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It is an odd thing to examine the landscape we find ourselves in in 2017. If you can recall what things were like before December of 2012, fans of the Star Wars series could only dream that there would be further cinematic outings featuring that universe, and if that were to come to fruition it would only ever likely come once George Lucas kicked the bucket and found himself as a means to describe a similarly dead parrot. And yet here we are five years and two cinematic entries into the series later and the landscape has decidedly changed. As fans of the Star Wars universe, we have had to twist our way of thinking and align it with the reality that whether we want them or not, we will be seeing yearly entries into the cinematic canon. How long will it be before Disney tries their luck with more than one film in a calendar year? We can’t know for sure, but having seen success with their Marvel output, I would wager a guess that it can’t be too far away.
A more interesting question going forward is whether or not future installments will branch away from what we consider to be the central narrative of the series thus far, the chronology that began with The Phantom Menace and is still directly continuing with The Last Jedi later this year. Every film thus far has been a link in a chain. Is it possible to tell a story in this universe that does not have ties to the central stories of Episodes I-VIII+? When Rogue One was released in December, it was an experiment. A Star Wars film featuring no Jedi? That would be a stretch for a good many casual fans. Indeed a good amount of chatter on the web featured confused commenters wondering why there was another death star, unaware that this was meant to serve as a prequel to A New Hope. Given the overall box office success of the film, earning a total $1,055,724,829 worldwide based off of a reported 200 million dollar budget, it is highly likely that the takeaway Disney got from the release of Rogue One is that so long as the words “Star” and “Wars” are somewhere in proximity to the title they can expect astronomical returns on their monetary investment.
The upcoming Han Solo film directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller featuring Alden Ehrenreich in the role originated by Harrison Ford will be another major test for Disney. They want to see if audiences will allow and support the recasting of central characters for spinoff projects. When people think of Han Solo they think of Harrison Ford. It is not a James Bond situation where the name conjures multiple actors to mind depending on the personal experience of the audience in relation to the series. Han Solo and Harrison Ford are inseparable at this point. It was made the third act of The Force Awakens resonate in the manner that it did, as any attempt to have a new actor carry on the performance would have undercut the emotional reaction the audience was expected to have regarding the end of his arc in the larger narrative. Having someone play the character at a point prior to the moment we first meet him in A New Hope is not as bitter a pill to swallow in the minds of most audience members. At least this is the hope of executives planning the next several years of spinoffs and sequels bearing the Star Wars brand.
Rogue One, upon first viewing can be viewed as a bit too tethered to the original trilogy. The script uses the established saga as a crutch on which to give the story means to amble forward. Under close scrutiny, large holes appear in the narrative construction and the depth of the characters can be called into question. However, that raises the question of whether or not the film needs to divest itself of its own legacy in order to be valid. Simply because nobody in the cast is named Skywalker or carries a lightsaber does not mean that it isn’t an integral part of the greater story being told in the main saga. It is retroactively thus, and that may feel like a bit of a cheat. However, the film crafts a story that directly ties to central moments of A New Hope. I cannot speak to how well the film plays on a structural, emotional, and objective level without a prior connection to A New Hope, as I have had that film etched into the back of my brain since I was five years old. Analytically speaking, only two moments require a connection on the part of the audience;
- Anything involving Darth Vader
- CGI Princess Leia
Aside from those instances, the film’s narrative stands on its own and establishes its own internal logic and narrative force. The conflict presented within Jyn Erso as a character may not be as rich as others in the central saga, though much of that can be attributed to the logistical reality of a standalone film versus a multi-part epic. Her struggle to reconcile her feelings toward her father and his desire to undermine the Imperial war machine with her sense of self-preservation drives the central theme of the film; personal investment in societal change. The script takes strides to contrast Jyn with characters who fall on a spectrum of ideals, specifically through Chirrut’s mysticism-driven ideals that insist that what happens is the will of the universe (see force) and Cassian Andor’s deeply personalized sense of purpose in rebellion.
There is enough thematic and narrative meat to allow Rogue One to stand on its own. Ultimately its ties to the greater Star Wars canon are simply embellishments for the sake of the initiated that do little to detract from the experience for casual observers. The film could take greater pains to force an investment in the characters on the part of the audience, but the end product is ultimately serviceable in every regard. There is little here that could be critiqued to a degree as to classify Rogue One as a poor film. While some may not enjoy the film enthusiastically, from an objective point of view the film functions well in every regard; composition, editing, effects, score, etc. They all work. Where the film deserves a critical eye is in regard to the script itself, which does seem to fail to develop our central characters fully. While some might argue that this is a trapping of an ensemble production, it is clear that the film was probably another full draft away from being where it needed to be in terms of character development. It is unclear how much of this is as a result of the much ballyhooed reshoots and editing bay shenanigans, but if we take things at face value there is still enough to find issue with.
Beyond The Last Jedi and the as-yet-untitled Han Solo film, we really do not know much about the future of the franchise. What direction will they go? In what ways will they course correct from Rogue One? Do they need to course correct at all? Everything at this juncture is speculation, and however things pan out, the first steps of this marathon have worked out well for Disney and Lucasfilm.
Remakes and reboots are an established phenomenon at this juncture. As much as film can be an artistic medium, so too is it largely beholden to the whims of capitalism and the quest for box office success. When patterns begin to form, sometimes they are easily recognizable; such as every studio’s desire to create a “shared universe” in the wake of 2012’s The Avengers. Other patterns develop with a degree of subtlety, creating a lens with which to view a certain era of time. Patterns may also develop within a sort of microcosm, in an isolated environment divorced from the whole. Disney has of late taken to adapting their animated classics into live-action films, an initiative that can be traced back to 2010’s Alice in Wonderland directed by Tim Burton.
