit, to be sure, but she’s a long way from seeing it all. This is war. Real war, not an American Gladiator style chase through the streets of Braavos. And now Arya has seen about the worst of it, as deglamorized as it can get and it’s an interesting choice to explore this kind of horror through the eyes of what has been one of the toughest characters in the show.

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As for Greyworm, Jon, and Davos, man, that was about some level 50 characters showing up in a level 12 zone and straight up pwning newbs (really Google Chrome? You accept ‘pwning’ as a word but not ‘newbs’, weird). Let me get a potentially unpopular opinion right out there, right away: I have no problem with Greyworm and the Unsullied and the Dothraki and the remaining Northern Armies cutting the Lannister armies down, unarmed or not, look upon the field where I harvest my fucks and behold, see that it is barren. Up until this point the Lannisters have been the biggest bunch of lying, cheating, stealing sons of bitches in the whole of Westeros, just scumbags and douchebags, the whole lot of them. So for them to finally see the tables turned, to see them suddenly call timeout and expect everyone to start playing by the rules again now that they aren’t calling the shots, no deal, guys. This one’s for Lady Olenna, you motherfuckers.  Truman Capote once wrote or said in his odd voice that the problem with living outside the law is that you no longer have protection of it. Now House Lannister has learned that lesson and are on the verge of being wiped out entirely if not for Tyrion.

Cersei Lannister. You know a character is well written and portrayed when you sincerely hate them and not just in the sense that they are annoying (EURONGREYJOY) as shit. It’s how I felt about Jon Bernthal’s character in The Walking Dead, I really hated the dude and couldn’t figure out why the other characters put up his crazy-ass. Then he gets killed off and suddenly there was this big hole in the show, I realized that even though he was a dick he was a fascinating dick (new band name, claiming it) and was the only character that was moving the plot along. Cersei, by all means, deserves the same credit. She’s been at times pitiable, loathsome, genuine, hateful, vindictive, clever, and a dozen other things without ever really being difficult to understand. I’d argue she’s been the most consistently written character in the whole show, start to finish, and the only one who really is playing, no cliche intended, the eponymous Game in Game of Thrones. everyone else gets distracted or misled but she’s had her eyes on the prize since minute one and although it was a little anti-climactic, I thought her end was suitably tragic.

Fuck Jaime Lannister.

So it’s all over in a week’s time and that’s okay, I’ve honestly been checked out since the Battle of Winterfell. Once that disappointment settled in it became easier to just relax and watch the fireworks. At this point complaining about logical inconsistencies and bad stratagem (Cersei used ‘A BATTERY OF LAND AND SEA BASED BALLISTAE…..it was not very effective) is just peeing in the ocean. Someone asked me recently if I’m bummed out about Game of Thrones ending and Avengers: Endgame all closing out massive nerd franchises around the same time and the truth is I couldn’t be further from it. Because of the popularity of GoT fantasy on television, big budget television, is now a real thing. Amazon is moving forward with a prequel series to Lord of the Rings as well as developing a show based on Robert Jordan’s fantastic Wheel of Time books. And the Avengers will be back, they are practically a mint for Marvel to print money from so this is a good time. Sometimes the old needs to be burned down and cleared out in order for the next generation of stuff to come through. Just like King’s Landing. And maybe Dany was just clearing out all those leftover Wildfire caches. Maybe that’s it. Thanks, Dany! See you next week.

Alita: Battle Angel – Gold Dust Woman

Alternative article title, Alita: Battle Angel- Domo Arigato, Christoph Waltz-O. Changed for the sake of succinctness.

I experienced something while watching Alita: Battle Angel that reminded me of seeing Star Wars: The Phantom Menace on opening night. It was the first time I can remember having a verifiable critical thought towards a movie, before I’d just sort of accepted a film for what it was without finding gaps in logic or storytelling flaws in the way that a casual audiences does. But that thought suddenly intruded and it was simply, “Oh, we’re going now. The movie is just going. And we’re in it. Things appear to be happening.” This feeling of joining the story, seemingly in media res, when there isn’t really anything going on, is disorienting and, ultimately, the worst foot to get off on. The opening of a film is like a handshake, it’s an introduction to the characters and laws of its universe, it’s a sampler of what’s to come and how you’re going to spend the next 2 hours or so of your day. Think Raiders of the Lost Ark, or the original Star Wars, how the opening works like it’s own movie within a movie. Alita: Battle Angel doesn’t do that at all, we’re just watching people do things and provide exposition. In fact, I’m not exactly sure what the stakes were the entire duration of the film. Had the main characters not sought out some kind of conflict nothing of consequence was going to happen, no one is in danger or being oppressed. Everything was fine.

