Thursday, October 3, 2013

Person of Interest: A History, Recommendation, and Conversation

Entering its third season, Person of Interest has a lot going on. I really want to talk about this week’s episode in particular (season 3 episode 2), but there’s so much to unpack before we get there. Enough so that I’m not quite sure where to start. Maybe the premise? Maybe I’ll assume you don’t know what the heck this show is and we can take it from there. Sound good?

Person of Interest is a show in which Ben from LOST tells Jesus who to kill, and then Jesus kills them.

Wait. No. Scratch that.

Person of Interest is basically a procedural, but with a unique twist. It’s got a kind of “magical realism” thing going on, except instead of magical it’s sci-fi. Close to reality sci-fi, yes? There’s gotta be a word for that. Anyway, in this procedural, each episode our heroes are given a social security number. The person this number corresponds to is going to be involved in a violent crime sometime soon, but we don’t know whether they’ll be a victim or a perpetrator. So our guys investigate to find out, and then help whoever the good guys are.

Our cast: Michael Emerson (who played Ben on LOST) is the computer hacker / tech guy with a cane. Jim Caviezel (who played Jesus in The Passion of the Christ) is the ex-spy, total badass action hero. They’re by far the two most important people here, but they’re not the only ones. We started in the pilot with a corrupt cop who they blackmailed into helping, and soon after a legit cop also joined the team. These days there’s another badass ex-spy regular and a few other randos, but that’s the core group.

I started watching Person of Interest about halfway through the first season at the recommendation of a friend who included a “no, really, keep watching for a while” disclaimer with his tentative praise. His belief, which I have come to absolutely agree with, is that the show is mediocre at best and so bad it’s funny at worst when you look at the details of the thing. But on a macro level, the season long plot arcs and in particular the villain’s gallery on this show is pretty incredible. Like Fringe, there’s a really great mythology being built up here. Unlike Fringe, the mythology here is mostly being built up by the characters and events shown on screen instead of already existing and being uncovered through investigation. Whether that’s better or worse I’ll leave for you to decide, but the end result is pretty similar: friggin cool sci-fi ideas and very entertaining bad guys.

Backing up for a second, I should note that this show very much did take a while to get going. It wasn’t until the very last scene of episode 4 that I really saw potential in the show, that it really had a moment of what I consider to be greatness. Before that it was all… well, let’s look at two choice moments from this week’s episode:

(1) The episode ends with the line “I fear that whatever his organization’s ultimate goals may be, this could be just the beginning.
(2) One of our heroes talks down a murderous gunman out for revenge for his daughter: “Is this how she would want you to honor her memory?”

Those are merely cliches, but I promise you there’s worse dialogue that is outright bad, too. It’s just that the show trained me to stop listening to it a while ago, and I mostly tune it out these days.

Back to the first season: the other moment that made me sit up and take note of the show was episode 7. The team is given the number of a high school teacher living in a bodega down by the docks, and our ex-spy hero has to escort the guy through an emerging gang war ignited by a mysterious figure named Elias. The high school teacher shows up, and it’s Veronica Mars’s dad. “Nooo!” I thought to myself, “Mr. Mars! You’re such a good actor. Can’t you do better than bit parts in mediocre shows?” But aha! At the end of the episode when Mr. Mars is revealed to be Elias, I felt silly and stupid for not catching such an obvious twist earlier. I even called out the superior quality of this week’s guest victim. How could I be so blind? But it’s precisely because the show is so unimpressive on the micro level that Person of Interest has pulled this same trick on me more than once now.

Indeed, it’s not just their supporting cast that knows how to act. Both Ben Linus and Jesus are great, as is basically every other continuing cast member. In an earlier draft of this I started to name names, but I ended up listing every person who’s been in more than one episode. Special shout out to Amy Acker for being especially top notch as always, but seriously. How can a show with such mediocre dialogue have such a great cast? My friend has a theory that the crappy writing is actually a ploy specifically so that savvy people like us lower our standards, making obvious twists like the Mr. Mars one work better.

Anyway, as the first season progressed, more and more villains started popping up. It was a wonder to me that they were able to work them all in - corrupt cops, CIA agents, competing gangs, and the big mystery: how exactly are we getting these numbers? All these things developed through season 1, and many of them even started getting resolved. Elias was put in jail before the season finale despite being the big bad for a substantial part of the season, a bunch of corrupt cops got busted, and evil CIA agents were shot and killed all to make room for the even large pool of baddies introduced in season 2.

