“You can choose to understand “The Force Awakens” as an embrace of the mythological tradition, in which the same stories recur over and over with minor variations. Or you can see it as the ultimate retreat into formula: “Let’s just make the same damn movie they loved so much the first time!” There are moments when it feels like both of those things, profound and cynical, deeply satisfying and oddly empty.”
O’Heir’s instinct to work against his initial either-or binary here is telling, and reflects a lot of what I reacted to within The Force Awakens. There is a larger narrative ongoing about this film being “safe,” and about duplicating and/or rebooting the existing films—primarily A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back. I think this argument makes a lot of sense when considering an overview of the film’s plot, but I think we need to fully acknowledge the tension with which this process takes place. O’Heir’s argument about the mythological tradition absolutely echoes in The Force Awakens, but the questions of how those stories will recur, and who they belong to, are more important to my experience of this film than the level to which they do or do not vary from the previous narratives.
[Warning: Pretty extensive spoilers for The Force Awakens, so proceed at your own peril.]Continue reading →
When Zach and Gray, two brothers from Wisconsin, arrive to Jurassic World, they briefly check into their hotel room. They’re VIPs, there at the behest of their aunt Claire, and her assistant gives them something important—wristbands, to signal their VIP status.
Although the film never actually explores this, my mind immediately turned to Disney’s MagicBand system, a new way for offering a more personal experience at DisneyParks. Your MagicBand opens your hotel room, pays for your meals, and at some restaurants it can even inform the host that you’re the person walking up to the podium, and inform them where you’ve been seated for that particular meal.
It’s unlikely that the MagicBand system was operational enough during the production of Jurassic World for it to be integrated directly into the film, but it’s a perfect technology for understanding its strategy. The MagicBand system has a complicated relationship with control: by giving the park guest a greater ease of control over their experience—fewer keys, no need to carry cash, fast pass access, etc.—it also gives Disney the data necessarily to control the park as a whole. They know how you move between rides, they know what type of people spend in what patterns, and they can design the parks in ways that support this.
In the film itself, this is how Jurassic World tracks and controls its dinosaurs, but that particular comparison is a dead end. Instead, watching the film I was struck by how much it feels like the result of the filmmakers tapping into market research from people of my generation who grew up with Jurassic Park as a formative filmgoing experience. We are the “visitors” to Jurassic World, and Colin Trevorrow’s film never lets us forget it—there is no hiding the line drawn between theme park guests and moviegoers, and of the need to create “new attractions” because we’re just not satisfied with what we had before. It’s a toothless critique given that the effects-laden film in front of us fully gives into the evolution of blockbuster filmmaking, but it is nonetheless a potent one in how it works overtime to tell us not to get distracted by the shiny objects. It takes the things for which we are—purportedly—nostalgic, wraps them up in things that are shiny and new, and then systematically pushes us to wish they could just be back to normal again.
And, at least for me and much of the audience I saw it with, it worked like a charm.
There’s a scene in Starz’s forthcoming documentary series The Chair—which debuts September 6, and which I previewed here—where director Shane Dawson and his producing partner Lauren Schnipper are discussing the rewriting of the script with their producer-at-large, Josh Shader, one of the only people in touch with both of the two productions being made from the same script by Dan Schoffer. It’s as tense a confrontation as you see in the first two episodes of the series, as Schnipper works to break down the writing credits of the still in-progress script that was heavily rewritten and noted by Dawson before being shipped back to Schoffer to take a final pass. Without saying it directly, her question is predicated on the likely results of a WGA arbitration hearing for the film, and Shader’s answer is—paraphrasing—that because they gave the option back to Schoffer to write the final version of the script, Dawson’s contributions will just be considered notes that happen when a director gets involved with a project, with Schoffer therefore retaining final, sole credit on the film.
