A Little Eulogy to a Man Named Wes.

As a life-long horror enthusiast, Wes Craven is not a filmmaker I’d call the best gateway to horror cinema. I find The Last House on the Left distasteful as a motherfucker (one of the few cases where the remake is preferred by me, funny since the original LHotL is a remake of Ingmar Bergman’s the Virgin Spring – I don’t think I need to tell anyone how I feel about any Bergman film). And while I liked Scream back in high school, I grew a lot more tired of its cynical nature and how it doesn’t really comment on itself beyond the famous “Rules to Survive” scene and mostly just retreads the same failures every other slasher film and smiles “PARODY!”

He’s also thankfully not the worst: His entries in the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise are not up for debate as two of the only peaks that franchise got to as quality cinema (the other peak is NOES3, but I still preferred New Nightmare and of course the original work). I don’t know if I’d call the first film the best slasher film or my favorite – but it’s still a hands-down masterpiece of horror cinema and it does something I don’t think many of us value knowing Krueger like the back of our hands by now: A Nightmare on Elm Street is possibly my favorite non-noir mystery film. Coming into the film clean with no idea what’s going on and only learning just as Nancy does was exactly the best way to involve into the horror story, slowly growing to fear Krueger as a human monster rather than just an entity that hacks and slashes (and while I don’t mind wise-cracking Krueger, I thought he worked best in Craven’s films as a snarling laconic beast of vengeance).

And even then I always thought The Hills Have Eyes was his best work, visceral hardcore situation-based terror that is only matched (or I’d say surpassed) in the 70s by The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. And even then, I’d say the Hills Have Eyes at least had a “happy”-er ending. And my feelings towards the Scream franchise seem to mean nothing when it is still considered a hallmark of horror cinema – for better or worse, I still credit it with reviving the slasher genre for the 90s in a much more television heartthrob manner, but then that meant it gave us shit like Urban Legend and I Know What You Did Last Summer and that just makes me more angry at it as I get angry to Friday the 13th for letting horror movie producers know that making that genre embarrassingly cheap means instant paycheck.

One thing is absolutely something I apply to Craven: He was my first. To date, I can’t think of a single horror movie I watched prior to A Nightmare on Elm Street. I’m sure there’s at least one, but none of them burned their way into my mind the same way the single image of Freddy Krueger leering at me between his knife fingers proclaiming “THIS! is God…”. And once I got over how, for many years, I would not go to sleep by choice but after hours of staring out in the darkness of my room because I didn’t want to find him in my subconscious lest I find the movie is real. That’s what happens when I eavesdrop on my grade school classmates and think “Hey, I’ll watch that one movie when my parents aren’t home.” The deformed image of Freddy himself, the sadistic cackle, was enough to scar me as an image, having to go through the whole thing just to make sure Nancy and crew make it out alive was just a desperate hope for an ending that implies the dragon can be slain.

Now if I had a dollar for every different story I’ve heard (many sourced by Craven himself) as to how Krueger was conceived as a character, I’d have… no more than 8 but still enough to wonder what story to believe. It usually has to do with a childhood fear or trauma and knowing that the possible strength of how absolutely frightening Krueger was as a figure came from the fact that Craven himself digging into what scared him, that sort of thing made me think about how John Landis said scary movies are best made by the people who have the most to fear.

And in the end, even the lesser-known works of Craven – Red EyeThe People Under the StairsThe Serpent and the Rainbow (all of which I honestly enjoyed) – they’re all very notable solely on Craven’s own name. He was the household face of American horror cinema (his only competitor was possibly John Carpenter, but he’d already started slipping off the deep end in a way that Craven kind of avoided by keeping his grip on consistent quality steady), totally solidified and earned by his own loyalty to the genre for many years.

Christopher Lee and Terry Pratchett were deaths this year that shocked me, but I knew intellectually I’d have to deal with around this point. Wes Craven wasn’t. It never occurred to me that he’d be dying at any point in my lifetime. And while I’m not anywhere near as fond of Craven as I am Lee and Pratchett, I still had to sit to think about what his movies meant to me as a child of 8 that wanted to know who was so haunted enough to give me a killer that could claw his way into my mind to kill me. Where does that come from?

It came from Wes Craven.

‘Course so did Vampire in Brooklyn and Swamp Thing.

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The World’s Most Dangerous Group

So Straight Outta Compton came out two weeks ago with some pretty significant controversy behind both its production and its release. The most notable and ludicrous of these was Universal’s insistence on extra security at theaters in fears of gang violence and riots (a thought which is infuriatingly smacks of racial stereotyping), while the one I am a little bit more aware of is the complaint about the movie’s dismissive manner towards women in hip-hop and a sub-current of misogyny throughout (this is not exactly including the infamous Dee Barnes assault, an omission which honestly doesn’t bother me so much as the excuse that “it didn’t serve the narrative” that I don’t believe for one second).

Anyway, I just want to get that elephant in the room noted while also introducing my thoughts on this movie for a quick second. The film features a scene within a press conference where the Compton-based hip hop group N.W.A. are hit with the oft-given criticism towards their debut album that shares the movie’s name that it is glorifying gangster lifestyle and violence. And Ice Cube, as portrayed by his real-life son O’Shea Jackson Jr., responds stating that their work is merely reflective of the life and world they have lived in. One other member, MC Ren (Aldis Hodge), tells them that he finds it very unfortunate that they find the content of their music “glamorous”.

At the first moment I saw this movie (of which I missed the first 20 minutes for reasons to complicated to elaborate, but warranting a second trip to the theater), I took this as some sort of meta-statement on the movie itself, whether deliberate or incidental. That the movie announced it was going to attempt to showcase the life Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Cube, Ren, and DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.) had gone through as they got together as N.W.A. and then later apart, but it’s pretty clear from the get-go that’s not entirely the case.

If you look at the producer’s credit, you’ll catch the names of both Dre and Cube on there and you’re obviously going to catch the sense that I did around the moment the production was announced, that there’s obviously going to be some kind of self-congratulatory tone going on here. I’ve never been much of a fan of biopics as a genre, I’ve been even less a fan of self-authorized biopics. Straight Outta Compton as an album is something I liked but I wouldn’t say I’m a fan of N.W.A. themselves (I’ve always preferred Cube’s solo work).

This is another elephant in the room I wanted to note: the concept that Straight Outta Compton as a movie was obviously going to be a commercial for Aftermath and Lench Mob, which it absolutely is. Dre and Cube are given a hell of a lot of self-love in the movie (facilitated by casting Cube’s son in the movie – not that he doesn’t do a good job – or F. Gary Gray collaborating with Cube again to facilitate this admiring biopic), showcased as smarter than everybody in the room and especially making a point of designating Cube on the right during the inevitable schism between he and N.W.A. with Dre as an intellectual wingman that almost makes Eazy-E look like the antagonist, since Eazy is the closest that group has to a flawed character. Cube and Dre aren’t portrayed as flawed in the slightest. They know they’re always right and the only reason Eazy is portrayed in a balanced manner seems to be because he’s not alive anymore to tell his side of the story.

So, we know what to expect on the out-front: Dr. Dre and Ice Cube’s ode to their selves free of any woman-beating. The pleasant thing is that Straight Outta Compton, despite all these things going against it in my mind, is still pretty serviceable as a biopic. It’s got enough of a steady flow in spite of tangling its stories up and the cinematography by Matthew Libatique gives the movie enough of a nostalgic polaroid sense that I’m still willing to dive into the movie enough. Sure, it’s not at all as true to its pretty mastubatory nor is it really worth its 2 and a half runtime, but the working parts within the picture are still moving.

Part of what gives it its structural challenges (while also honestly reminding me of Boyhood in a sense) is how Straight Outta Compton wants to serve four different narratives though – there is how manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) apparently exploits them and specifically Eazy-E, how the police/community relations in Compton has been on a steady decline to inevitable explode when Rodney King has his historically misfortunate encounter, how N.W.A. breaks up and gets into beef with each other, and how notorious hip-hop mogul Suge Knight (R. Marcus Taylor) has been bullying his own way into the hop-hop business and has Dre working under his thumb – essentially establishing Eazy-E (although obviously he doesn’t remain confrontational to Cube and Dre), Heller, and Knight as the three primary antagonists of the film. There are other tangential pieces, but they don’t nearly have as much focus on them and they seem more incidental to the scenario. They mostly serve as marks for where the movie could have used more trimming to its very generous runtime (I particularly recall two moments: One where they witness protestors destroying N.W.A. albums and after Easy-E rips a line off of John Lennon’s response to the Beatles’ own protests, they never mention this reaction once again. In fact, there’s a whiplash in tone later in the film when audiences witness N.W.A. being arrested and chant in support. The other is a hotel standoff that adds to the accused misogyny of the film – there are three roles of women in the film: A doting mother, a topless groupie, or just a trophy girlfriend – and only serves as a “Look how gangster, toting guns in hotel lobbies!”).

