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This time of year is a bummer for me. Other film bloggers get to release their year-end lists, and I can’t help but want to join in. However, unlike the majority of them, I live in the middle of nowhere and don’t have access to many of the year’s most acclaimed films until they’re out on DVD, sometimes as late as August the following year. Right now, it’s going to be at least May before I’m able to see everything from 2016 that I want to, and that’s speaking generously. A few of the foreign language films I missed could push that back months.
So by the time I’m ready to celebrate the year, everyone else has already moved on. But this year, I got to thinking. What’s something to which everyone has equal access, regardless of where they live? Music. That shows up on your computer the day it releases. So I thought maybe I’d do something a little different and talk about my favorite music of 2016.
First things first: I’m no music expert. Far from it, in fact. I know very little about music history, I’m poorly equipped to discuss the technical components of any given song (I don’t even know what instrument is playing half the time), and I generally struggle to critique it in any meaningful way. I just like what I like. And I’m not all that educated on what’s out there. This isn’t a list of my favorite overall albums of 2016 as it is an account of all the music I purchased this year and what I thought of it, arranged somewhat in order of favoritism. And what I’m about to say about it is likely to sound pretty ignorant. That’s fine. I’m not looking to go in-depth or to change anyone’s mind. I just want to share what I enjoyed last year and maybe introduce you to something you’d enjoy, too. That’s my only purpose here: enjoying things.
So, without further ado, here’s my first-ever musical year in review!


“Awaken, My Love!” — Childish Gambino
This album really came out of nowhere for me. Donald Glover has always been somewhat off my radar — I know who he is, obviously, but I’ve never watched Community (I want to, don’t yell at me!), have only seen him in two or three movies, and generally found his rap career under the name Childish Gambino wasn’t really my thing. So I didn’t really pay much attention as his latest album was announced and then released. But the day it came out, I opened my social media profiles to a collective freakout about how great it was, some of those accolades coming from people whose opinions I very much trust. I decided to give it a look. All I did was open it up on iTunes and listen to the little 30-second samples of the different songs. I hadn’t even listened to all of them before I clicked the “buy” button.
Even if you’re a fan, this came out of nowhere. He’s been a rapper. How often do they decide “nah, I’m a soul/R&B singer” and drop something like this? Much less be good at it? Glover is a bonafide genius; he is unfairly good at everything he touches. He’s a stand-up comedian, now he’s an actor in a sitcom, now he’s a serious actor, now he’s a critically acclaimed rapper, now he’s writing his own shows and winning awards for it, now he’s a friggin’ R&B artist. I have spent my entire life working exclusively on one passion, and I’m not sure I’m as good at it as Donald Glover is at everything.
“Awaken, My Love!” is easily the most diverse album I listened to in 2016. It’s basically a tour of black music throughout history — soul, R&B, funk, jazz, a touch of gospel on tracks like “Have Some Love.” And yet the individual songs still feel like part of a larger whole, right in place within the context of the album.
It’s a touch too long, and that’s mostly what keeps it at the back of the list. Glover has good ideas for each song, but not enough to sustain the six-minute run-time attached to several of them. The song “California” also knocked it back a few spaces. I like it musically but have absolutely no idea what Glover’s trying to do vocally on that one. I’m also not sure how much I like the instrumental track, “The Night Me and Your Mama Met.” I think the last two songs flow much better without it. Picking a favorite was tough — I have a ton of love for “Zombies” and “Redbone” — but I ultimately have to go with the much-too-short “Riot,” the purest blast of energy on any album I checked out last year.

The Hope Six Demolition Project — PJ Harvey
I’m a new fan of PJ Harvey, by which I mean The Hope Six Demolition Project was more or less my introduction to her (I knew who she was at that point but had only heard two or three songs). I loved it from the first listen. I actually think it’s even better than its relative critical acclaim would suggest. Most of the criticism has centered on its similarities to her previous album, Let England Shake, but I think they’re largely superficial — it still represents an evolution in sound and has different musical themes guiding it. Let England Shake was an album full of dark, almost apocalyptic folk music; The Hope Six Demolition Project takes Harvey’s alt-rock stylings and filters them through a jazz/blues sound. It has the sound of Woodstock-era protest music; songs like “Near the Memorials to Vietnam and Lincoln” remind me a bit of Jefferson Airplane. Anyway, they’re very different records, in my opinion, and I wouldn’t part with either one of them. The album’s greatest strength is that I like every song on it; there isn’t a weak link in the chain. They’re varied and represent a series of really interesting ideas. Its weakness, though, is that I’m coming to realize that there are no songs here that I’m head-over-heels in love with either. It’s a collection of very good songs that makes for a very good record, but it’s missing that spark that would earn it a place in music history. Because I like every song about equally, it’s hard to isolate a favorite. I’ll go with “The Wheel,” which has the emotional urgency and stadium-filling composition that define many of my all-time favorite songs.

We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service — A Tribe Called Quest
This is the first rap album I’ve ever owned (unless you consider MIA a rapper, which I don’t, or you think the three or four rap songs per Gorillaz album is enough to qualify). Told you I’m no music expert! Truth be told, rap has never been my genre of choice. I’ve tried to get into it, but it hasn’t paid off. Generally speaking, I like rap in small doses, two or three songs and that’s enough for the moment. I can fall head over heels in love with an individual rap song but won’t want to listen to many more in that sitting.
So the fact that my first rap record is a 16-track double album has to be some kind of testament to its quality.
Previously, I was aware of the existence of A Tribe Called Quest and not much else. Even now, I couldn’t name a single song on one of their other albums (I’m planning to check them out, though — see if I like them as much as this one). I couldn’t tell you the names of the full-time members of the group (much less the litany of guest stars). I just know that I have a deep and abiding love for this album that I can’t fully explain.
I think my problem with rap generally is that I’m stuck between two worlds: I like new-school rap vocals and old-school rap music, so there isn’t much out there that appeals to my taste. A Tribe Called Quest hit the mark for me with this album: A retro sound, the verses rapped over guitars, real bass, real drums, I’m told Jack White did the music for some of these, which surely doesn’t hurt (disclosure of bias: I may or may not own literally every album by every band White has ever been in…yeah, even the Raconteurs); mixed with a style of rap that isn’t quite 2017 modern — these guys are forefathers of the genre, after all — but still feels fresh and attacks the lyrics in more of a freeform way that allows the vocalists to really play with the way the words sound. And it’s delivered by a group of considerable talents, not only the members themselves (it’s a total bummer to discover a love for Phife Dawg immediately after his untimely death), who range from Kendrick Lamar to Anderson Paak to Elton John for some reason. There’s a diversity of musical influence here, all of it united by its rappers’ individual styles. It’s sort of the rap version of “Awaken, My Love!,” a tour of the genre’s history.
It’s also possibly the most of-its-moment album of the year. In 2016, we saw members of Public Enemy, Audioslave, and Rage Against the Machine team up to recapture some of that old glory and kind of fall flat; meanwhile, in their weirdly laid-back sort of way, A Tribe Called Quest arrived with a fiercely political album that took me right back to the good old days. It’s clear the members had their eyes open throughout 2015 and 2016, and the politics of those years are pretty difficult to miss, whether it’s Q-Tip’s repeated references to female leadership or, you know, the fact that one of the songs is called “The Donald” (it’s actually a tribute to Phife Dawg, a.k.a. Don Juice, but come on, they knew what they were doing). As someone who’s yearned for music to be political again — every now and then, I listen to Bob Dylan singing in no uncertain terms about the civil rights movement and wonder where that passion is today — and left 2016 in desperate need of whatever catharsis I could find, it’s just what the doctor ordered.
With this many songs, it’s hard to pick a favorite. I love “Whateva Will Be,” “Solid Wall of Sound,” “Black Spasmodic,” and “Lost Somebody.” I tend to prefer picking favorites that are a little off the beaten path, but I have to say it’s still the lead single for me — “We the People.”

You Want it Darker — Leonard Cohen
I’m not going to say much about this one, and I don’t want you to take that as a sign that it’s mediocre or uninteresting. It is neither, and by a comfortable mile. As swan songs go, I think the late, great Leonard Cohen can rest easy with this one. My brevity is more an acknowledgment of what we’ve always known about Cohen — he’s a poet first and a musician second. His albums aren’t surprising; you always know what you’re going to get musically. You’re here for the words and the power Cohen’s bass rumble brings to them. The music, of course, is good; it’s softly moving, a bit darker than usual, but par for the course overall. But we all listened to hear Cohen’s thoughts and stories, and he delivered. I’m of the opinion that age has been good to just about every musician who is not Bob Dylan; Cohen’s voice has gone even deeper and turned rich and ragged. It really is like listening to an old man putting his last words on the record.
I’m a big fan of the title track, but I think it’s since been surpassed by “Treaty” and, my current favorite, “It Seemed the Better Way.”

A Moon Shaped Pool — Radiohead
Radiohead is the sort of band whose latest album can simultaneously be classified as a disappointment and one of the year’s best without any cognitive dissonance whatsoever. A Moon Shaped Pool was the only album I bought this year without having listened to any of it (other than the singles, anyway). Even legends like Bowie and Cohen required a few listens before I was willing to commit. Radiohead is just one of those bands for me.
A Moon Shaped Pool is, to be clear, a good album — a very, very good album. It just doesn’t represent the kind of career trajectory I expect from Radiohead at this point. I think it’s a lateral step from King of Limbs, an album I’m not particularly fond of to begin with. It’s an improvement, but not in the ways I’d hoped.
Radiohead’s career has not seen them getting better and better with each album. Sometimes, the latest release is a step down; sometimes, it’s a step up. But that’s a factor of ambition rather than inconsistency — this is a band caught in a constant state of reinvention. They started out as a pretty standard 90s rock band no one really cared for, then abruptly became one of the best alt rock outfits out there with the complex but accessible arena rock of The Bends and OK Computer (one of my all-time favorites). Then, just as abruptly, they turned into an experimental art rock group with Kid A, which is great, and Amnesiac, which is probably great but has plenty of tracks even I struggle to make sense of. Hail to the Thief was something of a bridge between the art rock and the alt rock, covering the spectrum from beginning to end. And then In Rainbows was a heavily electronic record so artsy and weird it approached the point of madness. They sort of doubled down on that sound with King of Limbs but maybe crossed the bridge too far — their mellow artsiness became so detached that it sometimes failed to register a pulse. But with every single one of those records, they were pushing boundaries; each one of them had its own distinct sound, and yet all of them were identifiably Radiohead albums. They’ve managed to preserve the core of their music across so many different sounds.
A Moon Shaped Pool is the first time it feels as though they’ve retreated to their comfort zone. It’s a lesser Hail to the Thief, half alt rock and half art rock. And the tracks here all sound really similar; I still haven’t listened to the album enough to be able to summon most of them to mind. I don’t remember the album as a collection of songs I can start humming right now but as a single hourlong song with some variation but fundamentally the same premise. Compare that to the variety of Hail to the Thief (which I think might be their best work; fight me), an album where almost every track is entirely its own thing without betraying the record’s overall sound. Admittedly, it doesn’t bother me that much; I’m a much more album-oriented listener. I absolutely never download individual songs that I like. They need context.
But if it’s a lesser Hail to the Thief, please keep in mind that I absolutely adore Hail to the Thief. So I at least kind of adore A Moon Shaped Pool. It might not be anything particularly new by Radiohead — the band paints vivid landscapes with off-kilter rhythms and minimalistic, atmospheric instrumentation, while Thom Yorke’s voice dances all across it — but that’s what we love about this band, right?
And there are a few standout tracks despite the surface similarities. The lead single, “Burn the Witch,” is likely the album’s most distinctive song. I also like the quiet intensity of “Glass Eyes,” but it’s the closer, “True Love Waits” — likely the record’s most accessible song — that really moves me. I wanted to post that one but couldn’t find any high-quality versions on YouTube, so here’s the video for “Burn the Witch.”