As it turns out, the biggest bads in the world of Person of Interest are mysterious rich people hiding behind corporations, shell companies, and fake identities. Information is the real currency of the world, and whoever has it has the real power. This makes sense, because as all these bad guys played by good actors were introduced, we were slowly learning more about the sci-fi part of the world: in a past life, Ben Linus built a machine (referred to as THE machine) for the US government that could process all the data that the Patriot Act and ever-more-pervasive cameras were giving the government access to. Through aggregating that data, it was possible to find terrorists. Obviously such a thing needed to be kept under wraps lest the public outcry destroy all faith in the FBI, CIA, and NSA going forward, and as such the fact that the machine was also detecting more mundane crimes was deemed just that: a side effect. It was too costly, too dangerous to try and prevent these “irrelevant” violent events from occurring, and so they were discarded… that is, until Ben Linus grew a conscience, faked his death, and got Jesus to start helping him. ORIGIN STORY ACTIVATED.

So as season 1 comes to a close, Person of Interest did its most interesting thing yet: it made The Machine into a real character. It’s obvious when you think about it, but again because this show has trained me not to think too hard about it even when I should be, I didn’t see it: The Machine is really an AI, and as a super powerful AI, it was inevitably going to grow and change, adapt and evolve. Serious shit went down, and we ended up with people talking directly to The Machine by standing in Times Square, staring into cameras, and demanding help. Hilarious, brilliant, and perfectly within the world of the show. What a development. It kept the show fresh.

But let’s backtrack again, back to that joke I made a couple paragraphs before about how obviously The Machine needed to be kept a secret lest public outcry bring downfall to the government. Because as we in 2013 now know, PRISM was a thing that happened, and for the most part no one gave a shit. That in itself is terrifying, but like most political issues of the day, I try and repress those thoughts so I don’t end up in politics with a life of hating myself. The more fun to think about is “how does that affect the world of Person of Interest?” It’s supposedly the modern day, so all that stuff still happened. How does the show react? There were a couple interviews with series creator Jonathan Nolan and executive producer Greg Plageman running around after the NSA / PRISM story broke. My favorite is this one from Time Entertainment which says, quote, “[The public’s] indifference about computers having our data puzzles Plageman, who imagines, in his show, much greater public outcry should the existence of the Machine ever be revealed.” and “‘We’re trying to keep the show five minutes in the future but it got out in front of us a little bit,’ says Plageman. ‘It would be interesting if there were ever any organized resistance.’” These guys clearly did their research and knew what was up with our government, or at least what the book writers who were actually paying attention to this stuff thought was up. But the question remains: what now for Person of Interest?

And with all that, we can finally get to this week.

After a lackluster premiere, PoI comes back this week with an episode that started pretty mediocre. I’ll be honest, after the summer my TV habits have adapted Netflix in a way they never had before, and I was questioning whether I’d even keep up with PoI this year if it was just going to be mediocre. I need new surprises, and the first episode and a half hadn’t really delivered any. I’m watching along, and I’m liking what they’re doing with this Life Trace software that can aggregate anyone’s personal data that’s living around on the internet. It’s a much more innocent way to show what the NSA is capable of with all this knowledge in its hands. We just bring it all down to the person-to-person level and scare people that way!

At its heart, I believe this show really is anti-The machine, if that makes sense. Despite our heroes using this near godlike knowledge gained through constant surveillance for good, much of the show is based on the fact that our heroes have to remain hidden from all the people who would use that knowledge for evil: including the governments of the world. It’s really a show about having a conversation about surveillance. How much is okay? What are ethical and unethical ways to use it? How much should we be worried about it? And most importantly, HEY YOU - VIEWER - YOU SHOULD BE AWARE OF THIS STUFF, WHATEVER YOUR OPINION IS.

Anyway, I’m watching this episode. Oh hey, that one silent executive for this company that might license Life Track is pretty good. He hasn’t spoken yet, but I can tell just from that reaction shot of him that he’s got something going on. I bet I see him get a real part on some TV show soon. Oh wait, they gave him lines. I guess that’s cool. Now it’s the end of the episode, and he’s still around and talking! Sweet, way to be a good actor. OH SHIT, he’s a new bad guy? Why can’t I ever see these things coming on this show?

This new baddie - or rather group of baddies, as this guy is just a front for a larger group of people - is a very interesting addition to PoI’s overall conversation. This guy represents people who want to maintain their anonymity. In the speech he gives after he’s shot everyone at the end of the episode, I got the same feeling that I got after watching The Dark Knight Rises and listening to Bane: I kinda dig what this guy is saying. So why is this guy the bad guy? But of course, good guys don’t run around and shoot people to make examples of them or hold all of Gotham captive for months at a time to make some sort of vague political statement. There’s gotta be more to it to that, right?

