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Friday, October 20, 2017

Films for the Trump Years: The Big Short

            Looking back at all that’s happened the past few decades, it seems a monumental task to try and sort out the most important turning points over the past 16 years that led us to the Trump era, but the Great Recession that bridged the Bush and Obama years is easily one of the biggest.  While 9/11 and the subsequent War on Terror was the genesis for the particular strains of xenophobia and fear now infecting us, the Great Recession birthed its evil twin; the collapse of trust for most Americans in the stability, competence, and trustworthiness of our institutions and basic norms of economics and governance.  

            Everything about it- the people who directly lost homes, savings, jobs, and more, the revelation of just how thoroughly corrupt the markets had become and how inadequate our systems of regulation were, the bailouts allowing those most guilty of the crash to walk away swimming in blood money, and beyond- stunk to high heaven.  Moreover, it produced twin ripple effects on both sides of the American political spectrum that we are still caught up in.  Before it was supercharged by the desire to destroy the first Black President, the Tea Party first came about as opposition within conservative ranks to the direct involvement of President Bush in saving the banks.  The results of the radicalization of the GOP from top to bottom this brought about are, unfortunately, obvious for all to see.   

            And although it has not yet reached the same level in terms of political power, liberals and progressives have been affected just as starkly.  The Occupy Wall Street movement changed forever much of the lexicon on the left in discussing economic inequality, and many in my generation became the first to abandon an instinctive opposition to anything branded with that dirty word “socialist,” willing to embrace ideas like those proposed by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren that the Democratic Party would not have even contemplated addressing a decade ago.  And here, too, a strong tendency to inherently distrust and throw shade on anything deemed “establishment” is beginning to build to a destructive extreme. 

            Because of how important it is to bear in mind how the Recession is still not just affecting our economy, but even how we think about politics and society, in this month’s edition of Films for the Trump Years I suggest revisiting The Big Short, Adam McKay’s Oscar-winning masterpiece from 2015.  Based on the book by the same by Michael Lewis, one of today’s best non-fiction writers, it details how handful of finance expert with various backgrounds caught wind of the fact that the entire system propping up the housing and loans market was fraudulent.  With so many bad loans underwriting much of the American and global economy, it was not a question of if the system would crash, but when, and how badly. 

            What makes their stories so intriguing, complex, and interesting, is that none of these people are “good guys” in many senses of the word.  In their own way, they are just as greedy and opportunistic as those they are angry at for defrauding the public, because while they do try to raise at least a few alarm bells about what they find, they still don’t hesitate to profit off the crash when the opportunity arises. 

            What makes this movie a particular must-see, though, is how it uses its soundtrack, rapid-style editing, and fourth-wall breaks to not just tell a compelling story in a powerfully effective (which it does), but to also serve as a two-hour, Economics for Dummies Crash Course.  If you feel like you are hopelessly lost and unable to understand the many technical terms and ideas used in the industry, the movie reminds you that that is exactly the point- skullduggery like this is possible because its shrouded in such boring-sounding jargon, most people simply can’t muster the energy to pay much more than cursory attention to it all. 

            And therein lies the unfortunately all-too-cyclical nature of human greed and the systematic crashes it produces.  The movie pulls no punches at all in reminding the viewer just how cuttingly and awfully unfair it was that working people were ruined while the rich who made the crash were not punished in any meaningful way, and in revealing how a similar crash could easily just be a few more shorts away. 

            Like with most of the movies I select for this series, The Big Short is a film that calls for vigilance.  We can’t prevent every tragedy, but the more we resolve to work every day to open and re-open our eyes, and to educate ourselves about the world we live and the parts we play in whether we like it or no, the better our chances are of avoiding the next disaster. 

            So stay vigilant.  Stay woke.  And when you smell something, don’t ever hesitate to say something. 

-Noah Franc

Previously on Films for the Trump Years

Part 1- Selma

Part 3- 13th 

Part 4- Get Out 

Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Top 11 Nostalgia Critic Episodes (Since His Return)

            It’s truly hard to believe, but this summer marked the 10th anniversary of when Doug Walker began posting videos on Youtube under the moniker “Nostalgia Critic.”  It’s hard to grasp just how consequential and far-reaching the work of the Walker brothers and their current and former colleagues on TGWTG/Channel Awesome have been in pushing the bounds of online content and media criticism, and just how many remarkable careers have been given a boost as a result.  Doing so would require far more time and space than I currently have on this site, but it is a project well-worth undertaking one day, because no matter what form human online activity takes in the future, this remarkable past decade is worth remembering and celebrating. 

            For now, though, we will train out thoughts of appreciation to the man who was part of the very beginning, and who was, for many of us, the gateway to an entire online world that has become a continuous and essential part of our daily lives.  Doug Walker initially wanted to retire the Nostalgia Critic persona about 5 years ago so as to move on to other creative projects, but soon found that he (or, perhaps more accurately, his fanbase) just couldn’t quit the raving madman with a black cap, bad tie, and worse attitude he had created. 

            However, in a touch of sweet irony given the name of his character, attachment to the past has never held him down from trying out new ideas.  Since bringing back the character in 2013, he has continuously reinvented and altered the format of the show, throwing in more sketches, outside recurring characters, theme songs, and has most recently taken to effectively creating his own “parody” versions of recent theatrical releases, often while they’re still in theaters.  It certainly took some getting used to the new feel of everything at first, but since then he’s continued at full throttle and seems to have no regrets with coming back, and at this point there are actually more of the “new” NCs than there are of the old ones. 