Schmilco — Wilco
I’m new to Wilco. I got into them the way you probably expect I did — they released 2015’s Star Wars for free, so I figured why not? And I really liked it — it’s been a grower, actually; I’ve come to appreciate it more with repeat listens. The same thing has happened with 2016’s Schmilco. It’s typically quiet and understated work from them, so it doesn’t immediately announce itself as great music; it just lodges itself in your brain and surprises you a week later when you unthinkingly start singing one of the songs while you’re driving somewhere.
It’s sort of a miracle album. I was told they recorded this at more or less the same time as Star Wars, so there was reason to fear it would essentially be a collection of B-sides from that session. The end result, fortunately, was anything but — Schmilco is a complete, cohesive album with a sound distinct from Star Wars, even though both are identifiably Wilco (really, does anyone else sound quite like Wilco?). I read one review that described Star Wars as the party and Schmilco as the afterparty, and that really nails it — Star Wars leans into the rock n’ roll elements; Schmilco goes spare and largely acoustic. It’s more personal and emotive.
But it’s the band itself that’s truly miraculous here. I was listening to this album just a few days ago, and there was a moment where I briefly detached my emotions from the song that was playing and just focused on the quality of the music. And it occurred to me that if you told me no one in Wilco actually knew how to play their instrument, I might believe you. It’s incredibly mellow, but it’s also pure chaos. I paid attention to the song and noticed a guitar out of tune, instruments all being played just barely out of step, with a few breakdowns here and there where everything just went nuts — people pretty much just banging on guitars and tossing discordant notes left and right. And of course, Jeff Tweedy’s voice is so thin that you half-expect him to choke on it any second. And somehow…it all works. This band has somehow figured out how to take independently “bad” sounds and assemble them in a way that they no longer sound bad but rather honest and true, weathered but soulful. Some of the songs embrace that chaos a little more openly than others, but elements of it can be found in just about all of them. If any other band did this, we’d say they were being weird for the sake of being weird. With Wilco, it all comes across as some grand experiment you don’t understand but you kind of enjoy. They have an atmosphere all their own.
Schmilco has more great songs than just about any other album this year. There are so many I love — “If I Ever Was a Child,” “Cry All Day,” “Happiness,” “We Aren’t the World (Safety Girl).” So many to choose from. My favorite at the moment is a pretty close race between “Someone to Lose” and album opener “Normal American Kids.” Think I’m going to go with the latter. It’s a personal track, rich with emotion, but strangely catchy despite its minimalism.

Skeleton Tree — Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
There were two high-profile spoken word albums this year, and Leonard Cohen’s was not the best — or at least my personal favorite. Actually, “favorite” is the operative word here — there seems to be a general consensus that Skeleton Tree is 2016’s best album, and I don’t particularly disagree. It’s a contender for sure. It’s also difficult to call it my favorite, however, for the purposes of a list like this — it’s emotionally intense and kind of depressing, and I really have to be in a certain mood to listen to this. Other than the lettering, the album cover is nothing but formless blackness, and that’s the color I see while listening to it.
This is a dark album, festering in the worst parts of the human experience — sadness, loneliness, anger, the impotent rage of a man shouting into the void, his pleas for the pain to stop falling on the deaf ears of an uncaring universe. It ain’t road trip music, is what I’m saying. And it isn’t something I can put on any old time and find enjoyable.
And it probably shouldn’t be. There’s no mystery where this emotional weight comes from — Nick Cave and the band didn’t wrap up the recording process until some time after the sudden death of his teenage son in an accident. I’m told most of the songwriting had been finished at that point, but it’s difficult to imagine that event not clouding everything as they went into the studio. And whenever they were written, the lyrics are at the very least prophetic — it’s a record about loss and devastation. It’s punctuated by momentary joys, but they’re the exception.
Cave said he gave up his usual narrative approach to songwriting, and that’s plain to see — the lyrics here are significantly more oblique than is normal for him. They’re somewhat difficult to decipher. And yet, sonically, this feels like his most narrative album yet — the way it works from darkness to light, from joy to suffering, from the beginnings of love to the end, and culminates in the bittersweet hope of the title track never fails to move me.
It’s that track that most stands out in my memory, at least in part because of that context, so that’s the one I’ll share. It feels weird to take a spoken word album and choose one of the few songs that isn’t spoken word as my favorite, but it’s the truth. If you want me to pick my favorite of the spoken word tracks, I think I’ll go with “Rings of Saturn,” which is strangely hopeful and uplifting in the context of the album as a whole.

22, A Million — Bon Iver
I did not know what to make of this one as its release date approached. I really like Bon Iver’s previous work — in case you can’t tell, nothing moves me quite as deeply as the bittersweet, and Bon Iver fits that description perfectly; his music is sad but hopeful and glides from darkness to light and back again, and through it all, it’s unfailingly beautiful.
But the first singles from 22, A Million were…strange. It was clear Justin Vernon wanted to do something different from his usual M.O. It was pretty experimental stuff. I wasn’t sure I liked it. He’d gone from the earthy instrumentation of his previous albums to the arhythmic bleep-bloop that so often bothers me about music today. It felt as though he was trying to be weird just so he could label this album unique. It wasn’t just the intensified focus on the electronic elements (which I’m not opposed to; there are a few bands I like who do most of their composition inside a computer); it was the bizarre way he was using them. Repetitive notes that terminated in strange places, musical elements that didn’t seem to quite gel, the vocal manipulation that on occasion took Vernon’s lovely falsetto and turned it into Alvin and the Chipmunks, the complete lack of structure in some of the songs. It was difficult to get used to.
I’m not sure what compelled me to give it a whirl in the first place, but I’m so glad I did. All I needed was context. For some reason, what didn’t work in short iTunes samples worked in a full-length song, and what didn’t work in a full-length song worked in a full-length album — and those elements fed one another over the course of repeat listens until I found myself enjoying the individual songs and moments as well. I started to see structure where they appeared to be none, focus in the moments where it seemed as though the instruments were just spiraling off into the stratosphere, beauty in the computerized madness, and beneath it all, the trademark bittersweetness that immediately marked it as a Bon Iver record.
I heard something organic, almost like breathing, in the weird electronic noise that cuts in and out of the backdrop of “22 (Over Soon)” seemingly at random. In the autotuned insanity that is “715 – Creeks,” I suddenly became aware of the way he had layered his vocals and manipulated them with electronics to create a full sound despite the complete lack of instrumentation. I found propulsion in the unusual structure of “33 ‘GOD.’” What was once impossible to understand soon seemed like the only way it could ever have been done. It’s an experiment that paid off in the best way. Regardless of ultimate favorites, I’m pretty sure 22, A Million is the album I’ve listened to the most since its release. Its thoughtful beauty is appropriate for any occasion; I’m always in the mood for it.
I’m dying inside trying to come up with a favorite. I’m going to go with “00000 Million.” “666” is a close second.

Blackstar — David Bowie
Who didn’t know this was coming? It was a great album when it was released — and an even greater one, just a few short days later, when we were suddenly given the key to understanding its lyrics.
Everyone seems to understand Blackstar as a colossal achievement, but even then, I think we have yet to process exactly how colossal it is. With this album, David Bowie, one of the last of the musical legends, presented his entire life as a work of art. In so doing, he made one of the most moving and inspiring artworks of 2016 — not albums, artworks more generally.
I listen to this album, and all I can think is how much I hope to have even a fraction of Bowie’s perspective someday. I hope to face my own death with as much courage. I hope to face it standing up, boosted by the confidence of a life well lived. When he learned that he was dying, what did he do? He carried on. He hit the studio one last time — knowing he was recording his swan song, his last message to the world. He wrestled with his own mortality and reflected upon the measure of his life, its value, and what it all meant in the end.
Here, Bowie isn’t lionizing his life such much as seeking to understand it within the context of everything it led to. There’s pain here, fear, longing, but he places it all inside the framework of what he learned from it, how it changed him, what beautiful things it allowed to him understand and appreciate.
Blackstar is only eight tracks long, but it somehow feels like a summation of Bowie’s storied career. It weaves from the spacey joys of the Ziggy Stardust days to the thoughtfulness of his later recordings without skipping a beat. In the nearly ten-minute title track alone, he somehow covers at least half the emotional spectrum of his life — it’s dark, it’s enchanting, mystical, it turns light for a moment, then sad, then winds its way back around to darkness. The album goes from the mournful “Lazarus” (which itself does not stay mournful throughout) to the vibrancy and sheer weirdness of “Girl Loves Me” with no difficulty whatsoever. It’s equal parts silly and solemn, and always poetic. Bowie knew he wasn’t just recording an album about death, he was recording an album about life and everything in it. He had one thing left to tell the world, and he decided it would be about hope — that he would die gracefully and hopefully give everyone else the means to do it as well.
The last song, “I Can’t Give Everything,” is one of the most emotional moments on any record last year. I don’t even know how to respond to it half the time. It’s solemn but uplifting, mournful but strangely at peace. I listen to its soft energy and can imagine flashes of everything Bowie ever did — his wild characters, his constantly changing sound, the lights shining down upon the stage — flickering through his mind. It’s a man reflecting on his life and smiling as he closes his eyes.
And even then, I’m still declaring “Lazarus” my favorite. It’s so raw, one of the few tracks to let in any sense of fear of what’s to come, but also one that starts looking backward on the life that led to it and seeing beauty in every success and every failing. I come right to the edge of tears every time I listen to it.
RIP David Bowie. Gone but never forgotten.

That’s right, y’all! We’re doing this again, since approximately no one read it last year. Oh, well!

One last reminder of my big predictions before we go in:

Best Picture

The Revenant

Best Director

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

Best Actor

Leonardo DiCaprio

Best Actress

Brie Larson

Best Supporting Actor

Sylvester Stallone

Best Supporting Actress

Kate Winslet

Tune in at 7 p.m. ET to watch me be wrong about every single one of those!

7:00: We’re here! It’s time for an eternity of vapid celebrity interviews. I forgot about those. Is it so hard to give us a start time on the actual ceremony so people like me know when to tune in? Never mind. I’ll buzz off until I hear something happening on the television. I’ll be back when the ceremony starts.

8:30: Okay, here we go for real! At 8:30. A full hour and a half after the time I was told it was going to start. Wheeeeeeeeeee.

8:33: I don’t have a significant relationship with Chris Rock outside of some animated movies he did voices for, so I’m going into this pretty open-minded to see how he’ll do.

8:35: I’m glad Rock is tackling the #OscarsSoWhite controversy with a tone of irreverence; that moderates the awkwardness somewhat. There’s still a sense of “we’re sorry we goofed up; now on with our goof!” surrounding the hole thing. And they’re kind of lingering on this point a little too long. I’m not saying they should shove it under the rug, but it’s a problem best addressed outside of the ceremony itself, in my opinion. Or at least addressed briefly. But we’re ten minutes in and still talking about it.

I actually thought about writing a full piece on #OscarsSoWhite during the heat of the controversy. It’s probably a bit too late now, but the gist of it would have been that the controversy is much more a symptom than the disease. Were there movies by and about black people this year that should have been nominated? Sure. But that list is very, very short. Racial minorities basically had to pin the entirety of their Oscar hopes on five or six movies. At those numbers, it’s easy to miss the cut.

As such, there’s only so much the Academy can do to address the controversy on its own. The bigger problem is that it’s still difficult for black directors, writers, actors, and producers to get a solid foothold in the industry, regardless of how talented they may be. Until we, as a culture, address that, the Oscars are always going to be pretty darn white. It seems as though Chris Rock is mostly making the same point, and I hope it sticks — it’s not about the Oscars, it’s about the larger system.