Since that time, we have seen adaptations of Sleeping Beauty in the revisionist Maleficent, Cinderella in 2015, with The Jungle book and Pete’s Dragon rounding out 2016. Spring of this year sees the release of Beauty and the Beast, whose original animated counterpart marked a turning point in the history of animation and of Disney as a company. The train is still rolling as casting has just begun for Aladdin, news recently broke that Mulan is moving forward but will not be a musical and it has been reported that James Earl Jones will reprise his role as the voice of Mufasa in a live action version of The Lion King.
While these adaptations have hitherto been moderate to extreme box office heavyweights, the lingering critical question upon the release of each subsequent film has been whether the studio is doing anything with the new versions of the film to justify their existence beyond the revenue they generate. Does translating these classic animated films into a live action film bring anything to the table that wasn’t there in the original version?
Focusing solely on the latest film in the lineup, it feels as if Disney has for the first time put an emphasis on injecting something new into the narrative for the sake of justifying its own existence. The script’s portrayal of Belle, here portrayed as the creative/inventive genius in her father’s workshop, seems hell-bent on making strides to correct the perception that the character is simply a bookworm suffering from Stockholm Syndrome. The script moves a few steps further by feeling the need to give Belle her own “tragic backstory,” perhaps to put her in the same company as Lily James’ Cinderella. This would not be obtrusive, had the script not felt the need to do the same for Beast, giving a kind of justification for his decision to turn away the enchantress that places the curse upon his home.
Wanting to provide depth to a character is not usually a tick mark in the negative column. However, this adaptation does not provide enough attention to this subplot for it to carry enough weight. In the end, it feels like padding; largely unnecessary in most regards. Some minor additions to the script actually do work, such as the addition of Beast’s third-act solo following Belle’s departure or LeFou’s eventual about-face in his relationship with Gaston.
The 2017 Beauty and the Beast is a good film, though it is not a great one. Part of the reason for this is simply that the original on which it is based succeeds in just about every regard where the remake falters. It is somewhat disappointing, but if you look at the patterns, it is not all that unsurprising.
**Major spoilers for Logan are contained within. Be forewarned**
As a teacher of literature, I often preach the importance of understanding genre conventions. In trying to teach the concept of analysis, I have always found it important to build a bedrock of understanding that lies in comprehending the expectations present when examining a particular type of writing. I talk about text features, patterns, structure, etc. There are some who do not agree with this approach; that it hamstrings the person trying to formulate effective analysis because if they can’t tick a box they can’t generate a thesis, and while I feel that in some ways this is a logical argument, it can also easily be countered by taking a look at a selection that so readily establishes itself as a deconstruction of a genre itself or a commentary on the tropes and expectations contained therein.
Case in point; James Mangold’s Logan. The film, directed by Mangold based off a story he generated with a script by Scott Frank, is a direct response to the superhero genre as it has been established over the past ten years.
The “superhero genre” is one that, for a good while at least, was ill-defined at best. Many of the tropes schemes associated with the genre by the middle of the 1990s have been discarded, phased out in response to what feels like a steady rise in “focus group” or “Four Quadrant” mainstream film-making. While superhero films have been around for decades, it was the wave of films in the immediate aftermath of Bryan Singer’s X-Men in 2000 that started to form the mold that would be firmly solidified by the success of the Marvel cinematic universe in the wake of Iron Man in 2008. As a result, the expectations of the genre have, by and large, been set by Marvel Studios and Disney over the last ten years. Audiences are conditioned to look for certain elements; films that break from that mold are viewed as outliers.
What Marvel has done over the last decade is decide what tropes from published comic books they wanted to translate over to the world of film and television. It was Marvel studios that reversed the idea brought upon the cinematic landscape by X-Men in 2000 that heroes could not or should not wear their traditional costumes. There is also much to be said about the formula that they apply to their character archetypes, the structure of their narratives (Marvel never met a macguffin it didn’t like) and the congruous “house style” of their framing and color palettes.
While this has happened for films produced by Marvel’s association with the “Mouse House,” films produced by other studios have largely eschewed those conventions, either seeking to establish their own, or simply seeking to subvert them and comment on them in such a way as to stand apart from the herd. Warner Brothers attempted to sell their DC cinematic universe as “filmmaker driven,” as a dig at Marvel Studio’s perceived desire to keep their universe homogeneous to the point that, some argue, it renders the overall product increasingly bland. It is hard to see any WB/DC films, especially those under the guided hand of Zack Snyder as anything other than a direct antithesis of genre conventions established by the cultural powerhouse of Marvel Studios.
Where films like Batman v. Superman, Suicide Squad, et al. fail in that regard however is as a commentary on those conventions. The WB/DC films offer a counter-point in tone but do little to make an argument regarding that selfsame tone. What purpose does the implied darkness serve in the grander scheme of the narrative? In what way does reshaping the core fundamentals of firmly established characters shape the stories that they tell? It would appear that there is no such purpose.
Contrast that with other films that seek to deconstruct the genre; namely last year’s surprise (to some people, anyway) hit Deadpool and this year’s dark-horse candidate for comic adaptation of the year, Logan. Whereas the WB/DC films sought to provide a counter-balance to the Marvel cinematic universe in terms of tone, Deadpool and Logan seek to provide a rebuttal in terms, not only of tone, but of intent. Deadpool was a reverent, sophomoric exercise in showing that homogeneous, same-samey cinematic adaptions of popular characters could only get you so far. Trying to fit the character of Deadpool into the mold established by films like Iron Man and Thor simply would not work. Instead, they focused on subverting the genre expectations established by the films that preceded it, and utilized the character’s fourth-wall breaking tendencies to offer commentary directly to the audience. The subversion of genre tropes was both text and sub-text within the context of the film itself.
That commentary and subversion continues with Logan. It is no coincidence that Logan begins with a false-start that turns out to actually be a teaser trailer for Deadpool 2; both of these films, in their very DNA, a similarity in intent. Though the two films could not be any different if they tried, they share a connection that cannot be disputed; both films wear their R rating like badge of honor(though the reasoning and utilization of the freedom it allows are also quite disparate in nature), both scale back the drama in ways that make the narrative less about the external conflict with an ill-defined villain and more about the internal conflict with themselves, and both films seek to show that tone disparate from established genre norms requires that the intent of utilizing it also be addressed from a narrative standpoint.