            And so of course, there’s no better way to pause and say “thank you” than to- what else- honor this important anniversary with a Top 11 List of the Best Nostalgia Critic episodes since the big return (I’m deliberately excluding the old ones because I’ve already listed my favorites of those).  Also, for this list I’ve only focused on the regular movie/show NC reviews, not his shorter editorials from the off weeks, since they’re a different creature entirely and thus can’t really be compared the same way. 

            And with that said, here is my list of the Top 11 Nostalgia Critic episodes since his the return.  Why Top 11?  Because he’s always gone one step beyond for us, so we ought to do the same for him. 

11. Mamma Mia (originally aired February 17, 2015)

            Doug Walker has often trained his critical sights on films and franchises that were meant to appeal to particularly narrow or problematic ideals of machismo and masculine identity (the Transformers franchise being a key recurring example).  His scathing critiques of the worst kinds of online internet “meninists” are undoubtedly some of his most important work, but with Mamma Mia, he flips his usual script and takes a similarly scathing look at the sorts of female-audience-seeking rom-coms that, in their own way, are just as backwards and repressive in their views of women as the works of Michael Bay or Zach Snyder are of men.

10. The Purge (originally aired July 29, 2014)

            Considered one of the worst missed opportunities for a horror movies of recent years, a Nostalgia Critic take on the film was always going to be good, but I’m sure no one could have predicted how good until the very end of the review, when a side gag about Pinky and the Brain breaking up concludes with the actual voice actors from the Animaniacs show appearing in Doug’s hotel room to record a profanity-filled fight between the two.  Forget being one of the best NCs of all time, this one should go down as a virtual cultural touchstone for everyone who grew up with the characters and perpetually wondered why the Brain really did keep putting up with his bumbling sidekick. 

9. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (May 28, 2013)

            This controversial Spielberg/Kubrick hybrid was right up in the wheelhouse of the Walker Brothers (Doug speaks repeatedly of his admiration for the work of Stanley Kubrick), meaning that an extra level of knowledge and passion was evident in every shot and joke.  That alone would have made this one for the record books, but the boys went the extra mile and used this NC as a vehicle for a vicious (and much-needed) takedown of TMZ specifically, and our collective culture of pulpy, superficial, scandal-driven media consumption in general.  Sadly, since the rise of a certain orange-colored Godzilla, this is one of those videos whose message has only gotten more potent and powerful with time. 

8. The 3rd Animated Titanic Movie (originally aired September 26, 2016)

            The first two animated Titanic musicals are two of the most horrific things ever created by mankind.  Ergo, the NC videos on them rank as two of the funniest things the Walkers have ever produced.  Yet despite this, Doug insisted for years that the THIRD animated Titanic movie was one of the films he would never submit himself to.  Well, last year he finally broke down, and the results were every bit as amazing (and the movie every bit as atrocious) as we’d all hoped. 

7. Wicker Man (originally aired January 21, 2014)

            The themed reviews of January are always a special time for the NC, as regular and as important a fixture of the Channel Awesome site as Nostalgiaween and Doug Walker’s massive Christmas Boner, and Nicholas Cage Month, the first January after the return of the character, was no exception.  The Wicker Man video was not only the highlight of that month, but is particularly special for being the official introduction of Tamara into the Channel Awesome universe after Rachel’s departure the month before.    

6. Devil (October 29 2013), After Earth (June 30, 2014), The Happening (January 12, 2016), Lady in the Water (January 26, 2016)

            Oh Shyamalan.  Something about your awfulness as a filmmaker always manages to bring out the best and sharpest the Walker Brothers have to offer.  Because of how pointedly gleeful the NC takedowns of this man’s travesties masquerading as films are, I couldn’t bring myself to try and judge these separately; otherwise half this list would be taken up by Shyamalan films (they’ve also done an equally excellent NC for Signs, but that was before the retirement, so I’m not listing it here).  They are all works of comedic art, as brilliant as the films themselves aren’t, and deserved to be appreciated together. 

5. Les Miserables (originally aired August 20, 2013)

            Back in the very young days of this blog, which I coincidentally started right when Doug Walker tried retiring the Nostalgia Critic, I ranked the massive crossover review of Moulin Rouge as the best Nostalgia Critic review for its sheer size and scope.  Since the return, he has done an increasing number of really big reviews in the same vein, with larger effects, songs, and bigger and bigger stars, including ones tackling other big musical releases.  While some (Phantom of the Opera) didn’t quite reach the same heights as the Moulin Rouge one did, the review of the recent Les Miserables remake absolutely did, creating a comedic critic experience every bit as sublime as his first foray into this genre. 

4. The Last Airbender (originally aired September 3, 2013)

            Yes, this is also a Shyamalan movie, but there is a very specific reason I’m putting it ahead of the others listed above.  You see, there was once a time, way back in the early days of TGWTG, where Doug would list the upcoming reviews he planned to do a month or so in advance.  It didn’t take long, of course, for negative reactions to preemptively start filtering in beforehand, in the vein of, “How DARE he lay his hands on THIS classic??”  Soon, he abandoned the practice entirely, which meant that, in most cases, there would rarely be any clue what movie he was doing next more than a week or two in advance. 

