WandaVision: Episodes 1 and 2- The Dimension of the Imagination…

Cheers! This is the 101st time I’ve published an article on my blog since I started it about 8 years ago and if you’re wondering why I didn’t celebrate the 100th it’s because, and this is very important: I didn’t notice, so hooray 101! On with the fun.

I am old. Not too old, however, but old enough to have lived in both the analog and digital era, which is something I really appreciate and if being proud about knowing how to use a rotary phone seems like a weird flex, that’s one of the things about being old: the victories get smaller and stupider. Back in my day I grew up in a pretty crowded household and one of the only bastions of privacy I had was late at night, when everyone else had gone to bed. And in the middle of the night I would watch TV and since the only thing we could afford was basic cable, that meant hours upon hours of Nick at Nite where I enjoyed everything from The Dick Van Dyke Show to I Love Lucy to Anne of Green Gables to The Andy Griffith Show…the list goes on but suffice it to say I didn’t have a lot of friends as a child. Correlation? Maybe.

WandaVision, the first entry in Marvel’s Phase Four, starts out as a paean to this era of television which it very much succeeds at in both tone and humor and this is both a good and a bad thing. It’s good because it’s funny and charming while hinting at a sinister secret, that there is something terribly off about this Rockwellian dreamscape. It’s bad because that’s everything we already know from the trailer; the first two of nine total episodes tells us absolutely nothing new, which would be fine if Disney Plus were treating us like adults instead of desperately trying to add to their subscriber base by releasing episodes weekly…but they are releasing these episodes weekly going forward. Further, they only clock in around 20 or 30 minutes in length but I want something to write about so we’re going to dig in to what we have so far.

Things to Like: The scene where Vision phases through the ottoman while carrying Wanda is tribute to Dick Van Dyke, who would famously and hilariously trip over his which is positioned in the same spot, and that was super cute, I thought, I like this, this is a thing I like.

Things to Not Like: The first episodes are structured the way many Golden Age sitcoms are, and I thought, Oh neat, it’s like they are recreating the tropes and antics of an episode of I Love Lucy. And then that’s exactly what they did. Which is great if you’ve never seen an episode of that show, but if you have seen every episode it’s a bit like hearing a new, modern band in concert (remember concerts?) start playing a golden oldie like Free Bird or Simple Man but they play it exactly the way Skynyrd does, without bringing anything new or adding their own spin. There’s a few scenes, of course, that go a little haywire, but they come and go without any real sense of dread and we are back on (laugh) track in no time. This concerns me because with WandaVision I want David Lynch, but what we are probably getting is Are You Afraid of the Dark?

Things to Like: Paul Bettany and Elizabeth Olsen are delightful and it’s fun watching them work, especially when they have to switch between “Oh, darling! (cue laugh track)” and “I think our reality is a lie (……………….cue laugh track)”. I expect this to ratchet up as the season progresses.

Things to Not Like: Marvel and Kevin Feige have got us by the short and curlies and they know it. Instead of opening with a bang, they are going to draw this out as much as possible and I don’t like it, no sir. Their audience is captive, we have to know what’s next after the devastating conclusion of the Infinity Saga and while I have the same obvious suspicions about where Phase 4 is going, I’m concerned in a nerd-sense that we are rushing to a middle on Marvel’s ability to innovate and reinvent. This happened when I read comics enthusiastically, the constant resurrections and retcons invalidated any sense of stakes and I moved on to novels and more mature fare, this is fairly inevitable when it comes to this kind of serialized storytelling. So a cautious Yellow Alert, which is a Star Trek reference and that ‘not having a lot of friends growing up’ thing is making more and more sense now, isn’t it.

