The Second Best Star Wars Movie…

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The worst thing about the movie is this poster

Finally saw it, and I have to say Rogue One is pretty much the best Star Wars movie to hit the screen since the credits rolled on Empire Strikes Back.  It manages to prove that it is possible to do several things that have evaded the film franchise since the introduction of ewoks:

  • Apparently you can make a Star Wars prequel that doesn’t suck or introduce gaping plot holes.
  • You can do homage to the 1977 Star Wars without cannibalizing the plot.
  • The protagonist doesn’t have to be a superhero in training.
  • The Jedi don’t have to be all that.
  • You can write a Star Wars film for adults.
  • Aliens don’t have to be CGI Muppets.

So, good film, go see it. However, it does continue another Star Wars tradition. Just as in the prior films, Rogue One carries its own weight of questionable politics. From an article by Ilya Somin:

But while we see what the rebels are fighting against, we have almost no sense what they are fighting for. What kind of regime does the Rebel Alliance intend to establish if it wins? […] It is almost as if the rebels simply assume that, if the Empire is bad, virtually any alternative government is likely to be better. Such thinking has often proven dangerous in the real world. The Russian, Chinese, Cuban, and Iranian revolutions are among the many revolts against oppressive governments that ended up installing regimes even worse than those they supplanted.

Realistic, but troubling. Perhaps more troubling:

Droids are at least as intelligent as humans, and clearly feel emotions, such as hope, fear, and pain. K-2, the main droid character in Rogue One, has personality, free will, and a mind of his own to an even greater extent than C-3PO and R2-D2. Yet neither rebels nor imperials see anything wrong with treating sentient droids as essentially the slaves of biological beings.

Much like many of the American Founding Fathers, the rebels are simultaneously freedom fighters and slave owners. Unlike George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, the rebels don’t even seem to realize that there is a contradiction between these two roles.

A Ten Video Defense of Cultural Appropriation

“Cultural Appropriation” has reared it’s sombrero-sporting head in the literary community once again in another series of critiques and critiques of critiques and critiques of critiquing and those doing the critiquing, over something that should, in the end, be a fairly straightforward caution for authors to just get it right, that somehow never ends up that simple.

Rather than attempt to spill more words into this never-ending tumult, I instead present a series of videos in defense of “Cultural Appropriation:”

So white dudes can’t rap…

This is really problematic…

If this isn’t cultural imperialism, I don’t know what is…

A university costume party goes really off the rails…

This has to be because we nuked Japan…

…or this is…

Italy, Fascism,  Eastwood, that empty chair, it all makes sense now…

A movie this fun must be bad for you…

That don’t look like Deep Purple…

And we all know country music is problematic…

So I have a fan theory

movie_poster_zootopia_866a1bf2So I noticed that the movie Zootopia is on Netflix now, and it reminded me of a little fan theory I developed back when I saw the movie in theatres.  If you’ve seen it, you may have noticed something that differentiates this film from the typical Disney (or any) “funny animal” story.  In stories of Mickey, Donald and Goofy, the world the characters inhabit is simply a proxy for the real world us humans inhabit.  If species is mentioned, it’s only for the sake of a joke, or as an obvious metaphor for class or race or nationality and we just accept the characters are just humans in funny suits.

Zootopia is very different in this respect. The story spends science-fictional levels of effort world building to show that we’re not just dealing with furry humans. The eponymous city spends vast technological resources to accommodate everything from radical size differentials to having separate artificial ecosystems emulating everything from artic to tropical conditions.  Most importantly, it acknowledges a past history where the animal denizens had the predator-prey relationships we’re familiar with. “Thousands of years ago,” these animals didn’t have culture, technology, or even the anthropomorphic posture they show in the present time.  This is, in fact, a major plot point… Which leaves a question dangling.

How does one get from there to here? Everything about the film is sfnal in its attention to detail, but it mentions “thousands of years” for this transition in the first few minutes.  That doesn’t seem enough to build a technological culture from scratch.  Also, no humans are in evidence. While we could posit this is an alternate Earth where humans never evolved, we still see at least one major character that seems to have developed from a domesticated species.  Also, it seems that these animals, mammals at least, all developed intelligence at roughly the same time, evolutionarily speaking.

brain-wave-coverNow consider the plot of the Poul Anderson novel, Brain Wave.  From Wikipedia:

At the end of the Cretaceous period, Earth moved into an energy-damping field in space. As long as Earth was in this field, all conductors became more insulating. As a result, almost all of the life on Earth with neurons died off, causing the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event. The ones that survived passed on their genes for sufficiently capable neurons to deal with the new circumstance. Now in modern times, Earth suddenly moves out of the field. Within weeks all animal life on Earth becomes about 5 times as intelligent. The novel goes through the triumphs and tribulations of various people and non-human animals on Earth after this event.

