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Monday, December 28, 2015

Review: Star Wars, Episode VII: The Force Awakens

Star Wars, Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015): Written by Lawrence Kasdan, J. J. Abrams, and Michael Arndt, and directed by J. J. Abrams.  Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fischer, Mark Hamill, Adam Driver, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, and Domhnall Gleeson.  Running Time: 135 minutes. 

Rating: 3/4

            Okay, here’s the short version- it’s very good.  More than good, it’s damn near great, easily the best movie yet with Abrams’ name attached to it (thanks in no small part to an absence of his usually ubiquitous lens flare).  It takes the best in technical improvements that we got from the prequels but sticks to the main formula that made the originals so great, specifically focusing on well-written, well-acted core characters to carry us through the larger, heavier plot swirling around them.  It’s not perfect- the action is mostly forgettable, and the larger story contains a number of huge holes and question marks that can’t be fully assessed or critiqued until the movies are all out and we know what, exactly, they are building up to with what they show us here- but as far as starting us off on a new round of exciting Star Wars adventures is concerned, it does its job.  I had immense fun watching it, I think most people that see it will too, and I am now even more psyched for the next two films than I was before, which is basically all the movie needed to accomplish in order to be deemed a success. 

            And from here on in, spoilers.  Spoilers spoilers spoilers spoilers.  I won’t reveal everything, but I am going to delve in pretty deep here and discuss at least one major event in the film, so if you haven’t seen it already, I will not warn you again.  For my money, it’s worth seeing cold. 

            So.  Some 40-odd years after the events of Return of the Jedi, our old gang has split up within a galaxy once again experiencing war.  The fanatical First Order is spreading its influence, determined to rebuild the Empire-That-Was, and they are opposed by both the New Republic and an internal resistance, led by Leia.  Luke Skywalker has disappeared entirely, with both sides desperately seeking him out.  Leia needs him back so that he can rebuild the Jedi in order to maintain balance (an earlier effort apparently ended in failure), and the First Order wishes to, what else, destroy him so as to remove any lingering threat of the Jedi rising again, all the while constructing yet-another massive superweapon, this one capable of destroying multiple planets at once. 

            These are the broad strokes of the plot, but much like with A New Hope (which this movie’s story structure apes almost wholesale), the larger details we get are light, and are clearly just pieces of build-up for the later films.  For this first installment, nearly all of the running time is devoted to letting us get to know (and love) our new trio of core characters; Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), a hotshot pilot, Finn (John Boyega), a Stormtrooper with the First Order who defects after an ordered village massacre in the beginning of the film opens his eyes, and Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger living on a desert world that is most certainly NOT Tatooine.  In a series of homages to the original trilogy (some pleasantly well-done, some overblown), the three come into contact through a series of apparently-random circumstances that can only be excused in the realm of mythical fantasy, and are later joined by none other than Han Solo himself, as they try to return a certain droid bearing certain key information to Leia and the Resistance before the new superweapon of the First Order is able to destroy their home base. 

            I know I am not alone in feeling this, but if there is one drawback to this new series, it is that it will be very difficult to separate them in my mind from the longer-running, more detailed, and better-established Expanded Universe that was only recently deemed by the Disney Gods to be non-canon.  I know, it’s a lost cause and there’s no going back, so just let this be my one written farewell to my long-suffering and ultimately futile hopes of ever seeing Grand Admiral Thrawn, Gilad Pellaeon, Mara Jade, Jaina Solo, or Corran Horn on the big screen. 

            Not that this trilogy starting its own timeline is a bad thing, but I did find the wholesale abandonment of the richness of the EU particularly frustrating with this movie because, if there is one main issue I have with it, it’s that what little information we do get about the larger events in the galaxy since Return of the Jedi leaves some gaping questions open about why, exactly, despite all that was sacrificed and achieved in the original films, we are (at least, so it seems) right back where we started in A New Hope; a desperately under-equipped and outnumbered Resistance is the only hope against an impossibly Nazi-esque group of bad guys, led by a red-saber-wielding Dark Jedi (Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren). 

            Was anything of good achieved in the interim period between movies?  How did Luke end up apparently making the exact same mistakes Yoda and Obi-Wan did?  Why is that Leia never developed her force powers, at least a bit?  When the First Order fires up their weapon and claim to have destroyed “the capital and the fleet” of the New Republic, does that mean that we actually just saw Coruscant go up in flames?  Are the handful of fighter pilots we see at the end REALLY all that the good guys have on their side now?  TOO MANY QUESTIONS, TOO FEW ANSWERS. 

            Now, obviously, this is by clear, Disney-committee design, to whet our appetite for the next few films, but it’s perhaps a bit too slavish in sticking to the New Hope formula; given the huge emotions people have wrapped up in the original trilogy, just a little bit more information on what happened over the past few decades would not have been amiss.  Then again, since this is Abrams we’re talking about, and I am still nursing scars from Into Darkness, I can’t (yet) dismiss the possibility that some of this was thought up by him for show without thinking through the larger implications.  

            However, as aggravating as I personally find these questions, it must be said that they only marginally detract from what is still an excellent film, thanks mostly to an incredible cast.  Boyega, Ridley, and Isaac acquit themselves wonderfully as our new trio of main characters.  Finn and Rey blend wonderfully with Han Solo and Chewbacca, which is particularly crucial as their scenes together take up much of the running time.  Even if the rest of the film had been absolute shit, I would still be looking forward to the rest of the series just to see if those two get through okay.  Oscar Isaac will, hopefully, FINALLY end up as the household name he deserves to be, as his Po is one of the most fun things on screen, a daring ace pilot who combines the best of what Han Solo was and what Anakin Skywalker should have been.  Driver’s Kylo Ren (and no, I won’t go into his background here just yet) intrigues me, but we haven’t seen enough of him yet for me to be really sold.  I think I see the idea behind his character, and am very interested to see what they do with it, but he needs to get fleshed out a bit more first before we can be certain there’s more to him than just his emo Twitter feed

            In the end, not much else can be said about this one without waiting to see how they build on this new foundation they’ve created.  As you’ve read, I have my issues and qualms with the story as it currently If this is only the jumping off point, and the real story weight and plot details are awaiting us in the next two movies, and the possibilities of Po, Rey, and Finn are fully realized, then this movie will stand the test of time and be remembered as the start of something special.  If not, it will be remembered as the start of just another franchise let-down that failed to live up to its potential. 

