Film Reviews

“Rocky Five...Thousand”: American Mediocrity in Film

I’m not ashamed to admit that I have never seen any Rocky film all the way through, and what little memory I had of the films were Mr. T’s fight with Rocky, Hulk Hogan’s fight with Rocky, and Drago punching various inanimate objects. Everything else is essentially a blur. I do remember a program back in the 90’s running the Rocky title across the screen with that tremendous theme song, but I never saw anything after that. Rocky was for my cinema loving soul, a joke. A ‘Yo, Adrian’ answered with a ‘Pity tha Foo,” “Yo, Stallion,” or “I must break you.” I know there was a lot of pigeon holing with Stallone: many in the audience were not keen on translating the ghetto personality on screen with the clever young man underneath: the screenwriter, the director, the producer. Ultimately, Sylvester Stallone’s success came to bite him in the ass. He had a long draught in the 90’s when it seemed independent cinema, which he started in, seemed to shut him out. His comeback has largely been a result of his embracing the hypermasculinity of the past (The Expendables, etc.). It is strange that such an actor who was so recognized for his talent early on and in my opinion should have received an Oscar for his role in Copland in the 90’s, has such a low reputation. When my son wanted to see Creed II I reluctantly recommended we watch all the Rockys and started ordering them through Netflix DVD, of which I am a proud member. The following is my quick rundown of the franchise.

Rocky (1976) is an almost independent film by John Avildsen not known for anything before Rocky but well known for notable hits after that including the offbeat cult comedy Neighbors (1981) all the Karate Kids, Lean on Me (1989), Rocky V (1990) and the biggest surprise of all 8 Seconds (1994). So he is capable, but he doesn’t really stand out. What does stand out is Stallone’s screenwriting and acting chops and how they change over the films. Rocky is so chock full of ‘Yo, Adrian’s’ that it boggles the mind. This is coupled with scenes that make you recognize what a great actor Stallone is, but why he or Avildsen thought it would be a good idea to include is also beyond me. Foremost in my mind is the scene where effectively he is talking to himself for five minutes in his apartment. We get that he is lonely. We get that he has a dream. We get that he is Italian. This is not an uncommon set piece. Gillian Anderson did the same thing in her first episode of The Fall, she just didn’t yammer on like an idiot for the entire time. Effectively Rocky is full of these types of scenes, and other elements that underline the cheapness of it all. The plot of the film is ostensibly this: Apollo Creed, the heavyweight champion of professional boxing, challenges a street fighter so low on the ladder that no one expects him to make it to the end of round one. To everyone’s surprise, the champion slacks on his training and the street fighter with the dream throws himself into a tough regimen that doesn’t win him the fight, but wins him the respect of the boxing world. To emphasize the difference the training is making in Rocky, there are endless montages of him walking down a street, then running down a street. First no one is there to greet him. Then there are multitudes. First he is unable to make it to the top of the stairs at the impressive Philadelphia Museum of Art, then later he is able to make the leap in a single bound. The montages are effective, but lazy. They do the job, but Avildsen does not even bother to move the camera much less dress Stallone in a different outfit to make us think perhaps these two shots were not performed on the same day. Same with the butcher’s chiller. Same with Paulie’s apartment. Same with almost every setting. We know the economics of film demand you shoot out of continuity. I expect that. I also expect not to tell by the finished project that that is indeed what the crew is doing. It pulls you out of the film when you can figure out the magic. Zemeckis is perhaps the ultimate master of this, but that’s a different essay.  The whole movie, in fact the whole series, is marked with economical if unexciting photography, despite the director. The camera barely moves, which is fine, but what it is looking at when still is simply not exciting. The boxing matches were noteworthy at the time and I understand it was the first time a crew actually worked out the steps a boxing match would take before they filmed it - in contrast to previous films in which they just filmed a fight and cut it together after the fact. In this day and age it is easy to criticize the choreography. I won’t do that, but I don’t particularly find the matches as a whole very exciting.

The other thing that bothers me is the off putting romance of Adrian and the seeming squirrel like nature of her existence. Adrian is definitely sheltered, shy, and unused to courting or communication. This I can buy easily due to the beautiful Talia Shire who stands on her own talent despite being a sister of Francis Ford Coppola. But the super awkward kiss followed by Adrian’s lack of lines is disconcerting. I am however, heartened by the official poster which has Rocky holding Adrian’s hand. It might as well be “Rocky and Adrian.”

Talia Shire can sell anything, and her character is so different than the vibrant if also oppressed Connie Corleone, it really makes me wonder why she isn’t in more films. She acts the pants off everyone else in this film. The other star of the film is Burt Young, still stage acting today, who unfortunately has created an image in our cinematic mind of a misogynist Archie Bunker type as Adrian’s uncle. In this form he is stereotyped much like Stallone, and it’s a shame. I think if more directors challenged him he would be one of the greats. Lastly, I was completely and utterly blown away by the tour de force that is Carl Weathers. Weathers was not an actor, I was informed by my brother, but a pro football player (Wikipedia says he played for the Raiders in 1970), but as you see him first wear a three piece suit and then boxing trunks, I was amazed at how he disappeared into both with such ease. When I was a kid, I was struck by such a sight. A black man has business smarts, was financially savvy, and could kick some Italian ass. This was my only memory of Apollo Creed. It must have meant a thousand times more to kids growing up in Harlem or Roxbury. Creed famously wore American Flag boxers into the ring. As a kid this made complete sense. As I grew more educated about the African American mindset in the 1970’s, I find this patriotism not necessarily shocking (African Americans have always served this nation with honor) but I did find it in stark contrast to the treatment blacks suffered in the years during the success of the films. We live in times now when it is fashionable to kneel during the flag. In fact, you can sell products doing this, but in the 70’s blacks felt recent abuse from the American government: Their uneven drafting in the Vietnam War, the slow enforcement of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the disclosure of the Tuskegee Experiment - every single one representing ten more reasons why a black man would not want to wear an American flag proudly in a ring.  But not Apollo Creed. It was as if Apollo was proud of his flag in spite of the obvious prejudice he undoubtedly experienced, and that was something to admire. The finale in which (Spoilers) Rocky loses was real and sold the reality of the situation. It also solidified Rocky’s skill at endurance as opposed to strength. Creed was stronger than Rocky, no doubt, but he could not last. The fact that the fight did not end in a Knockout was a credit to the screenwriting. A KO would have been lazy.

Rocky II was a fucking disaster. I don’t mean to say that it was a horrible movie. It wasn’t. But it was a disaster in the sense that it did absolutely fucking nothing to add to the first movie. By the first hour, my son asked me if we were rewatching the first movie. The only difference was Rocky was driving a TransAm and living in a house instead of an economy flat. Having spent his money, Rocky is now forced to fight Apollo in a rematch not to prove that he still has the chops (that’s why Apollo wants the rematch) but rather because bills have piled up and financially he is in dire straits. This honesty was refreshing, but it was really not that dissimilar to the first film. Even the rematch seemed like I was rewatching the finale, which was played back at the beginning of II. This happens so often in the series that it makes me think they are reusing footage only to take up screen time. All the Rockys are under two hours. Some are close to 1:45. Everything else was practically the same. The montages, especially. The more normal than normal camera work. As a character, Rocky developed only marginally. Stallone must have been inundated with ‘Yo Adrian’ jokes. There’s only about seven in this film and one of them is the repeat from the first film’s finale. Still, at one every seven minutes it seems like a lot. Rocky is uneducated, but he’s not a dunce. He knows the difference between right and wrong and he knows when he’s taking a risk and making a mistake (remember he starts out as a small time enforcer for the Philadelphia mob - I wonder if he ever took a fall for cash). In this fashion, Rocky gains experience over the films, but never grows a brain overnight. That’s a smart and deliberate choice on the part of Stallone.

The only reason to watch Rocky III is Mr. T. The man is so saturated with hypermasculinity, my son openly mocked him much like he fell out of his chair laughing when Stallone sharpened his knife in Rambo: First Blood, Part II. Pity tha fool who don’t go on YouTube and watch Mr. T’s greatest hits. Here, T plays a fighter who came to prominence much like Rocky and wants the title, which Rocky took from Apollo at the end of II. Rocky has no sense of what it takes to keep the title, so he makes the same mistake Apollo made in the first film. So in a sense we’re watching a different version of the first film. The plot is so symmetrical it’s unreal. Rocky is beaten in the beginning and wants a rematch which T’s character gives him because he is so arrogant he doesn’t think the Italian Stallion can best him. As for the training, Apollo takes Rocky under his wing in the ghettos of Los Angeles where we see the same exact problems in the cinematography and continuity of the first two films replay as if those problems were never recognized. Apollo and Rocky running on the beach. Apollo wins (which feels right. In my mind, Rocky never could beat Apollo). Later, after having a moment with Adrian in which somehow Rocky finds motivation (a true head shaking moment) Rocky then beats Apollo. Same race, same time of day, same camera placement. They probably shot one take each and were done in fifteen minutes. This is efficient movie making but really makes you think only the minimum was spent for my ticket. No fan wants to feel that.

Pluses for Rocky III are rare. Seeing Mr. T is always a treat. But when do we stop laughing with the character and start laughing at him? Mr. T was a famous pro-wrestler and his in-ring persona closely aligned with the film version that didn’t respect the history of the sport, the icons of the sport, or even the black trail blazers who came before him. But as impressive as Mr. T is, he doesn’t come anywhere near Carl Weathers on a bad day. At the end of II Rocky and Apollo are slathered in baby oil, and Apollo is aptly named here. He looks like a Greek God. Stallone is hunched over like a longshoreman. Which I suppose makes sense, too. III also opens with the ending of II, which is endearing but when you watch them in a row repetitive. I’m further convinced they’re just trying to take up screen time with something.

The most striking image of the films in my youth is Drago, the committed Communist, the superior specimen, the drugged out, brainwashed punishing machine. I try to convey to my son now what it was like to grow up in the Cold War. We knew as fact that World War III was going to happen in our lives. That it would kill most of us. That the Soviets were inherently our enemy. Although we were raised to believe in the exceptionalism of the American Experience and the American Dream, none of us thought we would win in any type of head to head with the Communists. Red Dawn (1984), Fail Safe (1964), By Dawn’s Early Light (1990), Wargames (1983), The Day After (1983), and Dr. Strangelove (1964) had taught us that. Drago represents this idea of Soviet superiority. The idea, therefore, that Rocky could go ten rounds with something like that does play into Rocky’s talent for endurance in the ring, but becomes absurd in the larger picture. Apollo Creed couldn’t last three rounds against this...Thing. Rocky should have lost against Drago. But then, we should have lost against the Soviets….

The most amazing thing about Rocky IV, and the most amazing thing in all the Rocky films, is Apollo’s death at the hands of Drago. Carl Weathers comes to the fore, pushes his character further than most, and is utterly convincing as the consummate professional who realizes he is in too deep, but just can’t bring himself to the shame of quitting. Apollo takes Drago’s punishing hits as if I were taking them from even a novice. Because I’m a pussy. Apollo’s panicked reaction to realizing his plight and his too late strategy of running away from the Killer Commie completely sell his unfortunate demise. It’s this character sacrifice that not only shows Stallone’s excellent storytelling skill, but sets up Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan’s successful Creed run, to which I will return. Unfortunately, once Apollo is gone, the detractions start coming fast and hard; for this film, and for the series.

The negatives in this film are astounding. All the usual problems are there. Repeat footage. Uninspiring camera work. The repeat montage issue is skirted due to the fact that Rocky is apparently training in Siberia, but other things just don’t make sense. Communists don’t drive Mercedes, they drive Lladas. There’s no way in hell with Paulie’s criminal record he would ever be allowed a Soviet Visa. Rocky’s speech at the end ‘we’re better but we need to get along’ is pure shite. The stand in for Gorbachev (and the rest of the Politburo for that matter) is sickening, Drago’s “I fight for me” is meant to convey how Drago starts to turn against his masters, which completely betrays the idea of the film as a whole. If Rocky defeats an individualist, he is defeating nothing more than another boxer in another ring. If he defeats a communist, he is defeating an idea. That’s what I signed on for after I saw the stars and stripes against the hammer and sickle. I didn’t sign on for a communist to suddenly discover himself as an independent athlete. That’s a different movie.

