Thursday, July 9, 2015

It's Time to Move On

StarGazer

        After much consideration, WordMaster and I have decided that the time has come to close up shop at Wicked Stupid Plotless. Originally started by our friend C.E. Jenkins, this blog has been a blast to work on, a casual outlet where we could express our opinions and thoughts on our favorite subjects, and posting here has helped me make me a better, more mature writer. When we first launched this blog four years ago, we were fresh-faced kids entering college, but now that we have both graduated, it seems appropriate to start charting a new path.

        Although we won't post on this blog anymore, all of our posts will remain up for reading, and we both plan to still write. I am starting a blog at lovinglyderivative.wordpress.com, where I will focus on territory similar to what I discussed here (i.e. pop culture with an emphasis on movies and TV), while you can find WordMaster at theauramusings.wordpress.com/.

        Thank you for reading, and I hope you will follow us on our new ventures.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Magic Mike XXL Does Its Thang

WordMaster


             Magic Mike was essentially an art house movie. Endowed with a modest $7 million budget, the 2012 Channing Tatum vehicle was branded a “surprise hit” when it grossed $167 million worldwide and garnered warm critical reviews, including sincere (if ultimately futile) Oscar buzz for costar Matthew McConaughey. Interestingly, though, the reason Magic Mike gained legitimacy with critics also served as the basis for audiences’ most vocal complaint: for a film whose popular appeal stemmed almost entirely from the promise of hot, naked men, it’s a rather serious affair, dealing with the then-ongoing economic recession and drug addiction. Or, as Tatum succinctly put it, people wanted “less story. Less plot. Just dudes’ things.”

             On that front, the sequel delivers. Appropriately titled Magic Mike XXL, it costs twice as much as its predecessor ($14.8 million, still economical compared to most high-profile summer flicks these days) and throws restraint out the window. To say there’s a story here would be lenient. The first hour or so teases us with a flimsy narrative about coping with disappointment in life, but any semblance of genuine conflict dissipates by the time Mike and co. arrive at the exclusive club run by Jada Pinkett Smith’s suave emcee Rome. At this point, the film, helmed by frequent Steven Soderbergh collaborator Gregory Jacobs, sheds its semi-respectable guise and reveals itself as a full-blown musical, a parade of exuberant dance and song numbers (the latter courtesy of Matt Bomer and Donald Glover) punctuated by snippets of dialogue. The soundtrack is seductively frothy, with tracks as varied as the Backstreet Boys’s “I Want It That Way” and Nine Inch Nails’s “Closer” competing to get lodged in your head.

Pixar Lets Audiences in on Its Secrets in Inside Out

StarGazer


        Inside Out is vintage Pixar. After spending a few years mired in an adolescent funk, the studio has emerged with a take on the coming-of-age story that’s as clever as it is poignant and that suggests a newfound sense of maturity. For his follow-up to, well, Up, director Pete Docter, along with a pitch-perfect voice cast and Pixar’s usual team of genius animators, explores the uncertainties of growing up and the complex interplay between emotion and memory by delving into the mind of an 11-year-old girl. The result is a film of such piercing yet exquisite intimacy that writing this review seems like a fruitless endeavor, since no words could adequately convey that feeling. The sensation of watching Inside Out lingers long after details about the plot and particular jokes begin to fade.

        Pixar’s latest work is most reminiscent not of any Disney or animated movie, but of last year’s Boyhood. While Richard Linklater’s flick offers a more anxious and ambivalent outlook on life, an attitude concisely captured by Patricia Arquette’s wrenching final line, both movies are as much about parenting as they are about being a kid, in part because their makers are unavoidably coming from that perspective, and with their white, middle-class, presumed-to-be-heterosexual protagonists, they largely adhere to popular imaginings of childhood as happy, suburban havens of innocence. These romanticized depictions are so often reproduced by Hollywood they’ve taken on an almost mythic status, seemingly grounded more in a particular set of ideals than in reality.

