Knives Out

Entertaining movie.  I hesitated about seeing it, and even declared on social media that I would not, so that Rian Johnson makes $9 less at the box office.  But sure enough before bargain Tuesday was over I found myself sitting in the cinema.

The moviemaking is solid and the plot itself seems to sort of make sense. When you see it you might wonder to yourself whether telling someone dreadful out of error might be cause for a manslaughter charge if it leads to fatality.  But just put that non-spoiler into your back pocket until after watching the movie.

Apart from one quip reference to Baby Driver, what may date this movie in a few years is reference to Trump and keeping kids in cages, as well as a young boy in the film who is meant to represent internet “trolls” AKA disenfranchised Star Wars fans who disliked The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson’s previous film.

A distinction can be made between the writing and directing which are much as they should be and the writer-director himself Rian Johnson who either has a disproportionate amount of hate for how he wrote Luke Skywalker and the creation of time-wasting characters like Rose Tico and Vice Admiral Holdo while allowing Admiral Ackbar to die off screen with no distinction.  It can be impressive to note that the writer of Knives Out is the same screenwriter who gave us TLJ, a script that is taught in university courses as an example of how not to compose a screenplay.  But as good and tight as Knives Out may be, the praise by critics is nudged upwards just a bit by the inclusion of the Trump references and the repeated suggestion that those who are not firmly on the extreme left must be “Nazis.”

If you can look past that, you may enjoy the movie.  The second trailer I recall some people swearing it had a line referring to one of the black dogs at the estate as “Lando.” I may have imagined that, but strangely in the final cut of the movie in theatres neither of the dogs is referred to by name.  That seems a bit suspect. Except that watching it again the line I hear is “I think Linda was upset.”  So Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis’ character.  Not Lando. Had it been so, that might have been a sarcastic dismissal of people frustrated that Lando did not turn out to be the “code breaker” on Canto Bight, which is otherwise a pointless sequence in The Last Jedi.

 

 

Star Wars: The Last Straw

Anticipating the release of The Rise of Skywalker, Episode IX of Star Wars, this might be the right time to join the chorus and have a last rant.

Before The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson had been quoted as saying that he didn’t write in isolation but bounced ideas off of something called the Lucasfilm Story Group. I thought wow, they must be the cream of the dramaturgical crop to be in that circle of experts! We could speculate about some great writers that might be consulting there.  In the aftermath of The Last Jedi, Star Wars fans went on a mission to expose each member and examine the credits and education of each Story Group hired by Kathleen Kennedy.

Like  JJ Abrams’ wife Katie McGrath who went on to found the TimesUp movement on the heels of MeToo blowing up, Kathleen Kennedy is driven by identity politics.  In a movie like Lincoln or Schindler’s List, a social message is so central to the story that there needs to be no labored imposition of it.  Looking at something like Star Wars, is someone is not genuinely a fan of it and looks down on the genre at all, it might be seen as nothing more than a delivery device.

At no other time in the history of cinema has it been easier to find out what the core built-in audience for a brand wants to see.  By 2012, the bitter aftertaste of the Prequel trilogy meant that Star Wars fans could see room for improvement and the possibility of a fresh take if George Lucas was not 100% in control and jaded about his creation.  All Disney had to do was get the main characters back together.  The worst thing to do would be to sideline or disrespect them and taint the Original Trilogy.

Let’s look at intentions and whether the logic works.

They wanted to lure audiences with the possibility of getting the band back together. Mark Hamill was paid a bonus to say nothing about how drastically Luke Skywalker was sidelined in The Force Awakens, being a destination more than an active participant.

Harrison Ford’s career as a leading man had a lot of longevity, so his agreement to play Han Solo again opened the door to certain mischief. They would want Chewbacca to be in the movie, which is fine. Chewie died in a much publicized Lucasfilm-approved novel called Vector Prime, being on a planet when it exploded, around the time Han would have been 55.  This opened the door to totally abandoning over a hundred previously approved novels and beyond that also comics that were now branded Legends instead of canon.  Many fans, especially post-Last Jedi, would prefer to consider those novels as representing what “really happened” after Return of the Jedi as seen in 1983.  Some remember the old Marvel comics run that somewhat extended the story, and most refer to Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire trilogy.

What we got had the priority of setting up a few new heroes for the future, propped up by the classic Star Wars characters.  Rey, Finn, Poe, Rose Tico, and Kylo Ren were functional enough ciphers and the actors are talented but the writing – thanks largely to the priorities of the Lucasfilm Story Group – ring false.

