Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

More than even Infinity War and Endgame, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness feels like the culmination of the whole MCU (for better and worse)

I really enjoyed Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and I liked too much about it to be able to pick just one thing. It’s big, loud, and overstuffed, but for every criticism I have, I’m even more amazed that it works at all.

It works as a blockbuster franchise movie that must’ve had to answer to dozens of different stakeholders, but still has enough flourishes to make it unmistakably a Sam Raimi-directed movie. Like Captain America: Civil War, it works as a big super-hero team-up movie and a tentpole entry in the MCU, but it’s also a surprisingly good sequel to the first Doctor Strange. And I’d say that even more than Infinity War and Endgame, it shows what can happen when you’ve got all the various parts of the MCU laying the groundwork to culminate in a huge, weird story.

First: the Sam Raimi effect. As somebody who always liked the Evil Dead movies but couldn’t really love them, my two favorite sequences in Raimi-directed movies are:

  1. In Darkman, the shot of Frances McDormand looking at the explosion in disbelief that perfectly cross-fades to her at a funeral.
  2. In Spider-Man 2, the sequence of Doctor Octopus coming to life on the operating room table.1For whoever’s keeping track of these things: number 3 is the seance/summoning/exorcism sequence in Drag Me To Hell.

The thing that both of those have in common is that they’re perfect translations of comic book aesthetics to filmmaking. Plenty of filmmakers have tried to translate comics to movies, either getting the “spirit” of comics or doing a too-literal direct interpretation, but nobody’s ever been as successful at it as Raimi.

So I had a blast seeing Raimi getting the reins of the full power of the MCU dreadnaught, but still be able to make enough of it in his own style. There aren’t any sequences that quite reach the level of that Doc Octopus scene in Spider-Man 2 — although a scene with a character getting caught in a prison of reflections and busting their way out was gloriously creepy — but there were so many camera spins, zooms, and stylistic flourishes that you could probably recognize it as his work even before Bruce Campbell showed up.

It’s funny that the sequence of Strange and America Chavez sailing through different universes is the one that made it into the trailer as an indicator of how weird the movie gets, because at this point, it’s almost tame and predictable. The bar for CG has been raised so high at this point that I just assume that effects houses are capable of doing anything a filmmaker can think of, so the effect in the movie kind of ends up feeling just like a demo reel. The shots in Multiverse of Madness that really stood out to me were the ones that felt old-school, teetering on the edge of cheesiness: there’s at least one shot of characters’ heads superimposed over the frame that actually reminded me of The Night of the Hunter more than anything else. These movies have to check off so many boxes that it’s nice to see filmmakers like Raimi and Taika Waititi getting to have some real fun with it.

But the entire movie was thoroughly and gloriously a comic book movie in subject matter, tone, and frequently aesthetics. More than anything else in the MCU, this seemed to embrace its comic origins even more than its cinematic origins, or even broader “genre fiction” origins. It’s the first that didn’t seem to be bringing comic book source material to a movie-going audience, but rather making movies for comic book audiences. There’s a background character who’s a sorcerer and a talking bull, for instance, and nobody comments on it or even seems to think it’s that remarkable.

As a result, there’s a kind of respect for the audience throughout, and I loved it. A tone of “you get this, you understand why it’s cool, we don’t need to spell it out for you or have characters spending too long gawking at the spectacle of it.” When a cameo happens — and there are several, one of which actually had me spontaneously yelling out “Yaaaayyyy!” in the middle of a packed theater, against my more reserved impulses — it’s not milked for surprise, but treated more like, “Yeah, you all knew this was coming, but it’s cool as hell anyway.”2Contrast it with Moon Knight, which frustratingly seemed to be operating with no awareness of how the rest of the MCU works. One of its big reveals in the finale was of a character who’d been conspicuously absent the entire series, not just to fans of the comics (which I’m not), but to anyone who’d seen a “Who is Moon Knight, anyway?” explainer video (which I am).

Which isn’t to say that it didn’t surprise me; even though most of the surprises were of the “satisfying reassurance of something I already suspected” variety, the whole story went in a direction that I hadn’t suspected at all. (More on that in the spoiler section below).

And even though it was so relentless that I kept finding myself thinking, “Anyone who isn’t exactly me would be exhausted by all of this,” it actually managed to give its major characters genuine character arcs. I compared it to Civil War, but I’d say it works even better as a sequel to Stephen Strange’s story than Civil War was for Steve Rogers. It’s not as surprisingly funny as Doctor Strange was, but it did further the story of Stephen Strange becoming a better person. The arc from the first movie had only gotten him part of the way there.

Since I’d expected it to be all spectacle with little substance, I was actually surprised that Strange’s storyline had essentially the same overall message as Everything Everywhere All at Once: instead of obsessing over what could have been or even what could be, learn to accept with gratitude and humility everything that is. I don’t think it was anywhere near as insightful or as moving as Everything Everywhere, but then, that wasn’t what it was aiming for. It was more focused on super-hero fights and less on the personal implications of the multiverse.

As for the thing that most surprised me — and is in my opinion the strongest example yet of how the whole Marvel Cinematic Universe is paying off in storytelling terms, not just box office — that requires me to spoil the whole story. I think not everybody’s going to like it as much as I did, but it’s still a lot of fun and one of the best entries in the MCU.

