Friday, March 25, 2016

10 Cloverfield Lane is very well told, but that didn’t stop me from resenting every moment of it

Here’s the problem with J.J. Abrams’s infamous “Mystery Box”: I can smell the stench of whatever is inside of it from way over here across the room.

At around minute six of 10 Cloverfield Lane, just after an incredible title sequence and a short “exploring our surroundings” scene that’s after my own heart, I’m faced with the question that will drive all the action for the next 70 minutes: is Howard (John Goodman) a crazy person, or has the world really ended? We’re all trapped together here in this underground bunker, and we only really have his word to go on. Have we been kidnapped, or did the reds finally pull the trigger?

So I tune out a little bit and start thinking forward, start to see the shape of what the story is going to look like either way that question gets answered. If we were just kidnapped and the world is fine, this movie is going to be a big letdown at the end. All this talk of sci-fi and aliens, and it turns out the real bad guys are the fat, “blackbelt in conspiracy theories” rednecks of the world. Okay, thanks. Dumb movie.

And whoever wrote this clearly knows what they’re doing, so they’d know that ending is dumb. So it’s going to be aliens. But then like, why are we going to spend the whole movie waffling back and forth? This is definitely a movie that’s going to go back and forth a bunch, but we both know where we’re going to end up. Why are we pretending?

Watching this movie is going to be like hanging out with an annoying friend when you ask them to hand you your keys from the dish there. They hand them to you but stop with them just out of your reach. You lean forward, and they pull back slightly. You lean forward again, and back they go again. A pause. They move the keys toward your hand again dangling them right in your palm, but you refuse to tighten your grip, knowing that they might pull back again. Finally you do, but indeed away they go. So fine, fuck it, your asshole friend can drive instead. You’d rather look at your phone anyway. At which point he tosses over the keys.

All this is not exactly fair, because maybe I’m wrong. I’m not a supergenius, there’s always the possibility there’s some super cool ending idea that I haven’t thought of in the 20 minutes that have gone by now. And that back and forth is inarguably propulsive. The mystery and uncertainty about what is really going on provides an energy that’s hard to find in a lot of stories.

But in the end, after we cut to black, I do end up being right. “There were some aliens, guys.” Aight. Can I go now?

It’s frustrating to me that I feel this way. I know how a roller coaster is going to end, but I’m still going to enjoy the ride. Hell, I’ve watched The Maltese Falcon a dozen times, and it doesn’t get old even when I know every corner of how the mystery ticks. What makes 10 Cloverfield Lane different?

I can’t put my finger on it, because I really liked a lot about this movie. I think the directing was great. Good, consistent visual storytelling as opposed to relying on dialog for everything, and better still the visuals were often adding subtext to what was being said. The performances were all good and fun, each in different ways. Production values all excellent. Loved the set.

Maybe it’s that I think the characters suck. Took me an hour or so after the house lights went up to realize it, but once I started to try and describe any depth in these people, I was stumped. Our protagonist, Michelle, is a blank slate and audience surrogate. Howard is first defined by that question of “is this guy crazy”, but it quickly becomes clear that the answer is a resounding “yes” and that the real question is whether he also happens to be right about the world ending. There’s no character there, just a question. Emmett’s the closest thing to a fleshed out person since he actually gets to take a character-revealing action when he takes the blame for collecting weapons to protect Michelle. (I would argue that Howard’s “being crazy” and Michelle’s “being scared and also reasonable” don’t count as character revealing actions.) But man, that’s a pretty basic, uninteresting, tried-and-true character-revealing action. Also I think it’s the only one in the script.

I guess what it comes down to is “why should I care?” It’s not the people. The only real reason the movie seems to give is “to find out what’s in the Mystery Box!” But I just don’t care. It’s not going to be satisfying.

“Come on.”

All that said, six of the seven previews before this movie were for franchise installments. Two of them used similar Queen songs. 10 Cloverfield Lane is at least something different. It stands alone, it’s trying something none of those franchises ever will. That’s worth doing. I respect that. That experiment was worth my two hours and ten dollars, even if I was medium on the result. It was more fun and more surprising than anything in Batman V Superman: Dawn Of A Shared Universe ever will be, and it’s a goddam shame that an interesting little movie like this has to have a brand like Cloverfield slapped on it in order to get made. It’s a name that feels more like Kubrick’s “CRM114” thing than a franchise, but I guess whatever you have to do to get the development execs to hand over the money.