So here’s where we stand: we’ve got a mysterious group of baddies who want privacy to remain a thing in the world, and are willing to kill to send their message. They’re powerful and they’re badass. Then we’ve got the government, who is spying invasively on every person in the country (maybe even world) and selectively using that information to stop terrorists - but at what cooost? And are they really doing as much as they should be? That’s one conversation.

Then there’s crime lord Elias, back on the streets, because what’s better: capital-O Organized crime with an evil man in charge or rampant chaos (see also: breaking bad and the end of season 4)? Don’t forget our corrupt cops and mayor: are the real villains the Elias’s of the world of the politicians just out for whatever scrap of power they can take?

Add a dash of sweet sci-fi: insane rogue hacker Root (Amy Acker) accounts for the human side of this, but The Machine is still evolving, too…

In the midst of all this stands our heroes, trying to navigate this crazy world they exist in, answer some of these questions, and save as many innocent lives as they can along the way. They’re using the pervasive information network available to them for good, because that’s what’s right. But would it be better to shut down the machine entirely? Or would that be equivalent to murder now that it’s… alive?

Who are the bad guys in this brave new world of near limitless information? Who should we trust with our private lives?

Think about those questions, because they’re important. Take a step back from this fun-and-games TV article for a moment, because these questions really, truly, they are important. However good the writing is week to week, PoI succeeds as a show because it makes you think about those questions whether you want to or not. It’s a public service, and I respect that.

Plus, friggin AI.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Castle: The Downfall of a Series

Maybe it was inevitable. All shows go through peaks and troughs. It’s undeniably hard to sustain a formula for season after season without things getting stale or shaking them up in some pretty big ways every once in a while. I’m actually a big fan of directional shifts in TV shows as long as the heart of the beast remains the same. But when you stray too far, when a show has changed so much from what it initially set out to be that I feel fundamentally different when I watch it, is it even the same show anymore? Or is it some new animal wearing the skin of my former friend like a coat, a twisted doppelganger...

It was 2009, and like every Freshman in college that year, I’d just discovered Hulu. I lived on a small floor and didn’t do many extracurriculars, so I didn’t know anyone. Mostly I just sat in my room and worked on my TV education. Death Note went by in six days. I held my breath for new Fringe each week (remember season 1 of Fringe? Oh man). I was a kid in a candy store.

One day Hulu dropped the usual Geico ads and started showing me clips from this upcoming police drama. I scoffed at first, but then I noticed Nathan Fillion. Coming off of watching three times through of Firefly the previous summer, I smiled at the quick dialog (even if it was a little cheesy). I was reminded of reading Agatha Christie novels with my dad in grade school and how much I missed those little mysteries. CSI, Law & Order, and other typical procedurals had always fallen flat for me as everyone was so serious all the time. So melodramatic. I figured any police show that was going to have a confession at the end of every episode might as well embrace the fact that it wasn’t based anywhere close to reality, and this show was selling itself with a handsome millionaire playboy, the unbearably confident-through-his-stubble Nathan Fillion sitting in an interrogation room and giving this hardboiled female detective trope standing over him the most aggravating time of her life… something about it clicked for me. I’d watch that pilot.

It was exactly what I’d hoped for. Of the four or five guest characters introduced in the pilot, it was pretty easy to pin down who the bad guy would be. You just had to count the remaining commercial breaks, decide what the most interesting twist would be for each one, and remove people from the pool accordingly. The dialog was snappy - everyone was a total sass-factory. The jokes flowed just as the murder unraveled in such a pleasingly predictable way. I was hooked on this stereotypically oddball partnership. It was the best mediocre cop show I’d ever seen.

The more I thought about the show, the more it impressed me. Beyond nailing the quip-to-quip comedy and the mediocre mystery-of-the-week done exactly right, Castle’s family structure was something I hadn’t seen before. A single father living with his daughter and his mother, but both his ex-wives potentially in the picture as guest stars. An odd little family unit. Something different. Maybe a little more reflective of this modern day where more and more of my friends were growing up with step dads and foster families. It’s not like TV had been stuck in the perfect nuclear family of the 50s since, uh, the 50s, but it had felt a little like we’d gotten stuck in the perfectly dysfunctional family of The Simpsons. Castle’s home life was so completely off the reservation, and I liked that, even if Alexis has almost always been an uninteresting Mary Sue.

