Best New Stuff – July 2018

 

 

GLOW Season 2

I always liked GLOW; I found it winning, and complicated in ways that most shows don’t let their women characters be. But its first season had some issues that I wouldn’t begrudge people for disliking — it had a diverse ensemble, but didn’t care to use much of it, for starters.

But season 2 — man, season 2 blew me away. What an exquisite way to expand on the concept of the first season, present two separate and totally fair conceptions of a coming out story, building and broadening the friendship at the core of it, expertly placing clues and pacing itself for the end of the season. This is a show to watch, more subversive in its portrayal of female life than something like The Handmaid’s Tale. Plus it’s got a truly kickin’ soundtrack.

Hereditary

I am not the sort of person who ascribes to the philosophy that a horror movie has to be scary, but if I was Hereditary would still hit the mark. The first 3/4 play out like an atmospheric stretching rack, until the final act really drives it home. It’s the sort of movie that’s impossible to market without audiences being familiar with it, even though it isn’t all that unfamiliar from horror movie touchstones. It’s just that the ambience is so enveloping, the execution so wholly authentic, it’s impossible to get the message across until the movie’s been seen.

But after you’ve seen it? Well, the dark of your bedroom will never be the same again.

God’s Favorite Customer – Father John Misty 

While last month (and a little of this month) is still dominated by Everything Is Love, I somehow missed the release of the latest FJM. Where before I had been kind of hot and cold on the folk star, I’m now enrapt by his crooning, which seems to covers everything from love songs to comedy pieces.

 

 

but the Youtube song of the month?  That’s Isakov all the way, baby. 

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Best New Stuff – June 2018

Well golly, that was one helluva Pride wasn’t it? When we started the month everything seemed like a wide-open horizon. Now…well, it’s been a long month.

Writing about culture, in times like these can seem trivial. Unlike others, I don’t have any grand statements to opine about empathy machines or revealing who we really are; right now culture feels like a thing to do, but it doesn’t necessarily feel like the thing to do. I find more and more that I am explaining to people what actual representation looks like. It’s not always the stories in front of the camera, sometimes it’s the people behind the camera too — and the people who green light these things, and the people who shape political landscapes our art is born onto. That’s representation that we need to fight for, and that needs fighting for at the moment.

That being said, here are some things that just gave me life this month:

Nanette

Wow. There’s so much to say about Hannah Gadsby’s daring, groundbreaking, and gutting comedy special, but to put it succinctly: While the rest of the world was talking around talking about how to appropriately deal, as a society, with men who have hurt others, Nanette tackles it head on, forcing the issue in your face and elegantly circling the horses around you. By the end of the hourlong special, I was rapt, and the feeling has consumed me for days. Run don’t walk to your nearest Netflix outlet to hear on why Hannah Gadsby is the comic special to watch.

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The Good Fight

It’s become tired to say that something is (or will be) an important artifact of the Trump era. But leave it to the Kings (the writers behind this and The Good Wife) to find a way to make it wired, and—most importantly—fun. For all its pointed politics that can sometimes misstep or mis-swing, perhaps no scene has summed up like under this administration quite as much as a (liberal) judge getting a push alert to his smart watch, and uttering “Oh! This world!” and then continuing about the scene without a second thought. The Good Fight doesn’t always win its battles (its continuing blindspot for race relations, despite focusing on a Black law firm, is proof of that), but it did manage to be a fun 23 episodes, that didn’t pull back from the pulled-from-the-headlines nature the first show embraced—even as the headlines get more and more ludicrous.

For a Good Time, Call…

It’s hard to pull off a platonic love story between two female friends without it seeming too queer baiting, and For a Good Time, Call… definitely indulges those tendencies too. But by the end of this fun film, it’s clear that—on whatever level these women choose—they are soulmates, through and through. And their fights, to-dos, and deep affection finally reflect that of women friendships I know.

Plus, my god, they are funny.

APESH*T – Everything is Love

The release to end all releases. Once again Beyonce has stopped the world with a few Instagram posts, a video, and a full-fledged, long-awaited album with her husband. Everything is Love is neither of the artists strongest work, and coming off an album as strong and powerful as Lemonade it certainly falls short, just by nature of being more experimental and less nuanced. But the album has deceptive depth, and—honestly—all the songs are bops, in their own way. It would probably be better received if it had followed the self-titled album, but Everything is Love will likely hold more of a place in the zeitgeist than its initial response may reflect.