In any case, despite lapses in momentum, editor Billy Fox is able to circumvent this for the most part to give a mostly smooth running delivery of the history of N.W.A. in the amount of time given to a motion picture. At the same time, the script allows for some unsubtle but not obnoxious either drops of West Coast hip-hop lore spreading across from N.W.A.’s legacy – appearances by Snoop Dogg (Keith Stanfield) and 2Pac (Tupac Shakur, sorry, actually Marcc Rose voiced by Darris Love, but I’ll kiss your ass if that didn’t look and sound like Tupac) – give an implication of hip-hop growing faster at the late 80s and early 90s than ever and give an argument for the acceptance of hip-hop as a cultural art, even if it also seems to be deliberately just a “Dr. Dre is the FATHER of hip-hop” moment. In particular, a moment where a certain Dre and Dogg track is depicted in its creation is the movie’s finest moment in its documentary-esque casual style and the unimportant manner in which one of hip-hop’s most popular songs of all time was dropped. And while it seems self-important to include the 1992 L.A. riots and to imply N.W.A. was at the forefront of that movement, it still serves well to contextualize exactly what it was Dre, Cube, Eazy and company were standing against in their music – the real-life atmosphere of racial tensions and abuses of power that charged albums like Straight Outta Compton. It doesn’t make N.W.A. a bunch of good guys to shout “Fuck the Police” like in a very climactic concert scene against the Detroit police force, but it makes them show that they’re angry enough to bite the hand that is trying to close their mouths shut.

So in spite of its broadly telegraphed worship of itself and its own problems, Straight Outta Compton is still a very successful work of capturing a smaller part of history in a bottle and dramatizing it in a compelling way to make for doable time at the theater (I neglected to mention that of the three main leads, each has their own moment in the film to showcase their acting muscles, otherwise doing well enough to be placed as surrogates for the real artists). In a culture where I can’t really say I’m a fan of many biopics or hip-hop films, I don’t mean it as faint praise to say that Straight Outta Compton is the first one I’ve seen since 8 Mile (assuming that even counts as a biopic) that actually still works as a film in spite of itself.

Playlist for the Waning Sun

Summer’s almost over. Pretty damn well over by most accounts, but I’m one who holds until the end of August. I’ve been meaning to put down two lists of ten – Movies That Make Me Think of Summer Most and Songs That Make My Personal Summer Playlist.

In case, you can’t tell this is obviously the latter and these are my ten songs, selected in a specific order that give me a personal narrative on my feelings about the hot sunny season with too much free time and too little places to be for me.

Same Ol’ Rules I applied for my Halloween Playlist: 10 Songs Max., 5 Min. One song per artist. I like to force myself to pick songs that don’t directly talk about the topic in order to challenge myself on explaining what makes me think of the topic from those songs.

  1. “Good Times Bad Times” – Led Zeppelin. More than being my favorite song of all time starting my favorite album of all time from my favorite band of all time (also my favorite performance by my favorite drummer – John Bonham), it just a sort of kick-back feel that insists you start to lay down and get relaxed for brown-eyed girls and passing memories.

2. “Jaded” – Aerosmith. Arguably the song that is of the lowest quality on this playlist (My love for Aerosmith aside, Just Push Play is a major contender for worst album I love anyway because back of), the jangling swinging riff totally touches on that nostalgia stream that I like to pretend I’m fully immune to.

3. “Do You Feel It?” – Chaos Chaos. Totally found out about this song through Rick & Morty and I know most people will mainly associate it with one of the darkest moments that show has had, but I listen to the song by itself and it’s clearly more of an atmospheric tune while you’re zooming through the sky with only one other person. Y’all zoom through the sky, right? Or are y’all basic?

4. “In a Sentimental Mood” – Ella Fitzgerald. ‘Cause I can’t relax unless Ella’s up on the stereo, bruh. It ain’t a cool night unless Ella keeping me cool from the hot summer night.

5. “Never Meant” – American Football. Mathcore has never been my strong suit (in fact most -core bands are not my thing, the main -core band I can think of actually liking enough to call myself a fan is Killswitch Engage’s metalcore) but there’s a firefly in the sky, Americana feel to this song, especially in its fragmented lyrical phrasing, that makes me think about how fragile relations and memories can be in this life and what is more fleeting than the empty span of isolated time that is summer holiday when you’re back as a teenager?

6. “Waiting Hare” – Buckethead feat. Serj Tankian & Shana Halligan. Buckethead is always gonna be on this shit, you better get used to it. He’s one of my favorite artists for a reason (and my ideal composer for any films I make). He’s able to use that guitar to tune up to any mood necessary for a song. But here, he just lays the groundwork for an off-kilter yet romantic dialogue-based fantasy between another artist I admire, System of a Down’s Tankian in one of his most turned-down (yet still eccentric) performances and Halligan, who I’m otherwise unfamiliar with, but her voice here is memorable enough that I don’t forget her name. Also, alongside Lupe Fiasco’s “The Instrumental”, it was my favorite song to drum to (I’d practice fills during the guitar solo).

7. “Have You Seen Mary” – Sponge. I honestly had trouble picking a Sponge song for this, but they were always my type of summer music (them being generic 90s twangy pseudo-grunge be damned!). I just knew for a fact the song I was gonna pick was from their first two albums and it ended up with this sort of morning-after-feeling song. Ignore the music video, it was the only version of the song I could find on youtube.

8. “Light Up the Night” – The Protomen. I get it. They have their own narrative about philosophy in Mega Man and shit, I know this song is about Dr. Light and Joe planning to blow up the Tower, but I largely don’t care. I find that concept compelling enough to continue through the album and the music real genre fun, but when it comes to this – My Favorite Song by the Group – it is the fact that this song (alongside a couple of others from their second studio album Act II: The Father of Death) is one of the best songs I can think of that kick-up that whole… look, I spent more time in Miami than I like to admit, especially summers. There’s a real electricity in it at the latest of times that feels like it’ll getting overpowered and blow in everyone’s face. And it has a heartbeat and a rhythm that matches this city that I don’t think even the most cocaine-fuelled synthesizer 80s retro band could touch on without feeling artificial (even Dance with the Dead and Perturbator, other 80s retro projects I like). This song feels human. And loud. And explosive. It is the climax to this playlist for a reason.

9. “Everlong” – Foo Fighters. For anybody who knows me personally, this addition surprises a grand total of none of you. I looked up to Dave Grohl as my Musical Messiah back in high school and I still love him, even now that everybody else does too. And if you don’t know me, I like to think this still is obvious. Just look at the lyrics: “Breathe out so I can breathe you in”, “If anything could ever be this real forever”, “You gotta promise not to stop if I say when”. All to a dreamy colorful soundscape underneath it with fast-paced yet relaxingly steady new wave drumwork by Grohl himself. Come on, son. Come on. You know this belongs in every summer playlist. Most Foo Fighters songs honestly do in my opinion, but this most of all.

10. “Up All Night” – Best Coast. The grand finale. The sunset song. The one that gives a sort of tired and dazed melancholy as the season comes to a complete close, trying to hinder back to a time that is already a ghost before you even know it died – both lyrically (what with the song being all “You and me, we’d never last”-y) and musically (as a sort of sluggish zombie version of the idea of 50s dream melody). Yep, this is the song that will play as the ocean waves drag me into the tide.