I also realized that Castle the show was going to operate on another level I hadn’t appreciated just yet: class commentary. At the still early stages of the financial crisis, this show came along and delivered episode after episode of scathing commentary on the way the rich lived. Castle was loveable, but there was no denying how irresponsible he was. The show may not have played that up much (because without a likeable Richard Castle it was doomed to failure), but victim after victim was some rich bastard killed for being greedy or because the rich people around him or her were jealous. If the victim wasn’t doomed by their surroundings or inherent nature, the show still found a way to get its digs in. I remember the second episode of season 1 like it was yesterday (also get off my lawn). This was the one that really hooked me, because in addition to a compact little murder with a great key to solving it at the end, it managed to throw this whole subplot in with a wealthy married couple that appeared on the surface to be so happy but underneath were rotten to the core, backstabbing each other at every turn on their race to divorce court. Seriously, if you’ve never seen this show (or even if you have), go find season 1 episode 2 on Netflix and just bask in the glory of perfectly executed pulp entertainment.

The end of that episode introduced the other thing that would go on to make Castle so great: an abrupt change from zingers flying around the police station to a shockingly effective dramatic moment where Beckett gets to talk their murderer down from suicide. The tension of this scene put me on the edge of my seat all the way through the inevitable success of our hero. Even though there’s only one way for a scene like that to end on a mainstream TV show, I admired the writers’ dedication to showing a really tense, completely screwed up, violent moment on an otherwise lighthearted show. It was a scene that for me really got to the fact that murder is not just action sequences, investigations, zingers, and “if it weren’t for you meddling kids”. Murder is a scary thing committed by seriously messed up people, and it’s absolutely harrowing for the friends and family of the victim. This how seemed to know that somewhere in the back of its head.

Season 1 maintained this level of quality in my eyes. The class commentary continued as we got several episodes at the poverty end of the spectrum, often involving how those at the top and bottom ended up with their lives intertwined. Sure, the show’s perspective was always hopelessly from the top, but this is a show about a millionaire playboy mystery writer. I never expected miracles. And speaking of which, it remained so much fun to watch this good-hearted but absolute jackass protagonist grind the gears of Beckett week in and week out, and even more fun to watch how capable she was of turning the tables on him. The dynamic between Beckett and Castle was arguably the best part of the show, and it made for the meat of the show’s constant quips. The backup cast developed well, too, with everyone getting good lines and Ryan and Esposito thankfully not blending together when it would’ve been so easy to let them.

In other words, a friggin great first season.

So what happened? As the years went on, Castle has drifted. It started subtly, when a specific kind of “niche community” episode emerged. These started out fun - a fashion world episode, a vampire/werewolf cosplayers halloween episode, a SNM episodes - and holiday themed episodes aside, they stayed true to the class commentary of season 1. But somewhere along the line, they got increasingly lavish - the steampunk episode and the spy-games episodes both come to mind - and the spectacle of the thing seemed to take over the commentary. Even this is somewhat forgivable, because while the show was slowly losing its interesting commentary, much of that was in the name of entertaining premises. Some of the most outlandish episodes were also some of its best.

The first major strike for me was somewhere along the line when I noticed that it had been months since Castle had acted like a spoiled little kid. I suppose he was going to have to grow up eventually, but that transformation is something I was waiting with baited breath to see on screen. Instead, the brash, flirtatious, obnoxious playboy from season 1 just sort of gradually turned into someone’s goofy dad after a few seasons, and no one seemed to have stopped and taken the time to notice. Castle - both the show and the dude - had lost their fangs.

Meanwhile, the show also started to go to further and further lengths for capital D Drama. Plotlines like Beckett’s various love interests making Castle have all them feels were all well and good, getting played for both humorous acts of jealousy as well as real soul-searching for the show’s titular character. At the same time, there was apparently a “one overly-dramatic two parter per season” policy instituted upon the series renewal. While switching gears for a few scenes had made the show special, these really got into hardcore “save the comedy for two weeks from now” episodes that were a drag to get through. And since each one had to up the stakes from the one before, they slowly got more and more preposterous as first FBI, then CIA, and then mysterious people in suits above even them got involved in our funny little NYC bureau. Then there were the season finales: always so much with the feels. Drama slowly crept into the show, and as the D went up, the funnies had to be shuffled aside to make room. Slowly but surely, the reason I came back every week gave way to boring, convoluted melodrama.

Then there was the season 4 finale and Captain Montgomery’s death. In what I thought was actually a well done character death and dramatic moment (even if I was over the “my mother was murdered by mysterious evil folks” trope a decade ago), they went and brought in Gates. As I said at the top, I think shaking things up is a good and necessary thing to do to a show that’s been on the air for 4 years already. But Gates was always just harshin my mellow, man. Where Montgomery had always been in for a laugh, Gates was a buzzkill. Aside from a couple memorable and hilarious comedic plotlines with her, she was always there right in time to make things difficult for our heroes instead of adding an extra flavor of fun like Montgomery had. I wasn’t attached to that flavor in particular - by all means, shake it up, bring in someone new. But with the show already slipping away from its comedy, this was a big step in the wrong direction.

