Friday, December 23, 2016

Rogue One Insta-Review

“We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it."

- Arcadia, by Tom Stoppard

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Film Essays: Lord of the Rings

The late SEK wrote a great deal of movie criticism for the center-liberal blog "Lawyers, Guns, and Money", the most thorough of which was his work on Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies. They are worth reading.

Part one.
Part two.

Part one ends with the conclusion:
[A]t this point it would behoove us to unify the generic conventions I've identified as succinctly as possible:
High fantasy consists of narratives in which singularly important people go on quests for tokens of power in order to facilitate or forestall wars between anonymous hordes and all of that can be tracked on maps.
That seems like a fair assessment of the genre, as established in Fellowship, don't you think? If you don't, what essential features do you think I've missed?
And to some degree this is good analysis. You can see how these artistic features (shiny jewelry, pretty maps) play into political opinions like "what is important in the world" or "how can things be categorized." And the storytelling creates a clear divide between those "singularly important people" and the "anonymous hordes." (SEK would probably agree with me about the failure of dehumanizing these hordes.)

But in being condescending to the work, SEK's explanation misses some other very important key elements, ones that give high fantasy a much more human-like texture.

There sure are a lot of battles in the 6 film Lord of the Rings saga. What else do we know about them, besides this stuff about jewelry and maps. What about them doesn't make practical sense, and so therefore is probably there for thematic reasons.

Like every goddamn battle has the good guys on one side, more bad guys on the other side, and things are looking bad, and then in the middle of the battle more good guys swoop in and save the day.

It is ridiculous how often this happens. Two Towers. Return of the King. The third part of Hobbit. And not even just once per movie.

And militarily, this makes no sense. Armies are large, you can generally see them coming. They send riders ahead to let allies know they are coming. And even if these weren't true, the odds that over days or weeks of travel, they would happen to show up in the few hours, or even minutes when the tide depended on them, are astoundingly low (not to mention the far more common situation where no one comes to your aid.) And this happened in something like five out of five battles.

This is not to say that this impracticality is dumb, but only that it is significant. Tolkien and Jackson bend the laws of logistics in such blatant ways, to say what?

That friendship matters. That in your darkest hour, when you have given up hope (and only then) will the bonds of loyalty arrive to deliver you. The entire movie builds up to this climactic moment, when we can shout for the sudden arrival of an old friend.

This is not necessarily a good message. It preaches helplessness because there's nothing you can do to save yourself from evil but pray and hope. It tells us that the only people who deserve to be saved are those with ancient allies. And it reiterates a world where you never have to lose, because if you even lose once, the entire world will be lost beyond redemption.

But these are pretty key conventions of the genre as well.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Film Essays: Why Horror?

This week this blog is going to read a couple (much more well known and influential) essays about the appeal of genre films. Then we'll engage the ideas, see which parts make sense and fit the evidence, and what they miss. We're starting off with Noel Carroll's chapter "Why Horror?"

To briefly summarize what we're responding to, the thesis is basically this:

Why are audiences drawn to movies about disgusting, frightening things? Horror movies usually involve a process of discovery, which is cathartic for obvious reasons. However finding something revelatory to discover is hard, so one easy method is to choose impossible things beyond our normal comprehension. Many of the things we find impossible are best described by Mary Douglas as "interstitial" figures, occupying a place between categories that makes us uncomfortable. This is particularly true for impure horror fascination.

Friday, December 16, 2016

C'est Non Passable

Okay, that last video just sent me down the rabbit hole of Youtube movie reviews again, which yeah are mostly terrible (or at least "nerd ideological" so same thing.). Though I did stumble on this one:

The audio dialog here is roughly correct. He explains why it's so frustrating to see so many movies that didn't move you, and theorizes why we are seeing more of them. Give me an interesting failure over a mediocre success any day.

The weird thing is which movies he is choosing for the visual track. Presumably when he's talking about "passable" movies, he's showing those, when he's talking about failures, he's showing those. Except like, he's wrong on almost every one of them? It's just a feeling of incredible dissonance "you call this passable??"

So maybe it's some sort of test. To see if watchers can resist an Authoritative Voice, and see the examples he is giving are all wrong. It's like a Milgram Experiment but with film criticism. Because the only reason I can see to call fricking "Jurassic Park"mediocre is to see who calls "bullshit!"

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Return to Mikey

Mikey Neumann, who did my favorite podcast for a couple of years, has a growing YouTube channel where he reviews movies he likes. I... actually don't really like this channel[1]. Lately he focuses much more on the writing and basic plot content instead of the cinematic choices that make movies a different and more powerful form of art. Plus his philosophical perspective is usually just aggresive mainstream liberalism, which is generally inadequate for exploring these works.

But! This week he did The Dark Knight, and it was pretty good.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Anonymous comments:

And, of course, for all the Terminator movies' surface level fatalism: it's working. The robopocalypse keeps getting pushed further and further into the future.
On the most recent Terminator related post.