Continue reading “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness”
  • 1
    For whoever’s keeping track of these things: number 3 is the seance/summoning/exorcism sequence in Drag Me To Hell.
  • 2
    Contrast it with Moon Knight, which frustratingly seemed to be operating with no awareness of how the rest of the MCU works. One of its big reveals in the finale was of a character who’d been conspicuously absent the entire series, not just to fans of the comics (which I’m not), but to anyone who’d seen a “Who is Moon Knight, anyway?” explainer video (which I am).

May the 4th and Always Two There Are

Reconsidering the prequels in honor of May the 4th

I frequently forget that there are tons of Star Wars fans who saw the prequels not as the embittered adult I was, but as kids, who were primed for Naboo and pod races to be their formative experiences just like the Tatooine and trench runs were formative for me.

Even when I’ve been able to acknowledge that, though, it hasn’t made me actually like the movies any more. I’ve been stuck with the least charitable interpretation possible: they’re the product of someone who is an indisputable genius at world-building, and at re-interpreting and building on film genres so that they don’t feel like simple homages or re-hashes1The film noir influences on Attack of the Clones are still about the only thing I genuinely like from that movie, and of course at assembling teams of the most talented filmmakers in the industry — but was either unwilling or unable to acknowledge that the scripts and pacing were undermining all that work and turning it into a mess. As a result, all three of the movies have some standout moments (the pod races and the Duel of the Fates in The Phantom Menace in particular) that never coalesce into something that resonates.

But! This video from Ben Chinapen (frequent editor of the Mr Sunday Movies videos) is the first defense of The Phantom Menace that’s convinced me to reconsider it at all.

In particular: I was one of the big, angry, adult nerds who was extremely put out by the whole business about midichlorians2And Anakin’s virgin birth story, for that matter, which is somehow even less tonally appropriate, but somehow didn’t generate nearly as much nerd rage. To me, it seemed to violate everything that makes Star Wars what it is: it offers a pseudo-scientific explanation for something that not only needs no scientific explanation, but is actively undermined by one. It retroactively undermines the universality of the first trilogy, reminding you that it wasn’t actually a story of plucky underdogs overcoming powerful fascists, but a story about princesses and heroes who inherited their places in the story. (Which is something Rian Johnson tried to counteract in The Last Jedi, before that got stamped out in The Rise of Skywalker).

Even worse, it added a creepy layer of eugenics on top of that, suggesting that it wasn’t just fate that was calling these heroes into action, but actual biological differences that made them better suited to be heroes than commoners like you and me.

Again with the least charitable interpretation: Star Wars seemed to say that even a young person who was really into cars and spaceships from an out-of-the-way place like Modesto I mean Tatooine could answer a call to adventure and be capable of great things. The Phantom Menace seemed to retcon that into saying that that young person was predisposed to greatness all along. It felt like another case of a talented person achieving success and then making art to assert that their success was no accident, or even the product of hard work, but the result of their being “born better.”

But what if I were overthinking it, and being unfairly uncharitable? One thing that only became clear after years of nerd rage was that George Lucas doesn’t take Star Wars as seriously as fans claim to.3I admit I’ve also been gullible enough to take Harrison Ford’s “grouchy old man who hates Star Wars” character seriously, instead of recognizing that he’s basically doing a bit. What if Lucas wasn’t as obsessed with building onto the universe as I’d assumed, and was instead more interested in using this set of movies to explore a different set of ideas? Not just exploring new methods of making movies with 21st-century technology — which was always evident in the prequels, even to the angriest fans and the people least impressed with all the CGI and green screens — but in using this framework of fantasy science fiction based on old movie serials to present a different set of parables about universal themes of good, evil, and responsibility?

If you’re not as fussed about “canon” as the people making fan pages and wikis — in other words, if you don’t care as much about how Star Wars “works” as you do about what it “means” — then the midichlorians can exist almost purely as metaphor. Then, as Chinapen suggests, the entire first movie is about interconnectedness and interdependence. It actually becomes the opposite of my initial interpretation. It is, unexpectedly and more than a little confusingly, a story about a “chosen one” destined to change the nature of the entire universe, that rejects the whole notion of a chosen one. It asserts that we’re all influenced by each other, and that we all rely on each other.

I still don’t think the movies are all that deep, and I honestly can’t say that I like them that much more now than I did before. But I am starting to suspect that I was coming into the prequels with arrogance, and so much of what I found to be muddled and “anti-Star Wars” in them — why are they talking about interdependence in one scene, and then in the next scene asserting that our heroes are heroes because of cell parasites that let them do magic? — isn’t necessarily the result of poor storytelling, but my own assumptions about what these movies are supposed to be.

And I mean, that’s on me, because Lucas warned us all way back in 1980 that Anakin’s story was going to be a tragedy. But now it seems less like “a bunch of random and occasionally contradictory things that happen and then end badly, all because the conclusion of the story was already written 20 years previously,” and more like a consistent through-line. The key moments that turn Anakin into — spoiler! — Darth Vader are the result of everyone around him telling him that he can do anything.