Also, I mean, this video, my god:

Ocean’s 8

It’s not perfect, it’s not ideal, and it won’t fix anything. But good lord did I need a movie full of competent women wearing kick-ass outfits pulling off a heist. I now own a velvet blazer, so Cate Blanchett’s propaganda worked.

1528406019661-3e6935b8e43ce5e189a9309d47097a4bHonorable mention: 

Incredibles 2

Fahrenheit 451

The Assassination of Gianni Versace

The Color Purple (the musical)

Best New Stuff – February 2018

The shortest month of the year is out of the way, but boy did it pack a wallop. There was some truly stunning stuff that passed through my purview in February, and made this blog post (a series which I hope to keep up with) easy to write.

Other thoughts I was having this month: It turns out getting over being minorly hit by a car is a long, non-linear process, and it is frustrating as all hell. Between staying on top of doctor’s bills wrongly directed to you, and having to beg and fight for every bit of treatment, it’s clear the healthcare system in this country is utterly broken. I’ve learned that it’s absurd that something like massage — a vital part of helping me recover in the past 12 weeks, and helping manage inflamed muscles in order to actually make them heal and respond to the PT — is seen as a bougey indulgence. Getting massages and speaking with my incredibly knowledgeable massage therapist helped me learn what muscles weren’t working when they should and vice versa, as well as how to actually go forth with my workout. It was utterly important to my recovery, and I had to specifically ask for it. I can only imagine what it would be like in a system that actually valued my health and my writing.

Hopefully next month I’ll have more writing to share with you. See you in March!

*heart eyes*

Annihilation 

This movie will be talked about in the years to come. Alex Garland — following up his exquisite Ex Machina — has created a cerebral and gorgeous sci-fi film that’s already (rightfully) drawing comparisons to Tarkovsky. It’s immensely hard to talk about; it’s unsettling, and challenging, and easy to mistake as faux-deep. But it won’t let up. The end keeps building and building, past what the film seemed like it was going to be and into something less concrete, and far more compelling.

We Were Eight Years in Power

What is there to say about one of the greatest essayists of all time? Ta-Nehisi Coates’ ability to weave words and illustrate power structures is almost unrivaled, and his collection of essays shows that he can take that insight even further.

Black Panther

What is there to say about Black Panther? A new, and lasting, high-watermark for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, that works as both a comic book film and a social commentary; a film as funny as it is heartfelt, complex as it is straightforward; one of the best villains in recent memory, comic adaptation or no. As I wrote here on Pulp Diction, there’s plenty of people better (and less white) to read on exactly what the movie means. You should see the movie, read them all, and see it again. I’m trying to.

*heart eyes*

Your Favorite Band is Killing Me

This one might be better for March — it’s looking like I’m not going to finish reading it before the month is out — but damn if this isn’t a fun read. I picked this up on the suggestion of a writer whose essay I edited, and now it’s my turn to recommend it: Steven Hyden’s ability to weave a personal hand with deep knowledge and insight about music and commentary therein is both awe-inspiring and enjoyable as a sort of novel-length brain exploding meme. He pushes past “musicians often spar” and “the media concocts competition between stars” to find truer notes about why each respective “rivalry” formed, and how they shaped the respective artists’ careers. It’s definitely written in 2016 (the last two chapters I’ve read have mentioned Trump as merely a businessman, and said that at least the Taylor/Kanye dispute is put to rest; simpler times) but almost all of the acumen is good no matter what year it is.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

This show ended on a downbeat, both narratively and artistically speaking. Despite being a culmination and collection of so many things the show has done up to this point, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend‘s finale was a bit of a rushed, beginning and ending to this season’s storyline. But this season has accomplished some truly amazing highs, covering everything from Borderline to letting your protagonist acknowledge and grow past the bad things they’ve done. Tuning into season three often felt like you never knew what you were going to get, and the show has proved to be all the richer for it.

Janelle Monae’s new singles

It’s hard to believe it’s been five years since Janelle Monae last graced us with an album, but the ArchAndroid is back, and boy are the results amazing. Though released just last week, it’s hard to remember a time when I wasn’t jamming to either “Make Me Feel” or “Django Jane.” The former has solidified Monae as the second coming of Prince (and Bowie), and the latter shows that she doesn’t need a hook to dominate the rap market. More than three straight minutes of fire — and that’s all before the album comes out or I tell you which song I’m talking about.

