Gone Girl, or, Sisters Are Doing It To Themselves

I came home the other night to find my living room in disarray and the entire moral and intellectual core of Gone Girl had gone missing.

Gone Girl came out in 2014, and over the years since I’ve seen and heard it referenced enough to establish it as some kind of cultural touchstone. Any movie with a Big Secret Twist is going to develop an aura around it, and this had the bonus of being an additional two and a half hours of David Fincher-directed footage for devotees to make video essays out of. Plus there were all the reviews and thinkpieces that talked about how it’s an assault on feminism, but to reveal exactly how would ruin its various mysteries.

I’ll give the movie this much: it took me until the day after watching for me to really appreciate how much it’s garbage. Of all the reviews I’ve read, I think I most appreciate Christy Lemire’s description: “…this is the most elegant, exquisitely made trash.” She liked it better than I did.

But several days after I saw it, and several years after it was released, I’m still thinking about it. It’s filmed thoughtfully and often beautifully, and it has a few genuinely clever passages — like Amy’s “bleed and clean, bleed and clean” monologue — that tricked my cinema studies-corrupted mind into thinking it was an art film. Much like when I eat a doughnut in the morning and my body splurts out a wave of insulin in anticipation of protein that will never come, my brain is stuck mulling over this trashy movie to figure out what it means.

I have made a pledge to be less reductive with works of art, letting them speak for themselves instead of trying to clumsily reiterate the more nuanced points and wrapping the whole thing into a convenient “This Is What It All Means.” But I’m making an exception for Gone Girl, which seems almost Lassie-like in its eagerness for me to figure out what it’s trying to say.

I don’t think I can go into much more detail without spoiling everything, so consider this a spoiler for Gone Girl, and please don’t read it until you’ve either seen the movie or read the book.

My first guess was that this was over-the-top antihero-driven satire, like American Psycho. The plot wasn’t to be taken literally, but instead intended to be an absurd extrapolation of the grossest aspects of a period in time or a particular noxious mindset. But if that’s the case, then who’s the subject of the satire in Gone Girl? Beautiful couples? Type-A people? A particular type of woman? All women?

The movie doesn’t give the audience a chance to empathize with any character other than the two leads, one of whom is a murderous sociopath and the other of whom is a dim-witted, whiny adulterer. But it won’t commit to showing disdain for both its characters, making it a War of the Roses style dark comedy. (I’ve been told that the book does a better job of making them both awful). Instead, it just spends a couple of hours gradually shifting the audience’s sympathy from Amy to Nick. By the end of the movie, he’s all but redeemed, while she’s been revealed to be a ruthlessly manipulative villain.

I read a review that claimed the story was about a marriage disintegrating over years of lies and inattention, but third act plot developments make that interpretation impossible. Amy was framing her ex-boyfriends for rape long before she met Nick. Perhaps we’re supposed to extrapolate that she was driven to such behavior by a lifetime of perfectionist parents comparing her to “Amazing Amy,” or just shrug and conclude that she was just a regular old psychopath. So instead of having any sense of universality, it’s just like one of the suspense thrillers from the 80s, cautionary tales targeted at men, warning them to resist their natural impulse to cat around. Fatal Attraction 2: Bitches Still Be Crazy.

So what if we try to take its opening and closing shots at face value? (No pun intended). The movie starts with Rosamund Pike looking beguilingly into the camera, while a voice-over from Ben Affleck talks about wanting to crack her skull open to find out what’s inside her brain. That’s kind of a pulpy thriller take on the same key idea in the Steven Soderbergh version of Solaris: the tragedy that our individual identity guarantees our isolation; humans can never truly know and completely understand another person, even those with whom we’re the most intimate.

But this isn’t really a couple who are hiding their inner lives from each other. Nick is deceptive about his affair, but it’s not as if he’s some complex mystery waiting to be untangled. He’s just a horny buffoon who’s tired of people criticizing him all the time, and he just wants to play his video games. And Amy isn’t just inscrutable; she’s an actual sociopath. It’s not so much Soderbergh as Lifetime Television for Women: I Married a Stranger: The Nick And Amy Dunne Story.

So maybe that’s the overriding theme, the idea that all our relationships are inherently performative. That idea is made explicit at the end, as Nick and Amy make television appearances to present the illusion of a stable and loving family. But pretty much every scene in the second and third acts is somehow related to the idea of presenting a false self: Nick’s becoming less beholden to the truth and more concerned in how he’s perceived by the public; and Amy actually having to juggle false identities.

Amy’s monologue at the end of the first act says it outright. She’s driving, making her escape, and she looks at each woman in a passing car, naming the role she’s assumed in order to please a man. She calls it the “cool girl,” but it’s an idea that I think Inside Amy Schumer handled a lot better, calling it “a chick who can hang.” The way Amy (Dunne) describes it, she had to subsume any of her own desires to become an ideal man’s woman who never nags, never judges, never gains weight or gets out of shape, and is always super horny. And the various other identities she assumes are different roles that women are expected to play: mommy blogger, abuse victim, unattainable goddess, ravenous sexpot.

One of the genuinely clever things the screenplay does is make that theme carry retroactively through the first act. Nick and Amy’s first meeting — and I honestly have no idea whether their first meeting is intended to be read as charming or insufferable — is all about the kind of stereotypes New York City writers encounter, and how much each of them does or doesn’t conform to those stereotypes. Nick’s marriage proposal isn’t a personal moment, but is instead a show put on for the benefit of a group of judgmental bloggers. Nick’s resentment doesn’t seem to be rooted in his own self-worth, but in how other people perceive him and pick on him. And Amy’s descriptions of the arguments that she and Nick had leading up to her disappearance are rooted in how people are supposed to act; she tells Nick not to make her into the nagging wife that she’s not, or she complains that they’re starting to act like “the couples we hate.”

As far as I can make out, that’s the only theme that Gone Girl commits to: the idea that we lose ourselves when we try to appear to be something we’re not. I started to wonder if the movie adaptation were adding an extra layer of meta-text to that: it was a lurid suspense thriller that was just presenting itself as a thoughtful artistic character study.

And that’s when I finally gave up. I can appreciate a movie that’s open to interpretation, but there are only so many layers you can try to peel back before you realize there’s nothing left.

I tried to read as little as possible about the book and the movie before watching it or before even forming a solid opinion of it, because I didn’t want any of my own prejudices to ruin it for me. (I’m not a big fan of David Fincher, except for Fight Club, and if I’m honest, I’m probably still holding a grudge against him because of Alien 3). I did read an interview with Gillian Flynn in the New York Times, though, as well as some additional quotes from her talking about Gone Girl, and I wish I hadn’t. When asked about criticisms of the book and movie, Flynn came across as so glib that I found myself wanting to throw gummy bears at her head.

She says outright that she wanted to look at how couples put forward the best versions of themselves at the beginning of a relationship, going on to call marriage a “long con.” She says she doesn’t feel the story is anti-feminist or misogynist due to Amy’s being revealed as a murderous, manipulative villain, since writers create despicable male characters all the time, but they get called “antiheroes.”

I’m presuming that at least some of that is intended to be wry, or at least an affected cynicism. But it really just comes across as a kind of empty, pointless nastiness that would’ve been tiresome in 2014. Now in 2018, the era of the Bullshit Reality Show Administration, the moral vacuum at its core just echoes. I realize that it’s beyond cliche to interpret every single thing as a reflection of Our Idiot President, but this is a story whose “big twist” is literally the very first thing I imagined when I heard it had a big twist, so I can’t imagine that we’re all that concerned about originality.

Gone Girl‘s theme of putting forward false identities has nothing universal that I can identify with. And before anyone says that I’m not supposed to identify with it because it’s a message for women that a white male can’t understand, I’ll play my gay card and point out that living in the closet for decades means you’re always putting forward a false self. But even that isn’t as manipulative or self-destructive as Gone Girl makes it out to be. Sometimes hiding yourself is self-defense, sometimes it’s aspirational, sometimes it’s just as harmlessly experimental as trying on new clothes or a new hairstyle.

Plus, the “cool girl” monologue reads as a “You go, girl!” type speech while Amy has just won her freedom, but it’s an inherently male-centric viewpoint. She dismissively reduces the women in passing cars to stereotypes and concludes they’re playing out those stereotypes in order to win a man, without considering that maybe they’re just into different stuff. It’s like criticizing a woman for wearing a hijab because it’s a symbol of oppression, without considering that she might simply like wearing it.