The literal and figurative heart of the story is Alita herself which is a terrific risk to take, it requires the audience to sympathize with this almost purely CGI creation with weird, unnecessarily large eyes and in this Battle Angel so effectively misses the mark it’s hard to know where to look in a given scene. Not to say there isn’t a verisimilitude and charm to her voice and mannerisms, she just visually doesn’t quite escape the Uncanny Valley and her interactions and chemistry with the rest of the cast suffers for it. Visually, it’s as vivid and cacophonous as anything else on the big screen these days but the final product is joyless and devoid of any direction.

All of this is really strange considering the heavy weight talent involved and the amount of time it’s been in production. James Cameron was originally planning to direct this but instead chose to commit the rest of his living days to the Avatar….quadrology (?) and handed the reins over to the occasionally gifted Robert Rodriguez, which, it turns out, is a little like asking a jazz musician to sit in with a classical quartet; to wit, these are two directors who seem to have conflicting skillsets. Rodriguez made his bones volunteering for experimental drug trials in order to fund his first feature, a micro budgeted classic that used wheelchairs in place of camera dollies, who found more success branching into kids films and eventually pioneering the flexibility of digital filmmaking and green screens with Sin City. Cameron, on the other hand, is tyrannical perfectionist and world builder who has some bizarre and magical ability to make films with dull, predictable, recycled plots into the most financially successful movies of all time. Alita makes more sense for the latter to breathe life into, to do whatever Cameron-y thing he does to make an original IP about cyborgs from the future playing Rollerball interesting. Rodriguez fails to do that.

Speaking of which, the least believable thing about this whole used cyborgy future is the suggestion that rollerblading has suddenly become popular again. Look. I understand that this is based on a manga. I even threw my anime eyes on, as it’s a medium that has a different beat to it, a tempo that slightly different than the typical Hollywood formula. Take, for example, Pacific Rim. That movie is, for all intents and purposes, a live action anime, complete with racial and cultural stereotypes. However, Alita doesn’t fit into either camp and at its finale I was a little surprised that it was over. Just from a pacing perspective the third act is, quite simply, missing.

The real shame in the whole experience is not only how much time and effort has clearly been put into the production but the absolutely wasted cast. Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connolly, Mahershala Ali, Jackie Earle Haley, and a truly what-the-fuck cameo at the end that was even more jarring and dog-tilting-its-head-in-confusion inspiring than the sudden and pointless Darth Maul appearance at the end of Solo: A Star Wars Story. Sadly, Alita: Battle Angel has a ton of potential to explore some interesting concepts about identity, humanity, and consciousness that it never bothers to so much as pay lip service to, instead relying entirely on its special effects and cinematography to carry the experience and, even more disappointing, is going to be one more arrow in the sling for studio executives who argue against introducing new or original intellectual properties. And the Transformers sequels will continue coming but at least this time it’s not the audiences fault.

Bohemian Rhapsody: Rose Colored Glasses

Back when the Freddie Mercury biopic was originally being planned and Sasha Baron Cohen was cast I was thrilled at the possibilities, not only to get a better look at the rise and fall of one of rock’s most charismatic and gifted performers but to see Cohen in full on dramatic mode, to see him disappear into a role that he seemed destined for, and more likely than not make a run at a golden statue. However, creative differences surfaced between Cohen, who wanted to tell a gritty, realistic story about the troubled, quixotic lead singer, and the surviving band members of Queen, who wanted a safer, more family friendly depiction of the band’s journey to success. The result is exactly what I was afraid it would be. The trouble with removing the warts and scars and bruises from a biographical film is that what you end up with is just a story about how cool everybody was, and that absence of fidelity to real life is where Bohemian Rhapsody falls short, again and again.