Palpatine’s whole scheme of corruption works, not just on Anakin but the entire Republic, not simply because he’s secretly an evil wizard, but because he knows how to manipulate people’s desire to do the right thing, and their desire to have control over things outside of their control. Meanwhile, the Jedi are telling Anakin that he alone has a special gift as prophesied by the ancients, and also that personal attachments are a weakness that can be manipulated, instead of a strength. Maybe if he hadn’t spent his whole life getting such bad advice, he wouldn’t have become convinced that he alone is the arbiter of right and wrong, and he wouldn’t have flipped out and murdered a bunch of Tusken Raiders and children. Who’s to say, really?

Again, none of this was ever hidden in the movies; it just never made sense to expect that level of dramatic irony in a series so dependent on farting and slobbering aliens. That’s why I appreciate Ben Chinapen’s video so much: it hasn’t turned me into a fan of the prequels, but it is a good counter to the whole notion of “Star Wars is just for kids, stop taking it so seriously,” which is too often used both as a condemnation and a defense. (And has been since 1977). Like it or not, the whole series has become one of the most ubiquitous and most accessible set of stories there is. Even people who don’t take it seriously, or even like it, still have it as a cultural touchstone. That’s why it’s worth interpreting and re-interpreting.

That’s also why it’s reassuring that such a ubiquitous cultural touchstone that’s so important to so many people can be interpreted to have a more positive and consistent philosophy. It’s not just a story about genetically gifted space wizards fated to save the universe, that also gives occasional lip service to the “interconnectedness of all things.” It’s a set of parables about the nature of good and evil and our responsibility to be agents of good, not only by answering a call to adventure, but also by recognizing that no matter what our talents are, we’re all a small part of something greater.

  • 1
    The film noir influences on Attack of the Clones are still about the only thing I genuinely like from that movie
  • 2
    And Anakin’s virgin birth story, for that matter, which is somehow even less tonally appropriate, but somehow didn’t generate nearly as much nerd rage
  • 3
    I admit I’ve also been gullible enough to take Harrison Ford’s “grouchy old man who hates Star Wars” character seriously, instead of recognizing that he’s basically doing a bit.

May the Chip Shortage Be With You

A mysterious message from someone at Raspberry Pi that seemed interesting enough to pass along

This blog is too low-traffic for me to get anything resembling press requests, but I did get a short, intriguing message from somebody at Raspberry Pi today. They were responding to my posts about building a Star Wars-inspired Raspberry Pi setup, and my nerdy marriage proposal, with the enigmatic comment “you should keep an eye on RaspberryPi.com on May 4th.”

I’m a huge fan of the whole Pi platform (especially the RP2040s and the whole Pi Zero line), and obviously a big Star Wars nerd, so this all seems highly relevant to my interests. My projects are on hold at the moment both because of limited time and because it’s very, very difficult to get Pi boards because of the global chip shortage, but I’ll be paying attention to whatever they’ve got in mind. It seems like anybody reading this blog is likely to have similar interests, so I thought I’d pass along the message!

Edited 4/4/2020: Seppo’s guess below was correct, and they were very kindly celebrating Star Wars-themed electronics projects instead of announcing any new collaboration. I think my cold, hard heart just immediately when to “product announcement” because my engagement ring box didn’t use a Raspberry Pi. I’d forgotten how the whole environment of hobbyist electronics on the internet tends to be a lot more supportive and non-competitive with each other as opposed to the world of “branded consumer products.” In any case, it’s encouraged me to get back into those electronics projects!

In addition to the products pages on RaspberryPi.com and Adafruit.com, a good channel I don’t believe I’ve mentioned before is The Rebel Base Builds. He’s a British CG artist and builder who takes on a lot of themed projects all themed to Star Wars, usually focusing on the modeling and construction aspects but still bringing in electronics (because duh, Star Wars needs LEDs).

Literacy 2022: Book 3: Death Comes as the End

Lots of Deaths on the Nile

Book
Death Comes as the End by Agatha Christie

Synopsis
Christie translates her “rich people being murdered in a British manor house” formula to ancient Egypt. A wealthy and peaceful-but-dysfunctional family is beset by evil when the head of the household brings home a new concubine.

Pros

  • Christie’s fascination with Egypt and Egyptology is evident throughout, and the references rarely feel forced or “too contemporary.”
  • While there are two all-knowing detective types (in a sense, a less-eccentric Poirot and a meaner Miss Marple), they’re secondary characters. The actual protagonist is a young woman trying to forge an identity for herself.
  • I was vaguely aware that Christie had also written romance novels under a pseudonym, but this is an interesting combination of genres: detective novel, romance novel, and semi-historical fiction.
  • Instead of just laying out the facts of the mystery, much of this story is delivered through the inner thoughts of the protagonist and her love of her home. It gives the sense of a woman implicitly defying an even more patriarchal society than the one in England in 1944, simply by wanting an identity of her own.
  • Has all the comfort-reading qualities you’d expect from an Agatha Christie mystery.

Cons

  • Likely just due to over-familiarity with Christie’s formula, the mystery part of the story isn’t all that compelling. (Although she does allow herself to go further into the supernatural, which is interesting).
  • Since so much of the writing is in the inner mind of a young woman struggling with her own thoughts, it can come across as repetitive and the character as even a bit simple-minded. (Which is itself something that the book mentions).
  • All but a few of the characters are so unlikeable that it’s difficult to feel much of anything as horrible stuff keeps happening to them.