Up until now, the series has been unfortunately mediocre with a few items of interest but nothing that didn’t showcase some other element that cancelled out the advantages. Rockys I through IV weren't’ bad. They just weren't good. But Rocky V sucked, and there’s no way around it. First we open with the standard repeat of the finale from the previous film. Then we find Rocky basically can’t fight anymore due to medical reasons. Then an accountant steals all their money and they have to move in with Pauley. Rocky opens Mickey’s gym which was willed to his kid and for some reason the montage that shows this was never developed or cut out. It was a lost opportunity. The idea of the gym becoming a success that was able to keep the Balboa’s fed was another bone that could have been thrown. Adrian goes back to work at the pet store. It would be more interesting if we had ever returned there after that thirty second clip. No follow up. The plot, that an up and coming boxer incredulously named Tommy “The Machine” Gunn (I know….I just...I know) becomes Rocky’s ungrateful protege who later is impatient with his manager’s patience, is undermined by a Don King big shot promoter who poaches the Gunn (see what I did there?) and turns him against his mentor. The finale, in which a Rocky who is medically unfit for the ring takes on Tommy in a bare knuckle street brawl is just as unoriginal as the rest of the film. Like all previous Rockys, the ideas are not bad, nor even the settings or story. Instead the narrative is beset by uninteresting dialogue, absolutely horrible acting by everyone but fucking horrible by the real boxer Tommy Morrison playing Gunn, and a complete lack of a visual style. These deficits mean side stories such as Rocky’s son trying to adjust to the inner city of Philadelphia are never truly fleshed out. Shire, who has more lines here than in all the previous Rockys combined, shows she's the finest actor on screen closely followed by Young. Unfortunately this film, as all the previous films, suffer from the same deficit: an above board director. Stallone’s talent at paying attention to story and character doesn't fully pay off because neither he or Avildson, who directed the first and fifth films, show any real charisma other than a few fast dolly shots.

If you look at Stallone’s credits from 1991 to 2006, you would be wrong to suggest that he did not work or that he wasn't popular. I saw almost all of his major hits in the theatre, although if you ask me now I could not tell you why. Oscar, Cliffhanger, Demolition Man, The Specialist, Judge Dredd, Assassins, and Daylight, are the bottom of the barrel when it comes to Hollywood storytelling. It does not mean these films were not popular. With the exception of Oscar, I remember these theatres being crowded. But it does convey an artist in trouble. Outside the Rocky and Rambo franchises, what, exactly, will Stallone be known for?

The answer should be Copland, full stop. I argued then, and will argue until the end of time, that Stallone deserved not only the Academy Award for best acting for that year (1997) but that decade. Possibly the last quarter century. Unfortunately he followed up a role that no one remembers him for a bunch of films that no one saw or remembers him for - not even a decent Get Carter remake. What to do except bring Rocky Balboa in 2006 followed by Rambo in 2008. Those in turn led to The Expendables, which might as well be extensions of Rambo, and interest in taking Rocky in different directions. Rocky Balboa is was the greatest Rocky film to date, helmed by Stallone himself (also as the writer again) and this time shot with someone who knew his way around a camera. I don’t know who shot the first five Rockys, and I don’t care. Even if Steven Soderbergh operated the camera himself, I would describe the cinematography as complete shit. Rocky Balboa was shot by Clarke Mathis, a man whose checkered history included lots of TV, three movies, and then lots of TV (one of this other ‘films’ is the disastrous Eddie Murphy vehicle Norbit). However, if you are going to brag about one film you shot, Rocky Balboa isn’t a bad one to go by. I was floored at the difference between this and the other Rocky films. It was night and day, and it really conveys the power of having someone behind the camera who understands style. I don’t know anything about Mathis, but I know he did Rocky Balboa, and for the first time I was impressed. Even Burt Young looked great. Rocky Balboa was also the first time fights were shot as if they were filmed for HBO Pay Per View and this certainly brought a lot of realism to the event. Balboa also brought a touching side to Rocky that was missing in previous films. Having lost Adrian to Ovarian Cancer (“Woman Cancer” as Rocky identifies it) Rocky opens a restaurant named after his wife and tells boxing stories as an aging and some would say pathetic second rate celebrity. Rocky has no shame. He will do whatever it takes to survive. The idea that he never got back on top really struck a chord. He lived with being poor. He stayed in East Philly. He sent his son to college. That was it. His nagging spirit, though, the one that told him he still has something left in him, that he wasn’t a has-been, drives him to the ring for one last round that will set him up for the rest of his life so he won’t think he was forced to early retirement. Rocky loses twelve rounds, but no one thought he’d last one, so his legacy is secured. He bows out spiritually on top and not having to worry about retirement. That’s more than what we started with. So to me, the franchise takes a turn here. I’ll never own this film, but I will say it’s the first one that didn’t disappoint me.

Which brings us the the hammer that is Creed. Mind you that i did not see Creed until after I saw Black Panther, so my introduction to Ryan Coogler’s work was a rather ambitious 100 million dollar film celebrating not just a breakthrough diverse cast but a story intricately woven into a larger universe. I like Black Panther, and I understand it’s cultural and financial importance, I just don’t think it’s an awesome film, and I think it ranks towards the bottom of Marvel production near Iron Man II and the Hulk (neither of which are ‘bad’ movies but they are not the stellar jaw droppers that Iron Man and Doctor Strange are. The style and substance Coogler does have, however, is immediately on display in Creed, and it floored me. In the ten years after Rocky Balboa, the champ is still running the restaurant, but Apollo Creed’s illegitimate son Adonis (ha, got you there) is an up and coming boxer that Rocky (successfully this time) takes under his wing. The direction therefore is the direction Rocky V was moving towards but never got there, and where people thought Rocky Balboa was going, but wound up going someplace else. Altogether these were good choices in the creative process, and a credit to Stallone to switch gears after four very predictable films.

Adonis, or Don’s, rise to fame over a desperate heavyweight boxer is punctuated by several positives that I found compelling. First and foremost, is Coogler’s direction. Clearly he is the visionary here, and in between his superstar Michael B. Jordan and an increasingly aging Stallone, he’s able to weave together a consistent image that, like Rocky Balboa, has style, but it far exceeds anything we have seen before in the series. This film is slick. It moves like no other Rocky film has moved. Time flies by. At 2:13 it is also the longest Rocky, so timing is everything. Don’s second fight at the midway mark against a more seasoned opponent in a professional match is mindblowing. Even though there are some sleight of hands there appears to be no cut from the dressing room through two rounds of boxing. The camera is literally over Jordan’s shoulder and follows him through every struggle in the ring. The match was incredible in terms of the ingenuity used to show it. This was far away from the distantiated fights from the first film and even the wide pull back shots of the second and third. It was ten times as good as the finale of Rocky Balboa. My son and I were so impressed with it, we watched it again. If anything gets you out of your seat, it’s a director who puts his care into his product like Coogler does.

This is not to sell out other positives of the film. Coogler’s amazing cast flies high. Jordan himself, though impressive as Killmonger in Black Panther, absolutely slays as Adonis Creed. His inside and outside personas - how he acts with the door closed as opposed to how he acts with other people - is indicative of how we all are with ourselves in private. Tessa Thompson, who would gain notoriety as the ass kicking Valkyrie of Thor Ragnarok (2017) moves with a style and finesse on screen that makes it hard to believe she hasn’t been acting for forty years. She looks as natural onscreen as Meryl Streep or Kurt Russell. It’s nice to see Phylicia Rashad in anything these days. I grew up thinking she was my second Mom, so her as Don’s adopted mother fits with me well. In the end, though, it is Stallone’s true to form acting that sells Rocky as they guy Mighty Mick was thirty years ago. Stallone under someone else’s directing is putty in a better artist’s hands. There’s nothing wrong with saying other people elevate his art. The simple truth is, someone else should direct his screenplays and someone else should direct him. He’s proven that with Beverly Hills Cop, Copland, and Creed.

Proving this point further is Creed II, a remarkable film in many aspects that fails in the same grand manner as the rest of the franchise because of the subject matter. With Coogler passing in order to dominate the Marvel universe with the staggering milestone of Black Panther, Creed II is directed by Steven Caple, Jr. a television and short director who seems to be a diamond in the rough. I actually didn’t know Coogler didn’t direct Creed II until we went to the movie and then I forgot within twenty minutes that was the case. It is remarkably like the first Creed in every way and there’s nothing wrong with that or the casting (I was floored to see Dolph Lungren looking so good and Bridgett Nielsen at all being she is Stallone’s ex). The ability for the film to focus on the relationship between Adonis and Bianca is remarkable considering the plot is so focused on revenge: Creed for the murder of his father in the ring by Drago, and Drago’s of his defeat by Rocky. In the new era of asking how women fit in our lives, Bianca’s point of view is just as relevant as Adrian’s and a like Deadpool 2, a brave choice for writers and producers creating a sequel. The finale, Drago’s heart stopping dropping of the towel in order to save his son’s life, is topped just seconds later when he tells his son it is okay that he lost as long as he is alive. As a father, watching that with my son, I can tell you that was the most powerful moment in any Rocky movie. That made up for a series of strange scenes: everything shot at Apollo’s gym and the bizarre desert training montage that ruined hopes of another Siberian sequence a la Rocky IV.

Nothing however has changed in the course of the films. And this leads me to laugh even louder at the line in Spaceballs when the TV anchor announces a film review of “Rocky Five… Thousand.” They are all the same at the baseline, and they will never change. Through all of the films I am still struck with an underwhelming sense of audience. Although I didn’t necessarily hate the Rocky films, I didn’t necessarily like them, either. I do enjoy a good underdog story, but I found it hard given the limited story arcs and technical work behind the camera to get into the Rocky saga. In the end, it was about a dude who fights, and that’s about it. Try as they might to interject other plot lines; the friendship with Apollo, the death of the Mighty Mick, the disappointment of Tommy, it completely fails to elevate any of the films, including Creed, to something higher. Creed II was the best shot by far, but not enough to balance the films out. They are all mediocre, despite the talent behind and in front of the camera, because they are all just about some dude who fights. In the end the ongoing trials of a boxer, however impressive the storytelling is, is just not that interesting.

Understanding The Last Jedi

I wanted to start this essay by swearing on a stack of bibles that I’m not some left wing patchouli stink hippie wearing berets and reading Dylan Thomas in the nearest star bucks knock off. But then again, I actually do wear berets (a hold over from my college years) and I have read Dylan Thomas but I can’t think of the last time I was at a Starbucks (but I have been there) and I am definitely not what you would describe as left – wing (not that I have a problem with liberals – “some of my best friends are democrats”). But having said all of that, and reading a lot online about how the Star Wars fandom has apparently split following The Last Jedi, I thought that I would attempt to bring together some thoughts on the history our Sacred Space Saga and try to explain (not mansplain, but just more of a layout) of some of the issues derived from The Last Jedi as well as answer some of Rian Johnson’s more notable critics. Not for the sake of argument, and not for the sake of being right, but just for the sake of understanding what it is we are all so upset about.

I am a huge Star Wars fan. It was indeed, the first time I had been in a cinema. It is the first commercial I remember seeing on TV. I remember being heartbroken when Empire was sold out, and I remember being absolutely smitten with Return of the Jedi. I named my son Luke, for Christ’s sake. So I think my credentials as a fan boy are valid. The seeds of the fandom split were born in the special editions in the 90s with not only the bad adding-on of deleted scenes that were cut for good reasons, but the addition of good for then, bad for now CGI that was completely unnecessary, including the legendary mistake of Han’s showdown with Greedo in which Greedo shoots first. Yes it changes the character. Yes it is a mistake. Did I really let it upset me at the time? No, because it’s just a fucking movie.

