I think I’ve finally made up my mind on where I stand with Aaron Sorkin. He’s often known as someone you’re either all-in on or completely out on; either you love him or hate him (“We don’t need two metaphors; that’s bad writing. Not that it matters.”). I think, at this point, I have to say I fall in the middle, but maybe it’s not that simple. After watching The Trial of the Chicago 7, which I thoroughly enjoyed, I realized that I think I like Sorkin the most, when he’s dealing with lower stakes.
I’ve never been into The West Wing or The American President because the subject matter is already so grandiose and weighty, that when Aaron Sorkin comes along and pumps it up even further, it can be a little too much to handle. But when he’s dealing with the front office of a struggling baseball team (Moneyball), the rise of Apple computers (Steve Jobs), or the world of underground, celebrity poker (Molly’s Game), he’s able to raise these much lower stakes into feeling like the weight of the world rests upon them and turns what should be a snooze-fest into an absolute thrill ride. I mean, he took the dull, legal depositions surrounding the founding of Facebook and turned it into a Shakespearean duel of the minds. The man knows how to make you think the story he’s telling is the most important story in the world.
So, when he takes subject matter that truly does matter, like Chicago 7, I almost get a little bit of a headache when the subjects, who actually have weighty implications behind their actions, get the Sorkin treatment and are elevated to an even higher level of duty. It all just becomes so grand. It’s like in PacMan when you go so far in one direction, you end up all the way back on the other end of the screen; sometimes Sorkin can compound his more important material so much with his own pompous writing style, that it all becomes too much and leaves the audience feeling like it’s a bit cheesy. Having said that, this movie is good. It’s real good. It’s just pretty clear that Sorkin should stick to writing.
I know that’s a pretty hacky take: keep the writer in the writer’s room and out of the director’s chair. But it should be considered. Had Sorkin started directing earlier in his career, then fine, let him have at it, because he’d be better at it at this point but since he’s only begun directing with his last two movies, what we end up with is a guy who is much more talented on the page than he is in the chair. The film is a little static and visually dull. It’s a lot of pointing the camera at one person at a time and letting them speak and while that isn’t the biggest deal in the world, it’s just clear that he has no signature style. Folks like Bennet Miller, David Fincher and Danny Boyle have been able to take his scripts and spin them into some visually creative works of art, but Sorkin himself just isn’t there yet. I imagine he’ll get there one day but I’d rather he hand off his screenplays to folks with more experience than keep taking at-bats for himself. Now we’ll never know what Edgar Wright’s version of Molly’s Game looks like or Spielberg’s Chicago 7.
Chicago 7 is one of Sorkin’s hokiest movies yet. I imagine the original drafts of all his screenplays have the same amount of cheese, but with oversight from experienced directors, they’re able to work with him to cut out some of the more naively-optimistic moments he’s so fond of. It’s really a classic Judd Apatow-esque case of “the writer-director is too in love with their own work to change any of it,” and seeing as Netflix is famous for giving so few notes to big name talents, as they don’t want to ruffle any feathers because they’re just happy to have them aboard, there just doesn’t seem to be anyone in the room to tell him that what he’s shooting is a little cheesy.
But again, I like this movie! I can’t believe I like this movie! It has Eddie Redmayne and I really don’t get what he’s all about and yet, he works really well. I went from rolling my eyes the first time he showed up to saying “fuck yeah, Eddie Redmayne” by the time the credits rolled. I’m shocked by that. Truly shocked. I also find Sacha Baron Cohen pretty hit and miss in more dramatic work, but dammit, he fucking works in this movie. He works really well. And I’m always down for John Carroll Lynch to get work, even if he does somewhat get the short end of the stick here.
It’s also an extremely lukewarm take to say Michael Keaton is great, but Michael Keaton is great, and I’m always so glad to see someone take Sorkin’s dialogue and play it understated. That’s an actor with vision and restraint right there; while everyone else wants those juicy Sorkin monologues to launch them onto the stage at the Oscars, Keaton went in the opposite direction, so much so he almost gives off the sense that he didn’t want to be there. You da man, Keaton.
I get why Sorkin wanted to make this movie: it’s a chance to get back into the courtroom where he can write those back-and-forths that snap like pop rocks in your mouth and he can do that while drawing attention to an important cause. I’m all for that. But, now that he’s gone and made his important, issue-driven film, I urge him to please, please go back to writing stories that don’t necessarily matter as much in the grand scheme of things but feel like they carry the weight of the world on their shoulders when he’s putting their story to paper.
Growing up, my dad would show me a lot of movies that he would insist were classics in his time but we would both realize throughout the duration of the film that they either hadn’t aged well at all or just plain kinda sucked and didn’t make sense. That’s basically how watching Netflix’s latest, The Devil All the Time feels. Outside of the fact that it was released just this week and features an inexplicably star-studded cast of Hollywood’s ripest up-and-comers, the whole thing feels of a different time… a time when you could get away with vaguely traceable narrative ties and oversimplified, ham-fisted messages that don’t seem to make any tangible commentary on the world we live in today or at the very least, what we can learn from the days gone by.
Simply put: I spent the whole movie saying, “huh? What the fuck is this?”
It’s the latest entry in the Netflix oeuvre of movies “so serious, all the actors probably had their faces scrunched, even when the cameras weren’t rolling,” joining the ranks of The Cloverfield Paradox, Outlaw King, The Outsider and The King. Netflix is both perpetuating and simultaneously the victim of the notion that “really fucking serious = quality.” I’m not saying something heavy can’t be good but just make sure that while you make something heavy, that you also make it, you know, good.
I guess the biggest “message” of the movie is that people use their faith as a way to justify their shitty actions and behaviors or possibly at least feel better about them? It’s such an obvious cautionary idea that I’m fairly certain nearly every major religious text warns against in some fashion. And that’s what so frustrating, from the moment the movie starts, we get it; boy, oh boy, do we get it. This is nothing new. This is not an innovative take on the idea. This is just that one, simple idea, illustrated in the most cartoonish fashion possible.
Because the book is set in West Virginia during the mid-40’s through early 60’s, and director Antonio Campos is so reverent to the text, the movie is set then and there as well but you can tell he’s screaming at the audience, “just pretend it’s the Deep South! Deep South, okay?! Please!! Deep South!”
Everything plays like it was made by someone who only knows about Southern culture from Hollywood touchstones. The folks are God-fearin’, Bible readin’, baby producin’, hand workin’, renegade justicin’ folks who may not know much about books and math and the finer things and whatnot but they sure do know a thing or two about what’s right and what’s wrong. The first act of the movie tells the audience it takes place just off the heels of World War II but clearly wants to paint a picture of life in the late 1800’s and because this takes place in the make-believe, Hollywood version of the South, that’s just fine.
Characters do things like grab their children by the hair and smack ‘em around when they stop payin’ attention to their prayers for like one second, sacrifice their dog to please their almighty, vengeful God, and theatrically dump jars of spiders on their face in front of a congregation to illustrate just how deep their faith runs, because, again, we have to pretend this is really the South in the 1800’s. The whole thing feels like a movie you would look up online after watching and find out won Best Picture in 1959 for its unflinching portrayal of gritty southern culture but has just about 0 relevance or believability today.
So, in spite of all these glaring flaws, what’s most jaw-dropping about this movie is its stacked cast. It’s led by Tom Holland, so he can show off his tough, brooding side, but features performances from Bill Skarsgård (somehow as an ol’ fashioned southern man, despite looking like he’s straight out of Scandinavia or possibly another galaxy), Haley Bennett, Robert Pattinson, the notoriously choosey & indie-driven Riley Keough, Sebastian Stan, Mia Wasikowska, Jason Clarke and Eliza Scanlen, essentially a highlight gallery of Hollywood’s soon-to-be and existing premier movie stars, all in relatively throwaway roles. What about this movie made them say, “this, right here: this is the movie worth spending a month shooting in Alabama for,” despite the roles being incredibly flimsy? Is it just one of those things that they wanna have on their highlight reel?