            Neither, of course, can be predicted with any certainly at this point though, so for now, let’s all just come together again and enjoy a new, raucously fun Star Wars adventure.  It’ll be a bit before the next one comes out, and until then it is on us to hold back either too-early celebratory hype or premature dismissal of this new series as another vapid and empty cash-grab.  After all, my friends, extremism of any flavor is the path to the Dark Side. 

            May the Force once again be with this franchise, at long last. 

-Noah Franc 

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Reflections: The Success of Welcome To Night Vale

            I find it eerily appropriate that my fresh copy of the Welcome To Night Vale novel arrived at my doorstep  at the tail-end of October, right before the weather shifted into full-on Autumn mode, and we spent a week drenched in a pervasive, endless, clammy, cold fog.  Sometimes the universe (and sometimes the World Government) sends us odd signs to mark off moments in our lives. 

            It has been well over 3 years since the first episode introducing us to the bizarre world of Night Vale aired, beginning with a warning to never approach a certain Dog Park, and featuring a “weather report” by none other than Joseph Fink himself.  Since then, what began as a small passion project has grown into genuine online phenomenon, with the bi-monthly podcasts now being supplemented by a host of constantly-changing merchandise, a series of unique live shows that have toured in North America extensively and are even starting to foray into Europe and Australia, and finally now in real-live book form.  Having taken up the podcast on a whim over 2.5 years ago, right around the release of the two-part Sandstorm episode, I am now one small part of a growing (and global) fandom. 

            The fun thing about being part of this kind of cult following is that you get to sort of drift through the world with your own private love of something, encountering fellow fans only in chance or in passing.  It is not all-pervasive like Harry Potter, or Lord of the Rings, or gaggles of mysterious Hooded Figures.  You either know WTNV or you don’t.  You are in or you are out.  No all-powerful movie franchise or Trilogy phenomenon to eternally bind together the Hardcores and the general citizenry.  Just you, the device/website you use to download each episode, and the Void.  This could very well change in the future; the writers have expressed their general openness to all sorts of Night Vale-related projects, including a possible film, so who knows what could happen?  But for now, for all the millions of downloads and all the sold-out live shows (and the fact that the novel cracked the Top 5 Best Seller’s list on Amazon when it came out), there is still a beautiful sense of quietness, of privacy, and intimacy that reigns every two weeks when you sit down to listen to each new episode.  For all the wide appeal the show has, it still feels remarkably personal in its touch. 

            Part of this is thanks the incredible number of inside jokes, quotes, and references that are so off-the-wall insane out of context that they can only possibly have meanings to fans of the series.  An example; guess what my instant reaction was when my place of work, whose corporate colors perfectly match the purple of the show’s logo, announced we were switching over to a new IT program called “The Cloud?” 

            It has also inserted itself heartily into the growing “convention culture” that has been enabled by the Internet, where fans of even the most obscure things can find ways and means to meet and connect.  The live shows have a festival-like atmosphere not unlike an anime or comic convention, with many dressing up as their favorite characters (or conscious entities, or bodies of matter).  We casually dismiss haters and sceptics as people who “just don’t get it” when they scoff at our obsession.  And, perhaps most tellingly, the growing cast of characters have developed their own fanfolk bases within our curious little community.  

            Why?  Why this show?  Is it the oddness of the writing?  Have its myriad themes and philosophical ramblings tapped into some unspoken part of the Zeitgeist?  Has StrexCorp been forcing our hands all this time?  Or is it just the sexy voice (and no shame if it is)? 

            I have often wondered if much of the show’s popularity can be tied to its embrace (at least, on a surface level) of an almost post-modern, anti-religion/philosophy/ideology view of the nature of things.  We are caught in the flux of a time of immense, global change, and as part of that so many older social, political, and cultural strictures/traditions/norms are falling away.  Old ways of thinking are inadequate for the stormy present, but no new sets of beliefs or ideologies have risen to replace them.  Cool detachment and wholesale rejection of any dogma or system of belief (and I include any here, not just religious ones) are both the order of the day.   

            While it is highly debatable whether or not this is intentional on the part of the writers, much of the content of the show speaks to this current vibe of our time.  How many lines of Cecil’s proclaim an existentially empty existence, declaring humankind’s life utterly devoid of meaning?  I’ve lost count.  Through an explosion in our development, science is fast replacing religion as the accepted source of truth, and our expanded knowledge has brought us a comprehension of our smallness that was never truly possible before.  This, too, is a constant rumination in Night Vale- the universe is vast and inimitably complex, there can be no grasping for meaning, no finding of God, perhaps no God at all, for things are simply too big for that, and we too small, and the only comfort we have is the silence of the Void.  Are people drawn to the show because we all secretly (or not so secretly) agree that all we experience is nothing, and nothing is all there is? 

            Possibly, at least for some.  Although given that no two people on the planet share the exact same beliefs about anything, I doubt it, and the show’s creators have never given any indication they are trying to form a system of thought or belief of any kind. 

            Another possibility- is Night Vale merely riding the new wave of acceptance of the fluid nature of human identity sweeping much of the West?  Cecil himself comes out as gay not more than 5 minutes into the very first episode, and his ongoing relationship with Carlos has been a staple of the Night Vale universe for years without ever being overly emphasized.  It’s never been hammered into listeners as THIS IS SOMETHING MEANT TO MAKE A POINT.  It is simply accepted by everyone in the show, and by all of us as well, as something perfectly normal.  Many of the episodes deal with the illusion of physical differences, and while trans, queer, gender, or racial topics are only sometimes, if ever, addressed directly or by name, there are clear parallels in many episodic stories, describing a world that is open, inclusive, and representative. 

            The new novel has a prime example of this- the struggles of Diane Crayton’s emotionally normal teenage son Josh with just about every aspect of his physical, mental, and emotional identity is made explicit in how his physical body literally changes form, shape, and size almost every time she looks at him.  It makes the show a particularly refreshing escape from our own world, where we still have so much to work on before these issues cease to be seen as problems or “not normal.”  The world of Night Vale is inclusive, in ways, that, for the foreseeable future, ours can only dream of being.  And if that is not precisely the sort of escapism the realms of sci-fi and fantasy are meant to provide us, what is? 

