A STAR IS BORN And The Crisis Of Authenticity

What does it mean to be authentic? What even is authenticity? Is it a simple, stripped down identity? Is it who you are when you’re alone, in the dark? Is it in an impossible thing that does not exist because whatever you are doing right now, even if you’re faking it, is authentically you?

Authenticity haunts A Star Is Born, the third remake of a movie starring an actor as a singer and a singer being an actor. Authenticity is what Jackson Maine hungers for, what he strives to embody and, in the end, maybe what kills him. He tries to be authentic in his rootsy, bluesy rock n’ roll, always preaching that you have to have something to say, something meaningful. When his protege and wife, Ally, plays Saturday Night Live he is disgusted by the falseness of her pop persona and the shallow repetitiveness of her lyrics. Where’s the pain, where’s the blood? He looks at her and sees a phony, and later he takes out his anger on her, cruelly tearing her down with words. Are the insults authentic?

More importantly, is Jackson Maine authentic? He believes he is, but the script, by Bradley Cooper & Will Fetters and Eric Roth, gives us hints that Jackson is fundamentally full of shit, that he wouldn’t know an authentic person if she punched a cop in a bar for him. Jackson Maine, played with such crusty greasiness by Cooper that I could smell him from the screen, is presenting a persona that is utterly false, and it’s quite possible that he doesn’t even know who the authentic Jackson Maine even is, or if he does, he hates that person and needs to kill him.

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HALLOWEEN 2018: The Shape Of Trauma

This contains full spoilers for the 2018 Halloween.

In the original Halloween II there was an elaborate, soap opera-y reason for Michael Myers to come after Laurie Strode yet again – she was his secret sister, and just as he had killed Judith, he wanted to kill Laurie. This kind of explanation was needed to franchise the characters; if you were going to have Laurie and Michael face off again and again you needed to have a reason. As John McClane once wondered, “How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?” The answer, for decades, was that Michael Myers cared deeply about Laurie.

What Halloween 2018 asks is… what if he didn’t? What if Michael Myers did not care about Laurie Strode at all, but rather Laurie Strode cared so much about Michael Myers that she couldn’t let him go, couldn’t leave him behind, and as such she ends up in the middle of his 40th anniversary prison break, once again being stalked by The Shape who, in other circumstances, would have been happy to just keep killing strangers.

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FIRST MAN: Neil Armstrong Is Trapped In A Glass Case Of Emotion

This contains spoilers for First Man (by which I mean bigger spoilers than “They get to the Moon”).

Ryan Gosling has given many performances that are the equivalent of a glass of water that had some fruit briefly dunked in it – he is so stoic and blank that he just gives you the hint of an idea of the concept of an emotion. Often, as in Drive, these performances have left me cold. But in First Man Gosling – playing one of America’s most iconically emotionally distant men – finds another place to go within that stoicism. As Neil Armstrong Gosling lets us get beyond that stoic exterior and gives us the fragile, live wire trauma that is hiding just beneath the surface.

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VENOM: Tom Hardy Knew This Was Stupid When He Made It

Now on Patreon for $10 subscribers: my review of VenomHere’s an excerpt:

Venom is terrible. The script is an atrocity, from clanging dialogue to dim-witted motivations to terrible structure to characters who are lucky to have one dimension, let alone three. It’s a stupid movie, a listless and pointless movie. It has no momentum, nobody accomplishes anything and I’m not even sure what most of the characters even WANT.

I loved almost every minute of it.

This isn’t a ‘so bad it’s good’ kind of movie. It’s just a bad movie. But Venom has at its center a Tom Hardy performance so excellent that he makes the entire movie about two or three hundred percent better. Hardy is watchable in Venom in a way that few movie stars are anymore, completely magnetic while also being completely unhinged. It’s a performance for the ages.

Hardy gets it – he knows what movie he’s making. He understands the tonal line he has to walk to make this work, and he never takes Eddie Brock too seriously… yet he never tells us that he’s anything but serious. It’s brilliant, a totally straight-faced slapstick performance. It feels like a muted Evil Dead 2 era Bruce Campbell, a very straight take on a very ridiculous character doing and saying very ridiculous things. But he’s never broad; I love Campbell, but he’s winking in all his best roles, playing to the back of the theater. In Venom Hardy takes that broadness but crushes it down into a mumbly, naturalistic form. It’s extraordinary – a performance full of emotional resonance springing from a script utterly devoid of emotional resonance. Hardy’s Brock is absolutely non-dualistic – he is at once real and phony, serious and ludicrous, played straight and played as a gag. There’s no daylight between these opposing concepts; Hardy is both things at once.

To read the whole thing, become a $10 patron at Patreon.