Harder to explain to the fandom was the introduction of Jar-Jar Binks into the saga, opening a divide between those who refused to dislike any Lucas creation and those who saw a fundamental problem with telling such a dark tale as the turning of a child of good into a paragon of evil with a fully CGI character that looked bad, sounded worse, and interacted with live action with no rationality. Flat acting we could tolerate, but not with bad Asian accents, a plot about a trade war that we couldn’t understand, and the first character we truly started to hate. This is not the fault of Ahmed Best any more than it is the fault of Eric Stoltz when he was replaced midway through shooting of Back to the Future. Best did his Best, and it wasn’t a question of ‘was it good enough’, it was a question of ‘what the fuck was George thinking?’ The next move after the first edit was to eliminate Jar Jar from the plot – completely possible given that fanboys had made a ‘Phantom Edit’ of the film and posted it on torrent sites before the summer was over. It would not have been a loss. We would not have noticed it. The next worse thing in the film is the bad acting (we could say bad directing) and if you didn’t put up with that, then you weren’t a fan. The last 30 minutes of Phantom were so good, you could have gotten over it. Best did an amazing interview with Matt Gourley on the I Was There Too Podcast in which he discusses the film and when it came to the controversy had only this to say: “My job as an actor is to provoke a reaction, so if you had a reaction, I was doing my job.” To which we should all nod and say “yes, it was a great job, Ahmed, and it is not your fault you were miscast, given bad directions, and your footage used regardless.” Best was not the problem with Phantom. Jar Jar was, and we shouldn’t persecute Best for that.

It seems remarkable to see a featurette on Attack of the Clones in which Lucas is directing his animators during Yoda’s famous shit-fit fight over Count Dooku, the finale of the best film in the three ring circus that is the prequels. “This has the potential to look ridiculous,” Lucus warns his animators, “and we don’t want it looking that way.” Instead, we have a bad ass and reverential warrior monk Yoda we all screamed at in the theatre and clapped. George almost pulled it off, but the Sith had their revenge. The lava fight between Anakin and Obi-Wan, outrageous and off-putting, gave the weird sensation among fans of admitting to themselves “I know this is a movie about laser swords and light speed, but it just seemed a little fantastic to me.” Yes, it was, and it’s why Revenge of the Sith sits next to Phantom as the worst film. More than ten years passed. I never thought my son would see a Star Wars film in theatres again. But it happened, and though we both thought the first hour of The Force Awakens was absolutely solid, the minute Han and Chewie show up it all goes to shit. The saving grace of the film – the awakening of the force in Rey and the revelation that she rather than Poe or Finn will be the crux of the saga – comes too late to save an awkward battle on an Endor-like planet despite thoughtful long shots, and is ruined when, holding the lightsaber in her hand, John Williams music is not given another bar to make the emphasis of the moment truly take hold. It’s rushed, just like the screenwriting. On top of this are weird costume choices for Rey, a Kylo Ren that doesn’t look bad but doesn’t exactly look good, and Charlie fucking Weasley as an admiral. The Empire was old and decrepit just like the men who ran it. The Emperor. Anakin. Admiral Viedt. Captain Needa. Governor Tarkin. These seasoned strong men were replaced by a corps of what looks like young lions. The oldest actor was Captain Phasma, a character that was definitely cool, but who has no purpose and was only added in because Kathleen Kennedy came up with the idea and everyone thought it would look cool.

What The Force Awakens should have had as a third act was which I thought was going to be obvious and thus would not need to be said. Luke is found, but it is too late for Han. As Han lies dying in Leia’s arms in a chamber of your choice after a battle of your choice between Kylo Ren and the Rebels, the walls of the chamber start shaking, the storm troopers look around getting nervous, and Leia starts to lightly laugh. “You’re in for it now, Ben. My brother is here.” Enter Luke, in a scene of complete bedlam, crushing shit with one hand and tossing his Seven Samurai Saber across the room with another, slaying storm troopers and closing exits, but not fast enough for Ren to escape. Luke saves the day, but not Han, who then dies. The film closes with his funeral. Credits. It seemed obvious to me, like it seemed obvious that Anakin would actually see his children before he turned to Vader, and actually killed Padme in his rage to find Obi-Wan. But then, I suppose, why write the obvious ending?

Contrast this to what is the force of Rogue One: the strongest Star Wars film since Empire and currently the 10th highest earning domestic release in history. Rogue One had it all: the decrepit old men, the solid plot being the weakest link in the first film. The only thing I found distracting was Forrest Whitaker and Rez Ahmed whom I found miscast and out of place. Rogue One was not without problems. The script was in trouble. Godzilla director Gareth Edwards was replaced and the entire ending reshot with Tony Gilroy at the helm. Fear was in the air. But as it happened Kennedy made the right call. Gilroy had written four Bourne films and directed Bourne Legacy as well as legal thriller Michael Clayton. He fired some minor department heads, rewrote the ending, and shot for twelve weeks. For some fans, it was confusing. Most of the footage from the first two trailers was not even in the film. But the result could not be argued with. I was giddy after seeing Rogue One. It was the film I hoped The Force Awakens could be. Kennedy pulled the trigger again on Solo when dailies and early edits clearly showed the film was not headed in the direction she or Disney wanted. She made the right call, the call Lucas never had the guts to do. Solo was saved, and though I have some issues with Alden Ehrenriech’s acting not really lining up with Harrison Ford’s (come on defenders, Ewan MacGregor studied Alec Guinness’ accent for months), and while I thought Woody Harrelson was miscast, I do love the film, and I fear what it could have been. Kennedy should have done the same to save the legacy of The Force Awakens, which I fear over time will slip on the audience tomatometer, if not the critics.

But what to do about The Last Jedi? Every time I watch it I am both more impressed and more depressed. It reminds me of what the literary censors in the Soviet government said about Doctor Zhivago. Although a towering work, the themes in the book were central and long running, and heavily anti-Soviet. Due to the purpose of the book being so ill aligned with the goals of the worker, the censors informed Boris Pasternak that there was nothing he could do: no paragraph to strike, no chapter to delete, no subplot to change. The book could not be published for the inherent nature of it could not be changed.  Can it be that The Last Jedi suffers under the same circumstances? Can we excise some scenes, delete certain shots, perhaps insert a few minor scenes, with the effect of turning the film in a comletely different direction? Or is it that the theme running through the film are inherently tied to what the film is and what has been done cannot be undone? Most of you reading this I am sure have noticed by now an independent movement, real or imagined, to reshoot the entirety of The Last Jedi for this distinct purpose. Perhaps a 100% reshoot like Solo is not necessary. Maybe we only need 10%. Can it be that we can have true hope to do this, or are we stuck with the version we have (most likely) for the only reason that Johnson should have listened to Mark Hamill?

Hamill’s interview with Jonathan Capeheart on the Cape Up Podcast didn’t reveal a lot we didn't already knew. Hamill strongly objected to what Johnson wanted to do with Luke’s character, but felt ultimately he was an actor, like any other, and the role did not belong to him. Hamill was right about that, but he was also right in thinking what he wanted, a more Yoda-like Luke helping a more Luke-like Rey, would be much more preferable to breaking Luke down to a disgusting old man uninterested in the galaxy’s problems and completely disengaged from the Force. Considering the structure of The Last Jedi, it was not impossible to fix the film’s apparent shortcomings (the entire Canto-Bight Casino subplot) and fix the narrative direction Luke and Rey take.

The answer to Canto-Bight is obvious. Cut it the fuck out. Twenty minutes of screen time is wasted on a place we don’t care about with people we don’t get to know doing bad things just to make a modern day point (yes, people get rich off both sides of war) – which becomes pointless in the grand scheme of Skywalker’s return (which is supposed to be the focal point of the film).  The deeper narrative issues, Luke’s seeming unwillingness to do anything for the sake of the Rebellion, is not a complete failure (after all, Luke does come in some form to help the Rebellion), but it could be turned with very minimal additional shooting, to be what Hamill thought it should have been from the beginning. The only problem with turning Luke into another Yoda, Aach-To into another Dagobah, is that The Last Jedi already looks too much like The Empire Strikes Back, which in of itself is a huge help, and a huge problem.

Johnson of course did this on purpose. Instead of involving Rey in the opening battle sequence like Luke on Hoth, he starts with Rey on Aach-To. This is in part due to necessity since the ending of Force Awakens puts her there (they didn’t have to, see my above ending proposal to Force Awakens). This is also partly a mistake because then Rey has no clue what is going on with her friends. Luke used the Force to divine what was happening to Han, Leia, and Chewie on Dagobah. Luke then becomes a master asshole on Aach-To, his lessons to Rey not false but used for wrong purposes. His defeatism is equated very much to Kevin Flynn’s game theory in Tron Legacy: “the only way to win is not to play.” This, of course, is very true on an individual basis. Flynn was stuck for thirty years inside the Grid, but the arrival of his son Sam changed the nature of the game which he failed to immediately see. But Flynn did turn in the very next scene when Flynn was in danger, and the third act of Tron Legacy is very much father and son fighting CLU for the very nature of the Grid. Flynn’s sacrifice then has meaning. The Last Jedi could have learned from this. Instead of Luke waiting until the last ten minutes to decide he wanted to do something, he could have been more like his Master Yoda or Master Kenobi and been that teacher for Rey. After all, Rey’s sudden presence means the game has changed. Luke can play again and even more, this time he can win. His refusal means a complete breakdown in the Jedi narrative, and the fact that it comes from the sacred cow of the Star Wars story makes it a bitter pill to taste. Luke turning his back on the Force means he is turning his back on Kenobi, on Yoda, on everything that farm boy left Tattoine for in the first place. And that is complete bullshit.

As it is, R2 convinces Luke to help train Rey but it is a bit of a betrayal, since what knowledge he gives her is intended to push her away from the Force, which of course back fires. A master such as Luke should have known the genie cannot be put back into the bottle. A master would have known with the Force it is everything or nothing. Even when he was appalled at how Rey reached out to the Dark Side he didn’t even care to teach her why she shouldn’t. The hole in the ocean floor was nothing more than the cave at Dagobah; the mirror only a reflection like Luke’s face in Vader’s helmet. Her flight back to the fleet mimics Luke’s flight back to Bespin. Luke’s square off with Ren a repeat of his fight with Vader, only this time he dies. Even the ending of both films is the same: a catastrophe has occurred but the Rebellion has survived. Thus the arches of both films are extremely similar.

What are so different between the two are the nature of Luke and the projection of his narrative. It is like he has given up. Considering his being upset about Han we have to wonder what did he think was going to happen? If he knew Kylo-Ren was corrupted, was going to rise in the Dark Side, was going to raise others in an attempt to restart the cult of the Sith, how is it that Luke’s outlook changes to ‘well, I guess I just won’t do anything about it.’ His look back on the history of the Jedi is correct, blaming the rise of Palpatine and Vader squarely on their shoulders. In effect, this is a direct conflict that criticizes Lucas’ entire trilogy plot for episodes 1-3 since finding Anakin was supposed to “bring balance to the Force.” Well, if the Sith were in hiding, what would ‘balance’ mean if the Jedi were running the show? Likewise, what ‘balance’ did Luke think was possible if he became the last Jedi? This is beyond puzzling. It makes you wonder why Kennedy, who is by far the most powerful studio head in Hollywood history, who has forty years of filmmaking experience, who has by now replaced two directors during production and replaced three directors before principal photography, and scores of writers along the way, why, why, why, did she just not tell Johnson to cut the casino, reverse the Luke narrative, and give every fan boy (and girl) what they always wanted since they saw Rey hold that lightsaber for the first time? And if Johnson said no? Well, I hate to say this to the director of such a fine film as Looper, but then he’s got to go. Call in Gilroy. The entire Luke-Rey narrative would need additional scenes, but not a third act reshoot. The finale might not even need changing. The Rose character would have been minimized for sure (I am not anti-Rose like most other fanboys, but I find her purpose confusing), but that’s not a loss. The entire purpose of the film would not have changed, but the journey there would have changed fundamentally. Instead of walking out with a bunch of questions (not always good), people walk out with a sense of “wow, what a story.”