And more obviously, it’s all quickly revealed to be a rationalization for Amy’s own psychosis. So is it supposed to be a Fight Club style fake-out; ha ha, the joke’s on you for identifying with this character? I sure as heck don’t know, because the movie’s so muddled in its allegiances, sympathies, and characterizations. I do know that Amy’s not an “antihero,” as much as Flynn might want her to be, since the story does nothing to signal it and in fact spends too much time making her out to be just a plain old villain.

Theoretically, the movie should be able to do whatever it wants with Amy, since there’s such diverse female representation that no one character has to represent all women. But really, the movie only gives actual agency to two women (Amy and the motel thief), and it makes everyone else a cipher or a shallow stereotype. It doesn’t even pass the Bechdel test, since as far as I can remember, Amy and the motel thief are the only two women who talk to each other, and all their conversations are about abusive exes or abusive currents. (I’m guessing that the thief’s assertion that she’s the one who coerced the man into robbing Amy, instead of the other way around, is supposed to be read as some kind of lowest-common-denominator empowerment?)

The whole story seems to take place in a world of Everybody Loves Raymond-style, late 1990s gender dynamics, where all the women are judgmental, manipulative ball-busters, and all the men are hapless fuckwits. (The only exception to this is Tyler Perry, who plays the dual role of High-Profile Defense Attorney, and The Only Black Person In the Entire World). Of the women who are presented as the most sympathetic, Margo has no actual agency or life of her own; she only exists to enable or support Nick. Her one unique characteristic is Owns A Woodshed. And the detective… feels like the detective in every detective story written by someone who’s watched a lot of detective stories on television. She makes no advances in the case, and in fact the only moment I liked in the last act of the movie was when Amy accused her of being incompetent. The rest are a condescending mother-in-law, an idiotic nosy neighbor, a seductive ingenue, a hard-edged Oprah Winfrey-type media personality, and a shrill Nancy Grace surrogate.

In fact, because the characters are so broad (no pun intended), and because they’re played by comedic actors like Casey Wilson and Missy Pyle, I wondered if maybe that were the whole point, and maybe it’s presenting this world in which women are so driven by society to conform to stereotypes that they only exist as stereotypes. But again, that feels like a reach. If it’s that difficult to tell the difference between making fun of stereotypes and simply being lazy stereotypes, then there is no difference.

The “Cool Girl” speech is the closest the movie has to a manifesto, but having it delivered by a psycho villain is the ultimate cop-out: maybe that’s the message, or maybe not. We’re not going to hold your hand and make it explicit for you. Meanwhile, whether it’s intentional or not, the movie as a whole takes on the voice of the ultimate “Cool Girl.” Margo’s the most “normal” and sympathetic character, but she exists only to support Nick (“I was with you before we were even born!”), and she’s one of the first characters to point out how much she hates Amy. The movie ends up asking, don’t we all hate stuck-up bitches like that, those judgmental ball-busters? Aren’t they so phony? Wouldn’t you rather hang with a chick who loves you unconditionally and will do shots with you at 10 in the morning?

None of it reads to me as dark comedy, or even as cynical. It’s just a lazy nihilism that says not only does none of it matters, but that anyone who suggests otherwise is either naive or lying.

There’s one scene in Gone Girl that pretty much sums up the entire movie for me. It’s the one in which Amy has tipped off the Detective to investigate the woodshed, so they show up and open the doors, and there on display is all the stuff that Amy has bought to incriminate Nick. And instead of laughing, or asking “what the hell is this supposed to be?”, the Detective nods and then says to Nick that this looks like all the stuff he’d need to make a “man cave.”

It sums up the movie because it’s the one moment where absolutely everybody involved — Nick, Detective Boney, Amy, David Fincher, the art director, some set dresser, Gillian Flynn, the editor, all of the actors, the book’s editor, the producers who saw the dailies and greenlit them — everybody just stopped caring.

It would be kind of like having a story whose plot hinges on the contents of a woman’s purse, so while preparing for the scene, you stop random guys on the street and ask them what kinds of things they think women keep in their purses. Then the scene finally plays out in the movie: A police officer dumps the contents of the purse onto the table, and there’s like 500 tampons; 25 pounds of lipsticks and mascaras and compacts; two Jane Austen novels; some loose bills; and a scented candle. And the detective looks at all of it, and nods as if to say “Yep, this all checks out.” And then he looks at our protagonist, rolls his eyes, and says “must’ve been her time of the month!”

I mean the boys they love their gadgets, am I right?

At this point in the story, Nick’s already found the contents of the woodshed, and he’s deduced that it was left by Amy in order to incriminate him. But he’s done nothing to move or hide any of it. The detective sees a mountain of all new evidence, provided by an anonymous tip, and it’s not hidden away in boxes, but opened and spread out like a Price Is Right Showcase Showdown, and she isn’t the least bit suspicious. The case against Nick, apparently, is that he really wanted a man cave to escape from his wife, so he killed his wife to pay for it, and he didn’t have enough self control to wait until he got the insurance money, but he did somehow have enough self control to open almost everything and then store it unused but carefully arranged in a shed on the other side of town. And keep in mind that the detective had found the first two clues in a treasure hunt that Amy had been conducting on the day of her disappearance, and which could help definitively establish her whereabouts, but she didn’t bother pursuing it, leaving it instead for Nick to figure out.

And while Amy was enacting her diabolical I’m-always-two-steps-ahead-of-you plan, she was presumably ordering stuff and storing it hidden in the house completely unbeknownst to Nick, and either making frequent trips to her sister-in-law’s woodshed to sneak in and stash stuff like a big-screen TV or a giant amp, or she delivered it in one big go, all without attracting any unwanted attention.

Plus there’s a “robot dog,” which presumably was supposed to be a Sony AIBO, which in 2012 was already a long-dated reference that symbolized “something ridiculously expensive and useless that only clueless rich guys would buy.” It’s a reference as specific as ordering a Fresca, but for some reason the one in the movie isn’t quite an AIBO, implying that there was just a huge market for robot dogs among bored upper-middle-class men, and it fits right in along with a guitar and a video game playing machine like the Xboxes or the Intendoes. (Also, she was trying to run up a huge credit card debt, Brewster’s Millions-style, but she bought a Parrot drone instead of DJI? Amy, Amy, Amy. Please see me after class).

But my favorite detail of any of this is right in the center. It’s a copy of Dominion, a popular but still extremely niche and nerdy deck-building card game. (I didn’t see it in the movie, but the screenshot reveals the other game was Race for the Galaxy, which hilariously is an even nerdier and more obscure game). It conjures up the delightful image of a dude who looks like Ben Affleck murdering his wife so that he can get his drinking buddies together to do bro stuff like play Dominion. And magically, it also conjures up an image of Amy being in the middle of a scheme so devious and complicated that it involves weeks befriending a neighbor for the purpose of stealing her urine, and as she’s purchasing all the signifiers of a Dude’s Mid-Life Crisis Fun Kit, she thinks to frame her adulterous husband using a nerdy card game about building castles.

It’s all completely bonkers absurd, but not like the harmless absurdity of when a TV show gets computer hacking wrong for the sake of advancing the plot quickly, or gets geography wrong for the sake of making more attractive shots. It feels like everyone involved on every level just shrugged and said, “Whatever.” Over the years I’ve read descriptions of the movie and the book that call it “dark” or “biting” or “nasty” or “sick,” but I think ultimately, the overriding description I’d use is just “lazy.”

One Thing I Like About Solo

Solo is the huge 2018 marketing-driven franchise installment that thinks it’s an old-fashioned action adventure from 1987


One thing I like about Solo is that the ending surprised me. I won’t spoil it, because I don’t need to say what happens to explain why that’s a big deal.

Considering that it’s a prequel, and it’s about one of my favorite characters in all of fiction, and that there’s honestly only so many ways the story could possibly have played out, I didn’t think it could surprise me at all. But it did! Maybe not on the scale of “Oh, the Titanic didn’t sink after all!”, but more like the relief you feel when you see a movie barreling right for a cliche at full speed and then gracefully pulling away from the crash at the last moment.

There’s a bit in the trailer for Solo that’s been baffling for as long as the campaign’s been running. It shows the crew pulling some kind of train heist in the mountains, and oh no Chewbacca is flying out the side and barely hanging on, and look there’s a rocky outcropping headed right for his face! Is Chewbacca going to make it out of this adventure alive?!

It seems like an odd decision when you’re marketing a prequel, to suggest deadly peril towards one of the series’s most beloved and visibly living characters. But in retrospect, it’s truth in advertising. Solo is a traditional, almost old-fashioned, action-adventure movie that’s more about moments than anything else. It’s got swashbuckling scenes for the same reason that, say, Star Wars had Luke and Leia swinging across a chasm. It’s not really supposed to mean anything, or even contain any suspense. It’s just supposed to be exciting and look cool in the moment.