It's an understandable read. Though it begs the question whether "delaying the robot apocalypse" a few years is a victory of gradually pushing back the darkness, or the failure of never fully saving humanity.

This seems a misreading of the Terminator films though, or at least an underestimation of them. Time travel in these movies (and in most American time travel movies) is a metaphor by which the "future" is actually the flip side of our present day. The apocalyptic future is always an exaggeration of the underbelly by which our society really functions.

Quel Wars?

Todd at Vox is being roundly mocked for his controversial headline for his decent Rogue One review.

A lot of the mockery seems to miss his underlying point, which is that "Star Wars" films most people think of, such as A New Hope or The Force Awakens, are about one or a few people having awesome hijinx, and not so much "the terrible reality of war." And he actually discusses the cinematic choices that convey this, without spending too much time on the writing quality of the plot, or how many billions of dollars it will make the franchise.

He ignores that the Prequels were really very good about this. Phantom Menace shows the subjective reality of colonization. Attack of the Clones spends time on these giant, lower class armies clashing. The powerlessness of the heroes in the face of amoral systemic forces is part of what makes it so uncomfortable for audiences, after all.

However, the more depressing truth is that Vox knows very well how dumb this headline will look, and will enjoy many angry people clicking it to see what he is talking about.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Questions Unaddressed

One thing in movies that can tell you a lot about the ideological assumptions of the world that created it, is the questions they do not answer and that no one even bothers to ask. In some cases this is just setting details (like, how does the economic system translate these little green pieces of paper into goods), sometimes it is more clearly ideological (why do no women talk to other women about things other than a man), and sometimes it's completely sublime.

I'm not talking here about Lost style "unanswered mysteries" that everyone walks away from the movie theater being unsatisfied with. Those have their uses, but our attention is definitely drawn to them. But the sort of thing that isn't explained in the plot, and most reviewers never even bother to ask about, because it fits the logic of the world so much that it doesn't even introduce any sense of discomfort.

Let's explain with two recent genre examples, one from Marvel and one from the Terminator series.

Friday, December 9, 2016

More Shapeshifting

It's possible in covering all the good things about First Class, Wednesday's post went through fairly quickly what was so extremely interesting about the depiction of Mystique, who is a fantastic subversion of a concept most viewers do not even have a name for.

So let's start with shapeshifters in film. The most memorable shapeshifter in modern cinema has to be Terminator 2's T-1000, who not only bring a sense of dread that he can become anyone you know or trust, but also the beautiful liquid-metallic morphing that emphasized that everything was on the surface and there was no real internality. (The obvious feminine aspect of the shapeshifter was exaggerated to almost satirical degrees in Terminator 3, and the theme is explored more interestingly in the underrated Terminator Genisys.) But they're a favorite of many genre movies: Loki in the MCU, the mysterious assassin in Phantom Menace, various Star Trek creatures, the face masks in Mission Impossible, etc. Filmmakers love playing with this fluidity of appearance.


And logically, what does the shapeshifter usually do? Well usually they are some sort of trickster figure (since they can fool naive mortals) but not a full on anarchist, since they generally derive their power from the authority system they can imitate. They think they are above the oppressive system, and undoubtedly can take advantage of it, but they are still very much a part of it.

Critical theorists call this sort of thing the "posthuman."

Thursday, December 8, 2016

A Little More X-Men

Yesterday's post reminded me that the trailer for the new Wolverine movie "Logan" is really damn good.

After watching this, I don't need to see the movie. We got a whole movie experience right there: mutant powers are gone, Logan is living alone and dying until he finds a broken Professor, Logan meets the little girl who is the future, they bond like a family and are pursued by cyborg policemen, fights ensue, the Professor dies, Logan and little girl continue on trying to find hope. All with Johnny Cash's classic song about a broken shell of a man. Good stuff.

You do not actually need exposition about what virus wiped out mutant powers, or how Logan found Charles, or who these post-apocalyptic government thugs are working for. You don't need to see the whole action scene where Wolverine rescues the surrogate daughter, just the one awesome dive with his claws. These two minutes are enough to paint a cohesive picture.

This ties in to the post earlier this week about the pure-imagery short stories that prologue recent Star Trek movies. We don't need more plot or backstory, we need to learn to take in and read the small details that are presented to us.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Best X-Men Movie

I wrote before about how good the class revolutionary themes in X-Men: Apocalypse were, but it's still only second to the first X-Men prequel "First Class." (Sadly "Days of Future Past" is both terrible and forgettable, which is a dismal combination, with the exception of its Quicksilver scene.)

Fine, fine, we can watch the DoFP scene again. And turn the sound back on.

On a pure "convince your buddies to watch this" level, this is arguably the best Marvel movie to date. Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, and James McAvoy are some of the best actors and actresses in any Marvel movie, and they're used well in places where they can showcase their emotional talents, rather than a) spout sarcastic dialogue or b) deliver lots of weighted exposition.