Finn was raised as a storm trooper and chose humanity and abandoned the First Order, but The Last Jedi portrays his character as if he is an all-round deserter.  This partially through Rose Tico a mechanic who takes it upon herself to spend her hours loitering around escape pods looking for people to stun and drag to to the brig – including a known Resistance hero surely outranking her.  And for this, she is allowed to tag along on a mission.  The whole way, she is the person in the know about the meeting point Canto Bight and informing Finn about where he is wrong and sending them on a wild goose chase or two. She has to be in power and leading because TimesUpMeTooGirlPower.

Princess Leia / General Leia Organa says no to a magnetic bombing run Poe wants to do, so Poe switches off his intercom…. thus making sure he can’t hear her, but why the hell doesn’t the GENERAL have direct communication on the open line to all of the fleet, including the BOMBERS she could call off?

After Poe’s demotion, and aiding a covert mission that fails, and finally leading a mutiny, Leia asks people why they are looking at her and “Follow him.” Which confuses the woke narrative a bit.   Admiral Holdo decides that only she should be left in the rebel flagship, which is known to be a flagship and a one way trip whether she thought of ramming initially or not.  How brilliant is she that she couldn’t pick a droid to sacrifice itself? Rose Tico the mechanic who likes to zap war heroes considers saving the Fartiers (Neverending Story type horses) from the abusing racetrack by helping set them free gets onto a ship with Finn and leaves them in the fields to be easily rounded up again and brought back to their stables.

General Leia is sidelined by recuperation from FLOATING IN SPACE without oxygen.  Her replacement is Vice Admiral Holo, and one would think there would be great comedic potential if a great leader had to be replaced by an incompetent one but that can’t happen because she ALSO has to appear to know better than Poe and keep him in his subordinate place as a male.

Finn is reduced to pining for Rey, ostensibly concerned for her safety but – especially in this universe – isn’t she capable of looking out for herself?

Rey gets to be the enlightened and optimistic, right, and sympathetic one compared to Luke Skywalker’s ret con as a grumpy old Jedi gone to seed.  This is the most disappointing change to Star Wars.   IT ONLY went that way because Rey can’t be mansplained (what we used to call trained) by a white old male.  Master, schmashter. It strains credibility on the script level by finally having Luke (once his force connection is restored) collapse a shelter using “force-push” technique only to have Rey chase him down and fight until he lands on his back supposedly helpless and lets Rey stick her (formerly his) light-saber in his face to pin him down. He could use the very same force-push to flip the saber from Rey’s hand and then suspend her upside down. Instead he gives us his side of the most useless backstory about himself and his nephew.

If he thinks Ben Solo (Kylo) is going to turn to the Dark Side, WHY CREEP to his bedside in the night with a light-saber ready to kill him? Why not ask his mother, Leia, to go talk to him?

And no mention of what uproar happened politically when Luke and Leia’s parentage (Darth Vader) was outed ? There is a Disney-era novel called Bloodline that covers that, but they couldn’t be bothered to make that a pivotal point in the movies.  It makes sense if Ben distrusts his parents and his uncle for keeping a big secret from him.  But if it makes sense, it could not belong.

So there is much to account for.  The woke Lucasfilm Story Group, their boss Kathleen Kennedy, and Rian Johnson especially but also JJ Abrams.  When Lawrence Kasdan was co-writing The Force Awakens, at least the Han Solo material had humor and focus and felt like Star Wars.  And that movie at least flowed, even though it had its own share of head-scratchers and questions never to be answered.

And now they say retroactively that Luke trained Leia in the force and swordsmanship before the events of these new movies.  Okay, fine.  But we know it was not the plan all along because in The Force Awakens Leia refers to Luke as “a Jedi” when talking to Han. That might have been an opportunity to give SOME hint that she is also one.  Maybe Luke is a “better” or “lesser” jedi than her.  But even THEN, I’m sorry but I can’t buy even a Jedi waking up in the vacuum of space and force-pulling herself to safety.

I don’t know if the Sage – or what’s left of it – can force pull itself to safety now.  Too many of the most ardent fans already see Star Wars in a vacuum.  That is to say that – other than the unaltered Original Trilogy – it sucks.

 

 

 

 

Joker, Knives, Chappelle: All is Connected

I may start a new tradition of just recording a youtube rant and pasting it into these blogs because I’m not sure people want to read.  But since I have a moment and a few marbles rolling around in my head, I’ll dash off some current and easily dated remarks about the State of Cinema and its relation to the State of Society.  Even though nobody asked for that.