            The Last Airbender was a rare exception to this- soon after the return, Doug announced that he fully intended to give the film the full NC treatment, but as he’d never seen any of the original show before, he announced almost a year in advance that he would first watch every episode of the original series and document his thoughts, the first time he’d ever done something like that.  This allowed our anticipation of the eventual film review, which was never going to be anything less than amazing, to build and marinate in a way that it never has for any other NC.  The payoff of finally seeing it when it came brought the sort of satisfaction few other things can. 

            Plus, his videos on the TV show (which he now lauds as his new favorite show of all time) directly led to the ongoing Vlog series he now does with Rob, which have expanded beyond The Last Airbender to include Legend of Korra, Adventure Time, Gravity Falls, Steven Universe, and more, which are, in my book, every bit as excellent as any of the other material on the site. 

3. The Lorax (originally aired May 6, 2014)

            Dr. Seuss, much like Stanley Kubrick, has always been one of the artists Doug Walker professes a particular devotion to.  Naturally, this has made the recent slew of live-action “adaptations” of his classic books all the more painful for him to watch, and thus, all the funnier for us to experience.  With the Lorax review, though, he went the extra mile to deconstruct just how culturally harmful this particularly noxious form of modern capitalism is.  Not only are these movies and the marketing around them horribly at odds with the spirit of the original works, they represent a modern trend that simply seeks to consume all there is of a fad until nothing is left.  In addition to ripping into an awful film, Doug took extra care with this video to remind us how such seemingly “harmless” movies contribute to a culture where we allow ourselves and the world around to become an emptier, unhappier place, rather than a better one. 

2. Man of Steel (originally aired November 26, 2013)

            And speaking of Man of Steel, Nostalgia Critic was clearly hitting a sweet spot in late 2013, as he followed up his huge reviews of Les Miserables and The Last Airbender with another of his all-time greats, a crossover with Angry Joe looking at what, at the time, was the most bitterly divisive of the superhero movie franchises being created.  The review is every bit as big and bombastic as the film itself, featuring a return of Doug’s Donner-era Zod impersonation, and a crossover with the Superhero CafĂ© squad from How It Should Have Ended. 

            And the #1 Nostalgia Critic video since his return is…..

1. Top 11 Best Avatar Episodes (September 23, 2014) 

            There was a lot going for this episode from the outset.  It’s Avatar themed, always a winning choice.  It’s a Top 11, and those have always been some of the best and most interesting works by the Walkers.  What sets this one apart as both the best Top 11 they’ve ever done AND the best video they’ve done period since bringing back the character is the presence of Dante Basco as possibly the best guest appearance ever within the NC universe, appearing as a live-action version of Zuko obsessed with destroying the Nostalgia Critic for daring to critique his show.  Add in some of the greatest fourth wall humor ever written, and you have something truly special, something destined to last as long as the show will. 

            And that concludes our very, very brief look at the Nostalgia Critic’s work since returning from the beyond all those years ago.  It has been a remarkable journey with him and his cohorts, and I sincerely hope we have years more to look forward to.  Thank you, Doug and Rob, for everything. 

-Noah Franc `

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Films for the Trump Years: Chasing Ice/Chasing Coral

            It is a hard and, at the moment, acutely painful task to try and picture the future of our race and our planet. It would be bad enough if the harms inflicted by the current wave of reactionary conservatism sweeping the West were just limited to the domestic affairs of individual countries.  Sadly, that will almost certainly not be the case.  At this crucial point in human history, a true internal breaking in either the United States or Europe would not only spell tragedy for people living in those respective countries, it could all too easily spell catastrophe for the entire human race and, by extension, most life on the planet Earth. 

            The crux around which the development (or destruction) of our species and life in general is, of course, global climate change, and all its strange, unpredictable, and increasingly violent effects. Everyone- EVERYONE- alive now will be judged by future generations according to one, overriding question; when all the evidence lay on the table, the immense scope of the challenge made clear, and the time came to decisively act, what did humanity do?  Who had ears and heard, had eyes and saw, and who fought with every fiber of their being to prevent disaster?  And who turned away, and stuck their heads in the ground?  Who, at the critical juncture, willingly accepted the suffering of their children and grandchildren as the price to keep their comfortable ignorance? 

              The announcement by Trump that the US will formally leave the Paris Climate Agreement (as well as his abandonment of the TPP), while most likely the death knell of American’s status as a relevant global player, also carries the potential of unraveling much of the positive environmental momentum that been building over the past few years.  A true collapse has not happened yet- internationally the agreement is still holding (thanks in no small part to China’s continued support), and several of the largest and richest states within the US have committed to sticking with and expanding the goals and targets laid out in the agreement, which in the long run could make formal involvement by the federal government a moot point. 

            Despite that bit of good news, we can’t afford to let up, not for a second.  For all the good that has happened over the past decade, we are still far behind where we need to be, and much of that hinges on continued ignorance of either the very existence of global warming or of just how far-reaching, intricate, and advanced its effects already are.