The movie’s got its issues — Thandie Newton is criminally underused, and it’s easy to play armchair director and point out that the movie would be significantly improved if they’d just combined the multiple heists into one big one. Characters would’ve been given more time to develop, and the whole thing would feel less disjointed. As it is, it has all the trappings of a heist movie, but very few of the clever moments that make heist movies seem smart and surprising.

(Also, L3-37 is a great character, but naming her L3-37 is an inexcusably lame grandpa-trying-to-be-cool blunder. Come on, guys, it’s 2018. Get it together).

But it’s fun and exciting, and it definitely doesn’t deserve the dismal buzz that’s surrounded it for over a year. For whatever reason, people decided they wanted it to be a failure. Before Memorial Day weekend was even over, I saw no fewer than three different think pieces trying to explain why it was such a failure. It’s being called a “flop” for only making over a hundred million dollars in four days. The reviews all read like pre-written obituaries that had to be hastily edited to begrudgingly acknowledge that it wasn’t terrible.

A peculiar phrase kept coming up in reviews, which is that the movie “didn’t need to exist.” Apparently, to distinguish it from the movies about space wizards that are essential.

Overall, the preemptive backlash just reinforced the main lesson of the new Star Wars movies, which is that I don’t care about your opinion of the new Star Wars movies.

It’s nothing personal (in most cases). It’s just that Star Wars has gotten to be way too big and too long-running a cultural phenomenon. I’ve been steeped in this stuff for about 40 years, and it resonates with me at a cellular level, but I still might as well be a Fake Geek Girl™️ compared to the people who can go off in detail about the Clone Wars and Ventress and Mandalorians and all that.

There’s no sense of outsiderdom in being a Star Wars fan anymore, but there are dozens of groups each obsessed with their own little corners, and there’s increasingly little that they have in common. I don’t need any kind of consensus or camaraderie anymore, really. I kind of hated everything in Rogue One apart from the production design, but there are plenty of people who thought it was a near-masterpiece. The Last Jedi eventually grew on me, and I like what it was trying to say overall, but while I don’t have any desire to watch it again, I completely fail to see the point in the hyperbolic outrage over it.

And The Force Awakens bypassed any rational thinking part of my brain and connected directly to the part of my soul that loves Star Wars, so any criticism of it is literally irrelevant to me.

Which is all a circuitous build-up to acknowledging that while a lot of people were predisposed to hate Solo, I was hard-wired to love it. By the time I saw the first complete trailer, I’d already decided that I was on board, and it’d have to work really really hard to throw me off.

When I was a kid at the absolute height of my Star Wars obsession, I read Brian Daley’s Han Solo books and absolutely loved them. Possibly even more than the Chronicles of Narnia in terms of favorite childhood books. I haven’t read them since I was a pre-teen, and I won’t, because I’m fairly sure they wouldn’t hold up now. But for a nine- or ten-year-old desperate to spend more time with these characters and see more of this galaxy, they were perfect.

I’ve heard that in addition to referencing Masters of Teras Kasi, there’s a bit of the Brain Daley books in Solo. I wouldn’t be able to tell you what it was, but it doesn’t matter. Just by existing, the movie promised to be a live-action adaptation (even if unintentionally!) of those books. And it clearly kept the only aspect of Rogue One that I liked: the notion that the look of Star Wars wasn’t an artifact of 1977, but just the way everything in this galaxy looked back in the time of Empire. Cast the impossibly handsome guy who was hilarious in Hail, Caesar!, and the impossibly handsome guy who was hilarious on Community*, and you’ve got all the movie I need, right there.

So there I was, watching the heck out of Solo by treating it like an action adventure movie from 1987 and having fun with it, loving that there’s a Clint Howard cameo, a villain who’s a practical effect, and an assortment of fantastic vintage droids we haven’t seen since the Jawa sandcrawler, and a closet dedicated just to capes, and the long and tortured but delightful attempt to throw a bone to all of us nerds who’ve spent decades snickering that parsecs are a measure of distance instead of time. By that point, I knew exactly how it would end, who would live, who would die, and how those death scenes would play out and turn Han Solo into the cynical rogue he would later become.

But then that didn’t happen. It didn’t deviate enough to be shocking, exactly, but it was enough to knock my brain out of autopilot and appreciate how clever it was. And then later, the final shootout played out precisely how it needed to. But by that time, it felt deserved instead of predictable.

I don’t know if they’re going to try to turn it into a spin-off franchise, but I certainly hope they do. I like Alden Ehrenreich and Donald Glover a lot, I think there’s plenty of potential for more stories in Han Solo’s past, and I think it deserves a movie that pays off on the swashbuckling/heist movie premise instead of feeling like a bunch of cool set pieces fitted together. I think the characters and the setting have still got it where it counts.

  • And Khaleesi, of course. If I’m being 100% honest, the thing I love most about Solo is Emilia Clarke’s press tour, because she’s charming AF.

No Place in Her Story

The Last Jedi is really just a rehash of many of the ideas from the first Star Wars movie.


This post has lots of spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Please don’t read it until you’ve seen the movie.

My brief review of The Last Jedi: I liked it much better the second time I saw it.

No doubt that was partly because the second time was with an audience filled with nine-year-olds and their parents, who cheered and applauded at the best moments (of which there are several). But it’s also because I think the movie’s kind of an overstuffed mess in terms of plot and pacing. Once I could stop trying to make sense of where the story was going and instead tried to figure out what the movie was trying to say, I thought it held together a lot better.

You can sense the conflict within this movie. It’s a story that’s about rejecting all-powerful heroes, but it still needs to sell action figures. Its main dramatic tension is about desperation and being low on fuel, in a movie series that previously cared so little for practical details that it had a spaceship traveling from solar system to solar system without a working hyperdrive. The main story of The Last Jedi is essentially — almost literally — a Battlestar Galactica premise instead of a Star Wars story.

More than that, it doesn’t quite get the scale right. Star Wars stories tend to work best when they’re very personal, melodramatic stories set against a grand, enormous backdrop. The Last Jedi doesn’t seem comfortable dealing with more than two characters at the same time. It’s a bit like a tribe with no concept of numbers greater than a dozen or so; any group of more than around four people just ceases to exist. These movies are stories about gigantic armies, but The Last Jedi has to whittle the Rebellion down to a group small enough to fit on board one ship.

There are characters who’ve been reduced to one-dimensional shadows of themselves and seem to be in the movie only for the sake of their toys. There’s an entire subplot that is poorly motivated, poorly paced, and doesn’t accomplish much of anything. There’s an ethnically diverse trio of adorable orphans right out of Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker. There’s a soldier who stops before a tense battle to taste the ground and declare “It’s salt,” clearly because an executive in a screening somewhere was briefly confused.

But there’s also plenty of terrific moments, both big and small. (Nothing as breathtaking as in The Force Awakens, but they still work on the “that was bad-ass!” level if not the “I feel like I’m nine years old again” level). And all the stuff that has no place in terms of advancing the plot does find a way to reiterate and re-emphasize the central themes of unity, humility, and self-determination.

One of my favorite of those smaller moments happens right before a cross-the-Galaxy conversation between Rey and Kylo Ren. She’s standing underneath the Millennium Falcon during a miserable rain storm, and she’s just delighted. In a movie series where characters always have to explicitly state how they’re feeling, it could seem out of place. Until you remember that she grew up on a desert planet, and it’s entirely possible she’s never seen rain before. Something that’s at best taken for granted by everyone else, and which is more likely a nuisance to everyone else, is to her something magical.

It’s a reminder of how inherently charismatic Daisy Ridley is. Rey’s already become my favorite character in the entire series, because of Ridley’s performance and a few perfectly-delivered lines of dialogue. (Like “I’ve seen your schedule; you’re not busy.”) She became a character who’s inherently good but neither sanctimonious or boring.

And not at all like Luke Skywalker, which is crucial. It’s unfortunate (but not surprising) that so many “fans” called out Rey as being an “unrealistic” wish-fulfillment character. I have to wonder if the movie was equating that with Supreme Leader Snoke, who scolds Kylo Ren for losing to a girl who’s “never held a light saber before.” And then calls him a beta cuck. In any case, though, Luke is the wish-fulfullingest George Lucas stand-in imaginable: the kid from a backwater town (by his own estimation) who loved working on cars and cruising around with his friends but turned out to be the lone savior of the Rebellion and the heir to the greatest power in the Galaxy.

But in the beginning at least, with that first Star Wars movie, we had a story of a whiny kid who looked off to the horizon and wanted adventure, and then found himself becoming a part of something much greater.