There are other things that put me off. Laura Dern is a great actress, but she looks lost in this movie, awkward, definitely miscast. She looks like she’s wondering why she’s there. And why, when everyone including Leia is in a uniform, is she wearing a weird dress out of Blade Runner? I am not a fan of the mutiny subplot itself, but if you cut out the casino, it would stand out more and a few more scenes could give it more meaning. The bombs supposedly ‘falling’ in outer space brings us back to the arena of absurdity. It reminds me of the ice in GI Joe that ‘fell’ to the bottom of the ocean. I know we are watching a fantastic spectacle. But if you betray the laws of physics, please be very careful in how you present it. How Johnson worked in many aspects of the original trilogy was masterful (Han warned in IV that if you weren’t careful you could fly into a star in hyperspace) and the lightsaber battle in the throne room has to be, hands down, the best in all the Star Wars films. The Last Jedi is good, but it could have been so much better, with minimal more expenditure. And while we should be happy that as a whole, they are getting better as they go along (Solo is much better than The Last Jedi), we have to wonder why are they not as good as we want them to be? Budget is not the issue. Getting actors is not the issue. Getting the writing talent is not the issue. So why are these films (VII and VIII) so marginally better than mediocre? Is it because I’m a fan boy who’s not getting what he wants? Maybe that’s it. And is that bad? I’m not talking about Incels bitching about a girl being the center of attention. I’m talking about ‘where the fuck is Chewie in this movie if he’s Rey’s sidekick,’ and ‘could there have been a better way of Leia getting back to the ship other than deus ex machina Mary Poppins bullshit?’ Star Wars can be better than this. The question is why isn’t it? Is it because, like Doctor Zhivago, the nature of the beast cannot be changed?

Do we admit defeat by saying, as I concluded at Greedo, “It’s just a fucking movie?” This might be hard to do for an entertainment franchise that holds ten spots in the top fifty highest earning films of all time. I don’t know. My son and I were walking out of The Force Awakens, premiere night on Thursday, when he wrapped his arm around me. It was about minus twenty outside, so like everything he does there was an ulterior motive. He asked me ‘so, what did you think?” I considered his question while I started the car and waited for the heater to kick on. ‘I think that what I experienced as a kid was special to me because of that time and place. And however much I want it, it’ll never be the same again. And as soon as I admit that I’ll never be that fulfilled at a Star Wars film again, the better off I’ll be.” And by extension, the fanboys too. Luke pulled his seatbelt on and clicked it, shoving his hands in his pocket. “Jesus, Dad,” he shook his head at me, “that was deep.” I shifted the beret on my head and we went home.

The Complicated Birth of Blade Runner 2049

The rumors were always held in high caution. First there was the intention of Ridley Scott to revisit a painful project, having been fired from Blade Runner after principal photography went over budget and over schedule in 1981. This caused an initial good feeling followed by a sigh among fans who were greatly disappointed in Prometheus:  Scott’s attempt to revisit the Alien franchise that made him one of the most respected contemporary commercial/cult directors. The salt in the wound was Scott taking the Alien production out of the hands of Neill Blomkamp, whose involvement spurred outrageously good feelings among those who thought the District 9 director was a perfect choice to helm the project. The result was a Scott movie Scott fans didn’t want, and the fear was Blade Runner would go the same route. To everyone’s surprise, perhaps because Scott’s Alien occupation was more fruitful than he thought, or maybe he just wasn’t that jazzed about arguing with Harrison Ford for another three months, Scott passed the project to Denis Villaneuve, the Quebecois extraordinaire who hit the ball out of the park with the cheaply made Arrival which took everyone, including the box office and awards season, by storm. Could this truly be it, fans like me asked. Could I finally get a modern Blade Runner with all the charms of the first movie and hopefully none of the baggage?

We’ve all been down that path in bars and in the backs of cabs. I myself had an extended discussion on a rig in the Mediterranean once, trying to explain the major differences between the Theatrical Version (worshipped in my grad school), the Director’s Cut which cleaned up a lot for its time that was possible, and the near perfect Final Cut, which streamlines the story and sanitizes the continuity errors so that you can finally, after thirty years, enjoy the story. The great fear is that we would spend another thirty years hoping to see another Blade Runner that hopefully would be better than the ‘Denis’ sequel. So when the initial reviews came out, I was nervous that critics thought it was so good. I did the same thing with The Force Awakens. I was so used to expecting a bad Star Wars film, my hopes ran the ropes when it could be…just could it be possible, that it wasn’t going to suck? Then the week long media blitz Ford did with Ryan Gosling, in which Ford looked like not only was he pushing the film hard, but that he actually liked doing it. Weird… So I went to go see Blade Runner 2049 with my son, a week after he saw the Final Cut for the first time and was mesmerized, and we both held our breath.

I think the tension is fair. For those of us cinemaniacs, Blade Runner is a milestone standing in a junction of Sci-Fi Street and IT Avenue. The 3-D camera technology, the floating spinners, not to mention the replicants themselves, are just small examples of hope in a dystopian world. Video phones would be pretty cool, but paying 1.25 to call my girlfriend would still suck. This cross pollination of the future was termed CyberPunk, and Future Noir was born. I have so many books on Blade Runner, I’m almost embarrassed. When I found the original film on laser disc in the Half-Priced Book Store in the Montrose, I instantly paid the high sticker price so I could have the hard to find digital version. There is nothing special about me. There are thousands of us, enough to make an entire subreddit on the film, which is now ballooned to thousands of subscribers.

2049 was more than awesome; it was everything the first film wanted to be. On the surface were all the cool items we were expecting: the tube technology retrofitted much like the cars in the background of Ridleyville. The imaging teamed with optometry optics much like the 3-D photography. JOI was more than a stand-in for Rachel, but integral to the story of the film’s main theme: More Human Than Human. Like 1982, 2049 asks us very important questions about what life is, how we should treat it, and when do you start to call something alive as opposed to programmed. If you do,  then do you you, stop being human yourself? What is an Ubermench? What do we consider to be sub-human, or not human at all. The religious debate about souls is tiring, but everyone in the theater I was in felt a chill in their spine when K thought about what it would be like to be ‘born.’ It is a world of a new type of racism, a different world of environmental disasters but familiar enemies (Product of CCCP), and to sell it all it takes the familiar and repackages it not for the nostalgic but for the nostalgia of meaning. There’s a bunch of shit on screens these days, and I am happy 2049 does not get lumped in with that lot. There also seems to be a dichotomy of science fiction now, which is either the sci-fi fantasy type that Star Wars and even the Marvel Universe lives in, or the dark, brooding, catastrophic apocalypse that seemingly gets worse and worse with every Mad Max sequel or Walking Dead episode. Inside the latter, Blade Runner seemingly stands alone. Like 2019, 2049 is primarily a mystery, a detective story, a Future Noir; original in its intent, harsh in its ardor. I don’t buy into everything, the scheduled predisposition of Deckard and Rachel for example, surely is a throwaway line that distracts everyone, but the main theme of the film, that to be human and to protect life is still something worth fighting for… in some cases worth dying for… even by someone whom does not stand to benefit from a system tilted to the born… is intact.

What is 2049, then? A dystopian future? A Film Noir? A Sci-Fi masterpiece? A contemplation on the Human Condition? For those of us who were afraid to admit to ourselves it just might be good, it just might be everything we were waiting for, it was all of these things. The Baseline Test. The wooden horse (note, not a unicorn). The badass Spinner, the entire idea of JOI and everything good and bad it says about artificial people, the real people they copy, and the replication of the evils of the male gaze. I recently read an article about the low box office performance of the film being directly related to the laziness of the audience. In the era of super hero films, people didn’t want to think during a sci fi like this. They just wanted to be entertained. I think this is harsh on the audience, but I also think like a lot of criticism there might be some truth to this. Blade Runner was never meant to be a fun passover. It was always meant to challenge, and like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, it has invited praise, scorn, scrutiny, and wonderment at why it was attempted in the first place. 2049 is not a perfect film, as pretty as it is. I do not believe it was ever meant to be. 2049 is just as loaded with problems as 2019 is, only we get to enjoy it way, way more.

LOGAN – The Most Anti-Trump Movie Yet (SPOILERS)

We know the modern world of film making tries to stay as current as it possibly can given the circumstances of a delayed release. We know that something ‘hot’ in times in January can be written about in February, if green lit immediately can be shot in June or July and if it wraps in September or October you can schedule a release date right after post-production ends…perhaps by the following summer. Outside the world of independent film, actually, it is hard to get a product from Page One to Premiere in 18 months. We know this. We know that Logan was approved in early 2015. We know that principal photography began after the enormous and unexpected success of Deadpool on St. Valentine’s Day 2016. We know it wrapped last summer and extra scenes as well as extra dialogue was shot as a result of Deadpool’s success as the highest grossing R-rated film of all time and the dramatic decision at the WB to create an extended R version of Batman V. Superman – not fast enough to get into theatres but could be found on the subsequent special edition Blu-Ray. We know therefore that the script James Mangold approved and then added to himself was mostly complete about the time Donald J. Trump, real estate mogul, reality TV star, and local New York doucebag was seen as a joke on the fringes of the Republican Party. We know that during principal photography both the unexpected primary season as well as his GOP nomination unfolded. We know that during post-production on Logan, the downward spiral of ‘The Donald’ could be seen on every smart phone as tough editing calls were being made on what was already in the can. We know that by inauguration time, the only items left to complete on Logan was the sound, sounding editing, music, and marketing. We know this. That Logan cannot be a commentary on Donald Trump. We know because though it was made during his meteoric rise the outcome could not be predicted…as we all failed to predict it…including me. Yet, when I re-watched Logan with my son, only his third R film after Alien and Hacksaw Ridge, I am reminded… constantly reminded through every scene… that Logan is though unintentional in most parts, the most anti-Trump movie yet.

There are the obvious parallels. The shots of the border, of business cowboys and elitist rich kids shouting at an ICE bust: “USA! USA!” as if they were cheering on an Aryan Olympian in the 1936 Berlin Games. The accents. The porous border where Logan simply says ‘hi’ and his limo can cross one of the most heavily fortified international gateways in the world. We can see how easy it is to score illegal prescriptions and smuggle them…south instead of north. A curious activity as in Mexico you can get a legal prescription for just about anything you need within minutes. This is not an anti-Trump movie without dissent. Mexican gangs go about at will taking everything they want without even bothering to speak English. Obviously these are not elements native to the US or that better our country by their illegal migration. But Logan has so much more than the simple Statue of Liberty hotel where immigrants go to hide hoping like in centuries past the US will accept them, the tired, the poor, yearning to be free. No, Logan is much deeper than this.

The uncomfortable truth about Stan Lee that people conveniently forget now and not one is keen to bring up is his earlier comic books, particularly Captain America and other short issued series were quite racist. It is easy to chock this up against the war – racism against Japan was in overdrive for decades after Pearl Harbor – and Spanish speakers weren’t particularly welcomed anywhere in the US after the Mexican War. But somewhere along the line, Stan Lee changed. I am not a biographer and I have not done any research so I can’t tell you if it was an epiphany he had as a middle aged man watching the fight for integration live on TV, or being a witness to Freedom Summer of ’64, the riots that tore apart this country for ten years. I’m not sure when he started to look at the world differently. Perhaps it was the Fantastic Four, his first brainchild that escalated to stardom. Clearly, though, the X-Men was more than just about mutants. It was about different people. And in the age of Blaxploitation we saw Black Panther and other minorities creep into the growing consolidated universes that came to be under the giant Marvel banner. This was not original to comics, DC was doing the same. This was not original to the entertainment industry. Film, TV, literature, all started to express the opinion that full integration was the future of America where we argued over the merits of the failed Equal Rights Amendment. Though culturally forward this seemed to be a financial no-go. Marvel came close to bankruptcy in the late 90’s and was forced to undergo a fire sale to movie right they can no longer get back. This is why Spiderman, the Fantastic Four, and the X-Men are at Fox and the rest of the Marvel Universe is at Marvel Studios (owned by Disney, of course).

I’m not sure how honest Stan Lee is being in current interviews when he claims the X-Men was really about the color barrier and the struggle of minorities. I don’t doubt that Stan Lee is sincere in his liberal multi-cultural views now. I just don’t attribute much in the Marvel films to that liberal attitude. I think that plays much better now particularly since the first three X-Men movies made this argument pretty solid – coming off the diverse democratic Bill Clinton era of the ‘90’s. But as the franchise went on past the initial three films, the strange tale of the Wolverine and his place as an archaic tool in a world that no longer needed him became profound. The Origins film did what it did, revealing the Wolverine as… a Canadian… and thus immune to most politics that consumes the world. The Wolverine fought because he was a fighter. The sequel, an out of place tale in Japan that unveiled more of Logan’s personality than all previous installments combined, we find the antiquated tool has walked away from the fight from injustice only to be involved in the petty disputes of the elites. In reality, Logan should have just given up and died in The Wolverine, sealing the fate he sought since he was forced to kill Jean Grey. But being incensed at injustice is not just limited to race… it is simply a method of determining what is right and what is wrong in any given situation regardless of the circumstances. In this way, Logan chose the hard road through the Days of Future Past because he became the ultimate judge. Schooled in the mind of Professor X, sharpened by the fight against Magneto, his durability tested by his constant evasion from the military-industrial complex, Logan at Winchester became that which he wanted nothing to do with: a man with a conscience.  Not a perfect man, not a man with a mission like Professor X. Not a man with a chip on his shoulder like Magneto or someone trying to find himself like most X-Men like Quicksilver, Raven and even Mystique. And not a man who had the answer to everything. No. Logan had what most didn’t, probably the one thing Professor X failed at teaching most of his students: Logan had scruples.  Logan knew who he was even if he didn’t remember his name. Cage fighters don’t join causes. And in a way, that didn’t change even in this film.