        However, both Inside Out and Boyhood have more on their minds than nostalgia. By making the children at their centers distinctive and well-rounded enough to feel like individuals instead of archetypes, they sidestep many of the potential pitfalls and clichés that frequently doom coming-of-age tales. You don’t have to share Riley’s passion for hockey to relate to the meaningful role it plays in her life, just as you didn’t need to agree with Mason’s teenage existential musings to recognize that they are his way of making sense of the world around him and cementing his own increasingly independent identity. These movies succeed, in other words, because they understand that art taps into universal sentiments – namely, people’s capacity for empathy – most effectively when it portrays specific, not vague circumstances; they simply tell their own stories rather than attempting to cater to all possible audience members.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Looking for Justice at the 2015 Emmys

StarGazer

        HBO aired the finales for its spring lineup this past Sunday, which means that the 2014-15 TV season has officially ended and the race for the Emmys is about to kick into full gear. While the actual nominations won’t be announced for another month, there’s no better time than the present to make the case for the shows and people I hope to see recognized come July 16. As I’ve mentioned in my previous Emmy wish-lists, these aren’t predictions, and given voters’ past tendencies, I imagine the majority of them have next-to-no chance of happening, but one must never despair when it comes to pop culture awards, not even in the face of inexplicable FX snubbing and Downton Abbey love. Until the final verdict comes out, possibilities for surprise abound, so if they know what’s good for them, voters should take a peek at this list:

Drama

The case: Mad Men for everything
The argument: It’s hard to think of Matthew Weiner’s iconic show about the ad industry in the 1960s as an underdog or long shot, but in recent years, its reputation as an awards darling hasn’t exactly matched with reality. Most awards bodies, like the Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild, seem to have forgotten about its existence, last recognizing Mad Men in 2013. Even the Emmys, which often seems to lavish the show with attention out of rote habit (see: the continued noms for Christina Hendricks and Robert Morse despite the lack of actual material for both actors in the latest seasons), only gave it four nominations, and no wins, for the stellar first half of its seventh and final season. Add in the fact that not a single member of its large, hugely talented ensemble cast has ever won an Emmy, and maybe you can understand why I’m a bit nervous about Mad Men’s prospects, though it will presumably benefit from not having to compete with Breaking Bad anymore.
        It would be easy to argue that Mad Men deserves Emmy recognition simply because it’s Mad Men and it only seems proper to give such a seminal work of art one last hurrah. However, the show is too good, its merits too many, for me to resort to such a shallow, sentimental appeal. While the last seven episodes weren’t the strongest of its run, they still provided plenty of indelible moments, from Joan threatening to burn it all down to Peggy sauntering into the McCann-Erickson offices and Don driving off into the sunset, and a fitting conclusion to the saga of Don Draper and friends. As impeccably crafted as always, Mad Men stayed true to its ambiguous, elliptical nature, preferring hard-won, frequently temporary victories over immediate gratification. The dissolution of Sterling Cooper put all of the show’s major characters at crossroads and, as a result, proved to be the perfect storyline to drive home the series’ core themes of identity, change, expectations versus reality, and the unstoppable march of time. Layered performances by Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss and January Jones in particular ensured that Mad Men’s impending absence would be deeply felt.
The evidence: “Time and Life” (ep. 11), “Lost Horizon” (ep. 12), “Person to Person” (ep. 14)


Me to the Emmys, probably 

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Halt and Catch Fire and Humanizing the Void

WordMaster

             You could be forgiven for dismissing Halt and Catch Fire as second-rate Mad Men. You might even be right. After all, the sophomore AMC drama created by Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers is hardly the masterpiece that Matthew Weiner’s acclaimed, seven-season meditation on the American Dream was even in its youth, and its resemblance to the latter borders on suspicious at times.

             To start with, it’s a period piece, though 1980s Texas doesn’t quite have the exotic, jewel-toned glamour of ‘60s Manhattan. Joe MacMillan, the central protagonist played by Lee Pace, is basically a mid-level Don Draper – a debonair, silver-tongued genius tormented by his enigmatic past; he even ends the first season by ditching his job and disappearing into the backcountry, a move not dissimilar to Don’s cross-country odyssey in the last act of Mad Men. At one point, Cameron sums Joe up with the barbed observation: “You’re just a thousand-dollar suit with nothing inside.” Sound familiar?