At the end of the novel the humans develop interstellar travel and it’s implied that they leave for the stars. Given how close the apes are to humans, they may have joined them. The super intelligent animals left behind wouldn’t need to develop technology, language, or culture from scratch, the humans would have left that all behind for them. A few thousand years would be enough time to build a culture out of those remnants, and also probably enough time for the animals to self-select, breeding for a more “human” appearance and posture, emulating these long-disappeared humans, their progenitors, who left for the heavens…

Zootopia is a sequel to Brain Wave, set about nine or ten thousand years after the humans left.

10 Things Suicide Squad Got Right

Suicide_Squad_(film)_PosterI mentioned Suicide Squad in my prior blog, and I did indeed see it in the theatre the other day. So what did I think? Well, most of the folks critical of the movie are right, it is badly flawed— and almost all those flaws can be attributed to the execrable editing. Amazingly, though, somehow the film’s good points managed to just outweigh the horrible damage done to it in post-production. Enough to make one weep at what may have been, and actually justify a “director’s cut” Blu-ray release. So, rather than harp on the film’s many faults (and they are legion) I thought I’d give a list of what the movie actually got right:

10) The casting is pretty superb in my book. Even Will Smith’s typical glib demeanor syncs well with portraying a complete sociopath. And the chemistry between him and Margot Robbie make the film.

9) The acting also shines, once you take into account the limits of the choppy editing and the fact that this is an ensemble action movie where we aren’t going terribly deep into these characters.

8) The bad guys are actually bad guys. All of them. It seems that every time a Hollywood movie gets its mind on focusing on a group of criminals doing something there is a near-irresistible temptation to make our hero(s) wrongly convicted, or justified in their criminal acts in some way. But there’s no question here that the characters belong in prison. Only one character has a redemption arc over their criminal past, and their crimes are so irredeemable that this only elicits some sympathy.

7) The movie isn’t as nihilist as it appears on first glance. Suicide Squad may deal with characters without a moral center, but they actually are aware of that, and suffer for that lack. You see this with every family/romantic connection shown for the members of the Squad. (It’s arguably the point of the bar scene.)

6) The film is aware that getting this group together is a bad idea. But this isn’t a plot hole. It actually is the plot.

5) The Joker. This movie needed a different take on him, and the one they chose both fits in this universe, and is distinct enough from every other portrayal to stand on its own. Also, it was a wise decision IMHO to use him sparingly, because he can easily chew up a whole movie by himself. They needed him because Harley, but only for that. Any more would be a distraction from the main plot.

4) The soundtrack. Sure, they may have been trying to riff on the Guardians of the Galaxy’s MO. I don’t care. This would be a case of a DC film learning the right lesson from Marvel.

3) The one-liners. “I love your perfume! What is it, the stench of death?”

2) The tone.  This is another case of learning the right lesson from Marvel. Getting the tone right for a superhero movie is a delicate process, it’s very easy to fall into the two extremes: either take everything way serious and fall into gritty angst and nihilism, or descend into self-mockery and keep winking at the camera to show the audience that you’re not falling for it. Somehow, this movie avoided that trap. It knew the place of humor, and it wasn’t at the expense of the characters or their stories. (Except Captain Boomerang, but we’re supposed to think he’s an asshole.)

1) It showed that you can make a superhero movie diverse without an accompanying internet meltdown. And given that it looks like this movie’s making money, there’s a good chance we’ll see more of this type of casting. . . and maybe a little less of the online angst.

Speaking of the 1980’s. . .

How many of you remember the Tobe Hooper film, Lifeforce, from 1985? It’s probably the only piece of genre pop-culture from the 80’s that Stranger Things didn’t pay homage to— possibly due to the combination of full-frontal nudity and zombies. Lifeforce hasn’t gotten the same love from posterity as Tobe Hooper’s other efforts (such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Poltergeist) which is unfortunate. It’s worth checking out for reasons beyond Mathilda May walking around a government facility completely nude, killing guards right and left (shades of Elfin Lied). The whacked-out story is also worth the price of admission, as are the impressive effects for a Golan-Globus film. (You will not believe this came from the same people responsible for Superman IV.)