Scruples are hard to find these days when we’re confronted with political appointees who can make up ‘alternative facts;’ when the President of the United States and tweet whatever he wants off the top of his head to purposefully or not throw government, which craves stability, into chaos. Scruples are not held by people who look the nation in the eye and when caught with something unfeasible or illogical answer with the ubiquitous: “so?” Scruples lead people away from the illogical. They turn away from discussions that are no longer rational, much like millions turned away from voting booths last November. Scruples lead people to instead, defend their children, any children, any way they can, even if that means voting against the party they grew up in. They will vote against platforms that are mostly familiar and though they risk alienating their family, their friends, they cannot vote any other way or come to any other conclusion because they cannot compromise their moral values.

Every time Logan is faced with the fork in the road, he chooses the right thing to do over the wrong thing. He has scruples, and this son of Canada chooses to return to his homeland with kids who had no choice where they were born or who raised them but want to choose where they can go for safety. Not in the United States, because the United States is no longer safe. No longer a depository for the world’s tired and poor, the yearning masses to be free. If you want to go somewhere to make a life for yourself, according to a recent Freakonomics Podcast on opportunities in the world, you must go to Canada. This notion is new in American film. It is the rejection of American exceptionalism and though this is not a first in American film it is radical to suggest that the land of the free and the home of the brave is somewhere to flee from not to. Though the big bad corporation in the film is based in Mexico, there can be no doubt that it is an American company that is exploiting the resources of the third world for its’ own ends. Though this concept is not new Logan does deal with the concept of the hypocritical: it is okay to be different if we choose to be okay with it. It’s like a Nazi saying don’t worry if your grandmother was Jewish…we decide who is Jewish and who is not. And if you think I’m stretching the impossible check this out. Canadians are having a debate about immigration, to be sure. But they are having a debate, not a denial contest…because they have scruples.

After several lifetimes of running, Logan chose to try to help people like himself, children who were different on the outside but the same on the inside. He chose to help a dying man who needed a special kind of care that perhaps Logan could not provide…but he tried. He chose to help children fleeing a war they barely understood reach a land of safe opportunity and when he succeeded they honored him…not by burying him on American soil, which rejects people with scruples, but on Canadian soil, where the free of the future now live.

Taking the Gun and Leaving the Cannoli: Finding what’s wrong in The Godfather Part II (1974)

As is wont to happen when you start a new job and are surrounded by new co-workers, I found someone almost as much into film as myself. And so we bounce back and forth throughout the week. What do you like, what do you not, did you see this. What’s your thing. And that’s when he hit me with a stunning assertion: The Godfather Part II was not a good movie.

As any good Redditor would, I asked for proof. And thus, like the President in Corman’s Death Race 2000 he sent me...this…

Please feel free to read the above articles. I might note that Ebert had a stellar career and he would re-watch films and write new reviews and being a man who recognized when he was wrong he often changed his reviews when he saw things he didn't see the first time or admitted some oversight. It takes a true critic to be flexible with art. I loved Patrick Nagal when I was a kid. Now I think he’s shit.

Reading through the reviews, I found myself at first puzzled, then agreeing, and in the last review, laughing hysterically. I typed out the response below and when I was done (not in a slow work day, mind you) I found it so worthy I decided to make a blog out of it.

And so I give you...this...

"Not that it matters, but I found a remarkable amount of holes in these reviews. As I go through them, keep in mind the following points:

1       Although the Godfather Part II was a ‘sequel’ it also was a ‘prequel’ due to half the film being in flashback. This was at a time before ‘Jaws’ made sequels profitable, and thus unless you were watching B-movie horror shows (Bride of Frankenstein, Abbot and Costello meet Dracula) the audience was simply not used to sequels, and this was a sequel and a prequel at the same time.

2       And although the Godfather Part II was a pretty expensive film at the time, it was made by one of the most famous auteurs ever to have any money, Francis Ford Coppola, who essentially shot a 40 million dollar movie as if he were still in UCLA Film School, and this makes the structure of the film very deviant for the time. Reading the first article by Robinson honest to goodness makes me remember of those poor fucking souls who walked out of Pulp Fiction and asked me on Monday “did I miss John Travolta coming back to life?” Robinson actually admits, after a narrative paragraph at the beginning shot, that he is confused who the little boy was, even though he is called ‘Vito’ and later ‘Corleone’ at Ellis Island. This is lazy viewership.

3       In that Coppola is an auteur, I’m sure you’re deft enough to understand that he made unbelievably high tier films at a time when the auteur theory was under attack. Pauline Kael, whom I hate with every inch of my cinema loving soul, was the founding influence of film analysis after the death of the twin super star movie-social columnist elites Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons. Kael spent her life watching films “only once” and attacking the French auteur theory so savagely it actually destroyed careers and legends (Orson Welles to name one). If you read any book of Robinson or Ebert’s fantastic ‘Life at the Movies’ they praise Kael and everything she did for them, which was make sure that watching movies could be a job. I say this because auteurism, in its greatest extent, would deny that, Pulp Fiction for example, was Quentin Tarantino’s movie. That it could, in fact should, exist without him. In this mode of thinking, the Godfather Part II could exist in a universe without Coppola. And that notion is fucking insane.

But on to the reviews and the strangeness within them:

1)      Robinson actually complains about the setting being ‘too well done.’ The setting which inspired Scorsese’s Five Points in ‘The Gangs of New York’ and more recently Spielberg’s Brooklyn Bridge neighborhood in ‘Bridge of Spies.’ Too well done. Then you’ll never be satisfied. He ends the article by commending the films’ look but says he feels like he looked at family snapshots in the wrong order. This is amazing because that’s what Coppola did to plan several shots. So the effect was there, he just didn’t appreciate it because it looked…too nice. Strange for a reviewer of Hollywood film.

2)      I didn’t read the ’08 4-Star Ebert article because I wanted to stay contemporary. It’s hard to look at modern reviews of older films. I do it a lot. So I went back to 1974 to see Ebert’s review – a masterful criticism, surgically explaining the problems of the film:

“Coppola was reportedly advised by friends to forget the Don Vito material and stick with Michael, and that was good advice. There’s also some evidence in the film that Coppola never completely mastered the chaotic mass of material in his screenplay. Some scenes seem oddly pointless (why do we get almost no sense of Michael’s actual dealings in Cuba, but lots of expensive footage about the night of Castro’s takeover?), and others seem not completely explained (I am still not quite sure who really did order that attempted garroting in the Brooklyn saloon). What we’re left with, then, are a lot of good scenes and good performances set in the midst of a mass of undisciplined material and handicapped by plot construction that prevents the story from ever really building.”

This is the problem in a nutshell, and if you watch the Godfather Part III you’ll see all of these problems simply enhanced by another 40 million dollars. The ’08 review (which I read much later) makes sense as most things roll forward with either gaining impressiveness or gathering ire. I have to forget that I’ve seen Part II possibly 60 or 70 times, possibly since the age of 10 or so. Distance is hard.

3)      Canby, a Kael-worshipper who probably REDACTED, starts his review by insulting Coppola personally, laments the absence of Brando, then fails to adequately describe the structure of the film and this I take back to point 2 above. Remarkably, the point of the film (Michael’s failure to become anything like his father) which Ebert nailed in one sentence, Canby misses as “spiritually desperate,” and while he focuses on bad dialog, he glances over racism, the stand in for Meyer Lansky (in fairness, everyone misses Lansky), Ebert’s point on the garroting, and instead proves he has no understanding of the film as a whole.

This is not my first trot with Canby. The man is vacuous. I would pull his reviews in film school and show them to the class so we could have a good laugh. This man saw the final shot of Michael in the end of the film contemplate his whole life as a failure and called that evidence that the film, and Coppola, is “spiritually desperate.” When I read that, I had to re-read it, because I thought he was calling Michael spiritually desperate, and that kind of makes sense. But if you go over it again, he calls the whole movie a desperate attempt to be something. Kind of funny, since this film is immortal, and no one knows who Vincent Canby is except laughing film students.


Pete's Dragon (2016) and Problematic Nostalgia

Nostalgia is a powerful drug. And after trying to make it through fifteen minutes of the first Pete’s Dragon from the 1970’s with the kids, we had to abandon all hope of ever liking it for the following hour and fifteen minutes. This is sad, but it is indicative of what happened to Disney after Walt died. To say the company lost direction is an understatement. They literally (not figuratively) reused old slides from the forties and fifties and inserted them into Robin Hood and The Rescuers. The color was from a horrible pallet, the outlines were vague, and the voice acting was on par with Peanuts (which I love, but come on). So when I went to the remake of the horrible original that opened with a musical number of redneck hobos singing about child abuse, I went with caution.  

Caution turned to trepidation after the first fifteen minutes was over.  We all knew going in that Pete’s parents were dead meat. It’s the Disney way to commit fratricide and matricide at the beginning of their films. So the kids were not shocked. In fact, they were expecting it. But I was not expecting a camera style that respected Pete’s point of view, displaying the tragedy and risk of the moment in a light that didn’t just pull at your heartstrings, but put you into a plot without needless emotional blackmail like most films…Disney’s included. This style wraps around the character of Pete like a warm blanket that makes the audience feel secure, too. This is done so effectively that when we are reintroduced to the human world, we feel off, and this is where the film may fail.

It’s not that the camera stops while the loggers are killing the forest; it’s just that it makes us feel uncomfortable. Bryce Dallas Howard and Karl Urban are capable actors, but miscast in this adventure. To be honest, Jessica Chastain would have shone in this role. Urban would have been better deployed in Wes Bentley’s role. It is at this juncture, with these characters that I first looked at my watch. 30 minutes. Not a good sign.

There are bright spots: the actor Oaks Fegley is an inspired choice for Pete that could be one of my son’s friends. Oona Lawrence as Natalie whom he is paired up with shares the cake and is not sidelined as a girl. And Howard may be the star but real reason why most people are seeing this film is the acting powerhouse that is Robert Redford, and when has this man not delivered? He’s extremely rough in this film and I have to say I like it better when he doesn’t shave or comb his hair. Redford has cleaned up for some gigs in the past, including Captain America: Winter Soldier and though I loved him in it, I have to say I prefer Sundance to The Sting. Redford probably put in a weeks’ worth of work but he made it count. And he’s not the reason if the film suffers.

The film is pure fantasy of course, but it is fantasy that a lot of people need right now. I’m trying not to let my late experience in California bias my opinion of the film (see my blog ‘Fantasyland’ on the Docking 94 Blog) but we’re having a hell of a time up here in Alberta and it was nice to see the Fantasy Machine in Hollywood is alive and well. It was kin to seeing Star Wars in the middle of a bad bout of StagFlation. In this vein, Pete’s Dragon is a good film, but not a great one. The middle hour isn’t horrible but very predictable and punctuated with scenes by actors who could be replaced and conventional shots that are not on par with the opening and close of the film. Disney’s live action franchise is suffering quite badly considering they are flushed with cash from Marvel and Disney, and unfortunately their only plan forward is a series of live action remakes of older films (Cinderella and Jungle Book in the past, Beauty and the Beast and Mulan upcoming) that show how deeply conservative the company is in wagering money on their own films. I will always believe original storylines will go farther than rehashed material but we also must recognize that studios are spending their hundred million, not our hundred million. What then do we expect them to do? Of course they are going to play a safe game – as would you with your money. It’s risk mitigation with scripts and casting. Disney seems to have the right idea in hiring challenging directors like the brilliant Kenneth Brannagh, and XXXXXXX here. However it also seems they need help in screenwriting, editing, and casting. These are the outstanding problems in Pete’s Dragon. Hopefully these issues will be corrected before Disney asks me to spend another hundred dollars to entertain my family. Halfway doesn’t cut it when you’re on a limited budget.