I mean, come on.

Speaking of Cameron, she’s the Peggy Olson of Halt and Catch Fire, an idealistic young prodigy who the hero takes under his wing; her alternately affectionate and resentful interactions with Joe recall Peggy and Don’s volatile relationship. Donna initially occupies the obligatory neglected wife role, though unlike with Betty Draper, the other characters soon learn to recognize and appreciate her value, and in a pleasantly surprising reversal, the second season has positioned Gordon as a bored house-husband while Donna gets absorbed in her work. Both shows even include amusing side-stories involving typically straitlaced women trying marijuana.

Yet, after a rather uninspired beginning, I found myself thoroughly enjoying Halt and Catch Fire as I binged the first season on Netflix (for me, “binging” means consuming 1-3 episodes a day, which I guess for some people is known as “watching TV”). I couldn’t help but succumb to Lee Pace’s haughty charisma; the dysfunctional, frequently hostile relationships; the pleasure of seeing Donna upend everybody’s expectations, including the audience’s; the coolly retro soundtrack and credits sequence. As much as I love Game of Thrones, there’s something to be said for a show that creates tension out of lost computer files.

In a way, it turned out to be the perfect rebound, filling, however incompletely, the gaping hole left in my TV-viewing heart by Mad Men. For all the aforementioned similarities, I would argue that Halt and Catch Fire is not, in fact, a cheap knockoff of the seminal ad agency drama but a rejoinder, approaching the same problems – how are people shaped by society? Is happiness possible? What is our purpose in life? – from a radically different angle.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Some Reflections on Consuming Pop Culture in Isolation

StarGazer

        Last Friday night, I officially went into mourning for Jimmy Darmody. I’ve spent the last few months slowly making my way through Boardwalk Empire, the Prohibition era-set, Steve Buscemi-starring HBO drama that lasted five seasons before airing its final episode in October last year. Having never quite mastered the art of binge-watching, I sometimes go days, even weeks between episodes, so it felt like a small victory to finally complete the second season, even though I’d started the show at the end of February, which meant that it took me three months to watch a mere 24 episodes.

        The finale left me a bit emotionally distraught, as I knew it would. Yet even as I typed out that off-the-cuff tweet, the part of me that wasn’t numb with sadness felt ridiculous. After all, this was a fictional character whose abrupt demise had originally taken place way back in 2011, and while I managed to avoid hearing details of the specific circumstances, I’d been aware of this particular plot point virtually since it happened, giving me plenty of time to prepare. This foreknowledge naturally colored my viewing experience, but rather than spoiling it by taking away the element of surprise as I might’ve expected, it made me appreciate Jimmy’s overall arc as well as Michael Pitt’s performance more. The prospect of his ultimate fate loomed like approaching storm clouds, imbuing his scenes with an underlying sense of dread and melancholy, and what might’ve otherwise come off as an out-of-left-field twist incorporated for shock value instead seemed all the more tragic for its inevitability.

All I wanted was more of this ruthless swagger


        Deciding what TV shows to watch, once a simple matter of flipping through a handful of channels to see what’s on at the time, has become a rather trying occupation, one that requires careful planning and time management. More than any other form of entertainment, TV demands commitment, asking viewers to devote potentially years of their lives to following a single story that in all likelihood won’t even get a proper, satisfying ending. With the rise of new technology and the medium’s reputation, there’s a greater variety of quality shows than ever before. So, options must be weighed, priorities determined, sacrifices made. However, in the age of Netflix, HBO Go, DVRs and other alternate streaming/viewing avenues, what’s sacrificed is often not a particular show, but rather, the conversation around that show.

Friday, May 22, 2015

How Mad Max: Fury Road Succeeds by Embracing Genre

WordMaster

            Blessed is she or he who watches Mad Max: Fury Road and can write coherently about it. The latest entry in George Miller’s gasoline-fueled, apocalyptic series unfolds as a fever dream, an extended action sequence so relentlessly kinetic that the few periods of quiet and stillness feel downright unsettling. Even now, I’m not entirely convinced this is a real film that I experienced while conscious, let alone one that’s legitimately good.