Which is something that Lucas gradually chipped away over the course of the next five movies. Star Wars was a story about a kid from nowhere becoming a hero; The Empire Strikes Back needed a twist that made him part of a lineage. Yoda said “wars do not make one great,” but was then given a moment to show his true power during the Clone Wars, which was to flip out and slice up bad guys. Obi-Wan defined the Force as a power that surrounded all living things and bound us together, and then Midochlorians happened.

Over time — or maybe just as I grew older, perhaps — the movies seemed more and more to say one thing but then show another. It’s entirely possible that I’m unfairly projecting, but they seemed less like a Hero’s Journey and more like a stream of consciousness from an anti-union billionaire with a special effects company.

Even if that is an unfair assessment on my part, I think it’s clear that they became less democratic and more elitist, more interested in queens and lords and senators than farmers and smugglers, and inexplicably making its central figure not only the most powerful person in the galaxy but the result of a virgin birth. It became less interested in the heroes of the republic or the rebellion, and instead obsessed with the redemption of its iconic villain.

That’s why I liked The Last Jedi’s callback to that first moment, when Luke was just a kid looking off to the horizon. At that point, Star Wars was still a series about self-determination, and The Last Jedi wanted desperately to bring that back to a series that had increasingly echoed the Emperor’s whispers of “your destiny.”

We already knew that there’d be no satisfying answer to Rey’s question of her parents’ identity, because abandoning a child to that life would’ve been unforgivable for any recognized character. But I hadn’t expected it to tie in so well to what this story has become: a return to fantastic, operatic, and melodramatic stories about heroes who choose adventure and choose to do the right thing simply because it’s the right thing to do.

Kylo Ren’s story becomes interesting again, because he’s presented as the opposite of Rey in every way: not just dark side vs. light side, but someone who’s always lived in the shadow of his parents and uncle and was never allowed to define his own path. Finn becomes the good guy whose first inclination is to give up, and Poe becomes the hot-shot who wants to solve everything himself instead of being part of something larger. But really, they both could’ve been worked in more effectively or even left out of the story entirely.

As part of the initial buzz in response to this movie, there were a lot of people focusing on how JJ Abrams had set up all kinds of things to be resolved later, which Rian Johnson just steamrolled away. It seems absurd since for one thing Abrams was an executive producer on this movie, and for another these are installments in one of the largest franchises in all of entertainment, not indie productions.

But more than that, it seems absurd because The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi work well as a matched set, with the shared theme of “People Who Grew Up With Star Wars share what Star Wars Means to Them.”

The Force Awakens was all about how Star Wars feels, setting up moments that feel more like sense memories than actual plot developments, to remind you of how it felt to see spaceships swooping around to an orchestral soundtrack, and underdogs coming through to save the day at the darkest moment. And if that’s the case, then The Last Jedi is a reiteration of what Star Wars means. Or at least, what it was supposed to mean. The Force than surrounds and connects every living thing, instead of the Force that was a power that Jedi had to make things float.

So ultimately I can’t say I love The Last Jedi, but I do love what it tried to do. And I love being set up for the conclusion of a story that started for me when I was six years old, and not having any idea what’s going to happen next.

Harambe of Darkness

Kong: Skull Island is a focus-grouped action movie franchise launch, but it’s clever and artistic enough to avoid being disposable and forgettable.


There’s a lot that Kong: Skull Island gets right. Making it a post-Vietnam War period piece is the first, most obvious good idea. Peter Jackson’s King Kong was a period piece, too, but it felt like a tedious, overlong homage to the original. Skull Island doesn’t feel like it’s paying homage to the 1976 version so much as agreeing with that movie that the 1970s were a pretty rad time for giant ape cinema. (Not a great time for Jeff Bridges, though).

The setting is about 95% visual and only 5% thematic. The whole thing is infused with a sense of the futility of war, paranoia about conspiracies and shadow governments, pessimism about man’s ability to solve problems, and a burgeoning sense of respect for the environment. I honestly couldn’t tell you if all of that is actually in the movie, or if it’s just subliminal holdover from a childhood in the 70s.

Regardless of whether they wanted the post-war attitude, though, they absolutely wanted the post-war aesthetic. The Apocalypse Now homages are visible throughout all of the marketing, but the designers of Kong: Skull Island were clearly going for the Deep Cuts. Costumes, cameras, ordinance, and electronics are all chosen as if they were being used by the Dharma Initiative. In the beginning of the movie, there are several shots of rotary phones that seem to fetishize them as even more fascinating and exotic than giant spiders.

For me, the end result is that the entire movie feels like an animated Mondo poster. (Ironically, this is the one time I actually prefer the movie’s actual marketing to the Mondo versions). There’s an aggressive sense of aesthetics all throughout the movie: every shot is lit or framed or color graded to look like graphic design as much as cinematography. Most of the fight sequences feel like transitions from one storyboard to the next; Kong will smack a giant skullcrawler into the frame and the pose looks almost like something from the opening of Batman.

The reason I mention Mondo is because the design seems as conceptual as it is graphic. The aesthetics are chosen for their connotations; it cleverly plays on nostalgia, familiarity, and audience expectations. Skull Island isn’t as full of direct reference to Apocalypse Now (or Platoon, or Full Metal Jacket) as the trailers suggested, but it feels like it’s making constant references to it because the imagery is so potent.

Ultimately, though, it feels about as deep as an animated Mondo poster, too. The movie’s entertaining and never feels dull, but there’s almost nothing surprising about it, either. (“Almost” because I wasn’t expecting the moment that introduced the giant spiders). It’s clever, but it doesn’t say anything apart from the standard “respect the majesty of nature” you’d expect from any respectable King Kong story.

The characters exist only to have a dramatic entrance and, where possible, a dramatic death scene, with no arc or change in between. And really, that’s fine for an action movie. The downside is that it made it feel more like a slasher movie than a monster movie, where impactful death scenes had to be shoehorned in even when pacing hadn’t allowed for any genuine characterization or sense of attachment. Plus, I’d been hoping they’d be modern and clever enough to sidestep any romance, but the leads do end up falling in love for no reason.

I’m assuming that the lack of anything surprising or challenging is largely due to aggressive focus-group testing and franchise building. I didn’t follow any of the pre-release marketing or gossip around Kong: Skull Island, but I’ve heard that Kong grew dramatically between the first teasers and the finished movie. Even without knowing the backstory, it’s clear in some parts that any sharp edges had been thoroughly sanded down over the course of production, and it’s clear that other scenes were stitched together as best they could despite continuity-breaking changes.

(For instance: somehow Kong manages to reach inside a monster and pull out its guts while simultaneously holding a human unharmed wrapped up inside his fist. This bothers my suspension of disbelief even more than the notion of an ape that can hold a human unharmed inside its fist).

And I’m not sure why we’re supposed to be coy and secretive about the post-credits sequence; it couldn’t be more obvious what franchise they’re trying to build. They put “from the producers of Godzilla” all over the marketing, and I’m skeptical that they’re banking on the tremendous success of the most recent Godzilla movie.

Kong: Skull Island is much, much better than the 2014 Godzilla, and it’s actually much better than a monster movie needs to be. (I enjoyed it a lot more than Peter Jackson’s Kong, too). That’s almost entirely due to casting — John C Reilly is the only one given anything to work with, but every actor makes the absolute best of his or her part — and set direction, which is where all the creativity lies.

I still say that the secret to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s success is that they were brave enough to allow for auteur-driven franchise installments. So Joe Johnston could remake The Rocketeer with a bigger budget, and Jon Favreau could turn Iron Man into an indie romantic comedy, and Joss Whedon could continue to kill off beloved side characters at the beginning of Act 3. Kong: Skull Island doesn’t have any sense of being an artist’s personal work; it feels like an artist came up with a high concept and an aesthetic but wasn’t allowed to follow through completely. It leaves me wondering what could’ve happened if they’d tried to be weirder and more original.

P.S. The “related links” at the end of this post took me to my earlier review of Peter Jackson’s King Kong, which I hadn’t read in 12 years. Apparently I loved it at the time, which is not how I remember it at all. Maybe I was a lot easier to please at the time, because now I just remember its being three hours of Jack Black and Adrian Brody-filled tedium and maudlin scenes in Central Park. I guess I’m due for a re-watch, but to be honest I’d rather just ride the Universal Studios Hollywood tour again.

City of Infuriatingly Charismatic Stars

Reporting back from a movie-filled weekend. Some spoilers for the relentlessly charming La La Land, and a review of Rogue One inspired by Thumper the rabbit

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in 'La La Land'
This weekend I saw two movies. One has space battles in a universe that painstakingly recreates the look of 1977’s Star Wars. The other is a love letter to Los Angeles made by a bunch of people born in the 1980s. The fact that I ended up loving the latter one is proof I don’t understand how the world works anymore.