Honorable Mentions:

A Philadelphia Story

A Futile and Stupid Gesture

Birdboy: The Forgotten Children

 

Youtube of the month: 

It’s an (unsurprising) two-fer this month:

Rewind Review: ‘Interview with a Vampire’

Interview with a Vampire feels like the quintessential example of a bad book adaptation: You can tell there are big themes lurking in the background. There’s a sense that these emotions aren’t melodrama or camp but sincere. And yet, nothing about the movie is really able to connect.

Interview with a Vampire posterFor instance, the movie seems to revolve around the connection between Louis de Pointe du Lac (Brad Pitt) and Lestat de Lioncourt (Tom Cruise), their sometimes diametrically opposed views on the afterlife and vampiric sensibilities. For the first two-thirds we follow as they banter between themselves, haphazardly drawing in victims and even a “daughter” in Claudia (Kirsten Dunst). Then the movie drops this plot line, in favor of a turn to Armand’s (Antonio Banderas) coven in Paris, only to return later with a flourish to the “central relationship.” In a book these chapters might feel a bit episodic, but in the movie there’s a lot more telling that Louis and Claudia digest the various pains of the world than there is showing you.

Instead the movie paints in broad strokes, favoring the book-translation that seems to name-check important plot points without paying much attention to the emotional weight of them.

Some of this is likely due to the casting. Young Brad Pitt clearly hasn’t discovered that he is a character actor in a leading man’s body—unlike co-star Tom Cruise, whose vivaciousness buoys nearly every scene initially. Pitt is utterly wooden; a precursor to Robert Pattinson’s later turn in Twilight. It’s clear that Louis de Pointe du Lac is tortured. But we, as an audience, mostly know that because he spends so much time communicating this in his voiceover, and sitting on the sidelines, peering into a world he understands but still doesn’t want to. Given his stiff and mopey state, it’s hard to believe that one of the through lines of the movie is that every vampire Louis comes in contact with yearns for his company above all.

It’s left to Cruise and Dunst to breathe some life into the film, and they each do so with great aplomb. Cruise manages a vibrant Lestat initially, seamlessly shifting between the vampire’s complicated desire for Louis as a dissimilar companion and his frustration with Louis’s inability to want to understand him. But it’s Dunst who manages to fully embody the complexities of the vampire lifestyle—not to mention the added complexities of her character, all as a child not nearly as aged as Claudia. Hers is the only performance that seems to be able to tap into the poetic and nuanced style of Anne Rice.

Otherwise, Rice’s novel and its shading is lost in a film that’s done away with subtlety and themes of grief in favor of what reads as gothic camp. Though its style and themes would certainly influence modern horror, and in particular vampire tales, Interview with a Vampire isn’t able to do much with the infinite lifetimes of its heroes. And we thought we could have it all.

500 Days Asunder

A couple gazes at each other, holding hands, overlooking a scenic Los Angeles. Already we’re getting mixed signals: A narrator illustrates the incompatibility of the two, her engagement ring dazzles, the writer calls his ex a bitch as an endearing whistle hovers in the air. (500) Days of Summer is already using the pathos and techniques of a traditional romantic comedy to create a classic romance tale, with one important caveat: “This is not a love story.”

The movie is about Tom wrestling with reality; the reality of his relationship with Summer, the reality of love, the reality of his life. The themes, when written out, sound weighty, too magnificent for a simple romantic comedy to take on. But in many ways this movie—which flits between romance and comedy—is not a romantic comedy at all, but a coming of age film.

(500) Days of Summer looks at the romances that scatter our past, how they can inadvertently lead to something totally different than a wedding (although the ending does allude to the fact that they can also lead to a better fit down the line). In order to really engage with those themes, however, it adopts the mannerisms of a romantic comedy. But by turning them on their head with the depth and seriousness, it also rewards those themes with more poignancy, living up to its declaration that it “is not a love story.”

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Perhaps one of the genres that requires the biggest leaps in imagination is the romantic comedy. Where else are two-dimensional characters, shallow emotional moments, and unbelievable gestures not just expected but encouraged?

Though the walls of a romantic comedy have been stretched and contracted since Hollywood came to be, its structure on film has always been remarkably similar. Whether as part of the present story or as part of an introduction to the plot, we usually we see boy meet girl, and then watch as they fall together over (usually) an abridged period of time.