Songs I Considered but Didn’t Make the Cut

  • The Beach Boys were too damn obvious a pick to use and I decided to dump ’em. It was hard as fuck, but I’m sure it’d be harder to pick between “Good Vibrations”, “Surf’s Up”, “God Only Knows”, “Sloop John B”, “Surfer Girl”, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, or “Surfer Girl”.
  • “The World Has Turned and Left Me Here” – Weezer. Another one of my favorite songs of all time, too damn debbie downer for this, though.
  • “Protect Ya Neck” – Wu-Tang Clan. I wouldn’t have known what to say except I love kung fu songs and Wu-Tang Clan.
  • “To Catch a Thief” – Lovage. Maybe I just wanted to avoid Mike Patton too much.
  • “Retrovertigo” – Mr. Bungle. See above.
  • “Born to Die” – Lana Del Ray. The more I listen to the shit that comes out of her mouth in interviews, the more her music leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I hate to admit that because it rarely happens for most artists, but I dunno, it changes my perspective on her musical themes, like Dave Mustaine or Frank Miller.
  • “Us” – Regina Spektor. Because like I was gonna pretend (500) Days of Summer wasn’t the reason I thought of this.
  • “Kick, Push” – Lupe Fiasco. Skateboarding odyssey, except I don’t board to begin with. But I still thought about it.
  • “Spy in the House of the Night” – Blue Oyster Cult. Because it felt like I was forcing one of my favorite bands into the playlist and FUCK NO I’M NOT PUTTING “BURNIN’ FOR YOU”.
  • “On the Line” – Blood Orange. Blood Orange is starting to give me more of a wintery vibe. Wait until December maybe to catch him in a playlist from me.
  • “Tragic” – Bozzio Levin Stevens. My love for Terry Bozzio and Tony Levin aside (and prog music in general), I hate flaunting it like “huehuehue”. Prog fans did that to me.
  • “Cold Fire”/”Limelight” – Rush. Picking between a song that is perhaps one of their weakest but certainly my idea of a lonely summer night and one of my favorite guitar solos that speaks to that loneliness wordlessly and beautifully. It was a tough decision and I decided to just leave Rush out.
  • “Anything” – Dramarama. Because Freddy Krueger popped into my mind more.
  • “Say Hello 2 Heaven” – Temple of the Dog. I love listening to any Chris Cornell in Summer and I think this is (even if it ain’t Cornell’s best performance on the album) the best song on that album. But it also has a very strict meaning about saying goodbye to a deceased loved one and I decided not to push it in.
  • “Swimming Pools (Drank)” – Kendrick Lamar. Too damn dark and I didn’t want to give the idea that I thought it was a banger. I mean, it IS a banger, but it’s anti-banger.

Hit Me With Your Best Shot – Angels in America

My decision to make this week’s HMWYBS an article is informed by the fact that I really really wanted to pick a shot from each episode. And while I thought it would be great to make a whole fucking video of my thoughts I also didn’t think I gave myself enough time to work on that video ashamedly. I swear to you, though… the next episode (which I’d call a season finale if I didn’t intent to soon make episodes based on shit I missed when I didn’t participate) WILL be a video. Here’s your proof:

Anyway, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes! Selected based on Manuel Betancourt‘s impressive and work on LGBTQ representation in film and television on The Film Experience which I really implore you guys to look at and check out, Nathaniel R. has re-assigned the HBO miniseries from 2003 based on Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer-winning play. I’ve had multiple encounters with this play since back when I was high school interested in theater. Angels in America was already placed in its canonical zone among Death of a SalesmanGlengarry Glen Ross, and other such contemporary theatrical pieces. The miniseries already existed when I first heard of the play. I had read it in 2011 and I had eventually gotten around to being involved in a sort of college assignment for a Theater Directing Class where a couple of students used me to act out scenes as Roy Cohn, his doctor Henry, or Hannah Pitt. I’ve never actually seen a production of the play, but it seems hella ambitious to try to put up in a local theater. So, I have familiarity with the piece.

The other thing is that I had previously seen the miniseries prior to this week… back in 2007. I was also kind of a homophobe at that time, though. Not in an aggressive manner, just in an offhand conversation “Oh what y’all do is a sin and even if I won’t attack you, y’all going to Hell” and a “My beliefs are above your rights, you don’t get to marry” kind of deal. And an “I don’t want gay people talking to me as much” type of deal. And an “I’m so fucking stupid I think all gay guys is hit on other guys type of deal”. There’s a lot of principals and values I’m glad that being raised Islamic gave me, bigotry ain’t one. Needless to say between that and the fact that I was a shithead teenager in the new Millennium, I was less receptive to its message and themes then than I was when I read it in college and grew out of that bullshit.

In the meantime, that means that the miniseries is the only production of this play that I’ve ever seen and it upsets me because… I just don’t think it works as well as a film. I think it’s not as impossible to work out as a film – though I’m not happy with the late (usually-)great Mike Nichols’ work here, intercutting a little too much, and on most times close-ups as if he refuses to trust his cast to be emotive through their body language – but moments like the finale where Prior becomes speaks to the audience about his new life in 1990 lose their “I’m speaking to you” impact when there’s no audience in house and it’s just regular ol’ film fourth wall breaking and the obvious theatricality of the Angel America’s arrival to Prior announcing are almost muted by the fact that it really hides its artificiality – which scares me, as part of the poetics of the whole piece come from the theatricality, the melodrama being sold like a Biblical sermon, but one about people for the most part, not legends or fables.

It’s not all that bad but it’s not all as good as sitting there witnessing it all as an in-house audience. And I do wish it could have been better. Still this ain’t no review, I’m picking my best shots from each of the 6 episodes of the miniseries and so HEEEEEEERE WE GO!!!!

By the way, I gotta say SPOILERS!!!

CHAPTER I – BAD NEWS

I’m going to be honest and say I wasn’t immediately fond of any real images on their own merit but after watching the entire miniseries (I can tell you I absolutely hated the opening scene – with its oy gevalt treatment of Jewish culture that felt like a cartoon intermixed with a funeral scene), I browsed through the episode once more and discovered exactly what I wanted to see…

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First, I tried to avoid this scene not because I didn’t love it – it was my favorite moment but I also thought it was too obviously the VISUAL moment of the episode – but I found in the end it was inevitable. First, I love how obviously it wants to be florid but for some reason, my eye sees these colors as muted, like the characters trying to burst out of their growing shell. Eventually the shit we see them will be flatter and less colorful.

The other reason is because, quite frankly, this is the closest we ever see Prior not suffering. Not in absolute emotional anguish, not on a hospital bed facing an unfair terminal trip to the coffin, he’s sitting down at his most comfortable doing the thing he loves most (Drag does become drag as he puts it, but he doesn’t look sick as far as I’m concerned, he’s filled with life) and while he does learn to live with AIDS by the end of the story, so far here he doesn’t have to live with it.

He’s just taking one last glance at himself hoping he comes out whole on the other side.

CHAPTER II – IN VITRO

One habit I notice a lot of in my HMWYBS episodes is obviously I pick from the bookends of moments. I’m fighting it a bit, but I couldn’t not pick this moment.

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Why? Because fucking duh at the barrier now obviously visible, both metaphorically and literally in that dark column, between Louis and Prior. Prior is completely alone without Louis being there for him, as Louis calls the hospital and we know for a fact that Louis is not going to be able to sit beside Prior’s bed. Ben Shenkman’s frantic shaking and stuttering into the phone is a tremendous show of Louis’ inability to cope, while Justin Kirk as Prior is the one who is actually suffering, lying alone, in his own four-walled world, wondering if he’s going to die this time or have another of these moments to live through.

It’s the real break-up of Louis and Prior, not the scene after where Louis walks out of the hospital room, this is the actual moment that it’s over. Louis simply can’t find himself dealing with this.

CHAPTER III – THE MESSENGER

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Roy Cohn, as played by Al Pacino in regrettably the type of manner you’d expect Al Pacino to play a character post-1992 (though he does have his moments), is a vindictive little dick who tries as much as he can to showcase how much power he’s got. How he’s holding everyone in the palm of his motherfucking hands. Quite impressive when you consider the fact that he’s only ever shot from a low angle in one scene – his first scene where he intimidates Joe Pitt off-hand. Every other shot, especially with Joe sharing the scene with him is from a high-angle, usually over Joe’s shoulder.

We never actually see Cohn having power. His AIDS diagnosis is revealed extremely early, we know he’s a weak rabid old dog trying to gnaw at Joe’s leg for a last hurrah at Washington, D.C. and even the camera won’t give him any dignity he so desperately pretends to think he deserves.

Here, Cohn’s done acting. Here he’s at his weakest. On his back. Looking into the light above him with that lamp. Knowing he’s fucking done for. Here while he’s at the floor, we see one piece of residue from his reign of terror as a lawyer, the most famous victim of his McCarthy work – Ethel Rosenberg (Oh, I forgot I may need to contextualise this – Cohn actually existed in real life as a New York Attorney who had his biggest heyday during the Communist Red Scare. Ethel Rosenberg and her husband were two of his most notorious victims, being tried and convicted and executed by chair for espionage). And she’s above him now, just barely giving him enough space to breathe, giving him a reluctant helping hand by calling his number. And even as a ghost, in her purple outfit and pale makeup, she looks livelier than Cohn does, who just sits and hacks and wears a flamboyant robe thats shut down by the darkness of the edge.