Logan is an R rated film. It earns the R rating not only through a veritable overload of graphic violence but through a cavalcade of cursing that would feel right at home in a film directed by Quentin Tarantino. Both of these points seek to reinforce that Logan is, itself, a commentary on the genre itself. Hugh Jackman has played the character of Wolverine for seventeen years. To put that in perspective, if Wolverine is Jackman’s baby, that baby is now old enough to purchase a ticket to Logan without a parent or guardian present. Fans have clamored for an R rated Wolverine film for almost as long as there has been an X-Men franchise. Following the release of X2, fans lamented the bloodless nature of Wolverine’s berserker rage as it was presented on camera. In that film however, it simply would not have been appropriate with regard to the tone being established. The violence in Logan is a commentary; from the very first scene it is established that Wolverine as a character is trying to move past violence. Just as the world has moved on, so too has he. The men trying to steal Logan’s limo initiate the violence with a cursory shotgun blast to his chest. Even after taking the hit, Logan attempts to talk his way out of the situation. Once the situation reaches an apex, only then do the claws come out. Every bit of violence that follows is deliberate and meaningful. It echoes the world that surrounds it. The world has fallen into decay. Logan, too, has fallen into decay. The veil of humanity and civilization and structure and order is now simply a specter, thus allowing the levels of violence and bloodshed shown on screen to be congruous with the story being told. The reason we, as an audience, didn’t need to see people getting claws shoved through their skulls in previous X-Men films is because there was still hope in the world where the narrative was transpiring. There, Logan was making an attempt to live within the norms of society; here, that restraint is gone, and so too is any censorship of his actions.
This same lack of censorship can be applied to the linguistic aspect of the script as well, specifically the casual nature with which the central characters drop f-bomb after f-bomb. The X-Men franchise has been toying around with this for several films now, with each film utilizing their one MPAA approved, non-sexual utterance of the word to varying degrees of comedic effect. Here, however, the word is not played for laughs, aside from perhaps the first time we hear Patrick Stewart’s Xavier use it because we feel it to be so far out of the natural confines of his character. But as we move deeper into the film and we as an audience come to understand the depths of sorrow and despair that have plagued both Logan and Charles since things all went sideways, the blue nature of the dialog begins to make organic sense, as it is a distillation of their emotional turmoil and serves as a means of non-violent catharsis. Again, this is something that would have been out of place in other entries in the franchise but is tied heavily to the film’s own thematic statements that when the credits roll you would be hard pressed to find an audience member who found the dialog to be incongruous with the story being told.
The single biggest challenge to the established expectations of the superhero genre however come simply in the form of the climax and the focus of the narrative. A majority of major comic book superhero adaptations feel the need to have an exaggerated climax, usually involving an under-developed villain and their desire to control/regain/destroy some type of macguffin. This usually ends with some sort of sky-portal or something falling from the sky. The sky is almost always involved. (Avengers had a sky portal, Avengers: Age of Ultron had a country falling out of the sky, Guardians of the Galaxy had a ship falling out of the sky, Thor: The Dark World had something falling out of the sky, a pattern does seem to develop) Logan eschews this in favor of focusing the narrative around Wolverine’s internal conflict; to what degree does he owe anything to Xavier, to Laura, who comes into his life at a time that could only bring complications, to Caliban, and ultimately to himself. It is ultimately fitting that Logan does battle with himself in the literal sense when he ends up fighting X-24; a younger, more virile version of himself that represents the unsuppressed violence that he had so desperately tried to control his entire life.
Ultimately, Logan is not a film that simply has Hugh Jackman violently stabbing people and dropping f-bombs for the sake of novelty; there is purpose and intent in the film’s construction. Logan serves to show that when you work within a genre, there are boxes that the audience is expecting you to tick, and if you don’t there had better be a reason for it, otherwise why would you be working with that genre to begin with? James Mangold took superhero DNA and infused it into a western, then used it as a way to hold a mirror up to the entirety of the superhero genre and show them a reflection of their own conflict. Not every film needs to do this. In fact, Logan’s success is largely dependent on a mold being present to break free from. What remains to be seen is what, if any, lessons upcoming films will take away from Wolverine’s last ride.
Film is a medium that is ruled by the sum of its parts. This is why it is possible to enjoy a film when certain elements falter in the eyes of the viewer. It is a function of the medium itself that a film can overcome the under-performance of its own elements to be viewed as a success by the audience. This is an understanding that most lovers of film will readily acknowledge when discussing the art form. It is a reason why viewers are apt to have so-called “guilty pleasures” wherein some element of an otherwise disposable piece of entertainment overpowers its combined negative elements to provide enjoyment to the person watching. There is nothing wrong with being the dissenting opinion. There is nothing wrong with believing that a film has merit that others do not see. However, in the wake of the release of mega-blockbuster Batman v Superman : Dawn of Justice, there has been an explosion of inflammatory rhetoric and combative attitudes put forth by both critics and supporters of the film that seems to ignore the basic central tenet of film criticism; that artistic value is ultimately subjective.
One of the prevailing false equivalencies in defending one’s opinion on a piece of art or entertainment is to dismiss the person stating the opinion rather than providing a logical opposition to the opinion itself. This is what is known as an ad hominem attack. A sizeable amount of the street-level conversation regarding the release of Batman v Superman : Dawn of Justice has circled around the fact that those criticizing the film are doing so out of customer loyalty to rival Marvel Comics, and in no way predicated on the fact that the film, like any produced by mere mortals, has flaws that many will see as inexcusable when trying to assess its relative value. In the world of film criticism, to a certain degree, any argument is valid provided that it resides in sound logic. Dismissing legitimate criticisms as an aftereffect of a perceived cultural hive-mind is not a basis for defending one’s own position. However, a sizeable faction of those supporting Batman v Superman : Dawn of Justice seem incapable of drafting their own thesis in defense of the film and would rather predicate their attack on the criticism the film has received, hoping to undermine the voices of those who would question whatever artistic merit it might have by painting those who would speak against it as preternaturally biased. It is somewhat perplexing that so many defenders of the film have chosen this path because in the world of film criticism the best offence is not a good defense. Supporters of the film, if they are seeking credibility or validity for their own viewpoint, should focus on presenting the merits of the film rather than attacking those who fail to see them.