I don’t know what to say about season 5 other than it just felt bland. It wasn’t the happy couple finally getting together; there were plenty of fine plotlines there, and if it hadn’t happened I would’ve faulted them for dragging that whole thing on for far too long. Maybe it was just complacent writers or the fact that the same formula week in and week out can only go for so many years before it starts to just get samey. Season 5 was a blur.

Which brings us to this week, and the premiere of season 6. I had high hopes after the opening scene took what had been such a serious, downer finale and turned it into a cute and giggly bit. But instead of getting things back to normal, things have just gone full serious mode, guys. And as far as I can tell, there’s no going back. This premiere was clearly full of new regular cast members - this CIA thing isn’t going anywhere - but none of them were any fun. There’s not even a goofy tech guy! Come on, guys. There’s always a goofy tech guy. But no, we’ve just got serious partner, serious boss, completely bland and also serious black dude, and a few other serious people walking around in the background. I guess their tech guy was kinda pudgy, but he wasn’t goofy. He was a little nervous but also, say it with me now, kinda serious.

But wait! Maybe Castle can come in and liven things up, and there’s always Ryan and Esposito. Maybe even Lanie. Except with Beckett in a new location entirely, we’re left shoehorning the old precinct into the plot through some gimmick or another. And then the episode ends, and unlike a normal Castle season premiere, we don’t get back to normal. We just get more Drama.

Is this how it’s going to be now? Serious people working on Serious cases? Elaborate excuses to get in every one of our extravagantly large cast?

In the end, this season premiere made me feel just like Alexis’s new stupid boyfriend: annoyed, old, worn-down, and like I’ve seen this movie before. Or maybe I just saw the first half before walking out.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Elysium Made Me Angry

I loved District 9. It was this perfect use of using a sci-fi concept to both build a unique and fascinating setting while simultaneously exploring very touchy subjects relevant to the real world without having to poke them directly with a stick. The CG stuff melded shockingly well into the hand-held, documentary shooting style, and the story really made my feels start acting up. Plus, it made me think. I still use it as a reference point four years after its release. Oh, and maybe I should get around to writing that essay about District 9 and Avatar - two movies about a white dude, aliens, and that white dude eventually becoming an alien. Why does Avatar make me mad and District 9 kick ass? There’s a lot to say.

So that movie happens, and I’m very pleased by it. Then this past spring I’m walking by a wall of movie posters when I pass by a poster for Elysium:

[pic of the Elysium movie poster with Matt Damon’s back to camera]

Matt Damon is looking kinda subtly badass. The font is giving me an intriguingly pristine contrast to the weird, makeshift, spidery, robot suit he’s wearing, which I’m not quite diggin, but at least I haven’t seen done before. But wait, what’s that there at the bottom? From the director of District 9? Sign me up! This guy’s first movie was so great, he can only have learned things from there, right? I’m pumped.

But alas. Here we are in the present, and I know better now. I know not to blindly trust this Neill Blomkamp going forward. I know this because weeks after having seen Elysium, I’m still so angry about it.

Alright, let’s dig in. I’m going to start with what Elysium does right, because Elysium does start out right. There’s a different approach to exposition than the slightly out of place but charming and well executed documentary segments of District 9, but just like District 9, that exposition is some of the best that the movie has to offer. The world of Elysium may be an absolutely unashamed metaphor for class stratification in America, but that doesn’t make it bad. It’s kind of nice that it lets that metaphor just hang out there, not even attempting to tuck it back into its boxers. I respect that. Hell, I really enjoyed the fact that even my friends who don’t have much film studies training would open conversations about Elysium with “so how about that class warfare, eh?”

And it’s not just that metaphor, the whole world is pretty cool. It’s basically a post-apocalyptic world where the apocalypse was “everyone just stopped giving a shit”, and that’s cool. Also terrifying, because I totally buy it, but cool. Seeing Matt Damon’s childhood is a little cliche, but tropes exist because they’re effective, yes? I’m willing to let that stuff slide while we’re warming up our engines. The police unit is sufficiently Big Brotherly, that conversation between Damon and his parole office is hilarious and exposition filled. Nicely done.

Then we get our view into the underworld where people are trying to get to Elysium, and our first glimpse at Jodie Foster being a cold and harsh realist, and that cleverly disguised protagonist of Distrcit 9 shoots down everyone with a rocket launcher because he’s a badass. Shooting down those ships is a hard decision for Jodie to make, but she’s old and jaded - she knows what’s at stake, and she makes it in a heartbeat because of what she believes: Elysium is only so big, and if we let everyone up here, we’re going to run out of resources so quick no one will have anything left.