Also, I love ghost stories. I think that’s the biggest reason I pick this shot. It’s just one ghost story in a single frame. I mean, the reason I do videos rather than posts like this is because I call it Hit Me With Your Best Shot, not your Best Frame and I like showing this stuff in motion, but I think this is the first shot I picked that actually works best frozen like this.

Regrettable statement: I need to go to work. However, I want to submit these shots in time for them to make Nathaniel’s visual index, so! I’m gonna place the shots for the second half of the miniseries and let you guys wrap your heads around why I picked them and then I’ll be back after work tonight to complete my explanation of them all. Gracias, y’all.

I’M BACK BITCHES!!!!

CHAPTER IV – STOP MOVING!

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BTW this isn’t explaining the shot but: I swore to Odin I was gonna have at least one shot with Jeffrey Wright in it. The more I’ve seen him in – Casino Royale, Catching Fire, Syriana, Only Lovers Left Alive, Ali, this, etc. – the more I’m catching how awesome he is as an actor.

Anyway, my feelings about this shot are simple – it’s a cool breezy respite for me after the very frenetic rising action of the first half, Millennium Approaches, which was a very eventful climax around the end of it. That’s absolutely 100% the reason this was my shot choice, the nice calm blue, the snowy fantasia surrounding them, the sax-like instrument (actually an Oboe as he identifies later in the scene), the sleek white costuming against the soft texture of the snow around them. Even the character is the reason I find it super cool (Patrick Wilson as Joe is best in show by a significant margin, but either of Wright’s characters – Mr. Lies pictured here or Belize – are the coolest ones to me, the most centered. Funny since Lies is a figment of Harper’s imagination).

This respite doesn’t last very long considering that it takes place in Harper’s mind and we have to face that as she approaches in the background, but it’s smooth New York-ian fantasy either way. Even if it’s not supposed to be New York. It’s Antarctica. Harper says so.

CHAPTER V – BEYOND NELLY

I think it is immensely telling that in the few moments where violence spurts in the story, it could easily be staged as an act of love. Like, I don’t know if this is deliberate or if I’m just as a dirty-minded idiot, but when Joe stands over Cohn in The Messenger, it looks like they’re about to get it on (and Cohn’s expression makes it more heated). When Prior wrestles with the Angel America, his face is literally on her crotch, it makes me think of cunnilingus. The leather daddy Louis tries to cheat on Prior with in In Vitro smacks him for an uncalled-for remark and it’s almost flirtatious. Joe throwing Louis, his very lover, and beating him in a rage after being confronted with his ghostwriting work for Cohn ends with them both tired and out of breath, with Louis barely having breath to say “that really hurt”

Neither of those are more shocking a reversal of the idea of passion to causing aggressive acts of violence than when Cohn threatens Joe after Joe comes out to him and Cohn rips out his IV, spraying blood everywhere, including on Joe to threaten to ruin his life. Belize rushes to put Cohn back in his bed and struggles because of Cohn’s impudence as well as Cohn beginning to spasm and they are positioned exactly like this.

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With Joe being forced to watch the man he once looked up to and admired turn from father figure to monster to impotent and Cohn still has enough anger in him to sneer at Joe and ask if this is what he wants to fucking see, giving double meaning to Joe’s halfway-out-the-closet homosexual desires and the concept that Joe could have any true contempt for Cohn even after everything Cohn has done and said to him in this episode and the two preceding it (also, I find very disturbing double meaning in the fact that, seconds after throwing his AIDS-infected blood on Joe’s person, he tells him coldly “I gave you my blessing”).

CHAPTER VI – HEAVEN, I’M IN HEAVEN

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Ah yes, this is exactly the theatricality I was looking for when it came to Angels in America. Not the famous image of the Angel America above Prior in glowing golden rays (though it is beautiful undoubtedly), but just the work of hues and shadows with shape above characters as they look with terror at a destiny they can’t imagine. The time has come for Prior to face his reluctant role as Prophet and Prior rejects it, knowing damn the message of standing still and just rejecting the concept of living is bullshit. But hell if he’s not going into this battle scared, low angle making him and Hannah look completely vulnerable with all the solid empty blue around them and the wrath of the angel looming above threateningly. It’s expressionist as fuck, it’s theater as fuck, and it implies a hell of a ride to come in the final half-hour.

Like hell if I’m going to describe that to you guys. You watch it. Or even better, catch a production of it and let me know what you think.

Thanks for your patience with part two – Perestroika.

Tribute to a Guy Named Jim

Today’s the birthday of a filmmaker I am immensely fond of, however much we’ve been on the way to devalue his more recent works. And I wanted to write something in tribute of him short of jumping idiotically into another lengthy retrospective like I’m doing for Lynch and halfway leaning towards doing for Malick because I’m fucking stupid like that. I don’t know what boosted this need to write a tribute for him (I still haven’t wrote a review for They Live that I wanted to do in honor of the late Roddy Piper and nor my eulogy for titan Christopher Lee), so don’t expect this from me all the time. But I just got a jolt in me saying “say something”.

James Cameron was born this day, August 16, in 1954 in Kapuskasing, Ontorio, Canada and has had a life going from a truck driver who had a hell of an affinity for science fiction models to a filmmaker who today considers the artform his personal playground, mixing finding new technologies to mess around with and parade like “Hey-oh, check out this 3-D shit” or “this robot? I call it a Leonardo DiCaprio, a Skynet cyborg developed to be a heartthrob” (of course, he didn’t discover Leo, but let me tell you something: Back in Algeria, nobody knew who the hell he was until Titanic came out and then EVERYBODY in the country adored him. EVERYBODY. IN AL-FUCKING-GERIA. So I hope you don’t find it out of place to think the same phenomenon was going on in the whole world. And like the T-800 turned from villain, he turned from being just a pretty face), and still an affinity for stuff that looks cool as fuck, especially underwater.

His story is one of the filmmaking stories I’d love to imagine applying to me as a fantasy: Goes under a legend’s wing (that legend being Roger Corman, so he had a big-ass wing, but you get my point) when he knows he wants to work in film, rises his way to the top, by chance gets a seat in directing a picture (however ghastly his first movie is), makes his sophomore feature count and suddenly he’s writing for a bunch of franchises, and getting away with having final cut. It’s like Orson Welles all over again and this time the guy in Welles’ shoes isn’t being tossed out even after one of his movies hasn’t made as much money theatrically as they wanted to (Good thing, The Abyss picked up on home video).

It’s not just the fact that I’ve seen all the films he’s directed, it’s that most people in America at least have seen more than half of them and have at least heard of the rest. Titanic was the highest-grossing worldwide picture unadjusted for inflation of all time until Cameron’s own Avatar shut it down. The Abyss‘ Special Edition Cut heralded in the coming of the DVD age with its sales. The Terminator made a household name out of Arnold Schwarzenegger (while unfortunately ushering in the cliche ideal that action stars are robotic) while Terminator 2: Judgement Day reminded bitches that R-rated movies could destroy blockbuster records and won its weight in technical Oscars. The guy sells. He sells.

And it’s not an unjust reward, he’s proven to be not only an efficient action director – with an ability to not only stage and frame scenarios to feel big and frenetic and in one’s face – but one of my favorite things of his that I rarely see other filmmakers, whether action or sci-fi, do as well is utilize the inherent momentum of the action genre to inform the storytelling aspect. To give characters and plot a sense of absolute urgency so moments as small as Kyle Reese informing Sarah Connor of her son’s destiny or Harry Tasker humorously informing his wife about the even possibility of the two of them being tortured or killed, don’t feel like just breathers… we’re still in motion, we’re still going, we’re still in the middle of a battle or a chase or any other moment of depair. I know that doesn’t sound too impressive in the same year where Mad Max: Fury Road came out and used that exact same mode of rushed dimension to its content, but back then and even today we often get so many picture (even good ones like the last two Mission: Impossible entries) that are willing to drop plotting at the first shot, that getting to know actual emotional reasons for us to be attached to our heroes and fear the villains is still impressive enough to me.