            By all rights, a movie involving an electric guitar that literally spews fire should fall into the “guilty pleasure” category at best; to tell the truth, there were a couple times when I wasn’t quite sure if I was laughing with or at it. Yet this eagerness to revel in the ridiculous is ultimately why it works, along with the abundance of distinct female characters; the quietly riveting performances from lead actors Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron and Nicholas Hoult; and the mind-blowing commitment to practical effects over digital trickery.


If stuff like this doesn’t make you appreciate stuntmen and women, you’re hopeless.

I tend to be skeptical of the idea that there’s inherent value in deliberately over-the-top art. White House Down may be aware of its stupidity, but that doesn’t make it any less stupid or more fun to watch. Fury Road, however, is not over-the-top just for the sake of being over-the-top. As a friend of mine pointed out, it’s highly interested in exploring the concept of madness, on both an individual level (see: the main character’s name) and a societal level (the dystopian community led by villain, Immortan Joe, revolves around a manipulative cult). The first ten or so minutes put us directly in Mad Max’s head, using various aesthetic techniques, such as rapid edits and sped-up motion, to produce a sense of mania and disorientation. As a whole, the exquisitely grotesque production design effectively captures a world in disarray, where there are no rules and nothing makes sense.

            At a time when Hollywood churns out big-budget spectacles like assembly-line products, the passion of Fury Road feels not only refreshing but vital. Here is an action movie that unabashedly adores action, staging scenes of destruction and mayhem with the mischievous glee of a kid experimenting with fireworks. Explosions, shootouts and armored cars collide in a frenzied, hypnotic ballet, set to the grand, cacophonous score of Dutch instrumentalist Junkie XL. It’s light-years away from the self-conscious irony of such flicks as 21 Jump Street and Guardians of the Galaxy, which seem faintly embarrassed by their own existence, and the slick yet soulless tedium that plagues so many tent-poles, like The Amazing Spider-Man, whose novice director Marc Webb was clearly more interested in making a sweet romance than the flashy extravaganza he was obligated to deliver.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Out of the Machine Comes a Thrilling Vision

StarGazer

***SPOILER ALERT***





        Ex Machina, the directorial debut of 28 Days Later and Sunshine writer Alex Garland, operates around a series of binaries. There’s the obvious man vs. machine, but also man vs. woman, the mind vs. the heart, nature vs. technology, the past vs. the future, reality vs. the imaginary. These aren’t exactly unusual themes for a story about artificial intelligence or for science fiction in general, but rather than ultimately picking a side as many are wont to do, this movie seeks to unify these seemingly incompatible concepts. Like the android at its center, Ex Machina is a synthesis of different, carefully selected parts fused to create an elegant, more-than-functional whole, and its sleek, familiar surface gradually peels back to reveal something much cooler and more slyly intelligent underneath.

        Where many sci-fi films aim for the (sometimes literal) stars, looking to paint a dazzling, explosive picture on as large a canvas as possible, Ex Machina opts for a small-scale approach, featuring only four main characters and keeping nearly all of the action confined to isolated, clearly delineated spaces. As Oscar Isaac’s Nathan concedes early on, his house isn’t cozy; it’s claustrophobic, a modernist, technological prison surrounded by an almost overwhelmingly expansive natural oasis that whispers of freedom, the unknown and – most importantly to the two men who anchor this narrative – the uncontrollable. After all, the desire to control, the promise of power and supremacy is what draws Caleb (played by Domhnall Gleeson in a nicely restrained yet taut performance) to Nathan’s home, a decidedly artificial world that they seek to rule not just as men or kings, but as gods. Strikingly shot by cinematographer Rob Hardy and brought to life by production designer Mark Digby, art directors Katrina Mackay and Denis Schnegg, and set decorator Michelle Day, the house is an architect’s wet dream, as tastefully sophisticated as it is cold and hollow, seeming to exist in a limbo somewhere between the real world and a fantasy. The abundance of glass is hardly an accident; as Caleb slowly discovers over the course of the film, the control it offers is an illusion, one easily shattered despite the fancy security system that Nathan has installed.