On the one hand it’s nice to see a movie about a band that gives a fair shake to the entire group, akin to Almost Famous, that shows some of the complicated dynamics of four grown adults making music songs for a living. But this film, with creative input and consultation from guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor, is conspicuously unbalanced in favor of the rest of the band who frequently appear as only reasonable, patient, and talented throughout. Granted, Mercury’s excessive lifestyle and personality contributed to the drama and publicity the band received, but to pretend that the other members of the band brought none of their own shit to the table is simply disingenuous. If you’re going to suggest a film that represents the whole band with equal consideration but depict only the late singers demons with any substance, you’ve lost all artistic integrity right out of the gate. What remains is a story where May and Taylor appear to be the only adults in the room that Mercury can never tell his side of.

All that aside, Rami Malek is spectacular. Without his… I don’t even know what word to land on to describe his performance, I suppose it’s an energy, a focus, a positively magnetic screen presence Bohemian Rhapsody not only doesn’t get off the ground, it turns into a charming Movie Of The Week. No one else really brings as much veracity to the film, with the possible exception of Alan Leech, but to be fair no one else is asked to carry much water. So the gamble from a script perspective to rely entirely on Malek to elevate a film that is replete with formula and cliche largely pays off,particularly in the final twenty minutes or so, which is also what the movie is clearly banking on.

Speaking of the script, ugh. Anthony McCarten is responsible for both The Theory of Everything and Darkest Hour, both of which received critical acclaim, however far more than I feel is deserved, particularly for the former. Rhapsody has the same issue as the Stephen Hawking biopic in that McCarten fails to show the progress from failure to success at each step of his subjects journey, instead he skips right to how great they are at everything, which is a little like reading a Wikipedia bio but skipping to the last sentence of each paragraph instead of reading the whole thing through. So instead of showing how Mercury learned to sing and play piano and how he may have converted that into his own musical style, he just knows the band’s music and sings like an angel on his first try. Instead of showing him developing his stage persona, he just goes into a store, buys women’s clothing, and immediately wins over the audience. Skip to a year later. This is not only lazy storytelling, it cheapens the whole experience by not showing how hard earned the success depicted really was.

Ultimately, Bohemian Rhapsody is not without quality, and is by all means worth the price of admission. It is also, however, safe and inoffensive on the whole, handling one of the most important and dramatic aspects of Freddie Mercury’s life, his sexuality, with kid gloves, never really exploring either the stigma of homosexuality in that era or the horror of the AIDS epidemic which the film only casually references without an attempt to put a human face on it. That was an attempt to say something positive that was mostly derailed by my previously stated desire for a true, honest biography about a fascinating human being who lived in a bizarre, frightening time, someone who was simultaneously reviled and revered within his own lifetime and was so clearly doing so brilliantly what he was put on this planet to do. Instead we have Bohemian Rhapsody, which feels more like a pretty good cover band; fun, evocative, maybe full of good intentions but not what Freddie Mercury was: the real thing.

Westworld, Season 2: My First Thought, He Lied In Every Word

There’s a reason films like Fight Club and The Usual Suspects don’t have sequels or that the second season of a show like Mr. Robot never quite recreated the verve or energy of the first: once a show plays that one card, the Unreliable Narrator, it no longer holds a viewer’s attention in quite the same way. It’s a classic fool me once, shame on you, fool me…. you can’t get fooled again, is what I’m saying. Such is the problem with season two of Westworld, a show that I adored enough to renew my HBO Now subscription for but barely made it through to the end. This problem was apparent even in the first season but because of it’s perfectly constructed denouement it was easy enough to forgive. While that season was confusing, it had an endgame in mind and Dolores was the linchpin of the whole thing (even if the whole “Wyatt” misdirection felt a little bit forced and unnecessary). This year, however, any good will that may have been generated is spent. To wit, it’s difficult to get invested in a show that may be openly and consistently lying to your face in every scene. No dark corner or dramatic twist has any suspense or gravity to it when any turn might easily, and sometimes within minutes, be completely undone.