Wait. Except that’s not what happened. That’s just what I thought was going to happen, because that would make sense, and would be an actually interesting viewpoint to throw an ideal “free healthcare for everyone” worldview into conflict with. Instead, Jodie is dragged into a disciplinary hearing and told that actually we don’t wanna be killing people, and I guess if poor people wanna fly up here we should just let them? And Jodie gets all pissed and decides that, uh, her actual only driving motivation is that she’s an evil, power-hungry witch on a quest to stage a military coup so she can keep murdering people for her own amusement?

Let me be clear: Jodie does mention once that she’s all about Elysium’s longevity, and her actions are only to protect that. But wow is it not convincing, and she never brings it up again. It’s like the only reason she said it in the first place is because that logic probably goes over with the president much better than “because hiring out convicted murderer-rapists to shoot missiles at stuff is so much fun, and I really want to keep doing so”.

This is the crux of my problem with the film. There’s this great world constructed to take a look at the class issues of the modern day, issues that desperately need to be addressed. Remember Occupy Wall Street? How everyone was pissed and no one knew quite why or what to do about it? Those questions need to be answered, they need to get more time in the public spotlight, and blockbusters are a great place to keep that discussion on society’s collective subconscious. But Blomkamp takes this great setup for doing exactly that and decides that instead of there being two sides to this argument, there’s just gonna be Evil Jodie Foster and Christ Symbolism Matt Damon, and that’ll be enough of a discussion.

Just imagine for a moment that Jodie Foster actually believes that Elysium needs to keep people out for the greater good, that this extreme class divide really does benefit everyone somehow. You can make that argument! I’m sure you can, because republican candidates still get votes in this country. I’m sure you can, because I can actually imagine what such an argument looks like. I will fight you to my last breath that you’re wrong, but I can at least understand you. I can understand why providing universal healthcare is a potentially difficult and hard thing to do. I can understand why someone needs to be down there doing the heavy lifting in factories because there aren’t enough robots to go around. I understand that some people will always be better off than others just because even in perfect communism, some people are just born at the right time and place, and that life isn’t always fair. I may not draw the same conclusions from those points as you, but I will at least understand you. Imagine a hypothetical world where Matt Damon makes it to Elysium and confronts Jodie Foster only to have her explain that making everyone a citizen of Elysium will stretch its free healthcare booths so far that they’ll break, the human race will run out of energy, and millions will suffer. In the same way that I understand those arguments above, Damon would understand her and yet make the choice to give everyone that citizenship because for better or worse it’s the right thing to do.

But I don’t understand why someone would create a world perfectly framed to have that discussion, to get to that difficult and flawed, yet interesting and thought-provoking ending, and then give that all up so that Jodie Foster can be a one-dimensional monster and get shot and Matt Damon can cut his hands open for maximum stigmata symbolism.

I have a million other smaller complains, but I’m getting tired, so here are a few in list form:
1. Why did so many people need to explode? Did I really need to see that?
2. Why did Blomkamp reduce the whole class metaphor thing to universal healthcare? Pro-tip: universal healthcare is not the only issue dividing the upper class from the lower class these days!
3. Did Jodie Foster really not have any qualms about hiring out convicted rapists? Really? Really?
4. That robot suit just looked stupid. I mean, just fucking stupid.
5. Why did Matt Damon’s friend just kind of agree to come along while Matt was negotiating with the guy who could get them up to Elysium? He was all like “dude, you will fucking 100% die if you go up there, don’t do it,” and then like two seconds later he was all like “aight dude, I’m down to go up there with you.” For someone who has just been talking about how this whole mission is suicide and yet has so far not revealed any particular loyalty to Damon beyond basic human decency nor revealed any particularly suicidal tendencies, he sure was ready to head into raging gunfire and get filled full of holes. But I suppose his death will make the stakes that much higher for Damon, which is a better motivation for someone in this movie than most!

I’m sure I could go on, but I saw this movie like 3 weeks ago and have spent most of that time trying to repress it. Seriously though. This movie absolutely squanders an incredible premise, and from a director who’s first movie held so much promise, I expected better. I expected characters with basic motivations, who weren’t just evil for evil’s sake. When you’re in a position to make big movies and you have the heart and the passion and the desire to spread a message like the person who made District 9 clearly does, you have a responsibility to make movies deeper than Elysium. You owe it to yourself, and you owe it to your audience.

Get back out there Blomkamp. I haven’t counted you out yet, because there’s still so much potential in these premises. But you gotta do better.

Sam out.

Friday, September 20, 2013

In Which I Burst Onto the Scene Once Again: Fall 2013 Edition

I’ve seen a lot of movies lately, and I’ve had many thoughts about them (as one does). And man, I’ve been wanting to write again, so let’s just see what comes out of my mouth-hole when I start pushing buttons on this here keyboard.