Friday, April 3, 2015

A Conversation Comes to a Close

StarGazer

        I want you to pay attention. This is the beginning of something. Those two lines opened “Time Zones”, the first episode of the seventh and final season of AMC’s complex, game-changing Mad Men. They also, in a way, summed up the show as a whole.  Demanding the kind of constant, painfully close scrutiny from viewers that made it a boon to TV critics everywhere, Mad Men was a series of beginnings – blossoming relationships, unstable mergers, forever-shifting identities, history itself all hurtling toward a terrifying yet exciting unknown – but it realized what its characters tried so hard to deny: that every birth and rebirth must be accompanied by a death. In the season four finale, Dr. Faye Miller, the latest woman to be deserted by Jon Hamm’s womanizing Don Draper, told the ad man extraordinaire that he only likes the beginnings of things. That quote rang with such truth not because Don is selfish and noncommittal, though he’s undeniably a bit of both, but because he knows that facing the end means confronting his end, becoming face-to-face with his own mortality. He fears that inevitable moment of loss and the lack of control he has over it, just as he’s afraid of change, of moving on and getting left behind, so he runs away.

        Much will be written about Mad Men between now and when that final shot, whatever it is, fades from our TV screens. People will ruminate over what it means for prestige cable shows, antiheroes and the so-called Golden Age of Television, and the vast majority of it will likely be more thorough, more precise, more insightful than this piece. I don’t say that to be self-deprecating or (just) because I don’t have the highest self-esteem, but rather, because there’s been so much fantastic writing about this show scattered across the Internet, on sites like A.V. Club, Salon, Tom + Lorenzo and just about anywhere else you can find TV criticism, that I’d be doing you a disservice if I didn’t urge you to check these recaps and analyses out.

        I can’t say I’ve been watching Mad Men from the beginning. In fact, the first episode I ever saw was the season three premiere, “Out of Town”, and considering that I had only the vaguest awareness of who the characters were and what was happening plot-wise, this was unsurprisingly a bad idea. Though I’d heard and read nothing but endless praise for the show, a stately period drama about the world of advertising didn’t exactly sound like compelling entertainment to me at the time. I couldn’t imagine not finding it stiff, slow and overly dense, and my first uninformed attempt to dive in confirmed these initial expectations firmly enough that I didn’t give it another chance until around at least two years later. Seeing that the 17-month hiatus between seasons four and five would give me plenty of time to fully catch up, I started watching in the fall of 2011, which I remember because it was my first semester of college. This time, I got hooked instantly.

        Perfectly titled “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”, the pilot exhibited many of the show’s best qualities from the beginning: the subtle wit and self-awareness of its writing; the prickly characters we would learn to both love and hate; the deliberate way it used its production design, cinematography and lighting to establish setting, mood and theme. While I obviously already knew that Don had a family when I finally watched that episode, the reveal of Betty and their children still worked as a means of telling audiences that not everything was as it appeared, that beneath the ad-glossy surface of class and glamour lay a universe of greed, deceit, ambiguity and dark secrets.



Friday, March 27, 2015

Looking for Goodbye

WordMaster

             HBO confirmed Wednesday morning that it had canceled Looking, Michael Lannan’s dramedy series about three gay men searching for purpose and love in San Francisco. This news did not come as a surprise: the show had dismal ratings, even for premium cable, and there were ominous whispers long before the official announcement. Yet seeing this tweet from executive producer Andrew Haigh still sent a surge of despair and frustration through me:




I’m not alone. After a promising but somewhat forgettable freshman season, Looking emerged as a legitimate triumph this year, presenting ten confident, all-around sublime episodes that culminated in Sunday’s gut-punch of a finale. With the threat of cancellation looming, critics started to rally around the show, which had been more or less nonexistent in the cultural conversation aside from a smattering of controversy and contention that accompanied its debut; I’m pretty sure I’ve seen more people talk about it this week than I saw all last year. Needless to say, it was too little, too late.