            All of these are points in the show’s favor, and all are probably core aspects of its success (that, and the generous funding the writers secretly receive from the Apache Tracker).  But in my opinion, there’s another, less conscious reason why we have fallen for this show; WTNV, and other recent works like it in the booming podcast market, have become the conduit for us Millenials to uncover, in our own way, the joys and artistic power of spoken-word storytelling. 

            This despite past predictions to the contrary; the growing pervasiveness of camera phones of various stripes, laptops, and the rising cultural presence of gaming and online video were, until recently, taken as signs that my generation and those following us would be increasingly visual-oriented in our outlook on the world.  Pictures, short texts/memes, and videos have rapidly grown into the hottest forms of global communication, and this convinced many that industries like radio, as well as older oral traditions, would fall by the wayside, dying and forgotten as the world hurtles forward towards God knows what. 

            In one sense, this is not entirely untrue- the traditional forms of radio no longer hold the place they used to (no President, for example, will ever again think of using fireside chats as a way to plug policy ideas), and the possibilities for video art and general communication enabled by the internet are only just beginning.  Plus, the spread of technology (and a certain level of accompanying cultural homogenization) means that many oral traditions, some tens of thousands of years old, are becoming harder and harder to maintain, and many will inevitably die out. 

            But none of this means that simple speaking can’t still have force in our world.  Quite the opposite, in fact, and WTNV is proof.  We are animals that can never be solely visual.  In much the same way that music lovers and producers (regardless of age) are rediscovering the beauties of analog recordings amidst a torrent of digitalization, and certain stalwarts in the film industry fight to maintain use of old-school film, the spread of shows and podcasts like this one makes it clear that the incredible effect of listening to a tale woven with just sound can’t be erased from the world, or entirely forgotten, no matter how marginalized it might become.  There is remarkable power to be found in using nothing but our words and our attached collective meanings for them to create something both communally enjoyable and intimately personal.  Joseph Fink gives us words.  From them, we each weave our own, unlimited galaxies into existence. 

            The show’s deliberate play on language is not just a part of its trademark, bizarre humor, but rather its key feature- all the words it uses are real, English words in our world, but many of them have entirely different meanings and connotations in the universe of Night Vale than they do here (“librarian,” “antique,” and the concept of what closing up a shop entails spring to mind, to provide just a few examples).  It’s a hilarious, conscious, and brilliantly-executed play on the collective meanings of language, and the various social constructs we create for ourselves and unquestioningly accept as “the way things are.”  Cecil starts talking about something that we have one set of associations with in our world, but in bits and pieces (or sometimes all at once) we learn that the topic or word means something completely different over there. 

            And that is the primary reason why the world of Night Vale is best conveyed through spoken (and now also written) word, and not images- part of the excitement is listening for what surprises lie in store for us, what literally unimaginable aspects of the world are waiting for us to uncover in this week’s episode.  If the show were a film or TV or Youtube series, the oddities and differences would all be immediately visually apparent, and it would be that much harder and more complicated to create the never-ending cascade of surprises to our mental and imaginative senses that make the show so much damn fun to listen to. 

            I suppose I didn’t accomplish what I sent out to do with this post.  I’ve rambled on like a drunken Five-Headed Dragon, and I fear am no closer to understanding why Welcome To Night Vale is as beloved as it is.  Perhaps there is no one reason.  We are all here, together, in this metaphysical space of endless imagination, for different reasons and ends, and we arrived here along radically different paths.  But here we are, and here I very much hope we remain for a while yet.  Night Vale might be dangerous, and very often deadly (especially if you’re planning an intern anytime soon), but there is something compulsive and compelling about its characters and its strangeness, and the magnetic force of the words it’s built upon, that make me confident it will stand for some time to come.  Until, at the latest, the end of all things, whatever form that may take. 

-Noah Franc 

Monday, December 7, 2015

Counting Down: The Top 5 Star Wars Lightsaber Battles (So Far)

            We’re almost there, people!  By the time this post goes up, it will be officially possible to count down the days to the international release of Star Wars Episode 7: The Force Awakens using just the pre-existing fingers on your hands.  And if you are at all like me, you can barely wait. 

            However, since we still have some time left to kill, and in order to fully prepare myself for this experience, I took the time the past few weeks to go back and relive all 6 of the original films (yes, ALL of them), starting with the originals and then jumping back and re-watching the much-maligned prequel trilogy as well.  And in doing so, I came to a conclusion- I love this franchise in its entirety.  So much so that, although revisiting each film with a somewhat-better-tuned critic’s eye did lead me to notice faults with both sets of films I hadn’t thought about as a child, I still found that I really didn’t care, and I don’t expect I ever will.  There is a vision that drives these stories, one greater than the limitations of its individual parts, and even some of the lesser writing or more ham-fisted directing/casting choices (and yes, both are bigger problems with the prequels) can’t bring them down. 

            Unfortunately, the movies alone weren’t enough to dispel the massive Force-fueled kick I’m on right now, so in addition to jumping back into the books as well (Shatterpoint, the Thrawn Trilogy, and Matthew Stover’s book for Revenge of the Sith are particular favorites), I decided to play a little game; since one of the mainstays of any proper Star Wars tale is the lighsaber combat- because lightsabers are and will always be one of the coolest concepts for a weapon to ever be created- I felt it would be worthwhile to try and hammer down the 5 best lightsaber-centered battles in the franchise (thus far).  Should we get more from the new movies to choose from- and I am very, very, very much hoping that we will- I might revisit or redo this list in a few years’ time once the new trilogy is complete. 

            With that having been said, here are what, in my opinion, make up the 5 coolest, most kickass, and all-around most emotional or important lightsaber fights, taken strictly from the current crop of 6 feature-length films.  Comments and disagreements are welcome in the comments below.  Enjoy! 

5. Yoda vs. Count Dooku, Episode II 

            While I can certainly understand the objections of critics/fellow Star Wars fans like Belated Media to the fact that Lucas has Yoda actually carry a lightsaber and fight, arguing that doing so goes against the philosophy that he represents, I must state for the record that I very respectfully disagree with them.  Because this encounter, short as it is, is nothing less than two minutes of pure, distilled AWESOME.  I love how Yoda moves, how he leaps and jumps and twirls, and how NOTHING can touch him.  Is it fan service?  Horribly blatant fan service?  Of course it is!  But it’s the RIGHT kind of fan service!