And there’s another thing I have to hand to Cameron more than anything, he knows how to craft badass action heroines. Like dynamic full female presences in the film that don’t eschew their gender while allowing them to have a masculinity to themselves, as well as refusing to say that “Oh they’re heroes IN SPITE of being women” but making it damn well define them. Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor are two of the most iconic characters in sci-fi cinema (the former earning Sigourney Weaver her first Oscar nomination). Connor’s is easy to explain, we’ve seen her go from the naive yet intelligent waitress in the first film to the hardened survivalist of the second film and Linda Hamilton’s been holding that characters’ hand so tight that when Emilia Clarke took over the character for Terminator: Genysis, it felt like she was doing cosplay on camera to me. Ripley… heh, I’ll tell ya, I prefer Alien but anybody would be kind of thick to think she felt like a character in that movie. As opposed to Aliens, where now she has not only a thrust-at-her hero’s role from the star (Alien itself being more “Ten Little Indians” who gonn’ die next picture), all of her heroic actions in protecting the wily and cunning yet still small child Newt (Carrie Henn) is informed by maternal instincts and it gives her actions a more mythic quality when she’s staring down the Alien Queen in the famous dramatic climax shouting “GET AWAY FROM HER, YOU BITCH!” Even side characters like Pvt. Velasquez, Dr. Augustine (another Weaver character), and Pvt. Chacon are more than just “token girls” in the picture.

That latter factor is most impressive when you consider that not only is there nothing that Cameron has said that has implied that he is remotely a feminist, but his own personal life implies he’s not an entirely progressive towards women in cinema. That, and the fact that he still has some share of problematic roles written for women: Titanic and True Lies make damn sure of that. But he’s still proven at the beginning half of his career to have an especially keen sense of making front-row center women in action cinema more human than their macho oil-glistened muscle counterparts and yet just as able to take a punch and dish one right back.

Even his unrealized projects like Spider-Man and Battle Angel interest me immensely in what he seemed to offer and state he was going to bring to the table. I mean, God bless Sam Raimi, because his Spider-Man is exactly my idea of what the hell comic book movies are supposed to look like (well, that and Richard Donner’s Superman and Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy) but hell yeah, if James Cameron says he’ll make me believe an ordinary man can save the day by swinging through the air and climbing up walls I’ll say yes.

It may, of course, help that I have never seen a James Cameron film I don’t like to have that sentiment (I will admit to have that immediate reaction to Titanic but in retrospect it’s more to the hype inherent with Titanic‘s legacy by now… it’s still miles away from my least favorite Best Picture winner). But hell, let me, put my money where my mouth is and go ahead and rank his features in order, naming just what I love and what I don’t about this guy who just doesn’t care about breaking banks when he’s playing with the coolest new toy – only to break those banks anyway.

  1. The Terminator (1984)

I think I’ve already said all I’ve meant to say about The Terminator in my previous review last year, but let me give the gist of it: The Terminator is a perfect film. I don’t throw that around often. I wouldn’t call Blade Runner a perfect film. I wouldn’t even call The Terminator flawless, since it has its problems in logic, but it gets its objectives done and cleared and some more and in that it’s very perfect. Not only in invisible world-building (something we barely know about), not only in impressive genre bending between slasher film and sci-fi and noir and action scene, not only in playing gleefully at our expectations of heroes and villains for the entirety of the run, but by doing all of those things without registering to us immediately as more than just a chase scene. Because it is still essentially a landmark of cyberpunk grounded in our real-world L.A. and a star vehicle deftly accommodating to all three leads (although Schwarzenegger clearly got the best end of the deal), but the T-800 is so close behind us, we’re too busy registering this as a simple thriller until credits roll.

2. Aliens (1986)

I know public opinion is usually on the matter that Aliens is superior to Alien (even if that’s not what EVERYONE thinks, it’s very clearly the majority of people who have seen both movies) and I’m not going to be the guy to agree with that. Not only because I’m a bigger horror movie fan (which Alien clearly is) than I am an action picture fan (which Aliens clearly is), but because of Paul Reiser and James Horner’s work for the film (RIP to Horner, he will be missed and he did have his share of masterpieces – one of which he blatantly ripped off for this film’s score – but I was not a huge fan. In any case, Horner wasn’t a fan of the score for Aliens either and knew he was recycling his work for Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan). But I wasn’t just bullshitting for this movie’s work in making Ripley a fully fleshed character where Alien didn’t and letting it define Aliens. And I especially am not bullshitting when I say this has all the adrenaline of a usual Cameron blockbuster while at the same time providing just a sci-fi skin to the concept of a war movie, the camaraderie between soldiers in the shit, the desperation inherent in being faced with the certainty of a mission’s failure. Oh, and it’s still pretty scary. I mean, the Xenomorphs always look frightening, I wouldn’t want to be in a room with it whether I had a gun or not.

3. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

The last of Cameron’s true display of his action sensibilities – top to bottom we got asylum breakouts, computer lab breakins, mall shootouts, highway chases, highways chases with copters. The movie is definitely a sequel to its predecessor even if it wants to play with our expectations of hero and villain once more and even if it will lack the momentum the first Terminator had. And the effects work in this movie is still unprecedented and wholly impressive, still standing up today because Stan Winston was the fucking man. And it is yet another movie that it’s obvious we love it and most people think it better than the original. But the original didn’t have Edward Furlong. And I have never not hated Edward Furlong. And while this is his best performance of his career, like ever, it’s also still shitty so that should tell you a lot about him. Though Cameron’s script doesn’t do him any favors with that whole “Oh I need a poppa” relation they give between John Connor and the T-800 (which only reminds me of how the franchise recycled it with “Pops” and Sarah Connor in Genysis).

4. Avatar (2008)

Look. I get it. We think the story is sloppy. We think it’s just a pretty turd. It’s just Dances with Wolves in space. Ok, I get it. But please understand even if Avatar is by no means a masterpiece (and we should establish that it very much isn’t), we need to recognize that it never really meant itself to be one. It is entirely dismissive to its story, not to a degree that we don’t care about Sully et al. (though it’s clear some audiences don’t) but to the point that we know we’re supposed to spend two hours living in this lush detailed world. And it is a pretty lush and eye-popping creation full of color and life and atmosphere and I’m down with just sitting down like that. I’m quite the 3-D enthusiast to begin with and so I can happily say I absolutely think I haven’t had a more immersive theatrical 3-D experience like Avatar until Gravity came out. And even then, there were things Avatar did that Gravity couldn’t.

5. The Abyss (1989)

Ahhhh, now this one’s a tricky bit due to the differentiation between the two cuts which are wholly different beasts telling two separate stories, but we’ll go with the ’93 version since that’s what I prefer. So, what goes wrong? Well, to begin – without spoiling the picture – the primary conflict abruptly ends well before the movie does (or at least, it feels like the primary conflict is part of the problem) and the movie has a whole third of it left to linger around before it can get to its climax and both cuts really have trouble being on the edge of chaos (since making the movie was apparently the fucking worst for everyone), but it’s also still standing proudly alongside its early 90s CGI brethren to showcase Cameron’s effects and Cameron’s minutiae for character moments – especially between Bud and Lindsey – as well as his for real-world aquatic tech make this enough of a enjoyable spectacle for me to be wiling to sit through that last third, since what happens at the climax is a brilliant Cameron canon moment. Also… Cameron shoots in anamorphic with this picture and doesn’t fuck around with it, no negative space where it shouldn’t be, no crowding, nothing to suggest he hard time thinking up compositions for the frame.

6. True Lies (1994)

I regrettably state this is maybe the only time Cameron made a film that felt ordinary by his standards. It’s not anywhere near as ambitious a blockbuster as one would expect from him. It is overbloated. But not in its action setpieces (which are still the movie’s saving grace) but in its script, juggling two stories about a Schwarzenegger being an American spy stopping a terrorist cell and one about his domestic life with his wife portrayed by Jamie Lee Curtis. And I’ll say this, Cameron can’t do comedy really well. Curtis and Schwarzenegger sell what they can but the majority of their screwball dialogue is cringey at best. Almost as cringey as its sexual politics that were close to undoing how I felt for Cameron’s work in eschewing Ripley and Sarah Connor into the world. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I think Curtis is an attractive woman and that striptease scene was arousing… but… I can’t be alone in thinking the context behind it is very very creepy. And that’s the main example of the film’s ideas about what a man and a woman should put in for their marriage to work, which I respond immediately to with “fuck that”. And there’s also the obvious part of True Lies being blatantly racist towards Middle Easterners and Islamophobic. Which, speaking as a Middle Easterner, I can honestly say doesn’t affect me half as much as I thought it would (maybe I’m just used to it, hell, I enjoyed Zero Dark Thirty), but it’s still right there in one’s face and if any other person were to see it and get offended by it – Middle Eastern or not – I’d have to agree with their sensibility. But that’s a lot of ripping on a movie that I do love once it gets its footing back on its big airplane chases and climactic construction site raid and the fact that a guy gets shot on a damn missile fired from a helicopter to another helicopter. Like hot damn, Cameron, you problematic visionary!