Yes, I did write this beforehand in the knowledge that Chris Rock would be talking about this. Screw you, my site, my rules.

8:44: Time for the ceremony. Finally.

8:45: Best Original Screenplay.

I’m predicting Spotlight for this one. Cool to see Ex Machina make the cut here. Inside Out also had a wonderful script. Some good stuff in this category this year.

And the winner is… Spotlight!

8:49: Best Adapted Screenplay.

I’m going to say The Big Short. Since The Revenant isn’t in play, I figure it’ll go to the other Best Picture frontrunner. I haven’t seen most of the nominees in this category yet. If it isn’t The Big Short, it’ll be Room.

And the winner is… The Big Short!

9:03: I’m just not a fan of Sam Smith’s “Writing’s on the Wall.” It’s a little too mopey for a Bond song. It usually loses me by the first chorus. But what do I know? I’m the guy who thought Adele’s wasn’t all that great either.

9:04: Also, Sam Smith’s falsetto isn’t fantastic live.

9:09: Best Supporting Actress.

This is one heck of a competitive category this year. I think anyone other than Jennifer Jason Leigh could take it. Also, sorry to anyone who didn’t see The Hateful Eight. Um, spoilers, Academy?

Like I said, I’m going with Kate Winslet. Rooney Mara’s my backup.

And the winner is… Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl. Wow. She went from zero to Oscar winner in exactly no time at all. Not only is she a first-time nominee, she’s new in general — 2015 was supposed to be the year when she was recognized as one of the year’s most promising newcomers. But this might propel her straight to the A-list.

Seriously, though, Kate Winslet was amazing in Steve Jobs. And I’m not ordinarily a big fan of hers.

9:19: Costume Design.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say Cinderella is the winner. There’s definitely some competition here though. I think I might have screwed up.

And the winner is… Mad Max: Fury Road. I guess I can’t complain. One of these days, I’ll understand why I was so good at predicting the Oscars when I was an idiot teenager but can’t do it to save my life now that I know things.

Whatever, technical awards, I have no idea how they work. Let’s keep it coming!

9:22: Production design.

Tina Fey should host this one of these years. Anyway, this category is really, really tough to call. I’ll say Mad Max: Fury Road.

And the winner is… Mad Max: Fury Road.

9:25: Makeup and Hairstyling.

I know nothing about this sort of thing. Mad Max: Fury Road. Thank you for showing me that scene from The Revenant again, Academy.

And the winner is… Mad Max: Fury Road. Regardless of what wins Best Picture, I think Mad Max is going to be the big winner tonight.

9:30: Why is there a guy in a bear costume sitting with The Revenant team? I mean, I understand why, but, you know…why?

9:35: The Suge Knight joke made me laugh. I’ll admit it.

9:36: Cinematography.

Tough call between The Revenant and Mad Max: Fury Road. I’m going to call it for the latter and probably be wrong. After that applause for Sicario, though, I’m wondering.

And the winner is… Emmanuel Lubezki, The Revenant. Is that three consecutive wins for him? How much precedent is there for that?

9:39: Editing.

Mad Max: Fury Road. That almost feels like the objectively correct choice in this case. The sheer amount of what they had to wrangle on-screen… Wow.

And the winner is… Mad Max: Fury Road. So, either this is one of those rare years where Best Editing and Best Picture are split or we’re about to get a really weird surprise.

9:43: Why are there Minions? I should’ve been safe from that tonight.

9:48: Best Sound Editing.

I know nothing about this! Mad Max: Fury Road.

And the winner is… Mad Max: Fury Road.

9:51: Sound Mixing.

I know even less about this! Mad Max: Fury Road.

And the winner is… Mad Max: Fury Road.

9:54: They really should give Andy Serkis an award for all that motion capture stuff one of these days.

9:55: Visual Effects.

Mad Max: Fury Road. Almost feels like the safe choice at this point.

And the winner is… Ex Machina? I mean…yay, it deserves it! But, wow! That came right out of left field. Especially since it uses its effects in such a spare, barely noticeable way. Huge surprise there.

10:00: I’m obligated to say that, “Yay, Star Wars!” I wonder if that’s actually Anthony Daniels in there.

10:07: Best Animated Short Film.

Of course it’s the Minions. I should never make assumptions. Anyway, I’m not really a short film guy, so… I’ll go with World of Tomorrow, because I’ve heard of it.

And the winner is… Bear Story! I definitely know what that movie is!

10:10: Best Animated Film.

Inside Out. That seems kind of inevitable. And deserved.

And the winner is… Inside Out. Not a big surprise there. Disney and Pixar have trouble losing this when their submission isn’t one of the best movies of the year.

10:13: Every Kevin Hart joke has made me laugh more than it should. I think I’d be okay with him hosting one of these years. I think he’s funnier on the stage than he is in a lot of his movies. He works better live.

10:15: The Weeknd, Academy Award nominee. That’s going to take some getting used to.

10:20: If I were Chris Rock, I would name one of my kids Party. Don’t post this, Matt.

10:28: Best Supporting Actor.

Close race between Mark Rylance and Sylvester Stallone. Like I said, I’m taking a chance and going with Stallone.

And the winner is… Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies. Totally deserved. No complaints. Weird that the Academy would pass over Rocky Balboa twice, though.

10:37: Louis CK would be another acceptable future host.

Best Documentary Short Film. I really don’t know a thing about this category. I like what Louis CK is saying about it but sort of realize I’m part of the problem for not watching any of these. Whoops.

I don’t know. A Girl in the River sounds like something that would win.

And the winner is… A Girl in the River. Yay for random guessing! Whoo!

10:41: Oh, that was the movie that got the Pakistani prime minister to issue a statement! Maybe I remembered it subconsciously.

10:42: Best Documentary.

I’ve heard of a lot of these but haven’t them. I’ll predict The Look of Silence. I still need to see The Act of Killing. Both of them sound like something I’d find fascinating.

And the winner is… Amy. 

10:56: The In Memoriam is going to hurt this year. It always does, but come on… David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Christopher Lee, Leonard Nimoy… I’m not okay.

10:57: Dave Grohl is such a weird choice for this, though.

11:03: Holy crap, did Abraham Attah grow, like, five feet since filming Beasts of No Nation. Jacob Tremblay telling Chris Rock how much he loved Madagascar pressed all of my adorableness buttons.

I know nothing about this, so I’ll pick Ave Maria because.

And the winner is… Stutterer.

11:07: Best Foreign Language Film.

I’ve heard nothing negative about Son of Saul. So I’m going to pick that.

And the winner is… Son of Saul. I can’t wait until I get a chance to see it.

11:10: Woah, Joe Biden is here. How did they swing that? I can’t wait to go on Twitter and see who’s livid about this for no reason.

11:21: Commercials cut in. Best Original Score. I’m going to say Ennio Morricone for this category.

And the winner is… Ennio Morricone, The Hateful Eight.

11:23: Weren’t they trying to make the ceremony shorter this year? At this rate, I feel like we’re guaranteed to cruise past midnight here.

11:25: Best Original Song. I’m surprisingly unfamiliar with this year’s crop of nominees. Passing over “See You Again” really turned this wide open. “Writing’s on the Wall” seems like the biggest song here other than “Earned It,” and I’m pretty sure the Academy doesn’t want to make “Fifty Shades of Grey” an award winner.

And the winner is… Sam Smith, “Writing’s on the Wall.”

After the standing ovation for Lady Gaga’s “Til It Happens to You,” it does feel a bit anticlimactic.

11:29: Sacha Baron Cohen had to come out as Ali G, didn’t he? And make penis jokes about Minions. Can’t imagine a better way to introduce a Best Picture nominee about survivors of kidnapping and rape.

11:35: With Rian Johnson at the helm, I wonder how well Star Wars: Episode VIII will play at the Oscars in 2018.

11:36: Best Director. We’re probably going to get a pretty big clue to our Best Picture winner here. As such, despite my person opposition, I suspect Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is about to take the stage. But seriously, Academy — George Miller. This is the correct answer.

And the winner is… Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, The Revenant. Second consecutive win. This would be easier to deal with if he weren’t so publicly egotistical.

But yeah, confirmation — The Revenant just won Best Picture.

11:41: It’s worth pointing out that it probably shouldn’t be possible for a movie to take home editing, production design, costume design, makeup and hairstyling, sound editing, and sound mixing and not win Best Director.

11:44: Time for Best Actress. I’m pretty sure Brie Larson has won this in basically every other awards ceremony this year, so… Yeah, I’m going to pick her.

And the winner is… Brie Larson, Room. I haven’t seen this movie yet — seriously, you couldn’t release the DVD one week earlier? — but as a Short Term 12 diehard, I’m extremely okay with her winning this.

11:49: “Will your favorite film win the Oscar?” Looking like a strong “probably not” right now. It’s hard to imagine Spotlight taking this thing with nothing more than a win for original screenplay. Honestly, Mad Max: Fury Road has the best chance of beating The Revenant for Best Picture at this point.

11:51: Best Actor. Does anyone in the world think it’ll be someone other than Leonardo DiCaprio?

And the winner is… Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant.

He deserves an Oscar, but I suspect this will be his Scent of a Woman. Twenty years from now, people will watch Django Unchained and The Wolf of Wall Street and be confused that The Revenant delivered his big win.

11:58: And we reach the big moment. Regrettably, it probably belongs to The Revenant. I didn’t hate that movie, by the way. Read my review; I thought it was all right. However, it is, as of right now, my least favorite of the Best Picture nominees.

Either way, here we go: Best Picture.

And the winner is… Spotlight. What? Who? Where? When? How? It only won Best Original Screenplay! How in the world can they justify that against all the other awards. I mean, I’m happy; it’s my favorite movie of the year so far. But how in the universe did this happen? How did they decide to split Picture and Director again and not give the latter to George Miller. Good grief, this is an Oscar year of surprises. This is a pleasant one. But it is absolutely baffling. What was the Academy’s logic on all of this?

It’s late, and I don’t want to stay up much later, so here’s a quick wrap-up. Overall, it’s a decent year. Mad Max: Fury Road forced the Academy to go out of its comfort zone and let a B-movie win a half-dozen awards. Spotlight won. Ex Machina proved that every now and then, the Academy goes for subtlety over bombast. The presenters mostly weren’t all that awkward; even the kids did all right. Chris Rock was a decent host, did more or less what Neil Patrick Harris did last year — a solid balance of edge and decorum. He did a good job of addressing the #OscarsSoWhite controversy; his opening monologue struck the proper balance of irreverence and delicacy and got to the root causes of the problem often overlooked in this discussion. I might change my mind as I think this over, but I do think the #OscarsSoWhite stuff was a little too dominant throughout this ceremony. It felt like the guy who constantly mocks himself as an obvious mask for his own insecurity, who over-apologizes mainly to make it clear to everyone that, regardless of what he did, he really is a good person. But for the most part, I liked it.

The credits are rolling now, and something about them closing this conglomeration of celebrities and media elites on Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” amuses me.

And now for a new year of movies!

Also, I did really badly this year. Even by my standards.

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Oh, yeah. This is happening. Tune in at the top of the ceremony.

8:20

GEEZ, Academy, this crap was supposed to get started at 7 p.m. This will probably come as a surprise to most of you, but I really couldn’t care less about what everybody’s wearing.