4. Luke vs. Darth Vader, Episode VI 

            It lacks the flash and technical prowess of the fights from the newer movies, but like its counterpart in Episode V (which we will get to presently), this struggle makes up for it in how heavily it drips with atmosphere, and comes laden with all the emotions the entire original trilogy had spent their collective running time meticulously building up, bit by bit.  This is (or will have been, once the new series is over) the culmination of both the original trilogy and the overarching story of the entire film set, the true moment where the prophecy of a Skywalker bringing balance to the Force comes to pass.  It’s also the final watershed moment for both Luke and his father, as Anakin overcomes the influence of the Emperor and Luke becomes a true Jedi Knight, allowing him to move forward and help properly rebuild the galaxy.  As such, there is a weight to this scene that very few action scenes on general, much less Star Wars ones, are able to carry. 

3. Maul vs. Obi-Wan/Qui-Gon, Episode I 

            I can still remember when the new Star Wars movies started up when I was still a kid, and in true Star Wars fashion the merchandising and marketing were EVERYWHERE.  There is, literally, no escape once the premiere of a Star Wars film is coming up and the ad campaign kicks into high gear.  And one of the first things Star-Wars-related I recall seeing was Darth Maul’s creepy-ass face and double-sided lightsaber plastered everywhere.  Much like the side-guards in the Force Awakens trailers everyone is arguing about now, one couldn’t but wonder back then how a lightsaber like that would actually work in combat. 

            What a payoff it was when we finally did get to the finale, and the result was, on a purely technical level, easily the most visually impressive and best-scored fight we’d yet gotten in Star Wars.  There was a smoothness to the action we hadn’t seen before, and even though (like with Yoda’s fight mentioned above) it didn’t have as much narrative behind it as the others on this list did, it turned pretty emotional by the end, when Obi-Wan is forced to overcome his grief over his master’s death quickly enough to also take on a Sith Lord head-to-head.  Sure, there are better ways they could have handled this aspect of Obi-Wan’s growth, but as it is, this is still one hell of a battle, one I never get tired of watching over and over again. 

2. Obi-Wan vs. Anakin, Episode III 

            Fun fact; Revenge of the Sith is, thus far, the only Star Wars film I had the chance to actually see in theaters.  And after rewatching it again for the first time in years, I think it’s not only the best of the prequels by far, but its greatest moments can stand right alongside anything in the original trilogy, and one of the highlights of those is the final confrontation between Anakin and Obi-Wan.  It is one of the longest and most drawn-out fights in the entire franchise, but every minute of it is worth it. 

            In stark contrast to many of the prequels’ worst moments, the acting here is key; Ewan McGregor and Hayden Christensen (who was always at his best in these movies where he didn’t have to read Lucas’ awful scripts out loud) both do a remarkable job selling the pathos of the moment; the grand strokes of the Star Wars legend, particularly those of the prequels, have the same perfect, reinforcing symmetry of human error and disaster of a classic Greek tragedy, and one of the best examples of this is the heart-breaking series of circumstances that force Anakin and Obi-Wan, a duo closer than brothers, to do battle to the death.  We knew going into this one that this was the defining sequence for both characters, and for all the other issues the film has, at least it got this part right. 

            Best shot; a fountain of lava shooting up the same time Anakin and Obi-Wan make a desperate lunge towards each other out on the soon-to-fall platform, with the Sith-red color of the environment perfectly opposing the radiant blue of their lightsabers.  Simply beautiful. 

1. Luke vs. Darth Vader, Episode V 

            The effects aren’t as visually dazzling as those in the prequel battles.  The stunts are not nearly as sweet to the eye as the smooth, graceful choreography in those selfsame films. 

            And yet, this is by the far the best and most viscerally powerful of all the examples of lightsaber combat out of all the films put together.  Why?  Because it nails down exactly what the final clash in Return of the Jedi got right- rich visual atmosphere and gripping, narrative-driven emotion- only it does them even BETTER.  I can’t put enough emphasis on how much I love the use of color here.  Almost everything is in deep shadow, with some parts (Vader himself in particular) often pitch-dark, which is the absolute best way to showcase the neon glow of a lightsaber, creating the best-possible contrast between the living, sky-blue of Luke’s blade, and the deep, blood-red of Vader’s. 

            And although it only has a few jumps or kicks, it is intense to watch, simply because it’s built on what is, up to that point, a flawless Hero’s Narrative.  Only one movie ago, we saw Vader cut down the only friend Luke had left after his family was killed.  Earlier in the same movie, we saw him vaporize blaster fire with a wave of his hand.  Vader had been built up big-time going into this, and his status as one of the greatest and most threatening villains of all time was well-established.  Even as the fight progresses, we know Luke isn’t really strong enough to beat him- not yet- and his growing sense of desperation to hold on as the fight builds in intensity is a great credit to how well Mark Hamill grew into the role.  For me, it will always remain not just the best lightsaber fight of the franchise, but one of the overall best scenes in the entire series to date. 

            Although, who knows?  Maybe Abrams and his crew really do know what they are doing, and this coming set of movies will have their own fights that only match, but even exceed the ones here.  If so, expect a revised version of this to come out in about 3.5 years’ time.  If not…..then no galaxy in existence will be enough to contain my Sith-like rage. 

-Noah Franc 

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Review- The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2 (2015): Written by Peter Craig and Danny Strong, directed by Francis Lawrence.  Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, Stanley Tucci, and the indefatigable Donald Sutherland.  Running Time: 137 minutes.  Based on the book series by Suzanne Collins. 

Rating: 3/4

            The Hunger Games franchise, for me at least, has always been a film series whose real importance lies in its greater symbolism as a major break with our decades-long tradition of male-dominated studio action flicks (and book series, for that matter), a refreshingly direct refutation of the stagnant industry “wisdom” that female-driven fantasy/sci-f/dystopia narratives can be neither good, nor profitable.  Its success in becoming a cultural touchstone for a generation of readers and filmgoers is undeniable, even if the films ultimately do nothing new narratively or cinematically.  None of the individual movies rise to the level of stand-alone cinematic greatness, but a good story is still a good story, and it has been a pleasure watching each new film rise further above its literally very shaky first installment.  Mockingjay Part 2, despite its clunky title and the overt cash-grabbing fact of its existence, is no exception to this trend.  It is by far the best movie of the franchise, and will provide most fans of the book with the satisfying ending they wished to see. 