            While most of us are not in positions of political or economic power, and thus can only indirectly influence overarching government policy (like refusing to support candidates and parties that ignore the existence of the problem), what we all CAN do is continue to educate ourselves and each other, using every opportunity to spread good, reliable information and raise awareness, and film is a crucial part of that effort. 

            There are a LOT of great documentaries out there stretching back over a decade that explore climate change and possible solutions, but for this post, there are two in particular I want to recommend- the Netflix-produced documentaries Chasing Ice (2012) and Chasing Coral (2017), both directed by Jeff Orlowski.    

            The first of these films to come out was Chasing Ice, where the director follows and documents the remarkable efforts of James Balog and his crew, dubbed the Extreme Ice Survey (or EIS), to regularly photograph the retreat of glaciers across the Northern Hemisphere over a three-year-period.  Despite a number of technical and weather-related hiccups, they were able to succeed in this staggeringly large and complicated task, and the end result is a series of videos that allow you to literally watch massive, ancient ice structures wilt and melt away before your very eyes.  It is some of the starkest and most viscerally powerful visual proofs of climate change yet produced, and although many of their videos are being widely shared online, there are still far too many people who haven’t seen this film. 

            One person who did watch and paid attention was a former business marketing manager turned coral activist, who immediately saw how the same technique of long-running photography could be used to document another depressingly visible from of climate change- the slow bleaching and dying of vast stretches of the world’s coral reefs, some of the most biodiverse places on the planet and the foundation for entire ecosystems, economies, and cultures on the lands surrounding them.  He contacted Jeff, and mapped out a similar project to photograph several reef stretches expected to be hit hard by a new wave of bleaching.  The result was this year’s Chasing Coral, which packs every bit as much of a visual gut punch in its presentation as its predecessor.    

            While these are both excellent films on their own, they work best as a double-feature, allowing one to get a sense of scope of the problems we face by going from the coldest reaches of the North to the depths of the seas, and seeing how a common thread of slow-burning degradation connects both.  They are hard movies to watch- how can they not be- but that makes them all the more necessary if we are to ignite a large enough fire within ourselves to spur proper action. 

            Knowledge and facts are our greatest weapons in this fight, and ignorance our greatest enemy.  Watch these movies, share them, spread the word, and never stop thinking about what steps you can take next, because the work doesn’t end.  We will not abandon this planet to Trump and his ilk.  We can’t. 

-Noah Franc

Previously on Films for the Trump Years:

Part 1- Selma

Part 3- 13th

Part 4- Get Out

Friday, September 22, 2017

Review: mother!

mother! (2017): Written and directed by Darren Aronofsky.  Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, and Michelle Pfeiffer.  Running Time: 121 minutes.  Based on: Fie on you if you can’t guess it. 

Rating: 3.5/4

            mother! is one of those movies that is, for several reasons, damn near impossible to review properly, not the least of which is that my autocorrect keeps insisting I must be mistaken about that uncapitalized “m” and the explanation point that keeps popping up in the middle of full sentences. 

            Tiring as it is, though, autocorrect can be worked around.  What can’t be worked around is that any discussion of the most interesting and important aspects of this movie- i.e., everything that makes mother! worth seeing as one of the most bizarre and frustrating cinematic creations of 2017- can’t be so much as touched on in a spoiler-free manner.  Which I very much want this review to be, partially because this is a movie where not knowing how deep the rabbit hole goes until you’re in it is a key part of its effect, and also because if I did try to spell out the depths of this movie’s madness, you all wouldn’t believe me, and would have me packed off to the madhouse before I could utter the words “auteur schmauteur.”

            Well, let’s at least try, shall we?  There is a house, still bearing the scars of a recent fire.  Two people, an older poet (Javier Bardem) and his much-younger wife (Jennifer Lawrence) reside there.  She struggles day by day to rebuild the house to something resembling its former glory, while he sits in his office and grapples with a particularly nasty case of writer’s block.  The house, much like its cousins in films like Crimson Peak, is place filled with nooks, crannies, and small rooms aplenty, enough to constantly make you feel like there’s always more to the place you haven’t yet seen, places which will inevitably be revealed in the most unpleasant of ways. 

            Their stable, if not necessarily happy, routine is broken up when an older couple they don’t know turns up out of the blue one night.  For reasons neither we nor the woman can fathom, the man acts as if his best friend has returned from the dead, and welcomes them into the house like family.  They proceed to make themselves increasingly at home, despite the woman’s very agitated attempts to get them to leave.  Then their sons show up, and an apparently very nasty, long-running family feud breaks wide open in the worst way possible, much to the woman’s horror. 

            And it is right about then that every semblance of normalcy the film initially possessed is cast to the four winds, the baby of rationality is tossed out with the bathwater, and an orgy of insanity soon descends upon the house, the theater screen, and the poor psyches of every unsuspecting soul who wanders into a theater seat expecting a by-the-numbers horror flick.  And it is here that I will not say any more.  If you want to learn the truth, you’re on your own. 

            Now don’t misunderstand me- it’s not that the ideas or thematic overtones within the movie are too obtuse or impenetrable- the overall structure of the film (and what Darren Aronofsky is playing at) is not very hard to make out.  It becomes very clear very early on that he’s using a rough template of several biblical stories, particularly the creation stories in the book of Genesis, to tie together clear religious and spiritual themes with reflections on the struggles inherent in unequal gender roles in marriage and the world of art, and how popular culture always carries an inherent, dark tendency to simply consume all it can of whatever person or thing it latches onto, no matter the cost to those caught up in its relentless maelstrom. 