Sebastian Stan, famous for being a handsome, fit dude, gained weight for his role in this movie. He gained weight for it! He’s chubby in this movie! This throwaway performance was somehow important enough to him that he decided it was gonna be worth it for him to go through the process of putting on and then losing weight after production wrapped. Why would someone be so dedicated to something so profoundly mediocre?! It’s baffling! Most of these esteemed performers are killed off after just a few scenes! And not in a Brad-Pitt-in-Burn After Reading kind of way where they get to absolutely crush it in like three or four scenes and then get killed, but rather, they just show up, aren’t given much to do and then drop dead. It’s mind-boggling. Who hypnotized these actors into doing this movie? The Hollywood hypnotist that Netflix hired deserves a massive raise.
So, what is this movie really about, other than: boy, oh boy, Southern folk sure do like to murder each other over seemingly nothing, with very little follow-up from law enforcement? It’s being marketed as some kind of Southern Gothic, religious thriller that’s posited as Tom Holland’s quiet, gruff, tough guy vs. Robert Pattinson’s creepy, flamboyant, corrupt preacher. And, yes, that is a part of the movie, but honestly, not a huge part, or at least not as huge as the movie wants it to seem. The trailer would have you believe that this is a slow-burn showdown between the two ideologically opposed characters over the course of two hours and 15 minutes that ends in a bloody eruption, in the style of Tarantino. On one end, you have Tom Holland as the only non-God-fearin’ man in town, who just might have a clearer sense of right & wrong than any of these church-goin’ folks and on the other end, you have Robert Pattinson as the charmingly intense preacher who just rolled into town but uses his reverence and stature to manipulate and exploit his congregation both sexually and mentally. Oh baby… we got a showdown!
Except we don’t.
I’m all for a slow burn movie but sometimes you burn so slowly, there isn’t enough match for all the flame you want to show. There’s so much prolonged setup, trying to explain who the characters are and why they will become who they will one day become, that the movie is left hastily playing catchup once the story is supposed to get rolling. We meet Tom Holland about 45 minutes into the movie and Pattinson about 15 minutes after that. That leaves an hour and 15 minutes left to put these characters at odds, let it simmer, boil and build, then explode and then wrap it all up; not to mention all of the various side story breadcrumbs you’re fed along the way. There’s not enough time. In The Irishman, it’s okay that there’s 50 minutes of prologue and backstory before we meet Al Pacino’s Jimmy Hoffa because the movie is 3.5 hours long: we’ve still got plenty of time to spend with him, baby! (What a betrayal of everything I hold dear, to use a Scorsese movie as an ideological benchmark.) But in The Devil All the Time, we don’t have nearly that much time to spend with these characters and thus, no one is given enough time for us to connect with them.
This brings me to something that really pains me to write… this should have been a miniseries. I respect the hell out of Campos for adapting this book as a movie. Movies rule. Movies are king. There’s just nothing quite like telling a knockout story within the confines of the medium of cinema. I’ve seen some very good miniseries (that word is singular & plural?) before and have thoroughly enjoyed them but when you can perfectly puzzle together a story into a movie, that’s just what does it for me, and I can tell that Campos feels similarly; he helmed the anthology miniseries The Sinner a few years ago and still felt that this book would only be done justice as a movie. I respect his dedication to the medium.
But here’s the thing: if you’re adapting a book into a movie, you gotta take some liberties. You gotta turn this into a movie and not just a book on screen; there’s not enough time for that. Books are long. Movies are short. It’s not a seamless transition. Campos is far too reverent to the original text to make this into a movie. He doesn’t want to ditch any of the narrative threads and I get it, because as soon as you start making changes, every douche who read the book will pop up, out of the woodwork to say, “but, but, but, it was different in the book!!” Some people just don’t understand that books and cinema are two different artistic media that have different storytelling needs.
The reality is, when adapting a book into a movie, a few douchebag bookworms’ heads gotta roll. Just keep your eyes on the road. Otherwise you end up doing multiple scenes with two serial killer characters that don’t seem to have any relevance to the story until an epilogue scene that makes you go, “huh, so that’s why they were in the movie… okay.” And when you do get to the very rushed confrontation between Holland and Pattinson, you might say to yourself “wait, I think this is the first time these characters have even spoken to each other. And I’m pretty sure Robert Pattinson has only been in like two scenes before this.”
Quick aside: Robert Pattinson sucks in this movie. I know he’s the one thing everyone is praising about it and is one of the big draws to watching it for a lot of people, but he’s just not good. Just because you’re really “going for it” in a role, doesn’t mean it’s good. I know right now it’s a la mode to celebrate every strange thing Robert Pattinson does in a movie because “he used to be in silly vampire movies and now he does weird things!” That’s cool, I get it; but, like I was saying before, when you’re being weird, you should also try to be, you know, good? Believable? Not a major fucking distraction? You get the idea. I’d bet Campos wasn’t overly thrilled with the direction Pattinson took the character but was likely too nervous to tell him that he was… bad at his job. At least that’s what I hope.
If you want to make a book into a movie, you need to run it through the movie machine, you need to pull it apart and figure out what’s cinematic about it and run with that. And while I respect Campos for trying to maintain the integrity of the book, it does his movie no service, trying to tell a story it can’t maintain the breadth of.
When I set up this blog that exists for no reason other than for me to read my own opinions that I agree with, I wanted to try my best not to be negative, in case anyone else ever read it. There’s so much negativity out on the internet, I hoped to try my best to try to find things that I could champion and celebrate. At worst, I wanted to take a deep dive into something I didn’t like or relate to and poke & probe at it to see why it bothered me. My intention was never to just fully dump on something but… The Devil All the Time might have left me more confused after watching it than any movie in recent memory, and not confused in the good, Christopher Nolan, kind of way but confused as to what the fuck it is and why it exists. I know a lot of hard-working people came together and tried their best to make this a success and I respect them for that. I hope in the future that they continue working and make things that are great, whether I like them or not.
Let’s end the debate that no one cares about anymore from 2014… Birdman: brilliant farce or pretentious mess? I’m gonna do my best to actually take a side and not just say “well, it’s a little bit of both. Okay, thanks for reading; sorry I didn’t even take a firm stance!” But the problem is, on my latest re-watch, I was really enthralled with the movie, but I also hesitate to say anything Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu makes is brilliant because he is such a pretentious piece of shit, who is outrageously impressed with himself. But I think here, he is making an honest attempt at satirizing people like himself (namely through Edward Norton’s character). And that’s why it’s hard for me to take a firm stance here because the movie itself is also a little divided. At times we’re meant to think Norton’s pretentious theater performer is a whiney little try-hard who thumbs his nose at everyone else but then at other times, it wants us to look at him and say, “well he is an artist, and the rest of these frauds aren’t.” That’s what makes this so difficult.
Even larger themes in the movie play both sides. Michael Keaton’s Riggan Thomson is plagued by his inner voice, channeled through the Birdman character, throughout the film, urging him to give up on his aspirations for artsy bullshit and go back to making superhero movies. Most of the time the film wants us to root for Riggan to shrug that temptation off and continue on making theater but then at other times it asks us “is there really anything that wrong with liking a campy action movie?” Once again, hard to take a side on a movie that seems to be playing both sides at every turn.
Quick aside: It’s actually interesting to remember when this movie came out.