7. Titanic (1997)

Yep, still just a soap opera like the last time I saw it. But, much like Avatar, I’m able to recognize that the whole point of the movie was never to be a compelling romantic drama as it is just a surrogate for the audience being involved in the climactic disaster that occurred to the RMS Titanic. And with attention to detail and an understanding that when we hit that iceberg, we’re gonna need to be thrown into that scenario like any other scrambling passenger makes enough bombast to balance this movie’s experience for me and keep it from sinking in my image. That and for some reason, even through (or perhaps because of) all its most blatantly and sloppy melodramatic elements – from the writing to the acting to the music (dammit, Horner) – there is a very clear “they don’t make movies like this no more” old timey feel that you always get by accident when its as genuine as Titanic‘s presentation is. Still didn’t deserve half its awards. Or 3/4 its awards. Or all of them. But there we are.

8. Piranha II: The Spawning (1981)

Ok, I technically lied when I said I haven’t seen a single Cameron film I don’t like, but fuck if anyone considers this a Cameron film. He barely did anything in it, it was just a movie he got a title in and got to move the camera a lot for. It’s not fair. We shouldn’t blame him for this. He wasn’t half as involved in this Jaws rip-off that most of us would expect. As far as I’m concerned, The Terminator is his debut and Piranha II is just some movie he was hired to facilitate. And yes, it is pretty bad. I wouldn’t really recommend it unless you really wanted to see the beginning of his career like I did. It ain’t pretty, but I really doubt many filmmaking careers’ origins look pretty. Which makes me feel pretty much better about my own.

Hit Me With Your Best Shot – Chicken Run

Because I am such a disappoint, no internet at my place means no Hit Me With Your Best Shot video this week (since I have no actual ability to get clips and other items I’d need to resource for that stuff).

Still I am too dedicated to it now to ever let the inability to post a YouTube video keep me from participating (and I still have the one I already made ready and waiting for y’all the moment I get that connection back… TOMORROW! :D) and so I have yet another submission for Nathaniel R.’s HIT ME WITH YOUR BEST SHOT at the Film Experience. Just hum the tune in your head for me and imagine me going through something really painful or embarrassing.

And this week Nathaniel has made the selection the very first Aardman Animation feature film, Chicken Run, undoubtedly due to the recent release of Shaun the Sheep Movie, which I haven’t yet went and seen and I am undoubtedly disappointed in myself for that. Because I’m very much in the bag for Aardman Animation ever since I happened to pass by a Wallace & Gromit short on PBS as a child. And of course, at the age of 8, my mother took me to see Chicken Run in the theaters.

Unfortunately, that was the only time I saw that movie prior to last night, so I took it upon myself to re-watch it as an adult and see how it holds up. And it holds it quite well, though it’s easier to see that Nick Park’s work has very much evolved in terms of using claymation to talk about texture. And while as a child, I had no way of catching the obviousness of its Great Escape premise, I still could enjoy most of its visual gags and the craftiness the animated films’ design, especially when it came to the Flying Coop which I found myself wanting to build.

But watching it as now being 23 years old, I was pretty impressed by how easily they were able to make the inhuman characters feel human. More like people than the absolute dread of the Tweedies in their midst, the chickens quite quickly caught me off-guard with their stock yet recognizable personalities amongst their number and making them extremely sympathetic in their broad yet endearing quirks. Even a man who enjoys eating chicken as much as I get put off by the concept for once in a while. In fact, one of the shots I was going to pick was an ominous little work of shadows and greys in an neo-Expressionist style as we witness one chicken be forced to her death, but I decided against it.

Still, I’m going to cheat a bit because I feel the majority of the shots – wides of all the chickens in a group going wild, screaming, or moving in circles – showcase something really hilarious and yet a boon to their attempt to escape, they are extremely organized and in tune with each other as one. When one of them screams, they all scream. They all race for chicken feed, they all copy Rocky’s motion of pain with his broken wing. They just happen to all have their mind set on the wrong thing for the most part.

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Or in the wrong mood.

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Now these aren’t my best shots, but I felt it necessary to go ahead and show them as few examples of the many shots that show them in tandem – either physically or psychologically – with each other. It makes them great for teamwork and bad for everything else (hence why Ginger has to keep their heads in the game and in one of the earlier scenes, we see its even hard for her not to go with the pessimistic flow and give up).

Their final scene of escape (SPOILER, but it’s a fucking kids movie, you knew damn well they’d escape) actively revolves around them of course working tandem once more, but I’m not picking a shot out of that either.

No, I made a point earlier to remark upon the chickens being anthropomorphic to a very effective degree and stand by it all the way to the end. And I just made a point about how they all do everything together. So, while I find it very much silly to see chickens running in circles and jumping off of houses together, I don’t find it anymore sillier to me than at the very point of the movie where they are nearly caught by Mr. Tweedy…

… and act like chickens.

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These characters are so effective to me, that them walking about, cocking and pecking the ground is what makes me go “What the hell is wrong with you guys?” and cracks up. And that’s why that’s my Best Shot from Chicken Run.

Now, I’m gonna go grab myself by the belt loop and throw myself into the theater to see Shaun the Sheep Movie.

A Franchise Goes Rogue

Let’s not beat around the bush: 2015 is a frachise-y as fuck year. Yes, sequels are present in every year during this era of cinema, but it was hardly ever as saturated as this. My favorite movie of the year so far is essentially Mad Max 4, the movie I look forward to most is essentially The Act of Killing 2. The highest-grossing film of the year so far (and looks like it may possibly stay that way) is essentially Jurassic Park 4, while this year’s two other billion-dollar-mark-breaking are pretty much The Fast and the Furious 7 and The Avengers 2 (or if we wanna be really technical, Marvel 11). We’ve even got more modest projects like Pitch Perfect and Sinister and The Woman in Black have gotten their sequel treatment. The highest grossing picture of Sony fucking Pictures is Blart Blart: Mall Blart 2. Franchises are possibly starting anew with Fifty Shades of Grey getting its first  rag adapted.

And we still have the wave of James Bond 23 and Star Wars 7 to get under.

I can’t list them all. That’s not the point of this and I should get to it by now.

The opening point I’m trying to make is that the majority of these franchises base themselves on using the first installment as a launch-pad to propel the story for the sequel (not the case for Mad Max or Blart Blart, but nothing in the latter really has any sense to it).

Mission: Impossible is a franchise that, for better or worse, doesn’t subscribe to that in the slightest. Not only narratively, but stylistically, you will not be bale to capture any two installments in that franchise and find a whole lot of aesthetic similarities. Considering the revolving door of directors that walk into the series to enter their own idea of scenarios for IMF agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) to leap through, it’s only slightly a surprise to find that each Mission: Impossible entry fits a lot more snugly into its own director’s canon than alongside each other as a collective series of events. Mission: Impossible is inherently more a Brian De Palma film than a Mission: Impossible film (a statement which is more true of a statement about this film than any of the latter films, but I’ll get into that when I review it shortly), Mission: Impossible II is a John Woo farce and an Australian travelogue more than a IMF missions film, Mission: Impossible III is more a television movie than a movie at all. Which is quite fine by me because they all are also not good in my opinion (though I am beginning to soften slightly on the first film – and De Palma in general).

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol itself is a bit of a paradox as it showcases Brad Bird’s vast imagination for setpieces and design, even as his very first live-action feature, while also being the first in the franchise to stress the teamwork aspect of the espionage inherent in the original Mission: Impossible television series that aired from 1966 to 1983. Still a Tom Cruise film and still more an action picture than a mind game but also perhaps the first time the franchise attempted to go back to the vein of the source material (a fact which makes me extremely happy since I actually love the original series – between Mission: Impossible and Star Trek, my child life was covered with Leonard Nimoy).

But I’m over 500 words in and that’s a long way to go before actually naming the movie I’m reviewing; I’ll get back to each of those M:I entries when I review them later this week.