Things to Like: There are a ton of Easter eggs and interesting casting decisions sprinkled throughout the first two episodes (is there any role that Katherine Hahn can’t be Katherine Hahn in? She’s like a female Vince Vaughn) and then Monica Rambeau for some reason. And this S.W.O.R.D. logo appearing? I don’t mean to slight anyone here, but it’s a little bit like that stupid show I definitely don’t watch, The Masked Singer, where everyone is like OMG who is the singer?! And they reveal the singer and America is like I don’t know who that is! with no loss of enthusiasm or joy. This sounds like a thing that I do not like but I’m trying to be polite, like when someone’s parents hire a clown to perform at a birthday party and all the kids humor him even though they are uncomfortable but also they were raised right. I think two metaphors are enough. I’m just saying I hope these cameos and Easter eggs make sense later on. What was up with that creepy toaster commercial?

Things to Not Like: Disney Plus. Disney is like Gus Fring, genial and polite on the surface, but whose avarice and capacity for manipulation know no bounds. Disney Plus is their most recent Los Pollos Hermanos, their latest vehicle for extracting nostalgia and sentimentality for cash, and like any successful fast food franchise, they have gotten very good at following a formula. Just like anyone with a pulse and a childhood, I really enjoyed The Mandalorian, especially the heart-warming, thrilling finale of the last season. I mean, I don’t really identify as a Star Wars fan exactly and I had tears running down my face. But as well made and entertaining as that show is, however, it was not exactly an artistic labor of love. Someone didn’t have a story that needed to be told and, through the right combination of persistence and luck, managed to find a way to bring it to life.

Disney wanted a new Star Wars property so they hired Jon Favreau to make it happen and we’re all better for it but from a marketing perspective the entire thing is just a commercial for Disney Plus. That’s why most of the episodes are ~30 minutes long and why they are regressing to the weekly episode format, it’s the same reason drug dealers don’t offer to sell to their customers in bulk. WandaVision already has that feel to it, but I’m hoping Disney’s better half in Kevin Feige, has some say in at least the quality of this latest commercial.

Now for something I’m going to call SPECULATION-LAND …a thing I need a new name for. If you don’t want to be spoiled by my conjecture or comparisons to the (potential) comic book source material go no further. Thar be potential spoilers ahead.

So this is confirmed to be at least influenced by House of M, right? There were a lot of questions about where to go after Thanos annihilated half the Universe, what stakes could possibly compare to that kind of scale and scope. Well, Scarlet Witch is the logical next step for a few reasons. In the comics she is one of the most powerful mutants in existence and the House of M storyline is the perfect mechanism for reorienting the MCU to include a host of other intellectual properties that they have been tip-toeing around since the beginning rather inelegantly, specifically, the X-Men franchise that Fox has been desperately milking for cash after Bryan Singer’s career self-destructed. After the abysmal Dark Phoenix someone finally stepped in and took their toy away from them then made them sit in the corner to think about what they’ve done. I mean, not really, 20th Century Fox was sold, but it’s what I imagine happened every time I remember trucking out to the theater to see dumb-ass Dark Phoenix.

Anyway, another review referred to Disney as the House of Mouse and I went, DAMN it, why didn’t I think of that, I wish I could go back in time, stop myself from reading that article and then come up with that inference on my own. There are obvious obstacles to recreating the source material in that the two major protagonists/antagonists are either dead (Quicksilver) or do not exist in the MCU (Magneto) which leaves very few alternatives. If Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was canonical (which I don’t think that it is since the Snap did not seem to occur or effect the series, time travel shenanigans aside) then Hydra is also a no-go, Agent Coulson and company destroyed them…multiple times over if I recall.

If Marvel stays true to tradition the antagonist will be someone who was incidentally harmed or effected by the Avengers while they were doing do-goodery and forms a lethal fixation on destroying them from the inside out or something, I don’t know, that’s been kind of their villain motif. It’s been announced already that WandaVision is essentially the opening act for Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness which will truly kick off Phase 4, and that’s all fine and good, I haven’t wanted to see a Sam Raimi film in a long time but this seems like the perfect combination of material and talent, even if I will have to put up with Tobey Maguire in the suit again (come at me, bro).