            In almost direct mirror of the last movie, we open with a shot of Katniss at another low point, right after she was attacked by a brainwashed Peeta at the very end of Part 1.  Her throat is covered and bruised, so swollen that she can barely form words.  The story’s embrace of the uncanny PTSD valley Katniss is forced to endure is perhaps the greatest strength of the entire tale, a sly critique of how most action-heavy blockbusters straight-up ignore how deeply war, celebrity, and personal betrayal can psychologically scar a character, yet still allow them to grow and overcome hardship in spite of it.  I have been skeptical of the J-Law craze in the past, and critical of her performance early on in the series (critiques that I still stand by), but like the movies themselves, she has very much come into her own.  The movies lack the internal monologue that the books used to examine Katniss’ existential exhaustion, so Lawrence has had to make it all evident in how she carries herself, and it’s in this movie that I finally felt she hits her stride.  It’s the best performance we’ve gotten from her in several years. 

            While she is recovering (in several senses of the word), and the efforts to un-brainwash Peeta are underway, the rebellion continues to build and move towards its ultimate conclusion.  Only one District is still held by Capital forces, and that is quickly dealt with once the Mockingjay and Gale (Who?  Oh right….wait, who?) arrive on the scene.  After that, the final pieces are put into place for the assault on the capital, as President Snow pulls back all soldiers and civilians into the inner circle of the city, and sends his surviving gamemakers to turn every corner of every street into a terrifying death trap for the incoming rebel army. 

            For obvious reasons, President Coin and Plutarch Heavensbee (oh Lord, how I miss Philip Seymour Hoffman) want Katniss to sit this last one out and hang back behind the lines to shoot propaganda footage, promising her she will be granted the honors of executing Snow herself once the battle is over.  She has other ideas though, figuring that taking Snow out early will lead to a quicker end to the fighting, and she, His Galeness, her camera crew, and a few other soldiers (plus eventually Peeta, for reasons that even in the book make no sense) eventually break off from their assigned mission to make their own way through the blasted city. 

            Further than this, I cannot go, for then I would be way too far up spoiler creek, with nary a paddle to steer back with.  If you haven’t read the book and therefore don’t already know exactly how everything finally plays out, you owe it to yourself to experience the ending cold.  For those who did read the series, rest assured- the ending is faithful to the source material in all its gory glory.  My biggest worry from the start was that the movies would, under studio pressure, pull away from the very un-cheerful, non-fist-pumping nature of most of the third act, but that concern was, thankfully, unfounded, and the movie is a lot stronger for it.  After all these years of building this world bit by bit (and getting better at building it with each new film), each action and character resolution carries real weight.  The best word I can use to describe it is appropriate.  It is the ending both the story and Katniss as a character deserved. 

            Not that the film is perfect.  As I already said, even this last one is held back in a few places, often by flaws of its own design.  Gone is (most) of the atrocious shaky-cam that brought low the first movie, but with the camera now so still I was able to look at the sets more, and that highlighted a new issues- given how recent events in Iraq and Syria have provided the world with far too many examples of what a war-ravaged city actually looks like, the supposedly burned-out Capital looks too….clean, like these are sets on a stage that have been roughed-up somewhat for appearance, but are still basically intact.  It’s a bit unsettling, as if even the war itself was for show. 

            That’s a relatively minor issue though.  A bigger one is pacing, the bugbear of every Hunger Games film, with a great many sequences of characters simply going from Point A to Point B (or even just sitting around in a room somewhere) taking far too long.  The movie feels longer than it is as a result, which kills a lot of the vibe the great scenes achieve.  This could very well have been a desire to build atmosphere, but slowing down the action or story development to do so is a tricky balance to strike, and it often can’t quite pull it off. 

            Thankfully, when the parts fall into place and the movie starts clicking again, it is very good.  My personal highlight was the sequence in the sewers (fellow readers, you know that of which I speak), which, purely in terms of how it builds the tension of the moment until I was just about to burst out of my chair, is the best piece of visual filmmaking in the entire franchise, bar none.  The acting is vastly improved over previous films, and also might feature the most racially diverse cast I’ve seen in an action movie in some time.  But as great as Lawrence, Hoffman, and others are, the MVP award for the entire franchise still goes to Don Sutherland as President Snow, who somehow managed to take his fiendish, scene-stealing abilities from the previous films and makes them even better here.  My sincerest apologies to James Spader’s Ultron, but I think we already have a winner for Noah’s Favorite Villain Performance of 2015. 

            So here we are.  Three books, four movies, and a worldwide phenomenon all wrapped up (for now).  Sure, they have their individual flaws, and the last two both suffer from being two separate halves of what worked best as a combined whole, but thankfully, in the end that was not enough to sink them.  The Hunger Games franchise ends on a fitting high note, leaving viewers both young and old with a lot more questions to chew over than any of its imitators on the market (looking at you, Divergent) can offer.  It’s been an interesting ride, and I am glad I experienced it. 

-Noah Franc 

Monday, November 16, 2015

Review: Omoide no Mani (When Marnie Was There)

When Marnie Was There (Omoide no Mani) (2015): Written by Keiko Niwa, Masashi Ando, and Hiromasa Yonebayashi, and directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi.  Starring: Sara Takatsuki and Kasumi Arimura.  Running Time: 103 minutes.  Based on the novel of the same name by Joan G. Robinson. 

Rating: 3.5/4   

             There is a wonderful way in which movies produced by Studio Ghibli seem to breath, move, and live at their own special pace, even as you are watching them.  This is especially true for their quieter works that are consciously set in very normal, real-world settings, and many of which are lesser-known as a result.  Films like Whisper of the Heart, My Neighbor Totoro, Only Yesterday, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and Arrietty, while perhaps containing some fantasy or fairy-tale characters or elements, eschew the more overtly-astounding visuals and grander themes of Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, or Grave of the Fireflies, choosing instead to focus on small stories in times and places you could easily imagine yourself occupying.  They are meditative, lavishing an almost heart-rending level of attention to every detail of the postcard-perfect worlds they create, making every frame seem like a home someone has lived in for a very long time.  When Marnie Was There, possibly (though not yet certainly) the last feature-length movie Studio Ghibli will gift to the world, falls into this category.  If it really is to be their last act, what a beautiful final movement it is. 