            What IS amazing, baffling, exhilarating, and terrifying all at once is seeing just how far the people making this mini marvel commit to taking it all to its logical extreme, and that they found a way to lay it all out on-screen in excruciatingly graphic detail.  The rising tension within the film- brilliantly conveyed by tight cinematography that rarely leaves the taught, stressed, and later frightened face of the woman- begins to snowball early in the second act, crashes into what would be the emotional highpoint in most other movies, plateaus for just a bit, and then starts rolling back up again, picking up steam and careening into a mad frenzy of a third act that, in terms of the sheer technical wizardry needed to make it function as a piece of filmmaking, is one of the most daring artistic endeavors I’ve ever witnessed. 

            I ultimately feel at a loss to judge whether or not all this really works as a functional narrative- the way many of its elements were so violently mashed together will struck some as too over-the-top, and its depiction of religion (specifically Catholicism) will be too crass and blunt for others- but that it took amazing skill and gumption to think up, create, and release this to the public is beyond question.  I would much rather see a film try and fail to create this sort of experience than something that plays it by the numbers any day of the week. 

            It is also an immense relief to see Jennifer Lawrence back in a role that suits her talents.  This may very well be the film that nets her a second Oscar, and unlike the David Russell tripe she’s been wallowing in for the past 4 years, this time around she’ll have earned it.  I had begun to have my doubts about her, but this movie puts quite a few of them to rest, and thank the Creator for that.   

            I have no idea who will like this film, and I know many people who would only hate it, but let there be no doubt- nothing else coming this year, or in many years prior, is anything like this, and if the experience of the unique is something you prize in a movie above everything else, this is where you need to be. 

-Noah Franc 

Friday, September 15, 2017

Review: Death Note

Death Note (2017): Written by Jeremy Slater, Vlas Parlapanides, and Charles Parlapanides.  Directed by Adam Wingard.  Starring: Nat Wolff, Lakeith Stanfield, Margaret Qualley, Shea Whigham, Paul Nakauchi, Jason Liles, and Willem Dafoe.  Running Time: 100 minutes.  Based on the original (and vastly superior) manga of the same name by Tsugumi Ohba. 

Rating: 0.5/4

**spoilers for the movie Death Note follow.  Which doesn’t matter, because you really shouldn’t see it anyway**

            When making a movie based on pre-existing source material, there are two special pitfalls you can’t afford to fall into.  One is to stray so far from the story’s origins that you contradict or spoil what made it good in the first place, thus pissing off legions of pre-existing fans.  On the flip side, pander too much to said fans, and the end result will be too stuck up its own lore to make sense to new viewers, thus depriving the franchise a chance to expand is audience. 

            The new live-action, Netflix-produced version of Death Note (directed by Adam Wingard) is the type of sheer disaster that somehow manages to sniff out every possible way to do both.  Nearly everything about it- the casting, writing, development of characters, editing, music choices, pacing, and beyond- will be utterly odious to anyone with even the slightest respect or affection for the original manga and anime.  And yet the movie tries so hard to rack up Fanboy Brownie Points by dropping one pointless Easter egg after another and never bothering to explain itself that I can’t imagine anyone NOT coming in with detailed knowledge of the original story being able to make heads or tails of the damn thing. 

            Now, if you DO indeed happen to be reading this as an Uninitiated, here’s the skinny; a bored high school student named Light, frustrated with the state of the world, one day finds a magical notebook that, according to the rules printed in the cover, allows its user to kill people in whichever manner they see fit.  After being visited by a Shinigami- supernatural beings that normally use Death Notes to control human life spans- and having this spelled out to him, Light resolves to use this power to kill off all those he deems evil, so as to create a new world free of crime or corruption. 

            The surge of mysterious killings that result gets the attention of both law enforcement and the world at large, dividing society between those who support the idea behind Light’s actions and those who simply see him as another wannabe serial killer who needs to be brought to justice.  A police task is formed to stop him, led by a mysterious, genius detective known only as ‘L,’ who soon starts to suspect Light.  The race is soon on to see which one can figure out the identity of the other first and kill/arrest them before their own safety is compromised. 

            Except in the case of this film, it’s less of a “race” and more of a particularly drunk auto-pileup on the freeway.  And instead of the high-level, intellectual chess match that characterized the back-and-forth efforts of Light and L to out each other in the original series, here the second half devolves into a (literal) running competition between the two characters to see who can be the biggest dickwad to random civilians they happen to be passing by in a given scene. 

            This movie manages to fail so amazingly in ways both large and small that I’m honestly at a loss as to where to begin, but unlike the people who made this sucker, I will at least make an honest effort.   

            To whit; the editing is haphazard and nonsensical, with characters simply appearing on-screen as needed.  The deaths Light arranges, especially at first, are gruesome and graphic just for its own sake.  Whoever pieced together the pop-filled soundtrack deserves to be shot in the kneecaps.  The worst offender in that last regard is the track that provides the down beat for the film’s climax, a narratively and technically garbled mess that hinges on a gob-smackingly stupid error of judgment by Light, and is set atop a collapsing Ferris wheel (because, you know, nothing says Death Note like THEME PARK RIDES).  That particular scene was so egregious to everything I hold dear as a lover of good storytelling, it’s one of the only times in my life a movie has left me well and truly speechless. 