Verdict
The most remarkable thing about this book is that it even exists. It seems like such a big swing for Christie to move so much of the things that made her successful into a genre that’s outside of her comfort zone, and then to have it work so surprisingly well. But once you get past the exotic setting, it feels exactly like what you’d expect from a mid-tier Agatha Christie mystery, for better and for worse.

Literacy 2022: Book 2: Star Wars From a Certain Point of View

An anthology of short stories from people I almost definitely followed on Twitter 10 years ago

Book
Star Wars: From a Certain Point of View by various authors

Synopsis
An anthology of short stories focusing on obscure tertiary characters, or unseen background events involving the major characters, from the first Star Wars movie.

Pros

  • Claudia Gray’s story about Obi-Wan being visited by Qui-Gon Jinn’s ghost was really good, making the implicit story of his exile on Tatooine seem less lonely
  • Glen Weldon’s story about a gay hook-up on the Death Star was a weird swing in Star Wars terms but totally in line with what you’d expect from Weldon’s work, and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it
  • A story told from the perspective the dianoga in the trash compactor was another weird idea that shouldn’t have worked but ended up being an interesting take on the Star Wars universe
  • Most of the stories feel as if they were written by fans of Star Wars eager to work within the universe, instead of being from writers just cranking out licensed content
  • The stories involving established characters work pretty well, adding depth to familiar characters instead of trying to invent an inner world for a character that was only on screen for a few seconds

Cons

  • As with many anthologies, the quality of the writing is vary uneven. Here, though, some of the stories varied from over-written to completely insufferable, sometimes from writers whose work I tend to like elsewhere
  • Goes hard on fitting Rogue One into the timeline, which bugs me not just because I’m not a fan of that movie, but because it undercuts the significance of both the destruction of Alderaan and the attack on the Death Star
  • Some of the stories, even though they’re written by talented writers, just reveal the limitations of trying to get too much depth out of characters who are best left as visual designs or archetypes

Verdict
The premise seems like it’d be quad-laser-focused on me and exactly what I’d like, from subject material down to the choice of writers. But the end result has me even more convinced that so much of what made the first Star Wars so impactful wasn’t its exhaustive world-building, but in knowing what to leave implicit, letting the audience infer all the details about people and places we’re only seeing a glimpse of.

Everything I Love About Everything Everywhere All At Once

Refusing to choose one thing I love in a movie that celebrates living in the best of all possible worlds.

The featured image on this post is my poorly-cropped version of the beautiful poster by James Jean on the A24 Films site.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a flawless movie, and the only negative thing I have to say about Everything Everywhere All At Once is the gentlest of criticisms: it has a perfectly understated vulgar gag early in the movie (involving a trophy on someone’s desk) that it then stretches out into an extended fight scene later on. The fight scene is very funny and hilariously juvenile — especially for committing to judicious pixellation over the entire fight — but I can’t help but wish they’d shown a little bit more restraint and just left it as a one-off.

But then, this movie isn’t about restraint at all. It’s about multiverses in the purest possible sense: every moment is filled with the spirit of We can do anything we want! The official synopsis is “the film is a hilarious and big-hearted sci-fi action adventure about an exhausted Chinese American woman (Michelle Yeoh) who can’t seem to finish her taxes,” which is about as good a description as Rotten Tomatoes’ listing the genre as “Sci-Fi, Comedy, Adventure, Fantasy.” It really is about everything, and choosing any one aspect of it seems too reductive.

One of the things I tend to love the most in narrative art is when the artist uses the form of the work to reinforce the theme of the work. Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi, for instance, which changes voice from wonder and discovery to melancholy to express an otherwise inexpressible sense of loss. So I’m especially impressed by how Everything Everywhere All At Once uses a genre-defying story of multiverses as a rejection of the idea of the multiverse. Or at least, how science fiction and fantasy stories tend to present the multiverse.

After it establishes its premise, it seems to explode into a story of infinite potential, with the freedom to do anything, show anything, and be anything. And even as it’s making full use of that freedom — combining family drama with slapstick comedy with superhero action adventure with martial arts with anime with science fiction with vulgar comedy with Wong Kar Wai romance with zombie movie — it’s asserting that it’s futile to value infinite potential over concrete reality. It seems to use the entirety of decades of global pop-culture, smashed together with chaotic excess, to present a simple idea about the value of simplicity, contentment, and kindness.

Of course, that’s reductive, too. The simplicity of that message becomes profound, rather than trite, only because it’s carried across layers of absurdity and action. The movie’s chaos never evaporates as nothing more as absurd excess, because just about every one of its bizarre ideas is given a simply beautiful twist. I never would’ve expected to find myself in tears at the sight of two women with hot dog fingers consoling each other, or a woman carrying a man on her back in order to rescue his magical raccoon.

I was in tears for most of the movie, thinking of lost potential, lost loved ones, and regrets over missed opportunities, but then it deftly reassured me that everything would be okay. We spend so much time focusing on what could have been that we lose sight of what was, and what we have now.