Anyway, we’re a few minutes out from the ceremony, so just in case you missed this weekend’s newspaper (or, more likely, you live somewhere other than The Middle of Nowhere and thus could not possibly ever have read it), here are my predictions for the big categories tonight:

Best Picture: Boyhood

Best Director: Richard Linklater, Boyhood

Best Lead Actor: Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything

Best Lead Actress: Julianne Moore, Still Alice

Best Supporting Actor: J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

Best Supporting Actress: Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

Of those predictions, I’m only starting to waver on Best Picture/Director. Birdman’s win at the Independent Spirit Awards yesterday probably locked its win in those categories; if there’s any ceremony you’d expect Boyhood to sweep, that would be the one. I made my predictions on Friday, and I figure it’s only honest of me to stick with them. And anyway, I really want Boyhood to win, so I’m holding on to hope. Anyway, there’s my list.

I’ll be back when the show starts. Keep hitting that refresh button!

8:25

And we are a go.

I’m interested to see what Neil Patrick Harris does tonight, though I’m pretty sure it’ll be on the safe side. They’re still only two years removed from a riskier choice starting the show with an extended musical number about the nominees’ breasts.

Though speaking of risk… Kind of want to high-five Harris for kicking it off with a joke about how white the Academy is. I expect that’s as risque as it’s getting tonight, though. Glad they’re taking advantage of the potential for big, silly musical numbers, though.

8:34

I also want to high-five whomever decided to invite Jack Black to this party. One BDSM joke later and I’m pretty sure I want him to host next year.

Also, feel kinda bad for anyone who hasn’t seen Gone Girl yet. Spoiler alert indeed, Neil.

8:38

So, it looks like the tone this year is going to be “worshipful.” That might get old after a few hours.

8:40

Best Supporting Actor. And the winner is…

J.K. Simmons, Whiplash. And all of the people were shocked. I’m kind of ticked that I didn’t get to see Whiplash before the ceremony; even without context, every clip I see makes me go, “Oh, SNAP!”

8:49

I am deeply grateful to Fifty Shades of Grey for all the dirty jokes I’m getting tonight.

…I was not supposed to have Maroon 5 assaulting my ears tonight. Can we give out another award now?

8:51

BOO! BRING BACK JACK BLACK! BOO!

Sorry, I get juvenile about pop music I don’t like.

8:57

Best Costume Design

My Prediction: The Grand Budapest Hotel

And the winner is… The Grand Budapest Hotel. No complaints. Well-deserved.

9:00

Ugh, Neil, that pun.

Best Achievement in Makeup and Hairstyling

My Prediction: This feels like another one that’s meant for The Grand Budapest Hotel.

And the winner is… The Grand Budapest Hotel. Once again, no complaints. It deserves the award. Personally, I think Guardians of the Galaxy deserves it a little more, but I’m not exactly an expert on makeup and hairstyling, so…

9:10

Best Foreign Language Film

My Prediction: Ida

And the winner is… Ida. I haven’t seen any of the other nominees in this category, but Ida is a great movie and totally deserved this.

9:12

Come on, Academy. You gave this guy, like, a minute. Stop rushing him off the stage.

9:17

EVERYTHING IS AWESOOOOOOOOOOME! EVERYTHING IS COOL WHEN YOU’RE PART OF A TEAM!

Also, this is the only time you’re ever going to see Marion Cotillard introducing The Lonely Island. Bask in the surreal.

9:19

OH MY GOSH THEY’RE SINGING THE BATMAN SONG MY BODY ISN’T READY

9:24

Best Live Action Short Film

My Prediction: I haven’t heard of any of these. I think I saw someone predict Aya somewhere, so…

And the winner is… The Phone Call. I don’t know anything about these, so I really can’t comment. I’m not sure why I’m even listing predictions here.

Best Documentary Short

My Prediction: Um…Joanna is easy to type, so I’ll say that. I don’t even know what it’s about.

And the winner is… Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1. Okay.

9:31

And then, Neil took a potshot at the Academy for not nominating David Oyelowo for Selma. Masked as a light joke, but still. They might not invite this guy back, but I’m loving it. Anyway, back to the awards…

9:35

I didn’t think I was in danger of Tim McGraw tonight either.

9:42

Neil Patrick Harris is now officially hosting the Oscars in his underwear. I think that makes him the first person to do this at the ceremony since that guy who went streaking the one year. He’s really running with this thing.

9:45

Best Sound Mixing

My Prediction: I don’t even know what these words mean. I’ll say Whiplash because the sound is so apparent in that.

And the winner is… Whiplash.

Best Sound Editing

My Prediction: I don’t know what these words mean either. I’ll say American Sniper because they probably figure they’ve got to give it something, and it seems like this award goes to war movies a lot.

And the winner is… American Sniper. How in the world did I successfully predict both sound awards? I don’t think that’s ever happened.

9:51

Best Actress in a Supporting Role

My Prediction: As stated, Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

And the winner is… Patricia Arquette, Boyhood. I don’t have a single negative thing to say about this. Since when does the subtle performance in the tiny, little indie movie win these awards? Fantastic. Arquette couldn’t deserve it more.

10:02

Best Achievement in Visual Effects

My Prediction: Interstellar (short version — Academy treats this award like Best Blockbuster. Guardians of the Galaxy is, in my opinion, the best of these movies. But Interstellar is the one the Academy probably likes the most — it’s the closest this category has to a prestige pic. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the one I think should win.)

And the winner is… Interstellar. I’m not going to complain; the effects were great. I just don’t understand why the Academy keeps passing up the Planet of the Apes movies for this award.

10:06

Best Animated Short

My Prediction: I don’t really know anything about these. I’m going to say Feast, because having Disney behind you probably makes for a compelling campaign.

And the winner is… Feast. I guess this ran before Big Hero 6, which I haven’t seen yet. So, I haven’t caught this either and can’t offer any commentary.

10:09

Best Animated Film

(Another line from Neil Patrick Harris acknowledging the INEXPLICABLE [SERIOUSLY!] absence of The Lego Movie. I’m starting to wonder if the Academy specifically told him to go on an apology tour for them tonight.)

My Prediction: How to Train Your Dragon 2

And the winner is… Big Hero 6. Yeah, that one was always going to be a toss-up. I guess the Disney campaigning machine wins this round. Like I said earlier, I haven’t seen this yet, so I have no idea whether this is deserved.

The Lego Movie remains the winner in spirit. Also, I need to see Song of the Sea, like, right now.

10:20

Best Achievement in Production Design

My Prediction: The Grand Budapest Hotel. This isn’t even a question.

And the winner is… The Grand Budapest Hotel. Yup.

10:24

Best Cinematography

My Prediction: Birdman. The film is shot to look like it was done in one take. That’s the kind of showy approach the Academy goes nuts for.

And the winner is… Birdman. Told ya.

Just for the record, I’m starting to feel really bad for Roger Deakins.

10:30

Looks like we’re on to the In Memoriam segment. This always wrecks me. It’s going to be extra rough this year. I still haven’t completely accepted that Robin Williams is gone. This has been a rough year for the arts.

10:43

Best Film Editing

My Prediction: I think the absence of Birdman has me thinking this is Boyhood‘s to lose.

And the winner is… Whiplash. Hmmmm. Didn’t see that coming. Then again, there have been surprises in this category before — The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, anyone? But yeah, for this year’s Little Indie Movie That Could, Whiplash sure is walking away with a lot of awards here.

10:46

Methinks Terence Howard has forgotten his speech and is trying to disguise that with feigned awe. Come on, dude. You’ve got, like, a paragraph.

10:49

Best Documentary Feature

My Prediction: I haven’t seen any of these, but I’m hearing a lot about Citizenfour.

And the winner is… Citizenfour.

10:58

I’ve spent the night complaining about the music, so I’ll be positive now that I can: “Glory” is a pretty awesome song, and I hope it wins. On top of that, that was one heck of a performance just now.

I seriously need to see Selma already.

11:03

John Travolta SLAM!

Best Original Song

My Prediction: “Glory,” Common and John Legend, Selma

And the winner is… “Glory.”

The Academy would’ve been really embarrassed if it hadn’t won after the way John Legend and Common just blew the roof off the place.

11:16

And now, Lady Gaga’s here. Did I tune into the Grammys by accident?

11:21

I’m kind of curious why Julie Andrews, who’s standing right there, isn’t singing this.

11:22

Best Original Score

My Prediction: Johann Johannson, The Theory of Everything

And the winner is… Alexandre Desplat, The Grand Budapest Hotel. Well, I guess he had to win one eventually; it might as well have been the year he was on the slate twice. The Grand Budapest Hotel is looking like the big winner tonight, regardless of whether or not it wins Best Picture.

11:29

Best Original Screenplay

My Prediction: Boyhood. I think we’re going to find out what wins Best Picture right now.

And the winner is… Birdman. Crap.

11:33

Best Adapted Screenplay

My Prediction: Tough call. The Imitation Game.

And the winner is… The Imitation Game. With Harvey Weinstein behind it, I figured it had to win something. I haven’t seen it yet, so I can’t say whether it deserves it or not.

11:41

Best Director

My Prediction: Richard Linklater, Boyhood. Yes, I know I’m wrong.

And the winner is… Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Birdman. And we have our no-doubt-about-it Best Picture winner.

11:48

Best Actor

My Prediction: Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything

And the winner is… Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything. Yeah, that’s the right call.

11:53

Best Actress

My Prediction: Julianne Moore, Still Alice

And the winner is… Julianne Moore, Still Alice

12:02

Sneaky, Academy. So, Neil Patrick Harris’s Oscar predictions this year are preemptive apologies for everything that went wrong.

12:03

Best Picture

My Prediction: Screw it. I’m not going to fake it by pretending this isn’t Birdman.

And the winner is… Birdman. Yeah. I liked Birdman, but this is going to be really bad for its historical reputation, I think. Kind of bums me out that Richard Linklater didn’t win anything, because he’s unlikely to get nominated for these big awards again except in “obligatory indie movie categories.” Oh, well.

Anyway, quick summary of the ceremony as a whole, because I’m tired and want to get out of here: Neil Patrick Harris was one of the better hosts in recent memory. He struck a nice balance between Seth MacFarlane’s edge and Ellen DeGeneres’s decorum. It was mostly amusing, there were a couple of sharp zingers in there, against the Academy and otherwise, and he kept the whole thing charmingly self-aware — the ceremony was in perspective in a way it often isn’t.

As for the nominees and winners themselves, eh… Even having not seen a number of them yet, this was a comparatively weak field of nominees, and the ones I think are the best didn’t win, for the most part. So, I don’t think this is going to be a well-remembered year, especially after the Academy managed to get it mostly “right” last year. Time will tell what happens to Birdman; like I said, this could be bad for its reputation. It threatens to turn into “that movie that beat Boyhood, Selma, Whiplash, and The Grand Budapest Hotel.” I suppose we’ll find out.

Anyway, fun ceremony, for the most part, solid year in movies, let’s ring in the new one.

star-wars-collection-5109f9372ca5e

I have really stupid ideas sometimes.

Mostly, the part of my brain that values sense and being respected by my peers crushes those ideas dead before they escape and wreak havoc on the world at large. Today, we’ll be witnessing what happens when those defense mechanisms fail and that stupidity ends up on paper, slips through the underworked proofreading part of my brain, and gets thrown haphazardly into the permanence of the Internet.

And so, here is my stupid and overthought theory on why the much-maligned Star Wars prequels are secretly about class warfare and corporate power. It is the dumbest thing on which I have ever expended actual time and effort.

Frankly, if you’re still reading at this point, you deserve it.

Oh, and I’m going to preface this whole thing by saying that it is entirely possible and perhaps likely that George Lucas had no idea whatsoever that he was inserting these themes into the film.

The sad tale of this stupid idea corrupting my overbearing self-importance and pseudointellectualism begins with me watching Star Wars: Episode One — The Phantom Menace not too long ago, which is a thing I do sometimes and you can thank you very kindly shut up.