The Xavier/Magneto split is one of the better origin stories for major comic book characters. It's got the pathos of grown men making decisions that are both terrible, and understandable from both sides. Okay, it goes all in for that liberal ideology of "everyone's trying for good in their own way" and Xavier's "peaceful gradual change will win the day," but this is still a lot more interesting than the fascism inherent in "street scum killed my parents so now I will haunt them."

Apply the best actors, to the best origin story, and you unsurprisingly have a pretty good movie, just so long as you don't mess anything else up. But the purpose of this blog is not to convince your buddies to watch the movies you like. The purpose of this blog is to figure out what is seriously going on in these works of art. And while First Class could have rested on its laurels with the cast and story it made the much better decision to do something interesting.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Transformers 5

What is going on with this crazy Transformers preview?

I watched it without sound, like you do, and I'm super interested.

And for those who think Bay's Transformers movies are the absolute lowest form of art possible, check out Terry van Feleday's insanely good analysis of them.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Star Trek Double Feature

Trying to write about the two most recent Star Trek movies, it became clear that I really can't talk about one without the other. Fortunately enough time has passed to consider Star Trek: Beyond and what it meant.

Movie posters are great and usually express some of the same themes as the whole movie.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Not all patriarchal archetypes...

Bit of a follow up to both the Whedon and Alien discussions.

Joss Whedon is certainly not the only artist to hit on the "enemies in law, enemies in chaos, we're stuck in the middle" theme. Hell, even all give five Alien movies use this. Oh look, the weakest of those, Alien Resurrection, is a Joss Whedon movie.

But it's not a universal theme you see in every work, only one that you see in every Whedon work, and one that plays well with his constant delivery of anti-dramatic sarcasm.

Another significant difference is the attitude of the lawful-enemies. In the Alien franchise for instance, they are inhuman entities whose key trait is they do not give a fuck about you. In the first movie the key phrase is "Crew Expendable" typed out by a remorseless AI. In Prometheus, order is somewhat represented by a grasping Weyland who doesn't care if an alien was just cut out of your body, only if you're standing between him and immortality - but more it's represented by the Engineer race, this angry male god who sees you as little more than an accidental blot on a clean galaxy. Generally all of these forces are willing to ignore you when you don't matter, and expect you to die for them when they desire something.

Whedon's order is a much more human patriarchy. It cares about you, it wants you to submit, and it wants you to be grateful for their beneficence. It wants to change you, into something more useful and obedient (hence why Whedon's Alien movie is the one about biologically manipulating and controlling Ripley.)

Saturday, December 3, 2016

MCU Color Grading

Cute little Youtube video on a particular aspect of cinematography: color grading. He even ties the artistic decisions made here, to those made in the inking process for comic books.

The only problem is the twelve hundred times he says "this is just my opinion." Including the self-deprecating insert at the end about just being a nerd with over complicated opinions.

Dude, it's okay, you can have a perspective without apologizing for it.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Prometheus and Truth

One of the best movies of the decade so far has been Prometheus, the prequel to Alien. As such it occupies this nuanced middle ground between:

  • Alien - being a story of company grunts who come upon a horrific discovery and are left to die for the sake of inhuman ambition. 
  • The Prequel Trilogy - being a hyper-real spectacle that mocks our attempt to make sense of a horrific universe.

But anyone I recommend this movie to always has one complaint before any engagement with the film:

SMG Addendum to Whedon Post

Replying to the question of "Is Joss Whedon a feminist?", SMG had a wonderful analysis that veers away from personal critique, and emphasizes the ideological straightjacket Whedon is stuck in, which works as a fitting conclusion to yesterday's post that asked "why is everything unruly zombies or cynical patriarchs with him?"

To start things off, there are two temptations to be avoided: 

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Cabin in the Woods and "Death of the Author"

Much criticism of literary criticism (like this blog attempts to be) dismisses it as "death of the author." They see any textual criticism as the same as the idea that discussing the author of a work is utterly irrelevant to what the art says. You would think the numerous posts quoting Lucas, or yesterday's post wondering about the author of Unsong, would give the lie to that, but apparently not. TheGreyTribe has an amusing summary of such complaints. I also recommend people who want to use that term read Roland Barthes himself and see what he meant when he coined it.

The type of analysis this blog subscribes to is much more in line with "auteur theory," where the author is one contextual element of a work but not the only one. In addition to the author informing us about the work, the text itself informs us about the author.

(Below, spoilers that assume you've seen Firefly and Cabin in the Woods, or that you don't worry about spoilers.)

The Time Has Come

Thanksgiving has come and gone, the radio stations are playing holiday music, decorations are up, and the Love, Actually think pieces have begun.
Love, Actually is neither good nor romantic. Out of the 10 or so relationships depicted in a movie that markets itself as "the ultimate romantic comedy," none of them actually involve love, and most of them aren't the slightest bit romantic. 

So as a reminder and a defense against bad hot takes*, I am linking you to my Love, Actually explanation from a few months ago.

(*There is nothing inherently bad against think pieces or hot takes. Being against all such articles would be like being against consideration and interpretation itself. But an analysis can be bad, and the solution to that is actually good analysis that tries to rescue valuable meaning from everything in our lives.)