It’s a moment of some tension. Schoffer gives a talking head discussing how Dawson’s claim to credit is an overreach, but as relative first-timers in the context of film production Schnipper and Dawson are mainly just looking for clarification on what to expect moving forward, which seems reasonable. Credit is complicated, as Schnipper notes when she contrasts Dawson’s process (rewriting/notes and then sending the script back to the writer) and fellow filmmaker Anna Martemucci’s greater control over the script to her film. Whereas Dawson effectively rehired Schoffer to rewrite his own script, Martemucci took the job herself, with the documentary following her completion of the script heading into production. And so this foreshadows what may appear as part of the documentary, which is a likely arbitration hearing for her film, the result of which will determine the writing credits for Hollidaysburg when it debuts in theaters and on Starz this fall.
It will be a rare case where we’ll potentially have a lot of very clear information about the arguments made before an arbitration hearing, beyond simply knowing the result (A “Story by” credit for the original writer, a shared writing credit, etc.). In most cases, there isn’t a documentary film crew following every stage of the production, and there aren’t two concurrent projects that let you draw a direct comparison between the two. There’s just an end result and bits of pieces of production history, as is the case with this weekend’s Guardians of the Galaxy (which I “reviewed” on Letterboxd if you’re looking for more thoughts on the film). The film’s script is credited to James Gunn and Nicole Perlman, although the two never worked together on the film. In a lengthy—and fascinating—Buzzfeed profile on Perlman, as well as in numerous Q&As and features she’s done in the past week, it’s revealed she worked as part of the Marvel Writing Program, an incubator in which writers were brought in to help develop Marvel properties into potential franchises. Over a two-year period, she worked on adapting the Guardians of the Galaxy series into a workable film franchise, including choosing the roster, plotting out the story, and then completing further writing work during a six-month freelance period once it was clear Marvel was serious about that project.
My biggest issues with the Hunger Games trilogy were both things that have gone unchanged in the film adaptations. The structural sameness of the three books may have had a purpose, but it particularly affected my enjoyment of the second book, Catching Fire, where it felt lazy and formulaic rather than meaningful. The same can be said for the books’ close first-person perspective, which I found particularly limiting in the glimpses of a bigger conflict in Catching Fire that the perspective gave the books no chance to explore.
What I found most interesting about my response to The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Francis Lawrence’s adaptation of what I identified as the least successful of the novels back in 2011, is that I liked it much more than its predecessor despite the fact it doubles down on these elements. Some of this has to do with how “first-person perspectives” function differently in literature vs. film, certainly, but I think it’s also a case in which one of the film’s most potentially frustrating choices successfully neutralizes one of the book’s biggest problems.
[Spoilers for the film, and then separately marked spoilers for the series, follow]
It is not really a secret that I’m not much of a moviegoer. I like movies, and even like going to the movies, but it was never really part of my social fabric growing up, which made it more of a family activity (and thus something that I didn’t do often once the family was dispersed into various locales in the post-secondary years).
While I’ve written about a few movies over the course of the blog’s existence, it hasn’t happened very often. This is both because I haven’t seen very many movies while they’re in theatres, and because I don’t necessarily respond to movies the way I respond to TV shows. While I generally tend to lean away from highly evaluative discourses when looking at TV, perhaps objective to the point of stripping away my own opinion on occasion, with film I lean even further away from the subjective: usually I end up really wanting to have a discussion about a film instead of wanting to “review” it. And since there are various other locales to have conversations of that nature, this blog rarely ends up hosting them.
However, I figure that I tweeted enough about by moviegoing adventure yesterday that I should at least offers some reflections. Taking advantage of the $6 tickets available on Tuesdays, I figured it was time to get to the theatres for the first time since Inception in July – however, since I’m only on holiday vacation for so long, I was in a bit of a rush. As a result, I lined up a four-movie marathon: four movies in a single day is difficult to juggle at even the largest multiplexes, but I found the four films that made it work.
And so, some thoughts on Black Swan, Tangled, True Grit, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One after the jump (and some thoughts on what it was like to see them all in one day, as well).