Who needs a drink?

Friday, January 9, 2015

Black Mirror

First appearance: a friend makes a brief throw-away comment about some new Twilight Zone show thing, except it’s British and on Netflix and I already don’t really care. But apparently it’s pretty good, I’m told. Okay. I’m not really looking for more TV right now. Still gotta finish Peaky Blinders.

Second appearance: a friend asks if I’ve heard about this Black Mirror show, the British Twilight Zone Netflix thing? Yeah, that sounds familiar. Well this friend of mine is incensed by it. Apparently everyone and their mother has been recommending it to him, and he finds it completely intolerable. They all say it’s good, but instead it’s, like, not good. “The worst part is that people keep telling me to watch it like it's some kind of secret. Just because it's dark doesn't mean it's good and just because it's British doesn't mean I haven't heard of it,” (~actual quote).

He tells me the first episode is about some terrorists who kidnap the princess and say they’ll kill her unless the Prime Minister has sex with a pig on national television. And it’s like… “Huh. Okay…”

I think to myself “Huh. Okay...”

Third appearance: Black Mirror gets recommended on Pop Culture Happy Hour, NPR’s pop culture podcast that I’m way too big a fan of. Glen Weldon talks about how it’s a smart show, takes on technological anxieties in a way that seems to understand technology, not in the way most TV does where it sounds like it was written by your aunt who doesn’t quite know what this whole “E”-mail thing is. Glen likes it a lot. It’s his happy thing of the week.

I admit to myself that this is a show I should probably be aware of.

Fourth appearance: It’s a couple days later. 11:00pm. Not much going on. I’ve been working all day editing various short films I care about less than I should, and I’m super tired. But being the idiot that I am, I’ve trained my body not to fall asleep before 1am at the earliest. Often I’ll waste away those two hours browsing reddit or twitter. Often it’s Prismata, which is a game you should be playing because damn, yo. But tonight I’m salty about losing at Prismata all day, and I’m trying to break myself of the reddit/twitter/facebook/feedly rut. Netflix is at least easier to justify to myself than social media. And Black Mirror feels like a low commitment kind of show since it’s got no continuity episode to episode.

First episode starts. The prime minister is awakened late at night by an urgent phone call. His top advisors sit him down to start viewing a hostage video featuring the princess. I think to myself “they’re gonna tell him he has to fuck a pig”.

The princess is on the video. She’s very distraught. She’s being forced to read some horrible message while bawling her eyes out. “Unless this one demand is met by 4pm today, I will be killed.” She can’t go on. She’s crying. She’s about to tell us the PM is going to have to fuck a pig.

The advisors stop the video. The PM asks why, says to keep playing. They confirm that the video is legitimate, that the princess has indeed been taken. “What do they want?” the PM asks. “There’s only one demand.” The demand is for the PM to fuck a pig on TV.

They press play. The princess, choking through tears, tells us that the PM must fuck a pig on TV.



Black Mirror is a show that thinks it’s soooo cool. But I’ve got news for it: it’s not.

Take this first episode. The premise sounds like a pitch from some friend of mine who I secretly don't really like coming to me while mildly intoxicated. He sits me down, smile cracking on his face. "Okay," he puts his hands out as if to brace me for the gravity of this idea: "What if... [pause for effect]... someone made the president fuck a pig on tv?" I sit back, mildly repulsed by my weird friend’s apparent belief that this idea is genius. I realize I haven’t responded, so I quickly smile wide and nod my head. “Ohh, interesting,” I say. “Yeah, what if?” If I don’t play along he's going to spend the rest of the night trying to convince me why it's such a great idea, and maybe this way he'll be quiet.

Because the truth is that this idea does grab you, right? What if? Huh. What if indeed? That’s a wild idea. What would be the implications of that? And the first episode of Black Mirror does a pretty good job of covering a lot of those implications - as the PM or one of his advisors, how would you try to get out of it? As a citizen, how would you react? What does the PM’s wife think?