             Don’t get me wrong: I’m hardly guilt-free in this regard; to be honest, I barely thought about, let alone talked about, Looking at all between the end of season one and the beginning of season two. It wasn’t until sometime around the middle of season two that I realized I didn’t just enjoy the show in the fleeting way I enjoy most comedies – I genuinely loved it. I spent a good deal of each week looking forward to the next episode. It may not have been the best show on TV, and it certainly wasn’t the most influential, but its absence leaves me feeling strangely empty.  I guess like so many of life’s greatest joys, I didn’t really appreciate it until it was gone.

             Here are just a few of the reasons Looking made the TV world a better place:

             It was about gay people. Crude, but true nonetheless. Even in our era of “too much of a good thing”, this is a rare phenomenon. Plenty of shows have LGBTQ characters, but few are about LGBTQ characters; even Transparent is as much about Maura’s mostly straight, cisgender children as it is about her. As AVClub’s Brandon Nowalk points out, Looking was the only current American TV show centered exclusively on the gay community, presenting them as a majority rather than a minority, insiders rather than outsiders. Although it stirred understandable discontent among some LGBTQ individuals due to its narrow focus on cisgender, predominantly white men and its normalization of homosexuality, the fact is that one show can’t be expected to represent all queer people and was never intended to. Also, the charges of homonormativity elide the nuanced, rigorous ways in which Looking examined self-acceptance, privilege, HIV and marriage as an institution, among other relevant issues; just this week, it featured a startlingly pointed conversation that challenged the legitimacy of monogamy. In a big sense, Looking was a show expressly concerned with the anxieties of progress and assimilation, subversive in its own right.


Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Mission: Impossible – Conquering the Smurfette Principle

StarGazer

        The full-length trailer for the fifth Mission: Impossible movie, now sporting the not-at-all-laughable subtitle of Rogue Nation (at least it’s not Dawn of Justice or Ragnarok?), popped up online Monday, and the world got yet another opportunity to gawk at Tom Cruise’s commitment to jaw-dropping and likely ill-advised stunts with a mixture of bemusement, exasperation and awe. While I have little doubt that the film’s action scenes will be thrilling, an ideal spectacle for blockbuster season, I would be infinitely more interested in it if 1) Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol helmer Brad Bird returned to the directing chair and 2) more importantly, if Paula Patton were not conspicuously absent from this sequel, while Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames will all reprise their roles.

        Even if it is for harmless scheduling reasons, this means we have yet another major movie boasting a single major female character (newcomer Rebecca Ferguson) in an ensemble otherwise consisting of all guys. Yes, we’re talking about an action franchise whose primary draw has always been its over-the-top gadgets and stunt work, so it’s obviously not surprising that Rogue Nation, at least based off the trailer, will be extremely dude-centric. However, this tokenism and the trailer’s heavy use of the male gaze suggest that the movie and, by extension, the franchise as a whole, isn’t especially interested in women – either in terms of portraying them as more than eye candy or in attracting us as an audience.
  

I couldn’t get a non-blurry screengrab, but in case you’re wondering, Rebecca Ferguson is about to snap this guy’s neck with her legs, and I’m so here for that.


  

 This, not so much.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

How "Arrow" Empowered the Damsel-in-Distress

StarGazer

        It’s no secret that The CW, oft overlooked because it lacks the artistic edge and money to garner the prestige of cable yet is too niche to commercially compete with the “Big Four” broadcast networks, is telling some of the best superhero stories in any medium right now. After a promising yet uneven freshman season, Arrow found its voice in a confident, entertaining and emotionally compelling second season, and its spin-off show The Flash already brimmed with energy when it debuted this past fall.

        Though the two shows are tonally disparate (The Flash is bouncy and at times proudly cheesy, while Arrow’s brooding darkness is more reminiscent of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films), they work well together, as evidenced by a pair of delightful crossover episodes that aired in December. Not only do they share a creative team, anchored by creator Greg Berlanti, but they also succeed for many of the same reasons: talented, charismatic actors; sharp yet understated visual flair combined with efficient pacing; and perhaps most importantly, plots driven by characters and their relationships to each other rather than by MacGuffins or convoluted mythology. In a way, they benefit from not having the enormous budgets given to big-screen ventures, because they’re forced to employ action in the service of story instead of the other way around, and even the set pieces, of which there are still plenty, dazzle more through impressive choreography and stunt work than expensive CGI effects, particularly in Arrow. They suggest that comic books, with their installment-based structure, love of twists and cliffhangers and sprawling ensembles of characters, are much better suited to TV than film, where even the best adaptations still often feel cumbersome and incomplete.