But it’s important to note that the other source material Feige referenced was The Vision and the Scarlet Witch, which I have not read but appears to have more to do with the actual relationship between Wanda and a (currently dead) robot. I suspect this is where the emotional manipulation comes in, and what will have me blubbering like a little baby boy whose balloon floated away by accident (true story). That we will have an examination of the relationship that Wanda and Vis could have had and the ultimate realization that that life is never going to happen will be what shatters her psyche. I can’t imagine them portraying the Decimation, it’s too similar to the Snappening (or the “Blip” as the MCU refers to it but I never will) and also, how are you gonna decimate mutants when there are no mutants? It’s all very exciting.

That’s it for now, I don’t think it will be possible to review every episode so we’ll do this in portions. When I said “hooray 101, on with the fun” I didn’t mean to rhyme it. I apologize.

The Midnight Sky: Disappointment Immeasurable, Day Ruined.

Spoilers, because this is nonsense.

At the finale of The Midnight Sky, with the actors tapping at generic instrument panels like extras on an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation the credits begin to roll and the action continues, much like the ending of Michael Clayton, a far, far superior film and I made a sound like a camel giving birth or dying. Or both, I don’t know but my groan and attempt to say Oh my God, at the same time, my attempt to express my intense irritation and discomfort with everything that it tries and fails to be all came out at once and my dog, who is just as depressed as I am these days, rolled his head over at me in concern.

Since that moment the only real thought in my head regarding The Midnight Sky is whether or not I hated it more that Ad Astra, a film so self-indulgent and unoriginal that I made two attempts to write a scathing review of the thing before it was too late. All memory of the experience had evaporated like a dream in the morning, nothing remained but an impression and a vague sense of having been robbed of time. I almost made a decision when I decided that Sky at least has a positive message but I realized it does not, there is no message at all about climate change or environmental matters, it’s as if The Road were set in the Arctic and all the horrifying examinations of humanity, absent decency or hope, were removed. What remains is just a real bummer, man, and that’s saying something when comparing it to THE ROAD.

Not only is there no real purpose or enjoyment to be had here it contains one of the two cringiest moments I’ve experienced this weekend, two moments that vaulted into the top five cringiest things I’ve seen all year, yes, this year. The first was Diana Prince suddenly realizing she has the power to make things invisible with some hand wiggling, including an entire jet all of a sudden, never mind that radar doesn’t work by actually seeing the object it’s detecting but whatever. That was dumb but brief and then neat because fireworks! That moment was usurped here in The Midnight Sky when an ensemble cast of actors, in space, play and sing along to Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline, a song that I don’t hate because it seems to make (white) people so very happy, however I never ever want to hear it again in my life if it can be helped. This scene had me rooting for the meteor shower, is what I’m saying.

I had to double check the Wikipedia article to confirm that this film identifies as “science fiction” to which I respond, How dare you. I’m not usually a plot holes guy, I find it to be low hanging fruit and mostly ammunition for the kill-joy crowd, all films have logical inconsistencies somewhere to greater or lesser degrees and I like getting lost in the movie. I want to believe, I want that suspension of disbelief so I generally turn a blind eye but yikes, Clooney. It’s the present day and we can tell there are potentially habitable worlds in other star systems so the idea that there is a paradise moon orbiting Jupiter that just popped into discovery in the modern era is kind of ludicrous, bro. Humanity has been staring at our celestial neighbors for a few hundred years and while there is still much to discover and a lot of potential in places like Europa, there are not oxygen rich, forested utopias a couple months away by giant space ship. Also, why is there lattice work decorating this admittedly impressive interplanetary spacecraft? Even forty years in the future it’s still going to be about practicality and utility, and in the era of television that features The Expanse at the forefront of what space travel is going to be all about if we survive this era of self-destructive adolescence, why are you decorating with an ensemble cast and big budget special effects.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the Netflix model has one endemic flaw in it’s desperation for new content and accommodation of A-List talent and that’s a lack of oversight. One of my favorite Twitter threads is Network Notes, a series of bizarre directions and requests from studio heads that range from completely tone-deaf to utterly insane contradictions but for every thousand or so of these there are probably some reasonable assertions and suggestions to rein in creative types or creative attempts that are destined to fail. The Midnight Sky needed someone to say something about the abysmal pacing, the relentless cliche, and the absence of entertainment value in watching George Clooney do nothing of value. It’s not as if the Aether (which is the name of the spaceship, insert camel dying sound) needed to be warned of the condition of a dying Earth because he fails to warn them and they just see it for themselves, anyway, and he has no information as to the who/what/why.