Although Christopher Nolan’s Inception introduces evidence to the contrary, in our reality dreams are a solitary experience: not only are they personal in terms of context, unique to each dreamer, but they are also personal in that only that dreamer can see the dream as it first appeared. After that point, the dreamer can only relay their memory of the events therein – memory which varies from vivid recollection to vague, disconnected images – to those around them.
And yet, Inception is very much built around the notion of shared experience, both within its story and in its clear desire for the audience to leave the theatre discussing what they just witnessed. In fact, I’m sure some would argue that the film requires this sort of discussion to truly come into its own, demanding that the audience either works with others who shared the same experience to reconstruct its intricacies from memory or to do what dreamers can’t do by going to the theatre and watching it again.
Accordingly, I have no intentions on offering a definitive take on Inception, both because I’m generally bad at developing theories and because a single viewing and an MSN conversation with my brother do not a complete understanding of the film make. Rather, I simply want to discuss how the film goes about creating this seemingly necessary sort of interaction, and why Nolan achieves this less through cheap ambiguities and more through a growing sense of uncertainty which simultaneously breaks down our reading of the film and the film itself as it reaches its conclusion.
A conclusion, by the way, which is not what it appears to be.
SPOILER WARNING: if you haven’t seen the film, and intend to in the future, and don’t want to read spoilers, stop reading.
It’s not often I write about movies in this neck of the woods, but it’s hard not to use Cultural Learnings as an outlet for my thoughts about Toy Story 3. Not only is this a Pixar film, but it’s a Pixar film which deliberately taps into my childhood nostalgia: I was 9 when Toy Story was released, and 13 when Toy Story 2 hit theatres, so this is arriving at a time when that sort of nostalgia is both most welcome and most intellectually stimulating (as I’m considering culture and the media I consume in a much more critical fashion than I was back then).
Toy Story 3 is a solid sequel to the second film, and a wonderful conclusion to the cinematic trilogy, but I personally feel as if it is the least successful (relatively speaking, of course) of the three films when separated from our nostalgia and the emotional resonance the series has accrued over time. Whereas there are moments in this film which are more powerful than those which came before, and Pixar continues to separate itself from the pack by tapping into the audience’s emotional connection with this franchise in a fashion which has eluded Dreamworks with Shrek, Toy Story 3 is the first in the trilogy to feel repetitive, albeit in a purposeful fashion designed to emphasize key themes from the second film which become more complex in the context of the third.
Considering this is Pixar, they pick the right themes and execute them to perfection when the time comes to bring the series to its cinematic close, but there is a lack of discovery within the film’s adventure, establishing it as an extremely engaging rumination more than a revelation – what will follow is my attempt to explain why I’m not head over heels in love with the film as a whole even after being head over heels in love with its conclusion.
[I went a few paragraphs without any major spoilers, but then I sort of throw all caution to the wind, so if you haven’t seen the movie yet I’d suggest bookmarking this until then, and you’ll have something to read after getting back from the theatre.]
Slumdog Millionaire and the Power of Inevitability
Around these parts, it usually takes two things to make me write about a piece of cinema: first it has to be really, really good, and the second is that it has to have some connection to television as a medium. This is a self-imposed standard: I know that there are very few “pure” television readers of this blog (and comparatively “few” readers period), and that everyone is usually interested to hear about a great film. But I’m not a film reviewer, and my critical eye for it hasn’t really been developed, so being able to link it back into the world of television gives me a bit of a comfort level.
It was a comfort level that was in full effect as I watched my first “awards season” film of the year, the powerful and stunning Slumdog Millionaire from British director Danny Boyle. The film is about a Mumbai slumdog on the Indian version of “Who Want’s To Be A Millionaire?”, and diverges throughout the film into how Jamal got to the point wherein he could be on this show, answering these questions, and placed in this position. The structure of the film is clear within the first few minutes: you nod your head, accept what the film is trying to accomplish, and then begin the process of appreciating the stunning cinematography, the wonderful direction, the great child acting performances, and the stunning music.