Everyone in the cast is brilliant, which is astounding considering how much it requires the cast to get it down to the atomic level. Ke Huy Quan and Stephanie Hsu in particular are amazing, never letting a moment feel false even as they’re surrounded by absolute absurdity. The movie seems to have been made for Michelle Yeoh, though, finally giving her a showcase for everything she can do. I’ve been a hopeless fan of hers ever since I saw Supercop, but it’s always seemed like even her best movies — and even movies like Wing Chun, which seemed designed to show off her talents — that they weren’t capturing the entirety of what makes her spectacular.

I also loved the soundtrack by Son Lux, which felt as free as the rest of the movie to incorporate anything and everything it had on hand. The music was rarely predictable but never drew too much attention to itself. I most appreciated how it incorporated hints of Debussy throughout, sparking a flash of recognition that swirled around before combining with everything else.

Barely related: I was completely unfamiliar with the work of the Daniels before this movie, and had never seen their amazing video for “Turn Down For What.” (Which features Sunita Mani, who has a recurring cameo in Everything Everywhere All At Once). It’s oddly relevant, because they both have performers who have to be game for anything in order to show us something we’ve never seen before.

I’ve never been as emotionally devastated nor as cathartically reassured on a moral, philosophical, and existential level by a movie with so many dildos and butt plugs.

One Thing I Like About The Lost Boys

I’m glad I waited until I was 50 to watch this teen vampire movie.

I was a junior in high school when The Lost Boys came out, but I never bothered to see it until tonight. It had such a heavy marketing presence — and general pop cultural presence — that I knew enough about it to get references to it, and I thought I knew the basic premise: what if St. Elmo’s Fire but vampires?

So I was surprised to see that it’s not quite that. It’s more like: what if you mashed together St. Elmo’s Fire, The Goonies, and Fright Night, and made it 10 times hornier and cornier?

I should mention that I’ve never seen St. Elmo’s Fire, either, and I don’t plan to. I didn’t see The Goonies until a few years ago, and I’m convinced that you have to have seen it as a kid to appreciate it, because I thought it was dismal. I’m glad I waited until I was 50 to watch The Lost Boys, though, because I don’t think I would’ve been able to appreciate it back when I was in the target audience.

For one thing, I would’ve been hopelessly confused by how gay it is. I admit that at the time, I had kind of a confusing crush on Kiefer Sutherland without even a hint of irony, so I would’ve been convinced that it was all in my head and that I was “watching it wrong.” Now, it seems so obvious that they barely even bothered to make it subtext.

Ostensibly, Sutherland’s “David” and Jason Patric’s “Michael” were in a love triangle with Jami Gertz’s “Star,” but the movie’s really only interested in the chemistry between David and Michael. Star is barely even a character — not at all Gertz’s fault, since she’s not given anything to do besides be fought over and have vague, 80s movie euphemistic sex with. Meanwhile, David is constantly calling out for Michael and inviting him to get an earring and join him in his lair with his giant shirtless Jim Morrison poster and to become like him and to find out “what he is” and drink his blood and come party with him and sheesh get a room already, guys.

It’d be too simple-minded to see that Joel Schumacher directed it and just declare, “Welp, he made it gay.” There’s something a little more subtle in the tone of The Lost Boys that actually makes me respect Schumacher more than I did. The Lost Boys is absolutely not a good movie, but it does strike me as shameless, in the best possible sense of the word.

The movies I always associate with Schumacher are Batman Forever, which is just awful, and Batman and Robin, which is somehow even worse. There’s plenty to hate in those movies: nipples on the bat suit, the gratuitous shots of Robin’s butt, the Bat credit card, the roller skating, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr Freeze, Alfred Headroom, and I’m sure a dozen other things my brain has mercifully allowed me to forget. But the two things that I always found completely intolerable were Jim Carrey’s performance as the Riddler, and Uma Thurman’s performance as Poison Ivy, for reasons I could never figure out until I saw The Lost Boys tonight.

All the other stuff is awful, tone-deaf camp, but at least it’s sincere. The only charitable thing I’ve ever been able to say about those two Batman movies is that they seem like movies that Schumacher genuinely wanted to make. He thought Batman and its characters were silly, campy, brightly colored, full of bafflingly repressed sexuality, and outright rejected the idea that there was anything serious and gritty to be found in such an absurd premise. But Carrey and Thurman were both trying to go over the top of a movie that was already over the top. There’s an inescapable sense that they need you to know that they’re in on the joke, and they’re aware of how silly the whole thing is. It especially bugs me with Thurman, because I think she’s so great in Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, going all in with complete confidence that the audience is going to get it.

Sincerely awful is still sincere, and I think that deserves more credit than I’ve been willing to give. Even if the execution is painful, the basic idea is valid: movies are fiction, and we don’t have to take everything so seriously.

There’s one episode of Batman: The Animated Series where a bunch of kids are telling stories they’ve heard about the Batman, each story representing a different incarnation of Batman from the movies, TV, or comics, and each story presented in that incarnation’s style. One of the kids is a flamboyant boy who gets cut off by the other kids with a line something like “Nobody wants to hear your version, Joel.” At the time I saw it, I thought it was a clever, self-aware dig at the campiness of Schumacher’s movies. Now, though, I think it was just unfairly mean-spirited.