Batman v Superman : Dawn of Justice is a film that seems equal parts genetically engineered for close analysis and wholly underdeveloped to the point that any analysis would be equally insubstantial. Director Zack Snyder begins the film with a sequence in which a young Bruce Wayne, following the funeral of his parents, finds himself at the bottom of a well after tumbling down an unseen shaft. The young child is then shown ascending out of the cave in a maelstrom of bats. This is a powerful metaphor to be certain, or rather it could be, but ultimately it is meaningless because nothing in the film follows up on the symbolism presented in that scene. It is an isolated piece of imagery that exists only to provide a stirring visual. This is a legitimate criticism of an aspect of the film. Does it, in and of itself, mean that the film is a disaster? No. It does not. This criticism is not predicated on any particular loyalty to an outside brand or a bias against the film walking into the theater. It is an observation that explains why someone might take issue with the film and call it ultimately empty and lackluster in its construction.
Another rhetorical fallacy being paraded by supporters of the film is that it heralds the arrival of mainstream comic adaptations that ascend in maturity the way that rival Marvel adaptations are afraid to embrace. This seems entirely centered around a false definition of the word “mature.” In the parlance of those who herald Batman v Superman : Dawn of Justice as a mature alternative to Marvel, the word they are likely looking for is simply “dark.” Maturity implies sophistication. Batman v Superman : Dawn of Justice is many things but sophisticated is low among the adjectives that could be reasonably applied to it with a straight face. By implying that Batman v Superman : Dawn of Justice is a mature film, supporters would then be arguing that it is intricately crafted and sophisticated in its design in a way that a lesser or more juvenile film could not attain. While I will say that there are points in the film that are artfully and tastefully rendered, with a careful intricacy in developing certain themes, the majority of the film’s construction is ultimately haphazard and disjointed in a way that defies the term “mature.” Coherency is a central part of narrative storytelling. There are myriad elements within the script of Batman v Superman : Dawn of Justice which defy logical cohesion. They are not so much “plot holes” as they are “logic holes,” and moments that could and should have been caught in revising the draft before being placed in production.
Again, that is not to say that there are not sophisticated elements showcasing this abstract concept of maturity within the film. Batman v Superman : Dawn of Justice does an excellent job with its operatic interpretation of the death of Martha and Thomas Wayne, a singularly important moment in developing Batman as a character. It is even more striking when you realize that this scene, very early in the film, sets the philosophical principles of Batman in an organic way that utilized economic storytelling and strong visuals instead of the ham-fisted expository dialog that permeates the rest of the film. To wit, Thomas Wayne is shot down in the midst of attempting to fight off the attacker who would rob them. This is a direct act of aggression, which sets the tone for our more active-minded, aggressive Batman throughout the rest of the film. Contrast this with the Batman of the Christopher Nolan trilogy, whose Thomas Wayne died while trying to place himself between the attacker and his wife, an act of defense. To construct the scene this way, Snyder was likely attempting to prove his thesis on heroism; that passivity has no place in the heart of those we should call heroes. This is indeed a bold choice and shows some of the maturity that supporters of the film like to point to. However, much of the goodwill earned by flourishes like this are balanced out by scenes in which Lex Luthor taunts a senator with a glass of urine on her desk before suicide bomber takes out the capitol building.
Batman v Superman : Dawn of Justice is not an unholy abomination of a film. It is not even the worst comic book film of the last five years. Oddly enough, as much as this film drew from the oeuvre of Frank Miller, it was that man’s Sin City : A Dame to Kill For that takes the prize as the most incoherent, painfully unwatchable comic book adaptation since the genre saw its resurgence in the middle of the 2000s. What Batman v Superman : Dawn of Justice is actually is a deeply flawed film whose individual parts do not add up to a competent film but possesses minute elements that work in such a way that the flaws can be overlooked by a certain contingency of the audience. In a way, supporters of Batman v Superman : Dawn of Justice are correct. The film is critic proof. It will and has made the studio the money they so obviously desired. But for those who were hoping to see a film that embraced the true meaning of maturity, the concept that so many are quick to rally around to defend this film, they will only be disappointed.
The year has come and gone. It was a big one for me; bought a house, published a new novel, got engaged, saw the new Star Wars in theaters. Lots of ticks off the bucket list in 2015 for sure. I can’t say it was a good year overall. I mean, police brutality, terrorism, Donald Trump…do I really need to go into detail? Probably not. But I will go into detail with regard to the things that didn’t make me hate the very concept of existence.
J. Goodson Dodd’s Top Films of 2015
I think it is telling that I can’t even do a top 10 list this year. Granted, I missed a few films that looked like surefire winners (Straight Outta Compton, Creed, The Good Dinosaur, Crimson Peak) but all the same, it was a rather week slate altogether. But the good ones sure as hell did stand out.
I don’t pretend that these are the most technically sound films, or prestigious. These are simply the films that stayed with me or impressed me the most over the course of the year.
5. The Martian
Ridley Scott is such a hit or miss director these days. I personally loved Prometheus but I know it gets a lot of hate. Then you’ve got less than stellar Exodus, The Counselor, and that misguided attempt at Robin Hood with Russel Crowe.
With The Martian, however, Ridley Scott shows what made him such a respected name in the game of film in the first place with a masterfully paced adaptation of Andrew Weir’s novel of the same name. While much of the credit for the film goes to the folks who wrote the thing, Scott’s direction and steady hand go a long way towards cementing it as one of the best of the year. That’s to say nothing of Matt Damon playing the ever-loving hell out of Mark Watney, someone who the audience demands be charming enough that we believe it is worth the effort exerted to bring him home from his extra-terrestrial exile.