There are voices that argue it’s a father protecting his daughter but if you get to the conclusion that is utterly irrelevant. Maybe it’s about the resiliency of the human spirit in the sense that two characters decide to abandon Earth and return to Dream Moon but, and I’m not a geneticist or a scientist but I did stay at Holiday Inn Express one time, two human beings can’t repopulate the entire race. That Coach Taylor and Hispanic stereotype decide to land on Earth anyway is pointless and suicidal so, you know, why. If the entire endeavor had been an exploration of nihilism I may feel inclined to grant some leeway but in the same way that I absolutely despise Cormac McCarthy and the previously referenced The Road it’s because absolutely fuck you.

Not you, personally. But one of my favorite Doctor Who moments has to do with Vincent Van Gogh, and not just the nerd fantasy of showing a great artist, who was racked with depression and insecurity in his life, the power of his works. It’s in the line, “He transformed the pain of his tormented life into ecstatic beauty. Pain is easy to portray but to use your passion and pain to portray the ecstasy and joy and magnificence of the world…” Pain is easy to portray, that’s true. I’m guilty of perpetuating it here, in my disappointment and frustration with The Midnight Sky. George Clooney is a terrific actor, see Syriana and a terrific director, see Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Goodnight and Good Luck. But where McCarthy has what is described as poetry to his nihilism, here there is none of that, only a beginning and middle which is not art, just dazzling set pieces and half-formed ideas. What a waste, particularly in our time and our need for some kind of clarion call. Like the devastated, chaotic Earth hastily and half-heartedly gestured at, what an inexplicable waste of resources, money and time.

The Wilds: On An Island In The Sun

It’s been awhile and I thought it would be nice to check in. There sure is a lot of television to watch, which is a good thing while it lasts. With the world in the state it is, there’s plenty of time to binge watch any and everything and I’m even tempted to get an Apple TV subscription, even though I find the concept morally and ethically repugnant. But there’s Ted Lasso! However, the will to watch something brand new hasn’t exactly manifested, instead I’ve been rewatching old favorites. I even discovered I have an HBO Max subscription in addition to my HBO Now and the most remarkable thing about that addition is there is almost nothing in that massive collection of media that I have any interest in. Way to go, Warner Media, I will be enjoying your theatrical releases at home next year.

The primary reason for my recursive viewing habits is your generally depressed state of mind, I get that chronic Seasonal Affective Disorder and with all that’s been going on, it hit with a real vengeance this December. So I stick with what’s familiar, with what won’t trigger the sad faceys or, you know, an existential crisis. But after stumbling across a positive review from a site that I trust I decided to give The Wilds a shot, based on the interesting premise and not because I’m a pervert or something.

Nine teenage girls are trapped on a deserted island after a plane crash and… now, wait, wait, hold on. I said I was not a pervert and I meant it. In this regard, anyway. The show’s creator and most of the writers and directors are women and there are none of the typical attempts to sexualize any of the actresses. They have sexuality, from the more conservative to the very much not that, but it’s in no way a byproduct of titillation (heh), rather than one of the many ways that each of them, coming from all different walks of life, are humanized.

I’d have to share the sentiment that the review that inspired my viewing also shared; this is not going to blow the doors off the pop culture establishment, it’s not a watershed moment in TV history, and is flawed in a handful of small, inside baseball kind of ways. Stuff that only nerds like me, who rewatches something like The West Wing at least once a year, for fun, will notice in terms of shot selection, dialogue, story logic. But nitpickery aside, The Wilds is a very good television show, with a lot of heart, an intriguing premise that it mostly effectively explores, and a uniquely feminine story perspective that is becoming more and more commonplace thanks to a certain movement.