Back to The Lost Boys: it seems odd to say that it’s “its own thing,” since it’s so derivative of other 80s movies, and so much of it is formulaic. But it’s just weird in ways I didn’t expect. It bounces between genres, with each actor seeming to have a different idea of whether they’re in a horror movie, a romance, a family comedy, a teen coming-of-age story, or an action/adventure. The comedy bits aren’t particularly funny (the only genuinely funny line in the whole movie is the last one), the scary bits aren’t scary, and the sexy bits are hilariously un-sexy, but I respect what a swing it was to try to mash them all together. There’s nothing grounding it, but there’s also no sense that it needs to be grounded. It’s silly, but it doesn’t come across so much as camp as it does a confidence that movies are allowed to be stylized and silly. They don’t always need to be taken seriously.

So the one thing I like about The Lost Boys is that it gave me a new respect for Joel Schumacher. I still don’t really like what I’ve seen of his movies, but I respect that he was working within a formula but still managed to make movies that feel like movies he wanted to make.

Boba Fett and the Road Less Traveled

Reconsidering both The Book of Boba Fett and how “sophisticated” Star Wars needs to be

It’s only been a month since the finale of The Book of Boba Fett, which would be too early to go back and give it a second look, except Ben Chinapen made a pretty good video essay about the series, presenting Boba Fett’s character arc mostly independent of everything else in the show.

The video does exactly what it sets out to do: recap Boba Fett’s story in chronological order, to call out how the series managed to take what was essentially a dozen or so lines of dialogue and a cool suit, and turn it into an actual character with real motivations and such. There aren’t any shockingly surprising new takes in the video, but that isn’t a knock on the video at all. It’s just an acknowledgement that the series wasn’t really about ambiguity or layers. All of its meaning was floating there on the surface, keeping all the action scenes from being purely empty calories.

It did make me realize, though, that the series did have a little more thematic resonance than I originally gave it credit for. My main complaint about The Book of Boba Fett stands, and it’s the most obvious one: the series just suddenly loses interest in its main character and goes back to making The Mandalorian. I was willing to give the fifth episode (“Oops, All Mandalorians”) the benefit of the doubt, since it didn’t just continue Din Djarin’s story, but established it as a parallel for Boba Fett’s. But I thought the sixth episode (“How Grogu Got His Groove Back”) was a complete non-sequitur.

It seemed like the series hadn’t just lost interest in Boba Fett’s story, but stopped it completely to show us some fan-favorite characters doing predictable stuff that could’ve happened off-screen. Meanwhile, the Mandalorian chose a new spaceship completely inappropriate for bounty hunting, as if the filmmakers knew the scene they wanted to see at the end (and the toys they wanted to sell) and worked backwards from that, instead of giving it any genuine motivation. Worst of all, the ultimatum Luke Skywalker presented at the end seemed hypocritical and completely out of character; he’d seen more than anyone else how the old Jedi rule of “no attachments” always ended in tragedy, so why was he making Baby Yoda choose one or the other?

But if you reconsider that episode as an intentional part of The Book of Boba Fett instead of a clumsily-shoehorned interlude, it makes more sense. It’s yet another story of a character who has a path clearly laid out for him, but he chooses to define his own path and his own clan. Grogu didn’t even have a name until midway through the second season of The Mandalorian; until then, he was “Baby Yoda.” So of course he was going to end up following the same path as Yoda, training to be a powerful Jedi. (How that would fit in with the timeline of The Last Jedi was going to be an interesting exercise for the writers). I felt like the series was showing me stuff I already knew was going to happen, because it hadn’t even occurred to me that it could play out a different way.

In that context, the end of that episode feels less like an ultimatum, and more like Luke offering the freedom of choice. And the character appearances are meaningful, instead of just being cameos for the fans: Ahsoka chose to leave the Jedi and make her own way, while Luke speaks more like he’s doing what he thinks he’s supposed to do instead of “trusting his instincts.” Even Din Djarin’s new spaceship feels less forced; he wasn’t choosing a ship for being a bounty hunter, because he was redefining himself as something else. He didn’t need room for bounties, but for his new family.

To be clear: I still don’t think it all works. I think the series would’ve been a lot stronger if they’d spent that time developing the characters and plot threads they left hanging, like the Rancor, and Jennifer Beals’s character, and the Hutts, and the other crime lords, and Fett’s history with Cad Bane and other bounty hunters. But at least I can understand why they thought the two episodes of The Mandalorian fit into The Book of Boba Fett without being completely arbitrary.

It seems like I spend a lot of time insisting that Star Wars works best when it doesn’t try for nuance or layers or ambiguity, and just sticks to Good Guys vs Bad Guys with spaceships and lasers. The reason the stories resonate isn’t because they’re complex or open to multiple interpretations, but because they take straightforward ideas about morality and free will, and present them in interesting ways. It’s best kept in the realm of parable, which is why it feels facile to look for too much in the way of philosophy or thematic complexity, and why it feels tone deaf to try to work in too much moral ambiguity or “mature” content. But that’s also why I refuse to just reject all of it as being frivolous or just for kids; having all of the “meaning” floating on the surface, ready for interpretation, is a feature instead of a bug. The simplicity and accessibility makes it universal, not necessarily juvenile.