  

 Watch and learn, Avengers. Watch and learn.

        Though both shows readily embrace their comic book origins, Arrow especially spends a lot of time playing with various stock plot and character tropes. There’s the brooding, traumatized hero, the loyal sidekick, the tech support, the protégé, and various villains and fridged characters (usually women) that primarily serve as, respectively, obstacles for conflict and motivation for the hero. Of course, the writers are good enough that all of these characters eventually become much more layered and interesting than a simple description suggests, but for the most part, they don’t radically depart from the superhero action genre’s conventions. While David Ramsey’s pragmatic, no-nonsense John Diggle and Emily Bett Rickard’s Felicity Smoak, who has evolved into the show’s moral center, have always probably been my favorite characters, the most fascinating and thoughtful narrative arc throughout the series so far belongs not to them or hero Oliver Queen, but rather to resident token love interest Laurel Lance, who’s played by a very game Katie Cassidy.

Monday, January 19, 2015

This Turing Feels More Machine Than Human

WordMaster


While watching The Imitation Game, the new historical drama revolving around celebrated mathematician and computer science pioneer Alan Turing and the British intelligence effort to crack the German Enigma code during World War II, I could not stop imagining it as a TV show. It attempts to pack about four different stories into less than two hours of screen time and, as a result, fails to do justice to any of them. There’s the traditional biopic, which follows Turing from his teenage years in boarding school to his conviction for “gross indecency” not long before his mysterious death (the film presents it as an unambiguous suicide, though some dispute this); the quasi-romantic relationship between Turing and Joan Clark, who bond over their mutual status as outsiders; the workplace drama showing Turing’s sometimes prickly interactions with his fellow codebreakers; and the old-fashioned, John Le Carré-style spy thriller involving the hunt for a Soviet double-agent led by Stewart Menzies, the head of MI6 played here by formidable character actor Mark Strong. A full show or mini-series might have been able to flesh out the supporting players and thoroughly explore the inner workings of the Bletchley Park operation, but in a feature-length movie, these potentially fascinating elements are sidelined in favor of something cursory and generic.


Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Admirable ‘Selma’ Sings with Restrained Energy

StarGazer



        The single most eye-opening moment of my college experience came during the first semester of my freshman year. Most of the students in my Honors 101: Research Methods class despised our teacher for reasons both justified (her clinical, DIY approach to teaching suggested she was more accustomed to dealing with grad students than fresh-faced undergrads) and not (somehow I don’t think they would’ve been so openly disdainful and disrespectful had she been a white man instead of a black woman). At one point, our class discussion turned to Rosa Parks and the Civil Rights Movement, and my professor told a room full of primarily privileged white kids that Rosa Parks was not just an ordinary lady who one day got too tired to stand up from her seat on a bus, but an outspoken, trained and educated activist. As minor as it might have seemed at the time, this moment forever changed how I view history, especially as it is taught in the American education system, where reality is often simplified, distorted or outright ignored in order to create easily digestible, comforting narratives. For the first time, I truly grasped the full meaning of the truism “History is written by the victors”, though it might be more accurate to say “History is written by the powerful”.

        So, this was the challenge that faced director Ava DuVernay and the rest of her team when making Selma: how do you translate Martin Luther King Jr. and his work to the big screen while countering a dominant cultural narrative that has long reduced him to a docile saint? On top of that, the film must also compete with the feel-good white savior stories that have served for decades as Hollywood’s main framework for dealing with issues of race. It’s a formidable responsibility to tackle for the industry as a whole, let alone a single project. Yet, perhaps the most remarkable thing about the final film is how lightly it carries this weight, never bowing under pressure or coming across as either self-conscious or self-important. Selma may be closer to the glossy, polite dignity of Spielberg’s Lincoln than the ferocious rawness of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, which still stands after 25 years as mainstream cinema’s sharpest, most honest commentary on American race relations, but it’s a piece of lean, effective, confident filmmaking that, along with the more unassuming yet equally poignant Middle of Nowhere, establishes DuVernay as one of the most exciting and vital voices in the contemporary movie world.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Why the Oscars Have Nothing to Do With Art