About the most frequent criticism leveled at the prequels — well, after the crappy dialogue and wooden acting and CGI abuse and Jar-Jar Binks and midichlorians and you know what, let’s just call it the seventeenth most frequent criticism — is that it concocts a necessarily complex and far-reaching villainous plot that ultimately makes no sense because nothing is explained. Palpatine uses the events of the prequels to rise to power and become The Emperor. Ultimately, it’s never explained what his plan is — only that everything happened according to it. But it frequently looks more like Lucas coming up with plot material and then arbitrarily making it all a part of that evil scheme somehow without explaining why.

My impossible task today is to make the whole thing approximate a very scary amount of sense.

jarjar-important-movie-characters-that-are-actually-useless

Except this. This is still inexplicable.

I’ll begin by taking you back to all of your most favorite repressed memories — Star Wars: Episode One — The Phantom Menace.

One issue a lot of people seem to have with this one is the smallness of its scale relative to the other films. It tries to seem huge, but when you push the epic John Williams score from your mind, it’s hard not to find the politics- and business-infused opening crawl a little bit silly. In one sentence, you’re mentioning a trade dispute; in the next, you’re saying that superpowered warriors with glowing energy swords have been sent to resolve it.

The centerpiece of the plot is the villainous Trade Federation, which has blockaded the innocent planet of Naboo because of a trade dispute. The evil Sith are secretly pulling the strings. This is literally all we are told of this situation.

And while the exact details are never explained, a more concrete universe emerges in the subtext. And it is this:

At the time of Star Wars — Episode One, the Galactic Republic is a total economic anarchy.

There are a number of senses in which this appears to be true. Mainly, throughout the Star Wars prequels — particularly the second installment — and also throughout the EU, including Star Wars: The Clone Wars, which I understand is considered to be as canon as the films, we see that the Galactic Republic, despite apparently being considered a beacon of civilization, has itself a pretty severe poverty problem. Like, Third World severe.

We see that Coruscant has an underworld where people live in abject poverty — crime and drug abuse abound, violence is everywhere, murders are generally not investigated or prosecuted unless there’s a high-profile victim, and there’s next to no way out short of incredible luck for those born into it.

See also Naboo, where many of the planet’s citizens are pushed to the brink of starvation after what could not be more than a few weeks of Trade Federation occupation. Recall that the Federation is blockading its ability to trade with other worlds. The implication is that Naboo itself, an entire planet, has a civilian populace that is utterly unable to sustain itself — this despite the fact that it also appears to have a highly privileged upper class. That upper class, by the way, has, over the years, disenfranchised an entire race, the Gungans, who live simple lives out in the wilderness and loathe their human counterparts for the way they’ve treated them.

The main evidence of this, however, is the Trade Federation itself. Let’s start with the fact that it is a private corporation…and it has a standing army. That army is fully capable of occupying an entire planet that is also a represented member of the galaxy’s most powerful governing body. Yeah.

databank_battledroid_01_169_1524f145

Pictured: Capability, apparently.

But wait! Let’s talk about that governing body. In the scene when Queen Amidala of Naboo beseeches the Republic for its help in overthrowing the occupation, viewers get a thousand clues about the economically anarchic state this universe inhabits. The one the film makes most important is actually the least of these revelations: that the Republic is controlled by bureaucrats, who effectively stop it from taking any action on important issues (though that’s another piece that fits perfectly into the overall puzzle I’m putting together here).

No. We learn at least two far more significant things. Firstly, what the Trade Federation is doing — occupying an entire planet and imprisoning its citizenry in protest against economic changes (and remember that this is the reason for their protest, as it will become significant later on) — can, under some circumstances, actually be legal in this universe. A committee needs to be sent there to ensure that it is progressing legally.

Oh, and the really important thing. The reason we know any of this is because the Trade Federation, a private corporation and business, has representation in the Galactic Republic. I’m not saying it has lobbyists who own the senators with campaign financing; no, it has actual representatives. The Trade Federation isn’t the only one either — in the second film, we meet former Galactic Republic members representing groups such as the Banking Clan and the Techno Union. Those sure don’t sound like planets to me. (Oh, and the second one of those also has a standing army.)

Now, just to recap, let’s add this all together: in the universe of the Star Wars prequels, corporations have standing armies and direct representation in government, and it is also perfectly legal for them to protest economic decisions they don’t like by blockading planets and stopping trade.

Let’s hone in on that last one there. Why is it that the Trade Federation chooses to blockade Naboo anyway? We’re told that it’s a trade dispute, but we’re not told what it is. So, what happened?

I submit to you the following: Palpatine happened.

134357__palpatine_l

Like a boss.

Now, I’ll confess that I have even less direct evidence of this one. We see nothing in the film to suggest it. But when you consider what must have transpired between the events that we do see, and when we consider what actions would make sense given the motivations of certain characters, this fits too perfectly.

Firstly, what is the trade dispute? I don’t know. But I can guess the nature of it. Beyond the fact that the members of the Trade Federation are clear villains in the most traditional sense — that of the old-timey serials on which this franchise is ostensibly founded — anyone willing to blockade a planet and starve its civilian population to death probably isn’t a champion of the people overly concerned with their welfare. So, it seems pretty natural to assume that whatever got the Trade Federation all hot and bothered probably involved some kind of hit to their bottom line — workers’ rights, safety conditions, increased taxes, whatever. I’m not sure what else it might be.

And who do I think got those trade laws, whatever they are, passed? Palpatine. And while this is never directly shown or suggested in the films, it makes perfect sense.

Firstly, there’s the Trade Federation end of things. One of the first things we learn in the film is that the organization didn’t act entirely of its own accord. There’s someone else pulling the strings. It’s likely the Trade Federation isn’t his servant. I suspect what actually happened was that the figure behind the scenes approached the viceroy and his cohorts, who were angry and at a loss as to what to do over the Republic’s new trade laws, and promised them a well-laid plan to undo it, so long as they did everything he said.

Who is that figure behind the scenes? Darth Sidious, a Sith Lord. Gee, I wonder who he is?

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Subtlety 101: The Sith Lord University equivalent of Bowling for Fitness.

And now, the Republic’s end of things. I’m not sure who would control the trade laws between Republic member worlds other than, you know, the Republic, which is why I’m assuming it’s the source of whatever situation is causing the trade dispute that starts this whole thing. Given that it’s a governing body, the natural assumption drawn from that is that the Republic passed reform.

So, why do I figure Palpatine passed that reform? Well, firstly, it puts him in an excellent position. He hopes to become the ruler of the galaxy. He wants to do that by forcing the current chancellor out and — democratically — taking his place. He then needs the people to support him enough to leave him in the position later to grant himself emergency powers and overstay his terms. The people need to love him. And what better way than to be their champion? We already know he’s a passionate opponent of the Trade Federation, openly leading the fight against it during debates.

And secondly, well…who else could have passed that reform? We know two things about the Republic: Bureaucrats stop it from getting anything done, and corporations are voting members. We can surmise based on this and what we see elsewhere that it is not directly answerable to the people, either. They elect their own rulers, sure, but Star Wars — Episode Two: Attack of the Clones establishes in a throwaway line of dialogue that those rulers are the ones who select the representatives. And of course, we have no way of knowing if those are rules that apply to all members, or if it’s simply the way Naboo does things.

So, how does anybody ever pass reform in an environment where bureaucrats halt legislation, corporations have financial and voting powers, and representatives hold on to their jobs simply by keeping in good standing with their planetary leaders?

Well, I don’t know. You’d pretty much need superpowers or something.

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These are not the tapes you’re looking for.

So, let us not forget that Palpatine is a Sith Lord and one of the most powerful Force users in the galaxy. Not to mention he’s an absolute master of deception — he spends roughly 20 years worth of movies, and probably much longer than that given the point in his career at which the prequels begin, staring mind-reading Jedi Knights directly in the face on a daily basis and never once having any of them figure out that he’s not only the greatest evil in the galaxy but the one that’s directly inhibiting their Force use. This guy is good. Um, at being evil, I mean.

So, another recap: the trade dispute almost certainly stems from legislation passed by the Republic because of the fact that it was the only entity that could reasonably have done so. That legislation is probably mild reform in favor of the common man, because the Trade Federation is almost openly uncaring where the little people are concerned. Palpatine almost certainly passed that legislation because, firstly, it directly benefits him and serves as a great launching pad for his future endeavors, and secondly, he was pretty much the only person even capable of doing so. And the Trade Federation blockades Naboo — how better to punish the government for taking a swipe at your bottom line than targeting the home planet of the guy who got it to do that?

Of course, we all know how that ends. The Jedi Knights — and Anakin Skywalker specifically — save the day. The Trade Federation control ship is destroyed. Its leaders are shipped off to face trial. Naboo is free. And Palpatine becomes Supreme Chancellor of the Galactic Republic.

tpm_et

Sweeping the coveted E.T. and Obese Muppet Dinosaur demographics.

Fast-forward ten years.

Now, we’re in Star Wars — Episode II: Attack of the Clones. The situation here is that a significant portion of the Republic has separated from it, and there now exists a threat of war between the two parties.

Palpatine has one primary goal here, and oddly, it’s not the war. A major theme of the prequels is the way that he uses large events to achieve — and potentially disguise — seemingly small ends that, in turn, lead to other large events. The war, here, is a tool for him to obtain two things — emergency powers, so he can stay in control indefinitely, and a skilled but programmable army that he can use to enforce that control later — oh, and also to kill the Jedi, the principal threat to that control, without even questioning the order.

So, he needs a war. How does he get it?

Another major criticism of the prequels emerges here — there is absolutely no context provided for this war. After all, while the Star Wars films have never been deep or overly complex about these things, the original trilogy at least gave us the Death Star blowing up Alderaaan as good, strong evidence of why there’s an active rebellion against this government.

Here? All they tell us is that some people separated from the Republic for some reason, and now, they’re on the verge of making war against it for some reason. What lazy writing, right? (I mean, it probably is, but still. I am reading far too deeply into all of this, I know.)

Well, dear reader, I suggest that the reason for the war is readily apparent given one observation: the membership of the Confederacy of Independent Systems.

So, we’ve got…let’s see here…the Trade Federation, the Banking Clan, the Techno Union, and assorted planets. But nearly all of the main figures we see represent corporations. And those who represent planets still seem to have pertinent corporate interests — for example, Geonosis, which we see is running a fairly significant operation manufacturing weapons.

That the Trade Federation is here is especially significant, in that we already, based on this logic, have an excellent idea of what it is they want for the galaxy — less, read: no, corporate restrictions, a free market bordering on complete anarchy. Okay, they also want revenge on the former Queen Amidala, but there’s no way they’re motivating their stockholders with that.

Leader

Not true! We have significant investment in Iron Maidens!

That half of their cohorts are also planet-sized corporations lends additional credence to this theory. They are not the exception in the CIS; they are the rule.

One Jedi calls Count Dooku, the former Jedi and secret Sith Lord manipulating the CIS, “a political idealist.” I wonder what his politics are?

At this point, I don’t consider it a stretch to say he’s probably whatever the Star Wars universe’s equivalent of an objectivist is.

So, we have Count Dooku, probably some objectivist equivalent, leading a group that has likely separated from the Republic due to the desire for a freer market.

But they wouldn’t just leave, of course. Things would have to have gotten more dramatic in order to prompt so potent a response as secession and war. How did they get more dramatic?

Palpatine came to power.

Remember my suspicion that he obtained his position by being a champion of the people, standing up for their wants and needs. Maybe he argued for workers’ rights, benefits, better pay, etc. We don’t know. But it would make sense for him to do so. It fits well into his overall goal for the war he’s stoking. And it’s also about the only way to explain how he got the transparently greedy Trade Federation so riled up.

The event that instigated the blockade of The Phantom Menace was likely a small one. Here, the time frame — ten years — is significant. It’s time enough for Palpatine to come to power and change things substantially.