            Much of the fire thrown at this movie has centered on its whitewashing of a Japanese story by supplanting nearly every character with a white actor.  The only character that remains Japanese is Watari, and even that’s ruined by his treatment being more than a little racist; of COURSE Watari is his real (and ONLY) name, because those silly Japanese don’t have last names, amiright?  And while all those criticisms are justified, what frustrates me the most is that making the characters American didn’t NEED to be a problem; there are a lot of ways Death Note (or at least a similar concept) could be set in White America and work just fine.  Even the idea of having a white Light and a black L (the only non-white cast member outside of Watari) is actually kind of interesting all on its own; it could easily function as solid social commentary by flipping around real-world dynamics of racial inequality before the law, if you’re creative enough.  Sadly, the people making this movie weren’t, and aren’t, and likely will never be. 

            As bad as all of the above is, the way L is treated is probably the biggest sore point for me.  The guy they cast to play him (Lakeith Stanfield) was one of the few good casting choices in the entire film; at first, he puts on a different, but still interesting, performance, and more or less gets L’s mannerisms down well while still putting his own spin on the character.  But halfway through, some bumhole throws a switch off-screen, and when he reappears, L has turned into a different person entirely.  Gone is the crime-fighting mastermind, and in his place we’re stuck with a frantic, impulsive, bumbling moron who couldn’t solve his way out of the back of an open van.   

            Amazingly, this exact same problem plagues the one other really good casting decision the filmmakers made.  Willem Dafoe as Ryuk is absolutely an inspired choice- his voice is PERFECT for the character- and I dearly wish there were a better live-action Death Note film with him in it.  Sadly, there is not, and here again, while the performance and the voice fit like a glove, the screenplay misses the boat entirely on what his character was supposed to be. 

            Part of the whole point of the original story was that everything that happens comes about only because Ryuk was bored and wanted to play around with some silly humans to kill time.  There was no grand destiny, no greater spiritual or metaphysical purpose to what Light did- he just happened to find the Note by accident, used it until he got in over his head, and then Ryuk heads back to the Shinigami world to shoot craps with his pals, rinse, wash, repeat.  Light came up with the idea of creating a new world on his own to soothe his addled ego, and the identity and concept of Kira was later given to him by cult followers on the internet.  Meanwhile, Ryuk just stood in the background, eating apples and yucking it up. 

            Here, Ryuk shows up and mumbles some gobbledygook about it being his JOB to find human owners for the Note (wait, huh?), then proceeds to use his Force powers (oh yes, didn’t you know? Ryuk has effing FORCE POWERS) to directly push Light to become Kira and create scenarios where he’s forced to use the Note in increasingly slapdash ways.  That the filmmakers managed to so utterly sour the only two good decisions they chanced upon in the exact same way tellingly reveals that pretty much no one involved in this project bothered to actually try and understand what made the original Death Note so great, and why it continues to hold up today. 

            Christ almighty, I’m onto my third page typing this, and I still haven’t gotten to the mandatory love interest.  Right away, this character should have scored easy points with me for NOT being Misa Amane, one of my most loathed characters in any medium, but somehow- my God, SOMEHOW- she ends up even more useless and badly written.  Both her attraction to Light (we get exactly ONE GLANCE to establish her crushing on him before they start boning) and her insatiable bloodlust for using the Note are without purpose or reason.  She and Ryuk are basically there just to play Shoulder Angel/Shoulder Devil with Light, except that they’re both devils, and they both can’t be bothered to explain why.  Because reasons are for suckers, y’all. 

            This movie is a complete and total failure as both an adaptation of a great story and as a stand-alone movie.  It’s too sloppily-made and convoluted in its narrative to make a lick of sense to anyone not already a fan, and if you ARE already a fan you have even less reason to watch it, because truly, only fury and pain awaits you.  Yes, it’s only on Netflix and is therefore *technically* free to watch, but it’s not even worth the click in the Netflix database.  Don’t make them think people want more of this, because believe me, none of us do. 

-Noah Franc 

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Films for the Trump Years: Get Out

            I had originally planned something much different for this month.  With the continued threats to Obamacare, I thought of looking at some movies about the rise of AIDS in the 80’s and the atrocious apathy the Reagan administration showed towards the crisis, something along the lines of Angels in America.  There are also a couple of really excellent recent documentaries out about climate change (no, not the one you’re thinking of), which will not cease to be a critical issue anytime soon.  And after doing Selma and 13th so close to another, I wanted to briefly move away from racial issues for at least a little while. 

            However, while the other movies I considered will all eventually have their time of day in this column, sometimes events overtake the best-laid plans, and must be faced accordingly.  After the terrible events of Charlottesville, including the murder of Heather Heyer and the absolutely revolting spectacle of a sitting US President playing the “many sides” game, this is one such time.  As such, in this month’s installment of Films for the Trump Years, I am featuring Get Out, Jordan Peele’s 2017 directorial debut and (so far) one of the year’s best films. 