StarGazer

        Now that the Golden Globes have passed (Tina Fey and Amy Poehler hosted the uneven ceremony Sunday night) and the Oscar nominations are set to be announced this Thursday, the 2015 movie awards season is officially reaching peak frenzy. As intense as this time of the year can be for film fans, I haven’t felt a great need to write about this year’s race, in part because the majority of my thoughts, hopes and gripes aren’t all that different from last time; the dynamics of each season are essentially the same, just with a new set of names in the spotlight. While the particular debates and controversies this time around haven’t piqued my interest, I have found myself lately thinking a lot about what it really means to be “Oscar-worthy”, or even what it means for art to be good in general, and what, if anything, that says about our interests and values as moviegoers and a society.

        The phrase “Oscar-worthy” gets tossed around a lot, but there’s rarely any explanation of what that actually means. Though it’s often said with some level of derision or irony, it seems to be used as a sincere marker of artistic quality just as often, even by those who turn their noses up at the Academy. It implies some kind of standard that movies must live up to in order to be deemed deserving of awards consideration, though no one ever articulates exactly what those standards should be. To what extent should a film’s technical/aesthetic prowess, cultural or popular impact, or political, social or moral significance be taken into account? Do Academy members have any greater responsibilities to the industry or the public when making their selections or should they simply choose what they legitimately liked the most based on their own personal preferences? For the most part, it’s agreed that the Academy has little actual credibility as a tastemaker, and the Internet has made it too easy to follow industry politics and the PR campaigns specifically designed to influence voters for even the most naïve person to believe they’re completely unbiased. I keep wondering why so much time, money and effort is invested not just by the industry itself, but by critics and moviegoers on awards that few treat with anything other than contempt. I’ve suggested before that the awards season is worthwhile because it provides an opportunity to celebrate filmmaking, even if the specific objects of celebration aren’t always the most laudable, but perhaps what really makes it worthwhile is that it forces us to consider and articulate why we think certain films deserve wider recognition and why others don’t. It pushes us to interrogate our own ideas of what makes some art great instead of just taking our gut instinct of “I liked/didn’t like this” at face value.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

In the Wild

WordMaster


At first glance, it’s easy to dismiss Wild, Jean-Marc Vallée’s adaptation of the 2012 Cheryl Strayed memoir, as schmaltzy inspiration porn – Eat, Pray, Walk, someone on my Twitter timeline joked derisively. It is, after all, the true-life story of a not-destitute white woman who embarks on a journey of self-discovery, the kind of didactic, feel-good confection that awards bodies gobble up like chips, ostensibly serving little purpose other than to provide its star performer with an opportunity to do Real Acting and gain some positive PR along the way. Frankly, as someone who nurses a deep-seated, perhaps irrational bias against biopics (anything revolving around a specific historical or living figure, really), I approached Wild with a certain skepticism, the way many critics seem to regard superhero or Hobbit movies, steeling myself for a pandering, by-the-numbers crowd-pleaser that I would inevitably forget the instant I left the theater.

It did not take long, however, for me to see that my fears were unwarranted. The film opens in medias res, finding Strayed at an unstipulated point on her 1,100-mile solo hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, which stretches all the way from the U.S.-Mexico border to Canada. Quiet reigns as she settles on a rock and removes her shoe to reveal a broken toenail coated in dried blood, a startlingly gruesome image to encounter at the very beginning of a movie whose marketing campaign focused predominantly on its uplifting tone and postcard-pretty scenery (several people at my screening audibly winced). Strayed then proceeds to accidentally drop the shoe (cue more gasps), watching in dismay as it tumbles down the mountainside before deciding to fling her other shoe after it with a fierce, piercing scream. It was that scream, that fleeting outburst of raw, tempestuous emotion, that assured me this was going to be different from your standard Oscar-bait, less hesitant to confront the messy ambiguities of reality.