BEN-HUR 2016 (For Better, For Worse)

First Screening. August 2016. SPOILER WARNING

I’m sure this article will only be a shorter rehash of many reviews posted and printed about a problematic enterprise that held a lot of hope only to crash into the well of disappointment. There are many things that are interesting about the remake of Ben-Hur, but I find the most interesting thing to be that it is actually not that bad. In fact, it comes nowhere near the apocalyptic reviews I’ve read in short. On top of this, I actually saw the film because the word of mouth of the film was very good. I met several people on vacation in Hollywood who saw it because the premiere at Grauman’s was that week, or people in the In-N-Out Burger in Long Beach who walk to the theatre once a week. I also talked to a very nice African-American couple who praised it in the thriving metropolis that is downtown Big-Bear City. All of them claimed to have seen the first one. None of them mentioned religion as a motivation or plot point at all.

I’ll skip the history of the novel by Lew Wallace and only focus on the dramatic differences I saw between the original film which I viewed only a couple of months ago with my son and the new version I also saw with him and my cousin in Southern California last week. Just in recalling the old one with my son over our trip back home and countless conversations in the car since, we’ve nailed down some pretty big differences that may make the critics uncomfortable even if the audience that does see it may not have the same opinion. This has happened repeatedly – look at Suicide Squad last month.

This Ben-Hur is shorter, there is no doubt. At two hours, five minutes it does not even come close to the three hour, thirty-five minute extravaganza that is the Charlton Heston classic. This sounds an insane reason to like one movie over another but in the day of shorter attention spans and the near impossibility for Hollywood to release a film that can only be shown three times a day instead of six – and therefore only make half the money – this is a reality of epic remakes. It also enables the filmmakers to jettison storylines they just have no time for or to truncate things they think make the film slow. Point in fact is Heston’s lengthy scene in the House of Hur with Ester when he returns from the Galleys.  My son, durable, honest, but greatly interested in the film, sighed, rolled over, and went to sleep.

The shorter version dropped Ben-Hur’s adoption by a wealthy Roman Patriarch, thus ensuring his safe return to Judea. It also cut out long and drawn-out scenes of Ben-Hur training his horses for the ever-famed chariot race. Long walks, long contemplations, long serious shots over the ocean or into the desert were simply not included to move the story along. In essence this did what it was designed to do. The longest part of the film is Ben-Hur’s life in Jerusalem up to his arrest and Masala’s betrayal.

The end effect of this is the first debatable point. What does this achieve? Trimming off an hour and a half of your running time sounds like a great idea from a cost perspective and from a revenue perspective. But unfortunately it may have not worked from a plot point of view. Familiar with Ben-Hur’s patron saving him from the galleys and adopting him as a son, I was perplexed how he was able to show his face in broad daylight, even during a chariot race, without being immediately crucified.  This and other time saving techniques must be balanced with other confusing choices. The accident that leads to the invasion of the House of Hur is Ester’s over zealous curiousity at the marching Romans below. Her hand brushes a tile which falls onto a Roman and nearly kills him. When Masala investigates he finds the tile and the House of Hur innocent but still banishes Ben-Hur and his family to a life time of pain despite knowing they are all innocent only to advance his career as a Roman soldier…the only sure fire way to get ahead in the Roman Empire of the day.

Instead, what we have in the remake is a very complicated story of liberation. Zealot Jews are resisting the Roman occupation. One is wounded and is taken to the House of Hur. Because he is a boy, Ben-Hur allows it, nurses him back to health, and tries to convince the under aged boy through philosophy of politics that what he is doing is unethical as it does not keep the peace.  The broken piece of accidental tile then becomes an assassin’s arrow, the boy using the House of Hur as cover for murder. Ben-Hur inexplicably catches him and lets him go. Though he is a fellow Jew I find this absolutely astounding. So when Masala breaches the house he finds the bow, bandages from a wound, and Ben-Hur admitting under pressure that he shot the arrow. Of course Masala doesn’t believe him. But what is he faced with. Was Ben-Hur helping a contemporary terrorist? Check. Did the House of Hur provide him with a weapon? Check. Was the suspect using the weapon to commit a crime? Check. How is Ben-Hur not guilty under these circumstances? In the original film, Masala’s blind ambition towards advancement was his hubris that undid him. Here, Masala seems to be only enforcing the law and Ben-Hur is, if not partially responsible, directly guilty. Muddled around this is Masala’s new motivation – a grandfather who helped participate in the assassination of Julius Caesar. Thus he has a stained name that he must cleanse and what better way to do this than to arrest the man he grew up with as a brother? In the original this had meaning because Masala had betrayed Ben-Hur basically over nothing. But in the remake he seemingly does this to enforce the law and this takes away Masala’s betrayal. It is hollow. It seems this is done for the ending, which is in fact the next point.

Heston’s Ben-Hur raced Masala to death in the arena, then saw him die in a fit of vengeance that left Ben-Hur satisfied that he had ‘won.’ The restitution of his family in a separate plot line was complicated (dropped in the remake) but the end result was they meet Jesus during the Passion, he cures the family of leprosy and Ben-Hur of his hate. They live happily ever after as reborn Christians. In the new version it is reverse. First, Ben-Hur runs across Jesus in the Passion. He is cured of his hate and when it rains after Jesus dies, his family is cured by the Heavenly water. Ben-Hur then sees Masala whom he forgives and takes back into his family as his brother. The new family goes off happily ever after and we are wondering how a family that spent 5 years in a dark hole with leprosy could possibly forgive their adopted son, who somehow was brought up to be a pagan in spite of the House of Hur being Jewish.

The new ending is quite powerful. And in this very strange mishmash of a film, I actually prefer it. It brings more power to the story and certainly to the Passion, which in the first film seems tacked on at the end. In fact, it should be called “Ben-Hur and Twenty Minutes of the Crucifixion.” I did not, in any way, connect the two in the first film. But I cannot deny that if they had done this in the first film the story would be even more powerful. I found it very touching.

Unfortunately this greatly powerful moment is scripted against his incarcerated family and book-ended with the family’s anger at Masala at the beginning of the story and the strange de facto acceptance of Masala at the end. In the middle is a rather rushed Roman fight scene, a dark and gloomy galley that a viewer can’t focus on, and a chariot race that despite being impressive, simply does not live up to the first Ben-Hur.

 So as a film, it doesn’t work nearly as well as the original even though it has a remarkable amount of pluses. The greater meaning of the Passion, the idea of forgiveness and redemption in our lives, and the superior acting by Jack Huston and a cast seemingly of unknowns in the west. I thought the acting was greatly better than the first, despite Heston’s classic leading man style, if only because acting style has improved a great deal. Morgan Freeman was great as only Morgan Freeman can be. I would have seen the film regardless of all other factors simply because his power as a heavy is something to behold in a town where heavies are fading fast.

I do expect the film to be derided for these flaws and not because of the religious message. This is something to say about a town and a community that despises religious film and despises them even more when they succeed. Since this film seems to have tanked so badly at the box office, the critics have gone soft on it, expecting it to be crucified in the court of public opinion, dead of itself, and in no need to a fifth wound to the heart.  But what if it had done well? It’s an interesting counter factual that we’ll never know. There is no reason to watch it again, but there is certainly no reason to not go see it now. Like most films, it’s not going to get better in your living room.

2001: A Space Odyssey (Explained: Kubrick's Impossible Odyssey)

A NOTE FROM DYLAN - I ran across this film review of 2001 in The Shattered Mirror and Other Papers on History and Film by J.W. Maxcey. J.W. also wrote a paper in this same volume about the film Head Office called Judge Reinhold Fights Fascism which I borrowed heavily from (with his permission) to record Episode 2 of my Super 70 Podcast. Here J.W. breaks down 2001 in the shortest amount of space I have ever seen. I'd like to share this with you (again, with his permission) because I found it very interesting. You can find his book, The Shattered Mirror, on

This is a reverse film review. If you have not seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, I recommend you stop reading. If you have started the novel, forget it. Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke adapted the short story 'the Sentinel' for the film, and the book was released only after the movie. This upset Clarke because it made it look like the book was only a novelized story for the film (which it was). For all the others, let us continue.

If you know me, you know that I am a Kubrick fan. He died on my birthday, 1999, ironically at the time I was having a conversation on the phone with D to the K to the Motherfucking A to the Third Power about Blade Runner. What a betrayal.

2001 was a popular film at its release, though the positive reaction was more for the special effects than for what it meant and the negative reaction was fueled by paying for something so hyped and not understood. Well, I am going to explain it to you, in as short a space as possible, and the first two things you have to realize is that Kubrick was 1) such a detailed oriented person he drove others crazy: buttons on fictional control panels had to press 'down' and this obsession leads to long, patient takes in his films to make points that others - when others use hammers, Kubrick uses a feather.  2) he uses distantiation in films. Distantiation is a film element that drives the audience away because it is uncomfortable and doesn't fit onscreen. This is why a lot of people don't like Kubrick films, but film critics LOVE them. At the end of Full Metal Jacket, when the platoon of soldiers, fresh from murdering a woman in cold blood, march across the wasteland of Hue City singing the theme to Mickey Mouse – that's distantiation. The three minutes spacewalk sequence outside the Discovery in 2001 with nothing but breathing – that's distantiation. Kurbrick's very strange and robotic dialogue in ALL his films (Barry Lyndon is the most guilty here) - that's distantiation. If you hate it, you'll hate Kubrick.

The next thing you have to know is that Kubrick seemingly divided his film not just into halves, which is quite obvious, but into four parts. The first part is the space sequence leading up to the introduction of the monolith on earth. The second starts there with the apes to the changeover to 2001. The third ends when Bowman leaves the Discovery for the last time, and the last quarter is in la-la land. All of these have a point, all these points are simple, and after you've read this you'll wonder why you didn't see it and you'll love the movie. If not, email me and we'll debate.

Now the overriding fundamental thing you must understand about this film is that there is always a witness, always a judge, to each of these four parts. As the audience, you are placed in the each of these points of view to discover something major in each sequence. Let's begin.

The First Sequence:

Space is vast, space is infinite. It is so large and so big, it has to be observed by instruments, essentially tools,  from afar. This instrument is the monolith. Get it?

The Second Sequence:

Obviously an extraterrestrial life has placed the monolith on earth to observe, why else would it be surrounded by apes? Now, you are the monolith. What do you see? Apes. Does anything stand out at you? Hmm. They are curious. They have courage. They have fear. Anything else. Ah-ha!! They have created – I'm not making this up, folks – a tool. Yes, the bone smashing scene is early man's discovery of his first tool. Are you impressed? You should be, it took a few million years to get here! After all, a tool is man's invention to advance. If you were an extraterrestrial placing monoliths all over the universe to observe things, this is the kind of thing you would be interested in. And where does this tool lead?

The Third Sequence:

You guessed it, the tool leads to space. This is where man has taken his ability to advance with tools. And lo and behold, man has used his tools to travel through space and he found – you guessed it – a monolith on the moon.

Now remember what I said about being the witness. If you were the monolith, observing the humans, say, checking up on them after the last time you saw them, what would you see? What have humans accomplished with their tools?

Oh. He takes a picture. How underwhelming. Man might as well brought his Hawaiian shirt to the moon.

Fast forward to the Discovery, which is sent out with its crew (most of them hibernating) to discover the only other monolith in the solar system near Jupiter. How does man know its' there? The one on the moon spoke to it, of course. Remember that high-pitched whine?

So, on the Discovery, who is now the witness? You guessed it, the HAL 9000 computer, the all seeing, all knowing, neuro-network system that keeps the crew alive and enables them to travel in space. Now. You're HAL. What do you notice about humans? They're boring. They can't play chess. They need an artificial sun. Last, but not least, they cannot survive without you. What is it like knowing that man absolutely can not survive without his finest tool? Can you say, 'God complex?'

But then, just when you've figured out you're a God, you make a mistake (remember, there was nothing wrong with the satellite dish). Man, in his primordial state of fear, finds that he is not in control of his tool (like the floating pen from the flight to the moon). A standoff ensues and the tool wins the first round. Bowman is trapped outside the Discovery.