(500) Days of Summer plays no such games.

When initially asked to tell his little sister what happened, we see Tom’s mental View Master flutter past us. Only later will we learn that only one of these memories held a deeper, darker, if ultimately rewarding, moment for Tom—the fight that pushes him to declare them “a couple, dammit.” The rest of the images are all smiles. That’s because this is how Tom remembers Summer: as Roger Ebert himself put it, a “series of joys and befuddlements.” To Tom, and by extension the audience, Summer is smart, funny, charming, beautiful, entrancing, and taken with him. And yet, she doesn’t think they’re dating.

500-days-109Often called “cutesy” or “utterly unhelpful” by some critics at the time, the movie’s narrative structure is actually a vital framing device for the audience’s understanding of Tom’s fact. Love stories—whether happy or not—sprawl across months, sometimes years, without a definitive end. No one remembers them purely chronologically; we jump between the “end,” and the middle, and the beginning we didn’t even know was a beginning, and then back to a different middle. We remember the laughs. We wince at the pain. The free-flowing structure allows the movie to explore that, while also interrogating it.

The truth is we’re never clear on what or how Summer thinks about her and Tom’s relationship. Things seem to progress to definitively “serious” but that is—like the whole of the movie—all Tom’s perspective. We see the interplay of the highs and lows of the relationship as Tom sees it: filtered, if not overtly white-washed.

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Like any film, a romantic comedy is an exercise in a very specific kind of world-building. Stretching all the way back to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, romantic comedies demand a viewer to expect the world to exist beyond our own. Be they faeries that seek to make a match or just a world built on loony humor, romantic comedies are always intended to be a fantasy.

In this respect, (500) Days of Summer follows in the footsteps of traditional romantic comedies by creating its own heightened reality: Director Marc Webb stated that he wanted to give the movie a “classic look.” And so production had rules about which buildings (only those built before 1950s) and what sounds (old phone rings, as opposed to digital) could be used. Likewise, Summer’s wardrobe is reminiscent of 50’s fashion.

This also plays into how color is used in the film. Webb has said that he drew out the blues as the color representing “love” in the universe of (500) Days of Summer because of actress Zooey Deschanel’s eyes. It helps remind the audience that what they are seeing is an augmented reality, both as moviegoers experiencing the film and as a one-sided love story. Summer is almost always dressed in blues, her hair ribbons and apartment are decked out in it—and yet very infrequently does that splash over to Tom. His color palette is decidedly browns, oranges, and tans; from his khakis and sweater vests to the warm, streetlamp that colors his apartment even at night.

And Webb uses this device to play around with how Tom’s view of Summer might be changing even if he refuses to recognize it: As the days progress she starts wearing more and more brown, covering herself up with tweed jackets and moving away from her summery blue skirts. When Tom is ultimately forced to confront the bad stuff in the relationship, we see her in more darker, muted clothes than ever before. Her deep blues seem almost black, as if the relationship is suffocating her vibrancy. In the initial three hangouts post-breaking up (the train, the wedding, and the house party), Summer’s clothes seem to have bounced back to their usual pop.

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These devices are used in order to invoke the feeling of a vintage romantic comedy, to inspire the feeling that love can conquer all madcap curveballs life throws at it. If this were a romantic comedy these signs, the vibe, this reality—it would all be a clear indicator that Tom and Summer would reunite, decked head to toe in blue, and ride off into the sunset. It’s what makes Summer’s defying of gender expectations feel all the more brutal to Tom. After all, this is not a love story.

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Romantic comedy leads can often get away with bothering their friend with every whim; their lives are seemingly the engine powering the universe around them. Their loved ones all have their parts to play; their friends link up; their sisters somehow get involved with their boss. We see this in (500) Days of Summer too, but once again, with an illuminating twist.

Very seldom do the lives of the supporting players seem to exist outside Tom’s. Each of them inhabits a sort of cliche from the romantic comedy genre: The wise beyond her years little sister; the troupe of off-kilter supporting players; the existing-entirely-for-the-male-protagonist love interest. It may seem cheap to offer it up as an excuse for a half-written woman when the fact of the matter is Summer’s chapter in Tom’s life, the 500 days he will look back on someday, functions on a story level as a tool in his development. But though the scope is shallow, perhaps it’s reads like a deliberate choice on the part of the filmmaker. In a world as manufactured as (500) Days of Summer it’s fair to say there’s more nuance to its players’ shallow characterization.