During the press tour for the movie, Iñárritu constantly spoke at length about his apathy and borderline disdain for space movies and comic book movies, saying that they were too vapid to be as influential on the culture as they were. He went as far as to say that the Bush administration was heavily influenced by superhero movies, seeing America as the hero and the Taliban as some kind of dastardly supervillain that needed to be demolished.
What’s crazy to me is that Birdman only came out in 2014… looking back at that time period, we were only beginning our societal superhero craze. The Nolan Batman movies were just barely in the rearview, the DC Universe had barely even launched and then subsequently crashed and burned, we only still had the original six Avengers… Age of Ultron hadn’t even come out yet, let alone the insanity of Infinity War & Endgame. There were no outrageously kooky characters like Ant Man, or Dr. Strange; the irreverence of Guardians of the Galaxy had only just been released. There were no R-Rated superhits like Deadpool or Logan that were even able to garner awards attention. Other than Robert Redford in The Winter Solider, we hadn’t yet seen actors with such regard as Tilda Swinton, Cate Blanchett and Angela Bassett play around within the Marvel universe. Just a few years after this movie’s release, Black Panther was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, something that was previously unthinkable.
Superhero movies only got bigger, crazier and, above all, more powerful in the time since Birdman’s release. It would probably be hard for Iñárritu to fathom them being any more prominent than they were in 2014, and was likely predicting their downfall, so I can only imagine what he might say about them now.
So, let’s go through and decipher how much of this movie is brilliant and how much of it is pretentious bullshit.
The ensemble is great. Everyone knows that. These actors are all doing great work. Not much more can be said about that (well, probably a lot more can be said about that… like tons more). I do feel bad for Andrea Riseborough, who gets the short end of the stick here. Her character is poorly defined and doesn’t evolve much over the course of the film. While everyone else is a fully realized character, she is oddly ill-defined; all we really know about her is that she’s an actress who is kind of dating Riggan and it’s not going well. I hate to say the character could have been cut… but she really only seems to exist to round out the cast a little bit more.
The movie caught a lot of attention for being a seemingly brilliant, self-aware critique of Hollywood actors, specifically ones like Keaton, who struggled to find their creative identity after gaining fame from action movies, but that’s not so much what I’m drawn to. The real brilliance comes in the form of the aforementioned Birdman voice that takes the piss out of all the would-be pretention that Riggan attempts to embrace. That character-within-a-character is the single stroke of brilliance that keeps you smiling throughout. He is the reminder that no matter how proud you are of whatever seemingly important thing you accomplish, realistically, no one gives a shit. People just wanna see cool shit. They wanna see something cool and take a picture of it and show off to everyone else that they saw some cool shit; that’s it. No one cares that you finished your novel, won an award or got your PhD. People will politely applaud but at the end of the day, they don’t give a shit. It’s so seemingly simple and obvious but it’s brilliant.
The absolute standout scene comes at the climax when Riggan nearly lets Birdman take over completely and embraces his role in life as a movie star. He doesn’t need the approval of a bunch of theater douchebags, he towers above those people. It’s an incredible sequence and genuinely very funny.
I know the big takeaway from this movie was the Emma Stone monologue where she takes three minutes to spell out the entire point of the movie: at the end of the day, nobody matters and eventually no one remembers you. It’s nice to know that Iñárritu is willing to admit this about even himself but at the end of the day, this scene is about as on-the-nose as it gets.
There’s also Amy Ryan who plays Riggan’s ex-wife. She’s a great addition as always but she brings a much-needed non-showbusiness perspective to the movie. The whole thing is a little too deep in the weeds on all the showbusiness stuff. Showbiz people are exhausting. All they know how to do is talk about showbiz and how good they are at showbiz and what they’re doing next in showbiz and which important people they know in showbiz. Fuck off. But every now and then, in comes Amy Ryan to breathe some fresh air into the movie as just a normal fucking person who can gently tell Riggan that there’s a world out there and maybe, just maybe, his whole life doesn’t hinge on whether or not his stuffy Broadway play for a bunch of stuffy, rich, white Broadway attendees is a success. You can be supportive and encouraging but also keep someone’s feet on the ground.
So, what’s pretentious about this movie? Honestly, not all that much. A lot of the bells and whistles are pretty superfluous and seem to exist for no reason other than to flex some muscles that no one cares about. Which is actually quite interesting. If the Birdman character exists to let you know that no one cares about all the special little moves you have, why include them in a movie that aims call that kind of thing out?
Why make the movie seem like it’s all one seamless shot? That’s pretty pretentious with almost no tangible purpose? Seems like the kind of thing that the Birdman would mock. Why give Riggan ambiguously defined mental powers that only he can see but never really come close defining what it’s supposed to mean other than some ill-defined mental breakdown? Seems like the kind of thing that the Birdman would mock. Why make an eyeroll-inducingly ambiguous ending that exists for no reason other than to get your movie to spread via frustrating word-of-mouth? Seems like the kind of thing that the Birdman would mock.
And that’s what I can’t stand about Iñárritu: here he is, taking the piss out of his own ego and asking you to laugh at people like himself, who hold their silly, meaningless accomplishments so dear, and yet… he can’t help but toss in a handful of needlessly pretentious flourishes in the movie. You were so close to perfection, why did you actively include the one thing you sought to kick in the nuts? None of it acts as a meaningful repudiation of the movie’s other themes, it’s all just… there… because he couldn’t help it. And that’s why I hesitate to ever call him brilliant but damn if this movie isn’t the closest thing he’s made to perfection.
Birdman is so close to being one of the standout movies of the 2010’s and it probably belongs in that conversation but while its close relationship to pretention is what makes it so special, it can’t help but taste a little bit of the same Kool Aid that its characters drank.
So… let’s go take a side.
Pretentious Bullshit: 15%
Birdman is a brilliant satire of ego, the arts and the people that work within it but ultimately, it does come from someone very egotistical who works deep in the arts so it can’t help but blindly become the very thing it aims to mock.
Last month saw the release of the Netflix original film Project Power, which has been marketed to the masses as the big budget popcorn movie we all would have otherwise flocked to theaters to see but were treated to the convenience of having at home. I’m sure, after watching, the masses all had a somewhat similar reaction, ranging from “huh… that wasn’t very good,” all the way to “huh… that was pretty good.” You know, the full spectrum of passionate reactions. More so than anything, a movie like Project Power leaves general audiences confused: why was something that I was told was gonna be massively cool so plainly bland? It’s a pretty standard marketing ploy: put a new spice on the slop and the piggies will eat it up… but it’s still the same slop.
This is nothing particularly against Project Power. I would place myself on the “huh… that wasn’t very good” end of the spectrum but it’s far from an offensive assault on the brain. It’s a mediocre superhero/action movie that probably would have been theatrically released in February or March or even August (if the studio execs were feeling particularly saucy about it) in any given year and turned an okay profit (with a random, tiny batch of passionate fans that beg for a sequel that the actors tease might happen over the course of the next six years and eventually comes out and no one gives a shit – whaddup, Pacific Rim?).
But Netflix wants you to believe you’ve never seen something like this before, or at least not in a long time. Not just in the sense that it’s an original film and isn’t based on any preestablished IP but even further in the sense of legit movie stars like Jamie Foxx and JGL (I will not call him anything else) getting to play around in a pulpy action thriller that the whole family can enjoy. They want you to be reminded of movies like Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Smokin’ Aces or any of the mid-2000’s Will Smith action movies like Hancock, I, Robot or I Am Legend, movies where big-time movie stars got to run around and have fun in a relatively breezy action movie that didn’t make you think too hard. It harkens back to a subgenre that got eaten alive by comic book franchises and YA adaptations in the late aughts.