But by taking this thing and slipping it into the costume of a high quality, intellectual tv show, you’re dressing it up as something much more than it is. Instead of a weird little idea to spitball with for 10 minutes at a party, you’ve got 50 minutes of Serious Drama about a major world leader fucking a pig.

The second episode is different. It’s in some future world where we never see the outdoors. Our protagonist lives in a cube with screens for walls a ceilings. As he wakes up and moves through his morning routine, his total net worth follows him around. He spends a few pennies on some toothpaste, another few to skip an ad that pops up in the mirror as he’s brushing his teeth. Then he heads downstairs to a room full of people riding stationary bikes. He hops on an empty one, starts pedaling, and we watch his net worth slowly increase. Oh mang, they’re generating power! They’re all slaaaaaaves to sooociiiiety!

This second one progresses through obvious allegories for / commentaries on the mindlessness of media (the programs they watch all day on their bikes), class immobility, and American Idol (apparently the only way to leave the world of the bikes is to get high marks from Simon Cowell and his rapey co-hosts). Also standards of beauty - the woman who’s due to go on American Idol but who never gets the chance to get out there because she’s pretty old. Also the desensitization of culture (ads for porn just play constantly). Also the evils of corporate advertising (if you don’t pay money to skip an ad, but close your eyes, it stops play, flashes a strobe light at you, and plays an obnoxious and painful high-pitched whine until you start watching again).

And it’s all very well done. The production values are good, the performances are solid. It’s not even that it’s necessarily wrong, right? Modern media consumers are pretty desensitized. The lack of class mobility in the first world is messed up. But the show feels like it’s trying to suggest all that subtly behind this veil of metaphor. Instead it’s beating me to death with a baseball bat made from those metaphors. My friend from the party raises up his hands defensively: “I’m not, like, saying anything, man. I’m not saying anything. I’m just saying.”

Even the name of the show just oozes this sense of high-minded, superior commentary. We’re gonna hold up a Mirror to society and show just how dark and unsettling it really is! Because we’re the only one smart enough to see the Truth!

I know a lot of this could be me reading into things. The condescending vibe I get from the show is maybe more in my head than in the actual text of the thing. After all, a lot of people clearly love what Black Mirror is doing and don’t feel like they’re being talked down to by it. And when it comes down to it, two days ago when I started writing this post, I stopped in the middle to watch another episode because that sounded like fun. And while I walked away without any of my convictions questioned, I did enjoy myself.

But that pig episode? The title of the episode is The National Anthem. I mean, come on.

So take all this for what you will. On one level, Black mirror is a bunch of hour long standalone sci-fi ideas. Maybe they’re a little thin for a full hour, but they’re intriguing. Even if they’re not worth the runtime, they’re worth the thought exercise. One level up from that, it’s a super condescending attempt at allegories for modern society that seems to relish overly simplifying things and telling its audience why it’s so much smarter than they are. But on a third level, it’s super fun to bash for that second level.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

11 Big Questions That Were Absolutely Answered By Christopher Nolan's 'Interstellar' and Why None of Them Matter

So I planned to see Interstellar with a friend earlier this week, but after that friend came down with the vomits and poops, I was left with a choice: hang out with my roommates who also had the vomits and poops or go see the film by myself.*

I went. Loved it. Lots of thoughts. Maybe. It was pretty dense, and I don't know quite where to start. But it's been stuck in my head since I went. My sentence long review I posted to Facebook was "I think Inception had larger goals but left me with disappointments. This did not. Loved it. A++ would buy again."

A day later I saw someone post this article (spoilers):

A few guys I know through making movies were all commenting with agreement. Mostly praising the film, but with a "one foot out the door" tone of voice. "Oh yeah, it was good, but I didn't like ______."

Well guys, I'm here to tell you that the list of plotholes in that article are bogus, yo, and you shouldn't be concerned with them. Every one of them is either irrelevant or explained in the film. I'm gonna explain why. And somewhere along the line, maybe I'll uncover some of my own larger thoughts about Interstellar. Then I'm gonna tell you why you're right anyway despite how much I liked the film, and how we should all get a beer and talk this thing over because I miss y'all and that conversation would be a lot of fun.