As I mentioned above, what we know about the ins and outs of Summer’s life are actually fairly limited. That’s because we’re seeing the world from Tom’s perspective, with occasional interjections from an omnipotent narrator. We know Tom to be a romantic—the narrator tells us as much (as well as confirming that Tom’s reading of The Graduate was wrong, for what it’s worth)—and so it’s not surprising that his reality is tented by pillars of romantic comedy.

These aberrations of reality are fairly revealing of Tom: The now classic examples include the “Reality vs. Expectations” split screen, and the Hall and Oates inspired flash mob after he sleeps with Summer for the first time. But when his expectations don’t align with reality the path in front of him literally gets erased, 500daysofsummer2009-0804suggesting he thought his life would find meaning if only he had the right partner. At his most depressed (and thanks to a doze in a cinema) his world takes on the framework of new-wave French film, devoid of color. While the emotions of the film stay grounded, the world is colored by Tom’s imagination. His friends appear to us as second bananas because in his story about Summer he sees them as such.

But in the “love documentary” sequence we see there’s more to them than Tom has shown us. Vance borrows a phrase from one of the cards to speak his truth about his 30-year relationship with his life, like Tom borrows from pop culture when he’s lovestruck. Though we know Paul is proud of his relationship with Robyn (goin’ strong since ‘97!), it isn’t until the black-and-white documentary sequence that he has a chance to really speak about her.

“Robyn is better than the girl of my dreams. She’s real.”

Which is why Summer seems so one-sided; she literally is. She’s her own person, but like the moon Tom can only see her in phases. “I think you’re just remembering the good stuff,” cautions his sister near the end of the film. “Next time you look back…I really think you should look again.” It’s then that Tom starts to realize how caged Summer was starting to seem; her big, doe eyes doubling as the wide-eyes of a frightened animal.

Harsh, yeah. But we see his blindness to Summer’s personhood in his first invitation to her apartment, when the narrator clues the audience in on Tom’s inner narrative:

For Tom Hansen, this was the night where everything changed. That wall Summer so often hid behind—the wall of distance, of space, of casual—that wall was slowly coming down. For here was Tom, in her world…a place few had been invited to see with their own eyes. And here was Summer, wanting him there. Him, no one else.

As he listened, Tom began to realize that these stories weren’t routinely told. These were stories one had to earn. He could feel the wall coming down. He wondered if anyone else had made it this far.

His experience is entirely in his own head, but with plenty of projections towards Summer. Even as he listens to her tell stories of his childhood, he’s caught up in the bigger picture of himself, and Summer, steamrolling whatever it is she’s actually been telling him. He’s strong enough to expect love, weak enough to be foolhardy, and too blindly in love with Summer to listen to her clear expression of boundaries.

“I’ve never told anyone that before,” says Summer cautiously.

“I guess I’m not just anyone,” Tom says, returning the focus to himself.

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So what does this mean for love? Where do the grand gestures and deep affection fall in the realm of (500) Days of Summer? Summer’s not a girl, she’s a phase. What does it say that the film doesn’t pretend she’s anything else? How can a movie get away with using these “clear signs” to light the way to the altar only to leave young Werther jilted and alone?

Some see it as a sign that Tom was purely right (that Summer was wrong about what she wanted all along). Summer even seems to imply as much. But its ending doesn’t compromise the premise. Instead it seems like it’s just one more way Tom blew past signals. Summer’s choice to marry someone else is inconsequential. It’s her wisdom to not marry Tom that matters.

The maturity of the narrative is all in not forcing Summer to buckle to Hollywood convention. Instead it pushes Tom to grow up. Introduced as someone whose misreading of The Graduate fundamentally lead him to believe that the right partner would solve all his problem, he, like Benjamin Braddock, is discontent with his place at life and ready to project himself forward with a partner, placing himself in what he believes to be the love story to end all love stories. Well intentioned as Tom is, it’s a selfish motivation. Instead of focusing on what he could bring to Summer, he sets his sights on what she can do for him—an easy, juvenile mindset that we all grow out of. He sees himself as fully baked, only missing Summer as the final ingredient. Only he’s not.