And it fits. The politicians get a much better portrayal this time around, with future adoptive father of Princess Leia, Bail Organa, getting some prominent screen-time. There’s much less evidence of corruption and far more evidence of efficiency — sometimes to a fault, given how quickly Jar-Jar’s emergency powers proposition gets rushed through. We also see the Republic and the Jedi Order working together far more often and apparently to some significant effect. The fact that the Jedi Order is even open to the idea of going to war on the Republic’s behalf is proof enough of that.

samuel-l-jackson-star-wars-episode-7

You will know his name is the Lord.

Granted, there’s still poverty. We see some evidence of it in the aftermath of the speeder chase, as well as throughout the Star Wars: The Clone Wars TV show. But it takes time to eradicate.

My thinking is that, in those ten years, Palpatine took the Republic from a borderline economic anarchy into a society that’s still very laissez faire economically but represents far more upward mobility for the lower classes than there was before.

This makes some sense. He wouldn’t want the government to be too much of the people; after all, he’s planning to turn it into an iron-fisted dictatorship as soon as he gets the opportunity. You don’t want to give the people too strong a taste of that sweet freedom; otherwise, they’re more likely to resist when you take it away. But he still needs to look like he’s standing up for the people. This represents a convenient middle ground — being public in his efforts to reform things, but letting the system grind them to a halt here and there, or at least delay or compromise them.

Either way, it’s clear that Palpatine has changed the galaxy substantially over those ten years — enough that he chased off the major corporations and got them ready to make war. And once he gets that war, it’s basically all over.

The best part of this whole thing is that it actually causes Palpatine’s plan to make…a lot of sense, to be honest.

Endgame: Take over the galaxy. In his first step, he becomes a senator on a Galactic Republic member world. It probably didn’t even matter which one; any would do, with the proper planning. That makes the first step comparatively easy, particularly for a Sith Lord and master deceiver.

Step Two: Become chancellor. He starts by playing this game very long-term. He sticks up for the people, supports agendas that favor them, and becomes very popular and well liked as a result. Now, it’s time to start playing the sides against each other. He brings forth legislation that will help the people, at the expense of the corporations. Those corporations are corrupt and have standing armies and representation; he can use that. Because he is, again, a Sith Lord and master deceiver, he’s able to get that legislation past the bureaucrats and lobbyists when pretty much no one else could have. The corporations are all up in arms about it — literally. As Darth Sidious, he approaches a particularly corrupt one, the Trade Federation, with a plan — a plan that involves having them blockade his own planet, the world he represents. Now, he can truly play both sides. The Trade Federation doesn’t know it, but every step of the way, he’s guiding them toward defeat. But he gives them victories — he needs to drive the queen to desperation. He ensures she gets to Coruscant, where she sees the mess that the Republic is. She’s a determined and morally courageous sort, so he knows she’ll take his advice when he suggests she call for a vote of no confidence in the current chancellor. He knows that just as much as he knows that he’s popular, and emerging as a public hero in the Trade Federation situation. His popularity will secure him a nomination as chancellor. Permanently resolving the Naboo situation will guarantee his election. So, he does just that. He guides the Trade Federation to defeat. However, he knows he’ll need the Trade Federation and its army later, so he secretly ensures that its leaders don’t face any real consequences as a result of their trial — as we’re told they didn’t in the second movie.

Step Three: Start a war. He’s already been laying the groundwork. We don’t know when he got his claws into Count Dooku, but given the relationship he later forms with Anakin, we can suspect it began long before Dooku turned Sith. Through Dooku, he gets access to the Jedi archives, orders and army, and erases all the evidence. Palpatine is also working out the details of the war’s outcome at this point. He knows he can’t let the CIS go on the offensive. If they beat the Republic, that will ruin his moves toward galactic domination. He could still do so through the CIS as Darth Sidious, but it would be more difficult. Such a transition of power would take a long time to negotiate, and he wouldn’t be able to simply emerge as the new leader without scaring everyone away. Likely, he would have to climb the ladder again. So, he knows he has to have an army at around the same time he’s fully angered the CIS.

To facilitate this end, he orders the army straight away, has it developed in secret, and begins the process of democratic reform. Corporations and planets with deeply rooted corporate interests begin to push back. Things get worse; they finally get motivated to leave. He uses Count Dooku to fan those flames — after all, secession and war are probably not good for corporations with interests across an entire galaxy, so they wouldn’t merely be content to separate and do their own thing. They would need the war to protect their own interests. Dooku begins to lead them — but passively, keeping the Republic from leaping but enticing them with the threat. Once the army shows up, it will be hard for the Republic to say no — the money’s been spent, and it’s arrived in the wake of a great threat. Palpatine knows this. He uses it.

After ten years, the pieces are in place. He’s changed the galaxy. The corporations are angry, and they’re fighting him on it. Dooku encourages them to go to war. Palpatine/Sidious works behind the scenes. He gets his army. He incorporates it into the Jedi Order. It’s perfectly positioned when the time comes to rid himself of that threat to his power.

All made possible, according to my insane theory, because of economic conflict.

StarWars20

Sweet, sweet economic conflict.

I really wish I could explore this theory further, but it basically disappears after the second movie. Revenge of the Sith is essentially a Part 2 on Attack of the Clones; the latter creates the situation, and the former follows through on what it does to the characters. And the original trilogy keeps it simple and straightforward, mainly staying away from these gestures at complexity. Funny how such a simple movie can feel so much deeper and more lived-in than these sometimes overcomplicated prequels.

In any case, this has been another episode of Matt Reading Too Deeply Into Things. Tune in next week when I review literally anything, seriously.

…Oh my gosh, I actually just wrote seven Word pages hyperanalyzing the freaking Star Wars prequels what is my life.

The Wolverine (2013)

Starring- Hugh Jackman, Tao Okamoto, Rila Fukushima, Hiroyuki Sanada, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Brian Tee, Hal Yamanouchi, Will Yun Lee, Ken Yamamura, Famke Janssen

Director- James Mangold

PG-13- sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence, some sexuality and language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=th1NTVIhUQU

It’s weird that I’m simultaneously just about burned out on superhero movies and also more excited for the genre than I’ve ever been. It’s weirder still that Marvel Comics is the studio that’s largely responsible for both of these states — though perhaps not, given that the film rights to its properties are all over the map right now.

On one hand, you have Marvel itself, operating under Disney. And I definitely can’t fault it for its ambition, even if its projects overall mostly rate as “better than average,” The Avengers notwithstanding. The odds might be against its efforts to build this massive shared universe through a multimedia empire, but even if it collapses, the breakdown’s going to be fascinating.

And then, on the other hand, you have all of these film studios that own the rest of the film rights that were divvied out pre-Disney. They’re awkwardly trying to imitate Marvel in building their own shared universes, despite, in some cases, only owning one or two properties. So far, it’s borne such fruit as a somewhat soulless Spider-Man reboot that came less than a decade after the previous series and X-Men movies that have varied sharply in quality but have been entirely consistent in their confusing world-building, leading to a timeline that even diehard fans can’t entirely figure out.

And now we have a new installment, The Wolverine. And between the two states, it, unfortunately, plays more into my burnout.

Following the events of X-Men: The Last Stand, Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) has become a recluse, living in the wilderness on the outskirts of a small town. Inevitably, his past catches up with him — Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a psychic mutant with no small amount of skill in the art of the sword, tracks him down on behalf of her master, Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi).

Years ago, Logan saved Yashida’s life during the bombing of Nagasaki at the end of World War II. Now, Yashida, who is dying, would like to return the favor. He offers, through a procedure his own scientists discovered, to take away Logan’s healing ability, finally rendering him mortal — and promising him eventual relief from his nightmares about his deceased ex-lover Jean Grey (Famke Janssen).

Logan refuses — but his stay in Japan is prolonged when agents of the underworld launch an attack against Yashida in the hopes of kidnapping his granddaughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto). He stops the initial attempt, but he and Mariko are left stranded in the middle of the city, hunted by the enemy. And for some reason, his healing powers are turning spotty and may be fading entirely…

The Wolverine is a lot better than X-Men Origins: Wolverine, if that’s where you happen to have your bar set. And that’s a low one for me, obviously, seeing as I put that movie in the Top 10 Worst list of my First 200 Reviews Retrospective.

Honestly, there really isn’t anything fundamentally wrong with The Wolverine, which isn’t to say that it doesn’t have important flaws, and I’ll obviously be expounding upon those in a moment. The problem I have — and it’s a problem I have with a lot of comic book movies these days — is that I can’t think of a whole lot to praise about it either.

Most of what I can praise about it is largely superficial. It passes the Bechdel Test, and the majority of its cast consists of non-white actors in fairly substantial and varied roles; both feats are extremely rare in this genre. Yukio would probably be a great character in other hands. Mariko might be, too, though it would be a bigger leap.

Moreover, it at least tries to do something with its characters on an emotional level, even if it isn’t particularly committed to it. And of course, it’s hampered by the fact that blockbusters are slowly developing the same problem that’s always kept me from developing an interest in comics — if the intention with any story is that you’ll sequelize it for as long as people continue to give you money to do so, you’ll never actually resolve anything. The game becomes finding ways to keep characters from learning or changing much so that the status quo can be maintained. Bruce Banner will always struggle against the Hulk side of his personality because if he didn’t, the story would end. Bruce Wayne can never find a healthy way to deal with his parents’ deaths or otherwise be destroyed by his inability to do so because then, there would be no more Batman and, more importantly, no more stories about Batman. And Wolverine can never become mortal or be driven to madness by his hopelessly long and pain-filled life — any more than he already has been, anyway — for the same reason. In our present film culture, endings have become extremely underrated.

The X-Men movies have always at least floated the idea that Logan is past caring about himself and almost past caring about anyone else — he doesn’t age, and he can’t be killed, so his life has been an endless saga of those he loves dying. He’s inherently dangerous, too, even when he doesn’t mean to be, so they sometimes die at his own hand, as Jean did. Of course, he also lives in a world that hates him and those like him. There’s little respite for him anywhere.

The Wolverine develops two main through-lines out of this, both of which I appreciate on the level of an actual effort being made and neither of which I think work anyway, for different reasons. Firstly, as the film opens, Logan has sworn off being a “soldier,” as Yukio calls him. After what happened to Jean, he never wants to hurt anyone else, for any reason. I could examine at length why I don’t think this works out, but the main reason is that the movie abandons it immediately and never has the character wrestle with it at all. He grouses about being dragged back into things at the beginning but actively seeks out the first fight he has. And when everything spirals out of control in Japan, he never expresses, verbally or otherwise, the slightest hesitation or regret over reverting to his old ways immediately. Frankly, I’m not sure why the movie even paid lip service to this when it had no intention of going anywhere with it.

The second through-line centers on Logan either making the choice to give up his immortality or learning how to live with it. This is the film’s main emotional thrust, and other than the action sequences, it gets the most screen-time. It’s the one piece of the movie that really needs to connect in order for the whole thing to work, which means, in an unusual twist, that the effectiveness of this superhero movie hinges almost entirely on its romance. So, when that romance falls flat — and it does — the whole movie goes with it.

If the machinations of the script weren’t clear from the beginning, it would probably come as a surprise when the obvious romantic setups started landing around the midpoint of the movie. It’s a touch underwritten, but moreover, neither of the actors have any particular chemistry — whether something fiery and intense or something reserved and familiar. Even on their own, neither character is terribly interesting. One of them is not quite so bland as to be called a complete blank slate but is quite close to that nevertheless. The other is Logan himself, a character I’ve never found terribly interesting — a man whose existence is defined solely in this broad and somewhat nondescript pain and anger.