So, while it might seem like a smart move to make something that harkens back to those mid-2000’s summer blockbusters with a flair of superhero antics to keep it with the current times, to me, it seems like a fraught cause. Those 2000’s action movies got eaten alive for a reason: they fucking sucked. Much like Project Power, none of those five movies I mentioned above are good or memorable in any way. Say what you will about Marvel movies or The Hunger Games, but I’d watch any of those over a 2000’s-era action movie like Shooter. A Marvel movie may seem generic to us now, since we have so many, but those movies are carefully crafted and made with someone in mind and the same goes for something like The Hunger Games. You can make something for a mass audience while still maintaining some level of audience specificity. Movies like Project Power are destined to fail because they’re for everybody. And when you make something for everybody, you end up making something for nobody. It’s like putting out a bowl of M&Ms at a party: no one is gonna get mad about it but no one’s gonna get excited about it either… it’s just a safe choice that will go relatively unnoticed.
I suppose it doesn’t matter. Netflix isn’t in the business of quality. Yes, they like to woo auteurs like Scorsese and Kaufman over by telling them they can have a budget to do whatever they want for any sort of prestige project they’re interested in but outside of that, they’re mostly interested in making half-decent trash that passes the time on a lazy evening. Sometimes you end up with something rad like Extraction but more often than not, you end up with Project Power or Bird Box. It doesn’t need to be good, it just needs to have an attractive thumbnail image on the screen that a family of five can all shrug their shoulders at and say “yeah, I guess I’d watch that.”
Passive consensus, that’s where Netflix thrives. They have the unique ability to give us the tasty, mid-budget dramas we’ve been craving the return of for the last ten years, and thought they were going to provide, but instead, have elected to serve up the action trash we threw away 12 years ago but this time a little more colorful but overall less fulfilling.
“New York City was basically a character in the movie!” This is something you may have heard actors, directors, or anyone else involved in a movie taking place in NYC, say during its promotional tour. It’s annoying. It’s a cliché. It hardly means anything. Yet we know what they mean when they say it: this movie takes place in New York and has that kind of classic “New York” feel to it. The buildings! The people! The taxis! The (ugh) energy! All of these tropes have been played out time and time again, but they seem to keep working on people because it fits the image that New York City has purported onto society. Los Angeles has done the same thing with their own image: if New York is the cool, grounded city, where regular folks are grinding away to “make it,” then LA is the glamourous city with ritzy parties, populated by movie stars and producers, and fancy premiers, where the champagne never stops flowing.
By all accounts, both of these cities are normal-ass places to live. There are rich people, there are poor people; there are people who love it and people who hate it; there are people who live there because there are lots of jobs and there are people who are obnoxiously proud of living there or having been raised there. The fabricated images we have of these cities mostly comes from how they’ve been portrayed in movies and television and act as an idealized version of themselves, filled with meaningless platitudes about what it means to live there: “Come to New York! If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere!”
It makes sense that a city would want to project an idealized fantasy of what life there is like, so that its residents can feel good about being from a “cool” city where all the “cool” people live, when in reality, they’re just places people live; nothing more, nothing less. All this is to say that these two cities aren’t even the most grating when it comes to portraying a falsified image of what life is like in your city. The city whose popular media image induces the hardest eye-rolls goes, without a doubt, to Boston.
By all accounts, Boston is no different from any other city in America. It too has poor neighborhoods, rich neighborhoods, plenty of normal people going about their day, some crime issues and much more. Just a whole bunch of stuff you would find anywhere else. But instead of opting for the more conventional image of “look how great this city is” that NYC and LA bludgeon the world with, Boston seems to have leaned its image into the idea that it’s a dangerous place to live, full of crime and that only the hardened natives of the city could ever handle a place like that.
It’s a bizarre act of self-mythologizing that seems to have mostly worked on the public through popular media. When people think of tough, dangerous, crime-ridden cities, they probably think of Detroit or Oakland, but also often include Boston, based on what they’ve learned from extremely popular movies like “The Town,” “Mystic River,” “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Departed.” In reality, Boston doesn’t even rank in most top ten lists of the most dangerous cities in America, based on the number of violent crimes per 100,000 residents.
So if Boston isn’t actually all that dangerous (at least not more so than most other cities), then why are the films that take place there (often written, directed or starring Boston natives) so hellbent on making the world think it’s an unpleasant place to live? Even the movies that aren’t focused on violent crime, still linger on a general ambiance of morosity, like the broken-family tropes and drug addiction scenes in “The Fighter,” the brooding, working-class elements of “Good Will Hunting,” and just the overwhelming and unrelenting sadness of “Manchester By The Sea.” For every “Fever Pitch” or “Ted,” there are five movies about Whitey Bulger, the mob or crooked cops.
What we seem to have here is an entire city experiencing a major bout of Napoleon Complex. Boston seems to think, for some reason, that it’s some kind of societal underdog and that many people don’t think of Boston as a “cool” place to live or visit on the same level as New York, LA or even Chicago, it has instead decided to pretend it’s proud to be less cool, and that not just anybody could handle living on its mean streets, full of criminals and honest-working tough guys who work with their hands. “Whatevah, you little sissies from LA could nevah handle these streets anyway. Why don’t you go back to your fahkin’ juice shops and your vegan restaurants while we pave our streets with our bare hands in the dead of wintah without any coats on. Fahk you.”
The opening text in Ben Affleck’s “The Town” (which is, by all means, a great, thrilling crime movie) actually quotes an anonymous man saying:
This is the exact kind of self-mythologizing that Boston filmmakers seem to salivate over: this idea that their city is a terrible place to live, but also that its residents are proud of how awful it is there. “The Town” actually refers to Charlestown as the “bank robbery capital” of America, a superlative that has been heavily contested by its own residents.
So perhaps this isn’t the city of Boston with Napoleon Complex. Perhaps it’s actually the quiet self-mythologizing desires of a group of actors, directors, writers and producers from Boston that want to heavily imply how tough and street smart they are because of their Boston upbringing, without ever having to actually prove it. Matt Damon wrote “Good Will Hunting” about a genius boy from the wrong side of the tracks in Boston and despite actually being raised in Cambridge, MA, he probably wouldn’t mind if you just assumed he actually was a tough guy from a poor neighborhood in Beantown like his titular character.
I would never claim I’ve spent lots of time in Boston but I can tell you from the several visits I have taken there, that the city I’ve experienced could not be any more different from the city I see over and over again in movies. That’s not to say that my limited time spent there has allowed me to gather the “full” Boston experience but when someone visits New York or LA, even once, they’re bound to feel at least a few real-life traces of the fantasy that those cities project in popular culture.
If it were just one or two or even three movies that have visualized Boston in such a bleak palette, it wouldn’t be something worth noticing but when at least 15 mainstream films in the last 25 years have all made a specific point to see it as such, one can’t help but scratch their head and ask why. Of course there are stories that merit this kind of tone, such as real-life events like “Spotlight” and “Patriots Day,” but why does a fictional, crime thriller like “The Equalizer” and it’s even grittier sequel need to take place in Boston, especially when it’s based on an 80’s TV show that took place in New York City? Why make the specific choice to move it to Boston? One practical reason could be that it’s cheaper to film in Boston than New York and while that’s true, they also could have chosen any other city in America. Why can’t “The Equalizer” kill faceless thugs with a nail gun in Minneapolis? The reason is likely that there is an unspoken, yet generally accepted understanding that Boston is filled with crime and that it’s easy to swallow the idea that Denzel Washington needs to pulverize every generically evil person living there.
There’s a chance that it wasn’t always destined to be this way. Perhaps after the unexpected, smashing success of “Good Will Hunting” in the late 90’s, Hollywood immediately started looking into more scripts about crime and poverty in the Boston area; if it worked once, why wouldn’t it work again? If audiences kept lining up to see these movies and they kept getting showered with awards each year, why would they stop making them?