This is a franchise that has more archetypes than fully-realized characters — outside of the comics and some of the animated series, Boba Fett was the ultimate example of a “character” who had no actual characterization apart from “a bad-ass who has a cool spaceship and a jetpack.” I’m currently reading a book of short stories that recount events from the movies from the point of view of an incidental or background character, and it includes one from the perspective of Boba Fett. It’s written by Paul Dini, who’s extremely talented, but having to work with the version of the character as it exists in the movies. And it shows just how little there is to work with; it’s difficult to make music when you’ve only got one note to play.

So I respect what a big swing it was for The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett to take one-note characters and spin them into genuine character arcs about loyalty, identity, and self-determination. And I doubly respect that they did it while keeping everything in the realm of parable, instead of trying to take the Rogue One approach, trying to turn stories of Good vs Evil into “more mature” stories of politics and morally-compromised heroes. I’d expected The Book of Boba Fett to be a story about an anti-hero, with all the double-crosses and dirty deals of a mob story — Star Wars trying to bring spaceship and lasers to a more action-heavy version of The Sopranos. As frustrating as the series often was, I really like that they rejected that idea. Instead of asking me to identify or even empathize with an anti-hero, they took a pretty shallow non-character and let him become a hero.

Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: I Am Stretched On Your Grave

In case anyone’s forgotten that Sinéad O’Connor is a genius

On Neko Case’s newsletter Entering the Lung (which I recommend to everybody, even if — or especially if — you’re not already a fan of Neko Case!), she’s been writing about how profoundly she was affected by Sinéad O’Connor’s albums Lion and the Cobra and I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got.

That reminded me of the first time I heard the latter, over 30 years ago (!), and how striking it was to be expecting a late 80s/early 90s pop album and to suddenly hear O’Connor’s version of “I Am Stretched On Your Grave.”

It’s remarkable even on the surface level, and this clip from a concert video shows why. In case it gets removed from YouTube: It’s just O’Connor alone on the stage, singing a haunting folk song over a recording of a drum loop and bass. Occasionally the lights will flash along with the accented drum beats, casting huge shadows on the back wall as if to visually represent what an outsized presence O’Connor has on stage. I love the song, and it’s my favorite from a record I’d only bought because one track was such a big hit that everyone in the US in 1990 was required to own a copy. The traditional fiddle solo by Steve Wickam at the end indirectly introduced me to The Waterboys, which hit me right at the peak of my obsession with the Pogues and Irish folk/punk/pop music.

I only learned today that O’Connor’s version wasn’t a contemporary take on a traditional folk song, but a cover. The words are an English translation of a 17th-century Irish poem, and they were set to a folk tune by Philip King of the band Scullion in 1979. This counts as a Tuesday Two-Fer because the two versions are similar on the surface, but put into context, are remarkably different. The difference reveals the brilliance of O’Connor’s version, which I’m only just appreciating now.

Both are essentially a capella, to accentuate both the power of the singer’s voice and the power of the original poem. It’s full of the dark, sinister imagery of a gothic romance. And it’s resolutely Irish, celebrating and preserving the culture by reinterpreting it for a contemporary audience.

If Sinéad O’Connor had just done all of that and thrown “Funky Drummer” into the mix, it would’ve been brilliant enough. But she takes ownership of the song, not just as a showcase for her voice and her talent at production, but as a creepy interlude on an album full of songs about the things important to her. It’s easier to see now how it fits into the work of a defiantly anti-pop-star artist who was too talented not to be famous. And how she insisted on using her fame to highlight the things she felt passionately about, even as that fame was working hard to destroy her.

For one thing, it’s telling that it’s on the same record as “Nothing Compares 2 U,” a pop song that can’t help being good just because Prince wrote it, but still feels shallow in comparison. That song still wallows in the romanticism of someone pining over a failed relationship, while “I Am Stretched On Your Grave” goes hardcore into all-consuming obsessive grief. Like Kate Bush’s deliberately eerie voice in “Wuthering Heights,” O’Connor howls to suggest not a grief-stricken man, but a banshee doomed to eternally haunt the grave of her lover.

And there’s another layer when it’s put into the context of an album with songs about divorce1“The Last Day of Our Acquaintance” is my second favorite song on the record. Damn, what a good record!, pregnancy, motherhood, independence, and identity. O’Connor doesn’t change the gender of the poem, and leaving it intact acts as an indictment of entrenched misogyny that could be easily overlooked if it were presented as a man singing a traditional folk song:

Oh, and thanks be to Jesus
We did what was right
And your maiden head still
Is your pillar of light

Without changing a word, she drains it of any capacity for being interpreted as a love that transcends death. It becomes the lament of a madman who based his lover’s value on her virginity and her fertility. It comes across not as the loss of a soulmate, but the loss of property.

And yet, it’s not just a simplistic, facile rejection, either. I love that at the end of that concert performance, at the point the traditional fiddle solo takes over, she doesn’t turn the stage over to the soloist. Instead, she does an Irish dance over the recording. It seems to suggest that this isn’t just about the music itself and her arrangement; it’s about her. It’s a part of her heritage, one that she wants to share and celebrate.

The media tried hard to reduce Sinéad O’Connor to all the things that made her weird, as if she were nothing more than an angry bald-headed woman who made grand-standing gestures like tearing up a picture of the Pope on live TV. But there’s a complexity implicit in her music and the way she presented it, deeper than the nihilism of punk and deeper than the simple dichotomies of the present, when people seem eager to reject outright everything they find problematic. I don’t see any hint of irony in O’Connor’s Irish dance; I think she genuinely loves the spirit of rebellion and love of music and poetry that’s part of Irish culture, even if it’s a culture that had a history of trying to destroy people like her. Now I respect that she remained defiantly herself; her version of “I Am Stretched On Your Grave” suggests “in a couple of decades, you might be able to understand this.”