I like that movement and it’s effects on popular culture and not because I’m trying to impress some Women’s Lib chicks or anything, obviously, I just used the word ‘chicks‘. I like stories from a new or different perspective because, hmm, let me try and find the words to explain succinctly…because they are new and/or different. I do not understand the brand of internet troll that get bent out of shape because female or minority characters are empowered or stories are now being told from their viewpoint, who shout WOKE BULLSHIT on whatever message board will have them. I could not be less impressed with people who object to inclusiveness or progressive concepts in storytelling or strong female characters, even if it occasionally fails, he said, looking in the direction of Rey…”Skywalker”.

And it does fail here and there, because when it’s artificial and token I understand the hostility, but The Wilds is neither of those things. If it were just about some teens trying to survive on coconuts and berries that have complimentary personalities or skillsets, that find friendship and each other, if this were The Breakfast Club crossed with Cast Away, I’d be far less inclined to write about it. I mean, it kind of is those things, exploring each character’s history and pathos via flashback a la Lost but with one fewer Smoke Monster but it is also satisfying and addictive, if a little bit of a stretch practically. Because there is more going on on the island than there appears. There is a mystery afoot. The premise is…sus.

Did I use that reference correctly? I don’t play videogames with other people or lie which is what I believe is the whole point of Among Us and I only know that because of Reddit. So I will give away the one minor spoiler that is revealed in the pilot episode and really needs to be in order to sufficiently drum up interest: the girls are alone on the island but they are being monitored by electronic, possibly nefarious means. How does that work? Well, that’s all you get from me.

In all honesty, it was a few episodes of the 10 episode first season before I really set my phone down and felt invested, through no fault of anyone involved. Such is the risk of an ensemble cast, each episode spends more time with one character at a time, so it’s essentially like watching a series of first episodes. This is only detrimental if your attention span is as short as mine is nowadays (second shout out to Reddit), but by the end of the season I found the quality I was looking for. One of my favorite things that good television can do is surprise the audience’s expectations with regard to which character they sympathize with and how. I like to think of Jon Bernthal’s character in The Walking Dead, back when I still cared about that show. I remember hating him so much, I fumed at everyone for not seeing what was happening to him. Then his character was killed off and I suddenly lost interest in the whole thing. It was immediately apparent that even though he was loathsome, Shane was the most interesting part of the entire show. He had an arc and affected the characters around him as opposed to everyone else who just seem to have things happen to them.

The Wilds does this really well. I found myself most interested in the character that I least liked originally. I found the strong characters in the beginning the most flawed and the boring characters suddenly tragic. It brought to mind one of the best examples of this kind of social experiment, the science fiction film Cube which similarly examined the effect of an extraordinary, high stress situation on conventional personality types. The Wilds takes that experiment and adds another element, one I will definitely not spoil, that keeps the thrills and twists coming all the way through.

So without being too…sus myself, (I’ll stop) I’m going to suggest sitting down with the 10 episode first season now streaming on Amazon Prime, but do yourself a favor. Take notes on who everyone is at first and then take a look at that list at the end. This is something I wish that I’d done on my first go around because it’s all the more rewarding when the storytellers effectively pull the wool over your eyes, like a well executed magic trick. And even if the mystery isn’t your thing, there’s still a series of well told stories about well realized characters at the heart of this maze. Or is there?

(That was confusing, yes, there are.)

TENET: The Only Way is Through

I’m going to annoy my friends and probably more than a few strangers and out myself as a fan of Tool. I love the band and their weird spirituality, self-serious philosophy and the terrific and compelling command of visuals but above all, the music. It’s the complex, polyrhythmic, melodic-yet-masculine churning progressive rock/metal hybrid that is distinctive and influential yet never successfully imitated. Like System of a Down or Rage Against the Machine, no one sounds like them and no one really bothers to even try. But no matter how much I love Tool I’ve never, not once, enjoyed their music the first time I heard it. Ever. More often I hear what other people do, the obscurity or the pretentiousness, but I try to get past that and just figure out whatever is trying to get through which is usually a rewarding experience.