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This is not to suggest that there is any decline in quality in Westworld, if anything it’s even more challenging, even more bold, and jaw-droppingly beautiful, and these are all good things. It’s a once-in-a-generation kind of show that is this willing to hold their audience to a high standard, to expect them to keep up with multiple overlapping timelines, philosophical musings on the nature of reality, the concept of identity and self, determinism versus free will, it’s all a lot to get through on a Sunday evening, while preparing for the work week and I admire Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan for what they have created. But much like the Hosts that have gone rampaging through the park to exact their revenge, their creation has may have escaped them in this new season. Complexity is good but complexity without depth (i.e. real stakes, where characters die and actually stay dead) fails to be what television sets out to be in the first place: entertaining.

In the first season Dolores was experiencing events as they occurred to her over the course of thirty odd years all at the same time, so the past and the future, to her, overlapped and as the viewer we experienced this confusion and eventual comprehension alongside the character and it was a thrilling, compelling experience, unlike anything else on television. But this year, with Dolores now firmly in Kill-Bot mode, Bernard is at the center of our time jumping narrative and we follow his experience in the park in two different time-frames and while at first this is kind of neat it shortly becomes just confusing and, even worse, entirely unnecessary to the narrative. And this is where that lack of trust in the narration kicks in. Without trust, there is no investment, and without an investment, as the viewer, I found my attention drifting about 80 percent of the time.

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To be clear, again, this is in no way bad television and the twists and turns definitely kept people tuned in every week for good reason but if I can, again, fault the season and probably HBO in general, because this is something they do that has rapidly become a trope, and that’s back-load the season to such a degree that it’s no longer a necessity to follow a show week to week. There is so much in the finale “Passenger” to unpack that even the online discussions on places like A.V. Club or Screenrant become so impenetrable that I have yet to finish a single one on just that episode. There’s no conceivable reason why any of the four or five revelations that occur in the finale could not have been metered out through the rest of the episodes and there needn’t be this orgiastic riot of action and violence and M. Night moments shunted into the final 90 minutes of a 12 hour film. Except, perhaps, to create a groundswell in it’s audience, to get everybody talking about what’s going to happen next, which is most likely the motivation and reason behind Bernard’s disjointed narrative. HBO has gotten very good at making must-watch, event television, even if it comes at the expense of logical plot development and resolution.

So 80 percent of this season I was partially checked out, despite my best efforts but I use that specific number for a reason. Of the ten episodes this season, two of them, and really only the two, were absolutely riveting, brilliant television that demonstrates the power of this fully armed and operational battle-station. “The Riddle of the Sphinx” could live in the same world and exist alongside the best episodes of Black Mirror, it’s a fantastic blend of science fiction and horror that finally reveals the darker possibilities that the park represents while also letting one of my all-time favorite character actors, Peter Mullen, completely off the chain.

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The other episode, and potentially the best episode of the entire series at this point, is “Kiksuya” which centers on what has been up until this point barely a tertiary character and shows in 59 minutes of television how much raw potential and talent Westworld, as a subject and a Universe, has to offer. How they created, to me, one of the most compelling story arcs thus far in such a short amount of time, to the point that I was openly weeping all over my dog’s head by episode’s end, I’ll never know, but it reminded me how much this world has to offer and how good it can be when the narrative isn’t trying so hard to impress.

Final thoughts on this season. Fundamentally, it became difficult to know who we were supposed to be rooting for as an audience. Maybe that was an intentional effort by the showrunners and while moral ambiguity can be an interesting subject to explore, there still needs to be a clear protagonist. Dolores, while bad-ass as all get out, kind of lost me with the torture and murder of the park guests. Sure, some of them may have been monsters like the Man in Black, but… all of them? Probably not. And Maeve is easy to root for but at a certain point she sort of became Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation where, for every obstacle, she just so happens to develop a new skill, kind of like a Deus ex Machina. No irony intended there. And Bernard. If I were to create a Westworld drinking game where I had to drink every time he made a confused face I would be throwing up on my dog by the time the credits rolled on the first episode.

So somehow, the finale “Passenger” felt a lot like the ending of a Christopher Nolan film, with it’s voice-over and montage of images and music and inferred futures for the surviving characters and despite all my complaints it was successful in achieving what it set out to do. However, it also felt like a series finale, as opposed to a season ending. Where last year I was on the edge of my seat, hungry and curious for more, I don’t know what to expect in a third season. I don’t know what I want from a third. Except obviously more Akecheta.

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