Academy Awards Given to Recent “Boston” Movies
Good Will Hunting – Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor Mystic River – Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor The Departed – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Adapted Screenplay The Fighter – Best Supporting Actress, Best Supporting Actor Spotlight – Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay Manchester By The Sea – Best Actor, Best Original Screenplay
The issue for me always comes back to the general attitude of the Bostonians. Taking a look at a bloated movie like “Live By Night,” about Prohibition-era Boston, director and star, Ben Affleck, plays Joe Coughlin, a character who can only be described as “a badass war vet, who wears dope clothes, and doesn’t mind killing people in his way.” As you can guess, Coughlin gets caught up in the gritty, yet badass world of illegally distributing alcohol, even though his father is a POLICE CAPTAIN. It really just screams like the most ideal character a Boston actor would want to play: a badass dude who finds himself deep in the world of crime. It makes sense that Affleck would salivate over a role like that… hey let’s check to see who wrote the screenplay and dreamed up such a perfect Boston character: Ben Affleck.
As if that couldn’t be more on the nose for how Bostonians seem to idealize themselves and how tough their city is but how damn proud they are of that fact, the opening monologue delivered by Casey Affleck in “Gone Baby Gone,” a movie about a kidnapping in one of Boston’s poorest neighborhoods, literally just spells it out for the viewers, just so that there are no misunderstandings:
I always believed it was the things you don’t choose who make you who you are. Your city, your neighborhood, your family. People here take pride in those things, like it was something they’d accomplished. The bodies around their souls, the cities wrapped around those. I lived on this block my whole life. Most of these people have. When your job is to find people who are missing, it helps to know where they started. I find the people who started in the cracks and then fell through. This city can be hard. When I was young I asked my priest, how can you get to Heaven and still protect yourself from all the evil in the world. He told me what God said to His children, “You are sheep among wolves. Be wise as serpents, yet innocent as doves.”
Cutting through the gelastic pretention of that monologue, you’re essentially left with the same thesis of “people from Boston are cool and proud because this city is hard to live in. Fahk you; you just don’t understand.”
Maybe this just all seems like a fantasy that’s been carried out by Ben Affleck with some help from his brother, Casey and old pal, Damon, but the attitude has been purported in plenty of other popular films as well. Perhaps all of this traces back to the obsession over “Whitey” Bulger and his crime ring in the south of Boston. His Irish mob was put on screen in attempted detail in Scott Cooper’s “Black Mass” (a movie that wants to glorify him so badly without being accused of doing so that it essentially just kind of whispers to the audience, “pretty cool dude, huh?”) and more famously in a highly fictionalized version in Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed.”
Even thinking about “The Departed” makes me a little uneasy, and not just because I can visualize frat boys still going nuts over the opening riff of the Dropkick Murphys’ “Shipping Up to Boston” in 2019, but because this movie is likely the biggest perpetrator of Hollywood pushing the false narrative that Boston is, above all else, a tough-as-nails place to live. Where movies like “Good Will Hunting,” “The Town,” “Gone Baby Gone,” or “The Fighter,” attempt to approach the gritty Boston ambiance with some nuance (and they’re all better movies for it), “The Departed” uses it as its cool selling point; an entire movie that centers around the idea that you should watch it because it’s “cool,” and it’s “cool” because it’s about crime in Boston.
While “The Departed” could have taken some time to apply some realism to the situation it placed itself in or even go a step further and try to deconstruct the myth, it instead turns Boston into a crime-fantasy theme park, where it’s common for people in bars to horrifically maim each other over nothing, police officers to beat the shit out of each other on a regular basis and half a dozen people can murder each other without there being any real follow-up from law enforcement, because hey… that’s just Boston for ya. There is literally a full scene in this movie where Leonardo DiCaprio’s character cuts up someone’s face with a coat rack for a few minutes and it hardly matters at all. Jack Nicholson’s cringeworthy opening monologue essentially states that the only life choices for the citizens of Boston to make are whether to be a cop or a criminal…
This movie went on to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. It’s stunning to see such a glaringly pulpy final product masquerading as something of grand intellect from one of cinema’s most celebrated directors, but I suppose the conversation surrounding Scorsese’s loss of nuance over the years, causing his movies to celebrate the thing they set out to critique, is a conversation for another day. The point is that millions of people saw it, then saw that it was rewarded by the Academy as a stunning achievement in filmmaking and saw that it was also embraced by the city of Boston, thus solidifying the city’s false narrative.
It’s not that these are necessarily bad movies either. Quite a few of them are really good (“The Departed” is not)! There just doesn’t seem to be any discernable reason for Boston to portray itself in Hollywood as the ‘edgy city that you could never understand unless you were born and raised there,’ other than a bad case of middle child syndrome. If places like LA, NYC, NOLA, SF and Austin are going to be so sought after by the masses then just pretend like you never even wanted people to like you; just act like people can’t handle how hardcore you are.
The thing is, people love Boston! For some reason though, if they can’t be #1 then they don’t even want to play. It’s a strange inferiority complex, as if the city is looking at the rest of the country with the stink-eye, saying “what you think you’re bettah than me? Fahk you.” Instead of boasting about everything the city has going in its favor, it has instead chosen to build a false mythology of crime, crooked cops, unending self-loathing and pain.
But has it? Perhaps it’s just the fantasy of a few Hollywood folks from the Boston area… we outsiders may never know for sure. This isn’t a condemnation of these movies; “The Town,” “Gone Baby Gone,” and “The Fighter” are all A+ movies, but why must people (no matter where they’re from) pretend that there is something the rest of the world just doesn’t know about where they come from?
Every town, city and neighborhood in the world has its unique problems, quirks and issues but when you constantly insist that one of them defines the area when it doesn’t at all… it just feel disingenuous.
Movies viewed as research for this post:
Gone Baby Gone
Good Will Hunting
Live By Night
The Equalizer 2
Manchester By The Sea
Last Flag Flying
The Social Network
I recently had some time off of work and wanted to see if I could fill in a few of my cinematic gaps. Everyone has some gaps: one of those movies that has been deemed a “classic” that everyone but you has seen and you get shamed as soon as you admit that you haven’t seen it, even though they probably have gaps of their own that they aren’t admitting to.
Anyway… one of these gaps for me had always been “Good Will Hunting.” I’ve had ample opportunities to watch it in the past, but I just never had the urge to. I felt like I’d seen it already from the onslaught of references to it that are dropped in casual conversation. In fact, hearing people drop “my boy’s wicked smaaahhhht” into conversation every time someone says something marginally coherent probably deterred me from watching this movie more than anything else for all these years.
I knew the gist of the story: a genius boy would rather hang out with his bonehead Boston friends than help change the world so now he has to go to therapy in order to squeeze out some emotional scenes that could land him an Oscar nomination. Cool. I get it.
So now that I’ve actually seen it, did it work? Is it harder for a movie to win you over if you’ve been told for 21 years that it’s one of the greatest of all time?
The answer is simple: I thought it was okay.
Yeah, being told this movie is incredible for two decades did not do it any favors. Part of the reason it became so iconic right off the bat in 1997 is because it took everyone by surprise. A pair of fresh faces in Damon and Affleck, Boston movies not really being a “thing” yet and the emergence of the Mirimax machine all came together to deliver a whallop on audiences that they never knew they wanted. If this movie comes out in 2018, it makes a few million at the box office and becomes just another Oscar-bait, feel-good movie that gets nominated for a couple awards and then is never thought about again but because it came out of nowhere in ’97, before movies of this ilk had taken over, it became a smash hit, made stars out of Damon and Affleck and snagged Robin Williams an Oscar.