There are a couple of reasons for this, one is that aforementioned complexity, they just don’t lend themselves to being processed right away and nothing is more fun than watching a new fan, someone who is just starting to get into their sound, try to headbang or rock out to them. It’s the time signatures. They’re just ridiculous and new fans look like kids a Sadie Hawkins dance trying to boogie to Copperhead Road for the first time, but like, back when I was a kid, not nowadays when children appear to be trained hip hop back up dancers because of YouTube and Instagram. The other reason is that I’m pretty stupid that way. My brain requires repeated listens in order to pick out the patterns and chord progressions, and it’s similar with movies.

As much as I love writing about them, I very rarely pick up on the visual cues or motifs or, particularly, symbolism. Usually, if a film is good I’ll know it just not…why exactly. Then on a second viewing, when I’m not paying as much attention to the “what is going to happen” as the “why/how is it happening”, then a lot more gets through. I bring this up because I really enjoyed TENET….the second time.

This is not to say it’s bad the first go around, but it is relentlessly expository and unrelentingly convoluted. This wouldn’t be that big a deal if, and I say this will all the respect and affection in the world for one of my favorite writer/directors, it was possible as a theater goer to understand more than, hmm, half of the fucking dialogue. I could barely manage that and I was sitting up close, leaning into the screen the whole time.

Seriously. Interstellar is probably my favorite Chris Nolan film (yeah, I know) and that film has the same issues in places, as opposed to here where the muffled, low volume, the masked faces, the constant ambient background noise is absolutely endemic. I apologize for that word choice. But there is no excuse for this in a modern blockbuster, somebody needed to pull Chris aside and say, buddy, great job I think, now get these actors in an ADR booth and re-record the dialogue because it sounds like the audio was recorded on one of those Talk-Boy devices from Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. And I mean recorded back in 1992, not one now that has miraculously survived and is being used by a sound guy who duct taped it to a hockey stick in present day on a 200 million dollar movie.

I read somewhere that Nolan is red/green color blind and that’s both inspirational and an explanation as to why his films are so blue and yellow. It’s possible that this blindness to a certain range of the color spectrum has somehow enhanced his hearing, like Daredevil and he’s like, I don’t know what you guys are talking about, I hear everything. It’s truly more baffling than the plot itself and that is saying something.

About the actors, the only character who has any opportunity to emote or express pathos is Elizabeth Debicki, who comports herself very well considering. I also admire the fact that she is 6’3” and is absolutely depicted that way. No one around her are wearing lifts, she is not constantly lounging or kneeling. She towers over her male costars and, aside from being tall, is also very long, she’s like a beautiful, sexy wacky waving inflatable arm-person. John David Washington is very good as John David Washington, his facial hair is tremendous and I look forward to the rest of his career which is, unfortunately overshadowed by his pops. Denzel has the rare gift of elevating everything he’s ever been in, for example John Q. is objectively a bad film that is a terrific watch because of his presence alone. JDW, you’re alright, so far. Kenneth Branaugh is in this as well. Since people don’t always click on linked .gifs, picture a satisfied shrug that implies sarcasm. Robert Pattinson is, goddamnit, the best and most underutilized part of the movie.

So. TENET is probably the least emotional, the least human film that Chris Nolan has ever made. In Inception the main character was struggling with his guilt and the loss of his wife, this was central to his character and the plot, The Prestige was all revenge and professional jealousy, Interstellar was a giant cry factory (why I love it). But there’s really nothing like that at the center of TENET, which is just full on spy movie/Bond film that is mainlining NOLAN-TIME-JUICE directly into a major artery.

What is NOLAN-TIME-JUICE? Well. I could explain it but I’d have to start at the end. And the middle and start explaining before you actually asked. For better or worse, Chris Nolan has leaned entirely into his latest plot contrivance without attempting any real emotional connection with the audience, which is a new one for him and really tests his abilities as a storyteller to mixed results. I daresay his reach may have finally exceeded his grasp and that’s a good thing. It should, this bravery and bold approach is what put him on the map in the first place and I hate to say that I wonder where he’ll go from here but…I wonder where he’ll go from here, because this is probably his first real misfire, all technical achievement and virtuosity aside. However, there is an effort to address something that is permeating the collective conscience, the alarming, persistent sense of the world ending.