In spite of all I said about director’s canon and how refreshingly self-distinguished each M:I film stands in their own spot especially in a year like 2015, I have to say I don’t have the means to square Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation as a Christopher McQuarrie film yet. Despite seeing many of McQuarrie’s writing work, I have admittedly not seen his two previous directorial pictures: The Way of the Gun and Jack Reacher (the latter being something I’ve always been curious to see based on the casting of Werner Herzog). But if Rogue Nation is any indication, the man has a pretty good knack for stylistically accommodating the demands of every single action setpiece within the film – from the much-advertised “Tom Cruise is really hanging off a plane” sequence to an intense mix between melee combat and footchase with all the heavy weight and damage of a car chase – while having trouble keeping the plot strands from tangling up and convoluting themselves, but hell, The Usual Suspects could have told me that last part.

What that plot is before it actually tangles itself up is that Hunt has himself become the target of an ultra-secret organization known as The Syndicate after poking around too many times into their plans, ending up kidnapped and tortured before curiously being rescued by a mysterious Syndicate member (Rebecca Ferguson). Hunt has of course picked a bad time to be such prey to an agency with a superpower of being one step ahead of the IMF, for the IMF is apparently being disavowed and its assets liquidated to the CIA under its Chief Director Hunley (Alec Baldwin) and while former IMF Director Brandt (Jeremy Renner) and field agent Benji (Simon Pegg) strive to throw the CIA off their manhunt for Hunt, they can’t do much for a while except watch as he stays disappeared and relies on the kindness of Ilsa Faust, the mysterious stranger that helped him get away from the Syndicate’s clutches, and hunts Soloman Lane (Sean Harris), the big face of the Syndicate.

Eventually, the status of Hunt becomes enough of a priority that Benji is drafted into his wing, while Hunley and the CIA doubles-down on their search and Brandt and Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames, the only cast member other than Cruise to be in the entire series up to this point) find it imperative to get to Hunt and Benji before the CIA does.

You get what I mean by a lot of strands? But that’s quite fine because the action sequences get up, the plot knows certainly well enough to pause and let us bask in the distinctive styles that each setpiece adapts – there’s a free-flowing, slow drift momentum to an underwater diving sequence (which adds remarkable tension given our knowledge of the ticking timeclock of the character’s oxygen), there’s a central opera setpiece so aware of its musicality in Eddie Hamilton’s editing to match up in syncopation of “Nessun Dorma”, there’s a car chase turned motorcycle chase that has all the frenetic energy that can barely hold the frame together from the point of view of the motorcyclists (also, the fact that there’s a moment where Hunt has to lift up his knee on a very sharp turn is one of my favorite subtle character beats in an action sequence yet). It’s all there to keep us very satisfied even when the plot has become more and more of a mess than we would have liked.

And then there’s the fact that as a team, Cruise and company are all able to match together. Cruise has been feeling comfortable in the role of Hunt since Ghost Protocol and his ability to finally find a point between solid confident charisma for the character rather than utterly urgent distress lingering on constipation that has been his signature for the first three movies is such a happy thing for me when he has to match comedic banter with Pegg and Renner, the latter finally having stuff to do and lines that he can read with an awareness of what ground he stands on in the story between Hunley and Hunt (maybe 2015 is the year of Jeremy Renner actually feeling like an entity in film again as opposed to just some guy who keeps popping up in my action movies). And of course, Cruise and Rhames’ friendly associate chemistry since M:I III has never faltered, but the real stunner is how Ferguson, a Swedish actress whom I had never known of before (even when she had a couple of British television production credits), is able to stand alongside Cruise in the frame and take as much gravity in the scenario as she needs so that we can see both Hunt and Faust as equals – everymen stuck in a world of espionage that refuses any accountability for them and willing to disavow them as collateral. She’s mysterious and at once sympathetic, she’s a shadow and at once the most human character in the film, and this is especially impressive when the majority of those third act convolutions that I hold aside (since a lot of them are kind of spoilers) actually revolve around Faust as a character and still Ferguson is able to hold her own as a solid part of the M:I world. Nothing in the franchise suggests that the character will return and that’s sort of a shame since she’s easily my favorite character they’ve gotten since Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s very unimpressed with IMF Owen Davian.

Still it’s all just a fluff piece, but this fluff is some great fluff. Like the Fast and the Furious franchise (another bit of fluff), the Mission: Impossible films of the past few years have shown them finally being able to catch their footing and finding their best installments yet and while I still prefer Ghost Protocol for how much it dedicates itself to being more of a showcase for action, I can’t say Rogue Nation doesn’t at least fine-tune and add spades to those setpieces in its pacing, in cinematographer Robert Elswit’s ambitious movements and spaces for the camera, in even suggesting a universe beyond the IMF without being overwhelmingly franchise-y about it like Marvel, providing one of the biggest breaths of fresh action movie air I’ve had in a long while and an enjoyable enough ride to stand beside Mad Max: Fury Road for now.

To Steal an Ant-Man

I’ve always never wondered how the hell an Edgar Wright picture would look as directed by anyone in the world other than Edgar Wright. I’m not sure if Ant-Man is the answer to that curiosity, but the possibility is off-putting enough that I don’t want to see Edgar Wright kicked off of another project he puts development into ever again.

Ok, that’s kind of a bit. Harsh. Ant-Man as directed by Edgar Wright Adam McKay Kevin Feige Peyton Reed is not a bad movie at all and certainly the fact of its quality is impressive in the fact of less troubled developmental projects like The Amazing Spider-Man or evidently Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four. It’s perfectly enjoyable, it’s light, it’s funny at many points…

It’s just also simply the most ordinary of all Marvel Studios’ films to this day. And while I know we can blame many faults on the Studios’ need to fan service up the draft by Wright & Joe Cornish (a task upheld by previous directorial consideration Adam McKay and Paul Rudd, the latter also starring in the film), I’m not quite sure it would have been much better, even without shoehorned moments like the opening of the film where Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) walks into a room filled with characters we already know and get mad for his secret or something or the scene where Scott Lang (Rudd) mentions Tony Stark and Pym gets ever angrier and kills the mood for a good five minutes before making a whiplash shift to smiles. Or just about every appearance by a character already established in the MCU from there on forth, both simply there to herald in the mention that “HEY! THERE’S A CAP’N MURIKAH: CIVIL WAR A-COMIN’!” I swear, when it came to the opening scene, it was so inconsequential that when a character returned later in the movie, Pym had to mention punching him in the nose for me to remember the dude’s fucking face. And I still have to go to Wikipedia to recall the names of MOST of these characters.

I mean, they’re giant bothers and marks against the movie but it’s not like the movie had much material to warrant its 117 minute runtime in the first place. The simple gist of it is that there was already an Ant-Man in the universe well before we’ve arrived here (something that – for once – would have been welcome in the previous films would have been hints or moments where something happened that makes no sense up until the reveal of Hank Pym’s WWII work. The closest we got is a reference in Thor so obscure Feige had to point it out). Ever since Pym retired his work as Ant-Man around the same time as the apparent separation from his wife (obviously obscured so that Marvel can cast her for a bigger role in the franchise), he’s been entirely touchy on anybody even asking about his Pym Particle – which allows him to shrink to the size of an… ant, man.

When his former protégé Darren Cross (Corey Stoll continuing the line of MCU villains being extremely two-dimensional and arbitrary; also his name is way too close to Darren Criss for me not to have made that mistake at first) finally discovers video evidence of Ant-Man’s existence in the form of his former mentor (you’d think that video would have been unearthed, like, a long while ago), he vows to emulate the original formula in a more powerful form.

Pym isn’t down with that almost as much as he’s not down with his own capable daughter Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly being the only feet-on-the-ground performance and unfortunately witnessing that job becoming especially thankless with this particular cast) taking on the mantle of Ant-Man for reasons which, even after Pym explains, kind of feel patriarchal. So, he figures to steal an Ant-Man, you’d need an Ant-Man that steals and so he recruits Scott Lang straight out of prison to take back whatever progress Cross has made to recreating Pym’s formula.

And then we throw in some background about Lang’s family and everything and the claim that Pym can totally reunite Lang with his daughter (Abby Ryder Fortson doing an adorable job of being the single weirdest character in this movie). And some sidekicks, one of which played by David Dastmalchian with another bad Eastern European accent as Marvel Studios has been now obviously wont to do since Iron Man 2 with cartoon lines like “it’s the work of gypsies”.