The film’s conclusion is inevitable, not in terms of result but in structure: you know how the film will progress, and by the time you reach that moment you are capable of choreographing every step of the way. But by the end, presuming you’ve been watching all along, Slumdog Millionaire will rouse an audience like few other films. It is about the smallest of realizations, the broadest of events, and a fine example of how very powerful a film like this can be.
What struck me in that moment is that the film owes more to the trivia game show at its center than just a convenient setting for this tale: its storytelling operates in much the same fashion as does a reality show, introducing a fairly simple structure and following it to the point there the structure is secondary to character, to personality, to humanity. Reality shows in general are only as good as their contestants: every game of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? was entirely the same, and every season of Survivor is really the same basic game outside of a few different twists and turns.
I know that some will view this comparison as something almost sacreligious, but it should be seen as a compliment: what takes most reality shows 13 episodes to accomplish is done here in only two short hours, less a rollercoaster than a steady climb up a lift hill. You know what’s about to happen: it is inevitable that you are going to reach the top and rush down the hill to the inversion below. But when this is all happening in such an emotional, engrossing and highly compelling environment crafted by Danny Boyle and the entire team who worked on the film, it feels like something so much more: by the time you’re rushing down, you’re caught between enjoying the ride and looking back with nostalgia on the climb itself.
I could write a full review of The Simpsons Movie, which I took in yesterday afternoon, but I’m going to link you over to The Elder’s review over at McNutt Against the Music. Essentially, we both agreed: the film was derivative in almost every way, and yet was really quite funny, entertaining and worth the money. At this point in time the film’s impact is limited by the level to which the series has run potential storylines into the ground; there was nothing fresh to be found, no character stone left unturned. In the end, however, they milked every last drop of humour they could out of America’s favourite family, and the result was an engaging motion picture.
And engage it did: the film garnered a staggering $72 Million opening weekend. The Elder argued that this wasn’t too surprising, but analysts were much more modest with their predictions. The Simpsons are one of those properties where its current fan base is young, its largest fan base is in limbo between childhood and adulthood, and it’s kind of impossible to know how the demographics will turn out. Either way, they turned out, and Fox is laughing all the way to the bank.
One thing I do want to say about the film is how impressed I am by one segment in particular: Spider Pig. This was a big hit in trailers and commercials, and the internet has embraced it fully. I, at worst, wasn’t convinced: it seemed like just a lame gag. However, it is handled effortlessly in the film. When the writers conceived the idea, it was likely just a bit piece, and that is how it stayed.
J.K. Rowling has yet to write a perfect novel. While she still has a chance with next week’s release of Deathly Hallows, she has yet to craft a literary masterpiece that lacks a single plot hole, inconsistency or highly illogical subplot regarding a textbook. And so it is that the directors taking on the task of adapting these books need to keep in mind that the text placed in front of them is, well, perhaps a little bit flawed.
David Yates, I feel, is the first to look at one of these stories as a recipe, not a rule book. While even Alfonso Cuaron developed a fantasy film rich with wonder and sorcery, although in his own unique style, Yates is the perfect director for embracing the series’ turn for the darker and more mature in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. He sticks to the basic ingredients, but presents them in a more traditional, not fantastical, fashion. The result is a film that feels perhaps less stunning as Cuaron’s film, but at the same time feels more grounded in a reality, as opposed to a fantasy world.
This is all a very good leap forward for the series, but Yates and screenwriter Michael Goldenberg have one distinct problem: The Order of the Phoenix is, of course, not a perfect novel. Rowling’s characters more stumble into early adulthood as opposed to grow naturally into it, and the novel’s greatest flaw (The transition into its climax) rears its ugly head. Yates manages to fix some of the book’s problems, but he can’t fix that final one.
The result is a film that, much like the book, signals a change. Order, as a book, featured some strong writing and some brilliant scenesetting from Rowling; similarly, Yates delivers some stunning imagery and a strong sense of thematic timing for a TV director. The problem is that, even as the technical or other elements improve, Order is still an awkward story that will never be perfect. And that, inevitably, makes Order a good, but not great, piece of filmmaking.