Spoilers abound below.

Let's take this article one point at a time, second person talking to its author.

(1) If food is growing scarce why does everyone drive so gleefully through corn fields crushing the crop?

This happens twice. First time it's to catch a drone, and given Cooper's excitement, odds are whatever he can do with the tech in that drone is a lot more valuable than the relatively small amount of corn they're likely to lose. Since electronics are not being produced anymore, that's super valuable.

Second time it's Murph, who's literally seconds from getting out of the car and burning the field to the ground. I don't think she minds running over a few stalks on the way.

(2) Why *is* food so scarce anyway?

From the article: "Yes yes, plants are on the way out due to the blight, but we already live in a world where many of our consumables are man-made so wouldn’t that be even more prevalent in the future? We’re not given a wide glimpse of the world and its remaining population, but it can’t be as simple as everyone with knowledge of engineering, chemistry and manufacturing having died from starvation or dust inhalation. Machinery still works, so food products could still be made."

I'm not super up on the state of the food industry, but something tells me living off fruit roll-ups and Doritos isn't a good long term solution. Plus, man-made consumables, in addition to being worse for people in general, are more expensive to make. It's more resource efficient to farm. Yeah, once all the crops go extinct people may be able to live on man-made consumables, maybe even on healthier ones than candy. But it'll be harder to do that than farm or food wouldn't be scarce.

But more importantly, why do you care? Sure, maybe you want to know, but it's so easy to make up a reason. I just did. It's completely irrelevant to the story at hand. If the plot took a turn towards the agricultural and delved into Casey Affleck's journey as a farmer, then yeah - I'd want to know what research was being done on the synthetic food front. I'd want to know how people were going to go about saving samples of old foods to clone / replant in case the planet could be saved. Maybe. That all sounds boring. Yeah we could have a long conversation about it to work out the details, but why spend our time on that?

(3) Why are people being taught — and worse, believing — that the Apollo moon-landing is fake?

"It’s entirely possible I missed some subtle explanation once Basil Exposition (Michael Caine) showed up to tell Coop why NASA was hiding out in the desert, but Coop is supposed to be in his early 30s in the beginning and had flown for NASA earlier in his life, so presumably the space agency was around at least partly into the past decade. So in those ten years NASA became a scapegoat of some kind? Science became untrustworthy and the education system decided to teach that it was all a fraud? Maybe I’m missing it, but why are people holding a grudge against NASA over a world clearly dying from Earth-based problems (blight, climate change, the lack of okra)?"

As the school teacher in that scene more or less tells us straight up, kids are being taught that so they'll focus on farming and not on space. It's propaganda to get the middle class into farming instead of dreaming of bigger things. Easy.

Just because NASA was around ten years ago doesn't mean people liked it then. An organization like that doesn't disappear as soon as public opinion turns against it, it takes time for such a thing to get crushed. Conversations between Cooper and his father-in-law indicate there's been a disdain for science for as long as Cooper's been alive. NASA's been a scapegoat longer than just those ten years.

Why are people holding a grudge against NASA? Once again the answer is in the film - Michael Caine gives a speech about how people were angry about spending billions on space when the government could be spending billions on food.

4) Speaking of the secret NASA base, did anyone consider allocating some of those billions of dollars towards maybe a cure for the blight?

"We’ll assume yes, but even if they did and failed wouldn’t someone still think it a good idea to spend some R&D funds on manufactured foods? Maybe take some of the remaining plant-based foods that aren’t yet contaminated and secure them away to a location where they can’t be infected? Or spend the cash on underground bunkers where people can live, form communities and keep mankind alive until they can eventually return to the surface? Or maybe share the technology they’re using to keep their astronauts fed and oxygenated for years in space with the people who are actually starving and suffocating here on Earth? Nah, instead they’re sinking every last dime into “solving gravity.” What the what?"