One of the more impressive bits of the film is the apocalyptic destruction laying waste to London as the space vampires’ contagion turns the population of the city into undead monsters rampaging through the streets. Then, in order the save the world, the protagonists need to make their way through the dark nightmare streets of the destroyed city, toward the evil light blowing up into the sky from the heart of St. Peters. Our hero has to survive to reach the source of the light and our evil female villain in order to stab her through the heart and stop the apocalypse. . .

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Lifeforce (1985)

Wait a minute now. Where have I seen this recently?

Yeah, Suicide Squad— intentionally or unintentionally— made its climax an extended homage to an obscure 80’s Golan-Globus B-movie.

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Suicide Squad (2016)

(PS: I know, the evil sky beam is it’s own trope lately, but Lifeforce needs some love for pioneering the form.)

Star Trek

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I’ve finally seen the most recent Star Trek film and it has my enthusiastic approval. No it’s not the original series. But, IMO, that’s a plus. The major weakness of the first two post-reboot movies were the ham-handed attempts to tie this Star Trek to that Star Trek. This is the first of the three to admit that it’s its own thing. Almost. There’s a couple of callbacks that were made necessary by the premise of the reboot, and they still feel as weird as characters from Tim Burton’s Batman making cameos in Christopher Nolan’s. The good news is that this movie seems to be explicitly closing the book on that. It finally feels comfortable being itself, and gets to rank itself in the upper tier of Trek films.

Also, the Sulu = Gay thing: I can’t imagine something being more a non-issue from any side of it you’re coming from. You’d be hard pressed to find a less empowering or more ambiguous way of representing a gay character on film. Not only is it a fraction of a second that was probably added in post to get some social media buzz, but there’s no context, and no impact on the plot or Sulu’s character. If the guy in the scene is Sulu’s gay husband (and there’s no confirmation in the film that this is the case), Sulu seems a little less concerned about the guy’s possible demise in the subsequent attack than he should have been. Contrast with Uhura’s attitude toward her ex, Spock. Or Scotty’s attitude toward hot alien chick. If you just want to drop some gay representation without making the story about that, watch some Doctor Who episodes, and don’t film it like you’re embarrassed and plan to cut it later.

5 remakes I would like to see

So there was this Ghostbusters remake/reboot that caused a lot of angst among various peoples. Since I’ve yet to see it (I’ll probably wait until it’s on Netflix.) I don’t have an opinion on it one way or another. But the existence of the film has made me ponder the idea of remakes/reboots in general; why they work (Battlestar Galactica, Casino Royale), limp past the post (Star Trek, Miami Vice), or explode in an incandescent glory of fail (The Wicker Man, The Day The Earth Stood Still.)

One obvious thing is that decent quality source material doesn’t guarantee the quality of a remake. In fact, it often seems that there is an inverse relationship; the better the original, the worse subsequent attempts seem.  That may be simply a side effect of comparing the two.  After all, it’s easier to improve on a crappy movie than improve on a great one, and making any movie worse is the easiest task of all. It also seems to me that the best remakes take the existing property and do something new with it (counter-example and failure: Psycho). Much is made of “gritty reboots,” so much so that it’s now a cliché, but there’s also the “campy reboot” that can also work/not work just as well (see Dragnet or Dark Shadows), what matters is that the change in tone gives a reason for the remake to exist.  The gender flip in Ghostbusters obviously serves a similar meta-purpose, to change the story enough to justify the movie’s existence.

With that in mind, here are five stories I’d like to see getting remade.
Continue reading “5 remakes I would like to see”

The end of free speech

It’s done.

When the creative class itself packs their bags and calls it quits, it’s over.  This is where we end.  Any tyrant now knows that they can suppress any artistic expression they don’t like just by making some threats.
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The temptation is to retaliate.  Make fun of North Korea and Kim Jong Bad Hair Day.  Punish them by making them the butt of the joke.  But it doesn’t fix the problem.  You see, they’re already a joke.  They’ve been one for years. Satire clogs the Internet as we speak, and will continue to do so.  But that’s just pretending the fight’s still happening when we’ve already lost.  It doesn’t matter how many memes you post to Facebook.  Hollywood, the heart of American cultural dominance in the world, has caved to a tin-pot dictator of a country that has to kidnap filmmakers just to have a film industry.  A cartoon from College Humor isn’t going to make up for that.  A biting Jon Stewart critique isn’t going to make up for that.  Hell, George Clooney can’t get a petition signed condemning the hacking and intimidation of Sony.  George-effing-Clooney.