This time last year I was one hundred percent certain that Ant-Man would be overshadowed by Age of Ultron. Which is a shame, I told myself, because I love the character and lesser-known heroes deserve a chance to find love from the greater public at large.
So how did Ant-Man manage to be the best superhero film we got this year? Not only by virtue of only having to compete with garbage like Fantastic Four and the mediocrity of Avengers : Age of Ultron, but by having the sort of wit and charm that works best for left-field characters like Scott Lang. Having one of the best ensemble casts of any major film this year didn’t hurt, because Michael Pena could salvage even the worst of films.
3. The Hateful Eight
I was sure this was going to be number one for me. I was sure of it. And it is only by virtue of the strength of other films that this gets the bronze medal. Quentin Tarantino turns in what, after careful consideration, might be his most carefully constructed piece of writing to date, filmed with expert precision, making it by far his most stunningly shot film. Looking at the man’s filmography, The Hateful Eight is the culmination of everything that is Tarantino. It has the excess of Kill Bill with the claustrophobic tension of Reservoir Dogs and the steady focus of Inglourious Basterds. It is a difficult film. One that will be divisive and off-putting to most, but over time will likely be appreciated as one of the finest pieces of cinema produced not just by Tarantino but any director working in the modern age.
Thematically, it is the grandest of anything Tarantino has ever done. His statement on the concept of race relations and violence in America is pointed and vicious. This is a timely film. Only minor tweaks would be necessary to bring the film into the present day and the message would remain the same. That is part of the brilliance of Tarantino’s design. There is a bit of dialog in the film about the “disarming” characteristics of a certain letter that Samuel L. Jackson’s Major Marquis Warren has in his possession. So too is there a disarming quality to the idea of a violent Quentin Tarantino film. He has long been regarded as a man more inclined to style over substance but with The Hateful Eight he truly does have something to say and he is going to say it loud, painting a thematic slogan across the screen in blood all the while filmed in glorious Panavision 70mm.
I had a lot of conflicting ideas about this film. I think I’ve worked through most of them and have settled on a final opinion. For my original review, you can check out my Tumblr post.
2. Star Wars – Episode VII : The Force Awakens
I cried. Let that sink in. In all of the prequels, I don’t think I ever had a single emotional response to anything presented on the screen. I had the same emotional attachment to the franchise, but it didn’t connect.
So what changed?
The fact of the matter is that the reason the latest Star Wars film works is because it has an emotional core. While the script may have some pretty glaring flaws, the result of unending rewrites and tinkering, the overall construction of the film is rooted in an emotional ideal. Our new leads are connected to something that we have an affinity for, but we could have easily wound up hating the ever loving bejeezus out of them. Daisy Ridley and John Boyega have the unenviable task of being the new faces of Star Wars and not only do they do an amazing job, the managed to get me emotionally invested in their stories.
The “Hero’s Journey” trope has been rode into the ground and beaten within an inch of its life. So having that same story pattern brought up again and applied with Rey, my brain should have rejected it and dismissed it outright. Instead, the vibrancy with which she is brought to life makes me invested in the journey itself. I don’t mind familiar beats being hit again because when the beats land, they do so effectively with none of the clumsy handiwork of the prequels.
This feels like Star Wars again. On every conceivable level. And when Star Wars is good, it’s really really good. There’s a reason it is so long-lasting and endearing as a franchise beyond simple merchandising. There is magic in that universe. The Force Awakens proves that.
1. Mad Max – Fury Road
I have never seen a film so visceral and economically minded with regard to storytelling as the fourth film in George Miller’s Mad Max saga.
This film is a modern marvel.
It should not work. Thirty years have passed since Max was on screen. Mel Gibson isn’t back. The continuity has been shot to hell. There’s very little in the way of dialog, which means virtually no exposition. How the hell were modern audiences going to react to a film that demanded that they fill in gaps with their imagination and critical thinking? Surprisingly they took to it like a fish to water and it became what has to be one of the most universally praised films I’ve ever encountered. I don’t know many people who didn’t think this thing was a masterpiece of cinematic genius. I know general consensus doesn’t amount to a whole lot but I’ll be damned if I’m not in awe of how universal the acceptance of Fury Road as a stunning benchmark in the name of cinematic achievement has become.
I really can’t say much more about the film. It stands on its own. It was the single most impressive film I’ve seen this year. I doubt we will see anything like it for a good long while.
I was six years old, with my seventh birthday on the horizon in a short two months, when Jurassic Park roared its way into theaters on June 11th, 1993. My brother would be turning two that weekend. So much time has passed and yet I can still remember so much about that time of my life with vivid clarity. I remember leaving the theater with a new favorite movie. I remember going to the local Wal-mart, one which I still go to though it has been over-hauled multiple times, and getting every Jurassic Park action figure, vehicle and dinosaur I could get my hands on. I devoured that film. It became almost an obsession. I immediately decided upon a career path that would find me as a paleontologist, digging for bones in the arid Montana desert. I picked up a paperback copy of Michael Crichton’s novel and powered my way through it, asking my parents to explain some of the more technical jargon. Jurassic Park was a milestone in my young life and the original film still stands in my personal favorite film top-three alongside Spielberg’s other summer opus, Jaws, and Martin Scorcese’s Goodfellas (which only true manly men could possibly appreciate.)
In the lead-up to the release of Jurassic World, practically twenty-two years to the day since seeing Spielberg’s Jurassic Park on screen, I slowly started to reconcile the part of myself that was obsessed with the original film with the person I have become today. I obviously did not follow through with my paleontology career path, although I have many times visited the paleontology hall at the Houston Museum of Natural Science with a childlike feeling of awe and wonder. But I still love Jurassic Park, and the part of me that can embrace the fun that such a movie brings out in a young kid is still alive and well within my soul. This is evidenced by the fact that I have spent plenty of time assembling and playing around with the recent LEGO Jurassic World sets and video game. Something about a theme park filled with dinosaurs simply tickles the interior of my soul.