BUT – man has something computers do not. He has courage (you learned that from the ape, remember). Bowman gets back onto discovery and disables HAL with, of all things, the SIMPLIST of all current tools…the screwdriver. Man wins the second round.

But this fait accompli still leaves man where he does not belong. He is a fish out of water, and he is faced with certain death…unless…

The Fourth Sequence:

With no way home and with nothing better to do, Bowman decides to risk all to make contact with the monolith. Forget the really cool graphics and the kooky bedroom; just say the monolith is observing man again. What is it observing? Well, man's death, of course – remember he can't survive in space.

So for his last supper, courtesy of the monolith, Bowman drops a glass of wine. He studies it because he notices something – and the monolith notices it, too. Container, wine. The container is broken, but the wine is still there. Like the human body grows old, it is discarded. But what happens to the soul? Man has yet to figure it out. But now, thanks to Kubrick, man has figured it out – and is about to make the next evolutionary step…and without tools.

Man can't go on relying on tools. They hold him back. They replace him. Hell, they even try to destroy him. And if it weren't for man being so unpredictable, he would have disappeared ages ago.

So where is man going without tools? Without a container for his soul? Kubrick has always left his films open to conjecture, and 2001 he really leaves open at the end, but when you see the starchild, the fetus born of the universe, I think you get it. Even Einstein said once we figured out how to use all of our brain, we wouldn't need it or our body any more. Whatever existence man makes after that, that is the starchild.

Get it?

Posted with Permission from J.W. Maxcey

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (What it's like to Work in Energy Service)

In one of the most amazing scenes I have ever experienced in cinema the past decade (for that is what MAD MAX: FURY ROAD is: not a movie – but an experience) Max wakes up after a traumatic accident that would make me shit my pants, most of you lie about how you reacted to it and cause the worst form of post-traumatic stress on par with surviving storming a beach of Normandy, surviving a home invasion by ISIS or sitting through three and a half minutes of any Justin Bieber song.

George Miller, the Director, must have used 48 Frames per second and slowed down the film to recapture the image at the standard 36 (I imagine this would be a lot easier to do in the world of digital). You can see each individual sand grain move in waves off of Max’s head as he slowly comes to the conclusion that he is in fact alive. After snapping to and undergoing an immediate panic of “where am I?” “Who am I?” “What happened?” “What is going on?” he realizes he still has a steel mask on his head that he cannot remove and a chain connecting it to something buried in the sand. Attached to this chain and imbedded in his neck is an IV which he removes and follows the chain to its' source: a teenager in a car submerged in sand who is unconscious and the recipient of Max’s blood. Max then hears a noise and like a desperate animal he searches for the source: the enemy who put him here is on the horizon, barely visible, but is organizing. Max does not have a lot of time. Opening the door he tries to pry the chain connection off the boy but cannot. BUT he finds a double-barreled shotgun, checks the ammunition, and hesitantly but in a very “me or him” mindset he places the gun against the wrist of the boy and pulls the trigger. The shells are duds, worthless, and Max is exasperated. He must get away from the boy and away from the psychopaths tracking him down in the next few minutes. Then he hears another sound from behind him. He frantically turns his head to see an 18-wheeler trying to start its engine. Max’s only hope is for whoever is there to help him get the chain off the boy and the mask off his face. He tries to lift the boy but the chain goes through the door and he cannot fit the boy through the door. In a struggle that would tire me out for the day, Max puts every effort of his life into wedging the door back and forth until it comes off the hinges (the door is rusted, the car is obscenely old). With the door free, Max pulls the boy out of the car and hoists him on his shoulder. Then he picks up the door with one hand and the shotgun that does not work in the other. Faced with certain death if he is caught, he fights with every step to approach the rig to gain help. When he rounds the truck he is faced with six women who have no interest in helping a man with anything (nothing sexist here, it’s just the plot). With the shotgun that doesn’t work, a dude over his shoulder and a door chained in-between the dude and himself, Max now has to bluff his way in order to force people to help him get free and stay alive. That’s all you need to know for now.

There are a billion other reasons why I love this film, but I am only going to focus on the above scene as a metaphor for my last job in the Oil Patch. When I sat in the theatre last year watching this play out, I watched with great interest not because of my loyalty to George Miller or my fandom of The Road Warrior or because Tom Hardy surprised me in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy or even (gasp) because of Charlize Theron. I watched with great interest because despite the post-apocalyptic scenario, despite the simplest of plot lines, despite the end of the world apparently taking place in the Australian Outback – despite all of these things…I knew exactly how Max felt. I empathized with his character more than any other that I could think of. More than Luke Skywalker. More than “Jack,” the Narrator of Fight Club. I sympathized with him because that was what it was like to work in the energy service sector of the Oil Patch.

There is a great Dilbert cartoon panel by Scott Adams(I’m not sure if it’s real or not) but Dilbert tells his mother he worked to midnight. His mother says “well, at least you made extra money” and Dilbert replies that he doesn’t get overtime. “Well, at least the work was important” his mother comments and Dilbert responds that it wasn’t because his boss changed presentation slides that made the presentation worse. “Well, at least you’re prepared for your meeting” she says and Dilbert informs her that it was cancelled…which is fine because the project had no funding anyway. “So you worked for free to worsen a presentation for a meeting that won’t happen for a project that doesn’t exist?” Dilbert confirms this. “Oh…you must work for… (Insert Company Name Here).”

I would come to work in the middle of a firestorm. The instant knee-jerk reactions to anything a client said – no matter how subtle – freaked everyone the fuck out. Instead of communicating with a client over how best to serve their needs, the earth was moved no matter how much, no matter how far, no matter the effort in time, the cost in labor, the sacrifice to the company or families, the application to accounting rules, the risk to the safety of employees, etc. It had to be done. And after it was done, the client normally said: “Oh…right. Thanks…” and immediately put the problem out of his mind because in the grand scheme of what he was dealing with it was never really much of a footnote to begin with.

I worked, on average, about 60-80 hours a week my first two years in the Oil Patch and again in the first two years of my transfer to Canada. In between that and since then I worked on average about 50-70 hours a week not because I had too many projects or because stuff “just had to get done on time,” but because it was always easier to ask your employees to accomplish the impossible than it was to explain to the client the issue wasn’t as catastrophic as it looked or cared to present another solution after consulting with the people who had to execute the outrageous promises made. It was easier to disrupt a set system of process to achieve a result than it was to tell a client “this is a lot of trouble for zero billable hours.” 99% of the time, these issues were never invoiced for. Usually this was because the system set up to invoice our clients was not flexible enough to allow such “add ons.” The Project Manager didn’t want to tell the client it cost something, the Sales Representative didn’t want to put his commission in danger, the Accounting Department didn’t want to create new line items, the Legal Department didn’t want to renegotiate contracts, and management didn’t want to miss a lunch that day.

So I came to work most days neutered. And as the price of barrel fell my language changed from “No, that’s crazy” to “can I talk to your client” to “we’ll have to work that out” to “sure, when do you need it by?” This attitude stole revenue not from the decision makers, but from the blue-collar workers who needed it to feed their families. In the end if you had a degree and no common sense or experience you were inherently more valuable than someone with no degree but loaded with common sense or experience. There was in most cases nothing I could do: no more hours I could work, no more money I could save, no more promises I could make, no more tricks up my sleeve. All because the fear generated by 22 dollars a barrel turned an “idea so fucked up it proves he doesn’t know what he’s talking about” to “I’ll have it done today by noon - for free.” This is the interpretation of service in the Oil Patch. The absolute groveling and debasement of people and their labor to a single factor above all else: safety, morale, business ethics. It’s not about the bottom line. It’s about control and fear. It’s about using the barrel price to get what you want.

It was like showing up to work chained to a dude over my shoulder, a door hanging on the chain, and a gun that did not work in my hand and being forced to use that emasculated object to bluff someone in an effort to force them to help me. Help me, I would ask. Please, I’m trying to make money. I’m trying to contribute, to create ideas for revenue. I’m trying to save my job, your job, as many as we can. Please, I’m begging you, can you talk to the client about billing for this? Talk to HQ about adding this service, about increasing our profit? About cutting our costs? And the answer from the multi-billion dollar service giant? Fuck you. You’re fired.

And so I completely empathized with Max. He just wants to survive. I wish I was as smart as Max. 

Woman in Gold (Two Americas; Tvy Österriechen)

You don’t have to watch The Woman in Gold (2015) with Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds to understand what I’m about to expound upon, but you should by all means check out this wonderful film which perhaps lets a few things kick around that it did not intend. The film is not riddled with under lying symbolic meaning or symbolism. Maria Altmann, the daughter of a wealthy Jewish businessman, fled Austria after the Anschluss in 1938 leaving behind most of her family and all of her family’s possessions. Her family that stayed was murdered and all her family’s property was either stolen or destroyed. Her aunt’s necklace found its way to Hermann Goering’s wife. The painting of the same aunt, Adele, was stolen by the NAZIs and after the war given to the Belvedere, the Austrian State’s national art gallery in Vienna. The film is about how Maria and her lawyer, Randol Shoenberg, fought a seven year battle to get five paintings, including the portrait of Adele, back. There’s tons of more detail that I’m not going to get into because I don’t want to focus on the plot.

            Instead this is about the exceptional screenwriting talents of Alexi Kaye Campbell, a Greek immigrant who has more acting credits that writing experience, and Brit director Simon Curtis who kick started a very distinguished TV career by directing Kenneth Brannagh and Michelle Williams in the outstanding My Week With Marilyn (2011). The script is normally the only thing that a film has unless it’s director and stars can save it, but when you have a good one it can still be sabotaged by bad directing even if you have great actors. Campbell and Curtis nailed the underlying issue of the problem of the Woman in Gold – A Portrait of Adele in three scenes describing the two existing Austrias. One was no longer a part of the NAZI past, but still saddled with it. The other was a younger generation of Austrians who saw the only way forward in their society was to recognize Austrian complicity in the Holocaust. These two Austrias are still at war and will be so for a very long time. The art world, despite being Bohemian, is extremely conservative. A hundred million dollars tends to do that to even the most ardent liberals.  Austria was fought to keep up the Woman in Gold because they saw the Klimt painting as something that exemplified them: it showed the world who they were as a cultured society. Instead what it really conveyed to the world was a society that was okay with keeping the property of murdered Jews. The audience can understand how young Austrians want to be proud of their country and feel the restitution issue is important to them for that purpose. I understand how Austrians feel and I have every faith that they can replace their bloody symbols with more nurturing works of art that were not taken in the middle of the night at gunpoint. I understand how Austrians feel divided because I am an American, and I feel divided.

            This is not about Native Americans or Antebellum Slavery or segregation or any of that, though that discussion has it’s place. I cannot deny those things happened but I do deny that my country is not a great country because of those things occurred. They are horrible, were done by horrible people, and we enrich our culture and the future of our nation by righting those wrongs.  No, this is about right now. I feel that there is a side of America which is okay with racism, okay with sexism, okay with xenophobia and misogyny and the hatred of gay people because they label criticism of their discrimination as ‘political correctness.’ There is an America that wants to return not to the 1950’s, which is an insult, but to the 1930’s, when no law in the land, despite the most liberal president in our history, could stop the lynching of a black man or a Jew, the murder of a poor child, the rape of a woman if she were married. There is a side of America that is okay with this. They’re okay with it and when you criticism them for it they say ‘oh, you’re just being politically correct.’

I am a life-long Republican. I went to college in the ‘90’s, which was not easy, at a liberal school who worshipped the ground Bill Clinton walked on…and it disgusted me. Suddenly it was fine to lie to federal grand juries, deceive federal judges, to sexually harass any woman you want… so long as you were a Democrat. So long as you were a liberal. So long as you were politically correct. So long as you were Bill Clinton and you were not Clarence Thomas. I aligned myself with a party that declared ‘character is important in choosing our leaders’ and whenever I was challenged on this by a liberal Democrat I always retorted with ‘then why isn’t Ted Kennedy President?’ Character mattered then, and I thought I belonged among a political consciousness that respected that. Boy, I was wrong.