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    “The Last Day of Our Acquaintance” is my second favorite song on the record. Damn, what a good record!

One Thing I Like About Encanto

Encanto managed to tell a straightforward story without feeling too simplistic

First of all, I’m proud of my joke, which goes like this: Will I still enjoy Encanto if I haven’t seen 1 to (n-1) Canto?

Anyway, one thing I like about Encanto is that I got to watch it on Disney+. I was wrecked by the end of this movie, and I’m kind of tired of having emotional breakdowns in public movie theaters. Magic of cinema, sure, I’m all for it I guess, but I’m 100% behind home streaming for first-run movies1As long as the studio takes that into account when negotiating contracts with their actors who’ve been a prominent part of several of their films for almost a decade, instead of, say, being a multi-billion dollar company hypocritically trying to shame actors for being greedy during a pandemic..

But that’s not the main thing I liked about the movie. There are actually two more things about Encanto that I liked a lot, and I was having kind of a hard time choosing which one was the most worth writing about. Then I realized that they’re both aspects of the same thing: the storytelling is straightforward, direct, and earnest, but without feeling simplistic, maudlin, or juvenile.

One example of that is the song “Surface Pressure.” I came into the movie after missing the first 30 minutes or so (I since went back and watched it), right as that song came on. I knew the basic premise of the story, and I already knew a surprising amount about the characters just from being on The Internet. I’d seen videos of people doing covers, and I was aware that the song “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” had become a meme, and I’ve seen lots and lots of musicals Disney and otherwise, so I thought I knew what the structure of the movie was. A song as confessional as “Surface Pressure” must come late in act 2 or so, after we’ve gotten to know the characters but then — twist! — we go deeper and learn more about the characters’ mental state.

So I was pleasantly surprised to see that this was more or less Luisa’s introduction. Or at least the most dialogue she’s had in the movie up to that point, by far. She goes from being “I’m the sister who’s strong” to having an entire song explaining exactly what stresses she’s under. The question “what’s bothering Luisa?” only lingers for about 5 minutes, tops.

The reason that pleasantly surprised me is because movies so often treat that kind of directness, even in musicals, as being too on-the-nose or too simplistic. You can’t just have characters who are self-aware; that’s basic! You’ve got to let the mystery and intrigue stretch out, so the audience can see the character’s arcs playing out as they happen. But here, Mirabel talks to characters, and they immediately tell her exactly what’s on their minds, what their crises are, what they’re dealing with.

It’s almost as if Mirabel’s magical gift is being able to listen and understand what other people are going through.

The other example is that the movie has no villain. Family animated movies have evolved past fairy tale storytelling — and even when they do tell fairy tales, they can focus on aspects of the story that make them feel contemporary — but they still often feel juvenile because of their need to make every conflict about good guys vs bad guys. I still say that the one thing that keeps Up from being a flawless movie is that it spends so much time building its characters and organic, interesting conflicts, then just turns it into a movie about defeating the villain.

Encanto does have an antagonist, but they’re not motivated by greed or evil; they’re motivated by love. The reason the characters can be so direct about their internal struggles is because the movie isn’t about finding out what’s wrong. Everybody knows what’s wrong, and they just don’t know what to do about it. The conflict is driven by the completely understandable belief that it’s the family’s duty to be stewards protecting the miracle, forgetting that the entire reason the miracle exists is to protect the family.

Even though Encanto is full of characters saying explicitly exactly what they’re thinking, that doesn’t mean that there are no layers to it. It has three metaphors that are carried throughout: the casita itself, the candle representing the family’s magic, and the butterfly. I really like that the first two are made explicit as soon as they’re introduced — another case of being direct and skipping any unnecessary obfuscation — while the butterfly quietly lives on Mirabel’s shoulder until the climactic song about finding protection in each other and then needing to break out of that cocoon.

Tangentially related: I keep going back to all of the internet memes about “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” and videos covering “Surface Pressure,” and realizing how I’m at least a couple of decades too old to be able to navigate modern social media. I can’t imagine being able to set up a camera and earnestly sing into it and then release it to the public without cringing. I can’t watch the short videos without being suspicious of exactly how many of them are “genuine” and how many are just part of a viral marketing campaign. Don’t people worry that they’ll look gullible or foolish for being taken in by Disney marketing?

But then, worrying about being taken in by marketing is an extremely Gen-X anxiety to have. I find it reassuring that there are people who don’t particularly care whether something they enjoy is coming from a “paid influencer” or not; all that matters is that they’re enjoying it. And there’s nothing to be lost by being fearlessly earnest and direct. The people who would turn up their nose at it were never going to like it in the first place, and as for the people willing to engage, telling or showing them exactly what’s on your mind and what you love is the best way to engage with them.

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    As long as the studio takes that into account when negotiating contracts with their actors who’ve been a prominent part of several of their films for almost a decade, instead of, say, being a multi-billion dollar company hypocritically trying to shame actors for being greedy during a pandemic.