Here’s the thing though, watching it for the first time now, isn’t as impressive. It’s great that this movie gave us Damon and Affleck and they should be immensely proud of what they’ve accomplished but looking at this without nostalgically-tinted sunglasses, this is pretty run-of-the-mill Mirimax fare. It’s easy to get caught up and identify with Will Hunting because deep down, we’d all like to believe that we have some super special talent that separates us from everyone else (when in reality we don’t). I think people get a little self serving and believe themselves to be intelligent for watching and appreciating this movie which is crammed full of scientific jargon when in reality those are script flourishes and what we are really watching is a pretty standard melodrama about a tough-guy, boy-genius, and his sensitive therapist.
A little more nuance would have been nice. We get it, Will Hunting could have any incredible job in the world but doesn’t want one. How do they communicate that he’d rather just be a nobody from Southie? He literally works as part of a fucking demolition crew. “I don’t wanna wear a suit and crunch numbahs all day with a bunch of fahkin’ nerds. I just wanna break things with my fahkin’ hammah and drink beers with my buddies.”
Faulting the script of first-time writers kinda feels like a cheap move and it is, but couldn’t someone they worked with pause and tell them that some of it might be a little on the nose?
The movie mostly hinges on the scenes between Damon and Williams and some with Damon and Minnie Driver. The therapy scenes are fine for being as predictable as they are, “hah, dude if you think I’m gonna open up to you, you’re fahkin’ dreaming.” [10 scenes later] “Holy shit, doc. You tricked me into opening up to you and made me fahkin’ cry. You know what? You’re all right, you little fahka.”
His scenes with Driver are promising, if not a little underdeveloped. They either need to devote a little more time to their relationship or scrap the whole thing and just let this movie be the sausage fest that it’s trying so hard to pretend not to be. She’s good though! She deserved a better career! Someone get Minnie Driver back in the game!
If there’s one aspect of this movie that truly worked like a charm, it’s my man Ben Affleck. Affleck sweeps through this movie with total ease. The man is a movie star. He just is, he always was and he always will be. Obviously he can play a bonehead Bostonian in his sleep but he’s just got that Affleck charm that works so well. The scene where he shouts “RETAINER” at the corporate suits might have been the only time in the whole movie where I actually reacted out loud. And his famous “everyday, I come up to your doorstep and hope you’re not there…” blah blah blah scene is actually really good! I was so worried about it the whole movie because I loved him the whole time and I knew it was coming and thus far, none of the “classic” scenes had worked on me the way I wanted them to yet, but then, BAM, Affleck rocked me right in the face. He doesn’t ham it up, he just stands there and fahkin’ tells it like it is, very understated. What could have very easily been some eyeroll-inducing, actor-y monologue that only ended up in the script because Affleck was like “hey, I need a scene where I get to act too,” was actually the most nuanced scene in the whole movie.
The problem is that the movie doesn’t really have much to say. It feels a little bit like Damon just wishes he was this boy-genius so dreamed up this movie where he got to be one. But do we learn anything from all this? What’s the message? Life is all about finding an equitable balance between going on dates, breaking things with your sledgehammer and doing your genius research? What do you want from me Damon? I don’t think you want anything from me. I think you just want me to think of you as a cool guy who is just like Will Hunting.
So is the movie an incredible watch if you’re viewing it for the first time over two decades later? No, not really. It’s pretty good. I totally see why it made the splash that it did and I’m glad we got Damon & Affleck from it; still bummed we didn’t get more of Driver after it though (but some of that may be tangled up in the gross Harvey Weinstein spiderweb of it all). The movie does work as a whole but when you already have a sense of what you’re gonna get from it, it’s hard to be truly “wowed” by the material. None of this is the actual movie’s fault though.
In the end, I just want to see more of Ben Affleck doing goofy, bonehead Ben Affleck things while maintaining a heart of gold.
I’ll be completely honest, I was never all that into Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. I thought the movies were fine and wholly entertaining, but it always bothered me that the greatest modern film director was spending so many of his prime years making Batman movies.
After Inception came out, I was so jazzed on Nolan, I didn’t know what to do with myself. Inception was the work of someone who had a very specific passion (dreams) since they were a child and spent decades making it happen. Do you know how often “passion projects” end up being a director’s shittiest work? For every Inception or Almost Famous, we have to put up with an endless lineup of dumpster fires like This is 40, Aloha, Super 8, After Earth and so on. But Inception worked so well; I thought Christopher Nolan could do anything (and based on what you think of Interstellar [it’s great] he either can or can’t but that’s a discussion for another time.)
Unfortunately, I became completely deflated when I found out he was doing yet another Batman movie to follow up Inception. So two years went by and I saw The Dark Knight Rises. Once again, I was definitely entertained from start to finish but wasn’t blown away like I was with Inception. But back then, after I first saw it, on the car ride home with my friends, who were complaining about the ridiculous issues they had with the movie, I thought to myself, “I think that was pretty good…”
The Dark Knight Rises has been plagued over the years by fanboys breaking down every single element of the movie that might not make sense: “How did Bruce Wayne get back to Gotham after escaping the pit??” “How can there be a program that deletes your entire electronic history??” “How would Bane know his entire convoluted plan would go off without a hitch??”
The fanboys who worshiped the previous movie about a man who dresses up as a bat, and fights a criminal wearing clown makeup, suddenly have issues about the minutiae of the plot. Good work, fellas.
The Dark Knight Rises is a massive movie and constantly has five or six story mechanics churning all at once. If anyone can handle this, it’s Christopher Nolan, and while detractors of the movie say he didn’t, they’re wrong, and that’s okay; sometimes people are just fucking wrong. This movie rules. It just does. This movie is the cinematic equivalent of a big, jacked guy standing in the corner: you wanna make fun of how ridiculous he looks but once you start talking to him, you can’t help but say “this guy’s actually pretty cool.”
I re-watched this movie twice in the last few years and it honestly blew me away with every line. Let me explain, since that sounds cheesy as hell. I couldn’t believe how important re-watching this movie was. It’s easier to wrap your head around Inception on a first viewing than it is to wrap it around The Dark Knight Rises on the first bout. Every single line, for the first two thirds of the movie, are absolutely essential to what happens later on; everything that is said, is said for a reason and is setting up something to come later. It honestly can be a little exhausting at times, but I can’t help but respect how much setup there is. My girlfriend (yeah, I have a girlfriend AND write about Batman; we live in a paradoxical time), stopped the movie about 12 times to regroup and ask me what was going on and why people were saying what they were saying (does it count as mansplaining if she asked me to do it?).
Because of all this, the story mechanics are obviously very convoluted, but damn if it doesn’t work so well if you can keep up, but asking someone to keep up with this movie is a pretty big ask.
This movie is patient as hell. I’m sure the studio had issues with the fact that viewers don’t even see Batman in the suit until about 40 minutes into the story but the fact that Nolan fought for that patience, is a testament to his storytelling prowess. When Batman finally shows up on his motorcycle, flies his Bat-Airplane away and beats the shit out of faceless goons with Catwoman, you can’t help but accept that it was all worth the wait. That’s the genius: just when you start to wonder if this movie was really worth the wait, BAM, you get treated to the long-awaited fist-slammin’.
What works so well about this movie is that we had not yet seen Batman be challenged in a physical capacity. Batman Begins brought him face-to-face with fear. The Dark Knight introduced chaos that would test his morality. But The Dark Knight Rises makes him reconcile with the idea that there will always be someone out there who’s stronger than him; someone who can break him. Bane is easily the best villain in this trilogy. Not only does he have the smarts to take down Gotham and Batman, but he also has the muscle to do it without breaking a sweat. Remember before when I mentioned the big, jacked guy you want to make fun of but can’t help but like? Bane is basically that dude.