I went to a movie by myself today. I’ve never done that before. It was an interesting experience… it shed light on why seeing movies with other people is a key part of the experience for me. I feel I can’t get the most out of a movie without talking about it afterwards, trying to make my thoughts about it concrete by putting them into words while they’re still fresh. Without someone to bounce ideas off of, the whole thing will take much longer to percolate and bring fruitful thoughts to the surface, if indeed any such thoughts ever emerge. Actually, that’s pretty much how my brain works in all things, but whatever.

At the same time, the experience didn’t feel that off from normal to me. I made sure to arrive at the theater right as it started so I didn’t have to sit awkwardly in the theater by myself, but apart from that, the only thing I missed about having a viewing partner was not being able to make snide remarks about each preview as they were happening. Even after exiting the movie and now some time later, I feel just as I often do after most movies: like I didn’t get the chance to do that discussion thing as much as I wanted to. I think this means I’m supposed to try and talk about movies more with the people I see them with.

Maybe that percolating phase needs to happen before talking about something I’ve seen, as I’ve noticed that my best conversations about the movies I’ve seen this past month have come days later when talking to people I didn’t see the film with. We’ve each had a chance to come at the thing without influencing each other, and we’ve had a chance for our resulting opinions to solidify and congeal a little. Indeed, I felt like after I saw The Spectacular Now with 3 others and talked about it at a bar for an hour, we didn’t really do much except repeat what had happened in the movie. “Oh man, that part with the thing was really good. And all those long takes!” But three days later talking to someone else that had seen it and hated it, I learned so much more from their simple question of “What did you like about it?” and my resulting response than I did at the time of watching. Though that may be because different opinions about things lead to more dynamic ideas about them.

Whatever. The point is that I like talking about movies and should just do that more. Also I apparently being the guy seeing the movie by himself. OH! One nice bonus of being that guy is that I got to leave the theater exactly when I wanted to during the credits instead of trying to figure out whether or not my party was ready to leave and waiting on me or wanted to sit back and let the final frames wash over them through the duration of the credits. Nice.

The movie I saw was Short Term 12 ,which I highly recommend. It’s named for the central location of the film, a state run center for kids going through the foster home system who haven’t been placed yet, and who generally stay for around a year. The protagonist is this girl Grace, a 20-something who works at Short Term 12 as sort of the highest up person who still interacts directly with the kids. The whole thing was just… incredible. Great performances all around, and a hell of a script.

There was one particular scene that made me really appreciate the structure, around the 60 minute mark when everything is falling apart for Grace, another character gets a moment of hope. It took this series of events that was utterly harrowing to watch and gave the viewer an out. “Yeah,” the movie says, “all this shit sucks. It sucks a lot. Life can absolutely suck in ways that you can’t even imagine. But sometimes you get something you can hang on to, whether you make that yourself or have it given to you, and this is the kind of movie that believes those bits are worth living for.” It may have been interesting or more “powerful” or something to let the viewer just get crushed under the weight of it all in the same way that Grace is. I know people who would criticize the scene I’m referring to exactly because it tints the climax of the movie with that glimmer of hope. But that hope is part of the movie’s point, and I love that a little something found under a couch cushion in a plotline entirely removed from our hero can keep that hope alive in me as a viewer. Story structure! Woo!

And that scene with the baseball bat… just… amazing. And the beginning / ending… Here I go listing things about the movie I liked without adding anything new to them. Maybe I should let this one sit a little longer.

I’ve been thinking recently about moments in movies when characters tell stories. There’s this thing that happens for me in real life where someone will start telling a story, and if it’s a good one, I’ll stop seeing. It’s not that my brain stops receiving visual input from my eyes, it’s just that it discards that information as unimportant and turns its energy towards building up its own image of the story being told: a man on a bus with tacos rumbling in his stomach. Taking that step off the bus and feeling shit run down your legs (you gotta see Short Term 12, people). I start to picture these things instead of what’s in front of me.

So in a movie when a character tells a story, you can do two things: you can either try and build that story-world image for your audience (see the genius of Seven Psychopaths) or you can just show the people talk (Chasing Amy). There’s obviously reasons you’d use either one - having control over your audience’s image is a powerful thing, but so is letting their imagination run wild - but I’ve been thinking about what filmmakers choose to put on the screen when they choose not to show the events of the tale. Mostly you sit with your characters all listening to this story, but who do you show and when? Or do you show something else? You can use the story to reflect thematically on the content of the scene, or you can contrast it to the setting - a vulgar tale at a cocktail party. Or maybe you want a story being told while a couple plays footsy under the seat. But if you’re just going to sit with the story, choosing who’s reaction to show when and when to just stick on the storyteller is an interesting thing.