Joker looks interesting.  Maybe a spiritual cousin of Taxi Driver or King of Comedy, given De Nero’s involvement.  That alone might allow it to overcome the brand “Joker” and the fact that it is not related to Batman’s nemesis, or Michael Ironside in Top Gun, or Mathew Modine’s Private Joker from Full Metal Jacket.  Some critics and general idiots are sounding the alarm that the story of an alienated, sad character losing his mind might radicalize what they call incels.  There is also a movie called Cuck opening the same day that is more explicitly about someone drawn into the alt-right. But it is unfortunate that “the discourse” is a bi-product of movie promotion, in the same way that rancid poop is a bi-product of eating tasty food.  Incel is applied to a) gun toting loners who commit massacres, b) people critical of Disney Star Wars, and c) anyone less than enthused about virtue signalling (as opposed to virtue having).  It means “involuntarily celibate,” a condition with which many married people might be familiar. It is not okay to dismiss an annoying opinion by calling the speaker a British cigarette or a pansy, unless that person is closeted or passing for straight which apparently nullifies all protection or empathy.  If someone is truly the personification of an incel, vulnerable and on their way to some sort of suicidal or self-negating gesture, how “woke” it must feel to bash them.

The Toronto International Film Festival had Joker, as well as Knives Out Rian Johnson’s new take on Agatha Christie parlor mysteries. The latter is getting more of a break from critics, owing to its reportedly ham-fisted politics. By all means, bash Trump sensibility. Please don’t let him have a second term. But those of us in the cheap seats, the huddled masses, hope rich folks in a mansion don’t get to represent all white folks and our assumed privileged. Though it is okay if they represent millionaire Rian Johnson who has had no problem “punching down” from his twitter pulpit at customers of The Last Jedi who didn’t quite accept rude Luke Skywalker, space breathing Leia, or a scene for scene strategy of dumbing down of male characters to falsely prop up under developed female characters.  All of which causes us to believe we are not seeing an account of what happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away but instead seeing what Rian typed and what met with approval of the “Lucasfilm story group” chalk full of SJWs hired by Kathleen Kennedy instead of dramaturgical experts who can point out how easy it would be – at script stage – to get rid of Canto Bight the casino planet and just have Rose and Finn meet DJ in the rebel brig… so Rian won’t have to cut the third Jedi lesson of Luke from the real estate of a two and a half hour movie.

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/dramaturgy

RottenTomatoes listed under “popular” titles “David Chappelle” as opposed to the actual title that was generating popularity at the moment, David Chappelle: Sticks and Stones.  When someone clicked on his name they would be taken to a page made to represent two of his older Netflix specials, Collection 1 and Equanimity and the Bird Revelation.  This misrepresents “Dave Chappelle” as a series with two episodes boasting 67% and 92% fresh ratings.  That way they were not bolstering Sticks and Stones for which their site showed a low critic score.  Even then, when that most recent show had a zero splat it was from only 5 critics. At the moment it has an average of 31% from 16 critics.  Still a splat. But it maintains its original 99% positive responses from 36, 418 audience members verified as having seen the show. So it is denied the simplicity of a fresh tomato symbol due to a portion of the 16 critics, but the much greater number of opinions – perhaps not fearing a job loss with a publication – were willing to recommend it.

Dave Chappelle: Sticks and Stones was a refreshing Netflix special that agitated those who wish to control all discourse. There are those who count themselves as allies of the downtrodden or the victims themselves who can be expected to act out controlling impulses as a result of having had control withheld or taken away at some earlier point. There is a long documented dynamic of the oppressed becoming oppressor, but this seems to have been quietly swept under the carpet lest it slow down the rush of progress.  Even the PoundMeToo movement is touched on, a very daring target.  But when you think of it how much good really came from that hashtag?  Cosby was snagged not by that movement but by an unlawfully recorded and uploaded cell video of Hannibal Burress telling it like it is about someone who doesn’t curse in his act or wear droopy drawers but has a number of rape allegations kept under wraps. Burress, Gawker, and Gloria Allred pretty much took down Cosby.  Harvey Weinstein was  reigned in by Ronan Farrow, a worthwhile journalist with only one terrible blind spot – mommy.  Maybe Kevin Spacey got snagged because MeToo encouraged the Star Trek Discovery actor to tell his story, and that ball got rolling.   But for every justified take-down there were a number of people who caught flack for lesser infractions that were the true result of the wide net cast by PoundMeToo.