I loved La La Land, and I loved it for exactly what it was trying to do. Much like The Force Awakens transported me back to the feeling of watching Star Wars for the first time, watching La La Land often took me back to the first time I saw Singin’ in the Rain or An American in Paris. Obviously it’s not the first attempt to recapture the magic of classic musicals, but it’s the most successful I’ve seen.

The trick, I believe, is that its sense of self-confidence completely obliterates any sense of self-awareness. It feels not like someone wanted to make an homage to classic musicals, but that somebody wanted to make a movie about the magic of Los Angeles and decided that of course a classic musical would be the best format for that. Once that decision was made, everyone went all in and made a musical with all the earnest enthusiasm that seems to have skipped my generation. Any hint of a wink at the audience would’ve been grounds for immediate dismissal.

Or, I guess, its success could just be on account of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling’s preternaturally appealing chemistry. I will say that Gosling’s always seemed fine but unremarkable to me, but his performance here is outstanding. Partly because his character is really kind of annoying and insufferable, but he manages to make arrogant stubborn passion seem sympathetic if not exactly likable. He plays a guy who loves jazz and evangelizes it, and yet I wasn’t immediately turned off, which is a monumental achievement on its own. (And I’ve got to say if you’re in the portion of the audience that’s into dudes: much like Gene Kelly, Gosling is an actor that doesn’t really do a whole lot for me until I see him dancing in a well-fitted shirt).

Emma Stone can do pretty much whatever she wants and remain effortlessly likable, since that’s her thing.

The movie starts with a bunch of 20-year-olds all dressed in primary-colored T-shirts or sun dresses all dancing and skateboarding (!) on and around cars stuck in a traffic jam on a freeway off-ramp. It’s odd to see that not being used to sell me Coca-Cola or a Prius. Even though my cynicism threw up a shield, the enthusiasm of that opening number wore it down. It bugged me initially that the movie seems to favor “naturalistic” vocals, so they seem quiet, breathy, and out of balance against big orchestrated music, but it didn’t take me long for me to stop caring. (Unlike, for example, Les Miserables, which demands over-the-top vocals from almost every character, and which wasn’t as kind to actors-who-also-sing). By the time Stone and Gosling are dancing on a bench in Griffith Park, I’d been completely won over.

One of the only complaints I’ve heard about La La Land is that the pacing drags in the middle. I was on the lookout for that, and while the scenes with John Legend didn’t interest me, I inferred that that was kind of the point. His character represents success without passion. I don’t believe that the story dragged so much as I stopped thinking of the movie as a musical for an act or so. I don’t believe that’s a flaw; I think it’s structurally perfect: when it “turns back into” a musical again during an audition sequence, I was genuinely surprised, and it made that song more powerful.

I’ll try to be deliberately vague and not completely spoil anything, but: the end of La La Land pays homage to the extended ballet sequences at the end of An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain, in which the movie’s narrative stopped in favor of a bunch of fantastic imagery and dancing. I say it’s here that La La Land shows its intentions and its double identity: it’s more indie film romantic drama/comedy using the structure of classic musicals than just an homage or recreation of those musicals.

It delivers two versions of its finale, which I first thought was an attempt to give everyone what they wanted. But after thinking on it some more, I realize it’s the crucial coda that has to be appended to any story about the magic of Los Angeles and the beauty of following your passion: it reminds us how much of our lives are controlled by fate and timing. You can (and should) follow your dream, but you’re not guaranteed stardom and fame like, say, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, since it’s often talent and hard work combined with meeting the right person in the right conditions at the right time. And it’s that mentality that lets the movie be earnest and joyful and optimistic without feeling too trite, treacly, and over-simplified.

I don’t think it’s perfect, and I still don’t like jazz, but any flaws that it has don’t just fade away but go into making it a unique and seemingly sincere creation. It’s just delightful.

This weekend I also saw Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. I was genuinely surprised by the movie, since when I heard it was about getting the plans for the first Death Star, I never imagined that about half the movie would actually be about getting the actual physical plans for the first Death Star. But its production design was absolutely perfect, from the costumes to hairstyles to spaceships to “incidental” technology. It took everything from 1977’s Star Wars not as a necessary limitation of available technology, but as an assertion of style for a certain time in the Galaxy’s history, and that’s brilliant. I also really liked Alan Tudyk’s performance as K-2SO, and I thought the CG on his character was seamlessly integrated with the live actors.

Looking forward to Episode VIII!

No Insight To Be Had Out There

Shallow takes on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” are a perfect example of faux-progressive pop cultural simplification for the Twitter generation

It’s December, which means it’s time for one of the Internet’s most cherished traditions: writing insipid and uninspired analyses of how the song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is creepy and “rapey” (to use Key & Peele’s assessment).

Key & Peele’s parody is four years old, and there are plenty that are even older. This year’s is possibly the most vapid and insufferable version to date, as a couple of indie musicians made an acoustic version that’s updated for our modern sensibilities.

I won’t make a comment on the quality of the music itself, except to say that it’s just really twee and awful and I hate it. But most offensive — yes, even more offensive than making a reference to “Pomegranate LaCroix” and thinking it was a witty punchline — is how it attempts to fix all the problematic aspects of the original instead of making an effort to actually understand the original.

The original song — at least the most common version of it — is a back-and-forth between a woman and a man trying to come up with excuses for why she should spend the night. To suggest otherwise robs the woman of any agency and turns her from a modern, self-aware adult into a gullible victim. It also suggests that adults in the 1940s fell into stereotypes and were all either lecherous or prudish, and nobody realized it until the 1970s came along and everybody got woke. In fact, though, the song is a play against those exact same stereotypes.

What makes me so sure that interpretation is the correct one? Well, if there’s one thing The Young People Today love more than overly simplistic gender swaps and song parodies, it’s a bunch of stuff presented in list format. So here’s Eight Reasons Why A More Sophisticated Comprehension of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is Everything In The World Right Now:

  1. The song was performed by a married couple at parties. For years I’d assumed it had been written for Neptune’s Daughter, but it was actually a duet that writer Frank Loesser performed with his wife. So it’s not the stereotype of the cigar-chomping MGM exec who directs a gullible ingenue to the casting couch; it’s the stereotype of The Thin Man-style sophisticates having dinner parties in which they make fun of less-sophisticated stereotypes like playboy and “good girl.”
  2. It’s a duet. In the MPR write-up linked above, the writer describes the song as “like the ‘Blurred Lines’ of the holiday songbook.” It’s not for dozens of reasons, the most obvious being that the woman in “Baby It’s Cold Outside” has a voice, instead of just being “the hottest bitch in this room.”
  3. It’s a call-and-response. In addition to being a duet, it’s a back-and-forth between two adults. You have to listen to both sides to get it, and you have to listen to how both participants play off each other before singing in unison at the end of each verse. If Liza and Lemanski wanted to “improve” on the song, then in addition to actually making an effort to sing on key, they should’ve chosen to end the song abruptly after she says “I’ve got to go away.” If you’re making a point about consent, then actually make the point.
  4. The woman’s objections are all about keeping up appearances. She never talks about what she wants to do, but instead about what she should do. It’s about her mother worrying, her father being angry, what the neighbors will think, her sister and brother’s suspicions, the kind of gossip she’ll be subjected to. “There’s bound to be talk tomorrow, at least there will be plenty implied.”
  5. The woman is totally into it. “Maybe just a half a drink more.” “I wish I knew how to break this spell.” “I ought to say no no no, sir, At least I’m going to say that I tried.” “The welcome has been so nice and warm.” She’s looking for excuses to stay, and playfully looking for a way to spend the night while still preserving her reputation. She’s talking herself into it just as much as she’s arguing against the man. At the end of each verse, they come together because they’ve agreed on the story they can tell people the next day: she had to spend the night.
  6. Esther Williams is the star of Neptune’s Daughter. Her character isn’t being taken advantage of or fooled by anyone. She’s perfectly aware that Ricardo Montalban’s character is a “playboy.”
  7. The gender-swapped version makes fun of all the stereotypes in play. The version of the song with Betty Garrett as the “wolf” and Red Skelton as the “mouse” is played as a farcical take on the more wry and sophisticated one, and that fact alone shows which stereotypes they were making fun of. When Garrett is portrayed as being “man-crazy” and Skelton as flustered, it’s supposed to be funny because women aren’t “supposed” to be eager for sex and men aren’t supposed to shy away from it. When Skelton does the absurd Spanish accent, it pokes fun of the image of Montalban as a sexy Spanish lothario.
  8. Viva Las Vegas has the clumsy and obvious version. Don’t get me wrong: if I had to go back and live in a movie fantasy version of the past, I’d totally choose the universe of Elvis movies over 1940s romantic comedies. But the duet “The Lady Loves Me” between Elvis and Ann-Margaret is another perfect example of what would happen if you took the same basic setup as “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and removed all the wit and subtlety from it. The two characters are simply arguing, and there’s nothing clever or coy about the woman’s rejections. She’s just parading around for the audience in a bathing suit while getting off on the attention. The “the gentleman’s all wet” bit at the end is presumably a 1964 take on “Grrl Power” that doesn’t actually say or do anything positive.