This is a perfect opportunity to talk about the scene. You know the scene. Bruce prematurely goes into the sewers to stop Bane before his plan can progress any further, despite the fact that he’s not even really sure what Bane is up to. Bruce gave up being Batman for years but knowing that he never came across a thug he couldn’t pulverize, he figures Bane will be no different. When he challenges Bane, he comes to the unfortunate realization that Alfred tried to warn him of: Bane has the fiery, fighting passion that Bruce once had but has long since abandoned it.
What we are treated to is the best fight scene in cinema. I am not being hyperbolic. The best. The whole thing is executed perfectly because it looks like it wasn’t planned. We are currently living in a world where fight scenes are so expertly choreographed that they end up looking more like a rehearsed dance routine, than a fight. Don’t get me wrong, it’s thrilling to watch Captain America take on The Winter Soldier on the streets of Washington, in a scene that stunt coordinators clearly spent weeks putting together, but Batman’s fight with Bane is something completely bulkier and somehow better. The fight is so effective because it’s honest about what it is: two muscle-headed guys slowly slugging their fists at each other. The sound effects in this scene are a bit over-the-top but that’s only to service how brutal this fight is supposed to be. Every punch, crack, tear and gasp can be heard.
Bruce does a great job of holding his own in the fight, which is another testament to Nolan; it would be less heartbreaking if Batman took on Bane and immediately got absolutely destroyed. The fact that Bruce can land so many brutal hits but somehow still end up on the ground, getting his face mashed in, makes us even more devastated. And because of this, it’s all the more satisfying at the end when Batman beats the shit out of Bane once he knows he has to break the mask first.
Many critics of this movie say that it gets too rushed in the final act and I suppose that might be valid but it’s also why I love it. The final 40 minutes of this movie are clunky, bombastic and all-out ridiculous and when I watched it, all I could think was, “finally… this franchise is leaning into how ridiculous it is.” Keep in mind, these are movies about a billionaire who nocturnally fights crime in a bat costume, so what works so well about this movie is that it actually leans in to the absurd, comic book-nature of it all. Yes, Batman is going to fight a giant man who can feel no pain, amidst an army of police officers going to war with prisoners and then he’s going to stop an atomic bomb from killing everyone… oh and by the way, he also has a flying Batmobile now. This is all objectively great and it all works. Not only does it work but it has emotional heft to it; the moment where Catwoman offers to help Bruce escape the city because he’s given Gotham everything he as to offer and Bruce responds, “Not everything; not yet,” still sends chills down my spine. The audience collectively has the same thought: Holy shit. Christopher Nolan is gonna crucify Batman for our sins.
The Dark Knight is definitely a tighter and more thoughtful movie, but it leaves me wanting more payoff. Batman kicking around the Joker a little bit at the end is not nearly as adrenaline-inducing as him punching Bane, square in the face, and saying “tell me where the trigger is… then… you have my permission to die.” Does thinking that make me less intelligent? Probably… but excuse me for watching a Batman movie and wanting to see him punch the villain in the face.
If The Dark Knight is a dude who gets straight A’s and has perfectly sculpted abs, then The Dark Knight Rises is a dude who can deadlift a refrigerator but still has a 3.4 GPA… and that’s the dude I’d rather talk to.
A friend of mine recently told me that she loves movies but hates going to the movie theater (groan). When I asked how she stays up-to-date on the current state of cinema so well if she eschews the theater, I was expecting the normal answer of piracy but I was pretty shocked and disappointed to hear her response: she watches nearly all new movies on airplanes.
While I am a firm believer in the idea that every movie is meant to be viewed in a theater (yes, everything: comedies, action movies, thrillers, dramas, etc…), I understand that when a screen is shoved in your face for 6 hours as you fly back to New York from San Francisco, you’re probably going to watch a movie to kill some time. Action movies will look awful on a small screen and if there are any intense scenes involving airplanes, those will get cut, R-rated comedies are heavily edited for inappropriate content, and prestige dramas are also scrubbed clean of any Puritan social faux pas.
So, for the longest time, I always argued that you should watch something you’ve already seen and liked but haven’t watched in a while. Doing this means you won’t be too interrupted when the person next to you gets up and goes to the bathroom and then returns to their seat in 56 seconds*, if something is edited, it won’t really bother you because you know exactly what you missed, action scenes matter less because you’ve already seen them in all their theatrical glory before and those tense dramatic movies won’t have the tension cut in the middle of a pivotal scene by the pilot making an announcement about turbulence.
But last year I started doing something that I think might be even better than watching something I’ve already seen. I was on a flight to Puerto Rico, scrolling through the 80-something movies they had available and came across something that seemed interesting to me and I had an epiphany: you should always watch PG-13, 2000’s-era romantic comedies on airplanes. It was so simple yet so elusive. These are movies that I’ve never watched before and in any other situation would never willingly sit through, I don’t care if they get interrupted by announcements or other airplane-related distractions, the romantic scenes are so vanilla that there’s nothing to edit out, the comedy is tame enough to be left in and because humans are subconsciously more mentally vulnerable on airplanes, your emotions are more extreme, thus the lame jokes seem funnier and the final emotional payoff feels more satisfying than if you were watching the movie on TBS over the weekend.
My girlfriend (yeah, I know girls; no big deal) could not have been more perplexed as she saw me chuckling along with the predictably tame hijinks of “Bride Wars” on a flight last year and again this past weekend as I got visibly fired up watching Matthew McConaughey chase Kate Hudson to airport at the end of “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.” All of a sudden when I had nothing else to do and my life rested in the hands of two pilots I couldn’t see, I became engrossed in the meaningless clichés and platitudes that the 2000’s-era romcoms championed themselves on. Suddenly, poor portrayals of “boys bein’ boys,” date nights gone wrong and sassy roommates seemed like pretty entertaining fare for a movie.
A friend of mine told me he watched “Dunkirk” on a plane once and said he didn’t see the big deal about it. Maybe it just wasn’t his cup of tea; It’s entirely possible that he wouldn’t have seen the “big deal” about it even if he saw it on the big screen but he did himself and the movie a complete disservice when he decided to watch 2017’s largest cinematic spectacle on a 5-inch screen while someone next to him got up to take a crap every 35 minutes; not to mention a third of the film takes place in dogfighting airplanes, which is heavily edited for airplane viewing.
Even something profoundly mediocre, like the recent Resse Witherspoon flop, “Home Again” kind of came around and worked for me in the final scenes while watching it in the sky. I don’t think I would even enjoy watching “Dunkirk” on a plane (mostly because I’d fear Tom Hardy would be seconds away from blowing me out of the sky); I had the choice to watch it just yesterday and I thought to myself, “no thanks.”
Don’t try to catch up on the movies everyone was talking about a few months ago on the plane. If you truly care to watch it, find a way to watch it at least on your TV at home. No one wants to hear your thoughts on your bastardized airplane viewings of “Call Me By Your Name” or “The Shape of Water.” But I will happily listen to your hot takes on your airplane viewing of “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past.”
*(side note: when someone next to you goes to the bathroom and you pause the movie, should you even un-pause it while they’re gone? They’ll be back so quickly and then you have to re-pause the movie so they can sit down again. It hardly seems worth it but I do it every damn time.)
This isn’t something I really thought I would or even want to write about but in the wake of recent events, it seems like the right time to do it. When it comes to Star Wars movies, I’m completely indifferent. I don’t have particularly strong feelings about them in any direction. Having said that, being indifferent to Star Wars somehow makes me a “hater” because of how much its rabid fanbase comparatively loves it. To me they always seemed like okay movies; I saw them when I was a kid but didn’t connect with them all that much, so I don’t have this burning nostalgia for them in my heart that others who really grew up on them do. I thought lightsaber battles were cool but that was about the extent of it.