Review: SHORT TREKS: “Runaway”

There was this party at Comic-Con one year where I got absolutely hammered and I cornered JJ Abrams. This was when it had been announced that Star Trek Into Darkness was happening, but we knew nothing else about the movie. I had enjoyed the first Abrams Trek, although I thought it was a mess; one of my least favorite things about it was Nero. I thought the character was hollow and empty and violated one of the main tenets of good Trek.

Good Trek, I slurred to poor JJ that night, doesn’t have a villain. It may have an antagonist, but it doesn’t have a villain. This is hard to argue because everybody’s favorite Trek thing is Wrath of Khan, a movie featuring one of the great screen villains. But I would argue that movies like Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, neither of which has a villain, are the most Trek-y movies of them all.

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The Hasslein Curveball and Screwball Capitalist Asians

Friends! Things have been a little slow around here because I’ve been working quite a bit away from the computer. That’s a blessing – to have work and to be able to finally afford a place to live (yes, I got a place to live!) – but it’s also keeping me from my real love, which is yammering on and on about movies and stuff.

I have some stuff in the oven for the main site, but I have recently published two long pieces over at Patreon for subscribers at the $10 level. They’re quite different but I hope each is interesting in its own way.

The first is called “Screwball Capitalist Asians,” and it’s a look at how Crazy Rich Asians retools the screwball comedy for the 21st century, applying the class struggle aspects of those Depression-era films to an increasingly capitalism-averse 2018. Here’s an excerpt:

But the most defining features of the screwball comedies are visible in Crazy Rich Asians. The film, like the best of the Depression-era movies, is about class conflict. In this case it’s Constance Wu’s Rachel who is crossing all sorts of class lines – she’s not only American Chinese, she doesn’t come from a dynastically wealthy family. It’s not as extreme a class divide as the one in My Man Godfrey (a bum gets hired to be a butler and a rich woman falls in love with him), and it’s gender swapped from the usual heiress-falls-for-a-lower-class-rascal template (perfected in It Happened One Night), but the basics are the same.

In true screwball fashion, Rachel discovers that despite all their money the socialites and hyper rich of Singapore can’t make their lives work, and she eventually teaches the upper crust a lesson. That’s a vital part of many Depression-era screwball comedies, where the idle rich get some sort of comeuppance from the lower class person invading their space. The Depression audience liked seeing the rich put in their place (they especially liked stories where the rich could not function without the trappings of their wealth, but where the poor could sneak into high society), but they also wanted to live vicariously through the cinematically wealthy. Yes, all the money and houses and dresses won’t make you good/smart/happy… but they’re awesome to ogle in the meantime.

That’s a lot of what Crazy Rich Asians is doing for modern audiences. Much like Rachel we are both put off and seduced by the debaucherously rich world of the Youngs. They’re all but royalty, and we Americans continue to have a complicated relationship with royalty. We don’t want to kneel to them, but we do want to BE them. We are fascinated by their lives and dramas, and we swoon at their ostentatious displays of wealth and we sneer at their peccadillos and dramas. We’re tempering our envy with our disdain. Or we’re using our disdain to hide our envy.

This, I think, is a key factor in the huge success of Crazy Rich Asians. The underserved demographic aspect cannot be overlooked – from anecdotal evidence I can tell you that this film was playing to huge Asian crowds weeks into its run – but that isn’t enough to have propelled the film to this level of success. It should, in the next week or so, pass Sex and the City to rest just under the top five romantic comedies of all time, box office-wise. The Asian community coming out in force made a difference, but, as with Black Panther, the film needed more diverse audiences to get where it is.

The other piece I published this week looks at Escape From The Planet of the Apes‘ villain, Dr. Hasslein, and explains why he – like Killmonger in Black Panther – was totally correct.

This makes Hasslein dislike the apes, but what really drives him over the edge is the revelation that Zira is pregnant. All of a sudden he’s faced with a predestination paradox – could the future where mankind is experimented on by talking apes be caused by this baby being born? He can’t be sure, and he is driven to stop the birth of the child.

The President isn’t so certain. After all, the future from which Zira and Cornelius arrived is a thousand years off. None of my voters, he reasons, will be around to be mad about it.This isn’t his concern. Someone else can deal with it later.

Hasslein has a little meltdown about this, and he delivers a rant that I love. I love it because he’s absolutely, 100% right.

“That’s what I’m worried about. Later. Later, we’ll do something about pollution. Later, we’ll do something about the population explosion. Later, we’ll do something about the nuclear war! We think we’ve got all the time in the world!! How much time has the world got?!! Somebody has to begin to care!”