Easy - all these things are being done. We see people in NASA doing experiments on corn / okra. These are smart people - it's safe to assume they're saving and storing these plants. And all those people leaving town towards the end of the film? It's specifically referenced that they're going to live underground. It's not like the entire government budget is going to NASA. Someone would probably notice that.

5) Why aren’t MRI machines available anymore?

The argument in the article basically goes "why couldn't there be MRI machines?" I answer: well, there could. But  MRI machines break down, and in a world focused more on food than on treating fancy diseases, an MRI isn't what you want to spend your time repairing. You want to spend that time on repairing tractors. Instead of treating brain annurisms, cancers, and other more exotic diseases, you want to spend your time getting dust masks to everyone. Vaccines. Asthma. Stuff that affects kids, because you want to make sure the population doesn't vanish. It's so much more cost effective to focus on broad problems than the specific ones MRIs are designed to scan for. Thus, no more MRIs.

6) Why is Cooper’s son an asshole as an adult, and is it because his father clearly doesn’t care about him?

"Seriously, Coop wakes up from his deep space sleep and never even asks about Tom — hell, he doesn’t even inquire about his own grandchild — but more than that, is there something being said here about farmers versus scientists? About the supposedly uneducated versus the intellectuals? Tom seemed like a perfectly well-adjusted kid early on and even into his first appearance as Casey Affleck, but suddenly he’s a monstrous prick who’d rather watch his family die from dusty lung than accept some help from someone with a PhD?"

I don't understand the question. Cooper wakes up from deep sleep and is told they can't send any messages home, so he doesn't. His son is kind of a dick because that's the kind of guy you become on a world trying to kill you and your family. Large-scale resentment of NASA, especially when there's no one else easy to blame, that's believable to me. And a parent in denial about the health of their child when the alternative is choosing between that child's life and the life of the farm, especially when accepting that would involve admitting some long-term anti-scientist prejudices have been wrong... that's so easy to understand for me.

7) This whole space station by Saturn… couldn’t they have just done that all along without even giving the wormhole a second thought?

The author asks why NASA couldn't have been building these stations all along. And again, the author just missed some stuff.

That whole Plan A thing that Michael Caine kept talking about, this was that plan. The problem was one of resources: it takes a ton to send up a spacestation like that, and the Earth didn't have them. That is, unless Caine could solve his gravity equation. That was the whole point. The reason they weren't sending them up earlier is that they couldn't until the equation was solved, and the equation couldn't be solved until Murph got all the black hole quantum data from Cooper, which happened right at the beginning of those 73 years.

8) Is travel through the “fifth dimensional bookshelf” or whatever just random, or was Coop intentionally picking the perfectly-timed spots to peek through?

First, it doesn't matter.

Second, we have no indication that Cooper does have access to every moment of her life. It's possible the only ones he had access to were the few he affected.

Third, he had to hurry because--

"And before you say he had to hurry because the space library is collapsing in on itself I remind you that the folks who built it have mastered time so we should assume they also know how to build a sturdy bookshelf."

--actually I was going to say because he only had a limited supply of oxygen left.

But the real point here is that you're making all kinds of assumptions about how this weird fifth dimensional space works, or rather saying that the fact that you don't understand the rules is a problem. But that's part of the point - we can't understand all the rules there. And more than that, there's no way to expect Cooper to, either.

9) Why have nearly three hours of father/daughter love only to toss it aside in final two minutes for Anne Hathaway?

"All that intergalactic effort to reunite with Murph just for her to say she’s fine and hey why not go visit the lady doctor back at camp?"

This one kills me.

The reunion with Murph was one of the most touching scenes in the whole film for me. It's so bittersweet - it's this amazing moment of catharsis and pain for Cooper as he finally, finally has physical proof that what he did was worth it, that he did make a better world for his children. But it's so painful too, because the cost is that he had to give them up. Murphy sending him away at her deathbed, showing him that he's no longer needed here, that's like a twisting knife as much as it is everything he's hoped for since he left. She's come to terms with the fact that he left, and there's nothing left for him. Just as he told her when she was ten, he's a ghost to her.

That moment is so powerful for me. As you say, it's all that intergalactic effort to reunite with Murph just for her to say she's fine and wave him away from her deathbed. Just imagine being Cooper and hearing that.