This is something that Nolan has had an eerie prescience for, when The Dark Knight came out he predicted the rise of George W’s surveillance and 4th Amendment violating Patriot Act in Bruce Wayne’s magical cell phone sonar technology, science that asked questions of privacy versus security in the age of terrorism. In The Dark Knight Rises, it was the Occupy Wall Street movement as weaponized in the form of Bane and Catwoman and her distressingly proletariat threat, “There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits, you’re all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.”

TENET, for all it’s capabilities and innovation, turns a blind eye towards the world’s ails and, in it’s aspiration to be a Bond film, reduces the problems of global existentialism into what is both the most creative and least interesting MacGuffin-driven exercise in camera tricks and trick photography. On a second viewing, I’m still not quite clear on what was going on in the finale or why, and who I should care about, so…that’s actually pretty on par with Bond movies, point awarded. I am all about escapism but the resolution felt, in many way, worse than the letdown that Avengers: Endgame was in hindsight. While thrilling and funny and a fine enough end-cap to it’s 22 film long series, it was also utterly toothless and a pure fan-service and a testament to the unequivocal fact that time travel, as a plot device, results in a weak denouement, even when it’s at the forefront of the story.

As for that actual plot contrivance, well. It’s better experienced than explained and actually somewhat more confusing the second time around. I was worried I’d be slightly bored having already seen the final reveals but that’s not the case, instead I was able to focus more on the details and the landscape, on actually trying to wrap my head around the logic instead of just giggling stupidly to myself when things really ramp up, like Vince Vaughn at the end of the sex montage in Wedding Crashers.

A decent analogy would be to compare it to a roller coaster. The first time is all fear and uncertainty, the second is about looking around and the thrill. TENET is very cool. It’s also a uniquely Nolan-esque experience, no one does it like him, no one sounds like him. Like Tool or Rage or System, there just isn’t anyone comparable, it’s not that these examples including him are in a different league, they are playing a different sport. So with its flaws, which it certainly has, it’s an undeniably unique ride, one that requires a second, possibly third to be fully appreciated. Also fucking subtitles.

Is TENET worth trucking out to theaters during our current health crisis? That’s a tough question. I’m very fortunate in that I have access to Alamo Drafthouse, a chain that in normal circumstances is a bastion for cinema lovers. It’s a theater where I love showing up early because instead of commercials or advertisements, they screen fan films or have short documentaries about the source material, it’s invested in being as consumer friendly as possible, I’ve seen special screenings of Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan and Gerald’s Game with star Carla Gugino (who still hasn’t returned my emails but she’ll come around, I know we have a lot in common and WHY WON’T YOU LOVE ME CARLA) in attendance. It’s a great place that has put multiple checks in to ensure people’s safety, including temperature checks at the door, buffered seating and remote ordering of food and beverages. For me, it was a small return to normality that I needed. But TENET is not a life changing experience, rather a brief escape and lovely reminder of the power and possibility of cinema to expand our imaginations, which in turn has the capacity to cultivate the soul. That’s what art is for and this is certainly that, while being more of a technical marvel than an emotional one. Like a Tool song, it requires a second or third take to really process and it’s a worthy addition to….

*sigh*

Okay. I haven’t written in awhile and as a result, I’ve lost a step. I keep wanting to revisit this quote, I want to shoehorn it into the review of this film but it doesn’t quite fit so I’m just going to say it because it’s worth saying. Things are getting a little dicey in the world, storms both political, racial, and literal in the form of both fire and rain, chaos is starting to feel like the norm. And there is a temptation to accept this and feel helpless or defeated, like this is just the way it is and it’s only going to get worse. I know this because I feel this. I hope I’m alone, I know I’m not. Here’s the quote:

Len says one steady pull more ought to do it. He says the best way out is always through. And I agree to that, or in so far. As that I can see no way out but through.”

-Robert Frost

We’re in it right now but we’re not alone, not yet. So take it at your own pace, be safe, and look out for each other and see this film, one that didn’t blow my hair back as much as tangle it a little and give it some volume, when it is safely accessible to you and yours.

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 to 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.