This is a story of boy meets girl. But this is not a love story. For Tom it’s almost a story about how love is a fantasy. To him, a brief and shining moment (give or take a couple hundred days) led him to nothing but ruin. “Complete and utter bullshit.” But then, one last time, Summer takes his hand and guides his way.

Summer: Well, you know, I guess it’s ’cause I was sitting in a deli and reading Dorian Gray and a guy comes up to me and asks me about it and… now he’s my husband.

Tom: Yeah. And… So?

Summer: So, what if I’d gone to the movies? What if I had gone somewhere else for lunch? What if I’d gotten there 10 minutes later? It was, it was meant to be. And… I just kept thinking… Tom was right.

Tom: No.

Summer: Yeah, I did…I did. It just wasn’t me that you were right about.

Instead the movie leaves us with an almost absurdly simple lesson with a complicated wake: Love is more than two-dimensional. It’s two-sided. The movie is about Tom coming to terms with that, finally understanding that it’s not as simple as he once made it out to be, nor as ruinous as Summer seemed to think it. (500) Days of Summer is not a love story. It’s a coming of age tale, wrapped up in a blue, romantic comedy bow.

Let’s Do The Twist!

People love to update old classics with modern twists and sensibilities. But be careful—it isn’t always so easy.

Take the Veronica Mars episode “One Angry Veronica.” Based on the timeless 12 Angry Men, Veronica gets jury duty and seems all too ready to dismiss a latina woman’s claim that she was assaulted by two white, well-off boys (09ers, as the show calls them) until one jury holdout makes a compelling case. After that it’s Veronica’s job—as teenage detective and jury foreman—to convince the rest of the jury to vote “guilty” on the two boys in question. vm_2x10

The “twist” is that this time instead of the defendant, a latinx person is the plaintiff, with the justice system still “working” to defend the actual (white) perpetrators of the crime. Problem is, there’s a big difference between 12 Angry Men’s use of the criminal justice system vs. Veronica Mars‘. For starters, the film had the “innocent until proven guilty” quality, where jurors are instructed to only convict if there’s no reasonable doubt in their minds. The entire movie centers on the bug of reasonable doubt spreading from one juror to the next until the climactic monologue that convinces the lone hold out. In Veronica Mars, it’s much less interesting—both legally and narratively—for the hold out to say that she has an inkling of the defendants lying to cover their ass; they’re not supposed to be guilty until proven innocent. I see what the writers were trying to do here, commenting on the racial and class divides in Neptune, but it’s not the update to 12 Angry Men they seem to think they’ve earned.

Same with Selfie, a single-season show starring John Cho and Karen Gillan in a modern retelling of My Fair Lady. Only this time it’s Eliza Dooley; a self-absorbed, social media obsessed pharmaceutical rep; and her straight-laced boss Henry Higgs, who she enlists the help of to assist her in learning there’s more to life than likes and shares.

selfie-castOnly here’s the thing: In My Fair Lady, Eliza was treated poorly because she was lower social class, and her manners are a reflection of that. Ass that he is, Henry Higgins’ “project” was ultimately set out to make high-society London the butt of the joke; he wants to illustrate the fact that the only thing that separates someone like Eliza from the upper-class is properly taught speech, an accent. His “experiment” is a stupid bet, but it also inherently implies that Eliza is worthy of good treatment.

Unlike Selfie, which instead of commenting on how a relatively arbitrary indicator of social class (speech) is used to artificually elevate one class over the other, is basically just saying that heavily gendered and youth-bent personality traits have no place in successful society.

While perhaps neither of these transgressions are so egregious that they can completely spoil what are essentially jumping off points, it’s as if the writers have a woeful disregard for the way the originals intended to jump off to. Ultimately their “twists” aren’t really twists are all, just poor adaptations.

 

Hunger Games is more than Battle Royale with Cheese

hunger-games-battle-royale-with-cheeseI’ve been thinking a lot about the common connection drawn between Battle Royale and The Hunger Games. I can’t speak to whether Suzanne Collins saw Battle Royale, was inspired by it, lifted it wholesale, or whatever. To me the only clear thing is that while the films/books share a lot of similarities, they’re interested in wildly different things.