Worse, the movie industry as a whole has just let everyone know that if you want a film banned in the US, just make a threat.  They’re all almost inviting a bomb at a multiplex now. Good work all.

Now Sony has a perfect right to do what it did.  So does AMC, Regal, et al.  So does Paramount for pulling Team America as a last minute replacement for the Interview.  But this cannot continue if we don’t want our popular culture to be at the mercy of any regime that can afford a hacker and a bomb.

So how do you give Hollywood a spine? Stay home this Christmas.  Don’t pay to see the movies they deign to show us this week.  Make it cost them to cave into these threats.  Rent a movie, watch Netflix, and send an e-mail to your local Regal, AMC, Cinemark letting them know why they aren’t getting your money.  Let Sony Pictures and Paramount know why you aren’t paying to see their other moves.  Boycott the whole pantywaist lot of them until they grow a set and tell Kim Jon Un to sodomize himself, or they go bankrupt, divest, and are replaced by studios and theater chains with corporate cultures that will.

Four Things Marvel is doing right and everyone else will (probably) do wrong

I’ve just recently started catching up with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on Netflix, and I started thinking about how well Marvel has done with its properties since Iron Man came out all the way back in 2008.  A lot has been said already about the “shared universe” idea, and how “revolutionarily” it is, but I don’t think that’s it. . . not exactly, anyway.  Sure, that’s what everyone is focusing on, and we will be inundated with “shared universe” properties from now until the next decade, most of which will go two or three films and quietly die an unmourned death.  After all, the idea of several different creative properties sharing a single continuity is not all that new an idea.  It’s at least as old as Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, which is probably better than whatever Universal Studios comes up with now to jump on the bandwagon.  And we have Star Wars, Star Trek and Dr. Who as examples of franchises that spawned decades worth of TV, movies and print stories in a continuity that was shared to one degree or another.  As evidence that the shared universe in and of itself has little to do with Marvel’s current success, consider the following counterfactuals: Would the Marvel Cinematic Universe have succeeded if it led with Daredevil?  Would Guardians of the Galaxy have made any less money if it wasn’t connected to the MCU at all?

So what’s up with Marvel?  Here’s the top five things I think they’re doing right.  The MCU serves some of these points, but my guess is that folks jumping on the shared universe bandwagon will whiff on most if not all of these points.

4) Brand identity.  Most superhero movies are identified by either the main characters (X-Men, Fantastic Four) or the director plus main character (Raimi’s Spider Man, Nolan’s Batman), so once you spin off a property (a Nightwing movie say) you loose some connection to the original property.  Marvel’s movies are identified by the studio name, much like Pixar’s films.  So that they can make a Guardians of the Galaxy without any necessary connection to their prior films, and Marvel’s fanbase has developed enough trust to give the oddball flick a chance.

3) Superheroes are a trope, not a genre.  Speaking of Guardians of the Galaxy, how did Marvel manage to stick a straight-up eighties-era space opera fantasy in the same continuity as Captain America? Because Marvel isn’t making “superhero movies,” they’re making movies with superheroes in them.  They’ve done Space Opera, WWII War Movies, Conspiracy Thrillers. . .  Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn’t even have superheroes for the most part, and owes much more to the X-Files than Superman.

2) When you have decades of intellectual property, it doesn’t have to ALL go into ONE movie.  How many villains do you need for a superhero movie?  How many do you usually get?  How well does that usually go?

And most important, and the step most likely to be overlooked by everyone jumping on the bandwagon.

1) Write a decent screenplay.

Interstellar: the SF we need right now…

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A couple of months ago I suggested that Guardians of the Galaxy deserved to be this generation’s Star Wars. In a similar vein, I think Interstellar wants to be this generation’s 2001. And, unlike some other movies I could name, Interstellar comes a lot closer to the mark. In large part because the homage goes beyond the hard sfnal aesthetics and the trippy ending, and into the theme of the movie; the fate of humanity as a species.

Whatever flaws this movie has (and it does have a few) it makes up for with an actual sense of wonder combined with an unapologetic pro-human point-of-view that seems to have been missing from SF of late. This is SF that is of a piece with Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke, and a whole generation of science fiction writers who blossomed between WWII and the Kennedy Assassination. This is SF that says, unironically, that humanity as a species is worth saving, and that our accomplishments outweigh our faults. This is SF that says that our science and technology are good things, and turning away from them leads toward destruction. This is SF that explicitly rages against the dying of the light.

Like the movie’s view of humanity, I think Interstellar’s accomplishments far outweigh its faults.