But then I also think you've misunderstood the implied ending relationship between Cooper and Hathaway. I didn't take this as a romantic thing in the slightest. Instead, it's Cooper recognizing that there's no place for him back in our galaxy, and that Hathaway is out there destined to be alone for the rest of her life. By going to her, he can provide a friend company. He can give her the gift that Matt Damon gets earlier of another human face after expecting never to see one again.

And with nothing for him left in our galaxy, that seems pretty good.

10) If it’s been fifty years since Murph figured out the messages why is Hathaway still only just setting up camp while everyone else hangs out on a space station?

You just missed this one again - Cooper and Hathaway lost 50-some years when they sling-shotted around Gargantuan in the climax. Hathaway doesn't land on the planet until the same time Cooper gets spit back through the wormhole.

11) So, did we build the wormhole? If so — and even if not — is this movie the biggest bootstrap paradox ever?

It's not if you don't think of it as a paradox, if you just accept that time is fixed. But if you want to stick with "yes" for this one, that's fine. I don't consider that a plot hole or a problem.

The author's insistance that this message that we're saving ourselves is deflating is another painful thing to me. How is that painful? To me it's a wakeup call - no one's going to step in and save us, we're going to have to do it ourselves. God isn't looking out for us. We are. And we should damn well start acting like it.


Listen. People don't spend half a decade working on a project like this and not have answers to questions like the ones in this article. The fact that the answers don't come up because the story doesn't need or care about them does not make them plot holtes. It simply makes them off screen.

The problem here is that you missed all these answers. Well, that's not quite right. The problem isn't that you missed them, because again, I don't think the answers really matter to the movie at all. The problem is that you were BOTHERED by them. If your brain had time to be bothered by them, it wasn't being engaged by the film. You tuned out. And that's a problem for the movie. A legit one! So let's talk about why you moved out and not the things you missed while you were snoozing / in the bathroom / thinking about the review you were going to write.

Back in point (6), the author isn't understanding Cooper's son's motivations. THAT's a problem. I think there's perfectly reasonable explanations for his actions, but if you don't, let's talk about why you feel that way instead of saying there just isn't.

In (11), the author thinks the idea that humans are helping humans is as deflating as the idea that it's worth sacrificing the rest of your life in order to make your friend's remaining years better. Why do I feel so strongly opposite in my read of the ending than the author? THAT's what we should be talking about, not obsessing over endless details irrelevant to the plot or explained when you weren't paying attention.

We should talk about the music, which the author strongly praised in their review but which I found at times obnoxious and repetitive, pulling me out of the moment.

We should talk about how while the ending seems to be trying hard to say that humans need to be taking care of each other because no one else is going to, it also lets us off the hook once we've left the theater by saying that "eh, those guys in the future will handle it".

We should talk about how different people experience movies so differently. I attach more strongly to a tight script and plot (however complicated they may be) while others are pinged more by emotions and characters. A lot of my favorite critics have talked about how the emotions were all too shmultzy for them. A bunch of physics grad school friends have said their piece about the science of the film which I just don't give a damn about.

Where was the point where each of you felt disengaged from the film? Because I walked out with no questions, no feelings of plot holes, just catharsis and appreciation. Why was that different for the two (or four or eight) of us?


I really didn't like this article, in case that wasn't clear. It's focused on all the wrong things. I respect the author's opinion, because the film made him feel a certain way, and you can't change how people feel. But I'd be so much more interested to see him dig deep and think about why the film didn't do enough to sweep him off his feet and away from these nitpicks. Where did the film fail emotionally that let him get distracted by easily explainable logical questions?

Let's go talk about that.


*Quick aside: riding solo to the movies is something I first experienced last year when I lived within walking distance of the local indy theaters. I went every week I could before winter started. I thought I'd hate it since the first thing I want to do after walking out of the theater is talk with someone about what I saw, but no one ever wants to talk to me then. Dummies. Turns out it's very satisfying to me. The company you watch something with colors your perspective so much, or at least it does mine. There's something pure about going alone and getting a reaction I know is my own and not that of whoever was sitting next to me.