It’s pretty arrogant to insist that “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is supposed to be read exactly as it appears on the surface. In the song, adults could make a wry comment on the idea that “good girls don’t” and that men were perpetually horny aggressors taking advantage of innocent women. Today’s simplistic and reductive hot takes on the song act as if that idea were actually the common belief at the time, and most Americans from 1930-1960 actually did live according to the Hayes Code and network TV standards and practices. Basically, you’ve grown to believe the false version and become skeptical of the real one. (For the record, people didn’t live in black and white before 1950, either).

Okay, so why make an issue of it?

Usually this would warrant about as much concern as worrying about whether Alanis Morissette understands the idiomatic use of “ironic.” It’s well intentioned and at worst harmless, right? Why not remind people about the importance of consent? And isn’t it good to remind guys that they have a responsibility to listen to and respect the people they’re with, and not try to wear them down?

Sure it is, but the problem is that over-simplifications are polarizing. When you find yourself spending years asserting something that’s trivially true — and being rewarded as if you’re making a bold statement — then you gradually chip away at the idea that it’s trivially true. You open the discussion to the idea that the things that are true are in fact somehow controversial, or at least topics about which reasonable people can disagree.

The fact that’s incontrovertibly true about all this is that consent is essential. Only an idiot or a monster would consider that controversial. Idiots and monsters don’t deserve to be part of the conversation, but asserting the shallow and superficial take on an important issue (even if it’s correct) is inviting bullshit to be presented as if it were a reasonable counter-argument.

Reducing everybody who’s performed or enjoyed “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” for the past 70 years to a clueless, sexist stereotype isn’t progressive. It sets an unacceptably low bar for what constitutes progress.

Now They Set Their Clocks By Mine

Moana is a by-the-numbers Disney princess movie that keeps going off-script to transform into something inspired.

In the Animation pavilion at Disney’s California Adventure, they run a looping show where scenes from Disney movies are projected on screens all around the lobby along with concept art and music. Each movie gets about 30 seconds to a minute, so sitting in the lobby will run you through the entire gamut of Disney Movie Emotions in about 5-10 minutes.

I was reminded of it while I was watching Moana, since within the first 20 or so minutes of the movie I felt like I’d already gone through two Disney movies’ worth of emotions, and that was all before Maui’s entrance started the plot.

It’s kind of like shotgunning a Disney Princess movie, having someone stridently yelling Believe In Your Dreams! Find Your True Calling! You Have Five Seconds To Comply! right into your ear. It’s also just self-aware enough to sidestep the most trite aspects of Disney Princess movies, but not so self-aware as to be insufferable. It explicitly mentions its heritage when Moana denies that she’s a princess, and Maui insists that being the daughter of the chief and having an animal sidekick automatically makes her a princess. I also wonder if it intentionally did a bait-and-switch on the audience by setting up the adorable pig Pua to be her sidekick, but then leaving him behind in favor of Heihei, “the dumbest character in the history of Disney animation.”

But for every element of Moana that sticks close to the template, there’s something else novel, original, or simply inspired. I doubt I’m the only white American who’s getting his first exposure to Polynesian mythology from the movie; up to now, I only knew that Pele was a volcano goddess and that Maui gave his people time.

It’s reassuring that the filmmakers made a concerted effort to get it right, consulting with people knowledgeable about the various cultures in the Pacific Islands and casting people with that heritage for the main roles. (Okay, so they kind of lucked out that The Rock is of Samoan descent since he’s proven he can do just about everything, but they still get a point from me).

After Hercules — another movie largely about a demigod and made by several of the same people at Disney feature animation — took so many liberties with the mythology in order to make an acceptable family movie, I wondered why they’d even bothered in the first place. It’s still charming (albeit inescapably 1990s), but if you’re having to change that much of the source material, why make an adaptation? Moana feels more like a respectful amalgamation of the mythology of several different Polynesian cultures than an attempt to sanitize and whitewash interesting stories into trite reiterations of the same idea.

In fact, that scene with Maui’s introduction with the song “You’re Welcome” is a great example of how Moana gets it right. It’s multimedia and multicultural: a traditional broadway-style song about a Pacific Islander demigod, written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, an Atlantic Islander demigod. (He shares songwriting credit with Opetaia Foa’i and Mark Mancina, but it certainly seems the most like his work from Hamilton). Maui’s dance is a combination of traditional musical theater and Polynesian dances. The stories he mentions are each from different cultures’ versions of Maui and creation stories. His tattoos aren’t just an example of 2D animation combining with 3D, but of flat and graphic cartooning inspired by Polynesian art.

To me, it never feels like lazy pastiche or opportunistic cultural appropriation, but like an earnest collaboration: this is the kind of moving, often funny, often breathtaking work that we can create when we share what we all have to contribute. Every production has its share of difficulty and 5-year-long animated feature projects most of all, but Moana feels to me like a movie with no compromises. (I think the sequence with Tamatoa is by far the weakest in the movie, but the lighting effects are really cool and Jemaine Clement’s David Bowie impression is always welcome). Disney’s 900,000-lb gorilla status is often criticized and with good reason, but I think that here’s an example of how it pays off brilliantly: something beautiful gets made and stories and values from cultures that aren’t widely known get broadcast to literally of billions of people around the world.

Before the movie was released, there was an insipid and mean-spirited nontroversy around it, an attempt to generate outrage over Maui’s character design. The claim was that people in Polynesian communities were upset that Maui was depicted as “obese,” or according to one particularly nasty complaint: “a hippo.” It was bullshit even before the movie’s release; body shaming passed off as cultural sensitivity. After the movie’s release, it’s even more offensive: not only are the men and women of Moana depicted as being of various body types (most of them buff AF), but an aspect of Maui’s birth and his self-image are ingeniously incorporated into the Disney Princess-threads of the story, to cleverly tie together all the disparate accounts of Maui’s adventures into a single narrative about his relationship with humankind. Which makes the body-shaming even worse.

In Moana, Maui’s big, brash, and self-assured, and there’s little question he can do what he sets out to do. Or at least if there is, it’s not because of his body. The same goes for Moana herself: not only is there no trace of a romantic comedy in the movie, but her gender is never made an issue. In the beginning of the film, it’s established she’s going to be the next chief, and no one questions it or challenges it, and at no point in the movie is there even a hint that her strength is uncharacteristic or unusual for a young woman. (It’s not ignored, either; you could argue that the quality that makes Moana the hero in the climax of the film is not physical strength or stubbornness, but the empathy that’s usually considered a feminine trait).

And in neither case does it feel like anything is missing. Instead, it feels as if we’ve spent years making Important Progressive Issues out of things that aren’t genuine issues at all. In the case of complaining of Maui’s character design (or even more ridiculously, complaining about sexual dimorphism of the volcanoes in Lava), it was dressing up an at-best superficial, at worst genuinely offensive dismissal as if it were a progressive argument. And with all the Strong Female Characters, it was setting a weirdly low and unnecessary “as good as any man” bar for female characters to pass, and then cheering the characters that passed it instead of wondering why we needed such an artificial distinction in the first place.

So sure, Variety, I’ll agree that Moana shows that diversity can be good for business. But I also say it exposes some of the hypocrisies of the faux-Progressives who disguise self-importance as inclusivity, or attempt to use sensitivity as a bludgeon. It shows the kind of breathtaking and beautiful things that can be created when we respect another culture and give it a chance to speak, and then not “appropriate” it, but make it part of the celebration of our shared humanity.

Some-maj

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is at its best when it’s at its darkest and weirdest.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a weird movie, and I still can’t tell if I like it in spite of that, or because of it.

I don’t mean “weird” in the way you’d expect a movie called “Fantastic Beasts” to be weird, but weird in the ways you wouldn’t expect the first movie in a huge new blockbuster franchise to be. It’s oddly paced and weirdly edited. Dialogue-heavy scenes will have long exchanges where the camera’s focused on the people who are listening instead of speaking. Scenes end abruptly or linger a bit too long. Some have music that feels jarringly out of place. Many have swooping camera movements that focus on the wrong thing, or end at a weird angle as if the direction of rotation was broken and no one thought to fix it. There are sudden shifts in tone from rutting-monster-chasing slapstick to child abuse. The main male character is off-putting and unlikeable, and the main female character is inscrutable.