            There’s a particular reason I chose to go with Get Out over other, seemingly more obvious choices when selecting a movie that tackles race; watching it is actually a hard, challenging experience for modern, white audiences.  Historical dramas like 12 Years A Slave or Hidden Figures, while culturally essential, are easy picks because they depict specific and particularly grievous examples of racism in the past.  The resulting space of time enables the modern viewer to form a sense of distance between oneself and what they are witnessing; “Yeah, that’s so awful, but thankfully it’s in the past, so I have nothing to do with it.” 

            The exact same problem of easy separation applies to non-historical movies dealing with white nationalism/supremacism in its most direct and explicit forms, ala American History X or Green Room.  Here again, it’s easy for 99% of white people to put such overt ignorance and violent hatred at arm’s length, scoring (in their own minds, at least) easy brownie points for saying that what the characters spew is clearly all wrong, and they certainly aren’t like that; they know what’s in their hearts. 

            Get Out is different.  Get Out doesn’t allow its white viewers to form such a distance, which makes it all the harder- and thus, more necessary- to experience.  

            In case you haven’t yet heard of it, Get Out is a horror movie about a black man about to meet his white girlfriend’s parents and their neighbors for the very first time, and feeling nervous about how things will go down.  While his more normal worries prove entirely correct over the course of the super-awkward garden party the parents throw the day after they arrive, it soon becomes clear something far more sinister is going on.  He can’t tell what it is at first, but once he finally does start to put the pieces together, he realizes he may already be too late. 

            Its qualities as a horror film aside, what makes Get Out so different (and important) in how it tackles race is where Peele chose to set the story; right smack-dab in the middle of upper-class, secular, “progressive” white suburbia.  No Deliverance-esque country backwater.  No super-conservative Christian community.  The white folks aren’t the Ed Norton gang from American History X.  No swastikas or Confederate symbols are to be seen.  They’re well-educated, well-to-do people proud to declare their love of Obama, Jesse Owens, and Louis Armstrong, and readily assure the main character how much they respect “his” people and culture.  And yet they, too, objectify the black body according to their own prejudices and biases, in ways ranging from the benignly silly to the actively destructive (how, exactly, I wouldn’t spoil for the life of me). 

            This simple fact is the key to the brilliance of Get Out as a piece of racial commentary, making it especially poignant and powerful in the wake of tragic events like Charlottesville.  The hatefulness and ugliness of white supremacist ideologies, and the forms of terrorism they encourage, must be called out, refuted, and denied the space to harm others as much as possible.  This is not to be debated, discussed, or watered down with morally bankrupt phrases like “both sides.” 

            But that alone is not enough, because in the end, the perpetuation of racial inequality in all its forms does not happen because “all” or “most” white people explicitly buy into such ideas.  It happens through the inability of self-professed “good,” or “woke,” or “enlightened,” or “progressive” whites to do the hard work of grappling with the huge racial legacy their very lives and cultural identities are built upon, of looking at themselves in the mirror and coming to terms with the ways in which they are every bit as complicit as the KKK in allowing and enabling the continuance of America’s political, economic, social, and cultural divides between whites and everyone else. 

            Martin Luther King, Jr. once wrote that “shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”  Get Out deliberately sharpens its blades to a razor edge before aiming them right at the hearts of those of good will still suffering under the delusions of their shallow understanding, and then proceeding to drive them home without letup. 

            There are, of course, far more reasons to see Get Out movie that just for the social commentary.  It is a masterfully crafted film, one of 2017’s best, filled out by a top-notch cast, impeccably shot, and is likely to become a huge game-changer within the horror genre.  I especially recommend checking out these lists detailing the astoundingly careful thought that went into every detail of the film.  It deserves to be seen and appreciated by all on its merits as a great film alone, and if we were living in better times, Get Out would be just that; a superb movie and nothing more. 

            Sadly, we aren’t living in better times, and as such Get Out is not just a great film; it also provides an essential service to our continuing collective efforts to reckon with the racial sins of our past, and how our refusal to do so continues to actively shape our present, whether or not we choose to acknowledge that fact. 

-Noah Franc

Previously on Films for the Trump Years:  

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Review: Dunkirk

Dunkirk (2017): Written and directed by Christopher Nolan.  Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cilian Murphy, Mark Rylance, and Tom Hardy.  Running Time: 106 minutes. 

Rating: 3.5/4

**minor spoilers for Dunkirk follow**

            After his dalliance in the realm of sci-fi with his last film, the much-maligned Interstellar, Christopher Nolan has returned to far more grounded fare (both literally and figuratively) with Dunkirk.  The title refers to the successful evacuation of most of the British army after it was pinned down on Dunkirk beach in early 1940, at a time in World War II when Hitler’s armies were enjoying near-perfect success running across most of Western Europe.  It was immediately lionized by the British propaganda machine as a shining example of British virtue, and Churchill’s address to the British Parliament in the wake of the evacuation remains one of the most well-known and inspired bits of speechmaking in human history. 

            Christopher Nolan has been criticized for a lot of things in the past, including being too white-and-male heavy in his movies, dragging out scenes that make his films feel longer than they are, and relying on heady, pseudo-philosophical monologues by lead characters to convey the ideas or messages in his films.  But while the white-maleness is still here in abundance (and is a knock against the film), he works at a far more concise and economical clip than he usually does; Dunkirk comes in just under two hours, but it’s all so packed that every part hits just the right notes before moving on.  It’s also largely void of dialogue, especially in key action scenes, focusing on the sights and sounds of war and how masses of people instinctively react when their lives are all on the line.  The end result is one of the most technically impressive cinematic experiences of the year, and easily ranks alongside Inception and The Dark Knight as one of the finest works of Nolan’s career. 