But as I’ve grown and matured in ways that don’t relate to my appreciation for block-based building sets and video games, I have taken the time to look at Jurassic Park as a film and tried to utilize my adult understanding of narrative structure, tropes and schemes, genre conventions and critical analysis into an organized treatise on why, despite its flaws, Jurassic World is not nearly the vapid, cash-grab sequel that many reviewers have pegged it as. If anything, the DNA of its construction is much closer in spirit to the 1993 original than either of the two previous sequels.
Critics have not been overly kind to Colin Trevorrow’s sequel. Devin Faraci of BirthMoviesDeath wrote that the film is “a generic bore” and that “If the script for Jurassic World wasn’t so terrible the movie itself might be a fascinating failure.” Drew Dietsch at CHUD remarked that the film is “a remake that has deluded itself into thinking it’s a sequel.” An overabundance of writers have wrung their hands about the film, complaining about a lack of new ideas or lamenting that the ideas presented in the film are either uninspired or out of place. I feel like this is part of the learned culture of immediately dismissing sequels. It is easy to immediately write off sequels. Generally speaking they seem like a bad idea most of the time. We get flashes of brilliance from time to time, whenever someone like Christopher Nolan comes along with something like The Dark Knight to evolve the story they started with their original installment or when James Cameron brought something new to the table with Aliens. Still, there is a lot that has to go through a person’s mind in order to greet the fourth entry in any franchise without some measure of skepticism.
But in a world where the fifth entry of the Fast and Furious franchise came out of nowhere to redefine the series and wind up being the best installment of them all, is it really so hard to go in with an open mind when viewing something like Jurassic World, a film that, by all accounts, seems to be a labor of love by filmmakers who truly embraced the original Jurassic Park as a modern classic?
Some critics were able to look at the film objectively and recognize that it works quite well, with Drew McWeeny of HitFix saying that Jurassic World “may be the best entire movie in the series.”
McWeeny is quick to point out that while other installments of the franchise might feature stronger individual moments, overall Jurassic World is the most firmly put together of all the films and I would argue the same, mainly because this film is the first since the original to embrace the tone of its own internalized world-building.
The Lost World is not a terrible film, in fact I have come to appreciate it more and more over the years on repeat viewings. The scene where the Tyrannosaurs knock the accordion trailer over the cliff is one of Spielberg’s finest action set pieces. This goes back to McWeeny stating that other films may have stronger individual scenes but don’t come together as a whole as well as Jurassic World does. Part of what The Lost World stumbles with is the tone that it wants to strike. Spielberg wants to play out a thrilling survival trek on film but the seriousness of the peril is undercut when you get a scene as ludicrous as the one where a velociraptor is defeated by the power of teenage gymnastics. Jurassic Park III, while a fun jaunt, also suffers from tone issues as well as the infamous “Alan!” scene.
Jurassic World is very much aware of what sort of beast it is. Colin Trevorrow wisely embraces the b-movie quality that has always been the baseline DNA of the franchise. Jurassic Park had the same blending of spellbound awe and creature chaos that is prevalent in Jurassic World. Jurassic World simply suffers by virtue of being beholden to Jurassic Park to exist in any way, both within the context of the film itself and as a summer blockbuster. The meta-commentary of corporate driven initiatives resulting in a demand for bigger, bolder forms of entertainment operates on several levels. Of course this is the natural course the park would take within the context of the narrative. It just makes sense. It would turn into a branded park the way Six Flags or Disney have. Of course companies would love to see their brand sponsoring exhibits. It just makes sense. But as I have made clear, we are twenty-two years removed from the original Jurassic Park, and as such nobody in the audience is truly going to be happy with the same old thing. That’s why we have a genetically engineered dinosaur that creeps into true “movie monster” territory and a villain who wants to use raptors for military purposes because he never watched Aliens and doesn’t understand how terrible an idea it really is. The writers of this film truly delivered a film that works organically within the cinematic world presented in the previous film while giving the corporate overlords at Universal Studios a film that is very much what the movie is actively speaking against. This film is a mobius strip of cinematic commentary.
Jurassic Park III established the pack dynamics of the raptors in such a way that Chris Pratt’s character being able to assert dominance and train them feels believable. The original novel by Michael Crichton had Hammond and Wu speaking about genetic modification as the endgame for In-Gen, so why are people pushing back regarding this film? Objectively speaking, this is just as able a film as Jurassic Park was, simply with the stumbling block of not having done it first. It is a strong film, one that has a few flaws, but ultimately a strong film. This isn’t even qualified in a “yeah, but…” way that I spoke about when talking about Avengers : Age of Ultron. This is a film that is good in its own right with regard to the genre conventions it is playing in. Saying otherwise really just comes off as petty.
In all honesty, this is one of the most competently constructed movies of the year. I stand by that statement and hope that others can recognize where this film succeeds where others have failed so drastically. Let us hope that the trend continues with the inevitable fifth film.
There is an expectation when you watch a film that the narrative within that piece of cinema will adhere to certain expectations of story-structure and the logic of narrative flow. When dealing with sequels to established properties, the expectations and rules grow stricter in some regards and more lax in others. We expect an increase in stakes and an evolution of established character while also, perhaps unconsciously, giving the film as a whole and the creators responsible a critical safety net. The safety net I refer to is one woven of lowered expectations and residual appreciation for what came before. We loved the original film that spawned the sequel and therefore we are willing to look at the new entry through a lens tempered with appreciation held over from the previous installment, giving us a more favorable view of a film that we otherwise might view with disdain. We also have to take into consideration the fact that it is a long held belief that sequels are inherently inferior to their predecessor. There are notable exceptions, of course, but for every Godfather: Part II there are twelve Jaws IIIs.