It’s a very small movie for Marvel to have worked on and well, that’s all well and fine because I did enjoy myself by dismissing its plot. It practically encourages when the only stakes are “Oh I want my suit back” as opposed to “Alien Army coming from another dimension to fuk wit Earth.”

And even without that, there’s still a lot to enjoy about its aesthetic neither taking cares like Thor: The Dark World or Guardians of the Galaxy, but also being able to feel more like our world in a less morose manner than The Incredible Hulk. The production design and cinematography is tempered enough to make the comic book stuff look like comic books and everything else bring us back to Earth and that’s kind of a strongly disciplined approach.

That and basically, to be straightforward, Michael Pena is the single best thing about the movie. Seeing him do wonders with the remnants of Wright’s script (I want to believe the conversation flashback gags are Wright’s but evidence actually leads to it being Reed’s brainchild) and approach the character with a zoned-out ray of smiles never ceased to give me a big grin, even with the dark humor of his very first scene as he recounts all his grievances. Like, I want Michael Pena in an Edgar Wright movie to-fucking-day. That is the biggest thing I took away from the movie. Michael Pena is hilarious and we need him to work with Wright (same for Douglas, but y’know, that’s cause it’d be great to see).

And I feel like it’s fine that Pena was the biggest takeaway from Ant-Man. It’s not anywhere close to an impressive movie and at no point in the development (even with my beloved Wright at the helm) did it feel like it was going to be such an impressive movie, but I guess in the end, that’s what it’s meant to be. Just a brief respite before the bigger messes of the MCU come into play. One hopes for more smaller stand-alone work like Guardians of the Galaxybut we can’t all get what we want.

…….

……

…..

….

OK, I DID IT! I FINISHED THE MCU! LYNCH, YOUR ASS IS MINE, NOW!!!

Age of Marvel

Alright, I made it! I made it to my first destination! Let me go ahead and repeat all the bullshit I was saying coming to this point!

Remember when I was talking all that shit during the Marvel Cinematic Universe Phase 2 reviews about how this movie right here, Avengers: Age of Ultron, threw fucking EVERYTHING that suggested that Iron Man 3 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier would matter to the overall universe out the fucking window by the very first shot.

It’s maybe a bit more upsetting that the first shot is basically the single best shot in the whole movie (one of many that implies that Joss Whedon is slowly evolving more and more from a writer who can direct to a full-out director; such a shame that he’s too burnt out to want to have anything to do with Marvel Studios anymore). The first shot is a blast of pure energy, throwing us straight into the familiar good fight alongside our many Avengers – Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johannsson), and Thor/Thor (Chris Hemsworth) – all busting the straight fuck out through a fortress in a winding, busy element-crazy CGI shot that feels like a drunken Emmanuel Lubezki beast (even sloppy Lubezki knock-offs make me happy). It makes for a very exciting setpiece that gave me enough of a buzz to get over the fact that STARK BEING IN THE SUIT NEGATES THE VERY DECISION HE MADE AT THE END OF IRON MAN 3.

I mean, yes, I already stated I’m not too crazy for each movie in the series to be a stepping stone/trailer for the next movie in line, but for fuck’s sake if Marvel Studios is going to bother to suggest that promise, then deliver on those promises. Sure, the main premise of the film – Stark’s decision to invent an A.I. to take over the Avengers’ job for them, leading to the self-awareness and ego of Ultron (James Spader, never has an actor been so perfectly cast for a character only to be put to poor use) – actively demands that character development over Phase Two is ignored but holy shit, if they’re that dedicated to just having another product, no wonder this movie felt like a fucking obligation.

And I’m serious. It felt like an obligation. For Whedon, for the cast (Downey Jr. looking more and more bored within the role with every appearance), for the audience to show up, everyone who isn’t producer Kevin Feige. It retreads every single beat – character, comedic, arc, every single beat – from the first Avengers and unfortunately this time around it isn’t able to catch itself being as fresh 3 years past its expiration date. It’s bottom feeder Whedon-esque material and while I don’t hate everything Whedon has done enough (The Firefly franchise is much too wonderful), I don’t find it as enjoyable as James Gunn or Shane Black work and having to settle for this shows Whedon’s immense limitations as his primary golden talent: as a writer.

But hell, for a retread, at least this time around characters do have stuff to do for the most part. We’ve got each Avenger having their own primary stake in the conflict this time around beyond simply “saving the world”, even Hawkeye – who is probably given immense narrative and character compensation due to Renner being sidelined for the majority of the previous film. I mean, it ain’t perfect – Thor’s still wandering around a bit prior to the BIG BOOM climax of the film.

Speaking of characters, there are of course some newbies that don’t entirely work. James Spader as Ultron, the giant motherfucking robot who is unstoppable, ambitious, and hateful of humanity, is a matchmade in heaven, with his sly low tenor voice and ability to make every line sound like it slithers out of his gut in terrifyingly cynical manner (this was a John Hughes muse at one point, wasn’t he?). How disappointing it is to take this villain to becoming a very less than amusing extension of Tony Stark’s personality. Maybe he had to carry the weight from how sleepy Downey Jr. feels as Stark by now and it makes sense on a narrative standpoint, but having Whedon drop all of his leftover quips on the villain makes him less than menacing and more like a clown. But of course, Spader is no joker of an actor and he knows how to keep his character afloat. The same cannot be said of his little sidekicks, Pietro and Wanda Maximoff – played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olson respectively. They are paper-thin existences who only exist to be cannon fodder without any real personality behind them beyond trying to be caricatures of impoverished and persecuted Eastern Europeans and even faker accents from each of them that have more slips than a girl’s locker room.

Taylor-Johnson especially is my least favorite performance. I already hated the shit out of him but he plays Slavic victim of persecution the same fucking way Ansel Elgort plays cancer sufferer, with a shitload of smug white boy attitude that makes me think the guy has never heard of a third-world country in his fucking life. I mean, hell, if they were so desperate for such an obnoxiously egotistical character why not have him performed by Zlatan Ibrahimovic and have him actually be likable.

But of course, there are some shimmering lights that come in the way of introducing Paul Bettany to the MCU in a flesh-and-bone performance as Vision. The solemn gravity that Bettany brings to the lines that Whedon has written as pseudo intellectualism comes off as Shakespearean. It’s the opposite of Whedonisms bringing Spader down, it’s Bettany elevating that shit. With facial expressions that tell all even underneath the most believable make-up job I’ve ever seen, allowing Bettany full and free movement whilst giving him the façade of looking like he’s made out of actual metal.

But of course, we can’t all be Bettany doing backflips over the chewy dialogue or Renner being given well enough material, Samuel L. Jackson enters again feeling like an obligation to give the team their motivational speech after a due butt-kicking and once again it feels entirely reminiscent of moments in the franchise we already saw. Scarlett Johannesson and Mark Ruffalo deal with a romance subplot that isn’t too much of a chore until Johannsson has to recite lines of dialogue about her anatomy that kind of don’t seem like things Whedon really knows how to talk about (in fact, it quit him under a hail of Twitter fire that eventually forced him to leave the site). And Evans tries desperately to make it seem like he’s not reciting the same ideals he already did in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Anyway, some setpieces impressing me (including the Hulkbuster vs. Hulk being a proper mix of slapstick and monster rampage that I for once could smile at – even with its anti-climactic ending that punctuates it as fan service) and characters being able to be more involved doesn’t stop me from being disappointed from how Avengers: Age of Ultron is the most dismissive thing the Marvel Cinematic Universe could ever have done to itself – admitting that nothing in any of the characters’ lives matter if they get in the way of the next moneymaker and implying the worst to happen to Thor: Ragnarok and Captain America: Civil War, where we will have to watch characters skip over entire beats to undo their development in service to the plot.

It is one giant billboard to how Marvel Studios has now begun to lay its cards.

New Movie Motorbreath Breath Podcast – My Neighbor Totoro

Hey, so this is actually the fourth episode of the Ghibli podcast I’ve been working through but the first I’m posting up simply for the fact that the sound is not ruined by my dogs. Still, if you wish, I’d encourage you to go to mixcloud page and listen to the previous two episodes as my guests – Marcus Boykin for Castle in the Sky and Britt Rhuart and Dan Veroneau for Grave of the Fireflies have just as fantastic things to say about their films as Samantha Altamirano has to say about My Neighbor Totoro.

In the meantime, I’ll add some illustrative screencaps and images from the movie itself that I mention in the podcast.

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