Both Dustin Hoffman and Richard Dreyfuss drew long dormant stories – each from a different Production Assistant who now identifies as a “writer.” Their infractions: rudeness and vulgarity or flirtations on set.  Having not witnessed any of that in context, one can only imagine a movie star in the eighties goofing around and not realizing their attentions are especially unwelcome. Matt Damon made a reasonable remark when asked about the movement and made distinctions between rape and lesser tiers of trespass; the result was the removal of his scenes from Ocean’s Eight. The worst casualty (excluding some that resulted in suicide) was Senator Al Franken whose scandals were swept up in the #BelieveHer blanket policy of many Democrats despite his initial complainant being a woman he knew from USO shows who was a frequent Fox News guest and a known Republican.  In one of Al’s books, maybe Lies and the Lying Liars to Tell Them or The Truth with Jokes, he refers to George W. Bush constantly trotting out reference to 9/11 terror attacks as his “little black dress” to deflect criticism by painting himself and America as a victim and creating a solemn new context.  It seems cold-hearted to call any and all victim story a “little black dress” but that is often – in practice – the purpose it serves.  To speak to a therapist about a trauma is one thing, but to micro manage the language and music (ie: Baby it’s Cold Outside) of others crosses a line.

I am reminded of the time as a kid I visited relatives who rented a movie I wanted to see, The Verdict, and a friend of my uncle piped up that a Jack Warden character swears a lot, which resulted in the volume being muted whenever Warden appeared on screen.  My solution was to excuse myself and go for a nap.  A year alter I would rent the movie myself and see it as the profane screenwriter David Mamet intended. I don’t remember if there was a grandstand on my part or a huge argument.  But the absurdity of that – one person in the room who is offended by something determining for all that nobody can hear the dialogue – flies in the face of “one man’s food is another man’s poison” which I have always taken to mean everybody doesn’t have to like something for me to appreciate it.  Outrage culture and cancel culture follow the same principle as that friend of the family who could not bear to hear Mamet’s profanity.  (But apparently was not offended as a Catholic that the movie is critical of the church covering up malpractice case in a hospital it runs.) I can’t imagine following The Verdict without knowing what Paul Newman’s sidekick has to say.

If we consider the source of keyboard warrior campaigns, it can’t be ignored that many people who are gung ho about “burning down” what exists or “smashing” the so-called Patriarchy are facing middle age as I am and taking stock of how many goals have been achieved and how many have not.  Not to mention some unrequited romances that have begun to pile up.  So part of out “first world problems” mentality includes fat shaming, body shaming, slut shaming called out by people who don’t have anything against age shaming people who date younger or more fit people than themselves. It all has to do with artificially inflating the perceived stock value of whatever attributes you have.

If I am directing a movie, what I bring is a strong sense of how to use the frame for each beat of a scene and an instinct for transitions.  I like the storyboard approach.  Currently there is a trend toward people pushing an idea that “there is no such thing as film grammar or film language.” The idea being that “new voices” can step into the role of director more easily if direction is merely the generic recording of what Hitchcock referred to as pictures of people talking: five angles of the whole scene top to bottom that the editor and producer can shape later, establishing wide shot, over shoulder of each character, and close up of each.  In that case, arguably, it won’t matter if the director has any talent. If the material is visual, then there might be a more obvious difference between someone who applies the psychology of the frame and the cut versus someone who is just in attendance while someone presses record.

Writers have a voice, directors don’t.  A director in the power position might impose changes on a writer based on personal taste or may choose not to shoot everything as written, but especially in TV where the discourse dominates – where producers and writers are in charge and the director is generally a guest working with the in-house cinematographer(s).  That said, when I look at an episode of The Deuce and see Michelle McLaren or Ernest Dickerson’s name as directors it puts me at ease that we are in good hands and worthy people are directing our attention. If I hear that a director got a job merely as a diversity hire or I think that person is careless about the axis and maybe connections and personal charisma got that person a directing job I might feel depressed as I am not a schmoosing type or bouncing off the walls with personality.  I have to quietly go about making my little movies and all but ignoring the industry the way it seems to be slanted at the moment. You do have to be able to engage and interest at least one other person, maybe a few, and risk the investment of time and maybe money on what you want to see and how you see it.

Society will connect the dots between what you create and what can be inferred from it about the issues of the day, but that can paralyze the process of writing and also directing or any output.  We can only be so careful.  The unconscious and instinct are not interested in taking a poll on Twitter. And consensus is no substitute for authorship.