I consider the sequel to be the epitome of “yeah, but…” cinema. As in, “Yeah it wasn’t as good as [insert original film here], but it wasn’t actual human garbage so I’ll give it a B+.” We attach these sort of “Yeah, but…” qualifiers to a myriad of films. Moviegoers wishing to deflect criticism away from themselves for enjoying something outside of their typical wheelhouse may use the “Yeah, but…” argument in order to put an asterisk next to their own opinion. With Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, I have seen enough “Yeah, but…” arguments regarding the film’s merit to make my head spin. The truth of the matter is that if audiences wish to see sequels that uphold the same quality standards as the original films that spawn them, the “Yeah, but…” argument needs to die a slow, painful death.
Avengers: Age of Ultron does not deserve the benefit of the “Yeah, but…” defense. It tosses most of the established rules of coherent storytelling and replaces it with every trope and cliché in the Joss Whedon playbook, hoping that our love for the characters presented on screen will blind us from the shortfalls of the script. The whiz-bang dialog peppered with quips and witty banter is meant to distract us like jangling keys dangled in front of an infant while the actual craft of the story unfolding on screen possesses all of the master craftsmanship of a bad Tumblr Fan Fiction piece. While Avengers fans worldwide pump money into Marvel’s pockets and continue to dismiss criticisms of the film’s construction with stuttered pleas of “yeah, but…” I feel that you could end the conversation after the “Yeah.”
I am a storyteller. I don’t fancy myself a very good one, and Joss Whedon is one of the people who I previously would have counted among my influences. Whedon’s work in serialized storytelling with Buffy and Angel is still worthy of praise. He did things with long-form narrative work that other people molded and made their own and is indirectly one of the forefathers of the modern television renaissance. Lost can trace many of its tropes and schemes all the way back to the Buffy writer’s room, and you would be hard pressed to find someone working in television who won’t sing Whedon’s praises. So what went so wrong that both the story and characterization in Age of Ultron is so incredibly off? The film feels like a direct sequel to The Avengers and in any other universe that might be enough. However, in the universe we live in and in the context of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there have been four other films in between The Avengers and Age of Ultron; Iron Man III, Thor : The Dark World, Captain America : The Winter Soldier, and Guardians of the Galaxy. Now, Joss Whedon really only needed to pick up on plot threads from three of those, as Guardians of the Galaxy doesn’t really touch the events on Earth all too directly, but it is inexcusable to ignore the events of Iron Man III and Winter Soldier the way that Age of Ultron does. At the end of Iron Man III, Tony Stark has effectively given up the superhero business. So why do they begin this film with him on the team as if nothing has happened, with no mention of Extremis or any of the events in that film? At the climax of Winter Soldier, Natasha says she is going underground to rebuild her cover for a little while. So why is she front and center in the public eye here in Age of Ultron? The short answer is lazy storytelling.
Age of Ultron acts as a sequel to a film that never existed. We are seeing payoff to events that we were never privy to. The culmination of Natasha and Bruce Banner’s relationship has no emotional resonance because while, in the context of the film, it had been building for some time, as the audience we witnessed absolutely zero percent of its development. I do not oppose the pairing as some do. In fact, I find it logical when applied to the story Marvel has presented us and the dynamic of those characters. The film feels like a finale to a Joss Whedon TV show that audiences never got to see the first twenty-one episodes of. If we accept that the creative purpose of sequels is to further the story of certain characters (as opposed to a shameless cash grab) then it would follow that the characterization from previous installments would be followed through. Age of Ultron seems to eschew this idea, as if Joss Whedon decided to go mad with creative power and rewrite the rules as he went along. If Whedon weren’t playing in a sandbox with other creators, this wouldn’t be as egregious an offense, because it is well within his rights to course correct on a story he has total control of. He made several such decisions during the course of Buffy and Angel. However, the choices Whedon made in Age of Ultron were unfair to the people who had been crafting the individual stories of these characters in their respective films and to the audience as well. As previously stated, audiences have certain expectations for sequels and while subverting expectations can make for a powerful film, doing so at the expense of organic storytelling is a huge creative mistake.
Whedon himself seems to be well aware of the type of film he has made. The generally accepted Hollywood narrative is that this film was the hardest film anyone would ever have to make and it seems to have taken a toll on the man. In an interview earlier this year, Whedon said he “went to some strange places in this one, and making that work and making it flow and making it all feel like it’s part of the same movie was difficult.” And while the end product does seem coherent within the bounds of its own construction, when viewed as a thread in the larger tapestry of the Marvel Universe, it seems decidedly off kilter. That is where the movie falters.
I cannot begrudge the overwhelming action of the film. Compared to Avengers, Age of Ultron steps up its game in almost every conceivable way. Where the first thirty minutes of Avengers looked like it shared the production budget of Agents of Shield, Age of Ultron is fully polished and wears it’s pedigree like a badge of honor. This is not just a blockbuster but a big-budget blockbuster and everyone had better strap themselves in for a hell of a ride. Age of Ultron does get several parts of the sequel formula right and the action is number one on that list. I would personally argue that the villain is weaker, although that might just be a byproduct of having watched Daredevil in a frantic binge and preferring an antagonist who feels legitimately frightening like Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk as opposed to a generic quip robot engineered by Joss Whedon to feel theatrical but never threatening.
It is important to note that none of this really matters now. The film has been released and it made enough money to justify its existence and quality to the bean counters at Disney. Joss Whedon has walked away and will have a considerable amount of clout to generate new projects outside of the House of Ideas. The Russo brothers will get to rebuild the toys Whedon broke and try to make sense of the carnage. In the modern age of cinema, blockbuster sequels like this are practically critic proof. Everybody is leaping over themselves trying to say “Yeah, but…” in some way that makes Age of Ultron look better than it really is. I doubt time will be kind to the film, however. This sequel will age badly when placed alongside stronger entries yet to come. It already suffers when paired up against Marvel’s most recent efforts; Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy. One of those is the best sequel Marvel has produced by a wide margin and the other a promising start to yet another franchise. Age of Ultron was going to be a hit no matter how bad it was, but it could have also been a better film and that is the true tragedy of the story. That and the way Whedon utterly wasted Quicksilver. Let’s not forget that either.