This, in truth, is a problem with The Wolverine throughout — its lack of meaningful relationships. A lot of this is in the fact that the movie buries much of its plot underneath twists and turns and surprising revelations that, in truth, are not all that surprising. I’m notoriously bad at predicting plot twists, but I had this movie pegged pretty much from the beginning. In fact, the largest and last reveal was the one I figured out the earliest. In other words, there’s no payoff for the movie’s decision to obscure its characters and their relationships behind hidden motives and loyalties, essentially making it a lose-lose. Mariko and her family and friends end up drowning in this. Of course, it also costs us the satisfaction of a villain who represents a certain emotional investment on the part of the hero, giving us instead a final confrontation that hinges on a reveal rather than a clash of personalities or ideologies.

The only relationship that gets much traction is the sisterly one shared by Mariko and Yukio, and it’s one of the reasons those two are the breakout characters of this movie for me, if only just.

Really, like a lot of other middling comic book adaptations, there’s just this sense of detachment to the whole proceeding. It’s like no one really cared about The Wolverine. It dutifully checks off all the right blocks. It introduces the right emotional baggage into its characters’ lives, but when it comes to a choice between that and an action scene, it always chooses the latter. Those action scenes are straightforward affairs that are completely devoid of novelty at this point. It brings in a few more characters from the comics — heroic and villainous mutants alike — largely for the end in itself of bringing them to the screen and, one presumes, making action figures of them later. And then, when it’s all over, it gradually slides all the pieces back into square one, with adjustments here and there, so that future sequels can deliver a bit more of the same.

And as much as The Wolverine is basically a structured and well-presented action movie, I just don’t have the patience for this type of thing anymore.

 

-Matt T.

Man of Steel (2013)

Starring- Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Diane Lane, Russell Crowe, Antje Traue, Harry Lennix, Richard Schiff, Christopher Meloni, Kevin Costner, Ayelet Zurer, Laurence Fishburne, Michael Kelly, Rebecca Buller

Director- Zack Snyder

PG-13- intense sequences of sci-fi violence, action and destruction, and for some language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T6DJcgm3wNY

Superhero movies don’t usually come this divisive. But it seems like you either love Man of Steel or you hate it. Maybe it’s the broad nature of my taste and interests or my moderate personality, but I generally don’t find myself overtly taking sides when that happens. If people either love it or hate it, that implies that it has both great merit and great flaws, and I have a tendency to see both. In fact, I’m hard-pressed to think of any love-it-or-hate-it movie about which I had particularly strong feelings.

That trend continues with Man of Steel. There’s a lot to like in this thing. There’s also a lot to hate. The unusual part is when and where these things happen.

Because of that, I’m going to review this two-and-a-half-hour Superman epic as two separate films. The first one covers the opening two-thirds of the film, which I actually really like. The second one covers the last third, which…well, we’ll get there.

And so, without further ado:

Man of Steel: Part 1

Well, you all know the story. Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and Lara Lor-Van (Ayelet Zurer) live on the planet Krypton, which is dying under the excess of its own people. With the core on the verge of explosion, Jor-El packs their infant son into a ship and fires him off into the cosmos to spare him from the coming calamity and to ensure that the people of Krypton will live on.

The child is found in a Kansas field by Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane), who raise him as their own. He grows up to be Clark Kent (Henry Cavill), a man with godlike powers, wandering the Earth and trying to determine who he is and where he came from.

He learns that he hails from a distant world. A digital version of his father explains to him that he can guide the people of Earth to a better fate than that of Krypton. And so, Clark dons the cape and tights and becomes Superman, the hero of Metropolis.

Let’s do the largely insignificant but still bothersome gripes first:

• This is an adaptation. If you’re doing an adaptation, you should love the source material. If you love the source material, you will not be ashamed of it. If you are not ashamed of it, you will not come up with lame excuses for the silly costume and refuse to say the hero’s name because that would make the whole thing stupid or something. Just own it, guys.

• I’m not sure whether director Zack Snyder or the cinematographer made this call, but either way, for the sequel, they need to establish a zoom jar that they have to put a week’s pay into every time their fingers touch the zoom button during an action sequence, because seriously — holy crap, guys.

• As a rule for storytelling in general, lay off the Jesus metaphor unless you’re going to do something with it. There was probably a time in our history when our stories made this comparison more effectively, but that motif has since been conquered by people who think you put Jesus metaphors in your movie because it’s a movie and that’s what movies do. And now, it’s in everything, with no meaningful exploration deeper than: “Our hero is a good person. Do you know who else was a good person? Jesus.”

And now, back to your regularly-schedule review.

So, yeah, this first movie — or rather, the first-two thirds of this movie? I like this one. I might even really like this one, but I’m debating whether or not I’m willing to make that strong a commitment to its defense yet.

It has its flaws — and yes, some of them are pretty deep-seeded. There’s a lot going on thematically in Man of Steel — what it means to be a hero, what it means to set an example, what it means to trust in the goodness of others, what it means to use power responsibly, etc. That’s a lot to deal with, and I wouldn’t fault even a stronger film overmuch for failing to find a way to tie that into something more all-encompassing.

It contradicts itself on a few points. One of Jonathan Kent’s lines has already become somewhat infamous. Those on the “love it” end of the divide defend the movie by saying that Jonathan is confused and not really sure what to do with his extraordinary situation — and believe it or not, I agree with them. A movie like this has room for a character who’s confused about the difference between right and wrong. The movie itself could arrive at a place like that. But it doesn’t. Ultimately, Clark does make a choice, and the movie explicitly endorses that choice. That means, on some level, the storyteller has to attempt to justify that, and Man of Steel falls flat on this point.

It tells most of Superman’s origin in retrospect. When we first meet him, he’s already an adult, wandering faceless across the rural United States. We see his childhood in bits and pieces. I actually like this decision; it makes the movie feel less like a labored origin story, and it also streamlines it considerably. The flashbacks come more or less at random, though, and aren’t necessarily tied into whatever adult Clark is experiencing at the moments they come to him. In the end, people are products of their experiences, and this is as true of Clark as anyone — the film is rather openly suggesting this. But it’s difficult to tell in what sense he is the man he is. It’s difficult to tell the effect his father’s contradictory messaging — “You’re born for great things, but hide it because everyone will fear and hate you” — had on that person. Instead, the movie proceeds with this sort of vague emotionalism that builds over time and pretends, here and there, to be real character development. I’ve actually seen some movies work wonders out of this. Man of Steel does all right, but it leans heavily on visuals and music to that end.

I think people might ask why any of this is important. I know that, in writing, it sounds like a technical thing that critics fuss about because critics were born to fuss. But it really is the difference between a movie being essentially not boring and a movie genuinely engaging your emotions and drawing you into an unforgettable experience. Most fans of Man of Steel seem to be even bigger fans of The Dark Knight, and, frankly, I suspect this is why.

But if Man of Steel’s reach exceeds its grasp, at least I can say that it tried to be something, and even partially succeeded. Moreover, its attempts at saying something, at the very least, produce a side effect, unintended or otherwise, that actually ends up elevating it. These attempts at developing Clark’s personality through his interactions with his parents and, eventually, reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams), may fail in their strides at crafting some sort of ethos, but they succeed quite well in endearing you once again to these iconic characters. You get to see — not just get told about — the nature of these relationships and more or less what they mean to the characters. You understand why Earth and the people who inhabit it are important to Clark. You understand why he might believe, if not in people’s inherent goodness, then at least in their capacity for redemption. You understand why he loves his mother; you understand why he loves his father, even though his relationship with him is complicated and leaves him more twisted up than whole.

Amy Adams is a great Lois Lane. She’s back in spitfire mode and perhaps resembles her cartoon counterpart more than her Superman: The Movie portrayal. Maybe the damsel in distress thing is overdone at this point, but even then, it isn’t half as egregious here as in other adaptations — or even in movies in general. And can we talk about how great it is that she’s in on Clark’s secret pretty much from the beginning? Not only does this give them something that they share — and a reason for them to be connected — it does away with what was always the dumbest part of this story. Granted, it means there’s basically no tension between them in the entire movie, and they feel more like old chums than potential lovers, but hey — even that’s better than nothing.

I think what I like most about this part of Man of Steel is that even the most inconsequential characters feel like individuals. Even the much-maligned Superman Returns was good at this, come to think of it. You’ve got your more prominent supporting players, like Perry White (Laurence Fishburne), who here is still his angry self but feels more fatherly than he used to, which is a welcome interpretation. But even the bit characters whose names you’d be hard-pressed to remember get you involved in their brief trials in the moments when they arise. It’s not so much that these characters are interesting or particularly well written as that they’re well cast, and the movie has the sense to entertain very real and very human emotions whenever they’re endangered. It lends a human face to all the carnage.

Of course, it threatens to drown Superman in his own movie — and yeah, unfortunately, that happens again. The problem is not that he’s a bad protagonist — if this movie proves anything, it’s that there is a way to do this story effectively within a serious context, even if Main of Steel doesn’t quite execute it. It’s that our cultural need to make him a godlike figure means he can experience emotions, but he must experience them stoically and in quiet strength. When he finally finds the answers he’s been searching for his entire life, he just stands there, quietly, blank-faced, asking rote questions of Jor-El as they casually stroll around. On the rare occasions when he begins acting warm, it seems weird. He’s a protagonist you don’t expect to experience actual humanity — and that’s bad, seeing as that’s, you know, kind of the point. But if I’ve had any mantra throughout this review thus far, it’s “I’ve seen it done worse,” and, well, I have.

It’s for these reasons, and assorted others, that I don’t want to call the first two-thirds of Man of Steel great. But there is a lot there worth admiring. The writers do seem to care about these characters, and it looks as though they had fun playing them off each other. When Snyder is still within sight of his restraint, he is very precise about choosing the exact right shot to convey whatever emotion he needs from that scene. (Except for close-ups, which he needs to learn aren’t always his friends.) The entire movie is a triumph of art direction — it’s less the effects and more the distinct and creative designs given to all the sci-fi technology that shows up here. Actually, it’s nice in general to see a Superman movie aware of the fact that it is science fiction and able to revel in that. And Man of Steel doesn’t feel like a labored origin story and takes on the tone of an adaptation that actually has some reason to exist. It’s not perfect, but I really like the first two-thirds of this.

So, let’s talk about the last third.

Man of Steel: Part 2

So, this guy named General Zod (Michael Shannon) shows up. He and his crew are also survivors of Krypton, having been exiled prior to its destruction for raising a rebellion against the planet’s leadership. He’s come for Clark, as well as the Codex, which Jor-El also sent to Earth. The Codex contains the genetic information needed to raise up a new Krypton, and Zod — an uber-patriot — is determined to do exactly that.

Unfortunately, he wants to do it on Earth. Even more unfortunately, he intends to do it atop the tombs of all of humanity.

So, the last third of this movie — I hate it. It’s awful. It doesn’t capitalize on anything good about the first two-thirds. It goes full generic blockbuster. Any needed restraint gets tossed right out the window. It has no idea who Superman is or what he’s supposed to represent.

I should start with the fact that the final third of this movie is all climax. Yes, there is a final battle of relatively appropriate length that one might call the actual climax, but this is only true as a matter of degrees. The moment Zod first appears kick-starts the movie into a solid forty-five minutes of relentless action that varies in size and scope but not in tone or purpose and thus is largely indistinguishable. And it’s a shame, because the moment Zod first appears is also the movie’s last great scene, an effectively creepy and mysterious bit of filmmaking.

From there, Man of Steel immediately begins backsliding. Each scene drains more and more viewer goodwill. As of what the movie would call its actual climax, I had basically none left.