            As is overwhelmingly the case where Studio Ghibli is concerned, our main character is a young girl, a 12-year-old orphan named Anna.  We first meet her in the city of Sapporo, where she lives with her foster parents.  Anna is, to put it very mildly, not your usual innocent-and-happy-as-a-clam preteen Disney protagonist.  She struggles with depression, passive resentment towards her dead parents, and (this is hinted at later) a strong dislike of her somewhat-foreign physical appearance.  She sits apart from the other children at school so she can draw out the fantasies in her head, seeing herself as outside a circle occupied by everyone else.  Worried that the environment of the city is too much for her (she has asthma, and the film opens with her having a particularly bad attack), the mother decides to send her to spend the summer with some relatives of hers in a small seaside town, thinking a few months of fresh sea air will be just what she needs, both physically and mentally. 

            The place is charming enough when Anna arrives- the couple she is sent to stay with is jovial and friendly, and her room has a stunning view of a nearby cove.  When she first goes out to explore, she notes a grand, but aging, mansion across a marsh, and runs over to check it out.  Finding that is has clearly been empty for years, and noting that evening is upon her, she turns to leave, only to realize that the tide has come in and she is cut off from the other shore.  Thankfully, a local fisherman (known, we later learn, for almost never speaking) happened to be coming by on his way in, and he takes her back with him on his small boat.  Relieved, she turns back for one last glimpse of the house and….wait, are those lights in the upper bedroom window???

            This is the first of a number of major twists in the story; each one is expertly executed and, bit-by-bit, they build up a remarkably multi-layered mystery yarn.  When Anna goes back to the house, at first abandoned but then suddenly lit-up and new-looking again, she meets a cheerful, vivacious, blond-haired girl about her own age, named Marnie.  Marnie is everything Anna is not- lively, outgoing, and endlessly cheerful- but they immediately feel drawn to each other (indeed, Marnie drops hints she’s been expecting Anna), and as the days go by Anna starts to think only of when she will see Marnie next, and what sort of new adventures they will have together. 

            If an empty house suddenly coming alive with apparently real people only at night wasn’t enough of a tip-off for you, all is not as it seems.  Is Marnie a ghost?  An angel?  Something worse?  Or is Anna hallucinating the entire time?  As simple as the core narrative of the film is, much of its brilliance lies in how all but the best guessers will feel in the dark about what’s really going on right up until the scene of final revelation comes about at the end.   

            Tied into the central mysteries of the main story are a lot of side themes that, unfortunately, are for the most part only hinted at- issues surrounding depression, emotional abuse, crisis of identities, passive xenophobia, the struggles of being an orphan, and even sexuality can be glimpsed in scenes here and there.  Most of them ultimately center on Anna’s crisis of identity, and that is the main focus of the film by the end.  One of the biggest things she wrestles with throughout is her complicated feelings about not knowing her real parents, which are tied up into her equally complicated feelings about her foster parents.  Her foster mother, despite only appearing at the beginning and the end, leaves an especially big impression- we see so clearly how much she loves Anna, and how hurt she feels that she doesn’t know how to help her more.  A crucial moment at the very end between her and Anna (which I will not dare spoil here) is one of the film’s most powerful moments, an incredible example of brilliant character animation.   

            Speaking of the animation itself, this movie is, of course, visually stunning; this is Ghibli, after all, so what else would you expect?  Blues and greens are the order of the day, with the sea and sky combining with the greens of the island marches and forests to create a calming effect, which aids in the dreamy quality of many of the film’s best scenes. 

            Sadly, not all of the potential threads or problems the film sets up are brought to play at the end.  The silent fisherman, for example, looks like he might end up being someone important to the story of who (and what) Marnie really is, but whether or not that is the case is never really resolved.  And while the scene that, for the audience, answers all hanging questions is great, it’s undercut a bit by the fact that Anna herself apparently only puts the pieces together in another scene 5 minutes later.  It’s not a flaw or failing of the film, per say, but arranging the scenes that way was an odd choice, to say the least.  But with that said, even if you are ultimately not entirely satisfied (or maybe even more confused) by what explanations are offered by the end, When Marnie Was There is nonetheless an incredibly moving and beautifully rendered coming-of-age tale, easily one of the best animated films of the year thus far, and if it must be so, a graceful last note by the Meisters of Studio Ghibli. 

-Noah Franc 

Monday, October 26, 2015

Review: Er Ist Wieder Da (Look Who’s Back)

Er Ist Wieder Da (Look Who’s Back): Written and directed by David Wnendt.  Starring: Oliver Masucci, Fabian Busch, Katja Riemann, Christoph Maria Herbst, Franziska Wulf.  Running Time: 116 minutes.  Based on the novel of the same name by Timur Vermes. 

Rating: 3/4

            We all know who Adolf Hitler is (or at least we should know, and if any of you reading this don’t, get off my lawn).  We know about World War II, the Holocaust, the genesis of the Cold War, etc. etc.  We have memorials about the war and the victims, museums, and an entire country created expressly because of the targeted genocide of Jews.  And we have movies.  So, so, so, SO many movies, all together summing up a single, statement of purpose; this cannot happen again.  It WILL not happen again.  We know how bad it can get now.  We know how far off-kilter an entire country can go, and we know what all the warning signs look like, Hitler’s dead, and Jews have their own country, so now we’re good.  We know what we know, so all this shit can’t possible come about again. 

            But do we really know?  For all the lip service people (German especially) pay to these past events, all memories dim with time and death, so how can we be sure the mistakes that allowed Hitler to rise can’t possibly come about again?  And….wait, aren’t a lot of them happening again already?  These questions are the backbone of Timur Vermes’ 2011 bestseller, Er Ist Wieder Da, and now, 4 years later, it has come back to us in movie form. 