Having a verbal discussion about Fifty Shades of Grey is challenging. The book is a loaded subject and one that at this point has been discussed into oblivion and back. The ramblings of one more person isn’t going to change public perception on the novel, nor should it. On episode thirty of the Pop and Schlock Podcast I spoke about the book’s film adaptation and how it should be viewed as its own entity and judged on the merits presented therein, ignoring the book that spawned the adaptation. I argued that the film improves on the novel in almost every aspect, which I still stand by. It would be hard not to improve on a book that poorly written. I have made it across the finish line on many a terrible book. I could not do that with E.L. James poorly written and terribly constructed mainstream smut. I have annotations on how and why the book is beyond problematic and how as a character Christian Grey is a sociopathic abuser and will not argue that as he is presented on paper, he fits that category. That is not in dispute. That readers are romanticizing him and treating him as an object of desire in spite of this evidence is also not in dispute. Arguing that the film adaptation is without merit or somehow devoid of consequence or craft because of the soil from which it grew is however, something that I would wish to dispute.
As presented on film, the abuse present in the novel is largely redacted. Christian Grey on film is respectful of Anastasia’s wishes and allows her full agency with regard to her decision to engage in a consensual BDSM relationship. He never ignores a safeword and reiterates multiple times that she has the power and the right to leave at any time. The climax of the film features a scene in which Ana verbally asks Christian to demonstrate his idea of punishment, which he does by spanking her with a leather strap six times. He clearly defines what he is going to do, and before commencing Anastasia has ample time to decline and exit the premises. As the activity is being carried out, she too can utilize a safeword to alter the proceedings; yellow to slow down because she is nearing her personal limit or red to stop entirely. She utilizes neither. She demonstrated at an earlier point in the film verbally to Christian that she understands and is aware of her safewords and her ability to end the scene. She chooses to leave Christian only after the scene has concluded. She tells him to stop following her as she exits with a firm “No,” which he complies with immediately. He does not disregard her wishes at any point in the film’s runtime. Thus, one of the major elements of contention with the novel is erased, a change made for the better by more talented creative forces than the original novel’s author.
If then we can agree that the major element of contention that establishes the original novel as overtly problematic is rectified by changes made in the course of adapting it to screen, my contention during the podcast was that any notations of what happens between Anastasia and Christian as “abusive” by critics then reverts to simple kink shaming. Logically, if the act is consensual and safe, which by my estimation the events portrayed on screen were, then claims of abuse are seeded in a need to judge the activities as deviant by the person giving critique. To argue that abuse does not happen in BDSM relationships is naive and downright wrong, but I am not making a statement about that community or the issues that permeate the members thereof. Speaking solely of what is presented on screen, the BDSM in the film adaptation ofFifty Shades of Grey lacks the offending elements that so many critics of the book get worked into a furor over.
Thus, establishing that there is little to be offended by in the film unless you rally against it for being deviant in its subject matter or simply for being explicit in its depiction of sexual content, the film can be judged as an adaptation and a work of cinema in the same manner as any other adaptation of a piece of writing, be it established literary fiction, modern popular fiction, comic books, or even non-fiction narrative writing. With that in mind, there is little to find contention with while watching the film. The cinematography by Seamus McGarvey is stunning and transforms a normally dreary Seattle setting into something sleek and refined, with a polished look that raises the presentation of the material above its contemporaries such as hastily produced Lifetime original films or daytime soap operas. This is a film that when viewed in high definition is buoyed by its production value. One of the sole saving graces of Michael Bay’s Transformers films is that they are beautifully rendered at times, and if we can give praise to Michael Bay for his visuals, we can certainly do the same for Sam Taylor-Johnson’s adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey.
Another point of critical contention, at least with regard to the books, was the cringe-worthy writing that E.L. James placed into the mouths of our primary characters. In the novel, Anastasia’s first person narration makes the prose practically unreadable, as it labors the reader’s ability to suspend their disbelief that they are reading the thoughts of a young college graduate and not a sexually frustrated housewife. By adapting the novel to screen, this element is removed as well. We are forced to view the proceedings without an audience surrogate force-feeding information as the narrative progresses. That is not to say that the film couldn’t have kept that same first person perspective. The director and screenwriter might have opted for a Goodfellas approach and given Anastasia the chance to narrate the proceedings in a dreadful voiceover. By making this change, we can see that the producers of this film recognized the flaws of the original text and sought to improve on it wherever possible. With this one choice they have immediately elevated the text beyond its origins and should be given commendations for their efforts.
The final point of contention that a majority of critics latched onto was the idea that the performances in the film were subpar. Nothing on screen in Fifty Shades of Grey feels as if it were phoned in or slept through. The same cannot be said for performances in other films I have witnessed in the past month. Nobody involved in the production of Jupiter Ascendinggave a performance that had a twelfth of the charisma exhibited by Dakota Johnson in Fifty Shades of Grey. This film should be, and hopefully will be, a star-making turn for her as an actress, as she proves that she can handle a major film franchise with aplomb. Something that cannot be said of actresses in other major releases. Kristen Stewart has respectable acting talent as evidenced in her roles in Adventureland and The Runaways,but she lacked the patience or investment to turn Bella Swan into a realized individual the way that Johnson did with Anastasia Steele, a character who was wholly unlikeable on page but a charming and well-rounded person on screen.
The argument that needs to be made is this; that Fifty Shades of Grey is as deserving of legitimate observation and critique as any other film in wide release and that the level of mockery it has received from so-called film journalists since it hit theaters is indicative of a bully mentality that they so often try to crusade against when the same shallow criticisms are lobbied at the properties that they have a personal investment in. Fifty Shades of Grey is one of the most important movies of this year for a myriad of reasons and those being dismissive of it are doing so due to their own agenda. Objectively speaking, this film is better constructed, in many ways, than Oscar nominees like American Sniper. At least nobody had to cradle a plastic baby in Fifty Shades of Grey. Make of that what you will.