            I see at least half of the Republican Party today say they don’t like Donald Trump, then they meet with him and endorse him. I see them say they think he’s bad for the party and then they make backroom deals to promote his candidacy ‘for the good of the party.’ I see intellectuals, very smart people, people I know personally, people I respect shake their heads and say ‘well, he’s better than Hillary.”

            What fucking nation are you living in?

            I hate Hillary Clinton. I think she’s slime. I think she’s in the Saudi’s pockets, she promotes the pharmaceuticals, she sat on the board at Wal-Mart for a decade. I think it’s a god damn travesty that she is going to be elected President this November – and she will be – but she will deserve it because most of America does not understand the sexist, racist, jingoistic, and xenophobic bullshit of Donald Trump or the party that shrugs and says ‘well, at least he’s not Hillary.’ If you think that way, if you rather have Donald Trump over Hillary, than you deserve Hillary, because you’re voting for her.

Much like the Austrians were not willing to let go of century old painting “just because the NAZIs stole it” there are millions of Americans not willing to budge on their ‘conservative’ views “just because deep down I hate blacks, Jews, Mexicans and women.” There’s two Americas, here, and unfortunately half of the Republican party, who has Latino friends but honestly thinks border security is a serious issue, is going get fucked. Half of the Republican party, which is under the age of 45 and have wives that work and daughters who need futures, are going to get fucked. Half of the Republican party is being told ‘vote for Trump, asshole, or you’re not a conservative.’

            Well fuck you, and fuck the GOP. I’m not voting for Trump. I’m not voting for a sexist, misogynist asshole who jokes about menstruation, calls Latinos murderers and rapists, calls women fat and ugly, and when you say “hey, dickhead, that’s over the line,” the reaction from him and his supporters is “oh, well you’re just politically correct.” Oh…because I don’t think you should pigeonhole all Latinos as murderers I’m politically correct? Because I don’t think it’s okay to make fun of menstruation I’m politically correct? Society is moving to the left, whether you like it or not. You can vote for a party that can moderate that shift by protecting the Second Amendment and securing our borders, or you can let it slide to Bernie Sandersville, who will make this country look not like Canada, but like the Soviet fucking Union in 1965. And if you want it to look like that, with rich people turning in their passports and businessmen fleeing to Cuba to escape the madness, bread lines and 50% income tax, then go right ahead and vote for Trump. All you’re doing is destroying the organized resistance against (not socialism, but) Communism. And you’re doing it because you think that someone who talks like Trump, has an outlook on life like Trump, is someone you think represents this country’s future. If you think that you’re fucked in the head. And I will not be voting for a party or a party’s candidate who thinks that way.

            For my entire academic career I was told by many people who know more than me that Austria was much worse than Germany. That Austrians passed the buck to the Germans, kept their distance and shrugged. “Ah, well, you know, we weren’t Germany. They invaded us, you know.” Right, and just like millions of Germans did NOTHING, millions of Austrians just NOTHING either. And I can’t believe I’m saying this but I think I’d rather live in Austria right now. They seem to reject fascist values in favor of recognizing wrongs and moving on. But I can’t say that about the Republican Party. I can’t say that about a group of people who choose someone like Trump or even if they didn’t vote for him, shrug and do NOTHING. Millions of Austrians made a decision on what kind of country they want to be. Millions of Americans make this same decision every four years. These collective decisions are going to lead to the complete destruction of conservative opposition and another seven decades of Democratic rule and all we can hope for is the party to break into wings like it did under FDR. All we can hope for is a wing of the party to stand up to the sinister shadows of the extreme left. All we can hope for is for Democrats to be more libertarian than the Republicans they replaced. Way to go, GOP. I guess that’s the best you can do. 

Hail, Caesar! (In Grand Defense of Hollywood)

First Screening. February 2016.

     There’s so much shit going on in Hail, Caesar! that it is easy to get lost in all the hubbub. Not that there is very deep meaning in anything going on – this isn’t an awesome intellectual powerhouse that The Big Lebowski (1998)) or O Brother Where Art Thou (2001) was. But the stories alternated in front of you almost make you think some of them are tied together instead of giving you a pretty accurate picture of where America was in the early 1950’s. First you have Baird Whitlock (A George Clooney-like actor played by George Clooney) getting kidnapped by Communists, DeeAnna Moran (an Ethel Merman-type played by Scarlet Johansson) resisting urges from the Studio to marry a man so her baby won’t be born out of wedlock, working actor cowboy Hobie Doyle (a 1950’s Tom Mix played by Alden Ehrenreich) wanting to play the studio game of fame while trying not to seem ridiculous or stupid and this doesn’t include Channing Tatum’s devoted Communist, Ralph Fiennes’ Laurence Olivier-like stage-turned-director or Tilda Swinton’s turn as both twin sister columnists out for the story scoop or each other’s blood. In other words: it’s your standard Coen Brothers variety show, only this time it’s funny.
      Now, I like the Coen Brothers, I really, really do, mainly for a string of early hits from Blood Simple (1984) to The Big Lebowski which as a kid I found really compelling and as an adult I found reason to go back and enjoy. This is usually how Hollywood is supposed to work: a visually stimulating film sucks you in and the story sells you an interesting point of view that you can agree or not agree with. The Coens are masters at the former but really don’t care about the latter, preferring instead to pack their films with interesting characters that ramble on about mundane items that keep you holding your gut (“This game determines who enters the next Round-Robin, am I wrong?”). This leads to a string of more than interesting stories from Miller’s Crossing (1987) to No Country for Old Men (2007) that pass as dramas and Fargo (1996) and Burn After Reading (2008) that pass as comedies. And while we can say they have rare talent in a formula that would be impossible for the overwhelming majority of Hollywood we can also say that some of their projects have just left me fucking dumbfounded and shaking my head. First, I apparently am the only person who hates both Barton Fink (1991) and O Brother and I really don’t get Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) but I’ll be damned if anyone can ever explain to me what the hell they were thinking with A Serious Man (2009): a film that you apparently can only understand if you grew up Jewish in Minnesota in the late 1960’s…with Richard Kind as your uncle. 
     Thankfully this zeroed in experience is not present in Hail, Caesar! Instead, all of the stories above are weaved around Eddie Mannix, (flawlessly played by Josh Brolin) the fictional Head of Production of Capitol Pictures based on a real man but unlike him in very stark ways. Mannix is a good man, with bad problems to solve, and why he handles all of them himself is the only pause you can give in this film: no capable producers or middlemen such as there are in Hollywood – especially in the ‘50s when one of the problems was there were too many. Mannix here provides the moral center and the string around which all are tied and turn in turn much like an amusement park maypole ride with chairs. And all of them tell you just a little bit about Hollywood and America in the ‘50’s, but not too much. 
First is Whitlock’s kidnapping, which halts an expensive epic filming on the studio’s endless rows of soundstages. The film, Hail, Caesar!, could be Ben-Hur (1959) or The Ten Commandments (1956). Whitlock is ostensibly taken by a group of former Hollywood employees who have been denied jobs in the industry based on their politics – they’re Communists or were Communists or were accused of being Communists or identified as someone who was, were or might be a Communist. Whitlock’s kidnapping will net them a cool 100K, a little low, even for the ‘50’s, but that’s right in line with people who supposedly don’t place a high value on money. The group in the film possibly portrays blacklisted artists in the ‘50’s more accurately than most. They are not really a threat unless you don’t like Fisher Stevens, huge mustachioed men looking similar to Stalin or Trotsky, or little cucumber sandwiches to go along with discussions on class struggle. Their most menacing member is Channing Tatum, who improves his impossibly perfect career by showcasing his tap dancing talents and his Timberlake sense of humor with Roger Moore-like quip/look drops and outlandishly physical gay humor. All of the Communists look a bit effete, some of them very Jewish, and I suppose that wouldn’t be out of the ordinary of the image of them in the 1950’s in general or in fact. Like the real blacklisted victims, these people are not really a threat to the U.S. Go pick on someone else. 
     In the middle of this is Moran’s Busby-Berkeley-like water adventure mimicking ejaculation using the representation of a large phallus (not a stretch considering Johansson’s image) and her supposed need to keep her public image clean by giving away her child to someone she can adopt it from later. This will (I guess) satisfy the studio that they are not paying a slut to smile while being covered in ejaculate but it really does convey the absolute control and in some cases absolutely brutal responses conservative Hollywood engineered at the time to keep their bankable stars clean and thus the families to keep coming to the theatre.  There’s even a scene where Mannix discusses the script of Hail, Caesar! with four spiritual leaders (three Christians and a Jew) in which they discuss whether or not a reasonable religious leader would find anything in the film offensive. This is easily the most hysterical portion of the film: a discussion of the nature of God and ultimately why the objections of the Jews don’t matter (at least in a depiction of Christ). Isn’t this America? The great clean-up spreads to the impossibly impeccable Tilda Swinton playing both a Hedda Hopper and a Louella Parsons whom Mannix has to man-handle like a fork-tongued serpent and like juggling his various movie productions must juggle handling celebrity journalists he must respect and feed like very dangerous zoo animals (as evidenced by the feathers in Swinton’s hats) that could turn and devour him at any moment. Moran is the first hint of this great effort of image and the minute she opens her mouth you understand the duality of what Mannix is trying to do. I’ve always known Johansson to be an amazing actress, but I was drop-jawed when she spouted out dialogue as if she was from deep in Brooklyn. Even her shoulders seemed to hint at the specific neighborhood or specific block. Was that East Flatbush or Flatlands? Maybe Marine Park? The greatly unfair sexual politics abound from her point of view showcase how oppressive the ‘50’s were to women despite great gains made in the previous three decades. Who better to point out the absurdity and hypocrisy than Johansson?
     We can expect the Coens to rope in great performances from great actors like Johansson and Fiennes’ hysterical beyond patient director working with an outside-his-comfort-zone actor but the show stealer is that actor himself: Ehrenreich’s heavily understated Hobie Doyle. The Coens have tapped into the cowboy element in Hollywood history before. Not just their surprising and outstanding remake of True Grit (2012) but The Big Lebowski is one of several of their films that explore the culture and the legacy of the west. They understand perhaps as most today don’t that most films before 1960 were in fact westerns. Most TV shows were westerns. Most comic books, most pulp novels, most everything from the closing of the frontier to the Leone films that practically destroyed the genre were based on or explored these western themes. Hobie is just a guy, like Moran is just a girl, from the parts of America that superstars are not supposed to come from. Like Moran dealing with relationship issue, Hobie is dealing with career issues; namely accelerating it. His films are popular but his acting style is more suited to chaps and a horse than a tux and a ballroom as evidenced at the hour mark. But off the set, Hobie is the guy taking Mannix seriously, the guy on the alert when he sees the loaded McGuffin and, I might add, seemingly the only guy who doesn’t mind taking a Latino out on a date and charming her up with seemingly no intention to sleep with her. The girl, Veronica Osorio, is just as outstanding and although this is a film loaded with on-screen chemistry Ahrenreich and Osorio steal an enormous amount of attention for what little screen time they have. Hobie is the guy who ultimately saves the day, and I guess it’s time to talk about what that means. 
     There’s no doubt that Mannix is running a madhouse. That’s the movie business. And there’s no doubt that everything associated with what Mannix is doing touches some sort of off-color aspect of American society (my only severe criticism here would be the dramatic lack of color in this film if you get my meaning). But…and this is an important but…it seems as if all of the characters – even Whitlock’s captors – don’t really have a bone to pick aren’t really evil at heart. Mannix struggles over the smallest of sins, Johansson wants to find that perfect someone to make a wrong a right, Whitlock is just hapless and wants to feel for the little guy, and Hobie and Veronica are the couple you want next door. Remember, this is a Coen Brothers film. There’s no leg in the wood chipper, no panty clad thief stealing huggies from a mini-mart, no Wu micturating on the Dude’s rug, and no psychopath using a high powered compressed air tool to murder people on remote Texas highways. In reality, not even the Communists in the film are bad guys. The most ‘bad guy’ you get here are Tilda Swinton’s twins threatening to spread rumors of sodomy and a Lockheed executive who wants to take away all of Mannix’s weirdness for an easy job with an easy future and an easy retirement. This is a landmark for a Coen Brothers film. Mannix finally agrees with his confessor when says “it just feels right.” And though I can’t exactly pin it on anything in particular despite analyzing the Coen’s environment of 50’s Hollywood, so does this film.