Star Wars rarely seems to break into the realm of legitimately “good” movies. What works for Star Wars is that it is incredibly imaginative and because of that, they have a giant impression on children, who (and I know this hurts, fanboys) are the target audience for these movies. Yes. Star Wars, at its core, is a movie for kids, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The reason fanboys get so angry about Star Wars is their refusal to accept that. They enjoyed it when they were kids but they are not kids anymore, so when this franchise deviates from the established formula that they are nostalgically comfortable with, they throw a fit.
This isn’t all Star Wars fans. I am sure the vast majority of them are well-adjusted adults who have no problem with the franchise changing beyond Luke fighting Darth Vader. The problem is, well-adjusted people don’t make the news. No one wants to hear about people who politely enjoy things. Unfortunately, a loud minority of racists and misogynists are going to make the news every time, no questions asked. These are the folks that don’t want change. Change is different. Change is scary. Change is hard to embrace. It’s much easier to eat at McDonald’s every night because you know what you’re getting and that’s the same mentality that has driven these Star Wars fans insane; it’s as if McDonald’s changed their menu and that is unacceptable to them. So they have decided to viciously attack something they claim they love very dearly.
Just take a look at what has happened only in the last few months: Kelly Marie Tran (who was wonderful to watch in The Last Jedi) had to leave Instagram due to awful vitriol from “fans” of Star Wars; director, Rian Johnson has received numerous death threats for making The Last Jedi not fit smoothly with what is expected, no demanded, by the “fans” in a Star Wars movie and now there is a boycott of Solo, the newest movie, because these “fans” hate Kathleen Kennedy for trying to tell new stories within this universe. The message is clear and I’ve said this loooooooong before all of this ridiculous backlash took place: these fans do not actually want “new” Star Wars movies, they just want the same ones over and over again with a slightly new coat of paint to keep it a little fresh. They want it the way it was when they were kids; if it isn’t exactly like that, then it is not Star Wars.
It’s mind-bending to think about. You have an imaginative franchise that takes place across a vast galaxy of planets and all you want to do is keep going back to Tatooine and the Death Star?? It wasn’t interesting at all to see an old and bitter Luke Skywalker? You just wanted him to come and save the day, yet again? How is that interesting at all? You had three whole movies of that exact thing already.
A friend once said to me, “but that’s not who Luke Skywalker is; he would never act like that.” Why not? He’s fucking made up. They can make him do whatever he wants. It’s not like they completely bastardized him; he didn’t grow a tail and breathe fire… a bad thing happened to him and they explained why that made him bitter. What’s the disconnect? You are absolutely allowed to not like it; you can even hate it, but you cross a line and make a complete fool of yourself when you threaten to assault anyone who was involved in making that creative choice.
You don’t own Star Wars. Nobody does (well, Disney does). Toxic fandom is nothing new. These are the same kinds of people that sent Damon Lindelof death threats because they didn’t like the finale to Lost. I get it, you love these properties and franchises and you get nervous about them being tampered with; you have an idea in your head of how they should play out and you get angry when it doesn’t go that way. But don’t you want to be surprised? Don’t you want to say, “wow, I never saw that coming!” If you perfectly guessed how an entire movie or TV show will play out, aren’t you upset that you knew the whole thing before it even started? You should want to be surprised. You should want to see new faces and new situations. I know you like The Force Awakens because it rehashed all the Star Wars tropes you already loved but do you really want to keep seeing the exact same movie over and over and over and over again for the next 50 years?
Kubo and the Two Strings has a lot going for it: breathtaking visuals, an easy-to-follow story, a lovable underdog hero and a stacked voice cast. But before I even saw it, I knew it would flop at the box office. I think there’s something about Laika’s animation style that doesn’t sit right with the general public. Audiences are used to the squeaky-clean stylings of Disney, Dreamworks and Pixar. Laika’s animation is not only stop-motion (which could turn off some viewers) but it also just looks a little grimier, but that works in its favor, especially for creepy fare such as Coraline or The Boxtrolls, but somehow in Kubo, that grime brings out a natural beauty in the production design.
The plot is incredibly straightforward and basically plays out like a video game. Kubo must journey to find a magical sword, breastplate and helmet, each one guarded by some sort of “boss” he needs to defeat or outsmart to ultimately take down his grandfather, the Moon King, in the final battle. If Kubo is defeated, the Moon King will take Kubo’s eye (he already took one at Kubo’s birth) and become immortal. Along the way, Kubo will be joined by his two sidekicks, Monkey and Beetle, and will also have to battle with the Moon King’s two henchmen at various points in his quest. There’s not much more to it than that; it isn’t all that different from a Legend of Zelda video game structure.
A straightforward story can be great though; of course it can be immensely satisfying when something complicated, like Inception, comes together in a grand finale, but not every movie needs to shoot for that. Kubo is content to tell Japanese folklore in the exact manner it needs. If anything, I would have loved for the quest to go on even longer. Show me a few more boss battles and adventures. It feels like as soon as the three main characters start to click, we enter the climax and have to start saying goodbye.
Charlize Theron and Matthew McConaughey are both great in their roles as the antithesis of one another’s personality. It’s really fun to hear McConaughey play a goofier role than we’ve seen from him in the last few years; it took me a while to remember that he has good comedic timing. How could he not after a string of rom-coms in the mid-2000’s? (Spoilers) He is so effective as a man-turned-beetle that the moment his character finally remembers who he once was, right before he bites the dust, is a genuinely touching bit and works infinitely better than any of the ham-fisted, tear-bait nonsense from Inside Out (go ahead, disagree. You’re wrong).
There are a few standout scenes, from a visual standpoint, that come to most people’s minds when reflecting on the movie: the giant skeleton battle is pretty thrilling and the final sequence where Kubo takes on the Moon King alone is a dazzling spectacle but the grandest of all is the series of events on the water. The animation of Kubo crafting a large ship out of leaves using his strings (I forgot to mention, Kubo has magic strings that can manipulate small objects) is a marvel and then it leads right into one of the film’s most expertly choreographed combat scenes between Monkey and the Moon King’s evil twin daughters as Kubo’s ship collapses. It’s incredible to watch and remember that it’s all stop-motion. Perhaps the most chilling of all during this sequence is while the battle above the water rages, Kubo must steal the magic breastplate from a giant sea monster with hundreds of giant eyes that attempt to hypnotize him until he drowns. This sceneis legitimately chilling to watch as Kubo goes lower and lower into the ocean and the number of eyeballs on him multiplies. The movie never quite recaptures the sheer magnitude of spectacle from those scenes but they alone are worth watching it for.
Some controversy about the whitewashing of the cast erupted as the movie was released and I think those concerns are legitimate, considering this is a classic piece of Japanese folklore but I applaud director, Travis Knight, and the whole Laika team for handling the material with so much affection. At the very least, the movie we are presented with is a great watch and comes from a place of earnestness, even though this may not have been a story for white folks to tell.
Stop-motion animation doesn’t really exist in any mainstream kind of way anymore. This year alone, we saw Early Man flop at the box office and Isle of Dogs, while a wonderful movie, isn’t something built for mainstream audiences. It would have been great for Kubo and the Two Strings to take off at the box office and show people that great animated movies don’t have to come from Disney or Dreamworks. They don’t have to pander but can challenge. Travis Knight and his team have moved on from animation (at least for now) to helm the Transformer’s spin-off, Bumblebee. While this is a bummer for the future of stop-motion, it may be a glimmer of hope for the Transformers franchise… but that’s not exactly what I’m interested in from such a unique voicein filmmaking right now.