            It is 2014.  Adolf Hitler suddenly wakes up in the middle of Berlin.  Perfectly healthy and unwounded, but somehow a good 7 decades in the future, long after the end of the war and his presumed death.  The why is not addressed in the book, and it’s not addressed here, so don’t let that question stick in your head too long- he is simply here, and incredibly disoriented and confused.  He wanders the streets, unable to understand why no one can recognize him as their beloved Führer, until he happens across a small coffee stand run by an average Joe.  Thinking Hitler to just be a really extreme method actor, he puts him up for a few nights until one of his frequent customers, a recently-fired employee of the nearby television production company MyTV named Fabian Sawatzki, comes along and meets him as well.  He also thinks Hitler is just a really dedicated method-comedian, doing Hitler totally straight-faced to be “ironic.”  He and the stand manager both find it hilarious, and he hatches a scheme to use this person as his ticket back into the big house. 

            On his end, Hitler figures out very quickly he’s experienced some strange form of time travel and is most definitely not in Aryan Kansas anymore.  He is shocked and disheartened by how far back his goals and plans have been set (and more than offended when he uncovers the many attempts by actors to portray him over the years), but never one to give up, he decides to start from scratch, and decides to follow along with Sawatzki so as to use TV as the medium through which he will rebuild his following, taking each opportunity to rise further as it presents itself. 

            They start small, but things snowball quickly- a few scenes shot around the Germany with him just chatting with regular people are enough to get them a spot on one of MyTV’s premier shows, under the ever-watchful eyes of the company’s head producers (and mutual rivals) Katja Bellini and Christoph Sensenbrink, and aided by a gothic secretary named Krömeier, who may or may not have a crush on Sawatzki.  From there, through sheer dint of personality and his refusal to follow any of the shallow scripts the company writers provide for him, Hitler and his overt, outlandish style become a Youtube sensation, rapidly eclipsing the more established performers alongside him, and setting off one controversy after another with everything he says and does (including barging into the official HQ of a far-right German political party).  As his fanbase and popularity grows, the only question is how far things will go before someone- anyone- realizes the truth about who he is. 

            It’s hard to pin down precisely what kind of story this is.  It’s part satire of our modern, click-obsessed culture, where the more outlandish, graphic, or terrible something is, the better, part fish-out-of-water tale, part pitch-black comedy about how the worst elements in human nature rear their ugly heads again and again.  It’s also part TV-documentary, since large stretches of the film consist of raw-looking, handheld footage of Hitler just driving around Germany and talking to people, whose reactions to a Hitler-lookalike appearing in their midst vary widely (it’s clear some of these were made without the people knowing they were in an actual movie).  Most, like Sawatzki and his colleagues, just laugh it off or dismiss it as a crude publicity stunt, and happily sit down for him to sketch them.  It can’t be anything serious, because after all, they (and we) all know what we know- the REAL Hitler’s dead, and the lessons have been learned, so no harm, right? 

            On the surface, this may strike one as a major weakness with the whole plot- how can no one figure out that it really IS Hitler they are talking with?  Why does no one think to stop him?  Well…..would you?  We have become so skeptical as a society, and so ready to assume there must be a rational, logical reason for something we see or experience that, in a way, this movie works BECAUSE it fully copies our expectations of a wholly rational world where all can be known and explained, and then tosses in a simple fact diametrically opposed to it.  The clash between our 21st century mindset and the very existence of Hitler, back again against all possible explanation, are the meeting of an unstoppable force and an immovable object, and it’s the backbone of both most of the comedy and the more serious messages of the tale. 

            Since the movie is entirely driven by Hitler’s own perspective, this is the sort of film that lives or dies by the performance of its lead actor.  Fortunately, Oliver Masucci commits himself entirely to the role (something many people would not be remotely willing to consider), and it’s hypnotic to watch him go to town on hapless comedians, pedestrians, and politicians who literally haven’t the foggiest clue with whom they are speaking.  And like in the book, he’s really the only figure worth taking note of; the other characters above are present, but don’t really play any major role in the story other than to reflect aspects of its broad themes.  That said, there are some notable changes from the book, particularly where Sensenbrink and Sawatzki are concerned.  Sawatzki is a bit more of a pathetic, hapless figure with a much broader story arc (although revealing more than that would be a huge spoiler).  Sensenbrink is inexplicably made into a side villain, doing all sorts of petty things to derail Hitler and Sawatzki’s ascent into primetime, and failing spectacularly.  While it does lead to a direct and fantastically funny reference to Der Untergang (Downfall in English, which featured possibly the best-known film rendition of Hitler to date, excluding Chaplin’s), it also fails to be of any real relevance to the rest of the film, and is dropped entirely by the end. 

            Strangely enough, I found the movie to be at its best during the moments (especially during the mind-bending third act) when it deviated from the book entirely, even directly breaking the fourth wall on a few occasions.  The sections following the other characters and tracking Hitler’s rise as a TV/internet star, which hew very closely to the book, are certainly well-made, but also by the numbers, and they don’t gel well with the nuttier and more direct-messaging stuff in the rest of the running time.  It’s a dissonance that is, in my view, the film’s greatest weakness, but thankfully it’s never a fatal one. 

            Another key difference that will ultimately boil down to taste is how it takes the passive or latent themes and messages in the book and makes them much more obvious and front-and-center.  Even though it’s never stated (since we only ever hear Hitler’s perspective, and no others), the warning it’s trying to send is clear- the whole way we’ve gone about “learning” from events like WWII is all wrong.  We so often try to push the Holocaust and everything associated off onto the shoulders of Hitler and a few cohorts of his, making it out to be something unique to that person and time.  So as long as Hitler himself is around, it won’t happen again.  We know what we know, remember? 

            This is, of course, disingenuous at best and a bald-faced lie at worst.  Hitler was a product of his time, and as he himself reminds characters in the book and movie, he had (at least at first) legitimate popular sovereignty behind him.  His guilt is our guilt.  And yet, as he himself also points out, since he openly declared his plans and the people chose him anyway, “not EVERYTHING could have been so bad.”  How to reconcile this with our immediate moral revulsion to what really happened is the primary question the book and film present us with, and neither provide an answer.  You’ll be left chewing on it for a long time afterwards, with an uncomfortable aftertaste lingering at the back of the mouth.  If this is not the case, then you weren’t really paying attention the whole time, or you’re keeping yourself deliberately ignorant.  While the movie making this more explicit and in-your-face than the book certainly removes some of the novel’s brilliant subtlety, it also lends its powerful ending a more forceful urgency, which I did not find to be inappropriate given many recent world events. 