The Hunger Games starts out with the spectacle of it all. The egregious event floats a sense of dread throughout Katniss’ thoughts and action; looming tall over what is otherwise an ordinary day. And it does so because that’s what it’s intended to do: The government (“The Capital”) puts on the Hunger Games because they need to teach the outer districts a lesson in obedience, using the brutality they force their children into as a way to keep the status quo. It’s what makes the ending of the first Hunger Games so powerful, even when it’s stripped of the same savageness that gives Battle Royale its bite due to the U.S. film’s PG-13 rating. Katniss has learned to make the system work for her. The ending is abrupt, as her and Peeta go home in deception, but it works because the entire movie has been building to it; all that spectacle, now used to cage her in a very different way.

For whatever spectacle there is to the titular Battle Royale, it’s not entirely clear in the movie. The beginning shows us that there’s immense press interest in the winner of the games, but somehow the students have never heard of it.

Similar to the Hunger Games, the Royale was instituted to keep students compliant after 800,000 of them once walked out and utterly disregarded the rules of Japanese society. The focus, by director Kinji Fukasaku, is much more on the institutions of society, rather than the human nature of the “spectacle” in The Hunger Games. He interrogates what adults’ roles in the lives of the next generation are, how they communicate with them, the heightened melodrama of stories that—had the students lived longer—would’ve been blips on a radar.

brvshungergames
Even the posters reveal a crucial difference: Fukasaku initially (and brilliantly) focused Battle Royale on the way teens move and react as a group. Collins plucks Katniss out as a distinctive “YA protagonist” type.

That last point is why the characters come off so differently from each other. The Hunger Games focuses on kids who have had to grow hard, who have needed to become tough in order to function in the world. Battle Royale is about kids who have trauma suddenly and unsuspectingly thrust upon them. The former is about PTSD and adults, the latter is premature death in kids.

Whatever similarities there are—which, don’t get me wrong, are a lot, between the “kids killing each other because the government demands it” angle and the two lovebirds making it out together against all odds—they seem to be starkly contrast when held side-by-side. Collins went through great lengths to separate the government in her book from the government of the present, even if the media environment seems remarkably similar. Fukasaku’s work seems like a direct indictment of the government of both past and (at the time) present Japan.

The Authorial Intent Battle Royale

Is there a right way to advise people to care about authorial intent? My instinct would be to tell most people that they can disregard it, but I think that—as a whole—that can rob us of some really fascinating perspectives.

Obviously without authorial intent movies can feel “of the moment” in the wrong (or at least, unintended) way. Battle Royale hit the U.S. at a time when it was recovering from its first school shooting; the notion of paying to watch kids killing kids seemed to fly in the face of the idea that violent culture breeds violent kids. And so it was largely “banned” and made difficult to access in the U.S.

Battle-Royale-Class-Photo-But in Japan it was a whole different ball game. Director Kinji Fukasaku came up during WWII, working in a munitions factory that kept getting bombed, as a 15-year-old (the same age as the students in his film). When bombs came the kids sometimes used each other as human shields, and survivors would be left to bury the dead. It made him “understand the limits of friendship,” and he realized that the government had lied to Japan about why they were even in the war to begin with.

“This was his film kind of giving a finger to the Japanese government,” said film critic Amy Nicholson on The Canon. “I love that the last film he made is [like] ‘You can’t trust adults, you can’t trust the government; they grind up kids and use them for meat.'”

This seems like a crucial block of knowledge to bring to a Battle Royale viewing; it colors the culture of Japan (which, during the movie’s release in the ’90s, was also going through some changes reflected in Battle Royale like high unemployment) as a post-war state, and informs viewers about how that makes Fukasaku feel. As authorial intent goes, this one is wide-reaching and savage. It touches on the war, the nation, and human (or at least, survivalist teen) nature.

But that only makes it all the more peculiar when directors like Christopher Nolan say that the wiretapping debate had no impact on their decision to give Batman the ability to wiretap the citizens of Gotham in The Dark Knight, or the clash of grassroots protesters versus the police just happened to make its foray into The Dark Knight Rises after #OccupyWallStreet. It seems disingenuous for audiences to implicitly trust that Nolan wasn’t affected by these things. It seems wrong to think that there’s no way the two worlds could bleed into each other.

Dark Knight Rises protest still
I mean, come ON

Which is what makes The Birth of a Nation controversy so irreconcilable. How can a movie, centered on a graphic rape, be trusted to be appropriately handled by someone who committed (alleged and murky) sexual assault? How can the audience react to a movie organically, knowing that fact in the back of their minds? Will they be able to divorce authorial intent and the creator from their viewing? Should they have to?