Weirdest of all is that it kinda works.

I also saw Doctor Strange this week, and it’s another movie that’s simultaneously trying to be a huge-budget franchise entry and a cavalcade of wondrous sights like you’ve never seen before. I liked Doctor Strange a lot; it was often visually interesting and surprisingly funny. But it was also 100% a superhero origin story that followed the Marvel template from start to finish. Fantastic Beasts kept doing stuff I didn’t expect — not always in a good way, but in a way that made it feel slightly less like Corporate Entertainment Product. (The reviewers on “What the Flick?” had exactly the opposite reaction, so as always, your mileage may vary).

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was the best of the Harry Potter movies, and if I’m being honest, it’s the only one that I’d be interested in seeing again. I was a bigger fan of the books than the movies, and the general aesthetic of the movies than the movies themselves. When we went to the Warner Brothers studio tour outside London, I loved the look of everything and found myself repeatedly wishing that the movies had assembled all the parts into something better. But Prisoner of Azkaban is the one movie in the series that feels less like a franchise installment and more like Alfonso Cuarón making a movie set in the Harry Potter universe.

Fantastic Beasts isn’t as good as that, but to me it has much of the same feel. It often feels like the movie that someone wanted to make instead of the movie that someone was contractually obligated to work. And when the jokes do land — like Jacob’s reaction to giggle water in the clip above, or when the “Niffler” (the most charming of all the beasts, and they know it) catches a slow-motion forlorn look at all the jewelry in a shop window he’ll never get to steal — they feel like they’ve earned it.

I’m not sure how much I’m projecting, but I’m wondering how much of my reaction is due to the fact that it’s JK Rowling’s first screenplay. She’s accomplished enough to be able to do whatever the hell she wants, but also inexperienced enough with screenplays in particular that she doesn’t feel completely beholden to formula. So much of the Harry Potter series feels like Rowling was savvy enough to know exactly what the book’s audience would get excited about, from candy and trading cards and sports heroes to skipping class and getting the upper hand on your teachers. Fantastic Beasts felt to me like she was including the ideas she wanted to, even if people in Warner Brothers marketing were balking at the idea of a magical animal movie where the villains are religious fundamentalists and the angry manifestation of people suppressing their true natures from a society that persecutes them for being different.

And good for her. I’ve said before that I’m not a fan of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at the Universal theme parks, because it’s beautiful but I think it gets so much wrong about theme park design. Shows don’t have enough capacity, the shops are too small and cramped, and the main attraction is too intense for both ends of the bell curve of its audience. I’ve heard — I still don’t know if it’s apocryphal, though — that a lot of those decisions were mandates from Rowling, who insisted on “authentic” food and “realistic” spaces that would feel like real shops in the UK.

After going back to check out the Hollywood version recently, I’ve lightened up considerably. It’s still not my favorite, and I still don’t think it all works. But it definitely feels like its own thing. It’s memorable, and it feels unique not just in the Universal parks but among theme parks in general. There must be something to be said for breaking from the template and not being worried about screwing everything up.

Unbreakable

Everything a cowardly adult needs to know about 10 Cloverfield Lane

10cloverfieldlane
I was a huge fan of Cloverfield, so I was super-excited to hear that Bad Robot had been quietly working on 10 Cloverfield Lane, and that it’d be released in just around a month from the first appearance of a leaked teaser trailer.

Of course, that trailer almost certainly wasn’t actually “leaked.” Half the fun of these things is the mystery and the showmanship. And even though this is just a couple of days into opening weekend, I’d already read two reports that a) stressed how the movie’s best not knowing anything going into it, and then b) immediately revealed something (no matter how oblique) that I’d rather have not known going into the movie. I had to go see a matinee today to avoid the bigger spoilers that almost certainly would’ve hit me over the course of the next week.

Still, this looked more “adult” than Cloverfield‘s millennial monster movie, so I was worried it’d be too heavy and disturbing to be fun. Here’s my attempt at answering the stuff I’d been wondering about 10 Cloverfield Lane while divulging as little as possible:

Is it good?
No, it’s excellent.

Do I have to have seen Cloverfield to full appreciate it?
No, you have to have seen Cloverfield in order to have a basic level of film literacy, since it’s one of the outstanding genre movies of the 21st Century.

Aren’t Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Goodman the best?
Absolutely! And no matter how many times people talk about how good they are, I still think they’re underrated.

Is it scary?
I couldn’t tell you for certain, since I spent at least 50% of the movie twisted in my seat watching what was happening from underneath my hand over my eyes. It’s intense.

So it’s a brutal psychological horror film, then?
I wouldn’t say that. Like Cloverfield, it’s a contemporary attempt to make a movie with an “old-fashioned horror movie” spirit. It’s intended to be thrilling, surprising, and fun. (And it succeeds at all three).

Doesn’t the trailer already give away all the surprises?
Surprisingly not.

For real, though, what elements does this movie have in common with Cloverfield?
Both have internet movie fans and reviewers complaining about them, and those fans and reviewers are wrong.

Is there anything I should know that won’t spoil the movie but will give me something to look out for while I’m watching it?
Try reading about Slusho!

Does the movie inspire a perfect do-it-yourself Halloween costume for girls women?
As a matter of fact, yes!

Without giving anything away, what’s the most clever scene from the standpoint of masterfully-written character development?
The charades.

This doesn’t tell me anything other than that you really liked the movie. What if I want to read an actual review?
I like Alonso Duralde’s review on The Wrap, although I don’t at all agree that it felt over-long. I almost entirely agree with Peter Travers’s review in Rolling Stone, although I think he (along with most other reviewers) gives a little bit too much away in describing how this movie relates to Cloverfield.

Is this better or worse than Cloverfield?
I don’t really care, since I’m mostly excited to see the next one come along!

One of the Good Ones

Zootopia is surprisingly great, and a reminder of the value of family movies as parable

zootopia-selfie
Zootopia is “surprisingly articulate.” And that patronizing compliment is one of the best parts of the movie, and the clearest sign that the filmmakers had something more sophisticated to say than I’d expected. It seems weirdly appropriate that a movie I’d initially dismissed as unimaginative and uninteresting would turn out to be a mature and distressingly contemporary parable about prejudice.

In my defense, early marketing didn’t give us a lot to go on. It looked like the entire premise of the movie was: “Wouldn’t it be wacky if there were a whole city full of animals who walk and talk like humans do?!” It seemed as if the Walt Disney Company were releasing a movie with no prior knowledge of the work of the Walt Disney Company.

But after a charming and well-delivered version of the Standard Disney Believe-In-Your-Dreams® Formula, Zootopia immediately sets to work dismantling that formula and then putting it back together again as something with more heft and complexity to it than just an empty aphorism. This is a movie where the hero’s kind and loving parents advise her in the first scene that she should give up on her dreams. The hero’s begrudging partner explicitly says that the idea that you can be anything you want is unrealistic nonsense.

Most importantly, we see Hopps going through her whole journey of overcoming adversity — complete with training montage! — and showing everyone that they shouldn’t assume what she’s capable of, just because she’s a bunny. And almost immediately afterwards, she’s flinging out micro-aggressions at a fox as if she were no better than some ignorant elephant!

Zootopia isn’t a subtle movie, but these aren’t subtle times. Apparently a lot of people need to be explicitly reminded of the things we were taught in kindergarten. What’s most impressed me about the movie is that it explicitly states its message over and over, but it doesn’t come across as dogmatic or self-important, and it doesn’t get in the way of its being a pretty solid detective story. The more I think about it, the more I see how cleverly it’s constructed and how it’s actually pretty transgressive.

It’s fantastic to see Disney Feature Animation using their hugely successful blockbuster hits to take risks with the Disney formula. Frozen (which is the butt of a pretty clever gag in Zootopia) was a movie about princesses that rejected the idea of love at first sight as dangerously naive, instead emphasizing the family that most Disney princesses tend to abandon to get their happy endings.

Zootopia sets up its premise in the very first scene: animals have evolved past their predator and prey relationships. It then spends the rest of its story showing its characters and the audience how many stereotypes they still hold onto. Some of the gags are pretty corny or in danger of passing their expiration date — an extended parody of The Godfather, a cute Fennec Fox who’s actually a deep-voiced adult, an animal nudist colony — but almost every one is another play on that idea of holding onto stereotypes that don’t apply. Even the stoner yak who turns out to have a better memory than an elephant.