I’ll be frank — this movie’s finale is one of the single most tone-deaf endings I’ve ever seen. At this point, it’s likely I don’t even need to say why; nearly every reviewer on the planet has covered it. What begins as a movie that isn’t always subtle but knows where to be reserved and where to hold back and where the focus should be on story over action ends as one wantonly slamming every special effects button on the keyboard, throwing out set piece after set piece after set piece, divorcing every single one from the characters and themes, and considering none of them within the larger context of the story that’s being told. There is not an ounce of restraint in this ending.

Following a first two-thirds in which Clark Kent considers what it means to be a hero and what it looks like to do the right thing, the final third would indicate that he learned absolutely nothing. Oh, the movie says that he did. His actions do not bear this out. After hours of moralizing and philosophizing and speechifying about the greater good of humanity, the last hour focuses exclusively on wanton destruction for wanton destruction’s sake — present exclusively for the lights and colors and sensations, none of it playing into the emotional end result for which the movie’s been priming.

This is not a new idea. Having read it in dozens of reviews, I went into this movie knowing more or less what to expect from the climax. And what I expected was this — there’d be a lot of senseless violence for its own sake, and that would bother me, but most of it would be at Zod’s hand. I expected to agree with the critical consensus but to consider it a slight overreaction. Maybe the movie would lose its head here and there and persist in ignorance of Superman’s ability to stop some of the chaos, but that was the worst of what I anticipated.

I was so wrong. It’s so much worse. The fact of the matter is that after an entire movie’s worth of moral philosophy, Superman’s first action in the first action sequence is to deliberately pound Zod through at least three or four buildings, at least one of them very noticeably populated. The battles that follow don’t take place in populated areas because Zod is attacking them while Superman is trying to save them; they take place there because Superman specifically leads — or rather, punches — Zod there. Superman chose the field of battle, and the people of Smallville paid the price. The final fight in Metropolis is a bit less egregious, in that Zod specifically launches an attack against it, but not only does Superman not try to draw him away from the city, he continues his strategy of trying to kill him by knocking over buildings and throwing vehicles. Every now and then, Zod causes some destruction that Superman easily could have stopped — for example, one structure gets destroyed in a massive explosion because Superman decides to jump over a thrown semi-truck rather than, you know, catch it.

There are versions of this climax that could work. Heck, you could play out this fight sequence in almost exactly the same way with only one change — Superman is trying to defeat Zod while also desperately flying around, saving the lives of hundreds of doomed civilians, slowly realizing that even he is not strong enough to rescue everyone. That’s something that could fit quite well into the movie’s overall emotional structure. It would play meaningfully into the questions Clark is asking about his role in serving the greater good. But no — the movie forgets that civilians are even a thing and just has Superman break stuff.

The last moments of the climactic battle between Superman and Zod seem to have been the most controversial among diehard fans of the character. I’ll take the minority opinion here — I like it, or rather, I’d like it as the ending to a different movie, one where that’s a moral question that Superman is actually asking. His indecision here is baffling — the heroes’ entire battle plan, particularly the part of it involving the military, specifically hinged on this, and even if it didn’t, the excessively violent final battle almost comically dispels the notion that Supes could actually feel conflicted over the choice he has to make. After an entire movie’s worth of changes excused by this being a reinvention of the character, the writers suddenly count on you knowing who Superman historically has been in order to make the scene work on its most basic levels.

Here’s where I ought to deal with the most common defense of the movie against this criticism: “This is a new Superman for a new generation! He doesn’t have to be the same!”

And I guess that’s true. To borrow a quote from The Dark Knight, the new dark and gritty Superman is not the hero my generation needs but definitely the one it deserves.

And it’s true on a more technical level as well. Adaptations are rarely the same as their source material — particularly not when the characters have been around forever, with new stories and different takes popping up every year on every medium. That’s a question I wrestle with — how much can you change before you might as well create something original?

At the end of the day, Man of Steel clearly doesn’t understand what Superman signifies culturally. I think it would unquestionably benefit from doing so, but whatever. When you assess it purely as its own thing, apart from other adaptations or the source material itself, the question is completely irrelevant anyway, because not only does the last third of Man of Steel misunderstand Superman as a cultural figure, it misunderstands Superman as a character who has appeared in the movie up until that point.

I say again — the movie spends the vast majority of its running time building up Clark Kent’s morality. He questions who he is, he questions what he’s meant to do, he hesitates because he isn’t sure what’s right, he balks because he wonders if he might cause more harm than good, he fears what he might become, he is anxious over the burden he would have to bear. And then, after all that, literally his first act as a hero is to intentionally level half of Smallville. And after that, it’s to intentionally level half of Metropolis. Can you see why I might consider that jarring? Can you see why that would immediately strip all of the feeling, not only out of this climax, but out of this story? I suspect even the good parts of this movie will be tough watches on a second viewing, now that I know where they’re all headed. Some movies can earn this — Pacific Rim’s entire premise is basically robots wrecking crap — but they have a distinct difference in tone and style and set-up and ultimate purpose.

The core problem is this — for the first two-thirds, Man of Steel is about a guy named Clark Kent who becomes a hero named Superman. For the last third, it’s about a guy who sure looks like Superman but doesn’t act remotely like him. He’s an entirely new character we’ve never met before, fighting a villain we don’t much care about, and doing it in such a way that makes all the philosophy of the first half feel like pure posturing on the movie’s part. So, you’ll forgive me if I have a hard time getting invested in that.

I would love to see a successful resurgence of this character — as he was meant to be. Not just a paragon of virtue, but an ordinary man from a small town who must shoulder an immense burden and is determined to do so in such a way that he never fails to do what is right. We’ve a shortage of those heroes right now.

Unsurprisingly, dark, gritty, “realistic” Superman is no such hero. He’s another computerized excuse for what our adventure movies have become — relentless CGI destruction on a grand scale. And if that’s all Man of Steel was, I could shrug my shoulders and move along.

But Man of Steel… It was almost there. And that’s the real shame in all of this.

 

-Matt T.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (2013)

Starring- Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi, Olivia Wilde, Jim Carrey, James Gandolfini, Alan Arkin, Jay Mohr, Michael Herbig

Director- Don Scardino

PG-13- sexual content, dangerous stunts, a drug-related incident and language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kn1wR1V9dqs

   The Actually Kind of Mediocre Burt Wonderstone. *

   The titular Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) and his best friend from childhood Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi) are a top-notch, popular duo of magicians who perform nightly at a ritzy hotel on the Las Vegas strip.

   As such stories go, Burt’s ego has ballooned out of control — he abuses and regularly fires his lovely assistants, picks volunteers from the audience on the basis of which ones he thinks he’ll manage to sleep with later and runs roughshod over Anton on a constant basis.

   Of course, one can only chase the zeitgeist for so long. Burt and Anton’s flashy tricks, silly costumes, and cheesy narrative structures fall into disfavor, replaced by up-and-comers like Steven Gray (Jim Carrey), a Criss-Angel-style street performer whose magic is more disgusting and dangerous stunts than illusions.

   When the duo’s first attempt at being stunt performers goes horribly awry, tensions finally surface, and Burt and Anton split up for good. But Burt finds his act doesn’t work without Anton, and soon, he’s on the way out, reduced to performing card tricks at a retirement home.

   But when an opportunity arises to get his old job back, Burt teams up with his childhood hero, Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin), to put on the Greatest Shown on Earth.

   I’ll say this in favor of The Incredible Burt Wonderstone — I survived it mostly unscathed. I can’t pretend to understand the phase that comedy is going through right now. There’s a reason I don’t review much of it. As often in a year as I watch terrible movies for reasons even I don’t fully understand, bad comedy provokes such a visceral reaction in me that, for the most part, unless it looks so bad that I get morbidly curious (Jack and Jill), I won’t even watch it. Don’t hold your breath for reviews of The Smurfs 2 or Grown Ups 2. They’re not coming.

   It seems right now that comedies either work or they are the worst movies of their respective years, with basically no middle ground at all. The Incredible Burt Wonderstone happily occupies that middle ground. Which is to say, it’s not good, but I kept my sanity. It’s not terrible in any sense of the word. When his character lapses out of being an obnoxious egotist, Steve Carell has an inherent likability to him that carries him far. Some charming enough side performances from Steve Buscemi and the late, great James Gandolfini help anchor it. And this is probably Jim Carrey’s least obnoxious role since…whenever Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind came out.

   It’s also not particularly funny, which is a touch damning consider it’s, you know, a comedy.

   But it’s not unfunny in the sense that I would say, “Larry the Cable Guy is unfunny.” It’s unfunny because there’s a surprising dearth of actual humor in this movie. The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is a film that drifts along, aimlessly, searching half-heartedly for purpose and figuring one will eventually show up.

   For such an outlandish premise with such outlandish characters wearing such outlandish costumes and doing such outlandish things, Burt Wonderstone is a surprisingly reserved production. It’s your usual awful-person-gets-humility-and-learns-how-not-to-be-awful plot. It’s structured more like a drama than a comedy, but it isn’t really either. The actual jokes are a bit sparse, but the dramatic stuff is constantly teetering on the edge of being comedic. At any point, it always seems like it could swing either way.

   The beginning and ending of the film are closer in tone to what you’d expect. The jokes are more rapid-fire and absurd. Some of them are funny, though more through a combination of timing and performance than through cleverness and novelty. Most of them don’t get more than a smirk. Only a few fall flat, which is fortunate.

   I’m conditioned at this point to expect that comedies will get serious in their last fifteen minutes of run-time, even though I don’t particularly understand their reasons for doing this. Burt Wonderstone starts sliding into that mode around the twenty-minute mark, and by the second act, you’re only getting a joke every other scene.

   That, of course, requires me to critique it as drama. It’s nice enough. It doesn’t hurt and rarely offends. It’s also poorly conceived. All it really takes to transform Burt into a good person is the dose of humility that accompanies his firing. He’s a stellar human being in the next scene and stays that way for the rest of the movie, not changing much. The movie switches gears to being about doing what you love, but it never establishes A) that Burt ever loved magic rather than the attention it got him, B) how and why he lost that passion, and C) how he gets it back.

   It confuses Anton’s characterization. He’s established as the smart, level-headed one who comes up with all the great ideas. And yet, he spends his time apart from the duo more ridiculously than anyone else in the movie.

   The film also introduces Jane (Olivia Wilde), an aspiring magician and Burt’s current assistant, as a potential love interest and seems to have no idea what to do with her other than that. The movie rapidly runs out of reasons to involve her in the plot and turns her quickly into a device that exists for its own sake.

   The comedy grinds its gears. With Burt experiencing a change of heart, we no longer get to be amused at his buffoonery. And the movie doesn’t give him anyone to play off of. Rance Holloway is a touch eccentric, but the story also needs him to assume a legitimate mentorship role, so it can’t go too far. Carell is the funniest actor in this movie, but he’s rapidly turned into a straight man surrounded by normalcy. Jim Carrey’s is the only character to start out ridiculous and stay that way. Unfortunately, his only joke is “do painful stuff; make wacky faces.”

   The strange combination of drama and comedy, with neither really taking charge or meshing together particularly well, manifests strongly in the climax. The central joke of the final bit requires a more absurdist touch, infused with more than a dose of black comedy. But the drama up until then is very literal about teaching its characters to treat people well. One undoes the other.

   Overall, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone provokes no particular offense, nor is it a boring slog whose ending brings about a sense of release. But it’s also alarmingly predictable and pedestrian, by comparison to the absurd and daring comedy it promises. It speaks of passion and love for creativity, but its actions are rote and its motions just that.

 

   -Matt T.

 

   * I’m not going to condescend to you by pretending I think that’s clever, but come on — you try coming up with 80-something unique intros in a year without falling back on terrible, title-based puns now and then. With a title like that, this movie’s basically giving me my whole hook on a silver platter. Look, I just got back from vacation.