            It should be said upfront that this is not a historical procedural meant to provide an accurate understanding of how the actual events at Dunkirk played out.  The familiar historical event ends up being nothing more than backdrop for Nolan to dig into the visceral, minute-to-minute experiences of trying to survive in war zone, and given what we know about PTSD and trauma and how it distorts one’s perception of time, taking this approach makes this the perfect fertile ground for Nolan’s twin obsessions with time and memory, and how the two can be changed or manipulated in our minds. 

            Loosely split into three parts, we simultaneously follow a handful of privates on the beach itself over the course of a week, a day-long trip to and from the beach by a private citizen and his sons to help in the rescue effort, and an hour-long flight to the fighting zone by RAF pilots assigned to fight off Luftwaffe bombers.  Though each segment of the movie occupies a wholly different space of time, the film constantly cuts from one timeline to the next, jumping from day in the cockpit to night on the beach after a sub attack, and then back again.  It’s probably best to arm yourself with this knowledge beforehand, not because the film does a poor job of piecing together the disparate parts (the three timelines eventually do converge in the final rescue sequence), but simply because, that way, you can get more out of the experience and better appreciate the artistry from the very beginning. 

            Given that another longstanding criticism of Nolan has been his inability to really grasp human emotions in his characters and dialogue, the lack of talking for much of the running time ends up being a major strength as well.  Nolan has a masterful list of actors he draws on for each of his films, and his regulars Tom Hardy and Cilian Murphy (plus newcomers like Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, and Fionn Whitehead) are exactly the sort of performers who know how to deliver character and presence in a scene whether or not you give them anything to say. 

            This film has already been considerably lauded for its technical prowess as a big-budget, procedural war drama, and in this realm alone the film’s credentials are damn near impeachable.  I expect this movie to rake in technical accolades come awards season, and the fact that this is a World War II movie also has me betting that Nolan just might finally get his long-awaited Best Director nomination. 

            Not that the film is above some common Nolan criticisms; while the all-maleness of the film’s cast is not so out of place given the historical setting, there has been blowback about its whiteness.  Not only are all the speaking roles given over to white men, the only non-white actors even glimpsed are a handful of French African soldiers in an early scene.  In particular, a number of people have called out the absence of regiments of Indian soldiers who were, in fact, present on the beaches and took part in the evacuation.  There is also a particular part of Churchill’s famous speech (included in the movie) that is often glossed over in internet memes, a part where he insists that if the British Isles were to fall to Germany, Britain’s Imperial colonies around the world would “carry on the struggle” to liberate them.  It sounds wonderful within the context of the speech (like I said, it IS inspired speechwriting), but whether or not the many populations and peoples forcefully subjugated by the British crown would in reality have so willingly laid down their lives under such circumstances is something very much up to debate, especially if they can’t be graced with a presence said Imperial power’s war movies. 

            Dunkirk certainly does give the impression at times of being a lionizing portrait of British courage and of the nobleness of its Empire, notwithstanding Nolan’s protestations that the film is apolitical.  The music, swelling as the boats of patriotic private citizens appear on the horizon.  A lone soldier, lying on his back and defiantly firing his rifle in the air at an incoming German plane before being blown to bits.  A burning Spitfire framed by a setting sun.  Tom Hardy.  Just Tom Hardy. 

            All of this is there, but as I watched this film a second time, I couldn’t help but feel that it was undercutting the supposed glorification of these moments in interesting ways.  This is most noticeable amongst the privates trapped on the beach.  Although they are celebrated and lauded when they return home, we know exactly how desperate petty, selfish, and even downright savage they were when caught up in the machines of death.  Throughout the film, selfishness, fear, and anger amongst the British are often shown to be just as deadly or dangerous as German bombs.  A while after we see that one soldier firing his rifle at the planes, another soldier insists that the civilians coming in with their boats have no business being there because “they don’t even have any guns.”  To which Mark Rylance rather pointedly asks the soldier if his rifle did him any good against the U-boat that sank his ship. 

            Even the direct quotation of Churchill’s speech at the end, with all its soaring rhetoric, is read, not with joy or bombast, but in the exhausted monotone of a shell-shocked soldier.  He is interrupted by a fellow soldier whose not even paying attention, and when he’s done, after the camera has cut to black after the swelling-music-shot that would usually end this sort of film, we suddenly return to that soldier sitting in the train.  He’s finished Churchill’s speech, glances up with a blank look in his eyes, then drops his head once more and turns the page. 

            That particular ending, more than anything else, has stuck with me, the same way that the final shot of Inception stuck with me.  This is an excellent movie, one of the best of 2017 to date, but I can’t shake the feeling that many people both lauding and criticizing the film are missing some of its larger reflections on just how brutally unnecessary all this violence is, love of country or no.  Regardless of where you fall on this spectrum, Nolan has once again delivered a remarkable and memorable experience that absolutely deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible, and then dissected to death afterwards. 

-Noah Franc