Richard Scarry’s Cars And Trucks And Things That Perpetuate Systematic Discrimination

I call that “transgressive” for a couple of reasons. First is that it’s not how anthropomorphized animal stories are supposed to work. People have been using animals as stand-ins for humans for as long as stories have existed, but every example that I’m familiar with handles it in one of two ways: either the fact that they’re animals is arbitrary and mostly ignored, used only to make the story universally appealing, as in Richard Scarry’s books and the early Mickey Mouse cartoons; or it takes advantage of our inherent perception of the animals to make a satirical point, like the pigs in Animal Farm or the cats and mice in Maus.

Zootopia cleverly splits the difference. The entire story is based on the premise that the characters’ “animalness” is arbitrary, but then it presents one example after another of how our perception of inherent traits is so deeply ingrained that it’s almost inescapable. In the world of the story, the predator/prey distinction has become meaningless, but it’s still the one that all the characters fall back on. All the adversity that Hopps overcomes at the start of the movie has nothing to do with being a prey animal (her gruff and unsympathetic boss is a water buffalo) and everything to do with size. But when she’s put on the spot to come up with an explanation for the “mystery,” she asserts that it must have something to do with predators and might even have some biological origin.

Which leads to the other aspect of the story that I’d call transgressive: none of the characters are allowed to be exempt. Hopps’s parents are kind and completely sympathetic, but they’re also undeniably bigots. Hopps repeatedly demonstrates how she “gets it” intellectually, but when she’s pushed into a conflict or presented with something she can’t explain, she falls back on her stereotypes. Nick’s character has internalized the discrimination and let it define him; it’s a solid example of how defeatist cynicism so often disguises itself as “being realistic.”

When I first heard the term “intersectionality”, I thought it was a fantastic way to move forward in how we think about discrimination and civil rights. Then I found out how it’s actually used in practice. I’ve never seen it used to promote empathy or shared humanity, but only in terms of oppression, victimization, and guilt. Instead or being something positive, I’ve only ever seen it presented as a way to make sure that everyone, no matter what struggle they’ve been through, can have something they should feel bad about.

I think Zootopia presents a more optimistic take on the concept, by repeatedly setting up an obvious one-to-one metaphor and then subverting it. The story of Hopps could clearly be taken as a parable about feminism, but then nobody puts any emphasis on gender (her demanding drill sergeant is a polar bear with a female voice). The central tension of predators vs prey seems to correspond exactly with racism against African Americans, but, unlike Maus for example, it flips our assumptions about oppressors vs. oppressed.

One of the most clever sequences has Hopps pursuing a crook into a neighborhood populated entirely by small rodents. It comes very soon after we’ve seen her fighting against the stereotype that she can’t be “a real cop” because she’s too small, and now she’s a giant, in danger of knocking over buildings and stomping on terrified citizens.

The story refuses to let any of the characters settle into a role as purely a victim of oppression or purely an oppressor. It stresses that kindness, empathy, and cooperation are the only way to fight prejudice, ignorance, and fear.

Not All Sloths

Of course, I’m projecting my own beliefs onto the movie. Middle-aged white guy Merlin Mann took to Twitter to make fun of middle-aged thinkpiece-writing white guys like myself:


To which I respond: suck it. Even if you don’t buy the premise that comics and animation have become the modern parable and myth-making, the dismissive idea that “cartoons” are only relevant to kids is weak, tired, and so very, very old. On top of that, the level of public discourse around the themes that Zootopia addresses has become a travesty of progressivism. We could probably use some cartoon animals to set us straight.

While the movie isn’t subtle, it does leave a bit of room for interpretation. Two interpretations I disagree with are reviews by Matt Zoeller Seitz on RogerEbert.com, and Scott Renshaw in Salt Lake City Weekly. (Who are, coincidentally, also middle-aged white guys). I only found Renshaw’s review because his is one of the very few negative reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, and he’s getting a ton of undeserved flak from that, because people on the internet tend to be ridiculously and obnoxiously defensive and abusive. (As evidence, see my telling a stranger to “suck it” because he made fun of guys like me and posts like this one).

In any case, Seitz says that the movie is too open for interpretation:

“Zootopia” pretty much rubber-stamps whatever worldview parents want to pass on to their kids, however embracing or malignant that may be. I can imagine an anti-racist and a racist coming out of this film, each thinking it validated their sense of how the world works.

Which implies a sort of moral relativism that simply doesn’t exist in the movie. For one thing, the story rejects the idea of “a racist” or “an anti-racist.” It portrays discrimination as behavior, not an identifier. It suggests that we can all be simultaneously on the giving and receiving end of it. I feel that so much of what passes for progressivism these days treats oppression, prejudice, and discrimination as perpetual states of being instead of injustices that we can work together to correct.

And the movie absolutely doesn’t stop at saying “we’re all a bit culpable” and leave it at that. There are most definitely bad guys. It acknowledges that prejudice is motivated just as often by fear as it is by malice, and the bad guys are the ones who manipulate that fear to drive us apart. Which is why the movie’s message is so depressingly relevant for 2016.

Both reviewers conclude that the movie’s message gets muddled because it simultaneously says that stereotypes are bad, and then relies on stereotypes for its gags. Renshaw writes:

It’s even more confusing when it starts to feel that Zootopia is working against its own message to get easy laughs. One extended sequence is set at the animal equivalent of the DMV, which is staffed entirely by slow-moving sloths. It’s a decent-enough idea, until you realize that it’s based on a stereotype […] For a movie built entirely around “don’t judge an animal by its species,” there’s also plenty of “a leopard can’t change its spots.”

While Seitz describes it:

The film isn’t wrong to say that carnivores are biologically inclined to want to eat herbivores, that bunnies reproduce prolifically, the sloths are slow-moving (they work at the DMV here), that you can take the fox out of the forest but you can’t take forest out of the fox, and so on. […] This all seems clever and noble until you realize that all the stereotypes about various animals are to some extent true, in particular the most basic one: carnivores eat herbivores because it’s in their nature.

This complaint seems wrong to me on two levels: just on the surface, it seems like what would happen if Aesop took his stuff to the internet and had a thousand of us middle-aged white men pointing out that actually, foxes don’t enjoy grapes, so his entire premise is invalid.

The entire premise of the movie is that the carnivore/herbivore relationship doesn’t exist anymore, so it’s a completely artificial distinction that’s dangerously foolish for the characters to cling to. If you’re going to take issue with that, you might as well take issue with the idea of animals talking and wearing clothes.

You might even say that this lack of a predator/prey relationship is what makes this an ideal fictional city, as suggested by the movie’s diabolically subtle title.

And again, I think what makes the movie so remarkable is that it teaches a lesson about prejudice by showing us repeatedly how our own prejudices work against the story’s main premise. They start the story by saying (explicitly), “here’s the setup,” and then go on knowing that the audience won’t be able to fully buy into the setup.

If you look at the complaint deeper, though, it gets at why I think Zootopia is a more mature and sophisticated allegory than I’d given it credit for, even while I was watching it and enjoying it. Yes, there are indeed a lot of gags based on the animals behaving like animals. But I don’t see it as “leopards can’t change their spots.” In the context of a story about discrimination, it’s a symbol of cultural identity and a rejection of whitewashing.

The sloths are a shaky example, since it really is played more for laughs than anything else, and it isn’t subverted until the very end of the movie. But it gets a pass since it’s such a good scene, and kind of a masterpiece of comic timing.

For all the other examples, though, the movie acknowledges the differences but is careful not to place any value judgments on them. The bunnies do reproduce prolifically, the wolves can’t help but howl in unison, the polar bears enjoy the cold, hamsters like going through habitrails, and the movie doesn’t find anything wrong with any of that.

It makes a distinction between traits that are limiting and those that are a part of our identity. The gentlest character in the movie is a cheetah cop who loves doughnuts and idolizes a gazelle. It’s a valuable reminder that rejecting the preconceived notions of how we judge each other doesn’t mean rejecting everything that makes us unique.

That’s as good an opportunity as any to point out how great the character animation is throughout. I’m ambivalent towards the character design and environmental design in general — it’s well done and pleasant if not particularly spectacular. But the character animation hooked me from the first scene, with the wide-eyed kids nervously waiting for their cues as they presented the school play. It was just plain delightful to see Hopps insist that “cute” is derogatory for bunnies, and then spend the rest of the movie stamping her foot like Thumper when she got excited, or wrinkling her nose whenever she was curious.

I’m sure I’m being completely unfairly dismissive of the work that went into the character design; it had so many opportunities to go wrong, as is evidenced by the horrific background dancers for pop star Gazelle, which I’m against on the strongest possible terms.