            But then again, maybe I’m overblowing the seriousness of this.  People suffered then, but it’s time to move on, right?  As Bellini points out herself in a final interview, hasn’t the shadow of the past been hanging over German spirits long enough?  Haven’t they earned the right to move forward?  We’ve recorded and memorialized everything, and we’ve stopped telling Jewish jokes, so time to strike out for the future.  It’s not like things that extreme could ever happen again, at least not here. 

            After all, we know what we know.  You know? 

-Noah Franc 

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Review- Dragonball Z: Resurrection 'F'

Dragonball Z: Resurrection “F” (2015): Written by Akira Toriyama, directed by Tadayoshi Yamamuro.  Starring: Masako Nozawa, Ryo Horikawa, Toshio Furukawa, Ryusei Nakao, and Mayumi Tanaka.  Running Time: 94 minutes. 

Rating: This film cannot be rated

           I can honestly say that ever since I started writing film reviews, I never thought this day would come.  Despite the pretty lenient guidelines I give myself in terms of what I can count as a “new” film for my yearly counter, and thus be able to write a full review about, not once did I think that I would have the chance to write one about Dragonball Z, one of the foundational shows of my childhood.  And yet, here we are.  In April of this year, Dragonball Z: Resurrection “F” (from here on out referred to as DBZ:RF) received its theatrical release in Japan, and a mere 4 months later it got a brief and very limited release in the US.  Limited it may have been, but it still falls under my rules regarding theatrical releases, and therefore counts. 

            “Even the complete obliteration of his physical form can't stop the galaxy's most evil overlord. After years in spiritual purgatory, Frieza has been resurrected and plans to take his revenge on the Z-Fighters of Earth. Facing off against Frieza's powerful new form, and his army of 1,000 soldiers, Goku and Vegeta must reach new levels of strength in order to protect Earth from their vengeful nemesis.  This is, literally, the entire title summation of this movie’s plot on Rotten Tomatoes.  And it is all you need to know.  There’s an beauty to be found in its poetic simplicity.  Perverse, almost.  Because this is Dragonball Z, and if you need any more reason or explanation, or any justification for why the walls of Death itself have no meaning, you’re watching the wrong movie.      

            To be fair, almost none of the DBZ movies (although some early ones are exceptions) count as films in any real sense, hence why applying any traditional rating to them is in an exercise in impossible futility.  They are nothing more than extended specials of the show- each assumes you already know the main characters, their backstories, and their relationships to each other, and simply conjures up a baddie otherwise completely unmentioned in the regular episodes for Goku (and it is always, inevitably, Goku, because) to beat the living shit out of before blowing him (and it is always, invariably, a him, because) to Kingdom Come.  Sometimes, there is an army of hapless minions for the others to pick apart.  Sometimes there is not. 

            It is a tired, staid, and sorry excuse for a narrative…and boy, was it one hell of a sweet nostalgia bomb to sink back into.  If I hadn’t seen Spy, Inside Out, and Trainwreck already, I would be proclaiming DBZ:RF  to be the funniest movie of 2015 to date.  The baddy we get to see smacked around this time is, as I’ve mentioned already, Freiza, which should be a joke given how stupidly-overpowered just about everyone is now compared with when he first appeared, but they duck around that in literally 5 seconds flat by revealing he simply never actually trained to increase his strength before, but since he finally knows how strong Saiyans can get, he will now do so.  He does.  The results are phenomenally funny. 

            But wait, you say, Freiza’s dead!  And not only is he dead, he was brought back before, and Gohan punched him and he literally exploded.  Remember when that happened?  Neither does Gohan, apparently, nor anyone else.  But I can’t nitpick that, since none of the movies have ever been treated as canon.  Anyway…

            If you need even a hint as to how Frieza was brought back to life, I recommend you double-check the title of this franchise.  He takes control of the remnants of his once-powerful forces and heads straight to Earth for the sole purpose of extracting revenge on Goku.  Because that worked out so well the last time.  Piccolo, Krillin, Gohan, Tien, and for some reason Master Roshi, plus Jaco the Galactic Policeman, are on hand to basically demolish the army while barely breaking a sweat, until Frieza finally makes him move.  He is stopped just in time when Vegeta and Goku are brought back to Earth by Whis and Beerus, with whom they have apparently been training since the end of the past movie. 

            This all happened in just over the first half of the movie.  So the rest of it is just Goku, Vegeta, and Frieza (but mostly Goku, because fuck Vegeta, amiright?) hashing things out with some staggeringly awful CGI fighting.  There are hints of lessons that both still need to learn as fighters, but to my disappointment, this ends up playing absolutely no role in the conclusion of the battle.  The day is saved, along with the Earth, nothing is learned, and everyone goes about their day.  And no, that is not a spoiler, because like I said, this is a DBZ movie.  They aren’t even going to try to make you guess how things will turn out, so why should I? 

            It was refreshing to see that somewhere between the end of the Majiin Buu Saga, by which time this franchise had officially been banned from the house by my parents, and the present day, the DBZ franchise has attained an almost nirvana-esque level of self-awareness.  The utter incompetence of Yamcha and Chiaotzu in a fight are admitted to right at the start, and the two never even make an appearance (while, again, MASTER ROSHI was considered strong enough to bring into the fray).  Even Frieza gets in on the winking fun- he directly names the toy based on his new form that, I am sure, has already been made, calling it the “Golden Frieza.”  When I was a kid, we would theorize about such forms existing for the various characters, and it’s nice to see the mind-readers in Toei Animation HQ took notice of us humble American brats.   

            In the end, the question of whether or not this film is worth your time if you were not an at least somewhat obsessive fan of the show is a moot one- of course it’s not.  What are you even doing here?  For those of us who could never get enough howling Kamehamehas, the question is- does this latest addition to the DBZ film series hit enough of the needed adrenaline points to be worth an hour and a half of your evening?  I would say it depends on your level of self-awareness.  I had a gay old time of it myself, but the overuse of CGI and reliance on an already-known villain, albeit an iconic one, do keep it from rising above its pulpy, TV-special origins.  That might make it too much for some to sit through.  Then again, for many of you, that might be exactly the point.    

-Noah Franc