Short Term 12, for example, does this cool thing with this. The movie opens on this guy who works at Short Term 12 telling a piece of the place’s old mythology to a new coworker. They’re not doing anything particularly special with the cuts, but right at the climax of the story, some kid breaks out of a door behind them and runs screaming across the lawn. The experienced employees in the group listening to this story drop everything and run after the kid, tackle him, let him kick and scream and then cool down. Then, when everything seems fine, the storyteller picks right up where he left off. The story is used to show how mundane this crazy event is in this place. It contrasts to the events at hand which tells us a lot, and meanwhile the content of the story is both entertaining and full of necessary exposition while also being justified in the telling so that we don’t feel like we’re being force-fed information. Great use of a character telling a story without cutting away to the content of that story.

Something about characters telling stories within the contents of another story is both very appealing to me (I love stories and will always take on more!) and tough to pull off. You can’t just spend 2-3 minutes on some character telling a story that doesn’t relate to the main plot at hand without having a damn good reason, so I admire it when it’s done well.

That feels like enough rambling for now. To close out, here’s a bunch of movies I’ve seen recently.

The Spectacular Now - this thing is the best thing I’ve seen recently. Coming of age story with a pretty lackluster plot carried on the shoulders of stunning acting. Go see it.

Short Term 12 - as discussed, I recommend this look into a world I’ve otherwise no experience with.

Elysium - this movie made me actively angry at how bad it was. It took this amazing sci-fi premise and completely squandered it on flat characters and people exploding into muck.

World’s End - right up there with Sean of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. Very savvy, very funny.

The Way Way Back - Serious Steve Carell and silly Sam Rockwell both make me happy. A few too many “my high school summer coming of age movie” tropes to be above and beyond just “another very good movie”, though I did find an interpretation of the movie that made me accept and embrace those tropes…
In A World - funny actors being funny people. Full of comedic performances instead of zingers - just the way I like my comedy. I’m not quite sure what that Rob Corddry / Michaela Watkins plotline was doing in this movie, but it wasn’t bad, just out of place.

Good stuff, people. Cinema is not dead. It’s only getting better.


Sam out.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Red Dog

The words are coming out of my head too fast, so I'll make this quick: I'm interning at the Sedona International Film Festival. As an intern / volunteer I get to go to two free screenings a night during this week before the festival starts. Tonight's included Red Dog.

PLOT SYNOPSIS:  family friendly G rated thing. Main character is a dog - Red Dog. He's the dog that belongs to a community of miners in the Australian outback in the 70s. They all love him. Story is set up as a viewer stand-in character shows up at this mining camp one night while Red Dog is sick in the back. Everyone from his life is standing around worrying and reminiscing. Basically each character gets one story with the dog.

Then there's this one guy who's the former master of the dog, the only master the dog every had. His name is John, and he's the only American, and he rides a motorcycle. He hasn't stayed in any one place for more than 2 years at a time.

Alright, let's pause there. We got an American rider who's always on the move and is the only one able to tame the dog AKA the obvious symbol for the natural world out there. What we've got here folks is a cowboy. His name

So John the cowboy (his name is JOHN, and they never tell you his last name. But I have an idea) falls in with this group of miners and eventually settles down with this gorgeous blonde girl. Two years and a day after coming here, he proposes to her, she accepts, and they go bang. Then the next morning he dies in a motorcycle accident. Very sad, lots of tears, and the little shopgirls mourn the loss of the ideal cowboy... but enough Kracauer.

Alright, so status report - the cowboy is dead. Did I mention that the last thing he did was tell Red Dog to stay and wait for him? Yeah. So the dog waits for him to return for three weeks, then decides (accompanied by very dramatic narration) that he's gonna go find John. He searches all up and down the continent, even hitching a ride over to Japan at one point.

After a few years, Red Dog comes home, befriends Red Cat (you can't make this shit up), and then we get back to the present day.

OKAY. So since the dog has become a symbol for all of us by this point, what we end up with is all of us as a culture and all of nature (because the dog still came from the untamed wilds by just showing up one day) searching desperately for the ideal cowboy so we can bring him home.

Guys. We're just trying to relive the glory days of our culture. We want to go back to the hero of the old west, but we can't! He's dead. But we just keep on searching, man. Keep on searching for that ideal that we've lost in our past.

But we remember him. We miss him and love him, so much so that when it comes time for Red Dog to die, he walks over to the grave of his former master and lies down there to die by his side, and we all go there with him. And then we replace Red Dog with a new dog and try as hard as we can to replicate what we had before. The viewer stand-in marries John's ex-fiance, because it's as close as we can come to him.




Maybe any of that made sense. Probably not.