It’s easy to cast off a notion like Nolan’s when you see parallels in The Dark Knight trilogy. Incorporating Fukasaku’s past is a fascinating spotlight that only illuminates the statement of Battle Royale all the more. But with Nate Parker the line is murkier. And I’m not sure there’s an easy answer there.

Medium/Large: Episodic Moves in Television and Movies

Many television critics have been bemoaning the death of the episode in TV lately. As our culture shifts to online, streaming, and binge watching, the episode has become less of a chapter and more of a sentence in the seasonal books we watch. More and more the shows we watch resemble 10-hour movies rather than episodic television. The flip side of that is that our movies are starting to resemble the episodic television we’re more accustomed to.

On the surface level these are driven by two different goals. Television is increasingly embracing the streaming platform’s structure of releasing a whole season in one go, which encourages long periods of watching, which doesn’t have as much need to break up the story into chunks like network television does. Movies, meanwhile, are caught up in the desire to be like Marvel, and create a shared cinematic universe. It’s the reason Captain America: Civil War is able to build on the characters, relationships, and events that people have been watching play out for almost a decade on the silver screen, or why The Force Awakens was able to exist paradoxically as a reboot, a sequel, and a retelling without fully standing on its own. star-wars-the-force-awakens-15-1200x630

But underneath it all it’s the same principle: To get people obsessed with your content. Marvel has always understood that building out narratives across issues and decades creates generations of fans. Star Wars invented modern blockbuster culture because it turned out to be a smash hit. Shows like BloodlineSense 8, and beyond are able to take advantage of the interest in telling long-form stories and connecting (deeply) with characters week-after-week to use whole seasons as pilots instead of one episode. And so they borrow strategies that worked for the other in order to build their medium up. Similar to the way genres have started to bleed into each other, formatting now is as well; blockbuster movies are more often than ever before just episodes of a longer story being told across a franchise, and television is just an imagined story that functions more like building a puzzle rather than a daisy chain each week.

Tights and T-Rexes:

Well guys Suicide Squad has come and gone, and at no point did it go over well with critics. But audiences—or some vocal portion of them—liked it, and are as unhappy with critics as the critics are with the movie. Which lead to some accusations in the raging rapids of Twitter and social media that critics are just shills for Marvel, or even that critics have no place in our lives.

I’ve gone on record as favoring Marvel, and I’ll admit that I share no excitement about seeing Dawn of Justice. But I think it’s possible for both critics and DC fans to exist in this world of ours.

Take The Witch. The movie was trumpeted by critics, beloved for being a return to arthouse horror and building dread without jump-scares. It boasts a high critical rating on sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. But audiences weren’t so enthusiastic. I loved the film, but I’m not immodest enough to say that’s because it’s objectively one of the best movies of the year, let alone that some audiences are “just dumb” as some may argue.

Movies are such subjective experiences, built on the backs of so many people and for the enjoyment of even more I’d be hard-pressed to come up with a movie that everyone loves and could agree was an objectively good movie. So long as you’re able to appreciate what it is you enjoyed about the movie, reflect critically on that, what’s the harm? It’s ok for a movie to be good to you, and have all the elements you wanted from it and for critics to not agree.

I love dinosaurs, particularly of the underwater variety. So for myself, Jurassic World had everything I wanted and more. But I can also acknowledge that if you aren’t me, and weren’t flooded with adrenaline over the action sequences it’s a pretty subpar movie. Conversely, I like my horror films to really wig me out (while not being too gorey) and while It Follows gave others those feelings I wasn’t on board—no matter how much I appreciated the artistry of it. I’m a sucker for smart action films, so Marvel’s cinematic universe excites and thrills me, but that doesn’t mean A.O. Scott is wrong when he called it homogenous. It might mean that we value that differently in our enjoyment. Jurassic World dinosaur

To say that any one audience is “smarter” than another is gross and white-washes the issue. It’s more accurate (and kind) to say that your interests, values, and pleasure is simply stocked in different places. The whole idea of having a wide range of pop culture is that there’s something for everyone, not everything for someone.

When you read a critic’s review and it seems to be overly harsh or bashing on something you love, ask yourself: Is it? Is it just that we disagree? Is this a critic I have a trust and understanding with? Can I get over myself and just enjoy what I enjoy without validation?