Forty five years after Escape from the Planet of the Apes we can see what happens when no one begins to care, or not enough people care. We live in a world where climate change is not a threat but an omnipresent reality. We live in a world – predicted as far back as in the days of Escape from the Planet of the Apes – in which monster storms are routine, where drought and extreme temperatures are annual events, and where the city of Miami has already begun to disappear under the sea. And even with all of this… we think we’ve got all the time in the world.

You can really feel where Hasslein is coming from. Yeah, the ape domination is a thousand years off, but isn’t part of being a grown up doing a little long term planning? If the human race is grown up, it needs to start thinking in terms of the big picture, not just how the stock market is doing this week. All of our problems stems from a species-wide inability to look past the immediate moment and make plans, or to put things into perspective. Everybody I know is very concerned about climate change. Very few people I know actually carpool.

There’s more to it, and just because Hasslein was right doesn’t mean what he does is correct – and therein, I think, lies the intriguing moral nuance.

If these pique your interest, please consider becoming a patron at Patreon. I hope that the content alone is worth your subscription, but if it makes any difference you should also know that the Patreon has become a major source of support for me. I am working three jobs besides this blog (I consider this blog a job as well, so I have four jobs!), but the Patreon is the key that allows me to know I will not starve month to month and that I will be able to keep a roof over my head. As the Patreon grows I hope to be able to shed one or two of these jobs and focus more energy here.

Besides these longer pieces I also publish weekly recommendations at the Patreon page, some of which actually run fairly long as well. But even if you can’t support on Patreon at the higher levels, just a dollar a month is very meaningful and a way of saying that you appreciate the writing that I’m sharing.

Thanks again for all your support thus far. I’m moving at the end of the month and like I said, I have three other jobs at the moment, but I’m dedicated to carving out the time to focus more energy here in the coming weeks. Your patience is appreciated.

 

 

CASTLE ROCK Blew The Ending

I need to learn the most valuable lesson about writing TV criticism: don’t do it until the season is over. Maybe wait until the whole darn show is over. Again and again I’ve gotten really excited about a show and recommended it, only to see the show sink into a morass as soon as I’ve pledged allegiance. My timing is bad.

The latest show to fit into this pattern? Hulu’s Castle Rockwhich had an extraordinary first actI was really smitten with the show, and at the beginning it seemed to be setting up an exciting world and great characters, tying lightly into the Stephen King megaverse but mostly getting the King flavor absolutely right. So what the hell happened?

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SEARCHING: This Gripping Thriller Overcomes Its Gimmick

Can you really ever know anyone? That’s the main concept with which Searching plays, and while it never quite gets to the thematic meat behind that question, you almost don’t mind. After all, the film is gripping and tense, and it is filled with such extraordinary craft that just the act of WATCHING this movie is a blast for anyone who cares about the movies and cinematic language.

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MADELINE’S MADELINE: Dizzying Brilliance

The critics’ real job is to act as an interpreter, to give the reader a lens through which to approach the art. This is the highest calling of the critic, not to recommend what’s worth your money this weekend or to lob snark at trash. A critic bridges the gap between the filmmaker and the audience.

Madeline’s Madeline stymies the interpreter in me. Not because there is nothing to interpret – the film is dense with meaning and metaphor and bursting with exciting craft in service of emotion and story – but rather because there’s so little gap. Madeline’s Madeline is the most directly connective movie I have seen in years, a film that is intimate in the ways it is about intimacy. With its often blurry and shaky close-up camerawork, with the astonishing sound mix that eradicates the lines between lead character Madeline’s inner and outer worlds, with its immediate and heartbreaking lead performance by newcomer Helena Howard, Madeline’s Madeline is a film that is in direct communion with your emotions, often bypassing logic and sense to get there.

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BLINDSPOTTING: Being A Felon, A Human, An Optical Illusion

This contains spoilers for Blindspotting.

There’s an optical illusion at the center of Blindspotting, the famous image of a vase that, when viewed with the right perspective, becomes two faces. This optical illusion becomes the driving thematic element of the film, and I think it also becomes the meta thematic element of the film – how you look at Blindspotting, what your perspective is, will dictate what you see in Blindspotting.

For some it will be the gentrification that permeates every block in modern Oakland, transforming the city in which Collin (Daveed Diggs) and Miles (Rafael Casal) grew up, transforming it around them storefront by storefront. For some it will be the constant threat of police violence that hangs over Collin, a black man just trying to walk down his own street, haunted by seeing another black man gunned down while fleeing the cops. For others it will be the ways Miles desperately grabs for identity as he drowns in a sea of anger and resentment, a white man growing up in a black culture in which he can never truly participate, and yet apart from the white gentrifiers invading his community.

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